jan 2013 / last mod sep 2016 / greg goebel

* 23 entries including: San Diego road trip, magstrip cards, Bangladesh development, bioluminescent deep-sea organisms, space nuclear reactor, crazy 2012 weather, doctors not needed so much any more, Disney electronic ID scheme, African mTrac cellphone health care network, longer lives for humanity, Starbucks does mobile payment, Israeli Iron Dome missile defense system, and Iranians interested in Bitcoin digital money.

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* NEWS COMMENTARY FOR JANUARY 2013: From the summer of 2010, US forces began a withdrawal from Iraq, as discussed here at the time, with the withdrawal complete by the end of 2011 after nine years of occupation. Iraq then effectively dropped off the radar for Americans.

As discussed by an article from THE ECONOMIST, nothing that has happened in Iraq during 2012 was really news. The number of people killed there in sectarian violence ran to 4,471, slightly up from 2011. There was an average of 18 bombings and 53 people killed each week. However, the attacks fell off considerably after June 2012, with almost half the killings concentrated in two of the country's 19 provinces, Baghdad and Ninevah. Elsewhere, things are more or less peaceful, with Iraq shipping oil in quantity without real interference.

Iraq still bleeds

That is not to say Iraqis are happy, since the government is still not particularly effective in helping the citizens, and factional tensions remain high. Nuri al-Maliki, the tough Shiite Muslim who has been prime minister since 2006, has done much to increase tensions, antagonizing Kurds and Sunnis, and demonstrating an inclination to heavy-handed governance. The Sunni vice-president, Tareq al-Hashemi, had to flee the country a year ago, to then be sentenced to death in absentia. Government actions against Sunnis have become so imperious that Muqtada al-Sadr, a prominent cleric and long prominent in Shia militancy, has stood up for the Sunnis.

The Iraqi government leans toward Shiite Iran and is backing the besieged Syrian regime. The American campaign to get rid of Saddam Hussein was successful to that extent, but the occupation of the country brought the US no other real benefits. To be sure, given what happened to Saddam Hussein the current Iraqi government has little inclination to make trouble for America, but US official said that American influence in Baghdad is now effectively "nil". Possibly it's for the best that Americans have forgotten about Iraq, since there's not much useful for us to do there in any case.

* As discussed by THE NEW YORK TIMES, a British arms researcher inspecting spent casings of Kalashnikov automatic rifle cartridges found in Kenya, Uganda, and Sudan, and noticed something puzzling: a good number of them had no factory markings. Obviously, somebody was manufacturing ammunition and wanted to keep the activity "under the radar".

Over the following years, the mysterious ammunition began to show up elsewhere in Africa. An investigation covering four continents failed to reveal the source; such packaging for the ammunition as was found had no markings to help the investigation. In 2011, a shipment of materials being sent to Nigeria was seized; the shipment included the unmarked ammunition, and was traced back to an Iranian shipping company. Further investigation showed the ammunition was manufactured by the Ammunition & Metallurgy Industries Group of the Iranian government's Defense Industries Organization.

Iran has an energetic arms industry that turns out surprisingly advanced weapon systems -- the Iranians recently unveiled a copy of the US TwinCobra helicopter gunship with a modernized cockpit, named the "Toufan (Hurricane)", the TwinCobra having been originally obtained during the Shah's era; the Toufan may actually be just an update, the Iranians having exaggerated their capabilities in the past. The Iranians also export their weapons, both for profit and to aid their clients against their enemies, the Fajr series of heavy rockets being provided to the Palestinians as a prominent example.

The Iranians of course have no comment on the matter and nobody knows precisely what they're up to. There's no likelihood of their ammunition sales leading to a political confrontation; the Iranians aren't the only ones in the African ammunition trade, much of it being sourced back to China, Russia, the Czech Republic, and a number of post-Soviet states. However, the ammunition trade shows that Iran, already being a pariah state, doesn't seem to have much interest in changing its image.

BBC WORLD Online added that the cyber attacks on Iran, such as the Flame virus that very selectively infected Iranian PCs, may have a significant downside. General William Shelton, commander of the US Air Force Space Command and in charge of a good chunk of America's cyber-war establishment, believes that the hammering the Iranians have taken from malware has led them to build up their own cyber-war establishment in defense. Having done so, the next step is for Iran to take the offense, Shelton saying that Iran is likely to become "a force to be reckoned with."

* According a note from THE ECONOMIST, on 1 January the Chinese government demonstrated its authoritarian tendencies by introducing a set of severe new traffic laws. Some weren't so unreasonable, for instance a prohibition against using mobile phones while driving, but a new policy in which running a yellow light was to be treated the same as running a red light did not go over well.

It is difficult to understand why anyone would have thought that a good idea, and loud public feedback suggested it wasn't, with reports of rear-end collisions accompanied by complaints about the lack of sensibility of the government. The government was sensible enough to backtrack quickly, announcing on 6 January that the policy would be suspended while the idea was "re-examined" -- bureaucratese for "junked".



* NUCLEAR REACTOR FOR SPACE: Nuclear power has long been used in space missions, with the US flying "radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs)" from the early 1960s. An RTG uses the heat from decaying radioactive isotopes, typically plutonium, to generate electricity through thermoelectric junctions in the RTG module. The junctions consist simply of two dissimilar metals joined together that produce an electric current when heated. RTGs were used on US Earth satellites in the 1960s, but due to expense were later generally reserved for deep space probes, RTGs being more practical than solar panels far away from the Sun.

The Soviets also used RTGs, but they flew space nuclear reactors as well on ocean surveillance satellites, the reactors generating power through a controlled fission chain reaction. The US did acquire some interest in space nuclear reactors during the 1980s heyday of the Strategic Defense Initiative missile-defense program as a means of powering space defense stations, and worked intermittently on a 100 kilowatt orbiting reactor with the designation "Space Power 100 (SP-100)". However, when SDI's tide ebbed, the perceived need for SP-100 evaporated.

By the early 21st century, NASA was becoming interested in space nuclear reactors again. Partly the revival in interest was because the agency was running out of RTGs and was having difficulties obtaining plutonium. Space nuclear reactors can use enriched uranium, which is much easier to obtain and also easier to handle -- it's not significantly radioactive until the chain reaction is initiated, and so also has a relatively long shelf life. In contrast, once an RTG is kitted up, its plutonium fuel continues to radiate itself away. The disadvantage is that a space reactor is bigger than an RTG, and so is only usable for larger missions.

Following up on the SP-100 and other research into space nuclear reactors, the US Los Alamos National Laboratory and the US National Aeronautics & Space Administration's Glenn Research Center have been working on a "Small Reactor System (SRS)". The SRS is in the configuration of a truncated cone. At the tip of the cone is the reactor proper, built around a cylindrical enriched uranium core, 10 centimeters (4 inches) in diameter and weighing about 22.7 kilograms (50 pounds). The core has a hole bored though it from top to bottom to accommodate a boron carbide control rod; pull the rod out, the chain reaction starts, push it back in, the reaction shuts down. The core is surrounded by a beryllium "neutron reflector" 30 centimeters (a foot) tall; the reflector is fitted with eight heat pipes.

small reactor system

The reactor sits on top of a stack of radiation shields; at the bottom of the stack are eight Stirling-cycle heat engines. A Stirling-cycle engine is driven simply by getting it hot at one end and cool at the other, with a heated gas circulating inside the engine driving a set of pistons. Stirling-cycle engines are more complicated than thermoelectric junctions, but they are about four times more efficient. The Stirling-cycle engines are arranged in two X-shaped arrays of four engines, stacked on top of each other, with the outer "hot end" of each engine hooked up to one of the heat pipes running down from the reactor along the side of the heat shield. The inner "cold end" of each engine is hooked up to one panel of a large, eight-sided thermal radiator skirt.

The engine array is rated at 500 watts of power. The full reactor assembly would be mounted on a boom, with the space probe mounted at the bottom of the boom, distanced from the reactor so it won't interfere with the probe's instruments. The reactor is simple and easily scaled up. There's no commitment to development at this time, however.



* CRAZY WEATHER: The slow and steady upward march of global temperatures and sea levels is increasingly well documented and apparent. Now, as discussed by an article from THE NEW YORK TIMES ("Heat, Flood or Icy Cold, Extreme Weather Rages Worldwide" by Sarah Lyall, 10 January 2013), it's also becoming clearer that a warming world means wilder weather.

The USA had its hottest year ever recorded, with drought dropping the level of the Mississippi enough to interfere with barge traffic. Britons are going to remember 2012 as a year of drought, followed by deluge and floods. This winter, other places started feeling the weather as well. Thick snow and howling winds hit Stockholm, Helsinki and Moscow, with temperatures so low in eastern Russia that traffic lights stopped working. There were even severe snowstorms in Sicily and southern Italy for the first time since World War II; in December, tornadoes and waterspouts struck the Italian coast.

China is suffering through the coldest winter in three decades. Pakistan was inundated by flooding in September, while late in the year a violent storm bringing rain, snow and floods struck the Middle East. South of the Equator, bush fires have been raging across Australia, driven by a record-breaking heat wave. Brazil has been similarly enduring sweltering temperatures, and drought that is cutting into the country's hydropower. On 26 December, the temperature hit a record of 43.2 degrees Celsius (109.8 degrees Fahrenheit).

Omar Baddour, chief of the data management applications division at the World Meteorological Organization in Geneva, commented: "Each year we have extreme weather, but it's unusual to have so many extreme events around the world at once. The heat wave in Australia; the flooding in the UK, and most recently the flooding and extensive snowstorm in the Middle East ..... it's already a big year in terms of extreme weather calamity."

The British are used to rain, of course, but 2012 featured three fits of rain of seemingly Biblical proportions. In towns in North Wales, boats had to be sent in to rescue people from their homes. Large areas of Britain were cut off when roads and train tracks were inundated at Christmas. The Met Office, Britain's weather service, declared 2012 the wettest year in England, and the second-wettest in Britain as a whole, since records began more than 100 years ago. Four of the five wettest years in the last century have come in the past decade; the fifth was in 1954. Met statistics show a clear increase in the rate of extreme weather events.

Rain hasn't been a problem in Australia, the first eight days of 2013 being oppressively hot. According to Mark Stafford Smith -- science director of the Climate Adaptation Flagship at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization -- every decade since the 1950s has been hotter in Australia than the one before.

In Siberia, thousands of people were left without heat when natural gas liquefied in its pipes and water mains burst. Officials canceled bus shuttles between cities for fear that roadside breakdowns could lead to deaths from exposure, and motorists were advised not to venture far except in groups of two or three cars. In China, the cold has disrupted agriculture, with the price of vegetables soaring; in Inner Mongolia, 180,000 livestock froze to death.

stormy Jerusalem

In the Middle East, a storm produced torrential rain, snow, hail, and floods that swept away cars and spread misery among camps for the 160,000 refugees from the war in Syria. Amman was paralyzed, with cars abandoned and government offices closed. Israel and the Palestinian territories were similarly hit, with Jerusalem carpeted by 20 centimeters (8 inches) of snow. Amir Givati of the Israel Hydrological Service said the storm was truly unusual because of its duration, intensity, and breadth. Snow and hail fell not just in the north, but as far south as the desert city of Dimona.

Back in the UK, changes to the jet stream may be contributing to the wild weather. One British citizen commented: "For the past seven or eight years, there's been a serious incident in a different part of the country. We don't expect extremes. We don't expect it to be like this."



* THE RISE & FALL OF THE MAGSTRIP CARD (1): A generation of Americans has grown up with the magnetic stripe AKA "magstrip" or "magstripe" card, using it to "swipe" payments, gain entry to theme parks, or open hotel room doors. As reported by IEEE SPECTRUM ("The Long Life and Imminent Death of the Mag-Stripe Card" by Jerome Svigals, June 2012), the idea arose in 1967. Airlines were looking forward to the acquisition of the new jumbo jets like the Boeing 747 and Douglas DC-10, capable of hauling unprecedented numbers of passengers -- which meant large numbers of people arriving at the same time at customer service counters. Something had to be done to streamline processes.

In parallel, banks were confronted with the issues created by the rising popularity of credit cards. At the time, using a credit card was a completely manual process, with a merchant having to make out paperwork and make a call to get authorization for a charge. In addition, credit cards could be in principle used any day of the week, or with all-night convenience stores at any time of day, and banker's hours just didn't work any longer.

Automation was the obvious answer. For banks, that meant automated teller machines (ATMs), while airlines could obtain a similar kiosk to track reservations and provide boarding passes. The only problem was providing customers with an easy and secure way to identify themselves to the machinery: nobody wanted strangers to get into their bank accounts, but nobody wanted to use clumsy security codes either.

At the time, leading-edge computer technology translated in the public's mind to "IBM", and Big Blue's Advanced Systems Division took on the task. Several hundred developers based at Los Gatos, California, and Armonk, New York, investigated schemes on how to make a card, with the same form-factor as a charge card, that could be read by a machine. All vendors would have to use the same scheme, both to prevent customer confusion and to ensure that IBM didn't have to manufacture multiple, incompatible reader systems.

IBM engineers were constrained in what they could do with a format the same size as a charge card, which had dimensions of 5.4 x 8.6 centimeters (2.1 x 3.4 inches). The front of the card would carry the vendor's logo, while the machine-readable section would share the back of the card with information about the vendor and card issuer, along with a signature panel. On consideration, the engineers concluded they could count on having a strip across the card that was about a centimeter (0.4 inches) high.

So how to encode data on the strip? Bar codes? Paper tape? Don't laugh, Citibank tried paper tape on their short-lived "magic middle" cards. In hindsight, if not necessarily at the time, the answer was obvious: magnetic recording technology, which was advanced enough by that time to do the job. Magnetic recording could cram all the data needed onto the strip, including alphanumeric information, such as customer name and address, as well as numeric information, such as bank account and routing numbers. IBM engineers then came up with a prototype magstrip card, in the form of a piece of cardboard with the magstrip scotch-taped to it. Of course, as the industrial saying has it, anybody can build one; churning out inexpensive, reliable, and manufacturable magstrip cards was another challenge.

The magstrip's active element was iron oxide, simple rust, affixed to the strip. A binder was found that could be heat-applied and to the job; the same binder also could be used to stick on the signature panel. Still, coming up with a manufacturing process to churn out magstrip cards in volume was troublesome, and at the outset the cards cost several dollars each. By 1980, the cost would finally go down to a usable five cents.

There was also the security problem, which was recognized at the outset. There was nothing to prevent crooks from reading or "skimming" a magstrip card and then copying the data to a "counterfeit" magstrip card. Some thought the problem intractable, but others thought that software would be able to recognize bogus transactions. Both sides would turn out to be right to an extent, but IBM had a bias to appreciate that smarter software for magstrip systems meant more business for Big Blue.

Indeed, IBM didn't even patent the machine-readable card scheme, giving the technology away to anyone who wanted it. The trick was that the machine-readable cards meant computer systems to deal with them, and IBM was then the vendor of choice for such systems. It was no real gamble for IBM; as expected, it paid off handsomely. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* SAN DIEGO ROAD TRIP (6): I finally got to the Hampton Inn near the San Diego airport late in the afternoon. The room they gave me was almost as inconveniently located as possible, in the farthest corner of the building, with no simple way to get to it.

Oh well, no big deal; I was also amused with the other Murphy's law of motel rooms, trying to find out where the switches for the lights were. A wall switch? On the socket? On the dual wall mounts? It turned out to be on the bottom of the wall mount, hard to see because the mount was black and so was the switch -- come on, make them gold-colored or something like that.

After tending to my sore feet, I spent the evening in my hotel room, getting my trip logs straight and checking over my photo haul for the day. It was a bit disappointing; many are taken, few amount to anything -- but that wasn't news, it's always been like that, and a handful were excellent. Photography is roughly equal proportions tools, skill, and luck; tools make an incremental difference, but they don't change the necessary reliance on skill and the tyranny of luck. More worrisome was that weather reports suggested there might be thundershowers on Friday, when I was planning to go to the airshow at Miramar MCAS; thunderstorms are incompatible with airshows.

* I slept in an hour on Wednesday, 10 October. I wasn't in any hurry since I didn't have anywhere to go right away. I cleaned up a bit after rising, then had the motel breakfast -- which was actually fair to good by the standards of such things. The breakfast service would have a varied menu and would do much to help me stay fed during my stay in San Diego.

Breakfast done, I made my way down to the waterfront park, right alongside the San Diego airport, to see if I could do some planespotting. I made sure I checked maps carefully before I left and wouldn't get sidetracked; navigation turned out to be easy, all I had to do was get on the Pacific Highway nearby the motel and it took me right downtown, which is not notably congested. Unfortunately, the park turned out to be a poor site for planespotting, being too far away and the view of outbound aircraft obstructed by palm trees and the like. I got some shots of various beachfront items, notably some mushrooms and a bizarre tree that I later figured out was a "dragon tree", and then went downtown.

I got to the harbor tour a bit early, so I went down the waterfront to take photos, getting shots of various things like the vessels at the maritime museum, some fancy tour boats, and construction cranes. I found out that the north end of the waterfront was likely the ideal place for planespotting, because the approach path for the airport was right over the side of downtown.

I had to trot back to the harbor tour depot quickly to make sure I got on board in time, with the tour boat departing at 9 AM. The tour company offered a one-hour tour of either the north or south harbor, or a two-hour tour of both; there weren't actually separate tours, the tour boat would do half the harbor for an hour, dock, then do the other half the harbor for another hour. On the first installment, the tour boat went past two fleet carriers, the CARL VINSON and the NIMITZ, being refitted for operations; the attack submarine yards; the installation where seals and dolphins were trained for harbor security; munitions bunkers and aircraft flightlines; and a Navy tug, pulling a barge mounting a crane. Navy Seahawk helicopters and Marine Cobra gunships occasionally cruised overhead.

There were many Chinese on the boat, and a family of German-speakers -- mom and dad, with three kids in the 6 to 13 range or so -- and they had me take pictures of them with their very fancy Nikon zoom camera. That Nikon represented serious photographic firepower; I had a bit of camera envy, it clearly outclassed my Canon.

The first half of the tour over, the boat docked to pick up passengers for the south bay circuit. To pass the time, I got to taking pictures of vehicles on the waterfront roadway, in particular noticing Toyota Prius hybrids being used as taxis. I'd never seen one used as a taxi before, but on considering I realized they were well-suited to the role, since taxis operate in start-stop urban street environments where hybrids really shine.

destroyer WILLIAM P. LAWRENCE departs San Diego

The tour boat then went back out into the bay, past rows of warships, past rows of high-rent housing on Coronado Island -- beachfront properties there running to a cool $10 million USD minimum and working steeply up. I'm financially comfortable, but that kind of money? I can't imagine it. Warships passed us headed out for sea as the tour boat cruised under the long, high, and elegant Coronado Bay bridge. Of course it's high, to let warships pass under it.

There was a group of Navy SEAL commandos on boats, conducting a training exercise. Harbor security was clearly in evidence, with an ordinary-looking Navy harbor patrol boat prominently mounting a MAG machine gun. There was an amphibious assault carrier down towards the end of the harbor but sadly we didn't go down that far, so I couldn't get any good photos of it.

Navy SEALs on training exercise, San Diego

Just as the tour boat passed back under the bridge, a gull decided to hitch a ride on the air turbulence generated by the tour boat, just hanging in the air so close to the rails that I could almost reach out and touch it. It was completely undisturbed by all the people on the boat. It soared along with the boat until, having reached whatever destination the bird had in mind, banked off to the left. Anyway, the harbor tour was all that I could have expected of it, and a very good use of the time and money. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* GIMMICKS & GADGETS: Concepts in "metamaterials", or grid structures with a negative index of refraction, were discussed here in 2010, the article mentioning that applications of metamaterials technology had proved elusive. As reported by BUSINESS WEEK, applications are now starting to emerge, for one example a "smart" antenna being introduced by a startup named Kymeta of Redmond, Washington.

Kymeta mTenna

Kymeta's "mTenna" is electronically steered, the antenna being fixed while the beam can be redirected over a cone of sky in front. That's not a new notion, electronically steered antennas having been introduced in World War II; however, traditional "phased array" antennas are complicated, using sets of electronic switches to run signals through an array of phase shifters, and appropriately expensive, as well as tending toward the bulky. The mTenna, in contrast, consists of a substrate board that provides a path for a microwave beam -- input or output, works the same in both directions -- with the board covered with a grid of metamaterials switches, each 2 millimeters across, that either pass or block microwave radiation. Activating the appropriate set of switches steers the microwave beam, with grid acting as a "reconfigurable diffraction grating".

The mTenna is relatively simple, lightweight, and cheap. As part of a home satellite receiver system, it's more compact and can search out a satellite on its own -- just being pointed in the proper general direction and then automatically scanning to find the satellite. The mTenna is well-suited to portable and mobile applications. Kymeta plans to ship product from 2015.

* As reported by BUSINESS WEEK, Europeans have embraced the robot lawn mower. Yardwork gear manufacturer Husqvarna of Sweden rolled out the company's first robot mower in 1995; now it sells six different models under the Auto Mower and Gardena brands. US farm-equipment giant John Deere introduced its first robot mower in 2011; German auto-parts firm Bosch has just started selling them; and Honda of Japan plans to do so in 2013.

Husqvarna Auto Mower

The robots use sensors to tell them where to mow, and can detect obstacles that they then mow around; they will even back up if they bump into a nosy pet. Some just crisscross the lawn randomly until they're done, but others follow specific patterns. When done, they go back to their nest and recharge. They don't collect grass clippings, simply shredding the grass so minutely that it makes reasonable compost. Owners may have the robots mow the lawn several times a week to keep the clippings as short as possible.

Robot mowers are still something of a niche product, with about 6% of the market by value for mowers in Germany, but sales have been growing rapidly. However, the only places outside of Europe where there's much interest have been Australia and New Zealand. Husqvarna tried to introduce robot mowers in the North American market about a decade ago, but quickly called it quits. One issue with the American market is that cheap landscaping services are widely available, making the pricey robot mowers less attractive -- they cost roughly three times as much as a good push power. American grasses are also tougher on the average than European grasses, and the composting scheme doesn't work so well. Husqvarna officials believe that if they can enhance the technology while reducing the price, they should obtain a much bigger market.

* Auto makers have great fun with concept cars; they don't always seem practical, but they are often ingenious. WIRED Online blogs spotlighted Honda's new "Variable Design Platform (VDP)" concept car, or what the blog described as the "Mighty Morphin' Micro-Car". The VDP is a little electric four-wheel runabout, driven by lithium batteries, featuring a range of about 95 kilometers (60 miles) and a top speed of 80 KPH (50 MPH). Recharging takes about three hours; the car's control system can link up to a smartphone / tablet for navigation or monitoring power use.

Honda VDP

The VDP is built around a "skateboard"-like chassis with a footprint of 1.2 x 2.4 meters (4 x 8 feet). The real trick, however, is the modular body, the car featuring various "shells" to make it a single-seater, a tandem two-seater, a mini delivery truck, and so on. It's strictly for urban use, one target being aging Japanese who are finding driving increasingly challenging -- the ability to interface with a tablet for control leaves the door open to adding robot driving capability as the technology is refined. The VDP is not entirely a pipe dream; it will be evaluated by the Japanese of Land, Infrastructure, Transportation, & Tourism for use in Japan's cities.



* WHO NEEDS DOCTORS? As reported by THE ECONOMIST ("Squeezing Out The Doctor", 2 June 2012), in the developed world doctors enjoy a high level of prestige as trained professionals. In America, for example, a specialist doctor commands ten times the wage of the average worker. It might be seem that as the world's population grows older, the clout of doctors is likely to increase still further.

Yes and no, mostly no. First, there is no way the production of doctors can keep up with the growing demand; second, with an aging population, patients will increasingly be suffering from chronic conditions, and doctors are not really all that well suited to treat them. The result? Doctors are no longer going to be so absolutely essential to health systems; in fact in poor countries, they are already being displaced from its center.

The undeveloped world has to reduce its dependency on doctors because it doesn't have enough of them. Britain has 27+ doctors for every 10,000 patients, while India has just 6, and that means making more efficient use of them. For example, at the Narayana Hrudayalaya hospital in Bangalore, highly-trained surgeons focus on complex procedures, leaving less demanding tasks to workers with less training. Surgeries there that cost less than $2,000 USD each, about a fifteenth as much as a similar procedure in America.

The same approach is mirrored elsewhere in India. India's LifeSpring hospitals cut the price of childbirth by complementing doctors with less expensive midwives. The Aravind Eye Care System offers surgery to about 350,000 patients a year. Operating rooms have at least two beds, so surgeons can swivel from one patient to the next. Most important, for every surgeon there are six "eye-care technicians" -- young women recruited and trained by Aravind -- who perform the many tasks in the operating room that do not require a surgeon's training. India's health ministry has proposed a new three-and-a-half-year degree that would let graduates deliver basic primary care in rural areas.

India and other developing countries are also getting a medical boost from technology -- which, if not necessarily the magic answer to the health care challenge, certainly offers many advantages. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation supports a program that uses mobile phones to deliver advice and reminders to pregnant women in Ghana. In Mexico, patients can phone Medicall Home, a "telehealth" service. About two-thirds of patients' concerns can be addressed over the phone by a doctor, and if a doctor's visit is required, it can be scheduled. With remote diagnostic capability, small neighborhood clinics staffed by personnel with minimal training could obtain expert assistance from doctors at remote locations. As mentioned here in the past, there's a lot of interest in remotely-operated robot surgery as well, though that remains a future for the moment.

Back in the developed world, medical technology is also making changes. Although the shortage of doctors is not so acute in the rich world, the system still leaves much to be desired. While America's overall labor productivity has increased by 1.8% annually for the past two decades, the figure for health care has declined by 0.6% each year. Technology can help, with software developed to help patients with chronic conditions and remote health monitoring gear installed in homes.

Philips, General Electric (GE) and others are all raising their investment in home health care systems. GE's engineers predict that a patient's overall condition will soon be remotely measured as easily as a thermometer measures his temperature. The UK has completed the world's biggest trial of telehealth technology, including gizmos from Philips. The study examined 6,000 patients with chronic diseases; according to preliminary results of a study by Britain's health department in December 2011, admissions to the emergency room dropped by 20% and mortality plummeted by 45%.

Again, technology is only part of the challenge; the rich world has structural issues as well, and needs to start doing things differently. One of the core problems is that doctors are the backbone of the medical system in developed countries. Nobody would sensibly characterize doctors as unconscientious, of course, but it means the system is kept afloat by highly-trained professionals, making it gold-plated. In addition doctors, being technical professionals, may not be very good at running businesses.

The public is starting to lose its awe of doctors. A review of studies of nurse practitioners in Britain, South Africa, America, Japan, Israel and Australia, published in the British Medical Journal, determined that patients treated by nurses were more satisfied and no less healthy than those treated by doctors. Some doctors realize that the shortfall in their numbers inevitably means a dilution of their power, but more generally doctors' lobbies have been pushing back against moves they perceive as undermining their authority. India's legislation to create the three-and-a-half-year degree, for example, has gone nowhere.

The pressures on the current system ensure that the status quo won't last forever -- and to an extent give doctors no great cause for fear, since there will always be a need for medical professionals with highly developed skills. However, there's definitely a place for less skilled workers to handle the routine, as well as a place for a businesslike medical system where the customer, not the doctor, is always right.

* Another article from THE ECONOMIST ("An Incurable Disease", 29 September 2012) reported on a book titled THE COST DISEASE, by William Baumol of the Stern School Of Business at New York University. It is well known that health care is hard to automate; Baumol suggests that this difficulty leads inherently to the costs of health care outpacing inflation.

It's simple, really. Automation is having an impact in an ever-increasing number of industries, steadily driving down producer costs. However, in those industries, such as health care, where producer costs remain constant, prices gradually appear rise relative to the falling prices of automated industries. Baumol acknowledges that measures need to be taken to restrain growth of health-care costs, but also points out that as health costs become an increasing share of GDP, it's to an extent because other goods and services have become cheaper. Baumol's observation is very interesting, but alas not entirely reassuring.



* DISNEY DOES ELECTRONIC ID: Disney Corporation has recently announced a "NextGen" project, in which visits to Disney theme parks will become digitally enabled by the end of 2013. The focus is on a scheme named "MyMagic+", built around a smartphone / tablet app and an RFID wristband, the "MagicBand", with the wristband used to interact with a network of sensors placed around a theme park. The theme parks are already being wi-fi enabled to ensure reliable communications.

Using the Disney website and the app, visitors will be able to plan their trip to Disney in detail, with the MagicBand serving as an entry ticket, eliminating turnstiles; a room key; a charge card; and, through the app, a reservation system that will allow visitors to schedule three rides a day at a specific time. The app can also provide selections of available rides, with the smartphone generating an alarm to tell when it's time to get to a ride. Disney already has a "FastPass" scheme, based on paper tickets, to allow visitors to schedule one ride; the new "FastPass+" will be a step ahead. Parents can optionally enter personal information for their kids into the system, with theme park actors then knowing the names of the kids. Robot characters will similarly be able to work waiting lines, conversing with the visitors.

MyMagic+ in action

THE NEW YORK TIMES commented: "Parts of MyMagic+ will allow Disney for the first time to track guest behavior in minute detail. Did you buy a balloon? What attractions did you ride and when? Did you shake Goofy's hand, but snub Snow White? If you fully use MyMagic+, databases will be watching, allowing Disney to refine its offerings and customize its marketing messages."

Concerns have been raised over the potential intrusiveness of Disney's "totally wired" theme park experience, but it's hardly like a day at a theme park is a private exercise. One Disney enthusiast wrote: "I think [MyMagic+] sounds awesome. As far as 'Big Brother' watching over us as we wander the parks, anyone worried about 'real' privacy wouldn't be wandering around a theme park full of security cameras."

Disney officials are in fact sensitive to concerns over intrusiveness, and have been careful to point out that MyMagic+ includes safeguards:

Disney's assurances have hardly calmed those who believe RFID is a sinister plot, some pointing to the "billion dollar" pricetag of NextGen as a sign of something shady going on -- oblivious to the fact that NextGen is a massive systems upgrade for which RFID is only an element. Disney has unexcelled expertise in handling large crowds and only sees NextGen as further streamlining the visitor experience, making things easier for both Disney and visitors.

Disney's ultimate goal is, in effect, for all visitors to have a personal smartphone robot servant who will guide them around the park and make arrangements for their convenience. The fact that these arrangements will be also convenient for Disney will be of little practical concern of visitors, and visitors will also care little that the robot is making a detailed record of their activities in the theme park.

To be sure, the MyMagic+ scheme also ropes visitors into detailed advanced planning for their days at the park, discouraging them from deciding to change plans and go visit someplace else. RFID conspiracy theorists will admit when cornered that it's implausible to think Disney is part of some totalitarian plot -- but they point out, in perfect truth, that Disney's NextGen system will condition kids into accepting personal tracking as normal. In addition, Disney has a lot of clout; what Disney does and turns out to work is going to be widely copied elsewhere. Disney's digitally-enabled future establishes a pattern for the future of society as a whole.

That points to the reality that, like it or not, the potential benefits of a digitally-enabled society are so great that there will be no stopping it. The only thing that can be done is to make sure rational safeguards are implemented. Unfortunately, rationality is not something associated with conspiracy theorists.



* BANGLADESH RISING (2): Bangladesh has advanced through the empowerment of women and development of agriculture. A third factor in the advance is that the government -- despite the fact that it is more or less a crooked operation and everyone knows it -- has been generally doing the right thing. Bangladesh spends a little more than most low-income countries on helping the poor. About 12% of public spending, 1.8% of GDP, goes to social safety nets to protect the poorest: food for work, cash transfers and direct feeding programs. The Bangladesh government does better in this respect than most other governments of poor countries, and in particular has been supportive of women.

However, the funding for education and health provided by the Bangladesh government is below average for poor countries. That's where the fourth factor comes in: the efforts of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to help out. One major NGO innovation was microcredit, originally invented by an NGO named BRAC, which originally stood for Bangladesh Rehabilitation Assistance Committee. Then another NGO, Grameen Bank, made the idea work by targeting women and holding weekly meetings of borrowers who would identify and support anyone who was falling behind on repayments.

Microcredit has boomed. Grameen has 8.4 million borrowers and outstanding loans of over $1 billion USD; BRAC has 5 million borrowers and loans of $725 million USD. The poor account for about a fifth of the total loan portfolio of the country, an unusually high proportion. Microcredit has caught on around the developing world, though it has acquired a mixed reputation: boosted by advocates as seeding entrepreneurial activity, condemned by critics for trapping the poor into unpayable debts. However, studies show that in Bangladesh, microcredit has mostly worked out for the good, with Bangladeshis who have made use of it ending up well better off than those who haven't.

The NGOs have more, a lot more, to show for themselves in Bangladesh than just microcredit. Early on, the government was very friendly to NGOs, on the basis that Bangladesh needed all the help it could get. BRAC began life distributing emergency aid in a corner of eastern Bangladesh after the war of independence. It is now the largest NGO in the world by the number of employees and the number of people it has helped -- three-quarters of all Bangladeshis have benefited in one way or another.

Unlike Grameen, which is mainly a microfinance and savings operation, BRAC does everything that seems to make sense. In the 1980s, BRAC sent out volunteers to every household in the country showing mothers how to mix salt, sugar and water in the right proportions to rehydrate a child suffering from diarrhea -- which probably did more to lower child mortality in the country than any other one measure. BRAC and the government jointly ran a huge program to inoculate every Bangladeshi against tuberculosis. BRAC's primary schools provide education for kids who drop out of state schools; BRAC even has the world's largest legal-aid program, there being more BRAC legal centers than police stations in Bangladesh.

BRAC never planned to try to do everything; the organization only gradually evolved into the NGO equivalent of a sprawling corporate giant. It began with microcredit, but found its poor clients could not sell the milk and eggs produced by the animals they had bought. Very well, BRAC got into food processing. When it found the poorest were too poor for micro-loans, it set up a program to give them animals. Now it runs dairies, a packaging business, a hybrid-seed producer, textile plants and its own shops -- as well as schools for dropouts, clinics and sanitation plants.

BRAC now has 100,000 health volunteers, armed with mobile phones -- mobile-phone ownership is widespread in Bangladesh, and there are few places there that aren't connected into the wireless grid. When a volunteer finds a woman is pregnant, she texts the mother-to-be with advice on prenatal and, later, postnatal care. This helps BRAC build up a database of maternal and child-health patterns in remote villages. When BRAC goes into a village, it works with the village collective to focus on the village's particular problems.

Despite the advances, Bangladesh has a long way to go. It's still basically a poor country, with low nutritional standards, and though most Bangladeshi kids get some primary schooling, the dropout rate is high, with only 60% graduating. Bangladesh's cities are growing rapidly, bringing on a new set of problems. The government has also decided to turn on the Grameen Bank, with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina hounding the bank's founder, Muhammad Yunus, from his seat as managing director, the intent being to replace him with a successor hand-picked by the prime minister. Other NGOs have watched this political farce with dismay.

a better future for Bangladesh?

Still, Bangladesh's prospects seem basically sunny. The country's development shows that when there's a will -- however inconsistent it may be -- then there's a way -- even if it's sometimes two steps forward, one step back. Possibly the ultimate lesson is that if we could only get anywhere if things are done perfectly, we would never get anywhere at all. [END OF SERIES]



* SAN DIEGO ROAD TRIP (5): I got up at 4 AM on Tuesday the 5th -- or 5 AM by my watch, still on Mountain Time, it being 4 AM Pacific Time. Sometimes I find it more to my advantage to stay on my Mountain Time sleep schedule when I'm visiting another time zone, in this case because morning time was much more valuable to me than evening time. I got on the road quickly, though I ended up being a bit confused by the highway signs, first ending up on a cruise down the Strip -- which was kind of entertaining -- and then finding myself confused on what freeway to take -- which was not so much fun.

The confusion turned out to have some justification, the signs talking about "I-15 South" and "I-215 West". Okay, I felt I was basically headed west, not south, which was one source of confusion; I also knew I-215 was the freeway into San Diego. I found out later that there are actually three freeways designated I-215 in the USA -- one each local to Las Vegas and Salt Lake City, one running from San Bernadino to San Diego. I'd never heard that interstate numbers might be duplicated, or in this case triplicated. However, I ultimately remembered that three-digit US freeway numbers are local affairs and I should have got wise. Anyway, I ended up on what I quickly realized was the Vegas Beltway, which was not going to take me out of town. No big deal, I took the first exit and found a parking lot, where I doublechecked my road atlas and got straight: go south on I-15.

It didn't get light until I got to southeast California. I didn't miss much, I find the dusty cactus desolation of the region less than appealing. I stopped for breakfast in Barstow at a little service mall converted from old railroad passenger cars, noting with no pleasure that gas prices there were pushing about two dollars more than national average. I got back on the road, running into a persistent bank of fog east of San Bernadino, which was a bit worrisome, since low visibility would not be a good thing for my visit to the San Diego Safari Park. Experience with my previous visits to south California suggested it would burn off by midmorning, so I wasn't too worried.

It was indeed sunny by the time I got to Escondido. Recalling my misadventures at the Denver Zoo, I went to a Subway and got a tuna fish sandwich to make sure I was fueled up for walking around for hours. I was listening in to somebody talking in what I thought was Spanish on a cellphone -- not to be intrusive, just to see if I could transcribe the phonetics mentally even if I didn't know what the words meant, a useful skill in language learning. I couldn't make out anything, until I realized he was speaking Arabic or something that sounded like it.

It was warm enough to persuade me to change my long-sleeve turtleneck for a short-sleeve crew shirt before I went down to the Safari Park; I didn't want to get drained by being overheated. In any case, I got down to the park -- making one wrong turn, but quickly getting back on track -- on schedule. The ticket kiosk was automated, using a touch screen and accepting my charge card, a scheme I liked a good deal. Maybe it says something about me, but I prefer dealing with machines over humans for routine transactions.

The park turned out to be very impressive, with a nice aviary and many animal exhibits; I got nice shots of an okapi and a snoozing cheetah. There was also a pond full of waterfowl, including a large number of whistling ducks from Latin America. They look like duck-sized geese, with long necks and legs, and they don't quack, generating a crazy laughing sound instead: WHEE HEE HOO! WHEE HEE HOO!

San Diego Zoo Safari Park

The real attraction was the tram tour through their ersatz African savannah. There weren't any predators there, of course, just antelope, giraffes, and the dreaded Cape buffalos. The tour guide said the buffalos were in a bad mood, shaking their heads about, a sign of irritation. The guide said that the black color of the buffalos made them stand out in a savannah environment, as an honest advertisement to predators: STAY THE HELL OUT OF OUR WAY OR ELSE.

There was a herd of zebras in a separate fenced-off section of the savannah; the guide said the zebras had once had the run of the place, but they had staked out the feeding troughs and wouldn't let any of the other animals feed from them. Discussion being obviously futile, the zebras had to be segregated. The tour took about 45 minutes and was worth the price of admission. The facility did skimp on indoor exhibits, such as monkey enclosures, but no doubt the zoo's mindset was that such things were better done in the main zoo.

San Diego Zoo Safari Park

I thought I might spend four hours or more there, but I realized after three hours I had, a bit to my surprise, basically canvassed the place, if not picked up every detail, and I was getting footsore. That problem was going to get much worse through the week. In hindsight, I would have been wiser to buy some gel shoe inserts, and also pocket some bandaids so I could deal with hot spots before they became blisters.

In any case, I wanted to get downtown to San Diego before rush hour traffic made it difficult, so I was on the road by 200 PM. I was hoping to make the harbor tour, the last one departing by 300 PM, but though I did get downtown, navigating was trickier than I expected, so I quickly gave up and went to my hotel, the Hampton Inn near the SD airport. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* Space launches for December 2012 included:

-- 02 DEC 12 / PLEIADES 1B -- A Soyuz 2-1A Fregat booster was launched from Kourou in French Guiana to put the CNES "Pleiades 1B" earth observation satellite into Sun-synchronous orbit. The spacecraft was built by EADS Astrium and had a launch mass of 970 kilograms (2,138 pounds). It carried an imager built by Thales Alenia Space, with a mirror 64 centimeters (2.1 feet) in diameter that provided a finest resolution of 50 centimeters (20 inches).

Pleiades 1B

-- 03 DEC 12 / EUTELSAT 70B -- A Sea Launch Zenit 3SL booster was launched from Sea Launch Odyssey platform in the equatorial Pacific to put the "Eutelsat 70B" geostationary comsat into orbit. Eutelsat 70B was built by EADS Astrium and was based on the Eurostar E3000 platform. It had a launch mass of 5,330 kilograms (11,574 pounds), a payload of 48 Ku-band transponders, and a design life of 15 years. It was placed in the geostationary slot at 70.5 degrees east longitude to provide communications services to Europe, Africa, Asia, and Australia.

-- 08 DEC 12 / YAMAL 402 -- A Proton M Breeze M booster was launched from Baikonur in Kazakhstan to put the "Yamal 402" geostationary comsat into orbit for Gazprom Space Systems of Russia. The satellite was built by Thales Alenia Space and was based on the Spacebus 4000C3 platform. It had a launch mass of 4,462 kilograms (9,839 pounds), a payload of 46 Ku-band transponders, four fixed and one steerable beams, plus a design life of 15 years.

It was to be placed in the geostationary slot at 55 degrees east longitude to provide communications services across Russia, as well as locales in Africa, Asia, and Europe. However, the upper stage of the booster suffered an anomaly that left the satellite in an "off nominal" orbit. It managed to attain its proper orbit a few days later using its own thruster system, though it lost enough fuel to reduce mission lifetime by about four years.

-- 11 DEC 12 / OTV 3 -- An Atlas 5 booster was launched from Cape Canaveral to put the Air Force "X-37B" AKA "Orbital Transfer Vehicle (OTV)" unmanned spaceplane testbed into space. This was the third flight of the OTV; the same spaceplane was flown on the first launch. The Atlas 5 501 configuration featured a 5 meter (16 foot 5 inch) diameter fairing, no solid rocket boosters, and an upper stage with a single Centaur engine.

-- 12 DEC 12 / KMS 3-2 -- A North Korean Unha booster placed the nation's first successful satellite, "Kwangmyongsong 3-2", into orbit. It was described as an Earth observation satellite with a launch mass of 100 kilograms (220 pounds).

-- 18 DEC 12 / GOKTURK 2 -- A Chinese Long March 2D booster was launched from Jiuquan to put the "Gokturk 2" earth-observation satellite into Sun-synchronous orbit for Turkey. It was built by Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI); had a launch mass of about 410 kilograms; and carried an imaging payload with a best resolution of 2.5 meters (8.2 feet) and a swath width of 20 kilometers (12 miles). The imager was built by the South Korean SATREC Initiative, with copies previously flown on the "DubaiSat 1" and "RazakSAT" smallsats.

Gokturk 2

Gokturk data was to be used by both civil and military organizations. Turkey plans a "Gokturk 3" with 1 meter (3.3 foot) resolution, to be built by Telespazio and Thales Alenia Space. This was the 19th and last Chinese space launch of 2012, all of them having been successful.

-- 19 DEC 12 / SOYUZ-TMA 7M (ISS 33S) -- A Soyuz booster was launched from Baikonur in Kazakhstan to put the "Soyuz-TMA 7M" AKA "Soyuz ISS 33S" AKA "Soyuz TMA-07M" manned space capsule into orbit on an International Space Station (ISS) support mission. The crew consisted of commander Roman Romanenko of the Russian RKA space agency (second space flight), flight engineer Chris Hadfield of Canadian Space Agency (third space flight), and NASA physician-astronaut Thomas Marshburn (second space flight). The spacecraft docked with the ISS Rassvet module the next day, with the newcomers joining the "ISS Expedition 34" crew of commander Kevin Ford of NASA and Russian cosmonauts Evgeny Tarelkin and Oleg Novitskiy, launched to the lab complex on 23 October.

-- 19 DEC 12 / SKYNET 5D, MEXSAT 3 -- An Ariane 5 ES booster was launched from Kourou to put the "Skynet 5D" and "Mexsat 3" geostationary comsats into orbit. Skynet 5D was a military comsat for the British Ministry of Defense; it was built and operated by EADS Astrium, and was based on the Eurostar 3000S spacecraft bus. The satellite had a launch mass of 4,845 kilograms (10,680 pounds) and a design life of 15 years. It carried an X-band / UHF payload to provide secure military communications; it was placed in the geostationary slot at 53 degrees east longitude to serve British forces in Middle East and outlying regions.

Mexsat 3 was built by Orbital Sciences Corporation and was based on the Orbital GEOStar 2 bus. It had a launch mass of 2,934 kilograms (6,469 pounds), a payload of 12 C-band / 12 Ku-band transponders, and a design life of 15 years. Mexsat 3 was placed in the geostationary slot at 114.9 degrees west longitude to provide communications services for the Mexican government.

* OTHER SPACE NEWS: The US has considered exploring a near-Earth asteroid, a matter discussed here in 2010. A rendezvous with an asteroid is tricky and the number of opportunities is limited; as reported by AVIATION WEEK ("Bring The Mountain ..." by Frank Morring JR, 17 December 2012), a scheme is being floated to simply capture an asteroid for inspection, instead of chasing after it.

The Keck Institute for Space Studies (KISS) at the California Institute of Technology has performed a study in which an near-Earth asteroid (NEA) with a mass of 500 tonnes (550 tons) and a diameter of about 7 meters (23 feet) would be discovered, tracked, captured, and delivered to Moon orbit by 2025 at a cost of about $2.65 billion USD. There, it would make an excellent target for visits by America's new Orion space capsule, launched by an Atlas 5 booster and carrying four astronauts.

The program would begin with a search by ground-based telescopes for NEAs of the desired size. A capture craft would then be launched, using a solar-powered electromagnetic thruster array, to rendezvous with the space rock. On arrival, the capture craft would inspect the asteroid, match up with its spin, and swallow it with a bag 15 meters (50 feet) in diameter. On cinching up the bag, the capture craft would use its chemical thrusters to de-spin the asteroid, and then nudge it to Moon orbit, or possibly an Earth-Moon libration point, a stable location equidistant from Earth and Moon.

asteroid capture

Of course, this is just a wild scheme right now, with no commitment to development and certainly no funding. However, the notion of actually capturing an asteroid has its attractions, it seems more attraction than simply visiting one. It brings the vision of capturing larger asteroids for placement in the libration points as a step towards space exploitation -- though the era when that's going to make economic sense is clearly over the horizon.



* MTRAC FOR HEALTH CARE: Africa's love affair with the mobile phone has been discussed here repeatedly, the last mention being in September. Yet another example of how Africans are making use of their phones was described in an article from TIME Online ("Tracking Disease, One Text at a Time" by Belinda Luscombe, 15 August 2012).

Uganda's health-care system is by no means robust. There aren't enough doctors; only 131 hospitals to serve nearly 36 million people; and children are dying of treatable diseases -- especially malaria, which accounts for up to 40% of medical visits and almost a quarter of deaths among kids under 5. The Ugandan Ministry of Health and a number of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have tried to improve matters by setting up a network of small clinics and groups of volunteer village health team workers.

Malaria can be treated with artemisinin-based combination therapies (ACTs), but too often villagers who go to the clinics for the drugs can't get them. The problem is bureaucracy -- the inability to get the drugs to the clinics as they're required because the people responsible don't know what's going on. In a new initiative named "mTrac", supported by UNICEF and the World Health Organization, health workers are now using their mobile phones to text data on drug supplies and disease outbreaks that they had previously put on paper. A server processes all the data and displays it in visual "dashboard" format so that public-health officials can see immediately what's happening at the moment. Says one Ugandan health-care records coordinator: "It's easy to track who has a lot of medicine and who has none and to move the stock from one clinic to the next. Before, I had to call each and every one."

To back up the reports from health-care workers, citizens themselves can anonymously send text messages to a call center that collates the complaints and adds them to the dashboard display. In addition, UNICEF has recruited about 140,000 members to social-networking group named "U-report" that's tied together by text messaging. Health care is only one of the aspects of U-report, however; the group's mandate covers general development issues.

The cost of such measures is low. The mTrac system required some investment in servers, software development, and training, but the cellphone network already exists, and nearly all those involved use their own phones. The ongoing cost of the system is trivial. Those behind mTrac believe the same scheme can be much more broadly applied, for example to determine if village wells are operating, allowing a repair crew to be sent out more promptly. Uganda's weak healthcare system can't be completely rescued by the cellphone, of course, but the cellphone does help -- and the fact that citizens are able to make their voices heard over U-report gives them a sense of empowerment they lacked before.

* In somewhat related news, as reported by BUSINESS WEEK David Risher, previously a big shot at Microsoft and then Amazon.com, is driving a program targeted on schoolkids in anglophone Ghana, Uganda, and Kenya to give them Kindle e-book readers through his "Worldreader" organization. It's not being done out of an infatuation with gadgetry by any means; it's just that African villages don't have access to books. If there's any books at all, they're often decades old and impossibly stale. How can kids learn to read well if they have nothing to read?

Enter the ebook reader. Risher got Amazon.com to donate a "seed" of 900 Kindles to Worldreader, and prevailed on the firm's engineers to develop a ruggedized case. Worldreader also developed software to make sure kids could get their hands on titles, the documents being distributed over the cellphone net -- with Risher prodding publishers such as Simon & Schuster and Penguin to offer kid's books for free via Worldreader. It's not like they'd lose money handing out books in places where nobody can buy books in the first place, and so there's no profit in trying to sell them.

The real barriers appear to be mostly social and political: getting schools and governments to play along. The US State Department was agreeable, until criticisms popped up that Worldreader hadn't taken the sight-impaired into consideration, and that the US government was playing favorites by effectively backing Kindle over the competition. Risher is bullish about the long term, however, with an objective to get a million e-book readers into the hands of African kids, saying: "I think twenty years from now we should live in a world where any child should have the books he wants or needs to improve his life."



* LONGER LIVES: Back in the 1960s and 1970s, there were fears that the "Population Bomb" would lead to widespread misery by the year 2000. Certainly, there have been and will be problems, but as reported by an article from THE NEW YORK TIMES ("Life Expectancy Rises Around the World" by Sabrina Tavernise, 13 December 2012), doomsday seems to have been called off, with a report coordinated by the Institute for Health Metrics & Evaluation (IHME) -- a health research organization at the University of Washington in Seattle, financed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation -- concluding that global life expectancy has never been longer.

On the average, from 1970s the lives of women have been extended from 61.2 years to 73.3 years; men, who have long had shorter lives than women, the jump was from 56.4 years to 67.5 years. Some countries, including Bangladesh, Bhutan, Iran, the Maldives, and Peru, saw jumps of over 20 years in life expectancies.

The report, published in the UK medical journal THE LANCET, said that improvements in sanitation, medical services, and food supply have led to a sharp decline in deaths from infectious diseases and malnutrition over the past 20 years. Infant mortality, one of the downward drivers on life expectancy, dropped by more than half from 1990 to 2010; malnutrition, the main risk factor for death in 1990, has fallen to eighth place.

Sub-Saharan Africa was the primary exception to the trend, with life expectancy only rising by ten years from 1970 to 2010, compared to more than 25 years in other parts of the undeveloped world. Infectious diseases, childhood illnesses and maternity-related causes of death still account for about 70% of the region's disease burden -- a measure of years of life lost due to premature death and to time lived in less than full health. In contrast, they account for just a third in South Asia, and less than a fifth in all other regions. The AIDS pandemic also helped drag down the increase on a global basis; the disease has peaked and is now on a gradual decline, but still results in a staggering 1.5 million deaths a year. Malaria also grew in significance over the survey period, but it is falling as well.

The flip side of the coin of reduction in global mortality is that a decline in deaths from infectious disease and malnutrition has led to an increase in the number of deaths from diseases more associated with the wealthy world, such as cancer, heart disease, and diabetes. It's no surprise, of course. According to Ezekiel Emanuel, chairman of the department of medical ethics and health policy at the University of Pennsylvania: "The growth of these rich-country diseases, like heart disease, stroke, cancer and diabetes, is in a strange way good news. It shows that many parts of the globe have largely overcome infectious and communicable diseases as a pervasive threat, and that people on average are living longer."

Reducing deaths from these causes is going to be tricky because such afflictions tend to be dependent on people's behavior; it is obviously much harder to get people to change their ways of living than to give them a vaccine to protect them from infectious diseases. Tobacco is a particular and growing threat, especially in developing countries, being responsible for almost six million deaths a year globally. Illnesses like diabetes are also spreading fast.

Such factors account for the fact that American women had the lowest gains in life expectancy of all female populations in the wealthy world, less than two years, compared to 2.4 years in Canada. American women have become more obese and have picked up on the smoking habit. American men, in contrast, gained about four years, though they still lived about four years less than American women. Although Americans like to play up their "exceptionalism", in the case of life expectancies they are the exception in being worse off relative to rest of the rich world, with longevity increases of both American females and males incrementally lagging those elsewhere.

Health experts from more than 300 institutions contributed to the report, which provided estimates of disease and mortality for populations in more than 180 countries. The United Nations World Health Organization (WHO) commented that the report matched WHO studies in some ways, but not in others. That wasn't surprising, since only about 34 countries, with about 15% of the world's population, produced quality cause-of-death data; estimates had to be used for other locales.



* BANGLADESH RISING (1): Back when Henry Kissinger ran the US State Department, the nation of Bangladesh was labeled a "basket case", doomed to be forever dependent on foreign aid. As discussed by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("The Path Through The Fields", 3 November 2012), as contemptuous as that assertion was, there was cause to think it fair. The country has few major natural resources, and as discussed here in 2012, it is painfully vulnerable to natural calamities -- being on a low oceanic flood plain dangerously unprotected from cyclones, tsunamis, and other catastrophes. It suffered famines in 1943 and 1974 and military coups in 1975, 1982 and 2007. When it became independent from Pakistan in 1971, many doubted that Bangladesh could survive as an independent state.

In the 21st century, to skeptics Bangladesh seems just as much a "basket case" as ever. The country is crowded and poor, with a GDP of about $1,900 USD per head, and Bangladeshi politics are a nightmare, marked by sessions of military rule, democratic leaders that fight among themselves, and the country ranked as deficient on international indexes of corruption and government transparency. However, there's a brighter side to the story.

Welcome to the village of Shibaloy, about 60 kilometers (37 miles) to the west of Dhaka. Twenty years ago, Shibaloy was based on subsistence-level farming, with few families even owning cows; the village had no roads to speak of, just rude paths, and no industry. Today, there is a brick factory, and cows challenge cars for right of way on the roads. A primary school has just opened. Says Romeja, the matriarch of an extended family: "When I started, my house was broken; I slept on the streets. Now I have three cows, an acre of land, solar panels on the roof and 75,000 taka ($920 USD) in fixed-rate deposits."

Between 1990 and 2010, life expectancy of Bangladeshis rose by 10 years, from 59 to 69 -- four years more than Indians, despite the Indians being, on average, twice as rich. Even more remarkably, the improvement in life expectancy has been as great among the poor as the rich. About 90% of Bangladeshi children now go to primary school, with girls slightly outnumbering boys. Infant mortality has dropped by more than half since 1990, child mortality by two-thirds, and maternal mortality by three quarters. In 1990, Bangladeshi women could expect to live a year less than men; now they can expect to live two years more.

The most dramatic example of improvement in human health in history is often taken to be that of late-19th-century Japan, during the rapid modernization of the Meiji transition. Bangladesh's record on child and maternal mortality has been comparable. Economically, Bangladesh hasn't been doing as badly as skeptics think. Although the country only grew at a feeble 2% for the first two decades of its independent existence, since 1990 it has been growing at 5% a year; in the last decade, the number of Bangladeshis below the poverty line has fallen from about half to about a third of the population. That still may not seem impressive compared to India's 8% a year growth over the same period, but all indications show that Bangladesh has made surprisingly great strides in poverty reduction despite its relatively low growth rate.

How can that be? There are four factors involved. First, family planning has empowered women. Early on, Bangladesh's leadership realized that they had to control the nation's population; since the government lacked the power to coerce, the approach was to simply make birth control free and available. Government workers and volunteers fanned out across the country to distribute pills and advice. In 1975, 8% of women of child-bearing age were using contraception, or had partners who were; in 2010 the number was over 60%.

Contraception just worked. Coercion was never really needed. In 1975, the total fertility rate (the average number of children a woman can expect to have during her lifetime) was 6.3. In 1993 it was 3.4; after leveling out for a time, it has now continued its fall to 2.3, slightly above the population replacement level. Thanks to the brakes being put on population growth, Bangladesh is about to reap a "demographic dividend": the number of people entering adulthood will handsomely exceed the number of children being born, increasing the share of the total population that works.

Along with family planning, Bangladeshi women have also benefited from much better access to education -- the government has been very good about getting girls into schools -- while the boom in the textile industry and the introduction of microcredit have put money into the pockets of women. Women, it turns out, are better than men in making sure that money is spent on health, education, and better food.

Bangladeshi farmers

Second, Bangledesh has undergone an agricultural boom since independence. Between 1971 and 2010 the rice harvest more than tripled, though the area under cultivation has increased by less than 10%. A sixth of the population is still undernourished, but twenty years ago the proportion was over a third. Much of the boom has been due to improved rice variants that permit two crops a year.

Bangladeshi villagers also work abroad, primarily in the Middle East, and send back home the equivalent of billions of dollars in remittances, worth more than all the government's social programs. The influx of capital has allowed farmers to expand their farming activities, with rural wages to workers growing in pace -- with rural wages rising by about 60% since 2000. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* SAN DIEGO ROAD TRIP (4): I got up at 4 AM on Monday 8 October, an hour earlier than my usual habit. It was a easy day's drive to Vegas, but I had to transit through Denver and I didn't want to get caught in rush-hour traffic. I made a straight shot into Denver and then headed west into the high country on Interstate 70.

I cruised up the mountains to Vail pass -- no real snow, but they were blowing snow onto a ski slope to get ready for the ski season -- and then back down towards Utah. I'd been that way before, but hadn't completely appreciated just how different the eastern and western sides of the Rockies were along that route; forests on the eastern side, turning to badlands with mesas, some of them spectacular, on the west. I made several stops to take photos. I also took some photos at the airport in Grand Junction, which had a display of a few warbirds on pylons, along with a flight company that customized De Havilland Canada Twin Otters with big windows for air tours, an aircraft I'd trying to shoot for a while, as well as a Pilatus Turbo Porter, another aircraft I didn't have in my collection.

landscape near Black Dragon Canyon, Utah

I was tracking my fuel consumption carefully, since I wanted to minimize fuel purchases in California. There had been a refinery fire, and fuel prices there were at least a dollar more a gallon than elsewhere; my observations of my Toyota's fuel economy showed that I could, barring severe headwinds, expect to safely get 560 kilometers (350 miles) on a tank of gas, 38 liters (10 gallons), which I figured meant that I would only have to fill up twice in California. It didn't really make much difference even with the high fuel prices; I'd calculated fuel expenses assuming a high average price and the total was no problem.

It was a pleasant enough drive, weather being fine, not much trouble with bug strikes. I did find out from highway signs when I got into southern Utah that I had miscalculated and the trip to Las Vegas was about 40 minutes longer than I expected. I was puzzled, until I remembered that 40 minutes is what it takes me to get from Loveland to Denver; it seems I had got confused using Yahoo maps, taking the time from a plot assuming the starting point of the journey was Denver instead of Loveland. It also wasn't any big deal; I had the overall distance to San Diego correct, and I only got into Vegas a bit late.

I stayed at the Hampton Inn on Tropicana street, just across Interstate 15 from the Vegas Strip with its glittering lights. They put me in a sixth-floor room, which was mildly exasperating because I would prefer to be on the ground floor -- easier to unpack and pack back up that way. That was a shrug, and in compensation I had a fair if oblique view of the night lighting of the Strip from my window. I'd been thinking of just going to the Strip and getting some night shots on the way back, but it seemed just as useful and less bother to shoot out my window.

On inspecting them later, none of the shots turned out. It was asking too much of the low-light mode, which is just for that -- low light, not night. I took another set of shots with the night vision mode, but they didn't turn out any better. That night vision mode is very limited, so much so I haven't yet figured out exactly what it is good for. Not a problem; that was as much interest as I had in the Strip, or Vegas for that matter. I've been there and done that before, Vegas is amusing but it's tacky and low. Just even taking a look at it blunted any desire for further investigation.

I got cleaned up, logged my day's expenditures on my spreadsheet, and updated my checking account balance. Up to recently I'd only try to balance the checking account after I got back from a trip, but that was an error-prone pain, and it turned out to no problem to tally it up on the road -- getting online into my checking account every day and marking off VISA card drafts that had cleared.

Incidentally, Hampton Inn only required my last name and room number to log into their wi-fi network; after years of fumbling with awkward security schemes, motels are finally getting it right. I found out later that really expensive hotels actually charge for wi-fi access, apparently on the assumption that if someone is willing to pay $500 USD a night, getting nicked for wi-fi is no bother. I've gone up a level in the lodgings I take; the level above that doesn't appear to buy anything but snob status.

I'd also obtained a cheap plastic snap-shut binder with pocket pages as a portable file folder, and it really helped me keep papers straight. Staying organized on a trip can be difficult, and once I come unraveled the trip tends to become unraveled as well. One little trick I picked up that works is to make sure I set aside particular places in a hotel room to set my things down, consolidating them on a particular tabletop, for example; I haul along a small plastic tub where I can toss my keys and other small items.

It's also useful to similarly consolidate useless motel clutter in a corner, piling up the fliers and TV remote and wotnot to keep it all out of the way. Otherwise, it can be a confusing pain to find things in a hotel room, with some chance of misplacing this or that. Incidentally, I stashed the remote onto the pile because I never watch TV while I'm on the road. I usually don't have much time, and flipping through a hundred channels for something to watch just ends up demoralizing.

I didn't have any time at all that evening, getting to bed a bit late. I had a little difficulty getting to sleep; I've found that when sleeping in motels, I need to have a cool room, so I dial down the air conditioning. However, then the covers they have are too light. I figured out that since I usually get a king bed, I just fold the covers over to double them up, and I'm warm. If I get a room with two queens, I steal the covers off the unused bed and double up under them. After getting things right, I slept like a stone. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* SCIENCE NOTES: The moa bird of New Zealand was one of the largest known "ratites", the group of big flightless birds including the ostrich and emu; it was hunted to extinction some hundreds of years ago. A group of researchers from the Universities of Perth and Copenhagen has conducted a genetic survey of moa remains, examining 158 samples from moa bones between 500 and 6,000 years old.

All the samples were obtained from the same locale. While there is interest in obtaining the full moa genome, the researchers were also interested in determining the decay rate of DNA; on the basis of their samples, they determined DNA has a half-life of 521 years, or in other words half the DNA falls apart into uselessness in about 500 years. It may be possible to resuscitate the moa, but DNA samples older than, say, 50,000 years would be an impossibility. There will be no Jurassic Park.

making a comeback?

* As discussed an article from THE ECONOMIST, it is well known that the human cell has two distinct genomes: one packed into the 23 chromosomes in the cell nucleus, running to about 20,000 genes, and another set in each of the cell's mitochondria, running to 37 genes. The mitochondrion is a cellular organelle responsible for energy generation, derived from a symbiotic association of a bacterium with the cell in the far distant past. The mitochondrial genome is strictly passed down through the maternal line of descent.

The mitochondrial genome will sometimes undergo mutations, and then can cause health problems for the host. No one pathological mitochrondrial disease is very common, but there are a large number of such, and so one child in 5,000 is likely to be afflicted by a mitochondrial defect. Researchers at the Oregon Health & Science University in Portland have shown they could transfer the nucleus of a human egg cell with diseased mitochondria to a healthy egg cell -- meaning in principle that a mother with diseased mitochondria could still have healthy children via such "transplants" and in-vitro fertilization.

The "in principle" qualification is important, because the procedure is far from reliable at present, and there are also ethical questions involved, some folks opposing anything resembling "genetic engineering" -- though in this case no "unnatural" genomes are involved. Some might also fuss over the fact that a child born of such a process could be said to have two mothers, though the contribution of mitochondrial donor would be very small compared to the nuclear donor. Since there's no immediate prospect of such technology being available, the argument remains theoretical for the time being, but it may not always remain so.

* As reported by AAAS SCIENCE NOW Online, humans have far more brain neurons than any other primate -- about 86 billion, on average, compared with about 33 billion neurons in gorillas and 28 billion in chimpanzees. We're a lot smarter than they are, but we pay a price for it: our brains consume 20% of our body's energy when resting, compared with 9% in other primates. That leads to an evolutionary puzzle, in that as our ancestors acquired larger brains, they should have had increasing troubles staying fed.

In the late 1990s, Harvard University primatologist Richard Wrangham proposed that our brain began to expand rapidly 1.6 million to 1.8 million years ago after our ancestor, Homo erectus, human learned how to roast meat and tuberous root vegetables over a fire. Cooking, Wrangham argued, effectively predigested the food, making it easier and more efficient for our guts to absorb calories more rapidly. Since then, he and his colleagues have shown in lab studies of rodents and pythons that these animals grow up bigger and faster when they eat cooked meat instead of raw meat, and that it takes less energy to digest cooked meat than raw meat.

Now Suzana Herculano-Houzel, a neuroscientist at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, and her grad student, Karina Fonseca-Azevedo, have published a paper backing up Wrangham's suggestion. First, they counted the number of neurons in the brains of 13 species of primates and more than 30 species of mammals. They confirmed two things: one, that brain size is directly linked to the number of neurons in a brain; and two, that that the number of neurons is directly correlated to the amount of calories needed to feed a brain.

After adjusting for body mass, they calculated how many hours per day it would take for various primates to eat enough calories of raw food to fuel their brains. They found that it would take 8.8 hours for gorillas; 7.8 hours for orangutans; 7.3 hours for chimps; and 9.3 hours for a human. Herculano-Houzel commented: "If you eat only raw food, there are not enough hours in the day to get enough calories to build such a large brain. We can afford more neurons, thanks to cooking."

Wrangham sees this research as backing up his ideas, but there is the problem of whether H. erectus was actually into cooking food. Paleoanthropologist Robert Martin of The Field Museum in Chicago, Illinois, found the study intriguing but warned that hearths don't show up in the archaeological record until 800,000 years ago, and the regular use of fire for cooking didn't become widespread until well after that.

Still, it's hard to think of how we could have got here from there without cooking, with Herculano-Houzel's mind, our brains would still be the size of an ape's if H. erectus hadn't played with fire: "Gorillas are stuck with this limitation of how much they can eat in a day; orangutans are stuck there; H. erectus would be stuck there if they had not invented cooking. The more I think about it, the more I bow to my kitchen. It's the reason we are here."



* STARBUCKS DOES MOBILE PAYMENTS: There's a lot of talk these days about the "cashless future", in which smartphones will take the place of wallets. As reported by an article from BUSINESS WEEK ("A Cash-Free Caffeine Buzz From Starbucks" by Olga Kharif, 27 August 2012), for the Seattle-based coffee vendor Starbucks, the future is now. Starbucks released the company's first mobile app in 2009, though it didn't handle payments, instead giving directions to outlets and background information on the product offerings. In January 2011, the firm introduced the "Starbucks Mobile App", which allows customers to pay for lattes by bringing up a barcode on a smartphone display and waving it in front of a scanner.

About 2% of Starbucks' transactions are now being performed by smartphone. That may not sound like much, but for a big chain like Starbucks it adds up and easily pays for itself: the firm is currently handling more than a million smartphone-based transactions per week, and the number is continuing to increase. The company has recently invested heavily in Square, a San Francisco startup working on mobile payment schemes, mentioned here in 2011, which made a splash by selling a magstripe card reader for smartphones and setting up a scheme to allow micro-businesses to accept payments through it.

Working with Square, Starbucks has been able to cut the financial overhead for credit-card transactions, which can top 2%; given the sheer volume of business Starbucks handles, even a small reduction in overhead can mean a substantial improvement in profit margin. The fact that handling payments via smartphone is very quick and easy also means that customers can be handled more quickly at peak times, Starbucks saying that it increases throughput by at least 10%. Increase the speed of handling customers and the bottom line improves proportionally.

However, there's more to handling transactions via smartphone than just making transactions more efficient. The Starbucks Mobile App provides more value than simply performing the transaction: for example, it can notify customers of special deals and automatically factor discounts into a transaction. Of course, the app also allows customer buying habits to be tracked in detail, and that's the kind of data a business will kill for.

Starbucks Mobile App

The advantages of using a smartphone to perform financial transactions are so obvious to businesses that there's a gold rush in progress into mobile payments territory. In August 2012, 15 US retailers -- including Target, Best Buy, and Walmart -- announced a group mobile payments initiative, to compete with a number of other initiatives now in progress. Mobile payments are the coming thing, and people want a piece of the action.

The mad dash towards mobile payments is not likely to encounter smooth sailing at the outset, however. The fact that not everyone is likely to have a smartphone in the near future is not such a difficulty, since everyone realizes that other ways of performing transactions, including grubby old cash, are not going to go away for the time being. The diversity makes things clumsy, but that's life.

Standards remain a big challenge. Mobile payments technology is in the early stages of its evolution; Starbucks' original app, using a barcode on the display, already seems quaint in a time when near-field wireless interfaces are becoming the standard technology for smartphone transactions. Unfortunately, although near-field technology is likely to become commonplace in the near future, there's going to be a battle over protocols and the underlying systems performing the transactions. That's not a killer problem, we've all been through standards wars before, and ultimately things are going to work themselves out. How quickly that happens is anyone's guess. It's not even a guess to realize that the process is not going to be pretty.



* IRON DOME: Israel's military action against Palestinian Hamas militants this last November was yet another installment in a war that seems to go through the same cycles, over and over again. As reported by an article from AVIATION WEEK ("Israel's Upper Hand" by David Fulghum, 26 November 2012), there was, however, a significant difference this time around, in that Israel's "Iron Dome" projectile interceptor system demonstrated an impressive capability to intercept Palestinian rockets.

The Iron Dome system was developed by Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, which provided the little missiles and their box launcher; and Israeli Aerospace Industries, which developed the radar and command-&-control system (CCS). On 14 and 15 November 2012, Hamas fired 877 rockets into Israel, with 570 landing in Israel and 307 nailed by Iron Dome. The kill ratio might seem low, but the CCS only performs an intercept if a rocket seems likely to land in a populated area. Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) officials say the effective intercept rate was 85%; Rafael has been carefully monitoring Iron Dome operations, with company officials seeing a 90% or better intercept rate as within reach.

Iron Dome missile intercept

One of the downsides of Iron Dome is that the intercepts are so exciting to watch that Israelis are inclined to pop out of cover to watch them and take videos of them -- videos posted to YouTube showing the Iron Dome interceptors performing aggressive maneuvering, with the trail left in the sky by the interceptor terminating in a satisfactory puff of smoke, indicating a kill. A handful of Israelis died in the rocket attacks, it seems because they didn't pay attention to alarms and seek cover. As intercepts become routine, the urge to watch them should decline.

The Israelis have acquired two Iron Dome batteries. The US is funding eight more batteries, both to improve Israeli security and as a deal to obtain the Iron Dome technology for US forces. Cost of an Iron Dome missile is in the range of $50,000 USD to $100,000 USD, so it may seem like folly to be shooting down much cheaper Hamas rockets -- all the more so because the Iron Dome launch sites need to have large numbers of interceptor missiles at ready, lest the Palestinians saturate Israeli defenses with a mass launch. However, it's not a question of how much the rockets cost, it's how much damage they can do. During the "Second Lebanon War" of 2006, as discussed here at the time, rockets fired by Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah militants caused about $3.8 billion USD worth of damage to northern Israel. In addition, if Palestinian rocket attacks prompted an IDF invasion of Gaza, that would cost over $250 million USD a day. One day of such an operation would run to more than Israel has spent on the Iron Dome system to date, so it's a bargain. Iron Dome may also give the Israelis a psychological advantage, not a small matter in war, by rendering Hamas attacks ineffective.

According to a Rafael official: "Iron Dome was originally designed to defend against artillery rockets. Now it can do much more. We can kill 155 millimeter [artillery] shells, glide bombs, [other] precision-guided munitions, and short-range air-defense missiles that target helicopters and unmanned aircraft." The range of Iron Dome is given as 70 kilometers (44 miles), but that appears to be an underestimate.

Hamas and other militant groups have been receiving improved rockets from Iran and have been getting more skilled in their use. The rockets are smuggled in through Port Sudan and Khartoum into southern Egypt, and then across the Sinai. A munitions depot in Khartoum was blasted from the air on 24 October 2012 -- the specifics of how such a long-range precision strike was pulled off remain mysterious -- with Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir swearing revenge. The rocket attacks soon escalated.

The Iranians are now supplying potent Fajr-3 and Fajr-5 rockets, which have a 90 kilogram (200 pound) warhead, with a jacket of steel balls to increase destructive effect. These rockets have long range and may have delay fuzes to permit penetration of structures before detonation. The Palestinians like to fit rocket launch tubes to trucks -- dump trucks are a popular platform, with the launch tubes attached under the truck bed and fired when the bed is raised -- and are skillful in keeping the trucks hidden in camouflaged holes. Hamas uses fixed launchers dug into the ground as well.

Iron Dome has pressured the Palestinians into performing volley launches, of six or more rockets at a time, which become increasingly harder to perform as the size of the volley increases. In addition, the Fajr rockets are large, being harder to handle and conceal; the Israelis have been determined to target them in strikes against the Palestinians, apparently with fair success. That highlights the fact that the Israeli defense is by no means entirely passive, with Iron Dome being used as a shield while the IDF's new "Depth Command" projects force beyond Israeli borders -- using Heron and Hermes drones, as well as manned platforms such as sensor-equipped Beech Super King Air turboprops, to monitor adversary activity, then employing IDF combat aircraft and other strike assets to perform pinpoint attacks.

Iron Dome launcher

Iron Dome has clearly changed the military equation for Israel, demonstrating the effectiveness of the IDF's "bottom tier" of missile defense -- which is complemented by a "middle tier" system named "David's Sling" and the upper-tier "Arrow" system, capable of taking out Iranian ballistic missiles. The long-standing dream of an effective anti-missile system now seems within reach. Will that also change the political equation? Don't bet on it.



* IN THE REALM OF LUMINOUS BEINGS (2): Studies performed with the latest research gear have provided insights into the optical trickery of deep-sea organisms. The cells of these organisms feature molecular-level structures with dimensions comparable to those of wavelengths of light, giving the organisms very precise control over optical effects. These structures are of considerable interest to those working on optical technologies.

For example, consider the trick of disappearing from view in the middle depths. Many fish have silvery sides that might seem to attract unwanted attention, but in reality these fish reflect light away from themselves in a way that prevents them from being seen. The reflections still normally change the polarization of light, and so predators with polarized vision should be able to see the fish anyway.

However, when researchers Soenke Johnsen -- of Duke University in Durham, North Carolina -- and Justin Marshall -- of the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia -- took imagery of fish in the Great Barrier Reef using a camera with a polarized filter, some species, such as herring, were not at all prominent. The two researchers used computer modeling to figure out what was going on. Fish have stacks of guanine crystal plates under their scales; it turns out that the spacing and orientation of the plates affects the optical properties of the scales. The researchers came up with a configuration involving 50 layers of guanine plates that could reflect light without significantly affecting its polarization.

Some squid and octopus have even better trickery to hide out from predators, alternating between transparent and opaque, depending on circumstances. Organisms that live between 600 and 1,000 meters (2,000 to 3,300 feet) down tend to be transparent if they live at the upper end of that range, and red or black if they live deeper down. However, deep-sea fish that use "spotlights" to hunt can find transparent prey because they still reflect some light, while prey that's colored red or black will be visible from below because it shadows light from above. Johnsen and his colleagues found that the transparent Japetella heathi, an octopus about 8 centimeters (about three inches) long, has red-pigmented cells that expand when blue light, like that generated by a predatory fish, is shined on it. The octopus doesn't respond to red light, remaining transparent. The squid Onychoteuthis banksii, about twice as long as J. heathi, uses much the same tactic, turning red in blue light. Johnsen says: "It's a moving game between hiders and seekers."

* Not all the optical adaptations of deep-sea organisms are focused on the game of hide-and-seek. Sweeney of UC Santa Barbara has been investigating giant clams, which are iridescent because they have pigmented cells known as "iridocytes" in their mantles. Nobody was exactly sure of what the iridocytes were for, but it was known that they tend to be co-located with with brown algae that live in the clam. As with corals, clams get carbon from the algae, providing them with nitrogen in return. Sweeney wondered if the iridocytes had something to do with the symbiotic relationship.

Electron micrographs showed a close relationship between the iridocytes and the algae, the iridocytes forming a layer along the outer edge of clam tissue, with the algae growing in pillars embedded in the layer. Sweeney and her colleagues measured light transmission and reflection by the iridocytes, and then used a computer model to determine the effect on the algae. It turns out that the iridocyte layer protects the algae from bright light that might damage it, while collecting less energetic light and pumping it to the lower layers of the algae, allowing the algae to thrive.

Researchers investigating the optical capabilities of deep-sea organisms believe that they will ultimately lead to practical applications. Indeed, as discussed here a year ago, bioluminescence is doing a boom business, particularly through the use of "green fluorescent protein" originally obtained from jellyfish. However, even if practical applications aren't forthcoming, the fascinating range of adaptations of these organisms to their dark world are worth the time of investigating them.

* A footnote to this article discussed the eyes of "stomatopods" AKA "mantis shrimp" -- crustaceans, not really shrimp, but resembling prawns with mantis-like forelimbs and up to about 30 centimeters (a foot) long. They live as ambush predators in crevices on the bottom of the sea. They have twin crustacean compound eyes on stalks, scanning the eyes back and forth to scan up an image of their surroundings.


Human eyes have four visual pigments -- one for grayscale, for seeing in dim light, the others for red, blue, and green color. Stomatopods actually have 16 pigments -- 8 working in the visual range, 8 in the ultraviolet. Stomatopds also have the interesting ability to distinguish polarized from nonpolarized light, as well as circularly polarized light from linearly polarized light, and even between circularly polarized light with left or right rotations. The ability to distinguish polarizations seems to be primarily an adaptation for checking out fellow stomatopods, either as mates or as rivals.

Stomatopods have little "paddles" at the base of their antennas, and these paddles can produce produce polarized light, thanks to a pigment named "astaxanthin". The paddles may provide an individual recognition feature for stomatopods. Visual markings would not be very easy to make out in environments favored by stomatopods, where light conditions are highly variable, but light polarization is generally independent of overall lighting conditions. [END OF SERIES]



* SAN DIEGO ROAD TRIP (3): I made my motel reservations for the San Diego trip on 20 September and then nailed down the trip logistics. Maps were a big part of it, as usual; this time around, I made a little use of satellite imagery of places where I worried I might have some problem figuring out where things were, finding that it helps a lot to to see what the neighborhood looks like. I knew I'd get a little lost here and there, I always do, but what else could I expect for driving around in strange places? If I didn't have a plan, I'd be vastly worse off.

Of course I was trying to juggle this while keeping up with my usual work schedule, in particular making sure that I didn't fall behind in production of blog posts. I've been lagging a bit all year and didn't want to find myself falling behind again when I got back, so I tried to make sure I was a caught up as well as possible before I left.

There were household errands to run as well. I was wondering if I should blow out my lawn sprinkler system before I left or after I got back, but at the end of the first week of October we had a cold snap, with snow expected, so I just took an hour and did it on Wednesday, the 3rd of October. Fortunately, the forecast was for warmer weather on the coming Monday, reducing my worries about getting over the mountains. Indeed, San Diego forecasts predicted pleasant weather all through the trip.

The time piled up on me, however, in particular when I got sidetracked on a nasty little programming project that I wanted to complete, so I wouldn't be worrying about it while I was on the road. I managed to get blog entries posted for all the days I was going to be out by Friday the 5th, but the pile-up got a bit tight on the weekend -- making sure I had all my final plans in order, with schedules and navigation and costs nailed down; getting the car cleaned up and loaded. I always get a little exciteable just before I take off on a long trip, as well as a little apprehensive, a bit worried about the trip being a fiasco, or at least a tiresome bust.

The only thing I could really do was focus on the details of planning. One thing I made sure to do was get my laptop computer properly configured -- set up a page of the usual links I frequent, doublecheck to see that my emailer was up-to-date on my current email accounts, and set up a spreadsheet to log expenses on the trip. Another minor item was to make sure I put a flash drive on the lanyard I wear around my neck with spare keys as insurance against losing my car keys. I added the flash drive because I was going on the trip to take pictures, and if I lost my laptop I'd lose all the pictures if I didn't back then up.

And so on, every item I could think of. I suppose my nitpicking approach to trip planning might seem a little, ah, anal-retentive, but I find the organizational aspect of traveling fun in itself. More significantly, once I hit the road, adapting to unplanned circumstances can be very troublesome, and making sure everything is nailed down as well as possible before departure pays off. Planning before a trip is like putting money in an account; that account then being drained progressively from the moment the trip starts. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* GIMMICKS & GADGETS: BUSINESS WEEK ran a note on advanced dairy technologies, the centerpiece being the "Astronaut A4" robot milker from Lely of the Netherlands. It's the latest version of the Astronaut, which has been on the market for some years. Operation is unattended, with the milking stall featuring a feed tray at the far end; a gate at the near end is opened to let a cow in to feed, a laser scanning system guiding a robot arm to hook up to the cow's teats. Once the cow is milked, the cow leaves the A4, which cleans itself up and sets up for another cow.

Astronaut A4 milker

The system keeps track of the individual cows through an RFID tag in a collar on each cow. Relevant data is logged for a cow, including weight, milk production, how much time it takes to milk it, and the amount of feed a cow eats. The specifics of the milk from each cow is logged as well, being checked for color, fat and protein content, cell count, temperature, and electrical conductivity -- the last helping to determine if the cow has an infection. The Astronaut A4 means farmers don't have to get up so early every day to milk the cows any more, but it comes at a price, about $200,000 USD to be exact. People are buying: dairy farming is a big business, and capital investment can pay off.

* It was mentioned here in 2006 that United Parcel System (UPS) was pushing development of "hydraulic hybrid" technology for the firm's delivery vans. The scheme is based on "regenerative braking", in which applying the brakes stores up pressure in a hydraulic reservoir system, with the pressure released to help the van accelerate again. It has real potential for heavy commercial vehicles, since they waste lots of energy when they brake, and of course UPS vans do a lot of stopping and starting.

According to WIRED Online blogs, UPS persisted in the effort, testing a few hydraulic hybrids in 2009, and is now introducing them to service, with 40 of them to be put to work in the Atlanta and Baltimore areas. Thanks both to fuel-efficient diesel engines and regenerative braking, UPS says the hydraulic vans will have up to 35% better fuel economy and correspondingly lower emissions. The vans were developed by Freightliner and Parker Hannifin, with support in part by funding from the US Department of Energy's Clean Cities initiative. Some school and city buses now use hydraulic hybrid technology as well, and Chrysler is working with the US Environmental Protection Agency on a hydraulic hybrid minivan.

* BBC World Online reports that Motorola Solutions -- not the same outfit as cellphone-maker Motorola Mobility, split off and now an arm of Google -- has introduced a "wearable computer", the HC1, intended for working applications. It's a hefty headset, with an eyepiece display on an arm and a video camera to take in the forward view; it goes well with a hardhat, and that's the idea.

Motorola HC1

A user interacts with the HC1 with voice commands, an accompanying video showing a Beeb reporter using it to access email with no particular difficulty. The HC1 is to go on sale in 2013, with a list price between $3,000 and $4,000 USD; typical applications would be paramedics, power line workers, service engineers, warehouse employees, and in general anyone who needs real-time access to detail data but has to have the hands free. Motorola is not after a consumer market with the HC1, and has no intent to compete with Google's Project Glass virtual-reality spectacles, still in development.

* I mentioned buying a Visio TV here in early 2011, commenting on how I puzzled through all its internet-enabled features, to find I had absolutely no use for them. According to WIRED ONLINE blogs, surveys show that almost nobody does. Accessing and using apps on a TV is much too clumsy -- although the Visio had a USB plug, it did not support a keyboard, which I thought a bit clueless -- and few have even bothered to fetch online video with a TV, having better ways of doing it.

All people really want to do with a TV is watch video. The buzz these days is that if we want smart TV, it's better to give a TV a Bluetooth or other wireless link, and then put the brains into smartphone / tablet apps. There doesn't appear to be much movement in that direction just yet, but it's a far better idea than trying to get a TV to sit up and do tricks -- when all people really want to do is turn on the set and watch.



* IRAN DOES BITCOIN: As reported by an article from BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK ("Dollar-Less Iranians Discovery 'Currency'" by Max Raskin, 3 December 2012), the Iranian rial is in free fall, falling from a staggering 20,160 rials to the US dollar to an even more staggering 36,500 rials in October, though it bounced back up after that. Lacking any confidence in their currency, Iranians have been jumping onto the bandwagon of "bitcoin", a grow-your-own online currency.

Although underlying concepts for online currency go back to the 1980s at least, the idea first entered public circulation in a paper released by one Wei Dai in 1998, with Wei calling his scheme "b-money". Various experiments followed, with bitcoin introduced in 2009 by a mysterious and untraceable figure named Satoshi Nakamoto. The bitcoin system is supported by a decentralized network and has no central issuing authority. Servers in the network generate ("mine" in the somewhat quirky terminology) units of bitcoin by an algorithm that slows the release over time, to zero out at 21 million bitcoins by 2050.

Anybody running an internet server can mine bitcoins by installing a free app named, of course, a "bitcoin miner". Transactions in bitcoins are handled by a secure cryptosystem -- with an ingenious scheme that successively layers previous transactions under a new layer of encryption, making transactions ever harder to backtrack as they get older -- and take place directly between the two parties in the transaction, with no bank or other organization in between. That makes transactions cheap and hard to trace, with bitcoin accounts hard to freeze. The transactions are performed using a free app named a "bitcoin wallet", functionally similar to an online banking app, with encryption to make the user hard to find.

There was an early boom in bitcoin that quickly led to a bust, but it has since recovered and now seems to be growing in influence. There are merchants around the world who accept bitcoin as payment, and bitcoins can be converted into local currencies at sites such as "localbitcoins.com" in Finland, run by one Jeremias Kangas. Kangas commented: "I believe that bitcoin is, or will be in the future, a very effective tool for individuals who want to avoid sanctions, currency restrictions, and high inflation in countries such as Iran."

Compared to the incredible shrinking rial, bitcoin looks pretty robust, and Iranian bitcoin enthusiasts say they when they talk, other Iranians listen. Although it's unclear just how many Iranians are using bitcoin, one enthusiast commented that his friends "are instantly fascinated by it. It's a flash for them when they realize how it can solve their problems."

What's not to like? Iranians can accumulate and perform transactions in bitcoins, converting them to dollars or whatever formal currency they want. The authorities have little ability to interfere with, much less control, the transactions -- though that's less surprising when it's considered the Iranian government doesn't have any control over its own currency, the value of the rial changing wildly in days or less. In November 2012, the exchange rate was over 300,000 rials to one bitcoin.

The bitcoin scheme seems like a really fun toy, but monetary systems are tricky to grasp and it's hard to feel overly confident of such an unorthodox scheme. What isn't so hard to grasp is that, to the extent bitcoin is workable, it opens up a Pandora's box of troubles. Yes, citizens can use bitcoin to get around their fossilized governments, but crooks can use it as well, not to mention terrorists or agents of rogue states. However the box, having been opened, is not going to be easily closed again, and trying to do so might well be counterproductive. After all, we all accept the utility of the telephone, though it has empowered criminals just as much as everyone else, and terrorists like to set off bombs with cellphones. The moving finger, having writ, moves on -- and we can't unwrite a word of it.



* ANOTHER MONTH: As reported by an article in BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK ("Why Do The Pigs Cross The Road?" by David Mildenberg, 10 December 2012), the state of Texas has a problem with road kills. Anybody familiar with Texas immediately thinks of armadillos, visualizing them as both amusing toylike animals and flattened pancakes on the road, but there's a bigger problem: feral hogs.

Texas supports a population of an estimated 2 million feral hogs, which cause about $50 million USD in farm-related damage a year. They can get as big as 180 kilograms (400 pounds), meaning hitting one while driving down the highway in the dark is absolutely no joke. The hogs are a particular problem on a new 66 kilometer (41 mile) stretch of expressway running from the towns of Seguin to Mustang Ridge, around Austin, with a speed limit of 137 KPH (85 MPH), making it the fastest freeway in the USA. At that speed, there's not much time to react when a hog decides the cross the road in the dark, and sometimes there are multiple collisions with hogs on a single night.

Texans try to keep hog numbers down, with counties offering bounties and sporting goods stores setting up hunting contests. Corn-baited traps don't work so well any more; hogs are fairly smart beasts and have got wise to the traps. Billy Higginbotham, a Texas A&M University professor who studies the beasts, commented: "We've eliminated a lot of stupid hogs from the gene pool."

In 2011, Texas authorities authorized the shooting of hogs from helicopters. Landowners have been a bit nervous about trigger-happy hunters flying around the countryside, but the tactic seems to be effective in racking up body counts, with up to a hundred hogs taken out in a single flight. Alas, hogs are not only shrewd, they have big litters, and it's hard to put a real dent in their populations. Accepting that the hogs aren't going away, there's been a push to set up HOG CROSSING signs at locations where the hogs seem thick, and the savvy hogs seem to be realizing that they're safer crossing there than they are elsewhere. On the plus side of the hog plague, the hogs make perfectly tasty pork sausage and hams. As they say down in Texas: "Them's good eatin'!"

* In the latest adventures of America's much-maligned Transportation Security Agency, WIRED Online reports that a number of TSA personnel have been nicked lifting iPad tablets from airline passengers. One TSA screener was caught trying to make off with an iPad he'd stuffed into his pants; on investigation, he'd sold about $50,000 USD worth of hot goods on Craigslist. WIRED conceded that with 50,000 TSA employees, it should be no real surprise that a few of them are crooks. However, the article did suggest that maybe TSA personnel need to be put through security scanners every day themselves.