feb 2013 / last mod sep 2016 / greg goebel

* 20 entries including: San Diego road trip, China does space science, history of magstrip cards, tablet PCs for African education, online ID schemes, aerial cable cars for urban transport, USA loves bikesharing, DARPA working on bulletproof software, efforts in India by FinalMile to change public attitudes, use of phone time minutes as currency, DARPA work on robot helicopter resupply, new VXX presidential helicopter effort, and exploring other planets using remote virtual viewing.

banner of the month



* NEWS COMMENTARY FOR FEBRUARY 2013: As discussed by THE ECONOMIST's "Democracy In America" blog, the US government has been described as an "insurance company with an army". In 2012, about 20% of Federal outlays -- not counting interest payments on the debt -- were for national defense, running to a total of $716 billion USD. That's about two-fifths of global military spending, five times as much as China, which has the world's second-biggest military budget.

However, the Federal government spends far more on insurance: it runs to about two-thirds of Federal non-interest spending, 15% of GDP, and that doesn't factor in complementary outlays by the states. Federal social support programs ran to a total of $2.3 trillion USD in 2012, most spent on Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. That leaves only 16% for other Federal functions, such as running the judicial system, building infrastructure, financing education, launching space probes, and so on. There's a lot of fussing about waste in such exercises, and with good cause -- anyone who follows the US space program learns all about boondoggles -- but, compared to insurance, it doesn't register.

The modern American welfare state began life during the Great Depression of the 1930s. It was, in that context, disaster relief; private charitable organizations and insurers simply could not cope. To the modern hard-hearted, beneficiaries of social support are "takers", but a case can be made that saving citizens from ruin makes sure they can be productive taxpayers over the long run.

The "taker" concept still tends to predominate in the public mind. In 2008 a Cornell Survey Research Institute poll found that 57% of Americans said that they had never used a "government social program". However, when those respondents were asked about specific programs -- Social Security, unemployment insurance, student loans and the home-mortgage interest deduction -- 94% had used at least one. On average, in fact, they had used four different social programs over the course of their lifetimes. A more recent US Census Bureau survey found that nearly half of Americans received direct benefits in 2011.

We are obviously right in the middle of a crunch between paying for insurance and having the tax revenues to pay for it. The Obama Administration is playing the right notes of careful cuts to spending, along with tax increases by ending deductions and closing loopholes -- though with Republicans in tax denial, the US seems trapped for the moment in what has been called "deficit reduction disorder."

Obama seems to be shrewdly playing against the gridlock. He came into office in 2009 with pledges of bipartisanship that he didn't follow through on, which was disappointing -- but the truth was that even if he had been more sincere about bipartisanship, the Republicans wouldn't have gone along with him anyway. Having returned to office in 2013, Obama is barely making any pretense of bipartisanship, taking the offensive against the Republicans. As appalling as the political dogfight is, was there anything else more sensible he could do?

The 2012 election gave Obama a surprisingly strong hand, given that the Democrats hardly won by an electoral landslide, and the balance of power in Congress was not changed in any significant way. However, the Republicans made no gains and in fact lost a little ground -- leading to increased tensions between the moderate and extreme arms of the party, the moderates knowing that extremism doesn't have a future, the extremists indifferent to mere considerations of practicality. Obama is now exploiting the bully pulpit of the White House and challenging the Republicans to take constructive action. Even if he doesn't get anywhere for now, he can weaken the Republicans in hopes of handing them a clear defeat in the mid-term elections of 2014. That's not all that far down the road.

* The resurgence of piracy on the high seas has proven difficult to deal with; navies don't find it easy to monitor large tracts of ocean for small craft that may or may not be operated by pirates, and arming merchant vessels to fight back presents serious risks -- most particularly in simply making pirates more violent in their attacks on their targets.

Now a private security firm named Typhon is offering a maritime escort service, in which a "mother ship" will accompany convoys of merchantmen through pirate-infested waters. The mother ship will be staffed mostly by British ex-soldiers, who will operate speedboats and drones to check out suspicious intruders -- and who can react with force if necessary. The beauty of the scheme is that it keeps merchantmen out of the direct line of fire and leaves the fighting to professionals. Typhon plans to have three ships operational by the end of 2013, ten by 2016.

* The state of Texas is noted for tough law enforcement and a certain fondness for the death penalty. As discussed by BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK, on the other side of that same coin, Texas is unusually generous with people who have been wrongly convicted and sent to lockup.

27 US states and Washington DC do provide compensation to the wrongly convicted, but the generosity of the payoffs varies greatly; at the low end, Wisconsin simply hands the victim a lump payment of $25,000 USD, regardless of the time served. In contrast, thanks to a state law passed in 2009, Texas has so far paid out almost $60 million USD to 88 people who were wrongly convicted, including two rescued from death row.

The Texas law was implemented thanks to lobbying by relatives of inmates, the relatives threatening lawsuits on one hand and showing how badly the exonerated were treated after being released on the other. Those who have spent decades in jail are often no longer employable because of their age and their work history, or lack thereof. The law pays exonerees a lump sum based on their length of time behind bars, along with an annuity that pays out $80,000 USD a year for life. The state also pays for education and training, with exonerees able to buy the same health insurance as available to personnel of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. There's no haggling with the state bureaucracy, no need for exonerees to hire a lawyer; they just make out the paperwork, the state checks on the validity of the case, and then starts paying out.



* AFRICAN TABLET REVOLUTION? The idea of using personal computing to help educate kids in developing countries has been over-hyped, but as reported by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("Digital Education In Kenya", 8 December), thanks to tablet technology, it does seem to be an idea whose time is coming.

Welcome to Amaf School in the slums of Nairobi, Kenya. Amaf School's facilities are ramshackle and educational tools used to be nothing more than blackboards and old tattered textbooks. Now children in groups of five take turns with a tablet loaded with a multimedia version of Kenya's educational syllabus. The tablet hooks them up to the global technology mainstream, and they have taken to it enthusiastically; 14-year-old Grace Wambui says it took her all of "one minute" to figure out the touchscreen interface, even though she'd never seen one before in her life.

The tablets at Amaf School are not the norm for African schools. They've been provided by a Nairobi "Silicon Savannah" startup named "eLimu", which is Swahili for "education". The firm is organized on a for-profit basis, seeing an opportunity in educating Africa's kids. More African children are in school than ever before, about 300 million in all, but the schools are under-funded, under-equipped, and overwhelmed.

Startups such as eLimu are not the only ones who see education as the new business frontier for the continent. Safaricom, the Kenyan mobile operator that pioneered the M-PESA cellphone-based financial transaction service, hopes to repeat its success in digital education. The company is developing classroom content, from video lessons to learning applications, that any of Kenya's 7,000 state secondary schools will be able to access online.

Global tech giants are interested as well. Amazon has seen sales of its Kindle e-readers in Africa increase tenfold in the past year. The firm's developers are adding features to its devices with the African consumer in mind, such as "talking books", new language localizations, and longer battery life. Chipmaker Intel has been advising African governments and helping them buy entry-level computers. In Nigeria, Intel brought together MTN, a telecom carrier, and Cinfores, a local publisher, to provide exam-preparation tools for mobile phones, a service that has become hugely popular.

That popularity shows that even the poor are willing to spend the money for digital education; startups such as eLimu plan to make money with "micro-payments", very small sums paid per download. There does remain the question of whether digital tools will actually improve education, but given the existing poverty of educational materials at most African schools, it is hard to believe that access to such materials online wouldn't be a big help.

Current experience seems to be supporting that belief. In Ghana, reading skills improved measurably among 350 children that had been given Kindle e-readers by Worldreader, a charity. In Ethiopia, researchers found that even without teachers, children figured out how to use tablets provided to them by One Laptop Per Child, another charity, to teach themselves to read. According to Peter Lalo Outa, the headmaster of Amaf School, average marks in science went from 58 to 78 in a single term. As we sow, so we reap, and as poor Africans absorb the knowledge of the world, the more they will be able to contribute to it.



* WHO ARE YOU? In the material world, we are used to providing identification via a driver's license, or a passport, or the like. As discussed by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("The Voucher Business", 9 February 2013), in the virtual online world, security is a joke; it's easy for people to impersonate others, and not so hard for them to crack into people's online accounts.

European countries have a simple solution: government-issued electronic ID cards. Finland was the first to provide such in 1999, with Estonia following in 2002, and then Belgium in 2003. About 16 European states now offer their citizens electronic ID, though only a few make it mandatory; seven give the cards equal status to passports. The European Commission wants digital IDs issued by one member state to be recognized by the authorities in another. As mentioned here, most recently last year, India has opted for electronic ID, since most of the country's citizens previously lacked any sort of ID whatsoever.

Electronic ID typically combines something only a given individual owns -- such as a card, or possibly a smartphone with an ID app -- with something that only that individual knows -- such as a number or password. It may include biometric validation as well. Once issued, a secure ID enables a wide range of dealings with the government, from e-voting to paying taxes online.

An authoritative electronic ID scheme is of course useful for commerce as well. It's hard to establish legal transactions online without binding digital signatures; to be sure, massive numbers of transactions are performed all over the world every day with charge card numbers, but a government-issued ID simplifies things for online vendors, ensuring they don't get cheated quite as much. This last December, Visa announced a scheme that will allow Indians to withdraw money from ATMs using fingerprint readers, verified against biometric data stored in the national database. In Estonia, where enthusiasm for online tech runs high, people can use their ID on public transport, to open doors, to validate prescriptions, or collect loyalty points.

However, national ID is a hard sell elsewhere. The British government canned a national ID program in 2010 in the face of public disapproval. National ID isn't any more popular in America. Since electronic ID is clearly useful, there's a push in the USA -- as well as Australia, Canada, and elsewhere -- to support and reinforce electronic ID schemes already in use by private firms. The idea is that mobile network operators, banks, and retailers can set up shop as "identity providers". Online users can then call on a provider to validate identity, instantly, when dealing online with other firms, or when dealing with public services.

America's National Strategy for Trusted Identities in Cyberspace (NSTIC), a government initiative begun in 2011, aims to nudge several hundred companies into agreeing on common standards to give such an identity market the chance to take off. NSTIC has been recently funding pilot projects; Jeremy Grant, one of its leaders, hopes that by 2016 half of all Americans will be using multipurpose logins issued by participating firms. This year, the UK is also setting up a more limited scheme named "ID Assurance", which will let citizens use logins from PayPal, Verizon, the Post Office and five other firms to sign into government websites. The firms will earn small fees each time someone logs on with the credentials they have issued, while the state will save money by not having to perform the checks itself.

The difference between these new schemes and the way things are currently done on, say, Google or Twitter, is that in the new order, users will have to validate their identity at the outset with rigorous checks. In addition, current account schemes are not private, often being mined for marketing data; the new order will have privacy rules. The authorities in America and Britain emphasize that the new ID schemes will be optional, and that users alone will decide which data are shared, and who it can be shared with.

Of course, that means an end to anonymity, but that's not entirely a bad thing. There's too many people online who like to make nuisances of themselves, often working through dummy names AKA "sock puppets" as concealment. There are good reasons to hide one's identity; there are also plenty of dishonest reasons to do so. Like it or not, workable online ID is the coming thing. It's going to take some time to assess its virtues and defects, but over the long run the issues are going to be worked out.



* CHINA DOES SPACE SCIENCE (3): Preliminary reviews have been performed on Chinese space science missions to follow those now in development, with these new missions being considered for the next five-year plan. One is the "X-Ray Timing & Polarization (XTP)" telescope, the brainchild of CAS's Institute of High-Energy physics. XTP will be the lead effort in the "Astro-Oscillations Program" and will be much more capable than the HXMT, with bigger mirrors and a bigger detector. It will observe high energy events in the environs of neutron stars and black holes. At present, it's seen as a purely Chinese project, but there are conversations with Germany about a team-up. The Germans, with their traditional craftsmanship in optical gear, would be able to provide a much better mirror than the Chinese could make for themselves.

Chinese astronomers have a strong interest in radio astronomy, focused heavily on "very long baseline interferometry (VLBI)", in which an array of radio telescopes scattered over different locations are ganged together to provide resolution equivalent to a radio telescope with a diameter of the separation between the elements of the radio telescope array. China currently has a four-element VLBI network, with two of these telescopes working with the European VLBI Network three times a year. China wants to launch space radio telescopes to extend the network over a far larger baseline, following in the footsteps of Japan -- which operated a space-augmented array from 1997 to 2002 -- and Russia -- which launched the "Spektr-R" satellite in 2011 to collaborate with Russian ground-based radio telescopes.

China's proposed space array would consist of two radio telescopes, each ten meters (33 feet) in diameter and operating in the long millimeter wavelengths of the radio spectrum. One of the major objectives of the mission would be to obtain high-resolution maps of the radio emissions of galactic cores, where supermassive black holes are believed to lurk. Major technical challenges include high pointing accuracy to make sure the satellites can zero in on a cosmic target, and high bandwidth datalinks to handle the data streams returned by the satellites. The Shanghai Astronomical Observatory is investigating the scheme, and is interested in international collaboration. A follow-on effort would place millimeter-wave radio telescopes into space to obtain even finer resolution.

A third concept being investigated by Chinese astronomers is their own solar polar probe, the "Solar Polar Orbit Radio Telescope (SPORT)", following in the footsteps of the US-ESA "Ulysses" spacecraft flown in 1990. Like Ulysses, SPORT would be launched to Jupiter for a gravity transfer to shoot the spacecraft into a orbit at a high inclination to the ecliptic plane of the Solar System, obtaining a topside view of solar events such as coronal mass ejections. Finally, the "Magnetosphere, Ionosphere, & Thermosphere (MIT)" mission, another effort being considered by NSSC, would launch a constellation of satellites to observe particle flows in near-Earth space.

The current plan is to fund three space science missions after 2015. Money isn't a real issue, but interactions with colleagues elsewhere, particularly from the USA, are problematic. The fact that the Chinese space program is the child of the PLA makes interactions difficult, though the NSSC and the US National Academy of Sciences are in conversations to see if matters can be improved.

The barriers to Chinese participation in the space programs of other nations have had advantages for Chinese space science, however. Chinese researchers are finding that the Tiangong-1 mini space station offers them many more possibilities for conducting studies than they would have had if China had become a partner in the International Space Station. In 2010, CAS founded the Technology & Engineering Center for Space Utilization in Beijing to direct science studies on Tiangong-1 and its successors, essentially working for the PLA's China Manned Space Engineering Office, which runs the station program.

Chinese researchers are working on a range of projects to fly on a space station, including an atomic clock, a materials studies furnace, and a plant tissue culture apparatus. Astrophysicists also have a stake in the station, since it will host an experiment named POLAR -- a gamma-ray burst detector, being built in collaboration with Swiss researchers, to fly on the Tiangong-2 station in 2014 as another experiment in the Black Hole Probe Program. POLAR will be able to determine gamma ray polarization, an important clue to understanding gamma ray bursts. Other work is focusing on a high-energy cosmic radiation detector and an optical sky survey telescope.

next-generation Chinese space station

The Tiangong stations are minimal, being the most that the current Long March 3 booster can put into orbit. Once the powerful Long March 5 booster is available, China expects to loft heavier space stations that will provide even more opportunities for research. Chinese researchers are enthusiastic about the possibilities of space station platforms, one saying that they expect to find substantial clues to the nature of the mysterious dark energy that may, or may not, permeate the cosmos: "We have an opportunity to discover some revolutionary physics." [TO BE CONTINUED]



* SAN DIEGO ROAD TRIP (9): On Thursday 11 October, my prime targets were the Birch aquarium at Scripps Institute in La Jolla, then Legoland in Carlsbad, further up the road. The aquarium wouldn't open until 9:00 AM, so I went to the Target to replenish my supply of Pepsis then went downtown to try planespotting on the approach path. It was workable, I had good range and line of sight on the airliners coming in, but when I checked them later they were too backlit to be worthwhile.

Being a midsized airport, San Diego was also operating fairly familiar aircraft -- Boeing 737s, Airbus A320s, Bombardier DASH-8 / Q400s; I was hoping to get a Beech 1900D airliner, a glorified Super King Air, lacking that aircraft in my photo collection, but no such luck. I figured the shooting might work out well in the evening when the lighting was better, but I never got the opportunity. Incidentally, while I was driving downtown via Pacific Highway, I ended up behind a taxicab with the logo: TIME CAB. Maybe it could take me to 1941? Naw, it wasn't a DeLorean.

Getting to La Jolla was fairly easy, though I once again made a wrong turn, and once again made a quick recovery. It was getting to be something of a habit. The Birch aquarium is a nice facility, with a fountain out front featuring two full-scale statues of baleen whales leaping up into the sky, and a one-level aquarium building with two wings. The north wing had a set of aquarium exhibits -- nothing as theatrical as those at Sea World, instead featuring carefully set-up reefs and kelp forests and the like. I took many pictures with my zoom camera, finding later that the low-light mode gave outstanding results.

The south wing was fitted with a set of environmental displays of the sort that would give a Green-basher fits. There wasn't much of interest for me there one way or another, except for a tank of weedy sea dragons -- sea horses with camouflage to resemble seaweeds -- that I took a handful of photos of. That done, I got directions from one of the staff on how best to get back on the freeway to go north to Carlsbad.

weedy sea dragon

It poured rain on me as I was driving north, which was definitely not encouraging. I stopped at a filling station once I got there to eat a candy bar and drink a Pepsi so I was fueled up for visiting the theme park, and in the meantime the rain faded out. It would be sunny in an hour, though billowing clouds marking the blue skies suggested the possibility of more rain. Didn't happen, though.

* I made yet another wrong turn going to Legoland, which surprised me, because I assumed it would be well-marked. I didn't even spot a sign on Interstate 5. As I found out later, I was going in the back way; I used exit 47 when I should have used exit 48. Anyway, I recovered as usual and found the place, driving into the parking lot. As I was going into the facility I notice an oversized double-decker touring bus -- very impressive piece of machinery, I had to do a walk-around and get shots of it.

They didn't have automated ticket kiosks and I ended up stuck behind a family group, some black folk, who were having a difficulty with a coupon or whatever they'd printed out that didn't seem to mesh with the system. The ticket clerk, after making some phone calls, referred them to the nearby customer service window; I got my ticket and went inside. No, I don't feel self-conscious about preferring automated ticket kiosks. No muss, no fuss, no waiting.

The first thing I visited was a videogame arcade. There were rows of consoles; I tried one but I quickly realized it would take some time to pick up the game, so I gave up. They did have a set of Xbox 360 / Kinect games, however, and since I had never played with a Kinect I had to give it a try. The game involved riding a raft down rapids and collecting points, with me skipping back and forth, jumping up and down to grab balls with scores marked on them. It actually gave me a pretty good workout and got me to thinking I might want to buy an XBox 360 / Kinect for myself.

I then went past the LEGO TECHNIC coaster, which looked interesting -- but it was closed, possibly because of the weather. I went over to the LOST KINGDOM ADVENTURE ride instead, which was one of these "crazy house / laser tag" attractions on a Lego-Egyptian theme -- only mildly fun -- but there was another coaster, the DRAGON, nearby, and so I got in line there. They were having some technical difficulties, so the line went slowly; I was halfway through when I realized that the same German-speaking family I had met yesterday on the tour boat was in the hairpin of the queue alongside me. I said: "Hello! Enjoying your vacation?"

They stared at me for a moment and started laughing: "Oh, it's the fellow from the tour boat!" I replied: "It's a small world, but I wouldn't want to paint it."

The DRAGON proved an okay conventional coaster, not too tame, but not very challenging. As it would turn out, it was actually one of the few rides at Legoland that was challenging at all. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* Space launches for January included:

-- 15 JAN 13 / COSMOS 2482, 2483, & 2484 -- A Rockot booster was launched from the Plesetsk Northern Cosmodrome in Russia at 1625 UTC / 2025 local time to put three secret military payloads into orbit. The payloads were designated "Cosmos 2482", "Cosmos 2483", and "Cosmos 2484"; they were believed to be "Rodnik" class low-orbit comsats.

-- 27 JAN 13 / IGS x 2 -- A Japanese H-2A booster was launched from Tanegashima Island at 0440 UTC / 1340 local time to put an "Information Gathering Satellite (IGS)" radar-imaging military surveillance satellite into orbit, along with a testbed IGS carrying an optical payload.

-- 30 JAN 13 / STSAT 2C -- A "Korea Space Launch Vehicle (KSLV) 1" booster was launched from Naro Space Flight Center in South Korea at 0700 UTC / 1600 local time to put the "Science and Technology Satellite 2C (STSAT 2C)" technology demonstration spacecraft into orbit. The KSLV 1 rocket used a Russian liquid-fuel first stage and a Korean solid-fuel upper stage. This was the third KSLV 1 launch, the previous two having been failures.

-- 31 JAN 13 / TDRS K -- An Atlas 5 booster was launched from Cape Canaveral at 0148 UTC / 2048 (30 JAN) local time to put the NASA "Tracking & Data Relay Satellite (TDRS) K" geostationary space operations support satellite into orbit. It was the first of the third-generation TDRS spacecraft.

TDRS K launch

* OTHER SPACE NEWS: One of the big problems with crewed deep space missions is that astronauts spending years in space will be exposed to unhealthy levels of cosmic radiation. NASA is now working with a startup company, Advanced Magnet Laboratories of Palm Bay, Florida, to investigate a magnetic shielding scheme.

The investigation's baseline assumption involves shielding a space habitat 6 meters in diameter and 10 meters long (19.6 x 32.8 feet). The shield would consist of six flexible kevlar tubes with superconducting tape coiled around the inside of each tube. The tube set would be launched separately from the habitat and the tubes then arranged around it; once activated, electromagnetic forces would expand them to their "inflated" configuration. The habitat itself would have a "compensator coil" to null out any strong magnetic fields penetrating the walls. The coils would not provide shielding at the ends of the module; the ends would instead be protected by a propulsion module at one end and a docking / space capsule module at the other.

The investigation is just a paper study, the intent being to theoretically validate the scheme for possible further investigation. Even if it seems workable, it's not around the corner, since at present it would be difficult to produce the "kilometers" of superconducting tape required for a single set of shields.

BEAM module at ISS

* The inflatable space station modules being developed by the Bigelow company of Las Vegas, Nevada, have been discussed here in the past. NASA has now awarded a contract to Bigelow for a "Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM)" to be launched to the International Space Station (ISS) no earlier than 2015. The BEAM module will be attached to an ISS port and then inflated, to be initially used for tests instead for habitation.

The BEAM module, inflated, will be about 4 meters long and 3 meters in diameter (13 x 10 feet) and will have a volume of about 15.9 cubic meters (560 cubic feet). A NASA animation shows it being carried by a SpaceX Dragon cargo capsule as a disk inserted into the bottom of the capsule, to yanked out by an ISS robot arm and then plugged into the station for inflation.



* SKYRIDES FOR URBAN TRANSPORT: The aerial cable car system set up for the London Olympics was discussed briefly here in 2008. As discussed by WIRED Online blogs, aerial cable cars may seem like little more than a theme-park ride, but it's a practical means of moving people along fixed point-to-point routes in dense urban areas, particularly where rivers, valleys, and major altitude differentials make ground routes problematic. They're in use in a number of cities -- not just London, but also Singapore, Hong Kong, across the East River in New York City, and Portland, Oregon.

cable cars for public transit

The city of Austin, Texas, had considered setting up 8 kilometers (5 miles) of light rail, with an estimated cost of $550 million USD. In light of the sticker shock Frog Design, a San Francisco firm with a base in Austin, has proposed a cable car system named the "Wire". A Frog Design official named Michael McDaniel commented: "A gondola can be put in for $12 million a mile. It's a fraction of the cost because you're not looking at eminent domain or rights of way, and you're not disrupting local businesses or cutting out vehicular traffic."

McDaniel added: "Rail is relegated to where real estate is available. If you look at light rail in cities, you're talking about tearing out lanes that are currently used by cars. Just 15 to 20 feet above the ground, you can start layering [transport] conduits through cities. Keep your surface level as is, and have a whole other method of transit on a different level."

The Wire would feature detachable cars that could easily be added to a cable during peak hours and yanked once the rush was over. It would feature combination of elevated and surface stops, providing connection nodes between urban neighborhoods and downtown. Stops would be linked into to bike- and car-sharing programs, so a commuter could jump between different modes of transit in order to complete a journey.

One major advantage to cable cars is that they run continuously. McDaniel commented: "You wouldn't have a train schedule -- they just come in intervals. If you don't like the creepy guy in one car, you just wait 30 seconds for the next one." Austin has not committed to the Wire, but city officials are certainly giving it serious consideration.

* USA LOVES BIKESHARING: Another familiar transport technology that has been getting a boost in the 21st century is the bicycle, thanks to bike sharing program -- discussed in some detail here in 2011. As reported by WIRED Online blogs, bikesharing become established in a big way in the USA, with 29 cities setting up rent-to-ride systems since 2008, and other cities such as New York, Los Angeles, and Forth Worth planning to join in. Bicycle-sharing concepts actually go back for decades, but they usually fell prey to vandalism and theft. Low-cost bicycle tracking technology changed the equation, with even better security to be expected down the road.

Saint Paul does bikesharing

The most prominent such share system in the USA at present is Capital Bikeshare of Washington DC. It started up in 2010 with 1,100 bikes; now it has 1,670 bikes and 175 pick-up / drop-off stations. A 2011 member survey indicated that roughly half of the members drove less by using the bikes, cutting their time in cars by about 20 hours or more. Typical annual fees are about $75 USD, a bargain compared to the alternative means of transportation for urban users who commute a great deal.

Minneapolis officials say they set up their system, Nice Ride Minnesota, with 700 bikes for $3.2 million USD -- compared, if along the lines of apples and oranges, with the average $60 million USD cost to build a mile of urban highway. The bike networks don't seem to be undermining bicycle sales either, data showing that the programs tend to increase bike sales.



* BULLETPROOF: As reported by an article from WIRED Online blogs ("Pentagon Looks To Fix 'Pervasive Vulnerability' in Drones" by Noah Schachtman, 31 December 2012), the US military has become increasingly dependent on drone aircraft -- only to find out that the flying robots suffer from unpleasantly high loss rates. Of course there's various factors involved, but a particularly troublesome one is buggy software.

The US military's "blue sky" research and development organization, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), is concerned. Computer scientist Dr. Kathleen Fisher of Tufts University in Massachusetts, for the time being a DARPA program manager, said that the control algorithms for US drones are written in a fundamentally insecure manner. Security is a problem with software in general, but when we find a problem with an applications program we run on our PC, we can generally cope with it by downloading a patch. That doesn't work very well for a drone control system, since making changes in software tends to mean testing the aircraft all over again.

Worse, although it was once assumed that drones and other military systems weren't vulnerable to malware -- they weren't connected to the internet, after all -- that assumption has been challenged by new, sophisticated malware, for example that which attacked Iran's nuclear materials processing system. According to Fisher, many military software systems "share a common structure: They have an insecure cyber perimeter, constructed from standard software components, surrounding control systems designed for safety but not for security."

Fisher is working to deal with the problem, being in charge of the "High-Assurance Cyber Military Systems (HACMS)" program, a $60 million USD, four-year effort to develop a new, secure way of coding, and then run that software on drones and ground robots. It's a big challenge. It would nice if we could come up with some universal software checking system that would spot flaws in programs, but that's setting the target impossibly high. As the computer science pioneer Alan Turing showed in 1936, it's impossible to write a program that can always tell if another program will never halt, given a particular input. Turing managed to show that such a program necessarily involves a logical contradiction; it can't be done.

However, if a "universal checker" is impossible, it is possible to verify a specific software system. It's just really tough to do. One group of researchers in Australia, for example, checked the core of their "microkernel", the heart of an operating system, and took about 11 person-years of effort to verify the 8,000 lines of code. Fisher is funding researchers at MIT and Yale who think they can figure out a better way, as one push in HACMS' five research efforts. Software validated by this process will be tested on a mini-drone helicopter -- an "Arducopter", run by the popular low-cost Arduino controller board -- as well as a full-sized helicopter, a robot ground vehicle, and an SUV.

In another facet of the program, Fisher is sponsoring research into software that can write high-quality code on its own. The idea is to give the software synthesizer a list of specifications about what a particular program must do, and then let the synthesizer come up with the best code for that purpose. That may sound ridiculously optimistic, but DARPA has had some success along such lines in the past. According to Fisher, DARPA conducted a program to write software for a synthetic aperture radar and had a non-expert specify what the software was supposed to do: "It took the system about 24 hours to produce an implementation ... instead of three months [for hand coding] and it ran twice as fast. So -- better, faster and a lower level of expertise. We hope to see things like that."

Fisher understands that it would be impractical to write such a software synthesizer for a package like PowerPoint that can do lots of different things: "By the time you've finished the specifications, you might as well have written the implementation." She points out that the software that controls drones and so on is, somewhat surprisingly, much more straightforward: "The control theory about how you do things with brakes and steering wheels, how you take sensor input and convert it to actions is described by very concise laws of mathematics."

The goal at the end of HACMS is to have the mini-drone helicopter running DARPA's "bullet-proof software"; the other systems being tested will only be partially run by such software. In the other component of HACMS, researchers from Galois INC of Portland, Oregon, will develop a fully-verified, hack-proof software monitor that can watch a drone's autonomous systems -- keeping track of what the control software is doing, but sounding the alarm, possibly handing control back to a human operator. HACMS sounds great in principle, but the past history of computer science is littered with ambitious failures, up against the "iron law" of computer programming: SOFTWARE HAPPENS.



* CHINA DOES SPACE SCIENCE (2): China's space program is unusual in several respects, one being that it is an arm of the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA). In other nations, such as the USA, national space agencies are civilian operations, while military organizations have their own space programs, the two space efforts sometimes collaborating. In China, the PLA runs the whole show. In addition, the PLA is not under the control of the Chinese government; it is under the control of the Chinese Communist Party, which means that organizationally the PLA is a peer of the government.

China pours considerable resources into space. Two state-owned enterprises generally dedicated to space activities employ over 267,000 people. Throw in space-related workers in research and development institutes and universities, and the total number of full-time space workers in China likely exceeds 300,000. However, organizationally China's space program is very opaque and confusing, making it hard to figure out what's going on. China has had successes in space, but space science has clearly not been at the top of the list of priorities.

Following the Double Star exercise, the first Chinese space mission that could be described as scientific in nature was the "Chang'e 1" Moon orbiter, which was successfully launched in 2007, to be followed by a similarly successful "Chang'e 2" Moon orbiter in 2010 -- which also performed an asteroid flyby in late 2012. However, their science payloads were modest, the orbiters being flown basically for national prestige and to acquire experience for future planetary missions. Chinese space scientists were very excited over the launch of the Yinghuo-1 Mars orbiter, only to have their hopes dashed when it never left Earth orbit.

Chang'e 2 Moon orbiter

They have more to set their hopes on. The consensus had been growing that China needs to get more serious about space science, and on 3 May 2011, well before the loss of Fobos-Grunt and Yinghou-1, Wu Ji -- director of the National Space Science Center of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (NSSC CAS) -- announced that CAS was planning a set of space science missions, with a budget of over a half billion USD for the following five years and the NSSC to direct the work. The missions include, in rough order of launch schedule:

China is planning to launch a "Chang'e 3" Moon probe in 2013, which will soft-land a rover on the lunar surface. As with the earlier Chang'e probes. it appears this will be a prestige and engineering effort with no great science payoff. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* SAN DIEGO ROAD TRIP (8): Continuing my exploration of Sea World, I came across the aerial cable car ride. I couldn't recall ever having ridden in one, so I decided to give it a shot. It was a little intimidating to ride so high over the bay, but the view was impressive, providing me with vistas of the park's amphitheater -- sadly, no show was in progress -- and the San Diego skyline. I also got shots of the park's water processing plant, indulging my infrastructure hobby.

aerial cable car ride at Sea World

Next stop was the MANTA roller coaster, passing by a pool of flamingoes on the way. MANTA didn't have a big lift hill and it didn't look very impressive, but appearances were misleading. I strapped into a car and it rolled into a holding section, with aquarium video imagery on the walls. A voice-over gave a preparatory talk, with audio too muddy to understand, and then .... SURGE, gee forces pushing me back in my seat. Oh, it's an electromagnetic-drive coaster, using a linear electromagnetic motor for acceleration. There was a second maglauncher in the middle of the circuit, giving another gee surge, the end result being an impressive high-tech coaster ride.

From there, I visited a decorative Japanese bell in a shrine, and finally to the SHIPWRECK RAPIDS attraction, in which riders were carried around a water circuit in a float like a giant inner tube with seats, being brought back to the top of the circuit by a slatted conveyor, flanked by twin screw pumps. I got into with woman with four kids, three girls and a boy. One of the little girls had problems getting belted in, so I snapped her in place: "Okay, snug it up now." We went around the circuit, getting sprayed by various traps and me generally getting soaked. It was great fun; it was warm, I was dry in about 15 minutes anyway.

That was it for the thrill rides at Sea World. I went past the dolphin pools, but I couldn't get any good shots; fortunately I'd got some excellent shots of dolphins at Sea World Orlando during my visit there. I did a quick trip back to the ray tank at the ATLANTIS ride to get some final shots lest the ones I took earlier didn't pan out, and then took my exit. I was very pleased with the visit to Sea World, the weather being perfect and there being more to it than I was expecting.

ray tank at Sea World

My pocket camera worked out well. It's a Canon PowerShot A1200, with 12 megapixel resolution. It was a bit of a puzzle why I bought it; a few weeks earlier, I realized I also had a PowerShot A1000, with 10 megapixel resolution, very similar to the A1200 but a bit older. I checked my purchase records on Amazon.com and I'd bought the A1200 less than two years after buying the A1000. I couldn't recall why I felt the need to buy a marginally better pocket camera -- but on tinkering with the A1200 around Sea World, I realized that it had a low-light mode, ganging up pixels to give 2 megapixel resolution. It's very useful to be able to take indoor shots without a flash, and in fact if I can find a camera with higher low-light resolution, I'd probably buy it immediately.

Anyway, getting back to the motel was a nuisance; Interstate 5 was okay, but the offramp to Rosecrans street was clogged. I did notice a Target store not far from the motel as I was inching down the ramp, so when I got to the motel I asked the desk clerk where it was. It was basically just around the corner, the only question being exactly how to find the corner in that tangle of streets.

I got my day's spending logged and then went to the Target to get a long-sleeved white tee shirt for the airshow to keep me from frying in the sun, there rarely being much shade wandering around on an airfield. The Target also had a mini-mart section -- household goods and processed foods only, no produce or meat section or bakery -- so I got a six-pack of Snickers candy bars as well. It's nice to have a store conveniently nearby when on a visit elsewhere. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* SCIENCE NOTES: Just how much genome sequencing has advanced since the turn of the century was demonstrated this last December, when the British government unveiled a plan to completely sequence the genomes of 100,000 Britons with cancer or rare diseases. 100 million pounds, about $160 million USD, has been set aside for the project, which is expected to take up to five years. The latest genome sequencing technology makes the project practical, but it is faced with a huge challenge in converting the floods of genomic data that will result into usable information.

* As mentioned here in the past, last in 2011, many species of cuckoo birds are "nest parasites", laying their eggs in the nests of other birds for the other birds to raise. This has led to an "evolutionary arms race" between cuckoos and the birds they parasitize, with measures leading to countermeasures.

As reported by Babbage, THE ECONOMIST's science-technology blogger, the Australian fairy wren has come up with a fairly effective countermeasure: it can recognize its own fledglings from their distinctive begging calls, and won't feed a fledgling with a call it doesn't recognize. This is not news, naturalists have known about it for some time, the only question is whether it is an instinctive or learned behavior.

Australian fairy wren

Researchers from Flinders University in Australia, while investigating fairy wren calls in general, found that it was a learned behavior, at least on the part of the chicks. The wren has a 15-day incubation cycle; the investigators found that the momma bird would usually start singing to its unhatched brood on day nine or ten, then stop whenever the eggs hatch. The call has distinctive variations between individual wrens; using microphones placed in nests, the researchers found that the chicks used the same call as that drilled into them by the mother while they were still in the shell. Furthermore, if the brood didn't give the correct call, the parent wrens would abandon the nest. There was some concern that the match between calls was due to genetic affinity and not learning, but the researchers swapped eggs around between nests and found that the chicks tracked the calls of the wren that incubated them.

In other words, the wrens have acquired a sort of "password protection". However, cuckoos have come up with a counter-countermeasure, with their chicks trying out a range of different calls, and then settling on the one that gets them fed. The wrens will give the chicks in the nest the benefit of the doubt before giving up the nest, and so they only recognize the cuckoo chick about 40% of the time.

* THE ECONOMIST reports that a bit of alarm has been going around concerning what might be called the "anorexic underground", a loose network that encourages youngsters to get thin, proclaiming anorexia a "lifestyle choice" and not a disorder. Websites give girls hints on how to hide weight loss from parents and doctors, with members posting to forums on how little they eat.

As the underground has become more visible, it has been increasingly suppressed, nobody wanting to be seen as an accessory in the deaths of anorexic youngsters. Facebook has been deleting pro-anorexic pages since 2008, and photo-sharing sites have been increasingly giving the axe to "thinspirational" imagery. However, many working to help anorexics don't think censorship is the answer, since it's just too easy to find ways to network, and feel that coming down on anorexics will just make them harder to reach. A smarter approach is being pursued by "Proud2BMe", a Dutch-American website that promotes body confidence, founded in 2009 by an ex-anorexic to give anorexics support, while not encouraging them to wreck their health.

This item attracted my attention because I'm just above the threshold of anorexic myself. I've always been thin as a rail, and with some effort maintain my weight at the same level it was forty years ago. I like it that way, and I feel perfectly healthy -- but I know if my weight suddenly started to fall off abruptly, I might find myself in big trouble.



* BEHAVIOR MOD: As reported by an article from BUSINESS WEEK ("Scaring India To Save It" by David Shaftel, 29 October 2012), India's struggle to come into the 21st century is presented with challenges on many fronts. One of the most basic turns out to be changing public mindsets.

That may sound like an Orwellian proposition, but it's being driven by necessity. Mumbai's suburban rail network has had a serious problem with locals being careless in running across train tracks, with a staggering 6,000 people being gruesomely killed a year. The city transit authorities brought in a market consulting firm named FinalMile -- which has provided services to major Indian firms and international firms working in India -- to fix matters.

FinalMile started by changing the warning signs at Mumbai's Wadala central station to make them more graphic, the signs showing a screaming man being run down by a train. The firm also found out that train operational procedures were faulty: train engineers tended to blast their horns too far away from the station, and people were inclined to miss the warning because it blended in with Mumbai's normal noise background. FinalMile's researchers suggested that engineers give several short blasts closer to the station. The result was a decline of fatalities at Wadala from 40 dead in 2009 to 10 in 2010. The national rail system has since enlisted FinalMile to improve safety at 16,000 rail crossings; Indian drivers have a tendency to try to beat trains to a crossing, with trains only too often winning the contest.

FinalMile co-founder Biju Dominic calls himself and his partners "behavioral architects". They say that Indians are prone to antisocial behaviors because traditionally Indians have lived in an environment of scarcity, a lack of resources and opportunities, and tend to suffer from what Dominic calls an "empathy gap": "We have this idea that whatever little space I get, whatever little opportunity comes my way, I need to make the most of it rather than give it away, because for the longest time we've been used to limited resources." The result is aggressive driving, line cutting, and the pushing and shoving to get on board trains and buses before they've come to a complete stop that characterizes a typical Mumbai commute.

FinalMile's approach to improving safety owes much to the concept of a "risk thermostat", a concept devised by John Adams, emeritus professor of geography at University College London and author of the influential book RISK. According to Adams: "In order to be safe, you need to feel in danger."

FinalMile has been addressing other problems as well. Indian road safety is a particular challenge, Adams pointing out that in undeveloped nations the more impoverished drivers tend to be fatalistic about risk, while the richer ones are careless about the "chickens, pigs, and peasants" they encounter on the road. FinalMile has presented a plan to the Maharashta state government in which computer driving games are used to teach drivers defensive driving.

In another effort, FinalMile has been tackling the problem of tuberculosis patients dropping their drug regimen after they start feeling okay -- which not only usually results in a relapse, but also encourages the evolution of antibiotic-resistant TB. One angle is to put a photo of the patient in a sick state on the bottle of antibiotics as a reminder of what might happen to them if they forget to take their medicine.

In yet another project, FinalMile came up with a scheme to help improve sanitation in a New Delhi slum, where residents traditionally just threw their trash anywhere. As a pilot exercise, FinalMile had residents of an alley install a plastic bracket outside their homes, with the bracket used to hang a grocery bag. Placards on top of the bracket show citizens putting their trash in the bag, then putting it in a dumpster. The area went clean. How permanent the change will be remains to be seen; as Adams warns, such encouragements become less effective as people get used to them. However, it is just as much an option that, having pointed out better ways of doing things, people will decide they like doing things better.



* MINUTES AS MONEY: Money is a technology, one that can emerge in surprising ways. As discussed by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("Airtime Is Money", 19 January 2013), Africans have become handy at performing transactions with mobile phone airtime minutes.

Africans do now have access to formal "mobile money" services, the best-known being Kenya's MPESA, most recently discussed in a series run here in 2011 -- but before MPESA and its clones appeared, Africans were conducting business in airtime minutes, and the custom persists. Prepaid minutes can be swapped for cash or spent in shops most easily in Cote d'Ivoire, Egypt, Ghana and Uganda, according to Chris Chan of Tranglo, a Malaysian firm that facilitates "airtime remittances" to mobile phones.

Airtime is commonly used as money in Nigeria, largely because the government has been unfriendly to mobile money services, but it's also being used as currency in tech-friendly Kenya. Airtime has a number of advantages:

In Zimbabwe, the corrupt government has printed Zimbabwean dollars at a rate that has driven the value of the currency into a bottomless pit, and so American currency, which the government can't really control, has taken over. However, there aren't enough US dollars to go around, so Zimbabweans have become accustomed to performing transactions in airtime minutes. Shopkeepers have become enthusiastic for airtime, having previously used the classic informal currency, penny candies, to make change. Yo!Time, a Harare-based start-up that facilitates such airtime payouts, now processes more than 9,000 payouts a day for clients; six months ago the figure was 2,000.

What makes airtime minutes far superior to penny candy is the growing ease of sending minutes abroad. A Dublin firm named ezetop, for example, sells airtime for 238 telecoms firms via the web, text messaging, and about 450,000 shops in 20 countries. It is estimated that the value of international airtime transfers has doubled from $350 million USD in 2011 to $700 million in 2012.

While the use of airtime minutes as currency is a testimony to human ingenuity and practicality, there are worries about the practice. The first is that mobile network operators are now effectively issuing a sort of currency, and can control its exchange rate by how much they charge for minutes: "What could go wrong?" And of course, the anonymous nature of financial transactions in airtime minutes makes such schemes attractive to criminals and violent extremists.

The Financial Action Task Force (FATF), a Paris-based intergovernmental body, believes there are groups that buy airtime scratch-off cards in one country and sell the airtime minutes in another. The FATF has uncovered dozens of such "suspicious" transactions and plans to issue guidelines, presumably to ask countries and companies to track buyers and sellers more carefully. Transfer caps on airtime minutes are likely to be lowered as well. However, even if the rules ensure that airtime minutes can't be used for large transactions, they'll still be useful for small ones. Beats using penny candy.



* CHINA DOES SPACE SCIENCE (1): As reported by an article from AAAS SCIENCE ("A New Dawn For China's Space Scientists" by Richard Stone, 29 June 2012), China's space program seems to be going from strength to strength, with China not only lofting communications, navigation, and observation satellites -- but also putting spacefarers, "taikonauts", into orbit in Shenzhou space capsules to visit China's Tiangong 1 mini space station. China has, however, lagged in performing science in space. China's military-dominated space program has been focused on practical applications and, more recently, on crewed space spectaculars; space science has been given the short end of the stick.


To date, China has done very little space science, the only prominent examples being the Double Star satellites -- a pair of Chinese satellites, developed in collaboration with the European Space Agency, which performed studies of the magnetic fields around the Earth in space from 2003 to 2007 -- and the Yinghuo-1 Mars orbiter, which was to accompany the Russian Fobos-Grunt probe in a 2011 launch of a Russian booster that didn't leave Earth orbit. Now that's changing significantly, with Chinese space scientists looking forward to a set of missions:

China's space program has, to a degree, American roots. In the 1940s Qian Xuesen -- then known in English as Tsien Hsue-Shen -- was one of the founders of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, and helped evaluate the materials provided by German rocket engineer Wernher von Braun after he surrendered to the Americans. Qian was highly regarded by his JPL peers, but although the Americans embraced von Braun despite his Nazi-tainted past, in 1950 Qian was be blackballed due to the Red Scare, to live under house arrest for five years until being deported back to China.

The Chinese were glad to have him, and he became one of the founding fathers of China's rocket program. At the outset, the focus was on weapons, work on space technology being sidelined by the need to develop long-range missiles. In 1965, however, Qian handed Chinese leadership a report that outlined the importance of space technology for strategically important roles such as reconnaissance and communications. The leadership was receptive and China's space researchers worked towards putting a satellite into orbit. It wasn't easy, since China had no real access to either American or Soviet space technology, but by 1969 China was able to perform its first attempt to put a satellite into orbit.

That exercise failed, but China succeeded in putting its first satellite, "DongFangHong (East Is Red) 1" or "DFH-1" into orbit on 24 April 1970, making it the fifth country to send its own payload into space. DFH-1 was a simple satellite, but it was a meter in diameter, well larger than the first satellites orbited by the other four space powers, suggesting Chinese ambitions. China then worked towards crewed space missions, but it was unrealistic at the time, demanding too much experience that China didn't have. In 1975 work on crewed missions was put on the back burner, with Chinese space development focusing on satellites for practical applications.

Having acquired experience in space, the notion of Chinese crewed space missions was revived in 1986, with work beginning in earnest in 1992 -- the year Qian retired as chief spacecraft designer, to be replaced by Qi Faren. The first, uncrewed, Shenzhou capsule was flown in 1999, with Shenzhou 5 then putting China's first taikonaut, Yang Liwei, into orbit in 2003. Further Shenzhou launches led to the flight of Tiangong 1 in 2011, giving Shenzhou taikonauts their own little home in the sky as a stepping stone to bigger ones. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* SAN DIEGO ROAD TRIP (7): The San Diego harbor tour ended at 11:00 AM. I decided to drop by at the motel before I went to Sea World since it was on the way; I wanted to drink a cherry Pepsi -- I'm addicted to them -- since I was a little dehydrated; change my long-sleeve turtleneck for a short-sleeve crew shirt, since it had got warm; and tend to my feet, having picked up another blister, one which would be particularly sore and troublesome.

Getting over to Sea World proved a little tricky. It was sited off Rosecrans street, which is a pain to drive; it appears that Rosecrans deals with far more traffic than it was ever intended to support, resulting in pack-ups. Getting around San Diego is not very difficult, no worse than Denver and possibly easier. However, every town of any size has its traffic traps, Rosecrans was one of San Diego's, and I found that the faster I got off Rosecrans, the better off I was. I got to Sea World Drive, but I made a wrong turn and found myself headed for I-5 northbound; the only option I had was to turn off, to find myself right back where I started on Rosecrans.

I got to Sea World after only a few minutes of delay. They nicked me $15 USD for parking, which was also a bit annoying, but nothing more than I expected -- theme parks are money machines and run accordingly. After parking, I sorted out my kit for the park visit. I couldn't carry around my big camera since it would be an encumbrance on thrill rides, so I used my pocket camera instead. My kit bag was no good either, so I bundled up my loose items in a plastic bag to put in my pocket, ensuring I wouldn't lose anything on a roller coaster. Another trick I'd thought of just before I left Loveland was to cut a half-dozen 3x5 cards in half, then use one of the half cards to draw up a simple parking-lot map to put in my wallet.

Anyway, I went to the park entrance and got a ticket, again using a touchscreen kiosk to make the purchase. It was a fine day for a visit, not too hot, not too cool, light crowds. The grounds were very nicely set up, with plenty of flower gardens and other eye candy. I first made my way over to the ATLANTIS ride, the most visible on the site. It's a roller coaster of sorts, with a "boat" hauled up a lift hill and dropped down a sluice to splash through a pond. The boat is then hauled up an elevator to fall down a short coaster loop and splash through a sluice at the end.

It was okay, nothing spectacular; I was more interested in the tank of rays swimming about in the attraction building, getting as many shots as I could, pressing the camera up to the window of the tank to eliminate reflections. I was also interested in a facility alongside the building to allow people who got too wet to dry off -- for five dollars. Like I said, theme parks are money machines. The driers had sort of a sci-fi appearance, looking something like transporter beam booths.

The next attraction was the Arctic exhibit, which I had been tempted to pass up because I recalled the one at Sea World Orlando was nothing much. I did go in and didn't regret it. Working my way through rooms and corridors decorated in "Arctic ice station" props, I found a pool accommodating belouga whales. I'd seen belougas before, but never got very good shots of them; however, it was feeding time, and I managed to get a score of excellent shots of a keeper passing them handfuls of fish. I told the attendant: "This is worth the price of admission in itself!"

belouga whales

There was also a snoozing polar bear and I got a shot of it, but I've taken much better pictures of such. I made my way through the sea turtle and penguin galleries, which were okay, though I didn't manage to pick up good shots. The penguins had access to the outdoors and they were having some sort of party outside -- standing in a group, flapping their flipper wings, and vocalizing like miniature foghorns. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* GIMMICKS & GADGETS: As mentioned here in the past, a surprisingly large fraction of the world's food ends up being thrown out as it goes bad. As reported by BBC WORLD Online, bread is a particular offender in this way, since it tends to go moldy very soon, typically in about ten days. A US firm named Microzap has developed a microwave treatment that the company claims can treat bread to prevent it from going moldy for two months.

The firm has a prototype microwave unit on the campus of Texas Tech University in Lubbock. It uses the same technology as a home microwave, but it is enhanced to ensure uniform heating of the target, with no relatively hot or cool spots. Ten seconds of exposure will kill mold spores in the bread. According to Don Stull, boss of Microzap: "We treated a slice of bread in the device, we then checked the mold that was in that bread over time against a control. And at 60 days it had the same mold content as it had when it came out of the oven."

Bakeries are interested in the device. Stull suggests that it would reduce the need for preservatives, resulting in tastier bread. He adds that the same technique can be used for a very wide range of foods, not merely to reduce spoilage but also dangers from contamination from salmonella and other microorganisms that cause food poisoning.

* As reported by BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK Charles Huang, one of the creators of the popular GUITAR HERO game, wants to expand high-end gaming to portable devices, primarily smartphones. To be sure, smartphones already support a wide range of games, ANGRY BIRDS being the best-known, but Huang sees a smartphone as the equivalent of a game console in one's pocket.

His startup firm, Green Throttle Games of Santa Clara, California, is planning to introduce a handheld game controller in 2013 that will link up to an Android smartphone via Bluetooth link; the firm is also lining up game titles to play with it, including some being developed by Green Throttle. Hook up the smartphone via its HDMI port to a TV, and then game on. Two controllers can be used for competitive play. Huang says a controller will cost less than $50 USD.

Nvidia Shield

In related news Nvidia Corporation, best known as a maker of graphics processing chips, has unveiled a handheld gaming named the "Shield". It looks like two-handed game controller with buttons, triggers, and joysticks, along with a clamshell lid with a color display. That doesn't sound particularly innovative, but the Shield actually runs Android 4.0, so in effect it's a mini-tablet with a game interface, able to run tablet games. It can also link up with a high-res display and a PC for more aggressive gameplay. It's a neat idea, though ultimately price will determine whether it flies or not in the competitive market for handheld game boxes.

* WIRED ONLINE blogs reports that University of Utah engineering students have turned out an electric bus, with an induction charger on the belly. The idea is that an induction charging system will be installed in the street at each bus stop, the charger dumping 25 kilowatts of electricity into the bus with at least 90% transfer efficiency. The bus would be able to run all day even with a relatively small battery pack. Too far out? Similar bus systems are already in service in Italy and the Netherlands.



* ROBOTIC RESUPPLY CONTINUED: As reported by AVIATION WEEK ("Smart Resupply" by Graham Warwick, 5 November 2012, even with funding cutbacks the US military continues to be very interested in using robot helicopters to resupply troops in the field, a subject discussed here last September. The US Office of Naval Research (ONR) is now conducting an "Autonomous Aerial Cargo Utility Systems (AACUS)" investigation, heading for an initial demonstration in 2014 in which teams headed by Aurora Flight Sciences and Lockheed Martin will show how a minimally-trained soldier can use a smartphone app to call up an unmanned resupply helicopter. The robot helicopter will pick out a landing site, deal with obstacles and threats, land to be unloaded, and then take off -- with a reaction time in minutes, handling everything autonomously.

After the 2014 fly-off, the winning team will port their AACUS system to a different helicopter and repeat the demo in 2015 to meet the program goal of developing a "platform-agnostic" capability. In other words, the ONR isn't focused on developing a robot helicopter, but instead on development of a mission and flight control system that could be easily fitted into any helicopter.

Further demonstrations will be conducted to the end of the program in 2017, with the system presented with increasingly challenging environments -- including bad weather and "brownout" conditions, in which dust thrown up by the rotor blinds the helicopter -- while improving reaction time. Since helicopters are easy targets on the battlefield, the AACUS system will have to quickly guide a rotorcraft to a landing, then get it out of the area just as quickly once it offloads its cargo.

Aurora Flight Sciences plans to use a Sikorsky S-76 or similar helicopter for the Phase I demo, while Lockheed Martin plans to use the Kamax K-Max, which as mentioned in the previous article has already been in field use as a robot resupply machine. The military would also like to use robot helicopters for casualty evacuation. AACUS goals are ambitious, with a Lockheed Martin official saying: "We will need to fuse the data from a number of sensors. The system will need to recognize obstacles, avoid threats such as hostile fire and other aircraft, and land in brownout conditions."

* THE RETURN OF VXX: In other rotorcraft news, the US Navy has just issued a draft request for proposals for the "VXX", the replacement presidential helicopter. This is the second go-round on the VXX, a contract having been awarded to AgustaWestland in 2005 for the "VH-71", based on the AW101 medium-lift helicopter. However, the VH-71 went into schedule creep and cost spiral, with five airframes built when President Obama killed the program in 2009.

For the revived VXX competition, the Navy wants an off-the-shelf helicopter, to be fitted with government-specified kit -- posh VIP accommodations, self-defense systems, and in particular an extensive secure communications suite. It doesn't sound too hard, and the new spec strongly emphasized "off the shelf" technology, but it also doesn't sound much different from what the original VXX program was supposed to be. If the VXX program flies right this time around, it would interesting to learn why it didn't the first time. In any case, we can be sure that robot pilots won't be in the final VXX spec -- though it's also interesting to consider that there may come a future generation when it is. Robot pilots will have come of age when they fly the President of the United States around.



* TO OTHER WORLDS BY REMOTE CONTROL: From the beginning of the Space Race, there's been the vision of sending astronauts to other worlds. The reality is that only dozen people have made any such trip, and only to the Earth's Moon, the last such visit being four decades ago. We're no closer to landing on Mars than we ever have been. In the meantime, robot spacecraft have journeyed all through the Solar System, suggesting to some that astronauts may be redundant in deep-space exploration.

As discussed by an article from WIRED Online blogs ("Almost Being There" by Adam Mann, 12 November 2012), maybe there's a place in deep-space exploration for a synergistic mix of astronaut and robot. As a starting point, consider a robot named MOCUP (for "METERON Operations & Communications Prototype") that resides at the European Space Agency (ESA) center in Darmstadt, Germany. MOCUP is cute, but hardly seems to be much more than a toy, having been built using the Lego MINDSTORMS robotics toolkit and featuring a cheap off-the-shelf CPU board for a brain. It can't do much more than nose around indoors; it's never going off-world.

However, MOCUP is distinctive in that it is controlled by astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS). MOCOP is a testbed for the ESA's METERON ("Multipurpose End-To-End Robotics Operations Network") effort, intended to demonstrate the use of "telerobotics" to explore other worlds, with robots on the surface under control of astronauts in orbit.

MOCUP robot

The thinking behind METERON isn't obvious at first glance. What sense does it make for astronauts to travel to another world and then not land? If the astronauts just end up working through robots, what sense does it make to send the astronauts in the first place? Why not just send the robots?

The problem with just sending robots is that communications back to Earth are troublesome, and the farther the journey, the more troublesome communications become. At the distance of Mars, the time delays mean that a robot must be autonomous, and we're not far enough along with machine autonomy to come up with a robot that doesn't need a great deal of hand-holding from mission control back on Earth. If astronauts were in orbit around Mars and set up a constellation of little communications satellites, they would have real-time communications with the robots.

But would it make sense for the astronauts to never go down to the surface of Mars themselves? Maybe the question really is: does it make sense for them to do so? It takes a lot of hardware to get down to a planetary surface and then back up from it again; it's obviously much cheaper, and safer, just to send robots down to the surface and then leave them there. If the astronauts did go down to the surface, what would they do? They would have to bumble around in expensive, bulky spacesuits that would necessarily isolate them from the hostile environment around them. How much distinction would there be if an astronaut interacted with the surface environment through a virtual-reality telepresence? Very little; in fact, teleoperation would likely be easier.

* The truth be known, we're effectively stalled in human space exploration. The US National Aeronautics & Space Administration (NASA) is pushing forward on a heavy-lift booster under the Space Launch System (SLS) and towards what will ultimately be a deep-space craft under the Orion space capsule program, though at the outset Orion will simple be for Earth orbit operations. However, there's no prospect of funding a planetary lander system any time soon -- and without that third element, we're not landing humans on other worlds, at least worlds of any size.

With telerobotics, the Moon comes into reach of astronauts. In one scenario, three astronauts would ride an Orion capsule to the Earth-Moon Lagrange 2 point, 64,000 kilometers (40,000 miles) above the Lunar farside, possibly living in a habitat assembled from elements of the ISS after it completes its service. From there, they would send probes down to the farside surface; they could teleoperate a rover to pick up rock samples, then sent them back from the Moon in a sample-return vehicle -- possibly launched by a US partner nation as a contribution to the mission. The astronauts could also set up a radio telescope, rolling out 10-meter (33 foot) plastic sheets studded with antennas; shielded by the Moon from Earth's radio noise, the farside radio telescope would be able to pick out the subtle signals of the early Universe. In the course of multiple missions, the robot cadre on the Moon's surface could grow in size and sophistication.

remote-control exploration

In the summer of 2013, NASA will begin telerobotics field tests at Ames research campus in Mountain View, California. Astronauts aboard the ISS will control a robot named K-10 as it travels over the surface and deploys a roll of film antennas. That will be a big step for NASA; according to astronomer Dan Lester of the University of Texas at Austin, who's been pushing the agency towards telerobotics: "If you said 10 years ago that we'd like to do telerobotics in space, the people at NASA headquarters would say: 'That's just stupid, we're the agency who land people on the moon.' Lately, it's become so obvious that landing human beings on other planets, at least for now, is pretty unaffordable."

It's not just money that's become the issue; people are now much more tuned to the potential of automation and virtual operation than they were. According to NASA robotics engineer Terry Fong: "Today, a lot has changed. Computers are much more competent, with different interesting sensors such as laser scanners. We've had more than 40 years of development in the field of robotics."

ESA seems to be ahead of NASA with the METERON program. The MOCUP robot is just the first step: in 2014, ESA researchers plan to fly an exoskeleton to the International Space Station that an astronaut would wear over their arm to provide "haptic feedback" -- essentially a sense of touch -- from a robot on the ground.

The idea of sending astronauts to another world who never set foot on it remains something of a hard sell. As Dan Lester put it: "I think most people in the human spaceflight community are not comfortable with the idea of exploring without all the way being there. It's a sociological and psychological reason."

Would the US Congress be willing to fund a telerobotics mission to Mars? Hand the politicians the options and they might give it a good thinking over. Sending astronauts to Mars gets far more expensive when the astronauts have to get down to the surface, survive there, and come back up. Even building the spacesuits for a protracted stay on the Martian surface would be painfully expensive. Bundled up in spacesuits, would the astronauts be able to do any more than they could via teleoperation? Would they even be able to do as much?

Just making the journey would be enough of an adventure even if we didn't touch down to the planet's surface; it certainly wouldn't be appreciably less hazardous. One NASA engineer recalled a conversation he had with artificial-intelligence researcher Marvin Minsky, long a booster of space telerobotics: "You NASA folks are so old-fashioned. You think people are excited by humans in space, but talk to any 10-year-old and they're excited about robots controlled in virtual reality."

We're still hooked on dreams of space exploration that were established in the 1960s, and have accomplished far less than we thought likely since that time. One way or another, human space exploration needs to be rethought.



* THE RISE & FALL OF THE MAGSTRIP CARD (2): Having settled on magstrip technology, IBM engineers then had to dope out the data format. They settled on a multitrack scheme, in different classes of information were stored on two different tracks. There was room for a third track on the card, on which transaction data could be written. Each of the three tracks was 0.28 centimeters (about a tenth of an inch) wide, with a small intertrack separator. The two data tracks included:

That same format is still in use today. In January 1970, American Express issued 250,000 magstrip cards to its Chicago-area customers, and installed self-service ticketing kiosks at the American Airlines counter at Chicago O'Hare International Airport. Cardholders could opt to get their tickets and boarding passes from the kiosk, or from a human agent. They liked the kiosks. In fact, United Airlines customers walked to American Airlines -- at the other end of the terminal -- to use the kiosks. Smart cards boomed, becoming nearly universal after the cost dropped enough.

The basic protocol was established at the outset. When a card was swiped through a reader at the point of sale, the card reader grabbed the card data, then networked to the bank handling the card. The bank in turn networked to the card provider -- VISA or whoever -- with the provider then either approving or disapproving the transaction, and the bank forwarding the response back to the point of sale. Even if the transaction was authorized, the card provider still ran checks for fraud to see of the transaction should be then canceled. As discussed here some years back, the fraud-checking software eventually became extremely sophisticated.

By the 1990s, the magstrip card had become a global phenomenon, and even today it remains predominant in North America. A magstrip card reader named "Square" is now available to allow street vendors to take charge payments. In the mid-1980s, however, with the availability of cheap, sophisticated silicon electronics, work began on a competitor, the "smart card". In maturity, the smart card is much more secure than the magstrip card, much harder to "skim". Each transaction with the card generates a specific code that changes from transaction to transaction, but is still unique to the card. Smart cards can also interrogate card readers for validity, and can store a personal identification number (PIN) for validation.

In Europe and some other regions outside of North America, the smart card has blown past the magstrip card, but the magstrip card remains dominant in North America due to momentum -- after setting up the system for handling magstrip cards, banks and vendors didn't want to start over with a new system. However, despite improvements in security software, scammers are becoming ever more sophisticated, even cooking up skimmers that can be slapped over the top of readers on ATMs and gas pumps to steal magstrip card data.

The USA accounts for almost half of global credit-card fraud, while only accounting for a bit over a quarter of credit-card purchases. American losses to credit-card fraud are estimated at about $14 billion USD a year. The fact that security is weaker in North America means that scammers are focusing their efforts here. On the other side of that coin, Americans abroad are increasingly finding that their plastic is worthless elsewhere; vendors don't like them, automated payment machines don't know how to read them. Americans who travel a lot overseas have got their hands on smart cards.

The technology is actually available; ironically, it was the US card companies MasterCard and VISA, that did the most to push the global smart-card standard back in 1996, and they're doing a thriving business with smart cards elsewhere. In fact, the standard is known as "Europay, MasterCard, & VISA (EMV)" -- and Europay is now part of MasterCard.

The cards are known in different countries under the name of "IC Credit" or "Chip and PIN"; they can be either "contact" cards that are inserted in a terminal, or "contactless" ones that use a short-range "near-field" wireless link. To date, more than 1.3 billion EMV cards have been issued globally, and some 21 million point-of-sale terminals can now accept them. That's almost one out of two payment cards in use globally, and three out of four terminals on merchant premises around the world.

VISA is now planning to bring EMV cards to America, with a tidy plan to break the "chicken & egg" circle that has kept magstrip cards in power. VISA is offering a carrot to merchants, saying that if they upgrade to EMV card readers, the company's requirement that card readers be checked annually will be dropped. The checkup is an expense to merchants; it won't be needed with EMV cards. In 2015, once EMV card readers are presumably established, VISA will follow up with a stick, making merchants liable for fraud performed with the old magstrip cards. That actually ends up being a carrot for banks, since they end up swallowing much of the fraud now, and so banks will have an incentive to hand out smart cards.

Magstrip cards are certain to bite the dust in the USA in a few years. Smart cards may not last very long, however, since smartphones with near-field interfaces are seen as the real future, the smartphones acting as "electronic wallets". Cash is increasingly an absurdity; most of our assets aren't in cash in the first place, and it's comparatively expensive and insecure to handle. However, given its historical inertia, just how long it takes cash, the original monetary transaction system, to go away remains to be seen. [END OF SERIES]



* ANOTHER MONTH: As mentioned here two months ago, the White House website allows citizens to place petitions with the government, promising to reply if more than 100,000 signatures are placed with a petition in a month. In response to petitions to allow states to secede from the Union, the White House responded that Americans should engage in healthy debate, but that as far as the government was concerned, the Union is "perpetual", and that citizens should become involved in the political process -- instead of simply sulking.

All that was exactly predictable and forgettable, but the White House scored big with a reply to a petition, which gathered the required number of signatures, to build Darth Vader's Death Star. The reply, titled "This Isn't The Petition Answer You Were Looking For", was written by Paul Shawcross, a White House official with oversight of space science, and is duplicated in a highly rendered-down version here:


The Administration shares your desire for job creation and a strong national defense, but a Death Star isn't on the horizon. First, the Administration does not support blowing up planets. Second, why would we spend countless taxpayer dollars on a Death Star with a fundamental flaw that can be exploited by a one-man starship?

However, look carefully and you'll notice something already floating in the sky -- that's no Moon, it's a Space Station! Yes, we already have a giant, football field-sized International Space Station in orbit around the Earth that's helping us learn how humans can live and thrive in space for long durations.

Even though the United States doesn't have anything that can do the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs, we've got two spacecraft leaving the Solar System and we're building a probe that will fly to the exterior layers of the Sun. We don't have a Death Star, but we do have floating robot assistants on the Space Station, a President who knows his way around a light saber and advanced (marshmallow) cannon, and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which is supporting research on building Luke's arm, floating droids, and quadruped walkers.

We are living in the future! Enjoy it. Or better yet, help build it by pursuing a career in a science, technology, engineering or math-related field. If you do, the Force will be with us -- and remember, the Death Star's power to destroy a planet, or even a whole star system, is insignificant next to the power of the Force.


Shawcross definitely established his "geek cred" with this item. The posting of the full version to WIRED ONLINE blogs led to predictable grumblings by anti-Obama soreheads, but they were "owned" by the perfect response: "I find your lack of faith .... disturbing."

the Force be with you

* On New Year's Day I was going through usual first-of-the month administrative tasks, one being determining how much money I had made on banner ads. I got to thinking that my banner ad provider, AdBrite, wasn't paying off very well, and that its banner ads were obnoxious, in particular disrupting page styling. I also got to thinking that I was pulling in about one donation a month, and that if I could stay at that level I would make enough money to pay for yearly website fees.

All those considerations went into the mind mixer and the question popped into my head: Who needs AdBrite? It was a nuisance that wasn't paying, and if I replaced the AdBrite banner ads with one of my own to discreetly ask for donations, I might well end up better off financially. On the basis of history, I judged I would make enough to pay off site fees, which was all I really wanted. I hardly need the money -- it's just that I find the idea of operating at a loss and, in effect, subsidizing people to read my websites discouraging. A little pocket money would be nice, but making any real money is out of the question.

Enthused, I immediately jumped into building my own top banner ad and cooking up HTML code to provide the appropriate banner links. A few hours later I was flying; I had to revise page code, so it meant uploading all the website pages and checking them out, but that was no big problem.

I'd built up a payment of over a hundred bucks with AdBrite; I went in and set the payout threshold so I'd get a check, but I was unsure just how easy that would be. As it turned out, my decision to bail from AdBrite was even more right than I knew, since on 28 January I got an email from them saying they were shuttering their doors on 1 February. That shot down any hope of getting a payment, it would have been like trying to squeeze blood out of a stone, but I felt a certain relief in knowing I needn't exert myself to try. Indeed, it was much more comfortable to have made the exit on my own terms than to have the rug yanked out from underneath me again.

Anyway, from now on, the only ads I run will be my own; the top banner will be changed every month so people don't tune it out. One of the advantages of this is that when some scammer emails me to ask to run banner ads on my site, I can reply: "I don't run banner advertising on my site, but a donation is welcome."

At least as often as not, they take snarky comebacks as a challenge, playing dimlit and noisy just to be obnoxious. No worries, I just block their email after replying. They can try to play cute with my auto-answer reply system for as long as they like.

* I read through a book on the lunatic fringe I found at the library, thinking it would be interesting, only to find it mostly tiresome. I continue to be easily distracted by nutjobs, to realize on listening to them that I would have a better life if I didn't know they existed. The more they talk, the less sense they make.

The pseudoscience and pseudohistory games outlined in the book were familiar and dull, but some of the "pseudolaw" trickery was new to me. It's not news that people like to play amateur constitutional scholars in their efforts to prove that Obama isn't legally President of the United States, or that they don't have to pay taxes -- incidentally, the book said the Internal Revenue Service slams taxpayers with a stiff penalty if they try to pull some of the wearier tax-resister arguments. However, I was surprised to find out there is a faction that believes, since US naval flags and flags in court tend to have a gold tassel fringe, the US legal system is actually based on maritime martial law.

That's about as far as I wanted to follow that argument, but I did appreciate how one judge dealt with it. When handed such by a defendant, the judge simply told the defendant to pretend he was on a boat. I suppose the judge considered making him walk the plank as well, but decided that would be going a bit too far.