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DayVectors

mar 2013 / last mod sep 2016 / greg goebel

* 21 entries including: San Diego road trip, cars of the future, China does space science, oceans of Titan, Great White Spot of Saturn, Coke & Minute Maid orange juice,, bumblebee navigation skills, improvements in machine language translation, cross-laminated timber, DARPA SEEME tactical reconnaissance satellite, pandemics & mass gatherings, and cellphone bands nearing saturation.

banner of the month


[FRI 29 MAR 13] NEWS COMMENTARY FOR MARCH 2013
[THU 28 MAR 13] GIMMICKS & GADGETS
[WED 27 MAR 13] OCEANS OF TITAN / STORM WINDS ON SATURN
[TUE 26 MAR 13] COKE DOES ORANGE JUICE
[MON 25 MAR 13] CARS OF THE FUTURE (3)
[FRI 22 MAR 13] SAN DIEGO ROAD TRIP (12)
[THU 21 MAR 13] SPACE NEWS
[WED 20 MAR 13] FINDING THE WAY
[TUE 19 MAR 13] MACHINE TRANSLATION ADVANCES
[MON 18 MAR 13] CARS OF THE FUTURE (2)
[FRI 15 MAR 13] SAN DIEGO ROAD TRIP (11)
[THU 14 MAR 13] SCIENCE NOTES
[WED 13 MAR 13] CROSS-LAMINATED TIMBER TAKES OFF
[TUE 12 MAR 13] SEEME SATELLITE IN PROGRESS
[MON 11 MAR 13] CARS OF THE FUTURE (1)
[FRI 08 MAR 13] SAN DIEGO ROAD TRIP (10)
[THU 07 MAR 13] GIMMICKS & GADGETS
[WED 06 MAR 13] PANDEMICS & MASS GATHERINGS
[TUE 05 MAR 13] CLOGGING THE AIRWAVES
[MON 04 MAR 13] CHINA DOES SPACE SCIENCE (4)
[FRI 01 MAR 13] ANOTHER MONTH

[FRI 29 MAR 13] NEWS COMMENTARY FOR MARCH 2013

* NEWS COMMENTARY FOR MARCH 2013: Barack Obama made his first visit to Israel last month, a trip for which the White House carefully set low expectations, the president not planning or able to do much but ask both Israelis and Palestinians for restraint. Obama did help break the ice between Israel and Turkey -- gone south due to the killing of Turkish peace activists at sea by Israeli forces, as discussed here in 2011 -- setting up phone conversations between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Turkish Prime Minister Recip Erdogan that went well. Netanyahu offered Erdogan a public apology and compensation to the victims, and also admitted that the military operation that that led to the deaths of the Turks was bungled. However, given the convergence of interests between Israel and Turkey, now being emphasized by deep unrest in Syria, few expected the bad blood between the two countries to linger in any case.

Obama in Israel

All Obama otherwise had was talk, but he's a good talker, and as reported by THE ECONOMIST Online blogs made the most of it in a speech to Israeli students in Jerusalem on 21 March -- pushing for peace, but being careful to acknowledge Israeli issues with the peace process:

BEGIN QUOTE:

I know Israel has taken risks for peace. Brave leaders -- Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Rabin -- reached treaties with two of your neighbors. You made credible proposals to the Palestinians at Annapolis. You withdrew from Gaza and Lebanon, and then faced terror and rockets. Across the region, you have extended a hand of friendship, and too often have been confronted with the ugly reality of anti-Semitism. So I believe that the Israeli people do want peace, and you have every right to be skeptical that it can be achieved ... There is no question that Israel has faced Palestinian factions who turned to terror, and leaders who missed historic opportunities. That is why security must be at the center of any agreement.

END QUOTE

That went over very well with Israelis, not at all well with Palestinians, but Obama was simply smoothing the way to push the idea that the "two-state" solution with Palestine is in Israel's own best interests:

BEGIN QUOTE:

Peace is necessary. Indeed, it is the only path to true security ... the only way for Israel to endure and thrive as a Jewish and democratic state is through the realization of an independent and viable Palestine ... Israel must reverse an undertow of isolation.

I recognize that with the uncertainty in the region -- people in the streets, changes in leadership, the rise of non-secular parties in politics -- it is tempting to turn inward. But this is precisely the time to respond to the wave of revolution with a resolve for peace.

END QUOTE

He then went on to appeal to the righteousness of the Israelis, holding up the grievances of the Palestinians:

BEGIN QUOTE:

The Palestinian people's right to self-determination and justice must also be recognized ... It is not fair that a Palestinian child cannot grow up in a state of her own, and lives with the presence of a foreign army that controls the movements of her parents every single day. It is not just when settler violence against Palestinians goes unpunished. It is not right to prevent Palestinians from farming their lands; to restrict a student's ability to move around the West Bank; or to displace Palestinian families from their homes. Neither occupation nor expulsion is the answer. Just as Israelis built a state in their homeland, Palestinians have a right to be a free people in their own land.

END QUOTE

Obama was very careful not to then cross the line into direct condemnations of Israel, instead making an appeal:

BEGIN QUOTE:

To African-Americans, the story of the Exodus told a powerful tale about emerging from the grip of bondage to reach for liberty and human dignity -- a tale that was carried from slavery through the civil rights movement ... For the Jewish people, the journey to the promise of the State of Israel wound through countless generations. It involved centuries of suffering and exile, prejudice, pogroms and even genocide ... Israel is rooted not just in history and tradition, but also in a simple and profound idea: the idea that people deserve to be free in a land of their own.

END QUOTE

Obama did all he could to reassure Israelis that America was on their side. Although one of his goals in the visit was to discourage Israeli action against Iran, he made it clear that the US remains determined to see that Iran does not get the Bomb. He also said that America would work with its allies to restrain Syria from using chemical weapons in its civil war, or allow those weapons to fall into the hands of terrorists -- pointedly adding that the US regards the Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah group, at the top of Israel's list of bitter enemies, as a terrorist organization.

Obama admitted that in his first term, his handling of policy relative to Israel and the Palestinians left much to be desired and went to a dead end. He stated that America now wanted to pursue peace with renewed vigor:

BEGIN QUOTE:

I want both sides to know that as difficult as the current situation is, my administration is committed to doing our part. And I know that Secretary of State John Kerry intends to spend significant time, effort, and energy in trying to bring about a closing of the gap between the parties. We cannot give up on the search for peace. Too much is at stake.

END QUOTE

The White House was right to keep expectations low; Obama's predecessors have had little luck with peace between Israel and the Palestinians, and he cannot believe his chances are much better. However, regardless of the prospects of success, the US still needs to articulate a policy to follow -- and the very persistence of the effort over the decades suggests the saying that our goal in life is not to succeed, but to continue to fail without becoming discouraged.

* TIME magazine online reported another sign of slow economic recovery in the USA: the gradually rising value of the US dollar on international currency markets. Thanks to economic difficulties in Europe, if little thanks to US government actions, the dollar has risen by 7% since late 2011. That is a big turnaround for a currency that's been in decline for decades, and there are signs it's not just a flash in the pan, either.

The dollar has lost almost half its value against other major currencies since 1985, down 33% in the past 11 years alone. A weak currency can help a country's economy in the short run, by making goods cheaper for foreign buyers and so encouraging exports. However, a weak currency is generally a sign of a weak economy. A currency rises in value when more foreign money is flowing in than is flowing out, the money coming in because foreigners see investment opportunities or are looking for safe places to stow their money.

As a result, the strong dollar hints at a stronger US economy, and the trend is likely to continue. The US economy has not been doing spectacularly well over the recent past, but it's been doing better than elsewhere. The US economy has grown for 14 straight quarters since the recession ended in mid-2009, while the Eurozone countries are stuck for the time being in contraction. In addition US economic resurgence, particularly in the growing energy market, will continue to help boost the dollar. The biggest concern remains US government policy -- but nobody sees that as working itself out over the short run.

* Being a "repo man" -- handling repossessions of goods -- is regarded as a rough job, but as reported by BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK, it doesn't get much rougher than California's repossessions of legally-obtained firearms from citizens who have lost their firearm rights.

California is the only US state that goes to such lengths, other states lacking the will to do so, or adequate data to track who owns guns but has lost the right to them. California, in contrast, keeps close track, with state records listing tens of thousands of such folk -- including convicted felons, people under domestic violence restraining orders, or those judged mentally unstable. The list of those no longer entitled to keep weapons is compiled by matching files on almost a million gun owners with databases of new criminal records and involuntary mental health commitments; about 15 to 20 names are added each day.

California's been going after guns since 2007. In 2012, authorities seized about 2,000 weapons, 117,000 rounds of ammunition, and 11,000 high-capacity magazines. As BUSINESSWEEK put it, trying to repossess guns "is about as fun as it sounds." The few dozen agents involved in the task can't usually get warrants to seize weapons, all they can do is ask for them, and gun owners are not necessarily cooperative. One agent said: "I got called the antichrist the other day. Every conspiracy theory you've heard of, take that times ten."

Somewhat surprisingly, gun groups have no problem with California's crackdown on gun repossession, since such groups are generally in favor of tough enforcement of existing gun laws, as opposed to creating new laws. Sam Paredes, director of Gun Owners of California, commented: "We think that crime control instead of gun control is absolutely the way to go."

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[THU 28 MAR 13] GIMMICKS & GADGETS

* GIMMICKS & GADGETS: WIRED Online blogs discussed how "active noise cancellation (ANC)" is being used to improve vehicle fuel economy. ANC is nothing that new, having been around since at least the 1990s. It involves a system with microphones, a processor, and a speaker network that "listens in" to ambient noise, then generates sounds out of phase to cancel out that ambient noise. It works best for low-frequency, repetitive sounds, and has been fitted to luxury cars for about a decade.

So how does ANC improve fuel economy? Simple, by cutting the vehicle mass needed for soundproofing and other kit normally added to cut noise. This has become more of an issue because hybrid cars tend to "boom" when they transition from electric to gas power. Ford, Honda, and other car manufacturers have been working with audio experts such as Bose, already a big supplier to the auto industry, to refine the technology to cancel out drivetrain noise -- wind and tire noise isn't seen as such an issue.

The Ford Fusion hybrid car is fitted with three microphones, two over the front seats and one over the rear seat, that monitor engine noise for the ANC control module. When the car jumps from electric to gas power, the module pushes antiphase sound out the speakers to cancel the "booming" engine noise. According to a Ford spokesman: "the system reacts in milliseconds. ANC responds to a noise input before a human notices ... ANC is always active and not tied to entertainment function."

Honda is now introducing ANC on a wide range of Accord models. Says a Honda spokesman: "ANC is a very clean way to deal with noise, and you're taking advantage of technology that's becoming more and more available."

* Digitally-controlled automotive power transmissions are nothing unusual these days and are likely to become universal before long. As reported by WIRED Online blogs, digital transmissions have a potential that their predecessors couldn't touch: using the car navigation system to control shifting.

BMW is working on the technology under a parcel of names, for example "Predictive Power Control (PPC)". The idea is that the car's sensors will inform the navigation system of driving conditions, while the navigation system consults its GPS map data to figure out what's around the next corner -- and shift the transmission appropriately. The latest BMW machines offer three modes of operation, including "Sport", "Comfort", or "Eco Pro", with Sport optimizing performance and Eco Pro optimizing fuel economy. Eco Pro will, for example, uncouple the transmission when coasting works best. A "Foresight Assistant" navigation feature will also help fuel economy by mapping out the best route to a destination. Some of this technology is already available, and the rest should be available soon.

* As reported by BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK, the prevalence of smartphones has led to the iPhone becoming a theft of choice, often snatched roughly from the hands of users on a subway. Losing an expensive gadget is bad enough; victims are often more distressed at the idea of all the personal information on the smartphone to fall into the wrong hands. An iPhone is an item with a high resale value, not to mention easy to grab and conceal. Police in San Francisco and Washington DC say about 40% of their robbery cases in 2012 involved smartphones. DC Police Chief Cathy Lanier commented: "We were having twenty robberies per day. People were being beaten, stomped, and kicked in the process."

Stolen smartphones are rarely recovered. With a smartphone crime wave in progress, city police departments have appealed to the Federal government for help, with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) then talking strong to the mobile communications industry to see what technical fixes might be possible. In November a dozen companies -- including Verizon, Sprint, AT&T, T-Mobile, Apple, Samsung, and Motorola -- set up a national registry for logging the serials of stolen phones.

Nobody's quite certain how that will work out, thieves being very quick to figure out ways around obstacles. However, other security measures are being implemented, with an app to be available come this spring to allow smartphone users to lock down their phones remotely. Even if users can't get the phone back, they can render it inert to a thief. More is coming, such as security apps that allow the memory of a smartphone to be remotely wiped as well. In the meantime, law enforcement is trying to make people aware that their smartphones may make them a target. Too often people become too focused on the little virtual world in their hand and don't pay attention to the environment around them. As one New York City cop put it: "People are absorbed on their phones."

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[WED 27 MAR 13] OCEANS OF TITAN / STORM WINDS ON SATURN

* OCEANS OF TITAN: As reported by an article from AAAS SCIENCE ("Cassini Spies An Ocean Inside Saturn's Icy, Gassy Moon Titan" by Richard A. Kerr, 29 June 2012), Saturn's moon Titan is of particular interest to planetary scientists. Titan, with a diameter of 5,150 kilometers (3,200 miles) is the only moon in the Solar System with a dense atmosphere -- a thick brown haze mostly composed of methane, with methane rain feeding lakes on the surface. Now the US National Aeronautics & Space Administration's (NASA) Cassini probe, in orbit around Saturn, has revealed that Titan has an ocean of water buried 100 kilometers (60 miles) beneath its surface. The discovery is interesting not only in its own right, but also because of the extraordinary way it was made.

Titan

On Earth, geologists can probe the internals of our planet by observing seismic waves, but to see into Titan, Cassini mission scientists had to observe how the moon reacted to the strains set up by its motion around Saturn. Titan circles around Saturn once every 16 Earth days in a slightly elliptical orbit, with the moon being squeezed by tidal forces. The squishier Titan's interior is, the more the moon will deform, with its gravity field -- which depends on the distribution of Titan's mass -- distorted as a consequence.

That meant precision monitoring of Titan's gravity field could yield hints about its interior structure. Cassini mission scientists measured the variation in Cassini's signals sent back to Earth during six flybys of Titan, using the Doppler shift in the signals to clock the variation of speed of the probe during the flybys to a staggering accuracy of less than ten micrometers per second. From analysis of the variation in Cassini's speed, the researchers determined that Titan is tidally pliable enough to suggest the existence of a liquid layer a couple of hundred kilometers thick -- presumably of water -- surrounding the planet, sealed away deep under a layer of ice. A second team analyzed the same data using different methods and came to the same result.

The existence of this buried ocean may shine light on some of Titan's puzzles. One of the biggest its its thick methane atmosphere; solar radiation tends to cook methane into more elaborate hydrocarbons, and so the thick methane atmosphere should have congealed into tars after a few tens of millions of years. It appears that the methane is being replenished in some way, possibly by eruptions from the oceanic depths. The issue should give planetary scientists plenty to chew on in the coming decades.

* STORM WINDS ON SATURN: As reported by an article from SKY & TELESCOPE magazine ("Saturn's Raging Superstorm" by Agustin Sanchez-Lavega, May 2012), in 1876 a "Great White Spot (GWS)" was observed on Saturn, with the GWS reappearing at different places in 1903, 1933, and 1960. The GWS was judged to be a huge cyclonic storm, recurring in Saturn's northern latitudes about once every Saturn year, which is about 29.5 Earth years.

By that calculation, another GWS was expected to arise around 1990, and it did, being observed with much-improved astronomical gear. Of course the next GWS was expected to arise in 2020 -- but in December 2010, amateur astronomers obtained images of a new GWS, about ten years ahead of schedule. This time around, not only was improved astronomical gear available to observe the event, the Cassini Saturn orbiter was in place to provide a closeup examination.

The 2010 GWS started out relatively small, with a diameter of about 1,000 kilometers (620 miles), but it quickly grew to 8,000 kilometers (4,970 miles), to begin leaving a tail along its latitude. Soon it was 10,000 kilometers (6,200 miles) wide, being reflective enough to be observed by any amateur astronomer with adequate telescopic gear. High speed winds slowly drove the GWS around the planet, leaving a swirled trail of clouds behind along its latitude, about 40 degrees north.

Great White Spot from Cassini

Observations of the GWS suggested it was a huge thunderstorm, rooted in a layer of water clouds deep in Saturn's atmosphere. The enormous thunderhead, driven by moist upward winds of hydrogen and helium, punched through an upper layer of ammonia hydrosulfide (NH4SH) clouds and then a top layer of ammonia clouds, with the white spot itself emerging in the troposphere. Its unusual brightness was due to ice particles in the clouds.

Despite the extent and quality of the observations, the GWS remains puzzling. Why are such storms only observed in the northern latitudes, and why in summer? Why did the 2010 event take place ten years ahead of time? If it goes back on its regular schedule, astronomers won't get another chance to investigate until about 2040.

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[TUE 26 MAR 13] COKE DOES ORANGE JUICE

* COKE DOES ORANGE JUICE: It's interesting to learn about the industrial processes behind things we take for granted. As an example, an article from BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK ("Coke Has A Secret Formula For Orange Juice, Too" by Duane Stanford, 4 February 2013) discussed how the Coca-Cola Company produces orange juice.

The name "Coke" doesn't immediately bring to mind orange juice, but the name "Minute Maid" does. Minute Maid was founded during World War II by pharmaceutical engineer Jack Fox -- an expert on concentrating blood serum -- to make orange juice concentrate under a military contract. Coke bought out Minute Maid in 1960; Minute Maid remains the company's flagship orange-juice brand, but the firm also peddles "Simply Orange" in the USA, "Minute Maid Pulpy" in Asia, and "Del Valle" in Latin America.

orange sunshine

Last year, Coke controlled about 17% of the global market for juice and juice-related products -- compared to 9% for Coke's major competitor PepsiCo, maker of Tropicana orange juice -- and brought in about $13 billion USD from those products. Juice and other "still beverages" are a growth market for Coke, sales of fizzy drinks having plateaued. Juice from concentrate is now only a small part of the market; consumers prefer bottled juice, and manufacturers can charge a premium for it.

All manufacturing is based on documentation and procedures. Those directing the production of Minute Maid orange juice, codified in what the company calls the "Black Book", are substantially more complicated than those for Coke or other fizzy drinks. Producing a fizzy drink is not trivial, but it's made from sweeteners, flavorings, and colors that are in predictable supply and of uniform quality, the product being turned out with a well-tuned manufacturing process. Oranges, particularly oranges in monstrous bulk, are not so easy to produce, or produce with uniform quality, and processing them into juice is trickier.

Coke's Black Book for orange juice is not just a set of documents; it also includes a software analysis system, written by subcontractor Revenue Analytics of Atlanta, Georgia. The analytic system crunches data about the set of flavors of each batch of orange juice, to then provide directions on how to ensure that the delivered product is of the specified quality. The system also evaluates the supply of oranges, factoring in weather, crop yields, and market pressure to allow quick changes in manufacturing planning, should a cold snap damage the orange crop in a particular region.

Coke churns out orange juice in volume from a manufacturing complex centered around Auburndale, Florida, with facilities operated partly by Cutrale, Coke's Brazilian partner. The two companies buy up almost a third of the 145 million boxes of oranges produced every year by more than 400 Florida orange growers. Juice is produced by the complex as per the Black Box procedures. Truckloads of oranges arrive at the plant, with the oranges graded and then run through a squeezing machine to extract juice and pulp. Nothing of the oranges is wasted. Derived oils are bottled and sold for everything from flavorings to household cleaners; peel is pressed into animal feed.

In the peak season, juice will be shipped out to retailers immediately, but otherwise it is stored for up to eight months in refrigerated tanks with capacities of 7.6 million liters (2 million US gallons) each, where it is kept around freezing and agitated to prevent settling. The tanks are filled with nitrogen gas to inhibit the growth of bacteria. When needed, the juice is piped almost two kilometers (1.2 miles) to Coke's packaging plants. Constructing the underground pipeline eliminated the need for dozens of trips by tanker trucks every day.

Orange juice has a deservedly wholesome reputation, but it seems less wholesome when the industrialized process used to turn it out, tweaked to ensure uniformity, is considered. The one big part of the process that has resisted industrialization is picking the oranges, which is still largely if not completely done by hand. They're working on that.

* In loosely related beverage news, as reported by BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK, Australia's wine industry is a big export business -- the cheap Hardys brand is a favorite in the UK. Turning a profit at the low end of the wine market is tricky, and so Hardys now ships its product from DownUnda to Britain in plastic bladders, not bottles. Each bladder has a capacity of 24,000 liters (6,330 US gallons); it's much less expense to ship the wine without the bottles and do the bottling at the destination. Bottles are available anywhere for cheap, and the wine has to go through a local distributor anyway, so it's not that much bother to bottle at the destination.

The practice has been growing for the last decade, with Australian wines shipped in bulk finally overtaking wines shipped in bottles in 2012. 80% of Aussie wines sold in the UK are shipped in bulk, though the ratio is only 40% for the USA at present. Chile, the US, and South Africa -- following Australia the second, third, and fourth biggest wine exporters outside Europe -- are also increasingly shipping wines in bulk.

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[MON 25 MAR 13] CARS OF THE FUTURE (3)

* CARS OF THE FUTURE (3): Working towards the robot car of the future, Google has experimentally kitted up a dozen or so cars from major auto manufacturers with sensors and automated control systems, at a price of about $200,000 USD per car. The sensors are mounted on the roof to give them 360-degree vision. The challenge is to combine inputs from the multiple sensors and determine which of the sensors work best in different conditions, such as night driving or heavy rain. The Google cars have clocked over a half million kilometers (310,000 miles) under autonomous control on test tracks and public roads -- including San Francisco's Lombard Street, one of America's steepest and twistiest roadways.

Once the sensors and actuators are working, then a robot car becomes most a question of software smarts. Google is taking a "learn by doing" approach -- driving a route manually, with all the sensors switched on, to build a detailed 3D map of features such as signs, guard-rails and overpasses, which the robot system then uses as a reference. The robot is smart enough to know what sections of road may be icy at certain times of day and at cold temperatures. Every time a car goes over the same route, the robot collects more data, while also logging other factors such as speed limits and accident statistics for that route.

One limitation of current robot drivers is that they can spot objects and determine their shapes, but not estimate how massive an object is; the robot has trouble telling a cardboard box from a concrete block. Similarly, a carpet of leaves or snow might lead the robot to miscalculate the position of the road's edge. Engineers are coming up with more tricks to make the robot driver smarter. For example, Google's robot observes the behavior of other vehicles, noting that if they consistently run over an obstacle, it's probably a plastic bag and not a rock. "Sensor fusion" between the different sensors also helps. To judge distances, for example, radar or lidar sensors in the front bumper can be supplemented by video cameras, while thermal infrared sensors can pick up the heat signature of a human obscured by fog.

A robot driver can even make judgements about how other cars are being driven. Software developed by a French company named Probayes identifies and then steers clear of cars whose drivers are acting angry, drowsy, sloshed, or aggressive. Agitated drivers tend to speed up and brake quickly; sleepy drivers tend to drift off course gradually and veer back sharply, while drunk drivers struggle to keep a straight line. Toyota is a customer for Probayes' software.

Google's cars are even smart enough to negotiate the troublesome four-way stop -- moving into the intersection cautiously, and then stopping immediately if another driver dashes in. So far, none of Google's cars have had an accident while under autonomous control; one did rear-end another car in 2011, but ironically it was being driven by a human at the time. Google admits that the cars still can't handle winter road conditions and can't figure out temporary signs set up by work crews, but the firm is working on that.

Autonomous vehicles are already in practical use, if not on the roads. Late in 2012 Rio Tinto, an Anglo-Australian mining giant, decided to increase its fleet of self-driving giant ore-hauler trucks from ten to 150 vehicles within four years. Manufactured by a subsidiary of Komatsu of Japan, each truck is the size of a three-storey house and uses GPS positioning to carry nearly 300 tonnes (330 tons) of ore along predefined routes.

An accident with such a juggernaut would be fearsome indeed, but Rio Tinto officials say no truck has had to activate its emergency braking or evasive action systems since the technology was introduced in 2008. One reason is that, along with the usual suite of sensors, the trucks inform each other of their position and speed using "vehicle to vehicle (V2V)" wireless links, so that they can, for example, avoid collisions at road junctions. The trucks are expensive, but so far they seem safer than human drivers, who don't come cheap either.

Initially, driverless vehicles will be the minority, but eventually it may make sense to redesign road networks around them. Using V2V communication, for example, driverless cars approaching a junction could coordinate their movements to keep traffic flowing smoothly, instead of having to stop and take turns. V2V would also allow vehicles to travel together in platoons or "road trains", making more efficient use of road capacity, as discussed here some years ago.

Once robot cars become the norm, steering wheels and pedals are likely to disappear, the car only needing to be told where it is supposed to go via a touchscreen or voice command -- though it would be prudent to have a controller along the lines of that of a videogame if manual control is needed. The robot car would transform cities through its far greater efficiency and safety, but exactly how it would do so remains a matter of speculation. Certainly the city would become much more wireless-enabled, with cars obtaining traffic information from the city road network, and passing back sensor inputs to keep the road network informed of conditions.

So many cars running around with sophisticated sensors imply privacy concerns: Big Brother will be watching, everywhere we go. In the other direction, wireless-enabled cars are faced with the threat of being hacked, with malware written to cause accidents just for the vicious fun of it. Some have even fretted that Google is designing its robot car system to route customers to businesses who pay for the preference. That seems a little paranoid -- but with Google, it's hard to say it's out of the question. And then there's the problem of what happens, as it eventually must, when a robot car kills someone. However, human drivers do this unpleasantly often, and if robot cars are clearly safer, they'll have an edge in court.

Governments are already starting to wrestle with the regulatory questions posed by robot cars, with the state of Nevada taking the lead in the USA. The state's Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) issued its first three autonomous-vehicle licenses to Google in May 2012, with licenses following to other experimenters. They have to post a $1 million USD bond, however, that requirement being implemented to prevent garage-shop tinkerers from killing people. The Nevada DMV also requires that robotic vehicles have "black boxes" to store the previous 30 seconds of camera footage and sensor data to establish who, or what, is at fault in the event of an accident.

Other states are passing similar laws. Right now, government is exercising caution in the robot-car arena, but as the technology matures and becomes commonplace, the caution is likely to be relaxed. Who knows? There may come a time when the law decides to raise barriers to human drivers, or ban them completely. [TO BE CONTINUED]

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[FRI 22 MAR 13] SAN DIEGO ROAD TRIP (12)

* SAN DIEGO ROAD TRIP (12): Having settled down in my folding chair to watch the air exhibitions at Miramar, I was first treated to sailplane stunt flying, the sailplane being fitted with a smoke generator on each wingtip. Like I said, I'm not big on stunt flying, but I found that particular performance elegant, with the sailplane leaving sinuous traces behind itself as it rolled and banked under the clouds. Incidentally, it was generally cloudy if not socked-in that morning, with some threat of rain -- but it never did more than sprinkle a little, with the clouds gradually clearing away.

The sailplane was followed by the Patriots flight demonstration team, a little gang of civilians flying six Czech L-39 Albatros jet trainers, painted blue-black with PATRIOTS painted in big white letters on the side. I'm partial to the tidy little Albatros and, to tell the truth, found the Patriots display at least as satisfying, if not more so, than watching the USAF Thunderbirds or the Navy Blue Angels -- jet trainers are sporty.

PATRIOTS flight demonstration team

The Patriots were actually no more than a warmup for the centerpiece of the show, which was a US Marine tactical demonstration, an elaborate exercise in military theater. It took a while to set up, with aircraft and helicopters departing at intervals to move off to staging areas. In the meantime, everyone was kept entertained by the Army Golden Knights parachute team -- or at least partly entertained, parachuting demonstrations also being of only mild interest to myself. I was more interested in the Golden Knights' Fokker F-27 twin-turboprop jump aircraft, the F-27 being something of a rare old bird these days.

The tactical demonstration got underway, with TwinHuey helicopters bringing in an "advance force" of Marines, with support from Marine Harrier II jumpjet attack aircraft -- the Harrier doing a striking flyby, "fueling up" in midair from a KC-130 tanker. The demonstration was punctuated by explosions across the runway on the appropriate cues; whoever set up the pyrotechnics obviously had fun, there being no skimping on bangs and fireballs.

USMC MV-22 Osprey

There was so much to the tactical demonstration that it's hard to recall more than the players: Marine Zulu Cobra gunships, Marine Hornet attack aircraft, CH-46 "Frog" and CH-53E "Super Jolly" heavy helicopters, and the MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor. The Marines were clearly proud of the Osprey, and not without reason; it's a remarkable machine, sci-fi in appearance close up, even more so from a distance. It made me definitely feel that, yes, I was in the 21st century. The demonstration also include ground forces: heavily armed Marines, tanks, armored personnel carriers. The people in charge of the show put maximum effort into it, and it showed.

Individual military flight demonstrations followed, including the Air Force showing off their F-22 Raptor; a solo demonstration of the Osprey; the Navy flying their F/A-18E Super Hornet; and a solo demonstration of the Harrier II jumpjet. They also worked in a civilian stunter act in between the Osprey and Super Hornet demonstrations: the Red Bull MBB Bo-105 helicopter, a machine capable of agility nobody would think at all possible from a rotorcraft.

USAF F-22 Raptor

Finally, the Blue Angels demonstration began, with the gyrations of their brightly painted support C-130 Hercules, the "Fat Albert"; the C-130 touched down after going through its paces and the Angels themselves took off. I only stayed a few minutes to get a few photos, and then I left hurriedly. I'd seen the Angels before and I wanted to leave before the rush, since I knew I'd be stuck for at least an hour if I didn't. Other people had the same idea, but I had no real trouble getting off the base. However, the Marines did vector the traffic out the west gate of Miramar, and I'd come in through the east gate, so I wasn't exactly sure where the roads were going. I figured I could wing it, since I knew I was in the corner of a "box" with Interstate 8 on the south and Interstate 5 on the west, and if I just went straight I was sure to get on one or another. Yeah, after a few minutes I was on Interstate 5, and got back to the motel.

On examining the photo haul in my room, I was a bit let down. The shots of aircraft on static display were generally good; shots of aerial displays were generally poor. It didn't have anything to do with the camera, and not so much to do with skill -- it was just that shots of aerial targets from the ground are difficult. Not only is there the factor of thermal distortions in the air, but the aircraft tend to be backlit against the sky.

I did get a few good shots of aerial targets, and in the end I had to conclude that the difficulty is just the way things are. My zoom camera, I decided, was as good a camera as I could make use of, and buying a more expensive camera would gain me little. What I needed to do was just learn how to make better use of it, and even then I could only expect incrementally better results. I got to bed a little late, though I knew I was going to have a long day on Saturday. [TO BE CONTINUED]

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[THU 21 MAR 13] SPACE NEWS

* Space launches for February included:

-- 01 FEB 13 / INTELSAT 27 (FAILURE) -- A Sea Launch Zenit 3SL booster was launched from Sea Launch Odyssey platform in the equatorial Pacific to put the "Intelsat 27" geostationary comsat into orbit to provide communications services for the Americas and Western Europe. The booster failed shortly after liftoff and fell into the sea.

-- 6 FEB 13 / GLOBALSTAR 2 x 6 -- A Soyuz 2.1a booster was launched from Baikonur at 1604 UTC to put six second-generation "Globalstar" comsats into medium Earth orbit, the satellites being designated "M093" through "M097". This was the last of four Globalstar 2 launches, fully restocking the constellation of 24 satellites to provide personal mobile global communication services. The new satellites, built by Thales Alenia Space, had a launch mass of 700 kilograms (1,545 pounds) each and a design life of 15 years.

Globalstar 2 cluster

-- 7 FEB 13 / AMAZONAS 3, AZERSPACE -- An Ariane 5 ECA booster was launched from Kourou at 2136 UTC to put the Hispasat "Amazonas 3" and the Azerbaijan communications ministry's "Azerspace" AKA "AfricaSat 1a" geostationary comsats into orbit. Amazonas 3 was built by Space Systems / Loral and was based on the SSL 1300 comsat platform. It had a launch mass of 5,979 kilograms (13,182 pounds) and a payload of 33 Ku / 9 Ka / 16 C band transponders. It was placed in the geostationary slot at 61 degrees west longitude to provide communications services for Europe and the Americas.

Azerspace was built by Orbital Sciences Corporation and was based on the Orbital GEOStar 2 platform. It had a launch mass of 3,250 kilograms (7,163 pounds), a payload of 12 Ku band / 24 C band transponders, and a design life of 15 years. It was placed in the geostationary slot at 46 degrees east longitude to provide communications services for Azerbaijan, Central Asia, Africa, and Europe.

-- 11 FEB 13 / PROGRESS 50P (ISS) -- A Soyuz booster was launched from Baikonur in Kazakhstan at 1442 UTC to put a Progress tanker-freighter spacecraft into orbit on an International Space Station (ISS) supply mission. It was the 50th Progress mission to the ISS, and so the flight was "Progress 50P"; it was also known as "Progress M-18M". It docked with the ISS Pirs module six hours after launch.

-- 11 FEB 13 / LDCM -- An Atlas 5 booster was launched from Vandenberg at 1802 UTC to put the "Landsat Data Continuity Mission (LDCM)" spacecraft into Sun-synchronous orbit for NASA and the US Geological Survey. The spacecraft was built by Orbital Sciences and had a launch mass of 2,781 kilograms (6,133 pounds); it carried two instruments, including the "Operational Land Imager", built by Ball Aerospace, and the "Thermal Infrared Sensor", built by NASA Goddard. LDCM imaged the Earth in swaths 185 kilometers (115 miles) wide, with an orbital revisit period of 16 days. The Atlas booster was in "401" configuration, with a 4 meter (13.1 foot) diameter payload fairing, no solid rocket boosters and a single RL-10 engine in the Centaur upper stage.

-- 25 FEB 13 / SARAL, SMALLSATS x 6 -- An ISRO Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle was launched from Sriharikota at 1231 UTC to put the Indo-French "SARAL" ocean altimetry satellite into orbit, along with six smallsats. SARAL, a collaboration of India's ISRO and France's CNES space agencies, had a launch mass of 408 kilograms (900 pounds) and carried a radar altimeter system to measure wave heights.

SARAL

SARAL joined the French-American Jason 2 satellite, launched in 2008, which also measured ocean topography from orbit. However, SARAL flew in a different orbit and its high-frequency Ka-band radar provided twice the spatial resolution of Jason 2's altimeter. In addition to the radar payload, SARAL carried a communications package named ARGOS to collect observations from a network of ocean buoys and ground stations that performed measurements of sea conditions and weather.

Two of the smallsat payloads were Canadian. The "Near Earth Object Surveillance Satellite (NEOSSat)" was a space observatory with a launch mass of about 72 kilograms (160 pounds). It carried a 15 centimeter (6 inch) telescope to scan for asteroids crossing Earth's orbital path, with a precise pointing system permitting long exposures. NEOSSat was the first dedicated asteroid-hunting satellite. It was derived from the "Microvariability & Oscillation of Stars (MOST)" smallsat, launched by a Russian Rockot booster in 2003. NEOSSat was the first spacecraft based on the CSA "Multi-Mission Microsatellite" spacecraft bus.

NEOSSat

The other Canadian payload was "Sapphire", Canada's first military satellite, to observe objects in Earth orbit. The 148 kilogram (326 pound) satellite was built by Surrey Satellite Technologies LTD (SSTL) of the UK, working for prime contractor MDA Corporation. Space object data obtained by Sapphire was shared with the US Air Force as a contribution to the US Space Surveillance Network.

The other four smallsat payloads included:

This was the 23rd launch of the PSLV, and the 21st consecutive successful flight. The booster was in the "core alone" configuration, with no strapon boosters.

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[WED 20 MAR 13] FINDING THE WAY

* FINDING THE WAY: The intelligence of and other insects was last discussed here in 2010. As reported by an article from AAAS SCIENCE NOW Online ("No GPS Needed: Bumblebees Find Their Own Flight Paths" by Virginia Morell, 20 September 2012), British researchers have published a study that reveals the simple algorithms by which bumblebees go from flower to flower.

bumblebee

A bumblebee will set up a network of flowers to repeatedly canvass for nectar. The bees have an incentive in time and energy cost to come up with the most efficient route between the flowers -- or in other words they have to solve what mathematicians call the "traveling salesman problem", the determination of the optimum route of a salesman who has to visit multiple cities. The traveling salesman problem can be tricky to figure out, but the British researchers found out that bumblebees can do so with surprising efficiency, using a simple trial-&-error approach.

A team of researchers from Queen Mary, University of London fitted seven bumblebees with tiny radar transponders, using double-sided tape to stick the devices on the backs of the bees -- in earlier experiments, they'd tried to chase after the bees, which didn't go well. They trained the bees to forage nectar from five blue artificial flowers; each artificial flower had a yellow landing platform and a single drop of sucrose, just enough to fill one-fifth of a bumblebee's tank capacity, to ensure that the bees would visit all five flowers on each foraging tour.

The scientists placed the flowers in a field at Rothamsted Research, a biological research station north of London, in October, a time when flowers aren't generally in bloom and the bumblebees wouldn't be distracted from the artificial flowers. The researchers arranged the flowers in a pentagon, spaced 50 meters (164 feet) apart; bumblebees can only see about a third that far, so they have to fly around to find the flowers. Each flower had a motion-triggered webcam to observe visits by the bees.

Every day for a month, each bee was freed to forage for 7 hours. Using the transponders, the researchers were able to track each bumblebee's flight path, travel distance, and flight speed, and then modeled the flight paths. According to Mathieu Lihoreau, lead author of the study: "Initially, the bees' routes were long and complex, and they revisited empty flowers several times. But they gradually refined their routes through trial and error."

At the outset, the bumblebees visited the flower nearest to their nest, and then the next closest flower. They kept track of the total distance to each flower on each foraging trip; they tried out different routes, and if a route was shorter, they dropped the old route and kept the new one. The researchers were very surprised at how fast the bumblebees converged on a solution. There were 120 possible routes between the five flowers; the bees only had to experiment with about 20 routes before they converged on an optimum solution. One naive bee traveled about two kilometers (6,500 feet) on her first circuit; she ultimately reduced the route to a quarter of that.

The research also suggests the bumblebees aren't using a "cognitive map", a mental picture of the landscape, to navigate; they simply remember a list of distances and directions linking the "nodes" of the route. The experiment was not set up to test if the bumblebees used cognitive maps, but it implied they didn't, Lihoreau commenting: "It seems a lot to expect from a small brain with less than one million neurons." He added that use of a simple rule, as the bumblebees did in this test, may better explain what appears to us as complex behavior. It would be hard to prove the bumblebees don't have cognitive maps -- but they can do the job without one.

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[TUE 19 MAR 13] MACHINE TRANSLATION ADVANCES

* MACHINE TRANSLATION ADVANCES: Efforts to come up with software to perform language translations go back to the early days of the computer era, but as anyone who has used a translation utility knows, the results obtained so far leave something to be desired. However, as reported by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("Conquering Babel", 5 January 2013), progress continues to be made, with a number of interesting developments in 2012:

The first challenge any speech-recognition system faces is to hear what's being said. In the past, speech-recognition software parsed speech into its constituent sounds or "phonemes"; there are around 25 phonemes in Mandarin, 40 in English, and over 100 in some African languages. Statistical speech models and a probabilistic technique known as "Gaussian mixture modeling" are used to identify each phoneme, with the phonemes then assembled into words. This is the tech used in voicemail speech recognition systems. It works okay with a restricted vocabulary, but try anything less restricted and it fumbles at least one word in four.

The translator Rashid demonstrated in Tianjin features several improvements. For a start, it attempts to identify not single phonemes but sequential triplet combinations of them, known as "senones"; English has more than 9,000 of such. When senones are picked out, working out which words they are part of is much easier than it would be by working from phonemes. Microsoft's senone identifier relies on "deep neural networks", a technology inspired by the organization of the brain. Such artificial networks are implemented in software written as "virtual neurons". Each neuron weighs the strengths of incoming signals from its neighbors and send outputs based on those to other neighbors, which then do the same thing. Such a network can be trained to match an input to an output by varying the strengths of the links between its component neurons.

Early neural networks were "flat", two-dimensional webs of connections, but in real brains the neurons are arranged in layers. A "deep" neural network copies this arrangement, Microsoft's having nine layers. The bottom layer learns features of processed speech audio; the next layer learns combinations of those features; and so on up the stack, with more sophisticated correlations gradually emerging. The top layer tries to guess the senone it has heard. By using recorded libraries of speech with each senone tagged, a correct result can be fed back into the network for each guess, with the system learning and improving its performance.

Microsoft researchers claim that their deep neural network translator makes at least a third fewer errors than traditional systems, and in some cases mistakes as few as one word in eight. Google has also started using deep neural networks for speech recognition, though not yet translation, on its Android smartphones, and claims they have cut errors by over 20%. Deep neural networks can be computation-intensive, so most speech-recognition and translation software -- including that from Microsoft and Google -- runs in the cloud, on powerful online servers accessed by smartphones or home computers.

Once the words in the speech are recognized, then a machine translator has to grammatically understand how they're put together -- a big problem -- and construct the equivalent in the output language -- at least as big a problem, maybe more so. Google's solution for its "Translate" smartphone app and web service is crowd-sourcing. It compares the text to be translated with millions of sentences that have passed through its software and selects the best fit.

Jibbigo, derived from work at Carnegie Mellon University, is one of the most advanced translation apps commercially available today. The app features speech recognition and a 40,000-word vocabulary for ten languages, operating on today's smartphones without needing an internet connection. It is, however, only one-way, not able to easily support a conversation. Jibbigo is based on crowd-sourcing as well, but also pays users in developing countries to correct their mother-tongue translations.

All very clever, but there's still much left to be done. Although NTT DoCoMo's phone-call translator -- incidentally, it's also based on a neural network -- is fast and easy to use, it struggles with anything more demanding than pleasantries. Sentences must be kept short to maintain accuracy, and even so words often get jumbled. Microsoft is betting that listeners will be more forgiving if dialogue is delivered in the speaker's own voice. Its new system can encode the distinctive timbre of a speaker by analyzing about an hour's worth of recordings. It then generates synthesized speech with a similar spectrum of frequencies.

Other difficulties include trying to figure out who is talking, dope out slang, and pick out speech on noisy streets. We've come a long way, but there's a long way to go. In the era of multicore computing, we can envision specialized language translation cores, with deep neural networks implemented in fast hardware, sitting on a chip next to conventional digital cores that pass speech over to the neural core for analysis. However, nobody's believes smartphones that can readily translate languages as just around the corner.

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[MON 18 MAR 13] CARS OF THE FUTURE (2)

* CARS OF THE FUTURE (2): As discussed by another article from THE ECONOMIST ("Look, No Hands", 1 September 2012), even though car use may have peaked in the rich world, it is still growing globally, and so are the number of traffic accidents. At present, a staggering 108,000 people are killed every month around the world in traffic accidents, with the total expected to rise to 150,000 a month by 2020. That's on the threshold of the casualties of a world war.

There's considerable work on improved automotive safety systems -- discussed here in 2009 -- but the ultimate solution is increasingly seen as safe cars that drive themselves. If a robot driver could be designed to drive safely, it would never space out, get aggressive, or get drunk. In an era of wireless communications, a robot car would not only have greater awareness of other cars, but would also be able to coordinate its movements with them, permitting smoother and more efficient traffic flow. They could even increasingly supplant car ownership, with users signing up on subscriptions to use robot cars fetched by smartphone -- though that would probably be more attractive at the outset to those living in big cities where car ownership is impractical.

It would certainly be nice to let the car drive itself and read or play a game on a commute, or sleep on a long overnight drive. The elderly or handicapped would no longer need someone to drive them around. Robot cars may sound like sci-fi, but the pieces of the technology seem to be here, and manufacturers are busily working on sensors and control systems to automate driving. The general opinion is that the technology should be on the market in ten years or so.

For the moment, cars are getting smarter to assist drivers instead of replacing them completely:

These technologies represent substantial steps toward fully robotic cars. Those working on robot car systems believe they will only add about $3,000 USD to the sticker price -- and consumers have demonstrated they are willing to buy collision-avoidance systems for almost that much money. A fully automated car might well pay back the added outlay over its lifetime, partly by improved fuel economy, more by reduced insurance rates. If safe robot cars became widely available, insurance rates for those still driving on their own would skyrocket.

Prototypes are starting to move off test tracks and onto real roads. In 2011, BMW sent a robot car at motorway speeds from Munich, the German carmaker's hometown, to Nuremberg, about 170 kilometers (105 miles) to the north -- a professional driver was behind the wheel, just in case. In 2010 Audi, a component of the Volkswagen Group, sent a self-driving TTS Coupe named "Shelley" through 156 tight curves along nearly 20 kilometers (12 miles) of paved and dirt road on Colorado's Pikes Peak, with nobody behind the wheel. It drove about as fast as one driven by an average driver. Shelley later drove itself at 190 KPH (118 MPH) on a racetrack.

These are impressive stunts, but not in the league with a car that can perform a complete journey, from start to finish through all the obstacles in between, on its own. It takes about a million USD to build such a car now. The basic car itself doesn't amount to much of an expense, since modern engines, drivetrains, and brakes already receive their instructions from electronic signals, and it's not hard to plug them into a control system. It's adding the intelligence that costs money.

Adding to the expense are the sensors needed to make cars aware of their surrounding -- allowing them to spot road features, read signs and traffic lights, or spot pedestrians and other obstacles. That's done with some combination of visible and infrared cameras; radar and lidar (light radar); ultrasonic sonar; plus gyroscopes, accelerometers, and altimeters to back up a Global Positioning System receiver for navigation. [TO BE CONTINUED]

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[FRI 15 MAR 13] SAN DIEGO ROAD TRIP (11)

* SAN DIEGO ROAD TRIP (11): Finally, Friday 12 October came around, time for the airshow at Miramar. I decided to make one last trip downtown before the airshow started to do some planespotting at the airport. I had seen a pedestrian walkway over the Pacific Highway that seemed like it would give me a good view of the airport tarmac and could yield some good photos.

There were actually two walkways, but one was derelict and one was dedicated to the Port Authority building, and I couldn't get access to either. I did manage to take some shots of the airport from the top of the stairs on the far side of the walkway, but they were unspectacular. The only thing I got out of the effort was a photo of a car carrier ship, a huge box of a vessel, working its way south through the harbor. I left for the airshow; the exercise had been a frustrating bust and I was hoping it didn't set a trend for the day.

car carrier ship

I got to Miramar a little after opening time, with visitors starting to build up. I made my way from the parking lot to the airshow area, giving my sore feet a further pounding. As I was walking I heard jets overhead and, for the first time in my life, looked up to see two Northrop F-5E Tiger II fighters coming in. Huh? Where did they come from? The US never operated the F-5E as a line aircraft. As I got to the show area, I heard jets again and looked up to see, to my astonishment, two Panavia Tornado strike aircraft -- a European aircraft, never operated by the US, leaving me wondering where they had come from.

Once I got to the show area I started to work around the static exhibits, taking as many photos as I could. It turned out the F-5Es were from the US Navy aggressor training squadron, being used as "MiG-21 analogs"; although I had wondered if the Tornados were British Royal Air Force aircraft, they were actually from the German Luftwaffe training squadron at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico. Oh right, after suffering too many accidents in congested and cloudy German airspace, the Luftwaffe set up a squadron in New Mexico, where congestion and clouds were much less of a problem.

Other exhibits included Coast Guard Jayhawk helicopters; various Marine rotorcraft; a Navy E-6A, a Boeing 707 configured to provide communications to submarines in case of war; old Douglas Skyhawk and Phantom fighters in Marine colors; Beech Super King Airs in military colors, some with defensive countermeasures systems; a USMC Harrier II jumpjet; an Air Force Predator drone and Marine Shadow 200 drones; Marine armored and wheeled vehicles; various civilian aircraft; an Air Force C-17 cargolifter and B-1B bomber; and a big Antonov An-2 biplane. It took me a while to cover all the ground, but I got a good set of photos.

Navy armored truck

That done, I went forward to the viewing area and set up my folding chair, allowing me to get off my sore feet and watch the aerial acts. At the time I got settled in, stunters were in action; I never have too much interest in them, it looks like it's fun and challenging to do, but having seen a few of them, I feel like I've seen them all. Airshows tend to demand a bit of patience, consisting of long dull intervals interspersed by interesting flight acts. The announcers can also be grating, tending towards patriotic zeal and some military swagger -- the first being more tolerable in small doses, the second being much less amusing to people who've been downrange of it for a few years. If anyone talked to me on the phone in that way, I'd hang up on them without hesitation. [TO BE CONTINUED]

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[THU 14 MAR 13] SCIENCE NOTES

* SCIENCE NOTES: As if antibiotic-resistant pathogens weren't bad enough, WIRED ONLINE blogs surveyed a paper published in the NEW ENGLAND JOURNAL OF MEDICINE by two researchers at the US Food & Drug Administration, the paper describing how microbial pathogens are being found in .... antiseptic preparations. In 2010 and 2011, for example, patients at a children's hospital were infected with Bacillus cereus -- a common villain food contamination cases -- that were propagated in alcohol wipes.

It turns out that, under examination, reports of pathogen contamination of antiseptics go back a decade, with fatal incidents, and that is likely only the visible tip of a very big iceberg. The FDA had never worried much about the issue, for the simple reason that almost nobody could have foreseen it might be a problem, the realization that it is being a shock to all. The FDA is now looking into the issue, the general idea being that tightening up manufacturing standards should fix things.

* As discussed here in 2011, the noxious bedbug has been making a comeback, creeping out of its hiding places in the dark to bite sleepers, and then going back into hiding. Dr. Johnathan M. Sheele of the Eastern Virginia Medical School, an emergency medicine specialist, thinks he has the answer: let them bite. Sheele has experimented with human test subjects, giving them a common deworming agent, with the subjects then allowing themselves to be bitten by bedbugs. Over 60% of the bedbugs died within a few days, and that was with a low dosage of the drug.

It sounds crazy, but the drug -- formally known as "ivermectin", the trade name being "Stromectol" -- is uncontroversial, being commonly found in the beef-flavored Heartgard Chewables that kill heartworm in cats and dogs. It's not just a drug for animals either, being available by prescription for, say, travelers who pick up worms overseas, or toddlers who get them from playing in sandboxes frequented by dogs. Millions of doses have been given to African children to kill the worms that cause river blindness. One study of the drug found that up to ten times the normal dose was safe.

Heartgard -- bite back at bedbugs

Ivermectin kills by blocking a "gated chloride channel" in the nerves of worms that does not exist in mammals. It also seems to be effective in killing off mosquitoes, and Sheele is curious about its effects on ticks and mites. There's a certain satisfaction in the idea of dooming insects that bite us -- "Go ahead, bite me!" -- but Sheele is not recommending the practice just yet. For one thing, Ivervectin is not cheap, there being no generic version available just yet. More significantly, Sheele has only conducted a study with a handful of test subjects, commenting that "as a physician, I'd be very concerned about an off-label use like that. If I gave that out, and something happened, I would not have a leg to stand on in court."

* The persistence of life guarantees that surprisingly elaborate micro-sized ecosystems can arise in the most unlikely places. As reported by THE NEW YORK TIMES, micro-ecologies can even pop up in little balls of moss that blow across glaciers. The "glacier mice", as they're called, form when clumps of dust and organic debris develop a layer of moss over time. There's nothing much on the glacier for them to take any sort of root in; unprotected from the wind, they are blown around, accumulating more material until they are little green clumps the size of mice, hence the name.

Few paid much attention to the mice until Steve Coulson, an arctic biologist at the University Center in Svalbard, Norway, joined up with his colleague Nicholas Midgley, at Nottingham Trent University in England, to go to Iceland and investigate the little clumps. They wondered whether the mice would provide a liveable environment for other organisms, performing measurements of the mice in the field and collecting samples for inspection.

They hit the jackpot, at least on small scale, the mice containing insectlike creatures known as springtails; tardigrades, which are little eight-legged creatures that like moisture and are often called "water bears"; and nematode roundworms. The creatures weren't just getting by, either; the researchers found up to 73 springtails, 200 tardigrades and 1,000 nematodes in just a single mouse. There were springtails at various parts of their life cycle, suggesting they spent their whole lives in the mice. Examination of the mice showed that their interiors were warmer, in some cases substantially warmer, than their environment, and they accumulated enough water to remain damp. The mice only survive for a few years before falling apart, but as the wind blows them around they can clump up together, allowing the inhabitants of one mouse to colonize another, and propagate their micro-ecosystems.

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[WED 13 MAR 13] CROSS-LAMINATED TIMBER TAKES OFF

* CROSS-LAMINATED TIMBER TAKES OFF: It wasn't until the development of modern steel-making processes that builders were able to put up skyscrapers, traditional materials such as wood not having the strength-to-weight ratio to support such tall structures. However, as reported by an article from THE NEW YORK TIMES ("Wood That Reaches New Heights" by Henry Fountain, 4 June 2012), in the 21st century, it's turning out that wood can do more than we once thought it could.

In the London borough of Hackney there's a nine-storey apartment building, the Graphite Apartments, distinct in its appearance from its brick-faced neighbors by being covered in white and gray tiles. It's actually more unconventional than it looks, being made of wood from the second floor up, establishing it as one of the tallest wooden residential buildings in the world. It was built in 2009 using laminated spruce panels, up to 15 centimeters thick and 9.1 meters long (6 inches by 30 feet), fabricated to precise specifications in Austria, and then shipped to the UK to be bolted together on site to form the exterior and interior walls, floors, and roof. Even the stairwells and elevator shafts are made from these "cross-laminated timber (CLT)" panels.

CLT was developed in Europe in the 1990s to become popular there, and is now starting to catch on in North America. Advocates say that buildings made with CLT panels are potentially cheaper and more environmentally benign than structures made with traditional concrete or steel. The panels do use a lot of wood, a CLT wall having up to six times more wood than a typical wall framed up from 2x4 timbers, but advocates point out that trees are a renewable resource and a carbon sink.

CLT building concept

CLT structures have to deal with the obstacle that they are unfamiliar to architects, engineers, and in particular government building-code inspectors. The construction industry is necessarily conservative, and the industry as well as its regulators aren't comfortable with unproven technology. In Europe, CLT has been used mostly for low structures, like two-story apartment buildings or office complexes and schools, in part because building codes in many countries restrict wooden buildings to four stories.

Building codes in the UK are more flexible, allowing builders of CLT structures to break through the "timber ceiling". Several large CLT structures have been constructed or are under construction in Hackney. The barrier having been broken, a ten-story CLT apartment building is now being built in Melbourne, Australia, while advocates in the UK see structures with up to 15 storeys being built in a few years. Some think that hybrid structures, for example using CLT assemblies around a reinforced-concrete core, could reach 30 storeys.

The common preconception is that wooden structures aren't strong enough to be built very large lest they collapse, but CLT is in a different league from traditional wooden structures based on wood framing with plywood and drywall sheathing. Advocates say CLT construction is much more like precast concrete construction. The panels are are built up from narrow planks a few centimeters (about an inch) thick are laid side by side to form layers. As with plywood, each added layer -- there can be as many as 11 -- is laid perpendicular to the preceding one. The layers are glued and the entire sandwich is pressed and trimmed. CLT could be called a form of plywood, but that would definitely be an understatement.

CLT panel

Once a panel is fabricated then, using computer-guided saws and drills, it is cut to the precise dimensions of the architectural plans, including window, door, plumbing and ventilation openings. Channels for electrical wiring can be cut into the panels. At the construction site, the panels are hoisted into position and bolted together with metal brackets to assemble the structure floor by floor. Construction can be rapid -- the Graphite Apartments were built in about two-thirds of the time it would have taken to construct a similar building in steel or concrete. While CLT does play to the environmental angle, its ability to support prefabricated building schemes also means that it can achieve major savings in construction time and cost.

CLT structures tend to be strong, because they are constructed of a matrix of panels bolted together, with the building load distributed over the matrix. That helps prevent "progressive collapse" -- when the loss of one structural component of a building might otherwise lead to a "domino effect" that brings down the rest. Fire is a concern, but the thick panels don't torch up easily, and they are generally given finishings to provide fire protection.

In Europe, CLT buildings have been around long enough so that they are covered by standards for structural integrity and fire safety. Such standards are still emerging across the Pond, but advocates believe that obstacle will quickly fall over, one saying: "Architects and engineers can start out as skeptics. In a very short space of time they get it, because it's simple -- it's large panels held together with large screws." The scheme has such a resemblance to a kid's building set that it can hardly fail to appeal to the intuition.

* As a footnote to this article, THE ECONOMIST reports that the Canadian province of British Columbia is faced with a surplus of timber, as the mountain pine beetle savages the province's forests. The beetle traditionally was kept in check by cold winters, but mild winters have led to a population explosion, with the beetle acting as a vector for a blue fungus that kills pine trees. That means sprawling stands of dead timber and a huge fire hazard. The provincial government has passed laws to encourage construction with wood, but there's so much dead timber that conventional construction would hardly dent the pile. The result has been a push towards development of CLT, which makes more aggressive use of timber -- though British Columbia's building codes need to be updated to encourage the use of CLT, since current codes only permit wooden buildings of up to six storeys in height. CLT can do much better than that.

Another idea was cooked up by a grad student named Sorin Pasca at the University of Northern British Columbia, which he calls "Beetlecrete". It's like concrete, but instead of using sand and aggregate with cement, it uses powdered deadwood pine trees with cement. Beetlecrete can be poured like concrete, but drilled and sawed like wood. The deadwood can also be pelletized and burned for fuel. However, there's a time crunch factor involved: if dead wood isn't processed within about a decade, it'll end up being too rotten to be useful for anything.

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[TUE 12 MAR 13] SEEME SATELLITE IN PROGRESS

* SEEME SATELLITE IN PROGRESS: The Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has been working on a tactical surveillance satellite under the "Space Enabled Effects for Military Engagement (SEEME)" program, mentioned here last March. An article from AVIATION WEEK ("Small World" by Graham Warwick, 24 December 2012), expanded on the effort.

SEEME envisions surveillance satellites weighing less than 45 kilograms (100 pounds) and with a cost of less than half a million USD, to be placed into orbit by small air-launched boosters -- being developed under the "Airborne Launch Assist Space Access (ALASA)" program, discussed here a year ago -- for a million dollars. At such costs, a space-based surveillance system could be cheaper than trying to maintain surveillance coverage with unmanned aerial vehicles.

Raytheon has been awarded a contract for design of a SEEME satellite, and has come up with a design with a launch mass of only 20 kilograms (44 pounds), with an imaging resolution of a meter (3 feet 3 inches). It is an order of magnitude smaller than the smallsats envisioned for military "Operationally Responsive Space (ORS)" missions. It features deployable solar panels for power, but though DARPA has considered deployable ("pop-up") optical systems, Raytheon went with fixed optics because deployable optics were too expensive. Similarly, although DARPA is interested in communications crosslinks to link a constellation of SEEME satellites together -- allowing one satellite exiting the battle area to pass off its task to a following satellite -- that was also ruled out because of expense. Tactical warfighters will only have access to a satellite that's overhead.

DARPA sees the SEEME satellites as being launched into low Earth orbit at an altitude of 350 kilometers (220 miles). They would operate for at least 45 days, then reenter and burn up harmlessly into fragments. A total of 24 SEEME satellites would provide continuous global coverage. A soldier would be able to use a SEEME app on a smartphone to contact a satellite overhead, with the satellite then targeting the soldier's location -- presumably reorienting with reaction wheels -- and then transmitting an image of the area back to the smartphone.

DARPA SEEME satellite

The app would also inform the soldier if a satellite is available, and automatically manage handoff of a task between consecutive satellites. Some discussion is being given to the proper orbital altitude: lower altitude would provide better imaging resolution at the cost of orbital lifetime, while higher altitude would improve lifetime at the expense of resolution, and also make it harder for a smartphone to hook up with a satellite.

One of the facets of the SEEME effort is that the satellites will demand a flexible manufacturing system, another matter of interest to DARPA. While ORS has envisioned stockpiling satellites, DARPA sees that as too expensive, and wants to be able to order SEEME satellites as needed, with a delivery lead time of no more than 90 days. In the meantime, the agency is also busily pursuing the ALASA program, with small cheap boosters launched by fighter or business jets; low-cost access to space is essential for the program to meet its cost ceilings.

ED: A first-generation SEEME system would only have optical imaging capabilities, but the suggestion of adding communications crosslinks leads to a vision of a much more capable system down the road. By 2050, a SEEME satellite might well be able to also provide low-bandwidth global messaging for smartphones, as well as carry a signals intelligence package, and possibly even a synthetic aperture radar for all-weather surveillance. If Raytheon can make a simple optical satellite that weighs in at 20 kilograms, with each of those three subsystems running to no more than 5 kilograms, adding in some system overhead would mean a spacecraft with a weight of no more than 45 kilograms. Getting all those subsystems to fit in the cost ceiling might be tricky, however.

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[MON 11 MAR 13] CARS OF THE FUTURE (1)

* CARS OF THE FUTURE (1): As discussed by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("The Road Less Traveled", 22 September 2012), the developed world has long had a love affair with the automobile. In rich countries, 70% of journeys are now by car; more than a billion cars roll on the world's roads, and the number is still climbing worldwide as developing nations get hooked on the car as well. However, the signs are that global enthusiasm for the car is approaching or has passed its peak.

Beyond peak car?

In the rich world, the traditional correlation between car use and income has been broken, and the number of miles driven per person has been falling. Partly the reduction has been due to the recession and to high fuel prices, but the trend precedes 2007. One reason is that the era of "urban sprawl" has run into a "sprawl wall"; once upon a time people wanted to live in the suburbs and drive to work, but the commute has been becoming less tolerable, and so people are now moving back into core cities.

There's a demographic reason as well: 21st-century retirees grew up as the first generation for which driving was all but universal, and so the later generations tend to be replacement drivers. Young folk are also less infatuated with the car; all over the rich world they are getting licenses later -- a startling turnabout from the era when kids couldn't wait to get their license -- and are making more use of alternate transport schemes. It's costly to own and run a car, with insurance rates being higher for the young.

The internet plays a part. People can now work, socialize, and shop online from their homes, with one delivery van dropping parcels off at doorsteps instead of everyone jumping in their cars to shop at the mall. However, governments are also losing their infatuation with the car, tiring of the expense of road construction and maintenance while never getting ahead of city congestion. It now seems smarter to discourage car use to deal with congestion, as well as reduce emissions that pollute city air. London has devoted more vehicle space exclusively to buses and cycles; cars pay to enter the center. Singapore has congestion pricing too.

Along with the stick, the carrot. In regions with high population densities, such as Japan, funds have been pumped into mass transit systems instead of coddling the car, and bicycle-sharing schemes -- not a new idea but only recently practical, thanks to improved tracking and security schemes -- are now popular all over the world. Even in the USA, which remains the most auto-friendly rich nation, light rail and bike-sharing are catching on. Along with mass transit, booming car-sharing schemes put drivers behind the wheel without the burden of owning and maintaining a car. Zipcar, the biggest international car-share scheme, has 700,000 members and over 9,000 vehicles. Buzzcar, a French company set up by the Zipcar founder, has 605,000 members sharing 9,000 cars.

Cars still remain very popular in the rich world, but it appears they have passed "peak car" there and are now on a gradual downward trend. That's a good thing to the extent that it will reduce air pollution, congestion, and dependence on foreign oil; we may even be healthier for walking and cycling more. There are potential downsides as well, such as loss of revenue to governments from fuel and car taxes. It's also not going to be good news for auto-makers and the millions of people who work in their factories -- and to that extent not good news for governments either, since they often feel compelled to prop up failing auto giants. There may be only so much, however, that governments can do to resist the inevitable.

Car makers still do have big opportunities in the developing world, where people who finally have enough money to buy a car are eager to do so. However, the auto industry may need to be innovative, rethinking the car to prevent developing-world drivers from replaying the rich world's mistakes. There's plenty of activity at present on cheaper cars, greener cars, and smarter cars -- even partly or, eventually, fully robotic cars.

Shanghai Metro

Governments of developing countries would also be wise to implement policies to avoid repeating bad history, focusing on prudent car-use policies and smarter transit as their core cities boom, becoming ever more difficult to manage. The Shanghai metro, mostly built since 2000, hauls 8 million people a day and covers 80% of the city. Eighteen Indian cities and several Middle Eastern ones are designing urban rail networks. Alas, in places such as Dhaka, Jakarta, and Bangkok are building more freeways as the current ones become clogged. Bangkok seems to be seeing the light, having constructed a "Sky Train" network -- an elevated electric railway system -- that has proven popular.

We still generally love the car, since it has meant the personal triumph over space and time, allowing us to go where we want quickly. In the 21st century, however, we are figuring out other ways of doing so. [TO BE CONTINUED]

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[FRI 08 MAR 13] SAN DIEGO ROAD TRIP (10)

* SAN DIEGO ROAD TRIP (10): After finishing with the DRAGON coaster at Legoland, I noticed that the TECHNIC coaster seemed to be operational, so I made my way back over to it and got in line. I was ahead of family-like group with an assortment of kids of clearly distinct parentage, the most noticeable being a stunningly beautiful mixed-ethnic girl about age 8 or so -- slender, long dark-honey colored wavy hair in a ponytail, matching skin color, fine features, big light-colored luminous eyes. She immediately noticed my glance at her and turned on the charm engine, million-dollar smile and laying the full whammy on me.

I backed up immediately: Only 8 and you know perfectly well how radioactive you are. Future fashion model or TV star; no joke, she looked that good. And also transparently manipulative; if I hadn't been so startled, I would have been damned annoyed. I noticed later one of her guardians was giving her a solemn talking-to, though I had no idea if I was the topic of concern.

Legoland TECHNIC wild mouse coaster

I spent most of the time scoping out the trees under the coaster, which had big beautiful orange flowers -- later poking around online showed they were African tulip trees -- and I noticed a hummingbird flitting in and out. I hear hummingbirds on occasion in Colorado, but I almost never can spot them as anything more than a passing blur. My mom used to keep hummingbird feeders stocked at the family summer house in north Idaho and it was normal to have them buzzing around like bees. I've never been able to get a shot of one, and I was hoping to get the chance in San Diego. I had also noticed hummingbirds around the motel; I did get some shots but they're a very hard target, not merely small and agile, but dark in appearance unless they're in direct sunlight, where the iridescence of their feathers lights them up.

Anyway, the TECHNIC coaster was a "wild mouse" coaster, with a four-seat car dropped off a lift hill to switch back and forth with exaggerated jerkiness on hairpin turns. I like them, but one has to be careful because the abrupt turns can cause whiplash. On the accelerated sections, I remembered to keep my head straight up relative to the gee forces, since I remembered that minimized trouble from my inner-ear problems.

Legoland KNIGHT'S TOURNAMENT ride

On leaving the coaster and wandering around, I found one of the strangest rides I'd ever seen, named the KNIGHT'S TOURNAMENT. It was simply two sets of three industrial-class robot arms, six arms total, the arm "end effector" being two seats with tilt-down restraint collars. Attendants would strap the riders in, and the arms would go through a complex choreography of spinning the riders around, flipping them upside down, and so on. It looked like fun, and I was very tempted to give it a try -- but I remembered I do have a condition of sorts, and I could bet I would get really sick. I was still fascinated by it, it was such a simple idea. It looked like something they might have in Vegas, it's the kind of nonsense that would fit right in there.

I made my way to the center section of Legoland, where they had large-scale Lego replicas, with a new set of STAR WARS dioramas. They were something of adjunct to the main displays -- downtown San Francisco, New York City, New Orleans, and detailed copies of the casinos the Vegas Strip, with UFOs crashed in the desert outside.

Legoland cityscape

That was about as much as I saw of interest in Legoland, all the rest being very tame kiddie rides, and the usual overpriced shops and snack bars. On my way out, I went through the Sea Life Aquarium, which was an okay aquarium, but nothing all that special. One item that was unusually interesting was a coconut crab, with oversized claws for busting open coconuts, quite the little horror-movie monster: INVASION OF THE GIANT COCONUT CRABS. Sadly, I couldn't get a good shot of it.

That was it for Legoland; I went back south to the motel to regroup. I wouldn't recommended Legoland to anyone but folks with fairly small kids in tow. I doubt middle schoolers would find it very entertaining. Indeed, the double-decker bus was about as interesting as anything I saw inside the park. I couldn't complain because I got what was effectively expecting to get and it had its moments, but it was the weakest event on my trip. Anyway, I got my paperwork straight and went to bed at my normal time, getting a good night's sleep. I had a strict schedule for the rest of the trip, and getting out of whack on my sleep was going to cause me hardships. [TO BE CONTINUED]

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[THU 07 MAR 13] GIMMICKS & GADGETS

* GIMMICKS & GADGETS: As reported by BBC WORLD Online, the "mains power" we get off the electrical power grid is generally constant -- 120 volts AC and 60 hertz in North America, 240 volts AC and 50 hertz typically elsewhere -- but it undergoes tiny fluctuations with changes in demand. The pattern of fluctuations varies over time, but within a single power grid covering a nation or a good part of one, the pattern of fluctuations is common through the entire grid.

A decade ago, forensic scientists have found that they could use this pattern to validate recordings, a scheme known as "electric network frequency (ENF) analysis". The pattern of fluctuations is picked up by recording media; if an ongoing recording is made of the fluctuations, it can be used as a reference for other recordings made under the same power grid that can confirm the time the recording was made; whether the recording was edited and not continuous; or if two recordings made at separated times were spliced together.

The technique is now being used in court. British police busted a gang selling weapons, with undercover police recording an arms deal as evidence against the accused. The defense claimed the recordings were "cooked", but ENF analysis showed they were valid. The three gang members went to jail. British police now have automated the process and are making more use of it.

* In other news from BEEB WORLD, Spanish police -- in collaboration with Europol, the European Union's law enforcement agency -- arrested 11 people from Russia, Georgia and Ukraine on charges of running an online extortion scam. The scammers used malware planted on the machines of victims to accuse them of having viewed illegal content, such as kiddie porn, and then demanded that they pay a "fine" before they could continue to use the computer.

A Europol statement elaborated: "By dressing the ransomware up to look as if it comes from a law enforcement agency, cybercriminals convince the victim to pay the 'fine' of 100 euros [$130 USD] through two types of payment gateways -- virtual and anonymous -- as a penalty for the alleged offense. The criminals then go on to steal data and information from the victim's computer."

According to Europol, the virus was detected in May 2011, with tens of thousands of computers believed to have been infected. There have been 1,200 reported cases in Spain alone. The gang obtained payments through online monetary schemes such as bitcoin, and is estimated to have been pulling in a million euros per year, not merely through payoffs but through compromised charge cards. Europol believe the head of the operation was a 27-year-old Russian man who was arrested in the United Arab Emirates and extradited to Spain. Six other Russians, two Ukrainians and two Georgians were also arrested.

* The big meteor explosion that took place in Russia last month was recorded by a number of dashboard cameras, which led to the realization of how popular dashcams are in Russia. It's not a technological fad by any means, being driven much more by necessity. Russian drivers can be vicious -- a driver who annoys an SUV full of punks is liable to get cut off, then beaten to a pulp with blunt instruments -- and the law is lax, indifferent to complaints of citizens. Dashcams can, however, provide sufficient evidence to persuade the law to do something.

Russky dashcams don't lie

Russian insurers are similarly lax in paying out, but dashcams can be used to hold their feet to the fire. There was also, not so long ago, a custom by gangsters of staging accidents for extortion; dashcams have fortunately put such games out of business. One result of the prevalence of dashcams is that Russians have online access to large numbers of videos that look like YouTube with a flavor of DEATH RACE 2000, some of them brutally graphic, along with scenes of hand-to-hand violence and drunkenness. However, there are also videos showing kindness and conscientiousness above and beyond the call of duty. Russians may be bears -- but bears still have hearts.

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[WED 06 MAR 13] PANDEMICS & MASS GATHERINGS

* PANDEMICS & MASS GATHERINGS: As reported by an article from AAAS SCIENCE ("Do Sports Events Give Microbes A Chance To Score?" by Kai Kupferschmidt, 8 June 2012), sports fans look forward to giant sporting events, where fans from all over converge to root for their teams. Epidemiologists have been interested in big sports events as well, seeing them as centers from which a pandemic could spread all over the world.

It was a particularly significant matter with millions converging on the European Football Championships in Poland and the Ukraine early in the summer of 2012, and the Olympic Games in London later that summer. Public health organizations, including the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the European CDC (ECDC), and the World Health Organization (WHO) issued warnings that attendants make sure their vaccinations -- particularly against measles, rubella, and polio -- were up to date. However, there is disagreement among the experts as to just how substantial the threat really is, with some studies suggesting there just isn't that much to worry about.

Sports events are only one sort of mass gathering that presents potential health threats, others including rock concerts, political rallies, and religious events. Given a growing and more mobile world population, the gatherings are becoming larger over time. The 2011 wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton in London drew a crowd of about a million people; 6 to 12 million gathered in Tehran in 1989 for the funeral of Ayatollah Khomeini; and the Kumbh Mela, a periodic Hindu pilgrimage, can bring in 70 million people, making it the world's biggest mass gathering.

Such events have created a research field titled "mass gathering health", with its practitioners holding conferences, publishing articles, and generating reports. They not only focus on infectious diseases, they also examine other hazards of mass gatherings -- heat exhaustion, dehydration, and ghastly stampedes, one of the most recent of the last being a crush in January 2011 when 104 Hindu pilgrims in India were killed. However, infectious disease tops the list of concerns, presenting the possibility of a global pandemic after participants go home.

That possibility is heightened by the fact that mass gatherings have in fact been gathering points and distribution centers for infectious diseases. While measles has been generally eliminated from the Americas, during the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, Canada, three Canadians were infected with the virus during a downtown event, leading to the biggest outbreak of measles in British Columbia since 1997 -- with 82 people falling ill and a quarter of them ending up in the hospital. Measles, as discussed here not long ago, has been on the rampage in Europe, and the summer sports events there had public-health officials very worried. Fortunately, there were no major problems.

* The field of mass gathering health has its roots in the Haj, the sacred yearly pilgrimage of Muslims to the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia, which all Muslims are required to attend at least once. It draws about two million pilgrims a year, making it scientifically interesting for its size, as well as its yearly regularity. Saudi authorities also invest considerable resources in making sure things don't go wrong. Infectious disease has been a problem in the past, the Haj being the site of smallpox, plague, and typhus outbreaks.

The current microbial villain shadowing the Haj is Neisseria meningitidis, which can cause deadly meningitis and sepsis. It first popped up in 1987, with Saudi authorities then requiring pilgrims to be vaccinated against it. A new strain, W135, emerged in 2000, with pilgrims carrying it back to the USA, Africa, Asia, and Europe, resulting in mini-epidemics in those regions. Since 2002, vaccination against W135 is required as well.

The Haj provides a particularly serious opportunity for the transfer of disease. Pilgrims are often very elderly, not having had the money for the pilgrimage when they were younger, and many are in failing health, trying to make the journey before they pass on. About 200,000 pilgrims come from undeveloped countries with poor health-care systems, and huge numbers of them sleep in close quarters in tent cities. In addition, the Haj is linked to the lunar calendar, which can cause it to overlap with the peak influenza season in the Northern Hemisphere, or the peak meningitis season in sub-Saharan Africa.

* Despite having good cause for fears, examination of past experience suggests the threat is more potential than actual. Researchers at the Robert Koch Institute in Berlin, Germany's center for disease prevention and control, analyzed data from the 2006 football World Cup held in Germany that year, just at the time measles was sweeping the country. Not one case was found that could be linked to the World Cup, and in fact it wasn't possible to find any peculiarly high incidence of infectious disease among World Cup fans.

Other studies of the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, the European Football Championship in 2004, and the 2010 football World Cup in South Africa also revealed no real problems on the infectious disease score. Once again, as the 2010 outbreak of measles in British Columbia showed, it can happen. There was an outbreak of leptospirosis -- a rare but nasty spirochete infection -- among triathlon athletes in 1998 in the US state of Illinois, and a cluster of meningitis cases was linked to a rugby match in the United Kingdom. There are also concerns that people who pick up a disease in a mass gathering may not fall ill until they go home, a particular issue with diseases with long latencies such as tuberculosis, and then nobody will make the connection to the event.

Still, the level of problems seem surprisingly small. One reason is that people going to sports events and the like tend to be young, wealthy, and healthy, meaning they are the least likely on a population basis to pick up a disease. A particularly counterintuitive factor is that mass gathering events may not draw an unusually large number of people to a locale, with the number of visitors to Beijing during the 2008 Olympics there actually declining. That's because when the sports fans descended on the city, anybody else who thought to visit decided it would be a lot less bother if they waited until the rush was over.

Even the Haj, which results in a huge influx of people, doesn't suggest that diseases run rampant. About 2.5 million people attended the 2009 Haj right in the middle of flu pandemic, but only about a hundred cases were reported. However, it has to be noted that the Saudi authorities were thorough in screening travelers at airports, isolating the sick and treating them, and vaccinating others. What might happen if such precautions weren't taken? Nobody wants to find out.

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[TUE 05 MAR 13] CLOGGING THE AIRWAVES

* CLOGGING THE AIRWAVES: Mobile phone technology has been advancing by leaps and bounds over the past few decades, but as discussed by an article from BBC WORLD Online ("Mobile's Dawning Signal Crisis" by Roland Pease, 13 February 2013), it's now approaching a chokepoint: bandwidth.

Mobile phone pioneer Marty Cooper, originally of Motorola, once established what became known as "Cooper's Law", which states that the number of "conversations" (voice or data) that can theoretically be conducted over a given band in the useful radio spectrum has doubled every 2.5 years since the beginning of radio communications. Total growth of conversational capacity has been by a factor of a trillion over that time. However, in the real universe all exponential growth must hit diminishing returns sooner or later, and that is what is now happening to mobile communications.

As long as mobile was focused on voice, all was more or less well. About four years ago, however, data traffic stepped ahead of voice traffic, and has been doubling every year since that time. Video downloads are particularly contributing to the crunch. The driver behind the surge was the modern smartphone and the "third generation (3G)" mobile networks supporting it. The surge is only beginning, since developing markets haven't wholeheartedly embraced the smartphone yet. According to networking firm Cisco, in 2012 global mobile data traffic grew 70% from 2011, to 885 petabytes per month -- 885 million gigabytes of data; Cisco expects it to reach 11.2 exabytes, 11,200 million gigabytes, per month by 2017.

With more people carrying smartphones and 3G networks to support them, it's absolutely no surprise that online services have paid little attention to how much bandwidth they grab. In November 2012, Facebook released new version of its mobile app for Android and Apple phones. As more users adopted the app, the load on bandwidth skyrocketed. Everyone wants to bring in customer eyes with new apps; the scramble is heading towards wireless traffic gridlock.

However, data demand is not just being driven by cellphone users. Bandwidth is also being increasingly exploited by "machine-to-machine (M2M)" communication, in which mobile networks are hooked up to everything from smart electric meters to smart trashbins that signal when they're full, in a growing ecology of the "internet of things". By the end of this 2013, Cisco predicts that the number of mobile-connected devices will exceed the number of people on earth, and by 2017 there will be more than 10 billion.

Radio spectrum is a limited resource, strictly farmed out by national and international regulation. At the moment, it is all spoken for by the military, mariners, aviation, broadcasters, and the other factions that need a piece of it. No one can get more bandwidth without someone else losing out. The 4G spectrum auction that recently began in the UK, for example, is the equivalent of adding a new six-lane motorway to the existing wireless infrastructure, itself already running at ten lanes, built on virtual land vacated by the obsolete analog TV broadcasts.

Freeing up spectrum released by phasing out obsolete technology helps, but it only delays the inevitable crunch. That's why mobile operators and others chasing after radio bandwidth are gearing up for major spectrum negotiations at the International Telecommunications Union in 2015. The "WRC-2015" conference aims to carve up the available spectrum among different competing uses, but mobile services are the big gorilla among them.

On the other side of that coin, the mobile industry understands that more efficient use needs to be made of existing bandwidth. Like a new freeway that's used by just a few cars, the first generation of phones were incredibly wasteful of the spectrum they used. In going from 1G to 2G, there was a thousand-fold increase in capacity, not because of new radio lanes added in, but because more traffic was squeezed onto those lanes. And in going from 2G to 3G, capacity rose another factor of 1,000: digital techniques managed to squeeze out yet more of the empty space.

Now the industry is moving toward 4G technology, more formally known as "3G Long Term Evolution", that will squeeze more even more data through the bands. However, there is an ultimate limit to how much data a band can carry, defined by equations developed in the 1940s by the American engineer Claude Shannon for his employer, AT&T. The general perception is that mobile services are approaching that limit, but that there are plenty of clever tricks available to make better use of that limited bandwidth.

The day when people could design smartphone apps without consideration of how much bandwidth they hogged is drawing to an end; apps will need to be designed to be more sparing in their communications. Smartphones are going to become a lot smarter, able to make decisions and provide information while making only the most necessary references to the network. The mobile industry has good reason to fear the looming data crunch, but few believe that it represents impending doom.

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[MON 04 MAR 13] CHINA DOES SPACE SCIENCE (4)

* CHINA DOES SPACE SCIENCE (4): A sidebar to the AAAS SCIENCE article discussed the difficulties created by the fact that, organizationally, China's space program is dominated by the PLA. That the Chinese perform military activities in space is neither surprising nor particularly troubling; the early Space Race publicly focused on space spectaculars such as shooting astronauts into orbit, but there was a high-priority secret military Space Race going on in parallel, primarily to develop spy satellites for strategic intelligence. There were hidden couplings between the two tracks: the Vostok space capsule that carried the first Soviet cosmonauts into orbit and brought them back to Earth again was also used as the Zenit spy satellite, carrying cameras instead of a passenger.

However, when US President Dwight Eisenhower set up the National Aeronautics & Space Administration (NASA) in 1958, it was as a strictly civilian and open organization. Eisenhower, despite the fact that he owed so much to his military service, had a suspicion of the military born of career experience, and wanted to make sure there was a clear organizational barrier between the two tracks of the US space program. There has been collaboration across the barrier, but NASA still retains its independence.

China has no such barrier, with the PLA at the top of the complicated orgchart defining Chinese space activities. The leadership has always maintained nation's space program is peaceful in nature, with a recent policy paper announcing: "China always adheres to the use of outer space for peaceful purposes, and opposes weaponization or any arms race in outer space."

Really? It is entirely obvious that China does fly military spacecraft, including communications and navigation satellites, and particularly reconnaissance satellites. That's no surprise to anyone; other spacefaring nations do so as well, and they are generally willing to humor the idea of nonviolent military space activities as "peaceful" -- but on 11 January 2007, China launched an interceptor missile whose warhead collided with the Fengyun-1C satellite in low Earth orbit, obliterating it. Nobody saw that as "peaceful"; if the Chinese did not want to start an "arms race" in space, they had a funny way of showing it.

True, it appears the Chinese were provoked by discussions in American military circles on "space denial", or in other words destroying or disabling the space assets of adversary nations. However, all the Americans were doing was talking, and the talk was nothing new. Both the USA and the USSR had tinkered with antisatellite (ASAT) systems from the 1960s, but both sides had hesitated to suggest they had any intent of using them. Building an ASAT system was technically not all that tough, anybody with workable space technology could do it, and once one side pulled the trigger the other side would do so as well -- the only result being the destruction of everyone's space assets. The perception was that knowledge of adversary strategic assets obtained from space reconnaissance did much more to enhance national security than undermine it.

China's destruction of Fengyun-1C suggested a willingness to use ASAT weapons, and worse it generated a cloud of debris that endangered other satellites in low Earth orbit, leading to howls of protest. The Americans conducted an ASAT test of their own in response; the Chinese apparently got the hint, not performing a second space intercept. However, US defense analysts believe that China is energetically working on "space denial" systems, including microwave and laser beams to disable spacecraft, as well as jamming systems. Exactly why? What for? Nobody's sure, one strategic analyst saying: "A threat consists of both capabilities and intentions. Beijing's intentions remain ambiguous."

That ambiguity colors space relations between China and other spacefaring nations, particularly the USA. Following the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989, the US imposed sanctions on export of dual-use technologies to China, and a decade later technology transfer regulations effectively blocked US entities from using Chinese boosters. One analyst commented that: "Space is 95% dual use." -- and a recent US strategic paper observed: "China's civilian and military space industry are fused together such that reasonable regulators must consider the high likelihood that space-related items and technology will be diverted from a civil use and applied to military programs."

The US has a thick file on Chinese attempts to obtain restricted technologies for China's space program, with a report saying that China's progress in space had been heavily dependent on "exploiting foreign technologies and items, especially those from the United States." Although the Chinese do appear to be highly active in hacking foreign computer systems for intelligence data, claiming their space program is largely dependent on such may be underestimating the ingenuity of the Chinese. Shenzhou designer Qi Faren commented: "We applied our own intelligence to solve our problems."

The increasing role of CAS and other civilian organizations in China's space program does not necessarily indicate any movement towards a Chinese civilian space agency; it can be better seen as the PLA extending its organizational tentacles, obtaining the expertise of researchers in the civilian sphere for its own purposes. There's certainly no evidence that a Chinese civilian space agency is being considered, and so the suspicions that hobble Chinese space science in collaborations with other nations are going to persist for the foreseeable future. [END OF SERIES]

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[FRI 01 MAR 13] ANOTHER MONTH

* ANOTHER MONTH: According to WIRED Online blogs, the price of livestock feed is at a high, and so farmers have been mixing stale sweets -- cookies, chocolate bars, rainbow sprinkles, and gummi bears -- in with the feed in a one-tenth ratio. Cows have a highly capable digestive system and the sweets don't cause them any distress. And no, cows fed chocolate bars don't produce chocolate milk.

* The Loveland library has a set of glass cases near the entrance that they generally use to show off the hobbies of local citizens. I went in one day to find the shelves in the cases crammed with hundreds of Pez dispensers. Somebody was really into Pez dispensers.

Pez dispenser mania

I had to take a set of photos of them. I told a librarian: "I'm impressed, but it does remind of the saying that there's a fine line between a hobby and a mental illness." I had to add: "I have hobbies myself, so I understand how that works."

* There's been a buzz of sorts over the recent revival of Yahoo's Flickr photo-sharing service, thanks to a nice new mobile app for interface into the service. Flickr, it seems, had been in decline ever since it was absorbed by Yahoo, being outpaced by other photo-sharing services, suggesting it was headed for the trashheap. However, new management has been brought in and, by all appearances, is trying to clean house.

There's been a flap recently over Yahoo's policy of clamping down on working at home, but I really hope that Flickr does move back up to the top rank. That is not out of any sentimentality for Flickr, it's just that I have uploaded over 3,000 photos to it and I really don't want to have to do that again.

Every morning I check to see what Flickr photos of mine are getting the most hits. I can understand why some are popular, but others are baffling. Why does the photo I took of my neighbor's air conditioning heat exchanger get so many hits? Ditto for the photo I took of a Walmart parking-lot security camera array, and the photo of a schoolbus I took in Albuquerque. I think some people are just hot for schoolbuses.

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