apr 2013 / last mod sep 2016 / greg goebel

* 22 entries including: San Diego road trip, CANYON SIGINT satellite program, cars of the future, casinos, US taxes, whale feces, California flood, consumer electronics in space, Navy biofuel and renewables programs, ID forgery, and gliders for space launch.

banner of the month



* NEWS COMMENTARY FOR APRIL 2013: As reported by an article from TIME Online ("President Obama Brushes Back His Activist Left" by Michael Scherer, 08 April 2013), when Barack Obama took over the Oval Office in 2009, he talked of bipartisanship -- and then forgot about it. When President Obama released his first budget to the nation in February of 2009, he spent his afternoon meeting with the liberals from the Congressional Black Caucus at the White House.

What a difference four years makes. Obama's second inaugural address took a confrontational tone, challenging the Republicans -- but when he recently released his fifth budget, he privately dined with a dozen Republican senators. However private the meeting, those well to the Left are still feeling that Obama has betrayed them, the president stoking their anger with his cautious waffling on the Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada, and his talk of cutting Social Security.

Obama has not yet taken a position on approving the Keystone XL pipeline, which environmentalists claim would increase the risk of ground water contamination and speed the extraction of oil that will eventually contribute to global warming. That's debated; what Obama knows for a fact is that the Republicans overwhelmingly back Keystone XL, and at least 17 Democratic senators have also indicated their support for building the pipeline. As Obama explained at a fundraiser in San Francisco recently: "Look, my intention here is to try to get as much done with the Republican Party over the next two years as I can, because we can't have perpetual campaigns. I am looking to find areas of common ground with Republicans every single day."

The White House has explained Obama's embrace of lower cost-of-living adjustments for Social Security as part of a similar effort to seek Republican support for a budget deal. White House Press Secretary Jay Carney told a press conference: "This is not the President's idealized budget. It is not what he would do if he were king or if only people who supported his proposals were in Congress."

Activists working against Keystone XL and Social Security limits are organizing for a fight, but they'll be doing it without Obama's help, and it rankles. In the meantime, Republican senators are finding the president's shift towards the Right agreeable. Maybe, they conclude, he's not such a Socialist after all.

* Online comments on this article tended towards the angry, true believers denouncing Obama as a sellout, but he has little to worry about from them. It's not like they're going to join the Republicans, after all. In addition, in his shift to the Right, Obama is demonstrating his desire to listen to the will of the people -- which isn't selling out, it's doing his job.

On the other side of the aisle, as discussed by THE ECONOMIST's rotating American columnist, Lexington, Republicans are finally starting to move to the Left, embracing gay marriage and immigration reform. Gay marriage, oddly, turns out to be the more straightforward issue. Yes, a generation ago the idea of the state endorsing gay unions was unthinkable, but in recent years public support for the issue has skyrocketed. Fewer Americans see gay relationships as objectionable, as long as people don't get wild and crazy about it, and find hostility to their gay neighbors increasingly embarrassing. However inconsistently the sentiment has actually been expressed in the past, most Americans don't feel intolerance is what this country is supposed to be about.

Republic Senator Rob Portman of Ohio did much to open the gates for Republicans to endorse gay marriage when he did so after finding out his own son was gay, the senator having previously been a strong opponent of gay rights. Portman's public mea culpa earned him great sympathy, helping legitimize similar changes of heart among his colleagues in the Senate. The politicians are seeing the writing on the wall, Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill of conservative Missouri commenting: "My children have a hard time understanding why this is even controversial."

That's the irony of the gay marriage issue. At one time, the idea was absolutely out of the question; once past the threshold, it will no longer seem like any big deal except to religious puritans, who in the end will be reduced to irrelevant indignation. The punchline is that immigration reform has become the tougher issue. Republicans are now competing to come up with the boldest immigration reforms, and there's a general belief that a comprehensive immigration reform bill will be passed -- combining tighter border controls, legalization of migrants already in the USA, and smarter rules for admitting foreign workers in the future. The devil, unfortunately, is in the details, and obtaining a consensus on the particulars is tricky. Opening the gates to immigrants is a hard sell when many Americans are out of work, and there's no enthusiasm for unrestricted immigration anyway.

The Republican Party is still formally against gay marriage. However, a generation from now, Americans may look back on the gay rights issue and wonder what the fuss was about -- while immigration will still be an issue in some form or other; it always has been. In any case, the Republican softening in attitude towards gay marriage and immigration suggests that the mindset of political obstructionism that followed Barack Obama's election to the presidency in 2008 is now on the fade, though hardly a thing of the past, either. To be sure, a shift towards moderation hardly means that conservatism will disappear overnight -- why would it, why should it? What is does indicate is a willingness to compromise, for each side to go halfway and maybe end up with something greater than the sum of its parts, instead of just sitting in the road and saying NO.



* THE CANYON PROGRAM (1): The Space Race of the 1960s focused on manned space spectaculars, but while the public was being entertained by flights of astronauts into space, there was a secret Space Race being conducted in parallel on military projects, particularly the CORONA series of film-return photographic spy satellites. As reported by an article from AIR FORCE Magazine ("Eavesdroppers In Disguise" by Jeffrey T. Richelson, August 2012), the secret space race also involved the development of signals intelligence (SIGINT) satellites.

In fact, the first successful US spy satellites were SIGINT satellites, flown under the TATTLETALE program -- the spacecraft being given the nondescript cover designation of "Galactic Radiation And Background (GRAB)" and later "Solar Radiation (SOLRAD)", misleadingly implying they were science satellites. The first GRAB satellite was flown in 1960, being launched along with several other payloads on one booster.

GRAB was a little satellite, intended for "electronic intelligence (ELINT)" -- characterizing radars and other radio "emitters" by relaying their emissions on to ground stations for analysis. It was no good for communications intelligence (COMINT), eavesdropping on adversary communications, since it was a low-orbit satellite and only appeared over the USSR and other target nations on a periodic basis. That worked okay for observing radars since they often operated all the time, but was useless for listening in on conversations. A second GRAB satellite was successfully flown in 1961, but there were only two successes out of five launch attempts. GRAB was followed by the more sophisticated and heavier POPPY satellites from late 1962, with a total of seven successful launches into 1971.

From 1963, American work on SIGINT satellites branched off onto another track, emerging from an intense debate over space COMINT between the US Air Force -- more specifically the USAF Office of Special Projects / Program A of the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) -- and the US Central Intelligence Agency, with the US National Security Agency (NSA) as an interested party.

In 1963, the CIA decided to develop and fly a geostationary SIGINT satellite, the primary intended function being to intercept Soviet missile telemetry, although communications intelligence would eventually be folded into the project as well. The proposal would become the basis for the RHYOLITE project, with the first such satellite being placed in geostationary orbit in June 1970.

In response, NRO headquarters and the Air Force element of the NRO pushed for a geostationary satellite to perform COMINT, most significantly to listen in on Soviet microwave links handling national defense communications. The NSA endorsed the idea, being much more interested in COMINT than telemetry intelligence. The program moved ahead, being codenamed CANYON, with Lockheed as the prime contractor.

There was a secret launch of a spacecraft by an Atlas Agena-D booster from Cape Canaveral on 6 August 1968. The authorities were very tight-lipped about what it was; the general suspicion of outside observers was that that it was a missile launch early warning satellite, some claiming it was an "Advanced MIDAS" satellite. Another secret launch on 12 April 1969 was judged to be another launch warning satellite, with a third launched on 1 September 1970. All that was officially released about them was that they were part of "Project 827".

They were actually CANYON geostationary COMINT satellites. Outsiders didn't suspect the truth because geostationary COMINT was a difficult proposition, ground-based communications signals being faint at geostationary altitude. Picking up such faint signals meant sensitive receivers and large folding antennas. Outsiders did know that there was a secret geostationary missile warning project in progress, the early unsuccessful MIDAS missile-warning satellite being public knowledge, at least in a vague way. A follow-on to MIDAS, "Program 949", had been initiated in 1966, leading to the successful "Defense Support Program (DSP)" satellites, the first being launched in November 1970. In October 1973 the Air Force, CIA, and NRO produced a short study that cheerfully commented that "all Cape Kennedy launches of DSP and NRO satellites have been reported by the media as 'warning satellite' launches." [TO BE CONTINUED]



* SAN DIEGO ROAD TRIP (16): Getting back into harness after an extended road trip takes some time; little things pile up to be taken care of after a week's absence, and it's hard to clean them up. One complication of sorts is that these days, after I get back from a trip, I make sure my travel kit is set up for the next trip. I also had to set aside time to write up these trip notes, wanting to do it quickly before my memories became garbled, and to get it out of the way so I could get back to my normal work. Besides, it quickly piled up my stockpile of entries for the blog. I'd been lagging all the year, but thanks to the boost of the trip log entries, by year's end I was back up to a full stockpile again.

My footsore condition from the trip did not linger. I'd picked up about 1.4 kilos (3 pounds) of weight on the trip, which was more than I expected but not really a surprise, since I had been deliberately erring on the side of staying fed. I ate moderately to lightly for a week and the additional weight melted off.

I took over 2,000 photos on the trip, with over 1,100 left after I tossed out the obvious junk -- out of focus, mistargeted, cropped, and so on. It took a while to sort through them, but I was pleased to obtain about 300 "keepers" out the batch, since I wasn't expecting to keep more than 200. I was frustrated to find it difficult to get good shots, particularly of air demonstrations at Miramar, but not really disappointed. I ended up being convinced that my gear was as good as I could make use of, meaning I had no inclination to buy anything better, being more impressed with the demands on skill and the tyranny of simple luck.

I had to think, all problems encountered being trivial, that the trip well met, even exceeded expectations, having gone neatly to plan. I'd estimated the trip would cover 4,500 kilometers (2,800 miles), and it ran to 4,035 kilometers (2,505 miles); I set a budget limit of $2,000 USD, estimated it would run to $1,750 USD, and came in under $1,600 USD -- even though I wasn't pinching pennies. To be sure, I did all my eating in fast-food joints, but that's more out of preference and economy of time than frugality. It's encouraging to plan something out and have it work out so well, the only difficulty encountered being a tendency to take wrong turns. That's to be expected, and more an annoyance than any real difficulty.

I also had to conclude that I had no interest in doing something like it again any time soon. In mid-November I did spend a day down in Denver again, to find the exercise troublesome -- nothing seriously problematic, just one little frustration after another. I did get nice shots at the zoo and validated that zoom shots of aircraft worked well in cool weather, but I ended up in a lingering foul mood. The San Diego trip might well have been the same, only magnified. If I tried a long trip again in 2013 or 2014, all I'd get would be a "road trip from Hell".

However, I'm already planning a road trip tentatively for 2016, the centerpiece being a revisit to the US Air Force Museum in Ohio. The museum is adding a new hangar in which a fair number of aircraft now stored in the "back room" will be displayed, the new hangar opening in 2015. Give an additional year, maybe two, for the exhibits to be properly set up, and it would be worth canvassing with a low-light camera. As long as I went that far, I might as well go on to Washington DC and visit the Smithsonian Museum of Air & Space as well. That would make a big loop there and back again, and I would have to hit everything worth seeing along the way, it being unlikely I would come back again. It might be a two-week trip. I can only imagine how sore my feet will get. I've been checking on Amazon.com for pain relief sprays -- I'll have to experiment with them.

Anyway, one of the results of the San Diego trip was that I got increasingly hot on buying a 7-inch Android tablet. Not only would it give me spreadsheet, music, and reading material in one compact and lightweight package, but I could also get a roadmap application that would be much easier to access and read than a paper road atlas or printouts, when I needed to know where I was. If I had to navigate some place I found confusing, I could bring up a map and just set the tablet on the dashboard. I'll see about that. [END OF SERIES]



* GIMMICKS & GADGETS: THE ECONOMIST reports that Vescent Photonics (VP), a startup company in Denver, Colorado, has developed a prototype lidar -- light radar -- that is expected to lead to a production the size of a box of matches, with a cost of only hundreds of dollars, far cheaper than existing lidars.

A lidar operates by scanning a pulsed laser beam across a target and timing when the pulses comes back to determine range. Traditional lidars have used mechanical scanning, which is bulky and expensive. The VP lidar, in contrast, uses an optical waveguide with a liquid-crystal control array that, under electronic command, adjusts the refractive index of the waveguide, steering the beam.

The basic concept behind the "Steerable Electro-Evanescent Optical Refractor (SEEOR)", as the company calls the technology, is not new, but previous efforts have had a narrow field of view. SEEOR, in contrast, has a field of view 60 degrees across and 20 degrees high, with a production system expected to have a field of view of 120 degrees along both axes. Range will similarly be extended from a few hundred meters to several kilometers.

The US military has been providing funding to VP, seeing the lidar as useful for drones and ground sensor systems. Once established in military service, the lidar should be attractive for civilian remote-sensing applications. Ultimately, it will be cheap enough to be incorporated into robot auto systems, or even devices along the lines of pocket cameras.

* There's been considerable research interest in electrical generators that we could carry around to power our gadgets just from our normal motions. So far nobody's been able to build one that generates much power, but as reported by AAAS SCIENCE, researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta believe they've made a breakthrough -- and it was by accident.

Georgia Tech researchers were tinkering with piezoelectric generator elements, and decided to put a layer of a plastic named PMMA over one of them for protection -- to find the voltage output shot up dramatically. The generator had been fabricated on a substrate made of the plastic Kapton; it turned out that friction between the PMMA and Kapton generates static electricity. The Georgia Tech group investigated further and realized that a nanogenerator could be fabricated from a bilayer of patterned PMMA and Kapton, with the separation of the layers generating up to a kilovolt. It's still a lab toy right now, but the researchers envision devices such as wave-power generators that can product tens of kilowatts of power per square meter.

* In similar news .... a history of the heart pacemaker was run here back in 2010, one of the issues with pacemakers being identified as keeping them powered. Typically they're run by a surgically-implanted battery that has to be replaced every now and then, which is a nuisance for all concerned. There have been a number of ideas for more convenient ways to power pacemakers. Now Amin Karami and his colleagues at the University of Michigan have come up with a Zen solution, using the beating of the heart to power the pacemaker via a piezoelectric generator.

It's not actually a new idea, but earlier experimental piezoelectric generators would only produce power if the heart was pumping along at from 58 to 63 beats per minute. Karami's "nonlinear harvester", in contrast, works fine over the range of 20 to 600 beats per minute. His device also uses a magnet that amplifies the piezoelectric generator -- more so when the heart rate shifts off normal, hence the "nonlinear" label. The generator produces an order of magnitude more power than needed to run it given normal heart rates. It stores some of the excess in a capacitor to keep the pacemaker running if the heart stops completely. It's only been tested in sheep and pigs so far, but results were promising for upcoming human trials.



* THE VELVET TRAP: Anybody who's ever even wandered through a Vegas casino or its equivalents elsewhere immediately recognizes it as a high-horsepower operation. An article from BBC WORLD Online ("Casino Design And Why The House Always Wins In Casinos" by Suemedha Sood, 17 August 2012) provided some of the details under the hood.

money machine

One of the obvious aspects is security, partly to deal with rowdies and petty thieves, mostly to deal with cheats. Some of the big-time cheating is conducted by crime rings, which pay off or recruit casino dealers to work with the gang. The casinos work with the authorities to nail cheats; in 2011, the US FBI busted a casino cheating ring that had been working dozens of casinos in the US and Canada, hauling in millions, tens of millions of dollars in the course of its existence.

It actually takes some sophistication to pull off a big cheat because casino security is so good. Casinos train dealers and other casino floor staff to watch for signs, in addition to installing "eye-in-the-sky" video cameras in the ceilings. Gambling houses may have hundreds, even thousands, of cameras, monitored live by security departments, some of which use face detection software to track suspicious or previously-barred players. One of the newest tricks is to use chips fabricated with radio frequency identification tags, alerting security when chips are not where they're supposed to be -- for example, if a player is holding more chips than they have won, or if chips are missing from a gaming table. In addition, visitors staying at a casino complex may have to provide personal data to reserve a rooms, the data being used for background checks.

And then there's floor layout. One of the first things a visitor notices about a casino is that they're easy to get into, not so easy to get out of. There's more to it than just layout, however. Traditionally, gambling floors don't have windows or clocks, and have controlled lighting systems that give a false sense of time; they may look and feel the same at 3 PM as they do at 3 AM.

Bill Friedman, a casino designer, favors laying out a casino floor as a "maze" of short, narrow passageways with changing directions, featuring low ceilings -- not as a big "open barn" with gaming tables in rows. The idea isn't so much for players to get lost, being instead to give them sets of "mini-environments" that feel comfortable and encourage exploration. Add to this fast music, red lights, stimulating aromas, and of course cheap or even free booze helps keep the gameplay going.

Casinos all have sets of rules, though in some places the law imposes limits on the rules they can make. Casinos don't like card-counting, a trick used in blackjack where players keep count of cards as they are dealt -- made well-known by the classic 1988 movie RAIN MAN, in which Dustin Hoffman played an autistic savant who helped his brother, played by Tom Cruise, make a killing at a casino. It's a skill technique and not really cheating; in Atlantic City, New Jersey state law says it's legal and casinos can't make a fuss about it. Nevada law doesn't say anything about it, so Vegas casinos may ask players to leave if they appear to be counting cards. In the Netherlands, they dodge the problem entirely by cycling cards through "continuous shuffling machines" that keep the dealer's deck randomized, frustrating card-counters.

In all casinos, the games have a built-in "house edge", the profit taken from each bet. Although it varies from place to place, lottery-type games such as slots typically have the worst odds, with the house advantage getting up to around 35% -- indeed, the payoff of electronics-based games such as slots is programmable, adjusted as the casino sees fit. Players' odds are better in card and dice games where skill is more of a factor; for instance, blackjack only has a house advantage of around 1% to 2% for skilled players, and a house advantage of up to around 20% for unskilled players.

Can people make money gambling? Sure, with the qualification that those who do must work at gaming as if it were any other highly skilled occupation. One suspects they might make better money at more regular employment, but that wouldn't be as much fun. As for the rest who don't have the skill, they can only trust to luck -- but any such trust is misplaced, since the casinos have control over the luck so it's on their side.



* TAX TIME: Every 15 April, Americans are supposed to have submitted their tax forms and payments to the US government. A little cartoon article in BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK ("At Tax Time, It's Good To Be An American" by Richard Rubin, Dorothy Gambrell, and Evan Applegate, 8 April 2013) told American taxpayers not to feel too bad -- things are generally tougher elsewhere.

For example, in 2012 taxes paid to the government amounted to 25% of US gross domestic product (GDP). If that sounds steep, compare it to 48% in Denmark. Similarly, in Norway the working poor pay 14% tax -- while a single American parent with two kids and with income a third less than the national average pays -7%, which comes back in the form of a tax rebate. It should be noted, however, that in Norway, new parents get 46 weeks of paid leave from work, and everyone gets government health care.

Even America's rich do better. In 2012, the top marginal tax rate for America's "fat cats" was 43.2%, compared to 56.6% in Sweden. Sales taxes are also relatively modest in the USA, less than 10% in the worst case. In France, they can run to 20% on most products. Actually, Europe doesn't care much for sales taxes, collected by retailers, preferring instead to impose "value added taxes" upstream on manufacturers -- VATs were discussed here in 2011 as part of a discussion of alternative tax schemes.

It is true that America's corporate tax rate of 39% is one of the highest in the world, but numerous tax breaks cut that rate down to size. In fact, more than than 60% of US businesses with profits greater than $1 million USD a year pay no corporate taxes, unlike their European counterparts.

One particularly obnoxious feature of the US tax system is that, unlike most countries, the US Internal Revenue Service still imposes taxes on overseas earnings of American citizens who have been residents of other countries for decades. The US tax system is also technologically backwards: while France, Spain, and Sweden use tax data to send out pre-filled forms to citizens with predictable incomes, with the forms simply signed and returned, in America lobbyists for tax preparers have bitterly fought the idea. The lobbyists claim that they are just concerned about Americans paying more taxes than they should, but pre-filled forms would be efficient and convenient for the 40% of American citizens with straightforward taxes.

The USA is also backwards in that most countries give citizens access to tax data online, while America -- along with Israel, Luxembourg, and Poland -- does not. That makes it harder for hackers to grab tax information, but it does impose a cost in convenience. However, nobody said that convenience was a priority concern in taxation.



* HIDDEN MOTION (2): Change in North Korea seems most evident in Pyongyang. There's more public lighting and more cars, on better-paved roads. Small shops are springing up; prices are horrendous, but they sell things that simply couldn't be found ten years ago. PCs are commonplace, as are mobile phones, and North Korea actually produces its own tablet computer. Citizens in Pyongyang increasingly adopt South Korean fashions, mannerisms and even accents.

Pyongyang, however, is not North Korea; leave the capital, and the land is a desert of poverty and backwardness. The regime may have decided to focus on developing Pyongyang simply because the resources aren't there to develop the entire country; better to get results in one place than accomplish nothing everywhere. However, it may also just be an urge to make Pyongyang a propaganda showcase. Even as Pyongyang brightens up, the regime is increasingly cracking down on South Korean videos and on escapes to South Korea via China.

The mindset of the North Korean regime remains opaque. To the extent that the country is still running, it's much more in spite of the government than because of it. The government ends up being restrained in its crackdowns not by any considerations of principle -- it has no principles except the pursuit of power -- but because when they crack down things stop working, the country being much too dependent on the underground economic pipeline running across the border with China. Rumors also circulate of high officials living well off the underground trade. Even remittances from defectors in South Korea seem to be tolerated, as long as officials get a cut. A system vaguely similar to Islamic hawala has developed, in which money flows between banks in South Korea and China, with brokers delivering the cash equivalent to family members in North Korea.

The system rests on the backs of enterprising North Koreans. Lee Seongmin, at time of this writing a 27-year-old defector in Seoul, was 12 when he started sneaking into China, just to find food that wasn't available in famine-stricken North Korea. He was captured when he was 17, to be imprisoned and beaten; however, when he was released, he didn't give up his smuggling, he just became more sophisticated at it. He made friends with border guards, acquired an illegal mobile phone from his sister in China, and got into car parts importing. Lee would call his contacts in China to obtain parts, pay off border guards to haul the parts across the Yalu River using ropes, and then leverage off his job with a state distribution company to send the parts all over the country. It's a bizarre observation about North Korea that the simple and basic job of providing car parts should end up resembling a drug-running operation.

North Koreans can make some good money at such endeavors. Lee made so much he had to bury it under his kitchen floor, and has his regrets about defecting. Lee noted that the illegal markets have created a class of new rich who sometimes flaunt their wealth, paying off the authorities to turn a blind eye. Government currency experiments in 2009 had the effect of drastically devaluating the North Korean currency, the won, with the rich holding on to hard currency becoming much richer as a result. Conspicuous consumption appears to have jumped up accordingly, with the wealthy going to expensive sushi bars and buying illegal property, TVs, and refrigerators. The biggest complaint is the unreliable supply of electricity; one of the biggest perks is a dedicated line to the local power substation, paid for by bribing a corrupt official or military commander.

The regime may eventually clamp down on the entrepreneurs, simple greed being the obvious motivation: if North Koreans citizens have money, the instinct of the government is to just take it from them. The entrepreneurs are also helping create a polarized society, where the rich get perks while the poor remain as subject as ever to the state's thuggery. On the relatively bright side, this polarization reflects the diminishment of power of the state, Lankow saying: "North Korean society has become defined by one's relationship to money, not by one's relationship to the bureaucracy or one's inherited caste status."

Still, there is little public defiance of the state. It's not just due to the oppressiveness of the regime, but because oppression is something of a Korean tradition: before Communism, there was heavy-handed Japanese colonialism, and before that there was a notably hidebound monarchy. There are, however, some signs of openness to the outside world. Groups like Choson Exchange, based in Singapore, and the Pyongyang Project, a Canadian-American non-governmental organization, have set up workshops with North Korean civil servants to discuss previously taboo topics such as banking and finance. Not much has come of the discussions so far, but the fact that there are discussions at all is significant.

More generally, there's a push to loosen the North Korean state's stranglehold on information from the outside world. A Google official visited Pyongyang in January, while the BBC World Service, too, is being encouraged to develop a Korean-language channel. Lee, the defector, believes that information is as vital to North Koreans as food aid: "It is only when people can tell the difference between truth and lies that their curiosity is stimulated." [END OF SERIES]



* SAN DIEGO ROAD TRIP (15): Since my original plan was to visit the LA zoo after visiting Disney, on changing plans I had to alter my navigation a bit to escape the city, but it wasn't too difficult: north on Interstate 5, then on Interstate 605, then east on Interstate 201 to Interstate 15 out of town. There was some congestion on the freeways, but I made good time; soon I was out of town, heading up to the Mojave desert high plains.

I was, however, feeling poorly -- nausea, vertigo, and in particular feet so sore that my toes felt like a lawn gnome had been working them over with a tiny hammer. I'd taken off my shoes, which I often do driving long distance; I typically wear athletic shoes with velcro straps, so it's easy to do. However, my feet were so sore I had to take off my socks, too; they were wet anyway from my second trip on GRIZZLY RIVER. As I reached the threshold of the Mojave high country, I pulled off at a McDonald's, where I dropped some seltzer tablets, put on dry socks, and ate a steakburger. I felt, if not perfect, much better.

There was a colorful crowd at the McD's, including rednecks with NRA caps, cowboys, what I took to be red Indians, and a gang of Harley-riding bikers in their leathers. Puzzlingly, I overheard two of the bikers talking to each other in what might have been German or some East European language, but it was too faint to puzzle out; in any case, they didn't seem to be speaking English or Spanish.

Revived, I got back on the road, driving past Barstow and the US Army's Desert Training Center at Fort Irwin -- leaving me marveling at, after viewing Navy and Marine resources in San Diego, the way Southern California is armed to the teeth with military firepower. I kept on rolling, getting into Las Vegas after sundown. I fueled up, checked into my room in the Hampton Inn -- this time on the second floor, not far from the side door, as convenient as I might want -- and got to bed about an hour late, turning down the air conditioning and doubling up the covers.

* I got about seven hours of sleep and, feeling much better than I had the evening before, hit the road again. Staying on the Strip wasn't really a good idea, by the way, I should have stayed in the Hampton Inn up the Vegas Beltway -- Strip traffic being too much of a nuisance and limited access to stores or fast-food joints. I'll remember that if I come that way again.

I got to Saint George across the Utah border after sunup. It's a nice little town, with fairly good facilities to serve the tourist traffic to nearby Zion National Park. I ate breakfast at a McDonald's, noting with amusement a very big and beefy local with his wife, the guy wearing a cap: RETIRED POLICE OFFICER. Yep, looks like cop all right.

Back on the road, the miles just drifted past in that semi-trance state one gets into on a long drive, time not going by fast or slow, just going by. The weather was excellent, sunny but too cool for bugs -- I hate getting spattered with insects -- and I couldn't think of more pleasant scenery along the way. The trees, where there were trees, were more into their fall colors than they had been on the way out, enhancing the view.

sunrise on southern Utah

I didn't want to make any more stops than I had to, but I rolled down the driver's side window to take some sideways shots with my pocket camera. It's actually not all that unsafe to take photos while driving, at least on the open road when there's nobody else nearby -- no way I could do it in traffic. Doing it with my zoom camera would have been difficult, but it was easy to shoot the pocket camera with one hand while keeping my eyes on the road; I'd take a shot, look at it on the LCD display, then adjust my aim. Anything nearby in a shot came out blurry, but objects in the distance looked fine.

I went over Vail Pass at 3,000 meters (10,000 feet) that afternoon, noting a powder of snow on the peaks above, then down into Denver that evening, and getting into Loveland at a reasonable time. I wanted to get to bed fairly early so I could get back on my normal schedule as soon as possible, but I simply couldn't go to bed until I was effectively unpacked. I got six hours of sleep, rising at my normal time on Monday morning to go to the gym. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* Space launches for March included:

-- 01 MAR 13 / DRAGON CRS2 -- A SpaceX Falcon 9 booster was launched from Cape Canaveral at 1510 UTC / 1010 local time on its fourth flight, carrying the second operational "Dragon" cargo capsule to the International Space Station (ISS). It docked with the ISS Harmony module two days later -- a day late, delayed by thruster glitches. It carried 1,045 kilograms (2,300 pounds) of cargo to the station. The capsule returned to Earth on 26 March, splashing down in the Pacific off San Diego at 1634 UTC / 0834 local time.

-- 19 MAR 13 / SBIRS GEO 2 (USA 241) -- An Atlas 5 booster was launched from Cape Canaveral at 2121 UTC / 1721 local time to put the second "Space Based Infrared System Geosynchronous (SBIRS GEO) 2" missile launch early-warning satellite into orbit for the Pentagon. SBIRS GEO 2, AKA "USA 241", followed SBIRS GEO 1, launched in May 2011, the SBIRS GEO constellation being intended to replace the long-standing "Defense Support Program (DSP)" geostationary early-warning satellite network. The launcher was in the 401 vehicle configuration, with a 4 meter (13.1 foot) fairing, no solid rocket boosters, and a single-engine Centaur upper stage.


-- 26 MAR 13 / SATMEX 8 -- A Proton M Breeze M booster was launched from Baikonur in Kazakhstan at 1907 UTC / 0107 27 March local time to put the "SatMex 8" geostationary comsat into orbit for Satelite Mexicanos of Mexico City. The satellite was built by Space Systems / Loral and was based on the SS/L 1300 comsat platform. It had a launch mass of 5,473 kilograms (12,068 pounds), a payload of 24 C / 40 Ku band transponders, and a design life of 15 years. It was placed in the geostationary slot at 116.8 degrees west longitude to provide communications services to the Americas. It replaced SatMex 5, launched in 1998.

-- 28 MAR 12 / SOYUZ ISS 34S (ISS) -- A Soyuz booster was launched from Baikonur at 2043 UTC / 0243 March 29 local time to put the "Soyuz ISS 34S" AKA "Soyuz TMA-08M" crewed space capsule into orbit on an International Space Station (ISS) support mission. It carried mission commander Pavel Vinogradov (third space flight) of the Russian RKA space agency, flight engineer Aleksandr Misurkin (first space flight) of the RKA, and NASA astronaut Christopher Cassidy (second space flight). They followed a quick ascent flight profile, docking with the ISS Poisk module less than six hours after launch. The Soyuz crew joined the ISS Expedition 35 crew of commander Chris Hadfield of NASA, NASA physician-astronaut Thomas Marshburn, and cosmonaut Roman Romanenko.

* OTHER SPACE NEWS: The threat of a "geomagnetic storm" produced by an outburst from the Sun was last discussed here in 2010, the article saying that such spacecraft as were keeping an eye on the Sun for such activity were getting elderly, and there were no replacements in the pipeline. Now NASA is preparing for a 2014 launch on a SpaceX Falcon 9 booster of the "Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR)", which will be placed at the L1 Sun-Earth libration point to keep track of what the Sun's doing.

DSCOVR is not actually a new spacecraft, having been almost completed as an Earth observation satellite during the Clinton Administration; that effort was canceled, so the satellite was packed into a nitrogen-filled clean room container for storage. At the urging of the US National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which is in charge of issuing space weather forecasts, in the fall of 2012 NASA pulled the satellite out of storage to be refurbished for a new mission. It was completely disassembled, checked, and put back together; no changes were made in its instrument suite, the original being adequate for the space weather job.

Another spacecraft in the works is "Sunjammer", being built by L'Garde of Tustin, California, an experimental smallsat with a solar sail that will allow it to be placed 1.6 million kilometers (1 million miles) closer to the Sun, in principle giving longer advance warning of a solar superstorm. However, Sunjammer is strictly a technology demonstrator, not an operational spacecraft, and there are no plans yet for a follow-on.

NASA has announced a third new spacecraft program, the "Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS)", that will be put into orbit in 2017 to hunt for extrasolar planets. TESS will carry a set of wide-field cameras to survey the brightest stars in the sun's neighborhood in hopes of detecting exoplanets. George Ricker of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, the project's principal investigator, announced in a statement: "TESS will carry out the first space-borne all-sky transit survey, covering 400 times as much sky as any previous mission. It will identify thousands of new planets in the solar neighborhood, with a special focus on planets comparable in size to the Earth."

NICER instrument on ISS

NASA also announced development of an instrument, "Neutron Star Interior Composition Explorer (NICER)", which will be deployed on the International Space Station in 2017. NICER will observe x-rays flashed by neutron stars, helping researchers probe the structure of these condensed objects. TESS and NICER are being developed as elements of NASA's Explorer series of small space science missions.

* The Boeing company's Phantom Works advanced technology development organization is now working on the "Phoenix" series of small satellites, covering three different size categories. The top tier will be in the size range of 500 to 1,000 kilograms (1,100 to 2,200 pounds); the middle tier will be about 180 kilograms (400 pounds); and the bottom tier will be 4 to 20 kilograms (8.8 to 22 pounds). While the Phoenix satellites are clearly targeted at military "responsive space" efforts, Boeing says discussions with civil users are underway as well.

* A Swiss company, Swiss Space Systems (S3) of Payerne, is now working on a space launch system involving an unpiloted, winged "mini-shuttle" to put payloads of up to 250 kilograms (550 pounds) into low Earth orbit. The mini-shuttle will be carried on the back of an Airbus A300 jetliner, flying out of Payerne airport; once at altitude, the mini-shuttle will be released to fly under rocket power to the edge of space. The payload will then be released, to be placed into orbit by a kick stage. Mission completed, the A300 and mini-shuttle will return to Payerne for another flight.

S3 composite launch system

Similar schemes have been promoted for a long time without much luck, but S3 has hookups with French aircraft maker Dassault -- the mini-shuttle is based on a Dassault design -- as well as the European Space Agency, Stanford University, and others. The company chairman is Claude Nicollier, a four-time ESA space shuttle astronaut, more recently a professor of space technology at the Ecole Polytechnique Federale in Lausanne. If all goes well, demonstration flights should begin in 2014, with operational flights starting in 2017.



* WHALE TALE: As reported by WIRED Online blogs ("The Hidden Power of Whale Poop" by Brandon Keim, 9 August 2012) baleen whales such as the giant blue whale cruise the seas, scooping up large quantities of the little crustaceans known generally as krill. What comes in must go out, and so such whales also produce hefty loads of fecal droppings, typically orange-colored to reflect their diet.

blue whale

This is not just some bizarre "true facts" observation, since whale feces plays an important role in oceanic ecosystems. According to Joe Roman, a conservation biologist at the University of Vermont: "Whales and marine mammals can fertilize their surface waters. This can result in more plankton, more fish, and more whales."

In 2010, after sampling the feces of humpback whales in the Gulf of Maine, Roman and Harvard zoologist James McCarthy proposed what they called the "whale pump": a mechanism in which whales feeding at depth carry nitrogen to warm, energy-rich surface waters, discharging it in "flocculent fecal plumes." "Flocculent" is a tidy word for a loose aggregation of particles, fluffy or woolly in nature. It's also why whale feces floats; despite colorful sayings, whale feces doesn't coat the bottom of the ocean, it rises to the top, stimulating the growth of plankton and creatures that eat plankton.

Roman and McCarthy have estimated that before commercial whaling, the whale pump distributed three times more nitrogen across the Gulf of Maine than entered it from atmospheric sources. Even today, with whale populations at a fraction of historical levels, they add more nitrogen than all rivers and streams running into the Gulf combined. To be sure the feces of other oceanic species, such as seabirds and seals, also makes a contribution, but whales really supply the bulk.

That may be why sea life in the Gulf of Maine was once so abundant, suggesting benefits to the restoration of whale populations. One potential benefit is the fact that as aquatic plants and animals grow, and in particular as plankton grows, they absorb carbon, then bury it on the seafloor when they die. Overall, whales end up sequestering hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide. University of Maine marine biologist Andrew Pershing suggests that the effects of whale abundance on the global ecosystem could be enormous. Once there were about 200,000 blue whales in the Antarctic Ocean alone; now the world population is only about 8,000. Pershing suggests that whale conservation should be evaluated in terms of carbon credits.



* THE GREAT CALIFORNIA FLOOD: As discussed by an article from SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN ("The Coming Megaflood" by Michael Dettinger & B. Lynn Ingram, January 2013), on Christmas Eve 1861, rain started pouring down on central California -- to continue with little letup for 43 days. Rain and swollen rivers turned California's Central Valley into an inland sea 480 kilometers long and 32 kilometers wide (300 x 20 miles). Many people died, with about a quarter of the state's estimated 800,000 head of cattle dying as well. Downtown Sacramento, the state capitol, was under 3 meters (10 feet) of water, the government relocating to San Francisco for six months until Sacramento dried out.

Today, the Central Valley is home to more than six million people, 1.8 million of them in Sacramento. The area produces about $20 billion USD in crops a year, including 70% of the world's almonds -- and parts of the area have subsided about 9 meters (30 feet) because of groundwater depletion. If the same sort of megaflood hit the Central Valley today, it would cause hundreds of billions of dollars of damage.

What is particularly unsettling is that the megaflood doesn't appear to have a freak event, the geological record indicating that California has suffered repeatedly through such events for at least the past two millennia. They were caused by what have become known as "atmospheric rivers" -- streams of moisture-laded air only a few hundred kilometers wide but possibly thousands of kilometers long, acting as a conveyor belts to haul water from far out in the oceans onto land. They can carry the flow of a dozen Mississippi rivers until they hit an obstacle, such as California's Sierra Nevada mountains, and then dump their loads in torrents. Climate change may aggravate them.

* Nobody really grasped the idea of an atmospheric river until the late 1990s. In 1998, research aircraft being flown by the US National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) over the North Pacific found a strong flow of airborne water at an altitude of about 1,600 meters (a mile), meaning it was too high to be spotted by ground observations. Weather simulations performed at the same time suggested that long-range global atmospheric water flows tended to be concentrated in a handful of corridors, which researchers named "atmospheric rivers". Satellite observations and other measurements confirmed their existence.

Once understood, the implications were unsettling. Californians have almost completely forgotten the 1861:1862 flood, building heavily on low-lying lands, but examination of sediment cores obtained from the San Francisco Bay area strongly suggests it wasn't a freak. The cores revealed evidence of massive flooding from around 200 CE once about every two hundred years. One dated from 1605 was by all evidence much more severe than the 1861:1862 flood.

Of course, small atmospheric rivers form every year, an analysis of California rainfall patterns from 1950 to 2010 showing that atmospheric rivers contributed from a third to half of California's yearly rainfall, concentrated in about ten days a year. One atmospheric river, known as the "Pineapple Express", regularly arises to transport water from the region around the Hawaiian Islands to California. The analysis also showed that atmospheric rivers were linked to episodes of flooding. Computer climate models suggest that California will be on the receiving of more and bigger atmospheric rivers as the world warms.

To alert government authorities of the potential danger, researchers at the US Geological Survey (USGS) built a scenario of what would happen if an event similar to the 1861:1862 flood occurred today. Given the paranoid suspicion in which climate studies are held, the USGS study assumed a less severe flood, lasting only 23 days and not the 43 days of the 1861:1862 event -- nobody's sensibly going to deny the Great Flood happened and claim a second one is impossible. Even with conservative assumptions, the study suggested 1.5 million Californians would have to be evacuated and that damage would run to $400 billion USD, with follow-on effects driving the bill up to $700 billion USD.

The costs were about three times more than those estimated by a USGS study of what would happen if a magnitude 7.8 earthquake hit Southern California. Government authorities have a long list of worries and, particularly these days and particularly in California, limited resources to deal with them. However, given the magnitude of the threat, it would be at least prudent to make sure that California isn't as caught as flat-footed as in 1861.



* HIDDEN MOTION (1): There's a certain morbid fascination to North Korea. As discussed here in the past, most notably in 2009, North Korea may not be the worst state in the world, but it is hard to think of any worse; it makes places like Iran look good in comparison. It is hard to understand how a government could be so badly run, and even harder to understand how it survives.

As reported by an article in THE ECONOMIST ("Rumblings From Below", 9 February 2013), there were hopes that the succession to power of Kim Jong-Un following the death in late 2011 of his father, Kim Jong-Il, might bring change to North Korea. Kim Jong-Un seemed to have a more populist and less militarist mindset than his father, and the nation scored a coup by successfully orbiting a space satellite on 12 December 2012 -- not merely confounding skeptics who, as discussed here last year, judged it beyond North Korea's capabilities, but also upstaging South Korea, which successfully orbited its first satellite on 30 January. Kim's new-year speech called for an end to confrontation between North and South.

However, observations of North Korea's satellite suggest it is, in a handy metaphor to North Korea in general, tumbling uselessly out of control, while South Korea's satellite is returning useful data -- and it isn't really even South Korea's first satellite, the country having a thriving space industry, it's just the first one they've launched themselves. The North Korean launch was seen as a demonstration of long-range missile technology, with the United Nations passing sanctions against North Korea as a result. Even China cautiously approved the sanctions.

North Korean government pronouncements promptly reverted to their tradition of hysteria and threats. On 12 February, playing the belligerence card to the hilt, North Korea set off its third nuclear weapon, following previous tests in 2006 and 2009. The yield was not high, some thousands of kilotons, but it was almost as powerful as the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima -- and the low yield also hinted at a weapon small enough to be carried on a North Korean long-range missile. It may not have been a coincidence that the test was performed on Chinese New Year's Day, when China's government was generally out on holiday.

New, tougher sanctions followed, with North Korea then angrily repudiating all peace agreements with South Korea and ratcheting up the threats. The US government response was a weary sigh that such "extreme rhetoric" was nothing new for North Korea -- though that wasn't a claim that there was nothing to worry about, merely saying there wasn't that much more to worry about than normal. The expectation is that the North Koreans are likely to try to pull off another one of their vicious tricks against South Korea before long.

Although the US removed tactical nuclear weapons from of South Korea in the early 1990s in accordance with an agreement to make the Korean peninsula "nuke free", obviously that arrangement is dead, and there's pressure to redeploy nuclear weapons to South Korea. New South Korean President Park Geun-hye, the country's first woman to take the top office, said she would "deal strongly" with the north -- but added that she was willing to talk, if Pyongyang was.

* Will things ever change? Maybe not from the top, but North Koreans who have escaped to South Korea and elsewhere report change from the bottom. They report there's no prosperity and no freedom in North Korea, but that people there are increasingly craving both. North Koreans pick up broadcasts from the Voice of America and the Korean Broadcasting System; they trade memory sticks with each other loaded with illegal South Korean and American TV videos that speak of a better life elsewhere. The stories they see may be fantasy, but North Koreans realize if even only a fraction of what's in them is for real, it's still vastly better than what they have.

On the other side of the coin, outsiders once had few clues about what goes on in North Korea, but that's changing as well. Defectors keep trickling out, with more stories to tell; North Koreans also now have mobile phones reporting, of course illegally, on the day to day life of the country. Now Google and some dedicated North Korea-watchers have mapped the country, locating everything from underground railway stations to labor camps.

The Kim family dynasty, now in its third generation, still wants iron-fisted control, but the fist is rusting as North Koreans increasingly pursue an underground "private enterprise", everyone hustling to get ahead by almost any means possible: corruption, black markets, influence-peddling, inside information, and outright thievery. Andrei Lankov, a Russian expert on North Korea at Kookmin University in Seoul, commented: "It's a completely different society than it was 15 years ago. This has not happened because of government policy. It's a change from below." [TO BE CONTINUED]



* SAN DIEGO ROAD TRIP (14): My original plan on visiting Disney Anaheim was to only stay a short while and then go to the Los Angeles zoo. I had to play it by ear and see how long I wanted to stay as I went around the park.

The Disney California Adventures park didn't seem quite as packed as Disneyland had been, and I found the ambiance on Buena Vista Street, the entrance area, much more to my liking. The last time I had been to California Adventures, I had missed the GRIZZLY RIVER RAFTING COMPANY water raft ride -- similar to the SHIPWRECK RAPIDS ride I had gone on at Sea World on Wednesday -- and so I made a beeline there. After standing in line for some time, I finally got on board with a family group -- mom and dad, two grade-school kids -- and a retired couple. The mom said: "We went on a ride like this at Knott's Berry Farm, we got pretty wet."


I replied: "I went on one at Sea World and got soaked! It's warm today, we'll dry out fast."

As with SHIPWRECK RAPIDS, the float was carried uphill on a slatted conveyor, but GRIZZLY PEAK differed in that the floats went over a drop, being held by gates until the previous float cleared. We did the drop and got fairly wet, but everybody was laughing. After we had run the course, we didn't think we'd get doused any more, but a jet of water sneakily shot out of the watercourse and hit us one final time. The retired coupled fussed a bit about getting wet, but I had to say: "Oh, come on, that was fun!"

Given how long the lines were, I didn't think I had time to get on too many rides -- but then one of the staffers at GRIZZLY RIVER told me: "You know, you can get a single-rider pass and go to the head of the line?"

"Wot?" He elaborated, though I wasn't entirely clear on the details, but it seemed like I was really being given a deal. Any lingering thoughts of still visiting the LA zoo disappeared; as long as it was easy to get on rides, I might as well exploit the opportunity. I didn't do so right away, dropping into the REDWOOD CREEK CHALLENGE TRAIL, which was not so much a ride as sort of a woodsy obstacle course and playground for kids. One item was the SQUIRREL SCRAMBLE, a set of wooden towers linked by rope net pathways, and it was great fun to go bouncing over the nets from tower to tower, as much fun as a ride. I was sorry I didn't think to go through it again.


That done, I went over to the GOOFY'S SKY SCHOOL roller-coaster, which I had also missed on my previous trip -- at that time it was named MULHOLLAND MADNESS, but had been out of order. I took advantage of the single-rider option; I had some minor difficulties, not quite understanding the system, but I still went to the head of the line. The single-rider system is like flying "space available" on an airliner; Disney tries to keep family groups together, and that can mean a spare seat on a ride, so they just fit in a singleton, optimizing passenger flow. I had the impression the option was something new, because it wasn't implemented with the usual smoothness of Disney's precisely-engineered crowd handling. It had an improvised feel: I had to go into exit paths, which made me apprehensive since Disney tends to frown on doing things like that.

GOOFY'S SKY SCHOOL was another wild mouse coaster -- I've ridden at least four of them, and they're fun, but they're all basically the same experience, all very similar in design and layout. That done, I went over to CALIFORNIA SCREAMIN', which I had ridden on my previous visit; it's a magrail coaster and I remembered it was aggressive. The single-rider option paid off, I went straight to the head of the line, and found out again how tough CALIFORNIA SCREAMIN' really is, from its powerful starting boost on a magrail launcher through a full vertical loop and very tight curves, with me grunting when I was hit by the high gees. It was exciting, but when I got off I could feel vertigo and nausea creeping up on me. I was tempted to do it again, but I thought: DON'T.

I made my way over to the RADIATOR FLATS sector, but being the new attraction it was packed. Even the single-rider lines were too long and I was approaching timeout, so I made my way to the CONDOR FLATS area and the SOARIN' OVER CALIFORNIA attraction, an impressive virtual reality ride I'd also taken on my previous visit. As it turned out, the single-rider option didn't buy me too much, I still ended up with a long wait -- but it was worth it. SOARIN' OVER CALIFORNIA involves three rows of seats suspended from the ceiling, swinging back and forth to accompany a wide-screen video of prominent California attractions like Yosemite and Palm Springs. It's impressive, though I had to fight rising nausea and vertigo as I flew over the landscape.

I was still functional when I got out and figured I could take in one more ride. CALIFORNIA SCREAMIN' again? NO -- when I start getting sick, it ratchets up, and if I went on CALIFORNIA SCREAMIN' again I had zero doubt I would get really sick. However, GRIZZLY RIVER was nearby, so I figured I could take the single-rider option and do it again.

This time I was with five teenagers -- three boys and two girls -- plus a gradeschool kid, who also came in on the single-rider line, presumably "detached" from his family while they did something else. We went through the circuit and got splashed again; when we were in the home stretch, one of the girls said: "It's over now!" I replied: "No, there's a booby trap ahead." This time, however, it didn't go off. One of the girls was pretty in a plump and buxom sort of way; she was wearing a tank top and was not too well secured. I was trying not to stare but she was across from me and it was hard to miss, and when we were done with the ride she took care to snug herself up. I was hoping that wasn't because of me.

OK, I figured I was done and made my way towards the exit -- but then I was distracted by one of Disney's street performances. They're actually one of the real attractions and should not be missed on a visit. This group was the "Minnie's Fly Girls", consisting of two white women and a black woman in old-fashioned stewardess uniforms, along with a guy dressed as a mechanic, conducting a music-comedy act. It was, as such Disney performances usually are, well done and very entertaining. I was particularly struck by the black woman, because she was a big gal, a head taller than the two white women. She wasn't at all badly put together, but she was formidable; she was a big mama, she looked like she could easily deck a guy who gave her a hard time.

Minnie's Fly Girls

I did some poking around online later and it appears that Disney hires a troupe of performers for each of their acts, rotating different individuals as per schedule. It sounds like a pretty fair job and the specifics would be interesting -- what kind of schedules the performers work, how well it pays, the difficulties involved, the job environment. Anyway, when they got to the end of the routine, there was enthusiastic applause, this foursome were real pros and deserved it. I really wished I could have stayed, but I had to be going. I walked out of the park and back to the parking lot -- getting photos of another double-decker tour bus there as parting shots -- and then drove north on Interstate 5. The Disney visit had gone much better than I expected, very much thanks to Disney and their gracious single-rider scheme. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* SCIENCE NOTES: As noted here last summer, analysis of cedar tree-ring data from Japan showed that sometime in 774 or 775 CE, plants absorbed an anomalous quantity of radioactive carbon-14 (C14). C14 is produced normally by the impact of high-energy cosmic particles on the Earth's upper atmosphere, but in that time period the concentration of C14 jumped by a factor of 20.

That clearly indicated some sort of energetic cosmic event, but what? If it had been a supernova, it would have been close enough, about 400 to 1,000 light-years, to have been spotted and recorded -- such a nearby supernova could have been bright enough to cast shadows at night or even be seen in daytime -- and there are no nearby supernova remnants of the appropriate age. Could it have been some sort of solar superflare? If that had been the case, the night skies would have been lit up with brilliant auroras to latitudes well towards the equator, which would also have been noticed and recorded.

Now Ralph Neuhauser and Valeri Hambaryan, astronomers at the University of Jena in Germany, have suggested it was a gamma-ray burst (GRB), generated by the collision of two neutron stars or other compact stellar objects. A GRB generates its energy in a burst lasting only a few seconds, and so nobody would have noticed anything. The GRB couldn't have been any closer than 3,000 light-years, since then the gamma rays would have devastated the facing hemisphere of the Earth, and caused extreme ozone depletion that would have raised hell for the rest of the planet. The two astronomers believe the GRB was no more than 12,000 light-years away, since if it had been further away it wouldn't have produced the observed effects.

gamma-ray burster

* As reported by AAAS SCIENCE, it's been long known that maggots have the selective ability to clean out infected wounds, the maggots eating the corrupted tissue but leaving healthy tissue alone. Tales of therapeutic use of maggots go back to Napoleon's army at least, and they were used up to the 1940s, when antibiotics offered a less revolting alternative. With the rise of antibiotic-resistant pathogens, maggots have been making a medicinal comeback, with the US Food & Drug Administration approving maggot therapy as a prescription treatment in 2004.

Reports suggested that maggots have some way of curbing inflammation in a host. To investigate the matter, a team of researchers at Leiden University Medical Center in the Netherlands siphoned samples of maggot secretions from disinfected maggots in the lab, added them to donated blood samples from four healthy adult humans, then measured the levels of "complement" proteins -- complement being a part of the body's inflammatory response.

All tests showed blood samples treated with maggot secretions had lower levels of complement than control samples, in some cases the level being negligible. The team tested the maggot secretions again after a day, a week, and a month to determine their shelf life, and also boiled some. To their surprise, the secretions were more effective after boiling and lost no potency after sitting on the shelf for a month.

According to Gwendolyn Cazander, who ran the research project, it's not surprising that maggot secretions would suppress the immune system; otherwise the larvae would be attacked by the host. Since the action of the maggots is basically benign, there's also no evolutionary pressure pushing the emergence of resistance against them -- or seen from another angle, they can be regarded as borderline symbiotes. She says she hasn't yet seen any such reaction to maggots, even in patients treated with them for more than a year. The Dutch researchers are now trying to isolate the complement-inhibiting compounds, in the hopes of coming up with useful drugs a few years down the road.

Ronald Sherman -- a pathologist and maggot enthusiast, chairman of the board of BioTherapeutics, Education and Research Foundation in Irvine, California -- praised the investigation. Sherman's foundation connects patients with doctors who like to use maggot therapy. He said that faster wound healing probably arises from several combined maggot effects, such as increasing oxygen concentrations in the wound and enhancing cellular growth. Like it or not, the maggot business seems poised for a bigger future.

* Scale insects are tiny bugs -- hemipterans, "true bugs" -- that suck sap from trees and can kill them. As reported by LIVESCIENCE Online, a study by researchers at North Carolina State University shows the scale bug Parthenolecanium quercifex, which targets oak trees, has become adapted to urban environments, thriving in the warmest locations. The study examined the bug populations of the city of Raleigh, North Carolina, correlating them to a heat map of the city. The bugs were up to eight times more common in the warmest zones than they were in the coolest.

Samples of scale insect egg sacs were collected, then placed in hot and cool greenhouse. In the hot greenhouse, the egg sacs collected from hot zones of the city produced four times as many offspring as those from cool zones. Steve Frank, an NC State researcher involved in the study, commented: "We now have a better understanding of why trees in urban areas are infested by so many of these pests. And if climate change causes temperatures to rise in forests, as we expect, we may see scale insects becoming a much bigger problem for ecosystem health."



* CONSUMER ELECTRONICS IN ORBIT: Every now and then it is reported that astronauts have taken popular consumer electronics gear into space; notebook computers, iPhones, and iPods have all flown in orbit. As reported by an article from WIRED Online blogs ("Gadgets in Space: What It Takes To Get An iPad Into Orbit" by Christina Bonnington, 15 November 2012), taking such gimmickry into space is not quite as simple as packing it up and blasting off.

There are attractions to using commercial electronics gear in space. A startup named Odyssey Space Research, for example, designed an iPhone app named "SpaceLab" for use on the NASA space shuttle. Brian Rishikoff, CEO of Odyssey, said that when the firm approached NASA on the idea, the agency wasn't sure: "Eventually we got them to cooperate very well, but it took a while to convince people that these devices had capabilities worth considering."

An iPhone is cheap, powerful, flexible, and lightweight -- mass always being an important factor in space payloads, since it's so expensive to put things into orbit. However, the iPhone was not designed specifically to spaceflight standards, and it takes about two years of work to certify any such gadget before it's ready to fly. The batteries must be validated to ensure they don't explode or leak, and the device as a whole must not give off troublesome fumes. The International Space Station (ISS) is a closed environment, with a liveable area about the size of a five-bedroom house; the air is recycled, and the station's systems may not be able to successfully cleanse certain chemicals out of the air supply.

Another issue is durability, particularly with regards to glass components. If a glass panel shattered, it could generate a little cloud of shards floating about in zero gee. However, the ISS features a high-velocity ventilation system -- if the air isn't kept energetically circulating, astronauts might asphyxiate due to the buildup of carbon dioxide in some stagnant space around them -- and so shards would likely just end up in the air filters. Nobody wants to find out what would really happen, and there does remain the problem of the jagged edges left behind.

Yet another issue is power compatibility, since the ISS does not have 110 or 220 VAC electrical power outlets; it has 24 and 100 VDC outlets, and so use of consumer gadgets means that appropriate adapter technology has to be obtained and validated. The gadgets of course have to be screened for electronic interference with ISS systems. Finally, since the International Space Station is just that, international, both the US and Russian space agencies have to sign off on any use of gadgets in orbit, adding another level of bureaucracy.

Even the handiest consumer gadgets are useless for mission-critical applications; they're just not built to that level of reliability. However, they are potentially useful for noncritical applications. One area in which they are likely to be very handy is in the planning of astronaut schedules, which are listed down to five-minute increments. Scheduling is so important that one of the very first items of consumer technology in space was a watch, the Omega Speedmaster, certified in 1965. Astronauts wore it to the Moon, with the carefully qualified watch even being worn on the outside of spacesuits, a tribute to the watch's sturdy engineering.

Technology for schedule management has improved, but not as much as might be desired. Currently, if there's a change to the schedule, for example, the ground team has to readjust the astronaut's schedule and email up a new one, which is then printed out and hand-carried. Loading a revised schedule into an iPhone would be much simpler in all respects and a great convenience to astronauts. Lacking a proper day-night cycle, an astronaut's sense of time is greatly degraded, and so any tools that can help out are appreciated.

NASA has qualified the iPad and it's likely to fly soon. A tablet would be very useful for space operations, much more convenient and flexible than the laptop computers currently in use. Astronauts tend to strap things down to surfaces with velcro; a 7-inch tablet like a Nexus 7 or iPad mini would seem ideal for strapping to the arm or thigh of a space suit. There's considerable enthusiasm for flying tablets, Rishikof saying: "Crew time is one of the most premium things in space, it's very expensive and hard to come by. Anything you can do to simplify a task and make it more intuitive and accessible is very attractive."



* NAVY GREEN: The US military's interest in green energy has been discussed here in the past, most notably in 2009. An article from MOTHER JONES ("Full Green Ahead: Inside the Military's Clean-Energy Revolution" by Julia Whitty, 27 February 2013), focused on the US Navy's efforts to adopt renewable energy sources.

The story began with the author seated in a C-2 Greyhound "carrier onboard delivery (COD)" twin-turboprop aircraft, flying a short hop from Hawaii to slam down on the deck of the carrier USS NIMITZ. The flight was routine, the C-2's been around for decades -- but there was the distinction in that this time around, the C-2 was powered by 50:50 blend of standard JP-5 aviation fuel and biofuel, the biofuel synthesized from algae plus waste cooking oil. It was part of the "Great Green Fleet" demonstration of July 2012 -- the name of the exercise promoting renewable energy by calling back to the voyage of the Great White Fleet, President Teddy's Roosevelt's naval display of force to the world in 1907:1909.

cruiser USS PRINCETON tops off on biofuel

The Great Green Fleet label may sound a bit silly -- but the Navy is serious, being currently engaged in a three-year, half-billion dollar future energy effort in collaboration with the US Department of Energy (USDOE) and Department of Agriculture (USDA). Navy Secretary Ray Mabus unlined the significance of the exercise when he announced in 2009: "As a nation and as a Navy and Marine Corps, we simply rely too much on a finite and depleting stock of fossil fuels that will most likely continue to rise in cost over the next decades. This creates an obvious vulnerability to our energy security and to our national security and to our future on this planet."

The Navy has set ambitious goals to reduce energy consumption, decrease reliance on foreign oil, and significantly increase the use of alternative energy. One target was to demonstrate a Great Green Fleet by 2012, and that was what was sailing off Hawaii in July 2012: a task force consisting of an aircraft carrier, two guided-missile destroyers, a guided-missile cruiser, and an oiler. Aside from the nuclear-powered carrier USS NIMITZ, the vessels were running on a biofuel-diesel blend, while all the aircraft involved were burning the biofuel-jet fuel blend.

The Great Green Fleet does certainly involve an element of showmanship, but it also reflects the Navy's urge to have an assured supply of fuel. Supplies of petroleum drawn from the Earth are becoming ever more uncertain, and on the other side of that same coin, such uncertainty is pointing towards the military confrontations the Navy will encounter in the future over access to energy -- as well as geopolitical shifts from climate change.

Conservatives in Congress have not been so enthusiastic about the Navy's vision. Earlier in 2012, Republicans and some coal- and gas-state Democrats tried to scuttle the Great Green Fleet; they barred the Pentagon from buying alternative fuels that cost more per gallon than petroleum-based fuels, unless the more expensive alternative fuels came from other fossil fuels, such as liquefied coal. Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona labeled biofuels "a terrible misplacement of priorities" -- and added: "I don't believe it's the job of the Navy to be involved in building ... new technologies."

Secretary Mabus found that preposterous, particularly thick coming from a good Navy man like McCain, and shot back: "If we didn't pay a little bit more for new technologies, the Navy would never have bought a nuclear submarine, which still costs four to five times more than a conventional submarine."

As Mabus pointed out, there's nothing new about the Navy's interest in new sources of energy, having transitioned from sail to coal to oil and then nuclear power. Mabus added: "Every single time there were naysayers, and every single time those naysayers have been wrong."

Of course, biofuels are only part of the Navy's Green effort, which also involves energy-saving technologies and tweaking procedures to reduce energy consumption -- not merely at sea, but at shore facilities as well. It is true that biofuels are a significant component of the overall effort, and that they are expensive; right now, biofuel costs the Navy $4.55 per gallon. However, in part due to Navy and other government investment, by 2017 that cost is expected to be cut in half. Mabus placed the accusations of government waste in the Navy biofuels program in perspective by pointing out that what has been spent so far on Green fuels has only added about a penny per gallon to the Navy's fuel bill over a year's time -- the US Navy burns a lot of fuel. As discussed in earlier articles on the subject of renewables and the US armed services, the military's "green" exercises are not and do not need to be funded at a high level relative to weapon systems and other big-ticket items.

There doesn't seem to be much opposition to Green thinking in the Navy's ranks. Captain James Goudreau, director of the Navy Energy Coordination Office, told the author: "Some of the oldest, most experienced officers, if you'd asked them ten years ago, they'd say we should never change our energy ways. But now they're in the position that they actually have to run the fleet, have to manage and pay for its operations. They see that we can't afford to do what we used to do."

From the military's point of view, conventional petroleum involves costs that civilians don't see. Protecting nations that supply petroleum is expensive, and sometimes it places the US in the uncomfortable position of shoring up dodgy regimes. There's the cost of protecting tankers plying the sea lanes; and the cost of supplying fuel to the front lines, which can amount to hundreds of dollars a gallon. Troops can get killed hauling it through combat zones as well. That places a priority on energy efficiency, Goudreau saying: "The cheapest barrel of fuel is the one we never burn. Eighty-five percent of what we do each year is chasing efficiency."

Ultimately, the Navy must have an assured supply of fuel, one where availability and cost remain predictable, and sees biofuel as the best option. The Navy is investing $170 million USD in American biofuel companies, that amount being matched by the departments of Agriculture and Energy. Goudreau said that the service is taking the long view on the biofuel effort: "The Navy is mindful of not trading one fuel problem for another. Our alternative fuels can't compete with food crops. We don't want to alter the price of food and then cause regional instability that we have to respond to."

Congress seems, however reluctantly, to have got the message and is now cutting the Navy some slack over biofuels. On the whole, Congress is still skeptical about climate change, but the Navy isn't so complacent. After all, the Navy's shore facilities are on the seafront, and the persistent rise of sea levels represents a threat to their operations. More strategically, as the Arctic thaws, the Navy will have to increase its presence at the top of the world -- a particularly troublesome prospect because the USA doesn't have many icebreakers. To conservative Congressmen, climate change is a conspiratorial fantasy; to the admirals, it is an increasingly significant factor governing the global strategic chessboard, and they don't have the luxury of dismissing it.



* CARS OF THE FUTURE (4): As discussed by article from WIRED ONLINE blogs ("The Next Big OS War Is in Your Dashboard" by Doug Newcomb, 3 December 2012), even though we're not expecting to be running around in robot cars in the immediate future, our cars are still being crammed with ever more digital smarts. That is now leading to a rivalry to determine what computer operating system (OS) will run the show.

It's not a simple issue. A typical new car has about 100 million lines of code in its software, and cars are becoming more connected via wireless. Automotive companies understand the importance of software -- but they're scared of it, since software evolves at a breakneck pace compared to technological change in the auto industry.

The big car OS players at the present time are Microsoft and QNX Software Systems. Microsoft's Windows Embedded (WE) is best known as the platform behind Ford's successful SYNC -- an integrated in-vehicle communications and entertainment system -- with WE underpinning similar systems from Kia, Fiat and fifteen other automakers. QNX, which offers a UNIX-derived realtime control system comparable to WE, develops infotainment software for Audi, BMW, Ford, GM, Honda, Mercedes, and Toyota and is used in millions of vehicles.

Now Linux is getting into the game, with the "Automotive Grade Linux Work Group", which includes Nissan and Toyota as well as "tier-one" suppliers such as Harman, Intel, and Nvidia. Open-source has its fans in the auto industry; in 2009, they banded together in the "GENIVI" alliance to develop an open-source answer to SYNC, with group members including BMW, General Motors, Honda, Hyundai and Nissan, as well as Harman, Bosch, Continental and other suppliers.

Automakers like Ford are also launching open source initiatives, Ford having set up "OpenXC" to promote open-source software and hardware plug-ins for cars. The attractions of open-source to carmakers are obvious. They're not digital companies, so they don't want to carry the full burden of digital development, and they don't want to be "locked in" to digital companies like Microsoft. They particularly don't like the idea of Microsoft deciding to drop WE, leaving the carmakers out in the cold.

On the reverse side of that coin, carmakers are of necessity risk-averse, and tend to see big firms like Microsoft as much less of a gamble than open-source. According to Walter Sullivan, Microsoft's senior program managed for Windows Embedded, WE "is built on a robust real-time software platform that ships in tens of millions of devices each year. We're able to take [our experience] from that broad set of devices and make the core more stable. The longevity of the platform and the long-term focus and approach that we take helps us to provide software that few others can."

Microsoft also points out that they're conscientious about upgrades, Sullivan saying: "We design our platform to be upgradeable from the very beginning. And being the sole author of all of the core components of that platform, we can ensure that the ability to upgrade is baked into each software component."

Digital system upgrades haven't been much of an issue in the automotive arena in the past since car digital systems have been rarely updated, but that's bound to change as cars become more wirelessly connected. Mobile carriers are now eyeing the auto market, Verizon having recently purchased Mercedes-Benz supplier Hughes Telematics, and Sprint is set to launch its "Velocity" connectivity solution for automakers. Sprint Velocity combines "telematics" services such as 911 emergency assistance and vehicle diagnostics with in-vehicle wi-fi and in-dash apps. Velocity is actually already in service, now being sold along with the Dodge Ram and Viper under the name of "Uconnect Access". Sprint is looking for other carmakers to pick up Velocity as well.

At this point, Microsoft and QNX are winning the battle, but open-source is starting to make its inroads -- for example, in the Linux-powered CUE infotainment system in the 2013 Cadillac XTS. Not everyone sees a bloody standards battle in the future; Microsoft coexists more or less peacefully with open source in the enterprise space, and there's no reason to think that a similar accommodation won't be possible in the auto industry.

Some see the HTML5 multimedia spec as smoothing the path towards detente in auto infotainment and communications systems, with HTML5 providing a common standard for implementing user apps for cars. QNX is very big on HTML5 and is banking on it in technology development. Ultimately, few car buyers are going to care about whether Microsoft or Linux is under the hood; they just want the bells and whistles for the lowest price possible. [END OF SERIES]



* SAN DIEGO ROAD TRIP (13): I got up early Saturday morning to begin the trip back to Colorado via Los Angeles, cruising up Interstate 5 to visit LAX -- Los Angeles airport -- to do some planespotting first. It was about a two-hour drive from San Diego; I got diverted, not quite realizing that the turnoff onto Interstate 405 to take me to LAX was so close, only about halfway to my destination. I'd forgotten just how big the Los Angeles metro area is.

I got off at the first exit into the suburb of Irvine and found a place to park -- in front of Taco Bell headquarters -- to allow me to check maps. That's when I made an error: it would have been no big problem to simply backtrack on I-5 to the I-405 turnoff, but I was so close to the turnoff I figured I could just take the arterial I was on west through Irvine and get to I-405. It couldn't be that far away, could it? But I drove and drove and got to thinking something was wrong.

I didn't think I'd got turned around, but I knew I-405 ran northwest, and I had the suspicion I was paralleling it in that direction. I stopped at a convenience store and asked how to get to I-405; the clerk -- an Indian, I had to think of Apu of THE SIMPSONS -- genially told me to go down the street a few blocks and turn right. I did and found out that I had indeed been paralleling I-405. That wasn't really a problem, I was going in the right direction, but I hadn't thought things out.

I had to reflect after getting on the road that I had spent a week on the road, in strange places, and everyone I met was civil and helpful to me, never being any worse than slightly impatient or irritable. That seems like more than I deserve. Of course, I made no real demands on anyone, either -- and indeed, as is my custom in public, I did all I could to be anonymous and inoffensive. That's not quite like being the invisible man, but it works out much the same.

jetliner outbound from LAX

Anyway, I made it up to LAX, and after doing a little squirrel-caging parked at Dockweiler State Park, running between the airport and the ocean. LAX has two runways exiting towards the Pacific over the park; the northern one seemed to mostly operate smaller jetliners, while the southern one tended, not exclusively, to operate the bigger jetliners that I was interested in. Planespotting didn't go very well, since the sun was only coming up and the aircraft were shadowed. Even when the sun was high enough to illuminate the jetliners, the aircraft coming off the south runway were backlit, and I would have had to go south of the park to get a good line of sight on their illuminated sides.

No worries, I did get a few shots that worked out. Besides, I had something of a concern over atmospheric distortion being aggravated by high zoom levels -- that is, high zoom was useless because all it could do was pick up distortion. I took full zoom shots of airliners and, air conditions being good, found no problems, which was reassuring. Besides, Dockweiler is a very pleasant place and it was nice to take in the dawn from there. Local citizens were there in organized groups for exercise; the harbor traffic offshore added some interest as well.

morning harbor traffic off of Los Angeles

* I left Dockweiler to go to Disney Anaheim, east on I-105, then south on I-110, then east on State 91. I was sort of winging it, not being able to refer to maps in the traffic, but it turned out that my navigation was spot-on in that case. However, I got to where State 91 crossed Interstate 605 and my fuel gauge started blinking at me; that meant I was on my emergency reserve and, though I could have driven for another half hour on the reserve, it was time to fuel up.

I had been holding off fueling for as long as possible because I didn't want to have to tank up in California three times, and I felt I could get away with it because in an urban area it wouldn't be very difficult to find a filling station. I didn't quite make 560 kilometers (350 miles), which was a bit disappointing. Anyway, I got off State 91 and filled up -- it cost me almost $50 USD, which was painful.

There were fast-food joints along the street and I figured there might be a McDonald's either north or south of the filling station where I could eat breakfast; the clerk there directed me south, and the McDonald's proved to be only a short drive away. Since I was going to be running around most of the day I felt I should have a good breakfast, so I ordered hotcakes with sausage and milk. I noted I was the only Anglo in the place, most of the chat around me being in Spanish, though there were a few East Asians there as well. I took them for Chinese, but later I found Vietnamese are thick on the ground in LA's Orange County. Anyway, no worries, I was just another stranger, nobody paid me any mind, which is exactly how I like it in any case.

With both the car and myself fueled up, I got back on State 91 to get to I-5, then turning south to Anaheim and Disney. I didn't have problems finding it, quickly getting to a Disney parking lot and then making my way to the theme park. There are two parks, the old Disneyland and the much newer California Adventures, with a ticket to one being $75 USD and to both being $125 USD. I really didn't have much interest in Disneyland, only wanting to ride the SPACE MOUNTAIN coaster -- but I figured as long as I was there it made no sense to pass it up, so I got a "park hopper" ticket for both.

It was packed that Saturday morning. I made my way through the crowd to SPACE MOUNTAIN and stood in line for the better part of an hour, only killing some time by taking photos of blue agave plants that had been planted on the attraction for decoration: Oh, that's what they make tequila from. I finally got to ride, and enjoyed it as usual; SPACE MOUNTAIN is a small coaster, but it's indoors, running through darkness with dizzying space decorations. They had enhanced the ride for Halloween by adding "horror movie" visuals, the theme being labeled "Ghost Galaxy".

It was fun as expected, though the Halloween visuals seemed distracting. That done, I poked around Disneyland a bit more to only think of how antiquated it looked. I worked my way back out through the crowd to go to the California Adventures park, hoping it would be more interesting. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* GIMMICKS & GADGETS: A London-based design firm named Therefore has come up with a elegantly simple and clever LED light for people in the developing world. The "GravityLite" requires no batteries, being powered by a falling weight. It's like an old-fashioned cuckoo clock, the light being hung from a ceiling and a weight hung from a cord on the light, with the falling weight generating electricity for the LED. The GravityLite can provide illumination for a half hour until it needs to be "rewound". Estimated cost is to be no more than $10 USD.

* After a few years of gestation, it appears that metamaterials -- structures with a negative index of refraction, discussed here in 2010 -- are now reaching the level of practical application. John Hunt and Tom Driscoll, two researchers at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, have developed a microwave imager based on metamaterials technology that could have applications in security technology.

Microwaves are radio waves with wavelengths on the order of a meter. They have fair penetration capability, able to see through cloth or wood, though not metal or substantial body parts. Microwave scanners have been traditionally big and bulky, involving moving scanners to cover a target. The Duke microwave imager, in contrast, is a fixed array only 40 centimeters (16 inches) across.

The array consists of two copper plates separated by a layer of plastic. One of the plates is etched with repeating rectangular structures, elements about 2 millimeters long, with different elements "tuned" to handle microwaves at different wavelengths. It scans a target over a range of microwave frequencies, with a processor system assembly the data into an image. An image can be obtained in a tenth of a second, with no moving parts involved and the image data compressed as it is obtained. The prototype is a strip, effectively one-dimensional, but developing a two-dimensional array is not seen as a great challenge.

The Duke researchers see their microwave imager as useful in technologies such as airport security scanners and baggage scanners; automotive safety systems; and even stud finders. It's not close to being ready for production, but they envision a production imager as being cheap.

* A Danish design firm named TNO is now working on an airbag system for cars to protect pedestrians and bicyclists in collisions. TNO examined reports of such collisions, to conclude that automatic braking and an airbag inflating from the bottom of the car window would do much to reduce injuries. The system is activated by a forward-facing camera mounted on the rear-view mirror of the car.



* PROVE WHO YOU ARE: As reported by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("Fake ID Cards: Identity Crisis", 11 August 2012), faking identification cards is a business with a long tradition, and can be very profitable. One British schoolboy who went into the trade said he had pulled in the equivalent of about $1,500 USD a week, while an American student said he could sell bogus driving licenses for $120 USD a pop -- the demand in the USA being higher because the legal drinking age is 21. A 2009 study of American university students found that 17% of freshmen and 32% of seniors owned a false ID, and the numbers are likely higher now. Bars near American campuses have started to ask for two kinds of identification.

Chinese don't have too much problem with underage drinking, so bar owners rarely check, but China is stuffier about letting juniors into internet cafes. Bogus ID card sellers like to hang around the east gate of Renmin University in Beijing to peddle their product, merchants saying they can make the equivalent of about $16,000 USD a year.

Geoff Slagle of the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators says that fake ID used to be easy to spot, at least by experts -- the main problem being "flashpassers", youths who flash their cards at indifferent barmaids, who merely glance at the photo on the card. Improvements in technology have led to ID that's harder to fake, but what technology gives, it also takes away, with modern software and printers able to churn out very convincing fakes. Yes, it does require more investment by counterfeiters to keep up with the latest ID gimmicks, but nowdays they can take orders over the internet, giving them enough volume to make the investment pay. With more sophisticated ID, counterfeiters can charge more for their fakes. A decade ago, a good fake card could be bought for between $35 and $50 USD, but now it can cost ten times that.

Many ID mills have gone online, operating from China and other Asian countries, where costs are low and forgers hard to prosecute. One popular Chinese site was ID Chief, theoretically based in the Philippines, which offered goods such as counterfeit US driving licenses at low prices. American authorities issued warnings that those who used ID Chief's services might end up victims of identity theft -- and, if ripped off, it's not like the victims could complain to the law about it. The US lodged complaints with the Chinese ambassador, politely asking that the Chinese authorities take action against ID Chief and its equivalents. At last notice, the website had been shut down.

The USA is more vulnerable to ID counterfeiting because America has rejected the secure national ID card, many citizens finding the idea totalitarian. As a result, Americans use a patchwork of hundreds of different ID cards across the 50 states, many of these ID cards not being very secure. Technology might help tighten up ID even in the absence of national ID, at least in principle. In the UK, a new scheme named "Touch2id" encodes fingerprints and proof of age on a smart sticker attached to a cellphone. To get served, youths need to swipe their phone over a reader and have their fingerprints scanned.

Such a scheme would be very hard to spoof, but the scanners are expensive, and few businesses are willing to pay out for them if they don't have to. One might envision a day when smartphones not only provide communications and handle financial transactions, they also provide secure ID. Nobody can say when any such thing will happen, or for that matter if it's really something people want to happen -- so for now, we're stuck with fake IDs.

ED: I got to thinking about the fact that it is difficult to perform transactions requiring legal validation over the internet; these days, papers still have to be mailed off, signed and notarized, then returned. Obviously, such a clumsy scheme won't last forever, things are going to change sooner or later -- but changing matters will demand some sort of online universal secure ID system.

Once we had that, we would effectively have a universal ID system, reflected in an ID card of some sort, possibly implemented electronically on a smartphone. Those paranoid of government will not like that idea at all -- and not unreasonably, since such a universal ID scheme will indeed make citizens much easier to track. However, what the paranoids don't want to face is that universal ID has a value as well, allowing citizens to perform secure transactions with greater confidence, while making identity theft more difficult. There's nothing inherently bad or good in the technology, the issue is in how we handle it, and that's really all that we can sensibly discuss.



* GLIDERS FOR SPACE LAUNCH: There's been considerable interest in carrier aircraft for aerial launch of spacelift vehicles -- for example, the Scaled Composites WhiteKnightTwo, which air-launched the first commercial crewed space vehicle, SpaceShipTwo -- and there's been talk of bigger carrier aircraft as well. Now the US National Aeronautics & Space Administration's (NASA) Dryden Space Flight Center is considering a new spin on the idea: haul the spacelift vehicle into the sky under a glider, towed by a powered aircraft. Although that might seem dubiously complicated, Dryden officials think that such a division of labor means a cheaper and lighter carrier that can haul a heavier payload to altitude. The tow aircraft would likely be a retired commercial jumbo jetliner, fitted with a tow system.

As a first step in the "Towed Glider Air Launch (TGAL) Concept", tests will be performed in California from this spring on a 1/3-scale model TGAL carrier built from two radio-controlled sailplanes, with the wings joined to provide a span of 7.3 meters (24 feet). It will be hauled to about 3,000 meters (10,000 feet) by the "Dryden Remotely Operated Integrated Drone (DROID)" robot aircraft, with the glider launching a 45 kilogram (100 pound) test rocket once at altitude. The glider will then be released, to land at Edwards Air Force Base.

By the end of 2013, tests will move on to a second demonstrator, built from two piloted sailplanes, with the capability of being optionally piloted from the left cockpit for early flights at relatively low altitude. It would ultimately be hauled to about 12,000 meters (40,000 feet) by a WhiteKnightTwo or Scaled Composites Proteus tug aircraft, to launch a small booster that could put a 45 kilogram (100 pound) payload into Earth orbit.

Towed Glider Air Launch

If all goes well, in 2015 the program will move on to a full-scale vehicle, to be towed to altitude by, say, a Boeing 747, to then drop a launch vehicle in the 36,300 kilogram (80,000 pound) class -- along the lines of a Minotaur 1 booster. Studies suggest gains in launch performance by 25% to 50%, equating to cost advantages of 20% to 33%. The TGAL concept does have its complications, but building the gliders would be much cheaper than building a powered aircraft, and the gliders would be much cheaper to maintain.

As with other air-launch systems, TGAL would also offer flexibility in launch sites, being able to deploy to any airfield with a runway of appropriate length. Of course, with new space technology, many are called; few are chosen; and it will be interesting to see if this scheme ever puts a payload into orbit.



* ANOTHER MONTH: Chopsticks are an absolutely familiar attribute of the Far East -- a convenient utensil to those who grew up with them, not usually so convenient to those in the West who did not. It's just a matter of preference, except for the fact that chopsticks are generally disposable. As reported by THE WASHINGTON POST, China alone converts 20 million trees a year into chopsticks; at about 4,000 chopsticks per tree, that runs to 80 billion chopsticks a year.


The result is deforestation and tentative government attempts to break the chopstick habit, passing a tax on the sticks and encouraging the public to carry their own tableware. Chinese environmental activists, backed up by pop stars and other celebrities, have attacked the use of disposable chopsticks -- but the habit persists, many Chinese finding the idea of reusing chopsticks unsanitary. Chopstick producers have replied that their product is not an environmental demon, since chopsticks are generally made of fast-growing, renewable plants like birch, poplar, and bamboo -- but the critics remain unconvinced.

* In the discussion over budget sequestration at the beginning of last month, President Obama performed a geek faux-pas by referring publicly to the use of a "Jedi mind-meld" to help reach a consensus. Of course, this was mixing STAR WARS and STAR TREK metaphors, with Obama being given good-natured razzing online in consequence. Leonard Nimoy himself tweeted:


@TheRealNimoy: Only a Vulcan mind meld will help with this Congress. LLAP


"LLAP" -- wot? Oh right, "live long and prosper." The White House quickly recovered their geek cred with a tweet linking to a mini-poster in which the two fictional universes were properly segregated.

Jedi mind-meld?

I have to point out that in the geekosphere "crossovers" are nothing unusual. I even heard there was a notion to do a DOCTOR WHO / STAR TREK crossover at one time, with the Doctor's TARDIS space-time ship materializing on the starship ENTERPRISE. It didn't happen -- which I suspect was just as well, crossovers tending towards the lame, best done for laughs since "willing suspension of disbelief" is hard to obtain.