* 23 entries including: waste management series, Iraq after America, CANYON SIGINT satellite program, tastier tomatoes, methane from manure, fire-fighting robots, robotics for oil wells, complications with US food aid, taxing internet sales, 60 GHz wi-fi, internet intellectual property feuding, viral symbionts, coyotes in cities and bears getting high.
* NEW COMMENTARY FOR MAY 2013: In an hour-long address at the National Defense University of Fort McNair in Washington DC on 23 May, US President Barack Obama outlined his administration's concepts for prosecution of the global war on terror. The Bush II Administration, in response to the 11 September 2001 attacks on the USA, had taken on the fight against islamic terrorism with overwhelming public support, which gradually and inevitably eroded in the face of the ambiguity of the exercise, particularly the internment of terrorist suspects at the detention center in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Obama inherited this sticky situation and hasn't found it much easier to deal with; his early hopes of shutting down "Gitmo" were blown out of the water by Congressional obstructionism, and his use of drone strikes to take out terrorists has become internationally controversial. In the 23 May speech, Obama acknowledge that Guantanamo remained a difficult problem, most significantly in that the camp held detainees "known" to have taken part in terror attacks, but who couldn't be prosecuted in civilian courts for lack of admissible evidence. All the president could do was ask Congress, with more hope than confidence, to help shut down Gitmo, saying he would find a location in the USA to hold military commissions.
An anti-war heckler interrupted the president several times, browbeating Obama for his policies -- which actually proved convenient, the president agreeing that Gitmo is a disgrace: "Look at the current situation, where we are force-feeding detainees who are holding a hunger strike. Is that who we are? Is that something that our Founders foresaw?"
What happens with Guantanamo remains to be seen, and nobody who has followed the issue would feel very confident of the matter being resolved any time soon. More significantly, the 23 May speech focused on the prosecution of the war against terror, particularly with reference to drone strikes. The president is caught in between a rock and a hard place on the drone strikes, being hammered internationally and by the US Left for their savagery and executive high-handedness, while the US Right feels he's not being savage enough.
The president said that drone strikes were about as precise a means of striking at terrorists as available to US forces, pointing out that ground raids were as or more likely to catch innocent bystanders in the crossfire, and also put American troops at risk. He defended their legality and effectiveness, but also announced that he had signed a new framework of guidelines, oversight, and accountability governing the use of force against terrorism. The guidelines set out the conditions under which strikes would be authorized, with more restraint on their use, and the president also saying that he was working on proposals to enhance Congressional oversight. He also said, in a gesture to the wild claims of the lunatic fringe, that his administration had no plans to perform drone strikes on American soil. The president did not emphasize a decision announced a few days earlier, in which handling of drone strikes would be shifted, at least in part, from the Central Intelligence Agency to the Pentagon, presumably the Special Operations Command, which would also improve oversight and allow the CIA to focus on intelligence-gathering.
All that was what might have been expected; it was his summation that proved most interesting. After more than a decade of intense warfighting, Obama pointed to the serious blows that al-Qaeda had suffered at the hands of America and its allies, with the president describing a present world of more diffuse, local threats from affiliates of al-Qaeda, extremists in loose regional networks, or radicalized individuals, including American citizens or legal residents already in the USA. The war is not over, the president said, but he could see a time when it effectively would be, the fight being conducted by security services such as the FBI and the military no longer on the front lines.
Obama explicitly acknowledged the headache that privately alarms his closest advisers -- the sketchy legal authority underpinning the war on terror, dating back to a few phrases of warmaking authority passed by Congress just days after 11 September 2001. The president said that war-making authority needed to be refined, and ultimately repealed; the fight against terrorism had to become less an armed conflict, and more an ongoing effort to police terrorism. He vowed not to sign any law expanding the 2001 mandate further: "This war like all wars must end. That's what history advises. That's what our democracy demands."
* Although China and India are separated by the formidable wall of the Himalayas, as reported by an article from TIME Online, they still have border frictions -- as demonstrated in April when a platoon of Chinese People's Liberation Army troops marched into Indian territory in the high country and set up camp. Exactly what the point of this exercise was remains unclear; after a tense stand-off for three weeks, the PLA troops withdrew, with neither side giving any details of the agreement between the two countries on the matter.
Indeed, in the aftermath everything was played up rosy, the Indian government saying the incident was "localized" -- that is, it wasn't Beijing's doing, it was, as it would seem on the face of it to be, a screwup on the part of an irresponsible, possibly inept, military commander or regional official. Indian Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid described the border tensions as "acne" on the otherwise "beautiful face" of Sino-Indian relations. On a recent trip to Beijing, Khurshid proclaimed both countries "were on the same page" and "don't have prickly issues of significant difference" regarding the unsettled border. The two sides have made optimistic noises about talks over the border issues, though they've been talking for decades and have gone nowhere, and have made plans to hold joint military exercises for the first time in five years. Trade relations between India and China are on a good footing, with trade expected to reach the equivalent of $100 billion USD by 2015.
However, if the situation in India's north doesn't seem to be troubling New Delhi too much, the increasing presence of the Chinese PLA Navy in the Indian Ocean is bothersome, a recent Indian Defense Ministry report describing it as a "grave threat". China's rapidly expanding submarine fleet -- it has 45 such vessels to India's 14 -- has widened its range of patrols beyond Chinese territorial waters. The "implicit focus" of China's navy, the report suggests, is control of "highly sensitive sea lines of communication" in the Indian Ocean.
Indian media outlets are also playing up what they call China's "string of pearls" -- a set of ports, listening posts, and naval bases Beijing is supposedly setting up in countries around the Indian Ocean in a strategic plot to encircle India. China has stakes in naval facilities in Myanmar, Bangladesh, the Seychelles, Sri Lanka, and most notably in India's arch-foe, Pakistan, the Chinese-built port at Gwadar there giving considerable worries to Indian leadership. Chinese state companies are also developing key strategic ports in East Africa.
Indian strategists aren't so alarmed, seeing China's interest in the Indian Ocean as logical and inevitable. The Chinese naval presence in the Indian Ocean appeared in earnest in 2006, when Chinese vessels joined the international task force aimed at suppressing Somali piracy in the Gulf of Aden and securing strategic global shipping routes. China obtains oil from the Persian Gulf, and ships goods across the Indian Ocean; of course, the PLAN's strategic mission would include protecting those trade routes.
However, inevitable or not, the growth of Chinese naval power in the Indian Ocean means a contest of wills with India. India, for example, has improved its ties with Vietnam, which as discussed here last year is antagonistic to China's claims in the South China Sea, and if India becomes a good friend to Vietnam, it necessarily will not be such a good friend to China.
Indian geopolitical analyst C. Raja Mohan, writing in his 2012 book SAMUDRA MANTHAN: SINO-INDIAN RIVALRY IN THE INDO-PACIFIC, described the rivalry between the two powers in terms of Vedic mythology. Rival gods and demons churn the oceans in search of heavenly ambrosia, but only generate poison; it takes the interventions of the Lord Vishnu to first neutralize the poison and then help manage the discovery of ambrosia.
In Raja Mohan's vision, Vishnu is the USA, the world's naval superpower. However, America is now painfully aware of the limits of its power, particularly in a time of budget cuts, and neither Beijing nor New Delhi seem enthusiastic about the USA meddling in their affairs. There doesn't seem to be much enthusiasm for it in Washington DC either, the April confrontation in the Himalayas being treated with benign indifference by the White House and the State Department. The bottom line is that India and China are likely to work out their differences on their own.
* As reported by BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK, since 1983 the state of California has operated a prison inmate work organization, the "California Prison Industry Authority (CALPIA)", which now involves almost 5,000 inmates working at 57 state-operated prison factories. Inmates earn 35 to 95 cents an hour, with the products and jobs including, for example:
Projected revenues for 2013 are $165 million USD. However, last year the operation ended up in the red -- which is troublesome because it isn't supposed to be supported by taxpayer money. The problem is that two years ago, mandates came down to reduce prison overcrowding, the prisons having been run at 175% of capacity. By various measures, most notably sending prisoners to county jails, they're now only 150% over capacity, and the numbers continue to shrink. That means fewer inmates for work programs; since CALPIA can only sell products to government organizations and the prisons themselves are big buyers, that also means lower consumption of CALPIA products.
CALPIA isn't entirely set up as a bottom-line business; it has a rehabilitation function, providing inmates with something more constructive to do than go stir crazy, and some job experience to help them one they get out of the slammer. It seems to work, with roughly a third fewer of the inmates in CALPIA programs ending back up in prison after release than inmates not so gainfully employed when they were behind bars.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* SCIENCE NOTES: As reported by AAAS SCIENCE NOW Online, Virginia wildrye is a common grass on US prairies and rangelands. It is often infected by a microscopic fungus that lives between the cells of the stem and leaves. The fungus is mostly a benign resident, making a toxin that deters insects and other animals from eating the plant, and also protects its host against disease and drought.
Jennifer Rudgers, a botanist at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, got interested in the relationship between Virginia wildrye and the fungus, and began to wonder if the resident was entirely benign. Virginia wildrye is a hermaphrodite, with each plant producing both pollen and seeds; the fungus is passed down to new generations through the seed, the pollen being too small to carry it. This sexual differentiation of fungal propagation seemed very suggestive to Rudgers. Insects are often infected by a bacterium named Wolbachia, which is passed down through insect eggs but not sperm. As a result, Wolbachia has acquired tricks to encourage hosts to produce eggs: it may convert genetic males into females, allow females to produce only daughters without the need for mating, or kill male offspring of infected females so that the daughters have more food.
Rudgers decided to investigate if the fungus was similarly manipulating its Virginia ryegrass host. A comparison of infected versus uninfected ryegrass showed that infected plants produced a quarter more seeds, but only half as much pollen. It seems that fungal manipulation of the sex lives of their host plants has not been observed before; to no surprise, other research suggests the fungus can manipulate genes that produce seeds.
* On 17 March 2013, a meteorite slammed into the surface of the Moon at 90,000 KPH (56,000 MPH), blasting open a crater 20 meters (65 feet) in diameter. Had anyone been watching at the time, the impact would have been visible to the naked eye. NASA astronomers have been watching the Moon for impacts for eight years; of the roughly 300 strikes observed since 2005, this one was ten times brighter than any other.
The impact was observed in a video taken by a 36 centimeter (14 inch) telescope. The meteor was estimated to be only about 30 centimeters (a foot) in diameter, with a weight of about 40 kilograms (88 pounds); the great energy released in the impact was due primarily to its very high velocity, with the burst equivalent to several tonnes of high explosive. It appears the lunar meteorite was part of a swarm, with a number of "deep penetrating" meteorites hitting the Earth's atmosphere at the same time, the events all having a common orbital path.
* AAAS SCIENCE NOW Online reports that dolphins can call each other by name. It's been long known that dolphins each have an individual whistle "signature" to identify themselves. Researchers of the Sarasota Dolphin Research Program in Sarasota, Florida, followed up on that insight, briefly capturing groups of dolphins and separating them. One dolphin would then use another's signature, and get a response from that specific dolphin. The calls were selective, between dolphins with close relationships, in particular mothers and their own calves.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* BUILD A BETTER TOMATO? The annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the 2013 session being held in Boston, covers a lot of ground. AAAS SCIENCE NOW Online chose to zero in on one burning question: how can we get tomatoes that taste better?
According to Harry Klee, a tomato breeder at the University of Florida (UF) in Gainesville, the current supermarket tomato is tasteless partly because consumers, at least inadvertently, asked for it. Following World War II, in response to consumer demand for cheap tomatoes year round, tomato breeders focused on plants that would yield more fruits. Increasing fruit yield on a plant meant the plant couldn't pump as many nutrients and "volatiles" -- chemicals that evaporate readily -- into the fruit. While a tasty tomato has a balance of acids and sugars that contribute to flavor, so does the smell provided by the volatiles.
A variety of tomato that has the same sugar content as another will be sweeter if it has the right subset of a few volatiles. Surprisingly, Klee said that tomatoes shouldn't be refrigerated, since it shuts down the production of volatiles. Anyway, the bottom line is that the high-yield fruits were effectively more made out of water than their predecessors. Breeding them to be durable for handling didn't help their flavor, either.
So what to do about flavorless tomatoes? Klee and his colleagues are investigating tasty heirloom varieties, finding the constituents that make them tasty, and similarly nailing down the genes coding for those constituents -- the tomato genome was finally decoded last year. The goal of the effort is to come up with a high-yield tomato that actually tastes good. Klee isn't talking about genetic modification, however, since the qualification costs are too steep for academics; he's working through classic selective breeding instead.
Klee's group has already produced hybrids that are appropriate for small farms, with good taste and twice the yield of heirlooms. Twice the yield is still not good enough for big growers, Klee saying: "It's going to take a long time to make an industrial-strength tomato taste like an heirloom."
So what should folks in search of tasty tomatoes do in the meantime? Klee recommends farmer's markets in season. The rest of the year, Klee says the only supermarket tomato he will buy is a variety called "campari" that's sold on the vine. He adds that cherry tomatoes are a fair bet, since they tend have more sugar than larger tomatoes; some supermarkets may also carry a new variety called Tasti-Lee, generated by other researches at UF, that is relatively tasty. Klee points out that even ordinary watery supermarket tomatoes are relatively nutritious, tastier varieties are more so, and so if tastier tomatoes mean more tomato consumption, consumer nutrition is likely to improve.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* COW POWER: The notion of farms obtaining power from biogas produced by digesting manure from livestock was mentioned here back in 2006. As discussed by an article from THE NEW YORK TIMES ("Dairy Finds a Way to Let Cows Power Trucks" by Steven Yaccino, 27 March 2013), some agricultural firms have become big fans of manure power.
Fair Oaks Farms in Indiana is one of the biggest dairy farms in the USA, with 30,000 cows. For years, the farm has used cow manure to produce enough natural gas to power ten barns, a cheese factory, a cafe, a gift shop, and a set of child-friendly exhibits about the world of dairy. However, Fair Oaks was still only using about half the 2.25 million kilograms (5 million pounds) of manure vacuumed up from the barn floors every day. The excess methane was flared.
Not any more. The farm is now turning the extra manure into fuel for its delivery trucks, powering 42 tractor-trailers that make daily runs to milk processing plants in Indiana, Kentucky, and Tennessee. It is the largest natural gas fleet using agricultural waste to drive this nation's roads. US Department of Energy (DOE) officials call the exercise a "pacesetter" for the dairy industry. According to Gary Corbett, chief executive of Fair Oaks: "As long as we keep milking cows, we never run out of gas. We are one user, and we're taking two million gallons [7.58 million liters] of diesel off the highway each year. That's a big deal."
Indeed it is, helping boost the growth of vehicles burning natural gas rolling over America's roads. Natural gas currently costs only about half as much as diesel to provide the equivalent amount of power. A vehicle using compressed natural gas requires large and sturdy tanks, meaning it's not so useful for private automobiles, but it works very well for long-haul trucking, passenger buses, and delivery trucks.
The American Gas Association estimates there are about 1,200 natural gas fueling stations operating across the USA, most of which are supplied by the same pipelines that heat houses. However, the market for natural gas vehicles is also drawing interest from livestock farmers, landfill management companies, and other industries that handle materials useful for biogas production. Traditionally, such materials were pollutants that were simply an expense to get rid of; now they seem more like a resource.
Mike McCloskey, a co-owner of Fair Oaks, said he first started looking into renewable energy options for the farm more than a decade ago, when the smell of manure, used as fertilizer on his fields, started drawing complaints from some neighbors. Today, the farm is running sophisticated $12 million USD digester facilities that process its overabundance of manure, capturing natural gas that runs electric generators or is pumped underground to a fueling station. The leftover byproduct is still spread on the fields as fertilizer.
The biogas produced by Fair Oaks not only powers the firm's trucks, it brings in revenue from trucking fleets operated by other companies. Dennis Smith, director of the DOE Clean Cities program, said about 8,000 large-scale dairy and swine farms across the country could potentially support similar biogas recovery projects. When coupled with landfills and wastewater treatment plants, he said, there is potential to someday replace as much as 379 billion liters (10 billion US gallons) of gasoline annually with renewable fuel.
Some industry observers suggest the enthusiasm is premature, that there's a chicken-&-egg relationship between use of natural gas for transport and biogas production. Major investments in biogas distribution systems are risky at present. However, AMP Americas, a Chicago company that partnered with Fair Oaks on the fuel project, plans to build 15 more natural gas stations this year, some in Texas and the rest along two major interstate highways in the Midwest. For now, each station will be supplied primarily by traditional pipeline gas, but the company plans to partner with more dairy companies along the way. McCloskey is upbeat: "I think the whole country is ready for this. I think you're going to look around in five years and be very surprised at what you see."COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* IRAQ AFTER AMERICA (3) As a follow-on on the current condition of Iraq, a later article from THE ECONOMIST ("Peace, Harmony, & Oil", 20 April 2013) focused on the three Kurdish provinces of Iraq in the north. Visitors there may take notice of the refugee camp outside of Dohuk for Syrians fleeing the conflict in their homeland, crammed with more than 50,000 people living in miserable conditions. Nobody could take much pleasure in the scene, but an Iraqi Kurd pointed out the bright side: "Twenty years ago, this was us."
He was referring to the "Anfal", the campaign conducted by Saddam Hussein in the late 1980s to crush the spirit of rebellion among the Kurds. About 4,000 villages were destroyed, with 100,000 people killed -- the world being treated to images of Kurds killed by poison gases littering the streets -- and a million turned into refugees. Saddam Hussein's defeat in the First Gulf War gave the Kurds breathing space, with the UN establishing an air exclusion zone that allowed Kurdish "peshmurga" fighters to hold their ground. However, the Kurds remained under pressure, with Syria, Turkey, and Iran all worried about nationalist sentiment within their own Kurdish populations; there were internal dissensions among the Kurds as well, leading to a miniature civil war.
The complete defeat of Saddam Hussein in the Second Gulf War meant chaos for Iraq as a whole, but the Kurdish north was the least affected. Now the five million Kurds there, living in a region the size of Switzerland, live in general peace and relative prosperity envied by the 25 million Iraqis to the south. Buildings are springing up, Turkish businessmen fly in to make deals in a land rich in oil, helping cement a flood of commerce with Turkey. GDP per person has risen tenfold, electrical power service is reliable to the extent that it is exported, and the peshmurga are now a formidable army. Iranian Kurds come there to work on construction projects; Syrian Kurds, who make up the bulk of refugees, are welcomed as brethren.
There are still difficulties; the old civil tensions linger, and above all Kurds are unhappy with their ties with a central Iraqi government that seems more an enemy than a friend. In principle, the laws of the Iraqi federation are even-handed with respect to Kurdistan -- but Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki is not, taking a confrontational approach and pushing through laws that step on Kurdish toes. For the moment, the Kurds and the central government are barely on speaking terms.
Oil is the pivot point of controversy. The Kurdish provinces have about a third of Iraq's oil still in the ground, with exploitation ramping up rapidly; oil production should reach 1.5 million barrels a day by 2015. The central government controls the pipelines to the south and so, up to recently, has had control over the export of Kurdish oil. The Kurds are rapidly prying loose the government's grip, with streams of tanker trucks crossing the Turkish border, and a pipeline is under construction.
That makes Baghdad very unhappy. It wasn't so long ago that the Turkish government regarded Iraq's independent-minded Kurds as a threat, a possible inspiration to restive Turkish Kurds, but now the Turks and the Kurds are increasingly seeing each other as partners instead of antagonists -- a rapprochement that hints at possibilities for resolving Turkey's long-standing difficulties with their own Kurdish population. To the Iraqi government, Turkish friendliness to Iraqi Kurdistan smells too much like Turkish meddling in Iraqi affairs. If one region of Iraq establishes economic, and then possibly political independence, others might well follow.
Both the US and Iran have tried to restrain the Kurdish drift towards independence, while trying to encourage Nuri al-Maliki to be more accommodating. However, the Kurds are increasingly disinclined to continue to hitch their fortunes to an Iraqi national entity that remains shaky and troublesome -- and some Iraqi Shias agree, believing that the Kurds would be better off to simply take care of themselves and let the rest of Iraq focus on working out its problems. If the Kurds can operate from a position of strength while the central government continues to be weak and unstable, independence may not be that far off. [END OF SERIES]START | PREV | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* WASTE NOT (4): Tales of various recycling programs are all very inspiring, but what about the global impact? Recycling sounds like a fine thing in itself, but what contribution is it really making towards a more sustainable future?
In 2010, the US Geological Survey (USGS) conducted a forecasting study on aluminum use, over the period of 2006:2025, that suggested recycling will have less of an impact than might be expected. That's surprising, since aluminum production is very energy-intensive, and obtaining aluminum from recycling is much cheaper than smelting it. The problem is that, given global development, the market for aluminum is growing rapidly.
The question the USGS considered was how much the projected increase in demand -- from 46 million to 120 million tonnes (51 to 132 million tons) -- could be met by metal from "secondary sources", including recycled material. Answering that question required some assumptions on how aluminum will be used. The USGS report suggested the biggest demand for aluminum will be from developing nations, and that such nations will tend to use aluminum for long-term infrastructure, such as buildings, bridges, and power lines. That means the aluminum will be sequestered for decades and will not be available for recycling. In contrast, advanced economies tend to use aluminum in products with shorter lives, such as cars and jetliners. Most of that aluminum will be recycled, but it won't be enough to compensate for the growing use in the developing world, and the USGS report concluded that by 2025, the proportion of recycled aluminum in the overall supply will be lower than it is now.
The aluminum industry strongly disagreed, saying that the amount of recycled metal will be 50% greater than the USGS estimate. The disagreement highlighted just how hard it is to sensibly estimate just how big a deal recycling really is. Some waste-management scholars believe recycling has been overhyped, having become a "feelgood" exercise that distracts attention from a comprehensive examination of the best ways to reduce waste and demand on raw materials. The big focus has been on municipal waste, but as mentioned earlier in this series, that's no more than 5% of the entire waste stream.
Making rational decisions about waste management in general and recycling in particular means obtaining more data, but the political will to obtain that data doesn't seem to be there. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was empowered to monitor and regulate large chunks of America's waste stream by the 1976 Resource Conservation & Recovery Act, but Congress has repeatedly whittled down the EPA's authority on waste, and now the agency only has oversight of municipal and hazardous waste. All the rest is effectively off the radar.
In 2011, the EPA put out a request for comments on expanding the definition of MSW and approaches to dealing with "sustainable materials management". Waste Management jumped in, saying the firm welcomed the idea of shifting the discussion from "how to dispose of waste safely" to "the safe recovery of used materials." However, in a time of budget cuts and a Congress heavily loaded with elected representatives hostile to the EPA, the agency is not likely to be empowered to do more. Indeed, the USGS office that has produced studies on materials flows is under threat, and if it goes, the government will have nothing to replace it. One suspects that government policy is itself becoming unsustainable.
* A footnote to this article explored the Montgomery County recycling center, where a worker named Norma polices the trash flowing on a conveyor belt in front of her, picking out batteries, diapers, pesticides, injection needles, and anything else that can't be recycled. It can be a tiring job, but it's not a bad one. The facility meets good safety standards, while the workers get regular breaks, earn better than minimum wage, and -- though they are contract workers and not regular county employees -- get health benefits. It's indoor work, protected from the weather, and employee turnover rates are low.
There are hazards in the job. A worker who spots something dangerous or toxic on the line is trained to immediately hit a "panic button" to stop the conveyors, with the workers clearing out while a safety team deals with the problem. Smells of course are a problem, with Norma saying that sometimes the stink of, say, spoiled milk in a carton, may be so bad "it will make you sick."
The three-storey, $2.6 million USD facility features 30 separate conveyor belts, up to 2 meters (6 feet 7 inches) wide and totaling almost 800 meters (2,624 feet) in length. The belts feed through dozens of pieces of special-purpose gear, such as shakers that get rid of broken glass and eddy-current generators that induce a current into aluminum cans so they can be extracted magnetically.
The 27 sorters working along its length of the conveyor system take care of anything the machines miss. They get so conditioned to the flow that even when the line is shut down, they will continue to lean in the direction of the stream's motion. The experience at the facility has taught Norma to be careful about sorting out her trash for collection, but she says her neighbors don't care: "To them it's all trash." [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* GIMMICKS & GADGETS: WIRED Online blogs reported on a new Kickstarter initiative by one Terence Tam of interest to do-it-yourself (DIY) enthusiasts. Tam's brainchild is called "OpenBeam", and it's something like a Lego kit for "makers" -- a set of parts, such as beams, joining plates, fasteners, and so on that can be used to assemble mechanical structures using tee-slot interconnections. It's not actually a new idea; such kits are already on the market, but they're proprietary, down to the nuts and bolts, and the vendors sell their parts for hefty markup. Tam's taking the "open source" route, with OpenBeam using standard metric nuts and bolts that can be obtained anywhere.
OpenBeam plates are injection-molded, using a low-cost, high-performance, fiberglass-reinforced plastic. The material is called "Grivory", and was developed by the Germans to replace die-cast metal parts. While Tam sells parts kits, he also provides design files so a user can print a part using a 3D printer. The beams are produced by aluminum extrusion, either black anodized or silver anodized, being sold in lengths of up to a meter. Tam has already shipped kits to Kickstarter backers and is ramping up to full production.
* As reported by BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK, the New York Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) is now planning to get rat populations in the city's subways under control through use of contraceptives. The MTA is working with Senestech of Flagstaff, Arizona, which has developed a contraceptive named "ContraPest" that is safe around people but can readily sterilize rats. The company is beginning with a test program, primarily to determine the most effective means of administering the contraceptive -- rats in NYC can find lots of tasty things to eat, and so the bait has to be particularly attractive. Current thinking is to use a liquid bait, since rats usually don't find it so easy to get something to drink.
The idea is not to wipe out the rats, but to reduce their population to a minimum. It turns out that rats are strongly territorial; only a few rats are needed to hold down a fairly large territory, since they fiercely drive out intruders. SenesTech is also now running tests in Indonesia, Laos, Australia, and elsewhere, the primary goal being to control pests feeding on grain stocks, and is working on a contraceptive that targets wild dogs.
* A video from BBC WORLD Online took a closeup of New York City's payphone system. Once there were 34,000 of them; now there are 11,000, and locals judge that half of them are broken. That might sound as what could be expected for a dying technology, but New York City isn't so eager to let go. Payphones will continue to work under disaster conditions that knock out the cellphone network, and so represent a robust element of urban infrastructure. Is there a future for payphones?
The city has launched the "Reinvent Payphones Design Challenge" to determine what the next-generation payphone should look like. The concepts envision payphones as providing a "huge range of services": transit information, bicycle rental information, taxi calls, emergency service, navigation, historic data on the local neighborhood, and so on.
The future payphone won't look like a phone, being a flat panel display with voice or gesture control, with external displays providing advertising or community messaging, as well LED lighting at the top for street illumination. It will replace single-function street appliances such as bus or metro ticket machines, and bikeshare stations. Most intriguingly, one concept envisions each payphone as a wi-fi hotspot, making the payphone system the backbone of an urban wi-fi network. There was little mention of public surveillance, but that seems like a plausible consideration as well. The payphone is dead -- long live the payphone.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* FIRE-FIGHTING ROBOTS: A note from WIRED Online blogs inspected the fire-fighting robots from Maine-based manufacturers Howe & Howe Technologies. The notion of using robots to deal with fires is not completely new, British work on the concept having been mentioned here in 2009, and there's certainly nothing new about using robots for dealing with bombs. There's a clear attraction to using robots to deal with hazardous situations, and Howe & Howe sees a growing market in it. The company offers a set of firefighting and emergency robots:
The robots are delivered to the scene of the fire by a huge truck named the "Bulldog" -- driven by humans, not automated just yet -- with the Bulldog also acting as the Thermite's water source.
The Howe brothers developed their robots in a period of months, using a small grant of about $30,000 USD from the US Department of Homeland Security's "technology foraging" initiative, which seeks out kit that can easily be turned into something to help America's "first responders". The Howes have just started to sell product, but believe the demand is there, the company's robots being useful for dealing with the sorts of fires -- airplane fires, fires from derailed trains with chemical tank cars, and fixed-site chemical fires -- that are the most dangerous to firefighters.
The Howes say that skeptics tell them robots can't replace humans. They reply that the robots aren't supposed to be replacements; they'll be remotely operated by firefighters to get a fire under control, allowing firefighters to them approach the area to rescue victims and finally put out the fire. The Howes say they have cost on their side, comparing the $800,000 USD price of a typical fire engine to the $400,000 USD price of a Bulldog with two robots. That's still pricey, but making firefighting safer pays off in reducing deaths and insurance premiums.
* ROBOTICS & OIL DRILLING: In related news, an article from BUSINESS WEEK ("Robots: The Future of the Oil Industry" by David Wethe, 30 August 2012), discussed how the oil industry, long the turf of roughnecks and cowboys, is also eyeing robotics.
Robotic Drilling Systems, a small Norwegian startup company, believes robotics are the future of oil drilling. The firm's engineers foresee a day when fully automated rigs roll onto a job site marked by satellite coordinates, set up 14-story-tall steel structures on their own, drill a well, then pack up and move to the next site. It's not just a question of reducing labor costs; with oil becoming harder to access, there's more incentive to exploit fields too small to be worth the investment at present. Dramatically cut costs through automation, so the thinking goes, and the amount of oil that can be economically extracted will go up just as dramatically.
Robotic Drilling Systems has signed an information-sharing agreement with the US National Aeronautics & Space Administration (NASA) to tap robotics technology developed for the Curiosity Mars rover. The company's not alone in the quest for automating oil rigs; firms such as Apache, National Oilwell Varco, and Statoil are also working on technology to remove humans from the most repetitive, dangerous, and time-consuming parts of oil field work.
The oil industry had little interest in robotics until the 2010 disaster at the British Petroleum DEEPWATER HORIZON platform in the Gulf of Mexico, resulting in eleven killed and the platform lost. Automation, it appeared, could cut the number of workers at risk and reduce hazards, partly just by doing the job faster. For now, however, work is focused on automating specific tasks, with the vision of a fully automated drilling rig remaining over the horizon.
Robotic Drilling Systems is currently focused on developing robots to take over repetitive tasks now performed by deckhands, roughnecks, and pipehandlers on a rig. The firm's 3 meter (10 foot) tall robot has a jointed arm with interchangeable hands, capable of lifting drill bits weighing a ton and fitting them into place. Other companies are working on intelligent drillbits that can evaluate conditions and react on their own, preventing them from getting into trouble. Eric van Oort, a former Royal Dutch Shell executive who's leading a new graduate-level engineering program at the University of Texas in Austin focused on automated drilling: "You're seeing a new track in the industry emerging. This is going to blossom."COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* STILL MORE FOOD AID FRUSTRATION: The difficulties associated with US food aid programs were discussed here in 2008. As discussed further by an article in BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK ("Weaning US Farmers Off Food Aid" by Alan Bjerga, 29 April 2013), the difficulties persist.
For an example CARE, one of the world's biggest charities, long participated in a US government food aid program known as "monetization". Every year, the American government would give CARE about 180,000 kilograms (400,000 pounds) of food, which CARE would sell at markets in 22 developing countries; CARE would then use the profits to fund their own antipoverty programs. However, the program was bureaucratic and inefficient, amounting to little more than a subsidy to American farmers, not an efficient way to help finance CARE. Even worse, selling the subsidized food on foreign markets undercut local farmers, counterproductively slowing agricultural development in hungry countries. CARE bailed out of the monetization program in 2007, one CARE official saying that US food aid "is an outdated program that's needed reform for a long time."
The Obama Administration agrees, and would like to overhaul the US government's food aid programs, which are funded to the tune of about $2 billion USD a year. It's pushing to transfer authority from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) -- which has a mandate to help American farmers -- to the US Agency for International Development (USAID) -- which has a mandate to help developing countries. USAID would be given more freedom to achieve its mandate, for example to buy food from countries closer to where it's being distributed; to give out cash vouchers to help the hungry; or download food stamps to the cellphones of needy recipients. The administration says the US feeds 53 million hungry people overseas each year, and judged that the changes would allow 2 to 4 million more to be fed at no additional cost to the American taxpayer.
Congress has to buy off on the scheme; farm groups, shippers, and charities that like the current system are lobbying to fight the changes. The US government currently ships about 1.8 million tonnes (2 million tons) of food each year, purchased from American farmers, and then transports it overseas. Of course, farmers and shippers make money off this business, and claim tens of thousands of jobs would be lost under the new scheme. Maybe so, but it's cheaper to buy food closer to the region in need, and both cheaper and faster to deliver it. An analysis showed that only 40% of the funds pumped into the current US program actually go towards food.
The ideas for the new approach were not actually invented by the Obama Administration; as mentioned in the earlier article, the Bush II Administration started up pilot programs, as a consequence of the 2008 Farm Bill. Farmers and shippers were just as hostile to the idea then. Agriculture industry analysts suggest they're overreacting, since food aid only accounts for half a percent of US food exports.
One of the silver linings to the budget pressure on the Obama Administration is that it makes measures to reduce the cost of government programs easier to sell to Congress over the objections of vested interests. USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack believes the new approach is hard to argue with, even though his agency loses clout thereby: "This is one of those examples where we believe we can create greater efficiencies."COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* IRAQ AFTER AMERICA (2): 150 kilometers (93 miles) of bad road to the south of Baghdad, the Shiite holy city of Najaf, a target of pilgrims, looks energetic, with flashy hotels and construction much in evidence. The holy shrine of Imam Ali is getting new gilding on its dome, as well as a huge extension -- designed by Iranian architects -- that will triple its footprint. Najaf withered under Saddam Hussein, and was overshadowed by its rival, the Iranian holy city of Qom. Now most of the world's 150 million Shiites look up to Najaf's Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani as the sect's most respected authority, and Qom is withering from Iranian repressiveness. Najaf's spiritual revival is linked closely to a business revival.
Najaf and the south are doing so much better than Baghdad largely because the Shia majority there feels satisfied with the postwar settlement. The Shiites were once oppressed; now Shiites have the prime minister's office, a majority in Parliament, and control the governance of Iraq's nine southern provinces. The Shiites don't concern themselves much with the rights of Sunnis, having little sympathy with the protests that have taken place in the Sunni-majority provinces to the north and west of Baghdad.
That's complacent, the Sunnis having obvious cause to protest. The security services are quick to arrest Sunnis on terrorism-related charges, and the Baghdad government has suspended salaries the Americans paid to Sunni militiamen. The residents of some Sunni parts of Baghdad are subjected to humiliating searches when leaving their neighborhoods; on Fridays, days of prayer and protest, they are not let out at all. Prime Minister Maliki has heeded the Sunni protests to a degree, responding with concessions, promises, and veiled threats. He formed a committee that has released thousands of prisoners, and resumed paying Sunni militias. State security forces have generally been tolerant of protests, as long as they don't turn violent.
The atmosphere is far from peaceful. Maliki has done much to inflame tensions, having taken heavy-handed actions against Sunni government ministers and his concessions in the face of Sunni protests being slow and grudging. However, some outside observers suggest he may not have many alternatives, Iraqi politics being dominated by a constellation of bickering and impractical micro-parties. Maliki's efforts to personally control the military, his use of state perks to tempt opposition blocs, his abuse of police power, and his appeals to Shia sentiment are all unfortunate -- but under the circumstances, maybe not more than anyone would expect. According to a foreign diplomat in Baghdad: "I'm not sure that anyone else would act much different, and it's not as if the opposition are offering any alternative."
Western diplomats are also apprehensive of the influence Iran exerts in Iraq, but they appreciate its inevitability. The Islamic Republic sponsors several armed and virulent Iraqi Shiite factions, and is currently operating an air lifeline over Iraq to prop up the floundering Syrian regime. However, Iraq is hardly under Iran's thumb. Very few Shiite leaders like the idea of mullahs running Iraq the way they run Iran, and Iraq is clearly benefiting in oil sales from the crippling sanctions imposed on Iran.
According to Naama Obaidi, a cleric who runs a Najaf think-tank: "We share Iran's concerns about Syria, but not its strategic interests. And we respect that Iran, which fought a long war with us, and faces big threats, should exert lots of its intelligence effort here." However, he adds that while Iraq is willing to accommodate Iran, it will not embrace it fully -- unless pushed towards Iran by fear of its Sunni neighbors. Turkey looms large in Iraqi fears, the Turkish government judging Iraq a stooge of Iran, with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan often trading shots with Maliki.
Unhappiness with Maliki is commonplace, but the general expectation is that he will serve out his term, which will come to an end in April 2014. It doesn't seem realistic at present to expect leadership that can do more than maintain the shaky status quo, with hopes for a more stable Iraq necessarily being deferred to the future. However, such hopes are not completely unreasonable, one prominent Iraqi citizen commenting: "Compromise in Arabic is a bad word, but reaching it at the eleventh hour is one thing we have learned." [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* WASTE NOT (3): The recycling component of waste disposal is very sensitive to economics; almost anything can be recycled, it's just a question of if it's cost-effective to do so. The Montgomery County waste management division believes in recycling; their recycling center is efficient, ribboned with conveyor belts carrying waste through sorter systems and past workers, the end result being bales of metal and plastic in four categories, plus four categories of binned glass. 44% of the MSW flowing through the system is recycled. That's well above the US national average of 24%, though still below the target of 50% to 70% that Montgomery County officials are after.
Waste Management INC (WMI), the industry giant, operates a recycling center not far away in Kit Kat, Maryland, near the Baltimore / Washington International Airport. The Kit Kat plant, which opened in 2007, is much bigger than the Montgomery Plant, processing 75 tonnes (82.5 tons) of recyclables an hour compared to the 12 tonnes (13.2 tons) an hour of the Montgomery County plant. The Kit Kat plant also effectively runs 24:7:365. In 2010, the Kit Kat plant processed 230,000 tonnes (253,000 tons) of recyclables, 70% of it being paper and cardboard.
WMI also has a different business model, actually paying for waste delivered from a range of communities in the mid-Atlantic region, including communities that don't have their own waste management organizations. According to a WMI official: "We do a sort test for each community. We'll analyze a whole day's worth of material. Then we'll deduct our processing fees and send them a big check." Howard County, where the Kit Kat is located, got $3 million USD for its wastes in 2011. Sounds like a pretty good deal.
WMI's size gives it market clout through the firm's ability to service a global network of buyers out to obtain recyclable materials, China being a big customer. The company is also able to build big facilities and invest in new technology. For example, waste to energy plants burn plastics and the like to generate steam and produce electricity, but such plants are not all that competitive with regular power plants. However, transport fuel is fetching a good price these days, and so WMI is working on schemes to convert waste plastic into motor fuel -- using "pyrolysis", heating the waste at high temperature in the absence of oxygen, to create a fuel feedstock.
* Although resources can be recovered from waste, dealing with waste is still not really a profit-making operation, and so there's an incentive to reduce the waste stream. All waste management professionals keep in mind the "waste hierarchy" issued by the European Union in 2008, which defines five levels of waste management, in order of priority: reduce, reuse, recycle, recover, and dispose. Reduction -- via elimination of waste, or reduction of it when that's not possible -- has the biggest payoff. Montgomery County's Davidson commented: "Waste is just a design flaw. If materials are created in such a way that they can't be recycled, then they need to be redesigned. And that's what we need to work on."
That sounds easier said than done, but many big American corporations have signed up to work towards that goal. US carmaker General Motors (GM) announced a "zero waste to landfill" program for half the company's 145 plants in 2008. It wasn't quite as impressive as it sounded since it only covered wastes directly sent to a landfill, not those reduced by incineration -- but in 2010 GM promised to reduce the waste output of its operation by 10% to 2020, which certainly sounds like an achievable goal.
John Bradburn, an environmental engineer who heads GM's waste reduction effort, says the company is focusing on uses for materials that would have previously just been tossed out. Examples include air-inlet panels made from recycled bumpers; used packaging converted into sound-absorbing components for vehicles; and plastic waste transformed into shipping containers. Materials for recycling are not necessarily obtained from the factory: the air deflectors on the Chevy Volt hybrid car were remade from oil-soaked plastic booms used to contain the 2010 DEEPWATER HORIZON oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
Bradburn honestly admits that recycling isn't always practical: "Vehicle parts must come to us in the best possible shape, and to do that you need robust packaging." That equates to waste that can be hard to reuse. However, an independent auditor verified that the "zero waste to landfill" effort is on track, and company officials also say they made big gains in reducing waste per vehicle sold even before announcing the 10% reduction goal in 2010. [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* Space launches for April included:
-- 15 APR 13 / ANIK G1 -- A Proton Breeze M booster was launched from Baikonur in Kazakhstan at 1836 GMT 15 APR / 0036 local time 16 APR to put the "Anik G1" geostationary comsat into orbit for Telesat Canada. Anik G1 was built by Space Systems Loral and was based on the SSL 1300 comsat platform. The satellite had a launch mass of 4,900 kilograms (10,800 pounds), a payload of 24 C-band / 28 Ku-band / 3 X-band transponders, and a design life of 15 years. It was placed in the geostationary slot at 107.3 degrees West longitude to provide direct to home TV services for Canada, as well as more general communications services to South America and Hawaii. Anik G1 was co-located with the elderly Anik F1 satellite, launched in 2000 and providing communications with South America.
-- 19 APR 13 / BION M1, SMALLSATS x 6 -- A Soyuz 2-1b (Fregat) booster was launched from Baikonur at 1000 GMT / 1600 local time to put the "Bion M1" research satellite into orbit. It carried organisms on a month-long trip in space, most notably 45 mice. The launch also included six nanosats:
-- 21 APR 13 / DUMMY PAYLOAD, SMALLSATS x 4 -- An Orbital Sciences Antares (previously Taurus 2) booster was launched from Wallops Island at 2100 GMT / 1700 local time on its first trial flight, carrying a dummy payload simulating an OSC Cygnus freighter. The flight was an outstanding success. The booster also carried the "Dove 1" 3U CubeSat, a testbed for a small imaging spacecraft made by Comsogia INC; and three 1U "PhoneSats" built by NASA Ames. The three Phonesats were named "Alexander", "Graham", and "Bell", and were based on consumer smartphone technology. The smartphones were used as central processing units, not for communications.
-- 24 APR 13 / PROGRESS 51P (M-19M / ISS) -- A Soyuz booster was launched from Baikonur at 1012 GMT / 1612 local time to put the Progress "51P" AKA "M-19M" tanker-freighter spacecraft into orbit on an International Space Station (ISS) supply mission. The cargo ship docked with the ISS Zvezda module two days after launch; the launch window did not permit the new "fast ascent" trajectory that had been refined in previous Progress flights. It was the 51st Progress mission to the ISS.
-- 26 APR 13 / GAOFEN 1 -- A Long March 2D booster was launched from Jiuquan at 0413 GMT / 1213 local time to put the "Gaofen 1" Earth observation satellite into orbit, the first of six such spacecraft for Earth resource observation. The launch also included three CubeSats:
-- 26 APR 13 / GLONASS M -- A Soyuz 2-1b booster was launched from Baikonur at 0523 GMT / 0923 local time to put a GLONASS M third-generation navigation satellite into orbit. This brought the GLONASS constellation up to 23 operational spacecraft, one short of the full constellation of 24.
* OTHER SPACE NEWS: AVIATION WEEK reported on the efforts of the Chinese Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (CALT) to build a new family of space-launch vehicles to ultimately replace the current Long March series of boosters powered by nasty storable propellants. At the bottom of the new range will be the "Long March 6" and "Long March 7", roughly comparable to existing Long March variants but powered by kerosene and liquid oxygen (LOX). They will have body diameters of 2.5 meters (8.2 feet) and 3.35 meters (11 feet) respectively, with initial flights in 2014.
The Long March 7 may become China's new crewed space launch vehicle, but "crew rating" will require considerable operational experience, and the current Long March boosters will be retained for at least a decade after the new boosters go into service. There is also work underway on a "Long March 11", a small solid-fuel booster primarily intended for short-notice "responsive space" launches, primarily of military spacecraft. First flight is scheduled for 2016.
The centerpiece of the new booster effort is the "Long March 5", which will have a 5 meter (16.4 foot) diameter body and LOX-liquid hydrogen propulsion. It will be comparable to the US Delta 4 Heavy booster. Development of the Long March 5 has been difficult, and first launch has slipped out to 2015 at earliest.
The Chinese Academy of Space Technology (CAST) has adjusted its plans to develop follow-ons to the current "DongFangHong (DFH) 4" satellite bus in response to booster development delays. The current DFH-4 bus has a launch mass of about 5,100 kilograms (11,200 pounds); CAST has been planning a "DFH-5" bus with a launch mass of 6,500 kilograms (14,300 pounds) or more for launch on the Long March 5. However, with delays in the booster program, over the short term CAST is developing spacecraft buses compatible with existing launchers, including an "enhanced" spacecraft, the "DFH-4E", with a launch mass of 5,500 kilograms (12,000 pounds); and a "small" spacecraft, the "DFH-4S", with a launch mass of 3,800 kilograms (8,400 pounds).
* A Canadian startup named "UrtheCast" (pronounced "EarthCast") is now preparing a payload for launch to the International Space Station come October. The payload is a 108 kilogram (238 pound) camera array, with a high-resolution camera and a low-resolution camera. The high-res camera will record 90-second videos 150 times a day, while the low-res camera will snap pictures continuously, on an interval of a few seconds. The imagery will be provided to all on the company's website; the firm plans to offer specific imagery for sale.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* TAXING THE INTERNET: Notions of taxing online purchases were discussed here in 2011. Two years on, as discussed by an entry in THE ECONOMIST online blogs ("Click & Pay", 6 April 2013), interest in the idea has become much stronger. On 22 March, 75 senators, including majorities of both parties, approved an amendment to a proposed Federal budget which, if enacted, would allow states to collect taxes on sales by internet retailers based in other states.
The amendment, the "Marketplace Fairness Act", actually carried little weight in itself no matter what happened, but it was significant in that the Senate approved the idea in principle. Public support is also growing for the idea. Anti-tax militants don't like it, of course, but in reality there's no strong constitutional or legal precedent to stop it. In 1992, the US Supreme Court ruled that states could not demand that out-of-state retailers collect tax on sales -- but only because the right of decision rested in Congress. There was nothing in the Constitution ruling it out, and Congress could pass laws to implement it as deemed necessary.
Certainly sales taxes are nothing new, and any out-of-state firm that establishes a retail outlet in another state must collect sales there. States can in principle demand that their citizens pay sales taxes on out-of-state purchases, but nobody's ever seen that as a practical notion. The exemption was never established as a principle of justice, it was established for simple reasons of practicality, catalog sales traditionally being small potatoes. They were typically the domain of small companies that would find sorting out the sales taxes to all fifty states impossible. It was too burdensome on them, and the payoff to the states not worth the bother.
The emergence of big online sales operations such as Amazon.com changed all that, greatly raising the scale of "catalog" purchases. The National Conference of State Legislatures estimates that the exemption cost states $23 billion USD in lost taxes in 2012. It is easy to argue against raising taxes; far harder to argue against trying to recoup lost tax revenues. In addition, the emergence of the software systems that support online sales also, at least in principle, make handling taxes a simpler matter. The exemption now makes little sense: if sales taxes can be collected from an out-of-state company with a physical presence in a state, how can a legal distinction be made for a company's virtual presence in a state? New York State has made this argument, and the courts have upheld it.
The states of course have been all for it, but they've been stymied by anti-tax militants, with Republicans instinctively dubious of any "new" tax in the first place. The militants continue to be noisy, but the Republicans have been coming around, having been influenced by the pleas of the states. There's little doubt that it will happen, it's just a question of WHEN and HOW -- the HOW being particularly important, since online retailers like Amazon are terrified by the prospect of each state imposing different requirements. The states understand this issue, about half of them having now set up a coalition to ensure a consistent online sales tax scheme. The scheme envisions the exemption continuing for the "little guys", nominally defined as those with less than a million USD in sales a year, though there has been some quarreling over the proper threshold. It seems likely that the exemption will be retained for purely digital services, such as internet access and email.
Senate support for online taxation is strong; however, the Republican-dominated House of Representatives remains unconvinced for the moment. Online taxation still seems to be an idea whose time is coming -- though it would come more easily as part of a comprehensive tax reform package. That has been a demonstrably troublesome matter over the past few years, but the growing acceptance of the idea of an online sales tax suggests that support for comprehensive tax reform is growing as well.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* WI-FI ON STEROIDS: Wi-fi technology has proven a tremendous convenience, allowing allowing easy connection for digital devices at home and on the road. However, as discussed in an article by THE ECONOMIST's science-technology columnist, Babbage ("Unplugging The Cables", 22 April 2013), wi-fi is now entering a new, much more powerful stage of its evolution.
Current wi-fi data rates are fine for transferring files or accessing web pages, and are more than adequate for handling wireless input devices such as keyboards and mice. However, they're simply not fast enough to handle transfers of high-resolution multimedia files from smartphones, tablets, and laptops to TV screens, computer monitors, and docking stations. Current wi-fi operates in the 2.4 gigahertz (GHz) and 5 GHz bands; the next generation will operate in the 60 GHz range, at gigabit instead of megabit speeds.
Current wi-fi has helped get rid of keyboard and mouse cables; 60 GHz wi-fi promises to take the process further. Though introduced a mere decade ago, the HDMI (high-definition multimedia interface) cable used for driving pictures and sound from cable boxes, digital recorders, video-game consoles and Blu-ray players to television sets and computer monitors is likely to be the first to go. The venerable RCA cables that litter the backs of audio boxes are thankfully likely to disappear along with it. There's still much more performance that can be squeezed out of Ethernet networking cables, so they're likely safe for now.
The 60 GHz band resides in the EHF (extremely high frequency) region of the radio spectrum, EHF spanning frequencies from 30 GHz to 300 GHz. Go to much higher frequencies, and we're in the deep infrared range of the electromagnetic spectrum. The higher the operating band, as a rule the more data can be transferred: data capacity of a radio communications channel is proportional to the bandwidth of that channel, and a slice out of a high-frequency band has more bandwidth than a proportionally similar slice out of a low-frequency band.
That leads to a puzzle, in that the 60 GHz band -- from 57 GHz to 64 GHz in North America, from 59 GHz to 66 GHz in Europe and Japan -- has long been left idle. The problem is that such "millimeter waves" are absorbed by atmospheric oxygen, attenuated by humidity, and blocked by rain; they have no penetration of walls. Millimeter waves are worthless for long-range communications. However, if we're only talking about sending a high-definition video stream from PC to a TV about 3 meters (10 feet) apart, such a limitation is much less significant; in fact, it's an advantage, because the limited range reduces problems with long-range interference. In addition, the high frequency and short range means tiny antennas, easily fitting into smartphones and the like, work fine.
A number of wi-fi specifications have emerged over the years. The push towards 60 GHz wi-fi is being driven primarily by two specification efforts:
In their present incarnations, WirelessHD and WiGig can transmit data at about seven gigabits a second -- an order of magnitude more than the wi-fi technology currently in general use -- and have peak data rates of around 30 gigabits a second. Future versions of both are expected to be much faster. As a standard of comparison, data rates of uncompressed high-definition video run to about 3.5 gigabits per second.
Both specs use a scheme named "adaptive beamforming", in which the transmitter first locates the receiver, and then targets a narrow-angle beam on it. This both improves range and reduces interference; reducing interference also means better security, because it makes it harder for strangers to listen in. Both WirelessHD and WiGig interfaces are now appearing on the market. Which standard is likely to prevail? There's a lot of alliance-making going on and so the contest is likely to be rough, but from the point of view of the consumer it doesn't matter, because the two options are functionally equivalent.
The 60 GHz band is the last great unclaimed frontier in the radio spectrum, offering seven GHz of bandwidth. Compare that to contemporary wi-fi, which has no more than half a gigahertz of bandwidth, and has had to share it with microwave ovens, cordless phones, garage openers, and the like. For all that, people have been happy with it; once the glitches are worked out, they're going to like 60 GHz wi-fi a lot more.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* IRAQ AFTER AMERICA (1): As reported by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("The Slow Road Back", 2 March 2013), it's going on two years since the US left Iraq after a decade of occupation and civil war. The country's recovery has been fitful. The virtually independent Kurdish region in the north and the oil-rich Shia provinces in the south are peaceful and increasingly prosperous -- but the heart of Iraq remains trapped in factional strife, fueled by politicians with the mindset of gang bosses, and the meddlings of outsiders.
In Baghdad, the Americans left behind a giant embassy as a noticeable landmark in a city otherwise noted by concrete barriers and checkpoints, along with the pervasive presence of Iraqi troops in American-style kit. Among the citizens, there's a strong sense of dashed hopes -- one Iraqi politician who once cheered the American presence complaining: "They spent a trillion dollars and didn't leave us a single building."
Surprisingly, Iraqis don't generally blame the US for all their troubles, a common sentiment being that the Americans made terrible mistakes, but "so have we". Saddam Hussein had led Iraq from one calamity to the next over three decades, beginning with a wasting and inconclusive war with Iran, then a disastrous invasion of Kuwait, American occupation being the climax and final staggering catastrophe of his oppressive misrule. Many Iraqis had thought Saddam Hussein would be a strong leader for their country, but in the end all he amounted to was a capricious thug, and few were unhappy to see him removed with extreme prejudice. Sarmand al-Taie, a newspaper columnist, commented: "They lifted the lid on the tomb we lived in. It's not their fault we haven't completely climbed out."
Baghdad, where about a fifth of Iraq's 33 million people now live, remains a maze of compounds and security cordons, resulting in roundabout trips to get from here to there in the city. The country's level of violence has fallen drastically since the sectarian bloodletting of 2006:2007, and seven of Iraq's 18 provinces have murder rates lower than Canada's. That's hardly true of Baghdad and its surrounding areas, where citizens remain distressingly familiar with bombings.
Baghdad has some new buildings and flashy shop fronts, but they are rare. Most business activity is conducted by street merchants, reflecting the fact that less than 40% of Iraqi adults have a job, and that a quarter of families live below the World Bank's poverty line -- circumstances not much different from the dark days of crushing UN sanctions in the 1990s. Sectarian violence led to mass dislocations of populations in the city, with some 370,000 internal refugees living there, half in unserviced squatter settlements.
If things don't look so bad in Iraq's south and north, they still look very bad in the center -- progress being impeded not merely by continuing acts of terror, but by bickering politicians and hidebound bureaucracy. The Iraqi state employs 3.5 million people, 65% of the workforce, and accounts for 70% of GDP. Nearly all of its money comes from oil, to the tune at present of about $8 billion USD a month. Exports could potentially double by 2020 if Iraq does things right. Nobody sees that as likely to happen. In its latest index, the World Bank ranks Iraq 165th out of the 185 places on the ease of doing business. Iraq's politicians are mostly interested in factional feuds and have little interest in practical matters. [TO BE CONTINUED]NEXT | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* WASTE NOT (2): In the USA, municipal waste disposal is taken very seriously. Bill Davidson commented: "When Montgomery County needs to float a general obligation bond for a new school or road, it goes to New York to get its bonds rated. And the first question the bond companies ask is: Have you got your solid waste act together?"
Waste management is now a fundamental competency for a municipal government. There was a time when it wasn't; before World War II, waste management in the US was often handled by private firms who pretty much did it any way they thought proper. When the war came along, the drain on manpower into the military and industry generally knocked the props out from underneath private waste collection, and municipal governments had to pick it up. After the end of the war, the municipalities held on to it.
Today, Montgomery County has the system down to a science. Citizens are required to sort their waste into four streams:
Private haulers working under contract to the county transport the waste to the county's centrally-located transfer station and recycling center. Recyclables are sorted out and stored, possibly for some length of time, until a buyer is found, while yard wastes are composted on site. Garbage is shipped a short distance by rail to an incinerator in Dickerson, Maryland, to be burned. The ash is sifted for recyclable metals and then carted off to a landfill in central Virginia for burial. Montgomery County does not have its own landfills.
The county's operation is seen as a model -- except for the incineration component, which has its critics. The incinerator was built and is operated by Covanta Energy, a New Jersey-based company with a network of waste-to-energy plants across the USA. The incinerator is known as a "resource reclamation facility" because, unlike incinerators in the old days, it features serious pollution controls and recycles metals after combustion. The 1,800 tonnes (1,980 tons) of waste burned every day to stoke its three boilers also produces 52 megawatts of electricity -- which doesn't bring in enough revenue to make the incinerator pay for itself, but it does offset operating costs.
Covanta officials say that incineration reduces the volume of waste to be dumped in a landfill by 90%. Environmentalists are not so happy with it, issuing reports that show the Dickerson incinerator produces more emissions per unit of power than Maryland's four biggest coal-fired power plants. Covanta officials reply that the criticisms are short-sighted, claiming that a comprehensive view of the incinerator shows it to be beneficial overall. The significant fact is that the incinerator is not operated to generate power, it's operated to dispose of waste, and the power is an incidental benefit. Incinerating the waste makes hauling it to a landfill easier and more energy-efficient, as well as reducing landfill size. If the incinerator wasn't generating power it would still be generating emissions; by generating power, it ends up reducing the emissions produced by the coal-fired stations. Very importantly, if the garbage were dumped unburned into a landfill, it would be generating emissions in the form of methane as it decomposed.
Maryland legislators find Covanta's reasoning persuasive, having legally established waste-to-energy plants as a "renewable energy" source in 2011, giving them the same tax breaks as wind, water and solar. A dozen US states have gone the same way, giving waste-to-energy plants a financial edge over landfills. Environmentalists still complain. [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* SCIENCE NOTES: As discussed in detail here late last year, we are now learning a great deal about the "microbiome", the community of microorganisms that colonizes our body. We obviously still have much to learn about it, a case in point being demonstrated by research conducted by Jeffrey Gordon and colleagues at Washington University in Saint Louis, Missouri.
Gordon and his team examined 317 sets of twins in Malawi for the first three years of their lives. In half the cases, both twins were healthy; in 7% of the cases, both were malnourished; in the rest of the cases, one was healthy but the other was malnourished, even though they had the same diet. The unhealthy twin seemed to have no noticeable defect, until the researchers started mapping out the microbiomes of both twins.
In the case of mismatched twins, they generally had distinctly mismatched microbiomes. Experiments with mice using microbiomes transplanted from a malnourished twin showed the mice were also malnourished, as long as they had something like a typical Malawi diet -- which is basic, but not inadequate in itself. Simply put, there was something in the makeup of the microbiome of a malnourished twin that did not support proper metabolic processes. Figuring out the exact causes is going to require some effort; the work leaves the prospect of using microbiome treatments to alleviate, if not cure, malnutrition.
* As reported by THE NEW YORK TIMES, the meteor that shattered windows in the vicinity of Chelyabinsk, Russia, on 15 February has been given considerable examination from crowd-sourced videos, locations of the videos being nailed down with Google Earth, along with data from a network of sensors set up to monitor nuclear tests. The network -- discussed here in 2010 -- includes about 45 "infrasound" detectors to pick up very low frequency acoustic waves from an explosion; about 20 picked up the sound of the Chelyabinsk meteor, including one in Antarctica, about 16,000 kilometers (10,000 miles) away. Some of the detectors picked up the acoustic signature multiple times as it cycled around the globe.
The analysis suggests the meteor was about 18 meters (almost 60 feet) in diameter, with a mass of about 11,000 tonnes (12,100 tons), and hit the Earth's atmosphere at a speed of about 68,000 KPH (42,000 MPH). It exploded at an altitude of about 24 kilometers (15 miles), generating a blast equivalent to over 400 kilotons of TNT -- about 30 times more powerful than the nuclear weapon that destroyed Hiroshima. It was the largest known meteor strike since the 1908 event that leveled a patch of Siberia near Tunguska, the object in that case being bigger and exploding only about 8 kilometers (5 miles) overhead.
The Chelyabinsk meteor was clearly a stony object, not a rarer iron-nickel one, which would have penetrated more deeply and caused far more damage. Pressure built up so fast on striking the atmosphere that the meteor shattered into small fragments, something like an aspirin smashed with a hammer. Fragments have been recovered and are being examined.
Groups advocating more effort in tracking near-Earth asteroids that could hit our planet have found the Chelyabinsk event powerful ammunition for their cause. Edward Lu -- head of one such group, the B612 Foundation, and a former NASA shuttle astronaut -- testified to the US Congress in the wake of the strike, using the crowdsourced videos to dramatize his pitch. Lu said: "It made it more real to folks. There's nothing like a hundred YouTube videos to do that."
* As reported by LIVESCIENCE Online, although many Americans believe that climate change is a hoax, an online survey of 1,174 American adults indicated that 82% of Americans believe that actions should be taken to prepare for the problems created by climate change -- with that proportion even including 60% of climate-change doubters.
Survey director Jon Krosnick, a senior fellow at the Woods Institute for the Environment at Stanford University, commented in a statement: "Few people believe these preparations will harm the economy or eliminate jobs. In fact, more people believe that preparation efforts will help the economy and create jobs around the US, in their state and in their town than think these efforts will harm the economy and result in fewer jobs in those areas. But people want coastal homeowners and businesses that locate in high-risk areas to pay for these measures."
The most popular measures considered were reinforcement of coastal building codes to minimize damage from storms and flooding, as well as tighter zoning to block construction close to the beachfront. Less popular were the protection and restoration of eroded beaches; relocation of structures inland; and construction of sea walls. There was no strong support for radical measures to head off climate change, the majority believing that it is inevitable, and the only practical thing we can do is prepare.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* DANCE BABY DANCE: As discussed by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("Letting The Baby Dance", 1 September 2012), as the internet has extended its reach, copyright protection has been extended as well. To be sure, artists are entitled to rights to their work -- it's obviously thievish and unjust to rip a CD and then put the tunes online for the world to take for free -- but copyright concerns end up being taken to absurd extremes. In 2007, an American mother put a half-minute video on the YouTube video archive of her baby boy bopping to Prince's song "Let's Go Crazy". It didn't attract much attention, falling into the sump of YouTube clips about cute babies and pets, but it did get the attention of Prince's recording company, Universal, which told YouTube to yank the video for copyright infringement. YouTube yanked it.
That was silly, the video obviously causing no one any hardship, but since 2007 the issue of the internet versus copyrights has continued to escalate. It came to a peak of sorts in early 2012, when Wikipedia and other websites shut down for a day to protest the "Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA)" then working its way through the US Congress. SOPA was seen by critics as an excessive, open-ended measure that could make distribution of information over the internet much more problematic.
Now the tide is rising against the heavy-handed approach, with politicians starting to balance the demands of media firms against the needs of internet companies. In June 2012, Canada passed a new law that sets the bar lower instead of higher, capping statutory damages if copyright is breached for non-commercial purposes. It also expands the definition of "fair dealing", what the US calls "fair use", and sets up exemptions for educational purposes and for parody. Firms must hand out a warning about infringement to the person who posted the material, and not just demand that a service provider yank the person's account.
The UK plans to introduce a similar law this fall, in the wake of a review a review led by Ian Hargreaves, professor of digital economy at Cardiff University. The UK code will establish exemptions for non-commercial uses and user-generated content. Other modifications in copyright law that are being considered include:
Still, the urge for control hasn't gone away. European Union officials want to uphold rules in which computer users pay a small tithe on digital products to collection societies. These fees are meant to go to content creators, but have a tendency to line the pockets of middlemen instead. There's a major battle going on relative to copyright on the internet, with something to be said for both the hardline and the relaxed view of copyright protection -- but sooner or later, we're going to have to come up with a workable compromise.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* VIRAL FRIENDS? A virus is described as an "obligate intracellular parasite", meaning essentially that it can only reproduce by hijacking a host cell. That has traditionally suggested that viruses are inherently damaging to a host -- this view being reinforced that most of the research on viruses in the past focused on the troublemakers. However, as discussed by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("Enemies No Longer", 23 February 2013), it's becoming clear that the notion of viruses as inevitable enemies is simplistic. In a recent report, Dr. Marilyn Roossinck of Pennsylvania State University, who studies plant viruses, has found that many viruses are harmless to their hosts, and some may be beneficial.
Plant viruses have two patterns of infection: acute and persistent. Acute viruses jump from plant to plant and often cause recognizable symptoms of disease, even killing their hosts. Persistent viruses exist more as a permanent low-level background, rarely causing visible symptoms, and being passed on to plant offspring via seeds. Although persistent viruses are not really news -- it's long been known we can have long-term low-level asymptomatic viral and other infections -- the traditional focus on troublesome acute infections has led to a disregard of persistent infections, some believing that persistent infections were uncommon.
Roossinck got to wondering just how common persistent viral infections actually are. Using genomics tools, she surveyed thousands of plant species in two locations -- one in Oklahoma, the other in Costa Rica -- for viral RNA, used by some viruses as their normal genome, used by all in replication. She found thousands of previously unknown viruses; fortunately, they did have genetic similarities to known viruses that allowed them to be classified as likely to be acute or likely to be persistent, with the mix turning out to be about half and half. That wasn't so surprising, nobody having seriously investigated the matter before, but it did raise the question of whether a persistent virus might provide some benefit to its plant host. That's tricky to answer, since in most cases all members of a given plant species are infected by the same persistent virus, meaning there's no "control" population and no way to perform a useful comparison.
However, Roossinck has found a few cases where viruses do seem to have a beneficial influence on a host plant. One discovery was the result of an experiment that attempted to use a virus to insert a gene into a plant, named Nicotiana benthamiana, widely used in botanical experiments. Roossinck and her colleagues found by chance that the virus conferred resistance to drought on this plant, and further experiments with a related virus showed that was true of 15 other plant species, too.
These are acute viruses, but Roossinck has also found an example of a beneficial persistent virus. Her examination of a grass species growing in the hot and hostile environment of a geyser field in Yellowstone National Park showed that its heat tolerance was conferred by a virus that lives in a fungus which is, itself, symbiotic with the grass. It's a three-way symbiosis, with the fungus and virus both necessary to maintain the heat tolerance of the grass.
Roossinck is now performing experiments in Costa Rica to look at virally induced heat tolerance in a range of plants. Her work dovetails with research into the "microbiome", with the "virome" now being increasingly seen as a major element of it. Her work may have highly practical implications as well: in an era of global climate change, agronomists may find they can quickly produce drought-resistant crops just by adjusting their virome. Things are coming full circle, with researchers now considering how to infect plants with viruses, instead of preventing infections.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* THE CANYON PROGRAM (2): The geostationary "missile warning" satellites launched prior to the first DSP warning satellite launch in November 1970 were nothing of the sort. The 1968 launch of the first CANYON satellite, designated 7501 -- meaning the first spacecraft in the 7500 series of spacecraft -- was a failure, the satellite being put into an uncontrolled tumble by a ground control error while in elliptical geostationary transfer orbit, turning it into a very expensive piece of space junk. The next two launches, 7502 and 7503, placed operational satellites into orbit.
The CANYON satellites hanging on the equator with the Soviet Union in their hemispheric field of view were monitored by a US Army facility at Bad Aibling in Bavaria, run by the Army Security Agency's 328th Communications Reconnaissance Company. CANYON was only one of the SIGINT programs operated out of Bad Aibling, that particular section being codenamed Project WILDBORE. WILDBORE's staff included civilian specialists, among them CANYON personnel from Lockheed. Once CANYON satellites were in operation, WILDBORE downloaded their COMINT data via a site receiving dish, recorded it on tape, then rushed the tapes to Munich, from where they were flown to NSA headquarters at Fort Meade in Maryland.
Things did not go all that smoothly even after 7502 and 7503 had been put into orbit, with communications dropouts and the two satellites suffering intermittent failures. The fourth CANYON launch, on 4 December 1971, was a failure. Fortunately, the three following, and final, CANYON launches -- on 20 December 1972, 18 June 1975, and 23 May 1977 -- were all successful, most of the bugs having been worked out.
The COMINT data returned by the CANYON spacecraft was judged to be of very high value. It wasn't just restricted to intercepts of Soviet air defense and other microwave communications; CANYON could also pick up very high frequency (VHF) and ultra-high frequency (UHF) communications, and was a useful source of intelligence data during the Mideast Yom Kippur / Ramadan War of 1973, on North Vietnamese air defenses, and Chinese military exercises.
* CANYON was not revealed to the public until 1990, but the Soviets were well-informed on the program from the mid-1970s. The heavy volume of Soviet communications traffic picked up by the satellites placed a comparably heavy load on the NSA, particularly in obtaining qualified Russian speakers. The NSA cut a deal with counterparts in Canada and Britain, offering them access to the intelligence data if they would help sift through it. They liked the deal and were soon deeply involved in CANYON.
However, Geoffrey Arthur Prime, an analyst working for the British SIGINT agency, the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), had been passing on information to the Soviet KGB intelligence service since 1968. In 1976 he became involved with CANYON, with the Soviets tightening up their communications security as a result. The pressure of the double life got to Prime and he quit CGHQ in 1977, also cutting off his contacts with the KGB, working as a taxi driver and a salesman. He was arrested on a child molestation charge in 1982, with the investigation turning up his secret history as a spy. He was convicted and remained in prison to 2001.
By that time the CANYON program was over, having led to a successor originally codenamed CHALET, with the first CHALET satellite placed in geostationary orbit in June 1978. The lineage of CHALET from CANYON was direct, the first CHALET satellite being designated "7508". CHALET spacecraft had similar orbital parameters to CANYON satellites, but CHALET was clearly a bigger spacecraft, requiring launch by a more powerful Titan III booster. CHALET program operations abandoned the Bad Aibling site, CHALET data being downloaded instead to the huge Menwith Hill ground station in the United Kingdom.
By the time of the next launch, in October 1979, the CHALET name had leaked out to the press and so the program had been renamed VORTEX; the spacecraft had been enhanced to allow it to intercept missile telemetry in addition to communications. Eventually, a three-satellite VORTEX constellation would permit extensive targeting of the Soviet Union, the Middle East, and Asia. Improved VORTEX satellites were launched under the codename MERCURY. In 1998, a launch explosion prevented the last of the 7500 series satellites from reaching orbit. The first launch of a geostationary COMINT satellite for a successor program had already taken place in 1994. All specifics of the current program remain classified. [END OF SERIES]PREV | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* WASTE NOT (1): The 10 August 2012 issue of AAAS SCIENCE had a special section titled "Working With Waste", to zero in on the issue of waste management -- which represents a dual challenge: making the maximum effective use of resources from the waste, while minimizing the cost and impact of the waste that we can't make use of.
Poor folk, not being able to afford to throw things away, have always been inclined to make the maximum use of what they have, but with affluence has come an inclination to generate more waste. With the global resource crunch, we're starting to relearn how to make the best use of waste -- through advanced technologies, innovative science, and a recognition of the true costs of waste.
We tend to think of "waste" as household rubbish, but that's not the biggest component of a nation's waste stream. It tends to vary by country, but other components that can match or exceed municipal waste include wastes produced by agriculture and forestry; manufacturing and industry; sewage; or construction. Although statistics are inexact, globally municipal waste is estimated to be no more than 5% of the total waste flow. How waste is handled tends to be driven by a nation's circumstances: the US, having plenty of land, relies heavily on landfills, while land-poor Japan prefers incineration, and Switzerland is big on recycling. However, on the whole recycling is increasingly significantly worldwide.
The first article in the series ("Garbageology 101: Getting A Grip On Waste" by Jeffrey Mervis), discussed the difficulties in simply figuring out where all the waste is coming from and where it goes. Bill Davidson, a mechanical engineer by background, is the chief of strategic planning for Division of Solid Waste Services in Montgomery County, Maryland, which boxes in Washington DC on three sides and is home to about a million citizens. About a decade ago, a consultant tried to write up a report on waste management in the county and ended up spinning his wheels, so Davidson took over and sorted out the waste streams produced by the county's citizens. The result was a tidy flowchart that breaks down the county's wastes -- 1.34 million tonnes (1.47 million tons) in 2011 -- into streams that identify the components and their ultimate fates.
Montgomery County was in a good position to trace out the waste flow, since the county government is very serious about the issue. Recycling is mandatory in the county, and haulers have to keep good records about what they pick up. That's unusual; in many other places, there's little or no data about how much waste is handled and what happens to it. However, despite the elaboration of Davidson's flow chart, it is limited in significant ways -- in particular, it only deals with municipal wastes, which as noted above are only about 5% of the total waste stream, tops.
The USA produces 12 billion tonnes (13.2 billion tons) of wastes a year, and we don't have all that good a grasp of where it comes from and where it goes. The world runs on data, and in the absence of proper data on waste flows, it's hard to determine the economics of recycling; the merits of trash incineration to generate power; or the true costs of waste disposal to society. An intense debate is now under way on such issues, driving the need for better data. [TO BE CONTINUED]NEXT | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* GIMMICKS & GADGETS: As reported by BBC WORLD Online, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the US military's "blue sky" technology office, has been working with a firm named Arsenal Medical to develop a polymer foam designed to limit internal bleeding of soldiers injured on the battlefield. Internal bleeding in the chest or abdomen cannot be stopped by applying an external dressing, and so a soldier may bleed to death internally before reaching a medical facility. A medic would inject the wounded soldier with two liquids that would mix, expand into a polyurethane foam, and harden to act as an internal dressing. The foam would then be removed at the medical facility. Of course, civilian paramedics would find the foam useful as well. Testing has been performed on pigs and so far has been promising, but the procedure is not ready yet for testing on humans, much less authorized for field use.
* Another DARPA effort in the works is an unmanned sub-chaser boat, the "ASW (Antisubmarine Warfare) Continuous Trail Unmanned Vehicle (ACTUV)", with a contract to Science Applications International Corporation for design studies. The ACTUV is a trimaran wedge that, after being guided out of harbor by its remotely-operating pilot, can then cruise the seas for up to 90 days, navigating by GPS, as well as radar and lidar sensors.
Its primary role would be task force protection, most significantly against stealthy diesel-electric submarines. Once a submarine was spotted by a patrol aircraft or other ASW platform, the ACTUV would be dispatched to the target area, sweeping the area with its low-frequency sonar to close in on the target. At closer range it would extend a high-frequency sonar sensor to zero in, also being assisted by a magnetometer sensor system built into the hull, and then use very high frequency sonar to image and characterize the target.
From that moment on, the ACTUV would continuously shadow the target, effectively neutralizing it. The ACTUV wouldn't be armed; presumably an ASW rocket would be launched from a warship if it were necessary to neutralize the threat with extreme prejudice. The boat is designed modularly, with the design adaptable to other missions, such as intelligence-gathering and resupply. It doesn't appear that a prototype is in the works just yet. That may be part of the next-phase effort.
* Researchers at Hitachi and Kyoto University in Japan have now developed an optical storage medium, based on a quartz slide two centimeters on a side and two millimeters thick, composed of four layers. Binary data is encoded into the slide with a fast pulsed laser. The data could be read out with an optical microscope if no proper reader were available. Data density is only slightly better than that for a CD, but the quartz slides are extremely durable; if the slides were protected from damage, there's no telling how long they would last.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* ANOTHER MONTH: WIRED Online blogs ran a photo gallery of images from the "Science As Art" competition, run by the Materials Research Society to find the most compelling materials-related imagery. This last year's first-place winner was by Mulmudi Hemant Kumar of the Nanyang Technological University, with a false-color image of "nanoflowers" made from zinc-doped tin oxide.
* WILY COYOTE: The subject of wildlife intruding on urban environments in the USA was discussed here back in 2005. An article from THE ECONOMIST ("Dogged Persistence", 9 March 2013), discussed the urban adventures of the entirely resourceful coyote.
When the snow carpets Chicago, Illinois, it records the paw prints of animals during their wanderings. Among these tracks are prints that most would judge as those of dogs, but to the expert eye they spell "coyote". Before the urbanization of North America, coyotes were only found in the Southwest, but now around 2,000 coyotes are estimated to live in Chicago and its suburbs. Coyotes have also been found in Los Angeles, Boston, and even New York City -- in 2010, one particularly upwardly-mobile coyote was caught in a parking lot in Tribeca, a trendy Manhattan neighborhood.
In Chicago, the Cook County Coyote Project has trying to learn about the species and how it is getting along in the city. It's not too surprising that it does, coyotes being noted for their cleverness and adaptability, as well as a fast reproduction rate. They're not picky about what they eat, dining on rabbits, rats, Canada geese, fruit, insects, and family pets. The Chicago researchers are also trying to determine how urban coyotes differ from their rural cousins -- learning that city coyotes have smaller territories, live at higher densities, and live longer. That suggests the coyote is well-established and thriving even deep inside big cities.
In rural America, coyotes are "varmints" and treated accordingly, being shot and trapped. City folks tend to like them more, though where coyotes prowl people have to remember to bring their pets in at night. Coyotes rarely attack people, statistics showing that domestic dogs are much more dangerous -- of course partly due to their numbers and proximity to humans. However, attacks have occurred, a young woman being killed by coyotes while hiking in Nova Scotia in 2009. That was highly atypical, one suggestion being that the canids were actually wolf-coyote hybrids more inclined to hunt in packs.
Once coyotes become an obvious nuisance action is taken against them, but urban coyotes, as a very strong rule, are anything but obvious. Urban coyotes are more nocturnal and less vocal than their rural relatives -- coyote "pow-wows" under the full moon are noisy and unforgettably eerie, certain to attract unwanted attention from citizens trying to get some sleep -- and even in parts of cities where they are fairly common, most citizens don't know they're around. Once known as the "ghosts of the prairie", coyotes are now becoming the "ghosts of the cities"; and as long as they stay stealthy, are likely to continue to thrive in the urban environment.
* In other news of human-animal interactions the Kronotsky Nature Reserve, on the Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia's Siberian Far East, is home to about 700 brown bears. Conservation workers fly into the rugged terrain by helicopter, with power supplied by generators. That means drums of fuel, to be emptied and the drums then generally discarded.
Much to the surprise of humans, some bears took a strong interest in the discarded drums -- deeply inhaling the kerosene and gasoline fumes, then woozily digging a shallow hole to kick back in. It might not be good for the health of the bears, but it certainly does mellow them out, which is for the good since the biggest of the population run to about 545 kilograms (1,200 pounds). Besides, who's going to try to stop them?COMMENT ON ARTICLE