* 20 entries including: waste management series, climate sensitivity downgraded, emerging viral threats, data lockers, retrenchment in green development, jeans made with recycled plastic, Ecologic paper bottles, Xi Jinping's Chinese dream, Brazil economic development in Africa, US space increasingly interested in smallsats & Cubesats, industrial espionage, and location tracking for cowherds.
* The Obama Administration has been flying through a series of scandals, or what passes for them, for much of 2013. It's all been more smoke than fire; yes, some undeniable government bumbling in the mix, but that's nothing new or surprising, and to nonpartisans the offenses seem less obnoxious than the fuss being made over them.
The latest flap, over "data mining" of online activities by the US National Security Agency (NSA) via a program codenamed PRISM, might seem on the face of it yet another manufactured controversy. There's nothing new either about the government tracking patterns of activity on the internet; broadly speaking, it's been known for years that such programs are in operation, and they don't involve reading anyone's mail -- that requires a court warrant. The Obama Administration has defended the exercise; after all, America's security services were raked over the coals for not being diligent enough to catch the Boston Marathon bombing ahead of time, how can everyone complain now that they've been too diligent?
As pointed out by THE ECONOMIST's "Democracy In America" blog, government online data mining still needs to be addressed in a public debate. The real issue is that American citizens are being continuously data-mined online, and it's being taken largely for granted. After all, Google scans the content of Gmail user emails to block spam and to generate user-tuned advertising; Microsoft, Yahoo, and other major search / email providers do much the same. They even sell the resulting marketing data to third parties. Now suppose there's a user with the handle "Baghdad Bob" who likes to watch jihadi videos on YouTube, and who then writes his brother to say all the parts of the "package" are now on hand, except a pressure cooker. Google then helpfully sends Bob an ad for a pressure cooker.
Does Google then judge it improper to tip off the authorities that Bob might be up to no good? This is a trickier question than it appears, since what is legal for private parties is not necessarily so for the government, and the reverse. Should Google be denied the right to pass on information about users without the consent of those users? For better or for worse, that doesn't work very well -- we can block websites from setting cookies in a web browser, for example, but anyone who's ever tried quickly finds out it's somewhere between "clumsy" and "painful". The status quo is not that the government is spying on us: Google is spying on us, and simply passing on useful information so obtained to the government. As THE ECONOMIST put it:
The problem isn't so much that we haven't set up a legal architecture to preserve our online privacy from the government; it's that we haven't set up a legal architecture to preserve our online privacy from anyone at all. If we don't have laws and regulations that create meaningful zones of online privacy from corporations, the attempt to create online privacy from the government will be an absurdity.
What makes this particularly tricky is that everyone knows the internet is a bad neighborhood, heavily populated by scammers and worse. As everything becomes increasingly connected in the "internet of things", the threat level is going to get that much more severe. Everyone, except of course scammers and their like, wants better online security; the problem is that implies intrusiveness. As loud as people scream over the sinister government monitoring of what happens online, do we really want to let the Black Hats do what they please?
The government itself needs the debate over online security, to know what can be done to protect the public from the Black Hats -- without then falling prey to the inevitable inclination to drift over the line on one hand, or being pilloried as Big Brother on the other hand. The government, after all, may be in service to the people, but even a servant has rights, including the right to a clear and consistent set of rules. One suspects that, after the dust settles, people being inclined to the risk-averse, the consensus is likely to fall on the side of security.
* As far as the ongoing political scandals go, TIME columnist Michael Grunwald suggested there's a considerable silver lining in them. Grunwald contrasted the fulminations of the Obama administration's critics to the crop of apocalyptic summer movies coming out -- such as AFTER EARTH and WORLD WAR Z -- to suggest that the critics are making mountains out of .... well, maybe not molehills, but certainly nothing that resembles mountains. As Grunwald put it:
We are now in the fourth year of a slow but steady recovery. The economy is adding about 200,000 jobs a month, and has added 6.8 million private-sector jobs since the end of the Great Recession. The stock market is at an all-time high, and has almost doubled since Obama took office. The housing market is rebounding. It's true that 7.5% unemployment is way too high, but it's better than the double-digit unemployment we had in the wake of the financial meltdown, when the apocalypse really was nigh. The government has even turned a profit on the reviled Wall Street bailouts that ended the meltdown.
The US is out of Iraq, we're leaving Afghanistan, US oil imports are way down, and the short-term budget deficit is on the way down as well. To be sure, the long-term deficit forecast still looks frightening, but that's going to take serious work to deal with. In short, there's a lot of fuss over things of arguable importance in progress now because there aren't major issues happening to fuss about -- or to the extent there are, they're too boring and ambiguous to get much political leverage from.
If the Obama Administration's current problems were made into a movie, it would have to be titled APOCALYPSE NOT. Indeed, the administration's adversaries in Congress ought to be more worried, a Gallup poll released in mid-June showing that only 10% of American citizens feel Congress is doing a good job. The Obama Administration got 36% approval, much better than Congress; still not impressive, certainly not in contrast to the approval rate of the US military, topping the list at a whopping 76%, startling for those of us who remember the Vietnam era. The 10% rate for Congress is particularly dire, since it is the lowest rate in the Gallup public-approval poll since 1973 -- not of Congress, but of any public institution listed in the poll.
* As reported by BBC WORLD Online, citizens of the city of Bangalore in India have been getting a public treat for the last half year, courtesy of the city government: a lively street drum band that puts on performances around town. It's not really an entertainment function as such, however; the performances are always in front of businesses that haven't paid their taxes.
The troupe arrives in a truck with banners on the front and sides, identifying the offender, and then energetically starts making lots of noise. In between the racket the drummers make and the public shaming of the company, it's a remarkably effective tactic. K.C. Chellaiah, who coordinates the band, said: "Usually the firms have a good name in their area and when this comes to people's attention and the real picture comes out of it, they start paying their tax immediately -- they respond immediately."
Similar efforts have been conducted in other Indian cities. India has a tax problem: hardly anyone pays, only about 3% of the population. True, about a third of the population is too poor to pay in any case, and many agricultural workers are simply paid with cash, meaning they're off the taxman's radar. However, many of those who should be paying tax don't; it's not entirely their problem, the taxation system is notoriously inefficient, and burdened by convoluted rules that promote confusion.
The government is trying to reform the tax system and make it more efficient. Efforts are also being made to encourage tax compliance, for example through TV commercials featuring prominent Bollywood stars. Citizens reply that they would be happier to pay taxes if they had some assurance the money would be well spent -- but at present, they don't always see much evidence of that in their day-to-day lives.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* GIMMICKS & GADGETS: Late last year, the popular Arduino line of hobbyist CPU boards was enhanced by the "Esplora" -- not a CPU board as we normally think of one, more resembling the guts of a handheld game box, with an analog joystick with pushbutton action on the left, a diamond-configuration array of four pushbuttons on the right, and a sliding linear potentiometer on near the front.
The Esplora's computing power is not impressive, the board featuring an ATMEGA 32U4 CPU, running at 16 MHz, with all of 1 KB of EEPROM, 2.5 KB of SRAM, and 32KB of RAM. However, it also has a piezoelectric buzzer, a microphone, a temperature sensor, a light sensor, an RGB LED indicator, and a three-axis accelerometer. It's not short on interfaces either, with a USB interface -- the board hooks over USB to a PC operating as a development environment -- as well as an "SPI" serial interface, plus two input connectors and two output connectors to "Tinkerkit" modules, these being ready-made sensor and actuator modules on a three-wire interface that are also part of the Arduino family.
The SPI interface, incidentally, is a four-wire fast serial interface with full-duplex (simultaneous input-output) capability, originally pushed by Motorola. The Esplora primarily uses the SPI interface to drive an external display, but it can handle a range of other devices as well, notably SD flash memory cards.
* As reported by THE ECONOMIST Online blogs, firefighters are necessarily fearful of what they call "flashover" -- a critical temperature in a burning room at which everything bursts into flame, turning a fire that is merely troublesome into a deathtrap. In past decades, when buildings weren't as well insulated and furnishings were generally made out of natural materials instead of synthetics, it might take fifteen minutes to reach the flashover point. Now it can happen in three. Modern firefighters can wear fully encapsulated suits, which has the unfortunate consequence of making it more difficult to determine when flashover is imminent.
Researchers at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) in Massachusetts, led by Kathy Notarianni, have been investigating flashovers for several years, using test burns in structures that mimic American homes, being kitted up with appropriate furnishings. They found that flashover is due to a layer of very hot gas hugging the ceiling, the gas radiating heat into the room below that can cause things to light up even if the air temperature below isn't hot enough to do the job. The hot air tends to leak out of drafty structures; the better insulated a room is, the more the hot air dangerously accumulates.
The WPI researchers have developed a system using hardened thermocouples and thermal flux sensors to detect the approach of flashover. While it doesn't do a good job of long-term prediction, it can accurately tell that flashover will occur within 30 seconds, giving an alarm to tell firefighters to clear out. They are now working to miniaturize the system so it can be mounted on a firefighter's helmet, using a grant from the US Federal Emergency Management Agency.
* As reported by LIVESCIENCE online, a research team at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has developed a digital camera based on the compound eye of insects, which is a hemispherical array of simple eye elements, known as "ommatidia".
The bug-eye cam consists of a flexible array of 180 artificial ommatidia, similar to the number in the compound eyes of fire ants or bark beetles, but much less than in dragonflies, which have about 30,000. Each ommatidium is a tiny lens on a supporting post that transports light down to a light-sensing silicon photodetector. The array of lenses and detectors was fabricated in flat sheet, which were then bonded together and inflated into a hemisphere. The camera has a field of view of about 160 degrees.
The development team believes its new imaging system could eventually find uses in surveillance and for endoscopic investigations of the human body. They are working towards a "production" unit with much greater resolution, with thousands or tens of thousands of ommatidia.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* DATA LOCKERS: We all realize there are piles of personal information on us floating around in cyberspace, but for the most part we don't see it and are only uneasily aware of it. As discussed by an article in THE ECONOMIST ("Know Thyself", 15 December 2012), a number of startup companies are offering "data lockers" -- secure online accounts where users can collect information on themselves, such as utility bills, loyalty card statements, telephone records, and so on. The locker firms believe their services give privacy-conscious consumers more control over what information organizations hold on them, and also aim to help people reuse that data for their own benefit. Consumers might be able to feed past energy bills to price-comparison engines to get better deals; they might also trade their data to retailers in exchange for discounts.
Shane Green of Personal, one of the locker startups, estimates, possibly extravagantly, that users could save up to a thousand dollars a year through shrewd use of their personal data. However, the locker startups are new and their business models unproven. The concept has the difficulty that, to the extent consumers are aware that a lot of their data is floating mysteriously around in cyberspace, they would prefer it all simply disappeared. Green would like them to see it as an asset; Personal is providing simple data analysis and handling tools to show them the utility of their data and give them a sense of control over it. One of the tools, for example, automatically fills in personal data on web forms during online shopping sessions.
A bigger obstacle to acceptance is possible reluctance of utilities, banks, and shops that collect data to allow access to it. Britain and the European Union are considering laws obligating firms to release digital data to consumers. Elsewhere, locker providers would like to convince businesses that it is in their best interests to do so. By assisting consumers in building up detailed and comprehensive profiles, the firms would have richer data on those consumers than otherwise. In addition, if consumers relocated, they could just update their new street address in the data locker, and all the firms hooked up to the locker would be automatically updated. The locker could also be used as a direct data distribution channel to consumers. A few large businesses are already using locker services to deliver digital copies of pay slips and pension statements, paying the locker service for the privilege. It's cheaper than the business handling the matter by itself, and it keeps the locker service free for users.
There are of course potential downsides. If the locker services catch on, big cloud-storage firms like Google or Dropbox might move in on the startups, though a buyout might not be unwelcome. There's the more ominous threat of crooked firms or cybercriminals cracking into a locker system, raising hell with users and discrediting the locker concept. Over the longer run, there's the disturbing possibility of insurers and others demanding more and more personal data from potential clients -- and penalizing them with top rates if the data's not forthcoming.
ED: I got to thinking that, in the cloud network of the future, every single person on the planet might well have a node in the cloud that collects and stores all digital information on that person. It seems inevitable, since we end up with so much personal data online anyway, and there's so much advantage to having it all assembled in an organized fashion in one virtual place.
The idea of course does of course raise huge security and legal issues, with invasions by cybercriminals, as mentioned above, and government organizations posing threats, but even that aspect is mixed. Those who are worried about being accused of wrongdoing by the government would be able to leave a validated track of their activities online to ensure they had an alibi if they actually were accused. There is nothing either in personal data or access to that data that is, in itself, good or bad; the real question is just of what that data is actually used for.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* GREEN MIRAGE? The push for a greener future has been going for decades, alternately growing stronger, then fading. As reported by a Reuters article ("The Road To A Greener America Is Littered With Road-Kill" by Nicholas Groom, 20 May 2013), for the time being it seems to be on the fade.
In 2004, California's Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger promoted a vision of the "California Hydrogen Highway", in which the state would help establish 100 hydrogen fuel stations by 2010 that would serve 2,000 fuel cell vehicles. To underline the exercise, he drove a blue hydrogen-fueled Hummer truck, loaned to him by General Motors, to fuel up at a pioneering station at Los Angeles International Airport.
Now it's 2013; California has only nine hydrogen stations open to the public, and only about 200 hydrogen-powered fuel cell cars that can use them. California hasn't given up on the idea, with the state still working towards a set of hydrogen fuel stations, while automakers are planning hydrogen-powered fuel cell cars. However, the history is discouraging, as is that of the green energy industry in general. Partly the global financial crisis has helped run green visions onto the rocks, but green energy firms have suffered from other problems: excessive optimism about the cost-effectiveness of their products, inability to meet Chinese competition, too much dependence on fickle government support, and in some cases simple mismanagement.
Electric vehicles (EVs) have been a particular dud. Major automakers such as Nissan, with its all-electric Leaf, and GM, with the Chevrolet Volt, bet heavily on EVs -- but EVs cost too much, have poor range, and there's little charging infrastructure out there to support them. Nissan sold less than half of its target of 20,000 Leafs in the USA in 2012. Most startup companies working on EVs have died before they could even ship any product.
The Obama Administration had once set a goal of a million EVs on America's roads by 2015; that's been shelved, since total plug-in car sales last year were only around 50,000 in the United States. According to a Toyota official: "EVs are a really difficult sell today. Until we see substantial change in battery technology, it's going to be difficult to see EVs really take off."
The irony is that improvements in internal combustion engines, making them cleaner and more energy efficient, have helped undercut the attractiveness of EVs. A push for natural gas power, particularly for trucks, has also reinforced the case for internal combustion. Not only does natural gas burn clean, it's also cheap -- though in another irony, the natural gas boom has helped struggling green energy firms stay in business. Take OriginOil, a US startup that developed a process to convert algae into renewable crude oil. It now markets technology to oil and gas producers for the cleanup of water contaminated in the fracking process used to extract shale oil and gas. Other companies are focusing on technologies to help ensure that natural gas really is clean power.
Along with EV makers, solar panel manufacturers have suffered -- notably Solyndra, which obtained a loan from the Obama Administration and then folded, with Republicans playing up the fiasco for all it was worth. Solyndra wasn't the only US solar firm that caved in, and now venture capital funding for solar firms has dried up. Solar companies were caught in a bind as demand fell in Europe due to cutbacks in government support for solar power, while China built up production capacity. The result was prices dropping by half and driving businesses into the ground.
Still, while the glut in production is painful for manufacturers, consumers are enthusiastic about solar, and are snapping up cheap solar panels. Worldwide, photovoltaic solar installations are expected to increase 12% this year to 35 gigawatts as growth in the Middle East, Africa, the USA, and Asia offsets declines in Europe. American retail giant Walmart, which began installing solar panels on its "big box" stores in 2007, plans to put panels on at least 1,000 of its buildings by 2020, up from about 200 currently. The firm initially focused its solar program on California and Hawaii, where high power prices make solar more competitive with electricity from the grid, but cheaper solar has helped it expand elsewhere. Walmart has saved $2 million USD since 2007 by using renewable power generated on its rooftops. Some solar firms are thriving, such as SolarCity Corporation, which has installed many of Walmart's solar systems. SolarCity has an imaginative business plan to sell solar, offering homeowners the chance to pay a monthly fee for solar, eliminating the large upfront investment.
Despite such bright spots, the stock index of green energy companies has been on a downward trend. Some in the industry think the decline is bottoming out as inefficient companies are eliminated from the race, leaving the healthy survivors. Others believe that the green energy sector will remain rocky. It was long dependent on government support, particularly in the form of tax breaks, with that support often being withdrawn as government austerity measures bite. At the same time, however, while some US states are cutting their support of green energy, others are boosting it, resulting in a crazy quilt of regulations. A US Department of Energy official commented on how hard such inconsistent policy makes life for businesses: "There is no way any reasonable management team of a company can do meaningful corporate planning without an understanding of what the rules of the road are. We've made it incredibly difficult for people in the energy industry."COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* NOT SO TOUCHY (1): As reported by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("A Sensitive Matter", 30 Mar 2013), although humans continue to pump carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, it is now apparent that the world's mean temperature has been flat for over a decade. Climatologists are surprised, finding that surface temperatures since 2005 are at the low end of the range of projections derived from twenty climate models; if they stay there much longer, they're going to break the models.
Climatologists are not throwing up their hands and announcing that global warming isn't happening after all. Even given the current flat stretch, temperatures in the first decade of the 21st century are almost a degree Celsius warmer than they were in the first decade of the 20th -- and the obvious meltdown of polar regions clearly suggests something's going on. However, researchers do need to adjust their models so they more closely conform to reality. Is there some lag effect at work, in which higher CO2 concentrations take time to produce higher temperatures? Or were the 1990s a period of unusually rapid increase in temperature? Or do new considerations of the effect of higher CO2 concentrations need to be added to the models?
The "climate sensitivity" to inputs of carbon dioxide is usually defined as how much hotter the Earth gets for each doubling of CO2 concentration. The related "equilibrium sensitivity" gives the temperature rise after factoring in all feedback mechanisms, except for changes in vegetation and ice cover. On the basis of CO2 concentrations themselves, each doubling of CO2 should cause one degree Celsius of warming. That by itself isn't much of a concern, since we should be easily able to cope with one degree of warming, with each additional degree requiring another doubling of CO2.
However, the trick in making climate models is the consideration of other effects. A warmer Earth means more water vapor in the atmosphere, water vapor being a greenhouse gas in itself that should increase warming -- though clouds also have an arguable effect as well. There's also the influence of soot and other aerosols. Different climatologists factor in all these effects differently.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which embodies the mainstream of climate science, estimates that the equilibrium sensitivity is about 3 degrees Celsius, plus or minus a degree or so. That kind of a rise would definitely be troublesome, resulting in problems such as increased drought, strain on ecosystems, higher sea levels, and more violent tropical storms -- but not everyone agrees with the IPCC. An unpublished report by the Research Council of Norway, a government-funded body, compiled by a team led by Terje Berntsen of the University of Oslo, used a different method from the IPCC's, concluding a likely increase of only 1.9 degrees Celsius. Unpublished reports, not being available for review, can't be taken very seriously, but several other models give similar modest results. A high sensitivity demands action; the demand for action, of necessity, drops as the sensitivity does. How can we pick among the options?
One consideration is that different types of climate models tend to give different results. One class of models, the "general circulation models (GCM)", use a bottom-up approach, dividing the Earth and its atmosphere into a grid of "cells", performing calculations on the interactions of these cells to simulate a climate system. The other class, the "energy balance models (EBM)" use a top-down approach, treating the Earth as a single unit or as two hemispheres, and representing the whole climate with a few equations reflecting factors such as changes in greenhouse gases, volcanic aerosols, and global temperatures.
An EBM is easier to tweak with respect to ongoing climate data than a GCM, but the EBM is by that same coin more ad-hoc, lacking the same strong grounding in basic physical climate mechanisms. The IPCC's estimates of climate sensitivity were based partly on GCMs, while the Norwegian study and others that give lower climate sensitivity were based on EBMs. Since the EBMs seem to be tracking what is actually happening as per climate observations, wouldn't they seem superior to GCMs?
Let's not jump to conclusions; there's no reason to think EBMs are better at showing what will happen next, they ignore a lot of fine details, and so all they may be doing is aping the data they have been handed. The leveling off of temperature may be due to some factor not incorporated into the EBMs that will only prove temporary. [TO BE CONTINUED]NEXT | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* WASTE NOT (7): The other Blue Plains wastewater treatment project -- removing nitrogen from the wastewater stream -- is being worked on in collaboration with treatment plants in Virginia and Austria. The problem with the use of methanogen microbes to produce methane is that the methanogens also produce a lot of ammonia, which has to be removed from the wastewater. The initial idea was to run the ammonia-laden water through a full treatment process, but that was expensive -- particularly since it required aerating (bubbling oxygen through) the water, which is an energy-intensive procedure. Plant engineers decided instead to use a popular new bacterial process, named "anaerobic ammonium oxidation / anammox" or "deammonification", to get rid of the ammonia.
About 40 years ago, wastewater engineers noticed that a commonly-used process to convert ammonia into nitrates sometimes produced a smaller quantity of nitrates than expected from the input flow. The nitrogen was going someplace, but where? It wasn't until the early 1990s that Gijs Kuenen and his colleagues at Delft University in the Netherlands discovered an anaerobic bacterium from the phylum Planktomycetes that was converting ammonia into nitrogen gas in the absence of oxygen, a feat nobody had seen before and that had been generally thought impossible.
There was some skepticism that the Delft researchers had really found anything, partly because the bacterium grew unusually slowly -- dividing once every two weeks, instead of about once every half hour as is more typical of bacteria -- and nobody had seen it in the wild. However, once it had been found in the lab, field researchers found it in oxygen-poor waters in the Black Sea, Lake Tanganyika, and elsewhere. Indeed, it is now suspected the bacterium and its similar relatives are responsible for about half the flow of the global nitrogen cycle.
Once the nature of the bacterium was understood, its practical potential was obvious, but there were obstacles to exploiting it. It can't do the complete conversion from ammonia to nitrogen on its own; it has to be grown along with another bacterium that first converts ammonia to nitrate, with the nitrate then being converted to nitrogen. What makes this trickier is that if there are other bacteria in the mix that generate nitrate derived from atmospheric nitrogen, they of course undermine the efficiency of ammonia conversion, and so such bacteria have to be eliminated. That's easy to do in industrial processes that have a warm effluent loaded with ammonia; not so easy to do in wastewater treatment, where the flow is relatively cool and has a low concentration of ammonia.
The anammox process is still new and being tweaked for efficiency. Initially, Blue Plains will only use it to deal with the ammonia-rich waters coming out of the digesters, but the ultimate hope is to use it for the entire waste-treatment process, reducing the need for aeration in secondary treatment. The goal is to make operation of the plant energy-neutral or energy-positive.
A few wastewater treatment facilities elsewhere claim to have achieved the goal of generating net power. The East Bay Municipal Utility District, which serves part of the San Francisco metropolitan area, digests organic wastes, including chicken blood and cheese waste, to power its own processes along with 13,000 homes. Says an East Bay official: "We've turned wastes into commodities." Pollution, as the optimistic saying goes, is nothing more than a misplaced resources, and wastewater treatment engineers are keen on seeing what can be done to effectively exploit that resource. [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* Space launches for May included:
-- 01 MAY 13 / CHINASAT 11 -- A Chinese Long March 3B booster was launched from Xichang at 1606 GMT to put the "Chinasat 11" geostationary comsat into orbit for China Satcom. It was based on the CAST DFH-4 comsat bus, had a launch mass of 5.4 tonnes (5.95 tons), carried a payload of 45 Ku-band & C-band transponders, and had a design life of 15 years. It was placed in the geostationary slot at 98.5 degrees East to provide communications services to customers in Africa, the Middle East, Asia, and Australia.
-- 07 MAY 13 / PROBA-V, VNREDSAT 1A -- A Vega booster was launched from Kourou in French Guiana at 0206 GMT to put the ESA "Proba V" and Vietnamese "VNREDSat 1A" Earth observation satellites into orbit. Proba V, which was placed in a Sun-synchronous orbit, was designed to obtain vegetation maps of the Earth; it was built by QinetiQ Space in Belgium and had a launch mass of 140 kilograms (310 pounds). It carried a primary imaging payload with a best resolution of 100 meters (330 feet) and a swath width of 2,250 kilometers (1,400 miles).
VNREDSat 1A was built by EADS Astrium for the Vietnamese Academy of Science & Technology to perform environmental monitoring. It had a launch mass of 115 kilograms (255 pounds), and its imaging system had a best resolution of 2.5 meters (8.2 feet). The launch also included "ESTCube-1", a single Cubesat built by students in Estonia to test an "electric solar sail" scheme.
-- 15 MAY 2013 / EUTELSAT 3D -- A Proton Breeze M booster was launched from Baikonur in Kazakhstan at 0122 GMT to put the "Eutelsat 3D" geostationary comsat into orbit. The satellite was built by Thales Alenia Space, using the Spacebus 4000 platform; it had a launch mass of 5,068 kilograms (12,059 pounds), a payload of 56 Ku & Ka band transponders, and a design life of 15 years. It was placed in the geostationary slot at 3 degrees East longitude to provide communications services to Europe and Africa.
-- 15 MAY 2013 / GPS 2F-4 (USA 242) -- An Atlas 5 booster was launched from Cape Canaveral at 2138 GMT to put the "GPS 2F-4" AKA "USA 242" AKA "Navstar 68" navigation satellite into orbit. It was the fourth Block 2F spacecraft, with the Block 2F series featuring a new "safety of life" signal for civilian air traffic control applications. The Atlas 5 was in the "401" configuration, with a 4 meter (13.1 foot) diameter fairing, no solid rocket booster, and an upper stage with a single Centaur engine.
-- 25 MAY 2013 / WIDEBAND GLOBAL SATCOM 5 (USA 243) -- A Delta 4 booster was launched from Cape Canaveral at 0027 GMT to put the US Department of Defense's "Wideband Global Satcom (WGS) 5" AKA "USA 243" geostationary comsat into space. WGS 5 was built by Boeing, being the fifth in a series of six WGS spacecraft and the second "Block 2" satellite in the series, with a high-bandwidth channel for communications with drone aircraft. It was based on the Boeing 702 comsat platform, with a launch mass of 5,985 kilograms (13,200 pounds), an ion thruster system, and a design lifetime of 15 years. It was placed in the geostationary slot at 52.5 degrees West longitude to provide military communications support for the Americas. The Delta was in the "Medium+ (5,4)" configuration, with four sold rocket boosters.
-- 28 MAY 2013 / SOYUZ ISS 35S (ISS) -- A Soyuz booster was launched from Baikonur at 2031 GMT to put the "Soyuz ISS 35S" AKA "Soyuz TMA-09M" crewed space capsule into orbit on an International Space Station (ISS) support mission. The crew included Soyuz commander Fyodor Yurchikin of the Russian RKA (fourth space flight), flight engineer Luca Parmitano of the ESA (first space flight), and astronaut Karen Nyberg of NASA (second space flight). The capsule docked with the ISS Rassvet module six hours after launch, with the Soyuz crew joining the ISS Expedition 35/36 crew of commander Pavel Vinogradov, Aleksandr Misurkin, and Christopher Cassidy.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* RECYCLED JEANS: As reported by BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK, giant jeans manufacturer Levi Strauss has an active "green business" program, the firm having conducted a life-cycle analysis of its products in 2007 to identify more efficient use of resources. Levi's is part of the international Better Cotton Initiative, which instructs cotton producers in Pakistan, India, Brazil, and Mali on how to grow cotton with less water. About 5% of the company's supply of cotton is currently obtained from low-water producers, with a goal to reach 20% by 2015. Incidentally, Levi's did once sell a line of jeans using organically-produced cotton, but discontinued it in 2008 since it was difficult to obtain an adequate source of organically-grown cotton at reasonable price.
Now the company has introduced the "Waste<Less" jeans, made up of at least 20% recycled plastic bottles. Cone Denim, which has supplied denim to Levi Strauss for decades, shreds the down into polyester chips, then sorts the chips and spins them into yarns. Trying to obtain yarns consistent in quality and strength proved difficult, but after some months of effort, Cone managed to get things working. The jeans tend to have color and sheen reflecting the plastic feedstock, more so when they become worn.
Levi Strauss President James Curleigh believes that the firm needs to be environmentally aware, but he's upfront about the practicality of the Waste<Less product line: "Cotton is the single most volatile commodity in the apparel industry. Never mind sustainability for a minute. If I could come up with a way to put 20% of something else that is cost-neutral and has a reliable source, I'd probably take it anyway."
* ECOLOGIC BOTTLES: Also as reported by BUSINESS WEEK, when a Bay Area investment banker named Julie Corbett got her iPhone in 2007, she was at least as fascinated by the packaging as she was by the gadget. Although we've all become used to the molded pulp trays used to protect products in their boxes, Corbett thought them ingenious: ugly, yes, but effective, lightweight, cheap, and more easily disposed of than the obnoxious, notoriously clingy, styrofoam packaging it has been gradually replacing.
Corbett got to thinking farther, imagining a "bottle" made up of a plastic pouch inside a snap-together molded-pulp shell. She's of Canadian origin; in Canada, milk is often sold in bags, and she had wondered why Americans don't do so. On considering the matter, she saw an opportunity. Although Corbett wasn't an inventor by normal inclination, she felt she had a better mousetrap -- and so in 2008, she quit her job to set up a startup firm, Ecologic Brands, in Oakland, California.
The firm went into production with "eco.bottles" and has since sold several million of them, with a new factory coming online that will push production up to tens of millions. The eco.bottles consist of a plastic cap assembly and associated liner bag, protected by a snap-together molded-pulp shell. The bottles are durable, cheap, and easy to fabricate; the components are also delivered in compact stacks, saving on shipping. The environmental chic of the scheme adds to its attraction.
We tend to take packaging for granted, regarding it as trivial, if we pay any attention to it at all. However, it's a vital technology, and packaging engineers have a real challenge in coming up with the cheapest and lightest way of ensuring that products get into the hands of consumers intact and undamaged. As Corbett has demonstrated, there's room for innovation in packaging, just as much as there is in any other technology.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* DREAM A LITTLE DREAM OF XI: America has long been uneasy with the emerging Chinese dragon: not an ally, only to a degree a friend, still not an enemy. As discussed by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("Chasing The Chinese Dream", 4 May 2013), with the emergence of China's new leader, Xi Jinping -- roughly pronounced "Shi Jinbing"-- late last year, there's been considerable interest in where he wants to take China.
Xi has been trying to articulate his vision. On 29 November 2012, two weeks after his appointment as the Chinese Communist Party's general secretary and military commander-in-chief, Xi visited the grand National Museum next to Tiananmen Square, telling a group of press and museum workers that the "greatest Chinese dream" was the "great revival of the Chinese nation". Since then, schools have been organizing Chinese-dream speaking competitions; some have put up "dream walls" on which students can stick notes describing their visions of the future. Academics are being encouraged to offer "Chinese dream" research proposals. Newspapers have picked up the phrase; in December 2012, state media and government researchers declared "dream" the Chinese character of the year for 2012.
Xi has continued to emphasize the phrase. Chinese leaders have traditionally had their personal slogans, but Xi's "Chinese dream" stands out from the stodgy Party-line slogans of his predecessors: Hu Juntao's "scientific-development outlook"; before that, Jiang Zemin's arcane "Three Represents"; and back to Deng Xiaoping's "reform and opening up". Xi's "Chinese dream" seems to echo the "American dream" of prosperity, freedom, and peace, but it also seems to have overtones of nationalism and Party power. Xi appears to be trying to reconcile the two notions, proclaiming a better life for Chinese in order to establish a stronger China under the control of a fatherly Party.
Ironically, the "Chinese dream" may have been suggested by an American, Thomas Friedman, who ran a column in THE NEW YORK TIMES in October 2012 titled "China Needs Its Own Dream". Friedman suggested that if Xi's dream for China's emerging middle class was just like the American dream ("a big car, a big house and Big Macs for all") then "another planet" would be needed to sustain it. Instead, Friedman urged Xi to come up with "a new Chinese dream that marries people's expectations of prosperity with a more sustainable China." China's most popular newspaper, REFERENCE NEWS, ran a translation, and the buzz took off.
But what does the buzz really amount to? China is still committed to development, with sustainability being a secondary consideration at best. Xi has made encouraging noises about environmental responsibility, but has made it clear that better education and good jobs take priority. Xi is vague about the specifics of his "Chinese dream", and necessarily so: he remains a component, an important one but still a component, of the massive Party bureaucracy, which means that any specific policy changes are not going to happen rapidly.
Given the vagueness of Xi's slogan, Chinese have been reading what they want to into it. Nationalists see their own dreams validated, believing Xi -- a more vigorous figure than his colorless predecessor Hu -- will return China to its proper place as a global power. In 1820, as some historians factor it, China's GDP was one-third of the world total, but then the country entered a century and a half of chaos and decline. By the 1960s, China's GDP had dropped to only 4% of the world total. Now it has recovered to about one-sixth of the world's GDP, and at least 90% of America's, in terms of purchasing-power parity.
The nationalists want China to be the undisputed top dog. Xi needs the support of nationalists, particularly in the military, and he has a variant of his "Chinese dream" tailored for them: a "strong army dream" that supports a "strong nation" dream. Xi equivocates on this image, however, knowing that a confrontational rivalry with America is not in China's interests, and so he has been careful to publicly state that achievement of the "Chinese dream" would be a benefit to the world. Still, the element of rivalry remains; America's diplomacy in the Far East has clearly focused on restraining Chinese ambitions, most particularly in the South China Sea, and China's leadership doesn't appreciate it.
Xi has other constituencies to please -- most notably the general public, with Xi stating in March: "In the end, the Chinese dream is the people's dream." To middle-class Chinese, that speaks of something along the lines of the "American dream", which greatly appeals to them, as demonstrated by the packs of Chinese tourists in American vacation spots. However, Xi has to be careful to trim to the winds here as well, since growth is expected to be slower in the future, and environmental problems remain intractable for the time being.
What is clear in Xi's "Chinese dream" is that the Party will remain at its center. China's constitution does not emphasize the primacy of the Party; articles that stress the importance of "constitutionalism" -- that is, of a Party beholden to the constitution and not the other way around -- tend to be trimmed by state censors. Xi reverently refers to the constitution but does not use the magic phrase "constitutionalism", and in fact he tends to avoid use of the word "free". In a comment leaked to the press, Xi said: "The Chinese dream is an ideal. Communists should have a higher ideal, and that is Communism."
The Soviet Union, in Xi's view, collapsed because it strayed from that ideal. However, his vague talk of the "Chinese dream" runs the risk of raising expectations for change that don't square with a future under Party control. An online survey trying to gauge public perceptions of what Xi's "Chinese dream" is all about was dropped when 80% of more than 3,000 respondents answered NO to questions such as whether they supported one-party rule, and believed in socialism. For now, Xi can remain vague about his vision, determining what it means as he goes along; the possibility remains that it might take him places he doesn't want to go.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* THE GLOBAL VIRAL THREAT (2): Despite all preparations to deal with a pandemic, the the 2009 H1N1 flu outbreak suggested that much remains to be done. H1N1 was contagious but not very deadly, so officials were uncertain about how to communicate the issue to the public -- not wanting to ignore the problem but not wanting to exaggerate it, either. Studies indicate that about half the Tamiflu, an antiviral drug made by Roche, prescribed in England at the time of the H1N1 outbreak went unused, and vaccine development took months. An independent committee examining WHO's response gave it a thumb's down. Keiji Fukuda, the WHO's top influenza official, summed the conclusion: "They made it very clear we are not ready for anything big."
WHO and others have taken corrective measures. In 2011, the WHO's members created a new framework for sharing flu viruses -- in 2006, Indonesia refused to share samples of H5N1 with the WHO, due to worries that companies would use an Indonesian virus to develop treatment unaffordable to Indonesians. GlaxoSmithKline is the first company to sign a deal with the WHO under the new framework. The pharmaceutical giant will donate 7.5% of its vaccine production in the event of a pandemic; a further 2.5% will be sold at tiered prices, depending on a country's income.
There is also a greater ability to produce vaccines. In 2012, BARDA awarded contracts for three new centers, to be led by Novartis, Emergent BioSciences of Maryland, and Texas A&M University, in collaboration with GlaxoSmithKline. The centers will develop and manufacture medical countermeasures, including vaccines. In November 2012, Novartis won approval for the first flu vaccine made from cultured cells instead of eggs, which will permit more rapid production of vaccines. There's plenty of action elsewhere, the WHO having given grants to flu-vaccine manufacturers in 14 countries.
Other efforts have been focused on constructing computer models of pandemic transmission, and stepped-up efforts to spot emerging diseases in tropical countries, where viruses are prone to hop from beast to human. Still, although many countries have pandemic plans, it's unclear how many of them are realistic, and estimates of global vaccine production suggest that, at present, only about 2 billion of the world's population could be vaccinated in the face of an emergency. In addition, funding is spotty: the WHO has an influenza budget of $7.7 million USD, less than a third of what the city of New York devotes to public-health emergencies.
The current worries are the new coronavirus and H7N9. The coronavirus is poorly understood, and there have been frictions over the handling of the outbreak. The work relative to H7N9 has been relatively transparent, China having quickly shipped samples of the virus to laboratories all over the world. However, the virus itself is still spreading in China, people continue to die, and so far nobody's come up with an effective vaccine. Right now, H7N9 doesn't seem to be able to jump from person to person -- but there's an uncomfortable possibility that it might mutate and acquire that capability, to then put the world's pandemic-protection system to the test.
* An article from AAAS SCIENCE added details on the H7N9 flu virus, saying it appears to be a mashup of several flu strains -- H7N2, H7N3, H4N9, and H11N9 -- that aren't so dangerous in themselves. Indeed, H7N9 is commonly found in big chicken farms and seems to be perfectly benign. The combination of traits hints that H7N9 might have arisen in a host that was infected by several earlier strains simultaneously. The flu virus has an RNA genome in eight segments; if two strains infect the same host cell, they can "mix and match" segments in the production of new viruses. Usually such hybrids are "mutts", less troublesome than either of the original strains, but there is always the possibility that the hybrid could be more effective, possibly dramatically so.
As far as the Mideast coronavirus goes, AAAS SCIENCE reports that it has been named the "Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus (MERS-Cov)". As with H7N9, some dozens of people have been infected with MERS-Cov so far; the fatality rate is high, about 50%. [END OF SERIES]PREV | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* WASTE NOT (6): The third article in the AAAS SCIENCE series on waste management ("Water Reclamation Going Green" by Elizabeth Pennisi) started with a comment by a civil engineer working in wastewater handling for DC Water, the water utility that supports Washington DC: "There is no such thing as waste, only wasted resources."
That is a change from the traditional view of wastewater treatment, which was to remove human body wastes and bacteria from sewage, dump the sludge into a landfill, and pour the cleansed water into a nearby river. However, wastewater treatment is now being reinvented -- driven by tighter regulation, energy costs, and ultimately the need to recover resources. Through the use of new technology and rethinking of old technology, facilities are becoming more efficient, cutting energy consumption and even, increasingly, becoming net generators of power, while acquiring new processes that clean up sewage at less cost and effort.
There was a time when raw sewage was simply dumped into a river, but population growth made it impossible. The first sewage treatment plants appeared in the late 19th century, using chemicals or sand filters to clean up wastewater. There are now over 400,000 centralized sewage treatment plants around the world, with the sum of them estimated to handle twice the average flow of the Nile river.
Sewage treatment has done much to improve public health; now water-reclamation engineers are under pressure to do even more. For example, consider the Blue Plains Advanced Wastewater Treatment Plant in Washington DC, which serves more than 2 million citizens and processes 1.4 million cubic meters (1.8 million cubic yards) of water a day. The 75-year-old plant is the biggest of its kind in the world, and it's still evolving -- with a plan in place to spend $1 billion USD to implement new techniques for dealing with tainted sludge, and to remove nitrogen from the waste stream.
Sludge is just what it sounds like, a nasty, goopy mud composed of organic matter and dead microorganisms. It's an inevitable byproduct of wastewater treatment:
Blue Plains generates 1,200 tonnes (1,320 tons) of sludge or "biosolids" every day, enough to fill up 50 tractor-trailer rigs. Traditionally, the sludge was either hauled off to a landfill or treated with lime and used as farm fertilizer. However, the haulage is expensive and the sludge represents a potential source of energy -- so Blue Plains is installing systems that will convert half the sludge into methane to burn as fuel, with the rest treated into a high-value, pathogen-free material useful for landscaping.
The core of the new system will be a building, now under construction, where biosolids will be heated at 150 degrees Celsius (300 degrees Fahrenheit) for a half hour. During this pasteurizing process, known as "thermal hydrolysis", bacterial cells in the sludge will burst open, making them more easily digested by "methanogens" -- archaean microbes that produce methane. The pasteurized sludge will be pumped into huge tanks known as "digesters", where the methanogens will busily convert it into methane. The methane will be burned to drive a power turbine to produce electricity, and also generate heat to drive the thermal hydrolysis system. The digesters could be operated without thermal hydrolysis, but adding the hydrolysis stage permits smaller digesters, reducing system cost. [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* SCIENCE NOTES: On 31 May, the asteroid 1998 QE2 performed a flyby of Earth. It was hardly a "close call", the nearest approach being 5.8 million kilometers (3.6 million miles), an order of magnitude farther away than the Moon -- but the size of the asteroid, which was 2.7 kilometers (1.7 miles) across, could give some pause for thought. The asteroid was inspected by telescopes and deep-space radar as it flew past, revealing that it had a moon of its own, about 600 meters (2,000 feet) in diameter.
* People who keep dogs easily notice that fido is much more inclined to eat vegetables than a cat. Now a genetic analysis shows that the dog is better adapted to digesting starches than his wolf ancestor. Evolutionary geneticist Erik Axelsson from Uppsala University in Sweden performed a comparison between the wolf and dog genomes, sequencing DNA from 12 wolves from around the world, and from 60 dogs belonging to 14 breeds. They hunted for "single-nucleotide polymorphisms (SNP)" -- an SNP being a mutation of a single nucleotide in a gene -- and found 36 regions, with 122 genes in all, that may have influenced dog evolution.
Nineteen of these regions contain genes important for the brain, eight of which are involved with nervous system development -- not surprising, given how much better dogs are adapted for living in human society than a wolf. More surprising is that dogs are loaded with genes for digesting starch. Dogs have four to 30 copies of the gene for "amylase", an enzyme that digests starches. Wolves have only two copies; the effect of the addition amylase genes is that dogs are about five times better than wolves at digesting starch. This parallels human evolution, in that humans in cultures with high-carbohydrate diets, such as Japanese and European Americans, have more copies of the amylase gene than humans from cultures with low-starch diets, such as the Mbuti of Africa.
Dogs and wolves have the same number of copies of another gene, MGAM, which codes for maltase, another enzyme important in starch digestion. However, the gene is different in dogs and wolves, producing longer maltase proteins in dogs. That longer protein is also seen in herbivores, such as cows and rabbits, and omnivores, such as mouse lemurs and rats, but not in other mammals; it appears the long maltases are more efficient. Dogs, living on human food scraps from the early days of their domestication, have acquired diets more like those of humans.
* As discussed by THE NEW YORK TIMES, the cockroach is a notorious survivor -- not only able to tough out harsh living conditions, but also adaptable. Researchers at North Carolina State University have now discovered that cockroaches have evolved an altered sense of taste that makes the sugar glucose taste bitter, as an adaptation to evading sugar-baited poison traps.
The researchers began their investigation to figure out why certain populations of German cockroaches, the ones that apartment dwellers see scuttling around in the kitchen at night, had no interest in the poison traps. The behavior was first noticed in the 1990s; since pests often adapt to poisons the industry is quick to modify product accordingly, but the cockroaches wouldn't bite on any traps that used glucose bait, which was something new. New baits were developed, but the behavior remained puzzling.
It was determined that the behavioral change was hereditary: cockroaches born of parents that avoided glucose avoided it as well. The North Carolina researchers took it from there. Instead of taste buds, roaches have taste hairs on many parts of their bodies. The researchers focused on those around the mouth area, and on two types of nerve cells that sense tastes and respond by firing electrical signals to the brain. One responds only to sugars and other sweet substances; the other responds only to bitter substances. However, cockroaches that avoided glucose featured a switch in which glucose activated the bitter signal, driving the cockroaches away from the bait. Those with normal signaling took the bait and died. The researchers now working to unravel the cellular and genetic mechanisms of the change. The work may help shine light on the general tendency of pests to evolve around control technologies.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* BRAZIL IN AFRICA: As discussed here in the past, one of the last references being in 2011, Brazil is becoming a global economic power, most notably through agricultural exports. Brazil is also seeking economic opportunities beyond the country's borders; as reported by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("A New Atlantic Alliance", 10 November 2012), Brazilian firms have a particular interest in Africa.
Relations with Africa boomed during the presidency of Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva; he traveled there a dozen times, with African leaders reciprocating by visiting Brazil. Da Silva believed that Brazil needed to take a leadership role in the developing world; he stressed Brazil's "historic debt" to Africa, much of the Brazilian population tracing ancestry back to the millions of slaves hauled west across the Atlantic. The current president, Dilma Rousseff, is continuing this policy, though she has less interest in ideology and more in commercial opportunity.
Africa needs infrastructure, and Brazilian construction firms can build it; Africa sits on oil and minerals in abundance, which Brazilian firms can help exploit. Brazilian agribusiness also sees opportunities in Africa; indeed, signs that African economic development is starting to finally take off attracts the interest of Brazilian firms across the board. In 2001, Brazil invested $69 billion USD in Africa; by 2009 that had swelled to $214 billion USD. At first, Brazilian firms focused on the countries that had once been Portuguese colonies, Angola and Mozambique in particular, leveraging off a historical linguistic and cultural background, but now they are spreading across the continent. For the time being, a handful of big firms are the dominant players:
Consumer companies are now getting into the Brazilian market as well. O Boticario, a Brazilian cosmetics firm, has been selling its products in Angola since 2006.
China still remains the biggest foreign investor in Africa. Since the Brazilians can't compete with China on scale, they have to play to Brazilian strengths. One is of course Brazil's formidable agricultural expertise, readily applicable to Africa since the climates are similar. In 2008 EMBRAPA, Brazil's leading-edge agricultural research organization, set up an office in Ghana, with EMBRAPA also providing technical assistance to the cotton industry in Benin, Burkina Faso, Chad and Mali. Brazilian companies that grow soya, sugar cane, corn and cotton have been recently investigating opportunities in Tanzania.
The Chinese have acquired an exploitative reputation in Africa; the Brazilians are trying to establish a reputation for collaboration instead. Brazil is much more self-sufficient in resources than China and is more interested in developing long-term business in Africa than in hauling off its resources. Brazilian firms emphasize that they play by the rules, are honest employers, and want to construct enduring relationships by offering development aid as well as private investment. While the Chinese are known for bringing in their own workers, Brazilian firms do most of their hiring locally.
It's not always easy to be conscientious, of course. Vale relocated a thousand families to a new village in order set up the firm's coal mine, but the families haven't been very happy with their new homes, and have conducted protest demonstrations. Vale is working to repair matters; pointing out that the company has a 35-year concession at the mine, an official there commented: "We don't want 35 years of problems."
So far, Brazil hasn't had many problems in Africa, but it is still a relatively small player on the continent. That gives Brazil a chance to observe and learn from the blunders of others, and to forge a presence in Africa that will establish Brazil as a long-term partner for African nations. As one Brazilian business leader said: "Africa is the place to be."COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* THINK SMALLSPACE: As discussed by an article in AVIATION WEEK ("Small Disrupters" by Michael Mecham, 6 May 2013), the launch of three little, cheap "Phonesats" on 21 April 2013 demonstrated how the US National Aeronautics & Space Administration (NASA) and other traditional US government space players are embracing cheap nanosatellite technology. Twenty years ago, NASA Administrator Dan Goldin had pushed a philosophy of "faster better cheaper (FBC)" for the agency; the results were mixed, but to many FBC still seemed basically like a good idea, and those who didn't forget it have been coming into their own with the emergence of modern nanosat technology.
Nanosats -- handy-sized, cheap little satellites launched as secondary payloads -- are nothing new, having been flown from the 1960s, but the concept shifted into high gear with the introduction of the standardized "Cubesat" at the turn of the century. A baseline "1U" Cubesat is a cubical satellite ten centimeters (4 inches) on a side; Cubesats are also available in a double "2U" configuration, effectively two single Cubesats in a stack, and a triple "3U" configuration, three Cubesats in a stack. They are built to an open specification and are deployed in orbit from a standardized launcher. Now almost everyone can build and fly a satellite, with little firms such as San Francisco's Pumpkin INC providing Cubesat buses for their clients to customize.
Early on, Cubesats were flown simply for mission experience and did nothing very interesting, but that having become boring, they are becoming more capable. The three Phonesats, which were lofted on the first launch of the Orbital Sciences Antares booster, were single Cubesats built by NASA's Ames Research Center in California's Bay Area. They were strictly technology demonstrators; they had an orbital lifetime of only a few weeks, being intended to show how low-cost consumer technology could be leveraged into satellite missions. All were based on off-the-shelf commercial cellphones:
The Phonesats communicated with Earth via by HAM radio. Operating at low orbital altitude, they were protected from hard space radiation by the Earth's magnetosphere; if they suffered a radiation upset, they would simply reboot.
Ames Lab is now moving on to next-generation Cubesat flight, the "Edison Demonstration Of Smallsat Networks (EDSN)", to be put into space by the initial flight of the "Spaceborne Payload Assist Rocket / Kaui (SPARK)" AKA "Super Strypi" booster. EDSN will use an unusual 1.5U Cubesat configuration, with eight Cubesats launched on the flight to form up a space formation, communicating with each other over wireless. They will use commercial tape measures for antennas. EDSN will be followed by further Ames Cubesat missions to validate laser communication links; radar and optical sensors for cooperative maneuvering; higher-bandwidth radios; improved solar arrays; and rendezvous-docking operations.
SPARK / Super Strypi is glorified derivative of the earlier Strypi sounding rocket, developed by the US Sandia National Laboratory. Super Strypi will be able to put up to 250 kilograms (550 pounds) of payload into Sun-synchronous orbit. The initial launch will be from the Pacific Missile Range facility on Kaui, and will be the first satellite launch from Hawaii.
Other US government space organizations are jumping on the Cubesat bandwagon. The US National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) is working with Pumpkin to fly the "Colony 1 Aeneas" mission, which will put a dozen 3U Cubesats into orbit to track shipping containers from wireless transponders, on behalf of the US Department of Homeland Security. There are also reports that the US Special Operations Command is planning to fly a constellation of Cubesats to similarly track wireless targeting tags, planted by intelligence operatives in the vehicles or dwellings of terrorists and insurgents. Details of this exercise are unclear; Cubesats to test the technology were apparently flown on a Falcon 9 booster launch on 8 December 2010.
Ames is planning to launch 22 satellites in 2013, mostly Cubesats of various sizes, but also larger satellites running to 20 kilograms (44 pounds) -- not on an open standard design, Ames is developing its own standard spacecraft buses. The most prominent such effort is represented by the "Lunar Atmosphere & Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE)" Moon orbiter, to be launched on an Orbital Minotaur V booster come this fall. LADEE is based on octagonal carbon-composite bus segments, with a spacecraft built up as a stack -- propulsion module, payload module, and then bus module, with accessories tacked on as needed. NASA has attempted to build standardized spacecraft buses before and not had much luck, but now there seems to be a commitment to get the idea to work.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* THE GLOBAL VIRAL THREAT (1): As reported by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("An Ounce Of Prevention", 20 April 2013), in February 2013 an 87-year-old man was admitted to a hospital in Shanghai, China, with a nasty cough. It quickly became a fever; in a week, he was dead. Shortly after that, a 27-year-old pork butcher was admitted to the same hospital with the same symptoms; he died in a week as well. The third fatality was a 35-year-old woman admitted to a hospital in Anhui in March. At the end of March, Chinese officials announced that these were the first cases of a new strain of influenza, H7N9, never before seen in humans.
Ten years ago, the Chinese government had responded to a similar outbreak in Guangdon province by trying to conceal the problem; that didn't make it go away, and almost 800 people were killed by what became known as "severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS)". This time around, the Chinese quickly released the genetic sequence of H7N9, then published a detailed paper in the NEW ENGLAND JOURNAL OF MEDICINE. However, dozens have still been infected, with about a fifth of them killed; notions of how the virus is transmitted remain fuzzy, with the discovery of a "healthy carrier" -- a boy infected with H7N9 but not sick -- only confounding matters.
Fortunately, H7N9 doesn't appear to be transmissible between humans, but the possibility remains that it might mutate and cause a pandemic in the future. In the meantime, a new coronavirus -- the family of viruses that SARS belongs to -- is circulating in the Middle East, having killed about a dozen since it emerged in September. It remains even more baffling than H7N9.
Such cases suggest how far the world's early-warning system against disease has come, and how far it needs to go. The world has learned from the cases of SARS, the 2005 H5N1 bird flu outbreak, and the 2009 H1N1 swine flu outbreak. Systems are being put in place to spot emerging pandemic diseases and deal with them quickly, but we're still far from a comprehensive global defense system.
In response to the SARS and H5N1 outbreaks, in 2005 the members of the World Health Organization (WHO) agreed on a new set of "International Health Regulations", providing rules for responding to outbreaks of global concern. For example, all members must alert WHO about any threatening pathogen that might spread beyond their borders. The regulations also include measures to discourage people from imposing unnecessary restrictions on travel and trade, such bans having a history of making governments reluctant to report outbreaks. Individual countries are also establishing their own pandemic emergency-response plans; by 2011, 158 countries had such plans in place.
Surveillance has improved as well. ProMED and HealthMap, two online reporting programs at the International Society for Infectious Diseases and Boston Children's Hospital respectively, use a variety of sources to provide quick information on emerging threats. Google Flu Trends, run by the Google's charity arm, monitors flu-related searches to estimate the disease's prevalence. Such electronic systems complement conventional epidemiology instead of replacing it, but traditional surveillance methods have improved, too.
Genetic analysis and assaying have improved greatly as well, while countries are joining forces on surveillance. A model of cooperation can be seen north of Bangkok, where Thailand's health ministry includes a National Influenza Center. As one of the WHO's designated regional laboratories, it tests samples from all of South-East Asia, with support from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The CDC has a global reputation for its ability to identify new medical threats; it was the CDC that originally spotted the AIDS pandemic.
The US is in fact as or better prepared for a pandemic than any country on Earth. American authorities have stockpiled 68 million doses of antiviral drugs, 18 million respirators, and 31 million face masks, and are investing in research to create improvements. The Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), an US government agency, contracts with companies to develop new ways to counteract biological threats. It has 130 products in development, including 45 for influenza.
The world's biggest cities, often with aid from national governments, are also working hard on pandemic defense. Shanghai watches for 15 categories of infectious disease at more than 5,700 sentinel sites; the city has several emergency plans, tailored for outbreaks of different intensities. New York City collects data from hospitals, laboratories and even pharmacies, to look for signs of new infections. The city cannot forcibly vaccinate its citizens, but it can order the unvaccinated to stay home. [TO BE CONTINUED]NEXT | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* WASTE NOT (5): The second article on waste management in the AAAS SCIENCE series ("Finding A New Way To Go" by Gretchen Vogel) discussed the search for a better toilet, a subject previously discussed here in 2008.
The flush toilet was a remarkable invention and has provided excellent service for a century or so -- but it is wasteful, consuming volumes of clean water and producing wastewater that has to be sanitized at considerable expense and difficulty. Flush toilets don't make much sense in places where water is scarce; developing nations also don't have funds to implement proper sewage and wastewater handling systems. Even in developed nations, wastewater handling isn't always done properly.
Traditionally, however, the flush toilet was seen as the right tool for the job, and there wasn't much pressure to find something better. Now that's changing, thanks to tougher clean water laws and an enhanced recognition of the importance of sanitation to public health. More funding is now available, particularly from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The Gates Foundation has awarded dozens of grants for "next-generation sanitation", in particular pushing the "Reinvent the Toilet Challenge", with the goal of developing an attractive, eco-, and user-friendly toilet that can process body wastes for less than 5 cents per user per day.
One simple approach is the "composting toilet", in which anaerobic bacteria decompose the waste. If the process is properly handled, it will generate enough heat to kill dangerous pathogens, and the toilet can be designed so that it will neither generate odors nor draw flies. The idea's been around for decades, but it hasn't caught on except on an essentially experimental basis in a few spots in Europe. It seems that people are uncomfortable with the notion -- and if the toilet's in an urban area, the wastes have to be carted off sooner or later. A more sophisticated approach to the "Toilet 2.0" is a scheme that keeps urine and feces separate. Such a toilet has two openings, one towards the front for urine and the other towards the back for feces. Separation has a number of advantages:
The separation toilet is not merely being targeted for use in the developing world, but in the developed world as well. Phosphorus is a troublesome pollutant in waste water, and there are growing worries about its supply for fertilizers.
The most advanced designs turn human wastes into water, fertilizer, and methane or other fuel for local use. Doulaye Kone of the Gates Foundation says: "There's enough energy left [in the wastes] to heat something, to drive something. If you could harness that, you could invent a stand-alone toilet that could bypass the sewer."
The Gates Foundation conducted a "fly-off" of competing designs in Seattle in August 2012, with the California Institute of Technology receiving a $100,000 USD first prize for designing a solar-powered toilet that produces hydrogen and electricity. Loughborough University in the UK won a $60,000 USD second place prize for a toilet that produces biological charcoal, minerals, and clean water. Smaller prizes were awarded to the runner-ups, with the Gates Foundation following up the exercise with a new round of grants.
* In related news, the Indian state of Rajasthan has decided to clamp down on people relieving themselves in public. There being a traditional lack of toilets in Indian villages, villagers no great problems with relieving themselves wherever they feel like it. However, toilets are becoming more common, and the state government wants to up the pressure to adopt and use them in order to improve public hygiene. Teams of people will go around and "shout, beat drums or blow a whistle" if they see anyone answering nature's call in the open. Repeat offenders may be fined. However, along with sticks, the state government is offering carrots, an official saying: "We are also giving financial assistance of 9,100 rupees [$166 USD] to people who wish to construct a toilet. We want people to not defecate in the open." [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* GIMMICKS & GADGETS: The need for improved sanitation in hospitals to deal with lurking pathogens was discussed here last year. As reported by BUSINESS WEEK, a Texas startup named Xenix Healthcare Services has developed a "robot" to help keep hospitals sanitary. Actually, it's more like a cart; custodial staff wheel it into a room, plug it in, and key in a start command with a 15-second countdown. Staff leave the room, close the door, and then the sanitizer pops up a turret that blasts the room with a pulsed shortwave ultraviolet xenon lamp. The sanitizer saturates the room with UV for five to ten minutes.
Custodial staff are trained to open drawers and arrange high-touch items so they will be illuminated before using the sanitizer. Some rooms may require dual exposures, each from a different position. The shortwave UV can damage vision; the room has to be empty before the sanitizer is turned on, and it works in conjunction with a motion sensor that turns it off if anything moves around. The shortwave UV won't penetrate glass, so exposure through windows isn't a problem.
Mark Stibich, the CEO of Xenix, got the idea when he was working in Russia a few years back on HIV prevention under a United Nations program; he discovered the Russians using pulsed xenon UV lamps to kill pathogens and thought it was a good idea. The MD Anderson Cancer Center at the University of Texas was the first to get their hands on the Xenix sanitizer, to find that it cut bacterial contamination by a factor of 20 and killed off about 95% of the nasty pathogen Clostridium difficile. Other hospitals that have adopted the sanitizer haven't done quite that well, but even at $125,000 USD a unit it's a bargain, since one infection picked up in a hospital can end up costing tens of thousands of dollars.
* As reported by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("Total Extrusion Zone", 20 April 2013), Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) in California has long been a source of advanced technology. Recently, the PARC Hardware Systems Laboratory has been working on an advanced lithium-ion battery for electric vehicles that, it is hoped, will store 20% more energy than current designs.
Increasing battery storage capacity means making a bigger cathode, but the thicker the cathode, the slower the ions move through it, preventing the battery from delivering power at an adequate rate. PARC's design gets around this trade-off by building a cathode as a sandwich of alternating layers -- one thick and dense for storage, one thin and porous for charge transfer, the two layers being 100 microns and 10 microns across respectively. A typical automotive battery would need tens of thousands of such layers, leading to the challenge to fabricating such a device at practical cost. PARC researchers, inspired by striped toothpaste, have figured out how to lay down the two cathodes as rows of stripes produced by a multichannel printhead. The two different cathode materials are mixed with an organic material and laid down on a metal substrate, with the organic material evaporating away as the cathode dries.
PARC is also working with the US government's Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy (ARPA-E) on using such "co-extrusion" technology to print entire batteries on a flat substrate. Such batteries have five layers -- two for the cathode, a separator, and two for the anode. Other experimental work is being performed on fabricating silver conductive networks for solar cells, with notions for printing fuel cells, ultracapacitors, and even catalytic converters with co-extrusion.
* The Terrafugia company, which has made a splash with its Transition two-seat roadable aircraft AKA "flying car", is now working on a next-generation follow-on, a hybrid tilt-rotor machine designated the "TF-X". It looks a little like a sports car with a ducted pusher prop in the rear, and a high-mounted gull wing with rotors on each wingtip.
On takeoff, the rotors are turned to vertical and lift the aircraft off the ground on battery power, with the vehicle's four wheels retracting. Once the machine is in the air, the ducted prop takes over, driven by an internal combustion engine that also recharges the batteries; the rotors are turned horizontal and the blades folded back. The sequence is reversed on landing, with the wings hinged in to stow the folded rotors in fairings mounted low on the vehicle, returning the TF-X to roadworthy condition. Exactly how the TF-X gets by without a tail is unclear; it seems rear duct, which features cruciform control surfaces on its exhaust, handles that job. Cruise speed is given as 320 KPH (200 MPH) and range as 800 kilometers (500 miles). The TF-X will be highly automated, with a nonpilot able to learn to fly it in a day's training.
There's been some skepticism that the TF-X is any more than a comic-book concept, but Terrafugia officials say it has been carefully thought out. Sure, its wings don't appear to give it any visible means of support, but being a tiltrotor it doesn't need much in the way of wings to get off the ground. How likely the TF-X is to ever go into production or even fly are fair questions, but the design is at least slick, far cleaner than the Terrafugia Transition. I'm sure the pricetag of the TF-X would be more than I could stand to think of, but I wouldn't mind renting one for a while and playing with it.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* THEFT AS A COMPETITIVE ADVANTAGE: As reported by an article in BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK ("The Curious Case Of Samsung's Missing TVs" by Jun Yang & Kyunghee Parks, 3 December 2012), in August 2012, workers at Samsung Electronics in the South Korean city of Suwong packed up 60 advanced-tech TV sets for a trade show in Berlin. However, when the crates arrived two weeks later, two of the TVs were missing. These were not ordinary production TVs, they were leading-edge prototypes of organic LED (OLED) widescreen TVs. Competitors would all but murder to get their hands on them.
South Korea is seeing a surge in industrial espionage, with the government's National Industrial Security Center reporting 46 cases involving attempts to steal trade secrets from South Korean firms in 2011, up from 32 in 2007. Estimates of losses from such thefts have been given as equivalent to $82 billion USD in 2008, the last year for which data is available, up from $26 billion in 2004. South Korea is far from alone, with German firms estimated to lose the equivalent of tens of billions of dollars each year from spying, while the US Federal Bureau of Investigation says its current caseload of industrial espionage cases involves about $13 billion USD of theft.
According to Frank Schurgers, director of security agency Integris International in Berlin: "Any company that has a competitive advantage or new technology will be targeted by industrial espionage." A US congressional report issued in 2011 concluded, to no great surprise, that half the spying activities are traceable to China -- which may be less disturbing than the fact that China isn't responsible for more of it. The Associated Chambers of Commerce & Industry of India found that over a third of Indian firms have engaged in some form of industrial espionage. According to Jyotirmoy Dutta, a manager at consulting company ITC Infotech: "Stealing technology basically cuts down on time to market. A lot of companies are going to do anything that makes their new product introduction faster."
With thievery on the rise, big firms such as Samsung, Apple, and Toyota Motors are pumping more money into security. Schurgers of Integris said his company charged one client almost a third of a million dollars to protect one product, and that implementation of a comprehensive security program for a customer might run to millions.
The authorities have little doubt the Samsung displays were stolen, not lost. The OLED displays were tightly secured in wooden shipping crates, with the weight remaining constant through the journey and security camera records showing no tampering. South Korean authorities don't believe the theft took place before the TVs left the country, and are now working with German authorities to see what might have happened on their end. 14 people involved in the transfer have been questioned, though there have been no arrests. However, six South Korean employees of Orbotech -- an Israeli maker of test gear for TVs, smartphones, and tablets -- have been indicted for industrial espionage. Samsung's rival LG Electronics also believes Orbotech employees have been stealing company secrets. Orbotech's South Korean branch is cooperating with investigators.
Samsung has installed systems to monitor if secure paperwork is taken out of its offices; other companies are reinforcing their security as well. Apple, long known for its secrecy, told other businesses testing its iPad in 2010 that they would have to follow strict security rules. Visitors to Toyota facilities have to seal USB ports on portable gadgets and put blue stickers over camera ports on their smartphones. Samsung and LG have even been accusing each other spying, complementing their sets of lawsuits against each other for intellectual property infringements. Paranoia at work? Possibly, but they have cause to be paranoid, one industry security official saying that Samsung and LG know they are being targeting and "are like mice being eyed by eagles hovering above them."COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* DO YOU KNOW WHERE YOUR COWS ARE? As reported by an article from BBC WORLD Online ("RTLS: The Technology Tracking Cows To Make Them Happy" by Fiona Graham, 9 May 2013), Denmark has a long tradition of agricultural production, but international competition has put Danish farmers under severe competitive pressure. They're turning to technology to survive.
Welcome to Asger Christensen's dairy farm, operated by his ancestors since 1760. His ancestors would not have ever imagined how he's keeping track of his cows on his iPhone -- thanks to a technology named "CowView", developed by GEA Farm Technologies, an arm of the German-based GEA Group. Christensen was a pioneer in the adoption of CowView, signing up for a trial that began in 2012; he hasn't regretted it.
Each of his cow wears a collar, fitted with a wireless "realtime location system (RTLS)" tag. The tags are read several times a second, up to a range of 600 meters (almost 2,000 feet) by sensors fitted in a grid mounted in the roof of the cow barn. There's nothing new about RFID technology in farming, but RTLS extends the concept with precision location capability. The RTLS tags use ultra-wideband radio technology, which reduces power demands and extends tag battery life.
The data from the RTLS tags is sent from the sensors to a hub, where the cow's every movement is collated and analyzed, sending updates to Christensen by smartphone: "You can see how long the cows are lying down, you can see how many hours the cow sleeps, how long the cow is walking round, and it tells me a little bit how the cow is feeling, its welfare. If a cow is lying down too long, maybe it's sick. And on my iPhone I can see where the cow is in the stable."
Christensen adds: "You can see in the system when a cow is beginning to be not so happy. The system can tell me two whole days before I can see with my own eyes if the cow is sick. If you can help the cows two days before, it's money, because the cow, not being so sick is easier to treat."
Any time he wants to check up on a particular cow, he can just dial it up: "If I touch cow number 5022 on my iPhone, about two seconds later I can see where the cow is."
After an RTLS tag is fitted, it takes 6 to 10 days to build up a database of an animal's behavior. Keld Florczak of GEA, in charge of the CowView installation, says cows are creatures of predictable habit, and any changes in recorded habits can tell a lot about a cow. "If she can, she will choose to lie down for the same amount of time, eat the same amount and walk the same distance. If a cow is coming into heat, she will start to walk more, she will start to socialize more with the other cows, and she will be out of her cubicle. She needs the same amount of food, but she will be too active to stay there and eat; she will walk to the feeding table and then walk out to play with her female colleagues."
Similarly, a lack of activity can indicate illness or lameness. "Lameness is a huge cost to farmers. And if he identifies a sick cow he will have saved the cow, because the moment she has a physical sickness or a fever, it's already too late."
One of the challenges in developing the CowView system was to provide enough accuracy in locating a cow -- a few meters wasn't good enough. The production system is accurate to within 30 to 50 centimeters (12 to 20 inches). The CowView system is now on the market, and being rolled out internationally. Florczak says the payoff time for a farmer is no more than two years.
MKW Electronics of Austria is similarly developing a "Smartbow" RTLS system, focusing on pigs, though it can be used for other livestock. MKW boss Wolfgang Auer said: "We developed an ear tag, because for sows you can't use anything else, on the neck or leg because they destroy them."
The MKW tags are not based on wideband technology, instead operating in the 2.4 GHz radio band. MKW tech is cheaper than UWB, but less accurate, has a shorter range, and is more power-hungry. Auer still believes that cost-conscious farmers will find a lower purchase price attractive; MKW will provide analytic software similar to that integrated with GEA's CowView, with Auer saying the payback time will be about a year. The system can be accessed via PC, tablet, or smartphone.
Industry analysts see the different approaches of GEA and MKW as both viable, the preference for one over the other depending on factors such as the size of the herd to be tagged. The big obstacle is that farmers tend to be technologically conservative, cautious about spending money on newfangled gadgets, and so they have to be convinced that RTLS is a good deal. Certainly it should be a good deal for the livestock, since it will allow a farmer to spot problems immediately -- and the livestock will not complain about the loss of privacy.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* ANOTHER MONTH: According to BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK, Chinese authorities are cracking down on people smuggling packages of white powder into China -- packages of foreign-made baby formula. The smuggling is traceable to Chinese product adulteration that killed a number of infants. Chinese street prices for foreign-made baby formula are sky-high, and Chinese authorities have busted organized rings of smugglers.
Of course, foreign companies can sell formula on the open market in China, but it's taking time for foreign firms to ramp up production. Swiss food giant Nestle both imports milk and obtains milk from Chinese farmers, working with their Chinese suppliers to ensure product safety. Chinese parents are still worried about the quality of the formula they buy, and a Nestle manager says she understands why: "When you talk about the health of your baby, it's hard to say: You are overreacting."
In vaguely similar news, BBC WORLD Online reports that illegal sales of fuel, mostly diesel, have been skyrocketing in the UK. In general, fuel is very heavily taxed on the eastern side of the Pond, giving crooks an opportunity to sell under the counter and cheat the taxman. It's not that much of a bargain, however, the fuel often being contaminated or adulterated. Since fuel taxes are very low in the USA, we don't have that particular problem -- crooks preferring other tax-loaded products, notably cigarettes.
* Concerning remarks about the efforts of the Flickr photosharing site to bring itself up to date, made here two months back, now the other shoe has dropped, Flickr having marched out a new business strategy and new look. Free accounts now get a terabyte of image storage, while Pro accounts are being de-emphasized -- apparently they were too insignificant financially to be worth the bother.
The cosmetic changes to the site do improve its looks, which had been very much behind the times, but they haven't proven popular. The big problem is that Flickr forgot image thumbnails exist for a reason, and now photo streams are displayed as tilings of medium-resolution images. It's painfully unwieldy; do an image search, and inspecting the results means scrolling through page on page of images, one or a few images at a time.
I'm not overly worried about it, the screaming has been so loud and angry that I think Flickr will realize "thumbnails are their friend" and make adjustments. That's how things work, two steps forward -- one step back. Although I had just renewed my Pro account, I switched to a free account. They even refunded my money, though I wasn't expecting they would do so.
* Due to a family emergency, I had to take a quick road trip to Spokane in early April. I wrote up notes for the exercise and was planning on tacking them on to the SAN DIEGO ROAD TRIP series, but when I got ready to upload the first installment, I decided against it -- not that much of interest, and too personal to talk about publicly.
I did decided to go the "long way" from Loveland to Spokane via Salt Lake City -- about 15% longer -- in order to visit the Hogle Zoo and Hill Air Force Base Museum there. That was a mistake; the zoo was packed for some reason and was all torn up for construction, and all I could stand to do was make a quick tour, then get out as fast as I could. I did get a few good photos, notably of two grizzly bears playing around in a pool, but I didn't want to try it again. The Hill AFB Museum was okay, but I was still glad to get out of town.
I just do not mesh with Salt Lake City. I've been there about four times and it does not click with me. There may be some nice parts to it, but it would be clearly beyond diminishing returns to try to find out what they are. I'm not going to make any stops there again; the most I can say for it is that it beats Butte, Montana. Almost anyplace beats Butte.
I had wanted to visit the little zoos to the north in Pocatello and Idaho Falls, Idaho, just out of curiosity, but they were still closed for the season. I spent the night in Idaho Falls; the drive north into Montana is dull, but I did spot a huge herd of buffalo on a ranch, and had to stop and get pictures out my car window. I was thinking I wouldn't go that way again, but on checking the road maps, I found out that if I took a dogleg on a Wyoming state highway to Pocatello, the overall trip to Spokane would be only about a hour longer, so I may get up at "zero dark thirty" and go that way come summer -- might be interesting to drive through the mountains in that area anyway, I don't recall I have before.
I was lucky on that trip because the weather was good; only days after I got back, there was a snowstorm that shut down the freeway going through central Wyoming, and a week later we had snow for several days that piled up a bit. We'd been suffering from drought in the central USA for some time and the Mississippi was reported to be painfully low, but the extended storm changed that with a vengeance -- it seems some places got 20 centimeters (8 inches) of rain in a week, with the Mississippi overflowing its banks. It puzzles me when people seem to think that nature makes any consideration for our convenience; if I can see any pattern in it, it's one of seemingly willful perversity.
Incidentally, I was also thinking of going to some regional airshows this year, but that now seems unlikely. Due to Federal budget sequestration, the military's effectively cancelled all their airshows and participation in off-base airshows. In the case of governance, the willful perversity seems less like an illusion.COMMENT ON ARTICLE