aug 2013 / last mod oct 2016 / greg goebel

* 22 entries including: Africa in 21st century series, bogus Baghdad bomb detector series, manufacturing robotics series, dual drug therapies don't always work, economists once thought poverty was OK, carrion flies for metagenomics & tracking down the TM6 bacteria, 777 crash & flight safety, history of shopping cart, FISA secret court & broken security screening, European Food Safety Agency EFA, and digital education now coming of age.

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* NEWS COMMENTARY FOR AUGUST 2013: As discussed by THE ECONOMIST, in early August the Obama Administration released a worldwide terror threat alert, backed up by closing 19 diplomatic missions in the Middle East and North Africa. What has gradually emerged is that the US National Security Agency (NSA) intercepted electronic communications between Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden's successor as head of al-Qaeda, and Nasser al-Wuhayshi, the leader of its Yemen-based affiliate, "al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP)", Zawahiri's de facto deputy.

US attacks on al-Qaeda leadership in Pakistan having been brutally effective, AQAP has become by far the most active branch of the network in plotting attacks against Western targets. It appears that Zawahiri ordered a set of major attacks to take place on or around 6 August, a Moslem holy day. The terror campaign didn't come off, partly because the targets were shut down, but it seems also because of intensive US drone attacks on al-Qaeda leadership. Drones operated by the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) fly from a base in Saudi Arabia, while others, under the Joint Special Operations Command, take off from Djibouti.

It is a bit puzzling that the Obama Administration made a public fuss about the threat, instead of dealing with it quietly. Not only did going public tip al-Qaeda off to the need to improve their communications security, but it contradicted the administration's line that al-Qaeda has been largely defeated. One strong pressure on administration thinking was the death of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three others when the American consulate in Benghazi, in Libya, was attacked on 11 September 2012 by jihadist fighters possibly linked to al-Qaeda. Republicans used the incident to pillory the administration; much of their criticism was over the top, but it was still troublesome.

This time around, Republicans were quick to praise the NSA and to back up the administration's energetic response. Still, the Obama Administration faces further challenges in the war against terror. One issue is to improve the defenses of diplomatic missions in trouble spots, a exercise Congress has been reluctant to fund; the result is that US diplomats end up scurrying off in humiliation when any serious threat arises. Another issue is to realistically assess the threat that al-Qaeda continues to pose -- not just from AQAP, but also from al-Qaeda franchises in Syria, North Africa, the Sinai and with the departure of Western troops, once again in Afghanistan.

In May, Obama spoke of the "war on terror" coming to an end, as discussed here at the time. Yes, al-Qaeda has taken a beating and hasn't been able to pull off major attacks for some time. However, the threat has become much more dispersed, and the movement has plenty of soldiers. If we're going to be stuck with the war for the foreseeable future, it seems wisest to admit it and work on that basis, no matter how uncomfortable it is.

* China's government is peculiarly semi-authoritarian: not so much the iron fist in the velvet glove, but the iron fist kept behind the back and not brought out unless needed. As reported by THE ECONOMIST, there are plenty of signs that the Chinese government continues to soften the harshness of its laws. In 2012, the civil code was amended to prevent the coercion of fake confessions, and there is a public debate in progress on the need to reduce wrongful convictions; legal cadres are being encouraged to presume suspects taken into custody as innocent instead of guilty. China conducted 12,000 executions in 2002, but only 3,000 in 2012.

The one big thing that still brings out the iron fist is challenging the authority of the Chinese Communist Party. On 16 July Xu Zhiyong, a law lecturer at Beijing University, under house arrest since April, was taken into custody. When Xu's lawyer Liu Weiguo tried to visit Xu, Liu was arrested as well. The case of Xu has drawn fire from Chinese intellectuals and businessmen, international human rights organizations, and the US government.


Ira Belkin, who runs the US-Asia Law Institute at New York University, does not see the contrast between reform of Chinese criminal law and cracking down on dissidents as demonstrating a contradiction, Belkin calling it "bizarrely consistent". The Party's goal is a "no rocking the boat" society; the authorities don't want to get citizens excited through the capricious application of law, and don't want citizens to excite people either. Belkin suggests that cracking down on dissidents actually does rock the boat, that it would be wiser to take the wind out of their sails by loosening the leash -- and, as happens in the West, allowing them to become bogged down in bickering with counter-critics. For now, the Chinese government seems fixated on the heavy-handed approach.

* As something of a footnote to the item above, also according to THE ECONOMIST, the reduction in number of executions in China over the last decade has led to a shortfall in organ donations, organs often being transplanted from prisoners who have been put to death. The hospital system is now trying to encourage voluntary organ donations from the public, but so far it's been slow going, demand far outstretching supply.

In principle, condemned prisoners or their families voluntarily donate organs. However, if the body of a prisoner is not claimed by a family, the state can dispose of it as judged appropriate. The profitability of organ sales gives prison officials an incentive to cut corners.



* GIMMICKS & GADGETS: There was a story cruising the tech blogosphere of a "DNA fog" security system, developed by Danish security company SmokeCloak. When thieves break into a shop, bank, warehouse, or cargo truck, an alarm goes off, accompanied by the production of a thick fog that blinds and disorients them. It also carpets them with a DNA sequence custom to each SmokeCloak installation, allowing the thieves to be identified. The DNA tags will glow green under ultraviolet light; they are electrically charged and repel water, meaning they will persist in skin and hair up to three weeks.

The tags are made by Applied DNA Sciences (ADS) of Stony Brook, New York. The ADS DNA tags are already in use; European banks now use them in cash-carrying boxes, and they have supported dozens of convictions in the UK. American law enforcement isn't very familiar with the technology yet, which may make it a tougher sell here, but the potential is obvious.

* In somewhat related news, as reported by IEEE SPECTRUM, researchers at North Dakota State University in Fargo have developed a method of embedding RFID tags in paper. The scheme, named "Laser Enabled Advanced Packaging (LEAP)", uses very thin and very tiny RFID chips, quickly and precisely placed on both rigid and flexible materials.

If LEAP is practical, it could lead to the dream -- to some, the nightmare -- of cheap, universal RFID tagging, in everything from public transit smart cards or product labels. One particularly interesting potential application is to tag currency, the European Central Bank and the Bank of Japan both having their own RFID projects to that end. RFID-enabled banknotes would help fight counterfeiting and help trace money laundering. Of course, as privacy advocates would be quick to point out, RFID-enabled money would also help governments crack down on the "gray market", the informal person-to-person transactions that fly under the taxman's radar.

* In another somewhat related news item, TIME Online reports that the European Union has approved new regulations to allow food products to be lasered with the required codes, instead of using a sticker. To etch the fruit, iron oxides and hydroxides are used to enhance the contrast of the lasered parts of the fruit to make them more visible. The hangup had been worries about the use of these chemicals. Lasering is cheaper than using labels, and also reduces if not eliminates the risk of food items getting mixed up by switching a batch of labels.



* DUAL DRUG DUD? As reported by an article from AAAS SCIENCE NOW Online ("Combining Antibiotics May Backfire" by Sean Treacy, 23 April 2013), it's become conventional medical wisdom that pathogens are best treated by administering several drugs against them simultaneously, with each drug performing a different attack on the pathogen. Such "combination drug therapy" has been used to fight HIV, tuberculosis, and even cancer. The synergistic approach is seen as highly effective, and is believed to delay the emergence of pathogen drug resistance.

However, actual data on combination drug therapy is thin, so a team of evolutionary biologists, including Robert Beardmore of the University of Exeter in the UK, decided to conduct a test. The researchers chose two antibiotics known to cooperate well in their first 24 hours, doxycycline and erythromycin, commonly administered separately for infections such as pathogenic strains of Escherichia coli, the human colon bacterium. The researchers put different amounts of each antibiotic -- alone or combined -- into tubes full of benign E. coli, and then tracked the growth of the bacteria by by shining a laser through the tubes and measuring how much light was blocked.

Within a day, the researchers saw a huge dive in bacterial growth, up to 95%, in the bacteria hit with the combination attack, just as they anticipated. However, the next day the same E. coli bounced back with a vengeance -- for example, bacteria that had dropped by 90% after half a day of drug exposure later skyrocketed by 500% after a day and a half. The researchers were baffled, Beardmore saying that "just looked wrong". Assuming the experiment had been contaminated, they tried again, and got the same results. Other strains of E. coli demonstrated the same results. It seemed like the harder the attack, the stronger the bacteria bounced back.

The researchers sequenced the resistant E. coli genomes, looking for clues in its 5,000 genes. The bacteria had widely duplicated genes, including some coding four different resistance mechanisms that pumped antibiotics and other intruding chemicals back out of the bacteria. The team then used the genetic information to put together a mathematical model of the behavior of the cells and their genes to see if its results matched those of the experiments. It did, the combination drugs consistently producing more bacteria with pumps.

There is a saying among evolutionary biologists that "evolution is smarter than we are", and it seems the basic assumptions of combination drug therapy may be underestimating the range of normal genetic variability in target pathogens. It might not appear likely that a particular pathogen will be able to adapt to attack by two drugs at once, but given a big population of a pathogen there may be a small number that are, and that number gets bigger if a pathogen has a wide range of genetic variability. Beardmore and his team are considering changes in strategy that might be more effective, for example alternating different drugs on different days, instead of taking them both at once.

This experiment is perplexing because it contradicts other experience to date. Certainly combination therapy seems to work very well with viruses, which generally have minimal genomes and so don't have the same range of genetic variability as bacteria. According to mathematical biologist Troy Day of Queen's University in Canada, who was not involved in the experiment: "In the case of HIV, combinations of drugs do seem to work quite well. You could ask: Why aren't we using those kinds of cocktail type therapies for bacterial infections? Would they not work just like they seem to work for HIV? And apparently, they don't always."



* POOR NO MORE? In the 1960s and 1970s, there was a common perception that by the 21st century the world would suffer a "population doomsday", in which the Earth would be swamped by out-of-control population growth in poor countries, resulting in global misery. In reality, though there are many difficulties of global concern, the period has been an unprecedented time of people emerging from poverty even as population has swelled. As discussed by an editorial from THE ECONOMIST's rotating economics commentator, Free Exchange ("Penury Portrait", 27 July 2013), there's a subtle subtext in this economic revolution, in that it is seen by all as a good thing. What is forgotten is that the global elimination of poverty was, not so long ago in historical terms, seen as neither practical nor, more surprisingly, even particularly desireable.

According to the mercantilist thinking that dominated European thought between the 16th and 18th centuries, poverty was socially beneficial. Yes, everyone knew that poverty was unpleasant, nobody wanted to be poor, but it meant a plentiful supply of cheap labor. The common attitude was summed up by the 18th-century economist and philosopher, Bernard de Mandeville, who judged it "manifest, that in a free nation where slaves are not allow'd of, the surest wealth consists in a multitude of laborious poor."

The existence of poverty was simply taken for granted, and there was no serious effort by leadership to change the status quo. 18th-century changes to British Poor Laws were not intended to eliminate poverty; they were simply to provide insurance against failed harvests and death of breadwinners. In the late 18th century, the writings of Thomas Malthus suggested that increases in general wealth would simply be swallowed up by population growth -- society running faster to stay in the same place. His thinking inspired the introduction of a new Poor Law in 1834, which tried to make the workhouse the poor's only option, simple charity being seen as counterproductive.

destitution & despair

The remarkable Scots scholar Adam Smith had been more forward-looking, seeing poverty as a blight and suggesting redistributive taxation: "The rich should contribute to the public expence, not only in proportion to their revenue, but something more than in that proportion." However, Smith did not outline any program in which poverty was to actually be eliminated. In the 19th century, Karl Marx did indeed suggest, in consequence of an insightful critique of capitalism and its failings, that the masses of the "proletariat" would establish a "dictatorship" that would ensure a more just distribution of the wealth of a nation.

Marx had sounded a dire warning to capitalism, but he would ultimately be off the mainstream of economic thought, and effectively his solution to poverty was populist revolution -- a solution that eventually appeared questionable as 20th-century efforts to implement it had thoroughly mixed results. The premise of mainstream economic thought, tracing back to Smith instead of Marx, was essentially capitalist in nature, though a capitalism that, unsettled by the Marxist vision, increasingly trimmed its sails to the shifting of the winds away from a fatalistic acceptance that the poor would always be with us.

Studies of poverty by Charles Booth in the 1890s and Seebohm Rowntree in the early decades of the 20th century illuminated poverty to show that it wasn't something to be swept under the rug. Traditional economists remained dubious at the idea of generally elevating the poor, the doctrine being that growth was derived from aggregate savings; since the rich could save much more than the poor, reducing poverty meant reducing aggregate savings, and so stifling growth. John Maynard Keynes challenged that view, arguing that it was aggregate consumption that was important, in which case reducing poverty could actually boost growth.

However, it wasn't until the 1990s that economists became really comfortable with the idea of eliminating poverty on an economic and not just a strictly humanitarian basis, with studies showing how high levels of poverty stifled investment and innovation. For example, unequal access to credit meant that the poor were less able to invest in their own education or businesses than optimal, meaning lower growth for the economy as a whole. Empirical data seemed to back up such notions.

In addition, while traditional attitudes often blamed the poor for their poverty -- they were lazy, drank too much, illiterate, undisciplined -- thinking began to shift to the idea that, to the extent such things were problems, they were more symptoms of poverty instead of causes. Improve education, health, and nutrition, so modern thinking increasingly went, and people would be more able to lift themselves out of poverty, increasing the wealth and stability of nations as a whole. The introduction of "conditional cash transfers", schemes like Brazil's Bolsa Familia that give poor people money as long as they send their children to school or have them vaccinated, are logical developments of these ideas.

Assisted by the introduction of effective family planning -- as well as automation that has improved productivity while reducing the need for cheap menial labor -- economics broke out of the mold of the "dismal science" that it was described as in the wake of Malthus, to suggest betterment of all the world's citizens wasn't a losing game. A century ago, even half a century ago, the global elimination of poverty might have seemed a dream of impractical do-gooders; now it is becoming the world's policy. In the biggest irony, such a vision ends up being based less on Karl Marx, with his focus on social revolution, than it does, in its evolution through mainstream economic thought, on Adam Smith.



* BOGUS BAGHDAD BOMB DETECTOR (3): By the time of the raid by British police in late 2009, James McCormick had obtained a holiday home in the Mediterranean, a yacht, a pony with stable for his daughter, new homes for his father and mother-in-law -- and a Georgian townhouse in Bath, bought from actor Nicholas Cage for 3.5 million pounds. McCormick had also built a large extension for his house in Somerset, though when the police barged in they found the extension largely empty and unused, hinting that McCormick had simply acquired it without evaluating what use he had for it.

Along similar lines, the ATSC offices hardly looked like an establishment of a global business, with ADE 651 units lying around in a disorderly fashion, and the company accounts defying any rational analysis. McCormick wasn't really a businessman; he was a salesman, and a clearly unorthodox one at that. In early 2010, the British government banned the export of the ADE devices to Iraq and Afghanistan, and also arrested McCormick. Detective Constable Niki White, a fraud investigator, found McCormick a stereotypical con man: "A little bit arrogant, full of himself. Didn't like it when he was pushed into a corner. And when you challenged his ideas, he had one of those sardonic laughs, as if to say: You stupid woman! Typical fraudster, really."

Examination of the ADE 651 quickly showed it to be as entirely functionless as its ancestor, the Tracker. The trail of McCormick's activities proved fascinating. He had sold over 7,000 ADE bomb detectors to buyers including the Hong Kong police, Romanian airport authorities, and the United Nations -- though Iraq was the big score. Investigation by Iraqi authorities showed that the deal slid through on greased palms, and a number of Iraqi officials ended up behind bars.

To be sure, not all the sales were evidently corrupt, and not all buyers were fully taken in. The Belgian Police obtained four at a cost of about 20,000 Euros (over $26,000 USD) but had a military test center check them out, to report back that they were worthless. It wasn't the only time McCormick had been called on his trickery, but of course he had the fast answers: the operators didn't know what they were doing, the tests were bogus, the environment was contaminated, and whatever else he could pull out of the air.

McCormick did have some reason to laugh, since in the UK, as in the USA, to prove fraud the prosecution had to show the seller knew that his product was bogus. The record showed that McCormick always seemed to have complete confidence in his bomb detectors. That's not surprising; people with a convenient grasp of facts will naturally believe things that are convenient to them. The closest McCormick came to giving away the game was a comment he made to a colleague who had decided the ATSC bomb detector was worthless, McCormick replying: "It does exactly what it is supposed to do. It makes millions."

While that remark does seem damning, it proves ambiguous on closer examination: did he mean that the item existed for the sole purpose of making millions, or did he mean that it worked and it made millions? The prosecution would not be able to prove which. However, people who have a convenient sense of facts also tend to bury themselves in obvious little contradictions: if he couldn't be caught in one big lie, a pattern of "willful misrepresentation of fact", as the law likes to put it, could be established from lots of little ones.

McCormick claimed to have a degree in psychology; he had no college degree. He claimed to be a member of the International Association of Bomb Technicians, indeed labeled his product as endorsed by that organization; he wasn't, and they hadn't. He was provably aware of professional tests that showed his bomb detector was worthless, and had casually dismissed them; he couldn't explain in any way that made sense how his gadget worked. And so on.

When McCormick went to trial in March 2013, the verdict was guilty on three counts of fraud. Judge Richard Hone was scathing in his denunciation of the defendant: "The device was useless, the profit outrageous, and your culpability as a fraudster has to be considered to be of the highest order ... I am wholly satisfied that your fraudulent conduct in selling so many useless devices for simply enormous prices promoted a false sense of security, and in all probability materially contributed to causing death and injury to innocent individuals. You have neither insight, shame, nor any sense of remorse ... You fought the case in the teeth of overwhelming evidence ... you rolled the dice with the jury and lost."

McCormick got ten years in lockup. It was the first time in their careers that Mapp and White had ever heard Justice Hone pass down a maximum sentence in anything except a murder case. The verdict also gave the green light for Iraqi authorities to attempt to get some of their money back.

* Justice had been done, to an extent. McCormick had been put out of business, but the Iraqi security was still making use of the ADE 651, while the Kenyans swore by it. Partly that could be chalked up to the strength of the ideomotor effect, though it seems likely that the ATSC bomb detectors did have some effect. Yes, they were nothing but props, but even a prop could intimidate someone trying to sneak an explosive device through a checkpoint, and also encourage security personnel to be more thorough and nosy. As with dowsing rods, even if most "detections" were bogus, given enough of them the simple odds would mean a score every now and then -- of course, demonstrating the effectiveness of the device, as well as the entirely human tendency to believe what we want to believe.

There are still plenty of Tracker clones on the market. British police have shut down some other vendors; Malcolm Roe, one of the principals behind the original Quadro operation, had continued to churn them out in the UK, but ended up hiding in the contested territory of northern Cyprus, where he has proved elusive. In addition McCormick, while he was out on bail, made sure the tooling for the ADE 651 was shipped out of the country. The last British police heard, it had gone to Bucharest; no doubt some little factory in Eastern Europe is churning out bomb detectors, and suckers are still buying them. There is, as P.T. Barnum put it, one born every minute. [END OF SERIES]



* AFRICA IN THE 21ST CENTURY (4): One sign of African improvement is the improvement in transport infrastructure. Getting from place to place used to be a dodgy process; now it's no great problem to take the bus from Cote d'Ivoire through Togo and Benin into Nigeria, the eighth stop on the tour. It's not just a question of working roads and buses; border crossings are streamlined, and nobody has to pay off the cops to get someplace -- though on occasions the cops still do ask.

Unfortunately, the new Africa is not so much in evidence in Nigeria, with 160 million people one of the continent's giants. It also has a giant-sized reputation for corruption, and not just because of Nigeria's globally notorious internet scammers -- they're past their peak, and amount to little more than low comedy in comparison to the real corruption. Nigeria is an oil-rich nation, but the oil has been more a curse than a blessing; at least half of the oil money is stolen by politicians and government officials, with the total loss into private pockets estimated at over $380 billion USD since the country's independence in 1960. Not a single politician has been imprisoned for graft; they've rigged the system to make sure they stay out of jail.

There are signs of hope. Lagos, Nigeria's commercial capital, is a sprawling developing-world metropolis, home to 20 million people, two out of three living in slums, and still growing. Built on a swamp on the shores of the Atlantic, its infrastructure is creaky, its roads are clogged. However, the city's governor, with the melodious name of Babatunde Fashola, has demonstrated considerable energy and competence in cleaning up the city. Bus stations, once hangouts for rowdy vendors and pickpockets, are run efficiently; the Chinese are building a huge urban rail network; and buses run in special express lanes. When the governor heard the lanes were being used by unauthorized vehicles, he went out and personally arrested a colonel.

Theatrics of course, but if Fashola is showing off, his record of public service shows he can back it up. The economy of Lagos is bigger than that of Kenya; tax revenues have increased from $4 million USD to $97 million USD a month in less than a decade, thanks to private "tax farmers" who get a commission. In other parts of the country, government officials are displaying more energy; many have degrees from foreign universities, they use tweets to communicate with the public, while kids get solar-powered laptops to help in education. Civil servants, including teachers, are tested annually, and stand to lose their jobs if they flunk.

In Abuja, the capital of Nigeria, things don't look quite so hopeful. The seat of government moved here two decades ago to escape swampy Lagos; now Abuja has all the problems of Lagos and few of its advantages. Corrupt politics are the norm, with billions being pocketed -- while half of Nigerians live on less than dollar a day, and get no electricity because what power grid there ever was is falling apart. A fuel subsidy program has proven an extraordinary opportunity for graft, with an estimated $6.8 billion USD stolen in three years.

There is a band of reformers at work who appear to be entirely fearless. The finance minister, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, has worked to cut back the wasteful fuel subsidies, while a task force in the president's office is privatizing electricity assets. The reformers face entrenched opposition, not just from the hostility of crooks within the government, but because of public suspicion -- the citizens have heard highflown talk of cleaning up the government before, and to them it smells of another scam job.

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala

Still, if corruption tends to have enormous inertia, the push for better governance can acquire a momentum of its own. Which will win out? Okonjo-Iweala has published her memoirs under the title of REFORMING THE UNREFORMABLE, which all by itself shouts out the optimistic point of view. Maybe it will take two steps forward and one step back, again and again, but there's no reason to count the drive towards a new order down and out. Think of the challenge: if Africans can fix Nigeria, they'll be able to do almost anything. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* Space launches for July included:

-- 01 JUL 2013 / IRNSS 1A -- An Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle was launched from Sriharikota at 1811 GMT (next day local time - 5:30) to put the first "Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System (IRNSS)" into orbit. The space platform had a launch mass of 1,425 kilograms (3,140 pounds), a design lifetime of ten years, and was placed in a geostationary-altitude orbit, inclined 29 degrees to the equator.

IRNSS 1A initiated a constellation of seven spacecraft to provide positioning services for India; four satellites are to be placed in inclined geostationary orbit, with the other three placed in geostationary orbit. The IRNSS system was designed to be independent of the navsat constellations of other nations; it is to provide a Standard Positioning Service for general use, with an error radius of 20 meters (65 feet), and an encrypted Restricted Service for military users. The footprint of the system will cover a circle running to about 1,500 kilometers (900 miles) beyond India's borders. It appeared the IRNSS system uses precision timing signals, along the lines of those used by the US GPS system.

-- 02 JUL 2013 / GLONASS M x 3 (FAILURE) -- A Proton M Breeze M booster was launched from Baikonur at 0238 GMT (local time - 6) to put three GLONASS M third-generation navigation satellites into orbit. The booster pitched over immediately after liftoff and crashed thunderously into the nearby steppes.

-- 19 JUL 2013 / MUOS 2 -- An Atlas 5 booster was launched from Cape Canaveral in Florida at 1300 GMT (local time + 5) to put the second US Navy "Mobile User Objective System (MUOS)" geostationary comsat into orbit. MUOS 2 was built by Lockheed Martin to provide tactical military communication, offering an order of magnitude more UHF communications bandwidth than the UFO (UHF Follow-On) satellites it was to replace, with the new satellite able to support data transfer rates of 384 kilobits per second to tactical warfighters. Full operational capability of the MUOS configuration, including four operational satellites and an on-orbit spare, was scheduled for 2015.

-- 25 JUL 2013 / ALPHASAT XL, INSAT 3D -- An Ariane 5 ECA booster was launched from Kourou in French Guiana at 1954 GMT (local time + 3) to put the "Alphasat XL" and Indian ISRO "INSAT 3D" geostationary satellites into orbit. Alphasat XL, also named "Inmarsat XL", was a comsat, the first satellite to use the "Alphabus" platform, built by a public-private partnership between the European Space Agency, Astrium, Thales Alenia Space, and Inmarsat. The satellite had a launch mass of 6,650 kilograms (14,658 pounds) and was placed in the geostationary slot at 25 degrees East longitude. The satellite provided mobile communications services to Africa and Europe, and also tested an experimental space laser communications link for the ESA.


INSAT 3D was a meteorological satellite with an imager, sounder and a search-and-rescue payload. It had a launch mass of 2,000 kilograms (4,400 pounds) and was placed in the geostationary slot at 82 degrees East longitude.

-- 27 JUL 13 / PROGRESS 52P (ISS) -- A Soyuz booster was launched from Baikonur at 2045 GMT (next day local time - 6) to put the "Progress 52P" AKA "Progress M-20M" tanker-freighter spacecraft into orbit on an International Space Station (ISS) supply mission. The spacecraft was on a "fast ascent" trajectory, docking with the ISS after four orbits. It was the 52nd Progress mission to the ISS.

* OTHER SPACE NEWS: The European Space Agency has now selected a baseline design for the Ariane 6 booster, to replace the current ESA workhorse, the Ariane 5. The Ariane 6 will be a three-stage booster, with a triple solid rocket first stage, including a core and two similar strap-ons; a solid rocket second stage; and a restartable LOX-LH2 third stage. It will leverage off the latest generation of Ariane 5 technology, as well as the new Vega small booster.

Ariane 6

The Ariane 6 will not be a "plug-in" replacement for the Ariane 5, however, instead featuring a payload lift capability between that of the Ariane 5 and the older Ariane 4; an Ariane 5 usually launches two primary payloads, the Ariane 6 will only launch one. That will give more mission flexibility, and two Ariane 6 launches are projected to be cheaper than one Ariane 5 launch. That's not just because of the relatively low cost of the Ariane 6 booster itself, but because launch preparation of the Ariane 6 will be simpler and cheaper as well.

Of course, though not mentioned in press releases, the Ariane 6 should have plenty of spare lift capability to handle secondary payloads, such as sets of CubeSat nanosats; launch a four-tonne satellite, it should hardly be difficult to carry two hundred kilograms or so of smallsats along with it. No doubt the faster pace of Ariane 6 launches to Ariane 5 launches will be a benefit to smallsat enthusiasts. The Ariane 6 is by no means a done deal, however, since it has to get built by agreement among the twenty ESA member states. That can be done, it's been done in the past, but it isn't necessarily easy or pleasant.

* As reported by FLIGHT GLOBAL Online, the European Space Agency is now working on a small reusable spaceplane. A full-scale mockup of the "Intermediate eXperimental Vehicle (IXV)" was dropped from a helicopter off the coast of Sardinia in June 2013 -- paving the way for a suborbital flight in the summer of 2014, with the launch to be performed by a Vega small booster from Kourou in French Guiana.


The IXV is a lifting body with a launch mass of two tonnes (4,400 pounds). It is strictly a demonstrator to validate technologies for the operational "Programme for Reusable In-orbit Demonstrator in Europe (PRIDE)" spaceplane. The PRIDE vehicle will be capable of runway landing; it will be used to orbit small satellites, conduct microgravity or high-altitude research, be deployed for disaster monitoring, or to refuel satellites in orbit. PRIDE is being designed for affordability, the Vega being the intended launch vehicle. The program leverages off the HERMES crewed spaceplane studied by France's CNES space agency and ESA in the 1980s and the NASA-ESA-DLR X-38 crew return vehicle concept, which was abandoned in 2002.

* Spacecraft thruster rockets have long used hydrazine fuel for rocket thrusters, with a catalyst causing the hydrazine to energetically decompose and produce thrust. Hydrazine's effective as far as it goes, but it's also toxic and corrosive, requiring full protective suits to handle and an environmental nightmare to dispose of. As reported by AVIATION WEEK, Ball Aerospace and Aerojet Rocketdyne are now tinkering with a new monopropellant fuel, a hydroxyl ammonium nitrate (HAN) mixture designated "AF-M315E", that doesn't require a protective suit to handle and has 50% better performance than hydrazine.

AF-M315E was actually developed by the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL), but it posed a problem: it burns hotter than hydrazine and so degrades catalysts traditionally used to fire up hydrazine. Ball & Aerojet worked with the AFRL to come up with a catalyst that can take the heat. A flight test is expected as soon as 2015. The Swedish Space Corporation has already tested their own "green" thruster propellant, based on ammonium dinitramide and named "LMP-103S", on the Prisma dual spacecraft, launched in 2010. The Swedes reported that it was effective, but on paper AF-M315E has better performance.



* CARRION FLIES FOR METAGENOMICS: Metagenomics, last discussed here in 2012, is in effect the analysis of the genomes of an ecosystem. That can obviously be a difficult task; as reported by AAAS SCIENCE NOW Online ("Corpse-Seeking Flies Reveal a Forest's Biodiversity" by Rebecca Kessler, 8 January 2013), a team of researchers has come up with a Zen approach, reading the genomes of animals from carrion flies.

Hunting through an ecosystem to find animals -- or their burrows, nests, footprints, droppings, and other traces -- can be laborious. Why not let someone else do the searching? Carrion flies -- including include blowflies (family Calliphoridae) and flesh flies (family Sarcophagidae) -- live around the world in virtually every terrestrial habitat occupied by vertebrates. They're also abundant and very easy to capture. Sebastien Calvignac-Spencer and his colleagues collected carrion flies in two tropical habitats: Tai National Park rainforest in Cote d'Ivoire and dry, deciduous Kirindy forest in Madagascar.

They began by analyzing flies they captured under mosquito nets shrouding dissected mammal carcasses of known species, showing that DNA from the carcasses could be retrieved from the flies. Having established a reference, they then trapped 115 flies in the two forests and found that 40% contained identifiable DNA fragments from a total of 20 mammal taxa, two bird species, and an amphibian. In Tai, the researchers turned up DNA from six out of nine known primate species and one very rare antelope. In Kirindy, the catch represented 13% of the documented mammal community.

Along with assessing an area's biodiversity, the technique may be able to reveal species new to science. Biologists may also be able to use it to monitor wildlife mortality rates and to identify disease outbreaks, with pathogens identified in the DNA samplings along with the victims. Calvignac-Spencer commented that the idea is "remarkably obvious with hindsight. It could have been done 15 years ago -- maybe less efficiently, but it could have been done."

Danish researchers have similarly used leeches to sample a region's fauna, though leeches feast on fewer species than do carrion flies, don't travel as far in search of food, and live in only certain habitats. Calvignac-Spencer and colleagues see genomics researchers as building up a "toolbox" of invertebrate surveyors that researchers could choose from, depending on the habitat that they're studying and the kinds of animals that they're looking for.

* THE SECRET OF TM6: In another ingenious metagenomics exercise, as also reported by AAAS SCIENCE NOW Online, researchers have obtained the genome of a bacterium they've never been able to isolate. Researchers actually don't have a remotely comprehensive knowledge of bacterial species, most of such being dependent on specialized environments and so difficult to culture. Metagenomic studies can be used to obtain a survey of bacterial strains, each "tagged" by a gene named 16S, common to bacteria but distinctive to each strain. A list of 16S tags reveals far more bacterial strains than we have actually identified, though a metagenomic analysis can't actually yield complete genomes -- or at least it couldn't, until now.

Metagenomic studies have revealed a bacterium designated "TM6", which was apparently "hiding in plain sight", as suggested by a related family of 16S genes that showed up around the world in water pipes, peat bogs, and caves. Working from a sample containing TM6 gene fragments found in a hospital restroom sink drain, a research group was able to use new computational techniques to sort out the fragments of the TM6 genome from the fragments of all other genomes in the sample, piecing them together in a complete TM6 genome. The trick was comparable to sorting through a barrel containing pieces from an assortment of jigsaw puzzles, and assembling one specific puzzle from the lot.

From inspection of the TM6 genome, it seems its members can live with or without oxygen, and may even have a niche as parasites inside larger single-celled organisms, such as amoebas. Of course, the same technique can be used to uncover the genomes of other mysterious microorganisms, using computing power to sort more puzzles out of the barrel. It sounds like an ideal application for a distributed supercomputing effort -- if it isn't one already.



* CRASH LANDING: On 6 July 2013, Asiana Airlines Flight 214 from Inchon, South Korea, landed short of the runway at San Francisco International Airport. The tail of the Boeing 777 jetliner broke off and the jetliner caught fire; of the 307 passengers and crew, three died -- one tragically being run over by a rescue truck after being covered with foam -- and about half were injured, 13 of them seriously.

Asiana Flight 214 cleanup

The accident was nothing to celebrate about, but as reported by an article from BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK ("This Is What Success Looks Like" by Mary Jane Credeur and Mary Schlangenstein, 15 July 2013), the calamity had a big silver lining: casualties were far lighter than they would have been in a similar incident a few decades ago, thanks to improvements in airliner design and safety standards. In the 1990s, the airline passenger fatality rate was one per 1.8 million passengers carried; for the past five years, it's been one per 6.1 million; in 2012, it was one per 9.9 million. To be sure, given a low accident rate, one large disaster might well drive the fatality rate upward, but the trendline is clear.

Safety has improved through assessment of hard experience, the ugly analysis of flight accidents being morbidly known as "tombstoning" in the industry. Computer modeling can help, of course, and it's continuing to improve, but there's no substitute for crash data. One factor in the survivability of Flight 214 was the fact that it was the tail end of the journey, meaning the fuel tanks were almost empty. A more deliberate factor was the strength of the airframe, which remained largely intact after impact; had it broken up, the loss of life would have been much greater. Other factors were due to regulations and fixes added from the 1980s, mostly due to the efforts of the US Federal Aviation Authority (FAA):

The improvements in fire safety standards give more time for evacuation once an aircraft has caught on fire. Airliners have to designed to permit full evacuation in 90 seconds, even if half the emergency exits are blocked. In 2006, an Airbus A380 superjumbo was put to that test in a trial, with all 873 passengers and crew getting out in less than 80 seconds, the only injury being a broken leg. That was the maximum possible passenger load for an A380, operational flights generally have substantially smaller loads.

With improvements in aircraft design for safety, the human factor is becoming more critical in the safety equation. Pilot error is strongly suspected in the 6 July accident; due to a failure of an airport landing aid, the aircrew tried to fly in manually and may have botched the job. That has rekindled the debate, discussed here in 2010, on how increased machine automation may be undermining operator skills. However, formal conclusions of the accident investigation have not yet been released.



* BOGUS BAGHDAD BOMB DETECTOR (2): Although the principals behind the Quadro company had got off the hook in court, their Tracker "detection system" was history -- or was it? After 2001, the global war on terror came to the fore, greatly enhancing the fortunes of companies making security gear. Of course, all that money changing hands attracted parasites, with a number of different dowsing-rod bomb detectors being peddled all over the world. James McCormick became an agent for selling one named the Mole, produced by a company in the UK of fuzzy origins.

In the USA, the Mole was being sold by Robert Balais, an associate of McCormick's, who tried to peddle it to the Rocky Mountain regional office of the National Law Enforcement & Corrections Technology Center in Denver, Colorado. Center officials wanted to run tests on it; they called Sandia National Laboratory for help, with Sandia sending Dale Murray, who had tested the Quadro Tracker. When Murray arrived in Denver, he found the Mole identical to the Tracker: "It looked like someone had taken the injection molding from one location and just put a different label on it."

Instead of simply denouncing the Mole, Murray knew he needed to really put a bullet in its head. In a demonstration, Balais easily managed to "find" a chunk of C4 explosive hidden in a room with the Mole -- as long as he conveniently knew where it was planted. It is staggering to think anyone would be impressed by such theatrics, and Murray was not; he ran a double-blind test, the arch-enemy of the crank and fraud, in which neither Balais nor anyone in the room knew where the C4 was, and the Mole failed miserably. Balais and McCormick of course screamed at the injustice, but that was the end of the Mole. It promptly disappeared from the market -- only to immediately reappear in a different guise as the "GT200".

McCormick had been dropped out of the loop in the process, but being enterprising he decided to tackle production himself; after all, it wasn't like producing a radio antenna on a plastic handle was rocket science. He set up a manufacturing operation named "Advanced Tactical Security & Communications (ATSC)" in Somerset, the product line being marketed under the brand name of "Advanced Detection Equipment (ADE)". The ADE bomb detectors had a clear resemblance to the Tracker / Mole, but McCormick claimed they incorporated "proprietary refinements".

Actually, early ADE units were 100% Gopher golf ball detectors; McCormick contacted a US distributor that still had some, bought out their stock, and relabeled them. Yes, he paid more for them than they would be worth, except for the fact that he could sell them for far more than he paid for them. He quickly moved on to producing his own units, obtaining the plastic handle from Merriot Plastics in Somerset, which injection-molded them to McCormick's specification. The fabricator had no real idea of what the part was for, director Ian Low saying: "It was just another plastic part to us. He seemed like any other businessman."

The "ultimate" ATSC device was the "ADE 651". It was still basically a Tracker, but it came in a kit with neatly printed detection cards, white gloves and cleaner, all packaged up in a high-class Pelican carry case -- which was worth more than what it contained. McCormick could get more than $30,000 USD for his product. He was traveling the world to sell his bogus bomb detectors, preferring to focus on countries with lax governance. He made his first sale in 2004, to Kenyan security forces, followed by sales to the Lebanese government in 2006. His big score came in 2007, when the Iraqi Interior Ministry awarded the first of five no-bid contracts to ATSC and its agents for 11 million pounds (about $16 million USD).

* That same year, Detective Sergeant Steve Mapp -- boss of the financial investigation unit of Avon & Somerset Police's Serious & Organized Crime Team -- got a tipoff about McCormick receiving a large payoff from abroad. Mapp was a specialist in money-laundering; he got a lot of tips, most of which turned out to be legal transactions, and he didn't pay much attention to that one. In the summer of 2008, however, Mapp got a second alert about large amounts of money being wired to McCormick from the Middle East, coupled to financial transactions involving McCormick that didn't seem to add up. One alert might have been noise; two alerts attracted attention.

McCormick began to seem more interesting to Mapp, and got even more interesting when some googling led to blogs describing how Iraq had bought jazzed-up dowsing rods from McCormick -- the skeptic blogosphere had got wind of the scam and was denouncing the ADE 651 as "a fake, a scam, a swindle, and a blatant fraud." Mapp had one of his officers look into McCormick, the officer calling around to banks, tax and custom services, explosives experts, and the UK Ministry of Defense, to come up with a clearer picture.

In October 2009, Mapp tried to take the case to the UK's Serious Fraud Office, the UK government organization for investigating major financial crimes, but was told the evidence was too thin to be actionable. Mapp didn't give up, assembling a team in the Avon & Somerset Police to dig more deeply into McCormick. A raid on McCormick and ATSC seemed in order; police moved in on McCormick's house and ATSC offices in Somerset a few days before Christmas 2009. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* AFRICA IN THE 21ST CENTURY (3): The fifth stop on the African tour was Liberia, Sierra Leone's southern neighbor, and at one time another nightmare land. Starting in 1989, it went through two cycles of civil war, with the existing dictator Samuel Doe -- a thug who had once enjoyed, then lost American support -- deposed and brutally murdered in 1990 by a warlord named Prince Johnston. Fighting continued for six years, until another warlord named Charles Taylor became president.

Fighting soon broke out again and continued until a UN peacekeeping force intervened in 2003. The ICC got their hands on Charles Taylor, who had backed the arm-hacking rebels in Sierra Leone; Taylor is now doing a 50-year stint in prison. Liberia is no longer at war, but it's not really at peace either, with the government infested by figures, such as Prince Johnston, cut pretty much from the same cloth as Taylor. Although the country remains a ruin, visitors can now make their way around without worrying overmuch about their safety.

cracking the books in Liberia

* The sixth stop, Cote d'Ivoire, was once the pearl of the region -- until the 1990s when France, previously the colonial master of the country, decided to stop supporting the Big Men who wanted to run the place. Ethnic rivalries flared into fighting, but everyone finally tired of it; elections were held, though fighting soon returned. French troops intervened in 2011 and restored order. This is increasingly the pattern in Africa: yes, there are a lot of disagreements, but the realization is growing that war leaves everyone worse off.

Westerners visiting government offices in Abidjan, the commercial capital of Cote d'Ivoire, are surprised to find that meetings start on time and government workers punctually are at their desks by 0730 AM. They may surf the internet on an iPad when they can get away with it, but that's hardly unknown elsewhere. Deeper problems persist: bribery remains common, while politics remain bitter and factional. Still, national accounts are in order, debt is decreasing, roads are being built.

That's increasingly the picture in Africa. In the bad old days, it was unheard-of for a ruling party to be voted out of power. Benin broke the mold for the first time in 1991; Ghana bolstered the concept by changing the guard in 1992 and 2000. As demonstrated by Ghana, the allocation of political power is becoming fairer and its application more competent, though there are laggards such as Nigeria. African leaders fly to the World Economic Forum in Davos to speak of their plans to improve the lives of their citizens, and most of them seem to mean it.

Elections, once generally farces, increasingly aren't; there's still plenty of election fraud and voter intimidation, but would-be autocrats are finding it harder to walk off with all the candy. Indeed, many of them are now living in forced retirement, having found out that by opening the gate to notional representative government, they started something they couldn't control.

a tour of Africa (2)

* In Ghana, the seventh stop on the tour, enthusiasm for representative government runs at an excited level, with political parties engaging each other noisily but bloodlessly. The government is seen as conscientious, competent, and effective. GDP increased by an impressive 14% in 2011; oil development promises more of the same.

Africans have found out, however, that a natural resource boom has its hazards, providing spoils for the leadership to squabble over. Ghana's government understands the threat, and is working to create a bureaucratic cadre to handle the oil -- educating them at a campus on the outskirts of Accra, the capital, on transparency, accountability, and transfer pricing. Africans have found out thuggish Big Men are only part of their problem; they've also been plagued by incompetent bureaucrats, who didn't know how to get things done even when they wanted to.

Across Africa, both voters and leaders are better educated than they were a generation ago. Many of those now in power were the first in their families with a university degree. Schools have improved, modern media has given wider access to information, while Africans educated and employed abroad have come back home with their skills. Africans are acutely conscious of the need for institution-building, of creating a generally competent and generally honest government apparatus that can continue to function through changes in leadership. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* SCIENCE NOTES: The pathogen known as the "Middle East Respiratory Syndrome / Coronavirus (MERS-Cov)", mentioned here in June, has infected almost a hundred people and killed about half of them. On the basis that it infected humans by a "species jump", researchers have been trying to determine the species that it jumped into humans from. Initially, bats were suspected as the culprits, since coronaviruses often often infect bats. An international research team has now reported that dromedary (one-hump) camels may be to blame.

The research group tested blood samples from 50 female retired racing camels in Oman, and 105 used in the tourist industry in the Canary Islands. The blood tests didn't find the virus itself, but did find antibodies specific to it in all the camels from Oman, and 14% of those from the Canary Islands, the antibodies meaning these animals had been infected by the virus in the past. Other animals were also tested -- sheep, goats, camels, llamas and alpacas -- but none had MERS antibodies. The research team said their findings need to be verified by other studies, but suggested that in the meantime, case histories of people infected by MERS-Cov be examined to determine if they had an association with camels.

viral vector?

* As reported by AAAS SCIENCE Online, the early history of the primate mammals remains largely mysterious. That makes the discovery in central China of a tiny fossil primate named Archicebus achilles, dated back 55 million years, of particular interest to paleontologists.

A. achilles wasn't a new discovery, having been dug up a decade ago, with an intensive analysis following. It was smaller than any living primate, tiny enough to nest in a teacup, and was something along the configuration of a modern marmoset. However, the analysis revealed that A. achilles was likely ancestral to modern tarsiers -- small nocturnal primates that today are found on only a handful of islands in Southeast Asia. Tarsiers feature enormous eyes that help them see in the dark and long heel bones that allow them to take bounding leaps; A. achilles lacked these two features, the lack of big eyes suggesting it lived by day.

* In one of the latest exercises in genome sequencing, an international team has obtained the genome of the coelacanth -- an elusive fish of Indian ocean region, the surviving member of a family of fish thought extinct for some 70 million years, until one was caught in 1938. They are rarely caught, and when caught tend to decay quickly; the research team got in touch with cooperative fishermen, giving them a kit to allow them to preserve tissue samples for genomic analysis.

Although genomic analysis has traditionally focused on organisms of practical utility, such as crop plants, of course the coelacanth has no real practical impact. Its uniqueness and antiquity, however, make it a very intriguing probe into biological history, and the sequencing of the fish has attracted considerable interest from the biology community.

* Another new genomic analysis focused on the aquatic bladderwort plant, this organism having bee mentioned here in 2011. Surprisingly, only 3% of the bladderwort genome is "noncoding" DNA -- that is, doesn't code for proteins. The human genome is just the other way around, only about 2% noncoding DNA.

Noncoding DNA is often called "junk" DNA, but that's erroneous. There are certainly parts of a genome that really are junk, such as "fossil" genes that perform a function in some organisms but are "broken" in others, as well as most insertions of viral genomes into a host genome. Some other noncoding genes are known to be operational, for example having regulatory functions. However, in humans and many other organisms the function, if any, of the bulk of the genome is unknown.

There has been considerable dispute over this mysterious "dark genome", some suspecting it's mostly inert, others -- notably creationists -- claiming it's mostly functional. The discovery of the stripped-down bladderwort genome tends to boost the skeptical argument, since it would be hard to understand why the bladderwort's relative the tomato needs a surplus of noncoding DNA while the bladderwort doesn't. The suspicion is that organisms may have a bias towards either accumulating genomic sequences, or discarding them, both schemes working out well enough in practice. Why the bias exists is another interesting question.



* SUPERMARKET SWEEPER: The supermarket shopping cart is an entirely familiar and of course thoroughly useful piece of hardware -- not just handy for loading up on provisions, but occasionally used in TV game shows involving mad looting of supermarket aisles, or even in jousting matches. All technologies have a history of course, with the history of the shopping cart outlined in an article from INVENTION & TECHNOLOGY magazine ("The Shopping Cart" by Curt Wohleber, Summer 2004).

The shopping cart is the child of the supermarket, which emerged in the 1930s. Decades earlier, people had generally bought food and necessities at local shops on a roughly daily basis; without household refrigeration and personal transport for hauling multiple bags of groceries, it wasn't practical to stock up once a week. Once refrigerators and cars became commonplace, the notion of "one-stop shopping" for groceries and the like became more practical, with a single supermarket providing all the basic necessities. The Great Depression also helped the supermarket boom, since by operating in volume a supermarket could undercut prices of individual shops and still make a profit.

There was one big problem with early supermarkets: customers collected goods in handheld baskets. That was inconvenient if a customer needed to buy a lot, and tended to limit sales. Sylvan Goldman, who owned a chain of Humpty Dumpty supermarkets based in Oklahoma City, noticed that customers would stop shopping when their baskets were full. He ordered his clerks to offer customers with a full basket an empty one, with the full basket parked at the checkout counter. That was clearly not a long-term solution, however.

A store in Boston had experimented with conveyor belts, while a Texas store had offered little wagons; they didn't work very well, the big problem with the wagons being storage. In 1936, Goldman got an inspiration from a folding chair: why not build something like it, but with twin shelves instead of a seat, plus wheels and handles? The cart could be folded up and stacked when not in use. Fred Young, a handyman who worked for Goldman, built a prototype from a stock folding chair, but it was much too flimsy. Young shrugged and kept at it, finally coming up with a workable design.

Goldman introduced the shopping carts in his stores with great fanfare in the summer of 1937, only to find that most shoppers were reluctant to experiment. Undeterred, he hired "ringers" pretending to be customers, loading their purchases into the carts, and the customers became more enthusiastic. Late in 1937, Goldman established the Folding Basket Carrier Corporation to produce and sell his carts. It was very successful, with Goldman finally selling out the firm in 1961, after his patent expired. The company ultimately ended up in the hands of UNARCO Industries, also of Oklahoma, which continues to produce them in the 21st century.

By modern standards, Goldman's cart was crude. The biggest innovation took place in 1947, when the ingenious "nesting" cart was introduced -- the front narrower than the rear, and the rear panel hinging up to allow one cart to be jammed into each other, instead of folded up. The scheme was developed by one Orla E. Watson of Kansas City, Missouri, who established Telescope Carts INC to sell his invention. Goldman came up with a competing scheme, the Nest Kart, but he couldn't dodge Watson's patent and agreed, after some litigation, to obtain a license from Watson.

The child seat was also introduced in 1947, probably not coincidentally at the time of America's postwar baby boom; earlier, small kids had often been laid on the lower shelf of the cart, obviously not a good idea. The flip-up panel that allowed the seat to be used as load space was introduced in 1952. With that, the shopping cart had reached maturity -- though minor improvements have been added, such as swiveling casters, sealed wheel bearings, no-scuff wheels, and changes in the basket structure to ease manufacture. The seat belt for kiddies was added in the 1990s, a sensible measure adopted at the encouragement of Walmart.

supermarket sweeper

Carts with plastic instead of metal baskets are preferred by drugstores and the like that don't want to seem like supermarkets, but the traditional wireframe cart is still hanging in there -- it's sturdier and doesn't get dirty so easily. There is a big problem with security, shopping cart walk-offs costing retailers painful sums of money each year. Electronic systems have been developed to help with security, but they tend to be expensive and easily defeated. However, given the continuous evolution of wireless and location technologies, that sounds like a problem that can be solved sooner or later.



* SECRET COURT: As discussed by an article from THE ECONOMIST, one of the interesting items to come to light in the recent flap over the PRISM internet surveillance program, run by the US National Security Agency (NSA), is the existence of the "Foreign Intelligence Security Act (FISA)" court, established in 1978 following passage of FISA. The court provides legal oversight of NSA activities. The question, of course, is: who oversees the court?

The difficulty is that the FISA court does not just judge the propriety of individual actions by the NSA; particularly in recent years, it has passed broad judgements on general NSA policy, leading suspicious critics to label it a "shadow Supreme court". Given the secrecy of the FISA court, the specifics of these decisions are unclear, but it appears one decision judged that the NSA had a right to examine any data on American communications judged "relevant" to investigation of terrorist threats. To be sure, actually listening in on an individual communication requires a court warrant, but the definition of "relevance" in this case seems unsettlingly broad.

Again, given the secrecy it's hard to say much about that issue one way or another, but the way the court operates -- hearing arguments from government legal staff, but not from advocates for those being spied upon -- doesn't inspire confidence. Critics accuse the court of partisanship, pointing to the fact that of the 14 judges who sat on the court in 2013, 12 were Republicans. The court also appears very tame, congressional reports showing that between 2001 and 2012, FISA judges approved almost 21,000 requests to monitor individuals or search properties, turning down a mere ten. However, between 2007 and 2012 the court did order changes of an unknown nature to 428 of 532 requests for inspection of business records.

Congress is evaluating reforms to FISA to improve oversight of the court. The American Civil Liberties Union has filed suit against the FISA court to obtain release of its major legal rulings. Good luck; when asked: "Tell us your secrets!" -- the government naturally replies: "Ah, but if we did, then they would no longer be secrets."

* BROKEN SCREENS: In related news .... the PRISM scandal broke due to the "whistle-blowing" of one Edward Snowden, who had been a worker in the web of the Central Intelligence Agency, the NSA, and associated contractors before coming forward with his revelations about NSA snooping. At last notice, he was hiding out at the Moscow airport. How much of what he revealed was honestly secret information is unclear, made more unclear by his dramatics; as a contractor, he simply did not have access to deep NSA secrets. However, he has still kicked up a hornet's nest and proven an embarrassment to the agency.

News reports concerning Snowden have hinted at irregularities in screening he underwent to give him the security clearance to get inside NSA at all. As reported by an article from BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK ("Sometimes The Dead Do Tell Tales" by Nick Taborek, 21 July 2013), incompetent and outright fraudulent screening has become a big problem for the US government.

It more or less began in 1996, when the government started outsourcing security screening to a private contractor, now named USIS -- which provided the clearance for Snowden. Following the start of the global war on terror, the caseload of security screenings jumped substantially, as did the outsourcing. That put enormous pressure on the screening companies, all the more so because the government held them to deadlines on pain of stiff financial penalties. Under the circumstances, screeners were presented with enormous temptations to cut corners, with resentment over being squeezed adding to the incentive to cheat.

Since 2006, 20 screeners have been convicted of or pleaded guilty to fraud. Cases involved fakery and fabrication, one case involving a screener who claimed to have interviewed a subject who had been dead for ten years. Government inspectors of the US Office of Personnel Management (OPM) believe they have only found the tip of the iceberg -- but ironically, the OPM itself lacks resources to push much harder into the matter. In a bigger irony, one hand of the government is being attacked for being too intrusive, while another is being criticized for not being intrusive enough.

* That's the security debate in a nutshell: yes, there are real issues there, but the more one inspects the matter, the more of a tangle it becomes. The public screams at any thought of government intrusiveness, but it is a simple fact that citizens do not, cannot, have an unrestricted right to privacy. True, neighbors don't have the right to snoop on each other, but the authorities do necessarily have some right to observe us. Politicians and public officials are held to a high standard of transparency as a guard against corruption; those not in government service are not held to that same level of transparency, but are still necessarily held to some degree of it.


Similarly, everyone broadly understands the distinction between public and private spaces; by definition, in a public space we don't have a right to privacy, or at least only a very limited one. The government can't install cameras in our homes, but they can put them in public spaces. Private citizens can also install cameras pretty much as they please; homeowners have a perfect right to install security cameras to watch traffic around their homes, and by extension a supermarket or other retail outlet can wire their facility with cameras to track shoppers.

We can tack onto these issues the questions of personal ID systems and collection of personal data. Don't we want a robust personal ID system to permit reliable online transactions and discourage identity theft? Don't we want an accessible archive of personal data for our own use? The fact that both items could be dangerously abused doesn't eliminate their attractions.

What's the bottom line? Broadly, that there does need to be a debate on privacy, but the conclusion of that debate will not and cannot fall entirely on the side of privacy; this is not the White Hats versus the Black Hats. As far as specifics go, they will have to be determined by public discussion.



* BOGUS BAGHDAD BOMB DETECTOR (1): BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK often likes to run stories on frauds and scams -- well, they're a business of a sort, right? An article from the 15 July issue ("The $38 Million Bomb-Detecting Golf Ball Finders" by Adam Higginbotham) zeroed in on the questionable work of James McCormick, an enterprising British salesman who made a fortune selling credulous governments jazzed-up dowsing rods.

McCormick was born in Liverpool in 1956; those who knew him as a lad recalled him as shy and quiet. He dropped out of school when he was 18, trained to become a policeman for a while, and then went across the Pond to New Jersey, where his father was a resident. A decade later he came back to the UK, having become a very slick, smooth salesman specializing in communications gear, such as pagers and police and military radios.

In 2000, he put on a demonstration in the headquarters of the British Army's Corps of Royal Engineers at Chatham in Kent for a new bomb-detection device, named the "Mole". The plastic handheld unit had a swiveling antenna and could be programmed with plug-in cards to detect explosives, drugs, ivory, and humans. The demonstration impressed the audience, and gave McCormick a platform to become an international sales agent for selling the Mole. It wasn't cheap, with a cost of about 10,000 pounds (roughly $15,000 USD), but McCormick assured potential customers that it was worth every penny.

* The Mole actually wasn't all that new, the device having been originally invented by a Wade Quattlebaum of Harleyville, South Carolina, about a decade earlier. Quattlebaum, who had worn a number of hats in his professional life such as car dealer, commercial diver, and treasure hunter, had decided to become an inventor, forming a company named Quadro to produce the "Quadro Tracker Positive Molecular Locator". He had originally developed it to find lost golf balls, but had refined it to locate various drugs and explosives.

The Tracker consisted of a plastic handgrip with a pivoting antenna, plus a box clipped onto the user's belt that accommodated programming cards. The Tracker, according to Quattlebaum, needed no batteries, being powered, ahem, by the user's static electricity, and was simple to operate: the user scanned around with it, until the antenna pointed at whatever it was that was being searched for. Models with different capabilities were available for less than $100 USD -- a golf ball finder, named the "Gopher" -- to over $8,000 USD.

By 1995, Quadro had sold about a thousand Trackers, buyers including school districts and law enforcement organizations. When Ronald Kelly, in charge of the US Federal Bureau of Investigation's (FBI) office in Beaumont, Texas, heard that a local narcotics task force had bought one, he went to a demonstration where the Tracker was used to hunt down a hidden block of cocaine. Kelly was unimpressed: "I paid reasonable attention in eighth grade science. I call this bullshit."

Kelly got his hands on a Tracker and sent it to FBI labs in Washington DC for analysis. The response: "This is a car antenna with a plastic handle. It doesn't do anything." It was nothing more than a cosmetically refined version of a dowsing rod improvised from a metal coat hanger; the "programming box" had no wiring to anything in particular. Further study by the FBI and Sandia National Laboratory in New Mexico established that the programming cards were fabricated, in more senses than one, by taking a Polaroid snapshot of whatever it was to be found, blowing it up on a Xerox machine, cutting the expanded image into fragments, and then sandwiching them between pieces of plastic.

In early 1996, a Federal judge in east Texas banned the sale of the Quadro Tracker across the USA; Kelly also sent out a broadcast bulletin warning law enforcement offices to look out for the Tracker. In 1996, a Federal grand jury returned indictments on mail fraud charges against Quadro company president Quattlebaum; vice-president Raymond Fisk; company secretary Malcolm Roe; and William Long, a distributor.

Kelly judged that Quattlebaum really believed the Tracker worked, much as dowsers believe they know what they're doing. Demonstrations by dowsers can be very convincing, but they never survive anything resembling close examination. Demonstrations appear believable because of the "ideomotor effect", the power of suggestion influencing their movements in unconscious -- or, given enough determination to believe, willfully ignored -- ways. In any case, although the Tracker was obvious nonsense, the jury acquitted Quattlebaum, Fisk, and Long of willful fraud, seeing no evidence that they were other than greedy fools. Roe, a Briton, had jumped bail and gone back to the UK. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* AFRICA IN THE 21ST CENTURY (2): Anyone taking a bus south out of Senegal through the second stop on the tour, Guinea-Bissau, would have to conclude that if Africa is now doing better for itself, it's not obvious there. It's a little country, with about 1.5 million people, characterized by poverty and instability. Military coups take place about once every two years or so; there's some violence, but corruption is more the problem. Education, health care, and economic development are going nowhere in Guinea-Bissau for the time being.

a tour of Africa (1)

Guinea-Bissau is, however, a laggard, conflict and coups being on the decline in Africa. Angola suffered through a long civil war that killed a half million people, while Chad has endured four civil wars; things are now peaceful in both countries. Mozambique and Ethiopia transitioned to peace a decade before them. At least 30 conflicts were in progress in Africa at the end of the Cold War, but only about a dozen are going on now, with the number of successful coups falling by two-thirds in the same period.

Three major conflicts linger, but they seem to be limping towards resolution. Sudan is slowly sorting itself out after the south's secession in 2011. Congo's east remains violent, but the rest of the country is more concerned about making a living. In Somalia, an international peace-keeping force appears to be holding its own for the time being, with the capital, Mogadishu, showing signs of a building boom. New conflicts are popping up around the Sahara due to Islamist activism; Western powers, fearful that Islamist states could be seedbeds for international terrorism, are becoming involved in the fights -- for good or ill remains to be seen.

* The third stop on the tour was Guinea. Traveling from Guinea-Bissau into Guinea used to be a very bad idea, since child soldiers liked to chop off people's arms for fun; Guinea was then a fair earthly impersonation of Hell. Now the capital city of Conarky is bustling and booming, with shops lining the streets, the port crammed with boats and ships, the airport running streams of international flights.

Guinea has suffered through decades of misrule and coups. In 2009, troops under Colonel Moussa Tiegboro slaughtered 150 people at a sports stadium, and Guineans finally decided they'd had enough. In 2010 they managed to elect the long-time opposition leader, Alpha Conde, as their president, who promptly brought the generals to heel; the defense minister is a lawyer. Colonel Tiegboro is still in uniform, but the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the Hague is working on a case against him. Although the military checkpoints that used to keep Conarky locked down are mostly gone now, things are still not perfect there. The government tends towards the heavy-handed, the courts are paralyzed, and ethnic strife persists. As a government official optimistically put it: "Let's say the glass is half full."

* The fourth stop was Sierra Leone, which suffered through an 11-year civil war that killed 50,000 people. The fighting's been over for a decade, partly thanks to the work of the largest United Nations peacekeeping force set up to that time. Citizens cannot own firearms, the result being there are very few murders, New Yorkers being five times more likely to die from acts of violence. Development is feeble; the country has plenty of land for its people, but due to backwards farming practices, productivity is low, and Sierra Leone has to import food. According to citizen: "It's safe here, but I'm hungry."

getting on in Sierra Leone

Growth does seem to be starting to take off, if from a very low base. Sierra Leone has even been able to send its own troops to the Sudan to help with peacekeeping there. The government is seen as responsible; Desmond Luke, a former chief justice, commented: "Descend into violence again? I don't think so. We have learnt our lesson."

* Why the end to fighting? There appear to be three reasons. First, during the Cold War, Africa was a focal point of competition between the West and East. It ended up amounting to little more than fighting for the hell of it; Anatoly Dobrynin, in that era the Soviet ambassador to the USA, once commented that twenty years after the fact, nobody on either side had any clear idea of what they had been doing in Africa. It was sort of a black comedy, but the ugly joke was on Africans caught in the crossfire. The collapse of the USSR ended the Cold War; the immediate result to inflame conflict as unpopular African governments lashed out in a struggle for survival, aided by arms smugglers and other riffraff. That wave of violence eventually ran out of fuel.

Second, the West used to basically shrug about what happened in Africa. The continent was a basket case, right? What more would anyone expect? Attitudes have changed; instead of throwing fuel on the fires of African conflicts, Westerners have been working to put them out. The creation of the ICC in The Hague in 2003 marked a turning point in the mindset of intervention. International tribunals tend to be afflicted with uncertain support, authority, and mandates, but somewhat surprisingly the ICC has worked well. Norwegian officials brokered peace in the Sudan; British troops put a quick stop to Sierre Leone's war, ragtag insurgents not being remotely a match for well-armed military professionals, with a successful disarmament campaign making sure the fighting didn't recur. The UN has also become more competent at peacekeeping. America's 1993 intervention in Somalia was a notorious bungle; a combined UN and African Union mission there that began in 2007 has proven much more successful.

Third, Africans just got sick of fighting. Ethnic rivalries with borders tend to drive conflict these days, but after a few years of death and destruction, most of the people decide that's not their idea of fun. Many African fighters got their start in the wars of liberation in the 1960s, only to continue fighting after the colonial regimes were evicted. When Jonas Savimbi, an Angolan guerrilla leader, was killed in 2002 after fighting for almost three decades, his men called it quits. Not everyone is happy with the status quo of peace, but most find it far preferable to endless war and misery. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* GIMMICKS & GADGETS: As reported by BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK, one of the elements in the USA's gradual economic recovery has been a boom in the chemical industry. Chemical companies are relocating plants from elsewhere, as well as building new facilities or updating old ones. The amount of money being pumped into the effort is over $100 billion USD, with over half the expansion being driven by foreign firms.

Why the gold rush? It's a follow-on effect of America's natural gas boom. Natural gas is a primary chemical feedstock, and chemical plants tend to be energy-intensive, cheap natural gas being an attractive fuel. The new plants are generally being sited in the Texas and Louisiana Gulf Coast, where there's already extensive chemical industry infrastructure that can accommodate new construction without major stress. The US chemical industry is now running a trade surplus after a decade of deficits, with the surplus expected to rise to tens of billions of dollars by 2020; chemical companies are hiring, as are construction firms building the new facilities.

America does chemicals

* In an era when the transformation of money and finance into digital formats is moving along visibly, one of the pioneering steps in that process, the automated teller machine (ATM), is still hanging on nicely. In fact, as reported by BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK, it's keeping up with the times.

Banks have to modernize if they want to stay afloat. As more online money schemes such as PayPal arise, the more they short-circuit banks, reducing or eliminating the cuts banks get from handling transactions themselves. Paypal and various "mobile money" schemes are still relatively small potatoes compared to normal bank transactions, but they're not likely to stay that way indefinitely; the writing's on the wall.

Banks are increasingly thinking: if you can't beat them, join them. Wintrust Financial, a Chicago-area bank, has been experimenting with ATMs that can be accessed with a smartphone app, with the app providing other financial capabilities as well. That's just enhancing a traditional ATM; more dramatically, new ATMs are appearing that use a tablet-style user interface to handle most of the transactions that customers normally perform in a bank. They're not only flexible, but easier for elderly customers to use.

The new ATMs are pricey, but banks perceive them as a step in automation that will allow them to cut headcount at banks. It does seem a bit archaic to stand in line at banks to perform routine transactions; ultimately, in the future era of purely electronic money, there's little doubt that the brick-&-mortar bank will largely become a relic of the past. There's a lot of issues, most notably secure online financial transfers, that have to be addressed before that happens, however.

* As reported by IEEE SPECTRUM, a touchscreen stylus has a limitation for drawing on a tablet touch display: it's not pressure-sensitive. The Jaja stylus gets around this problem by emitting an ultrasonic signal, apparently using some sort of error-correcting pulse coding to designate 1,024 pressure levels. It's not as power-hungry as a Bluetooth interface would be, only requiring a single AAA battery, and any tablet with a microphone can pick it up. Humans can't hear it, and it's too faint to bother pets.

* As reported by THE ECONOMIST, there's been considerable work over the past decade on developing artificial retinas to give sight to the blind. That's a hopeful sign for those whose blindness is caused by a problem in their eyes, such as macular degeneration or retinitis pigmentosa. However, some blind people, especially some blind from birth, are unable to see not because their eyes do not work but because their optical cortexes are damaged. An artificial retina simply will not work for them.

Zeev Zalevsky, a researcher at Bar Ilan University in Israel, has an idea that might help such people: a contact lens. His lenses will contain a grid of 10,000 tiny electrodes, each of which will stimulate -- and thus irritate -- a small area of the cornea beneath. The electrodes themselves will be responding to signals transmitted wirelessly from two tiny cameras mounted on what amounts to a pair of spectacles.

The idea is that the wearer can learn to interpret the pattern of stimulation. Zalevsky's tech hasn't been approved for clinical trials yet, but as a technology demonstration he's been feeding electronic imagery to the fingertips of volunteers. After some training and experience, the volunteers were able to recognize simple shapes, such as letters of the alphabet. That's a far cry from providing some sort of vision to people blind since birth, but it seems promising, and Zalevsky's scheme doesn't require any surgery.



* EUROPE DOES FOOD SAFETY: As reported by an article from AAAS SCIENCE ("Amid Europe's Food Fights, EFSA Keeps Its Eyes On The Evidence" by Kai Kupferschmidt, 30 November 2012), the town of Parma in northern Italy is likely best known for giving its name to world-popular parmesan cheese. It also has a distinction in being the home of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), founded in 2002 to help set food safety standards for the European Union (EU).

EFSA is now over ten years old, able to look back on a decade of antagonizing almost everyone. EFSA has angered Greens and consumer groups by consistently announcing that genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and artificial sweeteners pose no real threat to public health. EFSA has been criticized for what some perceive as too close ties with the food industry -- while outraging the food industry with tough regulations. To some, all that shows is that EFSA is doing its job. Nutrition scientist Martijn Katan of Free University Amsterdam commented that "somehow [EFSA] has been able to doggedly stick to the scientific data no matter what was happening. I think they have succeeded beyond their wildest dreams."

EFSA was set up following several European food scandals during the 1990s, most notably bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) AKA "mad cow disease". Catherine Geslain-Laneele, the French food safety scientist who has run EFSA since 2006, put it simply: "We are a child of the BSE crisis."

Catherine Geslain-Laneele

Presented with a public-health menace that was all the more frightening because it was poorly understood, EU leaders wanted to get the Continent's best experts to review food risks and provide backup for government decision-makers. Before EFSA, food safety was the responsibility of a hodgepodge of national food safety agencies -- if a nation even had a food safety agency, poorer European states often lacking one. EFSA was to bring order to chaos; the poor states with no food safety agency have found it very welcome.

Not everyone in charge takes EFSA all that seriously, however. EFSA drafts scientific opinions for the European Commission, which then drafts decisions based on them and submits them to the Standing Committee on the Food Chain & Animal Health. The committee is made up of representatives of member states; it is a political, not scientific, body, and so its decisions are of course influenced by politics. While EFSA has endorsed every GMO it has investigated, Luxembourg and Austria have consistently voted against such endorsements -- while Sweden, Finland, the Czech Republic, and the Netherlands have always voted for them.

The scientific research community widely backs EFSA in these disputes, but there's no sign of the quarrels dying out. In 2012, French biologist Gilles-Eric Seralini published a paper that concluded a GM maize variant named NK603 and low doses of a herbicide could cause tumors in rats. EFSA was familiar with Seralini, having set up a panel in 2007 to assess, and reject, alarmist claims he had made about a GM maize variant named MON 863. EFSA similarly dismissed Seralini's 2012 paper, saying it was missing too much data and posed too many unanswered questions -- criticisms that were generally echoed by the relevant science community.

Critics charged that EFSA was far too soft in its own reviews of GMOs while taking a harsh stance against critics. The controversies are only going to get noisier; up to now, GMOs have only involved a single gene modification, but now they may incorporate several. GM technology is also diversifying, for example into coming up with disease-resistant mosquitoes that will not be able to vector diseases to humans. The agency is still drawing up guidelines for the next wave of GMOs.

While EFSA gets hammered by Greens and consumer advocates, the agency has similarly been pounded by industry for its new standards, which set tough rules on what claims that food companies can make for the health effects of products. EFSA's studies showed that food companies, what a surprise, have been making unsupported claims for the healthiness of their products; of more than 3,000 such claims screened by EFSA, only 200 passed muster. Industry officials complain that they are now being held to the standards of validation required for medicine -- a complaint that EFSA staff can only see as ironic, if the food companies are making claims of medical effectiveness.

EFSA has not been so amused by loud complaints by Green and consumer groups that agency personnel have suspiciously strong ties to industry, saying that EFSA rules on conflict of interest need to be tightened up. Geslain-Laneele says that her agency does examine potential conflicts and excludes experts who are judged as too compromised for a particular research effort. She adds that if she threw out all experts on food safety who had any ties to the food industry, she necessarily wouldn't have any experts left. Besides, she points out, EFSA decisions are made by panels that typically have about 21 members: "Even if you had one or two experts with a conflict of interest, they would have to convince another 20 experts. And believe me, they are not easy to convince."

Alas, the public tends to believe that professionals always back the conventional wisdom, unaware of the obvious fact that experts of any sort are much more inclined to bicker incessantly over the smallest difference of opinion. That hints at EFSA's biggest challenge, building up credibility with the public. She feels that the agency is making progress, and is optimistic about the future: "Don't forget -- we are only ten years old."



* DIGITAL EDUCATION REVOLUTION? As reported by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("Catching On At Last", 29 June 2013), through the 20th century there were waves of enthusiasm for new technologies that, advocates claimed, would revolutionize education: phonographs, radios, movies, television. Some benefits were obtained from the new gadgetry, of course, but not to the extent of fundamentally changing the way teachers did their job.

The rise of the personal computer led to similar promises of radical change in education, only to amount to little for decades. Now there are signs that personal computing really will change the balance of educational power. The computer has an ability that none of the other technologies had: a computer is interactive and adaptive. Instead of simply handing a lesson to a mostly passive student, it can provide a multimedia experience that will in principle adjust to a particular student's abilities and style, with the computer reporting back on how well the student is doing. Now, in principle, every student can have its own robot tutor, the robot being backed up by immense educational resources.

The hardware to do the job has been around since the 1990s; the problem has been the software and underlying information base, a problem that can be addressed given the will to do so. Adoption of advanced education technology in America's state-funded schools was given a boost by a requirement to measure pupil performance in the Bush II Administration's "No Child Left Behind Act"; schools got involved, most notably those that otherwise were lacking in resources to expand their educational offerings. The Obama Administration's "Race to the Top" initiative gave a further boost, making billions of dollars available to states willing to innovate. That effort has been complemented by a plan to provide 99% of America's students with access to high-speed internet within five years.

Schools that have jumped on the digital express have been doing well. Rocketship, a chain of seven charter schools in San Jose, California, blends traditional teaching with at least an hour a day of individualized online instruction in mathematics, literacy, and comprehension. Its low-income pupils outperform rivals in the wealthiest districts in the state. On the other side of the USA, in 2009 the school district of Mooresville, North Carolina, introduced personalized learning for students over the age of ten; despite the low funding of the district, it is now one of the top performers in the state.

Again, it's software that makes all the difference, and so there's been a surge in work on better software and evaluation of its effectiveness. The US Department of Education spent four years evaluating literacy programs, to conclude that READ 180, a program to help students who have fallen behind in reading, was good at combating adult illiteracy. A trial in Oklahoma of COGNITIVE TUTOR, which helps with math learning, demonstrated that 15-year-olds learned in 12% less time. The Khan Academy, a well-known maker of online tutorials, has been getting results in some of California's toughest schools, using a "flipped classroom" approach, in which students absorb videos and the like on their own time, to get personalized instruction in class.

Right now, digital education tech amounts to bits in pieces, with different things showing promise, but no comprehensive solution. Getting to that state will not be easy, and given the uncertainties about the new education technology, that problem is too poorly-defined to be realistically solved over the short term. Over the long term, there's no reason it can't be, and a number of big education firms are working towards that end. News Corp, for example, is backing Amplify, a startup based in New York City. Amplify operates out of an old warehouse fitted up with classrooms where new tech can be run through its paces, while groups of former teachers working with software engineers, graphic artists, psychometricians, and game designers to produce new content.

They're getting clues from the game industry and social-networking firms. "Gamification" is a big plus to education; for example, Mathletics -- used by children in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Hong Kong, Britain and New Zealand as well as the USA -- lets kids earn certificates, appear on international leader boards and earn "gold coins" which they can use to buy upgrades to their avatars. Startups, established education companies, and companies established in other sectors that are trying to diversify into education are all jumping into the digital education race; tech companies also see education as an opportunity, Apple having sold three million iPads for educational use in 2012. Over a billion dollars was invested in educational technology in that year.

There are obstacles. America's 13,000 school districts are a managerial patchwork, with highly variable leadership and procurement policies. To compound difficulties, schools are under the policy direction of local politicians, who can be very whimsical in their dictates. There's been a tendency towards consolidation of startups into larger firms that have more clout in pushing their wares with school districts. Some small startups have taken a more Zen approach, providing software for free to school districts in hopes that they will then buy more comprehensive offerings.

There's also a fear among teacher's unions that digitizing education means phasing out teachers, and the unions have pushed back against online education. Their fears are not completely unreasonable. Teachers at Rocketship's schools in San Jose earn 20% more than the local going rate, but may have up to 100 children in a class when they are working one-to-one in online learning laboratories, meaning a lower ratio of teachers to students. Unions also fear that digitization will mean heavy-handed monitoring of teacher performance. On the other side of the coin, over the long run digitization should make the lives of teachers easier.

There are two subtler worries. First, digital education involves collecting a lot of data on students, which means there's a potential for misuse that needs to be examined. Second, there's a concern that digital education will help advantaged kids more than disadvantaged kids -- but there's no necessity that this be so, and if all students are uplifted through digital education, it seems a bit like fussing to worry about who's going to be uplifted more. Facing off against all the worries about digital education is the concern that American educational rankings have been slipping, slowly but steadily, for the past three decades. Digital education may help reverse that trend, if it can overcome the inertia of the past.



* MANUFACTURING ROBOTICS ENERGIZED (4): As another footnote to this series, an article from THE ECONOMIST ("The New Maker Rules", 24 November 2012), took a macro look at the new automation revolution -- pointing out that 21st-century manufacturing technology means the diminishment of old manufacturing rules, such as "you must seek economies of scale" and "you must reduce unit labor costs". Smarter manufacturing systems means that turning out small batches of product, even to custom order, is becoming ever easier, while cheaper and more capable automation means that unit labor costs are on a downward trend.

That's from the bottom line of a report titled "Manufacturing The Future" by the McKinsey Global Institute. According to McKinsey, since 1990 the cost of automation has fallen relative to labor by up to half in wealthy countries, a trend that is likely to continue, with developing nations also heavily investing in automation as wages climb rapidly. Chinese purchases of industrial robots have quadrupled from 2006 to 2011, with China on track to be the biggest market for robots in a few years; one Chinese manufacturer is talking of acquiring a million robots. They'll be needed to support booming markets, the report projecting that 1.5 billion new consumers will be added to the global marketplace in the next 15 years. That means enhanced demand for both basic goods, generally produced in developing nations, and high-tech items, usually made in wealthy countries.

Developing countries will continue to increase their share of global production. By 2010 China had surpassed Japan to become the second-largest manufacturing nation, after America; a decade before, China had been in fourth place. In the same period, Brazil jumped from 12th to 6th, India from 14th to 10th, while Britain slipped from 5th to 9th. As countries get richer, manufacturing tends to account for a smaller share of their GDP. In the 15 largest manufacturing economies, manufacturing's share of GDP ranges from 33% in China to 10% in Britain.

What can be easily lost in this narrative of manufacturing decline is that it is relative, since manufacturing output in rich countries has actually been rising fast. What has been happening in rich countries, as outlined earlier in this series, is that factory jobs aren't booming, since manufacturing is becoming more automated and requires fewer hands to get product out the door.

The term "manufacturing" of course covers a range of activities, with McKinsey slicing it into five categories:

The bottom two categories have typically been offshored by rich countries, and probably will continue to be offshored for some time. Wealthy nations still lead in high-tech industries; in 2010, they ran a $726 billion USD surplus in goods such as cars, chemicals, drugs and machinery, but had a $342 billion USD deficit in labor-intensive tradeables. Wealthy nations are faced with a challenge in obtaining skilled professionals, particularly as baby boomers retire -- which is why big US firms lobby for better education in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

Finally, the McKinsey report suggests that the dividing line between manufacturing and services is blurring, and will be more blurred in the future. A century ago, products were relatively simple; a manufacturer sold them, and they were used without much reference back to the manufacturer. Now, with smarter products, the consumer may end up establishing a permanent relationship with the manufacturer and the manufacturer's partners -- for example, the Apple iStore, selling apps for Apple's line of computers, smartphones, and tablets. Automation also takes place in services as well, as consumers make more use of online systems for assistance and information. Such robots can be annoying, but improvement does seem to be taking place, and we might as well get used to them. [END OF SERIES]



* AFRICA IN THE 21ST CENTURY (1): Westerners have traditionally seen Africa as poor, backward, plagued by poverty and bad governance. That's not a completely wrong impression, but a survey from THE ECONOMIST ("Emerging Africa: A Hopeful Continent" by Oliver August, 2 March 2013), took a tour across the continent that showed Africans increasingly don't see such conditions as the future.

The tour started at a trendy beachfront cafe near Dakar, the capital of Senegal, where three African students sipped cappuccinos while hunched over an iPad. They were reading of decay and disorder in Moldova, or austerity measures in Greece, or the international sex-trafficking trade. Such tales are staples of Africa's thriving media, in a mirror image of the horror stories told elsewhere about Africa. One of the students pointed westward over the Atlantic and asked: "Way over there, do they know how much has changed?"

War, famine, and dictators still afflict Africa; but not as much as they once did. Africans may often be illiterate, hungry, burdened with injustices; but they are much less fearful of the future, and believe their children will do better. Although statistics about Africa are unreliable, they still broadly show the trendline for Africa is up. Secondary-school enrollment grew by 48% between 2000 and 2008, after many states expanded their education programs and scrapped school fees. Over the past decade, deaths from malaria in some of the worst-hit countries have fallen by 30%, and deaths from HIV infections by up to 74%. In the same period, life expectancy has increased by about 10% and child mortality rates in most countries have been falling rapidly.

Africa is booming economically. In the past ten years, real income per person has increased by more than 30%; in the previous 20 years, it had fallen 10%. The economy of Africa is growing faster than that of any other continent for the time being, if admittedly from a low baseline, with gross domestic product expected to rise by an average of 6% a year over the next decade. Foreign direct investment has gone from $15 billion USD in 2002 to $37 billion USD in 2006, and $46 billion USD in 2012.

Africans long having little money, there wasn't much available for them to buy, but now that's changing too. There are three mobile phones for every four Africans, the same ratio as in India. By 2017, about 30% of African households will have a TV set, a fivefold increase in ten years. The arts are thriving. Opinion polls show that almost two-thirds of Africans think 2013 will be better for them than 2012, the reverse of the rate in Europe.

a sunny outlook in Dakar

With many different countries and subcultures in Africa, there's no one recipe for success. Senegal is buoyed up by a lively democracy, politicians conducting election campaigns as energetically as in the West, and similarly make some effort to keep their promises. They also try to play by the rules: in 2012 Abdoulaye Wade, then president of Senegal, tried to run for a third term, in breach of term limits. Wade was mocked, blasted in political cartoons, with a coalition of opposition groups collaborating to make sure his second term was his last. He accepted electoral defeat; Dakar celebrated, then went back to work.

At the end of the Cold War, out of the 53 African nations of the time, only three could be regarded as democracies. Now there are about 25, with others still falling short of democracy, but at least holding worthwhile elections. Only four out of the current 55 African countries -- Eritrea, Swaziland, Libya, and Somalia -- lack a multi-party constitution; Libya and Somalia expect to have one soon. Tyrant "Big Man" governments, if still hanging on, are on the fade, while responsible elected leadership is on the rise. Representative government doesn't necessarily result in good leadership, but it at least allows bad leadership to be more quickly given the boot.

Better governance isn't the only way African countries are moving ahead, improvements taking place along three other paths:

Given the rosy outlook, there's been talk of an "African Century" -- though skeptics suggest caution, optimism about the continent having gone on the rocks in the past. The skeptics worry that foreign investors will simply loot Africa, unrestrained by corrupt or inept government officials.

However, this time around there seems a good basis for the optimism. In 2001, the intrepid Paul Theroux traversed Africa to research his book DARK STAR SAFARI: OVERLAND FROM CAIRO TO CAPE TOWN -- to report being shot at, sent on detours, and shaken down for bribes. Now travelers report that the same trip is rarely dangerous or difficult, bribery is unobtrusive where it still exists, and that email and wireless access is available almost all the way. In another ten years, the same travelers may well find less hunger, emerging industrialization, more shops with fancy goods, better transport, and more efficient governance.

The reason for this optimistic forecast is that a lot of things are happening in the here and now that are likely to pay off down the road. There's also the fact that Africans themselves are energetic in pursuit of a better future, having had all they want of poverty and oppression. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* ANOTHER MONTH: Towards the end of May, my car started running a bit wobbly and I thought I should get the tires balanced. I had about 48,000 kilometers (30,000 miles) on them and thought they should be good for a total of 64,000 kilometers (40,000 miles), but when I went to Walmart to get them balanced, it became obvious they were on their last legs. Oddly, it was the forward right tire that was in the worst shape; I thought the wobble was in the rear left tire. Possibly there was some interaction going on.

I was lucky in my recent long-range trips that I didn't have a blowout. Since I knew I was going to face replacing them before too long, I just shrugged and bought new Goodyear tires with a lifetime of 96,000 kilometers (60,000 miles). They threw in lifetime balancing -- I keep the paperwork, I can go to any Walmart to get a free balancing. It was good to drive home on nice solid tires, but sparing the time to swap out the tires was not welcome when I had too much to do before the end of the month.

Come mid-June, I took the car into the shop for an oil change and checkup. A few days later, on Thursday afternoon, I tried to start it up and the starter just ground on reluctantly. I managed to get it to start, but it was clearly dodgy and at a good guess was likely to get dodgier. Starter system problem? Or low battery? The battery was old, but in the past when I lost a battery, the car couldn't be made to start without being jumped. I recall once going over a bump and then finding the battery was completely dead -- I think the eroded lead plates in the battery simply crumbled when I hit the bump.

Losing the starter system made me nervous; not just because it would leave me without a car, but because it left me with the prospect of having to get a tow truck to pick up the car, which would be a pain. The next morning I did manage to get over to the gym to work out, planning to go to the auto shop when I was done. Unfortunately, my usual place was closed for some unknown reason.

I went back home, feeling more nervous, as I tend to when I'm in a bind and can't see a way out; I didn't want to be left hanging with a failing car over the weekend. That afternoon I looked through the phone book for alternative shops; the only reasonable one was a shop I had gone to some years back, until I had a personal disagreement that sent me looking elsewhere. It wasn't any big disagreement and it was a long time ago, so I dropped in and asked for help. They said they could fit me in if I waited.

They had a considerate feature: loaner bicycles to let customers get around. Rather than sit there idly, I took one out for a spin, the shop being near to Loveland's bike trail and parks system. The bike was, to no surprise, a bit small for me, but no worries; it was a nice hot day for a cruise, maybe a bit too hot, I went for a couple of klicks and came back before I got sunburned. Much to my relief, after they checked they found it was the battery -- easier and cheaper to replace than the starter motor.

They told me they could swap it out, I said OK, they did, and I went back home with a fully functioning car. It ended up being less bother than I expected; when problems come up I usually brace myself for the worst case, knowing how problems have a nasty tendency to cascade. I wasn't at all unhappy to replace the battery along with the tires -- better to deal with such while I was in town, instead of out on some long road trip.

* I did an update on my US Civil War history this month. There wasn't much change, mostly just a quick skim-through, except for one thing. Confederate apologists have long argued that the South had a right to secede from the Union, and I've been thinking that argument over since the 1990s. I ended up detailing the argument in the update, it all having snapped into place: the argument for the legality of secession is, as the physicists put it, "not even wrong".

It's complicated to explain exactly why, but a central fact is that the South never made an argument for the legality of secession: they never took their case to court, they just walked out and told the North to deal with it, which is precisely what the North did. How could Southerners claim a "win" in a legal argument they didn't bother to make? If they did have such a good legal argument, why didn't they make it in court?

On consideration, it seems puzzling that it took so long for me to figure out just how ridiculous an idea secession really was. One factor is that the entire notion of secession is so foreign to a modern American that it is hard to get the mind wrapped around it, and put oneself in the shoes of those who had to confront it. Another factor is that it is very hard to make Southerners out as villains; there's a quote of uncertain origin, sounds like General Sherman, that sums it up: "Never did people fight more nobly for a worse cause."

try try again

It was a sorry cause; there is no honest way to dodge the fact that secession was a damn fool exercise. The South took reckless, and very literally outlaw, action that left the North with only the options of caving in or fighting to win, with all the horrors accompanying a hard war; the North overwhelmingly chose to fight. The South took the plunge for no other significant reason than the preservation of slavery, which placed the South morally in the wrong forever -- and, by throwing off the legal protections that slavery enjoyed in the Union, made the destruction of slavery all but certain.

Although Southerners still blame the North for the war against the South, more blame has to be placed on Southern leadership for taking their people over the precipice in a fit of mindless hysteria. There is no sensible basis for arguing that they were in the right in doing so; , more importantly, there is absolutely no denying their ultimate failure. It would be unjust to call them villains, but there is no disputing they were losers.