* 21 entries including: Africa in 21st century (series), biofuel controversy (series), 3D printers for developing world, latest IPCC report on climate change, geothermal heat pumps in NYC, dispersed power generation for India, hunting down bogus pharmaceuticals, liquefied natural gas aircraft, oceanic fishing preserves, and NASA pursues commercial partnerships for lunar exploration.
* NEWS COMMENTARY FOR SEPTEMBER 2013: As discussed by THE ECONOMIST ("Cold Climate", 31 August 2013), when Barack Obama took the oath of office as President of the United States in 2009, one of the items on his agenda was to improve relations with Russia. How much hope might have been placed in that initiative is hard to say; what's easy to say is that is that such hopes are now thoroughly dead. The Kremlin makes little effort to conceal its contempt for the West, Obama having described the body language of Russian President Vladimir Putin as that of a "bored kid in the back of a classroom".
The final straw for the USA was Russia's willingness to shelter Edward Snowden, who leaked a flood of information about America's intelligence establishment. However, present difficulties had begun earlier, with the NATO military intervention in Libya in 2011; Russia had backed a UN resolution for the intervention, but felt duped when Libyan strongman Muammar Qaddafi was overthrown and killed. Vladimir Putin also believed that the West was behind unrest in former Soviet states, and saw protests in Moscow in December 2011 as orchestrated by the USA. There was a certain political convenience in this, Putin finding that demonizing the USA helps shore up support for his dodgy regime.
Russia has been heavily tilting towards China; Chinese leadership, having its own ambivalences about its relationship with the West, has reciprocated. To be sure, Russia still wants a good economic relationship with the West, and is unwilling to stake much on confrontation. While Russia has been steadfastly opposed to Western intervention in the Syrian civil war, Russia has also taken a hands-off attitude to the conflict, seeing nothing to gain from it. Indeed, the Russians have cooperated with the US in cooking up a deal for the supervised elimination of Syria's chemical weapons stockpiles -- a measure that enhances Russian prestige and helps make the Syria crisis less of a nuisance for all, the Kremlin seeing nothing to lose in being agreeable on the matter.
Russia does become assertive when Russia's perceived interests are at stake, most notably slapping punitive trade actions against Ukraine for its associations with the European Union. That has done nothing for Russia's image in the EU, that image having also been tarnished by the enactment of pointedly discriminatory laws against gay Russians -- the Kremlin seeing the global gay rights movement as another Western plot working against Russia's proper interests.
It is beyond sensible argument that Russia does have its own proper interests, and that they may not be consistent with the interests of the West. The difficulty is that Vladimir Putin's regime stands for nothing in particular, its policies being nihilistic as a result. Educated and affluent Russians end up looking to the West for ideals because they have so few at home to admire. Putin only wants to maintain the shaky status quo; Russians, fearing what might happen if that status quo collapses, are for now inclined to give him his way. The only future for Russia that can be currently envisioned is one that looks exactly like the uncertain present. How long that stasis can be maintained is anyone's guess.
* If US relations with Russia are in a poor state, relations with Iran seem to be improving. Newly-elected Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has taken measures to open a dialogue with Iran's adversaries, having released a number of political prisoners; writing messages in a conciliatory tone to Barack Obama, who replied in kind; tweeted New Year's greetings to Jews celebrating the festival of Rosh Hashanah; and temporarily unblocked access to online social-media websites, such as Twitter and Facebook.
Notably, Rouhani switched authority over the Iranian nuclear program from the hawkish national security council to the foreign ministry, now run by Mohammad Javad Zarif -- a moderate former diplomat, knowledgeable about America. Even more notably, Rouhani publicly told leaders of Iran's powerful Revolutionary Guard Corps to stop meddling in politics. Ali Khameni, Iran's supreme leader, has at least tacitly accepted Rouhani's initiatives; sanctions are crushing Iran and the leadership is feeling the pain.
Barack Obama, with evidence that the stick of sanctions is working, is now obligated to offer carrots via diplomacy, though caution is warranted. Iran still holds many political prisoners, access to the internet remains under tight control, and everyone's heard warm and fuzzy noises from Tehran before. However, in contrast to his predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who sounded like a crank ranting on a internet forum, in charge of a dangerous rogue state, President Rouhani does indeed seem like a breath of fresh air. That was underlined on 27 September, when Obama and Rouhani chatted over the phone -- the first time in 34 years that top American and Iranian leaders have dealt with each other directly. A year from now, the relationship between the USA and the Islamic Republic may look very different; one can only hope it won't be as dismal as always, or worse.
* BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK ran an editorial that observed divorce rates were rising around the world, to conclude that's a good thing. To be sure, the USA has a high divorce rate and nobody is too happy with that, divorces tending toward the painful and disruptive of family life. The issue is that there are a lot of places in the undeveloped world where divorce rates are very low, for the simple reason that it's painfully hard to get a divorce. These restrictive laws on divorce tend to be strongly coupled to unequal rights for females -- for example, laws that disregard marital rape, effectively denying a wife the right to refuse sex to a husband -- the effect being that the law supports marital tyrannies where the wife is forced to submit to the husband's whims because she has no legal option for escape.
Divorce tends to become more common and less troublesome in societies where females are empowered -- and as women become empowered, the societies tend to do better for themselves on a number of indexes. To be sure, divorces are unhappy things in themselves, but having the option gives a wife more bargaining power that can actually help maintain a marriage. Studies seem to show that in developed countries, divorce rates are gradually declining as cultures acquire a more modern and equitable sensibility in their marriages.
* An essay in TIME magazine discussed collaborations in military disaster relief efforts, focusing on the March 2011 earthquake-tsunami that devastated Fukushima in Japan. In the wake of the disaster, more than 100,000 troops of the Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) and 20,000 American servicemen and women were sent in to the region, supported by a fleet of naval vessels and military transport aircraft.
Joint headquarters were established in Tokyo, with liaison officers assigned to units in the field. The Americans rushed specialized troops and equipment to re-open the Sendai airport, a critical transportation hub buried under of mud and debris; used US Marine Corps amphibious assault vehicles were used to shuttle victims, aid workers and supplies from ship to shore. The JSDF took the lead in searching for victims, restoring ground transportation and providing food, water and shelter for survivors. American and Japanese troops often worked side by side in harsh winter conditions.
All that does have a feel-good aspect, which is great as far as the military is concerned since it promotes public esteem for the armed services. The approval rating for the JSDF among Japanese citizens went to 91%, a post-war high, while 82% indicated "friendly feelings" for the USA, another record high. Japanese military officials also see the use of Japanese forces in regional humanitarian relief efforts as helping overcome long-standing fear of Japanese imperialism among Japan's Asian neighbors. Retired JSDF Lieutenant General Noboru Yamaguchi commented: "Disaster relief cooperation is benign and harmless. This is a good way to engage the region in pursuing improved relations."
However, there is a subtler context, in that collaborative relief efforts are good training for coalition warfare. Breaking things and hurting people is only a component of combat operations, warfighting being otherwise dominated by logistics and organization -- organization being particularly tricky when forces of different nations are working together. In other words, disaster relief operations are a close analog to combat operations. The Fukushima relief operation revealed considerable deficiencies in cooperation, which both sides have subsequently worked to correct. If a shooting war ever comes around, better coordination will pay off.
Garren Mulloy, a former British Army officer who teaches international relations at Tokyo's Daito Bunka University, summed it up neatly: "It may seem tenuous, but the benefits of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HA/DR) operations for potential combat capabilities are very real. Logistics, communication and intelligence cooperation and coordination are the basis for successful combat operations, and those are the core of HA/DR operations, as well."
This fact does not at all escape potential adversaries, Mulloy adding: "China will see a hidden agenda. No matter how innocuous it might appear, HA/DR cooperation, particularly in East Asia, is seen as part of the broader security context."
* As a footnote concerning Chinese suspicions of Japan, the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) has now obtained the largest warship in Japanese service since the end of World War II. The IZUMO, named after one of the classical provincial domains of Japan, has a length of 248 meters (813 feet), and is described as "helicopter destroyer".
Anyone looking at the IZUMO would immediately think: "aircraft carrier" -- and Chinese pronouncements on the vessel demonstrated clear annoyance at what was perceived as a semantic subterfuge. However, the IZUMO is strictly intended for helicopter operations, the prime mission being antisubmarine warfare, with HA/DR operations a clear secondary mission. The only armament of the ship itself is twin gatling cannon and twin missile launchers for self-defense. True, helicopters can be armed with anti-ship missiles and other stand-off weapons, and observers have suggested the IZUMO might also be able to handle vertical takeoff fighters like the US F-35B.
However, it is not kitted up to do so, and the SDF has no plans to acquire such aircraft. Under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Japan is taking a more assertive attitude, but the Japanese still think twice about acquiring weapon systems that imply an offensive as opposed to defensive military posture.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* AFRICA IN THE 21ST CENTURY (8): While Kenya has been pushing for a modern mix of economic activities, many other African states still remain focused on commodities. On inspecting the eleventh stop on the African tour, Zambia, that doesn't seem like such a bad idea. Governance is good, so are the roads, while the police are professional and polite.
Zambia is big on copper mining; it's been dug out of the ground in the central province of Copperbelt since 1895. Zambia's mines are still on a roll, having recently broken a record, with the government consequently announcing the building of two new power plants and three new universities. Indeed, commodities tend to be doing well across the continent, helping to buoy up poor countries and their governments. There are indirect benefits as well, with outsiders, particularly Chinese, coming to mine, to then branch out into other lines of work, spreading skills, contacts, and capital. Chinese vendors, for example, now dominate the Zambian chicken industry.
The Chinese came before, in the 1970s, with the government of Mao Zedong funding a railway line from Tanzania. The relationship didn't go well, fumbled by both sides, leaving a bad taste behind. Now things are going well, it seems in part because Zambia's governance has become much more competent, thanks to democratic reforms that help keep the leadership in line.
Overall, Africa isn't completely about commodities; the continent weathered the 2007 financial crisis fairly well thanks to a degree of economic diversification. However, commodities are still a very big deal there. Copper more or less keeps Zambia afloat, accounting for 80% of exports. One Canadian mining firm, First Quantum, provides 15% of the government's tax revenues. Zambia otherwise doesn't have that much going for it at present, the agriculture sector being lackluster -- so what happens to Zambia if the world copper market goes south?
There's also the problem that too much wealth in the ground tends to make the power elite greedy. Nigeria is of course the classic example, the leadership corrupted by oil riches. Zimbabwe, next door to Zambia, is another example; Zimbabwe has a long list of problems, many of them traceable back to President Robert Mugabe, a most unfortunately stereotypical African Big Man, but commodities have played a part in Zimbabwe's disastrous decline. The country has vast mineral resources, but they're only being exploited to prop up the regime, with diamond mines under the control of security forces. No outsiders want to invest in Zimbabwe, Mugabe being fond of thievish expropriations of businesses; he effectively wrecked the country's once-thriving agricultural sector by such means.
The next stop, Botswana, is by no means such a nightmare. It is Africa's oldest functioning multi-party democracy, and income from diamond mining has trickled down enough to raise almost half the population to middle-class levels of prosperity. The mines may run out in a few decades; Botswana's government is seeking to diversify to ensure that the country has a future, but such development is difficult, while it's only too easy to keep on digging up the earth while it continues to be profitable.
* The tour ends in South Africa, on the streets of Soweto, the black township of Johannesburg that became famous in the era of apartheid. The government has spent a fair amount of money cleaning the place up, the roads are in good condition, the police are diligent, and there's even a modern shopping mall. Soweto suffers from one major flaw, however: many of its inhabitants don't have jobs. The national unemployment rate is officially given as 25%, but it's estimated to be actually more like 40%.
South Africa represents the challenges facing African development. It is giant among African states, and one of the most developed, but also one of the most unequal. While the economy has been growing, inequality has been getting worse. South Africa tends to rely on mining, instead of pushing more aggressive industrialization and liberalizing the business environment. Optimists believe that industrialization is just around the corner; skeptics are not so sure.
An African boom has been predicted before. In 1992, Thomas Pakenham published a highly-regarded book, THE SCRAMBLE FOR AFRICA, giving the case for optimism as it was seen at the time -- but with the last chapter projecting a glowing future for Zimbabwe, under the wise rule of Robert Mugabe, who then went on to deliberately run the country off the rails. Skeptics can point to many things wrong with Africa, from widespread poverty and illiteracy to bad governments and persistent wars. Climate change may well make things very much worse, destroying agricultural productivity; to compound the pressure, in defiance of the trend for most of the rest of the world, Africa's population is still growing rapidly, being expected to grow from a billion now to twice that in a generation. A population boom can help provide a workforce for modernization; but if jobs can't be found, the end result will be poverty and instability. South Africa's failure to create jobs for its people is one of the main reasons why crime rates are so high there.
However, this time around the indicators of improvement are much more widespread: prosperity, good governance, and peace are on the rise. There are many improvements now in the pipeline that have yet to take off, and many opportunities for further improvements down the road. Possibly the biggest encouragement is that many Africans are optimistic: they've seen things getting better for themselves, and believe things can be made much better for their children. In the time of their grandchildren, Africans may look back on the Africa of the 20th century and wonder how things could have ever been so dismal. [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* GIMMICKS & GADGETS: Technology advances along a wild diversity of paths; as reported by an article from AAAS SCIENCE NOW Online, Portuguese researchers have been investigating synthesis of booze from coffee grounds. They got their feedstock from a coffee roasting company, dried it, and ground it into a powder. The powder was then boiled for 45 minutes; the water was drained off, sugar and yeast was added, and the mix allowed to ferment. After distillation, the result was a drink with about 40% alcohol content, comparable to vodka or tequila, providing a potent kick.
Eight professional tasters were brought in to evaluate the drink; they concluded that it smelled like coffee, with the taste being bitter and pungent. It was drinkable but could be refined, possibly via aging. It won't keep drinkers awake, however, since the production process degrades most of the caffeine.
* As reported by WIRED Online blogs, researchers at the University of California at Berkeley have developed a thin, flexible "smart skin" featuring an array of organic LEDs (OLEDs) that selectively light up when pressure is applied. The skin is fabricated from layers of plastic and a pressure-sensitive rubber, with conductive silver ink, OLEDs, and thin-film transistors made from semiconductor-enriched carbon nanotubes sandwiched between the layers. Applying pressure sends a signal through the rubber that activates on the LEDs, which light up in red, green, yellow or blue. While it sounds like little more than a cool toy, the researchers see it as a basis for further development, adding elements to make it useful for interactive environments, health-monitoring devices, and robotics.
* BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK reported on an automated parking garage scheme devised by one Paul Stolzer -- boss of Stopa Anlagenbau, a German manufacturer of automation systems. The garage has some resemblance to an automated warehouse; in fact, it is based on Stopa system introduced in the 1970s to store steel beams. A driver parks a car on a pallet, with a laser system scanning the vehicle to ensure it fits and is properly centered. The driver then registers at a ticket kiosk using a charge card. Once authorized, the pallet descends with its load, moving down levels and being placed in an empty slot. When the driver returns to pick it up, using the charge card as a ID, the pallet is retrieved, the car being flipped around for exit.
The idea is not completely new; semi-automated parking systems go back over a century, though they tended to be plagued by mechanical problems -- users were not happy to have a car disappear into the parking garage and end up stuck there. They started to seriously catch on overseas a few decades ago, mostly in places where urban densities make car parking troublesome. Better technology has made the idea more practical, and is now catching on in the USA. Stopa has partnered with a US firm named Automated Parking Systems to build such a parking garage in Brooklyn, to open in 2017, each parking space with a cost of about $50,000 USD. Other garages appear to be in the works. The scheme is more secure for cars and users, robberies being nothing unusual in parking garages; saves on ventilation and lighting; and also reduces auto emissions. An official with the partnership commented: "It's like a vending machine for cars."
* BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK had another gimmick that I also found interesting, though I'm sure the idea's been around for a number of years: the Homedics Powerbag Deluxe Backpack, a backpack featuring a built-in rechargeable battery. It has USB and other connectors for hooking up to gadgetry, and can be recharged from a wall socket. Price was listed at a reasonable if not cheap $169.99 USD. I just have to love cute gimmicks like this.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* 3D PRINTING FOR THE DEVELOPING WORLD: Three-dimensional printing has been discussed here in the past, most recently in 2011. Although 3D printing has a high-tech aura to it, as reported by an article in THE ECONOMIST ("A Third-World Dimension", 3 November 2012), three researchers from the engineering department of the University of Washington (UW) in Seattle -- Matthew Rogge, Bethany Weeks and Brandon Bowman -- believe it has applications in the developing world. Others seem to buy in their vision, the team having won $100,000 USD in the "3D4D Challenge", organized by a charity named "techfortrade".
There are various ways to perform 3D printing; the UW team focused on using a printhead to extrude molten plastic, making multiple passes to build up a 3D object, the plastic in this case being high-density polyethylene (HDPE) from milk bottles. The researchers intend to use their prize money to set up a firm that will, in partnership with a charity named "Water for Humans", custom-build composting toilets and rainwater collectors. The partnership will seek out local entrepreneurs in poor countries and will train them how to build, use and maintain the 3D printers.
Once the technology is established for fabrication of toilets and water collectors, other products will be introduced. The local partners will know what new products are needed and, importantly, how much people will pay for them; the operation does intend to turn a profit. However, the software that controls the printers will be open-source and available to all, as will many of the designs for things the printers can make, the idea being to get momentum behind the concept. A trial will begin soon in Oaxaca, Mexico.
3D printers tend towards the expensive, and those that can make bigger parts unsurprisingly tend to be more expensive than those that make smaller parts. The UW researchers have focused on a printer that is cheap but can make relatively big parts. Their prototype is built around a second-hand computer-controlled plasma cutter -- a device used for carving up sheets of metal -- which directs the movement of an extruder; the extruder melts flakes of plastic into a thin stream that can be squirted out as needed. The printer is able to turn out items with dimensions of up to 2.5 meters by 1.2 meters by 1 meter (8.2 x 3.9 x 3.3 feet). Many of the parts for the printer were themselves turned out by a desktop 3D printer.
Source materials are no problem, HDPE being easily obtained from the trash stream; chop it up into tiny flakes and it works fine. There is one problem, in that HDPE shrinks when it cools, which can stress the object being printed. As a result, the researchers are working on a second prototype that prints faster, allowing the layers of plastic to shrink in step. They are also looking into use of other types of waste plastic that suffer less from shrinkage.
Given that the printer is still a rough prototype, there's the ultimate question of whether it really will make economic sense. It doesn't seem likely to be competitive for making cheap plastic items that can be turned out in mass by a factory, such as plastic buckets; it does seem to have promise for more specialized products not so easily obtained. The researchers have constructed a little boat with the printer, and believe that developing-world users might well see the value in printing out their own boats, made from trash-heap milk bottles.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* RETURN OF THE IPCC: As reported by an article from THE NEW YORK TIMES ("Climate Panel Cites Near Certainty On Warming" by Justin Gillis, 19 August 2013), the much-maligned Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is now readying its latest report, the conclusion being that there is no real scientific uncertainty over climate change.
The IPCC, which was created in 1988 and is made up of hundreds of professional climatologists from all over the world, issues reports every five or six years, this being the fifth. The IPCC does no original research; instead, it periodically assesses and summarizes the literature on climate change produced by the professional climate community. While the previous report, from 2007, hedged its bets to a degree, the new draft report takes a more uncompromising position. It generally dismisses a recent slowdown in the pace of warming, discussed here during the summer and often cited by climate change denialists, judging it to be due to short-term factors. The report emphasizes that the basics underlying the climate change viewpoint are stronger than ever, and that climate change is going to raise hell, the draft report saying:
It is extremely likely that human influence on climate caused more than half of the observed increase in global average surface temperature from 1951 to 2010. There is high confidence that this has warmed the ocean, melted snow and ice, raised global mean sea level and changed some climate extremes in the second half of the 20th century.
The new report is much more emphatic and specific on sea level rise than the 2007 report, saying that by 2100 it would be at least 25 centimeters (10 inches) but could be as much as 90 centimeters (3 feet), which would have disastrous effects on coastal cities. However, the new report also reiterated one of the difficulties in the 2007 report -- that though confidence is high for the global forecast of warming, there's no way to translate that into what might happen in any specific locale. The previous report also placed the "floor" on the extent of warming in response to a doubling of atmospheric carbon dioxide as 2 degrees Celsius (3.2 degrees Fahrenheit); the new report is more conservative, going back to earlier estimates that placed the floor as 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit).
To be sure, that's the floor, the lowest expected number, with some studies suggesting the warming in response to CO2 doubling being more on the order of 2.7 degrees Celsius (5 degrees Fahrenheit). The level of CO2 is up 41% since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, and on present trends could double in a matter of decades. That level of warming would add a tremendous amount of energy to the climate system, the increase being greater over land and possibly exceeding 5.5 degrees Celsius (10 degrees Fahrenheit) at the poles. Potential consequences would be widespread melting of land ice, extreme heat waves, difficulty growing food and massive changes in plant and animal life, probably including a wave of extinctions.
The new document is still in review, but nobody expects more than minor tweaks to it before it is released late in September; it is guaranteed that it will be the target of loud criticism. Michael Mann, a well-known climate scientist at Pennsylvania State University, believes that that IPCC has been intimidated by the critics, saying: "I think the IPCC ... has once again erred on the side of understating the degree of the likely changes."
In response Christopher B. Field, a researcher at the Carnegie Institution for Science who serves on the panel but was not directly involved in the new draft, said the group prefers to err on the side of caution: "I think that the IPCC has a tradition of being very conservative. They really want the story to be right."
* The US National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) also recently published a report -- the second in an annual series -- that examined studies of a dozen severe weather events in 2012 to see if human-related global warming might have been a factor in them. Although the report could not and did not state that these events were caused by global warming, it did suggest that about half of them were aggravated by global warming. The specific events included a record low of Arctic ice pack in September; heavy rainfall in Australia during the summer; and Superstorm Sandy which struck the US Northeast in November. Sandy was not the most powerful windstorm to strike the East Coast, but it broke 16 historical records for storm-tide levels there, thanks (if that's the right word) to sea-level rise.
* Along similar lines, THE ECONOMIST reported that in early September leaders of Pacific nations met at Majuro in the Marshall Islands for the annual Pacific Islands Forum (PIF). President Christopher Loeak of the Marshalls, who hosted the PIF, used it as a platform to advocate a "Majuro Declaration" on climate change.
The Marshalls are a group of 29 low-lying atolls and islands with about 54,000 inhabitants, and are painfully vulnerable to climate change. This year the islands were afflicted by a severe drought, plus very high tides that breached seawalls and flooded the airport runway. Tidal gauges on the Pacific islands have been showing the water levels creeping up a few millimeters every year, which is making islanders nervous. In addition, researchers from the University of British Columbia have determined fish stocks are shifting to the south about 7 kilometers (4.3 miles) a year from the Pacific islands, undermining their fisheries.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* BIOFUEL BATTLE (3): Cellulosic ethanol isn't in large-scale production just yet, and that's placed petroleum producers in a bind. The trick is the way the EPA monitors the RFS mandates -- through renewable fuel credits, or "Renewable Identification Numbers (RIN)". A petroleum producer obtains a RIN for each gallon of renewable fuel sold, with EPA targets specified in RINs. If a petroleum producer doesn't have enough RINs to meet quota, they can be bought from another producer who has an excess.
The problem is that, even though cellulosic ethanol isn't available yet in commercial quantities, since 2010 the EPA has still maintained a small quota for cellulosic ethanol on producers in order to help get the market going. Not surprisingly, the producers screamed, saying the EPA was imposing an unfair tax by demanding RINs from them, and went to the courts. In January 2013, a Federal appeals court in Washington DC ruled that the EPA was indeed unfair in mandating that petroleum producers obtain a product that wasn't available.
However, the court did not contest the right of the EPA to establish such mandates in general and -- citing studies that showed cellulosic biofuels would be available in quantity this year -- the agency promptly mandated that producers blend 53 million liters (24 million US gallons) of biofuels into auto fuels this year. That's not a very large quantity relative to the huge size of the US vehicle fuels market, but petroleum industry spokespersons immediately protested; it was all very well and good to say that cellulosic biofuel was just around the corner, but they've heard that one before, and it's not here now.
In addition, the US vehicle fuels market has been on a downward trend for the past few years, while the biofuels mandates have been going up. The petroleum producers have come out swinging, not only protesting the bureaucratic rules, but also criticizing biofuels in general, promoting studies that claim they help push up food prices and that E15 can damage engines. The producers have pushed Congress to repeal RFS, with a number of bills being introduced to scale back the mandates.
The assault on biofuels has led to a backlash from biofuel manufacturers, who just as angrily charge the petroleum industry of being frightened of competition from biofuels and trying to strangle the industry in the cradle. Agriculture Secretary Vilsack rhetorically asked why such resistance had arisen, and answered: "I believe there is a reason: You are winning. And the folks on the other side are concerned."
Biofuel advocates have fired back at the petroleum industry with their own studies, showing that biofuels now supply 10% of America's transport fuel, with the industry providing tens of thousands of jobs, and farmers earning tens of billions of dollars in income. Biofuels have also helped reduce dependence on foreign oil -- though only as a component of other factors, such as the use of "fracking" to pump oil out of the ground, and improved conservation measures. As far as the impact of biofuel on food prices, a US Department of Agriculture (USDA) study showed that the average rate of inflation in food prices since 2005, in parallel with RFS, has only been 2.5%, matching the long-term average -- while oil prices have skyrocketed. The report also pointed out that food prices at the store are dependent on processing and transportation, not just raw food prices, which only make up about 14% of the checkout price.
Other studies suggest that over the next decade, biofuels will have an even bigger positive effect on the US economy. As far as RINs being an unfair tax on the oil industry, advocates point out that the credits have cost oil refiners and blenders only $25 million USD over three years -- a sliver of a percent compared to their profits. Sure, a case can be made for RINs as unfair, but then again the oil industry is getting billions of dollars of tax breaks a year for oil drilling and profits earned overseas. As far as E15 doing damage to engines, advocates claim studies demonstrating such troubles were funded by the oil and auto companies, adding that E15-powered vehicles have traveled millions of kilometers on America's roads without any evidence of serious problems.
Advocates also feel confident that the Obama Administration is on their side, but admit that the pressure is building. It's certainly being felt in the cellulosic biofuels sector, who are feeling the push to get their product on the market. Vilsack said: "We need to get advanced biofuels into the market. That will mute some of the criticism and erase some of the skepticism." [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* AFRICA IN THE 21ST CENTURY (7): While some African nations, such as Rwanda, want to emulate Ethiopian statism, the tenth stop on the tour, Kenya, is sold on American-style capitalism. The result is evidently untidier, but also evidently dynamic. The border crossing from Ethiopia at Moyale is unpaved and rough, the town is unsafe after dark -- but mobile phones are much in evidence, with six different service providers competing for customers, and public enthusiasm for politics runs high.
The road south into Kenya over desert is also unpaved, but the traffic is heavy, with goods and people on the move. Closer to Mount Kenya is productive farm country -- though only half of Kenya's population is employed in agriculture, the more popular inclination being to seek employment in Nairobi and other cities. The cities are marked by sprawling and stinking slums, but employment levels are high, with cheap labor feeding GDP growth of about 5% to 7%, paralleling those of Ethiopia.
Kenya is booming because the government decided to give business a freer hand. Following the election in 2002 of business-oriented President Mwai Kibaki, the state ended price controls, while disbanding bumbling cotton and coffee marketing boards. It liberalized foreign-exchange markets and reformed the judiciary to ease resolution of commercial disputes. Decisions on infrastructure have been, to a degree, delegated to local governments instead of placed in the hands of central-government bureaucrats.
Technology has been doing well, no African nation having much higher citizen use of mobile phones and access to the internet. Big tech firms such as Google, Intel, Microsoft, Nokia, and IBM are investing in Kenya. The banking business is booming as well, with account holders increasing from one million to 20 million over the last decade, out of a population headed for a headcount of 50 million. Kenya has been a leader in mobile finance, with local phone operator Safaricom making a big splash with its M-PESA mobile money scheme -- a third of Kenya's GDP now flows through M-PESA -- and now pushing M-SHWARI, a mobile savings-&-loan scheme.
Nairobi has a lively entrepreneurial class, mostly concentrated in the area known as "Silicon Savannah" on the west side of town -- discussed in an article here last year -- where ingenious Africans see what can be made of mobile and other enabling technologies. A consumer class is rising, with international retailers opening shops in Kenya, indeed over much of Africa, to service it. Kenya is the leader in the East African Community, a five-country bloc that has freed up commerce over the community's borders; more than half of Kenya's trade is now with other African countries.
Kenya is not remotely a utopia, capitalist or otherwise. Infrastructure development needs work, as does health care; although elections are open, they have a nasty tendency to turn violent -- as did national elections in 2007, resulting in what amounted to a short-lived but bloody civil war -- and corruption still taints the ruling class. However, the government is not particularly authoritarian and there's a growing middle class; the general perception of Kenyans is that the trendline is up and to the right.
The latest national elections, in the spring of 2013, were largely peaceful, the elections being honestly conducted, in large part because of an effective judiciary. The government also stepped on internet troublemakers sowing "hate speech", encouraging citizens to take the violent route -- as everywhere, in Kenya the internet is a conduit for trash talk, but there the bloodthirsty rants are more than just empty rhetoric. However, the winner, Uhuru Kenyatta, the country's richest man and son of Kenya's "founding father" Jomo Kenyatta, won only by a slender margin in a contest marked by ethnic factionalism, and has been targeted by the ICC for helping promote the 2007 bloodshed. Things could be better. [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* Space launches for August included:
-- 04 AUG 13 / HTV 4 -- A Japanese JAXA H-2B booster was launched from Tanegashima at 1949 GMT to put the fourth "H-2 Transfer Vehicle (HTV 4)" AKA "Kounotori (White Stork) 4", an unmanned freighter, into orbit on an ISS resupply mission. HTV 4 was built by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and had a launch mass of 15,875 kilograms (35,000 pounds), including 3,855 kilograms (8,500 pounds) of payload. The spacecraft docked with the ISS Harmony module on 09 August.
The payload included a little humanoid robot named "Kirobo", plus a payload to support "Phase II" of NASA's "Robotic Refueling Mission (RRM)", in which the ISS's Dextre robot arm is used to experiment with satellite refueling and repair procedures. Phase I of RRM began with the delivery of baseline hardware to the ISS on the final US space shuttle mission in July 2011, as discussed here at the time, the hardware consisting of a test fixture about the size of a window air conditioner, which was mounted on the ISS truss, and a kit of tools for the Dextre arm for servicing and refueling tasks. The Phase II kit included new assemblies for the test fixture and new tools for the Dextre arm.
-- 08 AUG 13 / WIDEBAND GLOBAL SATCOM 6 (USA 244) -- A Delta 4 booster was launched from Cape Canaveral in Florida at 0029 GMT to put the US Department of Defense's "Wideband Global Satcom (WGS) 6" AKA "USA 244" geostationary comsat into space. WGS 6 was built by Boeing, being the last in a series of six WGS spacecraft, and was based on the Boeing 702 comsat platform, with a launch mass of 5,895 kilograms (13,000 pounds). This satellite was actually purchased by Australian Defense Forces, giving them a share in the WGS system. The Delta was in the "Medium+ (5,4)" configuration, with four sold rocket boosters.
-- 22 AUG 13 / KOMPSAT 5 -- A Russian Dnepr booster, a converted SS-18 SATAN missile, was launched from Dombarovsky at 1429 GMT to put the South Korean "KOMPSAT 5" Earth observation satellite into orbit. KOMPSAT 5 was built by the Korean Aerospace Research Institute (KARI); the satellite had a launch mass of 1,400 kilograms (3,085 pounds) and carried a synthetic aperture radar (SAR) payload . The SAR was built by Thales Alenia Space and had a resolution of a meter (3.3 feet). Although Dnepr launches often include a set of nanosat payloads, there was no mention of other payloads in this launch.
-- 28 AUG 13 / NROL-65 -- A Delta 4 Heavy booster was launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California at 1803 GMT to put a secret military payload into space for the US National Reconnaissance Office (NRO). The payload was designated "NROL-65" and was apparently some class of advanced surveillance satellite.
-- 29 AUG 13 / EUTELSAT 25B, GSAT 7 -- An Ariane 5 ECA booster was launched from Kourou in French Guiana at 2030 GMT to put the "Eutelsat 25B" and "GSAT 7" geostationary comsats into orbit. Eutelsat 25B AKA "Es'hail 1", was built by Space Systems / Loral for Eutelsat and Es'hailSat, a startup sponsored by the Qatari government. It had a launch mass of 6,300 kilograms (13,900 pounds), a payload of Ku-band / Ka-band transponders, and a design life of 15 years. It was placed in the geostationary slot at 25.5 degrees East longitude to provide communications services for Europe, North Africa and the Middle East.
GSAT 7 was India's first dedicated military comsat, featuring a payload of UHF / S-band / C-band / Ku-band transponders and a design life of seven years. It was placed in the geostationary slot at 74 degrees East longitude to provide multi-band communications services for the Indian Navy.
-- 31 AUG 13 / AMOS 4 -- A Sea Launch Zenit 3SLB booster was launched from Baikonur in Kazakhstan at 2005 GMT to put the "Amos 4" geostationary comsat into orbit for SpaceCom LTD of Israel. Amos 4 was built by Israel Aerospace Industries, had a launch mass of about 4,300 kilograms (9,500 pounds), and a design lifetime of 12 years. It was placed in the geostationary slot at 65 degrees East longitude to provide communications services to Russia and the Middle East.
* OTHER SPACE NEWS: As reported by AVIATION WEEK, the tiny spacecraft known as CubeSats are becoming ever more elaborate and capable. This is leading CubeSat enthusiasts into a communications bottleneck. Early CubeSats had communications systems running on the HAM band, with data rates of a few kilobits per second; when CubeSats were basically just technology tests, that was fine, but now that they're carrying imagers and other systems that generate volumes of data, it's not remotely enough.
The CubeSat community is wrestling with the issue, with NASA providing assistance. NASA is now planning to refurbish an old 18 meter (59 foot) tracking dish at the Wallops Flight Facility in coastal Virginia, this dish already having been used in CubeSat communications tests; the expectation is that data rates well over a megabit per second will be possible. Other dishes are being found for CubeSat communications -- but there are potential problems from interference with other systems operating on the same bands as the CubeSats.
The solution is a band dedicated to CubeSats, presumably somewhere in the X-band, in the microwave part of the spectrum roughly around 10 gigahertz. That leads to a dual problem, not only in setting up the ground network but also in developing cheap X-band communications systems that can be plugged into CubeSats. However, there's not much choice, one CubeSat enthusiast that "we could get overwhelmed very shortly."COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* GEOTHERMAL HEAT PUMPS FOR NYC: When the subject of "geothermal energy" is mentioned, it brings up images of Iceland, or some other geothermally active place where steam from cracks in the earth. New York City would hardly seem an ideal site for exploiting geothermal energy, but as reported by an article from THE NEW YORK TIMES ("Square Feet: Geothermal Designs Arise as a Stormproof Resource" by Alison Gregor, 6 November 2012), it's catching on.
Actually, while geothermal powerplants require a geothermally active site, most places can support the use of geothermal energy for the less ambitious tasks of heating and cooling. Interest in geothermal heat pumps has been strong in New York City, due to the battering inflicted by Hurricane Sandy last fall: the storm dug up fuel tanks, which popped up floating in the flood waters, and also damaged cooling towers and air-conditioning systems. Daniel Goodwin, an official at Miller Environmental Group, which includes geothermal heating and cooling systems in its brief, says that the firm is getting many calls from people asking for a cost estimate for installing such systems, adding: "Often it's a case where they were considering doing it, but were waiting for something to finally no longer be able to be repaired."
Geothermal wells are dug to a depth where the earth regulates the temperature of water or a liquid circulating through the system. Geothermal systems may require one well or dozens to control a building's temperature, depending on the size of a building and type of system installed. While the systems are called "wells", they're actually an underground network of pipes connected to heat pumps to circulate water or some other "working fluid".
Digging the wells is not cheap, but a geothermal heat-pump system offers considerable economies of operation, and the number of such systems installed in New York City has been growing steadily over the last decade. More geothermal heat-pump systems have been installed in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania than anywhere else in the United States. Most of the systems are being installed in institutional buildings, multifamily residential buildings, and relatively small commercial buildings. Prominent NYC sites featuring geothermal heat pumps include the American Institute of Architects, the Brooklyn Children's Museum, the Queens Botanical Garden, and the Bronx Zoo Lion House.
More than a hundred geothermal heat pump systems are now in operation in New York City. About 90% are "closed loop" systems, in which the working fluid driven into the wells is recirculated indefinitely; the rest are "open loop", in which water driven into the wells is released into a ground well or surface water. Since the building footprints in NYC, particularly Manhattan, tend to be compact, the wells tend to be vertical, just like the buildings. Manhattan is not the best location for geothermal heat pump systems, because the wells must go so deep -- to depths of about 450 meters (1,500 feet) -- to reach the volume of land necessary to provide a constant temperature. In other areas with more available land, a geothermal heat pump system can be more spread out and much shallower, making it less costly to dig.
Given the high costs of implementing a geothermal heat pump system, it makes the most sense for new construction. Goodwin comments that with tax credits, it's a "no brainer". However, even retrofits can make economic sense. At the Brooklyn Children's Museum, an open loop geothermal system with four wells was installed in 2007 at a cost of $675,000 USD. The museum was initially paying $200,000 USD annually for heating, cooling and electricity in its 520 square meter (50,000 square foot) building with conventional methods. After installation of the geothermal heat pump system, the museum was able to expand to over twice its size and support the additional area for only $50,000 USD more. The system will pay off its acquisition cost in no more than eight years. The surface gear for a heat pump system is warranted for at least 25 years and the below-ground plumbing lasts for twice that long. In New York City, energy conservation pays off.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* POWER FOR INDIA: As discussed by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("Out Of The Gloom", 20 July 2013), from low orbit, once night falls over India, the cities are jewels of light -- but they glitter from the midst of a sea of darkness. In India as a whole, 700 million souls, or more than half of the population, have unreliable connections to the national electrical grid, or none at all.
There are plans on paper for rural electrification, but nobody expects them to become reality any time soon. Without electricity, villagers have to get by on kerosene lamps, which are noxious to the health and too dim for reading. Businesses and shops have to close when night falls; the only occupations conducted in the dark tend to be those that make people fear to stray far from their doors after nightfall. While many Indians have mobile phones, recharging them is an expensive nuisance -- diesel generators are commonly used, but they're a noisy, dirty, and inefficient way of providing electricity.
Official figures state that 90% of villages are electrified, but a village is counted in the tally if only a small portion of it has power, the amount of power per head being disregarded. However, although the government has proven ineffective in providing electricity, aid donors, "social entrepreneurs", nongovernmental organizations (NGO), and investors are making strides toward closing the gap. A few have set up mini-power stations that use hydropower, or burn rice husks or methane from cow dung; but most rely on cheap solar panels, often made in China.
One scheme is to set up solar panels on a village roof and run wires to a few dozen nearby homes, giving each seven hours of lighting a day, plus a phone charger. With imaginative "pay as you go" schemes, it ends up being cheaper to go solar than to keep buying kerosene. Being able to work after dark also means an ability to bring in more money.
Others think bigger. Omnigrid Micropower Company (OMC) has built ten solar plants that power phone towers, and sells electricity to around 3,000 nearby households, as well as to businesses. OMC is planning massive expansion over the next three years. At the outset, OMC reaches customers who don't have an electricity hookup by renting out charged LED lamps, fans, and battery boxes; the electrical network can be laid out later.
In 2012, OMC opened a solar plant at the village of Atrauli, to power two mobile phone towers. A local businessman named Pradeep Singh, with electricity to run his filling station at night, decided to keep it open around the clock; he then rented a dozen lamps for his bar to allow it to operate late. With more money coming in, he has now opened a college for 550 students next to one of the power stations, and is thinking about setting up a mini-mall with a motorcycle repair shop, restaurants, and a cinema. A state bank is moving in; a Swiss firm is considering a water-purification facility; while OMC is considering solar-powered irrigation systems for farmers, plus a scheme for renting cheap tablet computers to villagers as television / mini-entertainment centers.
Government lackadaisicalness actually has benefits, as far as OMC is concerned. With cheap land and little regulation in rural areas, the company can set up a solar plant for just $165,000 USD, which it can then run for decades at low operating cost. Given distributed power generation, officials can't hold power distribution for ransom, asking for bribes or some electoral advantage. Still, solar power isn't enough to support industry, and it's not cost competitive with grid power yet. However, where there isn't any grid power it looks like a pretty good deal, and the costs are continuing to decline.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* BIOFUEL BATTLE (2): People have been distilling ethanol from prehistory, if far more often as an intoxicant than a fuel. However, in the early days of the automobile, biofuel power was nothing unusual -- though it quickly disappeared with the rise of the petroleum economy. Eventually, worries over depletion of oil reserves and the accompanying instability in prices led to a revival of interest in biofuels. In 2005, Congress passed the "Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS)", to update it in 2007 as the "RFS2". The law promoted biofuels by mandating that blenders mix increasing proportions of ethanol and other renewable fuels into gasoline, up to a target of 136.3 billion liters (36 billion US gallons) by 2022. Congress hoped to reduce American dependence on foreign oil, boost rural economies that would produce the biofuels, and reduce automotive emissions.
At first, oil companies approved. The 1990 amendments to the Clean Air Act stipulated that auto fuels incorporate high-octane additives to ensure cleaner burning; the industry originally focused on an additive named MTBE, but then the states of California and New York banned MTBE, since it was shown to pollute ground water sources. Ethanol seemed like an excellent substitute. Initially, 5% ethanol was blended into gasoline as "E5"; that led to "E10" and then "E15", with an "E85" also sold for "flex-fuel" vehicles that could deal with high concentrations of ethanol -- ethanol tends to rot engine fittings not designed for it.
The RFS assumed that initially, the bulk of biofuel production would be corn ethanol. Congress did realize that corn ethanol left something to be desired -- it tends to look more like an exercise in crop subsidy than renewable energy -- so from 2010 increasing amounts of "advanced" biofuels, primarily cellulosic ethanol, were mandated. Unfortunately, cellulosic ethanol was simply not ready for production in 2010, and so the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which was authorized to adjust the RFS if targets couldn't be met, had to scale back the cellulosic ethanol mandate.
It's not easy to produce cellulosic biofuels, because the feedstock plant materials are loaded with cellulose, hemicellulose, and a woody material named "lignin" that have to be broken down with considerable effort. The plant material has to be ground up, treated with acids and other chemicals, further treated with a set of enzymes, and (at least in some processes) digested by microbes. It's a necessarily complicated process, and until recently it's been an expensive one.
Now the process has been optimized, improved enzymes being a critical element, and cellulosic ethanol is finally looking competitive -- all the more so because Congress has handed cellulosic ethanol manufacturers a tax credit of a dollar for every gallon they sell. Industry advocates believe cellulosic ethanol has arrived. Technically, maybe so, but politically it hasn't proven quite that simple. [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* AFRICA IN THE 21ST CENTURY (6): The ninth stop on the African tour, Ethiopia, a land of 85 million people, seems a study in contradictions. In the wake of decolonization, many newborn African nations opted for state control over society under the banner of various flavors of socialism, with generally dismal results. In Ethiopia statism lingers, but visitors get the impression it works. Roads are in good condition, infrastructure is being built, the croplands are productive and becoming more so.
The Ethiopian miracle is under the direction of government officials with near-dictatorial powers, working under a state mandate to develop the economy and reduce poverty. The program was outlined by the late prime minister, Meles Zenawi, beginning in the 1990s, with the target of improving agriculture, which accounts for almost half of GDP and employs 79% of the workforce. Markets and foreign investment are allowed, if kept under careful watch; the government takes its cues from China, while emphatically rejecting Western capitalism. The government says the future for Ethiopia is a liberal democracy, but nobody's saying it's going to happen soon.
Ethiopian officials are evidently diligent, working efficiently at the state plan. There's little corruption, good communication between arms of the government, and a willingness to accept outside advice. In two decades, Ethiopia has gone from two universities to 32; most villages have schools and clinics. Child mortality rates have fallen drastically, though Ethiopians are still largely poor, with an average yearly personal income in 2011 of about $400, less than a third of that of sub-Saharan Africa in general.
While improvements in Ethiopia are perfectly visible to visitors, skeptics have their doubts, suggesting that official statistics of progress are inflated. International experts don't buy the 11% GDP growth rate peddled by the government, suggesting it's really only about half that -- which is still not doing badly. There are evident problems, however, one being inflation, which went to 40% in 2011, though it has since dropped to 15%. Addis Abbaba, the capital, is full of half-built structures, work on them having stalled when money ran out. The government spends beyond its means, for example building an ambitious set of dams to generate electrical power, and then uses heavy-handed monetary policy to try to keep the currency, the birr, afloat.
The government's attempt to keep farmers on the land to raise crops and cattle is also running into trouble, mostly because of rapid population growth in rural areas, resulting in ever tinier and less productive plots. Short of curbing population growth, the government can only respond by encouraging industrialization and urbanization. The government is reluctantly embracing the concept, seeking with equal reluctance foreign capital, as well as some degree of private enterprise.
OK, private enterprise of a sort, the supposed private sector being dominated by sprawling and over-diversified conglomerates run by state cronies. Outside investment tends to be similarly hobbled by the inclination of the government to make promises, and then reverse course a few years down the road; industrialization is constrained by the low level of education and the poor logistics system. Outsiders are also nervous of the heavy-handed way the government deals with impoverished Ethiopians who are in the way of progress, pushing them around and then stepping on them hard when they push back. No international firm wants to be tainted by human-rights abuses.
The government needs to have a better grasp of what it can do and what it can't. Telecoms are kept under state control to ensure that internet-driven unrest won't happen in Ethiopia, with China-style internet filtering the norm. The result is that the country has one of the lowest rates of mobile-phone and internet connection on the continent. The banking system remains under the thumb of the government, unable to effectively provide capital for development. According to an Ethiopian economist: "The model as it is now is unsustainable." Just how long the government can continue on the trajectory set by Meles Zenawi remains to be seen. [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* GIMMICKS & GADGETS: In an age of ever-growing wireless interconnection, cities are becoming more digitally enabled. As reported by BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK Santander in Spain, a city of 180,000, is on the leading edge of the digital city wave. Buried under its streets, or discreetly tacked on to buses, utility poles, and trash dumpsters, are roughly 12,000 electronic sensors to keep track of urban noise, traffic conditions, and everything else the city government wants to know about.
Santander's downtown streets feature electronic signs that lead drivers to available parking spots, reducing congestion. Dumpsters are being fitted with sensors to allow them to report when they're full and should be emptied, while sensors are buried in parks to measure soil dampness, with watering performed only when the parks seem too dry. The city is also working towards wireless smart water meters, eliminating the need for door-to-door meter readers. The city's mayor, Inigo de la Serna, says the "SmartSantander" effort should cut city waste-management bills by 20% in 2013, and he hopes for a 25% drop in energy bills as public buildings become smarter in their energy use.
The SmartSantander effort is under the direction of a 20-person development team led by Luis Munoz, an engineering professor at the University of Cantabria. The system wires in citizens as well, providing them with a mobile app to allow them to report potholes and other problems, then receive updates from officials. Another app tracks the availability of apps and buses, while a third app allows citizens to get prices at local outlets by scanning a QC code label.
Scores of other cities are tinkering with similar technologies; the sensors are less of the task than the massive data-analysis job. Unsurprisingly, megacities like New York or Tokyo also face a greater challenge from their sheer size. Santander, being of city of moderate size, is something of a pilot program for smart city efforts; most of the initial outlay of 8.6 million euros ($11.1 million USD) was provided by a European Union grant, though now it is largely self-sustaining via charges and savings from city utilities and contractors. Companies such as IBM, NEC, Ericsson, and Alcatel-Lucent. As goes Santander, so goes the world.
* While electronic ID systems are moving more or less steadily ahead, airline baggage handling is something of a laggard. British Airways has been working with the Designworks firm to get things moving, developing a prototype reusable electronic luggage tag with a wireless link and an e-ink display.
Using an app, flight information can be downloaded into the tag, with the appropriate information presented on the e-ink display. The display also provides a standard barcode with the information; that means that the tag can be used with existing baggage-sorting systems. The prototype uses a near-field wireless interface; if the tag goes to production, it will use a Bluetooth interface instead, so any smartphone running the BA app will be able to communicate with it.
* In an ingenious iPhone application, researchers at the University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras, in San Juan, are using smartphones to measure biodiversity, as the core element of the "Automated Remote Biodiversity Monitoring Network (ARBIMON)". The iPhones are installed in solar-powered field stations; they wake up at intervals, record audio for a minute, and relay the sound file to a master server. The server software uses a library of sound signatures to filter through the files and identify various species from their vocalizations -- for example, picking up the soft grunt of the endangered coqui llanero frog. Additional sound signatures can be added to allow the system to pick out as many animals as desired.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* BOGUS DRUGS: As reported by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("Bad Medicine", 13 October 2012), we tend to trust in the safety and efficacy of the medicines we take, but that trust isn't entirely well-founded. In the fall of 2012, tainted steroids from a compounding pharmacy -- one which mixes its own drugs -- near Boston killed about a dozen people with fungal meningitis and sickened more than 100. A contaminated blood thinner, heparin, was linked to 149 American deaths in 2007:2008. In 2012, it was learned that some vials of the cancer medicine Avastin contained no active ingredient.
There are no reliable statistics on what proportion of medicines are stolen, defective, or fakes, but "bad pharma" is a global problem, and national drug-safety agencies are struggling to deal with it. It's bad enough in the rich world; it's much worse in poorer countries where health systems are rickety, officials easily bribed, and consumers are desperate. In Nigeria, Africa's biggest market for medicines, a 2011 survey by the World Health Organization (WHO) found that 64% of antimalarial drugs were fake. Over 70% of drugs consumed in Nigeria are imported from India and China, generally seen as the biggest sources of fakes.
Bogus cures have been peddled for millennia; indeed, at one time they were more or less the norm. We think we've advanced beyond the era of snake oils in the 21st century, and we have, but in response snake oil has become stealthy. Oversight of drug production is imperfect, even honest drug makers can end up cutting corners, and not all drug makers are honest. Outright crooks see fake pharma as a golden business opportunity, the profits being high and the penalties usually being low. One of the particular attractions for crooks is that the drug production chain is elaborate and can be spread out over the globe. The various raw components for drugs may be obtained from several sources, spanning the continents, to be manufactured and packaged for shipment to distributors. Things can then happen to drugs in the distribution chain. Criminals can infiltrate the supply train at any point, with the distributed nature of the system making them hard to spot and trace. In the heparin case, Chinese suppliers replaced the main ingredient with a cheaper, dangerous substance that still passed validation tests.
There's no shortage of efforts to deal with the problem. Operation Pangea, an international police effort against illegal online pharmacies, involves a hundred countries and has shut down tens of thousands of online pill-pushers. However, the online outlets aren't necessarily the Black Hats; such outlets often sell good drugs at low prices, and when they sell bad drugs, they may have been swindled themselves on what they thought was a fair deal. Some poor countries have protested crackdowns on the bogus drug trade, believing the real goal is to shut down generic drug industries in undeveloped nations. As result, progress on international agreements to work against bad pharma has been slow.
Similarly, although the technology to "track and trace" medicines is available, it's been hard to get countries to agree on which scheme to use. Some states, with problems too big to allow them to wait, are adopting schemes on their own. Nigeria has taken highly effective measures, which by some estimates have cut the proportion of bogus drugs in circulation there from half the market to a tenth in five years. One trick is "TruScan", a cheap hand-held spectroscope that allows officials to spot fakes at the point of import -- America, Germany, Sweden and Canada now use TruScan tech as well. Nigeria has also introduced a scratch-off label system, in which users text the revealed code from their phones to verify the product before consuming it. However, the scheme is voluntary and so far only a few firms have adopted it.
Chinese officials, becoming increasingly concerned over the bad reputation of Chinese drugs, have been cracking down on fakes, and even executed its top drug official in 2007 for taking bribes to approve untested medicine. India has commissioned feasibility studies of track-and-trace technology from Wipro, a software and services giant. Unfortunately, due to lack of will and capability, India's oversight of its own drug industry is weak.
The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the world's biggest drug-safety agency, has been reaching beyond America's borders. Since 2008, the FDA has opened offices in China, India, South Africa, Jordan, Mexico, Belgium and other countries. A new law sets higher penalties for counterfeiters and allocates funding for the agency to inspect more factories overseas. Still, the FDA can't do the job alone; but drug firms are throwing their weight into the battle as well. Big pharma company Pfizer hires former police, investigators, and customs officials all over the world, building cases against bogus drug peddlers and then passing them off to law enforcement.
The problem is still growing. In January 2009, 81 countries had found counterfeit versions of 20 Pfizer drugs; as of July 2012, 106 had found 60 such fakes. Says a Nigerian drug-safety official: "Counterfeiting is like a balloon filled with water. You push it on one side, but when you remove your hand, it bounces back even stronger."COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* FLY LNG: The US military's interest in green energy has been discussed here in the past, an article last April showing how the US Navy is pursuing energy efficiency to reduce operational costs, and investing in alternative fuels to obtain assured fuel supplies. Other US armed services are also interested in green energy to a greater or lesser degree -- but the mixed attitude of the US Congress has complicated such activities.
America's natural gas boom has added a further complication, though by no means an unwelcome one, to the military's search for assured fuel sources. As reported by an article from AVIATION WEEK ("Fueling Choice" by Graham Warwick, 29 July 2013), Boeing Research & Technology has been performing studies for the US Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) on a future cargolift aircraft for the Air Force, projected for the 2025:2030 timeframe, that could either fly on conventional jet fuel or liquefied natural gas (LNG).
The use of LNG to power aircraft is not a new idea; in fact, Boeing suggested the concept in a 2012 study for the US National Aeronautics & Space Administration. Now having performed further investigation, Boeing engineers believe that by 2040, LNG aviation fuel will be 50% cheaper than "Jet A" fuel; LNG, which is essentially methane, is a very efficient fuel and also burns clean. There's a catch, however, in that LNG fuel tanks have to be large and cryogenically cooled. As a result, the Boeing study for the AFRL focused on the stingray-like "blended wing-body" aircraft configuration, with plenty of volume for both jet fuel and LNG tanks. The relatively bulky LNG tanks would add weight, but the higher efficiency of LNG would more than compensate.
Still, to keep the LNG tanks to manageable size and weight, the design study assumed that LNG would only be used to fly the aircraft the range of an average mission, or about half maximum range. The jet fuel tanks would be sized for full range; a mission could use both LNG and jet fuel for extended range. The question of range leads to the interesting question of midair refueling of LNG-powered aircraft; it sounds tricky on the face of it, and the article said nothing about it. In any case, some jet fuel would be required even if a mission was to be flown on LNG, since chilly LNG has to be vaporized to burn. Jet fuel would be used for takeoffs in any case, with LNG taking over during the climb.
Fabricating reusable, lightweight cryogenic storage tanks for LNG is seen as a challenge. Space launch vehicles burning cryogenic propulsion use insulation that's too bulky for aircraft applications; the double-walled steel "dewar" tanks used on LNG-powered vehicles are compact enough, but too heavy. Current thinking envisions LNG aircraft tanks built as dewars, using advanced lightweight materials. The cold storage of the LNG would have an advantage in providing a cooling to support aircraft systems.
The use of high-bypass turbofan engines that can burn either jet fuel or LNG is not seen as an obstacle; turbine engines are not notably picky about the fuel they use, and there are nonflying turbines that can handle dual fuels. General Electric's LM2500 power turbines, a derivative of the popular CF6 turbofan, is already in use on high-speed ferries built by Incat Tasmania of Australia. Such vessels able to attain over 92 KPH (57 MPH / 50 KT) on two LM2500 power turbines, running either marine diesel or LNG.
There is the issue of LNG supply infrastructure, but LNG is becoming an established fuel, and that problem also looks likely to take care of itself. However, since the US military operates globally, dual-fuel operation seems a prudent option, allowing the Air Force to fly using either of the two fuels, as dictated by local availability and relative cost.
ED: I poked around online a bit on the subject of LNG-powered aircraft, vaguely recalling the Soviets did some work on the concept. Yeah, in the late 1980s the Tupolev design bureau modified a Tu-154 airliner -- a tri-jet broadly comparable to the Boeing 727 -- as the "Tu-155" to burn either liquid hydrogen or LNG. During my online explorations, one commenter pointed out a potential advantage of LNG-powered jetliners: "It would be great because you could have barbecues on the plane instead of the stuff they now serve." That deserves a point or two.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* BIOFUEL BATTLE (1): As discussed by an article from AAAS SCIENCE ("Battle For The Barrel" by Robert F. Service, 22 March 2013), enthusiasm for biofuels has been dampened by growing criticisms. Currently, biofuels have been synthesized from crop plants, such as sugar cane or corn. One issue that's been raised is efficiency: while sugar cane -- widely used for biofuel synthesis in Brazil -- is an efficient biofuel feedstock, corn -- the most popular feedstock in the USA -- isn't nearly as efficient, with the most severe critics saying it takes more resources to produce than it delivers. That's an extreme view, but even advocates admit the return on investment is unspectacular.
And then there's the issue of converting croplands to grow food to biofuel production, which critics claim is irresponsible as the world heads for a food production crunch, or suggest that at the very least will inflate food prices. There's counter-arguments against that as well, advocates pointing out that large-scale production of cotton for fabrics puts no real pressure on food production. However, there is broad agreement that, instead of growing crop plants for fuel, it would be good to produce biofuels from "cellulosic" materials such as trees and grasses that could be produced on lands unsuitable for food production, or from crop wastes -- cornstalks and the like -- that are now discarded. Every tonne of harvested cereals is typically accompanied by two to three tonnes of cellulose-rich scrap, most of which goes to waste.
Unfortunately, cellulosic materials are hard to digest, and it's been very difficult to produce biofuels from them in a cost-effective fashion. Pilot plants have been built, but traditionally they haven't been able to turn out product in volumes greater than those of a fine whiskey distillery, at completely uncompetitive prices. Now several companies are now claiming they are close to beginning large-scale, commercial production of cellulosic biofuels, and others are following.
Texas biofuels company KiOR INC has spent more than $200 million USD setting up a cellulosic ethanol plant, where shredded wood wastes are mixed with a proprietary catalytic powder, to remove the oxygen and then convert the remaining molecules of carbon and hydrogen -- "renewable crude" in KiOR's terminology -- into gasoline and diesel fuel. KiOR plans to turn out 50 million liters (13 million US gallons) of fuel a year and has already lined up three companies to buy its output, including FedEx and a joint venture of Weyerhauser and Chevron.
Ineos, a European oil and chemical company, is finishing up a $130 million USD plant in Vero Beach, Florida, that cooks wood and woody garbage to break it down into "synthesis gas" or "syngas", made up of hydrogen and carbon monoxide. The syngas is then fed into a giant steel bioreactor, where bacteria use it to produce ethanol. The company hopes to leverage off a nearby landfill for feedstocks, with plans to produce about 30 million liters (8 million US gallons) a year.
30 million liters is only about 1% of Florida's ethanol demand; both plants are much smaller than typical oil refineries. However, they are not experimental, they're full-scale industrial operations, and commercial production at either one of them -- or at any of the other new plants now being built -- would be a breakthrough. KiOR says that its renewable fuels will, to no surprise, have a much lower carbon footprint than petroleum fuels, and the plant will produce electricity as well, reducing the load on powerplants driven by coal or natural gas.
Ground is being broken for more cellulosic biofuel plants in the USA and around the world. Advocates are bullish. In 2001, the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) estimated the cost of producing a liter of cellulosic ethanol at a prohibitive $2.38 USD, well worse than corn ethanol, much worse than gasoline. Now NREL estimates that cellulosic ethanol can be produced for 57 cents a liter, only slightly more than corn ethanol. Cellulosic ethanol production costs are likely to drop further as production increases and more experience is acquired.
Cellulosic ethanol appears to be ready for takeoff -- but the skeptics are massing to fight it. The US Congress has long backed cellulosic ethanol, but so far there's been little to show for it, and the critics believe it's time for Congress to drop its backing. The battle over cellulosic ethanol is shaping up to be noisy and bitter, with US Agricultural Secretary Tom Vilsack warning biofuel backers: "It's a very dicey time." [TO BE CONTINUED]NEXT | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* AFRICA IN THE 21ST CENTURY (5): If the Nigerian message is mixed in Lagos and Abuja, it seems thoroughly dismal in the north of the country. Checkpoints and soldiers are much in evidence in Kano, the biggest city in the region, since there's an ongoing state of war with a local Islamist insurgency named Boko Haram. The insurgents kill hundreds each year in raids and car bombings; Nigerian security forces kill hundreds more in response.
Kano is one of the border areas of Africa's unstable interior, a region defined by the Sahara to the north, the jungles of the Congo to the south, and the borders of Uganda to the east. The area is poor, illiterate, starving, afflicted with disease and out-of-control violence. In 2012, Islamist insurgents exploited instability in Mali to take over until French forces sent them packing. The wreckage of war is easily seen in South Sudan and the Congo, with locals having plenty of entirely plausible horror stories to tell. Outsiders aren't safe either, with some foreign visitors kidnapped, some killed.
The problems there seem to exist in a vicious cycle: bad governments lead to uprisings, leading to repression and more rebellion. Algeria is a fair example, the country having been fighting Islamists for two decades, with about 100,000 slain in all. The Islamists are bad, not too concerned about killing those who get in their way; the government is just as bad, addicted to arbitrary arrest and torture. Civilian activists have made some progress, though the state often steps on them; the activists get by through aid activities, the state having nothing much to offer there, and by using the internet to blow the whistle. One such activist commented: "Change comes slowly, but it comes."
Democratic countries such as Senegal and Ghana provide models for a better state of things. The popular uprisings of the Arab Spring over the past few year also provide models, one Sudanese activist saying: "We want a broad public uprising. Look, even the Egyptians had a revolution. Their ruler was like a pharaoh, but he is gone now. Sudan can follow."
The message of the Arab Spring continues to be mixed, however, with continued unrest in Egypt and violent chaos in Syria, though Libya seems to have settled out after having permanently disposed of the loathed Muammar Qaddafi, one of Africa's most whimsical and notorious Big Men. The one unambiguous positive note is that the resonance of the Arab uprising with peoples in repressive African states gives notice to bad governments that public patience with misrule is no longer unlimited.
The Cold War being over, ugly African governments don't have the option any more of manipulating the rivalries of world powers to stay in control. Indeed, today world powers are inclined to make life more difficult for thug leadership. Bad leaders can complain about the hypocrisy of meddling outsiders with their own bad histories all they like; nobody's going to be very sympathetic to such complaints, and all the outsiders can say is: "That was then, this is now."
Of course, governments may well react to challenges from their citizens with more repressiveness -- but the leadership might well wonder if that has any real future. As responsible and peaceful African states advance into the 21st century, the laggards will continue to fall behind, with their position becoming ever less credible. [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* SCIENCE NOTES: As reported by AAAS SCIENCE NOW Online, a team of British biologists have now published an unarguably unique book: THE ATLAS OF VERTEBRATE DECAY -- which provides imagery to document the gradual decay of a half dozen marine vertebrate species, including the Atlantic hagfish, the lamprey, several species of sharks, and the fishlike amphioxus -- the last being commonly regarded as the model for the very first vertebrate species.
The book may sound like an absurd endeavor, but it makes sense. Paleontologists rarely find fossils of long-extinct species in a particularly intact fashion, some paleontologists describing their most prized fossils as "road kills", and so figuring out what an animal looked like from its fossil can be tricky. The ATLAS was intended to provide samples to show what animals in various stages of decay actually look like, as a guide to fossil interpretation. Obviously the ATLAS can be extended. Who knows? Maybe it will ultimately include road kills.
* We tend to think of ladybugs or "ladybirds" as cute little insects, but they're voracious predators, feasting on aphids and other pests. As a result, as discussed by SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN Online a particularly effective ladybug, the "harlequin ladybird" -- named because of the wide range of natural variation in its coloration patterns -- was imported from Asia to Europe and North America as natural pest control. However, they tended to displace local ladybug species with startling rapidity.
The reason why turned out to be devious. The harlequin ladybird is typically infected with a parasite named microsporidia, a sort of single-cell fungus, which causes them little harm. However, when live microsporidia are injected into rival ladybug species the eggs die, since they lack immunity against the parasite. Ladybugs compete against rival ladybug species by eating their eggs and larvae -- but when local species eat the eggs or larvae of harlequin ladybirds, they get a dose of microsporidia that kills them. That's the perversity of evolution at work: one species adapting to a parasite and in doing so, acquiring it as a weapon against rival species.
* In a report from AAAS SCIENCE NOW Online, an international team of researchers has developed a thermometer scheme that can measure temperature changes down to 0.044 degrees Celsius. Due to defects in their crystal lattice, when tiny diamonds are illuminated by green light they emit red light, the intensity of which increases with their temperature and which can be measured by sensitive instruments. The researchers used a silicon nanowire to insert gold nanoparticles and diamond nanocrystals into a living cell. The gold nanoparticles were illuminated with a laser to turn them into heaters, with the diamond nanocrystals indicating the resulting temperature change. The immediate objective was to determine the heat sensitivity of cell functions.
* I was over at the gym and glancing at the TV monitors, to catch a bit of a program about "flying rods" -- say what? It looked like some sort of UFOlogy, but I didn't get the details. I went home and looked up "flying rods" online. It does touch on UFOlogy, but it's really more in the field of "cryptozoology" -- the Loch Ness Monster, Bigfoot, and so on. The flying rods look like rods, varying in length corresponding to middling to large birds, and have rows of wings on each side. Few claim to have actually seen them, most of the "sightings" being from video imagery.
There's not much mystery there: a flying insect will produce a streak as it flies across in a video image, and its rapidly vibrating wings, reflecting in the light, will leave through a strobing effect what looks like a row of wings along the blur. The same effect can be obtained with a still camera using a long exposure. Incidentally, some of the videos show the flying rods being pursued by swallows, which should be a big hint, since swallows live on insects caught on the fly.
There seems to be a mental switch in the human mind that is activated by the sensational: those who are made suspicious by the sensational, and take the switch to the right, have problems understanding those who are attracted to the sensational, and take the switch to the left. It is reassuring that very few people have much interest in the flying rods.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* NO FISHING: Ocean fisheries have been described as the "last domain of the hunter-gatherer", with fleets of trawlers canvassing the open seas for seafood to put on the table. Unfortunately, the trawlers have been so good at their job that they are threatening to destroy the fish populations on which they depend. As reported by an article from AAAS SCIENCE ("Giant Marine Reserves Pose Vast Challenges" by Christopher Pala, 8 February 2013), to protect fish stocks, since 2006 the US, Australia, and Britain have banned fishing in more than 1.9 million square kilometers (730,000 square miles) of ocean -- an area the size of Mexico. More "megareserves" are now being considered that would add 3.6 million square kilometers (1.38 million square miles) to the off-limits areas.
Marine sanctuaries are nothing new, but previously they were geographically small affairs, focused on patches of coral or coastal fish stocks; the new sanctuaries are on a vastly greater scale. Conservation biologists are pleased with the drive towards big oceanic sanctuaries, though everyone involved admits enforcement will be a challenge, and that obtaining hard data on effectiveness of such measures will be troublesome. Some environmentalists fear the reserves amount to nothing more than hype.
It was American President George W. Bush who got the movement going in 2006 by designating about 362,000 square kilometers (140,000 square miles) around the northwestern Hawaiian Islands as a US Marine National Monument, in which all exploitation was banned. Britain followed in 2010 by establishing a much bigger sanctuary around the Chagos Islands in the Indian Ocean; and in 2010, Australia banned all fishing in the Coral Sea, a marine territory covering almost a million square kilometers, making it the biggest marine sanctuary in the world.
Of these three, only the Chagos Islands reserve had been heavily fished, mostly for tuna. Fish stocks there were depleted, and conservationists are eager to see if the populations will be restored. Commercial fishermen, who haven't been keen on the reserves, are skeptical, for example saying that tuna are speedy and mobile, so just setting aside an isolated block of ocean is unlikely to make much difference. Marine biologists are more optimistic, saying studies show that tuna don't migrate over long distances. The ban on fishing in the Chagos will also help animals that were inadvertently killed off by fishermen, including seabirds and sea turtles.
Of course, to back up the case for the reserves advocates will need data, and that's a tricky issue. One problem is identifying the size of fish populations. Ironically, that was traditionally done by tracking fish catches, but once fishing stops that source of data ends as well. Australian researchers have developed an ocean buoy with two underwater cameras to visually sample for several hours the numbers of fish that feed from a bait bag associated with the buoy. British researchers have used a sonar sounder to map out fish concentrations.
And then there's policing. The first issue there is spotting poachers. Since there's so much ocean to cover, satellite observation seems like the best approach, using commercial imaging satellites. Notions for a dedicated constellation of smallsats -- not merely with imaging capabilities, but with the ability to track fishing vessels from their locator systems -- remain speculative. The second issue is enforcement, which isn't so technically challenging, it's just a question of expanding the size of ocean patrol organizations, making sure they have the aircraft and vessels to do the job.
Future plans for expansion of marine reserves means even more resources will be required in the future -- at least, if those who set up the reserves are serious about the issue. In 2008, the Phoenix Islands set up a reserve covering 408,000 square kilometers (157,000 square miles), winning praise from conservationists, until they learned that fishing was still generally permitted in the reserve. In other words, the "reserve" was really nothing but a publicity stunt. More recently the Cook Islands and New Caledonia have set up even bigger, if just as farcical, reserves.
Still, marine reserves seem to be an idea whose time is coming. The oceans are vast, and declaring large tracts of it off-limits will still leave plenty of space for fishermen. We might even envision a time where the oceans are by default off-limits, with reserves set up for fishing. That might seem high-handed, but if depletion of fish stocks is allowed to continue, eventually the fishing fleets will be out of business anyway. There's no strong case to deny exploitation of the oceans; it's just a question of making it sustainable.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* PARTNERSHIP TO THE MOON? Space commercialism seems to be showing signs of life in the Obama Administration, after decades of sluggish progress. As reported by AVIATION WEEK ("Getting Down" by Frank Morring JR, 15 July 2013), the US National Aeronautics & Space Administration (NASA) is interested what private industry can do in lunar exploration: at the beginning of July, NASA issues a request for information (RFI) to commercial firms for lunar exploration concepts.
The NASA RFI is not coupled to the Google Lunar X-Prize, the private competition to land probes on the Moon -- discussed here in 2011 -- NASA officials seeing it more as a complementary effort. The RFI requested proposals for two types of Moon landers: one in the 30 to 100 kilogram (66 to 220 pound) range, one in the 250 to 450 kilogram (550 to 1,000 pound) range.
Possible missions include prospecting for volatiles at the Moon's poles; lunar sample return; and setting up lunar geophysical monitoring networks. NASA is very interested in hunting for volatiles, currently working with the Canadian Space Agency on a program named "Regolith & Environment Science & Oxygen & Lunar Volatiles Extraction (RESOLVE)" to drill for water on the Moon and determine if whatever is found could be exploited to support space missions. Lunar X-Prize entrants are also very interested in exploitation of lunar resources; NASA is proposing partnerships with the firms, not contract relationships, NASA officials envisioning support to commercially-funded lunar missions instead of using government funds for the missions. If that can be done, it could lead to similar relationships for asteroid and Mars exploration.
* As reported by WIRED Online, two private companies are teaming up to plan a space mission to the Moon's south pole in order to place a telescope atop a lunar mountain. The plan is being driven by the International Lunar Observatory Association (ILOA), a non-profit aiming to build a scientific and commercial base on the moon, with help from the startup Moon Express, mentioned in the 2011 article linked to above.
The collaboration wants to put a 2-meter (6.5-foot) diameter radio telescope, along with a small optical telescope, on a lunar peak, most likely the 5-kilometer (3-mile) high rim of a crater named Malapert. From that site, both telescopes could view the center of the Milky Way with unprecedented clarity, because they wouldn't be subjected to our atmosphere's hazy interference; the Moon would also block them from radio and other electromagnetic noise created by modern civilization.
There's long been thoughts of putting a radio telescope on the lunar farside, where it would be shielded from Earth's radio emissions, but that would mean a costly communications satellite constellation to relay the telescope's observations back to Earth. The lunar south pole would be a compromise location, not as completely isolated as the farside, but with a line of sight to Earth. The site would also be exposed to the Sun for most of the time, ensuring it had solar power and would not need to endure the deep cold of the two-week lunar night.
The Moon's south pole is, for similar reasons, a good possible site for a Moonbase. Moon Express wants to include a rover with the mission to perform prospecting for useful mineral resources. The plan is to launch no later than 2018. Costs are estimated at about $100 million USD; the collaboration hopes to obtain financial backing from astronomy groups or space agencies, but hasn't started asking for money yet. The plan, in other words, is essentially on paper for the time being -- and no private firm, despite a lot of activity in the field, has yet landed a probe on the Moon. To be sure, things do seem to be looking up for commercial space these days, but that has to be seen as relative to a dismal past history.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* ANOTHER MONTH: I made the summer installment of my twice-yearly trip to Spokane, Washington, in August -- getting up early on the last Sunday of the month to hit Interstate 25 north through Wyoming and Interstate 90 across southern Montana, through the Idaho Panhandle and into Washington State. The drive was uneventful, bug strikes being annoying but not excessive, the only interesting thing being the wild profusion of middling-sized sunflowers along the sides of the road all through the lowlands, both directions of the trip. They were something of a relief during the ride.
I didn't recall seeing them in such quantity before; I wondered if they had been deliberately seeded, but eventually I saw outcrops of them well away from the road. I had a notion that the commercial growing of sunflowers for seed and oil was behind the proliferation, the seeds being scattered from crop fields by birds and rodents. I had expected to see a lot of smoke from the fires in central Idaho, but the only evidence was haze in southern Wyoming. No smell of smoke.
I spent the night at the Hampton Inn in Missoula, Montana; come Monday morning, I went over the mountains on I-90, driving through a bit of rain, which I judged as all for the good in helping hold down the fires. I went up to my brother Terry's house -- something of a manor, really -- up in the hills overlooking the Spokane Valley in the east of town. The house is up in the woods; there were five deer around, I failed to get good shots of them, but I did manage to get an excellent set of a chipmunk at a feeder. No chipmunks in Colorado, at least as far as I've ever seen; just squirrels, rats with furry tails. I miss chipmunks, they've cornered the market on "cute".
The rationale for going to Spokane was my Mom's birthday, the celebration to be that evening at a restaurant downtown named the Wild Sage. I hitched a ride with Terry and family in his SUV. The Wild Sage was a nice enough place, high-class food, definitely not cheap but not painfully exorbitant either. One of their gimmicks was to provide warm puffs with sweet butter as appetizers instead of bread, that working very well; the group also ordered some taquitos for appetizers, which were tasty and made tastier by a red hot sauce. I liked our waitress, too, she was striking -- to get my order over the noise of the place, she was talking to me about a hand's width in front of my face, which I found unsettling.
I got up in the dark Tuesday morning to hit the road back to Colorado. Instead of going south from I-90 on I-25, I took Interstate 15 into southern Idaho, the intent being to visit the little zoos at Idaho Falls and Pocatello. I thought it was going to be smoky because of the fires in the center of the state, but no, it was a very pretty drive through the ranchlands.
I had visited the Idaho Falls zoo in 2006, as discussed here at the time, and been impressed by it. It didn't seem quite so impressive the second time around, but it was still a creditable job for a relatively small town -- indeed, it puzzles me that Spokane, a much larger town, never had a zoo that I ever heard of. Part of the let-down was that some of the exhibits, most notably the otter pool, were offline for construction, though they did have a very nice new monkey house. It could be a really nice little zoo if they keep up the improvements.
I kept on driving south to Pocatello to see the zoo there, but it was pathetic. Many of the exhibits were down for construction, but it wouldn't have been very impressive if they had been up and operating. I did get some shots of a lynx, and also encountered a pronghorn buck, standing up next to the cyclone fence in the open area for large herbivores. Pronghorns are normally skittish creatures, but this fellow appeared to have been born in captivity -- he had no fear of humans at all, sniffing at my fingers through the fence. I didn't stay long; I found the colorful play fixture in the adjoining aquatic center more interesting a photo subject than the entire zoo.
I left Pocatello on schedule, exiting I-15 to Interstate 30, cutting across southwestern Wyoming -- I missed the turnoff, but there was another exit not far down the road, so I got turned back around quickly enough. I had never gone that way before so I was curious, but it didn't amount to much but desolation; hills and sagebrush, marked by about a dozen little towns where I had to briefly slow down. I got onto Interstate 80 going east about sundown, making it into Rock Springs, Wyoming, to spend the night at the Hampton Inn there.
I got up later than I planned on Wednesday, but I still took the time to visit the student center at Western Wyoming Community College in Rock Springs, just off I-80. I'd dropped in briefly before, on a return trip from Spokane in August 2008; it's set up like a science museum mixed in with the shops and other student facilities, mostly featuring dinosaur exhibits -- a carnosaur dominates the main area -- but also a Foucault pendulum.
That didn't take long, and the miles melted away as I drove east on I-80, finally getting into Loveland at noon, right on schedule. I jumped into the usual flurry of activity to get back to normal life -- stopped at the library to stock up on magazines for blog fodder, unpacked, shopped for groceries, mowed the lawn, washed the bugs and dirt off my car, got my trip expenses fully tallied and archived, cleaned up some website items I had thought of on the trip, sorted through my travel kits to organize them for the next outing, and so on. I was a little pressured because I have to do a lot of tinkering with things at the end of the month, and I hadn't been able to complete much of it before I left.
That evening I poured a hot bath and sat down in it -- to immediately melt down into a stupor. Sometimes I push myself for days and don't realize how wearying it is until I finally get to a stopping point. I was exhausted, and I didn't get back in full tune for another few days. I had been thinking of taking another trip, to the Southwest, in a month, but at that moment I wasn't enthusiastic about the idea. I'm pretty sure I'm going to do it, but I'm definitely going to think it out more.
* I got into an update of the illustrations for my websites in October 2013, not realizing just how big a task it is. I finally got done in the last half of August, having been spending all time I could spare on the project since October and letting other things go hang for the moment. I updated literally thousands of images.
I'm doing a double-check so I'm not done yet, but I can see the end of the task now. I can't honestly say if the websites look really good, nobody is an accurate judge of their own work, but I can certainly say they look a lot better. There's really an impressive amount of public-domain imagery out there to use as one pleases; what's really pleasing is that the availability of such is only likely to improve in the future.COMMENT ON ARTICLE