nov 2013 / last mod nov 2016 / greg goebel

* 21 entries including: Cold War (series), Africa in 21st century (series), Albuquerque road trip (series), concerns over coastal flooding from climate change, Power USB, DARPA does advanced sensors, oil fracking Red Queen's Race, NASA running short on plutonium, tablet computer wars 2013, New Horizons probe in rehearsal for Pluto flyby, climate change has the slows, and ice age simulation.

banner of the month

[FRI 22 NOV 13] THE COLD WAR (1)
[TUE 12 NOV 13] TABLET WARS 2013


* NEWS COMMENTARY FOR NOVEMBER 2013: Regarding the cautious optimism expressed here two months ago over possible progress in the international confrontation over Iran's nuclear program, on 24 November an agreement was hammered out in Geneva between Iran on one side and China, France, Germany, Russia, the UK, and the USA on the other that was a clear step towards a resolution -- a small step, yes, but still a step.

Under the agreement, Iran has promised to stop all uranium enrichment above 5%, the level consistent with synthesizing fuel for civil reactors, and to neutralize its stockpile of 20% enriched uranium, not bomb-grade but on the road there, through dilution or other means. Iran will also freeze its level of fuel manufacture, with about half of the country's 18,000 centrifuges to be idled. Work at the heavy-water reactor at Arak, which could be used for plutonium synthesis, will be effectively put on hold, pending further discussion of the matter. The Arak plant had been the sticking point in negotiations to this time, the French being particularly hardnosed in demanding a satisfactory reply from the Iranians. Compliance will be monitored by the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN's nuclear watchdog, with the Iranians to provide unprecedented access to their nuclear facilities: "Trust but verify."

In return, Iran will get "limited, temporary, reversible" relief from sanctions, the value of the relief package being estimate at about $7 billion USD over the six months of the interim agreement. About $3.6 billion USD in frozen foreign accounts will be released, and trade sanctions will be relaxed. The big sanctions on oil and banking still remain in effect, pending a final agreement from talks over the next six months.

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has unsurprisingly blasted the agreement, calling it a "bad deal". More surprisingly, the Saudis have hinted they will acquire the Bomb themselves if the Iranians do -- the Saudi ambassador to the UK, Prince Mohammed, declaring: "We are not going to sit idly by and receive a threat there and not think seriously how we can best defend our country and our region."

In the US Congress, conservative hardliners have also protested the agreement, saying sanctions need to be tightened further, not relaxed. However, polls show twice as many American citizens favor diplomacy with Iran over those who favor the military option -- experience with the military option since the turn of the century having demonstrated to the US public that its value has been oversold. Obama has blasted back at the naysayers, declaring in a speech delivered in San Francisco: "We cannot close the door on diplomacy and we cannot rule out peaceful solutions to the world's problems. Tough talk and bluster may be an easy thing to do politically, but it is not the right thing for our security."

Taking the optimistic view on the future path of events, one interesting matter of speculation is that, if Iran does give up its nuclear weapons program, the Iranians will expect security guarantees from the US in return. The Israelis won't like that idea; after all, who is the biggest threat to Iranian security? Speculating further, if Iran and the US did come to a security agreement, it could lead to cooperative military exercises in the Persian Gulf, the security of the Gulf shipping lanes being a concern to both nations.

* The prospect of a rapprochement between the US and Iran does not make the Saudis happy. As discussed by TIME magazine, the Saudis regard Iran as their chief rival in the Middle East, and have lobbied energetically for the most severe line against Iran's nuclear program. They even rejected a seat on the UN Security Council to indicate their displeasure. Abdullah al-Shamri, an analyst of Saudi foreign affair based in Istanbul and Riyadh, found irony in the situation: "It's as if Saudi Arabia and Iran suddenly traded places. Now Obama and Rouhani are talking on the phone while their foreign ministers shake hands, and it's Saudi Arabia that is throwing the temper tantrums at the UN, shouting about nuclear weapons and trying to show the world that they are angry."

Other observers suggest Saudi frustration is less over Iran itself than the perception that America, Saudi Arabia's longtime ally, is disengaging itself from the Middle East -- having pulled out of Iraq, proven unwilling to seriously intervene in Syria, and now seeking detente with Iran. The result is that Saudi Arabia is increasingly feeling left out in the cold.

It would not be in principle technically difficult for the Saudis to obtain the Bomb; Pakistan has the Bomb, with the Pakistani nuclear weapons program being backed by Saudi money. The difficulty is that it's politically troublesome, since Saudi Arabia has signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and simply obtaining such weapons from Pakistan directly isn't in the cards, all the more so because the Pakistanis have no real motive to get into a fight with Iran themselves. That leaves the possibility of nuclear-armed Pakistani forces being stationed in Saudi Arabia -- but then Saudi-American relations would go from merely chilly, to freezing cold.

Saudi leadership, being pragmatic, is likely to realize there's no sense in going from bad to much worse, leaving accommodation, however grudging, as the only option. The Saudi display of bad humor is no doubt troublesome to US leadership, but Washington DC can see a silver lining, since it sends a message to Iran of the possibility of setting off a regional nuclear arms race. The Bomb, in that light, is then more easily seen as the ruinously expensive and risky liability it is, than as a asset.

* The ongoing war of budgetary obstruction continues in the US Congress, with a faction of ultra-conservatives willing to simply throw a wrench into the workings of the government instead of working towards a consensus. Such political sabotage hasn't done the Republican Party much good in the USA as a whole, but the ultra-conservatives don't care. Thanks to gerrymandering of Congressional districts, they can count on solid support from voters who are just as uncompromising as they are.

Or can they? As reported by BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK, that's not as sure a bet as it might seem. The difficulty is that, as partisan political warfare has continued, the ranks of independent voters have swelled. The independents may lean towards one party or another, but they owe no particular loyalty to political parties, and tend to be centrists. In the wake of the US government shutdown, only 35% of independents judged Republican control of the House of Representatives to be a good thing, down from 54% late last year. In heavily gerrymandered districts in Pennsylvania, ultra-conservative Congressmen have seen their approval ratings fall dramatically.

So does that give some hope for an end to the political logjam? To an extent, yes; the phenomenon of "regression to the mean" suggests that a surge in extreme political positions, being out of the ordinary, tends to fade back to the less extreme. However, that's hardly a hard and fast rule, there being no reason that positions can't get more extreme instead -- as the saying goes, predictions are always difficult, particularly of the future. One thing that can be said is that, once Congress does "regress to the mean", there will be both opportunity and incentive for Congress to set up mechanisms that will make sure nobody can take the government hostage again. Respecting the rights of the minority does not imply acceptance of political vandalism.



* WINGS & WEAPONS: Boeing has been considering an extension to its 777 jetliner series, codenamed "777X", and has finally dropped the other shoe, starting to take in orders for the new aircraft. Prodded on one side by the declining interest in four-engine jets like Boeing's long-enduring 747 jumbo jet, and on the other side by direct competition with the 777 from the upcoming Airbus A350, Boeing has stretched and refined the 777 to provide jumbo passenger loads with twin-engine efficiencies.

The first in the series, the 777-9X, will have a capacity of 400 passengers and will be able to fly as far as 14,800 kilometers (8,000 NMI); it will be followed by another variant with a capacity of 350 passengers and range of 17,400 kilometers (9,400 NMI), enough for New York City to Singapore nonstop. The new jetliner will have the latest avionics; a new interior along the lines of that developed for the 787 jetliner; twin GE9X turbofans providing 454 kN (46,250 kgp / 102,000 lbf) thrust each; and a composite wing derived from that of the 787, with a wingspan of 71 meters (233 feet). The wingspan will be so wide that the wing will have hydraulically-folding wingtips to allow it to fit at existing airport gates.

777X gets ready to fly

The end effect is an aircraft with 15% lower operating costs than existing 777 jetliners. While industry observers believe that the 777X means the end of the 747 line, Boeing insists the 747 remains, at least for the time being, a significant component of their product offering.

* As reported by FLIGHTGLOBAL Online, the US Army has awarded preliminary contracts to four companies for the service's "Joint Multi-Role (JMR)" program, which is focused on the development of technology demonstrators to pave the way towards the "Future Vertical Lift (FVL)" effort, which will determine what should replace much of the US military's current helicopter fleet.

The four proposals selected were from AVX Aircraft Company, Bell Helicopter, Karem Aircraft, and Sikorsky Aircraft. AVX and Sikorsky are proposing compound helicopters, both with coaxial rotors along with propulsion for forward flight -- the AVX entry featuring twin ducted fans, the Sikorsky entry featuring a rear-mounted propeller. The Sikorsky entry, the "SB-1 Defiant", is derived from the company's X-2 high-speed rotorcraft demonstrator, with the company now working an operational follow-on design, the S-97 Raider.

V-280 Valor

Bell is proposing the "V-280 Valor" tilt-rotor, along the lines of the Bell Boeing V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor now in US military service, but smaller and with vee tail instead of the V-22's twin tail. Karem Aircraft is also offering a tilt-rotor, but with Karem's innovative variable-speed rotors, which offer unprecedented flight efficiency. The flight tests of the demonstrators are slated for 2017 -- though in the current chaotic budget climate, military procurement planning has to be taken with a grain of salt, or rather a larger one than usual.

* WIRED Online blogs reports that the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the Pentagon's "blue sky" technology development office, has now initiated a program to operate combat drones off of relatively small naval vessels, such as frigates and destroyers. The "Tactically Exploited Reconnaissance Node (TERN)" program envisions a fixed-wing aircraft with a payload of sensors or weapons of up to 270 kilograms (600 pounds) and an operational radius of up to 1,450 kilometers (900 miles). The requirement to operate off a small ship, of course including operations in less-than-benign weather, suggests some sort of vertical takeoff / landing (VTOL) configuration, such as a tilt-rotor, but DARPA is leaving options on that matter open, suggesting the possibility of some clever takeoff and recovery scheme for a conventional takeoff / landing aircraft.

DARPA is also working a "VTOL X-Plane" research effort, focused on a high-performance VTOL aircraft based on "innovative concepts". VTOL has long been plagued by the fact that such machines typically end up being awkward compromises of fixed-wing aircraft and rotorcraft, generally inferior to each in their respective domains, while being overly complex and expensive. DARPA hopes to find new solutions that will get around the compromises that have limited VTOL development in the past.



* FLOOD SURGE: While the debate over climate change flames on, as reported by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("Coastal Cities & Climate Change: You're Going To Get Wet", 15 June 2013), it is an observable fact that the seas have been rising. For around 2,000 years sea levels remained relatively constant. Between 1880 and 2011, however, they rose by an average of 1.8 millimeters (0.07 inches) a year, and between 1993 and 2011 the average was between 60% to 90% more than that. In 2007, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) forecast that seas could rise by as much as 127 centimeters (23 inches) by 2100. Of course, anything that the IPCC says is controversial, but in the case of sea-level rise, some of the critics have accused the panel of being too conservative. There's also a worry that climate change will make hurricanes and tropical storms more intense.

These facts are more significant in some places than in others. One place where they are a serious concern is Florida. Before Hurricane Sandy tore through New York and New Jersey in October 2012, it hit Florida, with huge waves eroding beaches, sweeping over Fort Lauderdale's concrete sea wall, and flooding onto A1A, Florida's coastal highway. A month later, another set of storms hit south Florida, causing more damage.

Most Floridians live in coastal counties. Buildings cluster on low ground; more people than in any other state live on land less than 1.2 meters (4 feet) above the high-tide line. Salt water surges could easily contaminate the state's freshwater aquifers; the state's drainage canals would be completely overwhelmed by a sea-level rise of only 15 centimeters (6 inches). Florida beachfront property has long been a desireable acquisition, leading to large-scale construction, and so more structures to wreck. The Great Miami Hurricane of 1926, a Category 4 storm, caused $1 billion USD worth of damage in current dollars. If it were to strike today, the insured losses have been estimated at $125 billion USD. In 1992 Hurricane Andrew, a Category 5 storm, caused $23 billion USD in damage; today it would be twice that.

South Florida is only one item in a list of American coastal regions threatened by rising seas. Vulnerable cities include Seattle, San Francisco, Houston, Norfolk -- and of course New York City, which took a savage hammering from Hurricane Sandy. Population and structure densities in NYC are very high, and worse the city has sprawled out onto low-lying reclaimed land that is painfully vulnerable to storm surges. There are 68,000 buildings housing 400,000 people in NYC's flood plain; simply buying out the buildings and moving the city's margins back from the sea is not a practical option.

In 2007 Michael Bloomberg, NYC's mayor, released "PlaNYC", a scheme for adapting to climate change, which could be called "ambitious" or "tyrannical", depending on one's opinion of Bloomberg. It called for, among other things, protecting wetlands and planting more trees, which will keep the city cooler and capture more stormwater run-off. It also demanded changes in building codes. Many of its ideas were incorporated into a more sweeping post-Sandy plan released on 11 June 2013, which called for floodwalls and levees to protect vital infrastructure -- such as a food-distribution center in the Bronx and hospitals on Manhattan's East Side, and coastal communities on Staten Island. It recommended storm-surge barriers to prevent creeks and rivers from backing up into residential areas, and repair or installation of barriers such as sand dunes, beaches and wetlands around the outer boroughs.

The city would offer incentives to building owners to move important kit such as electrical equipment higher off the ground, and adjust building codes to encourage new buildings to be raised higher; hospitals, telecoms and other utilities would be required to meet tougher resilience standards. Bloomberg estimated the cost at $20 billion USD and doesn't exactly know where all the money is going to come from; it's likely to be found, however, since the damage the next big storm is likely to do will make $20 billion USD sound cheap.

NYC's plans demonstrate that although climate change is global, adaptation is local. In America, unlike more centralized countries such as the Netherlands, land-use, zoning, construction and transport are typically under state or local control. The US Federal government does play a supporting role, providing expertise and money; for example, the Federal Emergency Management Agency buys up houses that are repeatedly flooded. Since 2009 the Army Corps of Engineers has incorporated forecasts of sea-level rise into all its civil-works programs, while the Department of Housing and Urban Development offers grants to encourage cities and regions to work together on climate-change-adaptation plans and studies. The Federal government also provides a bit of a stick. In 2012, the US Congress required the insurance subsidy that the Federal government has long offered to householders who live and build on flood plains to be phased out. Such subsidies encourage development of high-risk areas.

Local leaders worried about climate change do appreciate Federal help, but still know they've got to take actions of their own. New York and ten other cities are among the 61 cities around the world that, in partnership with the Clinton Climate Initiative, share plans and information to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions and adapt to a changing climate. In Florida, four of the southernmost counties have formed the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact to share data, collaborate on legislation and seek funding in concert.

Not everyone is so convinced. North Carolina's legislature actually passed a bill banning studies that reported accelerated sea-level rise, a measure that provoked widespread ridicule. A survey by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found American cities among the least likely in the world to have plans for adapting to changing climate. Some American cities like NYC do take climate change seriously -- and hopefully can set an example what others can do after they've been caught disastrously short. Better late than never.

* In related and more recent news, following the staggering catastrophe inflicted on the Philippines by Typhoon Haiyan in the first week of November, a normally sedate United Nations climate change conference turned into a noisy gangfight. Representatives from island states or other undeveloped countries, vulnerable to severe oceanic storms and other unpleasant manifestations of climate change, called out for compensation from rich states. Representative Ronald Juneau of the Seychelles warned of broad-spectrum disaster, commenting: "This is new. This is like: THE MARTIANS ARE LANDING! What do you do?"

the wrath of Haiyan

Rich states have uniformly rejected the call for compensation, calling it impractical, and some representatives of developing states agree. Juan Pablo Hoffmaister Patino of Bolivia said that finger-pointing made much less sense than doing something to help those nations hardest hit: "Trying to assign the blame is something that even scientifically could take us a very long time, and the challenges and problems are actually happening now. And we need to begin addressing them now, rather than identifying who is guilty and to what degree. We can't make this issue hostage to finding the responsible ones or not."



* POWER USB: In the 1990s, Ajay Bhatt of Intel developed the "Universal Serial Bus (USB)", its intended function being to conveniently link peripherals to personal computers. Since that time, USB has become indeed "universal", and the days when getting a device to work with a PC was an exercise in frustration are long gone: "Plug it in and it works."

As reported by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("Edison's Revenge", 19 October 2013), it's no surprise that the latest generation of USB has much faster data rates than the first, having gone from megabits to gigabits per second. What is a surprise is that USB has become an effective standard for supplying power to cellphones, digital music players, and other gadgets. A cottage industry has emerged to produce a wide variety of USB-powered trinkets, from little lamps to toys.

Alas, since USB was designed strictly as an interface technology, it can't drive much power, the current standard supporting only ten watts. That's not enough for heftier gadgets like an iPad -- but in 2014, that will change with the introduction of "USB PD (Power Delivery)", which will provide up to 100 watts. That's not enough to run, say, a hotplate, but it's more than enough to run tablets, electronic musical instruments, and so on. USB PD presents the prospect of gadgets that don't require their own little plug-in power adapters that can't be used with any other gadget. Hopefully, battery-operated gadgets will be shipped without a power adapter, and if one is wanted, a user will simply buy a USB power supply for cheap.

The arrival of USB PD promises to be more revolutionary than that. Back at the dawn of the electrical power grid, Thomas Edison wanted to distribute electricity as direct current (DC), while his rival George Westinghouse wanted to distribute it as alternating current (AC). AC won out, because it could be stepped up to higher voltage through a transformer, resulting in much less wasteful transmission over the power grid, and stepped down again at the user side by another transformer.

Although Edison stubbornly fought for DC transmission, there was really no contest between AC and DC for long-range power transmission. AC does pose a problem at the user end, however; while some devices, such as electric motors or hotplates, can get by fine on AC, it's no good in itself for computers and other gadgets, which run off DC internally. That means the proliferation of power adapters, which are not only a nuisance because of their lack of intercompatibility, but because they're inefficient and waste power.

While the mains power into a building is likely to remain AC for the foreseeable future, a case can be made for a secondary internal DC network. Why even need an adapter? We could have wall sockets that provide both traditional AC and USB plugs, the DC power for the USB being provided from a central power supply. Since USB has communications capability, the building DC power network would also be a communications network -- not only meaning a linkup between all the USB devices connected to it, but permitting "smart" power management. For example, a cellphone being charged could be told to go idle while a PC powers up.

Going further, solar panels provide DC power, and so a local DC network for a building or cluster of buildings would amount to a little "smart grid". Demonstration systems along such lines have been set up. The scheme seems particularly well-suited for micropower systems for villages in undeveloped countries, with a solar array generating electricity for individual users linked over a DC mini-grid.

Ajay Bhatt is delighted the turn USB has taken, being transformed from a data communications scheme that turned out to be handy as a power standard, into a power standard that can communicate. Right now, he's working on a "flippable" USB cable that can be plugged rightside-up or upside-down. It's not hard to do, it just requires a simple power-sense circuit and some electronic switches; it wasn't done as the outset because the idea was to keep USB cheap. USB is still cheap -- but now it can do a lot more.

ED: I'm not entirely certain that USB PD will get rid of the cursed incompatible power adapters. One of the unfortunate things about standards is that manufacturers don't always like them; if they can make a good profit margin selling adapters at pirate prices, they'll be perfectly happy to change them for every product they make. Hopefully, USB PD will acquire such momentum as to pressure them to comply.

USB PD should get rid of powered USB hubs and their incompatible adapters; in the future, any USB hub will become a powered hub just by plugging in a USB PD power adapter. As far as a flippable USB connector goes, that's a great idea, though it means a compatibility problem with current USB connectors. No worries really, I'm sure interface adapters will be available, though they will be a bit of a nuisance until the old interfaces disappear.



* ALBUQUERQUE ROAD TRIP (4): On the morning of Saturday 5 October, I got up early and checked out of the motel to go to the Balloon Fiesta. As the weather report had predicted, the breeziness of the previous day had died down, so I could assume the event would proceed as planned.

I knew there would be a traffic jam getting in, but I wasn't prepared for what I got -- I was queued up in traffic for almost an hour and a half. I was patient enough with it until I got inside the event grounds, only to discover things were just as snarled there. The event organization clearly left something to be desired; I think they were doing the best they could under the circumstances, but they just didn't have a road system that was set up to handle that much traffic.

Even as I was sitting in my car, balloons were going up in the predawn twilight, which made me worry I would miss the event -- though I did find it interesting when a balloonist fired up the propane burner, lighting up the balloon in the sky. However, my patience finally snapped and I was in an irritable mood. I did manage to park and make my way down to the balloon launch field, the time being about 7:15 AM. It was crammed with people; balloons were being set up in rows, and I cooled off a bit. It appeared the initial launch was just a test to make sure conditions were okay. The crowd was reasonably civil; some people get crazy in crowds, but I didn't see any of that despite the packing.

balloons in inflation, Balloon Fiesta 2013

There wasn't much going on for the moment other than the mob scene, and I was wondering in my sour mood if the trip had been a waste of time. I wandered around in the chill as the Sun gradually came up, finally going to the southwest corner of the field so the balloons wouldn't be backlit. The wind course was southward, so the balloons would pass by me as well. As the sunlight fell over the field, the balloons were starting to swell up in rows, and I started to get more excited. The balloons started launching in earnest at 8:00 AM, and soon the sky to the south was full of balloons. No, the trip wasn't a waste of effort after all.

Indeed, it was as much as I could have reasonably expected of it. I was a bit disappointed early on that there didn't seem to be very many "special shape" balloons, but it turned out they were launched later. It appears that special shapes are fussier than normal hot-air balloons in every respect and require more fiddling. There was an "Angry Birds" balloon, an alarm clock balloon, and most impressively a Darth Vader balloon. I was taking pictures with my zoom camera, holding the camera up over my head to get over the top of the crowd, using the flip-out LCD display for sighting. It was effective, but hard on my lower back.

balloon ascent, Balloon Fiesta 2013

A huge balloon in the shape of a milk cow was being inflated, but no sooner had it been inflated then it was deflated again. I don't know why; several other special shape balloons never got off the ground either, maybe just because the event timed out. I kept hearing a police whistle but I couldn't figure out where it was coming from, until late in the session I spotted a referee with a whistle in a striped shirt wandering around, giving balloonists the go / no-go.

The morning event was effectively over by 9:00 AM, which was just as well because I was saturated on balloons -- if you've seen hundreds of balloons in a mass ascension, you've pretty much seen them all. I went back to the car and headed out of town, enduring a little more going in circles to get to Interstate 25, though not nearly as big a hassle as getting into the event. I got a little breakfast just out of town, and was out of New Mexico by early afternoon, stopping in Raton just before the border to each lunch. [TO BE CONTINUED]


[FRI 22 NOV 13] THE COLD WAR (1)

* THE COLD WAR (1): By early 1945, World War II was obviously in the endgame. The leaders of the "Big Three" Allied powers -- the United States, Britain, and the Soviet Union -- accordingly met at Yalta, a resort in the Crimea, in early February for a conference to discuss the final actions of the war and what would come after. American President Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) arrived, in the company of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, on 3 February, with Soviet dictator Josef Stalin coming by train the next morning.

The conference was superficially polite, but Roosevelt and particularly Churchill were increasingly suspicious of Stalin. The Red Army had been driving German forces out of Eastern Europe; in principle, the liberated nations were to be free to then determine their own destinies, but that didn't appear to be what was happening. Where the Red Army went, the Soviets dug in.

Discussions went on for the better part of a week, beginning with presentations of the military situation and plans to fight the war to the end. Following that, Allied policies towards a conquered Germany were outlined. There was no great controversy over that matter, but Soviet intentions in Eastern Europe were a concern. In principle, the vision was for "interim governmental authorities broadly representative of all democratic elements in the population ... and the earliest possible establishment through free elections of governments responsive to the will of the people."

Stalin, however, made it clear he had no use for the London-based Free Polish government, blandly claiming they were German collaborators, and asserting that the Communist Polish government installed in Lublin was the proper authority for Poland. Stalin also wanted to shift the prewar Polish border with the USSR to the west, with Poland to be compensated from prewar German territory. The proposal was accepted -- though it was a monstrous proposition when examined in any detail, implying the uncompensated eviction of roughly 12 million people in all from the regions changing hands.

The most the Western Allies were able to do was stipulate that the London Poles obtain participation in the Lublin government; the issue of shifting borders was deferred until later. Everyone recognized that the Soviet concession on the London Poles was meaningless; Roosevelt's chief military adviser, Admiral William D. Leahy, protested that the agreement established with the Russians was "so elastic that the Russians can stretch it all the way from Yalta to Washington without technically breaking it."

That was not news to the president: "I know, Bill, I know it. But it's the best I can do for Poland at this time."

The Soviets were also insistent that the Germans pay war reparations. That made British and American diplomats uneasy, since they remembered how troublesome the reparations imposed on Germany after the First World War had proven -- but Stalin replied to objections with bottled-up fury that the Soviet Union had suffered greatly at German hands and that the reparations were only just. Roosevelt pushed through an agreement that a reparations commission would nail down the details of the issue, also leaving the matter open to further discussion. Roosevelt did get agreement from Stalin that the USSR would enter the war against Japan once the fighting in Europe was settled.

The Big Three signed a final document over lunch on 11 February. The Americans were ambivalent about the results, the British disgusted, but Stalin couldn't have been happier. There was little the British and Americans could really do about what happened to countries occupied by the Red Army, and so any restrictions accepted by the Soviets were cosmetic, which Stalin planned to pay no more mind to than he needed. When Molotov fussed about some of the wording of the agreements afterwards, Stalin shrugged it off: "Never mind. We'll do it in our own way later."

The Yalta Conference was played up in the press as a great triumph, but it didn't seem so at close range. From that time on, the slide towards mutual hostility between East and West became all but irreversible, leading to a tense confrontation that would last for a generation. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* October was a slow month for space activity:

-- 25 OCT 13 / SIRIUS FM6 -- A Proton Breeze M booster was launched from Baikonur at 1808 GMT (next day local time - 6) to put the "Sirius FM6" geostationary comsat into orbit to provide radio broadcast services for Sirius FM Radio. Sirius FM6 built by Space Systems / Loral and was based on the SSL LS-1300 comsat bus; it had a launch mass of 6 tonnes (6.6 tons) and a single X/S band transponder. The satellite was placed in the geostationary slot at 116 degrees West longitude to provide direct radio broadcast over North America, bringing the Sirius FM constellation to ten spacecraft.

Sirius FM6 launch

-- 25 OCT 13 / SHIJIAN 16 -- A Chinese Long March 4B booster was launched from Jiuquan at 0350 GMT (local time - 8) to put the "Shijian 16" experimental satellite into space; "shijian" is Chinese for "practice". Its precise function was unknown.

-- 29 OCT 13 / YAOGAN 18 -- A Chinese Long March 2C booster was launched from Taiyuan at 0250 GMT (local time - 8) to put the "Yaogan 18" satellite into orbit; it was believed to be a synthetic aperture radar surveillance satellite.

* OTHER SPACE NEWS: The Japanese "HTV 4" freighter for the International Space Station, launched on 4 August, carried a number of interesting payloads -- including two "ArduSats", which were CubeSats built around the popular hobbyist Arduino processor, being deployed on 19 November. They were built and flown by a startup named "NanoSatisfi". They were 1U (single unit) CubeSats, each with a payload of 15 or so instruments, including a magnetometer, a spectrometer, temperature sensors, a gamma-ray detector, a Geiger counter, and a 1.3-megapixel digital camera. Each Ardusat had 16 Arduino processors to control the experiments, with each processor able to access any sensor.

Ardusat CPU board

The Ardusats were not intended to perform any specific mission, instead providing facilities for experiments that different users could run at a cost of about $35 USD to $45 USD per day of run time, purchasable in blocks of three days or more. Ten experiments could be run in parallel. A NanoSatisfi official commented: "Computer science classes are using it to train students on open-source software and hardware, while an earth sciences class has experiments to measure Earth's magnetosphere."



* DARPA DOES ADVANCED SENSORS: As reported by an article from AVIATION WEEK ("Sensing Needs" by Graham Warwick, 18 February 2013), the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the US military's "blue sky" technology development office, is now conducting an investigation into advanced sensor technologies, with an eye towards drone and crewed aerial surveillance platforms:

Along with the sensors themselves, DARPA is investigating appropriate support technologies. The "Adaptable Sensor System (ADAPT)" program is leveraging off commercial smartphone technologies to create intelligent wireless nodes for a distributed sensor system. Similarly, since the new sensors will pour out floods of data, DARPA has been working on "100G" program to provide 100 gigabit per second radio datalinks. The agency has already done that with a free-space laser link, but lasers can be blocked by bad weather. The target is a millimeter-wave system that will have a range of about 100 kilometers (62 miles), with DARPA now working towards a flight test.



* FRACK FRACK FRACK WHILE YOU CAN: As reported by an article from BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK, ("Runs Out Fast" by Asyjlyn Loder, 14 October 2013), when Chesapeake Energy's Serenity 1-3H well near Oklahoma City started drawing oil in 2009, it was pumping up 1,200 barrels a day, setting off a Kansas oil rush.

Now Serenity 1-3H is indeed serene, pumping less than 100 barrels a day. That's the ugly secret of America's oil boom: it may be a flash in the pan. Oil shale wells start out strong but fade fast, forcing producers to drill more and more wells. They compare the action to the "Red Queen's Race", after the animated chess piece in Lewis Carroll's THROUGH THE LOOKING-GLASS who had to run as fast as she could to stay in the same place.

Right now, the USA is producing 7.8 million barrels of oil a day, more than has been pumped in America for quarter century, putting the nation closer to energy independence than at any time since 1989. In 2012, the International Energy Agency predicted that by 2020, the USA would overtake Saudi Arabia as the world's biggest single producer of oil. That, however, is hotly debated, pessimists believing that the Red Queen's race for domestic oil is unsustainable. One estimate suggests that, to sustain current production, the US will have to drill 6,000 new wells a year at a cost of $35 billion USD -- and experience suggests that, over time, new wells are less and less productive, the best sites having already been exploited.

US government statistics show that about 29% of the oil being pumped in America at present is from "tight" formations, dense layers of rock and shale that have to be "fracked" to yield crude -- blasting water, sand, and chemicals down the borehole to shatter the formation, allowing oil to flow into horizontal pipes. Production from such wells can fade by about two-thirds in one year; traditional wells will fade by about half in two years and can continue to be profitably pumped for twenty years.

The oil rush to North Dakota's Bakken shale deposits began in 2004, when a well named Robert Heuer 1-17R, drilled by Continental Resources, began to pump up 2,358 barrels a day. Production declined 69% in the first year. Art Berman, a petroleum geologist and well-known fracking pessimist, expressed his opinion tidily with: "I look at shale more as a retirement party than a revolution. It's the last gasp."

Not everyone in the US oil industry takes Berman seriously. Harold Hamm, boss of Continental, is bullish on North Dakota oil, having estimated in 2010 that there were 24 billion barrels in the Bakken and related formations; he believes improved technology could boost that to 45 billion: "We're just getting started."

However, using fracking to drive a well costs from five to ten times as much as driving a traditional well, and further refinements in the technology can't make it dramatically cheaper. For example, Slawson Exploration's new Begonia 1-30H well, being drilled near Oklahoma City, is expected to cost about $3.7 million USD, thanks to the fracking procedure:

To be sure, fracking wasn't really economically feasible until higher oil prices made it profitable despite the overhead, but that overhead still makes the business risky. Steve Slawson, boss of the company, worries about whether the well can really produce enough oil to cover costs. His first well at the site began pumping oil in 2012 and has paid for itself twice over; but of the rest, only a third came close to it, and a third were "dogs". There's also a self-limiting economic factor in drilling wells, in that the more oil that is pumped, the more it drives down price, and makes further drilling unprofitable.

Oklahoma has been through the cycle before. The Burbank oil field, on the Osage tribal reservation, went online in the 1920s, with its oil wealth generating a boomtown the locals named "Whizbang". Today, it's just a few farmhouses and a street sign; everything else has disappeared. After the whizbang -- the bust.



* ALBUQUERQUE ROAD TRIP (3): Having obtained batteries, I made my way to the balloon museum at the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta park without difficulty. By that time the day was warm enough, though the wind was still blowing. I was thinking the balloon museum was likely to be pretty marginal, but it was only $4 USD admission and it turned out to be on the high side of expectations, with nice models of historical balloons, gondolas of long distance balloons, and unusual balloon technologies; I got plenty of shots.

As I was going out the door, there was a family group outside -- parents with two cute little blonde girls, who were intrigued by the series of balloon paintings on a low concrete wall in front of the museum. As I walked past them I could vaguely overhear their conversation, making me curious because they didn't seem to be speaking English. Then one of the girls pointed out a set of the pictures, counting them off: "Einz, zwei, drei, fier!" I laughed to myself: yeah, that narrowed their origin down quite a bit.

I had been thinking of buying a Balloon Fiesta admission ticket at a 7-11 convenience store, the website saying the tickets were sold there. I decided to first check if the museum sold them, but was told no -- however, there was a park souvenir shop nearby that did, so I dropped by and bought a ticket. From there I went down to the New Mexico Museum of Natural History downtown, this time having no navigation problems, thanks to a map scribbled on a 3x5 card.

New Mexico Museum of Natural History

I wasn't expecting much from the natural history museum, such usually not being all that interesting, but I really liked the visit, possibly because of low expectations. The exhibits were nicely laid out and with a diversity of subjects, including many good fossil displays. I was amused by a room set up for kids to play nature explorer; there was a busload of primary school kids there and they were in a fair state of excitement over it. There was also a Hubble Space Telescope exhibit, but it was just photos that I had seen plenty of times online; a display of jewelry by local artists was much more interesting.

The museum had a 3D movie playing about Ice Age creatures that I would have liked to see, but the next showing was at noon, and I needed to be moving on. I made my way to the Albuquerque Zoo easily enough, thanks to another scribbled map; glad I made the map, the zoo is only accessible via back streets and so not easy to find.

The Albuquerque zoo is fair, nicely laid out and with plenty of exhibits, though a bit short on the exotic. One of the more interesting exhibits was the rhino enclosure, in which a mama rhino was engaged in a good-humored horn-to-horn shoving match with her calf. It looked sort of like sumo wrestling; mama was obviously letting the calf push her back a bit. Other interesting sights were another budgerigar exhibit; a tiger splashing around in a pool, it seems they don't mind getting wet; koi carp; seals and sea lion pool, and a wombat. Every now and then I'd hear a rumbling overhead, and spot a C-130 Hercules turboprop cargolifter banking overhead, flying out of nearby Kirtland Air Force Base.

tigers like the wet

I got dozens of photos with my old Canon camera, but unfortunately the white balance was off, and I when I inspected them later they were overexposed -- a loss, but not a big one, I didn't get much that was very memorable. In fact, I only spent about an hour and a half there, effectively canvassing it all. I was expecting to take more time.

Whatever. I went back to the motel to regroup, then ate and refueled my Toyota. The car's tank wasn't close to empty, but I was going straight north out of town after the balloon ascent the next morning, and I didn't want to end up worrying about fueling up in northern New Mexico as I had on the way south. A full tank would easily get me across the border north into Colorado. Anyway, I spent the rest of the afternoon writing up notes. I felt like I'd done plenty around town for the day, so it was no problem spending some time getting a bit of work done. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* AFRICA IN THE 21ST CENTURY (14): As a final glimpse of modern Africa for this series, an article from THE ECONOMIST ("Silicon & Pine", 12 October 2013), took a look at the business environment in Zimbabwe, one of the continent's most backward players, to find that the thuggish government of Robert Mugabe, one of the last and worst of Africa's "Big Men", hasn't been able to completely stamp out the entrepreneurial spirit.

The collapse of the Zimbabwean dollar in 2008, run by hyperinflation into worthlessness, was not a good thing in itself -- but adopting the US dollar as currency in 2009 at least allowed businesses to get back on their feet, with Zimbabweans attempting to emulate the tech startups of African leaders such as Kenya. Take, for example, Limbikani Makani, boss of TechZim, a news website for computer geeks, which makes money from advertising, sponsorship and market research. His friend Joseph Bunga runs EatOut, which takes online bookings for hundreds of restaurants across Zimbabwe.

According to Makani, about a third of the country has access to the internet, but it was unsurprisingly tough going at first. Early on, diners would call EatOut to make a reservation, with the reservation being made by phone, few restaurants having email; if the lines were down, Bunga would have to drive over to make the reservation. Zimbabwean restaurants are much more wired now, with EatOut making Facebook pages for them. Bunga, always looking for an angle, wants to do food deliveries, but alas online payments haven't caught on in Zimbabwe yet.

Still, energetic Zimbabweans are turning up plenty of opportunities. Winston Taylor and his wife started Gikko in 2010, which placed advertisements on the back of supermarket receipt slips. Now Gikko specializes in text-message promotions for brands such as Coca-Cola, Castle Lager and Cadbury. Not so long ago, the shops were largely barren and so advertising hardly made sense; they're fully stocked now, and it does. Alas, not many of the products being sold are made locally. Such manufacturing as Zimbabwe ever had largely vanished under the mindless tramplings of the Mugabe regime, and there's not much capital available to revive it.

However, the vacuum represents an opportunity, and even modest investment can pay off. Richard Saziya and John Sanders run Tsanga Timbers, with a sawmill to cut wood from a Zimbabwean forest and a factory to turn it into products. Saziya is proud of his cutting machine, bought from China for $19,000 USD, which can churn out planks for wooden pallets, benches for schools, and other useful items. Tsanga Timbers even sells a kit for a three-bedroom pine cabin for $375 USD. The company's doing well with that product, and thinking of expanding to neighboring countries. So is Makani with his TechZim, and Bunga sees opportunities in Zambia and Botswana.

All the entrepreneurs remain cautious of what the government might do, the lesson of what Mugabe did to the agricultural sector -- Zimbabwe was once an agricultural powerhouse, but the government did much to wreck the country's farms -- being lost on no one. It's obvious to all that the government is not just unfriendly to business; it's unfriendly to everyone. Once the elderly Mugabe finally checks out, there may be a chance to get Zimbabwe on track with the African development program, but businessfolk aren't assuming that will be so. In Zimbabwe, Bunga says, "we have Plans B to G, just in case." [END OF SERIES]



* SCIENCE NOTES: As reported by BBC WORLD Online, we're under a persistent threat of pathogens performing "species jumps" from animal species to humans. Data on the prevalence of such jumps has been scarce; to obtain some idea on the level of the threat, researchers in the US and Bangladesh inspected a species of bat called the flying fox, mostly to determine what viruses it carries.

By studying 1,897 samples collected from the bats, the researchers found 55 different types of viruses, 50 of which had never been observed before. Assuming that all mammals had similar loads, the researchers estimated that there were 320,000 unknown viruses that could perform species jumps from humans to animals. There was considerable skepticism over this estimate from the biological community, since it was extrapolated from a single sample mammal -- and not a representative one at that, since the mobility and colonial sociability of bats means they're unusually prone to infections.

However, nobody disputes that there are a large number of unknown viruses out there that could pose a threat. The research group involved in the flying fox study is pressing for an effort to properly catalog all these viruses, or at least obtain a substantial sampling of them. It would take two decades and cost billions of dollars, but any global pandemic ends up costing a lot more.

* With the world population heading for a peak of 9 billion souls by midcentury, there are of course concerns about how all those people are going to be fed. As discussed here in 2011, there is some confidence that it's possible, but hard data on the possibilities is lacking. Now, as reported by AAAS SCIENCE NOW Online, a $2 million USD project named the GLOBAL YIELD GAP ATLAS is attempting to figure out exactly how much food could be grown on the planet.

This isn't the first attempt to model the shortcomings of current agricultural production, or "yield gaps". However, previous efforts were either inaccurate or not robust enough. The atlas project intends to be more thorough, taking a bottom-up approach by first gathering detailed local data on weather, soil, crops, and farming practices. Once the data is nailed down, it will be plugged into a computer model that will extrapolate the data to broader areas based on climatic data. Work on the atlas began in 2011, primarily being seeded by a grant from the Gates Foundation. The group is now getting data from agronomists in South America, South Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa. The goal is to have the atlas complete in four years.

* As reported by WIRED Online, Japanese researchers have cooked up genetically-modified silkworms that can produce fluorescent silk. Toshiki Tamura, a molecular biologist at the National Institute of Agrobiological Sciences and one of the researchers involved in the project, commented: "When we produced green fluorescent protein [GFP] in transgenic silkworms, we obtained very beautiful silks. We extended the method to produce three different colored fluorescent silks in large amounts."

The GFP gene, as discussed here in 2011, is derived from jellyfish. The other two colors were red and orange, the genes being both derived from corals. The genes glow in ultraviolet light; the silk is almost as strong as normal silk, with the fluorescent colors enduring for at least two years. The researchers bred tens of thousands of the GM silkworms to obtain samples of fabric. Since normal processing of silk requires temperatures that denature the fluorescent proteins, they had to come up with a revised process that operated at lower temperatures. The modified processing does increase the cost of the fluorescent silk incrementally.



* NASA'S ATOMIC CRISIS: Nuclear energy has proven a much more troublesome technology than was foreseen at its inception. As reported by an article from WIRED Online ("NASA's Plutonium Problem Could End Deep-Space Exploration" by Dave Mosher, 19 September 2013), the US National Aeronautics & Space Administration (NASA) has been having difficulties with it that would have been particularly difficult to foresee.

NASA has been using atomic power in spacecraft since the 1960s, most notably to power deep-space probes. Beyond the orbit of Mars, sunlight isn't strong enough to provide adequate power for a probe equipped with solar panels, and so deep-space probes are usually powered by a "radioisotope thermoelectric generator (RTG)", in which the decay of a radioactive material releases heat that produces electrical energy via thermocouples. The Voyager 1 spacecraft, which was launched in 1977 and is now about 17 light-hours from Earth -- for comparison, the Earth is about 8 light-minutes from the Sun -- and is still operating, thanks to its three RTGs. Its power levels are not expected to fall below minimum operational capability until 2020.

The preferred radioactive material for an RTG is plutonium-238 (Pu238), with a decay temperature of about 1,260 degrees Celsius (2,300 degrees Fahrenheit). That's where the trouble starts: we're running out of it. The US stockpile of Pu238 is now only about 16 kilograms (36 pounds). For comparison, the NASA Curiosity rover on Mars was powered by about 4.5 kilograms (10 pounds) of Pu238. According to Steve Johnson, a nuclear chemist at the US Idaho National Laboratory: "We've got enough to last to the end of this decade. That's it."

The scarcity of Pu238 is making deep-space exploration a very difficult prospect. Ironically, the technical obstacles to making more are not all that formidable. Unlike Pu239, Pu238 is not a weapons-grade material, and, as nuclear materials go, it's not all that difficult to synthesize. During the Cold War, US production of Pu238 came primarily from two nuclear laboratories. The Hanford Site in Washington state produced Pu238, but it was mixed into a cocktail of nuclear wastes; the Savannah River Site in South Carolina, however, extracted and refined more than 160 kilograms (360 pounds) during the Cold War to power surveillance stations, spy satellites, and dozens of NASA's spacecraft.

These US nuclear facilities came to the end of their service lives during the 1980s, and with the end of the Cold War there was no push to replace them. The Russians continued to produce Pu238, obtaining it from a facility named Mayak, selling the Americans an initial batch of the material -- 16.3 kilograms (36 pounds) -- in 1993 for about $26 million USD. Russia became the world's sole source of Pu238. All was well up until 2009, when the Russians reneged on a deal to sell 10 kilograms (22 pounds) of the material to the Americans. The Russians aren't saying why they won't sell; given the profitability of the business, it seems likely they've just run out of plutonium themselves.

NASA has enough Pu238 to fuel a few missions on the near horizon, but after that, nothing. The problem is technically solvable; the US Department of Energy (DOE) has conducted a study showing that $10 to $20 million USD in funding a year, a modest sum for NASA, through 2020, would be enough to produce about 1.5 to 5 kilograms (3.3 to 11 pounds) of Pu238 a year, more than enough to power the agency's space probes. NASA has to rely on the DOE to obtain the material, but the DOE doesn't believe it would require any new facilities to produce it.

RTG on New Horizons Pluto probe

It would, however, take from from five to seven years from go-ahead to deliver Pu238, so NASA has a gap no matter what happens. NASA is now working on power conversion schemes that are much more efficient than RTGs so that they can get by on less Pu238, focusing on stirling-cycle generators. They're an old technology, a type of engine that runs simply by making one end hot and the other end cool. A stirling-cycle generator is about five times more efficient than an RTG, meaning roughly five times less Pu238. The smaller amount of Pu238 also means a lighter power unit; not surprisingly, Pu238 is a very dense material.

Some space researchers don't like the moving parts, since deep-space probes have to keep working for years, but designers believe they can use redundant engines to ensure reliability. Unfortunately, there's the question of testing, since NASA doesn't like flying gear that hasn't been validated to work for as long as advertised. That would mean decades of testing; researchers have been trying to cheat by testing stirling-cycle generators in quantity and then extrapolating reliability from the overall failure rate.

So far, they've proven trustworthy. However, stirling-cycle generators are still only a temporary fix, with Pu238 running out in the 2020s even under the most optimistic scenarios. There's no technical obstacle to building uranium-fueled space nuclear reactors, as discussed here early this year, but such devices are big and bulky, only suited to very large space probes.

The plutonium problem really comes to roost in the US Congress. After years of lobbying, the DOE and NASA were given a green light for Pu238 production early in 2013 -- but with NASA largely put on hold during the recent government shutdown, nobody at the agency can feel very assured about support for the effort.

ED: An agreement was later established with the DOE to provide about 1.1 kilograms of Pu238 a year to NASA by 2021. That's not a lot by historical standards, but modern RTGs are more efficient than those used in past deep-space missions, such as Cassini. The stirling-cycle generator would make even better use of a small supply of Pu238 -- but NASA, determining that supplies would be sufficient for projected use with RTGs, ended up suspending the program for cost reasons. The agency does appear to want to revive the project, if funds can be found.


[TUE 12 NOV 13] TABLET WARS 2013

* TABLET WARS 2013: In late October, tech manufacturer Nokia of Finland launched its first tablet computer, the Lumia 2520, available in a range of bright colors. It was a ten-inch device with a slim profile; a 2.2 GHz ARM CPU; 32 GB flash memory; a microSD card slot; USB, HDMI, Bluetooth, wi-fi, and LTE communications interfaces; Windows RT 8.1 OS; and an optional keyboard-cover, like that of the Microsoft Surface tablet. The very same day as Nokia announced their tablet, Microsoft introduced a new series of Surface tablets, while Apple followed with announcements of a new slimline iPad Air tablet. As discussed by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("Overdose", 26 October 2013), the tablet computer wars -- previously surveyed here in 2011 -- are continuing at full bore.

Nokia and Microsoft are targeting the high end of the tablet market, heavily dominated by the iPad. History does not seem on the side of the challengers, Microsoft having written off almost a billion dollars in July as penance for poor sales of the Surface to date. However, Microsoft is not giving up, and Apple sales have been softening.

Nokia Lumia 2520 tablet

In addition, there's a low end to the market that Apple won't touch. Less than four years ago, Apple introduced the first iPad; while the iPad has so far handily maintained its grip on the high end, there's been a wild proliferation of cheap tablets -- typically with seven- or eight-inch displays, the open-source Android OS, and prices sometimes coming in under $100 USD. The iPad Air and the Lumia 2520 will go for $499 USD, Microsoft's Surface 2 for $449 USD.

It's a big business in both sectors. Market studies show that in the second quarter of 2013, 43.6 million tablets were shipped worldwide, 14.6 million of them iPads, running the Apple iOS operating system. Only 1.7 million of the total ran Microsoft's Windows OS; nearly all the rest, 27.2 million, ran Android. South Korea's Samsung was the leader for Android machines, while online retailer Amazon.com, Taiwan's Acer and ASUS, and China's Lenovo were substantial players as well. However, 13.9 million of the Android tablets shipped were from a wide range of small players.

There's a reason Apple isn't interested in the bottom end of the market. Entry is very easy but competition is tough, with a $4 USD margin per unit seen as good. Low margin's not a problem for Amazon, since that firm's main rationale for their Kindle series of tablets is as a delivery platform for Amazon's lineup of books, videos, music, and other products. UK supermarket giant Tesco is taking a similar approach with their recently-introduced Hudl tablet, which goes for 119 UK pounds ($193 USD), or less with loyalty points. The Hudl comes preloaded with Tesco shopping apps and with Blinkbox, Tesco's video download service.

Tesco Hudl tablet

One industry research firm estimates that North America now has two tablets for five people; many families with tablets have more than one, with high-end tablets for the parents and cheap tablets for the kids. The two-car family took decades to arrive. The two-tablet family has taken three years.



* ALBUQUERQUE ROAD TRIP (2): I left the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo a little behind schedule; I did get slightly misdirected on the way back out to Interstate 25, but found my way out with little delay. I was starting to get hungry by that time, leading towards a low blood sugar headache, so I made sure I dropped off to a McDonald's at the town of Fountain, just south of Colorado Springs. The clientele included numbers of troops in fatigues from nearby Fort Carson.

Having fed myself, I felt better. The rest of the drive south was uneventful. Once south of Pueblo, Colorado, the land becomes largely desolate, with few towns of much size. I entered northern New Mexico in mid-afternoon; I figured I would fuel up the car after passing the 480 kilometer (300 mile) mark on the odometer, knowing I could easily make 560 kilometers (350 miles) and have fuel left over. However, I failed to realize just how sparsely populated that part of New Mexico really is, and got a bit nervous not knowing where I might refuel.

I finally managed to tank up at Wagon Mound, a little town with a couple of funky gas stations. At least they had normal prices, some of these "last chance to refuel" places like to charge through the nose. It was very breezy; I opened the car door, stuck my feet out, and when I turned to grab my kit bag had the door slam back on my knees. Duh. It smarted, but the door wasn't that wide open, and I didn't get any shin marks out of it.

landscapes of northern New Mexico

I was amusing myself driving through New Mexico by trying to remember anything from my previous trip through the area in 2009, also taking a few photos out the side window. Although the terrain fit my memories -- rough geology, scrubby forests -- I couldn't remember a single specific thing from the other trip. I've been thinking about how memory works lately because conspiracy theorists tend to place great stock in stale old recollections of witnesses. The reality is that, though we perceive a world of great detail around us, we usually don't retain anything but sketchy and abstracted notions of it, only really paying attention to exceptions. On consideration, if I didn't write up trip notes, I'd never be able to keep what happened straight later.

Despite having been running late from the start of the trip, I got into Albuquerque a bit ahead of schedule -- the trip distance was rated to city center, while the Hilton Garden Inn where I was staying was in Rio Rancho, a northern suburb of Albuquerque, the motel being not too far from the Balloon Fiesta grounds. I thought up a new trick before I left, not only printing up maps but also writing directions on 3x5 cards so I could navigate while driving, and it worked very neatly, getting me to the motel without difficulty. The room had a whirlpool bath, something I don't recall ever having in a motel before; it was a nice if unspectacular touch, though I did have problems finding the power switch.

I keep a pre-prepared travel kit that's pretty well stocked, but one thing I forgot was to pack my preferred bath soap. OK, no worries, I'll just use the hotel bath soap. It seemed good enough until I got some of the suds in my eye, the effect being like having coarse sand rubbed into it. I don't know how many decades it's been since I had used harsh soaps, I didn't realize they made such things any more. Note to self: Pack bath soap the next time. Anyway, I got a good night's sleep, though my eye still smarted a bit.

* The next morning, Friday 4 October, I got up early enough even though I was thinking of sleeping in, and wrote up trip notes from the day before. I needed to track down where to buy AA cells; the online locator for Walmart didn't show one nearby the motel, but there was a Target not too far away. I also tracked down a McDonald's. The Hilton Garden Inn didn't have a free breakfast; it had a restaurant, the breakfast buffet was not very expensive, but I preferred the McD's anyway. I have to be a bit amazed at how dependent I've become on the internet -- hunting around for a Walmart or the like in a strange town is like hunting for a needle in a haystack, but in the 21st century I can just look it up and get a map.

I went out to the car to find the weather chilly and very breezy, not an encouraging sign for the ballooning event the next day; there would be no way they could launch if it was that breezy the next morning. I found the McDonald's easily enough and got myself fed, but when I tried to find the Target store, I ended up going in circles. At one point I was on a road marked Highway 488 North, when I realized I was supposed to be going south; the morning Sun was to my right, which should have been a big clue I was going in the wrong direction. I turned around to go south and had the interesting awareness of where I was on my mental map, as if I'd been driving with the map upside down. In my mind's eye I actually felt like I'd turned the world rightside up again to perceive that I was going south and not north, a very strange perception.

Most of the stores in the area were in a complex of shopping malls. Some more squirrel caging around and I ended up, not at a Target, but at a Walmart. Good enough, I bought an 8-pack of AA cells and an 8 GB flash minidrive -- I didn't have any particular need for the flash drive, but I was running low on them and I like to have them handy. It still blows my mind to think back to the 1980s, when a 40 MB hard drive was a big deal, that I could buy an 8 GB drive, 200 times that size, about as big as a breath mint for less than ten bucks. There was the less encouraging irony that AA cells are much the same as they were long before the invention of personal computing.

Anyway, I was a bit annoyed to go through the runaround on that little chore. I should have scribbled up a map before I left my hotel room, something to remember for the future. However, I lost very little time. If improvisation didn't work, we'd be in a lot of trouble. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* AFRICA IN THE 21ST CENTURY (13): An article from THE ECONOMIST ("Supermarkets In Africa", 21 September 2013) discussed the "African creep" described in detail in the previous installment: the northward movement of South African retail chains into new sales territory.

Welcome to Lusaka, the capital of Zambia, and take a look at South African-based supermarket chains based there. The Shoprite store is a bit run-down, having been established in 1995 as the chain's first effort at expansion outside its homeland. Down the road is a shiny shopping center at Levy Junction, which opened in 2011, built around a PicknPay store, long established in South Africa, new to Zambia. There's also an upscale Woolworth's store in Lusaka -- that firm fortunately being no relation to the notoriously downscale and defunct American Woolworth's store chain -- along with other new stores set up by South African firms.

Zambia's commodities boom has floated the fortunes of African retailers, who are similarly finding wide-open opportunities all over the continent. It's virgin territory: in populous Nigeria, the top six retailers only take in about 2% of total retail sales, and that hints at huge room for growth. The sluggish South African economy has made expansion north even more attractive. Shoprite's business is stagnant at home, but the chain has dozens of new stores in the pipeline -- mostly in Nigeria and Angola, the most promising markets.

Shoprite logo

As mentioned in the previous installment, multinational retailers are moving in on Africa, but Shoprite has the edge of being local, not only easing communications and management, but also leading to more use of local producers. Shoprite finds it convenient to truck finished goods to Mozambique and truck back fish, similarly "back hauling" strawberries after deliveries to Zimbabwe. South African retailers similarly help build up local suppliers; for example, staples are a high proportion of sales in Zambia, such products including cereal, meat, vegetables, and soft drinks, which can be obtained locally. Some toiletries and household cleansers are also made in Zambia, with PicknPay officials saying local brands do well in sales.

The logistic advantage tends to fade the farther north South Africa firms extend their reach; trying to stock up stores in Nigeria, noted for its corrupt bureaucracy and poor infrastructure, can be nightmarish. Trying to even open up a store in Nigeria is problematic, because of dodgy land rights and unreliable local contractors.

In East Africa, there's also the pressure from enterprising Kenyan competitors, primarily Nakumatt, Uchumi, and Tuskys, the biggest of the lot. All three also have outlets in neighboring Uganda and Rwanda, while Nakumatt and Uchumi have expanding into Tanzania as well, where Shoprite has been forced to close stores. If you can't beat them, buy them out, with Massmart, another South African retailer, said to be trying to buy up Naivas, a smaller Kenyan chain.

Nakumatt logo

Since most Africans are poor, retail growth has to be obtained for the time being from tailoring product selection to the bottom end of the market. Shoprite has a high-end store in Manda Hill, the posh district of Lusaka; one in Zambia's copper belt only carries a quarter of the range of goods. However, the customer base is more diversified than one might expect. A PicknPay official notes that the big three products at a Lusaka store are a 25-kilogram (55-pound) bag of maize; store-baked bread, which isn't as cheap as the bread from commercial bakers; and Lindt chocolate bars.

Shoprite has been the most aggressive of the South African retailers in its expansion north, giving it an advantage in obtaining the best store locations, good deals with local suppliers, and a lead in profits. However, Africa is undergoing rapid change, and it is unlikely any one retailer will retain much of an advantage for long. Cities are dynamic, so a store location that works at the outset may well find its sales drying up later; other African firms are going to increase the pressure; and the big international retailers such as Walmart, Carrefour, and Tesco are not going to be idle, either.

ED: While inspecting the Nakumatt website, I found an ad for a movie titled KRRISH III, playing at a cinema in a Nakumatt-based shopping mall. Wot? I knew Bollywood flics play big in Africa, but the ad showed a stylish masked man, so it was obviously not typical Bollywood song-adventure-romance-dance fare. Thanks to that archive of trivial knowledge, Wikipedia, I learned that KRRISH is an Indian superhero, the movies being heavy on glitzy special effects, if not necessarily so strong on scriptwriting. However, the series has proven popular and profitable in the arc from Africa to Southeast Asia where Bollywood competes on at least an even basis with Hollywood.

Of course, I was able to find a trailer for KRRISH III on Youtube, and the special effects did look fair to good. I felt a certain quirky comfort in this little investigation. Shopping malls and flashy techno pop culture may be at the bottom level of the markings of civilization -- but there is still something very civilized about them, speaking as they do of prosperity and an agreeable pleasure in novelties from elsewhere. As the history of modern Africa shows, we could do a lot worse. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* GIMMICKS & GADGETS: As reported by BBC WORLD Online, Russian media has been running stories on electric irons, electric teakettles, and other consumer gear that have been fitted with circuitry to give them a wi-fi capability -- so they can infiltrate malware into nearby computer systems. Some appliances were also fitted with microphones, presumably relaying audio via wi-fi. I'm not entirely convinced these stories are true, but crooks can be surprisingly ingenious, so I wouldn't rule them out either.

* The tech blogosphere has been playing up the new Google / LG Nexus 5 smartphone, with a five-inch display, eight-megapixel camera, and 2.3 gigahertz Snapdragon 800 system chip. The Snapdragon 800 is an all-in-one "super chip", with an ARM CPU core; graphics processing unit; camera interface; GPS receiver; plus mobile, wi-fi, and Bluetooth interfaces. The phone's unlocked, it can operate with multiple wireless provider networks on a prepaid basis; it even has a wireless recharger.

Nexus 5 smartphone

A 16GB version of the Nexus 5 goes for $349 USD, a 32GB version for $399 USD; unfortunately, there's no microSD card slot, meaning users can't upgrade on their own. The Nexus 5 has the latest Android operating system, Android 4.4 / Kitkat. Kitkat has a number of refinements, such as a tidier interface, new apps and capabilities -- and, most significantly, can operate in only 512 MB of RAM. This allows Kitkat to fit into low-end phones and tablets, which have been stuck with the antiquated Android 4.1 / Jelly Bean OS.

It seems amazing that somebody released a new OS that's smaller than its predecessors. It is only slightly less amazing, from the point of view of people who remember the days of MS-DOS that ran fine in 64 KB of RAM and a 20 MB hard disk, that people speak of an OS that "only" requires a half GB of RAM and minimally 2 GB of flash store to operate. Yes, MS-DOS by modern standards was painfully primitive -- but it worked, and we're talking about a difference in storage requirement of several orders of magnitude. There simply isn't that proportionally big a difference in capability.

* An article from BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK reflected on the introduction of the latest generation of iPhones by Apple. While the iPhone remains extremely popular, with almost a hundred million sold a month at present, sales have been softening -- the big reasons being that the market is becoming saturated, and improvements in iPhones are reaching diminishing returns. Why lay down good money for a new iPhone that's only marginally better than the old one?

That leaves an opening for entrepreneurs who can keep the old phones running -- for example Justin Weatherwill, who started fixing smartphones at an Orlando restaurant in 2009, patching them up for customers while they ate. Now he's running a chain with dozens of outlets named "uBreakiFix", which Weatherwill says brought in $17 million USD in revenue in 2012: "If you can get a phone fixed for $100 or less, it's a heck of a lot better than buying a new one."

Apple, never one to give up more control over its product base than absolutely necessary, has been pushing back against the thousands of rehab shops that have sprung up -- voiding warranties if iPhones are fixed by unauthorized third party outlets instead of their own service organization, and refusing to sell tools or components. The third parties often are reduced to cannibalizing to get parts, though a startup named iFixit has been sourcing tools and parts in defiance of Apple. The third parties continue to thrive as more mobile gadgets are sold to consumers; the fixit people are not only happy to help users out, for a price, but also say that their work helps slow the flow of still-useful gadgets gear into environmentally-troublesome e-waste dumps.

* Speaking of Apple & iPhones, I was slightly startled by a BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK note that discussed how Apple charges an extra $200 USD for 64 GB flash memory on an iPhone -- while a 64 GB flash chip costs about $50 USD at Amazon.com. Apple iPhones don't permit users to buy their own flash chip and install it themselves; if they want more memory, they buy a new phone. To be sure, Apple isn't the only vendor that takes that approach, as demonstrated by the Nexus 5 described above, but the Apple markup is painfully steep.

Startled, but not really surprised. I was long amused by Steve Jobs' association with DisneyCorp, since both Apple and Disney have a similar business model: offer a premium product, promote it heavily, do everything to lock in the customer and lock out alternatives, then charge as much as the market will bear. The really interesting thing is that it works, rakes in the profits, and still retains a very loyal customer base.



* NEW HORIZONS IN REHEARSAL: The US National Aeronautics & Space Administration (NASA) launched the "New Horizons" Pluto flyby probe on 19 January 2006. The probe, which had a launch mass of about half a tonne, performed a "gravity assist" flyby of Jupiter in early 2007 to push it along to Pluto encounter in 2015. As reported by an article from AVIATION WEEK ("Closing In" by Frank Morring JR, 29 July 2013), the flyby is of course a one-shot deal, and the project staff at the Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) of Johns Hopkins University know they only have a single chance to get it right.

New Horizons probe

Mission planning actually began in 2000, well before launch, and accelerated after the 2007 Jupiter flyby, which gave project staff a "live" target on which observations could be performed. Following a nine-day close-encounter rehearsal in July 2013, the encounter script was frozen, with no modifications expected, the spacecraft being in fine shape at present. APL staffers now say they are beginning the encounter itself, two years not being too much time for the job. The spacecraft's "Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI)" has already resolved Pluto and Charon, Pluto's biggest moon, into two distinct objects, and will continue to provide improved imagery as the encounter date approaches.

New Horizons carries seven instruments:

The public will be most interested in the imagery of Pluto and its five moons. The largest moon, Charon, was discovered in 1978, while the smallest, Styx, was found in 2012; the expectation is that New Horizons will find several more "moonlets" as it approaches Pluto.

Mission planning breaks up the flyby into of multiple phases:

APL staffers are now talking with astronomers at ground-based observatories in hopes that they may be able to spot new moonlets for inspection during the flyby, as well as identify targets for follow-on flybys by New Horizon of other worlds in the distant "Kuiper belt", of which Pluto is a member.



* CLIMATE CHANGE SLOWDOWN: The leveling off of the world's temperature rise was discussed here during the summer. As that article mentioned, although climate-change denialists believe that global temperature increases are part of a natural cycle and will soon fade out, in the absence of specific knowledge of mechanisms, it is just as believable that a natural cycle is holding down warming.

As discussed by a note from AAAS SCIENCE NOW Online, climate researchers have been puzzling over the question, one suggestion being that temperature increases may be held down by cool ocean surface temperatures in the eastern equatorial Pacific, linked to a decade-scale cycle of changes in rainfall, temperature, and atmosphere circulation known as the "El Nino-Southern Oscillation (ENSO)". To find out, climatologists Yu Kosaka and Shang-Ping Xie, both of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, California, used a model named "Pacific Ocean -- Global Temperature (POGA)" that connects Pacific Ocean surface temperatures, ENSO, and global atmosphere. They used three different assumptions with POGA to see which of the three most closely matched observations from 2002 to 2012:

POGA-H gave results closest to reality. By comparing the temperatures from that model with temperatures from the model that included only atmospheric changes, the researchers were able to isolate the effect of the ocean temperatures. They found that recent cooling in the tropical Pacific, which covers only about 8.2% of Earth's surface, was responsible for lowering global mean temperatures by 0.15 degrees Celsius, relative to the 1990s. In the Northern Hemisphere the lull was most pronounced in winter, when ENSO has the greatest impact on the transfer of heat from the tropics to the poles.

Kosaka commented: "Our study does not tell us when the climate will go out from the hiatus, but now we know that in the timescale of several decades, the climate will continue to warm due to increase in greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere."

Other climatologists have praised the study and agree that the slowdown in warming is very likely to be temporary -- adding that the regional effect of cooling in the tropical Pacific has merely offset significant warming in other regions, such as the southern USA.

* REPLAYING THE ICE AGES: In related news, as reported by an article from AAAS SCIENCE ("How To Make A Great Ice Age, Again & Again & Again" by Richard A. Kerr, 9 August 2013), it has been long suspected that the cycles of ice ages that the Earth has endured in the recent geological past are driven by a stretching of the Earth's orbit on a 100,000 year basis.

Now a team under paleoclimate modeler Ayako Abe-Ouchi of the University of Tokyo has constructed a computer model of the Ice Age cycle that has been getting high reviews from the science community. The Japanese model tends to confirm the suspicion that the 100,000 year cycle boosts the effect of the 23,000-year wobble or "precession" of the Earth's spin axis to produce Ice Ages. The model also shows that the sheer mass of the North American ice sheet led to the relatively abrupt end of each Ice Age.

The Japanese model was a composite, built on a straightforward climate model, like those used to estimate global warming, adding a model of the northern ice sheets. The research team fed the model data on the changing distribution of sunlight due to the Earth's orbital variations, as well as carbon dioxide levels of the Ice Ages recorded in ice core samples. The system then neatly illustrated the rise and fall of the Ice Ages, with the simulated ice sheets expanding over tens of thousands of years, to then collapse every 100,000 years over a brief interval of a few thousand years. The particularly impressive thing about the model was that it required no tweaks or simplifications to get it to come out right.

The Japanese researchers believe that the intersection of the 100,000-year and 23,000-year cycles kept solar energy low enough at high latitudes to permit gradual buildup of the ice pack. However, if solar heating increased in the two cycles, heating got a clear boost in the summers. At that point, the North American ice sheet -- which reached from coast to coast and as far south as Chicago -- began to melt around the edges. The great mass of ice had depressed the earth underneath the glaciers to a depth of up to a kilometer; the lower altitude of the ice meant warmer temperatures, and so the ice sheet melted away rapidly.

Other researchers involved in paleoclimate research praised the exercise for its sophistication and detail. It not only shed light on past climate, but also helped validate the increasing capability of climate modeling in general. Further work on the Ice Age climate cycle will require more computing power.



* ALBUQUERQUE ROAD TRIP (1): After my road trip to San Diego in October 2012 -- discussed here from late that year -- I thought of taking a trip to Nellis Air Force Base near Las Vegas for their big AVIATION NATION airshow in early November 2013. I wasn't keen on a long trip, but it would be a day's drive out, a day at the airshow, a day back, an easy trip. Then I got to thinking that, having gone that far, I might as well extend the trip a few days -- first considering going on to Los Angeles to play tourist, then considering that I might go south to Arizona instead, there being some sights there that I hadn't seen.

However, when the Federal government budget sequester came down, the military canceled all airshows, so there would be no AVIATION NATION in 2013. Better luck next year, I hope, if not with much confidence given the continuing Federal budget gridlock. I still wanted to see some sights in Arizona, and got to thinking I might just make a trip there, going through Albuquerque, New Mexico, to see the Balloon Fiesta in early October. I ended up equivocating about that idea for a long time, since the trip length came to a week -- which was a lot with no event of major significance to signify it.

So no long road trip for the rest of 2013. As a consolation, I considered a visit the zoo in Colorado Springs .... and then I wondered just how far it was to Albuquerque. A map check revealed it was only 800 kilometers (500 miles), an easy day's drive. So why not go to Albuquerque, visit the Colorado Springs zoo on the way down, spend a day in Albuquerque, catch the mass balloon ascent on the first morning of the Balloon Fiesta, and then come home? Assuming the weather cooperated, I'd see all I would want of balloons by the time I hit the road at 10 AM or earlier, getting me back in Loveland by about 7 PM. Three day trip, no problem, no pushing during any of it.

The more I thought about it, the more I liked the idea. It felt good to make up my mind after fiddling with the idea for months. Realizing there might be a rush for hotel rooms during the Balloon Fiesta, I immediately made reservations at a Hilton motel not far from the Balloon Fiesta site -- I didn't have to lay any money down, I could cancel if things didn't work out. My concerns about room availability were reinforced by the fact that the first night at the motel was unusually cheap for a Hilton, but the second night was unusually expensive, suggesting heavy demand.

* I had the trip roughed out before the end of August. I ended up being very busy after that, and I had to scramble to get things nailed down as the time approached. Everything was indeed ready to go on the morning of Thursday, 3 October. Unlike most of my trips, there was no need to get up early, in fact I couldn't leave early. Colorado Springs is about a two-hour drive south from Loveland through Denver, the zoo in Colorado Springs doesn't open until 9:00 AM, and so there was no point in leaving before 7:00 AM; since Denver morning gridlock doesn't let up before 9:00 AM, I couldn't leave before 8:00 AM.

I ended up hitting the road a bit late, getting into Colorado Springs about 10:45 AM. Trying to get to the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo there is a bit tricky, it's on the outskirts of town, and requires snaking around the big Broadmoor Hotel complex on the west of town. I didn't have any problems reaching the zoo, though.

Once I got to the zoo I went to the giraffe paddock, which is first class, and started taking pictures with my Canon Powershot zoom camera. I didn't take many, since after a moment it went: "krrrrrrrkt" -- and stopped working. Fumblings with it showed that it was indeed dead. I was apprehensive for an instant that my trip had just gone off the rails, but then I remembered I was carrying a pocket camera and that I kept my older Canon Powershot zoom camera in the car, as well as another pocket camera. All those cameras ran on AA cells, so I made a mental note to buy a pack of AA cells.

The Cheyenne Mountain Zoo is a bit unusual because it's three-dimensional, set up on the side of the mountain. Zoos are usually set up like mazes to begin with; in this case negotiating the maze means going up and down a hillside. They have what looks a ski lift to haul people at the top, but I didn't feel like bothering with it. The zoo is attractively laid out, though the animals weren't showing themselves too much -- it was midday, many were taking naps. I did get shots of budgerigars (parakeets) in their exhibit, and of the giraffes, particularly a juvenile, but not much of anything else.

junior giraffe

Eh, zoos are like that, visitors get what the animals feel like giving them, and the place is pleasant. I did have the problem that I had left my pocket camera in low-light mode the last time I had used it, that mode cutting resolution to a quarter and not working all that well in full lighting, so I had to take some shots again. One of the fun things about the zoo was that the taped organ music for the carousel was playing "That's Amore":

   When the Moon 
      hits you eye
   Like a bigga
      pizza pie
   That's A-MO-RE ...

I hear that and I think of having a spaghetti dinner. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* ANOTHER MONTH: As reported by a note from THE ECONOMIST, jellyfish populations are becoming a nuisance in the world's oceans, clogging water entrance pipes to desalinization plants, interfere with fishing, and fouling public beaches. Myung Hyun of the Korean Advanced Institute of Science & Technology in Daejeon has a solution -- the "Jellyfish Elimination Robotic Swarm (JEROS)", a set of aquatic robots floating on twin booms and powered by water thrusters. Under the direction of a lead robot, the JEROS formation uses cameras and image-recognition software to hunt down jellyfish. When one is spotted, a robot bears down on it, catching it in a funnel-shaped net that feeds it into spinning blades. In trials, a JEROS fleet could chop up 900 kilograms (2,000 pounds) of jellyfish in an hour.

That does sound a bit unsporting, and there have also been criticisms because the chopping may release sperm and eggs that will produce more jellyfish. However, under good conditions jellyfish will spawn daily, so that's something of a wash. Another issue is that chopping up the jellyfish may release tentacle fragments that can still sting swimmers. The current system is targeting moon jellyfish, which are not notably toxic; for nastier species like box jellyfish, the researchers are working on collection hoppers that could be landed and emptied, their contents possibly used for fertilizer. Somehow, this scenario suggests to me a really bad "robots gone amok versus killer jellyfish" movie. I'm not even sure it could be made to work as camp.

* WIRED Online tipped me off to MotoArt, a small firm in the Los Angeles area that takes an innovative approach to refurbishing castoffs from aircraft. Want an executive chair made from a B-52 ejection seat? A circular bar made from a 747 engine cowling? A decadent bed similarly made from a DC-10 cowling? Partitions made from fuselage sections? Conference tables made from wing sections? MotoArt has you covered.

B-52 ejection seat chair

I have to applaud the resourcefulness of the idea, though I am curious as to who buys such gadgets. I would think hardcore air geeks, or firms in the aviation industry. I suppose airports, in particular airport bars or similar concessions, might be interested, too. For myself, I'd never think of buying any such things, but if I saw them around I'd be sure to get some photos of them.

* I was over at Home Depot, getting some household building supplies, and going through the automated checkout system. A couple across from me at another payment kiosk had an orange five-gallon plastic paint-type bucket -- with what looked like a doll in it. I looked at it, and the "doll" looked back up at me. It turned out to be a little girl, a year old or so, wrapped up in her blanket. She seemed perfectly cozy in the bucket. I wanted to get a photo, but the parents, it seems becoming self-conscious of attracting attention, pulled her out. I just had to satisfy myself by making a note of it.