aug 2014 / last mod jan 2017 / greg goebel

* 21 entries including; Cold War (series), Arizona road trip (series), identifying World War I remains, rethinking the university, re-inventing the train, Ebola described, triple star system, Russian military reformed, climate slowdown not as great as claimed, and dealing with mine pollution.

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[FRI 22 AUG 14] THE COLD WAR (35)
[FRI 15 AUG 14] THE COLD WAR (34)
[FRI 08 AUG 14] THE COLD WAR (33)


* NEWS COMMENTARY FOR AUGUST 2014: The upsurge of the Islamic radical group ISIS in Iraq was discussed here in June. Much to the surprise of US intelligence, ISIS has continued on its rampage, and so now the Obama Administration has dropped the other shoe, with President Obama announcing that the US would conduct airstrikes and humanitarian airdrops in Iraq.

The immediate issue was ISIS pressure on the Kurds in the north, which resulted in isolation of a group of civilians, mostly of the obscure Yazidi religion, on Mount Sinjar in the region. The Yazidis, a syncretic sect, are regarded as vermin by ISIS fighters; they kill Yazidis out of hand. Kurdish Peshmurga fighters simply do not have the firepower to deal with ISIS, particularly now that ISIS has obtained heavy weapons abandoned by fleeing Iraqi troops. There were particular fears when the Mosul Dam was captured by ISIS; in the wrong hands, it could unleash a wall of water that would wreak devastation far downstream on the Tigris, which runs through Baghdad.

F/A-18 Hornet stings ISIS

The airstrikes, by both piloted and drone aircraft, were highly selective, it appears being performed in response to requests by Peshmurga fighters, with American advisers / observers in their ranks. Although Obama says no US ground forces will be committed to Iraq, there's been no attempt to disguise the fact that Americans soldiers are there on the ground in an intelligence and support capacity. The French and British are also supplying weapons to the Peshmurga, presumably along with training personnel for the more sophisticated gear. The Mosul Dam has been taken back from ISIS.

The Obama Administration has come under criticism from the Right for the limited use of force, but Obama clearly doesn't want the US to get any more involved than necessary. One restraining factor was the government of Iraqi Shiite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who had done much to seed the crisis with his heavy-handed actions, particularly against Iraqi Sunnis, which convinced them ISIS was the lesser of evils. Had the Americans backed Nuri directly, they would have been perceived as attacking Sunnis, not ISIS.

Nuri was determined to hold on to power, not least because of the obvious prospect of being killed if he let go. Under strong international pressure to step down, he finally threw in the towel on 14 August, resigning to be replaced by Haider al-Abadi as prime minister. The Iranians had backed Nuri -- but facing the threat of an Iraq dominated by Sunni extremists, decided it was time to let him twist in the wind.

Although Haider is also a Shiite, from a similar political background as Nuri, Haider is known as a smoother operator, firm but more inclined to compromise. He has been making strong conciliatory noises about an inclusive Iraqi state, which is exactly what the White House wants to hear, the expectation being that Haider will appoint Sunnis to his cabinet in positions of influence. As Obama told a reporter: "We're not going to let [ISIS] create some caliphate through Syria and Iraq, but we can only do that if we know that we've got partners on the ground who are capable of filling the void."

* As reported by JANE'S Online, the offensive by the Ukrainian government against Russian insurgents in the eastern regions of the countries appears to be making grinding progress. Fighting has been reported in the cities of Donetsk and Lugansk, strongholds of the rebels, though it appears the Ukrainian military goal for now is to isolate the two cities. Ukrainian Army units now appear to be better trained and motivated than they were in the early phases of the conflict.

The fighting has been the nastiest in Europe since the Wars of the Yugoslav Succession in the 1990s; over 2,000 have been killed since the conflict began in April. Both sides have been observed using BM-21 Grad multiple rocket launchers, more or less a "carpet bombing" weapon, which have caused widespread military and civilian casualties, along with severe damage to property and transport infrastructure.

BM-21 Grad launcher

What has surprised many is the reluctance of Russian president Vladimir Putin to intervene directly to prop up the supposed "People's Republics of Donetsk and Lugansk". So far, Russian forces do not seem to have been sent in to fight openly alongside the rebels, although NATO claims Moscow often allows resupply convoys to cross the border. That could mean Putin is feeling the heat of economic sanctions -- but it is more likely he is worried about public unrest in response to heavy casualties among conscript soldiers. The Kremlin's experience in Afghanistan in the 1980s and Chechnya in the 1990s instilled a reluctance to risk Russian lives in protracted foreign adventures.

That should not be seen as a sign that Putin has given up; simply that he's keeping a camouflage net over his activities, while hitting back at the criticisms of Western governments in sly ways. The McDonald's hamburger franchise operates over 400 outlets in Russia; the Russian state food safety agency has now started to shut down McDonald's restaurants for alleged "food safety violations". The agency has denied that its actions are politically motivated, reprisals for Western sanctions against Russia. Oh SURE, they're not.



* WINGS & WEAPONS: As a sign of gradual economic recovery, improved versions of business aircraft continue to be introduced -- as a case in point, the new Dassault Falcon 8X, introduced to the public at the European Business Aviation Convention & Exposition in Geneva in May.

The Falcon 8X is an enhancement of the Dassault Falcon 7X trijet, featuring a 1.07 meter (3.5 foot) fuselage stretch, resulting in more cabin space and a 1,360-kilogram (3,000-pound) increase in maximum take-off weight. That yields an 8% increase in range, to 11,940 kilometers (7,420 miles / 6,450 NMI), carrying a crew of three and eight passengers. The aircraft's Pratt & Whitney PW307 turbofans have been uprated by 5%, to a thrust of 29.9 kN (3,050 kgp / 6,725 lbf), while tweaks to the wing cut 270 kilograms (600 pounds) of weight from the airframe -- enhancing its "hot & high" performance. Initial flight is expected in early 2015; list price will be about $58 million USD.

Falcon 8X

* The Lockheed C-130 Hercules turboprop tactical cargolifter has been a mainstay of Western military forces for about half a century. The US Marine Corps (USMC), for example, makes use of the "KC-130J" variant, which as the "KC" suffix implies, is primarily intended for inflight refueling and cargolift operations.

The USMC is now extending the KC-130J to the role of gunship via the "Harvest HAWK (Hercules Airborne Weapons Kit)", which is a palletized system that can be installed on or removed from a KC-130J in less than a day. The Harvest HAWK includes:

Harvest Hawk Derringer Door

A sideways-firing Mark 44 30-millimeter cannon will be added in a later upgrade phase. Initial test flights of the Harvest HAWK were in 2009, with the system fielded to Afghanistan in 2010. Ten kits were ordered, with the last delivered in June 2014. The KC-130J / Harvest Hawk was heavily tasked in combat, becoming one of the primary close support assets in the theater. One pilot comments: "Units all over Helmand Province regularly began requesting us by name. The British began calling us the Helmand Rock Stars."

* The Germans were pioneers in the investigation of swept wings during World War II, coming up with designs that had their wings swept rearward -- which is the conventional vision these days -- and, more unconventionally, forward swept wings (FSW). While FSW have aerodynamic advantages, they are subject to high stresses and so are hard to build. The only production aircraft ever to use FSW was a German business jet, the Hamburger Flugzeugbau HFB-320 Hansa Jet, with 50 built between 1964 and 1973; the FSW configuration was selected to permit placing the wing spar behind the passenger cabin.

The German aerospace research agency DLR is now reviving the FSW concept to come up with a jetliner design that could cut fuel burn by up to 13%. The "Laminar Aircraft Research (LamAIR)" project envisions a jetliner about the size of an Airbus A320, but with 18% less drag thanks to the natural laminar airflow over the FSW -- "laminar" meaning smooth airflow, with layers of velocity streams at increasing height above the airfoil. With twin tail-mounted engines, that would translate into 9% better fuel economy.

LamAIR FSW airliner

Mounting the engines on the tail means a tee tail and structural reinforcement of the fuselage to handle the bending load, the additional weight acquired thereby cutting into efficiency. Further research is being conducted to move the engines under the wings, which would mean a lighter airframe and 13% better fuel economy.

The key to LamAiR lies in modern carbon composite construction techniques. Clever orientation of carbon fibers can overcome the inherent structural shortcoming of FSW -- aerodynamic lift forces on the wing tips are excessive and self-reinforcing, possibly leading to stall or even breakage. LamAIR remains a paper project for the moment, but DLR researchers see going to a production machine as straightforward, one of them saying: "If you asked us, we could start tomorrow!"



* REMEMBER THE DEAD: On 28 July 1914, in response to the assassination of the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary by Serbian nationalists, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. There followed a chain reaction of declarations of war, and within a week Europe was ablaze. Nobody expected the war to be so long and brutal; four years later, millions were dead, with disorder lingering in its wake.

off to war

1914 is the centennial of the beginning of the Great War. As discussed by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("An Iron Harvest", THE WORLD IN 2014 special issue), collective memory of the event persists, with millions of new grave markers being turned out to spruce up cemeteries, and hardier grass being planted to tolerate larger numbers of visitors.

Cleaning up cemeteries is an exceptional effort; cleaning up the battlefields has been ongoing, off and on, since 1914. In the 21st century, military ordnance disposal teams still have their work cut out for them in handling rust-covered unexploded shells uncovered by farmers, construction workers, utility workers, and gardeners in Belgium and France. Despite the age of these munitions, they remain very dangerous, with a tractor and sometimes a farmer blown up without warning. There are also shells still full of toxic mustard agent or other nasty chemicals.

That isn't so surprising, since about 1.45 billion shells were expended during the Great War. The frontlines tended to be static, and so the shell impacts accumulated in various locations, with shells often burying themselves in the churned-up ground without exploding. The dud rate is estimated to have been about a third. In 2012 alone, 185 tonnes (204 tons) of unexploded ordnance was recovered; the size of the "iron harvests" is actually increasing, due to the extension of construction and farming into previously fallow areas.

Along with dud munitions, the bones of the fallen are recovered as well, with the remains of about 20 British or Commonwealth soldiers discovered each year. That's only a tiny drop in the bucket relative to the 155,000 of them missing and presumed dead in action, and it's not a good bet they will be identified -- their dogtags were made of cardboard and rotted away long ago. The unidentified dead are buried in the nearest military cemetery, their graves marked with Rudyard Kipling's legend: "A Soldier of the Great War -- Known Unto God".

However, shrewd forensics are allowing some of the dead to be identified. Sometimes it's not so hard, if the remains are discovered with a ring or a razor with the owner's name or initials. Sometimes all that's recovered are regimental buttons or badges, but that allows cross-checking with regimental lists of the missing in given locations. If descendants can be tracked down, their DNA can be compared to that in the recovered bones. In that way, 124 Australian soldiers have been identified from mass graves discovered six years ago, containing the remains of 250 men killed in the Battle of Fromelles on 19:20 July 1916.

The dead will be re-interred with full military honors, with regimental bands playing "Reveille" and other appropriate tunes, while firing parties give salutes. It is good to know history to remember the calamities of the past in order that we will not want the past to be repeated; it adds a certain depth to the memory to realize that history is, at root, about individuals, not merely mass statistics.



* RETHINKING THE UNIVERSITY: As discussed by an essay from THE ECONOMIST ("Creative Destruction", 28 June 2014), higher education has been a great success story for the developed world, with some 3.5 million Americans and 5 million Europeans graduating this summer. Universities are booming in the developing world, China having added almost 30 million seats in the last 20 years.

However, the basic concept of the university is much the same as it has been for centuries, with students flocking to lecture halls on schedule to listen to the wisdom of scholars. What has changed is the price, since higher education suffers from "Baumol's disease" -- the tendency of costs to soar in labor-intensive sectors with stagnant productivity. While consumer gadgets keep offering more capability for less cost, the price of going to college has risen by 1.6% over inflation every year for the last two decades.

A college education can still pay off, with estimates showing that a college degree yields a handsome bonus to a worker's career. Unfortunately, for those who end up saddled with debt -- particularly the 47% in USA and 28% in Britain who drop out -- the payoff is much more uncertain. American student debt adds up to $1.2 trillion USD, with more than 7 million people in default.

Governments are becoming less willing to bear the burden; in the USA, government funding per student fell by 27% between 2007 and 2012, while average tuition fees, adjusted for inflation, rose by 20%. At the same time, automation is putting more and more professional careers at risk. Improvements in machine intelligence are allowing automation to creep into new sectors of the economy, from book-keeping to retail, while new online business models threaten sectors that had, until recently, weathered the internet storm. Anyone obtaining a degree for a white-collar job might end up high and dry a decade or two down the road. That increases risk for young students, and emphasizes the need for continuing education for people in the work force.

Technology, fortunately, can give as well as take away. Now the "massive open online course (MOOC)" is giving students the chance to get a degree for a fraction of the cost of attending a university. MOOCs appeared in 2008; so far they have been a disappointment, suffering from difficulties with credits and high dropout rates. This is changing as private investors and traditional universities move into the field, with improved software and systems doing a better job.

One MOOC provider, Udacity, has teamed up with AT&T and Georgia Tech to offer an online master's degree in computing, at less than a third of the cost of the traditional version. Harvard Business School will soon offer an online "pre-MBA" for $1,500 USD, while Starbucks has offered to help pay for its staff to take online degrees with Arizona State University. Over the long run, smarter software will give each student a personalized intelligent tutor with immediate access to all the necessary facts.

The MOOC, in potential, is a disruptive technology. Prestigious universities are likely to prosper; they can still charge a premium for attendance, their function having long been at least as much to generate career contacts as to provide education, and through MOOCs the big universities will be able to spread their "brand name". In doing so, they may extend their footprints at the expense of middle-ranking universities. If the smaller players can't re-invent themselves, they may not survive, killed off by cost inflation and the tide going out.

The losers in this revolution will demand that politicians to put on the brakes, but the politicians cannot stop the inevitable. In the new era, students in the developed world will have access to higher education at lower cost and greater convenience, while MOOCs will help older people who need retraining. MOOCs will also allow developing countries to ramp up higher education quickly at modest cost. Instead of trying to halt the revolution, governments need to get involved in it.

The will appears to be there. Both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama have said that universities face a dismal outlook if they can't lower their costs, marking a shift from the tendency of center-Left politicians to favor more public spending on academia. Governments can help by by backing common standards for accreditation. In Brazil, for example, students completing courses take a government-run exam. In most Western countries, it would likewise make sense to have a single, independent organization that certifies exams. In any case, by the end of the century, the world's universities will not be the same as they are now, having only the choice of adapting or dying out.



* ARIZONA ROAD TRIP (7): Having canvassed the Saguaro Desert Museum, I drove east back into town, stopping at a McDonald's to eat a chicken salad for lunch, and to tend to my feet -- toes getting a bit sore, requiring some application of bandaids.

Having regrouped, I went south to the Tucson Zoo. It was a bit of a let-down after the Desert Museum, being a very ordinary municipal zoo, but I really hadn't expected more. I got some nice shots of a tapir, macaws, and in particular giant anteaters -- nearly every zoo has its special exhibit, and the Tucson Zoo put extra effort into the anteater enclosure.

anteaters at play

While wandering around the zoo, I was intrigued to see Air Force C-130 Hercules cargolifters and A-10 attack aircraft roaring overhead; I found out later that a special session of the airshow I was going to attend on Saturday was being performed for base personnel at Davis-Monthan AFB.

HC-130J air rescue Hercules

I didn't spend long at the Tucson Zoo, then driving further south, past Davis-Monthan, to the Pima Air Museum. I hadn't known exactly what to expect of it, having seen pictures of derelict aircraft there that suggested it was a depressing "boneyard" -- but fortunately that was an entirely misleading impression, since it was a first-class air museum. I canvassed four hangars for aircraft, crammed with flying machines, engines, and munitions in pristine condition, along with scores of flying machines in the open area.

B-17G Fortress at Pima Air Museum

Most of the aircraft in the open area had been restored, but there were some in wretched condition, clearly waiting for restoration; the place wasn't a boneyard, it was just going to take a lot of time, effort, and money to get everything up to proper condition. I must admit that the dustiness of the open area was a bit discouraging, but Arizona is like that. There was also a restoration hangar that I didn't visit, plus a small building full of inconsequential space trinkets. While I was wandering about, the Thunderbirds were finishing up the day's airshow at nearby Davis-Monthan AFB, and I got some shots.

USAF Thunderbirds over Tucson

* That completed a full day's efforts, and I went to the Hampton Inn hotel to clean up and rest. While I was unloading the car, I went past the pool in the rear, and heard animated chattering in German. "Vas ist das?" I looked over the fence at the pool, and it was crammed with young German guys, along with a few scowly-looking middle-aged German guys. No women -- I immediately pegged them as a company of military, enlisteds with a few NCOs. Where did they come from? Oh right, the Luftwaffe training squadron at Holloman AFB in New Mexico, a conjecture later confirmed by a hotel staffer. They would leave the next day.

Back up in my hotel room, I tried to back up my day's photo haul to my tablet using the MBLite -- but got an OUT OF MEMORY error. Suddenly, I realized I had failed to do simple arithmetic. A typical 16 megapixel shot results in about a 6 megabyte image file; that's about 167 shots per gigabyte of storage. Given about four gigabytes of free flash in my 8 GB tablet and 300 to 500 shots a day, it was no surprise I brought the tablet to its knees. Using burst mode to take shots piles up photos at a sharp rate.

On considering the matter, I realized that the entire idea of using the tablet for backup was misconceived. Why not get a big SD flash card, put it in the MBLite, and use the MBLite as a wi-fi mass storage unit? I could also get a USB flash stick for backup storage, to carry around my neck on a cord along with my backup car keys. The tablet then became irrelevant except as a controller for the MBLite.

So how much flash would I need? 16 GB would be cheap, but I might well overload it in the course of the trip; 32 GB would have the capacity for over 5,000 photos, and that would certainly do the job. 64 GB would be overkill, and too expensive; it should be a lot cheaper a few years down the road if I decided I needed more. Anyway, with nothing more to do, I got to bed relatively early, since I had another full day on Saturday. [TO BE CONTINUED]


[FRI 22 AUG 14] THE COLD WAR (35)

* THE COLD WAR (35): The dominance of UNC air power also provided an intelligence advantage against the Communists, since they had no ability to conduct aerial reconnaissance over UNC lines, while UNC aircraft could fly where they liked over North Korea -- though some locales were more heavily defended than others. Communist forces were, however, adept at concealment, though the terrain was not helpful them in that regard; it was impossible to conceal a major buildup for an offensive.

UNC observation of Communist radio traffic -- signals intelligence (SIGINT) -- similarly proved valuable for seeing what was going on to the north, though its value was limited by the fact that Red forces were thin on modern communications gear. Obtaining better intelligence meant sending agents north to observe and report back, but the effort to do so proved a failure that cost far too many agents their lives. Most Koreans living in the north who didn't care for Kim Il-Sung's iron-fisted regime had fled south during the "Big Bug-Out", and agents could not rely on support from the local population; Communist forces were also thick on the ground in the north, and so agents were quickly, sometimes immediately, snatched up.

In some cases, the CIA sent agents north with a minimum level of preparation and with little expectation of their survival, primarily for the sake of seeming to do something: the agency could dutifully report the lists of agents they had sent out, and say little about what happened to them after that. Despite such amateurishness and incompetence, the CIA only grew through the course of the war; American leadership was simply desperate for intelligence about Communist intent and capabilities, and was willing to invest the resources even when the payoff was, for the time being, painfully inadequate.

* UNC naval power also threw its weight into the battle, with US Navy and British Royal Navy carriers sending strikes inland. The US Navy's mainstays were the Grumman F9F Panther and the McDonnell F2H Banshee -- again, first-generation jets, no match for the MiG-15 -- and the Douglas A-1 Skyraider, a brutish piston-engine attack aircraft that proved the best close-support aircraft of the war, being rugged, able to carry a hefty warload, and with a long loiter time over the battlefield. The Royal Navy flew piston-powered strike aircraft as well, notably the Hawker Sea Fury and the Fairey Firefly.

Warships pounded coastal regions when necessary, the thunderous barrages of US Navy battleships proving particularly terrifying to Red soldiers who survived them. Duty at sea off the coasts of Korea was safe but dull, the only naval personnel at much risk being the pilots -- the Communists had no serious naval assets in the theater. UNC dominance at sea was absolute, with squadrons of warships ensuring that there would be no interference at sea from China or, if Stalin were so inclined to make overt trouble, the USSR. He never was; ships carried cargoes to support UNC forces into Korea with little worries about Soviet submarines. Stalin had no thought of escalating the conflict. Indeed, although American generals often complained about the limits set on them in conducting the war, the Communists were clearly conducting a limited war of their own.

Supply was never a real issue for UNC troops. They might not get everything they wanted or needed, but there were rarely shortages of anything essential, and they had resources that Red soldiers could only dream of. One particularly appreciated innovation was the "Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (MASH)" which -- thanks to a popular Hollywood TV show of the 1970s -- would prove one of the few enduring images of the war in Korea. A MASH was a portable field hospital, devised very late in World War II, that ensured seriously wounded UNC troops could get prompt attention, instead of waiting to be hauled to a hospital ship or to Japan. Survival rates improved accordingly.

Wounded were sometimes flown into a MASH via helicopter, though most were transported by field ambulances. The Korean War saw the introduction of the helicopter to the battle zone, though not really to combat, the helicopters of the era being generally lightweight, not notably reliable, and easily shot down. Helicopters were also used for search and rescue of aircrew who had to bale out behind enemy lines -- but the helicopter would not come of age as a real combat asset until a later war.

Indeed, other than jet aircraft and limited use of helicopters, the technology of warfare employed in Korea was little advanced over that employed in World War II. There was a bit of use of old fighter-bombers converted into radio-controlled attack drones, and of radio-controlled bombs, but that was about as far as advanced technology went in the conflict, and the technology for both had been available in the previous conflict. One straightforward innovation, the "flak jacket", was very much appreciated by US troops, being relatively lightweight body armor made of layers of nylon, capable of stopping fragments or low-energy bullets -- which was introduced late into the war.

Still, except for the use of modern polymer material, the flak vest was not notably high-tech. Newspaper Sunday supplements proclaimed a pulp-fiction era of "push-button warfare", but the knowledgeable could only recollect that, at that time, "we didn't have any buttons to push." The Cold War involved a significant technology race, but it wasn't strongly apparent in Korea. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* Space launches for July included:

-- 02 JUL 14 / OCO 2 -- A Delta 2 booster was launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California at 0956 GMT (local time + 7) to put the "Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO) 2" satellite into orbit for NASA. OCO 2 was to map the world once every 16 days, collecting 8 million measurements each time to gauge the seasonal and yearly variables in carbon dioxide, the key greenhouse gas. It joined the "A-train" constellation of Earth-watching satellites, sharing an orbit at an altitude of 705 kilometers (438 miles), to become the lead spacecraft of six. The spacecraft had a launch mass of 450 kilograms (1,000 pounds). The first OCO was lost in a Taurus XL booster launch failure in 2009. The Delta 2 was in the "7320" configuration, with three solid rocket boosters and no upper stage.

-- 03 JUL 14 / GONETS M x 3 -- A Rockot booster was launched from Plesetsk Northern Cosmodrome in Russia at 1243 GMT (local time - 4) to put three "Gonets M" store-&-forward civil communications satellites into orbit. The 280-kilogram (617-pound) Gonets M satellites were built by ISS Reshetnev; the payloads were designated Gonets M satellites Number 18, 19 and 20. The full comsat constellation was to be completed, with 12 operational satellites, by the end of 2015.

-- 09 JUL 14 / ANAGARA 1.2PP -- An Angara booster was launched from Plesetsk Northern Cosmodrome at 1200 GMT (local time - 4) on the booster's initial test flight. The booster carried no payload and conducted a suborbital flight, impacting on the Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia's Far East.

-- 08 JUL 14 / METEOR M2, SMALLSATS x 4 -- A Soyuz 2-1b (Fregat) booster was launched from Baikonur in Kazakhstan at 1558 GMT (local time - 6) to put the "Meteor M2" weather satellite into Sun-synchronous orbit. Meteor M2 was the latest in dozens of Meteors launched from 1964; it was the second in the latest series, following the launch of "Meteor M1" in 2009. Two more are to be launched in this series, to then lead to the improved "Meteor MP" series.

Meteor M2 weather satellite

Meteor M2's six instruments included multi-channel cameras; a microwave radiometer and infrared sounder to measure temperature and moisture in the atmosphere;, an X-band radar payload to map ice, snow, and vegetation; and a radiation detector to probe the space environment around the satellite. Meteor M2 also carried a radio relay to transfer data from weather stations and ocean buoys on the Earth below. The satellite had a five-year design life.

The launch also included:

Canada pulled a satellite from the launch, in protest against the Russian occupation of Crimea.

-- 10 JUL 14 / O3B x 4 -- A Soyuz 2-1b (Fregat) booster was launched from Kourou at 1856 GMT (local time + 5) to put four "O3B" comsats into orbit to provide communications services for developing countries. The O3B satellites were built by Thales Alenia Space; each had a launch mass of about 700 kilograms (1,545 pounds). They were placed in an equatorial orbit at an altitude of 8,000 kilometers (5,000 miles).

-- 13 JUL 14 / CYGNUS 3 (ORB-2) -- An Orbital Sciences Antares booster was launched from Wallops Island off the coast of Virginia at 1652 GMT (local time + 4) to put the third "Cygnus" supply capsule, named "Orb-2" AKA "Spaceship Janice Voss", into space on an International Space Station support mission. It docked with the ISS Harmony module on 16 July at 1037 GMT. It carried a total payload of 1,493 kilograms (3,292 pounds), including 32 CubeSats:

Fifteen Student Spaceflight Experiment Program (SSEP) experiments were also hauled to the ISS on Orb-2, SSEP being a NASA student outreach effort.

-- 14 JUL 14 / ORBCOMM OG2 x 8 -- A SpaceX Falcon 9 v1.1 booster was launched from Cape Canaveral in Florida at 1515 GMT (local time + 4) on the fifth Falcon 9 flight, placing eight "Orbcomm Gen-2 (OG2)" data-relay satellites into orbit. The Orbcomm network was originally lofted about 15 years ago, with 25 first-generation satellites in service at the time of the initial OG2 launch. Subscribers used the satellites to relay status updates, location pings, commands and other data between companies and trucks, ships, rail cars, oil / gas infrastructure, weather buoys, and research stations. Clients include Caterpillar, Walmart, Volvo, Tropicana, and General Electric; Orbcomm says it focuses on the commercial transportation, heavy equipment, industrial fixed assets, marine, and homeland security industries.

The OG2 satellites were built by Sierra Nevada, had a launch mass of 170 kilograms (375 pounds), and a design life of ten years. This initial batch of six was to be followed by eleven more. While clients could still use their old OG1 ground systems with OG2, OG2 satellites had 85 times the on-board memory, eight times the number of receivers, and six times the number of transmitters. The OG2 satellites also featured an AIS payload to track shipping traffic.

-- 18 JUL 14 / FOTON M4 -- A Soyuz 2-1a booster was launched from Baikonur at 2050 GMT (next day local time - 6) to put the "Foton M4" satellite into orbit with a payload of materials and biological experiments. It was to return its payload to Earth for analysis after several weeks in orbit; contact was lost after the payload was placed in orbit, but later regained.

-- 23 JUL 14 / PROGRESS 56P (ISS) -- A Soyuz U booster was launched from Baikonur at 2144 GMT (next day local time - 6) to put the "Progress 56P" AKA "Progress M-24M" tanker-freighter spacecraft into orbit on an International Space Station (ISS) supply mission. It docked with the ISS Zvezda module at 0331 GMT the next day. It was the 56th Progress mission to the ISS. The crew at the time consisted of Steve Swanson and Reid Wiseman of NASA; Alexander Gerst of the ESA; and Maxim Suraev, Alexander Skvortsov and Oleg Artemyev of the RKA.

-- 28 JUL 14 / AFSPC 4 -- A Delta 4 booster was launched from Cape Canaveral at 2328 GMT (local time + 4) on the "Air Force Space Command (AFSPC) 4" mission, lofting three payloads: two "Geosynchronous Space Situational Awareness Program (GSSAP)" spacecraft and the Air Force Research Lab's (AFRL) "Automated Navigation and Guidance Experiment for Local Space (ANGELS)".

The GSSAP effort was mentioned here earlier this year. The two GSSAP spacecraft were the first installment in a four-satellite constellation to perform visual inspections of geosynchronous satellites; the remaining two were scheduled to ride an Atlas V booster into orbit in 2015. The GSSAP spacecraft were built by Orbital Sciences and were classified, but given the lift capability of the Delta IV, they had to have masses of no more than a tonne (1.1 tons) each. ANGELS was a technology demonstrator for the AFRL, with a launch mass of around 70 kilograms (150 pounds). The rocket was in the "Medium+ (4,2)" configuration, with two solid rocket boosters.

-- 29 JUL 14 / ATV 5 -- An Ariane 5 ES booster was launched from Kourou at 2347 GMT (local time + 3) to put the fifth and last ESA "Automatic Transfer Vehicle (ATV 5)" unmanned cargo spacecraft, named "GEORGES LEMAITRE", into space on an International Space Station support mission. It carried a payload of 6.5 tonnes (7.15 tons). It docked with the ISS on 12 August.

* OTHER SPACE NEWS: Concerning the initial launch of the Russian Angara booster in July: Work on the Angara was begun in 1992, but schedule has stretched out. The Angara is designed as a modular system, capable of being flown in configurations to launch from light to heavy payloads. The test flight was of the prototype "Angara 1.2PP" configuration, 42.7 meters (140 feet) tall, with the first stage powered by the NPO Energomash RD-191 engine, burning LOX and kerosene -- much easier and cleaner to handle than the storable propellants often used by Russian boosters.

The RD-191 is a single-chamber derivative of the four-chamber RD-171 and dual-chamber RD-180 engines flying on the Zenit and Atlas 5 launchers. The RD-191 can generate 1,920 kN (196,000 kgp / 432,000 pounds) thrust at sea level. The second stage was powered by a kerosene-fueled RD-0124A engine with 294 kN (29,900 kgp / 66,000 lbf) thrust, the RD-0124A being new version of the engine previously flown on Russia's Soyuz 2-1b booster.

The Angara first stage with an RD-191 engine is named "Universal Rocket Module #1 (URM-1)". The URM-1 stage and the Angara's second stage, named "Universal Rocket Module #2 (URM-2)", will be used on most versions of the Angara launcher. Projected Angara configurations include:

Khrunichev has developed two variants of the Angara 1. A less powerful configuration, the "Angara 1.1", will feature a Breeze KM second stage -- a smaller model of the Breeze M -- while the heftier "Angara 1.2" will use a second stage borrowed from the Soyuz rocket. An additional upper stage -- either the Breeze M flown on Proton launchers, or a new upper stage with an LH2-LOX engine -- will be added to place payloads of up to 7.5 tonnes (16,500 pounds) into geostationary orbit, more than the lift capacity of the workhorse Proton / Breeze M. An "Angara 7" launcher for deep-space missions is being considered, but there is no commitment to it yet.

Angara boosters

Operational flights of the Angara rocket are set to begin in 2015 from Plesetsk, and the Vostochny Cosmodrome under construction in Russia's Far East. Russia does not plan to launch the Angara rocket from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, which the Russian government leases from Kazakhstan.



* RE-INVENTING THE TRAIN: Work on improved train technology was discussed here in 2006. An article from THE ECONOMIST ("Ideas Coming Down The Track", 1 June 2013), provided a more up-to-date survey of new railroad tech.

Compared to, say, automobiles, train technology seems stodgy, not advancing in any hurry -- but there are reasons that is so. Compared to trains, cars are much less expensive and have short life-cycles; railroads have to make large capital investments to acquire new railroad gear, and it has to serve for decades. Although innovation in trains is slower and less spectacular than it is for automobiles, there's still a lot of work going on to improve trains. As energy prices continue their rise, trains are the most cost-effective means of ground transport.

Much of the innovation in trains doesn't seem, on the face of it, particularly whizzy. Trains of course run on rails, and the trains don't run so well when the rails are slippery from grease or decayed leaves or whatever, with a locomotive then spinning its wheels. This slippage of course wastes energy. These days, trains are often equipped with computerized control systems that reduce power to driving wheels when they start to slip; the system also commands sprayers to blow sand on the tracks to improve traction. In difficult conditions, a train may blow tonnes of sand onto the tracks in a day's time.

The new GE PowerHaul locomotive, which features such "slip control", allowed one customer to increase the length of single-engine coal trains from 26 to 31 cars. Longer trains require more locomotives, with digital control helping out there as well: "slave locomotives" can be placed throughout the train, all of them responding automatically to the commands of the engineer in the lead locomotive. There's no problem in assembling trains with 200 or more cars -- which explains how the US, Canada and Mexico increased throughput on their rail networks by about 90% in the two decades to 2006, even as net track in service decreased.

GE Powerhaul locomotive

There's work on better braking systems as well. Trains can't be stopped on anything resembling a dime, the result being that engineers can only watch helplessly as their train rolls on towards an inevitable collision. Halting a train pulling a hundred cars at 80 KPH (50 MPH) can require 2 kilometers (2,200 yards) of track. One issue is the material the brake shoes are made of: the brakes have to handle so much momentum that they heat up, losing braking power in what is known as "heat fade". Modern trains have tougher brake-shoe materials made with resins, elastomers, and mineral fibers that can take the heat with less shaking or "judder".

Another aspect of braking, mentioned in the 2006 article, is that traditionally brakes were powered by pneumatics, with air hoses linking car to car from the locomotive. Braking meant driving air down the links, the result being that the cars began to brake one after another; it could take minutes on a long train for the braking to propagate to the end of the train. Now electrical braking schemes are available, allowing all cars in the train to brake at the same time. The problem is that this only really works if all the cars are wired for electrical braking, but the advantage is so great that eventually they all will be.

There's another issue with braking, in that a train of course "piles up" on itself while it's slowing down -- sometimes literally, with heavier cars shoving lighter cars in front of them off the track. It's understood that the lighter cars should be place at the end of a train, but since cars may be loaded and unloaded during the course of a rail journey, it's difficult to guarantee that they will be in the proper order. Software helps, allowing analysis of the "train dynamics" for a given route and optimizing the placement of cars in consideration of how they will be loaded and unloaded.

The nature of the route has to be considered as well, since a car can safely carry a much heavier load on a straight and level route than over a winding one that traverses high country. Other trade-offs include factoring the safety of a particular train configuration against the hazards of putting together a more elaborate configuration in a train marshaling yard. TUV Rheinland Rail Sciences of Atlanta charges a few thousand dollars to analyze a route, tens of thousands to analyze a complete network.

Operations and analysis are assisted by data acquisition. Strain gauge sensors attached to rails at intervals can weigh a train from the amount it bends a rail. The data can be immediately sent to engineers and other railroad personnel to warn them that the train's weight balance is off optimum, with brake settings or the load adjusted in response. Hundreds of such sensors have been installed, mostly in North America and Australia, and have greatly reduced the number of accidents due to faulty weight distribution.

Software also assists freight trains in performing the most energy-efficient journeys -- assessing the route and train loading, to then inform the engineers in real time how best to speed up and to brake. The software is expensive, but it can cut 5% in fuel costs, so it pays for itself quickly. In some schemes, the software handles the throttle and brakes directly, presumably a sign of the future.

Electric trains are also being refined. Commuter trains are leveraging off aerospace technology to become lighter, translating not only into improved energy efficiency, but allowing them to ride on less robust and so cheaper elevated guideways. In another trick, while it's less expensive to use a "third rail" than overhead catenary lines to provide power to an electric train, the electrified third rail is a public hazard in an urban environment -- but Alstom, a French engineering firm, has figured out how to use a wireless signal provided by a train to switch sections of track on and off, with only the length below the train switched on.

High-speed electric trains are particularly attractive these days because of their high efficiency, with thousands of kilometers of track, powered by overhead catenaries, being built through much of the Old World. The efficiency is being improved by regenerative braking -- in which the power generated from braking a train is sent elsewhere for use. It's tricky because a lot of power can be generated that's hard to store, but a train coming into a station can help power another leaving it. German industrial giant Siemens has also developed "static energy converter" systems that can feed the energy back into the municipal power grid, with some 20 sites in Germany now using the trick.

Beyond conventional rail systems, there are honestly whizzy options, most notably "magnetic levitation (maglev)" trains that float along a guideway on a magnetic field, obtaining aircraft-like speeds. However, maglev has been a "technology of the future" for a long time, being expensive to implement, and it's never really been put to practical use. Maglev may come of age one of these days; but if not, there's still plenty of improvement to be had in conventional rail systems.



* WHAT IS EBOLA? An epidemic of the Ebola hemorrhagic fever virus broke in West Africa late last year, and so far has claimed over a thousand victims. There's been considerable agitation over the matter, not all it very highly informed; an article from AAAS SCIENCE Online ("The Ebola Virus: What Does Ebola Actually Do?" by Kelly Servick, posted 13 August 2014), outlined the facts of Ebola, to the extent they are known.

The Ebola virus and the family of "filoviruses" to which it belongs -- including the similarly nasty Marburg virus -- are single-strand RNA viruses, of filamentary configuration. They are dangerous because they first disable the immune system of victims, and then assault their vascular system. The progress of an Ebola infection is savagely rapid, with the consequence that researchers are finding it difficult to nail down the precise steps of its action. Although Ebola was first described in 1976, much remains unknown about it -- for example, the function of the seven proteins that the virus's RNA churns out after taking over host cells, and what component of the immune response is most effective against the virus. Fortunately, the Ebola virus can be grown in cell cultures, and nonhuman primates are good models for its action in humans.

Ebola virus

Ebola is acquired through contact with blood or bodily fluids of infected animals, such as monkeys or fruit bats -- incidentally, the virus doesn't seem to do fruit bats any harm, and they are suspected to be the natural reservoir of the virus. Spread of the disease can be controlled by sanitation and isolation measures. Treating those who have been infected is more problematic.

It is known that when an Ebola virus enters the body, it attacks several types of immune cells in the first line of host defense. It infects "dendritic cells", which normally display markers of an infection on their surfaces to activate "T lymphocytes" -- the white blood cells that destroy infected host cells to prevent a virus from multiplying. Activated T cells also control generation of the immune system proteins known as "antibodies"; by destroying dendritic cells, the Ebola virus helps block response by T cells and antibodies. In addition, like many viruses, the Ebola virus inhibits interferon, a molecule that cells used to hinder viral replication. An Ebola virus protein known as "V24" interacts with immune cells to prevent interferon from doing its job.

Once free to infect a host, the pathogen then wreaks havoc on the vascular system. As the virus travels through the bloodstream to infect new sites, other immune cells named "macrophages" devour it; having done so, the macrophages release proteins that trigger coagulation, forming small clots throughout the blood vessels and reducing blood supply to organs. The macrophages also produce other inflammatory signaling proteins and nitrous oxide, which damage the lining of blood vessels, causing them to leak. Although this internal bleeding is one of the main symptoms of infection, some patients show external bleeding from the eyes, nose, or other orifices.

The Ebola virus can produce a system-wide inflammation and fever, and can also damage many types of tissues in the body -- but has particularly disastrous effect on the liver, where the virus wipes out cells required to produce coagulation proteins and other important components of blood plasma. In addition, damaged cells in the gastrointestinal tract can promote diarrhea that often threatens victims with dehydration; and in the adrenal gland, the virus cripples cells that make steroids to regulate blood pressure, leading to circulatory failure that can starve organs of oxygen. Ultimately, blood pressure falls from the assault, with patients dying from shock and multiple organ failure.

While mortality is as high as 90%, that's in the absence of medical care; if the disease is properly diagnosed and patients appropriately treated to deal with symptoms, mortality can drop to less than half that rate -- still not anything to be happy about. Although there's no cure nor vaccine for Ebola, oral and intravenous rehydration that can buy time for the body to fight off infection. Genetic studies of Ebola survivors have pointed to traits they possess that could lead to better means of dealing with the disease.

In the meantime, experimental drugs that haven't been properly qualified have been approved as treatments, with consideration also being given to use of drugs developed to deal with other afflictions; victims are so likely to die that it's hard to think any drug will leave them worse off. Another approach being considered is to use serum derived from the blood of Ebola survivors to provide immunity -- an interesting idea, not new, not well validated.



* ARIZONA ROAD TRIP (6): I couldn't sleep in at the Embassy Suites in Phoenix for long on the morning of Friday, 11 April, since I had to get to Flagstaff. Although there was a restaurant at the hotel, they still offered a free breakfast, and along with other fixings I got a nice omelet with "the works". I ate quickly and got on the road. I was a bit worried about rush hour traffic, but it wasn't too bad: the entry ramp was "metered", with traffic lights letting cars in one at a time, which I find half adventurous, half nerve-wracking, but it was no problem getting on. I had to get into the left lane to go south and that was a bit of a problem, people seeming reluctant to let me in, but after some aggravation I was headed south to Tucson, first stop being the Saguaro National Park Desert Museum.

It's a straight shot south on Interstate 10 from Phoenix to Tucson; the only navigation problem being that I got confused on the road mileage markers, and was a bit surprised to find out that I was in Tucson when I thought it was farther down the road. I took the exit to Speedway Boulevard and headed west, to then continue on Gates Pass Road -- which turned out to be an attraction in itself. On the map, Gates Pass Road looks like some ordinary rural route, but it isn't, running through the Tucson Mountain Park. I drove over a small but rugged mountain range, the road through the pass having extremely tight bends.

On the far side of the little range, I had to stop and take pictures. I have never seen landscape more alien in appearance, so rugged and carpeted with cactus and other desert plants. It seemed like a perfect locale for making a low-budget movie from Edgar Rice Burroughs' JOHN CARTER OF MARS stories, the environment suggesting Burroughs' savage planet of Barsoom more than Earth. It was impressive in its own way, but I wouldn't want to try to wade through that vegetation; it would tear me to ribbons.

Arizona desert flora

I drove on to the desert museum to pay my admission and go inside. I hadn't exactly known what to expect, but what I found was in effect a modest-sized zoo combined with a desert botanical garden. It wasn't anything spectacular, but it was well put together, and it was something different, entirely tailored to its environment. I was particularly interested in the hummingbird aviary, where visitors could wander among the hummingbirds. I even managed, with some difficulty, to get a shot of a hummingbird chick in its tiny nest.

hummingbird chick in nest

One of the things I really wanted to catch at the Desert Museum was the raptor show. I'd seen such before, most notably at Disney Animal Kingdom, and they are generally worth the time. The show was conducted along a path in the brush, with rails to channel the audience. We were warned by the announcer, an older woman, that it had been so hot yesterday that two people passed out, and that we should drink plenty of water. I asked if the temperatures were unseasonably warm, and was told they were more like late May than was typical for April in Tucson. I don't think they run the raptor show in the summer, because too many of the audience would be needing medical attention before it was over.

However, the temperatures were not uncomfortable. They were running above 32 C / 90 F, but the announcer said that relative humidity was only about 12%. The net effect was an impression of an oven on low temperature, hardly roasting or sweltering, giving no cause to break a sweat. That was actually the problem, because in such low humidity the water balance out of the body is persistently negative, and people will feel fine -- to then abruptly keel over.

great horned owl

In any case, the bird handlers first brought out two Sonoran ravens, followed by a great horned owl, and then a ferruginous hawk. The handlers would put bits of meat on tree branches, with the birds being sent in this way back and forth over the heads of the audience. I kept wondering why the birds were making a beeline right over the top of my head, until I realized I was on a direct line between two trees where meat was being placed. That made the performance that much more exciting for me.

ferruginous hawk

The hawk, incidentally, had a transmitter fitted to him, since he had a tendency to fly off; staff would then have to go out and track him down. The rest of the facility was more mundane, but still interesting: another aviary, javelinas (peccaries, a type of wild pig) in an innovative ravine-style enclosure, wolves, mountain sheep. It didn't take me too long to canvass the place, but I didn't feel at all shorted. [TO BE CONTINUED]


[FRI 15 AUG 14] THE COLD WAR (34)

* THE COLD WAR (34): There was a certain esprit among those fighting the war in the air over Korea, though it had little to do with ideology. USAF pilots suffered from "MiG fever", the urge to rack up "kills" on Red aircraft -- that urge becoming so strong that American pilots were warned not to let anyone, not even a "friendly", get on their tail. F-86 pilots kept the upper hand on the MiG-15 through the war, to the extent that eventually the Reds didn't try to contest it any more, sending up pilots mostly as a training exercise. The Russians gradually withdrew from the fight as the Chinese and North Koreans got up the learning curve -- or at least tried to, their pilots being inexperienced and no match for the USAF's pilots, with tales, possibly true, that on occasion they would simply eject when engaged. If their flight skills were minimal, that would be the only sensible course of action.

The US Air Force still wanted to obtain a MiG for analysis, and set up a effort named Operation MOOLAH -- "moolah" being old-time American slang for "big money" -- in which leaflets were dropped promising to pay $100,000 USD to any Red pilot who defected along with a MiG-15. MOOLAH didn't get any takers until after the shooting went quiet, but it was believed it did pay off in making sure that Red pilots were more selected for their political reliability instead of their competence, which was all for the good as far as UNC aircrew were concerned.

The Reds were just as interested in getting their hands on an F-86, though instead of appealing to greed, they were able to obtain one that had force-landed behind their lines -- the UNC didn't have that option, because MiG-15s never flew behind their lines. The Soviets gave the F-86 a careful analysis; they considered building it themselves, but decided it had no general advantage over the MiG-15 that would have justified doing so. They were, however, impressed enough with the F-86's radar gunsight and excellent pilot survival kit to copy them.

The air war seemed largely irrelevant to the troops on the ground, their major concern being battlefield air support -- a mission that US Marine aviators were very good at, but the US Air Force seemed to regard as a relatively low priority. Communications between the USAF and US Army ground forces were not all that good, and most of the aircraft used by the Air Force for the close-support mission were not optimized for the role. The North American F-51 Mustang was the mainstay early in the war; it was effective, but painfully vulnerable to ground fire, and large numbers of them were lost. They were eventually phased out in favor of jets, notably the Lockheed F-80 Shooting Star and then the Republic F-84 Thunderjet -- first-generation jet fighters relegated to ground attack, since they were no match for the second-generation MiG-15. The Australians also flew a squadron of Gloster Meteors, a British jet fighter, of the same vintage as the F-80, in the ground attack role.

The US Air Force was more focused on bombings behind the front lines -- which could and did inflict pain on the enemy, but not more than the enemy was willing to bear, and even the most intensive bombings did little to affect the Red war effort in Korea. Talk of going nuclear early in the conflict failed to consider that there were few targets in North Korea that were appropriate for a nuclear strike, and even if nukes had been used, they were unlikely to have had any more decisive impact on the fighting than conventional bombing.

The Communists were not taking the air attacks passively, with UNC air losses ramping up as the Reds collected more anti-aircraft artillery, and became more proficient in its use. Air Force pilots did, with justice, protest against complaints of the ineffectiveness of the air war, saying that at least they had obtained and enforced air superiority. UNC forces had little cause to worry about being on the receiving end of airstrikes themselves, while Communist generals are on record complaining about the pain of incessant bombings and strafings.

The most the Communists were able to do from the air was harass UNC troops at night with Polikarpov Po-2 biplanes -- little wood-&-cloth trainers that the Soviets had used against the Germans during World War II, flying in low and slow in the dark, dropping a few small bombs and shooting things up with machine guns, then departing. The Po-2s could come in without warning and were hard to shoot down, but they were merely an annoyance, doing little serious damage, though they did get lucky on occasion. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* SCIENCE NOTES: As reported by BBC WORLD Online, in 2010, a team of astronomers observed a supernova, catalogued as "PS1-10afx". It appeared to be a "Type Ia" supernova, in which a white dwarf star orbiting with another companion star and drawing mass from it eventually builds up enough mass to undergo a violent explosion. However, it was 30 times brighter than any other Type Ia supernova ever observed, appearing to be 100 billion times brighter than our own Sun.

Dr. Robert Quimby of the University of Tokyo's Kavli institute was skeptical that PS1-10afx was really that bright; it evolved too fast, it was too red, its host galaxy seemed too big. He suspect that the apparent brightness of the supernova was due to "gravitational lensing", in which the image of a distant object is altered by the presence of a mass concentration along the line of sight from Earth to the object.

To determine the truth, Quimby's team used the giant Keck telescope in Hawaii to check for such an intervening mass concentration. According to Quimby: "Looking at the spectra we could check to see if there was light coming from two sources at two separate distances, which is what we found. There is a second, previously unidentified galaxy, hiding in plain sight in front of the supernova."

Why wasn't the intervening galaxy noticed? According to the Kavli researchers, the lens galaxy was missed because its light was lost in the bright glare of the supernova. It was also populated with older, redder, fainter stars. Although PS1-10afx has since faded, astronomers are now eager to spot another anomalously bright supernova that hints at lensing, since measurement of delays between events in different images of the supernova, produced by the lens along paths of different lengths, can provide hints on expansion of the Universe.

* Sponges were long thought to be all filter-feeders, straining micro-organisms out of the seawaters, but in 1995 carnivorous sponges were discovered in the Mediterranean. More than 130 species have been found since that time. Only a handful have been found in the Northeast Pacific, but exploration by a robot submersible has now found four more species.

Sponges typically have cells with whiplike tails that keep water moving through them, for filtering out the microbes from the water. Carnivorous sponges, some of which look like miniature artificial Christmas trees, have hooks that can be seen with an electron microscope. They use them to help trap small crustaceans like amphipods and copepods. Once the prey is trapped, the sponge can digest it at leisure.

Carnivorous sponges live in food-poor environments in the ocean, some near communities based around deep-sea vents. Researchers suspect the energy spent on moving water through the sponge doesn't pay off if the water doesn't have enough micro-organisms; the result was that the sponges acquired adaptations to trap bigger game.

* Although there has been agitation over the idea that vaccines cause childhood autism, studies claiming to find such a connection have not been validated. Now a paper published in the prestigious NEW ENGLAND JOURNAL OF MEDICINE (NEJM) has added weight to the alternate view that autism is a developmental problem that is fixed before birth -- which had been suspected, since autism tends to run in families.

American scientists analyzed post-mortem brain tissue of 22 children with and without autism, all between two and 15 years of age. They used genetic markers to determine how the outermost part of the brain, the cortex, wired up and formed layers. Abnormalities were found in 90% of the children with autism, compared with only about 10% of children without. The changes were dotted about in brain regions involved in social and emotional communication and language, well before birth.

The study was produced by a collaboration of researchers from from the University of California, San Diego, and the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle. The paper suggests that toddlers with autism can be receptive to treatment, if the condition is detected early enough, the plastic infant brain possibly rewiring itself to a better state.



* TRIPLE STAR: In the 1960s, cosmic radio sources were discovered that generated radio pulses on precise intervals. These "pulsars", as they were named, turned out to be neutron stars -- a neutron star being the ultradense, compact remnant of a star gone supernova -- spinning rapidly and periodically displaying a radio "hot spot" down our line of radio sight as they turn.

As reported by AAAS SCIENCE ("Rare Celestial Trio to Put Einstein's Theory to the Test" by Adrian Cho, 10 January 2014), in some cases the pulse frequency shifts up and down, revealing that it is orbiting another star, moving away and towards the Earth. About 80% of the fast-spinning "millisecond pulsars" now known have a partner, as revealed by this frequency shift.

In 2007 Scott Ransom, an astronomer at the US National Radio Astronomy (NRAO), and his colleagues discovered a new pulsar using the NRAO radio telescope at Green Bank in West Virginia, the object being designated "PSR J0337+1715". The pulsar signal had a peculiar and subtle modulation; it was observed by various radio telescopes for about a year and a half. Anne Archibald, a grad student at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, was finally able to sort through the signal.

The scenario she came up with is mostly nothing unusual, at least by cosmic standards. PSR J0337+1715 has 1.4 times the mass of the Sun and spins at a rate of 366 times a second; it is in tight orbit, the period being 1.6 days long, with a white dwarf companion about 20% the mass of the star. The two stars were once more equal in size, but the pulsar stripped mass from its companion, spinning it up to millisecond rates. However, this pulsar is unusual in that it has a second companion, a white dwarf with a mass of about 41% that of our Sun, orbiting the inner two with a period of 327 days. Ransom commented: "We think that there are not more than 100 of these [trios] in our Galaxy. They really are one-in-a-billion objects."

The triple system offers a possibility for testing one of the facets of Einstein's theory of general relativity, his theory of gravity. General relativity states that the inertial mass of an object, meaning its mass that resists acceleration, is equal to the gravitational mass of an object, meaning its attraction by gravity. Since Einstein showed that energy and mass are equivalent with his famous formula E=MC2, the energy in the object's gravitational field will contribute to its gravitational mass. According to Einstein, the equivalence still holds.

Not all alternative theories of gravity respect Einstein's "strong equivalence" principle. There have been attempts to validate strong equivalence using observations of the orbit of the Earth and Moon, and pulsar / white dwarf pairs, but the results have been down in the noise. The new triple star system provides an opportunity for a much better test, by observing whether the inner white dwarf or the pulsar falls faster towards the outer white dwarf. Results should be two orders of magnitude better than previous tests. Ransom and his team are now working to perform the test.

* In somewhat related news, as discussed by a note from SKY & TELESCOPE magazine, there's a class of binary star systems known as "low mass X-ray binaries (LMXB)" in which a neutron star is in orbit with a companion active star, drawing mass off the active companion and spinning it up. The mass flows into an "accretion disk" around the neutron star, generating a fitful pattern of X-ray emission as it's drawn down to the surface of the neutron star.

Eventually, the active companion will lose enough mass to stop feeding the neutron star and the X-ray emission will cease, with the neutron star become a young pulsar, emitting regular radio pulses at fast rate that very gradually slows down. Or so that's the theory, the transition between the LMXB and fast pulsar states never having been observed.

It has now, the European Space Agency's Integral space X-ray observatory having observed in late March 2013 a X-ray transient source, IGR J8245-2542, shutting off. The source, located in the globular star cluster M28, matched the position of a pulsar, PSR J1824-24521, located by radio telescope searches. The LMXB is not shutting down all at once, it's "sputtering", changing from X ray to radio emission over a matter of days, with observations of old records showing the sputtering is nothing new. Get used to it: it's likely to keep on sputtering for tens of millions of years.



* PUTIN'S WAR MACHINE: As reported by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("Putin's New Model Army", 24 May 2014), the ongoing squabbling between Russia and Ukraine has not put Russia and Russian President Vladimir Putin in a good light with the world -- but it has at least demonstrated that Russia has, after years of decay, created an effective military force.

The Russian Army fell into dilapidation after the collapse of the USSR; the most that could be done was maintain Russia's nuclear deterrent, with the rest of military apparatus left to slide. The USSR had built a huge war machine that was simply not affordable and not workable in the post-Soviet era, with a topheavy officer class lording over masses of conscripts who were miserably treated, trained, and equipped.

Putin did little about the matter until 2007, when he appointed Anatoly Serdyukov -- once a furniture salesman, then 45 years old, young for a senior official -- as defense minister. Serdyukov was perfectly willing to, as it might be put in American terms, "kick ass" on the military's top brass, but at the outset, cleaning the stables seemed like an impossible job.

What changed matters was Russia's war with Georgia in 2008, discussed here at the time. Although Russia prevailed at the end, informed foreign observers found the performance of the Russian military in the conflict inept, even a joke. That fact was certainly recognized in the Kremlin, the result being the empowerment of Serdyukov to knock down the walls. He did so:

The defense budget was increased dramatically to make sure Russia's armed forces were properly equipped and maintained; to fund ongoing military exercises; and to provide good pay and benefits for career military personnel. That last item on the agenda tied in with Serdyukov's crackdown on corruption, which by some estimates was siphoning off a third of the military budget: it was hard to keep officers and NCOs honest if they weren't able to make ends meet on their meager pay. However, the most important element was a ten-year weapons modernization program begun in 2010, to cost a total of $720 billion USD -- the goal being to go from only 10% of combat kit that could be called "modern", to 70%. Russian defense spending has, by Western estimates, almost doubled since 2007, and will increase by almost 20% in 2014.

Russian Army T-90 tanks

The effort has paid off, even though Serdyukov lost his job in 2012 -- ironically due to a corruption scandal -- being replaced by the less aggressive Sergei Shoigu. Russia now has an effective, increasingly modern combat force. However, stiff challenges still have to be met:

The question is whether any of these weaknesses matter. The Soviet Union disastrously armed itself for a shootout with NATO that both sides knew wasn't likely to happen; Vladimir Putin has much more modest ambitions, being concerned with a sphere of influence from which NATO can be excluded in order to preserve Russian dominance. To that end, Putin maintains funding for Russian strategic nuclear forces, intended as a wall against both NATO and an emerging China. Russia wants to be friends with China right now, but frictions between the two nations have a habit of recurring. With outsiders unable to interfere, Russia can bully its neighbors with general impunity.

The real bottom line is the sustainability of Russia's military funding. Russia's military budget amounted to $87.2 billion USD in 2013, over 4% of GDP. With defense cuts, America's defense spending was under 4% of US GDP in that timeframe, but that still amounted to $640.2 billion USD, over seven times as much as Russia's. The Russians have a saying that the thin man will starve before the fat man gets hungry; ultimately, military strength is derived from economic power -- and given Vladimir Putin's failure to turn Russia into a truly modern economy, operating at anywhere near Russia's economic potential, the thin man's prospects seem uncertain over the long run.



* ARIZONA ROAD TRIP (5): On leaving Grand Canyon National Park, I stopped at the little airfield to the south, which was nicely populated with a variety of touring aircraft -- Cessna Caravans and de Havilland Canada Twin Otters with big windows, plus Bell Jetranger and Eurocopter helicopters, with very nice liveries. Incidentally, aircraft are not permitted over the Grand Canyon itself, complaints about noise pollution having sent them packing decades ago. I got plenty of good aircraft pictures, and had a bit of a chat with a black British woman from Nottingham. Foreign visitors were very much in evidence in the area.

Cessna Caravans at Grand Canyon Airport

Just south of the airfield was the Planes of Fame Air Museum, a satellite of the main Planes of Fame Museum in Chino, California, in the Los Angeles area. I hadn't been expecting too much, but it was an excellent air museum, with many exhibits in first-class condition: aircraft from several eras, engines, a classic touring car, plus drones and guided munitions. I made good use of the Lumix's low-light photo capability, picking up what would turn out to be a fine set of shots.

Bat glide bomb at Planes of Fame, Arizona

That knocked off the list, I drove back east on Interstate 40 through Flagstaff to get to Barringer Meteor Crater. I was a little confused by the scarcity of road signs telling me where it was supposed to be, but then I noticed what looked like an anomalous ridge of low hills in the flatlands to the southeast -- could that be the crater rim? I finally ran into signs telling me to take the next turn-off and did so, to find I had not misinterpreted the hills.

Barringer Meteor Crater from the north

I parked at the visitor's center, paid my admission, and went out to the viewpoint to take photos. It was impressive, if not as impressive as the Grand Canyon, and I made good use of the Lumix's panoramic mode. The only problem was, as I discovered later, that there was "banding" in the pan image due to brightness variations. I managed to correct them with a fair amount of brightness correction in a photo editor, but obviously I needed a better approach.

Barringer Meteor Crater

While on the overlook, a father with his family, wife and three kids, had me take a posed shot of them. This being something I often end up doing on trips, I didn't let them off the hook right away: "OK, now I get a shot of you for my own files!" And that done, the father took a shot of me with the three kids on my camera. The kids seemed to find the exercise as entertaining as I did. I'll have to have business cards made up to hand out in the future.

trading shots at Meteor Crater

Moving right along, I drove back to Flagstaff and then headed south to Phoenix; I was on a schedule. It was interesting as I went "downhill" how the evergreen forests faded out, with saguaro cactus beginning to predominate. I kept myself entertained as well listening to the tunes I had downloaded and put on a CD-ROM. On listening to the electronica pieces, I was struck by the fact that they really didn't sound much different from the electronica I had cut my teeth on in the 1980s; most of the stuff I had picked up was basically Euro-pop, with its thumping beat and simple, triumphant melodies.

On reflection, I realized that it could have only seemed new then because the technology was new. Once musicians got their hands on workable synthesizers, they exploited the technology as best they could, meaning further innovation would necessarily run into diminishing returns. It was not, then, so surprising that modern electronica sounds pretty much like it did a generation ago: "Been there, done that."

I was particularly pleased with the set of MIDI-to-MP3 conversions; some of them were cheesy arrangements, but others were very well crafted, in a few cases hard to tell that they were synthesized. I had some movie themes -- MISSION IMPOSSIBLE, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, and the theme from the Sixties AVENGERS spy show -- as well as a lot of pop-rock numbers, which seemed a bit improved by being synthesized. I enjoyed tunes like the Stone's SATISFACTION and JUMPING JACK FLASH, much more so than the originals, having long ago become weary of Mick Jagger's vocal affectations.

I got into Phoenix at dusk, in a peculiarly mellow mood, finding the city oddly beautiful as the lights came on even though, except for palm trees, it was just another city. I was listening to a MIDI-MP3 version of the Beatles' WITHIN YOU WITHOUT YOU, which always breaks my heart; to then be pumped up by the Beatles' rocking BACK IN THE USSR.

It was dark by the time I was approaching the Embassy Suites in south Phoenix to spend the night. I had not thought it would be hard to find, being right along the freeway, and from the satellite map certainly visible from it. Alas, the satellite map did not tell me that the freeway was in a "canyon", obviously dug in to reduce its sound impact on the areas along the road, and I could see little beyond its edges. All I could do was pick an exit by dead reckoning from memories of my map survey -- "Yeah, I think it's around here someplace!" -- and then, if necessary, scout around after I got off the freeway. Much to my surprise, the Embassy Suites were right at the exit. Chance favors the prepared mind, but I would have been better prepared to have a note on which exit to take.

The Embassy Suites were a sprawling and somewhat confusing complex of buildings, a bit hard to navigate. I was amused as I was going out a rear door in the main building to see a foursome of guys in an empty room doing the barbershop quartet thing; they were good at it. In any case, I found my room, logged my daily expenses, and crashed out. On getting to bed a bit late -- a chronic issue during the trip -- I had to reflect on what a packed day it had been, driving all over the landscape and cramming in sights. The advance planning had paid off, and not even making a really ghastly mistake derailed it. The one good thing about the fumble was that I was likely to be more cautious during the rest of the trip. [TO BE CONTINUED]


[FRI 08 AUG 14] THE COLD WAR (33)

* THE COLD WAR (33): Enthusiasm for the war in Korea among the American public, never notably strong, faded as the stalemate dragged on. The USA was undergoing an economic boom, and citizens were mostly concerned about getting on with their lives. There was no war rationing, no real propaganda campaign to drum up public support for the fight, and events in Korea got front-page headlines only to the extent that something unusual happened. Those who had no direct connection to the war rarely paid it much mind, noticing reports of battle casualties in the papers, and then going on about their business. Those families who were informed that their sons had died on the battlefield could only take solace in that they had done their duty; their deaths could not be glorified as furthering any evident grand cause.

The general war-weariness was enhanced by the misconduct of the Rhee government, which was by parts inept, corrupt, and brutal. Rhee's security people were fond of summary execution of Communists, real or suspected, and made little effort to conceal the killings from UNC troops. Rhee himself was inclined to noisy public tantrums, for example having blamed the dismissal of MacArthur on the British, and concluding that Commonwealth forces should get out: "They are not wanted here any longer."

Rhee's theatrics did nothing to endear Korea and its people to American troops, who were inclined to regard Koreans as backwards and callous, brutalized, cruel. Few thought the lot of them worth the lives of a single American soldier. They fought on because it was their job, but it was a rare soldier who thought it more than that.

Some of the combat units contributed by American allies to the war were staffed by professionals, mercenaries at least in mindset, who simply liked war, just as happy to shoot it out in Korea as anywhere else. The Turkish battalion acquired a particular reputation for ferocity, with tales of varying levels of plausibility told of their dedication to the fight. Whether they were as savage as some of the stories made out is unclear, soldiers always having an inclination to exaggeration, but their high rate of casualties left no doubt of their enthusiasm for combat.

American conscript soldiers, in contrast, found it ever more difficult to convince themselves the fight was worth much risk to themselves. Indeed, there were tales of front-line units being given aggressive commanders who were determined to seek battle -- and who were then transferred to other duties after complaints by their subordinate officers to higher authority. It was, in hindsight, surprising that American troops remained generally combat-effective to the end of the conflict. Officers who were veterans of the conflict put the reason why simply: "In Korea, there was nothing to do but fight."

For the first time since the early days of the Republic, the fighting was performed by both white and black American troops, integrated into the same units. Although Truman had ordered the racial integration of the military in 1948, the armed services had been sluggish to obey. Segregation had been the rule in World War II, but many senior officers, including Ridgeway, detested it: not just because of its offensiveness, but because it was no way to run an army. Expecting black soldiers to fight while treating them like second-class citizens was preposterous; discrimination put America in the worst light on the world stage; and the ridiculous machinery of segregation was an obnoxious burden that interfered with warfighting.

It made zero sense to Ridgeway and others of his mindset to not make full use of the manpower they had. The idea that black men could not be good soldiers was absurd, the quality of soldiers being sensibly linked to training, discipline, and leadership; belittling the abilities of troops on the basis of skin color was an evasion of command responsibility. Korea accelerated the racial integration of the military, which would be achieved well ahead of the integration of American society in general. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* GIMMICKS & GADGETS: As reported by WIRED Online, while use of 3D printers to generate fancy candies is not a new idea, the ChefJet printer from 3D Systems shows just what can be done with the concept. It's a kitchen utensil, about twice the size of a microwave, in black and white colors, with a display on the front to present a model of the confection being fabricated.

In terms of its basic technology, the ChefJet is not all that different from an ordinary inkjet printer, with ink and paper being replaced by food coloring and sugar. A thin layer of sugar crystals is spread on a build platform, with an inkjet array then laying down food coloring, water, and artificial flavoring that solidifies the sugar. Another layer is then generated, until the confection is complete. The ChefJet can store the equivalent of 4,500 sugar cubes of sugar feedstock.

ChefJet construction

The ChefJet was invented by Kyle and Liz von Hasseln, graduates of the Southern California Institute of Architecture. They were used to 3D printers, having acquired a 3D Systems ColorJet Pro, which is capable of printing full color models and is commonly used for printing avatars from Minecraft and World of WarCraft. They didn't find it as useful as hoped for architectural applications, but when a friend was going to have a birthday party, the couple got interested in using the 3D printer to generate decorative confections, coming up with a sugar blend appropriate for printing their work and trying out ideas.

Thinking they were on to something, the von Hasselns set up shop as "Sugar Lab", offering specialized confections for a price, and found people willing to pay, with customers sometimes coming up with requests that expanded the von Hasselns' vision of what they could do with 3D printing in the kitchen. Sugar Lab was bought out by 3D Systems last year, with the von Hasselns becoming the creative directors of the company's food division. Along with 3D printers to make confections, they also repurposed a 3D printer used for producing ceramics to make custom plates and other tableware. The 3D Systems confection printers will be available in the second half of 2014, the top of the line model going for about $10,000 USD.

* One of the major vulnerabilities of computer systems is the commonality of software, with huge numbers of users employing the exact same program -- the Mozilla Firefox browser, for example. The problem is that hackers writing malware can figure out entry points in such programs and predictably "exploit" them to penetrate a computer system.

Michael Franz, a computer scientist at the University of California, has a big idea for plugging up this hole, using what he calls a "multi-compiler". A compiler is a program that converts source program listings into machine code that actually runs on a computer; they are generally deterministic, in that the same source program will generate the same machine code. Franz's multi-compiler is non-deterministic, in that given a source program -- or a partly-processed derivative of it -- the multi-compiler will generate somewhat different machine code at random every time it runs, with some slight degradation in efficiency.

Franz envisions his multi-compiler being integrated into an online app store. Every time somebody downloads an app, it will be compiled into a unique variation of machine code, with no clear way to spot its entry points. Franz has developed a prototype multi-compiler, and tests show that so far nobody has been able to crack programs compiled with it. Hackers are ingenious people, of course, but at the very least the multi-compiler approach will make life harder for them.

* In personal gimmick news, I was confronted with the need to transfer large files to other parties, and needed a good way to do it. Email? No good for really big files, clogs the mailer. FTP? Works well for big files, but only the technically literate can use it. I had a recollection that there were online schemes for transferring files, and in Googling for possibilities, I ran across Dropbox. It's nothing new, been around since about 2007 or so, and has millions of users; I'd just never investigated it because I didn't have a perceived need.

On investigation, Dropbox fell into place with pleasing rapidity. On signing up for a free account, using my email address as a user name, I got two gigabytes of online storage. I was a bit puzzled on how to access it at first, but I followed instructions and downloaded client software for Windows to run on my desktop PC. On running the software, I found it created a mirror folder for the Dropbox account on my PC; all I had to do to upload a file was click-&-drag it to the Dropbox directory. I then downloaded the client software to a notebook PC, and could yank the file into the notebook from the Dropbox folder.

I found that slick -- all I had to do to transfer a file from the desktop to a notebook was copy the file into a folder on one PC and pull it out of the folder on the other PC. What about transferring files with other parties? That's almost as easy: they can get their own free account on Dropbox, and then I can create a shared folder that, once I allow their email address / user name, they can transfer files with. I can handle those files on any PC that has the client software. On tinkering with Dropbox, it just gets better and better: if I do screen captures, it queues them up in PNG format in the Dropbox folder, making screen captures much more useful. I have a suspicion there are more tricks that can be played with Dropbox.



* NOT SO SLOW: There's been considerable fuss over the leveling-off of global warming since the turn of the century, critics of climate-change scenarios citing this "hiatus" as proof that climate scientists are all wet. As reported by an article from AAAS SCIENCE, it turns out that though there has been a slowdown, it appears it's been exaggerated because of mistaken analysis of the data.

That was determined by Kevin Cowtan of the University of York in the UK and Robert Way of the University of Ottawa. Ironically, neither is a climate researcher: Cowtan is a protein crystallographer, while Way is a grad student in geographical science. However, they were hanging around on the website "SkepticalScience.com", and became interested in the gaps in datasets used to determine recent rates of global warming.

Warming estimates have been derived from weather stations dotting the globe, as well as satellite measurements of ocean temperatures. There are gaps in the coverage -- in the Antarctic, Africa, and most significantly the Arctic, where the melting polar icecap has a disproportionate effect on warming. The two most significant estimates were from the Hadley Climatic Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia in the UK, and by the US National Aeronautics & Space Administration. The Hadley temperature estimate, HadCRUT, just ignored the blank spaces; the NASA estimate extrapolated temperatures in them from measurements on their edges. Both groups warned that spotty coverage might lead to underestimates.

Cowtan and Way decided to perform their own analysis on the available data that did a better job of handling the gaps. They were less interested in the specifics of climate change than in just doing a proper job of data analysis, Cowtan saying: "I wanted the problem fixed." They also extrapolated temperatures from measurements on the edges of the blank spots, but used a different approach -- and validated it by selecting sample stations in areas where the coverage was good, to determine that their method gave more accurate actual temperatures than either the HadCRUT or NASA estimates.

While the HadCRUT estimate gave about 0.05 degrees Celsius of warming per year from 1997 to 2012 and the NASA estimate gave about 0.08 degrees Celsius, the Cowtan-Way estimate gave about 0.12 degrees Celsius -- at the lower range of climate models, which vary from about 0.1 to 0.4 degrees Celsius. Cowtan said: "When you fill in the gaps, temperatures in recent years go up, and temperatures around 1998 go down."

Cowtan has suggested that a data-smoothing scheme used to process measurements from Arctic weather stations operated by the US National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and incorporated into the NASA estimate, may have contributed to the underestimate. Both the Hadley CRU and NOAA are now working to add more stations that should help fill in the blank spots. The climate research community has been broadly impressed by the Cowtan-Way analysis, even though Cowtan and Way are outsiders; it was just a data-analysis task, and they didn't need to be climatologists to do that job.

* As a footnote, an article from SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN discussed a paper from NATURE GEOSCIENCE that pointed to elevated production of aerosols by 17 relatively small volcanic eruptions from 2000 to 2012, the most significant of them being the eruption of Eyjafjallajokull in Iceland in 2010, discussed here at the time. The eruptions injected relatively high levels of aerosols, mostly sulfur dioxide, into the upper atmosphere, reducing sunlight intensity. The paper said there were other factors, such as pollution from China's coal-fired power plants and shifting ocean circulation -- but concluded that once the world's volcanoes went back to their normal rate of eruptions and the aerosols settle out in a few years, temperatures are likely to start rising rapidly once more.



* ACHTUNG MINEN! As discussed by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("Minehunting With Radar & Rats", 7 June 2014), mines are cheap and effective, a dangerous threat to combat forces that have to deal with them. As a result, they are often strewed over the landscape in vast numbers, continuing to be a menace long after the fighting ends.

The "Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention", better known as the "Ottawa Treaty", came into force in 1999. At that time, mines were killing or maiming 9,000 people a year. According to Landmine Monitor, the research arm of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, in 2012 the number was down to 3,620, about three-quarters of them being civilians. The drastic fall in mine casualties has been due to better de-mining methods and a big decrease in the number of mines planted, more than 130 countries having signed the Ottawa treaty. America is not a signatory, but follows the treaty's directives anyway.

The Pentagon estimates that about 45 million mines still remain in the ground around the world, and will continue to be a threat for decades. Metal detectors, the traditional technology for hunting mines, are now less effective, since for decades mines have been made mostly of plastic, the only metal part usually being a firing pin. More sensitive metal detectors have been developed, but they're still blunt instruments, since every bit of metal spotted in the ground has to be treated like a potential mine -- and making metal detectors more sensitive means more false alarms.

AN/PSS-14 mine detector

NATO forces in Afghanistan have used an improved mine detector, the AN/PSS-14, developed by a collaboration of universities and L3 CyTerra, a Florida firm. It looks something like a traditional metal detector, but along with the metal detector it has a ground-penetrating radar that can "see" into the soil, with a processor system determining if a target looks like a mine. The AN/PSS-14 is a massive improvement over earlier mine detectors, but one costs over $20,000 USD. That's not much of an obstacle for large military forces, but too much for de-mining operations run by nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) on a budget. There are other, more sophisticated systems -- high-power inductive loops to spot deeply buried bombs, for example -- but of course they come at a still greater price.

One big help in finding mines is figuring out where they've been laid. The Swiss Foundation for Mine Action, known as "FSD" from its French acronym, was hunting for mines in Sri Lanka after the defeat of the Tamil Tiger insurgents in 2009, but FSD workers found Tamils who lived in the combat area reluctant to cooperate, lest they be fingered as Tiger sympathizers. The FSD team decided to take an historical approach, investigating the group's doctrines and operations, scouring news reports to find locales where the Tigers were active.

Such a low-tech approach has its uses, but it's laborious. The European Space Agency has brought space imagery into play with the "Space Assets for Demining Assistance (SADA)" project. SADA superimposes images of locales taken before, during, and after a conflict to spot clues that can reveal the presence or absence of minefields. Obviously, areas where there's a lot of human activity are past having troubles with mines, but farmland that's gone fallow suggests danger. Sites where firewood is collected and burned but are littered with fallen trees, and towns with unrepaired structures, also hint at the presence of mines.

The Croatian Mine Action Center (CROMAC), a government agency in Sisak, near Zagreb, uses aerial photography instead of space imagery. Fighting in Croatia against ethnic Serb forces in the 1990s left an appalling 1.2% of the land littered with mines -- including the particularly murderous PROM-1 and its variants. These are "pop-up" AKA "bouncing betty" mines that are shot up to belt height or above by an explosive charge, to explode and send out a lethal shower of "high velocity razors" that can kill people within a radius of tens of meters. High resolution color imagery can reveal the locations of old defensive positions used by the militias that are "hotspots" for mines.

PROM-1 variant mine

Mines can also be revealed by the fact that they leak their explosive charges at a slow rate. The University of Connecticut has designed a fibrous film that can be laid over the ground, to then be treated with a chemical that changes color to reveal the presence of explosive, with some explosives detectable at concentrations of a part per billion or even less. Dogs, however, are even more sensitive, and are often used in de-mining -- typically stolid dogs like shepherds, breeds such as beagles and spaniels having good enough noses, but flighty personalities.

Dogs, unfortunately, are big enough to trip mines. As mentioned here in 2009, the African giant pouched rat has been used to hunt mines in Mozambique. According to APOPO, a Belgian NGO that runs the program, it only costs about 6,000 euros ($8,200 USD) to train a rat, a third of the cost of training a dog; the rats rarely trip off mines, and they are extremely good at their job. They are now being deployed to Angola and Cambodia. High technology is all very well and good -- but sometimes the natural approach is as good as it gets.



* ARIZONA ROAD TRIP (4): I got up early at the Hilton Garden Inn hotel in Flagstaff on the morning of Thursday, 10 April; indeed, I rose close to my normal time all through the trip. Since I tended to get to bed later than normal, this amounted to burning both ends of the candle and hoping I didn't get down to the middle.

When I began cleaning up, I found out I'd forgotten to include razors -- duh, Murphy's law of traveling, one always forgets something. I ended up driving around a bit and found a supermarket to pick up a pack. It wasn't open when I arrived, so I went to a nearby McDonald's for breakfast. I felt a bit awkward about being unshaved in public, I can't recall the last time when I ever was. I just had to shrug; I ate, and then went back to the store.

The local pigeons, incidentally, were unusually bold, or more plausibly dense -- when I went into the parking lot of the supermarket, they wouldn't get out of my way. I finally just decided drive forward slowly; they flew off. Later in the trip, I notice pigeons obstructing parking lot traffic elsewhere, with locals simply driving forward as if they weren't there: "If you don't want to get out the way, we'll just regard it as evolution in action, and work for smarter birds." Apparently in Arizona, they play "pigeon" instead of "chicken".

I went back to the hotel and shaved. I had to make a note to put one of the pile of old pocketknives I have in a toolbox back home in my bathroom kit. Getting open the razor bubblepack was a nuisance; I have a couple of multi-tools in my kit bag, but it would have been nice to have a little cutter right at hand.

* Finally being prepared, I headed east towards the Grand Canyon. Navigation was no problem; I paid my entry fee and went to the central parking lot. The Park Service runs shuttle buses to loop around sets of viewpoints, the service being included in the admission; I wanted to ride the Orange route, the shortest, so I could get done fairly quickly.

Grand Canyon from south rim

I got off at the first viewpoint and set my stopwatch; the buses were on a 15-minute schedule, and I didn't want to overstay at any stop. The view was spectacular, everything I might have expected, I took shot after shot. The bus came up on schedule and I went to the next stop, picking up more shots, and chatting with some hikers who wanted me to take pictures of them with their camera. One had a GoPro camera on a mast, mounted on his backpack; he told me he had it programmed to take stills every 30 seconds. One of the tourists with binoculars was trying to point out a hiker on the trail far below; it took me a while to spot him, the hiker looking like a gnat from such a distance.

I went on to the third stop, and then made the biggest staggering blunder of the trip. I came back to the parking area of the lookout, checked my stopwatch to see if 15 minutes had passed, and lo, there was a bus. I simply dashed on board without giving it any thought -- but not long after I took off I began to realize I was on a commercial tour bus. OK, I'll just wait to the next stop, and regroup there.

Unfortunately, the next stop was 10 miles / 16 kilometers down the road. I'm a speed walker, I could have done that walking on level pavement in two and a half hours tops, but it would have disrupted my day severely. For the first time in decades, I did the "thumb trip", and was only on the road for about five minutes before I got a lift. It was a guy, maybe in his mid-30s, with a little blonde and very quiet pre-school girl in cowboy boots. The driver definitely looked like a working man, the pickup having seen plenty of hard use. He told me he was a ranch manager, and I queried him for details. He was terribly polite, calling me "sir", reminding me that I was old enough to be his dad. As one ages, there's a tendency to forget the miles left behind.

He dropped me off on a road leading to a viewpoint; it was roughly a klic to the view, but I could handle that easily enough. I was amused to walk past a ranch in the woods populated by mules, employed in pack trains, who inspected me with casual curiosity. Look all you like, I thought, but please don't HEE-HAW at me just because I'm stupid.

mules, Grand Canyon National Park

Thanks to luck, I ended up having a little amusing adventure instead of a fiasco, and got a little exercise as well. At the final stop, I was taking pictures down into the abyss below, which made me giddy. That was the last of it; unless one intends to hike into the canyon, the views from one point appear mostly like those from any other. Exploring the park would be an interesting task, but it wasn't the task I had planned for, the Grand Canyon being something of an afterthought on the trip agenda. I took the bus back to the parking lot and drove south out of the park. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* ANOTHER MONTH: As reported by BBC WORLD Online, the sniping between the US and Russia has been getting steadily nastier -- so it comes as a bit of a surprise that American actor David Duchovny, famous for his starring roles in the TV series X-FILES and CALIFORNICATION, has "gone viral" in Russia as a nationalist mascot.

Some time before the current crisis began, a Russian drinks company, noticing Duchovny's clearly Slavic name, tapped him for a commercial, in which he portrays a Russian ice hockey player, complete with missing teeth; pop singer; and cosmonaut. He recited patriotic Russian verse. The commercial might have been a flash in the pan in different circumstances, but in the current agitated mood, it's become a sensation, one faction angry with it, the other praising it.

David Duchovny in orbit

I once asked my friend Mark Burak, of Ukrainian origins and fluent in Russian, if Duchovny was a Ukrainian name. He thought it over and suggested it was Serb. In the wake of Duchovny's wave of fame in Russia, the actor commented that he had long thought he was Russian, but found out instead he was Ukrainian -- lending another irony to this little tale.

* I buy a lot of things from Amazon.com, and have traditionally used the free shipping option -- it's slow, but I'm usually in no hurry, and the price is right. I had to buy a certain amount to get free shipping, however, and changes in my buying habits were making that more difficult, particularly since Amazon raised the threshold.

They did so to push their "Prime" program, which give unlimited two-day shipping for a yearly fee of $99 USD. The fee was not so steep, so I finally decided to take the plunge and sign up for Prime. What I didn't realize when I did so was that Prime also included free instant video downloads -- not of all instant video on Amazon, but a large subset thereof. The selection of movies is poor, but the selection of TV series and documentaries is good, and more of everything gets added every week.

Having set up a video download system at home, I can make good use of the offerings, and I've been building up a list in my Amazon account of videos to watch. I set up a link to the "new this week" page and check it every Saturday for more to add. The pickings are not great, but if I can add two to four items to my watchlist a month, I'll end up with more video than I have time to watch. Concerning my tinkerings with use of a wireless keyboard as a remote to my notebook video downloading system, it's proven an entirely worthwhile exercise. I think I'll pick up a handheld remote / mouse emulator in the near future, they're cheap, might be handier than the keyboard.

Right now I've still got a pile of DVD collections to watch, but as I draw down the stack, I'll be relying more on downloads. Once the DVDs are gone, I'll be coming out well ahead on the Prime yearly fee. To be sure, I may not be able to get particular videos I really want, but on the other side of that coin, I can try out videos that I'm not sure I would want to buy sight unseen. Having been getting my toe wet in downloads, events have now pushed me off the end of the dock, having become a complete believer almost in spite of myself.

* BTW, although I mentioned at the beginning of summer that northern Colorado was faced with possible flooding from the melt of heavy snowpack, it didn't happen -- and we're flush with water, no watering restrictions in effect this summer. I was reading an article that suggested I shouldn't water my lawn every day and followed that advice for a while, only to realize that the end result of skipping days in hot dry Colorado weather is a lawn dying in patches. I wait for the weather to cool off, then I'll start cutting back on days.