* 21 entries including: rebuilding my websites, airliners enhance their operations, Aerovironment as a defense contractor, tracing Chinese history via names, banana distribution business, pop-up microfabrication, some businesses enthusiastic about recycling, wireless-connected LED streetlights, wireless-connected hand pumps for Africa, measles versus Europe, and Global Zero revisited.
* NEWS COMMENTARY FOR JUNE 2012: In breathlessly late-breaking news, on 28 June 2012 the US Supreme Court finally judged on the legality of the ObamaCare Health Act, more officially the "Affordable Care Act". The court's decision, which had been anxiously awaiting on both sides of the political fence, was to approve the legality of the act. It was, to nobody's surprise, by the narrow vote of 5:4 in favor, though somewhat surprisingly the swing vote was not Justice Anthony Kennedy, the traditional swing vote in the past -- Kennedy called ObamaCare "invalid in its entirety" -- but Chief Justice John Roberts, noted for his solid conservative credentials.
However, it wasn't that surprising, because Roberts has occasionally demonstrated flexibility in the past. Besides, the "individual mandate", the requirement of all Americans to obtain health insurance, was not at the outset of the idea all that unpopular with conservatives, many seeing it as a sensible alternative to a government-run health program. Indeed, if the US is to have universal health coverage, it's hard to think of any other alternative, as discussed here in 2011. In the decision, Roberts said:
The Affordable Care Act's requirement that certain individuals pay a financial penalty for not obtaining health insurance may reasonably be characterized as a tax. Because the Constitution permits such a tax, it is not our role to forbid it, or to pass upon its wisdom or fairness.
The interesting thing about the decision was that it focused on the ability of the government to impose penalties for noncompliance of the individual mandate, not the mandate itself. This is one of these notions that seems ridiculously obvious in hindsight, since the teeth of the individual mandate is only in its enforcement -- and the court judged that the government had a right of enforcement through its rights of taxation. It is of course indirect reasoning, and ironically it wasn't the main approach the government used to plead its case, relying instead on the right to control interstate commerce.
The court rejected that argument, saying the government could regulate interstate commercial activity, but not interstate commercial inactivity -- that is, citizens not obtaining a health plan. Some commentators suggested that the court's rejection of the government's right to control commerce was a "stealth victory" for conservatives, the precedent likely to used against the government down the road -- but to no surprise the court decision in favor of ObamaCare has been the subject of emotional blog commentaries all over the map, and it's hard to take any one of them very seriously. Indeed, Roberts was praised for his wisdom in finding a tidy compromise position in an era where compromise is fashionable.
The court did not give the Obama Administration everything, saying that the government could not withhold Medicaid funding to US states to push compliance with ObamaCare. While the court's approval of the act is a major victory for President Barack Obama, not all see it as a defeat for Republican presidential challenger Mitt Romney, who can now argue that the only way to sink ObamaCare is to elect him so he can drive a repeal effort. However, it's easy to think that Obama was the real winner, it being hard to think the decision will turn any voters away from Obama, and unclear that it will turn any substantial number of voters to Romney.
* The "Stuxnet" computer worm that attacked Iran's nuclear development complex was mentioned here earlier this year. As reported by BUSINESS WEEK, the Iranians are now struggling with another virus named "Flame". While Stuxnet was a highly specialized virus, targeting industrial programmable logic controllers, Flame is more conventional, targeting PCs. It is, however, unusual in its sophistication. Typically, malware runs to a megabyte or less in size, but Flame is 20 megabytes, with an estimated 650,000 lines of code. It can monitor keystrokes, steal passwords, turn on PC microphones to listen in on users, and grab screenshots of PC sessions -- to then distribute the stolen information to a diverse network of servers, making exactly who is using the data hard to trace. It can even use a Bluetooth wireless link to communicate.
Investigation suggests Flame may have been in service for the last five years, going generally unnoticed because it's not intrusive and it appears, very much unlike other forms of malware, it is selective about which PCs it infects. Given the sophistication of Flame, there's suspicion a foreign intelligence service is behind it. The Israelis haven't admitted anything, but they've made it clear that if they have a chance to hurt Iran, they're not going to pass it up.
* As reported by THE ECONOMIST, Chinese authorities were not at all happy with American assistance to Chen Guangcheng, the blind activist who had to seek refuge in the US embassy against official harassment. In early May, several Beijing newspapers attacked Chen and US diplomats, labeling Chen a pawn of Americans trying to discredit China. That much could have been expected, but the public reaction was a surprise: Chinese microbloggers lit into the newspapers, with one paper, THE BEIJING TIMES, actually putting up an apology on its own microblog -- a picture of a bedraggled clown smoking a cigarette, captioned: "In the deep still of the night, we take off our mask of insincerity and say to our real selves: we're sorry."
Supportive comments poured in until the censors took the apology off the air. The papers also lit into the US ambassador to China, Gary Locke, THE BEIJING DAILY daring him to reveal his assets. Liu Yadong, the editor of a science-technology daily, pointed out that senior Americans officials have a habit of making their assets public -- Locke has -- with the uncomfortable question hanging of why Chinese officials don't. The question is particularly uncomfortable due to the notoriety of Bo Xilai, a senior Chinese government official now in the crosshairs of a corruption scandal that is proving a great embarrassment to the government.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* SCIENCE NOTES: As reported by AAAS SCIENCE INSIDER Online ("Britain's Biobank Is Open for Business" by Angela Saini, 29 March 2012) Britain, after a decade's effort, has now opened the "UK Biobank", a repository of biosamples and health data from a half million Britons. The Biobank was funded to the tune of 62 million pounds, with the money coming mostly from the UK Medical Research Council and the Wellcome Trust.
The Biobank was stocked through a survey conducted from 2006 through 2010 in which one in every 50 Britons between 40 and 69 years of age was tested. Blood and urine samples, along with results of physical tests for hearing, weight, height, bone density, and lung function, as well as personal interviews, were obtained from each participant. The samples are stored in a freezer about the size of a house, with two banks on each side of a central aisle where a robot handler shuttles back and forth to place or retrieve samples. Biobank access is free for use by anyone performing health-related research in the public interest anywhere in the world, though the Biobank does charge handling fees. Users are also required to publish the results of their studies and enter them into the Biobank's databases.
The idea is that the bank will aid research into ailments such as dementia, diabetes, and cancer by allowing scientists to draw correlations from a wide range of factors. Although there were criticisms of the Biobank effort early on, a meeting in early 2012 was attended by more than 40 groups, including health charities and pharmaceutical firms, demonstrating the enthusiasm for the idea. The collection of samples and data for the Biobank is ongoing; participants will be followed for the rest of their lives, their details updated from UK National Health Service records, with tests repeated as judged necessary.
* Malaria has long been one of the toughest threats to public health. As reported by BBC WORLD Online ("Resistance Spread Compromising Fight Against Malaria" by Matt McGrath, 5 April 2012), the fight against malaria is getting harder because the malaria parasite is acquiring resistance to drugs used to treat the disease.
For many years now the most effective drugs against malaria have been derived from the Chinese plant named sweet wormwood, or more officially Artemisia annua. In 2009 researchers found that Plasmodium falciparum, the nastiest of the malaria parasites that infect humans, was becoming resistant to the artemisinin drugs in parts of western Cambodia. Now scientists have found the resistant P. falciparum parasites showing up on the border of Thailand and Burma. Says one of the researchers: "Spread of drug-resistant malaria parasites within South East Asia and overspill into sub-Saharan Africa, where most malaria deaths occur, would be a public health disaster resulting in millions of deaths."
The scientists cannot tell if the resistance has moved because mosquitoes carrying the resistant parasites have migrated to the Burmese border, or if it has arisen spontaneously in the population there. Researchers worry that the current spread of resistance could be similar to what happened in the 1970s with chloroquine, a drug that was once highly effective, ceased to be so, with devastating effects. According to the World Malaria Report 2011, malaria was responsible for killing an estimated 655,000 people in 2010, more than one every minute, with most of the victims being young children and pregnant women.
* The genus of fungus known as Cordyceps is a notorious parasite, most typically attacking insects, particularly ants, or other arthropods, with some species of the fungus able to manipulate the behavior of their hosts before devouring them. A recent study shows that a Cordyceps fungus that infects carpenter ants is itself targeted by a white fungus; when Cordyceps takes over and kills an ant, the white fungus may infect the corpse and devour both it and the Cordyceps fungus.
"And smaller fleas have smaller fleas, and so on ad infinitum." Interestingly, by becoming a parasite of Cordyceps, the white fungus ends up becoming a symbiote of sorts of the carpenter ants, preventing the spread of Cordyceps to other ants.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* AEROVIRONMENT AT WAR: As reported by an article from BUSINESS WEEK ("Flight Of The Warbots" by Brad Stone, 12 December 2011), in 1971 engineer Paul MacCready founded a firm named Aerovironment in the Los Angeles area. Aerovironment's first claim to fame was the GOSSAMER CONDOR, a human-powered aircraft that won the Kremer Prize, a $100,000 USD pot for the first human-powered aircraft that could handle a specified figure-8 course. In 1979 the follow-on GOSSAMER ALBATROSS was the first human-powered aircraft to cross the English Channel.
Aerovironment became the archetypical "green" firm, working on wind power, electric vehicles, and solar-powered unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). A funny thing happened to the company along the way, however: Aerovironment became a defense contractor and now makes the majority of its sales to the military, providing UAVs to help the grunts in the field.
MacReady, who died of cancer in 2007 at age 81, was clearly a "tree hugger", but he'd never turned up his nose at the defense market. In the late 1980s, Aerovironment developed a UAV named the "Pointer", with a wingspan of about 2.75 meters (9 feet), built of plastics and driven by an electrically-driven propeller with battery power. The military bought about 50 of them, with some of them used in the 1991 Gulf War on an operational evaluation basis. The Pointer seemed to have real potential, but it was a little too big for infantry use, the lithium batteries didn't have enough capacity, while the sensors and control systems needed work. It was a promising experiment, but the military wasn't ready at the moment to charge forward on giving the ground-pounders their own UAVs.
And then came 911, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Aerovironment had continued to tinker with infantry UAVs and had come with a smaller, better follow-on to the Pointer, named the "Raven". In 2003, the US Army fielded a few hundred Raven systems, with three aircraft, two ground stations, and a price tag of $400,000 USD per system. The troops loved the Raven; it allowed infantry to look around corners to spot traps, and direct mortar fire on adversaries lurking in ambush -- the fact that the Raven was the neatest toy a bored soldier could have to play with couldn't have hurt, either. Business boomed. By 2007, Aerovironment couldn't build enough of the improved "Raven-B" UAVs fast enough, with the Raven putting in 150,000 flight hours a year. The company also offered a Pointer follow-on, the Puma, which was obtained by the Special Operations Command. While Aerovironment has plenty of competition in the infantry UAV market, it still dominates, with 85% of the company's revenue from UAV sales.
The Raven was only part of Aerovironment's UAV development efforts. About a decade ago the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) sponsored an experimental program to develop UAVs about the size of songbirds. The DARPA effort didn't produce an operational system, since at the time it proved impossible to make a UAV that small that had reasonable endurance and could carry a useful payload. However, the exercise did result in the develop of electrically powered UAVs that weren't quite that small, Aerovironment developing the "Wasp", which has been fielded by the US Marines and Air Force in limited numbers. Aerovironment hasn't given up on ultra-tiny UAVs either; they're becoming more practical as technology improves, with the company demonstrating a "Nano Hummingbird" UAV that maneuvers around with all the agility of a hummingbird.
In the meantime, Aerovironment has worked on big UAVs as well, developing the "Global Observer" UAV, in the form of a giant powered sailplane that can fly for up to a week at high altitude, burning liquid hydrogen. The Global Observer program is on hold for the moment, but Aerovironment does see big promise in a new small UAV, the "Switchblade". Like the Raven, it is driven by propeller using battery power; it differs in being tube-launched, with pop-out wings fore and aft, hence the name. The tube could be carried on a helicopter, or it can be set up like a mortar to be used by infantry. It also differs from the Raven in that it carries a warhead, amounting to a "mini cruise missile" that the ground-pounders can use to locate the Black Hats and take them out.
Switchblade is the first actual weapon built by Aerovironment. There was some uneasiness at the firm over building a killing machine, but it wasn't that big of a jump -- what's the real ethical distinction in building a surveillance platform to provide targeting for other weapons and building the weapon itself? Winning the battle means saving the lives of our own troops, and winning necessarily means taking out adversaries more effectively. When Aerovironment went to war, it had already accepted that reality, and building a true weapon was simply facing up to its ugly implications.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* CHINESE NAME GAMES: As reported by an article from AAAS SCIENCE NOW ("Mapping China's Ancient Name Game" by Erin Loury, 27 April 2012), familial histories can be traced by identifying common family names or "surnames", and to extent family names can trace population connections and movements across and between countries. A region with high surname similarity indicates that a stable population has lived in an area for a long time, while a region of low surname similarity suggests the migration of different groups of people into the area.
A recent study along such lines considered the surname patterns of 1.28 billion Chinese. Although researchers have studied surname structures for other countries, China's family names possess some unique features that make them very convenient for investigation. The country's recorded history of surnames stretches back 4,000 years, and Confucian traditions dictated that surnames were consistently passed through the paternal line without hyphenation or other changes.
Furthermore, the total number of family names in China is very small. The 1.28 billion people included in the study shared a mere 7,327 surnames -- compared with nearly 900,000 last names documented in a study of 18 million people in the United States. Part of the reason is because Chinese surnames traditionally are based on a single ideographic character, which tends to limit the tendency of names to mutate over time. However, even considering that, the range of Chinese surnames is extremely narrow, with about 85% of the population sharing the 100 most common surnames, and one-fifth of Chinese having the surnames Wang (which can be rendered as Wong), Li (Lee), or Zhang (Chang).
Researchers at Beijing Normal University in China who were investigating relationships within complex networks, wanted to determine if they could spot patterns among the surnames of a sample of 1.28 billion Chinese listed by China's National Citizen Identity Information Center, examining the distribution of names on scales ranging from provinces down to counties.
The researchers found that regions with a high prevalence of shared surnames also contained large populations of ethnic minorities. These regions, in far western and southern China, were ethnically dissimilar from the rest of the country. The researchers believed that reflected the fact that ethnic minorities often have unique surnames and tend to marry within their groups. However, the researchers also found that counties along either side of the lower Yangtze River exhibit very low surname similarity, suggesting large-scale migrations.
Diana Lary, a historian at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, cautions that surname patterns are a simplified way of looking at stories of migration. In addition, just like all the Smiths in the United States are not related to each other, shared surnames in China do not necessarily reflect common ancestry. However, the researchers say Chinese surnames still tend to follow familial genetic patterns, and as a next step they plan to investigate whether the country's mosaic of surnames matches up with genetic diversity.
ED: I found this article interesting because when I was working as factory contact, I got to wondering about the apparently limited numbers of surnames among my contacts from China. I asked a Taiwanese guy I worked with: "Sam, I notice that Chinese seem to have fairly common last names -- Chen, Wong, Lee, and so on. Are these actually different names that end up sounding the same in English phonetics?" I figured that with tonal dialects like Mandarin a lot might be lost in translation.
Sam shook his head: "No. You know all those guys you deal with from Singapore named Tan?" Sure did, it seemed there were few of them in Singapore who weren't named Tan. "Same last name as Chen. Same symbol." Oh, it's worse than it sounds, huh?
And then there's Koreans. I keep wondering just how much of the Korean population is named Kim, Lee, Park, Sun, and Moon. I would guess at least half, and possibly well more than that. I guess that limited name diversity would be expected in a country with a tradition as a "Hermit Kingdom".COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* RETHINK THE SYSTEM (4): Having created the new AirVectors website on FatCow, that left the issue of what to do with the remaining Vectors website. I waffled on whether to drop my account with my old vendor, Webmasters, and find a new vendor for the Vectors website. My communications with Webmasters were poor -- no live chat, I would try to phone them and after a brief wait they'd inevitably put me into voicemail, suggesting they were really strapped for support resources -- but a regular hosting account there cost about the same as it would be for anyone else, and their service was generally reliable.
So I asked if they could down-convert my server account to a normal hosting account. They said, in effect, do it yourself: buy a hosting account and then shut down the server account. I wasn't offended; it was just a nonstarter. Basically I was being told to start over, and if that was the case it was all the same if I started over someplace else. I promptly got a new hosting account on JustHost -- I wanted to try a different vendor from FatCow for the experience -- and found getting on board as straightforward as I had with Fatcow. I suspect these mass-market hosting services need to be run in a competitive and well-organized fashion.
Well, straightforward except for retargeting my domain names. If I had ever done that before, I'd forgotten all about it, and I was baffled at first -- but it was simple, I could just track down the domain name provider for "www.vectorsite.net" with WHOIS, then log in and change the host the domain name was pointing to. Nothing to it, but I don't want to forget that again. In fact, it would be nice to consolidate both my domain names under a single provider, if I can find one with a decent reputation, there being some scammers out there.
OK, Vectors was on JustHost, now I had to shut down the Webmasters account. Communications on doing that were as poor as before: Webmasters support told me to go into my primary control panel and just do a DELETE. I did so -- but though I couldn't get into the account again after that, I got no acknowledgement that I wasn't still going to be billed again. Considering how effective Webmasters had seemed up to that point, I was not at all comfortable with just leaving it at that. It took me about a total of an hour's calling around to find someone who could tell me that I didn't really have an account with Webmasters any longer -- and I still wasn't sure they wouldn't bill me again. They still are hosting my domain name, that being one of the reasons I'd like to consolidate my domain names elsewhere.
* Having got everything more or less in place on my two new websites, I was finding management of a proliferation of passwords very troublesome. I had to write them down lest I forget them -- I'm at the age where I don't assume I can remember things -- but I didn't want anyone who stole or raided my PC to get at them. I'd come up a scheme for writing down passwords in a way that would make them hard to find on my PC, but it was clumsy for me to use and really not all that secure.
I decided that the best thing to do was to put all the passwords in a password-protected encrypted file. I figured I could write my own little encryption program -- nothing very sophisticated, still enough to stymie anyone but the pros. However, although I did map out how the program would work in my head, when I sat down to implement it in C, I then realized that C's trickiness in handling data types was likely to make it more complicated than I thought. It would have been simple in Python, but having got heavily sidetracked in getting my knowledge of HTML up to date, I was still too low on the Python learning curve.
I decided to look around online for freeware encryption programs. After fiddling around for a time, I finally decided just to use the popular Pretty Good Privacy (PGP) package, or more specifically the GnuPG variant. I was a little leery of it because GNU is run by hardcore software geeks who tend to have poor communications skills, and getting GNU stuff to work can be a pain. However, I downloaded GPG and, though the user friendliness did indeed leave something to be desired, I managed to get it to work with only a few false starts.
I wrote a batch file that would open up an encrypted passwords file using GPG, prompting me for the key to do so, and bring it up in Windows Notepad. Once saved, the file would be encrypted again. That would leave a text version behind, but the batch file overwrote the contents of that text file and then deleted it. I suppose somebody might be able to find something in disk sectors, but I'm also sure that wouldn't be trivial. I put a shortcut to the batch script on my desktop, and it got to be sort of a game for a while, tweaking passwords until I figured out those I was comfortable with. [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* AIRLINER FACELIFT (5): As a bit of a tangent from the topic of keeping airliners up to date, an article from AVIATION WEEK ("Towering Testbed" by Guy Norris, 7 May 2012) described what kind of work a jetliner can end up doing after it's been put out to pasture from customer service.
Jetliners have long been used as engine testbeds; a four-jet aircraft with engines on underwing pylons is fairly convenient for that purpose, allowing relatively easy fit of the test engine on an underwing pylon and leaving three engines to get airborne. In 1999, engine-maker Pratt & Whitney (P&W) acquired a Boeing 747SP airliner -- the "short" version of the classic 747 jumbo jet -- for that purpose, recycling a 1976-vintage machine that had served with Air China.
Now P&W has acquired a second 747SP, a 1980-vintage aircraft that had served with Korean Air. It was gathering dust in the deserts of the US Southwest when P&W obtained it for new work, with L3 Communications of Waco, Texas, performing the modifications to turn the airliner into an engine testbed. L3 was already familiar with the 747SP, having performed extensive modifications of one to convert it into the NASA-DLR SOFIA flying observatory, discussed here in 2010.
While it might not seem obvious that turning a jetliner into an engine testbed would take a lot of modification, it becomes more obvious on inspection of a photo of the testbed -- since the engine is carried not on an underwing pylon, but on a stub wing sticking out to the right and fitted high on the 747, behind the cockpit. This is not a new idea; Honeywell flies a Boeing 757 twinjet airliner with a similar configuration to test small engines. The advantage over mounting engines on a wing pylon is flexibility, since almost any engine can be mounted on the stub wing, including propfans and turboprops.
It wasn't just a question of bolting a wing onto the 747SP, since the aircraft had never been designed to be configured in such a way. L3 added a reinforcement hoop around the airframe cross-section where the stub pylon was fitted, with the company also hooking up fuel and hydraulic lines, plus control and status wiring, through the upper fuselage. Another addition was an engine fire extinguisher system, a particularly good thing to have when testing prototype engines. All such support systems were implemented to be as independent of normal aircraft systems as possible. A range of different stub wings and associated engine pylons can be attached for testing different engines. The wing is designed not to generate lift, and it was positioned to reduce the effect of test engine exhaust on the aircraft's tailplane.
The 747SP is relatively expensive to fly and P&W intends to use smaller aircraft for small engines, while reserving the original 747SP testbed for the biggest engines; the new testbed is targeted at the range in between. The 747SP's relatively long flight endurance does allow a testing program to cut the number of test flights by up to half, and the aircraft being mostly unladen, aircrews can fly on two engines in cruise flight to reduce fuel costs. Both of the company's 747SP testbeds operate out of a facility at Montreal's Mirabel airport. The initial flight test program is focused on the PW1217G geared turbofan, to be used on the new Mitsubishi Regional Jet. [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* SPACE NEWS: May was a busy month for space launches:
* 04 MAY 12 / AEHF 2 -- An Atlas 5 booster was launched from Cape Canaveral in Florida to put the second "Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF)" military geostationary comsat into orbit. It featured encrypted / low probability of intercept communications along with jam resistance and resistance to electromagnetic pulse. The spacecraft had a launch mass of 6,150 kilograms (13,565 pounds) and was based on the Lockheed Martin A2100 comsat bus. AEHF is planned to eventually replace the long-standing Milstar military comsat network, with one AEHF having more bandwidth than all five current Milstar spacecraft put together. The Atlas 5 booster was in the "531" configuration, with a 5 meter (16 foot 5 inch) fairing, three solid rocket boosters, and an upper stage with a single Centaur engine.
* 06 MAY 12 / TIANHUI 1B -- A Long March 2D booster was launched from Jiuquan in China to put the "Tianhui 1B" Earth remote sensing satellite into orbit. It was the second in the series, the first having been launched in August 2010.
* 10 MAY 12 / YAOGAN 14, TIANTUO 1 -- A Long March 4B booster was launched from Taiyuan in China to put the "Yaogan 14" spacecraft into orbit; it was believed to be an optical film-return reconnaissance satellite. The launch also included the "Tiantuo 1" smallsat, which had a launch mass of 9 kilograms (20 pounds); it carried a set of experiments and an Automatic Identification System (AIS) relay payload for tracking ships at sea.
* 14 MAY 12 / SOYUZ ISS 30S (ISS) -- A Russian Soyuz booster was launched from Baikonur in Kazakhstan to put the "Soyuz ISS 30S" AKA "TMA-04" manned space capsule into orbit on an International Space Station (ISS) support mission. The crew included commander Gennady Padalka (fourth space flight), flight engineer Sergey Revin (first space flight) -- both of the Russian space agency RKA -- and astronaut Joseph Acaba (first space flight) of NASA. They docked with the ISS's upper Poisk module two days later, joining the "Expedition 31" crew of commander Oleg Kononenko of the RKA, flight engineer Donald Petit of NASA, and astronaut Andre Kuipers of the ESA. The new arrivals seeded the ISS "Expedition 32" crew.
* 15 MAY 12 / JCSAT 13, VINASAT 2 -- An Ariane 5 ECA booster was launched from Kourou in French Guiana to put the Japanese "JCSAT 13" and Vietnamese "VinaSat 2" geostationary comsats into orbit. JCSAT 13 was built by Lockheed Martin for SKY Perfect JSAT Corporation of Japan, and was based on the company's A2100 comsat bus. It had a launch mass of 4,527 kilograms (9,983 pounds), carried a payload of 44 Ku-band transponders, and had a design life of 15 years. It was placed in the geostationary slot at 124 degrees East longitude to provide communications services to Japan and Southeast Asia. It replaced the JCSAT 4A comsat, which was launched in 1999.
VinaSat 2 was also a Lockheed Martin A2100-type comsat, with a launch mass of 2,968 kilograms (6,546 pounds), a payload of 24 Ku-band transponders, and a design life of 15 years. It was placed in the geostationary slot at 131.8 degrees East longitude to provide communications services to Vietnam and neighboring countries.
* 17 MAY 12 / COSMOS 2480 (KOBALT M) -- A Russian Soyuz-U booster was launched from Plesetsk Northern Cosmodrome to put a "Kobalt M / Yantar 4K2M" class optical reconnaissance satellite into orbit. The spacecraft was designated "Cosmos 2480". This was the last launch of a Soyuz-U, the booster being replaced by the Soyuz-2 and Angara-A3 boosters.
* 17 MAY 12 / NIMIQ 6 -- A Proton M Breeze M booster was launched from Baikonur to put the Canada Telesat "Nimiq 6" geostationary comsat into orbit. The spacecraft was built by Space Systems / Loral; it had a launch mass of 4,490 kilograms (9,900 pounds), a payload of 32 Ku-band transponders, and a design life of 15 years. It was placed in the geostationary slot at 91.1 degrees West longitude.
* 17 MAY 12 / GCOM W1 & KOMPSAT 3 -- A Japanese H-2A booster was launched from the JAXA launch center at Tanegashima to put the Japanese "Global Change Observation Mission (GCOM) W1" AKA "Shizuka (Droplet / Dew)" and South Korean "Kompsat 3" satellites into orbit. GCOM W1 was dedicated to tracking global precipitation and the water cycle; it had a launch mass of 1,990 kilograms (4,389 pounds). Kompsat 3 was an Earth observation satellite, with an imaging system featuring a best resolution of 70 centimeters (28 inches). The launch also included two smallsats:
* 22 MAY 12 / DRAGON C2+ -- A SpaceX Falcon 9 booster was launched from Cape Canaveral on the second Falcon 9 flight. It carried the second "all-up" SpaceX Dragon supply capsule, designated "Dragon C2+". It carried 500 kilograms (1,100 pounds) of payload. The Dragon capsule docked with the ISS Harmony module on 25 May and returned to Earth on 31 May, completing a highly successful test flight. The Falcon 9 payload also included two small Orbcomm comsats.
* 27 MAY 12 / CHINASAT 1B -- A Long March 3B booster was launched from Xichang in China to put the "Chinasat 1B" military geostationary comsat into orbit. The booster was in the 3B/E configuration, with an uprated first stage and liquid-fuel boosters.
* 29 MAY 12 / YAOGAN 15 -- A Long March 4B booster was launched from Taiyuan to put the "Yaogan 15" into orbit; it was believed to be an optical film-return reconnaissance satellite.
* OTHER SPACE NEWS: The European Space Agency (ESA) has now selected the agency's next large-scale space science mission, the "Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer (JUICE)" to investigate the Galilean moons Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto. JUICE is scheduled to be launched in 2022 and will make detailed observations of Jupiter and its moons for at least three years following its arrival at the solar system's largest planet in 2030. After visiting Callisto and measuring the thickness of the icy crust of Europa, plans call for JUICE to enter into orbit around Ganymede in 2032, studying the moon's icy surface and subsurface ocean. It will also observe the interaction of Ganymede's magnetic field and the Jovian magnetosphere. ESA is expected to issue a second call for large missions in 2013; the first competition began in 2007.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* THE BANANA BUSINESS: It's always interesting to learn how ordinary things get done. The website "Edible Geography", which it seems scours the world for interesting stories about food, zeroed in on the banana. The banana farming business was discussed here in 2005; the "Edible Geography" article,"Spaces Of Banana Control" from 29 November 2011, focused instead on the distribution end.
Welcome to Paul Rosenblatt's "Banana Distributors of New York (BDNY)", which ships a million boxes of bananas a year from its locale on Drake Street in the Bronx. As everyone knows, bananas are touchy, easily bruised and, more significantly, quick to go overripe, which makes them a bit tricky to handle. It's so tricky that there are only about four distributors in the New York metropolitan area.
Due to the rapid ripening, bananas have to be harvested when they're still thoroughly green and hard. After the bunches are cut, they are washed in cool water, and then put in a refrigerated container for transport. They're not frozen of course, just kept cool at about 13 degrees Celsius (56 degrees Fahrenheit). The bunches of green bananas amount to "raw material" to be processed by distributors such as BDNY, using a carefully-designed system of pressurized, temperature- and atmosphere-controlled rooms to fool the banana into thinking it's still back on the plant in tropical Ecuador.
Typically, BDNY will ripen fruit in five days at 17 degrees Celsius (62 degrees Fahrenheit), but the ripening can be accelerated to four days by raising the temperature a bit, or slowed to seven days by lowering the temperature. Keeping the bananas cool is not as simple as it sounds. According to Rosenblatt: “The energy coming off a box of ripening bananas could heat a small apartment.” BDNY has experimented with using the heat from ripening bananas to help reduce facility heating costs.
Different customers may request different degrees of ripeness, from "1" (green and hard) to "7" (yellow and spotted), with BDNY proudly advertising: “Every Color, Every Day!” It's a troublesome logistical problem; to be able to provide "every color every day" demands a minimum of five ripening rooms. BDNY has 22, with each room able to handle 1,000 to 2,000 boxes of bananas. That means shipping thousands of boxes of bananas a week or rooms end up idle, becoming a business overhead that isn't making money. Rosenblatt says there were a fair number of small banana distributors in the NYC area up to the 1970s, but they couldn't compete with the more efficient big operators.
The most popular shades are between 2.5 and 3.5. BDNY serves the Fairway grocery chain, which will have bunches of bananas on the shelf for a few days and accordingly wants them greener than a small deli that turns them over quickly. Rosenblatt says that street vendors, as well as shops generally serving Latin American customers, like them full yellow.
Ripening is not just a function of room temperature; the bananas also have to be gassed with ethylene to accelerate their ripening -- incidentally, ethylene is one of the world's most heavily produced organic compounds. Back in the day, ethylene would be simply dispensed from a gas cylinder, but that gave uneven results; it also increased the fire hazard, ethylene being highly flammable, and in fact in the old days people could get killed in ripening-room explosions. Nowdays, the ethylene is dispersed in a carefully controlled flow with "Easy-Ripe" generator systems. Go into a ripening room that's just been gassed can be a stomach-churning experience, the visitor overpowered by a smell of too-ripe fruit.
BDNY still operates rooms that were set up in the 1970s, along with more modern installations. The new rooms are designed with palletized loads in mind, while the old rooms were built to deal with boxes of bananas. In the old days they just piled the boxes in, but these days they're carefully stacked to ensure proper ventilation, with a fan system ensuring even and efficient air circulation. The more modern rooms are structured to ensure proper layout, and have two tiers that can be serviced by fork lift, to be quickly loaded up or unloaded. The latest rooms have three tiers.
Shipping containers have been developed that will do the ripening on their own, but Rosenblatt doesn't feel threatened because he deals in volumes that couldn't be reasonably handled with such an approach. Rosenblatt does have a tough job in certain respects; it's not like he can close up shop on the weekends, the bananas have to be tended continuously, and BDNY is in operation from 10 PM to noon all year round. However, it's not too hazardous a job: Rosenblatt says that in four decades in the banana trade, he has never seen a snake, and has only come across one spider, which he gave to the Bronx Zoo.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* POP-UP MICROFAB: An article run here in 2010 discussed the efforts of Gu-Yeon Wei and Rob Wood, two electrical engineers at Harvard University, to develop robot bees. This exercise was further discussed as part of an article in BUSINESS WEEK ("Secrets Of The Fold" by Drake Bennett, 7 May 2012) on fabrication of gadgets and microsystems using "DNA origami" and "machine origami", discussed here and here recently. Wood and his grad students had been painstakingly assembling the robobees with microscopes, tweezers, and superglue. The process was not only extremely laborious, it also had painfully low production yields. There had to be a better way.
Wood and some of his students got to talking and found an inspiration: pop-up children's books. Wood says: "You open up the page, and out pops this complicated structure. All of the assembly trajectories are built into that laminated two-dimensional structure."
Even the pop-up assemblies in children's books can be dicey to figure out, and obviously building a robobee with such an approach was going be tricky. However, the advantages were obvious, since in potential it meant that robobees or other small, elaborate machines could be stamped out in bulk at low cost. Two of Wood's students, Pratheev Sreetharan and J. Peter Whitney, focused on the task, reading books on how to design paper pop-ups and trading emails with a German pop-up sculptor. Sreetharan, a physicist by trade, became obsessed with the challenge of figuring out the arrangement of a two-dimensional laminate with just the right cuts to allow it to smoothly unfold into a three-dimensional structure with collisions or binding. He performed computer design analyses and assembled models of subassemblies using cardboard.
The robobee laminate that emerged had 18 layers, consisting of layers of carbon fiber for the body; titanium for the wing frames; piezoelectric ceramic to flap the wings; and a flexible polymide plastic film for the joints. The layers were stacked on top of each other, using dowels for alignment; each layer had about 3,000 laser cuts, with the layers selectively bonded at the appropriate points with a solid adhesive. Some of the robobee's structural elements, such as the wings, were only fabricated using one layer, while others were built up from the interactions of multiple layers -- for example, the joints were polymide sandwiched between layers of carbon fiber, with small gaps cut from the carbon to permit articulation. The electronics needed for sensing and flight control could be printed onto some of the layers using standard circuit-board assembly processes.
Sreetharan also came up with a notion of using sacrificial elements to support the assembly until it was complete, to then be cut away by laser. Last spring he was ready to run his first test, and much to his surprise it worked almost perfectly. His latest robobees snap into place in a tenth of a second. He finds a Zen satisfaction in it: "[The robobee assembly] has so many parts that are basically in harmony. Nothing in it is still. Everything happens together in such an ordered and controlled way."
Wood and others involved in the research on pop-up fabrication see its application as ranging far beyond the assembly of robobees, with broad applicability for manufacturing many different sorts of objects. Hong Kong-based toy maker WowWee is very interested in the pop-up research, working on prototypes of elaborate toys with sophisticated electronics fabricated using pop-up technology. Says a company official: "Toys are typically very labor-intensive; we can save costs and make products more efficiently this way. We're also looking at making products smaller and more compact than we could otherwise."COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* RETHINK THE SYSTEM (3): I had hunted around for an ad service provider and found recommendations for Adbrite as an alternative to Google Adsense. I tracked down their web site and signed up, obtaining code for banner ads. I was soon bringing in money, if only a trickle.
Having two websites, I decided to try a different ad service provider and found BidVertiser. However, BidVertiser didn't work out. I have no problems with top banner ads, in fact I don't think a web page looks right without one; however, I don't like intrusive ads. AdBrite provides options for intrusive ads, but doesn't particularly push them; BidVertiser does, in fact even claiming that ads that roll up from the bottom of the screen over the page are "not intrusive". Worse, BidVertiser didn't even return a trickle of money. I dropped BidVertiser and ran AdBrite on both sites.
Adbrite is still not paying off well, I'd be lucky to make ten bucks a month off of it, but long-term Adbrite users counsel patience. One of the nice features of Adbrite is that the banner ads include a tab to invite readers who want to advertise to go to the Adbrite site and sign up. Once a website starts bringing in targeted advertisers the money gets better. I'll see where I'm at when the end of the year comes around. If I can bring it two dollars a day, a reasonable target, that will cover all my website costs.
* In any case, having moved all the AirVectors files from the old site, I had to put forwarding links there to point readers to the new site. It was trivial to do, I just wrote a batch script that copied and altered a template HTML file to a list of html file names to be moved, with the new files displaying a large banner saying: "Files have moved, change your links, click here to go to the file you're after."
Nothing to it -- except that I realized after a while the scheme might have problems with hotlink protection. I don't like people hotlinking images off my websites, not just because of the drain on my bandwidth, but also because people on forums tend to indiscriminately hotlink from websites all over the world; they then move on and forget about them, leaving the hotlinks a nuisance for years. As a result, one of the first things I do when I move to a new web host is turn on hotlink protection.
The difficulty is that the effects of hotlink protection are not all that predictable, and I didn't know if the hotlink protection would block the banner telling users a file had moved. I thought it over for a bit and then realized that while I normally use PNG and JPG files, I never use GIF files; so I converted the banner to GIF files and dropped hotlink protection for GIF files.
The hotlink protection allows me to substitute another image for that being hotlinked. Initially, I substituted a little avatar of Wile E. Coyote -- but then I saw somebody online say they substituted an ad for their website instead. I felt dense, I should have thought of that; such a Zen solution, people try to nick me, they end up promoting my site instead. I cooked up small-sized banner ads for my websites, put them in GIF format, and set up the hotlink protection to substitute them instead. They're very lightweight files, being only a few kilobytes in size, both even smaller than the Coyote avatar. Setting them up with a clickable link seemed problematic, but no worries, I just wrote the appropriate URL in loud colors on each banner ad. I really like tinkering with banner ads.
* Incidentally, I am fond of using the Leechblock add-on for Firefox to block access to annoying websites. Leechblock can display a custom image on an attempt to access a blocked site; I had been using an image in my photo archives, but that went away when I moved the photo archives to Flickr. No problem, I just modified the "file has been moved" banner to warn me I was trying to access a website I'd recognized as a loser already, and I didn't need to step in it twice.
Along these same lines, I recently discovered that the Amazon.com product comments system has a "killfile" mechanism, more specifically "ignore this customer". I continue to slip up on occasion and post online, but now when the trolls come out of the woodwork to respond I just hit them with "ignore". It's sort of like playing whack-a-mole. Indeed, I've taken to liberally using it while going through customer reviews, even when I'm not posting, which over the long run ensures I have less incentive to post thanks to elimination of provocations.
I really wish killfile mechanisms were more common on the internet; indeed, it is amusing to consider a future time when I could "kill" trolls no matter where I went on the internet. That might well fall out of a "universal" ID scheme, with browsers smart enough to block out content from a list of undesireables. Once a universal ID scheme was in service, it would become self-reinforcing; although people would still be free to create sock puppets, a browser could be programmed to ignore anyone with an untraceable ID. The scammers will figure out ways around it, but they'll have to do some work.
The trolls scream: "Censorship! Censorship!" -- when they get shut out. Not at all; the show will go on, but I'm not going to stay and watch. All they want to do is scream anyway, I take it for what it's worth, and consider the day when universal killfiles make posting outside of their forums an exercise in futility, or at least more obvious futility. The internet has been a gold mine for cranks, but their days of being able to rant at the world may be numbered. [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* AIRLINER FACELIFT (4): Having discussed frontiers in airline hardware amenities for passengers, an article from THE NEW YORK TIMES ("Beyond Mile-High Grub: Can Airline Food Be Tasty?" by Jan Mouawad, 10 March 2012) focused on the efforts of airlines to keep passengers better fed.
Airliner food has a notoriously bad reputation, but it isn't -- entirely -- the fault of the airlines. A big problem is that an airliner does a good job of dulling the sense of taste, thanks to low air pressure and humidity. That's why airlines tend to push tomato juice and spice up foods heavily; anything lacking a strong taste becomes tasteless. A good light wine will taste like lemon juice.
And then there's the issue of the necessary reliance on prepackaged meals. According to Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University: “Ice cream is about the only thing I can think of that tastes good on a plane. Airlines have a problem with food on board. The packaging, freezing, drying and storage are hard on flavor at any altitude, let alone 30,000 feet.”
Anybody who flies coach might wonder why it's an issue, since free meals for cattle class died out from the late 1980s, a victim of ruthless cost competition -- yes, they really did serve free meals to coach at one time, though these days one would be lucky to get a box lunch. However, airlines are now seeing cuisine as a way of competing for business and first-class passengers, and are correspondingly pumping more money into food.
It's been a uphill struggle, a food services manager for the German airline Lufthansa commenting: “We put a lot of effort in designing perfect meals for our clients, but when we tried them ourselves in the air, the meals would taste like airline food. We were puzzled.” It seems that airlines had never done any serious research on the subject up until recently; Lufthansa contracted with the Fraunhofer Institute of Building Physics to figure out what was going on, to learn answers to such questions as to why airliner passengers were so fond of tomato juice.
On top of the issues of taste buds, airline food service is a logistical nightmare. The airline catering industry, which is worth $13 billion USD a year, serves millions of meals daily worldwide. It must maintain supply chains, standards and quality for a diversity of local conditions. Preparing food is one thing; juggling huge numbers of meals to make sure they're prepared in time for specific flights and placed on board the proper aircraft -- all day, every -- is a massive headache. In 2010, LSG Sky Chefs, the biggest flight caterer, produced 460 million meals for 300 airlines in 200 flight kitchens in 50 countries. GateGourmet, the number 2 caterer, served 9,700 daily flights in 28 countries.
Catering facilities are part restaurants, part industrial production facilities where thousands of workers turn out meals. Food safety standards require all meals to be cooked first on the ground; they are then blast-chilled and refrigerated until they can be stacked on carts and loaded on planes. The meals are almost ready to go when loaded, since only an absurdly posh VIP jet will have anything resembling a real kitchen. Galley space is tight, and for safety open-flame grills and ovens aren’t allowed on commercial aircraft. Flight attendants are not in any position to do food preparation; all they can do is reheat and serve the food. The heating is usually performed by convection ovens that blow dry, hot air over the food -- which tends to dry out the food, and so lately there's been a push towards steam ovens.
To meet the taste challenge, airlines have been contracting with celebrity chefs and have been coming up with very spiffy menus. Singapore Airlines, has published a book of in-flight recipes from 10 chefs. Its business- and first-class passengers can pick their meals from an online menu 24 hours before takeoff. The airline offers a braised soy-flavored duck with yam rice -- a specialty from Singapore -- or a seafood thermidor with buttered asparagus, slow-roasted vine-ripened tomatoes and saffron rice. Korean Air actually owns its own farm, with more than 1,600 head of cattle and more than 5,000 chickens destined for meals in first class.
American carriers were something of laggards in the food business, initially only offering nice meals on international flights, but they have been gradually uprating their meal service on transcontinental flights, again being driven by competition for business and first-class passengers. They've been carefully crafting meals and snacks to keep premium passengers happy. United Airlines even offers ice cream sundaes with a choice of six toppings on international flights, though domestic flights only get warm cookies. Fly the friendly skies. [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* GIMMICKS & GADGETS: There's been something of a buzz in the tech blogosphere over the new "Leap" gesture recognition device by Leap Motion, to be introduced late this year. It's a USB device that sits in front of a display to observe hand and finger movements. Demo videos and prerelease evaluations show the Leap to be a very capable piece of hardware, for only about $70 USD. At that price, I'll have to buy one; even if it doesn't turn out to be useful, it should be a lot of fun to play with. I suspect that if it's a big hit, we should be seeing gesture recognition built into notebooks and PC displays before too long.
* As reported by BUSINESS WEEK, athletic shoe maker Nike has come up with a innovative new product, to be introduced this summer, called the "Flyknit", which is fabric from a weave of synthetic threads. The woven construction makes the shoe very comfortable to slip on, and it's light as well, only about 55% the weight of a conventional Nike shoe.
The Flyknit has another important quality as well, though one more visible to a manufacturer than a consumer: it's easy to build. A conventional athletic shoe has about three dozen pieces and has to be sewn together, making its manufacture labor-intensive. The Flyknit, in contrast only has two pieces, a sole and the woven top section, fabricated automatically under computer control. That means producing such a shoe is potentially cheap, allowing Nike to move production back to the USA from the Far East.
Consumers won't see the low production cost reflected in the sticker price soon, since Nike knows the Flyknit will be worth a premium on its own merits. However, such a radically new and more efficient production process is likely to bring costs down considerably, at least once the technology or its equivalent is obtained by competitors. It also opens the possibility of customers being able to buy shoes perfectly fitted to foot measurements.
* In personal gimmick news, I came into some money and decided to replace my old Maytag refrigerator. It was working fine, but it was over 20 years old and clearly beyond its design life. I liked the idea of getting a new, much more energy-efficient refrigerator; I didn't think I would come close to saving enough on electricity bills to pay off the cost of the new refrigerator, but since I couldn't bet the old refrigerator was likely to stay working too much longer, I decided to take the leap and bought a Whirlpool top-freezer unit.
The old Maytag was white, the new Whirlpool is black, and I didn't quite appreciate just how much bigger the new refrigerator was than the old -- it gives something of the impression of a 2001 SPACE ODYSSEY monolith in my kitchen. I'll get used to that; I really like my new toy. There's nothing fancy about it, it's just a plain-vanilla refrigerator, with no ice-maker or other gimmicks, but it does have some nice features. One is that all the drawers and shelving are clear plastic, meaning I can easily see where everything in the fridge is.
The plastic racks all pop in and out easily. It had two moveable shelves in the main refrigerator compartment, one with a slide-out drawer; I couldn't figure out a particularly efficient scheme for arranging the shelves until I decided to just take the drawer, which didn't slide well anyway, and put it in a closet. Now the space utilization works out better. One of the features that I appreciated right away was that the doors could not be left open, simply swinging shut when I let go of them. That seems like a "duh" idea for an energy-efficient refrigerator and no doubt it's been around for years, but I was pleased with it anyway.
There's the concern of whether the new refrigerator will last anywhere near as long as the old, and I wondered if I was making a mistake in buying a Whirlpool instead of a Maytag, having proof of Maytag durability. I did a comparison check online and found out that Maytag was actually a Whirlpool brand nowdays, Maytag having been bought out by Whirlpool in 2006. That didn't tell me if the Whirlpool was reliable, but at least I didn't need to worry that I would have got a better deal from Maytag.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* BUSINESS DOES RECYCLING: As reported by an article from THE NEW YORK TIMES ("Companies Pick Up Used Packaging, and Recycling’s Cost" by Stephanie Strom, 23 March 2012), a growing number of big American food and beverage companies in the United States are taking on the costs of recycling their packaging after consumers are finished with it -- an obligation long imposed on packaged goods companies in Europe and more recently in parts of Asia, Latin America and Canada.
Jim Hanna, director of environmental impact at Starbucks Corporation, says "extended producer responsibility (XPR)" is being driven by several factors: “Local governments are literally going broke and so are looking for ways to shift the costs of recycling off onto someone, and companies that make the packaging are logical candidates. More environmentally conscious consumers are demanding that companies share their values, too.”
Hanna adds that “companies are becoming more aware that resources are limited and what they’ve traditionally thrown away -- wow, it has value.” Refining aluminum is an energy-intensive process, and with high energy costs it's cheaper to recycle. The same is becoming true for plastic bottles.
So far, company-sponsored recycling efforts are voluntary in the United States. Many US states have laws requiring companies to take responsibility for spent products such as batteries and mercury switches. Maine passed a law in 2010 that allowed the state to place products, including packaging, to the list of those for which manufacturers must assume the costs of disposal, but the list hasn't been extended since then. To no surprise, there's a lot of producer resistance to XPR, even from companies that are already doing it elsewhere -- but a few major food and beverage companies like the idea.
Coca-Cola has set up a subsidiary, Coca-Cola Recycling LLC, to reach the company goal of ensuring the recycling of 100% of its cans and bottles in North America by 2015 and 50 percent in the rest of the world. Seven factories owned wholly or in part by Coke around the world are focused on plastic recycling. Coca-Cola is also tinkering with non-petroleum-based plastics, with the company now selling fizzy drinks in bottles made of polyethylene terepthelate (PET) produced with 70% oil and 30% plant feedstocks; the H.J. Heinz company has licensed Coke's PET for ketchup bottles. Coke also sets up bins at events such as NASCAR races for recycling.
Similarly, Starbucks now has bins in which customers can toss their cups at 18% of its outlets in the USA and Canada, up from 5% just a year ago. Starbucks has a goal of 100% by 2015. Starbucks cups are hauled off to a recycling center in Green Bay, Wisconsin, where the cups are mixed with other recycled material and turned into napkins for Starbucks outlets. Starbucks is still much the exception in recycling paper cups, other organizations finding it difficult to collect and process them.
However, New Hampshire yogurt maker Stonyfield Farm is successfully recycling its containers. Yogurt is typically sold in cups made of polypropylene, which municipalities typically won't recycle. In 2008, Stonyfield Farm began to set up collection bins in Whole Foods stores, where customers can deposit any polypropylene container -- margarine tubs, other brands’ yogurt containers -- with the materials obtained by a recycling firm named Preserve and turned into toothbrushes and razors. A mickey-mouse program? In 2012, some 11 million six-ounce yogurt cups were collected through the program, up from 2.3 million in 2009.
Again, these firms are more the exception than the rule. Advocates of XPR believe that it would get a big boost if retail giant Walmart embraced it, but so far the company has said it's not in favor of the idea. Bill Sheehan, executive director of the Product Policy Institute, a nonprofit that promotes XPR, commented: “Walmart is doing some pretty good things environmentally all on their own, and because of their size, they’re able to have a broad effect on what suppliers do.” Whether Walmart lends its clout to XPR remains to be seen.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* INTERNET OF STREETLIGHTS: There's been talk over the past decade or so of the emerging "internet of things", with a wide range of mundane devices digitally connected together. An article from BUSINESS WEEK ("A Brighter Future For Streetlamps" by Mary Jane Creuder, 14 May 2012), discussed how that concept is being applied to streetlights.
The city of Chattanooga, Tennessee, long relied on sodium-vapor lamps for its streetlight system. Sodium lamps are relatively power-hungry, and it was not much of a leap for the city authorities to decide to convert to LED lamps instead. LED arrays are expensive for the moment, but given their low power consumption and long lifetimes, even at present they are a bargain for streetlight systems over the long term.
Energy efficiency wasn't all there was to the story, however. At any one time about 5% of Chattanooga's sodium streetlamps were dead, and the only way to figure out which ones was for work crews to drive around at night and look for them. In addition, some lamps would go on during the day, wasting power, with that problem being harder to spot. Just going to LED lighting didn't address those issues, but a local company named Global Green Lighting (GGL) had a modest proposal: add wireless communications to each streetlight so it could be controlled and report back on its status. After a successful pilot test with 350 lamps in 2011, Chattanooga authorities awarded GGL a contract to begin replacing the city's 26,500 sodium streetlamps with wireless-enabled LED lighting. Savings in power and maintenance will allow the update to pay for itself in seven years. GGL is not only providing the lighting system, but also is under contract to maintain it, at a cost a quarter that of what was previously paid.
In the network, each lamppost is designated by its GPS coordinates, with a central controller able to selectively turn lights off or on, dim them or brighten them, at will. Each node sends in status, telling the central controller if the lamp is out or if there's some other fault; of course, the central controller will also know if a node is dead and not responding. The nodes even report their energy usage, in effect metering themselves for the power utility. The cops can control the network, turning up the brightness in an area to help track down a suspect, or dim them to help provide cover for a police SWAT team.
GGL has been a pioneer in the development of "smart" streetlamp networks. The company is working on a strobing system that could provide public alarms for tornadoes and other emergencies, or guide ambulances and fire trucks to an accident by "following the blinking lights". The firm has been working with partner company Sensus, which provides the wireless tech, on demonstrations in Baltimore, Ottawa, and at several universities.
* SMART PUMP: In a related exercise, BBC WORLD Online reported on a scheme developed by researchers at Oxford University in which hand-driven water pumps in African villages will report their operational status over wireless. The villagers are very dependent on the pumps, but the pumps are prone to breakdowns, with as many as a third of them out of business at any one time. It can take weeks for the breakdown to be reported and have a fixer dispatched to repair the problem.
The module is derived from cellphone tech, sending out text messages over the cellphone network like an ordinary cellphone. It's fitted into the pump handle and tracks how often the pump handle is moved up and down; if the handle stops moving for a long period, that means the pump's broken. Usually the fixes are trivial, involving replacement of seals or the like, and given rapid notification of the problem a fix can be implemented quickly. The system will track water usage, and the Oxford researchers believe that they should also be able to eventually come up with "signatures" of pump behavior that will predict specific failures in advance.
A trial is now being set up in 70 villages in Kenya. Initially, the modules will be battery-powered, but there's some thought of optimizing them for low-power operation and obtaining power from pump handle motion. There are concerns about theft and vandalism -- but if their value is proven to villagers, the villagers will make sure the modules are left alone.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* RETHINK THE SYSTEM (2): Having basically decided what I needed to do to rebuild my website, there was the little issue of implementing it. The challenge was that all I had was a general idea of what I needed to do; it wasn't something I'd done specifically before, so I couldn't really come up with a detailed plan, I just had to grab onto pieces and get them done.
The first thing to do was to separate the old website into the two new websites, Vectors and AirVectors. That was more tedious than difficult, mostly a question of rearranging the furniture -- modifying existing index pages and writing up new ones, changing directory structures and names, and appropriately modifying the batch files used to format the websites. As long as I was at it, of course, I added some improvements, for example referencing my Twitter account in the author string on each index page. I also consolidated all the various support files for the websites into their own directory, with the batch files tweaking them appropriately for use by the two websites.
One of the tricky items I had to consider was the linkage between the two new websites; I wanted to make sure readers of one were aware of and could easily access the other. I'd been running my own banner ad on the bottom of each page to promote a particular document each month, and if the number of hits on the banner ad was any indication, it worked pretty well -- so I altered the banner ad to have four buttons on the bottom, for:
-- and wrote up clickable bitmap code to map the map banner and the four buttons to their proper targets. The COMMENT button was for the guest comment board; it was not targeted at the board, it was instead targeted at a "redirection" file, which contained HTML code to automatically transfer a user to the board. That way, if I changed the message board tech -- I have a bad habit of doing so, I just changed it once more, though I have hopes I shouldn't feel the need to do it again any time soon -- all I would have to do it change the target in one redirection file, not the HTML code on every web page. I've become very fond of redirection files; they not only allow easy changes of link targets, they are also tracked by site statistics, showing how many times people have clicked through them.
I made the DONATE button in a bigger font and with gold color. I had originally used red, but it didn't stand out enough; yellow didn't look quite right, so I googled up images of gold and used that color instead. I also hunted down an old icon of a couple of cherries I put together in my early days of online to highlight the button. I'm not expecting a lot of donations, and in fact I soft-pedaled my pitch, but if I get a few a month it'll help a lot. I'm interested in observing the ratios of website page views to donate page views to actual donations. Right now my suspicion is that it's a thousand website page views to one donate page view, and a hundred donate page views to one donation.
Another thing I wanted to do to unify the websites was use the same monthly "Updates" file on both of them. However, that meant using full URLs for link targets, and putting them in the source file was certain to be inconvenient. I racked my brains for an answer, and finally the simple solution came to me: precede a file link with either "VC/" or "AV/" to designate Vectors or AirVectors appropriately, and then write a batch script to convert those tags to their full pathnames as part of normal HTML formatting.
I managed to get the AirVectors site working well enough to stand on its own, so then I got a hosting account from FatCow. I was a little bit leery of low-cost hosting providers since they can be dodgy, but I didn't see a lot of complaints about Fatcow online; I must say I found it easy to get a hosting service from them, and when I had questions I got quick and good answers off of live chat. That's reassuring, if not completely so, but no problems at all so far. [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* AIRLINER FACELIFT (3): Airliner inflight entertainment (IFE) systems have been discussed here in the past, last in 2011. As reported by a fourth article from the AVIATION WEEK set on airliner tech ("Sitting Pretty" by Kristin Majcher), inflight entertainment systems are now expanding their domain to incorporate tablet PCs and wireless connectivity.
Airvod of Dublin, Ireland, has been offering a "Seatcentric" IFE system based on the "Crystal" line of touchscreen tablet PCs for the past five years or so. Up to now, the tablets have been stored on a trolley and handed out to passengers by flight attendants. That's a somewhat clumsy arrangement, and so now Airvod is now partnering with aircraft maintenance and interiors specialist Avianor of Montreal, Canada, to offer a Seatcentric scheme more along the lines of traditional IFE systems, with tablets installed on the back of each seat.
From the passenger point of view, the new Seatcentric system looks pretty much like any other modern digital IFE system, but it's not as dependent on a central server and doesn't require special wiring to support the tablets; they communicate by high-speed wi-fi -- at 5.8 GHz instead of the more conventional 2.4 GHz -- and only require a power connection from the seat. The tablets have a 128 gigabyte flash card and can store dozens of movies, as well as any other useful digital media. There's still a central server, but it's relatively small and its normal function is to provide various alert messages to the passengers via the tablets. The primary advantages of the Seatcentric system are relative independence of the "nodes" from the server, as well as reduced weight -- from elimination of wiring, which also simplifies servicing -- along with ease of upgrade.
Thompson Aerospace of Irvine, California, is taking a slightly different approach to IFE with its "1Net" system. The passenger nodes do not communicate over wireless, instead using an Ethernet local network connection -- but the 1Net physical connection also provides power, meaning only one physical connection to a node, with an intermediate module supplying power and network interface to six nodes. Again, the scheme reduces weight. The nodes are not touchscreens, with a passenger making selections with a set of buttons, and accessing data provided by a server as with a traditional IFE system. The nodes provide a USB power plug to allow passengers to use their own devices. The 1Net has an advertising orientation, with passengers presented with ads targeted towards the aircraft's destination. The airline operator then acquires revenue through conventional internet advertising models, obtaining money from click-throughs and more money when a passenger makes a purchase or reservation.
Technology giant Thales of France is now working on the use of gesture input technologies for IFE systems, with a node featuring an infrared camera to monitor and respond to passenger hand motions. Gesture input would seem to offer convenience for passengers, but the payoff as Thales sees it is that a camera with gesture recognition is cheaper than a touchscreen, and the touchscreen is also less reliable and sanitary. All Thales has right now is a prototype in evaluation, with no schedule for introduction, but it seems like such a good idea that it might not be too long before someone walking down the aisle of a jetliner in flight will see the passengers cryptically waving their hands in the air.
* A fifth and final article from the AVIATION WEEK set ("Next Generation Wi-Fi Soars" by Fred George) examined the rise of airline wireless systems. Thousands of airliners now provide high-bandwidth wireless services to passengers, using a 3G wireless network provided by GoGo INC of Chicago. GoGo operates 134 cell stations in the continental US and Alaska, providing 3.1 megabit per second (MBPS) download and 1.8 MBPS upload rates, with the stations operating in the 800 MHz band.
GoGo is planning to "go global" in 2013 by leveraging off the Inmarsat "Global Xpress" satellite constellation, which will provide near-global coverage with download speeds of up to 50 MBPS using three geostationary comsats operating in the Ka ("K above") band -- the service reaching everywhere except for near-polar regions above 75 degrees latitude. Lower-bandwidth Ku ("K under") band services are already available, for example the Panasonic Avionics "eXConnect" system, but Ka-band services are likely to render them obsolete within a few years. Comsat operator Viasat of Carlsbad, California, intends to compete with Inmarsat's Global Xpress, expanding its space wireless network from servicing ground-based users to airline passengers.
To no surprise, at present airlines do not offer wireless as a free service, and the tolls can be expensive. That can be an irritant to passengers who are used to obtaining free wi-fi access in, say, a McDonald's; however, nobody expects much in the way of freebies from airlines, and the number of people willing to pay for inflight wireless has been ramping up. Still, pressures to cut prices are rising as well, as free wi-fi becomes more prevalent on the ground, and competition with Ka-band satellite services -- which offer so much bandwidth as to make the cost for any one user very small -- heats up. Wireless is taking over the world, and it is unlikely the airlines are going to be able to milk it for very long. [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* SCIENCE NOTES: The Toxoplasma gondii parasite has been discussed here in the past, last in 2010. It's a protozoan that targets felines, taking up residence in an intermediate host, such as a rat, as part of its life cycle. It doesn't do a rat that much harm in itself, forming cysts in the rat's brain but limiting its own proliferation by manipulating the host immune system against itself -- since if it kills the rat it won't get into its final victim, a cat. However, T. gondii is known to secrete chemicals that make the rat careless, more easily caught by a cat.
T. gondii is a common parasite of humans as well, in fact in some places the majority of the population is infected. In humans it seems generally harmless to adults, though it can be dangerous to infants in the womb since they don't have a developed immune system, meaning the parasite will not be able to control its own propagation. There have been hints that it may contribute to schizophrenia in humans; now there are hints that it may have another influence on humans, helping them resist Alzheimer's disease.
As reported by Babbage, THE ECONOMIST's rotating science and technology blogger, researcher Bong-Kwang Jung of Seoul National University in South Korea got to wondering if T. gondii might mitigate against Alzheimer's. Existing data actually showed that there was a correlation between an infection by T. gondii and Alzheimer's, but Jung judged that might be an artifact, Alzheimer's being a disease of the old, who often keep cats, and so are more prone to be infected than average. He reasoned that T. gondii lived in equilibrium in the brain of an intermediate host for an indefinite period by restraining an inflammation reaction, and such restraint might also inhibit Alzheimer's.
Test with mice genetically modified to be susceptible to Alzheimer's showed that those infected with T. gondii were much less prone to develop Alzheimer's than the mice in an uninfected control group. That is just another hint in itself and it's hard to make too much of it, but it does suggest that maybe Alzheimer's could be headed off by deliberate infection with T. gondii, using strains of the protozoan optimized for best effect. Indeed, it opens the door to using variants of the protozoan for a range of possible effects on the brain. However, such things are clearly not something that's going to ever happen without considerable evaluation: what COULD go wrong?
* A genetic survey of cattle has shown that all of the world's roughly 1.4 billion domesticated cattle are are descendants of a single herd of wild ox from 10,500 years ago. A team of geneticists from the National Museum of Natural History in France, the University of Mainz in Germany, and University College London in the UK performed the analysis on genomes of modern cattle and also remains of cattle found in various archaeological digs.
The wild progenitor was the auroch, which died out in the 17th century, though breeders have been trying to come up with a reasonable facsimile. In any case, the auroch was in prehistoric times a fairly common beast, so it is a bit surprising that it appears it was only successfully domesticated once. However, it's consistent with what else known. Jean-Denis Vigne, a bio-archaeologist from the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) and author on the study, commented: “A small number of cattle progenitors is consistent with the restricted area for which archaeologists have evidence for early cattle domestication 10,500 years ago. This restricted area could be explained by the fact that cattle breeding, contrary to, for example, goat herding, would have been very difficult for mobile societies, and that only some of them were actually sedentary at that time in the Near East.”
* In another story of genomic archaeology, it was believed that during the last Ice Age all of Scandinavia was covered by glaciers that rooted out all the forests; when the ice melted about 9,000 years ago, Scandinavian forests were reconstructed from tree populations to the south. However, a genomic analysis of Scandinavian trees by Danish researchers shows that not all the original forests were completely wiped uprooted.
The researchers examined the DNA of modern spruce and analyzed the composition of pine and spruce DNA in sediments from lake-core samples. According to Professor Eske Willerslev of the University of Copenhagen: "Our results demonstrate that not all the Scandinavian conifer trees have the same recent ancestors, as we once believed. There were groups of spruce and pine that survived the harsh climate in small ice-free pockets, or in 'refuges', as we call them, for tens of thousands of years, and then were able to spread once the ice retreated. Other spruce and pine trees have their origins in the southern and eastern ice-free areas of Europe. Therefore, one can now refer to 'original' and later naturally 'introduced' Scandinavian conifer species."COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* MEASLES RAIDS EUROPE: As reported by an article in AAAS SCIENCE ("Europe's Embarrassing Problem" by Kai Kupferschmidt, 27 April 2012), in the spring of 2009 a young man returned to his home in northern Bulgaria after a stint working in construction in Hamburg, Germany. He carried along with him an infection of the measles virus, which triggered off an epidemic that sickened 24,000 people and killed 24 of them. The measles strain, codenamed "D4-Hamburg", then migrated back into Germany, as well as other Balkan nations and Turkey, where it raised more hell.
The irony of the matter is that it never needed to happen: cheap and effective vaccines against measles are widely available, and in fact the disease has been effectively wiped out in the New World. Europe, in contrast, seems to be backsliding, cases having quadrupled since 2009; in 2011, France alone had more than 15,000. Importations of the disease from Europe have led to an uptick in measles cases in the USA, though the outbreaks have been limited, with widespread immunization preventing the disease from propagating. The European Center for Disease Prevention & Control (ECDC) in Stockholm, Sweden, has set a priority to get measles under control, with a number of European nations setting up more aggressive immunization programs.
One of the difficulties with measles control is that measles is generally regarded as a harmless childhood disease. That is underestimating measles, which killed about two million children a year before effective vaccines became available in 1963. The disease usually doesn't kill by itself; it simply weakens the immune system of it victims,leaving them vulnerable to secondary infections by other pathogens. As a result, measles has its highest mortality in India and sub-Saharan Africa, where public health standards are low and many diseases are out of control. However, measles is still dangerous enough in itself, with about one in 3,000 of those infected being killed by it.
The measles vaccine is easy to administer: two doses are required, the first given between 11 and 14 months of age, and the second given between 15 and 23 months of age. That protects more than 98% of vaccinated children at a cost of less than a dollar per child. The measles vaccine is usually administered as part of the combination "measles, mumps, rubella (MMR)" vaccine.
Since measles has no known animal hosts, it could in principle be eradicated by a global immunization program. A decade ago, inspired by the suppression of measles in the New World, the World Health Organization's European Region set a target of 2010 for eradication of the disease there. When the disease began its resurgence in 2009 the target date was slipped back to 2015, but there are plenty of doubts that target will be met, either. Health authorities are very worried that the European Football Championship this June -- being held in Poland and the Ukraine, the cup's hosts -- will lead to huge numbers of infections, the Ukraine already having had over 7,000 cases earlier in the year. The upcoming London Olympic Games represent another threat. The ECDC has been pushing sports fans to get vaccinated.
Why is Europe having such trouble with measles? To keep the disease under control, 95% of a population needs to be vaccinated, that being enough to prevent the disease from spreading if it breaks out in one locale. However, European vaccination rates don't approach that level, for a number of reasons. As mentioned, there's a widespread belief the disease isn't all that much of a threat, and there's also worries about side effects -- greatly inflamed by bogus claims that the MMR vaccine could cause childhood autism, leading to significant drops in vaccination rates in the UK and Ireland. There are also religious factions that are opposed to vaccination, and ethnic groups such as the Roma -- gypsies -- that are hard to reach. However, as one German health official puts it, one of the most common reasons is that "parents simply forgot it or did not have the time."
All such conditions occur in the New World as well, but in most of the nations of the Americas children must be vaccinated before they are allowed entry into a school. Although Americans typically see Europe as over-regulated, such a mandatory policy would be unacceptable in most European countries. However, European health officials believe it would help considerably if vaccination programs were at least brought into the schools.
That's the general consensus on what needs to be done to get measles back under control: not just more publicity, but also more flexible vaccination programs, and also enlisting the assistance of medical professionals to encourage their patients to be vaccinated. Ironically, many European medical professionals aren't vaccinated either -- an unacceptable situation, not merely because medical staff are generally at a higher risk of infection than the regular population, but because they may come into contact with patients afflicted by weakened or compromised immune systems, who are extremely vulnerable.
Vaccines are one of the honest miracles of medicines: they are cheap, effective, and can generally keep up with the emergence of resistant strains of pathogens. Unfortunately, the public in the developed world, enjoying a largely disease-free society, tends to take vaccines for granted, dismissing them as no longer important, or in the extreme even dangerously risky. Seth Berkley, director of the GAVI Alliance -- a public-private organization that promotes global immunization campaigns -- warned against such complacency: "I have been in a refugee camp and watched measles come through, and every day I saw the little graves of the all the babies who were buried. You don't forget that."COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* GLOBAL ZERO REVISITED: The concept of "Global Zero", or the elimination of all nuclear weapons on Earth, was discussed here in 2011. As reported by THE ECONOMIST's strategy blogger, Clausewitz, the Global Zero group has just released a new report, suggesting options for near-term nuclear reductions between the US and Russia.
To review what was said earlier, while nuclear-armed nations have strong motives to keep the Bomb, their motives for giving it up are getting stronger all the time:
The critical path in Global Zero is the mutual reduction of American and Russian nuclear arsenals. These two nations have the biggest stockpiles, and as long as they have nuclear weapons they will find it hard to persuade nations that don't have the Bomb from trying to acquire it, or convince the handful of other states that do to get rid of it. However, getting an agreement between the two nations on the issue is not an easy job.
US President Barack Obama would certainly like to zero out America's nuclear arsenal, being keen on following up the ratification of the "New START" arms-reduction treaty last year to discuss further deep cuts in weapons with the Russians. Russian President Vladimir Putin, however, seems very enthusiastic about nukes and not at all enthusiastic about giving them up. Putin has also demonstrated considerable antagonism towards US plans to set up missile interceptor sites in Eastern Europe. The interceptor system is only intended to protect Europe from a "pot shot" by Iran and couldn't possibly handle an all-out Russian attack, but Russian officials have dropped hints that their forces might take out any interceptor site that was set up in Eastern Europe. The credibility of such a vague threat is too low to allow it to be taken seriously, except as an indicator of Russian irritation.
For the moment then, Global Zero is not going anywhere in a hurry, but the Global Zero group has gone ahead and proposed an American force structure as a bargaining target in talks between the US and Russia. The scenario envisions the US force cut to 900 warheads, with only half deployed; that's a big cut from the New START limit of 1,550 warheads, to be attained in six years, but 900 warheads would still be well more than enough to protect America. America’s reserve stockpile of almost 3,000 warheads, about 800 of them "tactical" weapons, serves no useful purpose,
The new Global Zero proposal not only suggests eliminating tactical nukes, but also all fixed-site, land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), such as America’s Minuteman system. The rationales behind giving tactical nukes and ICBMs the axe are similar. In a crisis, tactical nukes would be close to the battle lines, giving commanders the unpleasant choice of "use them or lose them". They're not all that useful on a battlefield either, since front-line commanders now have extremely destructive precision-guided weapons that can do the job, and the generals know they can actually use such weapons if they need to. The only reason for the US to hang onto tactical nukes is because the Russians want to hang onto theirs, as a means of offsetting their weakness in conventional forces; some NATO members also see the basing of American nukes in Europe as establishing a security guarantee. Fixed-site ICBMs are similarly subject to the rule of "use them or lose them", and they have no military utility as well -- one couldn't be launched at a target other than Russia without the Russians worrying that they were the intended victim.
The flexible and survivable force envisioned by the Global Zero report would consist of ten US Navy Trident ballistic missile submarines armed with 720 strategic missile warheads (360 deployed, 360 in reserve) and eighteen B-2 aircraft armed with 180 gravity bombs (90 deployed, 90 in reserve). The Global Zero report suggests that even this scaled-down force would “project a threat of draconian dimensions at any prospective aggressor country."
Obama appears receptive to the message, having recently ordered the Pentagon to draw up nuclear force options for the future, ranging from an arsenal that stayed at New START levels to one with 300 to 400 warheads. Of course Obama won't do anything if he's not re-elected, and his Republican challenger Mitt Romney has shown no liking for the idea of big nuclear weapons cuts. Even if Obama wins, he'll still have to deal with Republican opposition to cuts in the nuclear force, and those with a vested interest in the current US strategic "triad" of land, air, and sea-based weapons -- such as congressmen with constituencies dependent on Minuteman missile bases -- are likely to be obstructionist as well. The biggest obstacle, however, will be the grumpy Vladimir Putin, who has never demonstrated the slightest willingness to consider major arms cuts. If Obama gets his second term, he'll have his work cut out for him.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* RETHINK THE SYSTEM (1): Every now and then I go through an abrupt change on my website. It happened with a vengeance in mid-May when I checked my Google Adsense stats one morning to see how much ad revenue the website brought in -- to find an announcement that my Adsense account had been terminated for violations of the rules.
Since I had the right to drop out of the program without explanation at any time, obviously Google had the same right, and I couldn't complain. This is not the same as saying Google was at all adroit in the way they handled it -- for starters, the message specifically declared that I wasn't going to be told what the violations were. I was certainly not in any good humor over it, but I will say no more, it would be aiding in the folly to fail to move on. However, if I had an opportunity to deal with Adsense again, I wouldn't touch it. Burn me once, I have to eat it; burn me twice, not going to happen.
Anyway, I was paying for a server and the Adsense revenue had been covering it with a bit of pocket money to spare, but now I had to pay out of my own pocket. That set off a cascade of thinking matters over. There was no problem in being able to afford a website, it was nothing much to support, but it led to the question of why I should bother.
I made the spring edition of my trip to Spokane the next day, giving me time to think things over, and the dark clouds cleared up. On consideration, I knew that could think of nothing better to do than write for the web, and it wasn't the sort of thing to ask for a second opinion on. However, I'd also been discouraged by the fact that the number of visitors to my site has been constant for the last few years. I'd been thinking I could get up to a million readers a month -- that being the maximum value, I couldn't think of getting more than that, but I figured I should be able to get a quarter or maybe a half a million. The reality is that I'm hovering at about 110,000 a month.
On considering that, however, I wasn't discouraged. Given 100,000 visitors a month, it appears from various stat sites -- I can find a dozen of them with stats on my website floating around in cyberspace -- that up to about 60% are "bounces", they hit once and disappear, leaving about 40,000. On the simple assumption that the odds of them having any interest in the site are 50:50, that leaves 20,000 who are honestly interested. Similarly assuming that the odds they like what they see are 50:50, that leaves 10,000 people a month who have use for the site, with I would guess a few hundred to a thousand regular visitors among them.
That's a problem? No. That's more than 12 interested visitors an hour, more than 300 a day, which means that in effect I'm delivering a lecture to more than 300 people a day -- every day. 30 regular readers a day? What's to be disappointed about? People like to talk of the "global village", and that's what I've got, a small community out of the vast internet to which I am providing a service. Yes, more would be nice; if I went up to a million visitors a month, still a small slice of the internet community, I would be lecturing to more than 3,000 people a day. However, I would have no more satisfaction in that than with 300. Writing's all about recognition, but would being famous really buy me much? Staying unnoticed would be less bother.
That still left me with the issue of operating at a loss. Again, I could afford a website and it's not like I've ever made anything but pocket money at it -- but the problem is that puts me in the effective position of paying people to read my site. If so, the conclusion is that I might as well just write for myself and not bother putting the stuff up on the web. Well, at the very least I could reduce my losses, and at best I could start bringing in a profit again.
Since my readership has plateaued, I have no real expectation of more traffic any time soon, and it no longer made sense to pay for my own server. However, on thinking it over I decided I could cut my expenditures to a quarter of what they were by breaking up the site into components:
The uploads to Flickr were going to take some time to complete given that I had over 3,000 photos to upload and properly index. However, as far as the rest went, I wanted to be operational by the end of May. [TO BE CONTINUED]NEXT | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* As mentioned here last year, relations between Turkey and Israel have been tense as of late. As a case in point, BBC WORLD Online reports that the citizens of a village in southeast Turkey went into a small-scale panic when they discovered a dead European bee-eater in a field. The colorful birds migrate through the region, so finding one was not a surprise; what got people excited was that it had a ring on its leg marked "Israel".
On inspecting the sad dead bird, they became concerned that it might have been implanted with spy microchips. Experts at the government agricultural ministry examined the bird and judged it not guilty, but one of the officials at the ministry said the local police were not easily reassured. Of course, putting rings on the legs of migratory birds is hardly mysterious, the rings being used to track the birds' movements. The BBC's correspondent in Turkey told the home office that Turks are quick to grab onto absurd conspiracy theories, with the Israelis often targeted as the culprits. Humans seem to have a certain attraction to crazy ideas. As Douglas Adams put it in his HITCH-HIKER'S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY, this sort of thing is going on all the time, and there is absolutely nothing anyone can do about it.
* Although I was under the gun last month -- more on this come Monday -- I ended up being sidetracked when I decided to look around for some way of putting together cartoons. I did an update of my obscure document EVOLUTION, ENTROPY, & INFORMATION and I was trying to find some way, any way, to liven it up a bit, and I thought adding some cartoons would help.
What I found was a website named "FaceYourManga", which had a tidy little system for synthesizing manga-oriented cartoon avatars for online forums and the like. I found it easy to come up with a reasonable facsimile of myself, and was quickly churning out avatars at will. Given the avatars, it was straightforward to come up with a cartoon scheme based on Twitter "tweets", and so now I have my own comic series -- which I call "TWITZ".
I half considered putting together TWITZ on a regular basis, but decided it didn't really have that much potential. However, there are times when the cartoon option is clearly handy, and so readers are going to be seeing more TWITZ in the future -- at least until they tell me to knock it off.
Incidentally, EVOLUTION, ENTROPY, & INFORMATION has been something of a dud, having attracted little attention since its release about two years ago. On consideration, I decided I was good with that. I wrote that document because for some reason creationists decided to grab onto information theory as part of their bag of tricks, and I wanted to show how bogus the game was. Now I don't see the exercise as all that necessary, since the lack of public interest in my document is clearly due to lack of public interest in the subject. "Creationist information theory" is obviously not catching on.
I did have some fun writing that document, and maybe there will be some interest in it one of these days. However, I'm not planning to hold my breath and wait for that to happen.
* I've decided to start the month out from now on with some nice piece of artwork I found online. I can't put it at top, it would be confusing, but the first of the month installment is basically wool-gathering, and it works okay here. I don't really know where this came from; it looks like some sort of steampunk / retropunk world, with steam trains and sharklike airships.