* This weblog provides an "online notebook" to provide comments on current events, interesting items I run across, and the occasional musing. It promotes no particular ideology. Remarks may be left on the site comment board; all sensible feedback is welcome.
* SCIENCE NOTES: In July 2013, agritech giant Monsanto finally threw in the towel in the company's efforts to sell genetically modified (GM) crop seeds in Europe. The hostility to GM in Europe was just too great, and it wasn't worth the cost to keep on fighting. Monsanto sold about $14.9 billion USD worth of product in 2013, most of it GM crop seed; having withdrawn from the European market, competitors such as BASF and DuPont are moving into the vacuum with their own improved crop seeds.
BASF and DuPont get around the GM barrier by using traditional crop breeding instead of genome alteration. The irony is that traditional crop breeding is a brute-force form of GM, in which mutations are produced by radiation or chemicals, and the mutant offspring selected for their advantages. A US National Academy of Science (NAS) report suggested that mutation alteration is the most drastic form of crop modification, because it introduces a wide and indiscriminate range of changes that could easily be overlooked while the mutant plants are selected for desireable trait -- the overlooked features possibly causing allergic reactions in susceptible consumers.
The NAS report then stated that the risks from mutation alteration were very small compared to those posed by food-borne illnesses such as salmonella bacteria, and BASF says the procedure is safe, having been used for many decades without difficulty. It's also cheaper than GM, partly because the regulatory barriers are so much lower. The question, then, is why is there so much fear of GM foods? Unfortunately the fear is a fact, but thankfully it's not like the clock has been halted, since probing mutant genomes with modern genetic analysis tools is a big help to traditional plant breeding techniques.
That raises the interesting prospect of identifying useful genes in mutant plants, and selectively splicing those genes into mainstream plants. Since they wouldn't be foreign genes, would that be judged GM? Whether it's practical or not, it certainly highlights the absurdity of the hysteria over GM. Crop plants have been nothing that resembles natural for a long time; reasonable caution over GM is warranted, but thinking some dire line has been crossed and demanding zero tolerance is unrealistic.
* Monsanto may have been defeated in selling GM crops in Europe, but the news from the GM front has not been all bad for the company. In September 2012, a paper by Gilles-Eric Seralini of the University of Caen in France and his colleagues, published in the journal FOOD & CHEMICAL TOXICOLOGY, claimed that Monsanto GM corn caused cancers in rats. The paper concluded the rats fed the corn were three times as likely to develop cancers as a control group.
The paper alarmed governments all around the world and made life very difficult for Monsanto -- the frustration of company officials being all the greater because the paper contradicted other studies on the safety of GM foods. For example, research published in 2007 by Japan's Department of Environmental Health and Toxicology on comparable GM soybeans reported "no apparent adverse effect in rats", with consolidated reviews of studies suggesting that if there were hazards in GM foods, they were down in the noise.
What was infuriating, however, was that advance copies of the paper were sent to journalists, under the restriction that they could not seek independent comment on the paper when writing up articles about it, or they would face stiff financial penalties. That gave the paper a window of time to propagate before anyone could respond. Critics found it revealing that Seralini released the paper and then took measures to evade feedback on it.
However delayed, the criticisms piled up, and on 28 November 2013 the journal retracted the paper. It turned out that the rats used in the experiment were prone to cancer anyway; that the experimental protocol used could not distinguish tumours that might have been caused by GM food from those that were due to other causes; and the authors suggested no plausible mechanism by which GM foods could cause cancer. Gratifying, yes, but a big win for Monsanto? Not really. Anti-GM activists have lined up behind Seralini and and are pushing on regardless: the band plays on, out of tune.
* As reported by WIRED Online, researchers have set a record by obtaining the genome of a horse that roamed the Yukon more than 700,000 years ago, using bones of the creature found at Thistle Creek, Canada. The previous record for oldest genome was an 80,000-year-old ancient cousin of humans whose genome was sequenced from a single finger bone found in Siberia.
Ancient DNA has a "half life" of a little over 500 years, with half of a sample breaking down in that time. Worse, ancient samples also contain bacteria that not only help degrade the samples, but also confound them with their own bacterial genomes. A multinational team of scientists under Ludovic Orlando and Eske Willerslev at the University of Copenhagen leaned heavily on computer power to perform the sequencing, using the genome of the modern horse to give the software clues on how to reconstruct the ancient horse genome. With the polymerase chain reaction, it is possible to amplify small samples of DNA into ones big enough to deal with; computing power then can splice together a genome from tiny fragments, while sifting out genomes known to belong to bacteria.
To place the Thistle Creek horse in the horse evolutionary tree, the researchers compared its genome to those of a younger extinct species, several modern domestic horses, a donkey, and a wild Asian horse. The results of this comparison, reported today in Nature, push back the origin of the Equus lineage -- which includes all living horses, zebras and donkeys -- to a common ancestor living 4 million years ago.
As part of their analysis, the team sequenced the genome of the Przewalski's horse, an endangered species native to the Mongolian steppes; it actually went extinct in the wild, but has been restored to an extent from zoo stocks. Their results confirm that the Przewalski's horse is Earth's last remaining truly wild horse population. The researchers also assembled the first complete genome of the donkey. The primary interest of the exercise, however, is the way it reconstructed such an old genome, and the expectation is that there will be a race to decode older and older genomes.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* SCHISTOSOMIASIS VACCINE? While large sums are being invested in the fight against diseases such as AIDS and malaria in the developing world, other afflictions -- notably worm or "helminth" infections -- have been a second priority. As reported by an article from AAAS SCIENCE ("A Worm Vaccine, Coming At A Snail's Pace" by Kai Kupferschmidt, 1 February 2013), progress is being made towards a vaccine against the Schistosomas flatworm, which causes the affliction known appropriately as "schistosomiasis", or sometimes "bilharzia".
There are six species of Schistosomas flatworms that infect humans, each with its own idiosyncrasies, but all can survive for decades in blood vessels, producing eggs that cause pain, severe blood loss, and malnutrition; they can damage the liver, kidneys, and spleen. Like many parasites -- in the technical sense of the term, parasitic organisms besides viruses and bacteria -- they have a two-stage life cycle, spending part of it in freshwater snails and part of it in humans.
According to the United Nations World Health Organization (UN WHO), schistosomiasis is the second most troublesome parasitic disease in the world, after malaria. Some 200 million people are estimated to be infected with Schistosomas flatworms, most of them being children, and another 600 million are at risk. Mortality estimates are inexact, but the WHO's Schistosomas Control Program in Geneva, Switzerland, figures the flatworms cause 300,000 deaths a year in sub-Saharan Africa alone.
Vaccines could help, but as noted helminth disease research is underfunded, and vaccine development has also been hampered by the fact that a cheap, effective drug is available. However, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is now reaching into its deep pockets to push research to deal with schistosomiasis and other "neglected tropical diseases (NTDs)", and so things seem to be looking up.
There has been some progress, with two vaccines in clinical trials. The "Bilhvax" vaccine, developed by the Pasteur Institute in Lille, France, targets the flatworm S. haematobium, which causes urogenital schistosomiasis and is common in the Middle East and Africa. The other vaccine is being developed by Miriam Tendler of the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation in Rio de Janiero, Brazil, with funds contributed by the Brazilian government, and targets the S. mansoni flatworm, which is common in Brazil. Unfortunately, neither of these vaccines is close to being fielded, and neither has any potential effectiveness against other Schistosomas species.
All Schistosomas flatworms have the same general lifecycle. The worms grow from eggs into larva, called "cercariae", in freshwater snails, to be released into water. When a larva finds a human wading in water, the head bores through the skin, leaving the tail behind. Once inside, the larva then migrates through the bloodstream to the liver, where it matures. On maturation, the male flatworm acquires a groove into which the smaller female fits neatly, the two effectively forming a dual organism.
Having mated, the flatworms then migrate to their final destination. The S. mansoni and S. japonicum flatworms set up residence in the bowel and rectum, while the S. haematobium flatworm goes to the bladder. In any case, the flatworms then start churning out hundreds of eggs a day, many of which are excreted in urine and feces, to possibly end up infecting snails and start the cycle over again. However, some get trapped in the liver or other organs, to cause an immune response, resulting in symptoms and, in some cases, death. Worse, female genital infections by the flatworms raise the likelihood of contracting HIV by a factor of three or four.
The most traditional approach to dealing with schistosomiasis is to kill off snails, but though this has worked in some cases, it's not practical when the snails inhabit large bodies of water. Since the 1980s, the preferred tactic has been to use the drug praziquantel, which kills the worms in a person's body. In endemic areas, schoolkids get the drug annually; Merck has provided praziquantel to WHO for free since 2007, and recently promised to increase its annual donation to 250 million tablets.
However, there are worries that widespread use of the drug will simply promote drug-resistant flatworms, and it's not unusual for victims to become reinfected a few months after treatment. A vaccine is seen as a more effective treatment, though nobody is thinking in terms of a vaccine that stops the flatworms cold. The idea is to reduce egg production, making the host healthier and gradually choking off the flatworm reproductive cycle.
There are hopes that more funding for a vaccine will be available in the near future, but even if the money's there, obstacles remain to the development of an effective vaccine. One is side effects: experimental vaccines against other helminth infections have led to severe rashes in some test subjects, and any schistosomiasis vaccine will need to be carefully evaluated.
Another issue is uncertainty over current vaccine efforts. The Pasteur Institute has been careful about announcing results of trials lest false claims discredit the effort, but the downside has been a blackout of news on the status of the effort. The research team intends to improve public communications. As for Tendler's vaccine, although she's reported good results in mouse studies, not everyone has been able to replicate them, and there are doubts that mice are good models. The S. mansoni flatworm doesn't have any problems infecting them, but mice are so small that there's doubts results obtained with mice are all that meaningful for humans. Trials with large primates like baboons are much more expensive and troublesome.
On the positive side, the genomes of S. mansoni and S. haematobium have been sequenced, and researchers are now sorting through them for new vaccine targets. Researchers are optimistic that an effective vaccine is possible, if the will is there to fund it. Tendler says "this is not magic. It is just work."COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* ROBOT HELPERS: As a follow-up to the short series on manufacturing robotics run here during the summer, an article in THE ECONOMIST ("Our Friends Electric", 7 September 2013) pointed out an implication not clearly spelled out in that series: the new robots tend to be designed to work alongside humans.
That is essentially something new. Traditionally, industrial robots were heavy-metal and stupid, so they had to be roped off to make sure nobody wandering around came to a nasty end; if anybody wandered inside a barrier, sensors immediately shut the robot down. This stand-offishness greatly limits the utility of robots, since there are some tasks humans do better than robots, some that robots do better than humans, and there are synergies in the two working together.
In late 2012, German automaker BMW introduced a pioneering collaborative system in its factory at Spartanburg, South Carolina, to insulate and water-seal vehicle doors. The robot spreads out and glues down material held in place by a human worker's more agile fingers. When done entirely by humans, workers had to be relieved every hour or two in order to prevent repetitive-motion injuries from excessive strain. Now four collaborative robot systems work at Spartanburg, with more coming there and elsewhere. BMW is planning to greatly ramp up collaborative robot systems in its German plants, even though German regulations on worker-machine interactions are much tougher than they are in the States.
Designing collaborative robots requires some rethinking of robot technology. Dr. Elizabeth Croft -- head of the Collaborative Advanced Robotics & Intelligent Systems Laboratory at the University of British Columbia in Canada -- is working with funding from American carmaker General Motors to develop robots that can handle the necessarily "unscripted" handovers of items to human workers. That requires the robot know whether the person is authorized to be given that item; present the item in the orientation most convenient to the person; adjust the grip as the item is taken; and know when grip can be safely released. These are all things that humans do easily, so it comes as a bit of a surprise just how difficult it is to teach a machine to do them.
More intuitively, a machine has to have "situational awareness", a military-aerospace term that means "knowing what the hell is going on" in the machine's surroundings. Pilz, a German engineering firm, has developed a multi-camera computer system named "SafetyEYE", which monitors a robot's surroundings and adjusts its behavior accordingly. For example, a robot riveting an aircraft wing could move up and down the wing, slowing down when a worker approached, stopping when the worker got close. That allows robots to range more freely, instead of being curtained off in fixed work sites. Other safety features are being developed for robots, such as microphones that allow them to be halted by shouting at them.
Traditional laborious means of programming robots are not very compatible with collaborative robots because the programs are inflexible. A flexible robot is not only safer, but smart enough to taught jobs by workers it will collaborate with. A one-armed robot built by Universal Robots (UR) of Denmark is simply guided through a task, with a touchscreen button pressed to record task waypoints, with the task list then named and stored. The training takes about ten minutes; this simplicity allows a robot to be trained to perform multiple tasks, with the robot shifted around to, say, take up the slack for a worker who's out with an injury. UR sold 700 robots in 2012 and expects sales to total 1,500 for 2013; many users say they recover the 20,000 euro ($27,000 USD) pricetag in as little as six months.
The robots are continuing to get smarter. Some lab robots can already understand spoken commands, and the day when robots can be verbally instructed in tasks doesn't seem too far off. The Rethink Robotics Baxter robot, discussed in the earlier series, has a degree of "common sense" that allows it to adapt to instruction and events on its own.
Workers still have the traditional fear of being replaced by robots, but experience with the UR robots suggest that's overblown. With lowered production costs, production can be ramped up, meaning more hires for additional work shifts, making the maximum use of the automation and paying it off more quickly. Workers become more enthusiastic about robots when they find out they offload the "boring, repetitive stuff", becoming more like robot helpers than robot overlords.
Human psychology does play a big role in collaborative robot design. Takayuki Kanda, a Japanese robot researcher, says humanoid robots shouldn't be any bigger than a six-year-old human, since those working with the robot then perceive it as easily overpowered if need be. Researchers working on home robots for elder care have found out other details, such as making robots appear empathically humanlike -- but not too humanlike, not only because they then appear a bit creepy, as discussed here, in 2010, but because people will tend to expect too much of them.
"Social intelligence" is a very big deal; robots shouldn't stare too long or then be skittish of eye contact, shouldn't pause too long in making responses or be too quick and snappish to answer, and should pause to acknowledge the presence of people when they come into a room. One researcher found that programming a robot to make small harmless errors every now and then did much to make people more comfortable with it. Other researchers have studied the use of forensic robots in interrogations of children, the children proving comfortable with them, and the robots much less inclined to mislead the interrogation.
The notion of humanlike robots common in human society was a popular theme of classic science fiction, such as Isaac Asimov's robot stories, but in recent decades it faded away, having failed to materialize. Maybe we're closer to it than we have come to think, and the future will end up being a tribute to Asimov.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* ALBUQUERQUE ROAD TRIP (5): The trip back home to Loveland north through Colorado was uneventful. I was hoping to make Pueblo before refueling, which would split the trip neatly; it was about 540 kilometers / 335 miles from Albuquerque, which would be comfortably within my Toyota's range -- but then I'd been idling in a traffic jam that morning for over an hour, and I had no idea of how much fuel I'd burned. I figured I'd decide if I wanted to chance it once I passed the 480 kilometer / 300 mile range; when I did, I judged I shouldn't push my luck and refueled at the first opportunity. Checking my mileage at the pump indicated I would have made Pueblo handily, but again there no reason to take the chance.
Since I didn't feel too crowded for time, I decided to stop in Pueblo for a snack. One of the things I like to do on trips is stop in a Denny's restaurant for a hot fudge sundae, a cheap thrill, but I'd got out of the habit for some reason in recent years. I looked around for a Denny's as I was going through town; on the north side I spotted one and took the freeway exit. The Denny's was a bit gone to seed, but they often are; I had to take some shots of the retro late-50s / early-60s light fixtures, which I found attractively tacky in an odd sort of way.
While I was waiting for my order -- sitting back relaxed on the bench seat of the stall, with my legs on the seat and leaning back against the wall -- I was enjoying the canned music. Usually a Denny's would have stale old pop tunes, and thinking Pueblo was a cowtown, I figured they might be running country-pop. Much to my surprise, the tracks leaned towards Euro-pop. That's my kind of dumb music, I like the snappy machine rhythms and soaring melodies. Later I looked up details about Pueblo online, and found it was no cowtown. It's about twice as big as I thought, with over 100,000 citizens, and it's a center of steel production. More significantly, there are a lot of Federal government service organizations there. Oh yeah, that's right! A lot of paperwork we send in to the Feds goes to Pueblo.
Anyway, I ate and got back on the road. Cruising north I felt very mellow -- they talk about "comfort food" and that hot fudge sundae did the trick, melting away the lingering irritability from the morning. I took in the sights heading up through Denver, got back to Loveland about 6:30 PM, unpacked, went to bed at a reasonable hour. I wanted to go to the gym the next morning, but at the last moment I decided to check Sunday hours online, and confirmed it didn't open until mid-day. I did my laundry and got things organized to get back on track with my work.
* I had to assess the trip as very successful -- everything done as planned, everything meeting or exceeding expectation. I had budgeted $750 USD, I came in under $600 USD, which surprised me. However, I think the trip was successful for the reason that it was done on limited expectations. If it had involved more time, effort, and money, it wouldn't have been worth it. I can't think of any reason for why I would ever go back to Albuquerque.
I had over 300 photos of the Balloon Fiesta after discarding the obvious junk. I figured that would render down to about 50 to 100 "keepers", but I ended up with uploading 125 to Flickr. Given good lighting, balloons are an easy photo subject; it was the best single photo shoot I've ever had in my life.
As far as my dead Canon Powershot camera went, I didn't bother to get it repaired, that usually being impractical for a consumer electronics item. Although it was only about a year and a half old, it had seen a fair amount of hard use, including being dropped a few times. I was thinking about replacing it right away, but after poking around online, I decided to wait for something better down the road.
40 megapixels appears to be the "next big thing" in cameras, and rumor has it that Canon is working on the technology. 40 megapixels is absurd in itself except for research-type applications -- 12 megapixel images are awkward enough to handle -- but 40 megapixels means a 10 megapixel low-light mode, which would be a very nice thing to have. There was a time when high zoom levels seemed like a big deal, but experience has taught me they aren't; much above 20x, images suffer from the middling optics of a cheap camera, and on hot or hazy days zoom doesn't work well even on high-class cameras due to poor "seeing". 40 megapixels would give me double effective zoom anyway.
While I was poking around in Amazon.com to look at cameras, I ran across the Canon Powershot A1400 pocket camera. It was very similar to the A1200 I had on the trip, but the A1400 has 16 megapixels instead of 12 megapixels, and a 5x zoom instead of 4x. The 16 megapixels means a 4 megapixel low-light mode, or 2285 x 1714 pixels, which is more than enough resolution for my purposes, and also means an effective incremental enhancement to zoom. Incidentally, these Canon pocket cameras also have viewfinders; I won't buy a camera without one, I find sighting using an LCD awkward, though I can get by doing it.
I bought the A1400. I didn't really need it, but it was amazingly cheap, only $85 USD, so I bought it as a toy, and as a bit of a consolation for the loss of my zoom camera. It was physically much like the A1200, the major external distinctions being a red button for taking videos without having to configure the camera, and picture modes on a scrolling menu instead of a dial -- a feature that took a bit of getting used to, but which I've learned to like, partly because it's only one step to go back to AUTO after using a mode, and it's not so easy to forget resetting the mode and blowing shots. I also bought a 16G flash card, cheap as well, for the day when I get a 40 megapixel camera.
As mentioned in the report on the earlier San Diego road trip, I'm thinking about a major road trip in 2016. What about a short road trip for 2014? Wait and see. [END OF SERIES]COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* THE UNITED NATIONS (2): The League of Nations got off to a bad start when the US Congress refused to confirm America's membership in the organization. It was a great humiliation to President Wilson, who had done more than any other one national leader to push the League. Wilson might have prevailed against the opposition, except for the fact that he then suffered a disabling stroke that put him effectively out of business.
America retreated into isolation, suspicious of the European powers and unwilling to cooperate with them. The exclusion of the chaotic Russian state, then sorting itself out into the Soviet Union, was to a degree inevitable, but it also meant the League lacked the backing of what would be another major power. The League, in effect, was held up by the primary European powers, all of which had been badly injured by the Great War and, as would become obvious, lacked the will to take action for the sake of collective security, undermining the essential premise of the League.
However, the League did enjoy successes in the immediate postwar period, most significantly in resolving the many border disputes from the aftermath of the Great War, and helping to resolve small conflicts, such as the 1925 war between Greece and Bulgaria. The rise of militaristic states from the late 1920s drained whatever energy the League ever had out of it. The first major breakdown came in 1932, when Japan conquered Manchuria; the League condemned Japan in 1933 but took no other action, and the Japanese simply walked out of the organization -- as did Germany, at the order the country's new chancellor, Adolf Hitler.
Ironically, the exit of the German Reich opened the door for the entry of the USSR into the League, though the organization was then in fatal decline. In 1936 Italy conquered Ethiopia; League sanctions proved ineffective. As Europe stumbled towards general war, the League could do nothing, and by the time war broke out in 1939, the League had been basically shelved. One of its last acts, in 1940, was to expel the Soviet Union for its invasion of Finland, but it was a meaningless gesture. The League was put into mothballs, its chambers gathering dust -- still in legal existence, but inactive.
The League of Nations is generally remembered as a synonym for ineffectualness, but it did have its successes, and its failure was less a failure of the organization itself than of the failures of the Great Powers. The League did not and could not have any more power than it was granted by its members, and they could not, would not empower it. There was no consensus for support of League decisions, the American refusal to play along proving particularly disastrous; the League also lacked any real support from the smaller nations, so many of them being colonial possessions at that time.
The League was further hobbled by its narrow mandate, the organization having little ability to impose sanctions and no real ability to enforce them. Its narrow range of activities in international relations also robbed it of utility and credibility; it failed in particular to address the economic problems that were driving European instability. The League, as would be true of any comparable international organization, could only accomplish what it was actually set up to accomplish, which didn't turn out to be much. The League should be less judged as a failure than as a groundbreaking experiment that didn't work out, but which paved the way for a new experiment. [TO BE CONTINUED]COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* GIMMICKS & GADGETS: BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK ran a note on a clever bridge construction technology, developed by a US startup named Advanced Infrastructure Technologies. AIT's bridges are arch structures, the arches defined by tubes made of fiber-reinforced plastic. Footings are placed on each side of the span, a set of tubes is connected from one footing to the next, and the tubes are inflated to form the arches. They are treated with resin to become rigid, and covered with fiber-reinforced panels bolted to the arches; the arches are filled with concrete, with the rest of the bridge completed as desired.
The tubes protect the concrete from damage. Such a bridge can be up to 27 meters (90 feet) long, and can be built in as little as ten days. The concrete-filled tubes are more expensive than precast concrete elements, but the quick construction reduces cost overall. AIT has built over a dozen such bridges in northern US states.
* Another new way to build bridges, known as "accelerated bridge construction (ABC)", was discussed by WIRED Online blogs, the article focusing on a replacement bridge built on Interstate 84, which links New York and Connecticut states. The original bridge was a two-lane structure, 41 meters (135 feet) long, that carried about 100,000 vehicles a day; it was the westbound half of a set of bridges, one carrying traffic each way.
The idea behind ABC is to build support structures around the existing bridge, construct a new span in parallel with the old bridge, then rip out the old span and slide the new one into place. Construction of the I-84 bridge began late in 2012, with prefabricated components shipped in to get the new span started. While the new span was being put together, bridge crews set up support structures under the old span.
At 5 PM on 21 September 2013, the bridge was closed to traffic, with the old span knocked out in four hours. The new span was then slid into place, using four heavy jacks, sliding on teflon pads across polished stainless steel plates. The jacks could only move the bridge about an arm's length at a time, with work crews shifting the jacks forward at the end of each extension, and it took about eight hours to get the new span in place. It could have been done in half that time, but it was pouring rain that night.
Once in place, the approaches on each side were adjusted and paved, one issue in this task being that the new span was wider than the old, having three lanes plus shoulders. That didn't take very long, with the refurbished bridge being opened to traffic at 12:55 PM on 22 September. Work then continued on the replacement of the eastbound bridge, which was completed a month later. ABC is cheaper and much quicker than tearing down and rebuilding a bridge, with much less disruption to traffic. It's only really suited to bridges with relatively short spans, but they're common on America's highways, and so that's not a troublesome limitation.
Incidentally, there is a time-lapse video of this incident on YouTube, which is fun to watch; if it was pouring rain, it didn't seem that obvious from the video. Confusingly, it turns out there's another I-84, linking Utah to Oregon, and an ABC bridge was set up on that route as well. The video for that is a bit more fun if frantic, since it covers the entire construction cycle.
* As a follow-up to the article on the tablet computer market run here last month, BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK reports that competition in the low-end tablet computer market is about to get more savage. From the outset of the tablet wars, there were predictions that by 2014 seven-inch tablets would be going for less than $100 USD, which gradually seemed over-optimistic. Yes, small tablets have been selling for that price point or less for some time, but they were all junk.
Now chipsets are available to provide most of the guts of a tablet computer for less than $10 USD; touch displays have dropped dramatically in price, to the extent that the cost of the components of a tablet is now only about $60 USD, as compared to $110 in 2011. Lenovo of China and ASUS of Taiwan are preparing to jump into the new low-end market in a big way this holiday season. Tablets seem poised to become a drugstore commodity, with one industry observer commenting: "If you spend $75, are you looking for a high-precision piece of technology? Or will you just go buy a new one when the battery dies in a year and a half?"
I keep thinking that as little tablets get more widespread, there's an obvious need for a wireless keyboard that also functions as a USB hub and peripheral server, supporting USB devices such as hard disk drives and printers. I'm sure some of the functionality is available now, but it would be attractive to simply prop a tablet on a frame in the back of the keyboard and then get notebook-like functionality, with power provided to the tablet via wireless charger in the keyboard, and communications via wireless. The tablet could be left to charge after being used, then simply picked up and taken out the door.
Reports from the computer blogosphere indicate that, with tablets booming, desktops are in decline, with shipments 10% lower than in 2012. That seemed a bit puzzling to me, since a tablet computer is hardly a replacement for a desktop or notebook PC -- but the answer's simple, tablets are the new toy people want to buy, and there's less perceived need to buy a new desktop. Shipments of desktops and notebooks are expected to remain steady at about 300 million units a year for the foreseeable future.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* 21ST-CENTURY IDF: The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) have a formidable military reputation. Though based on conscription, the IDF has an excellent combat record in a long series of wars. However, as discussed by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("Taking Wing", 10 August 2013), the IDF is now evolving away from its roots.
Israeli soldiers are gradually vacating their bases in the big cities; by 2020, they will mostly have migrated to four huge bases in the desert. Entrepreneurs are eager to develop the old bases into civilian housing and other facilities. That's part of general trend away from a society dominated by men in uniform. As Israel has become more prosperous, military spending has fallen from 17.7% of GDP in 1991 to around 6% today. While young Israelis still do up to three years in uniform, there's a push to move away from conscription and towards a professional army.
In the emerging new IDF, heavyweight combat gear such as tanks and artillery are gradually being de-emphasized, in favor of smart weapons and cyber-warfare. As Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon put it on his Facebook page: "The current and future battlefields are totally different from what we knew in the past."
Along with the evolution of military technology, the change in complexion of the IDF is due to changing threats, one big factor being the Arab Spring. Egypt is tied up by internal turmoil, Syria has all but broken down, and their forces no longer represent anything like a peer adversary to the IDF. As a government minister put it: "We're surrounded by failed states."
The chaos in the Arab world does mean more threats from terrorist and paramilitary groups, but such are nothing new; the most dangerous of the lot, the Lebanese Hizbullah group, has long been a thorn in Israel's side, being backed by Iran and a large armory of missiles. Other extremist groups in Sinai, Gaza, and Syria, are also looking for opportunities to take shots at the Israelis. However, as Israel's occupation of southern Lebanon from the mid-1980s to 2000 demonstrated, sending in IDF troops to deal with such threats is counterproductive.
Now the approach is quick-reaction precision strike with smart weapons, targeted by energetic intelligence gathering via cyber warfare, drone observation, and satellite imagery. The strategy is now to minimize the use of force, not maximize it, reducing casualties and so holding down the spiral of conflict escalation. A series of Israeli strikes in Syria and Sudan on missiles apparently bound for Hizbullah and Hamas have had no noticeable repercussions so far. Such selective use of force also reduces international criticism, thanks to its low profile and the fact that the targets generally appear entirely legitimate. Smart defensive technology, such as the Iron Dome anti-missile system, discussed here early this year, raises no complaints from anyone.
The IDF's biggest unit, 8200, is a cyber-warfare operation; the IDF Air Force is increasingly the weapon of choice when it comes time to shoot. According to a senior IDF-AF officer: "In 2000, only 1% of Gaza's terrorists were killed from the air. Today it's 98%."
The IDF still needs infantry: in another fight with Hizbullah, somebody would have to go in and root out Hizbullah missile stores. However, the days of military street parades are over, as are the days when military officers were a national leadership class. Today's party leaders are more likely to be journalists than generals. Shlomo Swirsky, who runs Adva, an Israeli think-tank, commented: "We no longer have charismatic military figures. It's not the vehicle for upward mobility it once was."
Voters seem to want a less militarized state as well. The number of days conscripts spend on reserve duty has been dropping steadily; were it not for the occupation of the West Bank, it would fall even lower. Nobody sees any breakthrough with the Palestinians in the near future, but Israels are tiring of a culture of war -- and that may present opportunities for those who want them.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* BLUETOOTH LE FOR MICRO-LOCATION: While smartphones with GPS capability have made location-tracking commonplace, GPS doesn't provide the precision location ability to, say, lead a user to a particular aisle in a store. Notions of technology that can were mentioned here in 2012; as reported by an article from BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK ("Apple's Got You!" by Sam Grobart, 28 October 2013), the other shoe is now being dropped -- with the recent release of the Apple IOS 7 mobile operating system.
IOS 7 provided a new set of goodies for iPhone and iPad users, one of the more obscure being a micro-location feature named "iBeacon". The basic technology actually goes back a decade, when researchers at Finnish technology giant Nokia began investigating a new wireless communications standard, which was originally released as "Wibree" in 2006. In 2010, it became part of the Bluetooth specification as "Bluetooth Low Energy (LE)".
Bluetooth LE shares the same 2.4 gigahertz band with "Classic" Bluetooth, but the two variants are not otherwise compatible; systems capable of supporting both are named "Bluetooth Smart Ready". Bluetooth LE, as its name suggests, was designed for very low power operation, being capable of operating for "months or years" on a single button cell; good data rates, of up to 1 megabit per second; and to be cheap to implement. It was also designed with micro-location in mind.
With IOS 7, iPhones and iPads made from about two years ago are now iBeacon enabled, with retailers and other commercial operations beginning to recognize the potential of micro-location to provide customer service and sell more product. Retailers will have to install their own Bluetooth LE nodes, or "beacons" in Apple nomenclature, but two or three could cover a large store, and a three-pack of nodes only costs about a hundred bucks.
Apple sees that as only the start. Since Bluetooth LE is a communications technology first and a location technology second, it can also be used to communicate with smart product tags, as well as for monetary transactions. There's been a lot of talk in the past few years of using near-field communications (NFC) to allow smartphones to be used as "electronic wallets", but so far NFC hasn't caught on in a big way. Bluetooth LE can do the same job as NFC and a lot more besides, meaning it has a lot more potential.
Apple is keeping a low profile on iBeacon for the time being; it seems the company is testing the waters with the technology. Certainly, there are security and privacy issues to be considered -- but it is still notable that for once Apple is jumping on a public standard instead of insisting on a proprietary solution. Sometimes even Apple can see the virtues of going with the crowd, instead of insisting on going it alone. Android apps are already appearing to make use of Bluetooth LE; it could well be an effectively universal technology by the end of the decade.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* ANOTHER MONTH: There was a bit of talk in the media over the fact that this year the US Thanksgiving holiday -- last Thursday in November -- coincided with the Jewish Hannukah celebration. Hannukah's based on the old Jewish lunar calendars; lunar calendars are nightmarish, adding "leap months" every now and then to clumsily keep in step with the years, enough to say that the next time this will happen won't be until 77,094 CE.
What will the Earth look like 75,000 years from now? For the most part, nobody has a clue, but there are some things that we do know will happen. The Earth precesses, wobbles like a top, on a cycle of 26,000 years, which means its polar axis changes its direction to the sky. By that time, the bright star Vega will be the North Star with Polaris, the current title-holder, well away from the pole. Movements of stars will also have distorted or erased current star constellation patterns. Some stars may have disappeared, becoming supernovas to light up the night, and then fading away.
During the precession, the angle of the Earth's axis remains the same relative to the Earth's orbital plane, except for a variation in orbital eccentricity and matching change in the angle of Earth's axis on a 97,000 year cycle. This variation seems to be matched to ice ages, and so by 77,094 CE, the Earth should be in or entering another ice age. Some large meteor impacts should have taken place in that time, as well as similarly calamitous massive volcanic eruptions, though their effects would be, on the planetary timescale, short-lived. Other changes will be a day that's a second longer, a Moon slightly farther away, and -- thanks to continental drift -- an Atlantic Ocean that's about two kilometers wider. Similarly, the Hawaiian Islands will have shifted about seven kilometers north.
What else can we say about the Earth in 77,094 CE? Not much; in good part to human activity, the Earth's biosphere has changed considerably in the last 75,000 years, we can expect as much change in the next 75,000. Few of our present constructions will last that long, except for a handful that people see the need to preserve. As for people themselves, assuming our descendants are still thriving, it seems unlikely they will be humans as we know them, instead being "post human intelligences" altered by genetic modification and interactive machinery. In what ways? We can no more sensibly guess than our ancestors of the Old Stone Age could imagine what humans are like now.
* The 50th anniversary of the JFK assassination took place this last month. After half a century of fuss over the matter, there's only one thing to say: BFD, big fat deal. Another 50 years on, the fuss will be forgotten. If I never think about the assassination again for the rest of my life, it will be no loss.
My JFK ASSASSINATION document gets little attention. Part of me wishes it would get more -- but another part of me is relieved, since that gives me proof, if any were really needed, of the irrelevance of the issue. The exercise of writing it left me at a loss in the end, as if I had blurted out something and then wondered: Why did I say that? Arguing with cranks is like shooting fish in a barrel with a squirt pistol -- far too easy, totally futile. It's not worth the bother. The conclusion is, as it so often is, to accept detachment; to choose nothing, over less than nothing.
* On a more positive note, as of last month I now have a hundred monthly archives for the blog. To be sure, the first three or so were actually assembled after the fact from old newsletter articles, but even taking that into consideration, at 20 to 23 postings a month, there's still over 2,000 daily postings. That's hard to comprehend. It's also hard to comprehend what exactly it buys me, other than the information itself -- but I end up concluding that's plenty good enough.