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DayVectors

jul 2014 / greg goebel / public domain / follow "gvgoebel" on twitter

* 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.

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[FRI 25 JUL 14] THE COLD WAR (32)
[THU 24 JUL 14] WINGS & WEAPONS
[WED 23 JUL 14] FULL DISCLOSURE?
[TUE 22 JUL 14] DIFFRACTIVE TELESCOPES?
[MON 21 JUL 14] ARIZONA ROAD TRIP (2)
[FRI 18 JUL 14] THE COLD WAR (31)
[THU 17 JUL 14] SPACE NEWS
[WED 16 JUL 14] THE HUNT FOR DARK ENERGY
[TUE 15 JUL 14] ASSESSING CLIMATE CHANGE
[MON 14 JUL 14] ARIZONA ROAD TRIP (1)
[FRI 11 JUL 14] THE COLD WAR (30)
[THU 10 JUL 14] SCIENCE NOTES
[WED 09 JUL 14] SCHOOL DAZE
[TUE 08 JUL 14] ALABAMA & THE SURGE
[MON 07 JUL 14] AMERICA & THE WORLD (13)
[FRI 04 JUL 14] THE COLD WAR (29)
[THU 03 JUL 14] GIMMICKS & GADGETS
[WED 02 JUL 14] SWARM ENGINEERING / TAKING THE HIT
[TUE 01 JUL 14] ANOTHER MONTH

[FRI 25 JUL 14] THE COLD WAR (32)

* THE COLD WAR (32): Hardly a week after MacArthur departed Korea, just after midnight on 22 April 1951, the Chinese began a fifth offensive, focused on the weak ROKA divisions in the UNC line of defense. Marshal Peng was doubtful of ultimate success, having been given evidence from the beginning of the year that his adversaries were no longer as easily pushed around as they had been in late November and early December. However, Mao Zedong believed that one big drive would finish the UNC off, and Peng had to obey orders.

Preparations for the offensive were easily observed by UNC reconnaissance aircraft and other surveillance, there being little cover to conceal movements during the Korean winter; the assault didn't come as a surprise. The ROKAs proved relatively soft targets, while the Chinese also fell on a British brigade on the line of the Imjin River that hadn't got the message and was poorly set up to receive an assault. One component of the brigade, the Gloucester Regiment, was encircled and effectively wiped out. They didn't go down at all easily, making the Chinese pay in blood; Chinese officers complimented captured British soldiers on well they had fought.

The heroic stand of the "Glousters" on the Imjin proved as inspiring as the US Marine withdrawal from the Chosin Reservoir, making headlines in America and Britain. The newspapers could also report on the complete frustration of the Chinese assault: although UNC forces were driven back here and there, the offensive was shattered, with the bodies of Chinese troops piling up until the offensive ran out of steam. Mao decided to reinforce failure, insisting that Peng try again, and a new drive began on 16 May. Peng didn't think it would accomplish anything except kill more of his men, which is what happened. The offensive was crushed and the line restored, once again, at the 38th Parallel.

By early June 1951, the US government was publicly calling for a settlement based on the prewar status quo. On 23 June Jacob Malik -- the Soviet ambassador to the UN, the USSR having abandoned its self-defeating boycott -- called for peace, which was seen as encouraging. On 30 June, after being briefed by Washington DC, General Ridgeway issued a public statement, saying he had been authorized to begin armistice talks. On 2 July, the Chinese and North Koreans issued a reply, stipulating that any such talks must take place at Kaesong, an ancient Korean capital, previously under control of the ROK but now occupied by the Communists, just across the fighting lines. Liaison officers of both sides met for the first time on 8 July 1951 to get the talks started, with talks beginning on 10 July -- the UNC delegation being led by US Navy Vice Admiral Turner Joy, the Communist delegation being led by North Korean General Nam Il.

The Americans immediately found out that the Communists, at that time, had only a limited interest in coming to an agreement; they may have wanted one, but they had their own concepts of negotiation, inclined to the paranoid and surly. When the UNC group drove in, flying white When the UNC group drove in, flying white flags for safe-conduct across the lines, the Reds took pictures and announced to the world that the UNC had come to surrender. The Communist team spent all their time accusing and denouncing the UNC, while bickering interminably over tiny procedural issues and rejecting all UNC proposals. On 10 August, the two negotiating teams spent over two hours just staring at each other across the table. On 22 August, Nam Il broke off the talks, saying that the Americans had tried to murder the Communist delegation via air attacks.

Ridgeway, though he had been skeptical from the outset that the Reds had any interest in discussion, had let up on offensive operations during the talks, with the Communists using the breathing spell to enhance their defenses. Combat along the front lines had been sputtering along, but greatly ramped up when the UNC began an offensive on 31 August to grab terrain that would consolidate their defensive line, as well as pressure the Chinese in negotiations. There was particularly bitter fighting for the Hwachon Reservoir, which provided water and power to Seoul; Heartbreak Ridge and Bloody Ridge, which overlooked the reservoir, changed hands repeatedly, finally being taken by the UNC for good on 14 October.

Farther to the west, UNC forces pushed the Communists back north. The UNC paid in blood for the gains, but the Chinese paid a lot worse. On 7 October, the Chinese asked to restart negotiations. Talks were set up at a village named Pammunjon, an honestly neutral site between the front lines of the two forces, with conversations beginning on 25 October. On 12 November, Van Fleet was ordered to cease large-scale offensive operations. That gesture was followed by a proposal from the UNC negotiating team that the existing line of demarcation between the two sides along the 38th Parallel would be frozen if an agreement was reached within thirty days.

The Communists seemed eager to agree at first, but then they reverted to stalling tactics -- while Red troops dug in, building a complex of defenses in depth. The US Air Force began a campaign, codenamed Operation STRANGLE, to cut the supply connection to the Communist line of defense, but though USAF bombers and fighter-bombers made the enemy suffer, supplies still got through. The Chinese moved supplies at night, engaged in deceptions such as bridges built just under the surface of a river, and strengthened anti-air defenses.

However sluggishly, the negotiations continued, and by the end of 1951 agreement had been reached on a military demarcation line, as well as efforts to set up a demilitarized zone (DMZ). An armistice seemed within reach -- but as it would turn out, the war had almost a year and a half to go. [TO BE CONTINUED]

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[THU 24 JUL 14] WINGS & WEAPONS

* WINGS & WEAPONS: Since World War II, Japan been notably pacifistic, one aspect being an effective legal ban on arms exports. As mentioned here in 2009, there's been debate over easing the export restrictions. Traditionally, Japan's defense industries only developed weapons systems for the home market, with the result that Japan obtained trailing-edge weapons at steep unit costs. Several of Japan's neighbors, in contrast, are doing a boom business in weapon sales. South Korea exported $3.4 billion USD worth of arms in 2013, up from $1.2 billion USD in 2010, with the neat FA-50 fighter -- more or less a subscale version of the US F-16 -- being a particularly popular item. In 2013, China passed France and the UK to become the world's fourth-largest arms exporter, behind the US, Russia, and Germany.

In April, the Abe government overturned the weapons export ban, tensions with China helping to override public distaste for the idea. Although Japan still has its differences with its neighbors, the need for an East Pacific alliance for common defense against China is likely to encourage stronger cooperation. Being able to supply weapons to allies will be a big plus in reinforcing such an alliance.

As an example of the possibilities, MHI is now completing the experimental "Advanced Technology Demonstrator X (ATD-X)" aircraft prototype, to fly sometime later this year. Japan wanted to obtain the US Lockheed Martin F-22, but the Americans didn't want to export it, and the end of F-22 production shut down that avenue for good. Japan decided to then move forward on developing their own sixth-generation stealthy, highly agile fighter, with the ATD-X to validate the basic design and technology.

ATD-X versus F-22

The ATD-X is a sleek, petite design, featuring twin afterburning bypass turbojets with vectoring exhausts, plus stealthy lines and advanced avionics. It's only about two-thirds the weight of an F-16, which suggests in itself that it could be used as the basis for a relatively low-cost advanced lightweight fighter for the export market. Alas, as attractive as that idea might seem, the ATD-X is just a subscale demonstrator, with the full-size "F-3" to be in the size class of the US F-15 Eagle or other heavy fighter.

There remains the question of whether the US will protest the F-3 program. Japan attempted to build an advanced fighter from the 1980s, leading to a protracted quarrel across the Pacific; a compromise was established, with Japan building the "F-2", a heavy version of the F-16, which proved overly expensive and was only built in limited numbers. America will have to balance the prospect of Japanese competition in the arms market with the need to strengthen strategic partners in dealing with China, and so it's hard to determine exactly what's likely to happen.

* As discussed by a note in TIME Online, paratroopers of the US Army's 82nd Airborne Division are acquiring a wireless capability that will allow them to stay connected right up to their jump.

The Army's "Enroute Mission Command Capability (EMC2)" will let the service's fast-reaction Ground Response Force receive operational updates and full-motion video of where they're going while they're en route in their C-17 transports. EMC2 links paratroopers in the sky to their commanders on the ground via satellites that feed data to the airplane through an onboard antenna. In addition to the Internet, EMC2 will provide airborne troops with computers, telephones, and planning software designed to make them effective the moment they touch down. It will replace older systems operating at dial-up modem speeds.

* As reported by BBC WORLD NEWS, e-readers and similar devices are forbidden from many US Navy vessels, notably submarines, because their wireless connections could be picked up by an adversary. However, the Navy is now obtaining several hundred "Navy E-Reader Devices" -- painfully rendered as "NERDs" -- that come preloaded with a library of several hundred books, but have no external connectivity.

Presumably they can be updated in a secure fashion by those who are authorized to get into them; over the long run, with more memory they could provide greatly expanded access to media for sailors. Indeed, one might think a naval vessel would have a central "server" to allow media updates to NERDs, using a short-range IR link or other non-RF interface to perform downloads, and some sort of validation scheme to prevent communications by any other system. Possibly updates might be as simple as swapping out a memory card with some sort of security protection.

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[WED 23 JUL 14] FULL DISCLOSURE?

* FULL DISCLOSURE? As discussed by an article from BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK ("Admit It, You Didn't Read A Word Of This" by Peter Coy, 19 May 2014), we're all used to the "terms & conditions" screeds used by software vendors and websites, as well as the lists of ingredients on products -- indeed, we're so used to them that we rarely pay much attention to them. When we do, we tend to think: Is this trip really necessary?

That's the question asked by a book titled MORE THAN YOU WANTED TO KNOW: THE FAILURE OF MANDATED DISCLOSURE, by Omri Ben-Shahar, of the University of Chicago Law School, and Carl Schneider, of the University of Michigan. They write:

BEGIN QUOTE:

Mandated disclosure is so indiscriminately used with such unrealistic expectations and such unhappy results that it should be presumptively barred. [Doing so] would spare the world much pointless regulation and might help drive lawmakers -- legislatures, administrative agencies, and courts -- to search harder for solutions actually tailored to problems.

END QUOTE

As an example of out-of-control disclosure, they point to the terms & conditions file covering music downloads from the Apple iTunes store: print it out, it runs to 32 pages. According to the authors: "Comprehending all its terms would take novices not hours, but days." One study of software websites showed that not more than one in 500 shoppers bothers to even glance at the terms & conditions. As most realize, a company can easily conceal dodgy policies by phrasing them in legalese and burying them in the middle of long-winded forms.

Advocates of disclosure believe the answer is to make forms simpler. The US Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, created by the Dodd-Frank Act of 2010, introduced "plain language" mortgage disclosure forms in 2012 -- which is well and good, except that consumers still have to wade through a pile of forms to take out a mortgage. In fact, many of the decisions we have to make can't be explained simply; for example, we'd need a medical degree to properly contrast different medical treatment options. The authors cite a 2009 speech by former Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke: "Some aspects of increasingly complex products simply cannot be adequately understood or evaluated by most consumers."

FULL DISCLOSURE

The authors argue that mandated disclosures can even be pernicious, in giving consumers a false sense of security, and also give those who write the disclosures an incentive to game the system. Possibly worst of all, mandated disclosure tends to convince lawmakers that a problem has been fixed when it's just been obscured, the result being an obstacle to effective regulation and not an aid to it.

Not all of the authors' colleagues agree that mandated disclosure is such a bad thing. Economist Richard Booth of the University of Chicago School of Business commented: "No one argues that disclosure is a panacea. But disclosure, if done right, can be an alternative to heavy-handed regulation." And as economist Brigitte Madrian of Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government has observed, mandates do provide useful and consistent data -- such as miles per gallon stickers on new cars and energy ratings on appliances.

Those examples suggest that mandated disclosures, if they can be reduced to simple but meaningful terms, can be useful -- and when they can't be, they still may have their uses. For example, in 2009, Facebook tried to sneak in verbiage to their terms & conditions that gave the firm rights to materials in closed accounts. Facebook backed off after the Consumerist website spotted the change and raised the alarm. Even if only one in 500 users notices such a trick, that's still enough to blow its cover.

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[TUE 22 JUL 14] DIFFRACTIVE TELESCOPES?

* DIFFRACTIVE TELESCOPES? As reported by an article in AVIATION WEEK ("Lightweight Link" by Frank Morring JR, the US Defense Advanced Research Agency (DARPA), the Pentagon's "blue sky" research arm, has been investigating the possibility of large space telescopes built around folding optics based on diffractive membranes, instead of large, heavy, expensive lenses or mirrors.

Under the "Membrane Optic Imager Real-time Exploitation (MOIRE)" program, DARPA asked for technology able to "provide persistent, real-time, tactical video and missile launch detection and tracking to the warfighter" through the use of diffractive membrane optics in geostationary orbit. Diffractive optics are often used in spectroscopic instruments, but they have long been used in lenses as well -- most notably the "Fresnel lenses" used to focus flashlight and searchlight beams.

Such traditional Fresnel lenses don't give a focus useful for imaging. MOIRE's goals are much more ambitious, specifying a space telescope based on diffractive optics that would have a 20 meter (66 foot) aperture, would be able to obtain proper images, and would have a unit system cost of no more than half a billion USD.

Ball aerospace won the MOIRE competition, developing a 5 meter (16.4 foot) prototype telescope. Ball's prototype actually uses an array of four lenses, each made of a 25-micron-thick film patterned with diffractive grids. The four lenses are fitted into a frame made of lightweight composite material, with the frame folding up to fit into the shroud of a launch vehicle. The frame is mounted at the end of a long deployable boom, with the conventional optics needed to produce images from the diffracted light collected by the lenses at the other end. Once deployed, the telescope would extend the boom and unfold the lens array for operation. It is unclear how good an image the diffractive lenses would produce, and if some sort of computational correction would be required to produce proper images.

MOIRE space telescope

According to Jeanette Domber, MOIRE program at Ball: "Compared to the revolutionary James Webb Space Telescope, MOIRE is cheaper. Compared to historical trends in terms of the cost of developing reflective systems for imaging, it's about ten times cheaper. It's faster to develop because the membrane optics are replicated, and it's much, much lighter -- about seven times lighter than comparative reflective systems."

Military uses could involve staring satellites that could help warfighters locate the sources of incoming fire from their infrared bursts, even of fairly small-caliber weapons. Scientific applications could include space astronomy telescopes that could, say, spot the chemical signatures of life in the atmospheres of extra-solar planets; highly sensitive lidar systems for planetary surface scanning; and laser communications receivers that could handle high-bandwidth datalinks for probes around other worlds, such as Jupiter's icy moon Europa. According to Makenzie Lystrup, a business development manager at Ball: "We end up leaving a lot of science on the table, simply because we can't bring it back -- so there is a lot of interest in making sure that a mission to Europa really brings back everything that we can possibly get."

Ball has conducted full ground tests on the prototype MOIRE telescope. The project is now drawing to a close; DARPA only funds limited-time investigations, setting up a second-phase program if it seems warranted. DARPA has no interest in a second-phase program, feeling that Ball now has acquired technology that the firm can pick up and run with on their own, with DARPA blessing. Jim Oschmann, a Ball vice president, said that the company is marketing MOIRE technology, "looking for ideas where it might apply and interest a large variety of other customers." Potential customers include NASA and other civil agencies, plus "a variety of other customers I don't think it's appropriate to mention."

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[MON 21 JUL 14] ARIZONA ROAD TRIP (2)

* ARIZONA ROAD TRIP (2): Getting prepared for my Arizona road trip kept me busy. Experience has taught me that I can't be too thorough in mapping out my projected movements; trying to follow map printouts was a pain, so I got to scribbling out maps on large index cards.

Of course, as mentioned here in April, I bought a new Panasonic Lumix zoom camera for the trip, and took it to the Denver zoo to check it out. I kept tinkering with it after I got back, one thing being to compare high-ISO mode, cranking up sensitivity to a max of 3200, with the high-sensitivity mode, which gangs up pixels by four to give a 3 megapixel image. Tests over at the library showed the high-ISO gave, to no real surprise, excessive noise at ISOs over 800; in contrast, the high-sensitivity mode worked very well. By the time I was done tinkering with the Lumix, I'd never felt so confident in my ability to make good use of a camera.

And then there was my Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 tablet, which I'd bought after the San Diego trip, thinking it would work much better for travel than lugging around my Acer laptop. Unfortunately, I got sidetracked for over a year, mostly because of the website illustrations update, and the tablet ended up gathering dust; I took the Acer laptop on my trip to Albuquerque because I hadn't got up to speed on the tablet. Now I was going to use the tablet, so I had to dope it out, but I only had time for familiarization before I left.

It wasn't hard to use, but I had a problem: I needed to be able to download photos from my camera via USB for storage, and then back them up on a USB flash drive. However, a tablet by default acts as a USB slave, not a host, so that was problematic. There was a "USB On The Go" adapter for the tablet to turn it into a host, but online comments suggested it was dodgy. On further exploration, I found the "Kingston MobileLite (MBLite) wireless flash reader" -- a little box that hooked up to the tablet over wi-fi that could handle an SD card and a USB flash stick.

Kingston MobileLite

I bought the MBLite from Amazon.com and found it worked neatly, no fuss or complications, aside from the fact that the software provided by Kingston was poor, and I had to find something more workable in the Google apps store. I needed a USB flash drive for backup -- and then I remembered I'd bought an 8 GB USB flash stick during my Albuquerque trip. On looking around, I couldn't find it. Then I got to wondering: I know I cut the flash drive out of its bubble pack and stashed in it my kit bag, maybe I forgot to take it out?

I got the kit bag and figured I might have put the drive in a small front pocket I don't often use. On inspection, there it was. I felt a little pleased and stupid at the same time.

Another thing to do was get some tunes that I could listen to on the long road trip. I'd just started downloading music videos from YouTube and running them through an online audio converter to get MP3s; I couldn't get very many converted before I had to leave, but then I remembered all the MIDI files I'd collected, and converted them to MP3s as well. I ended up with over a hundred new tunes, and copied them to a CD-ROM for my car stereo the night before I had to go.

Finally, there was the issue of foot care, since I didn't want a repeat of the painful foot problems I suffered on my 2012 San Diego trip. I didn't have any foot problems on the Albuquerque trip, but it was brief, and I hadn't worn out much shoe leather; the Arizona trip was going be about the same length as the San Diego trip. All I could do was get foam inserts for my shoes, make sure I carried bandaids with me, attend to foot problems as they came up, and hope for the best. [TO BE CONTINUED]

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[FRI 18 JUL 14] THE COLD WAR (31)

* THE COLD WAR (31): As Truman had expected, General MacArthur's removal from command set off a storm of outrage, with Republicans in Congress calling for the impeachment of the president. Polls showed that over two-thirds of American citizens supported MacArthur. More thoughtful commenters, even some not particularly fond of Truman, acknowledged that MacArthur had gone way over the line -- not merely refusing to respect the orders of the commander in chief, his ultimate superior, but even using proxies to condemn administration policy. Such insubordination would have been unacceptable in any line of work, just cause for dismissal; given the significance of MacArthur's position, it was outrageous. As Truman later put it: "I fired him because he wouldn't respect the authority of the president. ... I didn't fire him because he was a dumb son of a bitch, although he was, but that's not against the law for generals."

The general's dismissal was greeted with overwhelming relief outside the USA -- but that was little consolation to Truman, since foreign approval simply inflamed the anger back home. As far as the troops back in Korea were concerned, the departure of MacArthur was a non-issue: he'd never been much more than an indifferent distant figure to them, visible only through his public theatrics. Those who gave him much thought often laid the "Big Bug-Out" in late 1950 at MacArthur's door. Some of the officers familiar with him personally and who held him in high esteem thought he had been treated shabbily -- but one suggested that an exit from the military on a note of high theater, instead of being quietly retired, was exactly what MacArthur wanted: "This way, he went out on a blaze of glory."

MacArthur left Tokyo on his personal Lockheed Constellation airliner on 16 April 1951, arriving at San Francisco the next day to a wild welcome. Truman did his best to ignore it all, going on about his business as he normally would, making little or no comment on the matter. MacArthur addressed Congress on 19 April, repeating that "there is no substitute for victory", and ending on a solemn note: "Old soldiers never die; they just fade away."

Although the response from Congress was thunderous -- some who witnessed it expected that it would end in an angry march on the White House -- Truman read the speech and privately commented that it was "a bunch of damn bullshit." The public, however, ate it up. MacArthur went on parade in Washington DC that afternoon, to perform another parade in New York City the next day, the crowds cheering him mightily. The more perceptive observing the performance noticed that few seemed particularly eager to pick up MacArthur's slogan of "no substitute for victory" and run with it.

The Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations Committees organized a joint hearing, which began on 3 May; it was a closed session, but security-censored transcripts were released on a regular basis. MacArthur was the star witness, testifying for three days, in which the larger-than-life general slowly deflated. He would admit to no error, blaming all mistakes on others, and shrugged off difficult questions; he judged it a good idea to go to war to China, and that was the end of it. He hadn't thought the matter out much further than that.

War, as the saying goes, is an extension of politics by other means, not an end in itself; like it or not, the politicians ultimately call the shots -- an unavoidable fact of life that MacArthur had obviously forgotten. He had built his reputation on theatrics and press releases, the substance underneath being uncertain, and now the discrepancy between the two had become apparent to the entire nation.

Senior military officials called to testify to the Senate committee lavishly praised MacArthur personally, and then made it clear they didn't think all-out war with China was in America's interests. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Omar Bradly said that getting into a fight to the death with China "would involve us in the wrong war, at the wrong place, at the wrong time, and with the wrong enemy." They also agreed that MacArthur should have been sacked, Defense Secretary George Marshall saying there had been "no other course of action but to relieve him."

MacArthur went on a speaking tour in June, angrily attacking the Truman Administration, only to find crowds dwindling at each stop; there was little enthusiasm for a bigger war, few seeing what the sense of it was supposed to be. Unfortunately for Truman, that didn't mean he was held in much more public esteem, and he was still stuck with extricating the USA from a war from which nothing better than a draw could be contemplated. [TO BE CONTINUED]

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[THU 17 JUL 14] SPACE NEWS

* Space launches for June included:

-- 14 JUN 14 / COSMOS 2500 (GLONASS M) -- A Soyuz 2-1b booster was launched from Plesetsk Northern Cosmodrome in Russia at 1716 GMT (local time - 4) to put the "Cosmos 2500" GLONASS M third-generation navigation satellite into orbit. It was the 55th satellite in the GLONASS fleet. It brought the GLONASS constellation up to a total of 29 satellites in orbit, including three spares.

-- 19 JUN 14 / SMALLSATS x 37 -- A Dnepr booster, a converted SS-18 SATAN missile, was launched from Dombarovsky in Russia at 1911 GMT (next day local time - 4) to put a total of 37 smallsats from 17 nations into orbit, breaking the record of 32 launched by a Dnepr in November 2013. There were six primary payloads:

Smaller payloads included:

The smaller payloads also included a number of CubeSats, in single-unit (1U), double-unit (2U), triple-unit (3U), and unprecedented six-unit (6U) configurations:

-- 30 JUN 14 / SPOT 7 -- An ISRO Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) was launched from Sriharikota at 0422 GMT (local time - 5:30) to put the "SPOT 7" commercial remote-sensing satellite into Sun-synchronous near-polar orbit for Airbus Space & Defense.

PSLV in prep for SPOT 7 launch

As its name implied, SPOT 7 was the seventh in the French "Satellite Pour l'Observation de la Terre (SPOT)" program. SPOT 7 was built by Airbus Defense & Space, following the identical SPOT 6, launched by a PSLV in 2012. SPOT 6 and SPOT 7 were based on the Airbus AstroSat-500 Mark II bus; they had a launch mass of 714 kilograms (1,574 pounds) and were powered by twin solar arrays which generated 1,450 watts of power.

Two imaging systems aboard the spacecraft, the "New AstroSat Optical Modular Instruments (NAOMI)", were capable of producing panchromatic images at a resolution of 1.5 to 2.2 meters (4.9 to 7.2 feet), and multispectral images at a resolution of 6.0 to 8.8 meters (19 to 29 feet). SPOT 6 and 7 could observe a swath of ground 60 kilometers (37 miles) wide on a single pass. The satellites were able to pivot in orbit to see targets anywhere within 1,500 kilometers (900 miles) of their position. Airbus claimed the two satellites combined could image up to 6 million square kilometers (2.3 million square miles), every day.

The first satellite in the series, SPOT 1, was placed into orbit by an Ariane 1 rocket in February 1986 and operated for four years before it was replaced by SPOT 2. Identical to its predecessor, SPOT 2 was launched by an Ariane 4 in January 1990. A third satellite was also orbited by an Ariane 4, in 1993. In 1998 the larger SPOT 4 was launched. This mission added a new infrared imager to the optical imaging payload carried by its predecessors. SPOT 5, which was orbited in May 2002, featured further modifications which enabled it to return higher-resolution images and produce stereoscopic images for three-dimensional mapping.

The SPOT satellites were operated by a commercial contractor, Spot Image, on behalf of the French Centre National d'Etudes Spatiales (CNES). Flown in the same orbit as France's high-resolution Pleiades satellites, SPOT gave a lower-resolution, wider-angle view of the Earth's surface to compliment the images provided by Pleiades.

SPOT 7

Five small satellites accompanied SPOT 7 into orbit:

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[WED 16 JUL 14] THE HUNT FOR DARK ENERGY

* THE HUNT FOR DARK ENERGY: As reported by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("A Problem Of Cosmic Proportions", 24 August 2013), before World War II, astronomers discovered that the Universe was expanding: the more distant a galaxy was from ours, the faster it was running away from it. In 1998, astronomers discovered that not only is the Universe expanding, its expansion is accelerating.

That was baffling; to account for it, astronomers postulated a factor they called, for want of a better term, "dark energy". As well as can be determined, dark energy it makes up two-thirds of the mass (and so, by the E=MC^2 mass-energy relation, two-thirds of the energy) of the Universe. That was all that was known about it; there have been suspicions it it's a theoretical artifact that would go away given better theory, but so far nobody's been able to figure out any correction that has proven persuasive.

* The main thrust of dark energy research, then, is to try to obtain more data. Three experiments -- two based in Chile and the third in Hawaii -- will survey the skies in search of the effects of dark matter, looking back to the early Universe to measure the relationships between galaxies, and clusters of galaxies, in unprecedented detail. The data will help point the way to validation of dark energy, or to a correction in theory that will make dark energy go away.

The most advanced of the new experiments is the five-tonne, 570-megapixel Dark Energy Camera, which was installed last year to work with the 4 meter (13.1 foot) Blanco telescope at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile, 2,200 metres (7,200 feet) above sea level in the Atacama Desert. It is now taking 400 one-gigabyte pictures of the sky each night, for 525 nights over five years. The exercise is an element of the Dark Energy Survey (DES), a project led by Joshua Frieman of the University of Chicago. The plan is to detail an eighth of the sky, examining 100,000 galaxy clusters and measuring the distances to 300 million individual galaxies within those clusters.

Dark Energy Camera

This examination will trace how the sizes and shapes of clusters of galaxies have changed over time, providing data on the relative influences of gravity and dark energy. Gravity tends to slow down the expansion of the universe, causing clusters to become more compact. Dark energy, which tends to speed up the expansion, causes clusters to spread out. The rate of contraction or expansion of clusters shows the relative strengths of the two forces.

Of course, we can't observe any appreciable change in the size of clusters of galaxies in real time, but by observing large numbers of them and correlating them with their distance (meaning age), we can pick out the trend. Earlier observations have suggested that for more than half of the universe's 13.7-billion-year life, gravity was predominant; only about 6 billion years ago did dark energy overtake it.

The second of the new experiments is the Subaru Measurement of Images and Redshifts (SuMIRe), led by Hitoshi Murayama of the Kavli Institute for the Physics and Mathematics of the Universe, in Tokyo. It uses the 8.2 meter (26.9 foot) Subaru telescope on the mountain of Mauna Kea in Hawaii. The telescope, incidentally, has nothing to do with the Subaru auto manufacturer, that being the Japanese name of the Pleiades star cluster, represented in the carmaker's logo; it might also be noted that "Sumire" means "violet" and is used a girl's name.

Although the SuMIRe survey will only canvass a tenth of the sky, not an eighth, the more powerful Subaru telescope will be able to probe deeper, to the very early days of the Universe. SuMIRe also has spectroscopic capabilities while the Dark Energy Camera does not; that will help SuMIRe determine "redshifts", the reddening of light from a distant galaxy from Doppler shifting as its recession velocity -- and distance -- increases. The Dark Energy Camera has to rely on other telescopes to obtain spectroscopic data.

The third experiment, ACTPol (Atacama Cosmology Telescope Polarization sensitive receiver), run by Lyman Page of Princeton University, is based on a different premise. Instead of surveying galaxies, it will examine microwaves from the cosmic microwave background (CMB), the remnant "afterglow" of the creation of the Universe in the "Big Bang". ACTPol, which is also in Chile's Atacama high desert, on the peak of Cerro Toco, is now being brought up to operational effectiveness. It will measure the CMB's polarization, which have been distorted in informative ways by the passage of the microwaves through intervening galaxies on their way to Earth. Statistical analysis of the patterns obtained should help nail down the balance between gravity and dark energy.

* The notion of dark energy is often mocked by science-bashers, who see it as an example of the ignorance of science, proclaiming scientists are chasing after nothing. Actually, astronomers admit their ignorance in the matter -- that's why they're doing research -- and have not ruled out the idea that dark energy is an artifact of flawed theory. Theoreticians have been working from their end to see if they can spot the flaw.

One of the latest exercises was produced by Christof Wetterich, of the University of Heidelberg in Germany. He doesn't buy the idea of dark energy; more radically, he doesn't believe the Universe is actually expanding. In Wetterich's vision of the cosmos, the redshift generally attributed to expansion is instead the result of the Universe gaining weight. If atoms weighed less in the past, he suggests, the light they emitted would be less energetic -- reddened -- than it is now, and so the perceived redshift is not really due to expansion. Wetterich's idea actually dispenses with the Big Bang: the Universe always has existed, it is just getting heavier.

Wetterich is not regarded as a crank by his colleagues, though few are betting his theory is correct: there are too many conflicting radical dark energy theories floating around, and only one at most can be right. For the time being, the theoreticians are being given free leash in the judgement of their community to investigate imaginative ideas, as long as they stick to the known facts. Astronomers are conservative in that they don't want to give up what they have established, but accept that established ideas may end up being overturned. As Neils Bohr, one of the founders of quantum physics, once said to his colleague Wolfgang Pauli: "We are all agreed that your theory is crazy. The question that divides us is whether it is crazy enough to have a chance of being correct."

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[TUE 15 JUL 14] ASSESSING CLIMATE CHANGE

* ASSESSING CLIMATE CHANGE: In 1990, a law was passed to require the White House to release a National Climate Assessment (NCA) every four years. The Obama Administration has recently released the latest -- the third, earlier NCAs having been delayed by politics. President Bill Clinton had to fight Congress for years to publish the first national assessment, which came out in 2000. A conservative group sued to stop President George W. Bush from publishing a second one; an NCA was finally prepared, but it was not released until Barack Obama entered office in 2009, and proved both ignored and ignorable.

The Obama Administration took a low profile on climate issues up to the 2012 election, but does not regard the latest report as ignorable, with administration officials, including the president himself emphasizing its significance to the media. The 30-chapter, 1,300-page report strongly endorsed climate change research, stating that climate impacts are already apparent in the United States; they are likely to worsen; and communities should begin factoring climate change into their decision-making.

According to the NCA, the effects of climate change are being felt across the USA, with water growing scarcer in dry regions, torrential rains increasing in wet regions, heat waves becoming more common and more severe, wildfires growing worse, and forests dying under assault from heat-loving insects. The report concluded: "Climate change presents a major challenge for society. There is mounting evidence that harm to the nation will increase substantially in the future unless global emissions of heat-trapping gases are greatly reduced."

The NCA represented the work of hundreds of members of the climate science community -- including representatives of two oil companies -- and also included input from local groups and industries facing possible climate impacts in the future, giving the report a "bottom up" flavor. The dozen or so Federal agencies that assembled the report sponsored some 70 workshops and "listening sessions" over the past four years, allowing local groups to not only give input but also shape the report's form. In addition, small Federal grants to state and local nonprofit groups, policymakers, business owners and academics allowed them to submit formal "input reports" that gave Federal officials access to local know-how.

One of the contributors was climatologist Victoria Keener of the Honolulu-based East-West, a nonprofit that was a recipient of a grant. In 2012, Keener led a group in publishing a document titled CLIMATE CHANGE & PACIFIC ISLANDS: INDICATORS & IMPACTS. Several of the findings, touching on fishing, sea level rise, disaster planning, and much else, made it into the NCA. Keener summed up the report's message: "We have enough information on climate to act and we know it's happening."

The report reinforced all three components of Obama's 2013 Climate Action Plan: cutting greenhouse gas emissions, adapting to impacts, and leading internationally. The White House and its hundreds of scientist allies are hoping that the NCA will have a real-world effect. Ultra-conservative members of Congress are hoping it dies a quick death, claiming that climate change is a hoax being put over by a global conspiracy of climate researchers, a notion that Obama has compared to believing the Earth is flat. However, although centrist Republicans accept the science, they and some moderate Democrats worry that measures taken to deal with climate change will accomplish little other than throwing people out of work and undermining the economy.

Ironically, others are critical of the NCA because it did not go far enough. Nick Sundy of the World Wildlife Fund believes the report is a good step in the right direction, but said the Federal advisory committee that oversaw the report, overlooked some of the most critical policy issues: "There's nothing in the report on budgets, nothing on national security." Given how hard a sell climate change is in the first place, however, it's hard to see such omissions as particularly significant.

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[MON 14 JUL 14] ARIZONA ROAD TRIP (1)

* ARIZONA ROAD TRIP (1): The road trip I took to Albuquerque in October 2013 was something of a fall-out from equivocation over taking a road trip to Arizona to see sights. In January, I got to thinking about Arizona again, feelings still being just as mixed. I had never canvassed Arizona, just passed through bits of it a few times, but there were places there I wanted to see. However, there was nothing there that seemed so compelling that I felt worth much effort. The biggest thing was the Pima Air Museum outside Davis-Montham Air Force Base in Tucson -- but that was not such a major big deal, and Tucson was far out of my way, most of the way to Mexico. Besides, I wasn't really eager to take another road trip so soon after the Albuquerque trip, all the more so because the Albuquerque trip had met but by no means greatly exceeded limited expectations.

I ended up changing my mind. I got to poking around in airshow schedules, and found out that there was to be an airshow at Davis-Montham AFB in April, with the USAF Thunderbirds flight demonstration team heading the bill. Even though the airshow was unlikely to be anything exceptional, a visit to Tucson now made more sense. I started listing things I wanted to see on an Arizona trip, and checking distances to see how much trouble it would be. I initially concluded it wouldn't be worth it, but then I wearily realized I would continue to equivocate, so I went back to the drawing board.

One of the difficulties was that the most obvious way to either Phoenix or Tucson was through Albuquerque -- and not only was I not keen on driving there again, it also meant a two-day transit each way, which was too much. I couldn't make the trip in less than seven days, and I would still be rushed to see the things I was after. I kept on fiddling, one item of consideration being visiting the Barringer Meteor Crater east of Flagstaff. I figured I could go through Albuquerque, spend the night in Gallup on the border with Arizona, and get to the crater the following morning, proceeding on to Flagstaff.

I recalled there was a shorter route on the west side of the mountains to Flagstaff, which I hadn't paid much attention to because it was still a two-day trip to Phoenix or Tucson, and I didn't like the idea of going on back highways, the slower speed undermining the shorter route. I checked the mileage to Flagstaff again, and it came to 1,160 kilometers (720 miles) between there and Loveland, Colorado. Suddenly everything began to snap into place. Even given a conservative average speed of 80 KPH (50 MPH), as I might expect for back highways, that meant fourteen and a half hours on the road. Since I would have to hit the road at 5:00 AM to get through Denver before rush hour anyway, that would get me into Flagstaff at 7:30 PM. Comfortable.

The trip made much more sense once I saw Flagstaff as the linchpin, allowing me to partition it more sensibly:

Six days -- still long, but proportionate to the task. On checking possible sights to see the payoff grew, lining up a total of four zoos, three air museums, and a natural history museum. The mid-April date seemed optimum for an Arizona visit, temperatures not likely to be too severe at that time, while there would be no big risk of snowstorms going through the high country. There would still be some hazard; as I have learned to my terror, violent snap blizzards can happen in the mountains late in the spring.

Since Davis-Montham AFB only ran an airshow once every two years, I had to make the trip now while I had the window. Again, I wasn't eager to hit the road once more so soon after the Albuquerque trip, but since I was going to do it eventually anyway, I figured I might as well do it now.

Let me see, assume 4,000 kilometers (2,500 miles) total distance, that came to about eight tanks of fuel, no more than $320 USD total; assume no more than $275 USD a day for lodging and other expenses over six days, lodging only needed for five, that meant a cost in the range of $1,500 to $2,000 USD. No problem. It looked like a GO -- though the rationale for the trip still remained crossing Arizona off my list of places to visit. That's not the most inspiring of motives, but there's something to be said for limited expectations. [TO BE CONTINUED]

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[FRI 11 JUL 14] THE COLD WAR (30)

* THE COLD WAR (30): From mid-January 1951, the UNC began to push back against Chinese forces -- tentatively at first, moving forward into areas not yet occupied. In some cases, the Chinese withdrew in the face of UNC movements; Marshal Peng knew better than to accept fights when they weren't on his terms.

In mid-February the Chinese hit back in turn, their fourth push of the war, with particularly bitter fighting for the town of Chipyong-ni. Ridgeway was advised to fall back; he wouldn't consider it. A US Army regiment, fighting alongside a battalion that France had sent into the conflict, was encircled, but was resupplied by air. The Chinese sent repeated "human wave" attacks against the defenses that proved disastrously futile -- the French soldiers proving particularly enthusiastic in countercharges, with a reliance on the bayonet. UNC forces soon relieved Chipyong-ni, arriving to find Chinese dead strewn over the landscape.

All along the line, Chinese drives were crushed, frontal assaults by Chinese troops being torn apart by UNC firepower. One US Army soldier recorded his grim satisfaction at watching Chinese charging his position "tumbling down like bowling pins." A British officer observing events reported to London: "In the last United Nations offensive, the Americans have learned how easy it is to kill Chinese, and their morale has greatly improved thereby."

After the completion of the initial phase, on 21 February Ridgeway kicked off the second phase, Operation KILLER, the deliberately blunt name implying its goal of inflicting pain on the Chinese. By now, UNC tactics were down to a pattern: troops would press forward, maintaining a defense in depth as they did so, with artillery and air power annihilating Chinese forces when they tried to make a stand or hit back.

The third phase, Operation RIPPER, began on 7 March, leading to the encirclement of Seoul. UNC forces entered the devastated city on 14 March, finding no Reds and hardly one stone lying on top of the other. Seoul had traded hands for the fourth and last time. Ridgeway noted in his memoirs with little pleasure how MacArthur had called a press conference at the outset of RIPPER to take all the credit for himself, even though it had been Ridgeway's show.

* On 27 March, ROKA troops crossed the 38th Parallel, the Americans following. They halted on 9 April along a strong natural line of defense -- to consider further moves, strictly to the extent they were seen as necessary or useful. As far as the White House was concerned, there was no intent to push for a final victory, there being no reason to shed more blood than required.

As far as Douglas MacArthur was concerned, that was unacceptable, and he continued to howl for a wider war that neither his political superiors nor most of the troops in his command wanted. He continued his protests, greatly straining the patience of the Truman Administration -- Secretary of State Acheson noting in one case the president reacting in "disbelief with controlled fury." Truman, a dedicated student of American history, recalled how President Lincoln had similarly been strained to the utmost by the insubordination of one of his commanders. Lincoln had summed up the situation with a tale of a horse that had got a hoof caught in the stirrup, the rider commenting: "If you are going to get on, I am going to get off."

The limit was passed on 5 April. On that day, Congressman Joe Martin read a letter sent him by MacArthur to the House of Representatives, in which the general protested the government's refusal to allow the Chinese Nationalists to conduct attacks on the mainland: "... if we lose this war to Communism in Asia, the fall of Europe is inevitable ... we must win. There is no substitute for victory."

Truman did not react immediately; MacArthur had enormous stature among the American people, had influential political backers, and any actions against him were not something done lightly. However, anyone with a grasp of reasonable principles of governance could see that MacArthur had gone way out of bounds -- Senator Wayne Morse of Oregon commented that the US had two foreign policies, "that of General MacArthur and that of the president." On 9 April, in Britain Field Marshal Sir William Slim summed up the foreign view by saying that "General MacArthur personally wanted war with China."

Slim needn't have been too concerned; Truman had already made up his mind to sack MacArthur. As far back as his Senate days, Truman had judged MacArthur a "prima donna", particularly annoying to the unpretentious Truman; having been a Reserve officer in the First World War, Truman also had little patience with high-handed behavior by West Pointers. He delayed in taking action after the 5 April incident so he could talk the matter over with senior members of his administration, particularly the Joint Chiefs. The JCS actually hadn't taken very long to give their stamp of approval to getting rid of MacArthur, all of them having long familiarity with the general's bombast and uninhibited egotism. The plan was to announce the decision on 12 April, but on finding that the news had leaked to the press, the announcement was sent out in haste after midnight on 11 April:

BEGIN QUOTE:

With deep regret, I have concluded that General of the Army Douglas MacArthur is unable to give his wholehearted support to the policies of the United States government ... I have, therefore, relieved General MacArthur of his commands, and have designated Lieutenant General Matthew B. Ridgeway as his successor ...

It is fundamental ... that military commanders must be governed by the policies and directives issued to them ... General MacArthur's place in history is fully established. The nation owes a debt of gratitude for the distinguished and exceptional service which he has rendered his country ... For that reason, I repeat my regret at the necessity for the action I feel compelled to take in his case.

END QUOTE

Ridgeway was replaced in command of the Eighth Army by General James Van Fleet. Ridgeway retained Ned Almond in charge of X Corps, liking Almond's aggressiveness, but making sure he was kept on a firm leash. MacArthur's partisans were particularly angry at the hasty way the announcement was made, though that had been forced on the president by events. In any case, the decision was final. [TO BE CONTINUED]

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[THU 10 JUL 14] SCIENCE NOTES

* SCIENCE NOTES: As reported by an article from LIVESCIENCE NOW, a new study has suggested that during the Jurassic period, 250 million years ago, the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide was five times greater than it is today -- a much higher level than earlier estimates.

The Jurassic was a time of great reptiles, and also a time when the supercontinent Pangaea had started to split into two smaller landmasses, Laurasia and Gondwana. These tectonic movements made the oceans close up and the tectonic plates sink into the Earth. This process, called subduction,led to volcanism at the surface, with rocks constantly melting and emitting CO2 into the atmosphere. An estimate of exactly how much CO2 was obtained by a team led by Douwe van der Meer, a geoscientist at Utrecht University in the Netherlands.

The Dutch researchers used "seismic tomography", tracking earthquake waves traveling through the interior of the Earth, to come up with their estimate. As van der Meer put it: "This method is comparable to CT scans used in hospitals to image inside bodies. With sufficient earthquake wave travel times, one can create a velocity model of the Earth. Faster regions are more dense, colder material plates that sunk into the Earth."

Deep probes of the Earth by seismic tomography allowed the research team to "see" the tectonic plates that have sunk into the planet over the past 250 million years. From their observations, they concluded that the Earth produced twice as much CO2 as there is today. The scientists then inserted this number into a comprehensive, commonly used paleoclimate model, to calculate how all the volcanic CO2 emissions at the time would have added up. Because there was also less CO2 being removed from the atmosphere by vegetation and by weathering rocks than today, the bottom line was that total atmospheric CO2 levels were probably five times higher than at the present.

According to van der Meer, huge amounts of this greenhouse gas made the climate during the Jurassic Period extremely humid and warm. The paper is not only interesting because of its insights into Earth's past, but also because it helps support the case for the influence of CO2 concentrations on climate.

* As reported by AAAS SCIENCE NOW Online, we are inclined to find bat sonar -- echolocation -- a marvel, closer studies show that it's even more marvelous than we thought. Analysis of audio recordings of male brown bats hunting for food in a lab setting showed that some of the bat calls were different from the their usual short echolocation pulses: lower in frequency, longer in duration, and always occurring in sets of three to four.

To determine why the bats made these mysterious calls, the scientists made video and audio recordings of brown bats as they hunted tethered mealworms. In some test runs, the bats flew alone; in others, they flew in pairs. The unusual calls, it turned out, were only generated when the bats were flying in pairs, and the bat that generated the most of the calls was generally one that got the prey, while the other bat backed off. The calls were a "signature" in which one male bat staked out the prey and told rivals to keep clear.

It seems likely that, by obtaining a means of conflict resolution, the hunting efficiency of the bats was improved overall. Female bats did not make the calls, possibly because they generally foraged along with relatives and were given priority in any case. Each male bat had a distinctive call, with the researchers able to identify a specific male bat over 95% of the time.

* In a somewhat less serious but equally interesting study, as reported by AAAS SCIENCE NOW, in 2009 neurophysiologist Johanna Meijer got curious about what would happen if she set up a rodent running wheel in an open cage in her garden. In captivity, mice are enthusiastic about running wheels, logging kilometers in a day; would their wild relatives like them as well? She set up the wheel, along a motion-activated camera plus a dish of food pellets, and waited.

critters having fun

Wild house mice quickly discovered the food, and then decided to try the wheel. They liked it, as did rats, shrews, and even frogs, with Meijer recording a staggering 200,000 sessions on the wheel in three years. The only thing she could conclude was that the animals simply thought it was fun. The animals kept coming to the wheel even when the food was taken away, though not as many did so.

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[WED 09 JUL 14] SCHOOL DAZE

* SCHOOL DAZE: As discussed by an article from AAAS SCIENCE NOW ("Lectures Aren't Just Boring, They're Ineffective, Too, Study Finds" by Aleszu Bajak, 12 May 2014), lectures have been the foundation of higher education for over a millennium. According to biologist Scott Freeman of the University of Washington in Seattle: "Universities were founded in Western Europe in 1050 and lecturing has been the predominant form of teaching ever since." However, there are increasing doubts about the "sage on a stage" approach to teaching science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) courses, skeptics suggesting that engaging students with questions or group activities is more effective.

To investigate, Freeman and a group of colleagues examined 225 studies of undergraduate STEM teaching methods. Their meta-analysis, published by the US National Academy of Sciences, concluded that "active learning" teaching that emphasized interaction with students, instead of treating them as passive listeners, reduced failure rates and boosted scores on exams by almost one-half a standard deviation. According to Freeman: "The change in the failure rates is whopping."

Eric Mazur, a Harvard physicist who has been struggling against stale lecturing for over a quarter of a century, enthusiastically endorsed the study: "This is a really important article -- the impression I get is that it's almost unethical to be lecturing if you have this data. It's good to see such a cohesive picture emerge from their meta-analysis -- an abundance of proof that lecturing is outmoded, outdated, and inefficient."

Active learning approaches include asking students to answer questions by using handheld clickers, calling on individuals or groups randomly, or having students clarify concepts to each other and reach a consensus on an issue. Freeman uses such approaches even in large classes: "My introductory biology course has gotten up to 700 students. For the ultimate class session -- I don't say lecture -- I'm showing PowerPoint slides, but everything is a question and I use clickers and random calling. Somebody droning on for 15 minutes at a time and then doing cookbook labs isn't interesting."

The study did not directly address the effectiveness of open online courses that address thousands, even millions, of students. However, Freeman said the US Department of Education has conducted its own meta-analysis of distance learning, and found no difference between being lectured at in a classroom versus, or through a computer at home. Freeman concluded: "If you're going to get lectured at, you might as well be at home in bunny slippers."

ED: I found this article interesting because I long regarded lectures were a poor way to learn. The interesting angle is the prospect of individual interactive instruction by an intelligent software instructor. It's a nice idea -- but on any realistic consideration, it's going to be very hard to implement, and I doubt it will be fully workable for decades, maybe generations.

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[TUE 08 JUL 14] ALABAMA & THE SURGE

* ALABAMA AND THE SURGE: The hazards being faced by US East Coast communities from rising seawaters were discussed here a few months back. As something of a footnote, an article from BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK ("Alabama's Climate Deniers Refuse To Save The State", by Toluse Olorunnipa, 22 May 2014) discussed the similar challenges being faced by the Gulf Coast state of Alabama, made more difficult by the insistence of many in positions of authority that there's nothing to worry about. Even as the Federal government's new National Climate Assessment warns that storm surges may one day leave coastal communities such as Mobile under as much as 7.6 meters (25 feet) of water, many state leaders persist in saying climate change is a hoax -- "bad science", "fear mongering", "some kind of religion" -- and refuse to take action to prepare for it.

The city of Mobile is large, attractive, prosperous, and highly vulnerable to the seas. Researchers with the US Department of Transportation (DOT) are conducting a study of the area, set to be finished this year, documenting the cost of inaction for highways, rail, and pipelines. On Federal flood maps, areas including the port and Dauphin Island, a strip of vacation beachfront between the Gulf of Mexico and Mobile Bay, are shaded in red, indicating water in those areas is likely to rise waist-deep with increasing frequency over the next 85 years.

According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, Alabama is one of at least six coastal states, including Georgia, South Carolina, and Texas, and 18 nationwide that haven't taken steps to come to grips with climate change. As mentioned in the earlier posting other states, having had their complacency challenged by events, are preparing for trouble:

None of these states have made an issue of climate change in itself, officials generally preferring to speak in more specific terms about coastal flooding and the like. Kevin Harrison, transportation director of the South Alabama Regional Planning Commission, understands climate change is a hard sell and is careful to tiptoe around the issue when he pitches projects to protect Alabama's bridges, ports, and highways. Harrison feels that simply demonstrating what damage rising seas are likely to inflict will make skeptics "realize that this is a potential threat."

Unfortunately, there's been little motion towards assessing the level of threat or the cost of corrective actions, and it's been hard to find anyone in authority who cares. Lawmakers on the state budget committee tend to listen to John Christy, a climate scientist at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, who is convinced climate change is nonsense: "We count the tornadoes, we count hurricanes. None of those are increasing. Floods are not increasing."

Harrison said he'll ask the legislature to consider fortifying an inland bridge that the DOT study flagged as vulnerable. He takes a guess at their answer: "Are they going to spend the extra probably $10 million to improve that bridge? I don't think so."

Governor Robert Bentley has shown no inclination to rock the boat on climate, but Alabamans living in coastal regions are becoming ever more apprehensive. Tricia Kerr, a 30-year resident of Dauphin Island, says that climate change "scares the heck out of me. The island doesn't drain very well. The island is saturated."

The DOT study says surges from future hurricanes will submerge "nearly all" of the barrier island, where residents reach houses on stilts by a single two-lane road only about belt-height above high tide. About 80 kilometers (50 miles) to the east, in April 2014, flooding washed out roads in Perdido Beach. Mayor Patsy Parker, says she's starting to believe climate change is causing weather anomalies in her community of almost 600 residents: "We have to pay attention now."

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[MON 07 JUL 14] AMERICA & THE WORLD (13)

* AMERICA & THE WORLD (13): As a follow up to this series, an article from THE ECONOMIST ("The War On Terror: Part Two", 31 May 2014) reviewed America's military posture -- starting out with Obama's 2009 address to the graduating class of the US Army's military academy at West Point, New York. The president told them that he "would gladly order every single one of our troops home tomorrow" if it were possible to do so. It wasn't; that same day, he ordered 30,000 more troops into Afghanistan. Four of the graduating class were killed in action there.

On 28 May 2014, the president returned to West Point to proclaim: "You are the first class to graduate since 9-11 who may not be sent into combat in Iraq or Afghanistan." When Obama first took office, almost 180,000 American troops were fighting in foreign wars; when he leaves, there will only be a few thousand. That leads to the interesting question: when should the US send troops into combat? Obama has considered that question and given an answer:

All that's safe as milk on the face of it, but it's still entirely dependent on a president's evaluation of America's interests and the risks of action. Obama's predecessor had an expansive view of those interests and risks; it led to trouble, and Obama is much more conservative in that regard, telling the 2014 West Point class: "Since World War II, some of our most costly mistakes came not from our restraint, but from our willingness to rush into military adventures without thinking through the consequences." America, Obama said, must not "create more enemies than we take off the battlefield."

Barack Obama also has a much different notion of national security from George W. Bush; for example, Obama sees climate change and international treaties as part of the equation. As a result, Obama believes military action may, if badly applied, actually undermine national security. That's not quite as drastic a turnabout from the views of George Bush as it might seem, since Obama still believes international terrorism remains the biggest threat to America.

So what does that mean in practice? The administration seeks $5 billion USD from Congress to fund counter-terrorism partnerships with willing governments, from Yemen to Mali. That means, in an echo of the Cold War, that the US may cut deals with some nasty regimes. In Afghanistan, the president plans to have 9,800 US troops there at the beginning of 2015; a year later the number will be halved; and a year later, the only US forces there will be guarding diplomatic installations.

After that, the US will provide four to six billion USD a year for the Afghan Security Forces. Compared to the $210 billion USD spent, that's a pittance, but it's still more than the US provides to Israel, and nobody believes that Afghan funding will be sustained at that level indefinitely. On 27 May, Obama declared: "We have to recognize that Afghanistan will not be a perfect place, and it is not America's responsibility to make it one."

The irony is that Obama is in accordance with the will of the people on withdrawing from Afghanistan, but the withdrawal is still held against him as a sign of spinelessness. The recent flap over the recovery of the only US military prisoner of the Taliban, Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, in exchange for the release of five Taliban prisoners, demonstrates this contradiction only too vividly. There was loud controversy concerning Bergdahl's conduct leading to his capture, but he was still a loose end that needed to be tied up: all the troops have to know when they're captured in combat that nobody gets left behind. They also have to know that if they do get into trouble, they will not be condemned by a media circus -- that they will be given the benefit of the doubt and the right to legal defense until a board of inquiry or court-martial makes its judgement.

As far as the release of the Taliban fighters went, unlike al-Qaeda captives they were legally prisoners of war, all of which will be released after the US makes its final exit from Afghanistan. To make sure they didn't cause any trouble up to that time, the five were handed over to Qatar to spend a year in Qatari custody before being finally released.

America will, sooner or later, wash its hands of Afghanistan and forget about it. The Obama Administration's policy on the Syrian civil war is much more obscure. Obama does not see that American interests are threatened in Syria and knows there is very little public enthusiasm for intervention, but the CIA has very discreetly trained a number of rebel fighters. Training more of them means the Army will have to get involved, which in turn implies Congressional approval of funding. That apparently is in the works right now.

The bottom line is that articulated rules are nice, but are only guidelines; in the ambiguous real world, people end up feeling their way forward, and nobody may find the results all that inspiring, no matter what happens. With the end of the Cold War, the red queen was removed from the geopolitical chessboard, leaving the white queen the most powerful piece on the board. For better and for worse, however, American power still remains subject to limits that can't be simply ignored. [END OF SERIES]

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[FRI 04 JUL 14] THE COLD WAR (29)

* THE COLD WAR (29): In the midst of the talks with the British, on 6 December 1950 President Truman sent out a presidential order to his theater commanders, instructing them to use "extreme caution" in their public statements, and saying they should clear all such with the State Department or Defense Department. The order was clearly targeted at MacArthur, the intent being to tone down his thunderous prophecies of doom in Korea, and his calls for a wider war against China. MacArthur simply began to send out the same message "off the record" in conversations with reporters. Truman would later express regrets at not having sacked him right then and there.

By mid-December, UNC forces had been driven back below the 38th Parallel. General Walker, commander of the Eighth Army, was killed in an idiot traffic accident on 23 December when his jeep hit a truck; he was thrown out and suffered mortal head injuries. Had he been wearing a seat belt he would have suffered little harm, but they didn't have such things in those days.

MacArthur selected Lieutenant General Matthew Bunker Ridgeway to succeed Walker, with Ridgeway flying into Tokyo late on Christmas Day. The next morning he spoke with MacArthur, who painted a bleak picture of the situation in Korea and promised Ridgeway his support: "The Eighth Army is yours, Matt. Do what you think best." Ridgeway flew into Korea that afternoon.

Weldon Walker had demonstrated spine in holding the Pusan perimeter; he would be commemorated by renaming the new "Bulldog" light tank as, very appropriately, the "Walker Bulldog". However, Walker had proven unimaginative and not very skilled as a general, some unkindly saying that getting himself killed the best thing he ever did for the war effort. Unkind or not, there was more than a seed of truth in that, since Ridgeway was a far better general, the best the US Army had to offer. He had led the 82nd Airborne at Normandy in 1944, to then become an airborne corps commander; he was charismatic, smart, tough, and decisive.

Ridgeway soon found out that the Eighth Army was demoralized, its men and officers failing to step up to the challenge, generally inept and timid in combat. Ridgeway pounded in the message to stand and fight down to the bottom of his command, with officers and men told to do their job: get off the roads, send out aggressive patrols, build strong defenses on the proper ground, and in generally act like professionals. That wasn't rocket science, in fact it was another sad comment on Walker's leadership that they needed to be told.

Ridgeway had a certain sense of show, addressing troops with his trademark "lucky" hand grenade on one shoulder and a first-aid kit on the other, as if immediately prepared for action. With Ridgeway's inspiring leadership, the Eighth Army turned around with a speed that amazed foreign observers. As for talk of being driven off the Korean peninsula, Ridgeway was contemptuous, though he did order that defenses in depth be built around Pusan as a fallback position.

On 29 December, the US Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) sent a directive to MacArthur, saying that resources would not be provided to support the wider war he so greatly desired. The directive merely provoked MacArthur, who replied the next day with hysterical demands for a blockade of the Chinese coast; air and naval attacks on Chinese industrial capacity; reinforcement of the UNC in Korea by Nationalist Chinese forces; and a lifting of all restrictions on the Nationalists that blocked direct attacks on China. The general felt that if he hit China that hard, "it would remove her as a further threat in Asia for generations to come."

After a pause in the fighting, the Reds began a third push on 31 December, quickly taking Seoul. Despite the pressure from the enemy, MacArthur's demands fell on deaf ears, which further provoked the general into accusations against the JCS and the Truman Administration. On 12 January, the JCS issued another directive re-affirming the status quo, with Truman sending a letter to encourage MacArthur the next day. Worse for MacArthur, a few days after that a group of high officials flew into Korea to inspect the situation, to observe first-hand the magic that Ridgeway had performed in revitalizing the Eighth Army. MacArthur was gloomy, but the people on the line were feeling increasingly confident.

It was about time: the Communist drive was running out of steam as it outstripped its supply lines. Chinese forces had suffered plenty of casualties to that time; the survivors were pushing through harsh weather into a line of defense that was growing stronger by the day, occupied by an adversary with far greater resources and firepower. [TO BE CONTINUED]

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[THU 03 JUL 14] GIMMICKS & GADGETS

* GIMMICKS & GADGETS: A note from WIRED Online blogs noted how heavily modern cars are wired with electronic gadgetry, one example being rear-view cameras feeding a display on the dashboard. Indeed, the future car is likely to have a handful of cameras, not just to allow the driver to see behind, but to allow a "smart car" to watch the road itself. That leads to the question: do we really need rear-view mirrors any longer?

Skeptics of high-tech gadgetry point out that rear-view mirrors are cheap, simple, and reliable, while cameras and displays are not. Advocates point out that rear-view mirrors not only have a limited field of view, they're not optimally placed to be inspected on a continuous basis. A dashboard display is much easier to see, and digital smarts can use the cameras to detect hazards -- try that trick with a rear-view mirror. In addition, side mirrors contribute from 2% to 7% of total aerodynamic drag.

So can we expect rear-view mirrors to disappear from cars any time soon? Maybe not soon. Federal regulators have announced that all cars with a weight of less than 4,500 kilograms (10,000 pounds) must have back-up cameras, but that doesn't mean the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is thinking of doing away with the requirement that autos have rear-view mirrors. Along with Federal regulations, US states tend to have regulations mandating rear-view mirrors as well. The bottom line is that the rear-view mirror will go away, but only if the replacement is shown to be superior beyond all sensible argument.

ED: I'm curious about the possibility of fold-down rear view mirrors. In stowed position, they would contribute little to drag; they would only be deployed, possibly by a control that could be activated from the driver's seat, if the rear view camera failed. Internal adjustments to rear-view mirrors are nothing new or unusual, after all.

* In other automotive news, the fact that electric vehicles (EVs) are very quiet at low speeds, and so a threat to inattentive pedestrians, was mentioned here in 2008. As discussed by BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK, some makers of EVs, worried about liability, are taking the matter to heart. German auto giant Daimler, parent company of Mercedes-Benz, has installed an audio system on its e-Smart city EV to produce "sonorous purring" that makes its presence known, the purr getting louder as the car speeds up. The larger Mercedes SLS AMG Coupe Electric Drive has a huskier sound, giving an impression of more power. The Nissan Leaf EV also has an artificial sound, while Renault offers a programmable system on its Zoe, Kangoo, and Tiwzy EVs -- pure, glam, and sport.

EV makers have mixed feelings about synthetic noise. EVs are hardly taking the world by storm, so there's a reluctance to make them any more expensive, and also a reluctance to corrupt the silence of an EV by adding noise -- BMW says they won't add noise unless forced to by legislation, while Tesla Motors' Elon Musk says it would be more sensible to have cars detect people in range and then emit a gentle sound as a warning. On the other side of the coin, EV makers don't want EVs to get a reputation as killers, and also fear government regulation on the issue. The European Union is considering such legislation, while a United Nations council focused on global transport is working on guidelines.

* In still more automotive news, TIME reports that drivers in India have one criteria for buying a car not necessarily found elsewhere: it's got to have a properly loud horn. Indians make generous use of the horn in traffic and regard it as an essential feature, one driver saying: "With a horn not so loud, you can't wade through the traffic."

That reduces the streets to non-stop racket of course, and two teams of researchers in Mumbai have been trying to figure out technical solutions to the problem of automotive noise pollution. Jayraj Salgaonkar, a member of the first group, commented: "People take pride in honking their horn. There's an ego trip over having a car."

The urge might not be so strong if people had to pay for their horn usage. Salgaonkar's team has developed a "horn usage meter" that limits a car's amount of honking. Cities would mandate the use of the meter, and the police could hand out a ticket if the driver exceeds the limit. The second team is working on a red button that flashes a frowning face at the driver when the horn is honked, in hopes of getting the driver to think the matter over a bit. In the meantime, citizens are trying to see if persuasion will help: a group of campaigners in New Delhi has distributed "Do Not Honk!" stickers while others in southern Bangalore launched an "I Won't Honk Campaign", backed by cricketer Rahul Dravid.

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[WED 02 JUL 14] SWARM ENGINEERING / TAKING THE HIT

* SWARM ENGINEERING: Insect "swarm intelligence" is a hot research field at present. As reported by AAAS SCIENCE NOW a team under David Hu, a mechanical engineer at the Georgia Institute of Technology, is investigating what might be called "swarm structures" assembled by fire ants.

Fire ants are natives of the flood plains of Brazil, and they have to deal with periodic downpours that require them to pack up and move. They and army ants have acquired the ability to clump together to form structures, such as rafts and bridges, to get to safety. The bridges usually lack sturdy supports and hang between leaves or reeds that vibrate in wind or water currents. Hu and his grad student Sulisay Phonekeo collected wild fire ants to see how their bridges survive vibrations.

The ants naturally clump together and can be pulled like taffy into a bridge. Phonekeo suspended these living spans between the ends of two funnels and used time-lapse video to observe how they survived shaking at different frequencies. When he subjected the bridge to less than 20 vibrations per second, nothing happened -- but with more intense shaking, the ants pulled themselves closer together, tightening their grips on one another and shortening the bridge.

The ants also have a swarm intelligence scheme for where they go in the bridge; they tend to accumulate at the ends of the bridge, giving it a sturdier support, while moving spontaneously to plug weak sections or holes in the bridge. Exactly how the message gets out that plugging is required is a topic for further research; certainly there's no overall manager directing ants to where they're needed, the task being performed by individual ants on their own. The Georgia Tech researchers believe their research should be of interest to those working on self-assembling robots and self-repairing materials.

* TAKING THE HIT: Another note on insect behavior from AAAS SCIENCE NOW online posed the question: why can mosquitoes attack us when it's raining? A raindrop might weigh 50 times as much as a mosquito, and such a raindrop hitting the pest would be, scaled up to our size, the equivalent of a human being hit by a bus, the impact shock running to about 300 gees. How does the little mosquito survive?

Of course, scaling means a great deal in biosystems; for example, a mosquito has little problem flying, since the air is viscous at its scale and it's more like swimming through thin water -- while, on the other side of the coin, surface tension means more to a mosquito and a raindrop is much more solid to it than to us. A team of researchers under mechanical engineer David Hu at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta looked at the matter, using close-up video and mathematical analysis to show that a mosquito can shrug off the biggest raindrop.

Hu's team is well-established for its studies of interactions between animals and water, for example examining how dogs dry off by shaking themselves. To study mosquitoes versus rain, the researchers built a "flight arena", an acrylic cage with sides 20 centimeters (8 inches) tall and covered with mesh; mosquitoes introduced into the arena couldn't escape, but they could be hit with water jets. They first put six Anopheles mosquitoes, the vector for malaria, into the arena, and then hit them with jets of water with a velocity matching that of raindrops falling 10 meters (33 feet), with the results observed by a high-speed camera that could grab 4,000 frames per second.

The result was something like insect pinball; all six mosquitoes were able to extricate themselves from the drop after falling about 13 body lengths, to continue on their flight. A second test was run with 20 mosquitoes and a slower water jet; it revealed that the impacts were usually not direct hits, being glancing blows that caused the insects to pitch, roll, or yaw. Even when they took a direct hit, they could recover after falling about 20 body lengths.

The suspicion was that the raindrops, even though they were so much bigger than the mosquitoes, didn't do them much harm because not much energy or momentum was transferred to the light mosquitoes -- and though the mosquitoes were put through big massive accelerations, they were strong enough to shrug them off. Experiments with drop impacts on mosquito-sized styrofoam spheres showed that the drops indeed lost little energy; as far as toughness went, measurements of forces applied to mosquitoes showed they could easily tolerate five times the force of impact of a raindrop. Mosquitoes may seem fragile when we swat them, but at their scale their bodies are far tougher than ours. The investigation seems more fun than significant, though it may provide insights into the construction and operation of insect-sized drone flying machines.

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[TUE 01 JUL 14] ANOTHER MONTH

* ANOTHER MONTH: As discussed by THE ECONOMIST, the buses that cruise the streets of Freetown, the capitol of Sierra Leone, often sport religious slogans, invoking Jesus or Allah -- the country being home to both Christians and Muslims. One bus, however, proclaims: GOD LOVES ALLAH.

Not really a joke; Sierra Leone embraces freedom of belief to the extent that it's not unusual for citizens to be both Christian and Muslim. Hassan Kargbo is one such "ChrisMus", going to a mosque every day but attending church on Sunday: "I see it as the same religion. All of us say it's the same God that we're worshipping."

Kelfala Conteh, a caretaker at the oldest mosque in Freetown, commented: "Of course [Christians] come here. We have both Christians and Muslims praying side by side. No fighting. Jesus was the messenger to tell the people to worship the one God. I respect him after Muhammed. I believe in the Bible and the Koran."

Sierra Leone is on the borderline between Africa's Muslim north and Christian south, that border country being generally noted by religious factionalism and violence, particularly from Islamic militancy. In Sierra Leone the president, Ernest Bai Koroma, is a Christian, but most of the voters who put him into office were Muslims. His vice-president is a Muslim. Marriages across religious lines are common, as are conversions -- and though Sierra Leone had a vicious civil war in the 1990s, religion had little or nothing to do with it. A Freetown Muslim named Wurie Bah summed up the mindset: "We all believe in one God. If my friends invite me to church, of course I will go."

* Back in February, I mentioned taking a TIME survey on my liberal to conservative standing, to find to my surprise that I was biased towards conservative. I ran across a PewResearch survey along similar lines and went through it, to find that I was categorized among the 12% of the population labeled as "Next Generation Left":

BEGIN QUOTE:

Generally young, well-educated, and financially comfortable, the Next Generation Left have very liberal attitudes on many issues, including homosexuality, abortion, the environment, and foreign policy. While overall supportive of an activist government, most are wary of expanding the social safety net. Most also have relatively positive views of Wall Street's impact on the economy. While most affiliate with the Democratic Party or lean Democratic, few consider themselves strong Democrats.

END QUOTE

Other than not being young and only being a Democrat to the extent of lacking an attractive alternative, that was spot on, placing me in the center-Left. The PewResearch survey was far better put together than the TIME survey, asking much more penetrating questions. It also allowed me to pass on questions that I had no definite opinion on, and it seems sensibly factored my neutrality on those matters into the result.

* On my road trip to Arizona in April, I got to thinking that it was time to phase out my MP3 CD player in my car and go full digital, being tired of disks in general and the player showing signs of fatigue anyway. After I got back, I investigated possibilities on Amazon.com, and found an interesting gadget: a digital music player that plugged into my car cigarette lighter, and transmitted the music stream to the car sound system on a set of FM broadcast radio channels.

I thought it was a clever idea, though it was so simple that it couldn't be anything very new; poking around later in Amazon reviews suggested such gadgets have been around since at least 2008. Could it do the trick? I was a bit uncertain about using FM radio to transmit tunes, since I'd tinkered some years back with using an FM transmitter from my PC to send tunes to radios around my house -- to find the exercise half-baked, more bother than it was worth. However, the transmitter would be so close to the radio in the car that reception was unlikely to be a problem. There were a number of such products, some down to about ten bucks, but user reviews said the cheapos were, to no surprise, junk. I picked one up that had reasonable reviews for $30 USD.

I was hoping to take it on my spring road trip to the northwest in May, but it didn't arrive soon enough. It was waiting for me on my doorstep when I got back home. It could accept both an SD flash card and a USB flash drive; I loaded up a 2 GB SD card with some tunes, popped it into the player, and then shoved the player into the lighter socket in my car. The lighter is under the center dashboard station and I feared the player would be hard for me to see and get to, but it could pivot upward and presented me with a nice, highly visible red LED display. The only problem is that I have to look down to adjust the player, which isn't good in lively traffic.

car digital music player

Trying to get the player to work was tricky; the instructions were written in stilted English but not too bad, it was just not simple to use. The player itself had minimal controls -- MENU, MEMORY, plus BACK, START-STOP, and FORWARD buttons -- and an alphanumeric display that could only display a few letters. It took me a while to notice that MENU and MEMORY also had associated little red LED indicator lights beneath them. The player came with a remote that had well more buttons, and so I assumed the instructions were written around it. After some confusion, I realized that no, the instructions referred to the five buttons on the player. Executing some functions meant five or six keypresses.

I went through multiple sessions trying to configure the player. Getting it to play was straightforward enough, I was quickly listening to music through my FM radio. It sounded muddy; in a following session, I figured out that turning down the bass to zero and turning up the treble to max made it sound much more satisfactory. There was a dynamic balance setting as well; I wasn't sure what it did, but the tunes sounded better once I turned it on. OK, it wasn't hi-fidelity, but given the relatively high ambient noise level in my little Toyota, high fidelity wouldn't be noticeable anyway.

What proved particularly tricky was configuring the FM channel settings. I could preset seven different FM channels, and jump from one to the other by pressing the MEMORY button -- so if I were driving cross-country and collided with an FM broadcast station on one channel, I could easily jump to another. I was hoping that the seven channels were predefined, since it was likely given FM channel spacings that a few would work in any given location by the throw of the dice, but no, I had to set them. The button sequence was tricky and it took me several sessions to figure out how to set the channels, but I finally nailed them all.

I had fun going up the learning curve, session by session, starting out baffled, learning how to do one thing and then running into an obstacle, fixing that in the next session and running into another obstacle, until I'd got the thing to work easily. It didn't really make any difference: I did a second Spokane trip in June and didn't have to change channels.

I really like the player, it was just what was needed for my car. The command interface is tricky, I had to write a "cheat sheet" on an index card since I couldn't remember it all, but having done that it was no problem. It's easy to enhance the set of tunes on the player; I don't have to burn a CD-ROM every time I want to change something, and I've got effectively as much memory capacity as I want, up to 32 GB, or 64 GB if I use both an SD card and a USB flash drive. That would be absurd, about a month and a half's continuous music if I assume a minute of music per a megabyte of storage. I have a suspicion that eventually gadgets like this will have a bluetooth interface to work with a remote, and that apps will be available to allow them to be more easily configured with a cellphone or tablet. If there's standard technology available, why not use it?

* In other accidental learning experiences, the USB keyboard for my desktop PC was wearing out -- worked fine mechanically, it was just the text was wearing off some of the keys, which made typing slightly annoying. I bought a new cheap keyboard at Walmart and swapped them out, which led me to untangling the mess of cables I had behind my PC. I had a four-port powered USB hub in the tangle, hanging behind my work table like a fly trapped in a spiderweb; I fished it out, untangled the cables, and set it behind the phone on my desk. Yes, I still have a landline phone, though it makes me feel behind the times.

That was an improvement, but the power adapter cable to the USB hub had been pulled loose a long time ago, and when I plugged it back in, the hub lit up a bright blue LED. It was no bother during the day, but that night I'd wake up and find the room bathed in an eerie blue glow. Preferring the dark, I wondered if I could improvise some sort of case for the USB hub to block the light.

After I got up in the morning, I got to thinking I might just wrap the hub up in a hand towel. I did so, and it neatly suppressed the light; the hub didn't draw enough power to make overheating a concern. Having done that, I got to looking at the rat's nest of cables I had on my desk, and decided to bundle up the slack in the cables, snug the bundles with tie-wraps, and then hide them in the rolled-up towel as well. When I was done, my workspace was far neater than it ever had been.

It bugged me a bit, since I realized I could have done it years ago -- but it had just never occurred to me. How many more things are there in my life that are staring me in the face, but I can't see? On the plus side, that does mean I never stop learning something new and interesting.

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