* 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.
* Space launches for November included:
-- 03 NOV 14 / SHIJIAN 11-08 -- A Chinese Long March 2C booster was launched from Jiuquan at 0659 GMT (local time - 8) to put the "Shijian 11-08" experimental satellite into space; "shijian" is Chinese for "practice". The spacecraft was developed by China Spacesat Company LTD, under the supervision of the state-owned China Aerospace Science & Technology Corporation. The function of the Shijian 11 satellite series is unkown; they are suspected to be missile launch early warning satellites.
-- 06 NOV 14 / ASNARO 1, SMALLSATS x 4 -- A Russian Dnepr booster, a converted SS-18 SATAN missile, was launched from Dombarovsky at 0735 GMT (local time - 4) to put the "Advanced Satellite with New System Architecture for Observation 1 (ASNARO 1)" Earth observation satellite into orbit.
ASNARO 1 was developed by Nippon Electric (NEC) Corporation and was the first flight of the "NEXTAR" standard minisatellite bus, devised by a collaboration between NEC and the Japanese space agency JAXA. The program was under the umbrella of Japan Space Systems, a government-chartered non-profit organization under contract to Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, with NEC hoping to sell low-cost observation satellites on the export market.
There are three size ranges in the NEXTAR series, including the "NEXTAR-100L", the "NEXTAR-300L", and "NEXTAR-500L", with the relatively small size tailored to the new JAXA Epsilon booster. They consist of a standard bus containing satellite support systems with well-defined interfaces for payloads and support for autonomous operations, as well as well-defined communications links and ground support systems. ANSNARO 1 is based on the NEXTAR-300L bus and had a launch mass of almost 500 kilograms. It carried a visible-light camera with a best resolution of 50 centimeters (20 inches), sending imagery back to the ground through an X-band datalink. ASNARO 2 will carry an X-band synthetic aperture radar, while ASNARO 3 will carry a hyperspectral imager.
Four smaller satellites accompanied ASNARO 1 to orbit:
-- 14 NOV 14 / YAOGAN 23 -- A Chinese Long March 2C booster was launched from Taiyuan at 1853 GMT (next day local time - 8) to put the "Yaogan 23" satellite into orbit. It was described as an Earth observation satellite, but was apparently an imaging radar surveillance satellite.
-- 20 NOV 14 / YAOGAN 24 -- A Chinese Long March 2D booster was launched from Jiuquan at 0712 GMT (local time - 8) to put the "Yaogan 24" satellite into orbit. It was described as an Earth observation satellite, but was believed to be a Jianbing 6 electro-optic military surveillance satellite.
-- 21 NOV 14 / KUAIZHOU 2 -- A Chinese Kuaizhou booster was launched from Jiuquan at 0637 GMT (local time - 8) to put the "Kuaizhou 2" satellite into space. This was the second launch of the Kuaizhou booster. Kuaizhou 1 was described as an Earth resources survey satellite, but it appears the Kuaizhou booster is a fast-reaction launch vehicle for military payloads. It it believed to have three solid-fuel stages and a liquid-fuel upper stage, which is integrated with the payload, and to be launched from a wheeled mobile transporter.
-- 23 NOV 14 / SOYUZ ISS 41S (ISS) -- A Russian Soyuz-Fregat booster was launched from Baikonur in Kazakhstan at 0901 GMT (local time - 6) to put the "Soyuz ISS 41S" AKS "Soyuz TMA-15M" manned space capsule into orbit on an International Space Station (ISS) support mission. The crew consisted of commander Anton Shkaplerov of Russia / RKA (second space flight), flight engineer Samantha Cristoforetti of Italy / ESA (first space flight), and Terry Virts of the US / NASA (second space flight). The Soyuz capsule was launched on a "direct ascent" trajectory and docked with the ISS less than six hours after liftoff. They joined the ISS "Expedition 42" crew of commander Barry "Butch" Wilmore, Alexander Samokutyaev, and Elena Serova, who were launched to the station on 25 September.
-- 28 NOV 14 / GLONASS K -- A Soyuz 2-1b booster was launched from Plesetsk Northern Cosmodrome in Russia at 2152 GMT (next day local time - 4) to put a "GLONASS K" navigation satellite into orbit.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* NO STRINGS ATTACHED: Although no one can sensibly deny that people are motivated by self-interest, on the other side of that coin they also have a sincere inclination to charity. However, they also often have misgivings about their charity -- wondering if it really does any good, or if it ends up doing more harm than good.
As discussed by an article in THE ECONOMIST ("Pennies From Heaven", 26 October 2013), there seems to be a certain Zen to the matter. Consider Gabriel Otieno Anoche, a poor twenty-something carpenter living in Western Kenya. He came home one day to find that strangers had simply handed his wife a mobile phone -- a nice enough thing for a poor person in itself, but it was also hooked up to a bank account seeded with $1,000 USD, which could be spent as desired.
The gifts, in a sense, descended from heaven. A satellite survey of the region was inspected by "crowd-sourced" workers in the Philippines, working for the charity Give Directly; they observed that Anoche's house had a thatched instead of metal roof, the thatched roof demonstrating his poverty. Give Directly personnel, using money contributed by Google and Facebook, then showed up at Anoche's doorstep.
The idea of simply handing out money sounds to most people as nuts as tossing it out of a helicopter, but it reflects a shift in thinking: that more often than not people are responsible; that poor people have strong incentive to make the best use of whatever resources they get; that they have a better idea of what they really need than strangers do; and that scammers will figure out how to game the system, no matter what anyone does. This is something of a new idea, the traditional approach to aid being for governments, charities and development banks to build schools and hospitals, roads and ports, irrigation pipes, and electric networks -- necessarily run by large bureaucracies.
That's generally a good thing; schools and irrigation systems are very useful, and despite the prejudice against them, bureaucracies are not necessarily incompetent or overbearing. However, people began to wonder if other useful things could be done as well. From around 2000, governments began to give poor households small stipends to spend as they wished, on condition that their children went to school or visited a doctor regularly. These "conditional cash transfers (CCTs)" first appeared in Latin America and then spread around the world. Again, they didn't replace building schools; they had their own priorities, such as supporting individual household budgets and helping women, most of the payments going to mothers. They were also cheap to run.
Now projects such as Give Directly in Kenya are asking if the conditions are really needed; if not, wouldn't "unconditional cash transfers (UCT)" be even cheaper to administer than CCTs? Having been put to the test by various charitable organizations, early results show that UCTs work just as well or better than CCTs in helping people out of poverty.
When Give Directly's founder, Michael Faye, went to traditional aid donors with his free-money idea, he recalls: "They thought I was smoking crack." Wouldn't people blow it on booze and brothels? Wouldn't it encourage scammers and deadbeats? However, Faye discovered that Silicon Valley liked the idea, in part because Give Directly had something of a "start-up" company mentality. Google donated $2.4 million USD, while Facebook chipped in $600,000 USD.
So far, results are encouraging: giving money away unconditionally does help poor people improve their lives. Some of it does end up being squandered, but that's the exception, not the rule, and all aid programs suffer from wastage. However, throwing the money out of helicopters isn't the way it's done, the approach does require careful consideration of who to give the money to. Give Directly crunches census data to identify Kenya's poorest districts -- which includes Anoche's village of Koga, near Lake Victoria. The charity outsources the nitpicking job of distinguishing tin roofs from thatch to a crowdsourced web service called "Mechanical Turk", mentioned here in 2012. Field workers visit the villages with GPS devices to register beneficiaries and distribute cash using M-Pesa, Kenya's mobile money system.
Anoche of course promptly replaced his thatched roof; thatch tends to leak, and it also has to be replaced twice a year, at $40 USD a pop. He spent half the money on his home, the other half to buy timber and chickens. Now he has business activities that bring in almost $90 USD a month. He commented: "If you've got the money and the mindset, you can change your life."
Unconditional cash transfer programs have their failures. Sometimes the money is squandered, but preliminary studies show them to be generally effective, though Give Directly still has obstacles to overcome. In one village, some recipients thought the money came from Barack Obama, his father having come from their tribe.
UCT programs appear to do better than job-training programs, generally preferred by mainstream ad agencies. They seem to do even better than secondary education, which pushes up wages in poor countries by 10% to 15% for each extra year of schooling. They also outscore CCTs, which tend to be more constrained by bureaucratic considerations.
It might seem from the surprising success of UCT programs that they are superior to CCT programs. However, CCTs are necessarily more focused and the grants are smaller, meaning more people helped by the same amount of money. Whether UCTs or CCTs are preferred depends on circumstances: UCTs focus on providing ad-hoc assistance in the short term, CCTs tend to focus on education and health care, meaning a payoff over the longer term.
The biggest CCT programs are Brazil's Bolsa Familia and Mexico's Oportunidades. They are credited with cutting poverty and boosting literacy in Latin America's largest countries. They have helped tens of millions, not just tens of thousands. In an interesting experiment, a program in Ghana took both the UCT and CCT routes. The Ghanaian programme gave small sums ($120 USD) to a random selection of business owners, some unconditionally, some requiring the owner to buy something the firm. The firms that got the conditional transfers ended up becoming more profitable than the "controls".
UCTs do best in conditions where the problem is simply that people don't have enough money. If there's other problems, such as lack of education and medical care, CCTs do better. Charities that don't really have the manpower to conduct widespread social programs may find UCTs perfectly tailored to their efforts; but for governments, CCTs win hands down.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* WILL APPLE PAY FLY? On 20 October 2014, following the release of the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus, the Apple company unveiled their new "mobile payments" scheme, named "Apple Pay". As reported by an article from TIME magazine ("The Apple Pay Effect" by Victor Luckerson, 3 November 2014), industry observers see causes for both caution and optimism in the exercise.
The caution is due because there's uncertainty how much the world needs mobile payments. It is certainly true that cash is being used for an even-decreasing amount of payments and may cease to exist completely sometime over the horizon -- but is there a compelling need to buy things with a smartphone? Although Americans are expected to spend $4.9 billion USD in stores via smartphones this year, that has to be compared to the $4.8 trillion USD they'll spend with charge cards. The US, lagging the world with magstrip charge card technology, does have a security problem with the existing electronic payment technology -- but smart cards are expected to emerge in 2015, the charge card firms having set a deadline of October 2015 to make the conversion.
Google tried to take on mobile payments with Google Wallet, and went nowhere in any hurry. Apple, however, has traditionally viewed their product offerings from a systems perspective, and the company has done everything they could think of to make Apple Pay fly. To start working with Apple Pay, Alice just takes pictures of her charge cards with her smartphone, and selects one as the default. When she wants to make a purchase at a vendor, she holds up the smartphone, or conceivably a smartwatch, to a near-field wireless reader, with the Apple Pay app coming up automatically -- no need to log into the phone. She either uses the default card or selects an alternate; in any case, to complete the transaction, she presses her thumb to the thumbprint reader on the phone, and the transaction is completed.
The purchase is logged on her smartphone. The vendor never actually sees the charge card number; it's passed on to the card service company, the vendor only getting a one-time "dynamic code" -- meaning hacker break-ins to vendor computing systems won't yield lists of charge card numbers. Apple gets a small cut out of every transaction. In principle, Alice could scan a product in a store with her smartphone camera and make the purchase then and there; or she could order in advance from a restaurant from a menu displayed on the smartphone or tablet, pay for the order, then come in and pick it up.
Apple has also worked to line up a set of payment apps with Apple Pay, and has been careful to line up powerful allies in launching Apple Pay, including McDonald's, Walgreens, & Bloomingdales; Chase Bank and Bank of America; plus Visa, American Express, and MasterCard. It is particularly significant that Apple has lined up with the big charge card companies, ensuring that Apple will work with them and not against them. Indeed, it was the charge card companies that came up with the dynamic code scheme; they saw Apple as the player big enough to implement it.
Unfortunately, Apple Pay is missing several significant elements:
These deficiencies will be addressed, but there's a bigger issue, in that mobile payments are now entering the standards war phase. Giant Walmart has snubbed Apple Pay, working with Best Buy and others to set up a competing mobile payment scheme named "ConnectC" that does include loyalty features; a group of mobile service providers is pushing another scheme named "Softcard", while Paypal is working on a mobile payment scheme as well. There's nothing new about standards wars, of course; in the end, only one at most will be left. Given the clout of Apple, Apple Pay may be the one to bet on.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* FECAL TRANSPLANTS GO MAINSTREAM (2): Some doctors hardly needed formal trials to be convinced of the effectiveness of fecal transplants. One, Thomas Borody of the Australian Centre for Digestive Diseases in Five Dock, has performed fecal transplants in more than 3,000 patients. He's used the procedure not only to treat C. difficile infections, but also irritable bowel syndrome; inflammatory bowel syndrome; constipation; arthritis; and even inflammations associated with lower back pain. Borody has published some of his results, one example being a 2012 paper in which he reported improvements in 92% of 62 ulcerative colitis patients and full recovery in 68% from fecal transplants.
However, although Borody's work is highly respected, he's never carried out formal trials. Other advocates of fecal transplants have reported at least some effectiveness in non-gastrointestinal disorders that appear to be linked to changes in microbial flora, including Parkinson's, autism, and multiple sclerosis -- but these claims are based on small samples of cases, leaving them open to doubt. Although there's plenty of enthusiasm for fecal transplants in the medical community, but wider the claims made for it, the more doubts increase. Although Borody criticized Nieudorp's C. difficile trial as unneeded given the strong evidence in that particular case -- comparing it to a trial on whether parachutes actually save lives -- the more claims are made for fecal transplants, the more the need for controlled trials becomes evident.
Such trials are in progress, including one on ulcerative colitis at McMaster University in Hamilton, Canada, with Borody working on a similar study; as well as one in Crohn's disease at Nanjing Medical University in China. Nieudorp is working on a new trial investigating "metabolic syndrome", a metabolic disorder that is often a precursor to diabetes. Lawrence Brandt of the Montefiore Medical Center in New York City, a long-time fecal transplant pioneer, is performing a study on recurrent C. difficile infections that is blinded and includes a placebo group, with patients given transplants of their own stool. That design is now standard.
* As fecal transplants have become more popular, doctors have been seeing an opportunity to make good profits from what amounts to a cheap procedure. A do-it-yourself industry has also sprung up, with internet websites and YouTube videos showing how people can administer their own fecal transplants. Advocates are not at all happy about that development, seeing considerable potential for harm in fecal transplants performed in such a slapdash fashion. Donor stool is usually screened for pathogens such as HIV, hepatitis B and C, and so on -- but even that's not enough for complete confidence, since we really don't know a great deal about microbiome and the health effects of variations in its composition. Khorus is very careful to screen donors, accepting samples for freezing in a donor bank after running them through a long list of criteria.
That leads to the complicated issue of figuring out how the transplants actually work. What happens to the donor populations after they've been transplanted? Which thrive, which die out, and how do they all interact with existing micro-organisms? Willem de Vos, a microbial ecologist at Wageningen University in the Netherlands -- a specialist in the anaerobic bacteria that dominate the human gut, who has collaborated with Nieudorp -- commented: "We have shown that in C. difficile patients, some important species are absent, while others you don't want are dominant."
De Vos' research has also shown that the low microbial diversity in C. difficile patients is comparable to that of a one-year-old child -- but that following a transplant, anaerobic bacteria from a donor do settle in and restore a healthy microbiome. Nieudorp also works with Fredrik Baeckhed of the University of Gothenberg in Sweden, who runs a facility to raise mice without a microbiome in a sterile environment, the sanitized mice being used to study different bacterial sets. [TO BE CONTINUED]COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* THE COLD WAR (48): Eisenhower's "Atoms for Peace" initiative was intriguing in several ways. It did not call for disarmament as such; it instead proposed that the global production of fissionable materials be diverted to peaceful purposes, with the IAEA supervising the stockpiling and distribution of those materials. It would sap momentum from the nuclear arms race by ensuring that not all fissionable material ended up in bombs, and would not require any intrusive inspections -- the IAEA would get fissionable materials that the nations participating in the effort committed to provide. Knowing the Soviets would never be happy if the US remained in the lead in production of fissionable materials, Eisenhower was prepared to have the USA become the biggest donor to the IAEA.
Sadly, "Atoms for Peace" was a fizzle. The Soviets were simply not interested; the scheme simply did not provide remotely enough incentive for them to slow down their efforts to catch up with the USA in nuclear strength, even though the sensible on both sides realized the race was driving off into the absurd. In addition, the underlying vision of nuclear power in service to humanity would prove naive, atomic power eventually becoming far more controversial than most could have seen in 1953.
It is unclear just how much stock Eisenhower placed in Atoms for Peace: by appearances, he was enthusiastic, but he was perfectly capable of hidden agendas, and the cynical have suggested he was merely out to gain propaganda points. That might well have been the truth, but the proposal in itself had plenty of merit.
In April and May 1954, the hearing that Robert Oppenheimer had demanded to address the charges against him was finally held, and did not go well for Oppenheimer. His associations with Reds -- including his brother Frank -- were established, as well as the fact that he had lied to government investigators on such matters. Edward Teller testified against him, saying: "I would feel personally more secure if public matters would rest in other hands."
The end result was that Oppenheimer was disgraced and his influence in the government was at an end. Aside from the personal humiliation, which he had to a degree brought on himself by his dishonesty, he was not otherwise penalized, continuing his career in academia. Some of Oppenheimer's colleagues just shrugged at his disconnect from the government, one saying that if the government "didn't want to consult with the guy, then don't consult with him."
The hearing had been something of a farce, not reflecting well on any of the participants. However, there was a strong sense in the science and academic communities that Oppenheimer had been wronged, and the assault on him was nothing but a cover for a McCarthyist assault on liberal academia. Wernher von Braun told a Congressional committee: "In England, Oppenheimer would have been knighted." Instead, he was publicly disgraced. Teller was, on the other side of that coin, largely ostracized by the science community. In consequence, Teller would strengthen his connections with the power elite, single-mindedly doing what he could to accelerate the arms race.
Eisenhower took a dim view of lobbying by Teller and others for more Bombs, but in the end the president went along with it: his "Atoms for Peace" initiative having been a flop, he could see no real alternative to arming to the teeth. There was little domestic protest over the US nuclear arms buildup in that era of anti-Communist sentiment. The US was enjoying peace and an economic boom, the Eisenhower Administration being notably friendly to businesses; Eisenhower's cabinet was described as composed of "eight millionaires and a plumber", the "plumber" being a plumber's union official. The general mood was happy, tagged by the popular slogan of "I Like Ike!"
Eisenhower was able to successfully pursue both guns and butter, while being careful not to rock the boat: he had little sympathy with the growing American civil rights movement, doing no more than implementing Supreme Court decisions against Southern racial segregation with a notable lack of enthusiasm. Admittedly, the racial division of American society was a tough problem: FDR had tiptoed around it, Truman's efforts to confront it made only limited progress, and changing the attitudes of Americans was going to take time and a lot of effort. However, Eisenhower could not see that, at the height of a Cold War against the tyranny of Communism, America's claim to be the leader of the "Free World" was undercut by blatant social injustice at home. [TO BE CONTINUED]COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* SCIENCE NOTES: As discussed by a note from AAAS SCIENCE NOW Online ("Two Hundred & Nineteen Million Stars, & Counting" by Sid Perkins, 16 September 2014), astronomical surveys and extensive star catalogs are nothing new, but given 21st-century "big data", they've become more ambitious.
A ten-year survey of our Milky Way galaxy has resulted in a digital catalog including over 219 million stars. Observations for the catalog were obtained using a 2.5 meter telescope in the Canary Islands, with more than 7,600 images taken of a 10 degree by 185 degree swath of sky, including an edge-on view of the galactic main. In the regions not blocked by interstellar dust, individual stars as dim as magnitude 20 were logged, such stars being a millionth as bright as the dimmest stars visible to the human eye. In the central regions of the Galaxy, the team logged about 300,000 stars for each square degree of sky.
The corresponding digital catalog provides more than 99 bits of data for each of the objects, including information about each star's position, shape, and brightness in various wavelengths. That's about three gigabytes of data in all, impressive if not in the same league as most "big data" projects. Unfortunately, uncooperative weather meant that about 8% of the target area couldn't be properly observed in the survey up to its end in November 2012 -- but since that time, follow-up observations have filled in about half the gaps. Future efforts will survey the same region of sky in different wavelengths to fill out the catalog entries.
* As reported by a note from AAAS SCIENCE NOW, it was learned a few years back that dolphins will imitate whale calls -- that is, it seems dolphins can "speak whale". Now it seem whales can "speak dolphin" as well.
Researchers studied the vocal repertoires of 10 captive orcas (killer whales), three of which lived with bottlenose dolphins, and the other seven with their own kind. Of the 1,551 vocalizations these seven orcas made, more than 95% were the typical pulsed calls of killer whales. In contrast, the three orcas that had only dolphins as pals busily whistled and emitted dolphinlike click trains and terminal buzzes. What they're saying -- who knows but them and the dolphins?
* As reported by an article from SPACE.COM ("Want to Colonize an Alien Planet? Send 40,000 People" by Mike Wall, 30 July 2014), Dr. Cameron Smith, an anthropologist at Portland State University in Oregon, suggests that if we wish to set up a space colony, we'll need to do with from 20,000 to 40,000 people. A smaller population would lack the genetic and demographic diversity to thrive over the long run. Smith comments: "Do you want to just squeak by, with barely what you can get? Or do you want to go in good health? I would suggest, go with something that gives you a good margin for the case of disaster."
Scenarios for space settlements have traditionally focused on populations of a few hundred, but Smith didn't see the numbers as carefully thought out: "I wanted to revisit the issue ... we now know more about population genetics from genomics."
In his study, Smith assumed an interstellar voyage lasting roughly 150 years. Smith's calculations, leveraging off information from population genetics theory and computer modeling, point toward a founding population of 14,000 to 44,000 people. He judges 40,000 to be the most comfortable figure, with about 23,000 of the population being men and women of reproductive age:
This number would maintain good health over five generations despite (a) increased inbreeding resulting from a relatively small human population, (b) depressed genetic diversity due to the founder effect, (c) demographic change through time and (d) expectation of at least one severe population catastrophe over the five-generation voyage.
He adds: "Almost no natural populations of vertebrates dip below around five to 7,000 individuals ... when they do go below this, sometimes they survive, but many times they go into what's called a 'demographic' or 'extinction vortex'." Sending frozen sperm and eggs on the voyage might help maintain genetic diversity, but he didn't examine that issue in his paper.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* ROBOTRUCK: As reported by an article from WIRED Online blogs ("Mercedes Is Making A Self-Driving Semi To Change The Future Of Shipping" by Alex Davies, 7 October 2014), Daimler is exploring the future of highway freight haulers with the Mercedes-Benz "Future Truck 2025". The FT25 doesn't look too radical, more or less a conventional heavy hauler in appearance, with streamlining to improve fuel efficiency -- the only visible gadgets being LED light arrays, instead of conventional lights, and no rear-view mirrors, cameras doing that job.
Where the FT25 innovates is in its "Highway Pilot" automated driving system. Autonomous highway driving is far easier than navigating cities. There are no cyclists or pedestrians to watch out for, speeds are steady, and turns are minimal. The Highway Pilot system combines several established technologies that will maintain lane position and following distance using cameras and radar, with the sensors providing full coverage of the truck's surroundings. The Highway Pilot adds wireless vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communication technology to link the truck to other cars on the road, providing their exact locations and speeds. It can drive without having that data -- but it helps with issues such as moving aside for emergency vehicles, or detecting accidents ahead.
The person in charge of the FT25 on the road is designated the "transport manager", instead of a driver. Transport manager Bob drives the truck onto the highway; when it gets up to 80 KPH (50 MPH), the Highway Pilot prompts him to allow it to take over. Bob can then pivot his seat away from the dashboard, allowing him to read a book or take a nap or whatever, while the Highway Pilot navigates towards the destination using GPS guidance. If the truck approaches construction or an accident, or it's time to get off the highway, the Highway Pilot flashes a visual alert to tell Bob to take the wheel. If he doesn't, the truck will sound an alarm, and if necessary bring itself to a "controlled emergency stop".
The FT25 is a conservative approach to vehicle autonomy, and technically seems within reach. However, it's going to take some work, which is why it's been given the "2025" date. Vehicle autonomy may take longer than expected; then again, given the ferment in the field, it may come together faster than anyone thinks.
* ED: I have a suspicion, if no guarantee, that self-driving vehicles may arrive sooner than expected. Partly, as mentioned above, that's because vehicle autonomy is not an "all or nothing" proposition: the FT25 can't handle city traffic on its own, only taking over on the open road, and then reverting control to the driver when something unusual happens. Autonomous cars might well be introduced with limited capability, more to assist a driver than take full-time control, and then updated with improved control and sensor systems until they can literally drive themselves.
One element that doesn't seem to be getting much attention is the prospect of linking V2V communications to a fixed wireless road network. Intersections and freeway ramps could wirelessly identify themselves, enhancing vehicle navigation; wireless modules could be mounted on streetlights or signs. A driver could be given an alarm before, say, turning the wrong way on a one-way street. A coordinating processor system could, to a degree, optimize traffic through an entire urban area. A vehicle would tell the network where it was going, and the network would then provide the quickest route.
Indeed, we may possibly be underestimating the potential reach of a civic "internet of things". Microsoft has been working on an earphone for the blind that picks up locations, through a smartphone, from wireless "beacons" set up everywhere to identify each location and tell the wearer what it is. Such a network would be of benefit to both humans and machines, and in development not much more expensive than a streetlamp. It would be relatively straightforward to implement the nodes as streetlamps and porch lamps, possibly just by screwing in a new "bulb" and using a smartphone to configure it appropriately. Security would definitely be an issue -- the opportunities for pranksters would be tremendous -- but that's another can of worms.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* SURFING THE DARK NET: As reported by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("The Amazons Of The Dark Net", 1 November 2014), from the beginning of the public internet, it was used for criminal activities -- but it wasn't until the "Silk Road" website appeared in 2011 that the "dark net" AKA "deep web", dedicated to the criminal class, actually came of age. Silk Road was focused on drug deals; it could only be accessed via an anonymizing network scheme known as "The Onion Router (TOR)". TOR is a form of digital "shell game", in which encryption is used to make it very difficult to identify which node in the TOR network is the source of a message. Buyers and sellers conducted transactions in the similarly difficult-to-trace bitcoin cyber currency.
Silk Road was shut down in 2013 with the arrest of Ross Ulbricht, an American alleged by investigators to be The Dread Pirate Roberts, Silk Road's founder. Come 2015, Ulbricht will stand trial in New York on charges including computer hacking and money laundering. However, a "Silk Road 2.0" dark website, under new management, promptly rose from the ashes following Ulbricht's arrest -- to be swept up in turn by the authorities in November 2014.
The dark net is not invulnerable to the law; but the law can't shut it down either, with investigators engaged in a running game of "whack-a-mole" with criminals. Indeed, the dark net now features dozens of Amazon and eBay equivalents, or "crypto-markets"; they're thriving, and becoming more sophisticated. The number of FOR SALE listings in the 18 crypto-markets tracked by the Digital Citizens Alliance (DCA), an advocacy group, grew from 41,000 to 66,000 between January and August 2014. Even before Silk Road 2.0 was shut down, it had been eclipsed by two newcomers, Agora and Evolution.
The number of listings is only a rough indicator of economic activity, none of the dark net sites being inclined to announce sales data -- but it is estimated that the biggest crypto-markets turn over several million dollars a month. Users pay a fee to register and a commission per transaction, usually about 3% to 6%. Buyers are from all over the world, with purchases sent by post, most of them arriving undetected. User satisfaction with dark net sites is typically high.
Illegal and prescription drugs are the largest product category -- some sellers are crooked pharmacists. The Silk Road sites focused almost exclusively on drugs; Agora, however, deals in weapons as well. Europeans like to buy weapons from dark net sites, because it's harder to score illegal weapons in Europe. Evolution, which has been booming, is the least principled of the big players. Like the others, it does ban child pornography, but it sells stolen charge card numbers and medical information, along with guns, fake IDs, and bogus university diplomas. It includes a handy tutorials section to provide "how-to" instructions on pulling off crimes. It does draw the line at peddling contract murders, though there are small dark net sites that specialize in such activities.
For drug users, online markets offer several advantages. It's not as physically dangerous as trading on the street, and dealers find it better for their health as well. Product quality is higher, largely thanks to an Amazon-like five-star customer-review system. The dark net's hundreds of forums provide further intelligence on dodgy gear and scammers. The FBI made over 100 purchases on the original Silk Road before closing it down; FBI agents found the product impressively pure.
Dealers work hard to get good reputations, that being a critical factor when users know they can't protest a bad deal through small claims court. Indeed, the dark net has empowered users, with dealers quick to apologize for technical problems, as well as offer loyalty discounts and money-back guarantees. Dark net site operators have set up schemes to put a lid on fraud -- for example, building communities of trusted buyers and sellers, with invitation-only participation.
Sites that specialize in stolen charge card data also work at being user-friendly, for example offering a service to allow buyers to verify that a card is active, with the purchase price automatically refunded if it isn't. Others hook up charge card numbers stolen from consumers near to specific businesses, since charge card monitoring software gets suspicious of transactions that take place at businesses located far away from a consumer.
Investigators can penetrate the dark net easily enough by pretending to be players, but it's hard to nail down criminal transactions in the environment. The law can shut down dark net markets, but then players simply go to other markets. The authorities are unhappy with technologies such as TOR that make life so hard for them, but it seems the cat is out of the bag, and there's no way to suppress the technology: TOR has legitimate uses, such as protecting activists in authoritarian states. The dark net is not going away any time soon.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* FECAL TRANSPLANTS GO MAINSTREAM (1): The practice of fecal transplants, in which a sample of feces is transplanted from a donor to a patient with defective intestinal microbiome, was discussed here in 2012. AAAS SCIENCE ran a wider-ranging article on the subject ("The Promise Of Poop" by Jop de Vrieze, 30 August 2013), which described how the procedure is catching on.
In a fecal transplant, a fecal sample is obtained from a donor. There are a number of different ways to prepare the sample, but it is usually blended with a saline solution and run through a strainer; it can be frozen for storage. The patient is then flushed out to get rid of a hostile intestinal population, and the sample administered via a tube through the mouth or nostril; a deep colonscopy can also be used. Such measures may seem like unnecessary roughness, but an enema, often used by "do-it-yourself" practitioners, only reaches the lower end of the colon.
Fecal transplants have been around a long time, the oldest mention being a report by a Chinese doctor from the 4th century CE. Use of fecal transplants to treat cattle and other livestock go back to the 17th century, but their use with human patients has been sketchy. To the extent that they were used on humans, once antibiotics came into common use, they seemed like a much better way to go, and interest in fecal transplants faded away.
The rise of resistant pathogens has led to renewed interest in fecal transplants. In 2006, Max Nieuwdorp was beginning his residence at the Academic Medical Center (AMC) in Amsterdam. He was confronted with the unfortunate case of an 81-year-old woman who had been hospitalized for a urinary tract infection. That in itself should have been manageable, but she then acquired an infection of the nasty Clostridium difficile bacterium, which reduced her digestion to chaos. Worse, the C. difficile strain was resistant to antibiotics; the patient was not expected to live.
Nieudorp refused to give up. He found a 1958 paper by Ben Eiseman, a physician then at the University of Colorado, reporting on the cure of four patients with severe intestinal infections by fecal transplants. Nieudorp decided to try it on the patient; she walked out of the hospital three days later. He tried it on six more C. difficile patients, four recovering after one treatment, the other two after a second attempt. However, when he reported the results at a hospital meeting, one of the doctors sneered: "If you seriously want to treat our C. difficile patients with poop, why don't you infuse our cardiovascular patients as well?" -- and walked out of the room in a huff.
Few are sneering now, more and more doctors performing fecal transplants and finding the technique highly effective at treating stubborn C. difficile infections. Enthusiasts believe that fecal transplants might also be effective in treating other afflictions, such as inflammatory bowel disease, diabetes, and the ghostly chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS).
Ironically, Nieudorp more or less forgot about fecal transplants when he left the AMC to perform postdoc research at the University of California in San Diego. When he returned to Amsterdam in 2008, he picked up the thread again, publishing a paper on his fecal transplant cases that same year in a Dutch medical journal. The paper had no strong impact in the USA, but in 2010 THE NEW YORK TIMES ran an article describing how Alexander Khoruts, a gastroenterologist at the University of Minnesota Medical Center in Minneapolis, used fecal transplants to cure a very nasty C. difficile case.
Global interest began to rise rapidly, with Nieudorp deciding he needed to conduct a proper clinical trial. The trial compared fecal transplants with vancomycin, the usual treatment for C. difficile infections, and vancomycin combined with bowel flushing. The trial was supposed to cover 120 patients, but it was halted after just 43 -- because fecal transplants were so obviously superior to the other treatments that it would have been unethical to continue. Of the fecal transplant patients, 94% were cured, versus 31% and 23% respectively in the two control groups. [TO BE CONTINUED]COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* THE COLD WAR (47): President Eisenhower, torn between conflicting advice over America's nuclear arsenal, chose a limited step that, he hoped, would help slow down the overheated arms race and reassure the public about atomic energy. On 8 December 1953, Eisenhower addressed the General Assembly, starting out by describing the emergent nuclear standoff:
On July 16th, 1945, the United States set off the world's first atomic explosion. Since that date in 1945, the United States of America has conducted 42 test explosions. Atomic bombs today are more than 25 times as powerful as the weapons with which the atomic age dawned, while hydrogen weapons are in the ranges of millions of tons of TNT equivalent. Today, the United States' stockpile of atomic weapons, which, of course, increases daily, exceeds by many times the total equivalent of the total of all bombs and all shells that came from every plane and every gun in every theatre of war in all the years of World War II.
... But the dread secret, and the fearful engines of atomic might, are not ours alone. In the first place, the secret is possessed by our friends and allies, Great Britain and Canada, whose scientific genius made a tremendous contribution to our original discoveries and the designs of atomic bombs. The secret is also known by the Soviet Union. ... If at one time the United States possessed what might have been called a monopoly of atomic power, that monopoly ceased to exist several years ago.
... let no one think that the expenditure of vast sums for weapons and systems of defense can guarantee absolute safety for the cities and citizens of any nation. The awful arithmetic of the atomic bomb does not permit of any such easy solution. Even against the most powerful defense, an aggressor in possession of the effective minimum number of atomic bombs for a surprise attack could probably place a sufficient number of his bombs on the chosen targets to cause hideous damage. ... Surely no sane member of the human race could discover victory in such desolation. Could anyone wish his name to be coupled by history with such human degradation and destruction?
Eisenhower stated that the USA was interested in following up a UN General Assembly resolution of 18 November and have private conversations with the various players on possible solutions to the nuclear arms race. He then made a specific proposal:
The Governments principally involved, to the extent permitted by elementary prudence, [should] begin now and continue to make joint contributions from their stockpiles of normal uranium and fissionable materials to an International Atomic Energy Agency [IAEA]. We would expect that such an agency would be set up under the aegis of the United Nations.
The ratios of contributions, the procedures and other details would properly be within the scope of the "private conversations" I have referred to earlier. ... Undoubtedly initial and early contributions to this plan would be small in quantity. However, the proposal has the great virtue that it can be undertaken without the irritations and mutual suspicions incident to any attempt to set up a completely acceptable system of world-wide inspection and control.
The Atomic Energy Agency could be made responsible for the impounding, storage, and protection of the contributed fissionable and other materials. The ingenuity of our scientists will provide special safe conditions under which such a bank of fissionable material can be made essentially immune to surprise seizure.
The more important responsibility of this Atomic Energy Agency would be to devise methods whereby this fissionable material would be allocated to serve the peaceful pursuits of mankind. Experts would be mobilized to apply atomic energy to the needs of agriculture, medicine, and other peaceful activities. A special purpose would be to provide abundant electrical energy in the power-starved areas of the world. Thus the contributing powers would be dedicating some of their strength to serve the needs rather than the fears of mankind.
On summing up his ideas, Eisenhower thanked the assembly for hearing him out. He had not been interrupted during the speech, and there was a dead silence after he finished -- which then erupted into a wave of cheers that had never been exceeded in volume during the history of the UN. Even the Soviet delegates joined in. [TO BE CONTINUED]COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* GIMMICKS & GADGETS: Talk of the "internet of things" has been floating around for some years now -- the idea having been introduced with utopian optimism, which gradually ran into a thicket of ugly realities. As discussed by a note from THE ECONOMIST ("The Language Of The Internet Of Things", 6 September 2014), one of the most obvious obstacles is just giving all the different "things" a common language so they can communicate.
A group of manufacturers -- the biggest players being Haier, LG, Panasonic, Qualcomm, and Microsoft -- have set up a consortium named the "AllSeen Alliance" to address the problem. Their solution is named "AllJoyn", a software module originally developed by Qualcomm but passed on to the alliance. Any node, such as a TV or clock or smartwatch or air condition that communicates over wi-fi or bluetooth will be able to describe its capabilities in a common language, and another node will be able to access those capabilities. For example, a smartwatch might be able to control an air conditioner, and get a report on its status; or a smoke alarm might be able to send an alert to a TV.
If that sounds simple, it isn't. There's a huge number of different sorts of devices that could be hooked up today, and more certain to arrive in the future, with some capabilities that haven't even been thought of yet; Alljoyn will have to be able to adapt to new circumstances, with firmware updates for devices to add functionality. In addition, the Allseen Alliance isn't the only player in the standards game for the internet of things; AT&T, Cisco, GE, IBM, and Intel back a different consortium, the "Industrial Internet Consortium".
There are still other players, each group tending to have a somewhat different focus. The Institute of Electrical & Electronic Engineers (IEEE) trying to get a consensus on standards -- many current electronic schemes being formalized in IEEE specs. Nobody's expecting things to happen quickly, and given the variations on focus, there may end up being more than one spec.
* As discussed by a note from WIRED Online "Boeing's Figuring Out How To Make Jet Fuel From Tobacco" by Alex Davies, 7 August 2014), aircraft giant Boeing and South African Airways (SAA) are now trying to produce biofuels derived from the tobacco plant. Fuel is the biggest expense to the airlines, and so they are busily investigating alternatives.
Boeing has biofuel projects running on six continents. Tobacco was chosen the feedstock for the South Africa project, since biofuels make much more sense if the feedstocks are grown in the locale where the biofuel is produced. Tobacco is currently grown in South Africa, but the market is slowing as smoking is publicly discouraged. The feedstock is a tobacco strain named "Solaris", which is light on leaves but heavy on oil-rich seeds. SAA aircraft won't be using the biofuel until 2017 or so, and even then the biofuel will be used as a blend with conventional fuel. At the outset, the biofuel will be more expensive than conventional jet fuel, but that is expected to change as production ramps up.
* Another note from WIRED Online blogs ("Bruges Will Cut Traffic With…an Underground Beer Pipeline" by Alex Davies, 26 September 2014), the De Halve Maan brewery has been a fixture of Bruges, Belgium, for centuries. In 2010, the brewery opened up a bottling plant outside the city, ferrying the beer produced inside the city to the bottling plant in tanker trucks.
Now the brewery is installing a 5 kilometer (3 mile) polyethylene pipeline between the two facilities to transfer the beer; when completed, it will be able to handle 6,000 liters (1,580 US gallons) an hour. De Halve Maan will handle all the costs of installation, using computer-aided drilling techniques to minimize the need to cut up the city streets. The idea of shuttling beverages by pipeline is not new, the use of a pipeline to ship orange juice having been mentioned here in 2013, but it is unclear if anyone else has set up a beer pipeline.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* SURFACE TENSION: As discussed by an article from AAAS SCIENCE ("Water's Tough Skin" by Elizabeth Pennisi, 14 March 2014), we tend to find the surface tension of water an interesting curiosity, noting how we can fill a glass to over the brim without spilling. However, we don't pay much attention to it in our day-to-day lives because, at our scale of size, it doesn't evidently interfere much with our actions. If we jump into the water, surface tension poses no obstacle; if we get wet, the water that sticks to us only adds a slight fraction to our weight. Even a furry small dog will only gain weight by a few percent.
When we notice water strider bugs skittering across the surface of a pond, we do get a glimmering that surface tension is a bigger deal for smaller creatures. Indeed: get an ant wet, its weight almost triples. Mosquitoes are grounded when they get wet, while juvenile flying fish find they bounce off the underside of the water's surface.
The mechanisms of surface tension pose no mystery to physicists or chemists. Surface tension arises because water molecules have an electric polarity. That's not such a big deal inside a fluid, but at the air boundary of a fluid, the water molecules will tend to link up through their electrical imbalances and form a skin. This electrostatic force is what makes water roll up into droplets.
That's about all most physicists or chemists care to know about the phenomenon, but it has implications that are poorly understood. Mechanical engineer David Hu of the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta got to wondering how the water strider could get any traction from its water-walking act. He and his colleagues used dyes and high-speed cameras to determine that the bug rows ahead by generating tiny vortexes with its feet.
That would seem only too trivial in itself, but Hu got to thinking that biologists might be overlooking just how big a deal surface tension might be in the structure and lives of organisms. He has since become a leader in the field of investigation of surface tension in biology. Steven Vogel, a biomechanist at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, finds the subject very exciting: "The sheer dazzling diversity of biological phenomenon to which surface tension is relevant is mind-blowing."
For example, plants don't have muscles, so they have other mechanisms to provide motive power -- surface tension being one of them. Consider Erodium, a group of flowers whose fruit resembles a bird beak. Inside each beak, a grown seed features a centimeter-long tail or "awn", which is stretched out as the seed grows. When the fruit dries and cracks open, the awn abruptly coils up, dispersing the seed from the fruit. The awn's job isn't over, however, since it coils and uncoils on a day-night cycle, driving the seed into the soil.
Kim Ho-Young of the University in Seoul in South Korea determined that the awn's change in configuration was driven by overcoming surface tension. A plant leaf tends to repel water -- it's "hydrophobic" -- and so we visualize water droplets on leaves. An awn, however, is made up mostly of lignin and pectin, both of which attract water -- they're "hydrophilic". When the humidity's high during the day, the awn absorbs moisture and straightens out. At night, it dries up, returning to its coil configuration. Kim has examined awns from other plants working on the same principle; he believes that the scheme might be useful for nanorobots that won't need any power source.
The awns are notably hydrophilic; the floating fern Salvina molesta, in contrast, is notably hydrophobic. It is a native of South America, forming thick beds on ponds and slow-moving watercourses; as an invasive species, it has become a nuisance elsewhere. It refuses to get wet, keeping an air layer trapped against itself when submerged, allowing it to continue to photosynthesize, as well as pop to the surface once any obstruction keeping it under is removed.
Wilhelm Barthlott and his colleagues at the University of Bonn in Germany got to wondering how the fern pulled off this trick, examining the plant in detail. It turned out that its leaves were covered in tiny hairs, which terminated in an eggbeater-like head composed of four hairs joined at the bottom and the top. Except for the very top, the hairs were waxy and hydrophobic; the top, in contrast, was bare and very hydrophilic. It turned out that the hairs were like tent-poles, pinning a layer of water to their tips so that surface tension would keep water out below. Water droplets falling on a leaf do not penetrate. Marine engineers are interested in such studies to determine means of allowing vessels to move more efficiently across water.
In a scenario with some similarities, physicist Manu Prakash of the University of Stanford in California noticed how water lily beetles, which feed on water lily leaves, use their wings to skitter across the surface of a pond to another leaf. On close examination, it turned out the beetles were covered with hydrophobic hairs -- but the claws at the end of its legs were hydrophilic. When it flew from leaf to leaf, it retained contact with the water using its fore and aft sets of legs; without the four contacts, it would end up in full flight, which would demand more energy.
Other researchers have investigated how pathogens can be carried by droplets, modeling how they can be distributed by a sneeze, or by flushing of a toilet. One study even showed that rain falling on leaves can spatter droplets from plant to plant, carrying pathogens with them. Obviously this work has applications, but Hu finds it fascinating in itself: "I love that when I study surface tension dynamics, I can draw on ideas from many disciplines: mathematics, biology, chemistry, physics, computer science, and engineering. We need all these perspectives to understand the many ways surface tension impacts the world."COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* THE PENTAGON EMBRACES CLIMATE CHANGE: While the extremist Right is loud in contempt of environmental issues, as discussed here in the past, the US military takes a much more positive view. America's armed services have embraced renewable energy to reduce costs in running their installations, successfully doing so on a shoestring; and have been very interested in biofuels, being concerned about long-term assured fuel supplies -- the incrementally higher cost of biofuels at present being not a big issue compared to the much higher cost of getting that fuel to warfighters.
As discussed by an article from BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK ("The Military Takes On Climate Change Deniers" by Mark Hertsgaard, 27 October 2014), the brass and their civilian bosses in the Department of Defense (DOD) have strong concerns about climate change, since it will have major effects on the global strategic chessboard. Indeed, according to the Pentagon's "Climate Change Adaptation Roadmap" for 2014: "Climate change will affect the Department of Defense's ability to defend the Nation and poses immediate risks."
Other than the emphasis on immediacy, this is not news. As far back as 2004, there were reports of a secret Pentagon document that warned climate change might well force powers such as China, India, and Pakistan into armed confrontations. Roadmap documents were also released in 2012 and 2013, but the Defense Department didn't push the matter, since it was likely to antagonize conservative members of Congress.
Indeed, in May 2014, House Republicans tried to tack on an amendment to the annual National Defense Authorization Act to block the DOD from spending any money on climate-related issues. Representative Dave McKinley of West Virginia, who sponsored the bill, told his colleagues: "This amendment will ensure we maximize our military might without diverting funds for a politically motivated agenda." The amendment passed the House, but died in the Senate.
The Pentagon is becoming more assertive. In a foreword to the 2014 climate roadmap, outgoing Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel -- a combat veteran and previously a Republican senator for Nebraska -- announced: "Politics or ideology must not get in the way of sound planning."
Hagel is backed by 16 retired generals and admirals on the military advisory board of the CNA Corporation, a government-funding nonprofit defense research organization. A CNA report issued in May 2014 called climate change a "catalyst for conflict", suggesting that instability in Syria was aggravated by a record drought that drove peasants into cities, where they were organized by radical groups. According to Ron Keys, a retired Air Force four-star general on the CNA military advisory board who describes himself as "just to the Right of Genghis Khan": "People are going to have less water, less food. There are going to be huge regional wars over such issues."
David Titley, a retired rear admiral and another member of the CNA military advisory board, says that not all Republicans are as dismissive of climate change as their public rhetoric suggests: "If you talk to them privately, without any media around, the vast majority of Congressional Republicans know perfectly well that climate change is real. But they don't want to say so publicly, because they don't want to end up like Bob Inglis."
While it's hard to assess just how many Republican members of Congress are more convinced of climate change as they let on in public, they all know what happened to Bob Inglis. He had been the representative from South Carolina's 4th Congressional District for six terms, with a solidly conservative voting record -- only to be ousted in 2010 when he admitted publicly that climate change is for real. Inglis is now executive director of the Energy & Enterprise Initiative, a nonprofit out of George Mason University that pushes free-market approaches to dealing with climate change. He says there is real fear among members of Congress on the issue: "A lot of people on Capitol Hill are down in their foxholes. They're afraid of getting their heads blown off if they head up the hill."
Retired military brass have been traveling the country to explain to American citizens the implications of climate change. Since August, Keys has visited Iowa, Pennsylvania, Ohio, New Hampshire, and North Carolina, visiting local Rotary Clubs and businesses; talking to state legislators, mayors, business leaders, mayors, business leaders, civic groups, and "Mom & Pop on Main Street". His message is that climate change means trouble, and the US is going to have to be ready for it.
Oklahoma Republican Senator James Inhofe, the arch-denialist in the Senate, sneered at the CNA's military advisors when the CNA report was released in May: "There is no one more in pursuit of publicity than a retired military officer." Keys was unimpressed: "I spent 40 years as a fighter pilot. You're going to have to come at me with facts."COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* ANOTHER MONTH: The resurgence of wildlife populations in the USA and their penetration into urban areas was last discussed here some months back. On Thanksgiving, WIRED Online blogs ran an article ("The Weirdest Incidents Regarding Wild Turkeys This Week" by John Mooallem) that zeroed in on the wild turkey.
Wild turkeys have staged a comeback in almost every US state, from Massachusetts to Florida to Texas. There were so many turkeys in Utah that last fall, the state government sanctioned a turkey hunt, restricted to areas where the population had boomed, for the first time in 30 years. There are so many turkeys in north California that people increasingly see them as pests.
In Wyoming, a wild turkey likes to frequent a high school, pecking bugs out of car grills, and very tamely eating out of people's hands. He has the run of the neighborhood, one little girl telling a reporter that the first time she saw "Turk" -- one of the names the bird has been given -- it was sprawled out on a porch "like a dog". A woman in Lodi, California, wrote a children's book about a well-liked local turkey named "Tom Kettleman", who had his own Facebook page. He regularly crossed six lanes of traffic, to finally be hit and killed a few months ago, even though, it is said, he used the crosswalk. Possibly so; wild turkeys have a reputation for being keenly intelligent birds, noted for their ability to lead hunters in circles.
Turkeys can be aggressive: in the Boston suburb of Brookline, gangs of turkeys have attacked children, homeowners, and street crossing guards. A Youtube video, "Turkey Attack Compilation", spliced together acts of turkey aggression, to the heavy metal beat of Survivor's "Eye Of The Tiger", with stills thrown in of police SWAT teams in flak vests and bristling with firepower, along with clips of fire engines and police cars racing to the scene with sirens blaring.
* I had a microwave oven I'd bought in the early 1990s, and was wondering exactly how much longer it would last. It finally went south this last month: the button to open the door broke. I might have been able to tinker with it and fix it, but since it was on its last legs anyway, why bother? I put it out of its misery.
Since I'm dependent on the microwave, I promptly went over to Walmart and bought a replacement, a West Bend unit, for $63 USD, including sales tax. It was the smallest I could find; that was not just because I never warmed up anything big and wanted to spend as little as I could, but because I didn't want to clutter up my kitchen with something having a bigger footprint. I'll see how long it lasts. Given that there's not that much to go wrong with a microwave, and I don't put a lot of load on it, I would be surprised if it didn't last at least a decade.
I was also surprised at how cheap it was, expecting it would cost me more than a hundred bucks. Microwaves are such a mature, downright mundane, technology that it's hard to remember the time when they seemed at least slightly whizzy. According to Wikipedia, the first consumer microwave oven was introduced by Amana in 1967, and they likely weren't common for a few years, so that would suggest their emergence in the 1970s.
They're also mature in the sense that there was little functional difference between my old and new microwaves. One improvement was that the new microwave didn't have a pushbutton to open the door, it just had a handle, with spring-loaded latching hooks to keep it closed, with less there to break. The new microwave was also well more powerful than the old: I gave an item a three-minute heating, as normal practice, and it got kind of scorched. OK, two minutes next time.
Another plus was the control interface. It had the special-purpose buttons that I don't use -- I never pop popcorn at home -- but the number pad was marked as "EXPRESS COOKING". Wot? I was puzzled, but I finally realized that if I pressed "2", it would blast the food at 100% power for two minutes. If I just pressed the START button, it would blast for 30 seconds; if I pressed the START button while the microwave was cooking, it would add 30 seconds. That fits my usage approach perfectly, I've never seen much need for finesse, get it hot and that's enough. I doped out the other settings, just to make sure I wasn't missing a trick.
A few weeks before, I'd heated up a spicy dried noodles bowl that I'd bought as an experiment. I could eat it, but the smell it left was appalling and extremely persistent. I had to clean up my kitchen with a bleach-based spray cleaner to kill the smell. The smell was particularly strong in the microwave, but the cleaner couldn't get rid of it, because the stink had got into the internal vents. With the old microwave failing and being given the boot, I had to think with a bit of wry satisfaction: "That solved that problem decisively!"
* The US mid-term national elections last month were a big boost to the Republicans, who now control both houses of Congress. Since it had been very difficult for the White House to get anything through Congress before the election, nor was Congress noted for an inclination to take any action itself, it is unclear if there's been any real change in the status quo.
In Colorado, the Republican won the Senate seat, which bothered me very little; the Democrat governor kept his job, which was even more of a shrug; and the "personhood of the unborn" amendment got shot down 2:1, pretty much as expected. I was pleased to see that the "special Colorado labeling for GM foods" got shot down by about 2:1 as well, rumors having had it that it was well expected to pass. So much for rumors.
Actually, I was most interested in the approval of the new Larimer County animal shelter, which will be a substantial facility, with a total floor area of 2,500 square meters (26,900 square feet). In a slight irony, it will be near where the old, now dismantled, dog racing track used to be. At one time, retired greyhounds adopted by Loveland families were a fairly common sight here; I miss seeing them around, they were always such attractive, pleasant, and easy-going dogs.
* Finally, the big "back East" road trip I'm considering for October 2016 or 2017 has, as its centerpiece, the new hangar at the Air Force Museum near Dayton, Ohio. The museum had been forced to keep some exhibits stowed in a hangar on adjoining Wright-Patterson AFB; the fourth hangar will allow them to be properly displayed. Work started on the hangar this summer, the fun part being that every month, a construction summary video is released on Youtube. I find it entertaining to track the progress of the work, and look forward to each new installment.COMMENT ON ARTICLE