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Out of Africa: cheap motorcyles transforming lives of farmers

One lasting impression from my July visit to Ken Sakwa, a champion farmer in rural eastern Uganda: how Ken's new Chinese-made motorcycle is transforming his ability to expand his commercial farming activities.

A lot of attention is being given to how China and India are bringing big technologies to Africa: hydroelectricity, solar technologies, computing, mobile-phone infrastructure. No question, these are important. But virtually unnoticed is how less expensive motorocycles are making personal transportation affordable to people who only recently dreamed of owning a bicycle.

Sakwa is a farmer I have been getting to know for the past few years in East Africa. He grows maize, green beans, cotton and a bit of peanuts. As farm prices have risen, he's become more interested in buying and selling crops grown by his neighbors. The motorcycle is a critical "enabling" technology, permitting him to travel over dirt roads easily and cheaply.

Sakwa this spring bought a motorcycle made by the Chinese company Dayun. Five years ago, European companies dominated the African market for motorbikes. But prices were high and repairs relatively costly.

The Chinese have transformed the motorcycle market -- in both East and West Africa -- with less expensive motorcycles and cheaper parts. True, the bikes are less powerful. But at least now Sakwa can afford one.

The influx of Chinese bikes seems likely to grow.

What happened a decade ago in Asia surely will happen in Africa: motorbikes as a "ubiquitous" form of transport.

Off at the Crack of the Gun

The countdown is down to one day to the Opening Ceremony of the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing.

There's news today, though, about a countdown of a different sort to be held at the Games, the one that goes "on your marks, get set, go." In track events, as everyone knows, "go" is replaced by the sound of the starter's pistol firing. Now comes a report that says that runners closer to the starter get a better chance of winning than competitors who are poised in lanes farther away. It's a small advantage, but in sprints the margin of victory can be measured in hundredths of a second.

A report from the online site LiveScience tells us that there is a bias built into the traditional lane assignment system used in track meets. Competitors are assigned lanes to run in by the luck of the draw. Until now, most athletes and meet organizers figured that the placement of the runners was arbitrary, conveying no advantage to anyone in particular. A scientific investigation has proven them wrong, though.

Researchers at the University of Alberta first studied the reaction times of sprinters in two races at the 2004 Athens Olympics and found that runners in Lane 1, closest to the pistol, got out of the blocks in 160 milliseconds (ms), while their competitors in the further lanes averaged a response time of 175 ms overall. Then they took the study to the next level. They held their own mini-meet, recruiting four trained sprinters and 12 untrained runners to participate in takeoffs from starting blocks modified to measure horizontal force.

As a variable, the scientists varied the loudness of the starter's pistol from 80 decibels (db) to 120 db. The result was surprising: The louder the gunshot, the faster the reaction time from the sprinters.

"In sprint events, where hundredths of a second can make the difference between a gold medal and a silver, minimizing reaction time can be the key to an athlete's success," said the university's Alex Brown. "We suggest that procedures presently used to start the Olympic sprint events give runners closer to the starter the advantage of hearing the 'go' signal louder; consequently, they react sooner than their competitors."

So it looks like science has found a flaw in a time-honored method of trying to give all competitors sprinting for a gold medal a fair chance.

This is one instance in which it's better to be closer to a gun going off than farther away.

Olympic Tech in China

Let the Games begin!

The torch has made it to Beijing, the world's elite athletes have assembled, and the opening ceremonies are now just two days away. Soon gold medals in some 300 events will be up for grabs.

At the Summer Olympic Games, the challenge for the athletes will be to embody the creed "Swifter, Higher, Stronger" through their superb physical and mental abilities. Still, there are going to be a few cases where technology will offer a helping hand. We'll take a look at such cases in a special blog during the Games over the coming weeks.

To jump right into the pool, let's discuss one of the most dramatic instances of athletic tech appearing in Beijing: a swimsuit engineered with space exploration in mind. According to a report from NASA, the U.S. swim team will be outfitted with suits made of an advanced material tested in one of the space agency's laboratories.

Known as the Speedo LZR Racer, the high-tech suits for both the men's and women's squads were developed by Warnaco Group Inc., of New York City. The secret to their advanced design lies in the material the firm's researchers settled on with feedback from NASA engineers. Warnaco's Speedo division calls the fabric FastSkin, which it developed by testing dozens of materials for surface smoothness.

The technical key to improving the performance times of swimmers (beyond enhancing training regimens) is cutting the drag the athletes create as they move through the water. So Speedo approached the space agency for a paid research project in one of NASA's low-speed wind tunnels. The tests took place at the Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va. The winning material was the one that showed the least resistance to the flow of air moving over it, or the least drag. Because air and water have similar dynamics in motion, the Speedo researchers concluded that the new fabric selected to be FastSkin would offer swimmers the best chance to lower their times.

PHOTO: NASA/Kathy Barnstorff

And have they ever. At the U.S. Olympic trials, world records fell like dominoes. The Americans wearing the new swimsuits have topped 48 of 50 world records since the LZR Racer debuted in February.

The leader of the men's squad, Michael Phelps (pictured center above), has his sights set on winning eight gold medals in Beijing (see this Reuters report), which would eclipse the record set by fellow countryman Mark Spitz in the water at the Munich Games in 1972. Phelps won six gold medals four years ago in Athens. Should he win just four more events this year, he would become the all-time top medalist in all Olympic sports, surpassing the nine victories posted by legends Larissa Latynina, Carl Lewis, and Paavo Nurmi.

The Speedo LZR Racer could be just the thing to give him a physical and mental edge to pull off his ambitions. He was recently quoted as saying of the outfit, "When I hit the water, I feel like a rocket."

Back at NASA's Langley facility, someone who works on rockets and the components they carry into space will be following the performances of the U.S. team with particular interest. Aerospace engineer Steve Wilkinson, who admits to knowing very little about swimming (but a lot about laminar and turbulent boundary layer physics) said he will be wondering as he watches the swim meet whether the champions are wearing the material he tested in his lab.

"I'm also going to be paying very close attention to the time," Wilkinson added.

Future Combat Systems: Not just cute little robots and flying trashcans

"Please, just don't call it cute," pleads one of the Fort Bliss soldiers, watching my face get all mushy as I gaze into the thermal cameras and laser range finders of the little surveillance robot. Earlier, I watched it rear up like a dog and peek over the ledge of a window to assure the combat team behind it that no surprises waited inside the building.

sugv-close-small.jpg

SUGV (small unmanned ground vehicle) and I stare into each others' eyes.

The morning's live combat exercise was available to anyone with the intestinal fortitude to get up at 0400 and make the jaw-rattling drive out to the Texas desert. There, soldiers tested the latest and greatest in military acronym technology--SUGV, UUGS and TUGS, UAS and B-kits--the major cornerstones of Future Combat Systems.

Future Combat Systems, the army's modernization program, touts itself as a seamless integration of soldier and "peripherals," where the soldier is the central processing unit but instead of being limited to his own god-given sensors--eyes, ears and so on--he has at his command a networked array of additional sensors. Now he can see around corners. Before soldiers go into a building they send SUGV, the small unmanned ground vehicle. The UAS (a hovering "eye in the sky" they've lovingly nicknamed the Flying Trashcan) provides early warning, among other things, for mortar attacks or IEDs.

UAS.JPEG

The UAS (Unmanned Aerial System) is for obvious reasons also known as the flying trashcan.

Media coverage of FCS has focused on the implications the adoption of video game technology: an Ender's Game-like dystopian future military in which young boy soldiers impersonally pick off enemies with Xbox controllers. The part about the Xbox controllers is right, but the rest deserves subtler interpretation.

FCS is not just about showering soldiers with cool technology, but making sure the technology actually helps. This should be good news for anyone tired of the old Donald Rumsfeld military paradigm, according to which you go to war with the army you have, not the army you wish you had. That thinking also extends to the tools you go to war with, like recent generations of the PackBot which according to people familiar with the situation have been a nightmare for soldiers; among other things, their non-xbox controllers have been difficult to use, and the batteries don't work. Soldiers need real-time response when their technology hurts more than it helps.

The military is often accused of being "always prepared to fight the last war." Part of the reason is the stovepiping of intelligence. The troops on the ground understand first what's happening--whether some military vehicle is getting blown to shreds by IEDs and should no longer be used, or whether some piece of equipment is performing really well. But until recently, that information could not be absorbed by the people in charge in real time.

FCS, according to its proponents, is as much a technology initiative as an attempt to redefine how the army gathers information about itself. Now, when a soldier says that the controls on a SUGV are useless, within a couple of weeks the army rolls out a much more intuitive Xbox controller. Or, in the case of the flying trashcan, the camera didn't tilt adequately. A few weeks after a soldier made that observation, the UAS was outfitted with a Gimbel camera that swivels omnidirectionally.

To that end, the army has created an entire brigade of beta testers at Fort Bliss. The Future Combat Systems Evaluation Brigade Combat Team was plucked from all over the world to serve for two years as army's tech guinea pigs. Not the worst job in the world.

sugv-soldiers-small.jpg

Soldiers in the FCS Evaluation Brigade Combat Team use the SUGV during a cordon-and-search exercise.

U.S. Car Manufacturers Retreat on Fuel Efficiency

Major auto makers supplying the U.S. market, having previously supported the governmentâ''s effort to boost average fleet efficiency to 31.6 mpg by 2015 from 25 mpg today, are now having serious misgivings, according to a report in todayâ''s Wall Street Journal. Ford and Toyota are among those that had expressed confidence in their ability to meet the new goal but now are complaining about the scale and pace of what the National Highway Safety Administration proposes. Toyota is quoted as saying that the implementing regs are â''substantially front-loadedâ'' and â''increase at a rate much greater than anticipatedâ'' by law.

It Takes a Substation

Itâ''s just a local story to be sure, but a New York Times article today does a nice job of describing what it take to build an electrical substation in a modern megacity. Conventionally substationsâ''the transformer and switching arrays where transmission voltage is stepped down for district distributionâ''are just surrounded behind barbed wire in what otherwise might be vacant lots, easily recognizable by their large ceramic insulators. But in New York Cityâ''s South Bronx, Con Edâ''s latest station is housed in a nice brick building with fake windows, which might easily be mistaken for a fancy condo. Built at a cost of $300 million, the substation has a number of green elements such a grated vaults that allow for natural circulation and placement of huge tanks containing insulating liquid in motes, to contain any leakage. Seamless 10-inch steel pipes, which are not something bought off the shelf, sheathe the cables that enough current â''to power a small Caribbean country.â''

Beware of the Solar Breakthrough

With everybody from venture capitalists to green-minded homeowners keen to see breakthroughs in solar energy, itâ''s getting harder all the time to separate the hype from the reality. Last weekâ''the last week of Julyâ''a team at MIT announced it had achieved a major advance that they claimed could make photovoltaic energy economically viable at last: a method of storing PV-generated electricity at night, by means of a new catalyst for separating oxygen from the hydrogen in water. The general idea is that the hydrogen gleaned from the water could be used to power fuel cells, so that none of the solar electricity would be wasted.

The most notable thing about this announcement is the fabulously extravagant and overheated language in which it was made. A write-up of the principal investigatorâ''s article, distributed by Science magazine to journalists, described the innovation as â''revolutionary,â'' â''a huge leap,â'' â''unprecedented,â'' and â''nirvana.â'' Only in the seventh paragraph of that release do we hear the investigator express confidence that â''this is going to work.â'' So it doesnâ''t exactly work yet? Or, to judge from an EE Times write-up, it probably works about as well as a well-established method for separating oxygen from hydrogen, but perhaps more cost-effectively.

To take another example, First Solar, a relatively young company based in Tempe, Arizona, has suddenly been getting a lot of attention with claims that it has figured out a way to make PV material at an installation cost of $1 per wattâ''though the global average for solar installations was in the range of $6 or $7 per watt last year. How plausible is that claim? Well, itâ''s hard to know, because as a feature article appearing in this monthâ''s IEEE Spectrum magazine points out, â''The company does not talk to reporters. Not at all.â''

That article was written by a freelancer and edited by a colleague, but I can attest to the accuracy of its singular point. A few months ago I (that is to say, a journalist) was asked at the last minute to moderate a session at a big PV meeting in San Diego, in which the CEO of First Solar was supposed to be one of the panelists. At the last moment he reneged. A month or so later it just so happened I was at a meeting near Tempe, so I called First Solar and asked if I could come over to take a look at their breakthrough technology. The answer, after a handful of phone messages and a couple of e-mails? No.

This week I was contacted by a small company that has been working with a national laboratory to develop an improved way of depositing PV on a variety of materials, so that, for example, solar cells can be incorporated right into a buildingâ''s shell. The company recently won an r&d award, prompting it to contact journalists. The chief technology officer of the company described the companyâ''s technology to me in careful detail, but he refused to make any claims about how much the process would ultimately cost or when exactly they would be able to introduce their first products. Now that got my attention.

NASA's Phoenix Lander Confirms Water on Mars

The answer to an age-old question has finally been revealed. The managers of the Phoenix Mars Lander said yesterday that their experimental equipment had detected water on the surface of the Red Planet.

According to a news report from NASA, tools onboard the Phoenix were able to scoop a sample of Martian surface material and then heat it in a mini-oven. An instrument then detected the presence of liquid water in the mixture.

"We have water," said William Boynton of the University of Arizona, lead scientist for the Thermal and Evolved-Gas Analyzer (TEGA). "We've seen evidence for this water ice before in observations by the Mars Odyssey orbiter and in disappearing chunks observed by Phoenix last month, but this is the first time Martian water has been touched and tasted."

The U.S. space agency said the positive results so far from the Phoenix have prompted administrators to extend the spacecraft's mission through the end of September, adding five more weeks to its experimental activities.

"Phoenix is healthy and the projections for solar power look good, so we want to take full advantage of having this resource in one of the most interesting locations on Mars," said Michael Meyer, chief scientist for the Mars Exploration Program at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C.

The next big issue NASA hopes to answer will be much trickier than the unmistakable presence of water in Martian soil: Whether water was ever able to sustain substances that could have led to life on the planet.

"Mars is giving us some surprises," said Phoenix principal investigator Peter Smith of the University of Arizona Lunar and Planetary Laboratory. "We're excited because surprises are where discoveries come from."

U.S. Air Regulation Reversals Are Costly for Industry

The dramatic reversals in U.S. air regulation, reported and discussed two weeks ago, are proving nettlesome not just for environmentalists and for some of the parties that had challenged rules in court, but for the energy industry generally. John Dizard reports this week in Londonâ''s Financial Times that utilities had spent upwards of $75 billion for SO2 and NOx retrofits to meet the rules that now have been overturned. Dizard quotes a source at the Washington law firm Bracewell & Giuliani saying that just the lost value of SO2 emissions allowances could come to $15-20 billion. PPL, a Pittsburgh utility, has announced losses associated with defunct NOx allowances could come to almost $100 million.

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