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W00t W00t for Wetlands

February 2nd is World Wetlands Day, in case that slipped your mind. In honor of the day, I’m devoting this post to a neat wetlands project I learned about during my recent visit to the farming community of Griffith, Australia.

Barren Box Swamp is a 3200-hectare site about 20 kilometers northwest of town. In its natural state, it was what’s known as an ephemeral wetland: it flooded with water after rainfalls and dried out completely during dry periods. Around about the late 1950s, the local irrigation authority permanently flooded it, creating a lake to store about 80,000 megaliters of water that would then feed into the irrigation system. In the process, the natural wetlands were destroyed.

But the lake was shallow—2 to 3 meters at its deepest—and much water was lost through evaporation. So Murrumbidgee Irrigation decided to split the site into 3 smaller areas, or cells. Two of the cells are still used to store water for irrigation, but because they’re deeper and more compact, there’s less evaporation loss. The third cell, which covers half the site, is being gradually restored to its ephemerally swampy state. The move saved the company about 20,000 megaliters of water, and the sale of that water paid for the construction of the 10 kilometers of levee banks that now divide the site. “Environmentally, it’s quite significant, and it’s left us with infrastructure that’s far better than what we previously had,” says Brett Tucker, the managing director of Murrumbidgee Irrigation.

Barren Box isn’t open to the public, but I got to visit the site with the company’s executive manager for the environment, Rob Kelly. “This project clearly demonstrates that you can have both environmental outcomes and irrigation outcomes—there was no tradeoff required,” Kelly told me.

It’s a beautiful spot. Along one stretch of water, I spotted black swans and cormorants and grebes and pelicans and ducks and ibises; Kelly says dozens of bird species now call the swamp home. A little further on, wallabees and emus bounded through the tall grass. I felt like I’d stepped into a nature documentary. (The photo of sunbathing pelicans was taken at Barren Box by local nature photographer David Kleinert.)

It took years of careful negotiation with the community to get the project approved, Kelly says, but the effort was well worth it. “When we first embarked on this, a lot of people told us, ‘It’ll never work.’ We simply took the attitude, that’s not an excuse not to try,” Kelly says. “And look what you can achieve.”

NASA Announces New Budget

NASA administrator Charles Bolden spoke about the space agency's new budget at a press conference at 12:30. Looks like returning to the Moon in the near future is being dropped - this is what the Augustine panel recommended. Not unexpected, but will disappoint many.

The budget is focusing on robotic missions and Earth and climate science. The International Space Station is going to get some money.

The Constellation program is being canceled. Future of human expolaration is unclear - no timelines were given. No funding line for solid rocket motors beyond 2010, it seems.

However, Bolden spoke about "in-orbit fuel depots" and how to "reduce aircraft fuel needs" as areas that the agency will focus on.

The budget is being billed as "more sustainable." Obama is expanding funding by $6 billion.

Realizing that the cancelation of manned spaceflights to the Moon will be perceived as killing a source of inspiration to young and old, Bolden spent quite a bit of time reassuring reporters that it was otherwise.

He said NASA was "absolutely committed to inspiring young people."

Saving Water, Burning Watts


For nearly a century, farmers in Griffith, New South Wales, have relied on an irrigation system that covers some 2600 square kilometers. The company that runs that network is Murrumbidgee Irrigation. Water flows from the Murrumbidgee River into two large storage dams and from there into a network of open, concrete-lined channels. It’s a gravity-fed system, which means that the water flows ever downhill, so there’s no need to pump it from place to place. When I drove around the Griffith countryside, my eyes were continually drawn to the channels—lovely avenues of water in an otherwise dry landscape.

But those channels lose water through evaporation and leaks, and the company fights a constant battle to maintain the channels. Recently, it decided to replace the channels that now feed about 12000 hectares of farmland with pumping stations and high-pressure pipelines. The result, says Murrumbidgee Irrigation managing director Brett Tucker, will be greater water savings but a hefty electricity bill: up to AUD$2.5 million (US$2.2 million) per year. The added costs will be passed along to the customers, Tucker says, which means they may end up paying more for the electricity to deliver the water than for the water itself. “Energy isn’t getting any cheaper,” he says. “Our customers are worried.”

Tucker believes the move to the pressurized pipelines is a good one, he says, but the tradeoffs also need to be looked at. In Australia, “the attitude has been to improve water efficiency at any cost,” says Tucker. “There’s been insufficient regard to the energy effects. You can’t treat water in isolation.”

Citrus grower Robert Sjollema is one of those whose farm will get the new pressurized water. Like a number of horticulturists in the area, he already has pumps and pipelines on his property to feed the drip irrigation system he installed about four years ago. Agricultural experts consider drip irrigation to be the most efficient type of irrigation because it feeds water and fertilizer directly to a plant’s roots. Sjollema isn’t entirely convinced by the water-saving argument; he knows citrus farms that still use flood irrigation and consume only a little more water per hectare than his—and they don’t have to pay for the electricity to pump the water around.

What drip irrigation does offer is greater automation: He can program exactly how much water he wants delivered for weeks in advance. That in turn cuts down on labor costs and has allowed him to supplement his farm income by working “in town.” “You don’t make much money growing citrus,” he notes.

For a fruit grower competing in a worldwide market, he says, globalization is actually a bigger concern for him than water. Australian navel oranges compete against navel oranges from Egypt, South Africa, and Chile, all of which have lower labor costs. Australian growers aren’t even guaranteed of selling to the domestic market, because the large supermarket chains here always look for the cheapest produce, regardless of origin. “If it’s cheaper outside of Australia, they’ll import it,” Sjollema says. “That’s the big cruel world.”

The World's Most Influential Dude

In real life, Christopher Poole is just another anonymous 21-year-old trolling the East Village.  But when he sits at the computer in his small apartment, he becomes Moot – the most influential dude online. Moot is his nickname on, the controversial web community he created and owns.  A self-taught programmer and whiz kid who dropped out of high school due to chronic insomnia, he launched the free site in 2003 while living with his parents in the Hudson Valley.  He styled it after the so-called “image boards” in Japan, underground anime websites which let people anonymously post and comment on random pictures –cartoons, monster trucks, whatever.

Moot, who built his own computer at age 12 and grew up on Net, has an uncanny grasp on what appealed to him and the other early adopters online – the sick jokes, the absurdist humor.  Be warned:  4chan is decidedly NSFW, the freer the speech, the better.  People like to think that viral media (or a meme) is random, but it’s not.  The biggest fads online – from Lolcats to Rickrolling to, most recently, Advice Dog – begin with 4chan.

Moot cultivated 4chan into the hippest hangout online - sort of the CBGB of the Internet, and gained a following himself.  Just one comment by Moot on a message board elicits thousands of responses.  Today, with six million rabid members and 286 million posts, 4chan is the crucible of everything edgy and sticky on the Web.  But it's also the source of debate.  Last year, 4chan’s anonymous pranksters punked the Time 100 poll, successfully getting Moot elected to the top spot as “The World’s Most Influential Person.”  A few months ago, they got him to the top of the Victoria’s Secret best-body-online contest.  Bad eggs on the site have also been blamed for threatening to blow up football stadiums and hacking Sarah Palin's email.

4chan is also a highly challenging site to maintain.  Though Moot has been managing the site with 20 volunteer moderators, 4chan has grown pretty big and unwieldy from him to run from his apartment.  The community’s high-profile pranks are spawning a backlash, leaving Moot to defend against hacker attacks  –  and the occasionally FBI inquiry.  Despite his big role online, the real guy behind Moot remains largely unknown. But he's coming out in a big way in a couple weeks.  On February 11, he'll be speaking about "provocation" at the prestigious TED conference in Long Beach, California.  It'll be interesting to hear what he has to say, if you have the chance to go.  TED describes 4chan as "the web's most bewildering -- and influential -- subculture."  That's about right.

The Evil That Apple Does

Apple’s new iPad is going to be a laptop supplement for some early-adopters, a laptop replacement for others, and a laptop instead-of for still other users, including some surprising late-adopters.

In other words, it’s going to be the computer of choice for a number of us, perhaps millions of us, perhaps, if the iPhone is any guide, tens of millions of us.

But if it’s not an eBook reader, it’s also not a computer — at least, it’s not a computer that can take its place within the thirty year tradition of open computing that has marked the PC era.

Consider: Today, when you want to buy a piece of software, whether it’s for your desktop, your laptop, or your netbook, you first make sure there’s a version that runs on your computer’s operating system, and then you go out and buy it. That’s it. Not so with the iPad.

If you want to run, say, Adobe’s PhotoShop on the iPad, first Adobe has to make a version that runs on the iPad. Let’s suppose they do. Can you go to your local BestBuy, or go to Adobe’s Website or to an online distributor? Nope. You’ll go to the Apple iPhone/iPad store. And you’ll buy it there only if Apple has allowed it into the store in the first place.

That kind of imperious control of the software channel might — might — have made sense when it came to a device that’s trying to do something as difficult as run software programs while it’s also listening for incoming phone calls, and arguably users aren't too concerned about having to go to the iPhone store when it comes to free newsfeeds or a $0.99 weather app.

But real software on a real computer is another thing entirely. The Adobe example wasn’t chosen at random; iPhone users have yearned to run Adobe’s Flash technology — and Flash-based videos and applications — since what is now the world's best-selling phone was released.

Steve Jobs spent a lot of time yesterday demoing iWorks applications Pages (word processing), Numbers (spreadsheets), and Keynote (presentation); is the company going to allow Microsoft Office to warm itself at the iPad hearth? Probably (although at $10 apiece for the iWorks apps, it seems like Jobs is, en passant, gunning for Microsoft’s Office cash-cow), but the very fact that we can ask the question is pretty disturbing.

Life in Drought

Farm for sale in Griffith, Austalia










Looking out the window of a turboprop bound for Griffith, a farming town of about 24,000 in New South Wales, Australia, I watch the farmland roll by—except there’s nothing there, just a dry, brown expanse. It’s the height of summer, and in a good wet year, these fields would form a verdant patchwork. But there hasn’t been a good year in at least a decade. “It used to be so green here,” sighs Sylvia, my seatmate and a long-time resident of the area.

As we approach Griffith, the view does green up considerably. I spot orchards and vineyards and incredibly lush green plots that must be rice, one of the staple crops around here. Those are irrigated farms, Sylvia explains. For nearly 100 years, a network of canals and channels that draw water from the nearby Murrumbidgee River have made the region one of the country’s most productive. But a decade of drought along with a national policy to restrict water usage throughout Australia’s agricultural heartland are forcing Griffith’s farmers to make hard choices.

On Trevor and Gerardine Hill’s farm southeast of town, they’ve planted 44 of their 412 hectares with long-grain rice and they’re also raising about 300 ewes and lambs. On the gentle slope behind their neat yellow-brick ranch house, they’ve planted native trees, and the front yard is adorned by an impressive rose garden. Gerardine grew up on this farm. In the wetter years, she says, they grew more rice as well as azuki beans and fava beans, and they raised cattle.Sheep in dusty Griffith, Australia

Each morning and evening, Trevor inspects the water levels in his rice fields. It may seem counterintuitive to grow such a water-loving crop in such a water-stressed area, but people don’t realize how far that water actually goes, he says. He lets his lambs graze along the banks of the paddies—that way, he doesn’t have to buy feed, and the lambs keep the weeds down. After the rice is harvested, he bails up the stubble and sells it; it’s good roughage for cattle. Then with the water that’s still left in the ground, he’ll plant a crop of oats or barley. “So I use the water four ways,” he says.

Still, the Hills aren’t sure how long they’ll keep at it. Like every farmer in the area, they struggle to stay current with new water policies that limit how much water they’re allocated in a given season. They can also buy and sell water, but there’s a raft of rules and fees attached to water trading, too. One of the goals of Australia’s water market is to compel farmers and other water users to become more efficient. But in practice, fluctuations in water prices can cost a farmer dearly. Trevor is still smarting from a recent purchase that effectively cost him several thousand dollars when the price of water dropped shortly after he bought. “You try to make good decisions, you try to do the right thing, but you never feel like you’re getting all the information you need,” he says.

Farming in Australia has never really been easy, given the huge variability in rainfall and the poor soil in many areas. To be a farmer here you almost have to be an optimist. But in Griffith, there have been a number of suicides in the last few years, and very few younger people are taking up farming. A neighbor of the Hills got so concerned with what he was seeing that he started up what’s effectively a support group for the younger farmers. About once a month, they get together for dinner and a few drinks. “Everybody opens up,” Gerardine says. “It’s been a really positive thing.”

Aussie famerJust down the road, Terry McFarlane has sunk about $90,000 into two U.S.-built irrigation systems—each is basically a big long sprinkler on wheels, guided by GPS. From early evening to early morning, the computer-controlled irrigator rolls slowly over a field of zucchini, releasing a pre-programmed spray of water. The irrigators should cut his water usage by 25 to 30 percent, McFarlane says. But he also expects to see his fuel bills rise, due to the electricity demands of the new machinery, including an industrial pump that pushes the water from a small dam on his property out to the fields. And deploying the equipment and working out the kinks have taken considerably more time and effort than he’d anticipated, he says.

This is his first season with the new irrigators, and McFarlane can’t yet say if the equipment will pay off. “I need someone to tell me: Did I do the right thing?”

The iPad--Finally, a Computer for the Late Adopter

I watched multiple live-blog feeds of the Apple iPad introduction today. (I’ll assume my invitation to the event itself was lost in the email, not that Apple is ignoring Spectrum.) I figured I’d see a really cool e-book reader (wrong), or maybe a great travel computer (right; my husband and I had been thinking about buying a netbook to share, netbooks just lost our interest).

What I didn’t think I’d find was the answer to my aunt’s problem. That is, how do you get a 70-something-year-old woman on the Internet when she’s never used a computer and has just one hard-wired landline phone in her house, no cable TV and no patience for service people, boxes with blinking lights, and frustrating technology?

She’d been eyeing netbooks, thinking they were pretty cute, until I explained she’d need a dsl or cable modem with a wireless base station before she’d be sitting on the living room couch googling random facts. That all sounded much too complicated for what she wanted to do, which was to look up the name of an actress she recognized on TV but couldn’t quite place, or find out a little more about something she just heard on the radio news.

Sure, a 3G data connection is the obvious way to get my aunt on the Internet, but no way is she going to spend $60 a month. No way, either, is she going to sign any kind of contract—she isn’t entirely sure she wants to be on the Internet; she’s not going to commit to paying for two years online.

But Apple’s new iPad offers a 3G connection starting at $15 a month, paid in advance, no contract. This, finally, is a way to get my aunt on the Internet in a completely non-scary way. Not to mention the fact that the iPad doesn’t need a keyboard, and has no separate touchpad or mouse. My aunt will not have to figure out how to make the cursor move to the right place before she clicks—something that I’ve seen can be difficult for folks that haven’t already learned how to use some kind of pointing device.

I’m not sure that Apple, a company that’s always attracted the early-adopters, had this extremely-late-adopter market in mind when designing the iPad. But, intentionally or not, the iPad gives those of us who have been trying to get late adopters to just adopt, adopt anything, new hopes of success.

For more reactions and analysis, visit the iPad topic page.

The iPad is Not A Kindle Killer; Blame the Display

The iPad, the much-anticipated Apple tablet computer announced today, is not going to revolutionize the display industry. It doesn’t sport a bright OLED display; it isn’t wearing the latest Pixel Qi technology that combines normal transmissive LCD technology with a black-and-white reflective version for easy viewing in bright sunlight.

The iPad simply uses a liquid crystal display backlit with light emitting diodes, the kind of display you see today on many flat screen televisions and computer monitors. The particular type of liquid crystal display—in-plane switching—has two transistors per crystal, one more than standard thin-film transistor LCDs. This kind of display needs a brighter backlight, so has been less common in the laptop area, but has a bigger viewing angle.

Apple’s choice to go with LCD technology isn’t particularly surprising; the iPad will be used to display photos and videos, and to do that needs a full-color, full-motion display. So e-ink and its monochrome brethren are out. OLED technology, right now, is just too expensive. And Pixel Qi is a compromise; it gives up a bit in color saturation to pick up that visibility in sunlight. Steve Jobs isn’t one to compromise.

But the choice of LCD technology means that, in spite of the library of e-books that will be available for the iPad, this device is no e-book reader. While I’m not an e-book convert myself, the folks I know who carry Kindles with them read them outdoors as much as in, often in sunlight; that just won’t be possible with this LCD display. And, even indoors, they swear that the reading experience—in particular, the eyestrain—is much different than that on an LCD display

The iPad will, however, impact the world of displays, says Jason Heikenfeld, an associate professor in the Novel Devices Laboratory at the University of Cincinnati, because, with its ability to allow magazines and other publications to be sold with the ease of an iTunes track, it “will increase the movement to digital media.” This will up the demand for a do-it-all display that can display full color motion video as well as easy to read text, and may speed up the advance of the state of the art.

Over at the FX Palo Alto Laboratory (a subsidiary of Fuji Xerox), a group of scientists looking at how best to read and navigate electronic documents on portable devices is also encouraged by the iPad. While the current reading applications don’t go beyond the state of the art, says researcher Scott Carter, “the form factor coupled with the screen capabilities should facilitate new media-rich reader applications as well as interactive collection browsing apps” that will make all our lives easier.

In the meantime, I won’t be tossing out the pile of books on my nightstand in order to download my bedtime reading from iTunes. It’s not a printed book killer—or a Kindle killer. But, to be fair, it doesn’t have to be to succeed, it’s a sweet computer, certainly more appealing than a netbook—but that’s another post.

For more reactions and analysis, visit the iPad topic page.

Rambus and Samsung Kiss and Make Up


Several Moore’s Law generations ago, in a land not too far away, a legal battle began. Rambus sued Samsung, claiming that its competitor--which had agreed to license some elements of its intellectual property portfolio--had infringed upon its patents for SDRAM and DDR PC memory, and GDDR2 and GDDR3 graphics memory, and had engaged in anticompetitive practices aimed at shutting Rambus out of the memory market.

Six years after the legal proceedings began, the seemingly perpetual litigants announced that they have come to settlement terms aimed at, among other things, ending the steady flow of corporate earnings into the coffers of each side’s attorneys. The settlement calls for Samsung to pay restitution in several ways: a US $200 million lump sum; a $25 million payment each quarter for the next five years; a $200 million purchase of Rambus stock; and a partridge in a pear tree.

The upfront payment settles Rambus’ claims for royalties owed by Samsung on DDR DRAMs using Rambus technology that have already shipped. The quarterly disbursements will cover licensing fees for the next five years. Oddly enough, by buying stock in Rambus, Samsung stands to gain if Rambus wins in court against Micron Technology and Hynix Semiconductor, Samsung’s former co-defendants in the intellectual property lawsuit. Rambus filed suit against the three companies in 2004, alleging that they had made a pact to fix prices so Rambus would not be able to sell its memory chips.



Inside the iPad--A Chip from A Design Veteran

The speculation is over, Steve Jobs just announced the long rumored Apple tablet computer. It's the iPad, and the event is continuing as I write this. For Jobs, it's more about what it can do than how it does it, and that's usually a good thing for consumers. So the event is more about demos than hardware.

But the hardware is interesting. For starters, there's the microprocessor. It's a new one, designed internally at Apple, tagged the 1GHz Apple A4 chip.

Remember Apple's acquisition in 2008 of chip company P.A. Semi, founded by Dan Dobberpuhl, formerly of Digital Equipment Corp.? IEEE Member Dobberpuhl designed the DEC Alpha and Strong-ARM microprocessors, and received the 2003 IEEE Solid-State Circuits Award for his work. Last summer, the rumor mill speculated that Dobberpuhl was running a team of low-power experts to design a chip that would give a cell-phone higher power and longer battery life than its competitors. It looks like instead of a cell phone, Dobberpuhl has been working on the iPad project. If that's the case, given his track record, this is good news for this new product.

Photo: Apple

For more reactions and analysis, visit the iPad topic page.


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