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Out of Africa: does ownership matter?

Technological systems, such as electricity or the Internet, are often portrayed as powerful, independent economic -- and even historical -- forces that work on people and society, in much the way a doctor operates on a patient. The one-way, or uni-directional, view of technological change provokes vigorous dissent, yet remains a popular way of conceptualizing how innovations influence human behavior at many levels.

Because techno-determinism is epecially popular with engineers, designers and inventors -- in short, the very people who create new technologies -- there is sometimes insufficient attention given to who owns a given technological system and what might be the benefits of new ownership arrangements.

In the arena of electricity generation in Africa, such a question is urgent and interesting. One fresh look suggests that private ownership of Africa's national electricity systems may in some cases result in healthier, more innovation and better managed systems.

Unlike the U.S., where private ownership of electricity generation is the norm, in Africa government tends to operate and own electricity companies. The standard of government ownership partly results from default: few private investors are willing to take on the responsibility and costs associated with providing one of the most social of all technological goods, electricity.

In only one instance in sub-Saharan Africa -- the world's most energy-poor region of the world -- does a private corporation own an entire national electricity grid. The country is Cameroon and the owner is AES Corp.

Seven years ago, in 2001, AES purchased a controlling share of Cameroon's government-owned electricity company, which relied chiefly on hydro-electricity, drawn from two large dams. The deal made AES the largest private employer in Cameroon, and one of the largest single investors anywhere in Africa outside of the oil, gas and mining sectors.

AES inherited a broken company. Theft of electricity was widespread. Employees corruptedly colluded in these thefts. And the heavy reliance on hydro-electricity left Cameroon, a well-endowed West African country with two major cities, chronically short of power.

At first, AES seemed to make things worse, suggesting that critics of electricity privitization, of which there are many in Africa, were correct. The company, which had never operated in the region before, misunderstood the extent of the problems and failed to recognize that Cameroonians would ultimately fix them -- not imported international managers and technicians.

They shift to an Africanized leadership worked well. In a new report by the government of Cameroon, AES receives acclaim for expanding generating capacity, improving the condition of technological systems and investing in local talent.

Today, AES employs 2,500 people in Cameroon and supplies electricity to more than half a million customers.

The relative success of AES in Cameroon is still fragile; the company must run hard simply to keep the lid on social pressures that compel many poor people to perceive the electricity company as a source of pillage -- and exploiter who puts profits ahead of public services.

Yet because electricity service has improved in Cameroon, advocates of private ownership of national electricity grids can point to one working example of their theory. Even skeptics of the conclusion are reminded by Cameroon's experience that who owns a technological system can matter a lot.

Magazine: Stop Gushing Over the Olympic World Records

The folks at Slate magazine, usually cynics on their best days, want the rest of us to put an end to the unbridled amazement at all the world records being set in the first week of the Olympic Games in Beijing.

It seems their principal beef is with the all-time marks being set in the swimming events, in which stars like Michael Phelps of the United States keep shattering records. They may be buzz-killers, but they do have a few good points to make. Maybe we're not being jaded enough about how much today's athletes are extending their performances with the help of some sophisticated, new techniques and technologies.

The online magazine lays out a few of these enhancements in an article in their Human Nature section (please see Olympic Inflation). Here's a brief sampling of some of their gripes.

Note: We've covered some of these items already in this forum.

  • The Speedo LZR Racer swimsuit line: 'It reduces friction (compared with skin) and is structurally designed to compress and streamline the body for maximum speed.'

  • Depth of Aquatics Center pool: 'This is the deepest pool ever used in the Olympics. Depth disperses turbulence, reducing resistance.'

  • Starting blocks for swimmers. 'Nonskid versions have replaced the old wooden ones, boosting dive propulsion.'

  • Medical analysis of athletes. 'Swimmers are blood-tested after each race to measure lactic-acid buildup.'

  • Sports scientists on teams. 'They run the monitoring and analysis. The U.S. swim team has four.'

These are, mostly, enhancements that competitors did not have in past Olympics swim meets (especially going back before Athens in 2004).

So should we still be cheering so loud when these superb athletes knock a sizable chunk off a world record? Why not?

It's just human nature to get excited about seeing the best performances ever occurring in front of our eyes right now. We may know they are getting better training, equipment, and feedback; but that doesn't really dampen the thrill of watching the finest athletes on the planet turn in the fastest results ever.

Phelps will be swimming for gold today in the 200-meter individual medley at the Aquatics Center (a.k.a., the Cube). If he should happen to win the race and set another all-time best mark, go ahead and make a little noise for him.

Despite what the cynics might say, he would deserve it.

Michael Phelps Rules the Waves at the Olympics

U.S. swimming champion Michael Phelps has made history in Beijing by becoming the first 11-time gold medalist in the Olympics. He is now the unquestioned greatest short-distance swimmer ever. But could there be more to his story than meets the eye?

Yesterday, Phelps won the 200-meter individual butterfly and followed that up an hour later with a winning effort in the 800-meter freestyle relay. Both races resulted in world records. He posted a mark of 1 minute 52.03 seconds in the four-lap butterfly event, shattering his own record of 1:52.09 from the 2007 world championships. In the freestyle relay he set the pace for the Americans with a leadoff leg of 1:43.31 that resulted in a phenomenal total time of 6:58.56, the first mark ever recorded under 7 minutes for the four-man event (smashing the previous mark of 7:03.24 set by the U.S. squad at last year's championship).

Accounts of his remarkable achievements abound on the Web (such as this AP story).

Phelps faces only an easy semifinal today. Then he will return to pursue three more gold medals at the Aquatics Center, where he has already won five of five finals in world-record times. He previously earned six golds at the Athens Games. In terms of gold, Phelps is now the lone holder of the all-time Olympics medal count, eclipsing the nine won by legends such as Larissa Latynina (gymnastics), Carl Lewis (track and field), Paavo Nurmi (running), and Mark Spitz (swimming).

What we're interested in, though, in this forum, is how technology might have helped boost him through the water in Beijing. We've covered the revolutionary swimsuits, the Speedo LZR Racer line, that he and other athletes are wearing at the Olympics this year (please see Olympic Tech in China). Could there be more?

Absolutely. Here's one more example.

A professor of fluids mechanics at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., has been working with USA Swimming, the group that fields the American team at the Olympics, on improving event times by analyzing the hydrodynamics of its competitors in the pool.

Professor Timothy Wei, head of Rensselaerâ''s Department of Mechanical, Aerospace, and Nuclear Engineering, has developed cutting-edge hardware and software that analyzes a swimmer's movement through the water. He used it to consult with USA Swimming's coaches to break down the techniques of the athletes under their supervision. Wei's experimental flow measurement technology uses sophisticated mathematics with stop-motion video technology to identify key vortices, pinpoint the movement of the water, and compute how much energy the swimmer exerts.

It could be responsible for giving the U.S. team members the extra precision they need to perfect their strokes, according to one of the participants in the process.

"Swimming research has strived to understand water flow around a swimmer for decades, because how a swimmer's body moves the surrounding water is everything," said USA Swimming's Biomechanics Manager Russell Mark. "The ability to measure flow and forces in a natural and unimpeded environment hasn't been available until recently, and Dr. Wei's technology and methods presented USA Swimming with a unique opportunity that United States swimmers and coaches could learn a lot from."

As outlined in an account at the Newswise site online (please see "Top Secret" Technology To Help U.S. Swimmers Trim Times at Beijing Olympics), Wei believes the real secret to success in training an athlete to be a faster swimmer lies in understanding how they interact with the fluid they move through.

"To see how a swimmer's motion affects the flow, you need to know how much force the swimmer is producing, and how that force impacts the water," Wei noted.

You can see more about Wei's work with the U.S. swim team by viewing the videos Rensselaer has posted to its university Web site.

As for the new all-time gold medal winner, he may be so talented that training technology just might be a ripple behind him in a larger scheme of things.

After finishing second to Phelps and teammates in the 4X200 freestyle yesterday, Russia's Alexander Sukhorukov quipped, "He is just a normal person, but maybe from a different planet."

It must be a planet made of water.

India to Negroponte: Drop Dead

Nick Negroponte must be beside himself. For the visionary behind the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project, the hits just keep on coming. The single best bait-and-switch publicity ploy of the year was used to drive another nail in OLPCâ''s coffin. On 29 July, an Indian education minister announced that researchers at two of the countryâ''s leading technology schools were at work on a $10 laptop. TEN DOLLARS!! Of course, 10 bucks for a computer is a pipe dream, and the ministry issued a correction putting the anticipated price at, you guessed it, $100. But what a way to make a splash! Now everyone will be keeping an eye on Bangalore to see if India can do what the brightest minds contributing to the OLPC couldnâ''t: hold the line on that iconic price.

The announcement put an exclamation point on what had to be the most dyspepsia-inducing two-year period of Negroponteâ''s life. Back in 2006, Indiaâ''s Education Secretary, Sudeep Banerjee, characterized OLPCâ''s XO laptop as â''pedagogically suspectâ''â''a succinct way of saying that there was no certainty of a return on the nearly $200 million it would have to lay out in order to procure a shipment of the machines. After all, said Banerjee, â''We need classrooms and teachers [for the elementary school children targeted by OLPC] more urgently than fancy tools.â'' No arguing that.

Negroponte had to have gone from sipping to chugging antacid as he watched: the price of his brainchild creep up to $188 from the $100 figure that had become part of OLPCâ''s branding; Intel leave the OLPC governing group after the chipmaker refused to quit work on its in-house $100 laptop, the Classmate; delays in the XO laptopâ''s rollout and complaints regarding its durability when the computer finally appeared; and the defections of high-level contributors, some of whom cast aspersions on the effort. And now this: one of the largest markets for his product has not only declared the machine computer-non-grata, but now insists that whatever he can do, they can do better.

Pass the Pepto.

Out of Africa: solar-powered transmitters gain traction

Could mobile-phone transmitters drive the first widespread commercial use of solar-power in Africa?

A number of companies are betting on that -- and whether they succeed will say a lot about the long-term chances that solar-energy can deliver real benefits to large numbers of Africans.

Generally, solar-energy has proved too expensive for African homes and too difficult for African electricity companies -- beset by many operational handicaps -- to master. Mobile-phone companies, which in Africa are prospering, are better positioned to embrace alternative energy sources, and mobile-phone base stations are a good candidate because, in rural Africa, grid power often is unavailable.

A Swedish-Indian company named VNL, VNL, plans to introduce solar-powered base stations aimed at the African marketing, working through various suppliers of telecom equipment.

VNL's big engineering claim: an easy-to-build radio tower that consumes no more electricity than required for an ordinary light bulb.

Ericsson and Alcatel-Lucent have separately installed about 400 solar-powered base stations in African countries including Senegal and Uganda.

VNL's base station will cost $3,500 and require 100 watts to run, about the same as a light bulb. By contrast, the GSM stations most widely used today can cost anywhere from $40,000 to $100,000. The most energy-efficient models require around 600 watts; others may need several thousand watts.

Critical support for these innovations is starting to come from Africa's leading mobile-phone providers, notably Celtel, MTN and Vodaphone, who together control a majority of the sub-Saharan telephone market.

Dara Torres Goes a Long Way for a Short Race

After four years, it's on again. The Summer Olympic Games are back.

The spectacular Opening Ceremony in Beijing is over (see video below), and the competition begins tomorrow. The next three weeks will see over 300 events contested. So now it's time to focus on athletic excellence.

As we alluded to a couple of days ago (see Olympic Tech in China), there will be instances where technology will come to the aid of the athletes in small ways that could mean the difference between victory and defeat.

For example, take the case of Dara Torres, who at 41 is trying to become the eldest gold medalist in the history of the Games' swimming competition. Torres first won a gold for the United States at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles as a member of the women's 400-meter freestyle relay team when she was just 17. Since then, she has won three more gold and four other medals. In Beijing, she will be gunning for gold in her fifth appearance in the quadrennial Games in the short 50-meter freestyle events.

At the recent U.S. Olympic Trials in Omaha, Torres set an American record in the individual 50-meter freestyle with a time of 24.25 seconds (see video below).

How has Torres managed to make it so far? In a word: training. She is reported to have one of the most intensive training regimens among any of the athletes to make it to this year's Olympics. In an article last year in The New York Times (see Torres Is Getting Older, but Swimming Faster), we learn about the extraordinary lengths she goes to in order to keep her body in tip-top shape.

One of the key elements in her rigorous exercise routine is a technique called resistance stretching, which Torres refers to as her "secret weapon." In resistance stretching, athletes seek to gain greater strength and flexibility by getting their muscles to contract and elongate simultaneously.

Strictly speaking, this isn't an instance of technology coming to the aid of an Olympic competitor, but it does speak to the role that new developments in biofeedback are playing in the increasingly technical world of athletics.

Bush EPA Punches Texas Cow Punchers on Ethanol Mandate

As widely reported in today's newspapers, Aug. 8, the Environmental Protection Agency has rejected a request from the Texas governor to reduce the amount of ethanol required to enter the nation's fuel supply. Under law, 9 billion gallons of renewable fuel are to be sold in the United States this year, but if such goals are found to be causing severe economic hardships, EPA is authorized to waive requirements. Texas cattle ranchers argue that their feed prices have soared because of crop diversion to ethanol production.

NCAR Climate Risk Program Takes Hit, and NCAR Too

The New York Times has reported the shut-down of the Center for Capacity Building, a small NCAR team that has been assessing potential impacts of climate change on poor countries, attracting wide global notice. The program, led by Michael Glantz, evidently was ended for budgetary reasons, as the National Center for Atmospheric Research has had to tighten its belt. NCAR, in Boulder, Colo., is one of the five or six leading climate modeling centers in the world. Over the last five years, a source told the Times, the center has lost 110 jobs.

Roger A. Pielke Jr., a former NCAR staff member who writes a widely followed contrarian climate blog, decried the loss of the climate-impact program. â''Knowledge related to the societal dimensions of global environmental problems is fundamental to efforts to arrive at practical and effective solutions,â'' Dr. Pielke said. â''If anything, we need to expand attention in these areas.â''

To track reactions to the situation, stay abreast of Andrew Revkinâ''s blog.

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.


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