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Out of Africa: liberation through the skies

Last Thursday morning, I flew from Tamale to Accra, Ghana on a 45-seat prop plane. The flight took barely more than an hour, and spared me a ten-hour car ride. Tamale is the most important city in Ghanaâ''s largely-Muslim north, and the air service is relatively new. Antrak flies daily; it is one of two commercial carriers.

The opening of Ghanaâ''s north through the skies does not resolve the continuing troubles with basic roads between Accra and points north. The very same awful road that links Accra to Kumasi continues further north to Tamale. If Tamale is to become the breadbasket for more-urbanized southern Ghana, the road to Kumasi must be greatly improved. But air service provides an important boost â'' and not only for people. Fresh mangoes are making the plane trip from Tamale to Accra as well.

Some of the mangoes get eaten by prosperous urban elites, while the remainder move onto another airplane â'' this one traveling to Europe.

Air service from Accra to Tamale remains an experiment. All seats were filled when I flew on Monday to Tamale. Only one seat was empty on my return trip. At 175 dollars per flight (or $350 roundtrip), air travel to Tamale is well beyond the means of ordinary Ghanaians. Yet while the service needs elite customers to survive and thrive.

There are wider lessons here for aviation technology and African development. These are early days but over time, regional air travel could solve one of Africaâ''s most vexing problems: how to move people and goods, quickly and economically, over vast distances.

Skeptics abound, citing relatively low demand -- and low purchasing power -- from African consumers. I have written elsewhere about the potential of aviation to liberate African travelers, drawing parallels with the mobile-phone revolution in the region.

"Just as the mobile phone bypassed the vastly expensive challenge of upgrading dysfunctional African land-line systems," I wrote in the January issue of The Wilson Quarterly, "a big push into rural-based aviation, aimed at moving crops from the bush to African cities and beyond, would leapfrog the problem of bad roads."

One commentator called my suggestion "certifiably insane," which may mean that aviation holds more promise than many presume.

Hubble Telescope Failure Causes NASA to Scramble

The magnificent Hubble Space Telescope has suddenly gone blind. NASA said today that the far-seeing orbiting telescope stopped transmitting data late Saturday, caused by the failure of a key communications component. The malfunction has caused the space agency to postpone the next mission of its space shuttle fleet, which ironically was supposed to have performed a series of long awaited repairs to the Hubble.

The Atlantis orbiter was ready to go for a service mission to the Hubble on 14 October. That mission, designated STS-125, will now be pushed back until February at the earliest. The extra time should give the STS-125 crew an opportunity to become familiar with the most recent piece of equipment to act up on the 18-year-old telescope. It is known as the Control Unit/Science Data Formatter and handles the storage and transmission of science data to Earth.

In a press release, NASA described the malfunction as follows: "Shortly after 8 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 27, the telescope's spacecraft computer issued commands to safe the payload computer and science instruments when errors were detected within the Science Data Formatter. An attempt to reset the formatter and obtain a dump of the payload computerâ''s memory was unsuccessful."

The unit's outage has effectively rendered the telescope useless until NASA engineers can effect a complex workaround using a backup data transmission channel for the science instruments onboard.

The STS-125 crew has already been in training for two years to fix a number of other glitches that have been acting up on the Hubble in recent years.

"The teams are always looking at contingencies, and this is just something that has cropped up we have the ability to deal with," said NASA spokesperson Michael Curie. "They're just trying to decide what direction we want to go."

Physicists Talk Tough on Efficiency and The War

I recall well a meeting of journalists at the Kennedy School of Government in 2003 where I was regarded as a wingnut + conspiracy theorist for seeing a linkage between U.S. intransigence on greenhouse gas controls and the War in Iraq. Never have I felt as alienated as an American intellectual. These days I reflect instead on how far the national conversation has come in the years since. I happened upon the latest sign of hope quite unexpectedly in a report on energy efficiency issued earlier this month by the American Physical Society: "Energy = Future. Think efficiency."

I'd been feeling guilty about letting the APS report pass by without a mention. Energy efficiency is a tough story for journalists -- making do with less energy simply lacks the sex appeal of faster cars or new power generating technologies such as high-tech techniques for pollution-free coal power or the latest in photovoltaics. And yet, as the APS rightly points out, the U.S. is in a better position than most countries to meet its need for clean, domestic energy by squeezing a bigger bang out of every joule of energy consumed.

What will be useful about the APS report is its explicit connection between the technologies available to boost efficiency in the key sectors of transportation and buildings, and the shortcomings in science & technology policy that thwart their ready adoption or rapid adoption.

But what I really appreciated was the no-nonsense manner in which the analysis unfolds. The relatively frank prose of the executive summary (considering the genre) sets the stage for what follows:

"Nowhere is the standard of living more rooted in energy than in the United States, and, with its defense forces deployed in the most distant regions around the world, nowhere is the security of a nation more dependent on energy...Yet only in times of extreme turbulence â'' the OPEC (the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries) oil embargo in 1973, the overthrow of the shah of Iran in 1979 and the Persian Gulf War in 1991 â'' when public frustration became politically intolerable did American officials devote serious attention to energy policy. Although some of the policy initiatives yielded significant benefits, others were left on the drafting board as the nation reverted to a business-as-usual energy routine once the turbulence passed and public dissatisfaction dissipated."

How refreshing. Now, let's get to work.

Open Source for Nanotech Labs: Will it make a difference for innovation?

In the spirit of scientific cooperation and goodwill, MIT researcher, Stephen Steiner, has decided to make available for download via a website programs he is developing for further automating the lab processes used for making nanomaterials.

The first up is a program he is calling â''Ansariâ'' after Anousheh Ansari, who was intent on making space exploration more accessible for all. The program essentially automates a furnace for â''cooking upâ'' carbon nanotubes.

This may save some tired research assistants from staring at a furnace while waiting to turn the dial to 1000 degrees Celsius. But itâ''s not clear that this will actually speed up the â''innovation processâ'' as Steiner seems to ultimately hope.

When one considers that maybe 80 to 90% of the academic research that this automation will speed up will never yield any kind of economic value, it really comes down to how you define â''innovationâ''.

I think many would consider the discovery and later the exploitation in a little over a decade of the giant magneto resistance (GMR) phenomenon has led to innovation. But the discovery of carbon nanotubes, which can be dated back to the mid-70s or early 90s depending on who you ask, has yielded little commercial impact to date except for some filler in composites for sporting equipment. These two examples demonstrate how difficult it is to determine exactly what innovation may constitute.

In the world of nanotech, the science seems to be rolling along quite nicely with research turning up new possibilities seemingly daily. The problems seems to be the disconnect between the labs and the markets.

What might be in order is Open Source for managing the business based on an emerging technology.

Negative Prices for Clean Power

How do you know that congestion on high-voltage transmission grids is stranding valuable renewable energy? When the price of electricity goes negative. American Wind Energy Association power industry analyst Michael Goggin delivers a snapshot of the phenomenon in a recent column for Renewable Energy World.

Goggin points to data from the Electricity Reliability Council of Texas or ERCOT, the state's grid operator, showing an increasing incidence of generators paying buyers to take their power. According to Goggin, such conditions track the explosive installation of wind farms in West Texas -- and are very bad news for their operators.

Prices fell below US -$30/MWh (megawatt-hour) on 63% of days during the first half of 2008, compared to 10% for the same period in 2007 and 5% in 2006. If prices fall far enough below zero that the cost for a wind plant to continue operating is higher than the value of the US $20/MWh federal renewable electricity production tax credit plus the value of other state incentives, wind plant operators will typically curtail the output of their plants.

Worse still, consumers in adjacent areas are paying top dollar for power because the transmission lines between them and the excess wind power are overloaded.

Texas is running into trouble because it pushed wind power harder and faster than other states, but it is also leading the way to address what is really a nationwide problem. This summer the Public Utility Commission of Texas approved a scheme called the Competitive Renewable Energy Zone (CREZ) process to incentivize construction of new transmission lines to evacuate stranded wind power. Earlier this month a consortium of major utilities including MidAmerican and AEP announced their intention to do so.

For a detailed yet accessible look at Texas' renewable energy transmission challenge and efforts to clear out the bottlenecks, see this overview from the State Energy Conservation Office.

China Launches Mission to Attempt Space Walk Exercise

China today launched its third manned orbital vehicle into space, carrying a crew of three. The goal of the mission is to attempt the Chinese program's first extravehicular activity (EVA), or space walk, an essential step in mastering complex spacecraft maintenance routines.

According to a report from the Xinhua News Agency, the Shenzhou-7 vehicle lifted off at 9:10 pm local time aboard a Long March II-F rocket from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in Gansu Province. The crew consists of Chinese taikonauts Zhai Zhigang, Liu Boming, and Jing Haipeng, all 42 years old, who will spend the next three days in space.

During one orbit, at an altitude of 343 kilometers, one of the taikonauts wearing a Chinese-made Feitian spacesuit will leave the crew cabin through an airlock to perform a number of EVA experiments. The name of the domestically produced spacesuit comes from a legendary Buddhist goddess known for flying.

Xinhua reports that the crew will also perform other key mission tasks such as releasing a small monitoring satellite called the Tianlian-I. The China National Space Administration was careful to characterize the mission as one of scientific exploration in the country's long-term interest of becoming a leading civilian space program.

"China pursues the principle of making peaceful use of space in its exploration and development," Zhang Jianqi, deputy chief commander of the manned space project, told Xinhua.

The Shenzhou-7 is scheduled to return in three days after a hard landing in China's Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region.

Hub Motors: Where EVs Smash Open Auto Design

Chrysler leapt back into relevance this week announcing no less than four EVs in development -- at least one of which it promises to sell in 2010. Most intriguing for this fan of EV technology is its claim to be experimenting with permanent magnet in-wheel motors for an plug-in hybrid version of the Jeep Wrangler. That step would be an exciting leap in auto design where the electric drivetrain frees the automobile from its heavy and design-constraining mechanical transmission and driveshafts.

For a sense of the hub motor's potential design impact, consider the experimental Reconnaissance Surveillance Targeting Vehicle that General Dynamics built for the U.S. Marine Corps. The "Shadow" is "a four-ton armored truck that has the payload of a Humvee and yet is svelte enough to deploy from a tactical aircraft." The Shadow used a series hybrid design in which the engine serves only to keep the lithium battery charged in extended range use--much like GM's vaunted Chevy Volt.

Unlike the Volt it transmits power to the wheels via power cables, rather than using its stored electricity to drive a central motor and mechanically distributing it to the wheels. The result is unprecedented traction thanks to the direct control of each wheel by its hub motor and the wheels' freedom to range up and down almost half a meter.

Then there's the Shadow's metamorphosis when it rolls out of a V-22 vertical take-off tactical plane. Sizing for the V-22's cargo hold constrained the Shadow's chassis to just 150 cm side to side -- way narrower than the 215-cm-wide Humvee. How to ensure stability in operation at that width? Upon exiting from the V-22 the Shadow extends its wheels sideways 20 cm beyond the chassis, achieving a total wheelbase of 190 cm. The key is a folding pneumatic suspension, something that's all but impossible with a mechanically-driven wheel.

The Shadow was General Dynamics' 2004 bid for what has since become the joint U.S. Army - Marine Corps Joint Light Tactical Vehicle program. Development contracts for the vehicles are expected to be announced next month.

The Shadow, Hub motors and all:


Carbon Trading Takes Two Steps Forward and One Back

Tomorrow, Sept. 25, the first U.S. auction of carbon emission permits will take place, with owners of power plants and industrial facilities in six northeastern states participating. Starting at 9 in the morning and running until midnight, it is organized by the 10-state Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, the first mandatory interstate carbon trading system in the United States. Meanwhile, seven states and four Canadian provinces participating in the Western Climate Initiative released a plan yesterday to reduce their collective emissions 15 percent by 2020: taking effect in 2012, it would set annual emissions caps and issue allowances to organizations affectedâ''90 percent of those allowances are to be issued free, only 10 percent auctioned.

Carbon trading got off to a rocky start in Europe, with prices gyrating and much too low, initially, to induce any real corrective action by industry. One might suppose, given the aggressive leadership on climate exercised by countries like the UK and Germany, that the European system would have set emissions caps based on their Kyoto commitments and then ratcheted down the caps each year so as to meet Kyoto targets. But that would have been politically unsellable. What Europe actually does is ask each country to volunteer a cap, which is then modified in negotiations between the EU Commission and the member governments. This of course is a recipe for intense lobbying by industry, with predictable results.

The problem is ongoing. Germany announced this week that it would seek to exempt most of its industry from the proposed next step in ETS, which would involve mandatory auction of emissions allowances in the period 2013-20 (currently the European permits are issued free). Chancellor Merkel, sounding remarkably like President Bush seven years ago, said she â''could not support the destruction of German jobs through an ill-advised climate policy.â''

The mean of means, the mean of modes, RGB, HSV, or LAB: figuring out the color of Palo Alto is a complex problem


After a year of digital picture taking, a year-and-a-half of sorting photos, and days and days of number crunching using custom software on a Hewlett-Packard desktop computer, artist Samuel Yates is finally ready to answer a question posed back in 2002: What color is Palo Alto?

Well, almost ready. Because Palo Alto is in Silicon Valley, and Silicon Valley is full of engineers. So itâ''s not surprising that a Silicon Valley artist thinks a bit like an engineer. Which means to answer the question he has to decide exactly what kind of color heâ''s talking about, and what he means by an average, and thatâ''s not so easy.

For now, on his website, Yates offers the results of a variety of calculations, yielding different colors. He looks at several so-called â''color spaces,â'' that is, ways of defining color by combinations of components, including the familiar RGB (red, green, blue), HSV (hue, saturation, value), and LAB (luminance, A chrominance B chrominance, used in US analog television broadcasts), He considered dozens of different ways of finding statistically accurate mathematical average of the 1.3 billion pixels in the roughly 70,000 photographs, one for each piece of property in town, considering mean, median, mode, Heronian mean, Identric mean, Stolarsky mean, and a long list of others, and plans to make the entire data set available for people to averag using their favorite mathematical technique. And he recalculates his averages according to seasons, months, days, specific neighborhoods, streets.


A selection of streets, looking at mean of modes of the HSV colors.

The final, official, color of Palo Alto will be determined later this fall. Yates has selected HSV as the official color space, in a nod to Xeroxâ''s Palo Alto Research Center, which used HSV in Superpaint, the first computer system explicitly designed to create art via a graphical user interface. Heâ''s narrowed the averaging methodologies down to threeâ''the mean of means, mean of modes, and mode of means. And then, starting in October, heâ''ll ask city residents to vote on which three colors most accurately represents Palo Alto. It will be, he says, a shade of green, a pleasant surprise, he says. â''I was hoping for something like that; my worst case scenario would have been grey or brown or beige,â'' spending years of his life to end up with grey would not have made this artist happy, though, he says, â''it would have been funny.â'' He expects people to campaign for their favorite colors.


A campaign button.

Meanwhile, Yates is thinking about other ways to look at this data. For example, he can find the unique color of a specific property, that is, what color pixel that property has that no other property in town contains. Using the average data for a property or a street, along with this information about unique colors, Yates is considering generating plaids; each neighborhood, for example, could have a unique plaid, with, he suggests, â''the mean of means the background color, the unique colors highlight colors, and the plaid angled to represent the compass direction of a street, the width representing the number of parcels on the streetâ'' Like Scottish clans, each neighborhood in town could have a unique plaid.


One plaid generated from the data.

Yates is hoping his years of work will find practical uses as well as artistic ones. He has offered to provide the complete final set of photographs to the city of Palo Alto at no charge; the city has already designed its 911 system to bring up a photograph of the correct building, if available, along with a parcel map, when a 911 calls comes in; Yates photographs will likely be put into that system. He expects the photographs will also be used by the city planning department to review along with existing aerial photographs when discussing building permits, and by city arborists when residents call with questions about trees in their yard (saving a trip out to the house to determine just what kind of tree theyâ''re talking about). He anticipates that the database of photos will be updated by the city during final inspections of new constructions or remodels.

Watch Samuel Yates in action below:


France Secures Britainâ¿¿s Nuclear Industry

This morning, Sept. 24, British Energy formally accepted a take-over bid by Electricité de France, which means that France will soon own and operate the bulk of the UKâ''s nuclear power generating industry. Itâ''s a measure of how far the processes of electricity deregulation, globalization, and Europeanization have gone that the story gets only secondary treatment in todayâ''s French press. It didnâ''t even make Le Mondeâ''s online homepage, while on Le Figaroâ''s it ranked 14th, putting it well â''below the fold.â''

Todayâ''s deal puts EDF in charge of almost all of the UKâ''s nuclear power plants and gives it control of most attractive sites for building new ones. This is important because the British government advocates an aggressive program of nuclear expansion, and wants to have at least four new plants in operation by 2017.

Unlike the late President Gerald Ford, to recall Lyndon Johnsonâ''s denigrating joke, EDF showed this week that it can walk and chew gum at the same time. On Friday it made a last-ditch attempt to boost its stake in Constellation Energy, which it hoped to make its bridgehead for entry into the U.S. nuclear construction industry. But Constellation still preferred to stick with Warren Buffett, who has promised the company a $1 billion cash injection.

In these troubled economic times, evidently, having Buffettâ''s confidence means more than the worldâ''s best engineering expertise.


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