nov 2005 / last mod oct 2017 / greg goebel

* 22 entries including: McCain blasts Bush II Administration, Dawkins' THE BLIND WATCHMAKER, the IGLOO WHITE program, bubonic plague, return of aggressor squadrons, Ahmadinejad blasts Israel, Bill Buckley turns 80, France and US get along, Japan likes robots, machinima videos, airlines on the upswing, CIA extraordinary rendition, terrorist finance tracking fiasco, terrorist attacks in Jordan, antibiotic-resistant staph, crossbar nanocomputing, arranged marriages online, Charity Navigator, H5N1 flu precautions, Transdimensional, and my own blog.

banner of the month



* MCCAIN SPEAKS: Arizona Republican Senator John McCain took his case against the Bush II Administration's policy on treatment of prisoners public in the 21 November 2005 issue of NEWSWEEK. The senator was careful to be tactful:


It is also quite fair to attribute the administration's position ... to the president and vice president's appropriate concern for acquiring actionable intelligence that could prevent attacks on our soldiers or our allies or the American people. And it is quite unfair to assume some nefarious purpose informs their intentions. They bear the greatest responsibility for the security of American lives and interests. I understand and respect their motives just as I admire the seriousness and patriotism of their resolve.

But I do, respectfully, take issue with the position that the demands of this war require us to accord a lower station to the moral imperatives that should govern our conduct in war and peace when they come in conflict with the unyielding inhumanity of our vicious enemy.


The senator recalled that during his interrogations when he was a prisoner of the North Vietnamese, he became fairly skilled at making up answers to keep his torturers happy. While acknowledging that al-Qaeda has no respect for any sort of rules, he went on to observe that undermining the credibility of the Geneva Convention could affect the treatment of American soldiers taken prisoner in other conflicts. Most importantly, he insisted that: "Prisoner abuses exact a terrible toll on us in this war of ideas ... the mistreatment of prisoners harms us more than our enemies."

McCain detailed some of the interrogation techniques that have been allowed under current policy, for instance "waterboarding", in which prisoners are doused with water to make them feel they are being drowned. The senator went on to say that if he had a choice between a beating and mock execution, he'd take a beating any time -- a mock execution is something that is never forgotten, and it is torture, pure and simple. The attempts to establish a "torture lite" that is legally permissible are just as much a walk across the bounds as hot irons and the rack.

The senator's basic thrust was that if America is a nation based on certain values, those values cannot be compromised even in an emergency without fundamentally undercutting the vital conviction that we are truly working for a just and noble cause. If we're not, then we're no better than our enemies.

* NEWSWEEK backed up the senator's essay with a study of the torture issue. CIA officials are divided on the effectiveness of information obtained by tough interrogations, some claiming useful intelligence has been obtained, others deriding the idea. Certainly, there appears to be considerable uneasiness over harsh treatment of prisoners in the CIA and the uniformed military. The US public also appears divided on the issue. The international political impact, not merely of torture but of indefinitely holding suspects without trial, is not so ambiguous; McCain commented: "It's killing us."

The administration has always known they were walking a fine line, allowing some interrogation techniques and disallowing others, with the standards adjusted over time. The biggest problem was that this careful exercise was accompanied by a push down the chain of command to get intelligence, and out in the field the line inevitably gets much blurrier and nowhere near as careful. McCain became aware of the issue from troops who spoke out, and decided to push in Congress to stop the prisoner abuse.

Other countries have dealt with the torture issue. After ten Palestinian prisoners died in custody, the Israeli High Court banned the use of torture in 1999. However, hard interrogation techniques can be authorized by the authorities there if a clear emergency can be identified, though interrogators will be liable to prosecution if they are found to have trumped up their case. McCain acknowledges that in certain situations -- "ticking time bombs" -- extraordinary measures could be authorized: "You do what you have to do, but you take responsibility for it. Abraham Lincoln suspended habeas corpus in the Civil War, and FDR violated the Neutrality Acts before World War II."

There is apparently a split in the administration on the issue. Secretary of State Condi Rice, no doubt tired of getting "torture" thrown in her face on her international visits, has been encouraging the president to take a firm stand against it. She is backed up by National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley and Deputy Secretary of Defense Gordon England; England's boss, Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld, appears to be straddling the fence. The hawks on the matter are believed to be Vice President Dick Cheney and his chief of staff, David Addington.

The administration currently insists that it doesn't condone torture, but the history of the last few years and the attempts to legally tapdance around the issue over that time have badly muddied matters. McCain would like the administration to establish a completely unambiguous policy on the treatment of prisoners. The president is not oblivious: Bush has spoken with McCain about the possibilities for a compromise. For the moment, the matter remains unresolved.

* Later, Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, who had been chief of staff for previous Secretary of State Colin Powell, assessed the attitude of the "tough on terrorism" faction in the White House as "that the President of the United States is all-powerful, that as commander in chief the President of the United States can do anything he damn well pleases." Those opposed to the new order included Secretary of State Powell, National Security Adviser Condi Rice, plus others in the state department and uniformed military. Wilkerson reported that Secretary Powell loudly objected to the policy, once roaring into a phone at Defense Secretary Rumsfeld: "Donald, don't you understand what you are doing to our image?!"

Wilkerson claimed that President Bush did try to figure out a reasonable compromise, agreeing that limits were needed but asserting that the war against terrorism couldn't work by the old rules. A policy might have been established that could stand up to public scrutiny, but the message was ambiguous and the attempts to impose bounds broke down drastically in the field.

Anyone who's ever been in the military knows what a blunt instrument it is, and knows it can't ever be anything else: We break things and kill people. That's not a slam, that's what the military's trained and equipped to do. It was like trying to do surgery with an axe instead of a scalpel. Most of the brass knew that; knew how much trouble it would cause to think otherwise; and knew they might well be left holding the bag when things went south.



* AGGRESSORS RETURN: One of the "glamor" jobs in the business of military flying is the role of playing "aggressor" to train other fighter pilots; the US Navy's "Top Gun" program has a Hollywood chic to it. However, since the end of the Cold War, aggressor squadrons have suffered from cutbacks, being reduced to bare-bones operations.

According to an AVIATION WEEK article ("Bandits Are Back" by William B. Scott, 31 October 2005), this downward trend is now being reversed. The US Air Force's (USAF) only aggressor unit, the "64th Aggressor Squadron" at Nellis AFB in Nevada, is now being brought up to full strength with the planned arrival of F-15 Eagle fighters to complement the F-16 Viper machines already serving with the 64th AS. The F-15s will be given aggressor blue / brown disruptive camouflage colors, fitted with data and tracking pods, and the pilots will be trained in air tactics used by air arms of potential adversaries.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the USAF had a total of four aggressor squadrons -- one in the Philippines, one in the UK, and two at Nellis. In the 1990s, this capability shrank to a total of seven F-16s associated with the Red Flag organization at Nellis, given the undistinguished name of the "Adversary Tactics Division". Nobody was too happy about the decline of aggressor training -- Vietnam had proven that it was a necessity, not a luxury -- and so in 2003 the 64th AS was reactivated and given five more F-16s to bring the total strength up to twelve aircraft. The 64th AS now provides support to the F/A-22 Raptor fighter development program, the annual Red Flag exercise in Nevada, the annual Maple Flag exercise in Canada, and a long list of other training exercises.

The addition of eight F-15s in 2006 will bring the 64th AS up to full squadron strength, 20 aircraft. In two years' time, the squadron will be able to go on "road shows" to take training to USAF fighter squadrons around the world. Although there has been consideration of using F/A-18s or MiG-29s in the aggressor role, since it is useful for pilots to be trained against aircraft that have unfamiliar performance characteristics, the cost of maintaining aircraft not otherwise in the inventory has kept this from happening.

F-15 & F-16 aggressors

Traditionally, USAF aggressors have emulated Soviet tactics, the pilots even wearing Soviet uniforms. With the fall of the USSR, the Soviet theatrics have disappeared, but the 64th AS still does try to duplicate Soviet-style air tactics. However, the world is a more complicated place now. During the Cope India exercise in 2004, USAF pilots found that Indian pilots in Su-27s and MiG-29s had a few surprises up their sleeves. Aggressor pilots have to expand their role to cover a wider range of possibilities. Nellis has introduced an "Adversary Tactics Group (ATG)" that includes the 64th AS, an intelligence squadron, and other elements to plan out a training program.



* IGLOO WHITE (3): The Navy Neptune P-2H ocean patrol aircraft was initially used for ADSID drops in support of the IGLOO WHITE system. Neptunes used for the drops were modified to the "OP-2E" configuration, which involved removal of all the ASW gear and then fit of night-fighting sensors and ground-attack armament, including Minigun 7.62 millimeter Gatling gun pods, bombs, and napalm. The engines were muffled. Despite the armament, as a rule the OP-2Es weren't supposed to have it out with the enemy unless they had to. Other Neptunes were modified to a "gunship" configuration designated "AP-2H", also involving removal of ASW gear and addition of night-fighting sensors, along with fit of a set of automatic grenade launchers. Apparently the OP-2E operated more or less as a "Hunter" while the AP-2H operated cooperatively as a "Killer".

OP-2E Neptune

As mentioned, an OP-2E would drop sensors in a string. It was a dangerous job, since the sensors were dropped at low level in areas where the enemy was thick and ground fire was likely to be heavy. Ground forces would also set up sensors during scout and ambush patrols along the Trail.

Later in the war, after the Navy got out of the airdrop portion of the IGLOO WHITE business, other aircraft, including Air Force Sikorsky CH-3 Jolly Green Giant helicopters and USAF F-4D Phantom jet fighters, performed the drop mission. Strikes would be performed by a range of attack aircraft, particularly gunships, such as modified C-47 "Spooky" gunships and most significantly the heavily-armed AC-130 "Spectre" gunship, based on the Lockheed C-130 Hercules cargolifter. Since precision targeting in the days before GPS was a bit problematic, AN/MSQ-77 precision locating beacons were set up at various strategic locations under the COMBAT SKYSPOT program. Attack aircraft would not only drop bombs and fire rockets, they also dispersed vast quantities of air-dropped mines to interfere with movements along the Trail, creating a deadly nuisance that would linger on decades later.

Of course, the two-watt transmitters of the sensors didn't have much range, typically about 32 kilometers (20 miles), and so the transmissions of the sensors were picked up and sent on by four US Air Force "EC-121R" radio relay aircraft, which were military versions of the elegant Lockheed Super Constellation four-piston airliner. Each aircraft covered a different region, orbiting the jungle at an altitude of about 6,100 meters (20,000 feet).

The radio relay missions were continuously operational from early 1967 to the middle of 1975. They used the callsign "BATCAT" and were generally known by that name. They were unarmed and had no reason to get into fights, but two EC-121Rs were lost in crashes in 1969, with all 18 crew killed in the first and four crew lost in the second. Later in the war, under the PAVE EAGLE program, the Air Force modified a number of Beech Debonaire single-engine piston aircraft for the relay mission, with these machines designated "QU-22A". They could be flown as unpiloted drones, but apparently that was never operational practice -- though witnesses say it was done occasionally, apparently on an experimental basis. The QU-22As were much cheaper to operate than the old EC-121Rs, and all the EC-121Rs were retired by 1971.

The sensor transmissions were relayed to the "Intelligence Surveillance Center (ISC)" at Nakhon Phanom Royal Thai Air Force Base in Thailand. It was a huge complex, surrounded by revetments and tight security. The building was air-conditioned and the air was filtered to remove dust that might damage sensitive gear. Despite the tight screening, snakes would occasionally infiltrate the center.

Communications gear linked the center to the sensors through the BATCAT relays, with an IBM 360 computer system storing data, though not performing much in the way of analysis. The staff of the ISC kept track of all the traffic on the Trail and directed strikes, coordinated by a 7.3 meter high by 2.75 meter wide (24 x 9 foot) plexiglas map of the battle area. The ISC also coordinated military intelligence from other sources and in fact operated as a general high-level intelligence center. The staff became very professional at their job, able to perform detailed interpretations of activities on the ground. The worst problem was attempting to get authorization for strikes, since the Johnson Administration had a strong inclination to "micromanage" the war and demanded intimate control over air strikes; the Nixon Administration was more relaxed in this regard. Of course, the enemy got increasingly wise to the system and became fond of "spoofing" sensors by, say, arranging misleading activities in the area of known sensors.

* Despite all the effort put into IGLOO WHITE, with expenditures of about a billion dollars a year, the effort was a failure overall. Task Force Alpha claimed destruction of tens of thousands of North Vietnamese trucks, while critics of the war claimed the number of kills was grossly inflated and that many of the strikes were on empty jungle. To be sure, kill scores in wartime are often exaggerated, and the truth was probably somewhere between those two estimates. Even a conservative read on the damage inflicted does indicate that IGLOO WHITE made the North Vietnamese suffer painfully, but it is indisputable that IGLOO WHITE never shut off the flow of supplies to South Vietnam.

It is said that in a colonial insurgency that if the colonial power doesn't win, it loses; if the insurgents don't lose, they win. No matter what sort of technology the US threw into the war, it could not overcome the basic political and strategic weakness of the Americans in South Vietnam, though admittedly the bumblings of the Johnson Administration did much to aggravate the situation. Whether other leadership could have done a better job or not is simply a matter of unproveable opinion.

However, IGLOO WHITE was the first implementation of a revolutionary idea, the "networked battlefield", and as with any other technology it would take a few iterations to get it right. In the 21st century, the networked battlefield is close to becoming a reality. If contemporary technology makes IGLOO WHITE seem crude and clumsy in comparison, IGLOO WHITE remains the ancestor of all that would come later, and for its era much of it still seems very ingenious. [END OF SERIES]



* THE BLIND WATCHMAKER (6): As Richard Dawkins point out, though Charles Darwin got many things very right in his THE ORIGIN OF SPECIES, he was hobbled by the fact that nobody understood heredity in his day. There was a general belief at the time that if two organisms mated that had different features, the progeny would have an averaging or blend of the features.

This clearly does happen, but if it were the only truth in the matter it would pose a problem for natural selection: any variation in individuals would soon be averaged out and lost in the population. A Catholic monk in Austria named Gregor Mendel soon figured out, in extensive experiments on pea plants, that blending didn't seem to be the way things worked after all. Mendel noticed that, say, a pea plant that was short that was bred with a pea plant that was tall would produce tall plants, but the tall plants would then produce both tall and short plants in a 3:1 ratio.

Mendel did little to promote his work -- he was a monk with monastic duties to perform, plant breeding was a sideline -- and his research was ignored for decades. In modern times, we know that traits are passed on in units known as "genes". By the early 20th century it was recognized that a set of strandlike structures in our cells known as "chromosomes" carried the genes. Further research showed that the important component of the chromosomes was a molecule known as "deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA)". It wasn't until the 1950s that the structure of DNA and its action was first understood. Now we know the precise organization of DNA for humans, and many other organisms as well.

DNA provides the "genetic code" that defines us. It has been called the "blueprint" of life, but this is an inexact comparison. A blueprint is a scaled drawing of an object to be built, for example a house. DNA isn't a structured list of the parts of an organism and a map of their layout as such; it's more like a dynamic, self-modifying computer program that instructs cells how to organize themselves and grow into a complete organism. A genetic command might just say "grow a finger" and then call a "routine" that grows a finger. Sometimes a genetic error may specify the wrong number of fingers -- six-toed cats are not that unusual, they can usually be spotted by their oversized paws, and in extremely rare cases humans can have six fingers as well.

DNA is copied or "transcribed" with mechanisms that ensure high fidelity in the transcription process. Even a good typist has an error rate billions of times greater than the DNA transcription process. The transcription has to be that good simply because there are so many cells in our body, each with their own DNA, grown from the single-celled ovum that we each started out from. If the transcription process wasn't almost perfect, we'd never be able to grow all those working cells.

DNA double helix

Changes do occur in DNA, of course, due to chemicals or radiation or whatever, and there are occasional errors in transcription. These are mutations, which end up flowing into the pool of variation. From the point of view of evolutionary biology, the fact that DNA is subject to reliable transcription with rare modifications gives us a "telescope" to examine the relationships of organisms. We share some genetic sequences, effectively unchanged, with pea plants and even bacteria, while others are unique to us; and we can gauge how close our relationship is with other organisms by identifying how much we differ.

Another, particularly interesting, revelation is that our genomes are littered with broken sequences, genes that once had a function but now have no directly useful purpose. In some cases, these "pseudogenes" aren't even human in origin. A class of viruses known as "retroviruses" -- the HIV virus is the best-known -- will insert their own genome into the genome of a target cell to take over operation of the cell. In some cases retroviruses will infect ova or sperm, and the retroviral sequences will be passed down through subsequent generations. A latent retrovirus genome can be occasionally reactivated, causing the organism to develop a retroviral infection without any external exposure to the retrovirus -- a phenomenon that definitely baffled the researchers who first noticed animals spontaneously coming down with viral infections. All the retroviral sequences in the human genome are now broken and fragmentary, but their presence as genetic "fossils" still provides evidence of our less-than-straightforward past history. Some have compared the human genome to a scrapyard contraption built with rusty old parts, not all of which work.

It is a bit puzzling that genetic trash like retroviral genomes is retained in our genomes, since from an evolutionary point of view it would seem like excess baggage that would be thrown out, but it appears that it imposes little penalty, and some suspect the pseudogenes aren't as entirely useless as they look: In some cases, they may perform subtle functions not necessarily related to their original function.

Our cells provide us with another DNA bonus: they carry a set of little baglike "organelles" called "mitochondria" that actually have their own mini-sets of DNA, separate from the DNA in the cell's chromosomes. It appears that sometime in the past the mitochondrion was a separate organism, it seems a bacterium, that formed a partnership with the rest of our cell. This, incidentally, seems like another good example of the opportunism of natural selection: it's as much a kluge as the twisted form of the halibut. In any case, the ova from which each of us stemmed got its mitochondria from the egg provided by our mother; our father's sperm cell didn't carry any mitochondria along with it. Mitochondial DNA gives an interesting crosscheck on our ancestry, traced down solely through our line of mothers before us.

* DNA has revolutionized evolutionary biology. Using DNA, we can construct a detailed map of the variations in DNA among the different kingdoms of life, branching off from a root of common patterns. This "tree of life" broadly reflects the classifications of organisms set up by traditional taxonomy, using comparisons of physical features, but in some cases traditional taxonomy has been proven wildly wrong.

With the power of DNA, relationships that were once obscure become clear. Is the giant panda a relative of the little red panda and its relatives, the raccoon, coati mundi, and so on? Or is it a very unusual bear? DNA says it's a bear. Similarly, it was long wondered if little dogs were descended from foxes or jackals while big dogs were descended from wolves. DNA shows that all dogs, even Pekinese, have wolf ancestry, with genetic codes that vary only slightly from their ancestry -- though it's obvious that those slight changes make a really big difference.

The wolf's scientific name is Canis lupus. Traditionally, dogs were lumped together as Canis familiaris, but now they are known as Canis lupus familiaris. I have neighbors who have two dogs, a malamute and a dark-brown chihuahua. I stop on occasion to play with the malamute, which is, as is often the case with its kind, easy-going, friendly, and a bit endearingly ditzy. The chihuahua, as also might be expected with its kind, prances around the malamute excitedly and yaps ferociously at me -- though it will stop on occasion as if to think over if this really makes sense. It always decides it does and goes back to yapping. The wolf in the malamute is obvious, if clearly diluted; seeing a wolf in the chihuahua is of course harder. It is downright astonishing to realize that both are almost completely wolves under the skin. Genetic analysis shows dogs to be more closely related to wolves than coyotes are. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* ANGRY IN IRAN: On 26 October 2005, the new hard-line president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, issued a fiery speech that blasted American imperialism (no real news there) and (more significantly) called for Israel to be "wiped off the map." The response was widespread condemnation, even by Palestinian Authority officials, but Ahmadinejad seemed unmoved, saying that had always been one of the goals of the revolutionary Iranian state.

According to an ECONOMIST article ("Is The New President Really An Exterminator?", 5 November 2005), not only did the speech seem an exercise in emotion at the expense of common sense, it also displayed the background muddle of Iranian policy. Ahmadinejad was obviously surprised at stirring up a hornet's nest with his speech -- British Prime Minister Tony Blair suggested quietly that he might have to "do something" about Iran -- and the exercise ended up making the Iranian president appear simply naive instead of strong.

Ahmadinejad could have hardly handed anything more useful to the coalition of Western nations -- led by the US, the UK, France, and Germany -- who are now beginning to push for United Nations sanctions in the against Iran for the country's nuclear program. Up to this time, American efforts to "contain" Iran have seemed heavy-handed and bullying, but as of late the Americans have been playing the "multilateral diplomacy" card much more skillfully, and Ahmadinejad's remarks were a gift to the Bush II Administration. There was no need to label the Iranian government as run by loose cannons if Iranian officials got up in public and loudly proclaimed that was exactly what they were. Ahmadinejad's remarks also resulted in a sharp decline on the Tehran stockmarket exchange, with an Iranian economist suggesting that there was a difference between "running a country" and "pursuing transformative ideals".

Iran's government has an unusual, possibly unique structure, being split in halves. One half is controlled by unelected clerics, who provide ideological direction and make top-level decisions; the other is an elected administration that carries out policy and takes care of low-level matters. The government's policies seem to be torn between two poles, one of revolutionary zeal, the other of pragmatism, leading to a bit of inescapable muddle. In the mid-1980s, even while Iran was backing the Hizbollah group in southern Lebanon to fight the Israelis, Tehran was quietly dealing with Tel Aviv to run the infamous arms-for-hostages deal. There seems to be some sympathy in Iranian government factions with the "two-state solution" in Israel, but officially the regime praises Palestinian suicide bombers, and one Iranian government faction tried to send a shipload of arms to the Palestinians in 2002, only to have it intercepted by Israeli forces.

That ambiguity makes Iran's nuclear ambitions a troubling issue. The US Central Intelligence Agency doesn't believe that Iran will have a nuclear capability for ten years or so; the main motivation for acquiring the Bomb seems likely to be protection from the US and not an attack on Israel. The Israelis already have the Bomb, many of them in fact, and a better ability to deliver such weapons: Iran could not destroy Tel Aviv without Tehran being smashed in turn, and that just for a warm-up.

Ahmadinejad's remarks have strengthened the hand of outsiders who want to put a leash on Iran's nuclear program. He is unrepentant, continuing to blast Islamic states that he sees as too cozy with the West, and even trying to impose self-defeating "sanctions" on trading partners who have supported the effort to restrain the Iranian nuclear program. Iranian foreign policy doesn't seem to flying much better in other sectors, either. Syria, a close ally, is being hounded mercilessly for interference in Lebanon; Sunni Arab states, particularly Jordan and Saudi Arabia, are critical of Tehran's involvement with Iraq's Shias; and the Iranians seem to have mixed motives for helping the Shias as well, since Tehran perceives -- no doubt rightly -- that once the US and Britain get themselves out of the Iraq brier patch, they will be free to turn more unwanted attention on Iran.

By an irony, it appears that the clerical half of the Iranian government is uneasy at Ahmadinejad's grandstanding, finding it extreme and imprudent. Iran's enemies may well see Ahmadinejad as the perfect Iranian leader: he gives them a convenient target to blast while he simultaneously weakens the country's position. What the clerics will do next remains anyone's guess.



* SAINT BILL: An essay in THE ECONOMIST ("St. Bill Of The Right") celebrated William F. Buckley's 80th birthday by showing how Buckley managed to create a conservative movement that is now the law of the land. Fifty years ago, when Buckley founded THE NATIONAL REVIEW, America was thoroughly middle-of-the-road, and the only inhabitants of the land of right-of-center were John Birchers and worse.

William F. Buckley & Ronald Reagan

Bill Buckley established a no-compromise conservative creed based on free markets, traditional values, and anti-Communism that rejected the rantings of extremists for an Ivy League intellectualism. The idea of a conservative intellectual might have seen completely contrary in 1955, and it still is in most universities, where outnumbered conservative faculty complain of being harassed by their colleagues. In the corridors of power, however, conservative intellectuals have put their liberal counterparts thoroughly on the defensive.

It is unclear if Buckley is entirely happy with the way things have turned out, however. He pitched his message in an urbane, witty, articulate style -- like him or not, he was unarguably polished and shiny -- but in the present day, the commentaries of the Right are dominated by shrill demagogues who are about as articulate and credible as barking dogs. Conservative intellectuals once were nonconformists trying to make their voices heard in the wilderness. Now the people setting the obnoxious tone of the debate are as famous as rock stars, and making about as much money with their book contracts and speaking tours.

To be sure, the commentaries of the Left have been reduced to the same sorry state -- Ann Coulter and Michael Moore would make the ideal couple -- but it is hard to think of someone as upper-crust as Buckley taking much pleasure in the surly diatribes of conservative low-brows and cranks, the very sort of people that he began his career attempting to transcend. Worse, although it must be satisfying to Buckley to see conservatism triumphant in Washington DC, it can't be so satisfying to see how success has tarnished the movement. Conservative politicians are now suffering through their own ethics scandals; possibly there is less there than meets the eye, but there is no hiding the way the current regime has been pushing pork-barrel bills and busting budgets as if deficits didn't matter. Will a new Buckley come forward to get conservatism back on the straight, right, and narrow?

* BON AMIS: According to US NEWS & WORLD REPORT, ("Bad Vibes? How Passe", 14 November 2005), both the US and France are making earnest efforts at fence-mending after a bout of chilly relations over the US invasion of Iraq. The fact of the matter was that hostility didn't buy either side very much, and they had many things on which they could cooperate to mutual benefit. As one American foreign policy observer put it: "Both sides looked over the precipice, and they didn't like what they saw."

George Bush and Jacques Chirac took the lead with a cordial dinner in Brussels in February. At a lower level, US National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley is now meeting regularly with his French opposite number, Maurice Gourdault-Montagne. The meetings actually began when Secretary of State Condi Rice was National Security Adviser, and she still pays courtesy calls to Gourdault-Montagne when he's in DC. At the bottom of the pyramid, cooperation between US and French forces in Afghanistan is said to be splendid, and the French have been sharing intelligence from their Mideast spy networks with the US.

One high-profile bit of evidence of the thaw was a joint front between France, the US, and the UK on a UN declaration to push Syria for more cooperation into an investigation into the assassination of a former Lebanese prime minister. The French, who had once been the colonial masters of Syria and Lebanon, took the lead on the initiative. The Bush II administration is particularly keen on US-European cooperation in dealing with Iran's nuclear program and France is seen as one of the key players in the exercise.

* ED: Hopefully, the bouts of French-bashing that have been going around here for the last few years will fade out to the noise level. OK, I will admit that I did laugh at some of the jokes, but still -- the idea that just because US and French leadership had a quarrel I was then supposed to have a personal grudge against every last French man, woman, and child was a bit rich. It would have seemed like a waste of effort at the very least. I have enough grudges against people I know personally to not want to bother with animosity towards people I don't. Besides, one French site linked to mine with the caption: INDISPENSIBLE! If forgiveness points were needed, that would buy a lot of them.



* ROBOT NIPPON: A BBC WORLD Online article discussed the optimism of Japanese designers of personal robots for the future of their products. Attempts to sell household robots haven't really taken off to this time, since the machines never really amounted to much more than elaborate toys. However, with feature sets growing all the time, they're starting to get to the point where they seem useful.

Interactive household robots could prove popular with the elderly in Japan, particularly for widows or widowers who find having an animated presence around the house comforting, even if it's not any more aware than a toaster. It's not just because the Japanese tend to be unusually gadget-happy, either: the Japanese Shinto faith is animistic, and by that standard it's natural to attribute a spirit to something made of plastic and integrated circuits. In Shinto, even the rocks have spirits. Japan's population is graying and there could be a big market for robot companions.

As far as usefulness goes, it's less accurate to think of a personal robot as a mechanical servant than it is to think of it as a mobile computer and entertainment station. It won't be able to mow the law or dust the shelves or cook dinner, but it will be able to stream music, send messages or emergency alarms via wireless, provide reminders, and relay video from a built-in camera. Imagine having a mobile phone with a video display, and calling up a robot to go check and see if a door was left unlocked.

Fujitsu enon robot

For the moment, personal robots are still expensive toys, but the technology is advancing rapidly and Japanese roboticists believe that it won't be too long in the future before they find the right mix of price and capability to make personal robots more than worth the price. When they do, Japanese will be the first to buy them.

* MACHINIMA: WIRED Online had a report on the recent "Machinima Film Festival" in Queens, New York. I hadn't heard of "machinima" before, but it turns out to be videos produced by using imagery from videogames. It sounds like one of those ideas that is likely to produce some real junk, but maybe somebody who is really clever could make something of it. The article did say that some of the machinima videos were surprisingly polished and watchable, with good scripts.

Apparently there is a machinima series titled "Red Vs Blue", based on the sci-fi tactical combat game HALO, that is fairly popular -- I tried to download an episode from the site, but traffic was apparently heavy, since the download just sat there and cycled. Since video game graphics keep improving all the time, machinima does seem like it could be a cool hobby for amateur video producers. However, once machinima starts becoming commercially viable it is also likely to run into copyright issues.

Red Vs Blue

In the future, video game designers are likely to provide more "hooks" into their games to allow the knowledgeable to manipulate them, and software tools will become available to make use of those hooks. After all, if game designers go through all this effort to create an artificial world, users might as well make maximum use of it. Indeed, ultimately there may be a blurring of game and theater, with different players taking on roles and playing out a script on the stage provided by the game, with the gameplay recorded and distributed as video entertainment.



* IGLOO WHITE (2): The airdropped sensors were the foundation of the IGLOO WHITE battlefield network system. Although a wide range of sensing technologies were evaluated and many were fielded, IGLOO WHITE was based primarily on seismic sensors, with a secondary use of microphones to "listen in" on what was going on. The Navy referred to seismic sensors as "spikebuoys" and acoustic sensors as "acoubouys", in reference to their sonobuoy origins.

The heart of the seismic sensor was a vibration transducer known as a "geophone". It was similar to a microphone, which consists of a magnet mounted on a moving diaphragm to pick up sound vibrations, with the magnet vibrating through an electrical coil to produce a corresponding electrical signal. A geophone differed from a microphone simply in that it was arranged to pick up seismic vibrations through the ground instead of sound vibrations through the air. Geophones had been developed for oil exploration and were a mature technology; they were very sensitive, able to pick up footsteps 30 meters (100 feet) away, while also very rugged, capable of tolerating the impact of an air-dropped sensor into the ground.

The sensitivity and reliability of the geophones were never problems; the challenge was sorting out signals of interest from seismic noise caused by earth tremors, weather, combat, and in particular American helicopters. That is why some of the sensors were also fitted with microphones, in hopes that sounds of trucks or conversations might be picked up to help determine what was actually going on. More generally, the sensors were dropped in strings, usually along the line of the path of the Trail on the ground. Environmental seismic noise would be picked up by all the sensors in a string, while the vibrations of trucks or the like would move from sensor to sensor. If the sensor spacing was known, the direction, speed, and size of a truck convoy could be estimated as well.

There were a number of different sensor configurations. The first production type was the "Seismic Intrusion Detector (SID)", which was a box that was put in place by ground forces. Being the first in the series, the SID suffered from high noise levels and left something to be desired. It was followed by the conceptually similar but improved "Ground SID (GSID)", as well as a comparable but larger "HANDSID" that was apparently built in small numbers. There was also a "Patrol SID (PSID)" that could be carried around in a grunt's backpack, with sensors and controller powered by ordinary 9-volt batteries. It is unclear if the PSID saw much use.

The sensor most closely associated with IGLOO WHITE were the "Air Delivered SIDs (ADSIDs)". The ADSIDs were in the form of rugged spikes painted in camouflage patterns (to keep them concealed if they didn't penetrate all the way into the ground) and with an antenna camouflaged as a plastic plant sticking out the base. There were a number of different models and variations, with variants incorporating acoustic microphones known as "ACOUSIDs". The smallest had a length of 51 centimeters (20.1 inches) and a weight of 6.2 kilograms (13.7 pounds), while the largest had a length of 1.35 meters (12 feet 5 inches) and a weight of 17.6 kilograms (38.8 pounds). There was even a "MODS81" variant that could be delivered by 81-millimeter mortar.


The ADSIDs were built around a set of "common modules" that could be mixed and matched for desired configurations. The GSIDs apparently used the same modules. A sensor transmitted with two watts power on one of 40 channels in the 160:175 MHz band. Tens of thousands of ADSIDs were dropped. Survival rates of ADSIDs after drop was about 80%. Their battery life allowed them to operate up to 45 days or so, depending on the operating mode they were set to. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* THE BLIND WATCHMAKER (5): Having discussed the evolution of the eye and so on, Dawkins moves on to point out, much as Darwin did, evidence for the opportunistic process of natural selection. For example, there are two broad classes of bottom fish: skates and rays versus halibut and other flatfish. They are only similar in a general fashion; they couldn't otherwise be much more different, and the way in which they differ points straight to evolution.

Skates and rays are cartilaginous fishes, lacking real bone, making them part of the same family as sharks. Sharks tend to be relatively flattened fishes, and so once they took up bottom-feeding habits there was an evolutionary tendency to become flattened further to allow them to hug the bottom for concealment and defense. Some species of dogfish -- bottom sharks -- show this tendency somewhat, but it becomes much more pronounced in the skates and the rays.

The rays seem to be an elegant design for a bottom-feeder. Now consider the halibut and its kin. The halibut is a bony fish, like trout or herring, and the mark of such fish is that they are flattened vertically, with a cross section that is narrow and tall. The simplest way for such a sort of fish to become an efficient bottom-feeder was to turn on its side, and that's exactly what the halibut did. A halibut actually starts life as a more or less ordinary bony-fish fingerling, but as it matures it turns sideways and one eye migrates to the other side of its head.


This is an inelegant approach to becoming a bottom-feeder, what an engineer would call a "kluge" and an ugly one at that, but it works and works well enough. Natural selection cares nothing for elegance. In this context, biologists like to point out that the human eye, often seen as a model of elegant construction, has an interesting feature: the retinal nerve connections that link the eye's photoreceptors to the optic nerve are actually on a layer that covers the photoreceptors -- light has to pass through the layer of neural connections to reach the photoreceptors buried under it. Engineers wouldn't call this a kluge -- they'd call it inept. The eye of the octopus and squid gets it right, with the photoreceptors on top.

Dawkins then points out the emergence of the same mechanisms in widely different species as further evidence of the opportunism of natural selection. Bats use sonar; so do whales and porpoises. Sometimes the selection pressures produce animals that look very similar but have widely different evolutionary roots, a process known as "convergent evolution". Porpoises look much like sharks, but it's obvious that air-breathing porpoises used to be land animals. One big giveaway is that whales and porpoises still have a set of vestigial, completely useless rear leg bones in their tails.

Australia produced marsupial anteaters, a marsupial mole, and a marsupial equivalent to a wolf, recently extinct, called a "thylacine"; not too long ago, at least by geological standards, the thylacine had a South American cousin that looked like a sabre-tooth tiger. In fact, students of the true, feline sabre-tooth tigers strongly suspect that the succession of forms of sabre-tooths found in the fossil record do not represent an evolutionary continuum so much as they were repeated "reinventions" of the same concept.

On the other hand, there's no saying that selection pressures will produce the same sort of solution. Imagine a large herbivore of the grasslands whose defense is speed, escaping a predator by running away as fast as possible. One approach is the antelope, with four hoofed, long legs. Australia came up with a different approach, the kangaroo, with twin strong rear legs for bounding and a heavy tail for balance and additional boost.

* Incidentally, evolution is also reinforced by the fact that there is a good degree of diversity among kangaroo species. I recall the absolute unbelieving look I got from an acquaintance one time long ago when I told him about tree kangaroos. Yes, there really are kangaroos that live in trees, though not surprisingly they really only share a broad general configuration with their larger ground-living cousins: think of trying to change a kangaroo into a lemur and you get something of the right idea. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* A BBC WORLD report displayed the first steps in implementation of an early-warning network in the Indian Ocean to provide defense against tsunamis, like the one that devastated coastal regions of southeast Asia late in 2004.

tsunami strikes Thailand, 2004

The work is being performed by a collaboration between a German research organization and the Indonesian government. A series of sensors is being laid on the ocean floor near the faultline that is the source of tsunamis in the region, with the sensors reporting to buoys on the surface. The sensors will monitor changes in water pressure, with the buoys tracking surface conditions and relaying all the data to a central station by satellite communications link.

The sensors normally only take readings every 15 minutes -- presumably to conserve battery power -- but will take readings every 15 seconds when an anomaly is detected. A network of sirens will be implemented on shore to alert communities when a tsunami is coming; more informal email and cellphone networks are being used in the short term.

* WIRED magazine reports that bloggers are now being targeted by "spam blogs" or "splogs" that lift their blog materials and dress them up with tons of spam ads, essentially parasitizing off of not only the blog materials but also their search engine ranking. Splogging seems to be a real nuisance, with tens of thousands of splogs rising up from the darkness since last summer.

It is intriguing to observe how the evolution of online technology has been shadowed so closely by the evolution of obnoxious parasites. Fortunately, the last Big Idea in spamming, referrer spam -- hammering on somebody's website in hopes of generating spam traffic when people check the backlinks -- seems to have come and gone. It was obviously not very effective, given that the population of netizens who check backlinks is small, and they aren't in general the sort of naive users who would buy off on spam products anyway. Every now and then somebody seems to try it once more and then gives up after a while.

* In fact, THE ECONOMIST reports that over the last year the volume of spam declined. The reasons appear to be that spam filters are working better than ever and that the small percentage of people who can be suckered by spam pitches has been shrinking. However, this decline has been matched by a ramping up in "phishing" -- emailing people fake alerts to update their credit card or PayPal info and then ripping off their account data. A criminal trial has just been completed in the UK of a ring of a half-dozen British phishers that took in about 200,000 pounds / $360,000 USD in about a year from over a hundred gullible eBay users; the ringleader got two years in prison, the others lesser penalties.

In more online crime news, BBC WORLD reports that websites keep popping up claiming to be affiliated with the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), giving glowing promises of resettlement and jobs in other countries. Of course, a fee is required, which promptly disappears. The UNHCR has managed to shut some of the scamsites down, but all they do is come back again elsewhere.

* According to THE ECONOMIST, famed French cuisine has scored an international hit with a new recipe for ... peanut butter. The concoction, known under the cutesy name of "Plumpy'Nut", was invented in 1998. It consists of peanut paste mixed with milk powder, plus vitamins and other necessary nutritional supplements, provided in a handy foil packet. This mixture may not sound like something off the menu of a high-class Parisian restaurant, but it is ideal for feeding malnourished children in the back of beyond. It is not only effective -- starved children can rapidly grow healthy on a diet of nothing but Plumpy'Nut -- but also cheap, with a monthly ration for a child running at only about $20 USD, a tenth of what alternatives cost.

Plumpy'Nut was first used in the Darfur region of Sudan in 2003 and is being currently used on a large scale by the Medicins sans Frontiers aid group in Niger. The paste has the consistency of mashed potatoes, meaning that toothless and weak infants don't have to struggle to eat it. Peanuts are a common crop in Africa, ensuring there is little resistance to the taste, which is strong enough to cover up the unpleasant taste of the vitamins and minerals.



* FRIENDLY SKIES? The airline industry may not seem like a picture of robust health, burdened with high fuel costs and bankruptcy proceedings, but THE ECONOMIST ("Lining Up For Profits", 12 November 2005) offers a contrarian view: the world's airlines are headed for boom times.

The hidden story behind all the bad news is that hard times have resulted in much more efficient airline companies, which are now poised to take advantage of a projected rise in passengers. The airlines are indeed buying new aircraft: both Boeing, with its new 787 Dreamliner, and arch-rival Airbus, with its A380 super-jumbo and smaller A350, have their order books so full that it's been the biggest year for airliner purchases ever.

In the meantime, deregulation of the airline industry worldwide has resulted in mini-booms of regional airlines -- in India, China, even in Africa. The Emirates airline of tiny Dubai is becoming not merely a regional but a world power. European airlines are consolidating -- most significantly seen in the recent merger of Air France and KLM -- to become more profitable and to exploit the "new frontier" of Eastern Europe, where citizens are traveling more and more.

As far as the dismal news about the US carriers goes, it's not so bad as it seems. United Airlines recently reported a loss of $1.8 million USD, but as it turns out that was basically just due to accounting paperwork, preparatory to emerging from Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings early next year. Other US airlines are also benefiting from Chapter 11, using the process to shed excess capacity and return to profitability. It's admittedly a nasty thing to go through, and the nastiness is being passed down the pyramid: Northwest has threatened to outsource inflight service if their own employees don't agree to cuts, and Delta has similarly put the screws to its pilots.

Airbus A380

The new airliners will also improve profitability. While Airbus is getting good orders for their A380 super-jumbo, with Emirates leading the list, the real action appears to be between the Boeing 787 and Airbus A350. Boeing, it seems, was right to de-emphasize the super-jumbo market, instead focusing on a large-capacity airliner with extended range that could allow passengers to fly directly to their destination without a layover in a primary hub. Airbus is now scrambling to get their comparable A350 in the air and catch up with Boeing's lead. Both jetliners not only offer more economical operation, they feature modern entertainment systems to keep passengers happy. After all, such flashy gadgetry is basically a one-time up-front cost and can compensate for the trimming back of other services. Boeing, incidentally, is also hedging bets in the super-jumbo market by introducing a new Boeing 747 variant, the "747-8", featuring 787 engines and avionics, a new wing, and a fuselage stretch to allow seating of 450 passengers, compared to the A380's 550.

The evolution of the airlines in the first years of the 21st century hasn't been a pretty sight, but things may well be looking up. Airlines seemed poised to make good profits, and passengers will be able to travel the world on competitive fares.



* IT'S NOT WORKING: An article in THE ECONOMIST ("Looking In The Wrong Places", 22 October 2005) had critical observations on regulations intended to track terrorist finances. At the outset of the American-led "global war on terror" that was declared after the 9-11 terrorist attacks on the US in 2001, one of the main goals of the effort, as stated by American President George Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, was to impose controls and monitoring in the world financial system, to choke off terrorist funding. Four years on, the general reaction of those involved in this particular effort are asking: "Tell me again why are we doing this?" -- and suggesting that we might make better use of our resources to fight terrorism in other ways.

The effort to zero in on terrorist finances required banks to keep tighter records and identify suspicious transactions. America drove the new rules, and they didn't just apply to US banks: foreign banks that didn't follow the rules were subject to strong sanctions as well. The commercial banking sector has never been all that enthusiastic about tighter controls since banks had to bear the costs of exercise, with little or no government assistance. Customers are also getting frustrated with mounting government-mandated red tape at banks. Some people are happy with things, particularly software vendors who produce programs to scan through lists of bank accounts and look for anomalies, but the banks are finally working up the nerve to complain.

The answer to complaints about the overhead is that it is the price to pay for fighting terrorism. The problem with that response is that there is little evidence that the effort is getting useful results. Al-Qaeda operations are home-grown and financed on the cheap, with the cost of the 11 March 2004 train bombings in Madrid, which killed almost 200 people, estimated at a mere $15,000 USD. With such relatively small sums changing hands, it is nearly impossible to pick up the "signal" of a terrorist attack from the "noise" of people, say, buying new cars. To the extent that banks have any capability to spot terrorist transactions, the terrorists are becoming stealthier, for example simply using more cash.

There has been much fuss about the informal financial-transfer structures used in underdeveloped countries -- such as the "hawalas" used in some Islamic lands -- as a source for terrorist funding. The fuss seems misdirected. They are hard to monitor and control, and to the extent that they can be policed, it is hard to see much benefit in it. They handle very large numbers of small transactions, and interference with their efforts makes life more miserable for poor people who find them tailored to their needs.

In the end, banks have been deluged by a "regulatory tsunami" that keeps on flooding them as nervous lawmakers keep adding to the rules. In the meantime, the law-enforcement agencies who receive the piles of data from the banks can hardly sift through them. The consensus is emerging that the system isn't working. Banks need to stop trying to hunt for needles in haystacks and focus on shady transactions that will actually be visible in the noise. There's no way to build a leakproof net with such an approach, but a net created out of vast numbers of regulations doesn't even approximate leakproof, and is a waste of resources on top of that.



* IGLOO WHITE (1): A website by a Chris Jeppeson provided a detailed history of the US IGLOO WHITE program of the Vietnam War, which was an attempt to leverage leading-edge technology against the enemy. Although the program was ultimately a failure, it was a significant step in the development of the modern high-tech battlefield.

* With the American involvement in Vietnam ramping up in 1964 and 1965, the US military became concerned about the flow of supplies from Communist North Vietnam to the insurgency in South Vietnam. Sealing off supply routes over the narrow Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between North and South Vietnam was straightforward, and naval patrols could ensure that supplies weren't smuggled down the Vietnamese coastline. However, trying to seal off movement of supplies through the jungles of Laos and Cambodia was much more difficult. The North Vietnamese gradually built up a maze of supply paths and roads through the region, backed up by increasingly sophisticated support facilities, that became known as the "Ho Chi Minh Trail". If the US could choke off the Trail, the chances for stamping out the insurgency in South Vietnam would be greatly improved.

Military technology had advanced considerably in the decades since World War II, and there was a certain somewhat naive faith in its effectiveness. Technology, so it seemed, might be able to create a "barrier" along the South Vietnamese border that would shut off the flow of supplies from the Trail. In August 1966, a defense research study group named the "Jason Group" was tasked with coming up with ideas.

The Jason Group proposed that the barrier might be implemented with air power. Sensors could be dispersed in the region to alert strike controllers that targets were on the move there, and the controllers could then call in air power on the targets to destroy them. In September 1966, US Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara established the blandly-named "Defense Communications Planning Group" to develop the concept.

The technology for the sensors seemed to be more or less available. US antisubmarine warfare (ASW) aircraft used a system named "Jezebel" to hunt submarines. Jezebel involved dropping "sonobuoys" into the ocean fitted with hydrophones to listen for submarines. The sonobuoys could relay the sounds they picked up to a processing system on board the ASW aircraft, with the processing system comparing the acoustic "signatures" acquired to a library of known signatures.

Sonobuoy technology could be adapted for land use by replacing the hydrophone with seismic sensors or microphones and packaging the kit into a "penetrator" casing. The sensors could be dropped by existing ASW aircraft, modified for the land warfare mission. The kit could also be packed into units that could be deployed by ground forces. The effort was originally designated " Air Launched Acoustical Reconnaissance (ALARS)" but became known as "Trails and Road Interdiction, Multi-sensor (TRIM)". The work was hidden under a cover of secrecy.

The technology was of course only part of the program. Obviously, some combat organization needed to be tasked with implementing the barrier, dropping the sensors, collecting and interpreting their inputs, and calling in strikes in response. A joint US Air Force, Navy, and Army task force was organized to do the job; it was originally designated "Joint Task Force 728". Initially, the Navy handled dropping the sensors and performing the strikes. This part of the effort was originally designated DUAL BLADE, with the name changed to DYE MARKER and then to MUSCLE SHOALS. After these missions were transferred to the Air Force in June 1968, the effort acquired the name by which it would be remembered: IGLOO WHITE. The organization behind the effort became known as "Task Force Alpha". [TO BE CONTINUED]



* THE BLIND WATCHMAKER (4): After producing some simple programs to show how small random changes can be screened in a way to create elaborate new forms, Richard Dawkins takes on the more difficult argument of how the human eye could have evolved from simpler organs. Of course he rejects the notion that it could have arisen spontaneously in a single step. The alternative is that the eye arose through a sequence of small changes from an early primitive state.

The critics say the answer is obviously NO, but Dawkins sees that as simply arguing from a bias and disregarding the substantial evidence to the contrary. There are single-celled animals with a little spot that is light-sensitive, able to do no more than see if there's light available in one direction or not. More sophisticated animals like, say, worms, have a set of simple photoreceptors in a cup, which gives some directionality to their vision. The next step is to develop an eye like a pinhole camera, with a small aperture casting a relatively sharp image on a grid of photoreceptors -- a retina; the coiled nautilus has precisely such an eye.

Of course, the eye would be better protected if there was a transparent film of some sort over the pinhole, which would be particularly useful for a land animal. Given that, the pinhole would gradually be replaced by a lens system, giving the eye more light-gathering capability and ability to focus; continue such changes and you have a human eye. A succession of forms of eye is available in existing species of animals; admittedly, these animals don't generally form an ancestral sequence as such, but they hint at what might have happened in the past.

What is particularly interesting is that an octopus or squid has eyes as sophisticated in most respects as the human eye, but the details of construction are different -- evolution clearly having moved along different paths towards equivalent ends. Of course, evolution has also moved off in other directions to obtain eyes, for example the compound eyes of insects.

Dawkins rejects the notion that a "not quite an eye" would be useless as nonsense. What good is 5% vision? It's much better than no vision at all. Think of wandering around on a dark but starry night outside of town, at least able to pick out trees and houses. Now compare that to trying to poke around in the dark on a similar but overcast night, where the wanderer can't see his hand in front of his face. I have a vivid memory of wandering around in a blacked-out night once when I was on a military field exercise and falling into coils of razor wire -- obviously, 5% vision is important. We only have about 5% vision at our periphery, but that's enough to have saved us from being run down by a bus on occasion.

By the same reasoning, the critics mock the idea of how an insect might become a walking stick bug in time, asserting that it would do no good to only look 5% like a stick. On the contrary: wouldn't a bug that looked 5% like a stick have a marginal advantage in low-visibility conditions? Wouldn't it effectively narrow the field of view of a possible predator?

stick insect

For another example, consider a bird's wing. What good is a 5% wing? It turns out there are all kinds of intermediate wings in the animal kingdom -- tree frogs with enlarged webbed feet that they use to parachute; lizards with rib cages that can expand into airfoils of a sort, and snakes that can similarly flatten their body; flying squirrels and their "Down Under" analogs, the flying opossums or "phlangers", as well as the colugos of Southeast Asia; and finally bats and birds.

The same line of reasoning applies to aquatic adaptations. Polar bears spend a good amount of time in the water but don't seem at least superficially to be particularly optimized as sea creatures. River otters are better off in this regard, and sea otters better off still. Sea lions are clearly highly optimized for sea life; and true seals, their hind flippers useless for getting around on land, are more optimized still. The porpoise is the endpoint of this spectrum, totally optimized for life in the sea, so much so that it will die if it goes onto land.

Dawkins tends to downplay the idea, promoted by some of his colleagues, that complicated organs might have originally developed for some purpose other than the one that they now serve. He does so to emphasize the idea that a "5% eye" or "5% wing" is perfectly useful. He also points out that it is a basic feature of evolutionary theory that biostructures that originally arose serving one purpose may end up being used for entirely different purposes. One of the oddities of evolution is that while birds and bats have wings that are obviously modified legs, insects have wings that aren't related to legs in any way. The general belief is that insect wings began life as a structure for another purpose, possibly a panel to absorb sunlight or radiate heat, with the structure proving useful for gliding purposes. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* SECRET PRISONS: The European Commission is now investigating reports that the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) secretly stashed al-Qaeda prisoners in prisons in Eastern European countries. According to the story, the arrangements were set up with intelligence services in those nations, with some uncertainty that top government officials knew about them.

While it is unarguably true that al-Qaeda slaughters civilians indiscriminately as their central strategy, even indifferent to killing other Muslims who have the bad luck to be innocent bystanders; does not hesitate to torture and gruesomely murder prisoners; and as a nongovernmental organization has little protection under the rules, the Bush II administration's attempts to circumvent the Geneva Convention and even American law in the treatment of al-Qaeda prisoners remains distinctly uncomfortable for those who want to think of Americans as the "white hats".

Some might find that a naively idealistic attitude. The alternatives, however, have a nasty taste to them and some clear practical defects of their own. It is certainly hard to swallow that the benefits of such heavy-handedness outweigh the cost of the approach to the administration's political credibility, both domestically and particularly internationally. The CIA claims the reports are false. I hope they are telling the truth. Senator John McCain has been pressing for a rider to a bill that would insist on treatment of al-Qaeda prisoners by the rules of the Geneva Convention. McCain was on the receiving end of rough treatment as a prisoner of the North Vietnamese for over four years, giving him a good deal of credibility on the issue.

* In related news, the US Army, exposed to public criticism over the treatment of al-Qaeda detainees, is now issuing a manual to clarify Army policies on the matter. The manual outlaws the use of dogs to intimidate prisoners and prohibits "acts of physical and mental torture". The guidelines do not rule out intensive interrogation techniques, with these to be detailed in a separate manual that will be kept secret to make sure prisoners won't be trained to identify and resist specific interrogation techniques. The guidelines of course do not cover the treatment of al-Qaeda prisoners in the hands of other organizations, such as the CIA.

It should be noted that in the debate over the treatment of al-Qaeda prisoners, the armed services seem to have taken the conservative position. Military judicial advisory group (JAG) lawyers have been long conditioned to believe in the Geneva Convention, and have questioned the push to get tougher on interrogations. Their reluctance is not merely based on a consideration of ethics and military honor, but also the fact that the armed services, though they have their elite units, are in general big clumsy bureaucracies. The rules have to be spelled out in black and white, and any attempt to finesse things is an invitation to trouble.

There is also a certain element of enlightened self-interest in being careful about crossing the line. Directives can be vague, actions will always be specific; if a public outcry flares up over abuses, those who passed down the directives may find it only too convenient to declare that the directives didn't authorize the specific actions -- and throw the offenders to the wolves.



* MEAN STAPH: When antibiotic drugs were introduced in the middle of the last century, they provided a miraculous defense against bacterial infections that scored a major win of medical science over disease. However, even at the time researchers knew that bacteria were adaptable and that the antibiotics wouldn't work forever. By the 1990s, the decreasing effectiveness of antibiotics was becoming obvious, the most prominent case being the rise of antibiotic-resistant Staphylococcus aureus bacteria. "Staph" is a fairly common bacteria that can be often found harmlessly taking residence on human skin, but it likes to infect the nasal passages and can turn mean once it gets inside the body, causing anything from acne to death by massive toxic shock. With the rise of antibiotic resistance, fears have grown that it won't be too long until hospitals return to their condition of a century ago and become the least healthy place for a sick person to be.

According to an ECONOMIST article ("The Struggle Against Superbugs", 5 November 2005), the real threat, a methicillin-resistant staph (MRSA) strain, became a political issue in British elections, thrown up as a banner of the filthy state of British hospitals. The rhetoric was overblown, but MRSA has been killing an increasing number of Britons since the early 1990s, and it's worse in some other places. Countries like China and Japan have failed to take MRSA seriously and are suffering accordingly; in contrast, places like Finland and the Netherlands have worked hard to deal with MRSA, making sure that hospitals are kept thoroughly disinfected and isolating those patients infected with the bug, keeping a lid on the spread of the bug.

Development of new antibiotics is not even coming close to keeping pace with the threat. Work on antibiotics is reaching diminishing returns, with the ability to produce new antibiotics outmatched by the ability of bacteria to adapt, and pharmaceutical companies don't have a strong financial incentive to push harder. Developing and in particular qualifying drugs is an expensive process. Pharmaceutical companies find it much more profitable to produce drugs for chronic conditions: patients need to take them over a long period of time, meaning they return steady revenue, and the drugs generally remain effective indefinitely.

A more promising approach is development of a vaccine against MRSA, with at least two development efforts in the works. The body's immune system, once activated, is far more effective at suppressing pathogens than antibiotics, and pathogens find it more difficult to adapt to defeat the body's defenses. A vaccine could be administered to patients going into a hospital, or patients who are undergoing continuing procedures such as kidney dialysis that leave them at high risk of infection. However, developing a vaccine is not trivial either, and for the moment MRSA remains a real threat.

* ED: In this context, I recall articles on the use of "bacteriophages", or viruses that infect bacteria, as an anti-bacterial medication in the USSR and modern Russia. The idea of breeding bacteriophages to attack specific strains of bacteria attracted a lot of interest before World War II, but difficulties with getting the scheme to work and the rise of antibiotics led the West to abandon the idea. The USSR did not, and in fact bacteriophage treatments were fairly common behind the Iron Curtain. It would seem like an elegant idea: get a resistant strain of a bacteria, breed a new bacteriophage to kill it. Since bacteriophages are selectively "engineered" to attack bacteria and not mammalian cells, it would seem like an approach with few side effects or potential hazards.

There have been questions about the effectiveness of bacteriophage treatments, but given that old antibiotics are becoming more ineffectual and few researchers are trying to make new ones, it might seem that bacteriophage therapy should be more seriously considered. The problem is that it is a regulatory nightmare: treatments tend to be crafted to individuals, with strains of viruses bred to deal with specific infections, and it is impossible to conduct consistent and comprehensive trials on such a basis.



* CROSSBAR NANOCOMPUTING: As discussed in an article from SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN ("Crossbar Nanocomputers" by Philip J. Kueckes, Gregory S. Snider, & R. Stanley Williams, November 2005), solid-state microelectronics has advanced rapidly in the last 50 years, with the latest microcircuits containing almost a billion transistors. However, the technology is clearly approaching diminishing returns, and a search for future alternatives is now under way.

A team at Hewlett-Packard (HP) including Philip J. Kueckes, Gregory S. Snider, and R. Stanley Williams is working is working in collaboration with University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) researchers on design of a "crossbar nanosystem", consisting of a plane of "nanowires" about 100 atoms in diameter overlaid on a second plane of nanowires oriented at a right angle to the first plane. The two planes of "row" and "column" lines are separated by a plane of material that can be electronically turned ON or OFF. The scheme promises to be easy to implement, at least by the standards of nanoelectronics; adaptable to error-correcting schemes, which is important since it will be impossible to completely eliminate defects at such a scale of fabrication; and highly flexible, capable of implementing memory, logic, and interconnection.

* The HP team began to think about the concept in the mid-1990s. One of the big difficulties with shrinking down microcircuits is that it becomes more and more difficult to ensure that all components on the "chip" are functional, and it's downright impossible to do so at the nanoscale. At the time, HP researchers had developed a supercomputer core named "Teramac" that used traditional silicon devices along with fault-tolerance, which allowed the device to work perfectly even though about 220,000 devices on the chip -- roughly 3% of the total -- were defective. Teramac incorporated redundancy, allowing test-and-repair software to route around the broken elements. Building a nanosystem would demand a similar approach. Williams and a UCLA chemist named James R. Heath wrote a paper on using chemical self-assembly processes and a redundant, fault-tolerant architecture to build electronic nanosystems; the paper was published in AAAS SCIENCE in 1998.

The paper attracted the attention of officials at the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which works on advanced "blue-sky" technology for the US military. DARPA was very interested in developing nanoelectronic systems and the paper by Williams and Heath seemed to give pieces for some parts of the puzzle, while work on "molecular electronics" gave pieces for other parts.

The concept of molecular electronics had been introduced by Avi Aviram of IBM and Mark A. Ratner of Northwestern University in 1974. The idea was simple: instead of putting together an electronic component, such as a switchable or nonlinear element, using silicon real-estate, build them as molecules that performed the same functions, reducing the device scale to the molecular level. Aviram and Ratner simply suggested the idea, and it wasn't until the early 1990s that Mark A. Reed of Yale University and James M. Tour of Rice University began to create molecules capable in principle of performing such electronic functions.

DARPA sponsored industry research on nanoelectronic systems, focusing on the development of crude demonstrator circuits -- for example a 16-bit memory -- as a first step. Williams and Heath, joined by Kuekes, were interested in the DARPA challenge, though the schedule was aggressive. DARPA schedules always are; the agency is focused on demonstrations and deliberately limits studies to a few years to keep from being dragged into indefinite research efforts, with successful investigations leading to follow-on studies and failures allowed to die naturally.

The team came up with a scheme involving a crossbar array, with the two planes separated by an electrochemically active material that could be activated or deactivated by applying the appropriate voltages to the desired row and column lines. The active layer would feature molecules that incorporate a "quantum mechanical tunneling" gap that could be narrowed by applying one set of voltages, allowing electric current to flow across the gap, or widened by applying the opposite set of voltages, preventing current from flowing across the gap. Heath got in touch with his colleague J. Fraser Stoddart at UCLA, who had developed a class of molecules named "rotaxanes" that could do the job. Stoddart had to modify the rotaxanes to make them oily, so they could be deposited as a uniform single-molecule layer between the planes of the crossbar nanosystem.

All the pieces for the crossbar nanosystem now seemed to be more or less available. Patent applications were submitted, another paper was published in AAAS SCIENCE, and the HP / UCLA team submitted a proposal to DARPA. DARPA bit on the proposal, and the team quickly demonstrated that rotaxanes could be used as an electrically-controlled switch. Other teams working in parallel demonstrated alternative molecules that could also be used as switches.

By 2000, the HP / UCLA team had demonstrated the 16-bit nanosystem memory requested by DARPA. DARPA officials were so encouraged that they established a follow-on program, to build a 16-kilobit memory with a density of 100 gigabits per square centimeter. Silicon technology can't touch such densities at present and is not likely to do so for at least another decade.

* Work on the crossbar nanosystem continues. The crossbar architecture is perfectly suited to memory arrays, which require a set of "demultiplexers" to access the individual memory elements. A demultiplexer accepts a binary number that selects a particular nanowire; for example, a 256 x 256 nanomemory would have two demultiplexers, one for the row plane and the other column plane, each capable of accepting a binary value from 0 to 255, corresponding to an eight-bit number. Handing a value of 101 to the row demultiplexer and 212 to the column multiplexer would select the memory element with array coordinates 101 by 212.

Demultiplexers are simple to build in silicon, but the assumption of the HP research team was that the demultiplexers would ultimately need to be built from nanoelectronic technology, which as mentioned suffers from an inescapable error rate. The failure of any individual cells in the 256 x 256 nanomemory used as an example above would not impair the memory much, but a single failure in the demultiplexer would knock out half the memory. The answer was to incorporate redundancy into the demultiplexers, for example using demultiplexers with 12 bits instead of 8 to access 256 nanowires. The probability of a catastrophic failure drops tremendously.

The HP / UCLA researchers have gone on to develop, in 2002, a 64 bit nanomemory using a 62 nanometer (nm) "half-pitch" -- a semiconductor industry parameter specifying half the minimum spacing between two wires -- and moving on in 2004 to a 1,024 bit nanomemory with a 30 nm half-pitch. For comparison, contemporary silicon circuitry uses a 90 nm half-pitch.

The memory elements were activated by applying a relatively high voltage in the proper polarity to open or close the tunneling gap, and then using a much lower voltage to read the element, see how much current flowed in response to the low voltage. The open / closed resistance ratio in the 2004 array was 100:1, which was regarded as highly satisfactory.

Demonstration circuits have been developed to show how the crossbar architecture can be used to perform "combinatorial logic" operations, such as AND (the output is 1 if all inputs are 1) and OR (the output is 1 if any input is 1). However, as originally defined the crossbar logic system could not perform the NOT operation (the output is 1 if the input is 0 and the reverse) and could not amplify low voltage levels. Silicon transistors could be integrated into a nanomemory array to perform such "inversion" and "amplification", but it would be far preferable to use molecular electronic elements throughout. The researchers are working on solutions to this particular set of problems.

* Nobody is expecting to see such nanosystems on the market any time soon. At present, all are demonstrators. Considerable work must be done on device physics, fault tolerance, and manufacturability before nanosystems become a practical reality. Still, given the current rate of progress, it is not too optimistic to believe that when the present silicon technology finally runs out of steam, nanosystems will be able to pick up from where silicon left off.



* THE BLACK DEATH (2): The Black Death appears to have reached Europe from Central Asia, carried along the caravan routes of the Silk Road. It appears that trappers obtained the furs of marmots that had been infected with the plague, and the furs carried fleas that then set off the pandemic when the traders reached ports on the Black Sea. There, the disease was carried on ships, which were invariably rat-infested, to ports in the Mediterranean. Centers of maritime trade, particularly Constantinople and Messina in Sicily, became focal points for transmitting the plague to other locations, with devastating epidemics in those two cities in 1347.

By early 1348, the plague had spread to the coastal regions of North Africa and the Middle East, Spain, Italy, and France, and grew rapidly. It then went on to England, and a year later struck Scandinavia. One story says that a merchantman left London in May 1349, bound for Bergen, Norway, with a cargo of wool. The ship was found drifting off the coast of Norway a few days later. Locals rowed out to it and found the crew all dead. Cautious individuals might have got off the ship as fast as possible and burned it, but the locals were greedy and took the wool ashore. The plague followed immediately.

In 1350, the plague struck Denmark and Germany, then Poland in 1351, and Russia in 1352, to then finally burn itself out. The plague had actually done the survivors some good. They had inherited the properties and fortunes of the many deceased, and were granted a level of upward mobility unknown to them previously, since so many positions of authority had been left vacant by the pestilence.

However, the plague was only latent, not extinguished, and it rose again in 1356. It struck every few years for rest of the century, with the population dwindling significantly. The plague coincided with a time of chronic warfare, as well as a period of unusually cold winters that lasted for several decades, with the Baltic freezing over completely one year. Many people felt they were living out the last generations of humankind, reflected in the morbid apocalyptic visions of artists such as Hieryonymous Bosch and Pieter Brueghel the Elder.

Human population began to recover early in the 15th century, and by the end of the 16th century populations were higher than they had been before the Black Death. There were still outbreaks of plague, but though they were as savage as before, they were localized. The last epidemic that took place in France, from 1720 to 1722, killed off half the population of Marseilles and did similar damage to neighboring communities, killing about 100,000 people in all. However, the plague did not spread outside of the province.

* By the 16th century, the general belief was that the bubonic plague was a contagious disease, spread from the sick to the healthy, though in fact that was not really the case. This led to the institution of quarantines of homes, towns, and villages. The measure was counterproductive, since it forced people to remain in close proximity to the rats and fleas that were the source of the epidemic, without restricting the movements of the rats.

The last major outbreak of the plague in Britain was London's Great Plague of 1665, which ended with the Great Fire of 1666. Londoners believed that the fire had "purified" the city. Much later, when the cause of the disease was understood, that was seen as likely to be true, since the new London that arose from the ashes of the old was built with improved sanitation in mind that reduced the population of rats. However, a detailed investigation shows this notion to be questionable. The fire only burned out the central districts of London, and did not touch the overcrowded suburbs that were at least as badly affected by the plague. In addition, other European cities, such as Paris and Amsterdam, became plague-free in the same timeframe. The plague occurred farther and farther from the centers of European population, with one of the last severe epidemics an outbreak of plague in Moscow in 1770.

Another theory is that during the 18th century the black rat, Rattus rattus, had been largely displaced by the brown rat, Rattus norvegicus. Both types of rat are equally vulnerable to the plague bacillus, but the black rat lived in the rafters and upper areas of a house, while the brown rat preferred dark cellars and sewers, isolating humans from fleas. However, the spread of the brown rat during that time was from east to west, while the plague diminished west to east. The brown rat wasn't observed in England until 1727, long after the Great Plague of 1665. A similar theory is that the black rat developed an immunity to the bubonic plague, but field observations of rat populations show that they rarely develop a long-term immunity to a pathogen.

It seems most plausible that the Yersinia pestis bacterium may have evolved into a less virulent form, allowing rats to develop a broad-based immunity to it, an idea which is all the more plausible because rats can be infected by a close relative of the bubonic plague bacteria, Yersinia pseudotuberculosis, which does not do them any harm but does provide immunity against its more deadly cousin. It is plausible that Yersinia pseudotuberculosis evolved from Yersinia pestis, and as the new bacterium spread slowly through rat populations, protecting them from the plague.

A recurrence of the Black Death is very unlikely. Modern antibiotics can control it, and though antibiotic resistance is rising among pathogens, modern sanitation has ensured that rats and their fleas no longer live in close proximity to humans at anywhere near the extent they did in the Middle Ages. [END OF SERIES]



* THE BLIND WATCHMAKER (3): As was pointed out in the discussion of Dawkins' weasel program, it must be emphasized is that there is no particular direction to evolution, except for adaptation to environment. Evolution is as blind as the laws of physics, and in fact at root it is the laws of physics. Critics find the stereotypical chart of monkeys progressing to apes to prehumans to modern humans annoying; biologists often find it just as annoying, since it implies some sort of directed progress from monkeys to humans when the facts imply nothing of the sort.

This mindset has been called the "Tory view of history": the past is a progression to our current state of perfection. In fact, natural selection can often result in what would be seen from that point of view as backward steps: fish that live in caves, for example, usually end up losing their eyes since they're so much vulnerable excess baggage in such a blackout environment.

Dawkins suggested elsewhere that if swifts, those marvelous aerobatic masters of the air -- if you've ever lived around them, it's like an airshow every evening -- were able to write books, they would probably come up with a similar progress from sparrows to swallows to their own state of perfection. Evolution is not a directed progress, like the improvement of aircraft from the Wright Brothers to the Boeing 747, resulting in a "higher" lifeform. We score high on the intelligence scale; swifts score high on the aerobatic scale; elephants score high on the size scale.

* The history of life does demonstrate a certain general, if not inevitable, rise in complexity of organisms and ecosystems, but this isn't progress towards any goal as such. Suppose the Earth started out, as it likely more or less did, with a simple ecosystem consisting of a few strains of bacteria. If these bacteria were mutable, as they were, they would in time lead to an increase in the numbers of strains of bacteria. Given random mutations, bacteria will mutate into new forms, some of which can fit into ecological niches that were not previously exploited, though most of the mutants simply die out. It's not a question of progress in a particular direction, it's just that a mutable simple ecosystem is going to become more complicated by the odds of the matter.

The simple bacteria would, by the same logic, lead to more elaborate single-celled organisms, in turn leading to multicellular organisms and all the plants and animals (like ourselves) that we are familiar with. Dawkins likes to speak of "animal space", or the unbounded set of all possible configurations of organisms, with evolution branching off at random in a growing number of possible paths through the space. The successful paths keep on growing and branching; the unsuccessful paths are terminated. Innovations arise and propagate, one significant example being the emergence of ever more intelligent animals. If the succession from single-celled organism to multicelled organisms to animals to humans that can fly to the Moon doesn't suggest progress, then what does?

Hard-liners tend to get very annoyed with this sort of reasoning: "Doubletalk! Subjective! Misleading!" They are quick to point out that evolution goes in no direction except towards improved fitness, that there is no reason that organisms can't "retrogress" from a human point of view, that there is no "planned improvement program" as there might be for a fighter aircraft to go from a "Mark I" to a "Mark XII". While it might be argued that evolution does have certain directions, both sides agree that it is not working according to a predetermined detail blueprint, with schedules and checkpoints: there is no destiny.

It is worth remembering to foster a sense of humility that our perception of the biosphere as dominated by familiar plants and animals is something of an illusion. The bulk of the biomass of our planet still mostly consists of bacteria. Even the bacteria in our guts outnumber the cells in our bodies by an order of magnitude. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* ONLINE MARRIAGE: An ECONOMIST article ("Made For Each Other", 22 October 2005), says that one of the signs of the New Digital India is a popular website named "Bharatmatrimony.com", which is used for brokering arranged marriages. Details of candidates are logged in a database, and those looking for a suitable mate for son or daughter can search for a match to their criteria. Although only a small portion of the population of India has Internet access, Bharatmatrimony.com has millions of users. There is the problem of fraud, but the company is bringing up a verification service to validate database entries.

I've always been curious about arranged marriages. From a Western point of view it seems like a preposterous idea, but given that the Western approach to marriages isn't noted for its high rate of effectiveness, I keep wondering if arranged marriages work any worse. From what I've heard, arranged marriages are not always a case of a couple being thrown together sight unseen, with candidate matches lined up on the basis of suitability and then tested a bit to see if there's obvious incompatibilities before committing to marriage. Seems sensible enough to me, but I would think it's only workable in a culture where social structures are stronger than they are here.

I recall a quote from Samuel Johnson, in which his foil Boswell asked if Johnson didn't believe that some couples were made for each other. Johnson scoffed, replying: "I believe marriages would in general be as happy, and often more so, if they were all made by the Lord Chancellor, upon a due consideration of characters and circumstances, without the parties having any choice in the matter." In another exchange, Boswell asked: "Pray, Sir, do you not suppose that there are fifty women in the world, with any one of whom a man may be as happy, as with any one woman in particular?" Johnson replied: "Aye, Sir, fifty thousand."

While hunting for these Doctor Johnson quotes on Google I found another that I hadn't heard before: "I hate mankind, for I think myself to be one of them, and I know how bad I am." I laughed. That's stronger than I would put it: I don't hate people in general, but I'm not easily impressed by them either -- and I do know how bad I am.

* CHARITY NAVIGATOR: I recently came into a bit of money; I figured I'd use part of it to make a donation to assist relief for the Kashmir earthquake. However, the big-time charities I'm used to dealing with, like the Red Cross, didn't seem to be involved. I'm a bit -- exasperated is the right word -- with the Red Cross for the moment anyway, since I made a donation to Hurricane Katrina relief and they ended up taking 50% more than I told them to. I finally shrugged after thinking it over hard -- they were obviously overwhelmed, no sense in making a fuss about it. However, the next time the Red Cross hits me up for a donation, I'll have to reply that they will have to go to the back of the queue and work their way up again.

Anyway, I found an international relief organization named "AmeriCares" that I wasn't familiar with. I was a bit leery of passing money to some charitable organization I hadn't hit on before -- also like I said, I'm a student of scams, and some charities that pop up after disasters are fronts for ripoffs, while some that aren't may have hidden agendas -- but on nosing around I found a site named "www.charitynavigator.net", which evaluates charities. It gave AmeriCares four stars, same as Red Cross, so I felt more comfortable with handing over my cash.

Of course, the paranoid part of me asked if Charity Navigator was on the level, but that was getting baroque, all the more so because the site is pretty extensive to be a scam. Another site gave the board of directors for AmeriCares, with such notables as Colin Powell, Barbara Bush, James Earl Jones, and Zbigniew Brzezinski lending their names. Bit surprised to see "Zbig" on the list -- haven't heard much out of him for a long time, I guess he's been teaching poli-sci at Georgetown University in DC.



* FLU DEFENSE: In a presentation at the US National Institutes of Health, US President George W. Bush announced the start of a $7 billion USD effort to prepare for "bird flu", the H5N1 influenza virus, which has spread from Asia to Eastern Europe with the winter bird migrations. One ex-Bush II administration official described the threat of bird flu to the US as far greater than that of Islamic terrorism.

H5N1 was first spotted in Hong Kong in 1997, and was controlled by killing about 1.5 million poultry. It popped up again in South Korea in 2003, and since that time about 150 million birds have been slaughtered in order to control the disease. About 120 people who worked on poultry farms or otherwise dealt closely with birds came down with the flu, with about half of them dying. Although an H5N1 infection is very dangerous, so far the virus has not demonstrated an ability to be transferred from human to human. Influenza is a funny sort of virus, however. In the first place, it uses RNA for its genetic coding, not DNA, and RNA is more unstable than DNA, meaning its mutation rate is more rapid. HIV is an RNA virus as well, which is why it mutates rapidly.

Unlike HIV, the influenza virus consists of eight genes divided into 11 segments or "chromosomes". If one strain of influenza infects a victim who is already infected with a different strain, there is a chance that a "hybrid" influenza can be produced, with part of the 11 segments from one strain and the rest from the other. Most of the time these hybrids are not very effective, but it's like rolling dice: it might also create a new strain that is much more dangerous. The fact that some of the nations threatened by H5N1 also have large numbers of AIDS victims enhances the threat, since AIDS sufferers have suppressed immune systems, making them incubators for other diseases.

The fairly mild flu pandemics in 1957 and 1968 seem to have been different avian-human flu hybrids. A human-contagious flu can spread widely and rapidly, meaning that a high percentage of the world's population will be infected. Because of the widespread footprint of the infection, even the mild pandemics killed millions. The dreaded 1918 flu had a fatality rate of about 2.5% and killed tens of millions. With so many people sick at once. medical facilities are overloaded, pharmaceutical manufacturers have no prayer of keeping up with demand, and large job absenteeism means curtailed economic productivity.

New antiviral drugs, particularly Tamiflu, block the replication of the influenza virus, reducing the severity of an infection if taken within 48 hours of onset of symptoms. It is, however, expensive, and in limited supply. Vaccine production is currently based on using large batches of eggs, but work is underway on creating new processes that can produce vaccines rapidly in big vats.

The Bush II administration was caught napping on Hurricane Katrina and publicly embarrassed at a time when troubles seem to be piling up at the White House. The bird flu initiative was clearly sending a message that the administration has learned from fumbles. Since the initiative involves investment in antiviral medicines and vaccines, it is seen as good news for pharmaceutical companies.

In his presentation, the president pointed out that the vaccine manufacturing capability of the US has been decimated by litigation. That raises the question of whether there is any parallel effort to pass laws to reduce the liabilities of the pharmaceutical companies. The problem is that vaccines involve an inherent risk: use of attenuated live virus vaccines can result in full-blown infections, and even use of vaccines based on completely lifeless protein fragments can sometimes cause violent allergic reactions. In fact, the rate of adverse reactions is generally low, and overall the public is vastly better off with workable vaccines than without. If liability issues are going to be raised, the political debate promises to be interesting.



* TRANSDIMENSIONAL: I spent 14 years working in customer service for The Corporation (never mind which one, doesn't make any difference) and had a wide range of experiences with unusual customer requests. Since I dropped out and started writing for the Internet, I've been amused to get some of the same sort of inquiries over email from readers.

Most of my correspondence is pleasant, even flattering, but a few times a month I get inquiries for quotes on parachutes, plastics, various types of helicopters and aircraft, and so on. This was strange even by my past experience in the corporate world. I kept wondering how people could look at a website that gave no suggestion of being associated with a business and get the impression that it was -- it's less surprising that they blow over the disclaimer on my email page that I'm not running a business, I know perfectly well some folks won't bother to read it. The requests for some reason are often from Bangladesh, Pakistan, Jordan, places like that.

I suspected it was part of some sort of a scam. If so, despite the fact that I try to keep up to date on the latest scams, I've never been able to figure out what it is. My current theory is that they do a search on the terms relating to what they want on Google; out of coincidence my site comes up near the top of the list; and they automatically assume the match means they've found what they want. It was getting a bit weary to get this sort of thing over and over again, so I finally decided that if they wanted to pretend I was a company, I might as well pretend it myself, and came up with: TRANSDIMENSIONAL LLC.

TransDimensional is a diversified corporation on many planets of the Galaxy and a large number of parallel Earths. Its products range from time-travel technology to photon torpedoes to gravitational field bombs to terminator robots to terraforming services ... ah, you get the idea. I enhance my TransDimensional corporate response every time I get a request for a quote. I had real fun with the address data at the end:

   TRANSDIMENSIONAL LLC Headquarters Office
   2548 Governor Benedict Arnold Street
   San Francisco
   Pacifica Province
   Dominion of West America

Nobody's answered yet. I'm expecting somebody will reply one of these days, but if so I will refer them to a URL on the "Multiverse Web" to find the sales office on their planet or parallel Earth: "For access to the Multiverse Web, please contact your ISP." These days, I'm almost looking forward to requests for quotes.

* Along the same lines I get people sending me bizarre questions on things that have absolutely nothing to do with anything on the site. I get the sense that they feel I'm some sort of super search engine. I suspect it's due to the same reason: they find me on Google and don't bother to check further. In any case, I hand back equally bizarre answers.

I got an email from a company in Peru that was trying to unload a set of batteries for a submarine and wanted to know if I had any likely buyers for them. I replied: "You're in real luck. I just happen to have a neighbor who bought a submarine which, astoundingly, did not have batteries. I'll make sure to pass your email address on to him."

I didn't hear from him again. Oddly enough, some folks will reply to answers like this, blandly pushing forward regardless: "Clues are not in our vocabulary." I block their email address.

One correspondent that I hit with the surreal treatment replied, sounding in a bit of a sulk: "OK, I won't bother you any more." I sent back: "No bother. I was enjoying myself." I could imagine his ears getting red. I know that was mean, but I didn't create the absurd situation, in fact took all reasonable steps to avoid it, and it wasn't like I was saying something nasty about his mother, or even him. Still, I should probably try to restrain myself.

* MY OWN BLOG: Although I don't have a high opinion of weblogs -- there's some good ones out there, but I tend to think of them in general as "BS logs" -- I finally decided to put one together. The main reason is because my memory seems to be slowly going south, and so I'd like to have a way to remember when something actually happened instead of wondering later if it was just a figment of my imagination. It's nice to look back on comments on events made a few years ago and find out they were vindicated later, and educational if embarrassing to find out they weren't. Besides, the more pages I have, the more ad exposures I get, and the more "hooks" for search engines to latch on to.

I was looking around for blogging software for a while, until I thought: "Whaaaat? It's just a daily log file." Trivial to put together as a web page. I do running updates during the day, then proof and upload first thing each morning.

[Those reading through these archives may notice that there are earlier archives of the blog, despite the fact that November 2005 is stated as the first month. The "older" archives are actually composed of materials that were originally published in a newsletter that was discontinued; I figured that it would be preferable to get interesting articles online than have them sitting around on my PC gathering dust. Since the newsletters continued to be published for some time after I started the blog, I merged their more interesting materials with the archives and then created a handful of "retroactive" monthly archives. Note that the blog was also originally titled "MrG's Weblog", being changed to "DayVectors" in May 2012]