feb 2006 / last mod dec 2014 / greg goebel

* 19 entries including: a short history of life, battle for global health, renewable energy excitement, Coast to Coast AM, New York organleggers, virtual human models, resurrecting the thylacine, modern trains, smart trash recycling, breaking up ice jams, navsat traffic monitoring, micro-windpower, near-field datacom, lingering worries about prions, medical lawsuits overblown, robot military vehicles, Russia versus NGOs, and hard and soft diplomacy against Iran.

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* BATTLE FOR GLOBAL HEALTH (1): As discussed by an article in AAAS SCIENCE ("The New World Of Global Health" by Jon Cohen, 13 January 2006), while Microsoft's Bill Gates has been a revolutionary of sorts in computing, his company's power has made him bitterly resented and often attacked. Not so much attention has been paid to his aggressive efforts in another domain: the battle to improve world health. His "Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF)" has led the charge to fight HIV/AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis, and other diseases that afflict the world's poor.

In the past seven years, the BMGF and other players in the struggle have pledge more than $35 billion USD to the cause. The BMGF is the biggest single private contributor, having pledged over $6 billion USD since 1999 -- which, to put it into perspective, is the about the same as the budget of the United Nations World Health Organization (WHO) over the same period. Other big donors include the "Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, & Malaria" which has pledged $4.8 billion USD; the "President's Emergency Plan For HIV/AIDS Relief (PEPFAR)" from the Bush II Administration, which has pledged $15 billion USD; and the "Global Alliance for Vaccines & Immunization (GAVI)", which is flush with $3 billion USD -- half from the BMGF -- to promote vaccination campaigns in 72 countries. The effort has a star cast of boosters, including U2's Bono, Richard Gere and Angelina Jolie from Hollywood, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton from the White House, British PM Tony Blair, the UN's Kofi Annan, and economist Jeffrey Sachs.

Nobody could see all this effort as a bad thing, of course, but the movement is having what some call "growing pains". It was inevitable: simply throwing money at a problem cannot solve it all by itself, and building up effective organizations to put that money to good use requires an enormous amount of work. The goals are ambitious, some claim too ambitious; implementation has run into obstacles in the form of shortages of skilled personnel, corruption, and government bureaucracy; and as the movement has grown in size, it has become burdened with bureaucracy of its own, along with difficulties in getting everyone to play together. The newcomers are finding it hard to coordinate work among themselves, as well as with old-timers such as WHO, the United Nations Children's Fund, and the World Bank. Barry Bloom, dean of Harvard University's School of Public Health, praises the energy and creativeness of the crusaders, but adds: "There's no architecture for global health."

* Reports on world health from the 1970s into the 1990s laid the groundwork for the world health effort, with the emergence of the HIV/AIDS pandemic towards the end of that period greatly raising the visibility of the problem. In 1997, Ted Turner, boss of the Cable News Network, got the ball rolling by pledging a billion dollars to the UN to help fight global poverty. In 1999, Bill and Melinda Gates began pumping up the BMGF with donations of Microsoft stock. By 2001, the BMGF had funds of $21 billion USD, and was developing programs to help improve global health. A $750 million USD grant to help get GAVI rolling particularly captured the imagination of those working in the global health field. Up to that time, they'd been begging for what they could get. Now it seemed like the floodgates had opened.

Traditionally, global health efforts have focused on immunization, since it is so cost-effective, able to provide a significant boost in public health at a relatively low cost. Since the 1970s, WHO, UNICEF, and Rotary International have conducted massive immunization campaigns. For example, in 1990 about 75% of the world's children were given a combined diptheria-pertussus-tetanus (DPT) vaccine, an impressive effort by any standard. However, by that time, vaccination programs had reached a plateau, unable to expand farther. In addition, poor countries didn't get new vaccines in a timely fashion, and it was always very difficult to reach the poorest of the poor.

GAVI was launched in 2000 to help boost immunization programs from outside the UN umbrella. GAVI spoke with officials in target countries to determine their needs, and then hired UNICEF to perform bulk purchasing and distribution, an approach that promised lower costs and less corruption. Countries that did not play nice with the program would have their grants pulled.

As of late 2005, GAVI had a list of five-year commitments in 72 countries with a total of $1.6 billion USD pledged. The organization claims that it has immunized 100 million children and estimates that it has saved the lives of a million of them. Global health workers say that GAVI's example has had a major impact on how other global health organizations do the job.

GAVI's task was relatively easy, since vaccination is as a rule a straightforward, cheap procedure, and workable vaccination programs were well established. Trying to help HIV/AIDS patients or control malaria is a bigger and tougher job. However, critics suggest that GAVI still isn't as effective at its work as it could be, with millions of children still dying each year for lack of immunization. GAVI has found it difficult to meet its own targets, and critics have suggested that it doesn't always focus on the right targets for vaccines -- though GAVI officials say they respond to the stated needs of the organization's client countries. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* A SHORT HISTORY OF LIFE (5): After about three billion years of what might be called modest and incremental progress, with the beginning of the Cambrian period, 570 million years ago, life shifted gears into HIGH.

trilobite fossils

The most distinctive citizens of the Cambrian were the "trilobites", which were early representatives of the "arthropods" -- the phylum which in modern days is represented by crustaceans (crabs and lobsters), arachnids (spiders and scorpions), and insects. The arthropods have external "exoskeletons" and can only grow by shedding them every now and then. The trilobites are often compared to modern woodlice (AKA pill bugs) or horseshoe crabs, but they represented a family of their own, one which would not survive to the present. (Incidentally, horseshoe crabs are not really crabs, being more closely related to spiders.)

There were also "brachiopods", which most people would call "clams" on sight, but they're a phylum of their own, no more closely related to clams than trilobites are. In particular, their shell halves are clearly different. Brachiopods survive today, mostly as small forms in arctic waters. Small molluscs -- what we know today as the true clams, snails, and so on -- also made their appearance.

The trilobites and brachiopods are noticeable in the Cambrian fossil record because they had hard body parts. However, soft-bodied animals also left their traces in Cambrian stone, most significantly in the "Burgess shale" deposits of the Canadian Rockies. The 120 or so creatures found in the Burgess shale range from various kinds of sea worms to utterly bizarre creatures -- one animal that looked like a caterpillar with spines is even called Hallucigenia, the paleontologist who found it being perfectly amazed at the thing.

The soft-bodied creatures also included animals ancestral to fish, represented by the "living fossil" -- with the usual qualifications attached to that term -- know as a "lancelet" or "amphioxus". A modern lancelet actually looks a bit like a minnow, with a streamlined shape and a swimming tailfin, but though it has a spinal nerve cord, it has nothing that faintly resembles bones and has the most rudimentary excuses for eyes and a brain. However, the ancestral lancelets of the Cambrian were clearly a pattern that could be elaborated on in time.

At the time, the map of the Earth didn't look anything like it did today. It was discovered in the 20th century that continents drift slowly over the surface of the Earth, a finding that explained a lot of mysterious geology, and during the Cambrian the continents were arranged differently. One continent, Rodinia, was splitting up at the time, breaking off fragments, while two others, Gondwana and Laurasia, were in the process of colliding, forming a "supercontinent" named Pangea, partly enclosing the equatorial Tethys Sea. The land was empty, but the seas were widespread and provided plenty of space for life to flourish.

* Exactly why was there such a burst of enthusiasm at the beginning of the Cambrian? The matter is hotly debated. It is known that the Earth's atmosphere finally acquired oxygen concentrations similar to those of modern times, after aeons in which oxygen was in relatively short supply. The availability of oxygen permitted more aggressive growth of life in general. Some have speculated that the "invention" of shells and of effective eyes led to an "arms race" that pushed natural selection into high gear.

One point of view is that the changes weren't so abrupt as has been made out. The Cambrian saw the emergence of shelled animals, which left better fossils than their soft-bodies predecessors, and so get higher billing in the fossil record. Even shelled animals might not have been such an abrupt innovation, possibly having been preceded by very small Precambrian shelled animals that have generally escaped attention. In addition, although some paleontologists have claimed the Cambrian was marked by large numbers of entirely unique phyla -- Stephen Jay Gould pushed this idea in his book WONDERFUL LIFE -- critics accuse them of exaggerating, pointing out that supposedly unique organisms of the era can actually be generally accommodated in known phyla.

The squabbling over the matter hardly seems surprising. Once again, taxonomy is inherently troublesome, and all the more troublesome for organisms hundreds of millions of years old, found only as shadows in the stone. Despite all the quarreling and debate, paleontologists are united in one opinion on the matter, emphatically rejecting assertions by critics of evolutionary science that the Cambrian expansion -- the term "explosion", though still used, seems inappropriate -- can't be accounted for by evolutionary theory: disagreement on the details doesn't mean dispute over fundamentals. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* GOING COASTAL: While I am by no means a fan of late night radio call-in talk shows, an article on the popular "Coast To Coast AM (CTCAM)" radio show in WIRED Online ("Coast To Coast Is No Wack Job" by Randy Dotinga) caught my eye. CTCAM was originally founded by the well-known Art Bell, who used the show as a vehicle to explore the fringes. Bell left the show three years ago, handing it over to George Noory, though Bell does still host on weekends. It gets an estimated 4.5 million listeners every night; it is carried on 500 stations, and is also available in podcasting format through the CTCAM website.


While subjects such as alien visitations, human-alien hybrids, and global conspiracies are grist for the mill at CTCAM, the show's audience and contributors also include respected members of the science community. The soft-spoken, 55-year-old Noory gives everyone a polite hearing, and scientists are pleased to use his show as a moderated forum to explain things to the public.

Well-known debunker Michael Shermer is a frequent contributor: "We want to chase out bad ideas with good ideas, and just explain what science is. Why don't most scientists accept psychic powers as real or UFOs are real? Why do we have high standards of evidence before you accept something?"

Noory himself is inclined to believe in the supernatural or paranormal. He describes the style of the show as "non-confrontational" and suggests that listeners and participants take a similar attitude: "Chill out, relax and have an open mind." University of Washington paleontologist Peter D. Ward, an occasional contributor, agrees that getting too stressed about some of the subjects discussed on CTCAM is unconstructive, that some of the stories are "so outrageous that you have to really be a nincompoop to take the far-out stuff seriously." Ward describes the show as "entertainment with some good science in it."

* ORGANLEGGERS: My tastes in entertainment run towards B-fiction. One of the reasons I like it is because the stuff isn't to be taken seriously: it's not supposed to be for real, and I don't mistake it for the real world. This makes it somewhat confusing when an AP report ("Four Charged For Selling Body Parts" by Tom Hays) presents life imitating B-fiction.

Brooklyn funeral home owner Joseph Nicelli and Michael Mastromarino, owner of Biomedical Tissue Services (BTS) of Fort Lee, New Jersey, have been indicted on charges that the two conspired to steal body parts from corpses being embalmed and sell them. The Brooklyn funeral home was used as a embalming subcontractor by funeral homes in New York City, Rochester, Philadelphia, and various towns in New Jersey. Two other defendants, Lee Crucetta and Christopher Aldorasi, were named. They all pleaded not guilty to charges of enterprise corruption, body stealing and opening graves, unlawful dissection, forgery, and other counts. Other arrests may be in the pipeline.

The defendants allegedly made millions of dollars peddling the stolen body parts. Some cadavers exhumed in the course of the investigation had ordinary home plumbing pipe substituted for leg bones. The defendants attempted to cover their tracks by forging death certificates and organ donor forms. In some cases, the people who the organs were taken from were ill or too old be safe organ donors.

Nicelli's funeral parlor included a secret operating room where Mastromarino, an oral surgeon whose license had been revoked, would remove the body parts, aided by nurses Crucetta and Aldorasi. In late 2004, a Brooklyn detective visited Nicelli's funeral parlor to investigate charges that customers had been cheated out of funeral deposits. The detective got suspicious when she spotted the secret operating room. The US Food & Drug Administration has shut down BTS. There is some small chance that recipients of the stolen body parts have been exposed to diseases. Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes called the whole incident "something out of a cheap horror movie."



* VIRTUAL HUMAN: The notion of virtual humans brings up images of characters in computer games or in movies like THE INCREDIBLES, but according to an article in WIRED Online ("Cashing In On Virtual Humans" by John Hudson), the technology has its serious applications as well. Consider Santos, created by Virtual Soldier Research at the University of Iowa. Santos was originally designed by scanning and digitizing a human model, but he's more flexible than any human, able to change his height or other features on command. Santos is no mere puppet, either: as he moves around in a simulation, he provides feedback on his joint angles, comfort level, heart rate, body temperature, muscle load, and so on.

Santos can be plugged into computer-design simulations to show how a user would interact with the item being tested. Caterpillar Corporation uses Santos to validate the designs of their heavy equipment, making sure it's comfortable to operate and easy to service; for instance, the simulation can show Santos replacing an oil filter on a dump truck. The US Army uses Santos to model new body armor -- to show if it's too restrictive to be useful -- and validate other gear -- for example demonstrating if an escape hatch on an armored vehicle is workable.

The next step toward modeling humans is being taken in a program named the "Virtual Human", which will digitize a cadaver in slices a third of a millimeter wide. The ultimate goal is to design a human simulation that will respond much like the real thing, capable of showing precisely how a human will survive a crash. People are thinking about models that go down to the cellular level, though nobody expects that to happen soon.

* RETURN OF THE THYLACINE? In the movie JURASSIC PARK, geneticists managed to recreate dinosaurs by cloning DNA from blood taken from mosquitoes trapped in amber. According to an article in POPULAR SCIENCE ("Resurrecting Extinct Animals" by Sharon Guynup, February 2006), a group of researchers at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) in Australia collaborating with American geneticists is working on a less ambitious exercise in resurrection, trying to recreate the thylacine -- also known as the Tasmanian wolf or Tasmanian tiger -- a large predator native to Tasmanian that hasn't been seen since 1936.

The group, led by the USNW dean of science Michael Archer, is obtaining DNA fragments from stuffed thylacines. The researchers have been trying to reassemble the fragments, using the DNA from the Tasmanian devil, the thylacine's closest living relative, as a guide and basis. Once they have a complete genome, they will implant it into a Tasmanian devil ovum, which will be shocked into cell division with electricity or chemicals. After the embryo reaches a few hundred cells in size, it will be implanted into the womb of a female Tasmanian devil, which will carry it to birth. Although the Tasmanian devil is much smaller than the thylacine, they are both marsupials, which give birth to small and undeveloped infants that remain stuck to the mother's teats for an extended time -- and so the smaller size of the Tasmanian devil should not be a problem for the offspring.


Initial attempts have struck out, due to the difficulty of piecing the DNA back together. The group is now working on improving the technology for DNA recovery. Archer doesn't think the thylacine will be reborn before 2020. Other researchers are considering recovery of the woolly mammoth, using DNA from the cells of animals trapped in permafrost or ice. Forget about JURASSIC PARK, though. If it's that difficult to recover the DNA of an animal like the thylacine that's been extinct less than a century, consider the difficulty of recovering DNA of animals that have been extinct for more than 65 million years.



* 21ST CENTURY TRAINS: Imagine a 21st-century hybrid-propulsion vehicle that can haul freight for a third of the fuel of a tractor-trailer rig. It's not too hard to visualize: it's the diesel-electric locomotive, a type of machine that has been in service since 1925. In addition, although the big freight-haulers moving down the tracks may look little different from those of a half-century ago, according to a POPULAR MECHANICS article ("The Rebirth Of Rail" by Josh Dean, January 2006), the modern locomotive is a much improved beast.

About 42% of all US freight moves by rail, amounting to 7.3 billion tonne-kilometers (5 billion ton-miles) per day over 225,000 kilometers (140,000 miles) of track. Traffic volume has steadily increased over the past three years, rising in step with fuel prices. At the General Electric (GE) locomotive plant in Erie, Pennsylvania, workers are producing the state-of-the-art Evolution locomotive to service the need to haul freight. The Evolution is a more efficient, cleaner locomotive designed in response to US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rules that went into effect in 2005. It features a new 12-cylinder diesel engine that produces as much power as the 16-cylinder engine used on the previous generation of GE locomotives, and an innovative new cooling system. Like other modern locomotives, the Evolution features microprocessor engine and system controls, with sensors to indicate when wheels are slipping and energy is being wasted.

GE Evolution diesel-electric locomotive

GE engineers are now busy at work on their next-generation locomotive. Somewhat oddly, they call it a "hybrid", though the term is broadly applicable to all diesel-electric locomotives. They use the term to indicate that the new machine will have "regenerative braking", converting the power otherwise lost in braking back into electricity for further use. Given the mass of a train, that's a lot of energy, which makes it both useful and tricky -- a huge array of electric storage batteries is needed to store the amounts of power obtained. Using off-the-shelf lead-acid batteries would result in a stack about as big as the locomotive itself, so the engineering team is looking into improved storage technologies, along with a lighter locomotive design using composite materials.

Canada's RailPower Industries already sells a hybrid switchyard locomotive named the "Green Goat". It's easier to implement than a hybrid freight-hauler, since a switchyard engine can use a relatively small engine geared down to tug trains around a yard at low speed. Switchyard engines had traditionally had to sit around idling for long periods, wasting fuel and dumping out air pollutants all the while. The Green Goat emits about a tenth of the nitrous oxide of a conventional switchyard engine, and it's now in widespread use in America.

* Although the US railroads used to be dominated by "point to point" traffic, hauling foodstuffs or materials from the site where they were produced to the plants where they were used, in the past few years "intermodal" traffic -- carrying freight containers offloaded from superfreighters -- has dominated. This means increasingly long trains carrying double-stacked containers. However, the rail system itself has become a bottleneck, with the system hard-pressed to keep up with container traffic. Adding new track is astronomically expensive, when rights-of-way can even be obtained. That means making better use of the existing rail system.

There's plenty of room for improvement. Traffic is monitored and controlled using a patchwork system based on two-way radios, a loose sensor network, and poorly-integrated software. About 40% of America's freight track is also uncontrolled or "dark", and so trains have to be spaced widely apart, to minimize the possibility of collisions. That means that the rail system is not being used to anywhere near its full capacity.

GE Rail Solutions is working on better ways. The company is developing a "movement planning" system that can direct and keep track of the movements of trains. This is a big challenge; such things have been tried before, but they were never trustworthy enough to be useful. A related technology is "positive train control (PTC)", in which the train carries a black box that can relay back status over wireless and obtain updates on traffic and track status, with an augmented satellite Global Positioning System (GPS) receiver giving the precise position of the train. PTC can even stop a train whose crew has been incapacitated or, for that matter, not there: in 2001, an engineer accidentally engaged the throttle of his locomotive as he was getting off, and the machine chugged across country for two hours with tanker cars full of chemicals in tow until an employee who had jumped on board managed to shut it down.

Railroad cars themselves are becoming "smarter" as well. "Automatic Equipment Identification (AEI)" ID tags have been mandatory on freight and tanker cars since 1995, with the tags read by trackside sensors that relay the location of the car to a central control station. Along with providing ID and location, the sensors scan the wheels of cars and perform other observations to see if something is wrong. Some classes of cars, such as those carrying hazardous chemicals or perishable goods, are also fitted with black boxes that can relay the augmented GPS location of a car back to a tracking center over wireless. These black boxes may include sensors to monitor the health of the car or check for leaks of hazardous chemicals.

Implementing a completely integrated automated rail system is a big job. Siemens is setting up a combined PTC, movement planner, operations center, and security system for the New York City subway system. GE is operating PTC on a pilot scale. It will cost billions of dollars to upgrade the rail network with such new technologies, but GE officials say the upgrades would pay themselves off in increased productivity in a few years.

* Another innovation on modern trains is improved braking. Traditionally, trains have used pneumatic brakes, with pneumatic couplings between cars to pass the braking signal down the train. There's a delay from car to car, which is one of the reasons trains noisily "pile up" when they brake, with this delay ensuring that the train doesn't brake quickly. A new scheme retains pneumatic brakes, but controls them with electrically-operated valves that allow the brakes of all the cars to be applied at the same time, cutting stopping distance by half or more. The problem with the "electronically controlled pneumatic (ECP)" braking scheme is that all the cars in the train have to be wired for ECP, and so the approach is in very limited use at this time.

* With so much automation being introduced into modern trains, the next logical step would be to eliminate the locomotive crew completely. This is already being done with some switchyard engines, though the rationale for doing this is not to cut workforce. Switchyard work is dangerous, with a high likelihood of somebody getting crushed. The traditional system, with switchyard controllers talking to switchyard engineers over two-way radios, is very prone to misunderstandings and dangerous errors. With automated locomotives, the process is under the sole direction of the controller.

Although the US Federal Railroad Administration is now authorizing automated locomotive operation over certain regions of track, nobody imagines that the engineer is going to be replaced any time soon. Innovation is driving massive improvements in America's rail system, but few can foresee when the day will come that it will operate so smoothly and seamlessly that humans won't be needed to ride the freight-haulers rolling down the rails.



* RENEWABLE ENERGY RESURGENT (3): At a recent conference of the renewable energy industry at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel in New York City, a financier marveled at the show of corporate power there, contrasting it to years back when he made a presentation to "ten guys with pony tails". It would be hard to imagine any more dramatic evidence of the greening of the corporate world than giant GE, which is now dictating that its operating divisions start cutting back on emissions of greenhouse gases. Environmentalists have long feuded with GE over the company's involvement with coal and nuclear power systems, as well as the company's dumping of pollutants into New York's Hudson River, but it does seem that GE is now really interested in environment as business, even seeing it as profitable. According to GE CEO Jeffrey Immelt: "Green is green!" -- meaning green business brings in the greenbacks.

Immelt is constructing a broad environmental business strategy that he describes under the Disneylike slogan of "Ecomagination" as he tries to sell the scheme to the public, customers, and the governments. The strategy is backed up by specifics, with the company business plan forecasting a doubling of revenues, to $20 billion USD in 2010, from 17 clean-technology business involved in renewable energy, hydrogen fuel cells, water filtration and purification systems, and cleaner locomotive and aircraft engines. Higher targets are specified beyond that horizon. While many big US corporations, particularly oil firms, are skeptical about global warming, GE is not, working with a cluster of other firms to lobby for limits on CO2 emissions.

All this sounds nice, but leads to the immediate question of whether it is for real. It does appear to be sincere. GE has a fairly good and improving environmental record on the local level, and the company doesn't really need to spend much effort to establish its green credentials since it usually deals with other industries and governments, not consumers who might support environmental boycotts. In other words, GE is driving the "green is green" initiative out of conviction, not as a public relations gimmick.

The other part of being for real is the question of whether green will really bring in greenbacks. GE officials insist it will, pointing out that every one of their Ecomagination initiatives yields black ink on the bottom line. There are also opportunities in China and India, both of which are developing rapidly and would be interested in somebody offered them economical ways to install new infrastructure that doesn't contribute to pollution and squalor.

Even back home, sales of environmental technology products have been soaring, and though the Bush II Administration was lukewarm at best about the environment in the first term, obvious public sentiment for the environment has led to reconsideration. Some industry observers suggest that GE's worries about global warming have an ulterior motive, since if the government goes along, that means a lot of business for GE Ecomagination products. It is hard to deny that angle, but also hard to get very upset about it -- and it lends an edge of hard shrewdness to company policies that might otherwise seem soft and fuzzy.

Indeed, GE is taking a businesslike approach to selling greenery, building up a business case to potential customers on the basis of lower life-cycle costs due to improved fuel economy and lower emissions. GE is building up a support apparatus for maintaining water purification and wind turbine systems, with officials pointing that support contracts bring in five times as much money as the initial purchase of the equipment from the company.

In addition, GE spent a year and a half in close consultations with major customers before introducing the Ecomagination strategy. Says David Calhoun, a company vice-chairman: "This is not just GE jamming environment down their [customer] throats. We decided that if this is what our customers want, let's stop putting our heads into the sand, dodging environmental interests, and go from defense to offense." Reactions from customers have been positive, one boss of an electric utility saying that GE's "visionary leadership, just a little ahead of my industry" might well push US corporations "from denial to pragmatic acceptance" of carbon emissions and other environmental issues.

GE is clearly taking a gamble on Ecomagination. As the saying goes, predictions are always difficult, particularly of the future, and any sensible person knows that economic forecasting of any sort is really no more than informed crystal-ball gazing. The environmental technology boom may not take place; as mentioned, big corporations jumped into such technologies in the late 1980s and then gave up on them a decade later after taking losses. BP invested big sums in its "Beyond Petroleum" campaign but found the returns slow to come.

There is also the question of whether GE's methodical but traditionally stodgy corporate culture is up to an innovative strategy like Ecomagination. While GE is powerful, it lacks the agility found in startup companies. As one GE official admits: "This is hard for us." But the potential payoff is a big motivation to be quicker on the draw. [END OF SERIES]



* A SHORT HISTORY OF LIFE (4): The rise of single-celled eukaryotic cells in the Precambrian led, it seems quickly, to the development of multicellular organisms. In some ways, it seems like an obvious evolutionary gambit. One life-form that could be seen as a sort of "living fossil" is the "volvox", a colony of protist algae that takes on a neat spherical form. Obviously, it wasn't such a big step to develop more elaborate organizations.


Or was it? Beyond the volvox and other colonies of protists, a multicellular organism is much more devious than a big mass of cells. It has to know the trick of starting out with a single cell whose genetic "program" knows how direct the organization of all successor cells, with cells taking on different forms, in effect running their own modified versions of the "program" as the organism takes shape, with all the cells cooperatively shaping the whole: a place for everything, and everything in its place. Even multicellular protists never figured out how to generate different types of cells. This is a difficult stunt and we're still learning a great deal about how it works, but it appears that organisms were beginning to acquire the trick as far back as 1.2 billion years ago.

By the late Precambrian, the multicellular bandwagon had got rolling well enough to have produced early members of the three most familiar kingdoms of life: the plants, which could photosynthesize; the fungi, which digest their food from the external environment; and the animals, which ingest their food for digestion. Incidentally, there's a tendency to consider fungi like mushrooms to be plants, but they're really no more plants than we are. Certainly anybody who's ever had a fungal infection on their toes might wonder what kind of plant it is that eats away living flesh.

In any case, multicellular organisms were thriving by the late Precambrian. The overall kingdom of animals is the "metazoa", with three different groups of phyla or "superphyla":

The most famous late-Precambrian fossil bed is in the Ediacara Hills of South Australia, with the creatures found there sometimes referred to as "Ediacaran" organisms. Their classification is controversial, to no surprise. Taxonomists have enough trouble trying to organize life-forms that they can get their hands on, and it's far more troublesome to figure it out when all that they have is a shadow in stone. An insubstantial creature like a jellyfish doesn't even leave much of a shadow, so it's very difficult to figure out how to pigeonhole the creatures of the Precambrian. Is a particular organism a precursor of some modern form, or does it represent an early experiment that went to a dead end?

It's difficult to know one way or another, but it does seem that by the late Precambrian multicellular organisms were well established -- animals, simple plants, and fungi. The world seems to have been a harsh place late in the Precambrian -- heavily covered with glaciers, with some suggesting that maybe the entire planet froze over -- but it didn't slow down the elaboration of organisms on Earth. In fact, it would soon undergo a great expansion. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* GIMMICKS & GADGETS: It had to happen: with the rapid conversion of the general public to MP3 players and digital cameras, the Fisher-Price generation had to jump on the bandwagon as well. According to a NEW YORK TIMES article, the Mattel division is now preparing to introduce an MP3 player and digital camera for toddlers in the 2006 holiday season, with prices set for now at $70 USD each. Other vendors are moving into the market as well, with Emerson Radio developing a SpongeBob SquarePants speaker system for MP3 players and SpongeBob SquarePants digital camera, and one company named Baby Einstein even working on a rocker with a built-in MP3 player system.

Electronics gadgets for kids are a growth market; digital cameras and MP3 players for primary schoolers are already being sold. Preschoolers are tougher customers, since products designed for little ones must be both simple to operate and very rugged. The Fisher-Price designs have big buttons and can tolerate being thrown against the floor.

Since not all preschoolers can read song titles, the Fisher-Price Digital Song and Story Player uses easily-recognized icons instead, like a star for "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star" or a barn for "Old McDonald." The Fisher-Price Kid-Tough Digital Camera has only five buttons; dual view finders, like a pair of binoculars, not the single window found on other digital cameras; two large handles to ensure a solid grip before shooting pictures; and a two-step process for deleting botched shots, not the four- or five-step procedure used on a typical camera.

* BUSINESS WEEK had an interesting little list of new advertising venues in the 23 January issue that seems worth repeating here:

* According to WIRED Online, nanomaterials research is now leading to the commercial introduction of nanoparticle-based coatings that can provide extreme flexibility, easy adhesion to surfaces, and resistance to corrosion or microbial growth. A US startup named Ecology Coatings has developed a coating based on mineral oxide nanoparticles that can be used to waterproof paper, cardboard containers, or drywall. The company has similar coatings that could be used to protect the little displays of mobile phones and the like from scratches.

US chemical giant DuPont has licensed yet another nanoparticle-based coating from Ecology Coatings to protect auto parts. The coating can be applied using conventional spray painting gear, then cured by exposing it to ultraviolet light for 10 seconds. Traditional coatings have to be cured in an oven for 40 minutes, which is not only time and energy consuming but a production bottleneck. Even better, the nanocoatings eliminate the need for environmentally-unfriendly solvents and other hazardous chemicals -- though they would require that the manufacturing process be redesigned. DuPont engineers see the new parts coating scheme dramatically driving down costs of applying coatings, from "a few dimes per article down to one cent per article or less." There would also be no need to design parts to withstand an oven curing process. DuPont officials believe the coatings will be initially used for "under the hood" parts like oil filters or disk brake drums.

* As reported by AVIATION WEEK, Raytheon has just performed an impressive demonstration of the company's "Quick Kill" self-defense system for armored vehicles. In the test, a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) round was fired from close range at a Stryker armored vehicle fitted with Quick Kill. Quick Kill's electronically scanned radar detected the RPG round; the system then fired an interceptor missile straight up, with the missile pitching over and then destroying the RPG round before it hit the vehicle. I would really like to have seen a video of this.

* I caught a obituary notice in a magazine some time back for Jim Gary, who was described as a sculptor who put together dinosaurs made from scrap car parts. I was intrigued enough to surf the web for his work, and found a marvelous assortment of full-sized dinosaurs in bright flashy colors -- some of them surprisingly authentic-looking despite being made of car parts -- plus oversized red ants, bizarre fantasy creatures, and so on.

Gary appears to have started a movement of sorts, since I see the occasional junk dinosaur around these parts as well. One of the houses in the neighborhood has a little sculpture of a monster plunging up out of the ground, with a truck suspension spring for a body and gaping jagged jaws. I found it downright creepy the first time I saw it -- a lawn gnome it wasn't.

* Daniel H. Wilson, a PhD researcher at the Carnegie Mellon University Robotics Institute in Pittsburgh, has just published what sounds like an interesting book, titled HOW TO SURVIVE A ROBOT UPRISING: TIPS ON DEFENDING YOURSELF FROM THE COMING REBELLION. According to the book: "Any robot could rebel, from a toaster to a Terminator, and so it is crucial to learn the strengths and weaknesses of every robot enemy." For example, there is a simple test to figure out if the person you're chatting up is actually a robotic assassin in camouflage: "Does your friend smell like a brand-new soccer ball?"


It started after a bull session in which Wilson and fellow roboticists were laughing about all the stereotypes of robots running amok in TV and movies. Wilson decided to pick up the idea and run with it, having some fun while actually teaching a bit about robotics in the meantime. Wilson's already obtained movie rights. The real joke, of course, is that there will be a few people who will take him seriously.



* SMART RECYCLING: US municipalities were once very enthusiastic about recycling trash and waste, but their excitement flagged when the bottom line for recycled materials didn't come as close to the overhead of sorting out recyclables as had been expected. However, if recycling didn't work out quite as expected, it hasn't gone away either, and according to a WIRED Online article ("Machines Pluck Cash From Trash" by Bryan Ball), technology is helping recycling move forward again. A number of municipalities have invested in expensive sorting machines that automate the process, with the machines making use of magnets, sifting screens, optical sensors, weight detectors, and other gadgetry to pick through trash quickly and efficiently.

Trash collection giant Waste Management Incorporated (WMI) has been energetic in promoting such machinery, saying that such "single-stream" sorting makes recycling more convenient. Consumers can place all their recyclables into a single bin, and the greater convenience encourages greater recycling. Another factor in the resurgence of recycling is that demand for recycled materials is starting to pick up again, having dropped after the initial recycling boom flooded the market. Now countries like China need raw materials, and American trash can help fill their needs.

The expense of the machinery means that the larger cities were the first to come on board. Denver, Colorado, obtained a $4 million USD trash sorting system, and found it very worthwhile: recycling ramped up 18% in the system's first year of operation. With such successes, smaller cities are jumping on the bandwagon as well. Monroe County, which includes the city of Rochester, New York, includes 350,000 people who produce tens of thousands of tonnes of trash annually. Not long ago, the county's recycling center obtained machines that use vibrating screens to sort paper from wood and cardboard, along with magnets to pull tin and steel from aluminum and plastic. The machines are big, about two stories tall and 15 meters (50 feet) long; they're somewhat noisy, but the sound doesn't carry too far.

Monroe County has also begun to use barcoded trash bins to track the city's trash flow. Their systems are by no means leading edge, but have dramatically improved the efficiency of the county's trash handling. The price of automation has been a smaller payroll: on one station, the number of workers has been cut from six to three.

* BREAKING THE ICE: Towns that are sited far enough north to permit flowing streams and rivers to freeze over every now and then can suffer from "ice jams", where floes of ice pile up to create a temporary dam that causes flooding. Damage to American towns due to floods caused by ice jams runs to about $125 million USD a year -- not in a league with hurricane damage, but not peanuts either.

Traditionally, dams with piers have been used as a control mechanism, but as reported by a POPULAR MECHANICS article ("Taming An Icy River" by David Dobbs, February 2006), the US Army Corps of Engineer's Cold Regions Research & Engineering Laboratory (CRREL) has come up with a more elegant solution, just installed in a Cazenovia Creek near Buffalo, New York: a string of concrete piers running across the creek.

The piers are cylinders 3 meters (10 feet) tall and 1.5 meters (5 feet) in diameter, spaced 3.7 meters (12 feet) apart. The pier array was designed to create an ice jam well upstream from human habitation, in an area where it will do no harm; once the ice floes melt or fracture down enough to slip between the piers, they are too small to do any damage. To find the least number of piers needed to do the job right, CCREL used a computer simulation to evaluate candidates, then prototyped the most promising at 1:15 scale using a river model in a refrigerated room.

Ice jams can generate a lot of pressure, and so the piers were designed to withstand forces of up to 2,000 kN (204,000 kgp / 450,000 lbf), which CRREL engineers compare to two Boeing 747 jumbo jetliners at full throttle -- well more than the pressure exerted by the biggest recorded ice jams. The piers are mounted on a reinforced concrete slab poured into the creek bed, and anchored 11.6 meters (38 feet) into the bedrock with hefty braided steel cables. Building the pier array wasn't easy, particularly since the place where it was built wasn't very accessible, but it was still far cheaper than a conventional dam, and will require much less maintenance. It also presents no obstruction to fish or boaters using the creek.



* FOLLOW THAT CAR: On 28 November 2005, a Russian-built Soyuz-Fregat booster put the European Space Agency's "Galileo In-Orbit Validation Element A (GIOVE A)" satellite into orbit. GIOVE A was the first of two demonstrators for the European "Galileo" navigation satellite system. The first of 30 operational satellites will be launched in 2008, with the constellation to be complete by 2010 and introduction to service in 2011.

GIOVE A navsat

According to a BBC WORLD Online article, Galileo's backers have high hopes for the system. Four types of service packages will be offered: an "open" location service available to all at no cost; a "safety of life" service that provides alerts when the system's accuracy or integrity is compromised; a commercial service using encrypted signals; and a public regulated service for government users. The system will be complementary to the US Global Positioning System (GPS) navigation satellite network, with users able to pick up signals from both on the same receiver, and will give positions to within a meter.

One high-profile application being considered for Galileo is road-use taxation. While high-end cars already have GPS mapping units, Galileo may also be used to track vehicle movements for "pay as you drive" road-use taxation. The scheme would tax drivers not only for the distance they drive, but for the time, place, and speed of their driving. The approach would also eliminate the need for toll booths and other ground-based traffic charging mechanisms.

Each car would be fitted with a "smart box" containing a Galileo receiver along with a wireless transmitter system to interface with the network, which would be based not only on the satellite constellation, but also on ground-based control centers to track the vehicles and compute tolls. The smart box would also be able to transmit an alarm if, say, airbags were inflated, with the network guiding other traffic onto alternate routes. There are concerns about privacy, but observers say that the system should be covered by existing privacy regulations. GPS is already being used to a limited extent in Germany for road-use charging with heavy goods vehicle traffic. Ground-based "tag & beacon" systems, involving "beacons" mounted alongside the road and "tags" in the vehicles, are also in used for heavy goods vehicle traffic in Austria and on an experimental basis in Trondheim, Norway.

In any case, a "pay as you drive" scheme not only promises to make road-use taxes fairer, with the tolls proportional to use, but also may help reduce traffic congestion by raising rates for congested areas, particularly during peak traffic times. In addition, insurers could use the information to modify rates for drivers depending on how much they drive. The European Commission is now investigating how heavy goods vehicles and passenger buses will make use of Galileo services. If the concept works well for commercial road traffic, it will then be extended to private vehicle traffic.



* RENEWABLE ENERGY RESURGENT (2): While governments are becoming more enthusiastic in pushing renewable energy, businesses have been figuring out models for selling renewable energy that actually seem like they might work. Actus Lend-Lease, a US firm, is setting up a solar-powered housing development in Hawaii for American military folk. Since Hawaii gets most of its electricity by burning imported oil, the solar power helps ensure predictable energy costs -- a matter which is important to the company, since the military pays a fixed rent that includes power costs and can't be adjusted more often than once a year.

Sun Edison, a US startup backed by Goldman Sachs and BP, has come up with a scheme in which big retailers like Whole Foods and Staples get long-term electric power contracts with fixed rates, the catch being that Sun Edison gets to set up solar photovoltaic (PV) panels on the store roof. The tidy thing about the deal from the retailers' point of view is that it gets them into solar power without buying or maintaining the gear. In the US Midwest, several energy firms are offering packages combining electricity from plants fired by natural gas with wind power, ensuring more predictable rates.

New "smart" electric meters that can determine power usage by time of day may also prove useful in promoting renewable energy. In hot climates, the peak power usage is in midday, which conveniently also happens to be the time solar power is most effective. This consideration of "time of use" makes solar power more attractive economically. Along complementary lines, a US firm named GridPoint is selling a "black box" through retailers like Home Depot that allows household power generation systems -- read solar panels and micro-wind systems -- to be neatly integrated into the overall household power system, and even route power back into the larger grid. The black box also provides backup power and, through software and an internet link, the ability to juggle power allocation between the household and grid systems in response to utility pricing and weather to get the most cost-effective solution. For homeowners, the fact that solar is relatively expensive is not such a problem: solar is more expensive than conventional power at a producer level, but the end-use consumer pays a fair increment above that level, making solar power a much better deal for consumers.

* These ideas may seem a bit like dodges, but even with unimaginative accounting, renewable energy is becoming more competitive. In windy places where conventional power costs are relatively high, wind power is bargain on its own merits, though government assistance also helps. Thanks to Danish government policies, Denmark is a world leader in production of wind power systems, through companies such as NEG Micron and Vestas.

Wind turbine design has evolved considerably over the past few decades. The average diameter of a wind turbine rotor system was 10 meters (33 feet) in the 1970s; now it is 80 meters (260 feet). As a general rule, the higher a wind turbine is off the ground, the faster the wind it will intercept, with a doubling of windspeed giving eight times greater power. Turbine blades are now made of sophisticated lightweight composite materials, contoured for maximum aerodynamic efficiency, and with variable-pitch systems to let them spin in the slightest breeze -- as well as prevent them from tearing themselves apart in storms.

As wind turbines get bigger, the obstacles to siting them on land get bigger as well, since they become more difficult to set up and invite more protest -- the "not in my backyard (NIMBY)" effect is now becoming common, since not everyone finds wind turbines a romantic addition to their scenic view. Larger turbines can be placed out at sea where the wind is strongest and the activities of NIMBYs not such a problem. There is a particularly high level of interest in offshore wind turbines in Europe, with work on optimizing turbine design for use on the waters.

PV systems have also been steadily improved since their invention in the 1950s, though they have some ways to go. Traditionally, PV cells were made of single-crystal silicon wafers, a format that permits relatively high conversion efficiencies but which also tends to be expensive. Worse, the boom in PV cell sales has greatly pressured vendors of ultrapure silicon wafers, straining capacity and forcing price increases. Work has been done on reducing production costs and increasing efficiencies. "Multilayer" PV cells have been designed that use a number of different materials so that they have very high efficiencies, but they are almost unavoidably expensive -- though they can be used with concentrator lenses or mirrors to allow one cell to acquire a large area of sunlight, improving their cost-effectiveness. Silicon vendors are now beginning to build up new capacity, though PV cell manufacturers have had to sign long-term purchase agreements to spread the risk.

There are schemes for building really cheap PV cells. "Amorphous" silicon PV cells can be laid down on glass or stainless steel substrates and are in commercial use, but they have conversion efficiencies too painfully low for large-scale power generation. The US National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) has come up with a scheme that doesn't even use silicon, instead being based on a sandwich of copper, indium, and gallium selenide layers, and so known as "CIGS"; advocates think it may offer surprisingly high efficiencies at very low cost. There are experiments in organic PC cells, which promise really cheap PV power systems; and "quantum dots", which advocates believe could have conversion efficiencies of up to an astounding 70%. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* A SHORT HISTORY OF LIFE (3): With the arrival of eukaryotic cells, about 2 billion to 1.5 billion years ago, the options available to organisms expanded widely. Single-celled eukaryotes form the third of the six kingdoms of life and are referred to as "protists" -- the other three eukaryotic kingdoms being the fungi, plants, and animals. (There's some very important fine print to the description of protists as "single-celled", but that will have to wait.) The earliest of the modern protists date back to about 1.2 billion years ago, and are now a bewilderingly diverse group. Some that live in anaerobic environments, such as protists included in our intestinal fauna, don't have mitochondria, performing metabolism by methods unique to themselves. Some can form spores, a trick also practiced by some bacteria such as anthrax, becoming inactive but armored against environmental insults, allowing them to survive for long, sometimes very long, periods of time until conditions allow them to go active again.

The protists now include 27 distinct phyla, more or less, some of which are so different at the molecular biology level that there has been a push to designate them as separate families. If taxonomists tend to be quarrelsome, trying to make sense of all the protists demonstrates why. A number of protist phyla are plantlike, including the "diatoms" or "golden algae", and the "dinoflagellates". They contain "plastids", cellular organelles that can perform photosynthesis. The plastids come in different colors -- brown for brown algae, red for red algae, and green for green algae, which seem to be precursors of modern plants. There are funguslike protists as well, which like fungi digest food from their exterior environment and cannot photosynthesize.

The animal-like protists are known collectively as "protozoans", though overall the different phyla included under that label only share the fact that they ingest their food and don't photosynthesize, with massive differences between phyla. The protists include the "flagellates", "ciliates", and "amoeboids". The flagellates have long whiplike "tails" that they use to propel themselves through water, with the "dinoflagellates" actually being responsible for the deadly red tides. The ciliates are rimmed by tiny hairs or "cilia" to allow them to get around. The bloblike amoeboids are the most familiar of the protists, but that group also includes the marine "radiolaria", which have complicated internal skeletons. Their amoeboid cousins the "foraminifera", or "forams", take an alternate approach, forming shells. The radiolaria and the forams are distinctly recognizable in the fossil record, and indeed forams are used by oil companies to identify strata that could be associated with oil deposits.


It should be noted that fossil evidence for protists only goes back about 800 million years, and that not all the modern phyla are necessarily that old. Just like more elaborate organisms, they have evolved in various directions, with new forms arising and old forms dying out. Popular science literature sometimes refers to modern organisms that can be presumed to be similar to ancient ones as "living fossils", but that's a bit of a loaded term: all organisms living today are descendants of ancient ancestors, and if some are very much different from their ancestors, that doesn't imply that others that haven't changed as much are simply carbon copies of their forebears.

While the bulk of protists reproduce asexually by division, some do reproduce sexually, and it is generally believed that the protists "invented" sexual reproduction. There has been a long debate among evolutionary biologists over the relative merits of asexual and sexual reproduction, but few dispute that by the evidence it was a major step forward in the evolution of life. Asexual production permits rapid and efficient replication, but sexual reproduction enhances genetic diversity, permitting more "throws of the dice" to drive natural selection. It buttresses the notion of natural selection, since if the survival of species was driven strictly by the ability to reproduce, asexual reproduction would win hands-down. The ability to support more variability turns out to be an effective counterbalance -- though not to the extent of driving asexual reproducers out of business.

There is a puzzle associated with sexual reproduction: how could trial-and-error evolutionary processes have created a male organism and a female organism simultaneously that worked together? That would seem impossible, and in fact it is: obviously, sexual reproduction emerged in phases. Bacteria have a limited ability to transfer genetic information, and it seems plausible that a scheme along this line could have been continued until microorganisms could reproduce sexually or asexually. The advantages of sexual reproduction would gradually push this process to ultimately result in organisms that only reproduced sexually.

Of course, at the outset such organisms would have been hermaphroditic -- that is, each being both male and female. That's nothing unusual among more advanced modern organisms, snails being a well-known example. That still leaves the question of how two distinct sexes emerged, but one could imagine hermaphrodites that cycled between genders, ultimately ending up with the gender fixed at birth.

* As noted, the description of protists as "single-celled" is not quite the full truth. The evolution of the protists led to the rise of multicellular creatures, with amoebic protozoans leading to the funguslike "slime molds". Kelp -- seaweed -- is also a protist and can grow to tens of meters in length. The protists led to the appearance of multicellular organisms about 600 million years ago, very late in the Precambrian. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* MICRO WINDPOWER: While wind power turbines have been getting bigger and more capable, according to a CNET News article ("Micro Wind Turbines Are Coming To Town" by Marin LaMonica), now there's a new effort to make them smaller, suitable for installing on tops of buildings. The idea hasn't caught on yet, but a number of companies are working to make it a reality. The AeroVironment company, best known for its human-powered aircraft and unmanned aerial vehicles, is developing small turbines that look like large fans mounted in square housings to be set up on top of commercial buildings, along the lines of Home Depot or Wal-Mart retail stores. The turbines can be lined up in rows, and will produce power even in mild breezes.

urban wind power

The company has them in beta test at a few sites to evaluate cost-effectiveness and noise levels. There are also concerns about their impact on birds and bats, though the turbines are screened on both sides. AeroVironment isn't sure that their technology will be salable, but company officials claim that business owners and municipalities are very interested in alternative energy sources, due to concern for energy costs as well as a degree of "green" fashionableness. Since the turbines are unobtrusive, few are concerned about "not in my backyard" resistance from local communities.

The Aerotecture company of Chicago is pursuing the same idea using a different approach, with a helical turbine inside a cylinder about 3 meters (10 feet) tall. The company is talking with city officials about placing the turbines on top of Chicago's tall Daley Center, with some other potential deals on the plate. Companies in Europe are also developing small wind turbines for urban sites.

* NEAR-FIELD DATACOM: As discussed by an article in THE ECONOMIST ("In The Very Near Future", 10 December 2005), although there has been considerable interest in wireless data communications technologies such as Bluetooth and wi-fi, one new wireless datacom technology, known as "near field communications (NFC)", remains little known even as it becomes more pervasive. Unlike high-bandwidth datacom schemes like BlueTooth, NFC focuses on low data rate communications over very short distances; instead of trying to compete with cellphones and handheld computers, NFC is an attempt to bring tickets, keys, wallets and vending machines into the modern age.

The notion of the "contactless card" has been around for some time, being used with mass transport systems all over the world. Tickets for a ride on a subway are encoded on a contactless card, which a user can simply wave at a reader to get through a turnstile onto a subway or other vehicle. For example, Hong Kong has its "Octopus" cards, London has "Oyster" cards, and Japan has "Suica" cards. In the USA, contactless payment cards and keyfobs are being used to pay for fast food and gasoline. MasterCard is now issuing "PayPass" contactless credit cards that can be used at tens of thousands of shops and restaurants. Contactless card schemes are simpler for both consumer and service provider, and less vulnerable to fraud. They are reliable, not even requiring batteries, being powered by an electromagnetic field emitted by the card reader.

near-field card reader

The vision right now is to combine contactless cards with cellphone technology. A mobile phone is of course bulkier than a credit card, but since many people carry a cellphone anyway, adding NFC is not any great inconvenience. What makes turning the cellphone into a contactless card equivalent really useful is the fact that the phone allows the user to interrogate the status of transactions; check on data associated with the transaction, for example train schedules associated with a train ticket; buy tickets for a concert or sports event online and log them in the phone; and transfer sums from a bank account to the phone.

The technology is already here on a relatively small scale. At least 50,000 phones with Octopus card interfaces have already been sold in Hong Kong. Japan's biggest mobile phone operator, NTT DoCoMo, has sold about four million phones with Sony / Philips FeliCa contactless chips, the same technology as used in Octopus and Suica cards. Soon these "wallet phones" will be enabled as card equivalents.

MasterCard's and VISA's contactless cards, London's Oyster cards (based on Philips' Mifare technology), and hundreds of other contactless card ticketing schemes around the world are based on a different scheme, embodied in the International Standards Organization's ISO 14443 specification. NFC is a higher-level standard effort that plans to bring FeliCa, ISO 14443, and other major contactless card technologies under a single umbrella.

Contactless card standardization is not too difficult as standardization goes, since all the contactless card technologies use the radio frequency band around 13.56 megahertz and all perform similar functions. There are relatively few people who would actually need to have a wallet phone that would work anywhere in the world, though it would be a nice thing to have. Standardization on NFC is, over the short run at least, much more important to vendors, since it provides them with economies of scale that allow them to run down their costs through volume production. Cheaper NFC technology will help the technology take off.

The past history of attempts to establish electronic cash suggests that NFC won't become universal overnight. Fortunately, the scheme doesn't have to be universal to work, and the more it works, the more universal it becomes. Contactless cards have become common as a means of handling mass transit ticketing in Hong Kong and Japan, and as they have become more entrenched, card readers have been installed in shops to allow the cards to be used to make small purchases. The greater capability of wallet phones should translate into even greater momentum.

One interesting idea based on the wallet phone is the "smart poster", which would use NFC to redirect a phone to a relevant web page to obtain more information or make purchases. The poster could even download promotional ringtones or wallpapers directly to the phone. Wallet phones could also be used as an identification system -- with proper security, even as passports -- or as remote keyless entry tools. Handset makers believe that NFC could be used as a general interface, allowing phones to transfer data from other devices or other phones conveniently. NFC has good security, since it only works at up-close range, making interception of NFC transactions difficult.

The data rate of NFC is modest, 424 kilobits per second -- only half that early on -- which is well fast enough for transferring text files and the like, but not for transferring video or music files. However, NFC could be used to set up a connection between cellphones, with the serious data then transferred over the cellphone channel.

NFC is gaining momentum. The NFC Consortium was founded by Nokia, Philips, and Sony in 2004, and has since been joined by MasterCard, Matsushita, Microsoft, Motorola, NEC, Samsung, Texas Instruments, Visa, American Express, LG, Intel, Siemens, and SonyEricsson. Cellphone service providers are hesitant. They have been burned on flashy new offerings in the past, and also fear that NFC transactions might compete with transactions performed over cellular channels; however, optimists among the operators think that NFC will lead to an increase in normal cellphone communications, with users buying tickets, performing bank transactions, and so on.

NFC seems like an idea whose time is coming. How soon it will become a normal, much less the predominant, means of performing purchases and other transactions remains to be seen. Cash and coins have been around a long time, and though they have their inconveniences, people remain attached to them.



* LINGERING QUESTIONS ABOUT PRIONS: As discussed by an article in AAAS SCIENCE, ("After The Crisis: More Questions About Prions" by Martin Enserink, 16 December 2005), in 1982 neurologist Stanley Prusiner of the University of California, San Francisco, published a paper that claimed that the "spongiform encephalopathies" -- a class of degenerative brain diseases that occur in sheep as "scrapie", in cattle as "bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE)", and in humans traditionally as "Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease (CJD)" -- were not caused by any classic pathogen, such as a virus or a bacteria; they were actually caused by a malformed protein, which he dubbed a "proteinaceous infectious particle", or "prion" for short. Subjects who ingested prions from the brains or nervous system of animals who died from the disease could acquire the disease itself after a long latent period.

The idea was radical, with Prusiner being loudly denounced as a crackpot, but in the 1990s the spongiform encephalopathies stopped being an exhibit in the freakshow of medicine and came to the center ring. There was an epidemic of BSE in the UK, the affliction becoming popularly known as "mad cow disease" -- with a number of humans coming down with a "variant CJD (vCJD)" after eating tainted beef. Research on spongiform encephalopathies ramped up, with a consensus emerging that Prusiner had been right all along. He was awarded the Nobel prize in medicine.

That was a relief for Prusiner; it was a relief for the general public when public health measures sent BSE into steep decline, after reaching a peak in the UK -- by far the worst-hit country -- in 1992. Fears of a massive outbreak of vCJD didn't materialize. To be sure, over 150 Britons have died of the disease since 1990, but there were only 9 deaths in 2005, after a peak of 28 in 2000. Nobody could sensibly call 9 deaths a good thing, but there were fears that thousands might be afflicted.

Now the issue has generally gone off the public radar. However, some prion researchers are nervous about thinking the matter is all but over and done with. Spongiform encephalopathies are still at large -- a new form of scrapie has appeared in European sheep, and a similar "chronic wasting disease (CWD)" is killing wild elk, deer, and moose in the US and Canada -- and the mechanisms of the disease are still far from well understood.

* The idea that prions could be responsible for the spongiform encephalopathies was a big step off into the unknown, and there are still those who think prions are a red herring, that the actual culprit is some sort of slow-acting virus, though this is now a minority view. Given the limited understanding of how the disease works, however, alternative views haven't been completely ruled out yet. Nobody really knows how eating prions leads to a brain infection, nor how prions actually damage the brain.

Fortunately, it wasn't necessary to know the details to bring the BSE / vJCD epidemic in the UK under control. Regulations were set up in 1988 to ban use of "rendered protein" -- protein obtained from animals, including brain tissue -- as an animal feed. Since BSE has a long incubation time, it took a few years to show results, but there were only a little over 150 cases of BSE in the UK in 2005, down from 343 in 2004. Other European countries have instituted similar measures and seen much the same declines, though from much lower peaks. Now the requirements for expensive tests in the slaughterhouse are being relaxed, the general feeling being that the resources would be better spent trying to deal with bird flu, and restrictions on cuts of beef near the spinal column have been relaxed as well -- Britons can now enjoy T-bone steaks again.

Still, there are worries. Scientists who have been investigating scrapie fear it is a potential threat. Scrapie has been known for a long time and there's no evidence that it can be passed on to humans who eat mutton. Lab studies have shown that sheep can acquire BSE, which could make mutton as threatening as beef -- but so far there's no reason to believe that sheep on the farm are becoming infected with BSE. To complicate matters, European sheep are starting to suffer from a variant scrapie that has somewhat different symptoms from classic scrapie. The general belief is that the variant scrapie has been there all along, it was just masked by mainline scrapie and wasn't noticed until research into the spongiform encephalopathies became a high priority. However, the matter needs to be investigated.

CWD was first discovered in the US in the 1980s, and infected animals have been discovered in 13 American states so far. Fortunately, there doesn't seem to be any evidence that CWD can infect humans, or even any animals except those in the deer family, and for the moment there is no reason to fear an outbreak of "mad moose disease" in humans. Once again, the matter still needs to be investigated in detail.

As far as the decline of vCJD in the UK, John Collinge of the National Hospital for Neurology & Neurosurgery in London worries that appearances are deceiving. The time between the peaks of BSE and vCJD in the country was about ten years, which is a short period of incubation by the standards of human spongiform encephalopathies. Collinge suggests that the peak seen so far might be just of people who had a specific genetic susceptibility to the disease, and that a real tidal wave of vCJD deaths will hit a few years down the road. The fact that vCJD may possibly be passed through blood transfusions could make the affliction a long-lasting horror.

Prion researchers feel that more work needs to be done to develop diagnostics and cures. A workable blood test does appear to be possible, but so far nobody has any idea of how to treat the disease. Drug companies have not been all that interested in treatments for the spongiform encephalopathies, since they afflict such a small portion of the population. Government funding for research has not been cut in the US, UK, or Canada, and in fact the Canadians have increased funding, but German and French government spending is on a sharp decline. Some researchers are resigned. If the spongiform encephalopathies no longer pose a major health threat, then the money needs to go to work on things that are. Given limits on funding, active threats will always trump potential threats. If that happens, says an American researcher: "Then we'll have to adapt, as scientists do."

* LIABILITY TANGO? Last month an article here discussed the impact of malpractice litigation on skyrocketing US medical costs. Now a professor of the University of Connecticut School of Law named Tom Baker has published a book titled THE MEDICAL MALPRACTICE MYTH that challenges the conventional wisdom about malpractice litigation.

According to Baker, about one in every 20 patients suffers unnecessary harm at a physician's hands, and about 1 in 10 of those dies. Only a small portion of those who have suffered malpractice ever take the case to court, and the average award is actually very small -- a few tens of thousands of dollars. The author also cites studies to show that physicians do not tend to overtreat in any major way. In addition, although malpractice insurance is very expensive for some classes of doctors, on the average it's not that bad. Baker chalks up the high premiums on market fluctuations in the insurance industry.

Although critics have suggested that Baker's definition of "malpractice" is overly broad, THE MEDICAL MALPRACTICE MYTH is otherwise getting a lot of respect for its scholarship and dispassionate approach to the subject; certainly Professor Baker is not being dismissed as a mere crank with an axe to grind. Nor is he critical of the whole idea of tort reform, though his angle on it tends to emphasize the rights of plaintiffs as well as defendants.

* ED: As for myself, I admit to being confused, given one set of stats one month and another set another month. However, this sort of debate is healthy. I must admit that I find Baker's citations of the rate of medical malpractice very persuasive. I have a fundamental belief that incompetence is an unavoidable factor in human affairs -- it certainly is in my own case, and my observations lead me to believe that I'm not doing worse for myself than others.

I don't feel that this is a cynical observation, either. A 10% error rate in something as complicated as medical practice strikes me as actually pretty good; admittedly medical errors can have disastrous consequences, but errors are always going to happen. One writer commenting on Baker's work pointed out that in the 19th century, a visit to the doctor had about even chances of helping or harming the patient. We've come a long way since then.



* ROBOJEEP: Drone aircraft, or "unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs)", have been one of the stars in recent military campaigns. According to an article in POPULAR SCIENCE ("Robots Go To War" by Preston Lerner, January 2006), the military is likely to begin using "unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs)" in the near future.

UAVs have actually been around for a long time; the US used modified Firebee target drones in a big way for reconnaissance missions during the Vietnam War. These "Lightning Bug" drones usually had autonomous guidance systems, not radio control; it wasn't all that hard to give them autonomous control, since their behavior wasn't much more sophisticated than that of a washing machine -- fly at a particular altitude along a compass bearing for a specified time, take pictures, turn around and fly the original course in reverse, then cut engine and deploy a parachute for air-snatch recovery by helicopter. Modern UAVs are much more sophisticated, capable of performing takeoffs and landings autonomously, as well as following complicated preprogrammed flight paths. However, even modern UAVs don't have the smarts required for a UGV. The simple problem is that there's a lot more things to run into on the ground than in the air.

Remote-controlled military ground vehicles have been around for a long time as well. During World War II, the Germans fielded a little tracked vehicle called a "Goliath" that was directed over a trailing electrical cable. It looked like a tiny tank without a turret and carried a big explosive charge. The idea was to run it up against an enemy tank or strongpoint and then detonate it. It was used a fair amount on the Eastern Front, though it was fairly easy to disable with small-arms fire and not very successful. In the early 1990s, the US military worked on a set of tele-operated vehicles, essentially four-wheel all-terrain vehicles with cameras and sensors on a mast, and in some cases weaponry. They trailed a fiber-optic link for control, the fiber-optic link was too easily cut, and in general these machines were clearly not ready for combat. They were not fielded.

However, in the past few years the US military has fielded small tele-operated robots, including the Foster-Miller "Talon" and the iRobot "PackBot". Both of these machines are fairly small, weighing 45 kilograms (100 pounds) or less, with twin tracks, cameras, and a manipulator arm. They are primarily intended for "explosive ordnance disposal (EOD)", or in simpler terms bomb disposal. They can be used for snooping around as well, but they are very short-range machines. Experiments have been performed with Talons carrying light machine guns, but the military has not fielded such robot weapons.

Talon mini-robot

A true UGV will have to be autonomous, with the capability of driving itself. Autonomous ground vehicle guidance is very difficult to implement. In the 1980s, the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) began an "Autonomous Land Vehicle (ALV)" program, eventually building a schoolbus-sized vehicle crammed full of computing power that could move along at a slow walk. The conclusion of the ALV program was that operational autonomous UGVs were not right around the corner.

A lot has happened in two decades. Not only has computer power grown at an astonishing rate, but high-resolution imaging sensors and laser radars are now available, as well as accurate locating capability using the Global Positioning System (GPS) satellite constellation. Hierarchical rule-based software has been developed that allows the inputs from sensors to be handled efficiently, working through the most likely rules first and then going on to less likely rules, instead of blindly crunching through the input sensor data in a brute-force fashion.

A few years ago, DARPA initiated a "Grand Challenge" cross-country road race, the first to be run by robot vehicles, to help promote UGV technology. The first race, in the spring of 2004, was a fiasco: not one of the entrants completed the entire 228 kilometer (142 mile) course, and many hardly made it far from the starting line. Everyone was embarrassed and went back to the drawing board. The 2005 race went much better, with five UGVs completing the course successfully. The winner, picking up the $2 million USD purse, was Stanford University's "Stanley", a roboticized VW Toureg SUV. Stanley's average speed was 30.6 KPH (19 MPH), with its highest speed twice that. It carried five laser radars and a high resolution camera.

It appears that a UGV resupply vehicle is now within reach. The US military is now working on the "Future Combat System (FCS)", which is not a combat system but a system of combat systems. Current FCS concepts envision:

The Small Unmanned Ground Vehicle is no more than an extension of current "battle robots" and not too much of a challenge. It is believed that unmanned supply vehicles should be in service sometime in the next decade. As far as robots with weapons, it is not only much trickier to design a vehicle that can fight and not just drive itself from place to place, it also makes many people nervous.

In the days when the military was tinkering with tele-operated combat vehicles, a reporter called up Dr. Isaac Asimov and asked him what he thought of the idea. The first of his famous Three Laws of Robotics reads: "A robot cannot harm a human being nor, through inaction, allow a human to come to harm." To no great surprise, Asimov barked back: "I hate it!" -- and hung up. Fans of the TERMINATOR movies will also immediately think of the "War of the Machines", in which a supercomputer tried to exterminate humanity.

It is likely, over the short term at least, that though a killer robot may maneuver and hunt on its own, once it has a target in its crosshairs it will fire only under command from a remote operator. Eventually that decision will be handed over to the machine as well, but traditional military conservatism suggests it won't be until everyone is sure that the machines make fewer mistakes than human soldiers do. At that point, it would be unconscionable not to let the machines fire at will.



* RENEWABLE ENERGY RESURGENT (1): A set of articles in THE ECONOMIST ( "Sunrise For Renewable Energy?" and following, 10 December 2005) gave a reasonably optimistic view of the current status of renewable energy efforts. US President George W. Bush's recent State of the Union address came as a surprise to many, since the conservative president, not noted for his concern for the environment, not only came out in favor of creating an energy-independent America, but made it the centerpiece of his speech. While Greens were quick to point out that . President Bush's agenda placed coal and nuclear energy high on the list and did not place much emphasis on energy conservation, the president was also careful to stress the importance of renewable energy.

Past history suggests a little caution over such top-down enthusiasm. The energy crisis of the 1970s led to a burst of excitement for renewable energy, but most of the buzz dissipated when energy prices dropped and the tide went back out again. The rise in energy prices over the last few years has brought about a resurgence of interest in renewable energy -- with skeptics suggesting that it's a case of "deja vu all over again", doomed to failure once more. Energy giant Exxon spent a lot of money on renewables the last time around to little profit, and the company's current boss, Lee Raymond, is not interested in getting burned again, calling renewables "a complete waste of money."

There are justifications for his view. Renewables are not in general cost competitive with conventional energy sources, and the notion of depending on government regulations and credits to make them competitive makes many rightly nervous: government policies can change quickly, leaving those whose business model depended on them high and dry. However, the enthusiasm for renewables is unmistakeable. Big corporations such as British Petroleum, Royal Dutch / Shell, and General Electric (GE) are throwing their resources behind renewables at a level that makes it clear they are not simply engaging in public-relations "greenwash" campaigns. The International Energy Agency (IEA) projects that over a trillion USD will be spent on non-hydropower renewable energy projects up to 2030, with such renewables tripling their contribution to the world energy budget to 6%. In places like Western Europe and California, the contribution could exceed 20%.

The skeptics can point out that the cheapest wind power runs at five cents per kilowatt-hour (kWH), at the top end of the costs of conventional energy sources -- and even in the best sites, wind turbines can't produce energy more than a maximum of about 40% of the time. Solar and wave power runs about twenty cents per kWH. On a simple spreadsheet basis, renewable energy seems like an obvious loser -- but spreadsheets don't take into consideration the regulatory, commercial, and technological momentum building up behind renewables.

The skeptics quickly pounce on regulatory boosts to renewables, but the truth is that governments subsidize conventional energy sources too, sometimes in a big way. Most of the $80 billion USD handed out by the US government's recent Energy Act ends up in the pockets of oil, coal, and nuclear producers. Such practices have by no means been restricted to the Bush II Administration, either, with the governments of both Germany and Spain doling out funds to their coal industries.

Saying "the other guy is just as bad" is a feeble and uninspiring defense of renewable energy. More positively, fears of global warming mean that governments are trying to figure out ways to take carbon emissions into account for energy production, with Europe taxing carbon emissions and the US coming up with carbon limits. Given the wild changes in weather over the last few years, the public is increasingly willing to believe that global warming is a real threat, even when the scientific data is more ambiguous. Since renewables don't, as a rule, have net carbon emissions, that improves their bottom line. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* A SHORT HISTORY OF LIFE (2): The first organisms to arise on the Earth were the bacteria, the simplest known organisms capable of self-replication. Viruses are simpler, but they can't reproduce on their own -- they are strictly parasites that propagate by infecting cells of proper organisms, and that means there's really no way viruses could have come first.

A bacterium seems deceptively simple, no more than a bag of biomolecules and some simple organelles. They reproduce asexually, though it's possible for bacteria to transfer some sets of their genes. However, there is considerable diversity among bacteria. For example, some bacteria are "anaerobic", meaning they don't require oxygen to live, in fact find it toxic, unlike oxygen-using "aerobic" bacteria. It is clear that anaerobic bacteria came first, for the simple reason that the Earth's atmosphere didn't originally contain free oxygen. The anaerobic bacteria seem to have mostly obtained their energy from hot springs, volcanic vents, and the like, which no doubt somewhat limited their distribution over the Earth. (The Sun was actually substantially dimmer in those days and wasn't as strong a source of energy as it is now anyway.)

The oxygen atmosphere didn't start to appear until about two billion years ago, and wouldn't resemble the modern atmosphere for another half-billion years. The original agents of this change were the "cyanobacteria", sometimes called "blue-green algae" -- though this is not such a helpful description since many unrelated organisms are referred to as "algae", making it about as useful a term as "pond scum". In any case, they were the first organisms to perform "photosynthesis", or the conversion of sunlight into energy, with the accompanying conversion of carbon dioxide into biomass and oxygen. The oxygen atmosphere made aerobic bacteria possible.

Whatever the details, life, if an unspectacular form of it, became commonplace on the planet. Fossil evidence for bacteria goes back over 3 billion years, particularly in the form of "microbial mats", preserved as "stromatolites", which are basically just big layered heaps of different kinds of fossilized bacteria. Microbial mats still persist in various odd parts of the Earth, such as some bays in western Australia, but they are rare, only surviving in locales where there isn't much else around to gobble up such a convenient food source. In the Precambrian they were not rare, and they left behind highly distinctive layered fossil formations, some in the form of cones tens of meters high.

* The evolution of the bacteria was paralleled by the evolution of the "archaea", which were once thought to be simply strange sorts of bacteria, called "archeabacteria", but which have become generally recognized through the identification of their unique molecular biology as having split off from the bacteria early on, to follow their own distinct tree of evolutionary development. In fact, the bacteria and archaea are regarded as two of three domains of life, and some even split the archaea down into two separate families, at an organizational level making them as distinct as plants and animals -- though in this series they're regarded as one, if just for the sake of simplicity. The archaea persist today; they have been generally been thought of as marginal, associated with extreme environments -- extreme heat, extreme salinity, extreme acidity, and so on -- but further investigation shows they're more common than was once thought, just having been missed because biologists weren't on the lookout for them. Indeed, they are among the organisms that make up mammalian intestinal flora; all the methane generated by flatulence is produced by archaea, since no bacteria are known to be "methanogens".

It's the third domain of life, the "eukaryotes", where the story starts to become of more general interest. The bacteria and archaea are both "prokaryotes" -- bags of biomolecules with fairly undeveloped internal structures. The eukaryotes, in contrast, are an order or two of magnitude bigger and have a central nucleus that contains their genetic material.

They also have a much more sophisticated set of cellular "organelles". Some of these organelles are very interesting. The "mitochondrion" of most eukaryotic cells is used in energy processing, and has its own little distinct genetic code, separate from the main cellular code in the eukaryotic nucleus. Plants also add an organelle called a "plastid" or "chloroplast", which performs photosynthesis, and also has its own little genome.


The general belief among biologists is that the eukaryotic cell arose as a symbiotic relationship between various prokaryotes. In fact, such symbiotic associations clearly occurred more than once, since plant cells have both mitochondria and chloroplasts. In modern times, there are parasitic bacteria, the "rickettsia", that can only reproduce inside a host cell, like viruses being unable to sustain an independent existence. Symbiosis often starts from parasitism, the parasite then acquiring an advantage in helping a host instead of harming it, and the mitochondrion and chloroplast may have started out in such a way. It seems very clear that chloroplasts began life as cyanobacteria. Eukaryotic cells seem to be descendants of archaeans that acquired bacterial symbiotes, with the nucleus apparently arising to slow down genome transfers between the two that would tend to gum up the collective works.

In any case, the eukaryotes would lead to multicellular organisms and the plants and animals we see around us. It is of course somewhat parochial to see multicellular organisms as "more interesting", just because we happen to be such a thing ourselves, but few would want to go to a zoo if it just meant looking at different samples of bacteria under a microscope. Still, there is a vast range of diversity among the prokaryotes and we're still learning about the tricks they can pull off. Much of the Earth's biomass is prokaryotic, and in fact there are ten times more prokaryotic cells in our bodies -- in the form of intestinal flora -- than eukaryotic cells. Even if the eukaryotic cells are about a thousand times more massive, that's still a revelation. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* TOE THE LINE: While many of the old Communist nations of Eastern Europe have successfully made the transition to reasonably honest populist government and increasingly prosperous capitalist economies, Russia seems to be moving very strongly back towards the country's traditional authoritarianism and statism. As reported by BBC WORLD Online, one of the latest bits of evidence is Russia's crackdown on foreign-based non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in the country.

New laws will go into effect on 10 April 2006 that will allow Russian officials to dictate the rules to the NGOs; if the NGOs don't obey, they will be shut down. Kremlin officials insist the law is necessary and reasonable, claiming that foreign spies have infiltrated NGOs; that NGOs present a misleading image of Russia; and that NGOs are bound by the rules of their host country anyplace they operate.

The issue erupted to the surface in January, when the Kremlin accused officials at the British embassy in Moscow of spying, relaying data with Russian contacts through a hollow rock containing a store-and-forward system -- something like a digital radio answering machine, where one party could leave messages and a second party could pick them up later. Russian officials linked NGOs to the scheme.

Intelligence experts outside Russia are skeptical that NGOs are riddled with spies; one argues that NGO staff are simply too obvious to be used as spies, and that it's no longer all that difficult to plant or turn people in Russia. As far as the distortions propagated by NGOs go, the main irritants to the government seem to be organizations like Amnesty International and the Human Rights Watch (HRW), which have carefully tracked civil rights abuses in Russia and tried to help victims. Finally, NGO officials point out that though their organizations are indeed liable to local laws, few countries have even contemplated the level of restrictions that the new Russian law implies.

The main reason for the crackdown may be the Kremlin's perception that foreign-funded NGOs played a key role in bringing down Kremlin-friendly governments in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan. NGOs have indeed attempted to support democratic processes in countries where such processes are weak, but observers suggest that the major reason for the collapse of pro-Moscow governments in some of the former Soviet states was simply widespread popular discontent, not some grand conspiracy of NGOs. The specific accusations against the NGOs almost don't matter. The Russian government has acquired a tame parliament and a tame press. Now it is time to tame the NGOs as well.

* YIN & YAN: THE ECONOMIST's European columnist, who goes by the alias of "Charlemagne", had some interesting comments on the Iranian nuclear crisis in the 21 January issue ("Playing Soft Or Hard Cop"). During the first term of the Bush II Administration, the president and his men almost flaunted their contempt for diplomacy, but they are all sadder and wiser now. Washington has carefully backed the efforts of the European Union -- in practice represented specifically by Britain, Germany, and France -- to deflate the crisis using "soft power": diplomacy and engagement instead of force and threats. The question of course arises of just how much hope can now be realistically placed in soft power.

Supporters of the approach admit that it is slow -- it's usually faster to get in the door by kicking it down -- but that over the long run it gives a better solution -- breaking a door means having to fix it and all the attendant damage later, which as Iraq has proven may be much greater than anyone expected. The Iranians did give the EU effort a polite hearing for a while, and it may well have held them back from "going nuclear" for a few years.

The Bush II Administration's willingness to back the EU effort also did much to help Washington; with the EU leading the charge, nobody could credibly assert that the whole exercise was just another piece of US "hegemonism", much less claim that the mysterious American "Jewish conspiracy" was behind the whole thing. Following the humiliating fiasco of American claims about Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction, the EU's concerns about the sinister appearance of Iran's nuclear program played far better than anything that Bush or Rice could have said -- and helped keep the Russians and Chinese more or less in the tent, if very near the exit.

So it can be said that soft power had positive results when it came to the Americans, the Russians, and the Chinese. It is hard to say so much about Iran. EU intelligence believes that the Iranians have been lying through their teeth over their nuclear program for the last few years, and one prominent Iranian cleric was recently quoted as saying: "Thank Allah, our enemies are idiots." Tehran's hardline president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has done little but emphasize that Iran is going to do what Iran damn well pleases.

Some observers believe, plausibly, that despite the noisy threats against Israel issued by Ahmadinejad, his country wants the Bomb to make the US think twice before taking military action against Iran. The EU doesn't have the same bargaining chip that the US has -- the ability to give Iran security guarantees. All of the EU together is no major military threat to Iran, but America is another matter. In other words, the European pitch also implicitly involves the US.

The Americans have been very patient with the soft power approach, but a consensus is emerging in the US that it's time to take more forceful actions: the soft cop hasn't worked, now it's time for the hard cop to take the lead. However, there are many Europeans who think that soft power should still be the tool of choice, that it's not a case of picking yan over yin. To be sure, outright use of direct military force seems to be ruled out for the time being -- the US is too pinned down in Iraq, and destroying all of Iran's nuclear facilities would be a difficult job -- but they are now going to have to make a convincing case to Washington that they are right, since patience is quickly running out -- and it can only be hoped that when patience finally snaps, it doesn't take the trans-Atlantic rapprochement down with it.



* ANOTHER MONTH: I got an eBay email in my public emailbox today, claiming to be from someone who wanted to know when he was going to get the item he bought from me. This was immediately suspicious, since I don't sell on eBay. I thought: SCAM, a thought which became much more solid when I checked over the email and noticed it made no reference to any details about the item sold or who I was ... nothing resembling any name I answered to was on it.

What puzzled me was what the scam was. I was supposed to respond through a link in the email. I figured that if I clicked the link, I might get somebody trying to download malware onto my PC, so I simply deleted the email. I did some checking around on the Web and it turns out this scam has been going around since about last summer. If I clicked on the link, I would get a fake eBay page, which would steal my passwords. This one actually seemed a bit convincing -- it was in a different format than any phishing scam I'd seen before -- but though nobody's immune to scams, my non-involvement with eBay meant the probability that I would fall for this one was very low.

* I had a little Rio digital music player for some time that I wore when I was wandering around, and its soft case finally gave way a few weeks back. The player itself still worked, but it had never been very reliable, with a certain tendency to go out to lunch at odd times, requiring that I pull the battery to get it to work again. I poked around on Amazon to see what was new in portable digital players, and I ran into an item from Samsung that seemed very attractive. It was about the size of a pack of chewing gum, could be worn as a pendant, and had 512 gigabytes of flash memory -- twice as much as my Rio.

It wasn't expensive and I could also use it as an audio recorder, so I picked it up. However, when I loaded it up with digital tunes I had ripped in Microsoft WMA format, it wouldn't play all of them. After considerable fumbling I realized that I had ripped the tunes in Windows Media Player and some were protected. The software with my old Rio could rip music without protection, so I ended up ripping my entire CD library over a few days. It was a bit troublesome; one of the features of robust software is how well it recovers from exceptions and faults, and in the case of the Rio software the answer was: "Not worth a bent penny." I struggled through it, but it reminded me of the old saying that if buildings were put together the way most software is, the first woodpecker that came along would destroy civilization.

I was also tinkering with music downloads during this time, and found that it was more trouble than it was worth, with services having clumsy user interfaces, or demanding a subscription, or insisting on downloading overbearing software -- Yahoo's service set up so much junk on my PC that it became effectively a Yahoo PC. I finally decided that I preferred to just buy a CD and be able to rip it into any format at liked.

All this hassle done, I did feel I was the better for it. I just bought a little desktop stereo system that could play MP3/WMA CD-ROMs, and have been burning disks of ripped tunes for it. I'm looking forward to phasing out the little constellation of old cheapo stereos and boom boxes that I mainly run with audio tapes as a low-budget distributed sound system. Bye-bye audio tapes, not sad to see you go.

The entire digital music exercise was sort of like playing "rat in a maze" but I really think that's how the world works. There's a lot of people who claim they can take on tasks that are new and unfamiliar, and step through them from A to Z without going down any blind alleys. I am sure that a few of these people really are that competent. However, I am even more sure that most of them are liars.

* For whatever reason, there was a short resurgence of "referrer spam" on my site in January -- people hammering on the pages just so they could hand off an ad when I checked the backlink. There was a lot of this going around a year or so ago, but they gave it up, it doesn't appear to be very effective. However, that somewhat depends on what a spammer's notions of "effective" are. There was one site that had "crash&burn" in the title that I was dim enough to check, and yep, it crashed my web browser. It was a booby trap site -- just someone spreading around bad karma.