mar 2006 / last mod nov 2017 / greg goebel

* 23 entries including: a short history of life, welcome to 2006, video placeshifting, caller ID abuse, solar concentrator blinds, pet gene analysis, Denmark governs with the web, responsive space, tidal & wave power, vertical wind turbines, consumer product standby power, TAML synthetic catalysts, gold as medicine, web-based microfinancing, secret Lockheed airship, infrared imagers for cars, regenerative automotive systems, nanocars, brain implants, Russian consumerism, and Canadian butter wars.

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[MON 27 MAR 06] WELCOME TO 2006 (3)
[MON 20 MAR 06] WELCOME TO 2006 (2)
[MON 13 MAR 06] WELCOME TO 2006 (1)


* A SHORT HISTORY OF LIFE (10): The Permian period, beginning 290 million years ago, moved the scene of most interesting developments to land. Amphibians continued to thrive, including species that looked like snakes, or looked like crocodiles, or had big crescent-shaped heads. However, the reptiles were beginning to come into their own. There are three main lines of reptiles, distinguished by distinctly different skull structures with differing numbers of holes behind the eye socket:

The synapsids are the "signature" creatures of the Permian, divided into two main groups: the well-known "pelycosaurs", with their wild "sails" on the back -- they're sometimes called "sailback dinosaurs" though they're really not dinosaurs at all -- and the "therapsids", which generally tended to be stumpy, squat beasts and which were the more or less direct ancestors of the mammals. There were herbivorous and carnivorous forms among both groups. Incidentally, nobody has any clear idea what the pelycosaur sail was form, one popular idea being that it was for thermal regulation.

The Permian period was the end of the Paleozoic era, and the end was not a subtle event, the biggest mass extinction in the history of life. The trilobites died out completely, losses of many families of marine invertebrates exceeded 90%. Others did not fare quite so badly, but all suffered. Nobody knows what happened; large eruptions and shifting continental masses, which rammed into each other to form the supercontinent "Pangea", may well have shifted the climate. Some suggest that the seas all went brackish in rising heat, with sulfur-metabolizing microorganisms taking over and filling up the atmosphere with toxic hydrogen sulfide gas. Whatever the cause, the world in the new Mesozoic era would look very different: the age of dinosaurs had arrived. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* GIMMICKS & GADGETS: The introduction of short-range wireless schemes promises to help untangle the jumble of wired linking digital gear found in a home or business. Now, according to an article from WIRED.com, a working group the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), which devised the "802.11" family of specifications on which modern "wi-fi" wireless technology is based, has released a draft specification for a new family member, "802.11n", that will pump up throughput almost tenfold to nearly 600 megabits per second (MBPS) -- enough to transfer HDTV video around the house.

The 802.11n specification was developed by IEEE's Enhanced Wireless Consortium, which includes Intel, Apple Computer, Microsoft, Sony and several other major players. The 802.11n spec is not only expected to increase bandwidth, it is designed to improve standardization and predictability of operation between gear from different users. 802.11n will allow businesses and homes to be "wired" without requiring cables strung from room to room. There are concerns that the specification won't be able to handle multiple high-bandwidth data streams; such issues will be addressed as the players review the draft standard. A final 802.11n standard is expected in 2007.

* CNET.com is sometimes an interesting source of fun gadgets, not all of which I would really want to buy but might at least want to play with a bit. One gadget recently discussed in the CNET pages would be a nice toy for a big house full of kids -- a full-sized digital arcade game console in classic style from Dream Authentics. The "Excalibur", as it is called, is highly configurable, with a wide range of display and input device options. It even has cup holders. It comes with 80 classic Atari games installed, but the guts of the Excalibur amount to a more or less ordinary PC, so it can play any PC-based game, or games for other platforms running on PC-based emulation software. Dream Authentics says that it can run about 5,000 different games. It can even be used as a console system for Xbox and Playstation; and since it's really just a jazzed-up entertainment PC, it can be used to watch DVDs, listen to digital music, or surf the Web.

They're asking $3,500 USD. It's nice, but I have no place to put it, and my interest in computer games is highly intermittent. Once every few years I'll get the bug, play for a few weeks, and then say: "OK, that's enough." I keep visualizing this thing as a prize in a TV game show: "And behind Door Number Three is ... AN EXCALIBUR ARCADE GAME CONSOLE!"

* Along more practical lines, CNET.com announced the Imation Clip USB Flash Drive series of products. The Clip is a flash ROM carried in a rubberized high-impact plastic tab that features a carabiner clip (you know, the clips mountain climbers use) to latch onto a keychain or the like so the little thing won't get lost. The Flash ROM has a USB interface, allowing it to be directly plugged into any PC.

Clips are available in black, blue, and orange color, in capacities from 256 MB (about $30 USD) to 2 GB (about $120 USD). When I first heard about these portable flash drives a year or so ago I was a bit dubious, wondering what the point of them was if they didn't play music or whatever. Then I made the link to something that I had been puzzling about in the early 1990s: what was going to replace the 1.44 MB floppy drive? Even at that time, the 1.44 MB floppy was far too small to do much useful. I was expecting that some sort of "super floppy" or rewriteable CD drive would displace it, but it never happened. It seemed finally that with the triumph of the Internet and the widespread use of write-once CD-ROMs that floppies didn't matter anyway, and I forgot about the issue.

Now the flash drives have arisen to establish the real 1.44 MB floppy replacement, providing a high-capacity means of transferring useful amounts of data around. It seems nonintuitive that a solid-state system would do the trick, but a quick calculation shows that even if 1.44 MB floppies cost a quarter each, 256 MB of storage on them would cost over $40 USD, twice as much as the cost of a 256 MB Clip drive. Go up to the 2 GB drive and the price per bit jumps from twice to four times that of the solid-state equivalent. Apparently some vendors make such devices for even lower prices.

My desktop PC is from 2004 and has the ridiculous old floppy drive. I was wondering if the PC manufacturers were still doing this, but an inspection of a computer store shows that PCs now have a somewhat bewildering array of flash and PC card slots where the floppy drive used to be. Right now, if I want to get images out of my cameras, I dump them to my laptop, which has a flash card slot, and then network them to my PC; being able to plug them directly into my PC would be nice. Of course, soon enough (if it hasn't happened already) cellphones will be used as flash card interfaces.

Anyway, I could have use for a USB flash drive. When I go on my long-distance photography tours, I end up archiving my images on my laptop, and it leaves me with a persistent insecurity that the laptop will be lost, stolen, or trashed. Losing the laptop would be troublesome but not very painful, since I've got my money's worth out of it and I could replace it with something newer and nicer, but if I lost the pix that would sink the entire trip. If I had a big flash drive I could sort through the day's imagery on the PC and dump it to the flash drive, then wear it around my neck. It would never get out of my sight and, given a reasonably robust case, the likelihood of trashed it would be down in the noise level.

It might be nice to include a file of personal information in a top-level directory on the flash ROM in case I meet with an unfortunate accident. Come to think of it, no doubt the military is planning to use gadgets along this line for an improved dogtag. Incidentally, I still have a pile of 1.44 MB floppies in a closet. They come in handy for leveling shelves on a carpet and little tasks like that. [ED: As of 2017, it is astounding that I could buy a 64GB flash drive for less than $20 USB.]

* According to an article from WIRED.com, the idea of waterless urinals is starting to catch on. The concept sounds unsanitary, but the reality is that there's no real need to use clean water to transport waste water, and the current system literally flushes clean water away. Walmart is beginning to install them in stores, and they're being used in US national parks and government offices.

The urinal drains into a receptacle containing a layer of alcohol and mineral oils, which are lighter than the urine; the urine simply drains through this liquid "cap", which remains on top, blocking out odors. There is a hole in the bottom of the receptacle, leading to an external drain that is near the level of the top of the receptacle. This down-up-down drain scheme retains a reservoir of urine in the receptacle, ensuring that the cap doesn't drain out. The cap does have to be replaced periodically. One national plumber's union objects to the dry urinals, claiming they are a sanitation hazard, but some environmental researchers insist that traditional wet urinals are actually much more unsanitary. So far users have found the dry urinals satisfactory.

Now that I think of it, I have run into waterless urinals. I was thoroughly baffled; I couldn't figure out a way to flush the thing. Apparently I was not alone in this problem, since later I ran into waterless urinals that were marked with a placard saying, in essence: THIS IS A WATERLESS URINAL. DO NOT TRY TO FLUSH IT.



* PLACESHIFTING: Once upon a time, in the early decades of TV, people had to arrange their schedules around their favorite programs, making sure they were seated in front of their set when THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF DISNEY came on. The development of the VCR meant that in principle people could record now and play later, though as it turned out it wasn't until the digital video recorder (DVR) was invented that such "timeshifting" became widespread practice.

Now, according to an article in THE ECONOMIST ("Television's Next Big Shift", 11 March 2006), we are moving on to the era of "placeshifting". The trail is being blazed by startup company Sling Media of San Mateo, California, which introduced the "Slingbox" in 2005. The $250 USD Slingbox resembles a giant silver segmented chocolate bar (company officials reply with mild annoyance that it was supposed to look like a silver ingot) that has connections to a PVR or other video device on one side, and a high-speed network connection on the other. Slingbox users on the road or at the office can then view their favorite programs on a PC, laptop, or handheld device over the network connection. Now, video consumers not only aren't constrained by TV schedules; they aren't even constrained to be at home.

The Slingbox has been selling at a brisk clip, and has a lead on the competition. Sony already sells a similar system named LocationFree, and Microsoft is working on its own placeshifting product. The Slingbox of course can handle video from any source, allowing it to be used to obtain security camera imagery. It is very likely that the functionality will be included in set-top boxes in the near future.

* I was very surprised a few years ago to learn that only a small percentage of people who bought VCRs actually used them to record programs, instead using them mostly used them to run prerecorded movies. My own major use of VCRs from day one was to record. Once I had a VCR, I rarely watched TV live, all the more so because I hated to sit through commercials. (It was the sign of a good commercial that I would back up the tape to watch it: the Energizer Bunny always got my attention.) Alas, the fact that few people who bought VCRs used them to record means that the programming capabilities of my current VCR are much inferior to those I had a decade ago.

My VCR's days are numbered. These days, as far as watching movies go, DVD is so far superior to VHS tape that I am waiting for the day when I can get a DVR that meets my needs to pick up digital broadcast programs and dump tape entirely. One of the problems with a DVR is that I will record in one room and watch in another, which at present means copying a DVR-recorded program to VHS tape. Placeshifting sounds like it could deal with this issue; I could use a high-speed wi-fi link to view programs recorded on my DVR any place in the house.

As far as viewing such programs away from home, that would be well and good, but I wouldn't pay an extra penny to do it. I think in a few years I'll be able to pick up what I like to think of as a "universal communications service" that provides me with high-bandwidth phone and Internet connections, all for less than the cost of my monthly phone bill -- not counting long-distance charges, which will disappear in the new world order. We'll see when.

It would be nice to be on the road and still pick up the nightly BBC WORLD news reports recorded by my household DVR. While I'm at it, it would also be nice to distribute a few cameras around the house to make sure the place remained intact while I was gone. Sigh, once I have the capability I'll figure out things to do with it that will make it a necessity, not a luxury.

* CALLER MISIDENTIFICATION: Commentaries on the potential problems of faking caller ID have been floating around for a time, but according to an AP report ("Technology Facilitates Caller ID Spoofing" by Peter Svensson), the issue is ceasing to be theoretical.

In the fall of 2005, Pennsylvania citizens began to get automated calls badmouthing Congressman Tim Murphy. To add insult to injury, the calls were from Murphy's own office -- or so caller ID said. In fact, it is trivial to spoof caller ID, with Internet phone equipment or Web sites online used to do the job. In a typical caller ID spoofing website, the user pays a fee, gives the number originating the call, the number where the call will end up, and the fake number to be handed over as the caller ID; the website system then rings up the user and establishes the call.

Caller ID spoofing is not illegal, but it has illegal uses. People using stolen credit card numbers can fake caller ID to make it seem as though purchases made over the phone actually originated from the phone of the proper credit-card user. Shady telemarketers will use bogus caller ID to cover their tracks, providing the caller ID of investigators or other enemies to suffer the heat from angry return calls.

Caller ID can also be used to crack voice mailboxes if they've been programmed to recognize a particular caller ID, though any reasonable voice mailbox will have a password as well. However, one fraudster managed to crack the voice mailbox of celebrity socialite Paris Hilton in 2004 by calling up as a technical support person and obtaining Hilton's password with a con game. This is known as a "pretext" scam, and it's easier to get away with if the caller ID seems to be from someone who has the right to know.

It is possible to perform a "hard" trace on calls, ignoring caller ID, but it is troublesome to do, particularly because a call may be routed through several carriers. Although the government has been slow to address the issue, the US Federal Communications Commission has just demanded caller records from a number of the websites that offer caller ID spoofing.

* Along these lines, I just got another variation on phishing scams. It was a "Happy Anniversary From Earthlink" message that wanted me to log into my Earthlink email account to get some sort of anniversary greeting. Of course, it had nothing resembling my name on it anywhere. Actually, I think I've got these things before, but I always blew them away without thinking about it, never bothering to wonder if they were bogus. It was just too much of a pointless waste of time in the first place. Still, given the extreme persistence of phishing scammers in figuring out new dodges, I worry that one of these days they'll nail me with one.



* SOLAR BLINDS: An interesting IEEE SPECTRUM article from a few months back ("Juice From Solar Concentrate" by Prachi Patel-Predd, October 2005) reports on a "hybrid" solar-power system developed by Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in Troy, New York. The RPI design is based on strings of plastic pyramids, 25 centimeters (10 inches) on each side, hung like blinds between an interior and exterior wall of full-height windows. Sunlight shines into the base of each pyramid, to be focused through a Fresnel lens at the apex into a high-efficiency gallium-arsenide multilayer photovoltaic (PV) cell, produced by Spectrolab INC of Sylmar, California. The PV cells can convert 30% of the sunlight into electric power.

Each string of pyramids is hung with four wires connected to the base corners of the pyramids, allowing the orientation of the pyramids to be controlled to track the sun. Each string also includes a plastic tube through which water is circulated, not only cooling the PV cells but providing hot water for the building. The sides of the pyramids are translucent, not transparent, so their orientation controls the amount of light coming into the room; maximized when the central axis of the pyramids is parallel to the window panes, minimized when it is perpendicular.

While the system seems relatively complicated, its multifunction capabilities make it appealing, and RPI researchers insist it is cost effective. Although the multilayer PV cells are expensive, using the pyramid solar-power concentrators means far fewer cells are needed to obtain the same power output as an array of the same area using cheap, low-efficiency silicon PV cells.

* At the other end of sophistication in solar-power systems (of a sort), BBC.com reports that villages in Tanzania are now using the sun to purify their drinking water. Their water supply is unsafe, and traditionally they have boiled it, but that is troublesome and costs valuable wood or cooking stove fuel. Now they simply put the water in transparent plastic bottles and put it on a black roof or similar panel, to soak up solar ultraviolet and heat. After a day in the sun, it's safe to drink. Only a few villages are using the scheme at present, An official with an aid organization say that villagers are a bit suspicious of leaving their water lying out in the sun for a day, lest somebody steal the bottles or tamper with their contents. Experience should demonstrate if these are real concerns, and if not the scheme is likely to be widely adopted in Tanzania and other sub-Saharan African countries.

It's interesting to think if there are some optimizations that could be made to the bottles to make them more effective, for example making the back black so it would absorb sunlight, or making them in a "brick" configuration that would be easier to lay out on a panel. Liquids could be sold using such bottles in these countries, increasing their usefulness to consumers.


[MON 27 MAR 06] WELCOME TO 2006 (3)

* WELCOME TO 2006 (3): The notion of building mechanical humans has been around for a long time, going back at least to some of the elaborate "clockwork androids" built in the 18th century. Of course, by 1950 this notion had evolved to belief that in the near future mechanical humans would be built that approximated the real thing -- and that was another thing that never happened.

Humanoid robots have been built as props for decades, and the only evolution they have undergone is to be more sophisticated props. We actually have robots that can climb stairs, and it's a measure of how difficult the matter is that such a feat seems impressive. Making a machine that can simulate the motions of a human is a challenge, but not the real obstacle. The trouble is making such a machine much smarter than a cockroach. In the early days of "artificial intelligence (AI)", researchers were making rapid progress, writing programs to play chess or perform algebraic analysis. However, as it turned out they were climbing a tree to get to the Moon: the rapid progress quickly ended.

Tasks that involved formal logic, like playing games of strategy and doing algebra, were relatively easy, while things like navigating around a house -- a task any cat handles with no difficulty -- were hard. The supposedly "higher" functions were much simpler than the "lower" functions. Trying to reduce the house to a digital computer model and then embodying the knowledge needed to navigate around the house in a set of rules that covered all the bases proved a massive demand on computing power.

Subtler approaches have been considered, for example "neural net" systems that allow a machine to learn from example instead of brute-force programming, but so far no AI is much smarter than an insect. Indeed, some workers in the field have turned against the notion of "artificial intelligence" as such, thinking that a less grand approach to smarter machines is more productive, and believe that the whole idea of a humanlike machine is a diversion.

Robots have advanced over the decades, but not exactly along the lines predicted. Factory robots are now commonplace, but they just perform a set of generally predictable motions -- modern factory robots are capable of handling "exceptions", if only in their limited domain of operation -- and 1950s animated cartoons could invent automated factories not so far off the real thing. Remote-controlled robots are also in increasing use, but they're really just an extension of a human operator, though they are capable of taking care of themselves to a degree. The US Spirit and Opportunity Mars Exploration Rovers do have a high degree of autonomy -- they have to, it takes minutes for commands to get to them on Mars and for feedback to get back to Earth -- but are carefully programmed for each sequence of operations, and if they get into a jam, the operations team back on Earth has to go into a huddle to carefully design an escape plan.

Mars Exploration Rover

To be sure, robot aircraft are now in increasingly common use, and the most sophisticated can in principle perform missions according to a preprogrammed plan without human intervention. However, that much was being done as far back as the Vietnam War, with "Lightning Bug" reconnaissance drones flying to a target, taking pictures, then turning around to come back home for recovery; of course, modern robot aircraft can perform far more complicated missions. The military also believes that they will have robot ground vehicles for hauling cargo in a few years.

Despite these advances, anybody from 1950 looking for humanoid robots in the 21st century would be disappointed to find that we haven't been able to do much more than build toys at various levels of sophistication. As toys, there does seem to be a potential market for such products, and once there's a market for them they are likely to become more sophisticated, useful, and less toylike. However, nobody's expecting them to become convincingly humanlike at any time in the foreseeable future.

If the current state of robotics seems a letdown compared to dreams of Dr. Asimov's positronic robots, the disappointment somewhat misses the mark. What 1950 sci-fi writer predicted that we would eventually visit the planets with automated space probes? Certainly they wrote of spaceships with robot crews, but they never realized that was total overkill: smarts could be part of the spacecraft itself, and the smarts didn't have to even faintly approximate human intelligence, in reality being much more suggestive of a glorified clockwork automaton. That leads to the important point that while sci-fi writers of the past tinkered with the humanlike robots of the future, they almost completely failed to consider the staggering impact of the evolution of computing and automation -- a matter considered in the next part of this series. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* A SHORT HISTORY OF LIFE (9): The Carboniferious period, beginning 360 million years ago, was the first era of forests. They weren't much like forests we know today, being dominated by tree ferns, plus a wide range of other trees that haven't survived, at least in the form of trees, to the present. Some forms of lycopod trees appear particularly bizarre by modern standards. They have been referred to as "green scaly telephone poles"; they grew straight up without branches to terminate in one or more "pompoms" of long, whiplike leaves. They had sprawling root systems and very thick, scaly bark to support their height, since they weren't woody plants and were pulpy inside.

A forest of such lycopods could be compared to a grove of giant pipe cleaners. Other forms featured sets of branches that grew up into a canopy. They reproduced using cones, but the cones contained spores, not seeds. Other trees of the era were not so bizarre -- the pteridosperms looked like tree ferns, but they reproduced using seeds, not spores.

The amphibians thrived in the era, and led to the next generation of animals, the "amniotes", which reproduced using the "amniote egg", a neatly packaged environment for their offspring to grow through their larval stage and then hatch as little replicas of adults. No more going back to the water to spawn tadpoles. The first amniotes were the reptiles, which emerged later in the period. They were not so different from amphibians, the major distinction being that they hatched from their eggs fully formed, if of course not adult-sized, and without gills.


The Carboniferous also saw the introduction of flying insects. The best-known survivor from those days is the dragonfly, with its somewhat awkward wings. The wings are not all that aerodynamically efficient, as demonstrated by the noisy way dragonflies fly, and they can't be folded -- a trick later obtained by their close relatives, the damselflies. However, modern dragonflies are dwarfs compared to the biggest Carboniferous species, which had wingspans of up to 60 centimeters (2 feet). There are even more startling remains from the late Carboniferous of something that looked like a millipede but was 1.8 meters (6 feet) long, and scorpions bigger than 60 centimeters (2 feet). Why did bugs get so big? Different climate? Lack of competition? One interesting idea was that it was due to high atmospheric oxygen levels.

Although some types of fossils are hard to come by, we are economically dependent on fossils from the Carboniferous era. The lush vegetation of the era accumulated in great beds; the beds would be buried and turn into coal and oil. Some big lumps of coal can be carefully broken open to reveal well-preserved plant fossils. We tank up our cars on the remains of Carboniferous forests. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* CSI PETS: I find the fad generated by the multiple CRIME SCENE INVESTIGATION TV series amusing, partly it's because it's so inescapable: It seems that half the time I turn on TV in the evening, it's running CSI VEGAS or CSI MIAMI or CSI BOISE or such. I understand that it's created a rush of students enrolling in forensic science courses at universities. Real-world criminal forensics researchers find CSI exaggerated, but the appeal of the subject was demonstrated by an article in TIME ("Whodunit, Doggone It?" by Amanda Bower Davis, 30 January 2006) that focused on an unusual forensic science operation, the "Veterinary Genetics Laboratory (VGL)" at the University of California / Davis. It was set up in 1999 as a spin-off of the university's genetics lab, which specializes in investigating the lineages of horses. Police forensic labs don't have much capability to deal with animal evidence, and so many requests for help were coming in from law enforcement that the VGL was set up to handle them.

It might seem that genetic tracing of pets and livestock would have limited application to serious court cases, but the VGL has proven critical in solving major crimes. One involved a rape case in Iowa where the victim couldn't identify her assailant, but knew that her dog had urinated on his truck. The lab has analyzed samples from cases involving victims mauled by dogs, as well as cattle rustling. In 2001, a boy who had been sexually molested said that his assailant's dog had licked him during the attack. Confronted with DNA evidence, the molester pleaded guilty and got three years behind bars. In fact, suspects are so intimidated by DNA analysis that they will often confess when they are simply told that DNA tests have been ordered.

In 2005, the VGL worked on about 60 criminal cases, as well as about 40 from insurance companies trying to prove that animals were responsible for property damage, or from families trying to determine if the remains of an animal found on a road were from a beloved pet. Pets are actually fairly good subjects for genetic analysis. They are usually covered with fur that they tend to shed, and animals like dogs and particularly cats will groom themselves continuously, covering the fur with saliva that makes it much easier to analyze. The lab has devised species-specific reagents that can help prevent contamination from, say, a sneezing lab worker.

There are other private and university labs in the US that perform forensic testing of animals, but the VGL is in a league of its own. The lab isn't as full of flashy gadgetry that clutters the forensic labs on the CSI shows -- no real forensic lab is -- but the VGL has an impressive library of animal DNA samples, including 25,000 samples from dogs, 1.5 million from horses (of course, given the lab's origins), plus banks of samples from cows, goats, llamas, alpacas, and other domesticated animals. Still, though VGL is impressive, it may be a while before when can expect to see a CSI TV series about veterinary criminal investigation.



* DANES ONLINE: According to an article from BBC.com ("E-Revolution Forces Danes Online" by Ray Furlong), Denmark has embraced the online world with an enthusiasm that approaches intimidating: the Danish government is all but mandating that the citizenry go online to deal with the state.

The Danish government was a pioneer in moving public services online. Parents can check on the availability of kindergarten slots for their tots, or update health insurance. If citizens need to talk to an insurance company or a government office, all their documentation is online and easily accessible. Now the government is going a step further. As of February 2006, all companies dealing with the state have to submit invoices electronically. That saves the government about 100 million euro, a big savings in a country with only five million people. Government officials claim that the efficiencies of going online will benefit the companies as well, and some agree: the popular Co-Op supermarket chain has introduced a new "swipe card" scheme to allow state officials to easily perform bulk purchases for schools, hospitals, kindergartens, and other institutions. However, other firms complain about having to jump through hoops to deal with the government electronically.

The state is also requiring all Danish residents to designate a single bank account for dealings with the government, with direct deposits to the account replacing check or cash payments for benefits, pensions, and so on. The "go-online" push certainly seems efficient, but also somewhat heavy-handed. There have been some protests, with critics suggesting that it makes life difficult for the computer illiterate -- particularly older people who are intimidated by advanced technology. Whatever the misgivings, Denmark is going ahead with the experiment, and other nations in the EU are taking notes.



* FAST TRACK TO ORBIT: One of the long-time dreams of spaceflight advocates is the idea of being able to launch spacecraft on demand, with a minimum of overhead. We fly jumbo jets costing tens of millions of dollars on a regular basis; why not space launch vehicles and satellites? According to an article in AIR FORCE MAGAZINE ("Responsive Space" by Jeremy Singer, March 2006), the US Air Force Space Command would like to do just that, but it's a real challenge. The vision, known as "responsive space", envisions that warfighters will be able to call up, request, and obtain new space assets on demand, with a minimum of delay. This isn't the way things happen right now, and achieving this vision is going to take work.

One of the first goals in responsive space is the development of small, simple spacecraft, with launch weights from 45 to 385 kilograms (100 to 850 pounds). A typical contemporary Milstar communications satellite, in contrast, runs to 4,500 kilograms (10,000 pounds), and heavier satellites have been flown; there is no way such big spacecraft can be designed, built, stockpiled, and checked out for flight on a short-term basis. Modifying a big spacecraft for a new mission would take years, while a modular small spacecraft might be adapted for a new mission in months, even weeks if modular payloads are available.

The new small satellites will also be able to go into service almost immediately on arrival into orbit, instead of going through the months-long checkout period that a Milstar requires. They will not be designed for long orbital lifetimes, which would further escalate costs, and long life wouldn't be necessary anyway if the spacecraft were launched to support a specific short-term operational requirement. The fact that current big satellites are expensive ends up making them even more expensive, since it encourages the operators to add as much functionality as possible. It will be easier to keep cost inflation down on a semi-expendable small satellite. Want more functionality? Consider it for the next satellite. Some missions, such as missile early warning, strategic communications, and strategic intelligence, will always require big expensive satellites; but quick-response small satellites will be able to plug gaps for tactical forces, supplementing the big satellites.

The Air Force has long used "smallsats" to validate technology for larger spacecraft, but the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) and other defense space research organizations are now working on a series of "TacSats" that will evolved into operational tactical small satellites. The TacSat initiative was begun in 2003, with the goal of conducting a complete space mission for $15 million USD. TacSat intelligence and communications will be routed directly to field commanders user using the Internet Protocol.


The "TacSat-1" demonstrator will be launched in mid-2006. It will have a launch mass of about 109 kilograms (240 pounds), and will carry a payload consisting of an infrared camera and low-resolution optical camera. "TacSat-2" will be launched in the spring of 2007. It will have a launch mass of about 300 kilograms (660 pounds) and will carry a color camera with a resolution of about a meter. "TacSat-3" may be launched by the summer of 2007. It will feature a Raytheon-built hyperspectral imager, capable of picking out targets hidden by camouflage and characterizing terrain for troop movements. "TacSat-4" may fly in 2008, and will carry a communications and datalink payload. It will be at the large end of the scale for TacSats, with a launch weight of about 360 kilograms (800 pounds). Commanders will use the TacSats in field exercises, receiving inputs over existing ground support systems.

Work is underway to develop a standard TacSat bus for operational systems. A program office, the "Joint Warfighting Space Program Office (JWSPO)", will be set up in 2008 at Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico to handle acquisition of TacSats and related systems, such as "near-space" high-altitude airships. The TacSat program has gone well so far, and the US Congress is supportive, one influential Congressman calling TacSats "the best thing we have going for us ... my only regret is that we have so few of them."

* Of course, space launch vehicles are another major component of the responsive space equation. Currently, USAF Space Command has to plan launches about two years in advance; responsive space means cutting the leadtime to days. The Air Force and the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has been working on a separate but related program named "Force Application & Launch from the Continental United States (FALCON)" to develop cheap, quick-response boosters, with a cost of no more than $5 million USD.

One of the most visible efforts in FALCON is the "Falcon-1" booster being developed by Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) of El Segundo, California, founded by Internet entrepreneur Elon Musk. Falcon-1, which will cost $6.7 million USD per launch, will put TacSat-1 into orbit. FALCON is also funding a company named "AirLaunch", which is developing a "QuickReach" booster that will be launched after being rolled out the back of a C-17 cargolift aircraft. DARPA had wanted to develop their own aircraft-based small satellite launcher, named "Responsive Access, Small Cargo and Affordable Launch (RASCAL)", but the cost of developing a custom aircraft was too much and RASCAL was canned in 2005. QuickReach, in contrast, uses an existing aircraft asset. A third company named Microcosm is developing their "Scorpius" low-cost launcher.

In addition, responsive space means launching a booster even in poor weather, a practice unthinkable at present. Similarly, a single launch failure should not ground the fleet for months or years; launches will continue while the failure is analyzed. If the Space Command is serious about supporting the warfighter, satellites will have to be put up quickly, and if one fails, a replacement will have to be in orbit shortly thereafter. Anything less will not be adequate to support troops engaged in combat.


[MON 20 MAR 06] WELCOME TO 2006 (2)

* WELCOME TO 2006 (2): Back in the 1920s, the American researcher Robert H. Goddard had published technical articles on the possibility of sending rockets into space. Although his actual writings were carefully phrased to sound level-headed, the news media picked up on them and mocked the "Moon Man" severely. Who could think of flying to the Moon? However, by the 1950s, science-fiction pulps and the like had turned the public around: obviously, someday people were going to travel to the Moon, and following the development of long-range rockets during World War II, it seemed likely to happen within a few decades.

Well, yes and no. Now imagine chatting with someone from 1950, with the conversation going something like this:

"Did we ever fly to the Moon?"

"Yes, the USA put a dozen people on the Moon's surface for short periods in the late 1960s and early 1970s."

"Wow! What happened then?"

"Nothing. We gave up on it." Don't even ask if we put people on Mars.

In hindsight, the view from 1950 suffered from two big failures of understanding. The first was the failure to understand that space exploration would prove more difficult, and more to the point much more expensive, than anyone had considered. A trip to the Moon and back was a much harder than building and flying an advanced aircraft or submarine, and there was no proportionate military, scientific, or commercial justification for doing so. In fact, from the point of view of 2006 it's a bit surprising that we went to the Moon at all, and the only reason it was done was because of the political rivalry between the US and the USSR.

The second big failure of understanding was the lack of recognition of the impact of automation. One of the amusing twists of the vision of future past was belief that robots of humanlike capability would be available within a lifetime or two, while the impact of simpler systems of automation was almost completely ignored. Now we know that building a robot that can even roughly approximate a human is a monstrous task -- more on this later -- while computing smarts are almost everywhere.

Practical use of space at this time is effectively the domain of unmanned spacecraft: spy satellites, communications satellites, navigation satellites, weather satellites, astronomy and other science satellites, and planetary probes. Indeed, the results obtained by planetary probes are downright spectacular. We've obtained breathtaking images of all the planets except Pluto -- a probe is on its way there even as I write -- as well as dramatic pictures of comets and asteroids.

Jupiter close-up

* The big disappointment in hindsight is that manned space turned out to be less important than anyone visualized. Given what robot probes can do, are astronauts any more than tourists? Of course, turning that logic on its head suggests that the near-term future of humans in space may lay precisely in tourism, and a number of private companies are working on suborbital spacecraft, which may lead eventually to orbital spacecraft and even a commercial space station, a "hotel in the sky". It is worth adopting a "wait and see" attitude since commercial space doesn't have a good track record, though such ventures have become much more credible than they were a few decades ago.

Whatever the difficulties over the short term, a good case can be made for sending people into space. Dr. Gerard K. O'Neill, the guru of space colonization in the 1970s and 1980s, pointed out that space is not empty: there are vast resources there for exploitation, including boundless solar power, with all mineral resources required at hand in asteroids and other heavenly bodies. An economy based on the entire Solar System would necessarily operate on a scale much larger than that of an economy based on the Earth. Thinking really big would become standard operating procedure. We could build our own artificial worlds using such resources. Instead of sending a cramped spaceship to the Outer Planets, we could build an entire self-contained space city that could take a few decades to make the trip in comfort.

The difficulty is that there is no way to colonize space without losing our shirts at the present time. There may well come a time when space travel will pay for itself and then some, but it's impossible to say if that will be 50 years or 250 years from now. For the present, however, unmanned space is thriving, and with improvements in miniaturization and, hopefully, cheaper launch vehicles, has every expectation of continuing to thrive. In the meantime, we can lay the foundations for greater ambitions beyond the Earth and gradually acquire the tools needed to make them happen. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* A SHORT HISTORY OF LIFE (8): The Devonian period, beginning 410 million years ago saw the introduction of fish that we would unambiguously perceive as fish. Cartilaginous fishes -- with a skeletal structure of soft cartilage instead of hard bone -- made their appearance in the form of sharks. We tend to think of sharks as fearsome, and with good reason, but the real terrors of the era were the "placoderms", which could run to up to 15 meters (50 feet) in length and had jawbones with bladed edges and fangs. Their fossils are often found during excavations of shale deposits in the city parks of Cleveland, Ohio. By late in the Devonian, true bony fish were in business as well.

placoderm skull

Trilobites were still around in the Devonian, but their wild diversity of forms suggest that they were having a much harder time of it. Some could roll up into an armored ball; others had extensive networks of spines; still others had eyestalks, which they could have used as "periscopes" to allow them to see what was going on while hiding under the seafloor.

The invasion of land accelerated during the Devonian. Ferns and horsetails populated the dry earth, to be joined by "progymnosperms" -- the first real trees, with wooden trunks and fan-shaped leaves. Seeds emerged, providing a more reliable means of reproduction than spores or branching off runners. Land vegetation was no longer sparse and puny, and some paleontologists like to speak of a "Devonian explosion" of land plant forms, along the lines of the Cambrian explosion of marine invertebrates.

Centipedes, millipedes, and flightless insects wandered through the primitive forests. Late in Devonian, the first land vertebrates -- amphibians known as "tetrapods" -- were crawling up on the land. They weren't so much different from modern salamanders, equipped with some features of fish, in particular gills. They also didn't lay hard-shell eggs and had to go back to the water to spawn, with the eggs emerging as larva -- in exactly the same way a modern frog spawns its eggs in water that then emerge into tadpoles. The tetrapods were clearly an outgrowth of the "lobe-finned fishes", or fishes with muscular belly fins, similar to the modern coelacanth -- another "living fossil", in fact thought extinct for hundreds of millions of years until a number were caught from deep waters in the Indian Ocean during the 20th century.

Obviously some lobe-finned fish picked up the trick of being able to crawl out onto land for short periods -- a scheme hinted at by the modern "mudskipper" of Southeast Asia, which is a fish with frog eyes that can crawl around on the land for a surprising length of time. Another modern hint is the "lungfish", which can't go onto land, but which can surface and breathe in air -- a useful trick for a creature that lives in brackish water.


Where the lungfish of the past got the lungs is another interesting question. Traditionally, the belief was that lungs were derived from "swim bladder" of bony fishes. The cartilaginous fishes don't have any means of maintaining neutral buoyancy and tend to sink; this isn't a problem with rays and mudsharks, which live on the bottom anyway, but other sharks have to keep moving at all times to stay afloat using underwater "lift". The bony fishes improved on this scheme by obtaining a swim bladder that could be filled with air or deflated to maintain constant buoyancy. The swim bladder led in turn to lungs. More recently, this scenario has been challenged, the suggestion being that lungs led to the swim bladder. In the alternate view, fish that lived in brackish learned to take gulps of air and gradually acquired lungs that made the process easier. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* POWER FROM TIDES & WAVES: Although efforts to obtain power from the action of waves and tides has long been a marginal sort of thing, according to a BUSINESS WEEK article ("Here Comes Lunar Power" by Adam Aston, 6 March 2006), there's quite a bit of activity in the field at present.

The Gristedes supermarket on Roosevelt Island, in the East River between Manhattan and Queens, is now installing a new supplementary power system in the river just off the shore. Six underwater turbines will spin at 35 RPM -- slow enough to allow fish to stay out of harm's way -- as the tides flow back and forth, providing a peak power of 200 kilowatts, about half the demand of the supermarket.

This is clearly a form of hydropower, though it's much more of a Zen approach than dams and hasn't been getting a lot of attention. Advocates say that the lack of attention needs to change, since the power is there, the technology is available, and the approach is environmentally very benign. An official at the US Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), the power industry's research and development organization: "Offshore wave and tidal power are where wind was 20 years ago, but they'll come of age faster." EPRI believes that 120 megawatts of power could be obtained from such sources by 2010. That's not a big amount relative to the energy requirements of the United States, but it's considerable in itself, enough to power a small city.

About two dozen firms worldwide are pursuing tidal and wave power. One of the pioneers is Ocean Power Delivery (OPD) LTD of Edinburgh, Scotland, which builds the "Pelamis" wave power system. Each Pelamis unit consists of a 105-meter (400-foot) long jointed tube that builds up pneumatic pressure to drive onboard turbines as it rocks in the waves. It is not only a clean source of power, it is visually unobtrusive and not likely to create the same sort of "not in my backyard" resistance as offshore wind farms.

Pelamis wave-power system

Three Pelamis units are to be set up offshore of Portugal this summer to provide 2.5 megawatts of electricity. OPD hopes to scale up this installation to 30 units. Similar schemes use coastal installations to obtain power from waves breaking on the shore, or buoys that bob up and down in the waves.

EPRI estimates that the total potential of tidal and wave power along the shores of the US is about 2,300 terawatt-hours, eight times the capacity of US hydropower systems -- which currently supply about 7% of US demand, making them the most important renewable energy sources at present. Tidal and wave power systems are cheaper than dams, though they are prone to "biofouling" by sea organisms such as barnacles and have to be kept clean. One nice feature of such "lunar power" systems -- as some advocates refer to them -- is that they are a very predictable source of energy. Says an academic researcher working in the field: "You can't know if the wind will be up in an hour, but you can predict the tide a thousand years from now."

Official US government interest is only starting to increase, but some of the startup companies working on the technology are moving ahead right now regardless. Verdant Power of Arlington, Virginia, which installed the tidal turbine system in the East River, plans to set up a total of 300 turbines if the pilot project works out.

* VERTICAL TURBINES: In somewhat related news, an article in THE ECONOMIST ("Turning Wind Power On Its Side", 11 March 2006), discussed a new vertical wind turbine design being promoted by TMA, a startup company in breezy Cheyenne, Wyoming, just up the highway from me.

Vertical wind turbines are not news as such; the Persians were using them thousands of years ago, and they are now in commercial use for wind power generation. A Finnish inventor named S.J. Savonius developed one of the first modern wind turbine designs in 1922, with the Savonius turbine simply consisting of one or two or three scoops mounted around a vertical axis. It's not an efficient design, but it is fairly common for some applications: the anemometer -- the familiar wind meter -- is a Savonius turbine, and Savonius turbines are also used to power buoys and sometimes motorized advertising displays, where their toylike appearance helps draw attention to the ads. In 1927, a French inventor named George Darrieus developed another vertical wind turbine, featuring two curved blades in a bowed configuration often compared to an eggbeater. It has been put to some use, but is nowhere near as popular as conventional propeller turbines, and apparently the Darrieus turbine doesn't scale up well.

The TMA design is a variation on the Savonius concept, using two scoops in the form of half-cylinders. The reason the Savonius design is inefficient is because the wind drives the scoops by blowing into their concave side, but also resists their motion by blowing against their convex side; simple considerations of drag ensures that the driving force is greater than the resisting force, but it still wastes wind power. The TMA design gets around this limitation by arranging three fixed vertical airfoils around the mill axis that direct the wind into a cyclone spinning around the axis, increasing drive and reducing resistance.

In fact, TMA claims that their turbine can achieve efficiencies of up to 45%, as compared to maximum efficiencies of 40% for propeller-type turbines. Propeller-type turbines also have to be "feathered" in high winds lest they tear themselves apart, but TMA says their design can run flat out in winds of up to 110 KPH (68 MPH). Finally, company officials say their product is less visually obtrusive and, because the scoops spin tightly around the axis instead of sweeping widely through space as does a propeller, is less of a threat to birds and bats.

A British consortium named Eurowind Developments is interested in the TMA turbine for deployment offshore, with Eurowind envisioning giant turbines that can produce 10 megawatts each; one of the other advantages of the TMA scheme is that it scales up much more easily than the Darrieus design. The TMA turbine is also relatively easy to build, not requiring the careful contours of propeller turbine blades, and the turbine blade elements can be prefabricated in sections for transport to a site for assembly, simplifying construction. If the scheme works out, vertical turbines may start offering some real competition to propeller turbines.



* PLEASE STAND BY: As considered in an article in THE ECONOMIST ("Pulling The Plug On Standby Power", 11 March 2006), it comes as a bit of a surprise to realize that the clock on a microwave oven may be burning up more electricity than the oven does itself. It shouldn't be such a surprise: the oven itself is only used intermittently, but the clock is on all the time.

Any prosperous home is full of electronic gadgetry that simply sits there soaking up energy through its electric cord even when it's not doing anything all that useful. At the beginning of the year, the California Energy Commission put its foot down and specified limits on how much "standby power" an electronic device could draw. It is the first such legislation anywhere in the world.

The exercise owes much to Alan Meier, a staff scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) in Berkeley, California. About a decade ago, he got to wondering how much power his gadgets ate up, with his curiosity leading to a 1998 LBNL report that estimated it was 5% of total residential electricity consumption. That may not sound like much, but given the overall scale, that amounts to the output of 18 power plants. Meier's report was theoretical, based on assumptions. To get a better idea, Meier and his LBNL colleagues did a field study, rigorously measuring standby power draw, and found that for some devices it was up to 10%. Similar studies in other countries have come to much the same conclusion. What was ironic was that the studies showed much of the wasted power was completely unnecessary: a TV from one manufacturer would have a much lower level of standby power than a comparable TV from another. Meier concluded that there was no need for an electronic device to use more than a watt of standby power, and that it would not be technically difficult to reduce overall standby power consumption by half or even two-thirds.

One of the biggest power wasters is the power supply. Old-fashioned "linear" power supplies use a hefty transformer to step down the AC electricity from the wall plug, which is then rectified into DC and filtered, with a power transistor essentially burning up the excess DC power to give the voltage level needed by the circuitry. A smarter approach is to use a switching power supply, which pulses on and off to gate the needed amount of power to the circuitry. A "switcher" wastes far less power and is much more compact. Switchers are nothing new, they've been around for decades -- but only about a fifth of the power supplies in consumer gear are switchers. Linear supplies are cheaper, and the manufacturer doesn't have a reason to care about the cost of electricity to the consumer.

Various nations have implemented programs to mandate more efficient electronic gadgetry. The best-known is "Energy Star", which began in the US in 1992 and is now common to a number of countries. Energy Star is voluntary; it sets power level guidelines and any device that meets them gets to wear an Energy Star label.

The Paris-based International Energy Agency adopted Dr. Meier's 1-watt recommendation in 1999, with Australia implementing it (on a voluntary basis) in 2000. The scheme went into practice in 2002 and most products are expected to meet the 1-watt standard by 2012. California was the first government to make the 1-watt limit mandatory. The Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) has objected, saying the voluntary schemes worked well enough, but it seems the CEA is fighting the tide. If California's experiment works out, consumer electronics manufacturers can expect to see more of the same in the future.



* TAMLS IN DEVELOPMENT: As discussed in an article from SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN ("Little Green Molecules" by Terence J. Collins & Chip Walter, March 2006), modern society is heavily dependent on the chemical industry, but chemical manufacturing has come at the price of production of pollutants that contaminate water and soil. Partly the problem is one of redistribution: lead is a moderately common element, but before the industrial revolution it was sequestered in isolated deposits where few organisms had to deal with it. Now lead -- as well as other toxins such as arsenic, cadmium, and mercury -- has been widely dispersed through the environment by industrial processes. Chemical industries have also used otherwise harmless elements to produce synthetic molecules that don't mesh well with the environment, and only reluctantly degrade into harmless forms.

Considerable work has been done to reduce the output of pollutants from chemical plants, with a new field of "green chemistry" emerging to deal with the problem. In the 1980s, Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, established the "Institute for Green Oxidation Chemistry" to investigate more environmentally friendly chemical processes.

CMU researchers at the institute were very interested in discovering alternatives to the use of chlorine in paper processing and water cleaning, wondering if natural oxidants such as hydrogen peroxide (H2O2) and oxygen might do such tasks more cleanly. The problem with that approach was that hydrogen peroxide and oxygen usually need "catalysts" to do an effective job. Catalysts are materials that promote chemical reactions without being consumed in those reactions. The CMU researchers developed a class of "designer" catalyst molecules, named "tetra-amido macrocyclic ligands (TAMLs)" that imitate enzymes, the protein-derived catalysts used by living things, that work with hydrogen peroxide and oxygen to degrade a wide range of troublesome pollutants, such as pesticides and dyes.

* In nature, enzymes known as "peroxidases" catalyze reactions using hydrogen peroxide. For example, the fungi that grow on fallen trees use peroxidases along with hydrogen peroxide to break down the lignin in the trees so it can be digested. Another family of enzymes, known as "cytochrome p450s", catalyze reactions using oxygen -- "oxidation reactions". Cytochrome p450s are found in the liver, where they promote oxidation reactions to break down toxins that have been inhaled or swallowed.

Chemists were very interested in developing catalysts that could mimic peroxidases or cytochrome 450s, but initial efforts in the early 1980s proved difficult. It was realized early on that such "green" catalysts would need to consist of an iron atom surrounded by a matrix of "organic" (carbon-based) molecular structures. The entire molecule would need to be very robust, so it could promote reactions with hydrogen peroxide or oxygen and not be torn apart itself. However, it could not be so robust that it would persist in the environment and become a potential pollutant itself.

After considerable trial-and-error effort, the CMU researchers came up with TAMLs. They consist of an iron atom at the core, surrounded by a square arrangement of four nitrogen atoms. The nitrogen atoms are bonded to the iron atom through strong "covalent" bonds, involving a sharing of electrons; in such a configuration, the nitrogen atoms are referred to as "ligands" of the iron atom. The four ligands were then surrounded by an organic ring called a "macrocycle". The design of the molecule focused on the use of carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, and hydrogen, while atoms such as chlorine or heavy metals were avoided to reduce the risk of generating toxic breakdown products.

It took 15 years of effort, but in the end the CMU group had a class of synthetic molecules that could mimic the work of natural enzymes, while being much smaller. A typical TAML has a molecular weight of about 500 atomic mass units (AMUs, essentially giving the mass in terms of protons or neutrons), while even a small peroxidase has a molecular weight of about 40,000 AMUs. TAMLs are much easier and cheaper to synthesize than enzymes. They are also more versatile than natural enzymes, which evolved to perform specific tasks. About 20 different flavors of TAMLs have been synthesized, each with different, well-understood properties. Some, known as "hunters", simply target and lock onto specific toxins or pathogens to allow them to be recognized. Others are designed to tear apart and destroy their targets. Still others selectively attack parts of their targets.

Exactly how TAMLs do their job is still a bit mysterious. In a solid state, the iron atom at the core of a TAML is not only surrounded by a square of four nitrogen atoms, it also has a water molecule connected as a ligand to the plane of the four nitrogen atoms. When dissolved in water, a second water ligand ends up attached on the opposite side of the plane. These water ligands are only loosely bonded to the iron atom, and so they are easily replaced by hydrogen peroxide ligands. The hydrogen peroxide ligand quickly releases a water molecule (H2O), leaving behind an oxygen ligand. This arrangement is called a "reactive intermediate (RI)".

Oxygen is much more "electronegative" than iron, which has the effect of shifting the electrons in the covalent bond between the oxygen and iron atoms toward the oxygen atom and making the iron atom more positively charged -- so positively charged that it can extract electrons from oxidizable molecules in the solution. The exact details of how the RI performs these oxidation reactions is not yet understood, but it is known that if highly electronegative atoms are built into the head and tail of the TAML, they pull still more electric charge away from the iron atom, making the TAML more reactive.

* Work is now underway to evaluate TAMLs for commercial use. In one test, TAMLs and peroxide were used to clean up a simulated bioterror attack, which involved dispersal of a robust but harmless bacteria. Only a tiny fraction of a percent of the bacteria survived the test. In other tests, TAMLs proved highly effective at reducing pollutants in the outflow from wood pulp mills. In a particularly interesting set of experiments, TAMLs were used to synthesize polymers with properties similar to polyurethane, using soybean oil as a feedstock. Another application being investigated is the use of TAMLs in laundry detergents.

TAMLs are still not quite ready for commercial use. More research needs to be conducted to demonstrate that they do much more environmental good than harm, and there is also the issue of synthesizing them in a cost-effective fashion. Chemical industries are reliant on established processes, and industry executives need to perceive that TAMLs will provide an economic advantage before committing to the capital investments needed to scrap the old ways and adopt the new. However, if TAMLs can be shown to have much lower environmental impact than traditional processes, then regulations that impose costs on "dirty" chemical processes will give TAMLs a distinctive leg up.

* GOLD CURE: The ancient alchemists were fascinated with gold, not only trying to convert lead into gold -- and why not, since as far as they could see the two metals were much the same except for color -- but also using elixirs based on gold in their search for eternal life. The actual results were generally to reduce the lifespans of those who took them. However, as pointed out in an article in THE ECONOMIST ("Gold Fingered", 4 March 2006), since the 1930s gold-based drugs have been used with some effectiveness in treating "autoimmune diseases" such as rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, and juvenile diabetes, in which the body's immune system has decided to attack various components of its own host body. Such drugs could take months to take effect and could have nasty side-effects. Nobody had any idea of how the drugs worked.

Now a team at the Harvard Medical School under Dr. Brian DeDecker may have a clue. The Harvard researchers had been working on drugs that could interfere with the operation of "MHC class II" proteins. These proteins are carried by special "antigen-presenting cells" that obtain fragments of invading pathogens to present them to "lymphocyte" cells that then go attack the pathogen -- much as if the lymphocytes were "bloodhounds" given a smell of a target, which they then go hunt down. In autoimmune diseases, the lymphocytes are given the wrong target, and since the MHC class II proteins are a major component in the workings of the antigen-presenting cells, the Harvard team thought it might be useful to figure out how to interfere with the operation of these proteins.

They tried 30,000 different compounds without much luck, then tested two drugs that had been developed for other ailments. They seemed to do the job. The researchers noticed that the two drugs had something in common: they both contained platinum. DeDecker says that he was surprised: "We were looking for a fancy, complex organic molecule and found something simple instead." After getting over being baffled, they went on to test other precious or "noble" metals, and found that palladium and gold worked as well -- giving some hint as to how the old gold-based drugs actually worked. Right now, all the Harvard team has is a hint, since they don't really know how the precious metals interfere with MHC class II proteins. They do know that the metals work fast; unraveling the precise mechanism may lead to better treatments for autoimmune diseases. Research continues.


[MON 13 MAR 06] WELCOME TO 2006 (1)

* WELCOME TO 2006 (1): POPULAR SCIENCE had a series of articles titled "Where's My Neat Stuff?" that asked the question: "What happened to all the cool things that everyone thought we'd have in the 21st century?" This is a question I find interesting, since I crammed myself on science fiction when I was a kid in the 1960s, and wondered what the 21st century would really be like.

As it turns out, it's disappointing in some ways, exciting in others. The topics in this domain addressed by POPULAR SCIENCE included the classic flying car and the rocket packs. Of course, any good 1950s vision of the future would have everyone zooming around with flying cars of various sorts, one-man helicopters, and even rocket packs. Well, OK -- where are they?

To an extent, anyone with sense could have seen that particular vision was a nonstarter on the face of it. Would it really be useful to fly to commute across town? It's hard to believe anyone could have built a flying car that was as cheap and economical as a conventional ground vehicle. There was also the problem of safety: a car that breaks down or runs out of gas can pull over to the side of the road, but that's not so simple with a flying machine. The number of accidents with a sky full of aircraft would be horrendous.

As far as the one-man helicopters and related "flying platforms" went, there was quite a bit of tinkering with them in the 1950s and 1960s, and in the end they were judged to be amusing toys at best, with very little useful capability. They still persist in the ultralight personal aircraft field, but it's hard to see one in every garage. The rocket packs were a particularly ridiculous idea. They hardly looked controllable, and it was difficult to see what actual use they might be except as thrill rides. Bell Aircraft built a hydrogen-peroxide rocket pack in the 1960s, which acquired some fame when it was used in a James Bond movie, but it could only fly for about 30 seconds. The technology still lingers; an ingenious Mexican inventor named Juan Lozano built one himself and likes to take (necessarily) short jaunts around with it. Williams Research did built a jetpack using a small turbofan engine in the 1970s, but though it had much better endurance, it was still not very useful. Williams then went on to develop a one-person turbofan-powered flying platform, the "X-Jet", but it wasn't much more useful than the one-man helicopters, and all the X-Jets are now amusing museum pieces.

Williams X-Jet

* Then there was the vision of ever greater speed. Before World War II, the idea of flying much faster than, say, 800 KPH (500 MPH) was all but unimaginable. By the 1950s, however, aircraft performance was advancing by leaps and bounds, and it was perfectly reasonable to think that such performance advances would continue along a curve into the future. Supersonic airliners capable of Mach 2 would be available in the 1960s; hypersonic airliners -- Mach 5 or more -- would be available sometime later.

The British and French did develop a "supersonic transport (SST)", the Concorde, which was a beautiful technological marvel, and a commercial flop. Only a small number were built, and -- if development costs were factored in -- they never turned a profit. There were environmental and political problems, particularly with noise, but what really killed it was fuel consumption. It simply could not compete with fuel-efficient (and quiet) jumbo jetliners like the Boeing 747. There's still some interest in SSTs, but such machines as are on the drawing boards now are all basically supersonic executive jets, with a passenger capacity of a few dozen people at most. There are indeed people who see "time is money" and who are willing to pay a hefty premium as much to get there twice as fast. However, the size of that market is such that it could support the passenger loads of a supersonic executive jet -- but not a supersonic jumbo jet.

The quest for a faster jetliner shadowed the military's insistence on speed for combat aircraft; the need for civilian aircraft that could do Mach 2 was never very well established. In fact, the military's need for speed turned out to be overblown as well. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, anything less than Mach 2 performance for a frontline combat aircraft was seen as unacceptable. The reality turned out to be the general speed of combat aircraft hasn't increased since the 1960s. There was a fad for supersonic jet trainer designs in those days, but the latest jet trainers are still solidly subsonic. Speed's nice, but with a full warload a Mach 2 aircraft couldn't come close to doing Mach 2, and the supersonic performance in a trainer was gradually seen as not worth the additional cost.

There are other factors of importance besides speed. A 1960s jet fighter might have about the same raw speed as a 21st century jet fighter, but there would be little contest between the two. A modern jet fighter is more agile, has radar and other sensors with far greater range and discrimination, has highly effective countermeasures, and has missiles that all but guarantee a kill against an adversary lacking effective countermeasures and trapped in their envelope. Fighter pilots used to be able to out-turn anti-aircraft missiles, but now such missiles can pull 40 gees -- a stress load that would almost certainly crush a human being.

A modern jet fighter is much smarter -- a general feature of 21st century technology across the board, emphasized later in this series. As for raw speed, yes, there is a use for it, but above a certain speed it makes more sense to go into space. The US Air Force is considering removing nuclear warheads from some of their Minuteman ICBMS and putting precision-guided conventional weapons on them. The idea is that if some target -- say, a meeting of terrorists -- presented itself halfway around the world, the Minuteman would be able to hit that target before it went away. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* A SHORT HISTORY OF LIFE (7): The Silurian period, beginning 435 million years ago, picked up where the mass extinction of the late Ordovician left off. Although the trilobites had suffered badly, they survived, to be joined by another class of arthropods, the "eurypterids" or "sea scorpions". They weren't scorpions as we know them, being more closely related to horseshoe crabs, but they did have scorpionlike whip tails -- along with big lobsterlike claws. The sea scorpions are now seen as the "signature" creatures of the Silurian, attracting attention because of their large size, up to over a meter and a half (about five feet).


They were the biggest arthropods ever. It's not hard to see why arthropods never got any bigger, since the requirement that they molt their external exoskeletons is troublesome, and molting gets more troublesome as size increases. When competitors became widespread later, the penalties of molting would cut arthropods back down to size; the biggest we see today are the king crabs. In any case, the sea scorpions shared their environment with aquatic true scorpions -- a peculiar notion, since these days all scorpions are land animals.

At the beginning of the Silurian, the fish were along the same lines as they had been, with armored heads, no jaws, no skeletons, and simple tails for swimming -- though they did become more dartlike and hydrodynamically efficient. The fossil record seems to indicate they were more widespread. Late in the Silurian, "cephalaspids" arose that featured a significant innovation of left and right control fins, providing greater agility in swimming. The late Silurian also saw the introduction of the first "gnathostomes" or jawed fishes, a significant development: they would ultimately push the agnathans into their modern niche existence.

Later in the Silurian, scorpions and some other arthropods ventured out onto land. Plants began to make an appearance out of the sea, though the forms were primitive, initially along the lines of modern "bryophytes", the best-known being mosses -- no rigid structure, no vascular (circulatory) system, and reproduction by spores instead of seeds. They were, however, followed by "lycophytes" AKA "lycopods", plants like modern clubmosses that have a semi-rigid structure to allow them to stand upright, as well as vascular system to transport fluids and nutrients. However, they still reproduced using spores instead of seeds. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* WEB MICROFINANCE: There has been a lot of talk about the "digital divide" between computer-wired prosperous cultures and computerless poor cultures, but there are those who suggest the "divide" is not always as wide as it has been made out to be. An article from BBC.com ("Online Loans Help World's Poor" by Clark Boyd) shows how the internet has assisted in "microfinancing" poor folk in undeveloped nations -- from a farmer in Kenya who wants to buy a new cow to a seamstress in India who wants to set up shop.

The World Bank is focused on funding large development programs, but in 1997 Dennis Whittle, an official at the bank, was handed a directive to see what could be done to fund small development projects. After fumbling matters for a while, his team finally decided to send out a blanket request for proposals, receiving thousands from groups in 85 countries. The bank held a meeting in Washington DC for 500 finalists, and loaned out $5 million USD in funding. A South African woman who didn't make the cut surprisingly seemed optimistic, telling Whittle that people would fund her project if they knew about it. He got to wondering if he was still thinking too big, and quit the World Bank in 2000 to set up a private, Web-based microfinance program named "Global Giving".

Whittle says the idea is simple: "Global Giving just enables small-scale grassroots projects to match up with relatively small donors all around the world, who want to help them make a difference. The website is kind of like a combination of eBay and Amazon. And the idea is that qualified grassroots projects from around the world can be listed, as long as they meet certain qualifications. If you're a donor, and you're interested in HIV-AIDS, you can find projects to fund. If you're interested in projects in Kenya, you can find those. It's a clearing house." Donors have given as little as $10 USD and as much as $150,000 USD.

Global Giving is not unique; the "Kiva" website went online in 2005 to coordinate small loans to business ventures in undeveloped countries. Kiva, which means "Unity" or "Agreement" in Swahili, was the brainchild of a couple from California, an Africa activist named Jessica Flannery and her husband Matt, a computer programmer. Jessica saw the need for microfinancing and Matt was able to design a website to implement the concept. Flannery says: "Take a goat herder in Uganda. If you give him $25, that's two smaller goats. That's a great start. With $100, you can imagine more goats, perhaps a small shelter, stock up on goat feed. So, that little bit of money can really help set someone up."

As noted, Kiva handles loans, not donations; Matt Flannery, who calls it "peer-to-peer microfinance", says its operation is simple: "The way it works is you pay using PayPal. Then, you receive updates that are like blogs over e-mail and on the internet, and eventually you get paid back according to the performance of the entrepreneur." The lender doesn't get any interest on the loan, but the borrower pays a small fee to Kiva to defray website operating costs.

Global Giving and Kiva do run the risk of funneling money to scammers, but both operations say they work with local groups to determine that borrowers are on the level. So far, the concept seems to be working. Global Giving has disbursed millions of dollars for small projects around the world, and Kiva says there is never any problem in raising money for businesses promoted on the website.



* SECRET SKYSHIP: AVIATION WEEK magazine is sometimes referred to as AVIATION LEAK: the magazine's reporters are aggressive and willing to go the extra mile to find out about things people would prefer were kept quiet. The magazine lived up to its nickname in an article published in the 6 February 2006 issue ("Skunks Working" by Michael A. Dornheim) that revealed pictures of a new secret airship being developed by the Lockheed Martin Advanced Development Projects Group -- AKA "Skunk Works".

The military has been interested in airships for high-altitude surveillance and for long-range heavylift cargo hauling. The Lockheed Martin "P-791", built with company funds, is clearly a demonstrator for a cargo hauler. Witnesses who observed and photographed the maiden flight of the P-791 at the Palmdale, California airport on the morning of 31 January 2006 observed a vessel that looked like three advertising blimps merged together in parallel. There were twin tailfins top and bottom, a tailplane on each side, a gondola under the nose, twin ducted props in the rear, a ducted prop on each side to forward, and four air-cushion fans for ground handling.

military cargolifter based on P-791

The P-791 is a "hybrid" airship, a notion that goes back to the late 1950s. The P-791 is by far the most ambitious implementation of the concept, which envisions a machine that is somewhat heavier than air, with about 20% of the gross weight not nulled out by lifting gas, and the additional lift provided by aerodynamics -- the three-lobe structure of the P-791 provides enough lift to keep it flying at moderate speeds. The advantage of not completely zeroing out the weight is that, in principle, it makes the vehicle easier to handle on the ground. Airship accidents have traditionally been caused by winds during takeoff, landing, or ground handling. Landing and takeoff speeds of a hybrid airship are still low, permitting use of short strips.

The P-791 is intended for validating technologies for a cargo-hauler hybrid airship. An operational machine would be about four times bigger. [ED: It didn't happen, the military canceled its multiple airship programs. However, the work on such did not die out.]



* DRIVING BY INFRARED: Anyone driving at night, particularly on poorly illuminated roads or freeways, knows that darkness raises hazards at least a notch even under otherwise benign driving conditions. In the US, 20% of all fatal crashes happen between midnight and 6:00 AM, though less than 3% of the total traffic volume occurs during those hours. Headlights don't reach half as far as the necessary stopping distance at highway speeds.

According to an IEEE SPECTRUM article ("Safer Driving in The Dead of Night", by Willie D. Jones, March 2006), Mercedes and BMW are addressing this issue by offering infrared night vision systems (IR NVS) with their high-end cars -- the Mercedes S Class and the BMW 7 Series. IR NVS will not only extend night vision range by a factor of three or four, it will also provide discrimination, with a warm pedestrian or deer glowing brightly compared to the cooler roadway.

Cadillac did offer an NVS option for the 2000 DeVille, but so few bought it that the option was dropped in 2005. However, Mercedes and BMW believe that they can sell the idea, persuading customers to hand over an extra $2,000 to $3,000 USD for an IR NVS.

There are two classes of automotive IR NVS: near and far infrared. The Mercedes S Class (and the Toyota / Lexus LX470 SUV, since the 2004 model year) use a near IR system, operating at wavelengths just slightly longer than visible light. Near IR sensors are insensitive to thermal emissions; the system requires use of "bright" near IR bulbs that can throw out a long beam without blinding oncoming drivers -- though that does leave open the interesting question of what happens when two vehicles with IR bulbs approach each other. The near IR reflections are picked up by a CCD imager -- similar to that used in a digital video camera -- mounted behind the rearview mirror. The image is presented on an LCD flat-panel display in the dashboard above the steering wheel on the Mercedes S Class (and projected onto the windshield in the Lexus LX470).

BMW's Series 7 (and the Japanese-market Honda Legend luxury sedan) use far infrared, which can pick up thermal emissions. No IR bulbs are required for far infrared, since the targets can be sensed by their own heat emission using a sensitive infrared camera mounted on the front grille or above the bumper -- the windshield blocks out far infrared. The thermal image is displayed on the LCD display normally used for the "iDrive" control system on the BMW Series 7 (and on a pop-up dashboard display on the Legend). The BMW system is also integrated with a scheme that turns the headlights in the direction the wheel is turned to provide better vision on curves.

Both approaches have their advantages and disadvantages. The near infrared system is about four times cheaper, as well as simpler and much more compact. However, a far IR NVS has much longer range. Some think that either way an IR NVS is a bad idea, asserting that it just provides more whizzy gadgetry to distract the driver, and deluding some into believing that they can drive faster at night than is actually safe. Of course, engineers working on IR NVS defend it, pointing out that it is a useful enabling tool -- while conceding that drivers must understand the tool properly to make good use of it.

* REGENERATIVE DRIVING: The process of "regenerative heating" is often used in large power turbines. It involves using the exhaust heat of the turbine to "preheat" the turbine input gas, improving efficiency by making use of energy that would have otherwise been thrown away. Somewhat surprisingly, an article in POPULAR SCIENCE ("BMW's Hybrid Vision: Gasoline & Steam", March 2006) explains how BMW is tinkering with the use of regenerative heating for automobiles. The scheme actually uses two stages of regenerative heating: a high-temperature stage and a low-temperature stage. In the high-temperature stage:

The low-temperature stage is conceptually similar, but consists of a loop containing ethanol (grain alcohol), which boils at a low temperature. Its arrangement of heat exchanger systems complements that of the high-temperature stage:

BMW engineers claim the system will add 10% more power with 15% greater fuel economy. It is neat from a technical point of view, but also complicated, and right now it adds about 100 kilograms (220 pounds) to vehicle weight, which is regarded as unacceptable. BMW officials do believe that the idea is practical, and could be on the road in a decade.

* NANOCARS: Another interesting little article in the same issue ("Big Wheels For Little Cars") shows how a team of chemists at Rice University in Houston, Texas, has fabricated tiny "nanocars" only about 4 nanometers wide. They consist of an I-shaped frame made of hydrocarbon chains, linked to spherical "buckyball" carbon molecules that act as the wheels.


The nanocars are driven down a heated thin film of gold; the warm surface causes the wheels to spin. The next stage is to give them motors, for example ones that might be driven by laser. They could be used to carry molecular cargoes. Whether this is a practical idea or not, it certainly is an impressive and amusing feat of chemical nanoengineering.



* BATTLE FOR GLOBAL HEALTH (2): The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has been widely praised for its support of global health projects, but there have been complaints. At a high-profile conference set up by the BMGF in Atlanta in December 2004, Jimmy Carter got up and criticized the foundation for focusing on basic research at the expense of actually helping people in the present day. Others have more quietly complained that the BMGF hasn't always invested well or wisely in biomedical research programs, and is suffering from a bad case of rapidly creeping bureaucracy: "They've gone from being a very easy foundation to work with to one that's very complicated and bureaucratic."

Some blame Richard Klausner, who in 2002 was hired from his position as director of the US National Cancer Institute to run the BMGF global health program, a position he retained until 2005. Critics point to the BMGF's Grand Challenges in Global Health effort, which was set up to identify the research programs that could make the best use of BMGF money. The critics complain that the two years it took to make the selections was far too long, and also complain that the selections focused on the kind of research that the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) should be doing. There were also criticisms that few research programs in developing countries were selected. Klauser, who has plenty of defenders, has replied in effect that it would be impossible to please everyone.

Another issue raised is the Global HIV/AIDS Vaccine Enterprise, an effort to coordinate HIV/AIDS vaccine research among the various players. The NIH is a partner in the enterprise, having committed over $300 million USD to the "Center for HIV/AIDS Vaccine Immunology (CHAVI)"; the BMGF is also a big donor to CHAVI, with at least $360 million USD in pledges. The critics charge that CHAVI is getting an undue amount of attention, while less prominent research efforts remain starved for funding. A BMGF official replies that "there's a logic to going with success", and that the foundation is working with the NIH to make sure there is no duplication in funding.

* An immense amount of money is currently going into HIV/AIDS research. According to the UN AIDS program, annual spending on AIDS programs in developing countries went from $300 million USD per year in 1996 to $8 billion USD per year in 2005. In comparison, according to WHO the next two biggest killers, malaria and tuberculosis, get less than a billion dollars in funding each year.

However, people wonder how much the investment in HIV/AIDS research is actually accomplishing. The biggest player is the Global Fund. Like GAVI, the Global Fund has taken a "bottom up" approach, and works hard to ensure transparency and accountability in its actions. The Global Fund provides everything from anti-malarial mosquito nets to anti-HIV drugs, with implementation by local staffs and funding channeled through local financial institutions. The Global Fund monitors local efforts and will hold up funding if goals aren't being met. Countries find it hard to meet the goals, with the results that the resources don't get to those who need them. Global Fund officials have difficulties figuring out how to deal with local bureaucracies, with critics accusing the Fund of "sclerotic" procedures. Global Fund director Richard Feachem admits to the problems, saying of the organization's rules: "They were designed to prevent corruption, and they actually prevented procurement. We're doing a lot of changing in thinking." Other organizations have run into similar problems.

The US government's PEPFAR initiative has taken a more top-down approach, and has been noted for being perceptive in dealing with local issues. However, not everyone on the receiving end is happy with the conservative policies wired into PEPFAR, such as a requirement that recipient countries have programs to "explicitly discourage prostitution", as well as downplaying the use of condoms in favor of sexual abstinence. Many suggest that these ideas, however praiseworthy they may be in principle, are dangerously counterproductive in practice. A US Institute of Medicine is now reviewing PEPFAR and will make recommendations to improve the program.

Finally, there is the massive problem of trying to get everyone to work together. In 2005, UNAIDS issued a report on HIV/AIDS control efforts in Tanzania and Mozambique, including a "joke orgchart" of all the players involved, with dozens of boxes linked by a spiderweb of connections. UNAIDS has been hosting conferences and forming task forces to come up with better rules to keep everyone from stumbling over each other. There's a lot of effort now being exerted to improve global health; it is of absolute importance that the most be made of it.

* As a footnote to this series, while the big donor money goes to the big killer diseases -- HIV/AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis, and so on -- there are a lot of other nasty diseases that don't have as high a profile but spread around their fair share of misery. These diseases, such as Chagas fever, dengue, leishmaniasis, hookworm, schistosomiasis, leprosy, and African trypanosomiasis, have traditionally been neglected by researchers. Fortunately, 63 research projects are now underway to focus on the lesser-known diseases, with the surge in effort due to the rise of "public-private partnerships (PPPs)".

PPPs were originally pioneered by the Rockefeller Foundation and then the BMGF. The idea behind a PPP is to link commercial pharmaceutical firms with academic researchers, nongovernmental organizations, and global health organizations such as WHO. A decade ago, there were no PPPs for global health, but now there are about a hundred of them. There is no real chance of profit for the pharmaceutical and biotech firms in these efforts, but the investment isn't large, since their partners handle the expensive clinical trials. This "no profit -- no loss" business model allows the companies to obtain good publicity, as well as obtain contacts, experience, and knowledge potentially useful for money-making business.

The major criticism of PPPs is that they simply haven't gone far enough, and that existing solutions to some of these diseases are simply not reaching the people who need them. Critics claim that four drugs now available could make a major impact on public health in poor countries at a fairly modest cost, but right now nobody has taken ownership to get it done. [END OF SERIES]



* A SHORT HISTORY OF LIFE (6): The Ordovician period, beginning 505 million years ago, brought a number of new actors onto the stage. Among the most interesting were the first real fishes. Actually, it might be more accurate to call them "more or less real" fishes, because they certainly didn't look like any fish we might find today -- they didn't have jaws and had heads covered with bony plates. Such "ostracoderms" were likely slow-moving bottom feeders, cruising along at a slow pace -- with all that bone, they couldn't manage much speed -- vacuuming up food whole for digestion. They had a tail but no auxiliary control fins. One "agnathans" (jawless fish) survives today -- the eel-like, rasp-mouthed lampreys -- but if the idea of a "living fossil" is inexact in general, it's particularly inexact in this case, since the early ostracoderms had little resemblance to a lamprey.

The real "lords of the sea" at the time, at least as far as we can tell now, were the "nautiloids" -- a set of members of the family of "cephalopod" molluscs, which include the squid and the octopus. The nautiloids survive today as the chambered nautilus, which has a spiral shell plugged by a set of tentacles, with an eye on each side of the base of the bundle. Back in the Ordovician, some of them had straight shells, which likely made it easier for them to swim -- cephalopods generally swim by jetting water through a siphon, with the result that they move "backwards", with the tentacles at the rear. One straight-shelled species had a shell 3.5 meters (13 feet) long -- making them the biggest known animals of their era. Nautiloids were actually known from the Cambrian, but they were smaller and apparently not all that common, coming into their own in the Ordovician.

fossil crinoids / sea lilies

The Ordovician also saw the emergence of the "echinoderms" lower on the food chain, a phylum now including starfishes, sea urchins, sea cucumbers, and crinoids (AKA "sea lilies" or "feather stars", which are sessile filter-feeders). From the looks of them the echinoderms might be thought to be radially symmetrical, but looks are deceiving: they are born as bilateral larva that generally curve around one side as they grow to form a five-sided symmetry. There were also "bryozoans", creatures that superficially resemble corals but which are a different phylum.

As with the Cambrian, there was no life on land during the Ordovician. Processes of continental drift continued, possibly affecting the climate. Whatever the causes, the climate at the end of the Ordovician did change drastically, with a severe drop in sea levels and another ice age. The number of species that died out in that time is estimated at about 20%. This was the first "mass extinction" in the history of life. It wouldn't be the last. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* THIS IS YOUR BRAIN ON ELECTRICITY: There was a lot of fuss over the idea of implanting electrodes in the human brain in the 1960s and 1970s -- discussed here a few months back -- with worries that the approach would bring in an era of brain control. Now, according to an article in US NEWS & WORLD REPORT ("Fixing Your Brain" by Josh Fishman, 20 February 2006), the idea is back, and this time few are objecting.

For an example of what the new brain implant technology can do, visit an operating room where a 63-year-old man who has been all but crippled by Parkinson's disease is undergoing surgery. The surgeon cuts a coin-sized hole in the patient's skull and then inserts an ultrafine wire deep into the brain to terminate in a damaged motor circuit. The wire is routed under the patient's scalp, down his neck, and into his chest, where it terminates in a pacemaker-like implant. The implant sends out electrical signals to activate the damaged motor circuit; with some luck, the patient will be able to resume a more or less normal life. About 30,000 Americans have undergone this procedure, with a high rate of good results.

The revival of brain implants has been driven in part by improved technologies, such as integrated circuitry and long-life batteries, but the real advance has been in a much improved mapping of the human brain. This gives the brain implants a selectivity that drugs can't touch. Parkinson's disease, for example, is caused when cells in a part of the brain known as the "substantia negra" die off, reducing the production of a vital brain chemical known as "dopamine". The result is rigidity, trembling, and a wooden expression. The traditional treatment was a drug named levodopa, which restores dopamine levels. However, in some patients, after about five years the symptoms begin to recur in an on-off fashion, with the "off" periods becoming increasingly longer. Brain implant researchers have identified locations in the brain, such as the "subthalamic nucleus (STN)", where an electrode can be inserted to override abnormal brain electrical signals that contribute to Parkinson's disease. Finding the STN is tricky because it's a small region, but its electrical firing pattern is distinctive, and surgeons can use a "mapping electrode" to pin down its location before inserting the stimulating electrode. Brain surgery is of course a drastic procedure and only used as a last resort, but about 70% of patients who undergo the operation show at least some improvement.

Another target for brain implants is "dystonia", in which the victim suffers from progressive and painful muscular contortions. An implant that targets a movement circuit known as the "globus pallidus" can help many patients, though not all respond to the procedure.

Since the late 1990s, about 35,000 epileptics have been given an implant that stimulates the vagus nerve, a major nerve connection in the neck. The procedure is relatively straightforward, since it doesn't involve cutting open the brain case, and very effective. Some of the patients fitted with the implant noticed that they had a generally brighter mood after the operation, which got researchers to thinking that the same procedure might alleviate chronic clinical depression. This condition is not a case of someone just having troubles and feeling down: they are deeply, unshakeably depressed all the time, regardless of circumstances. Sometimes they get relief from the drastic procedure of electroconvulsive therapy. The vagus nerve implant procedure has just been authorized in the US, with a few hundred depressives fitted with the implant. It's only effective with a bit over half the patients, but the patients involved were those who hadn't responded to any other treatment. A different approach to fix the same problem, involving periodic external magnetic stimulation of the mood centers of the brain, is under investigation.

Implants to help stroke victims are now in clinical trials. The implant in this case is superficial, with the electrode placed on top of the region of the brain affected by the stroke. Other research is being conducted on brain implants that allow quadriplegics to control machinery -- if in a crude way -- by simply thinking commands that generate different brain signals.

Although the new brain implants have worked miracles in some cases, the procedure is still somewhat hit-or-miss, as well as difficult and expensive. However, brain implant researchers think they are definitely on to something, and that the technology is merely in its infancy. With a better understanding of the brain and improvements in technology, brain implants promise to be increasingly effective in the future.



* SHOPPING SPREE: After the fall of the Soviet Union, there were hopes in the West that the new Russia would turn into a modern, prosperous, democratic state along Western lines, but to no great surprise in hindsight that idea turned out to be a little simplistic and egocentric. Change in Russia has not occurred in any straight line, and no matter how things turn out, the Russians have their own ways of doing things that won't necessarily match Western expectations.

However, according to a BUSINESS WEEK article ("Shoppers Gone Wild" by Jason Bush, 20 February 2006, 46:47), Russians have snapped up Western notions of consumerism with considerable enthusiasm. The Mega-1 shopping mall in southern Moscow opened in late 2002, built around the French Auchan megamarket and the Swedish IKEA retailer, with shops carrying Western cosmetics, clothing, and other luxury goods. In 2005, it was the world's busiest shopping center, with 52 million visitors. The nearby Rolf car dealership, carrying Mitsubishi and Hyundai models, similarly does a booming business, selling about 15 to 20 cars every day. The old Soviet state regarded Henry Ford as something of a hero for his vision of industrial development; now the Ford Motor Company has 11% of Russia's automotive market, with a Russian factory rolling out the Ford Focus. Companies like Coca-Cola, Heineken, Toyota, and Volkswagen are investing heavily in the Russian market.

There is a tendency to think of Russia as still dingy and impoverished, but on the average Russians are becoming more prosperous. GDP growth has been an average of 7% over the last five years, with per capita income rising by an average of 29% over the same period. Although the baseline was admittedly low and average monthly income is still only about $300 USD per person, this is still impressive growth. The fact that the cost of living is low helps, too. According to a Russian banking analyst: "We have 13% flat income tax, subsidized housing and utilities, and 10% savings. The rest of it is pretty much out there being spent." About 70% of Russian income is disposable, versus about 40% in the West.

A Russian woman shopping at the Rolf dealership explains: "Living standards are improving. If you are young or middle-aged and earn [$1,000 USD] a month, then you can afford to buy a new car." About half of Russian households have a mobile phone, compared to about 6% in 2001; over the same time period, the number of Russian homes with a personal computer increased from 5% to 20%. Russians are picking up Western habits along with the consumer goods: although traditionally one visualizes Russians pouring out hot tea from a samovar, Russia now has the highest per capita consumption of instant coffee in the world. Similarly, beer has been displacing vodka.

The boom may falter. It is being mostly fueled by oil profits, and though oil looks likely to command high prices for the foreseeable future, it can still fluctuate. States with high levels of public subsidies inevitably have to trim them sooner or later. However, for now Western companies see Russia as a new frontier and are pumping out products to bring in the roubles.

* BUTTER WARS: In the "bureaucratic humor of the month" category, THE ECONOMIST reports ("Let Them Eat Yellow Margarine", 10 December 2005) on the great Quebec butter wars. In Quebec, it is illegal to sell margarine colored yellow to make it look like butter; it has to be sold in its default white color. This rule is not so ridiculous historically, having been common at a time, but the notion that it is criminal to add food coloring to a product that everyone who has any sense knows is made from plant oils and not dairy products is hard to defend, and the Province of Quebec is one of the last holdouts. The reason is simple: Quebec has half of Canada's 17,000 dairy farmers, and they form a powerful lobby, creating trade barriers to protect their dairy products, and even as of late trying to set up laws to prevent food manufacturers from claiming a "butter flavor" or "creamy consistency" or "cheesy taste" if the products don't actually contain butter, cream, or cheese appropriately.

The white margarine issue was highlighted when enforcers from the agricultural ministry swept down on a Walmart store in Quebec and seized yellow margarine manufactured by Unilever, the Anglo-Dutch consumer products giant. Walmart officials responded, plausibly, that there was no intent to flaunt the law, there had just been a mixup in margarine shipments. Unilever had challenged the law, claiming it took over a million Canadian dollars per year to support separate batches of margarine for Quebec, but the Canadian Supreme Court rejected the challenge, saying that it was within the province's rights and no business of the central government.

How long even Quebec will hold out on this matter is unclear. International trade negotiations are a threat to Quebec's dairy product protections, and oilseed farmers in western Canada are irritated at the barrier set up by Quebec against one of the big ultimate end products of oilseed production. A trade tribunal backed by Alberta's provincial government filed a complaint over the white margarine rule in the summer of 2005, but Quebec did not comply. Alberta officials have suggested that trade retaliation is in order. I suspect that someone will propose, at least as a joke, that all Quebec butter sold in Alberta will have to be colored white.