jul 2008 / last mod jul 2015 / greg goebel

* Entries include: Doctor Titania on evolution of sex, Florida road trip again, CERN Large Hadron Collider online, nuclear warhead reductions, eco-friendly road-building, runway foreign-object detection, drugs to increase intelligence, Flip video camera, more on minimally invasive surgery, expose on background-checks companies, race to build computer data centers, freeing Ingrid Betancourt, pico-projector systems, and confusion over conservation policies.

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* NEWS COMMENTARY FOR JULY 2008: In response to protracted atrocities by the government of Sudan against civilians in the rebellious Darfur region, this last month the International Criminal Court (ICC) accused Sudan's president, Omar al-Bashir, of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes. The ICC did not issue a warrant for his arrest, and even if the court did so, the ICC has already issued against two lower Sudanese officials, and they have been ignored. An ICC spokesman admits that at present, there is no reason to think that a warrant against Omar al-Bashir would be given any attention either, but pointed out that the ICC did eventually get their hands on Charles Taylor of Liberia and Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia.

In less encouraging news, the African Union failed to censure President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe for gross violations of human rights during the recent elections in that country, and an attempt to press sanctions through the UN was shot down by vetoes from Russia and China. Mugabe has been traditionally inclined to tell his critics to "go hang", and for the time being it seems there is little anyone can do about it.

* Early in July, the Israelis put on a public demonstration involving a simulated long-range strike mission by F-16 fighters, backing up the air show with cruises of missile-armed submarines off the coast. The Iranians, for some baffling reason, decided this display was for their benefit and promptly conducted an exercise in which nine missiles were launched, including a Shahab 3, which can carry a tonne warhead about 1,930 kilometers (1,200 miles). The next day they shot off more rockets. The underlying cause of the tension is the Iranian nuclear program. Both American presidential candidates have addressed this issue as important, but what happens next is anyone's guess. What might be reliably guessed, however, is that it will be nothing good.

* After the splashy front-page rescue of Ingrid Betancourt from Colombian FARC insurgents this last month, Betancourt became a major media celebrity. Given that she was not in the best of condition either emotionally or physically it was somewhat difficult to stay in the spotlight, but she felt she had a message to deliver, in particular for the sake of the hundreds of hostages left in FARC hands. She publicly told the FARC that they had been "defeated" and they needed to accept the fact, but added that Colombian President Uribe and other officials also needed to stop the three-minute hate against the FARC and come to a settlement.

Betancourt gave a one-on-one interview to the BBC, speaking excellent English with a charming French-Spanish accent. Another session where she was to speak with a group of reporters had to be canceled because she was in a state of near collapse. A BBC reporter commented that there was some frustration over the cancellation, but when it crossed his mind to say: "Do you know what we had to go through to come here?" -- he immediately decided it would be much wiser to keep his mouth shut.

* Some months back, a story here discussed the US Air Force's painful effort to get a new tanker aircraft, with the USAF finally settling on the Airbus / Northrop Grumman A330 / KC-45 as a solution. Well, not quite -- Boeing challenged the award, Congress backed up the challenge, and the Air Force just restarted the competition. There does seem to have been weaknesses in the decision process, but as was pointed out by Pierre Sparaco, one of AVIATION WEEK's European editors, there is a strong suspicion that there might not have been such a fuss if Boeing had won under the same conditions.

Northrop Grumman responded with an irritable full-page ad in the aerospace press with a picture of the Airbus-based KC-45 next to a picture of a paper plane marked "KC-767", with text stating: "NEEDED NOW. READY NOW. PAPER VS REAL." A final decision will likely be made before the end of 2008. At least one hopes it will be final, really final. I have nothing but sympathy for the program officials involved in this bureaucratic nightmare. AVIATION WEEK commented: "The Air Force worries that its selection and evaluation team is suffering morale and objectivity problems."

Really? Who knew?! Under the circumstances, I would think some of them would be in need of a stint in a detox clinic. Sparaco asked an interesting if obvious question that suggests the pain may not be near over, either: What happens if Airbus wins again?

* US presidential race politics are relatively quiet for the moment as the contenders try to build up speed. The Obama campaign did get upset with a cover on THE NEW YORKER which portrayed Senator Obama in Muslim garb rapping knuckles with his wife Michelle, with a Kalashnikov slung across her back. It seemed atypically clumsy of the Obama machine to make a fuss over since it was clearly a classic dry NEW YORKER gag, poking fun at the wilder accusations made against the Obamas.

* In other fun news, Lance Corporal Katrina Hodge of the British Army made the finals for the Miss England contest, also making her a definite star with the British tabloid press, which played up pictures of her in camo, beret, and Enfield assault rifle. She did a combat tour in Iraq and was commended after an incident in which her vehicle overturned and an Iraqi tried to pick up the crew's Enfields. Hodge punched him and got the rifles back.

Katrina Hodge

Photoshoots, which tend to emphasize the camo, show Hodge to be a pretty redhead, much more the "workingman's pinup" and "girl next door" than high-flier Britchicks like Liz Hurley or Keira Knightley. Hodge got to the finals by winning the title of "Miss Tunbridge Wells", which UK correspondents tell me is almost a Monty Python joke. Tunbridge Wells is a town in the county of West Kent -- on the SE corner of the UK, where Dover is -- and is stereotyped as a bastion of grumpy stodginess, the usual reference being to whiny letters-to-the-editor signed "Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells". Apparently there's a line in the movie LAWRENCE OF ARABIA that runs: "On the whole, I wish I'd stayed in Tunbridge Wells."

I think this is why I find the UK so fascinating -- there's something of a slight Monty Python flavor to the place, which of course Monty Python was skilled at playing up. As I like to say: the UK is daft, the US is psychotic.

* In other odd news, a BBC WORLD Online report presented Brother Cesare, an Italian Capuchin monk who acquired a taste for heavy metal music after seeing a Metallica concert in the 1990s and is now doing the lead vocals with a group in concerts in Italy. Although the initial reaction to crowds seeing a friar in brown monastic robes and long white beard on stage tends to be consternation, Brother Cesare is generally respected because he honestly loves the music and, being a barrel-chested sort, he can belt it out. Although he puts a positivist spin on his music, he avoids an overtly religious message.



* WELCOME TO THE LHC: Particle physicists are always after bigger and better particle accelerators, and as reported by an article in SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN ("The Discovery Machine" by Graham P. Collins, February 2008), the new "Large Hadron Collider (LHC)" is the machine they've been dreaming about for years. The LHC was built and, when it goes online in the near future after nine years of work, will be operated by CERN (a French acronym translating to "Center for European Nuclear Research"), a multinational research organization based in Geneva, Switzerland. The LHC itself is too big to fit in one country, with the accelerator ring, 8.6 kilometers (5.35 miles) in diameter, straddling the Swiss-French border. The ring is tilted underneath the Earth by 1.4 degrees, varying in depth from 50 meters (164 feet) on the Swiss side to 175 meters (574 feet) on the French side. It is so big that lunar tides will change its diameter by a millimeter -- and its operators will have to compensate for that change to get it to work properly.

CERN Large Hadron Collider

The LHC will accelerate bunches of protons to 99.9999991% of the speed of light, generating the highest energies ever produced by a particle accelerator, up to a trillion electron-volts (TeV). It will produce these high-energy particles in great quantity as well, smashing them together to produce showers of exotic particles. The one major objective of the LHC is to produce the "Higgs boson", a particle not yet observed but believed to be entity that produces mass. If the Higgs actually exists, the LHC will find it; if it doesn't, it's going to be back to the blackboard for the theoreticians. However, the LHC was not built just to find the Higgs: it was intended to be a general probe of particle domain at very high energies.

The LHC ring is supported by almost 7,000 superconducting magnets, chilled by liquid helium. Four giant detectors -- the "Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS)", "LHC bottom (LHCb)", "A Toroidal LHC Apparatus (ATLAS)", and "A Large Ion Collider Experiment (ALICE)" -- observe the collisions; the largest detector would about half-fill the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, and the heaviest contains more iron than the Eiffel Tower. Despite their size, some elements of the detectors have to be positioned to an accuracy of 50 microns (millionths of a meter).

100 million channels of data are produced by each of the two largest detectors, churning out enough data to fill up 100,000 CD-ROMs every second, which would result in a stack high enough to reach the Moon in six months of operation. Storing all that data being somewhat impractical, the channels are filtered by "trigger & data-acquisition systems" that discard all the routine data and pass on the interesting events. A "farm" of a few thousand computers at CERN will package the raw data into compact data sets. Actual analysis will be performed by tens of thousands of personal computers at research organizations around the world, linked to a dozen hub centers on three continents, which in turn are linked to CERN by fiber-optic cables.

Not all the hardware of the LHC is new. The ring is fed by a smaller "Super Proton Synchrotron (SPS)", which went online in 1976 and is "only" 2.2 kilometers (1.4 miles) in diameter. It is fed in turn by the small "Proton Synchrotron", which went online in 1959. Although the LHC is effectively complete, getting such an elaborate system to work isn't as simple as flipping a switch. Systems have to be validated, magnets cooled and checked. About 5,000 staff are now bringing the accelerator up in stages. It won't be long, however, before physicists see if the Higgs boson really exists -- if it does, the LHC is certain to find it -- and in general play with their new toy.



* DWINDLING NUKES: Although the "global war on terror" has proven frustrating and bloody, a comparison with the Cold War gives a certain cause for relief. Now we worry about indiscriminate terror attacks on civilian populations; then we were worried about the potential destruction of civilization or even all life on Earth. The great powers built up their nuclear arsenals, and a stint in the nuclear chain of command was a fast track to promotion. As reported by the THE ECONOMIST ("Just How Low Can You Go?", 29 March 2008), global nuclear warhead stockpiles are at their lowest for half a century, and the fast track to military promotion lies elsewhere. French President Nicholas Sarkozy recently indicated that France would cut the nation's nuclear deterrent to under 300 warheads, somewhat more than half of its Cold War maximum of 538.

Of the five "formal" nuclear powers -- the US, Russia, Britain, France, and China -- all have been cutting their arsenals except for China. Nobody knows if the Chinese are actually expanding their arsenal, or if they're just replacing older weapons. The current strategic arrangement between the US and Russia envisions that each side will have from 1,700 to 2,200 warheads by 2012. Even this number, a considerable reduction from Cold War days when each side had roughly about 10,000 warheads, is seen as excessive in some circles: who really needs more than, say, a thousand warheads?

However, both sides retain many more warheads than are actually counted. The US is dismantling some of them, while the Russians have a backlog of thousands slated for disposal. The Bush II Administration has been lobbying Congress, so far with no success, to develop a "reliable replacement warhead (RRW)" that would permit stockpiles to be reduced further on the basis that with the RRW, there would be fewer duds in the arsenal.

The decline of the US and Russian nuclear arsenals tends to highlight the smaller nuclear forces of the UK, France, and China. Britain is planning to modernize its Trident submarine-launched missile force, but will reduce its arsenal to about 160 warheads, from a peak of 260. The British have not ruled out participation in arms-control talks, though both France and China have been more hostile to such discussions. There has always been a symmetry to the British and French nuclear arsenals: neither is willing to give up what the other one retains.

Officials point out that it's a dangerous world, with the "undeclared" arsenals of Israel, India, and Pakistan amounting to wild cards, and the prospect of an Iranian Bomb making matters even more complicated. The North Koreans don't seem to have deployed operational nukes and they're bound by treaty to give up their weapons program, but nobody's going to believe it without solid verification. If we're not faced with annihilation any longer, the nuclear threat remains very much alive and well.



* FLORIDA ROAD TRIP AGAIN (13): I left Kissimmee early on the morning of Thursday, 10 April, to drive to Chipley, just to the west of Tallahassee on the Florida panhandle. Having visited Tampa ahead of schedule didn't really move anything up on the overall trip schedule, but it made for a more leisurely drive north.

Since I had time to spare, I decided to visit the natural history museum at the University of Florida in Gainesville, but though the facility is marked from the freeway, I ended up squirrel-caging around on campus, unable to find any signs that pointed out its location, unable to find any convenient place to stop and get directions. After about three loops, I gave it up and went back on the road.

That was a shrug. As a positive comment on the trip north, however, I noticed that the sides of the freeway and the medians seemed to have been heavily seeded with wildflower mixes, which made them extremely pretty. Since the wildflower displays went on all the trip north in Florida, I got to wondering just how much it cost to buy all that seed, and how big a business it was to grow it.

I made Chipley early enough, though I frustratingly got confused trying to drive up to the motel and was shot back on the freeway; this being a rural area, I ended up on a 22 kilometer (14 mile) loop to get back to where I started from. It really didn't cost me anything but frustration, but the number of traffic fumbles on this trip was becoming annoying. The Chipley Super-8, in compensation, was the first perfectly satisfactory motel room I had got during the trip -- it was relatively new and clean, and was sensibly laid out, with a small workdesk featuring a power plug for a PC or the like. They even had phone-type LAN connections so I didn't have to fiddle with wi-fi. I had to kill some time before I crashed out, so I had bought a DVD, APPLESEED EX MACHINA, at a Walmart on the way north. It was relaxing sitting in bed watching a movie, and then I got a good night's sleep.

* On the morning of Friday, 11 April, I left my night stop in Chipley to visit the Naval Aviation Museum in Tampa again. It was another "pick-up" exercise: all I wanted to do was get some shots in the museum that I had bungled the last time around, and also take the flightline tour, where they had aircraft parked, waiting for refurbishment.

I miscalculated a bit, thinking the flightline tour took place at 0930, when it actually was scheduled for 1030, which put me behind schedule. OK, I just had to eat that. I did pick up the shots in the museum I had missed, and lacking anything better to do I went outside to shoot birds and the like. I was hoping I could spot some cardinals; no such luck, but they did have a nesting box for an osprey on the museum site. Unfortunately, the osprey was skittish and wouldn't let me get in range for a decent shot.

The flightline tour didn't turn out to be much, with the aircraft in variable condition. The one I was really after was an aircraft named THE TRUCULENT TURTLE, a Lockheed Neptune patrol aircraft that set a record flying nonstop from Australia to Ohio after World War II, I did get good shots of it, and in fact when I sorted through the pix later the haul turned out to be surprisingly satisfactory.


The tour over, I was in a hurry to get on the road and head west. I cruised into Gulf Coast Alabama, and then went north through Mississippi to Meridian on a two-lane highway. It was pleasant country, tending towards the backwoodsy; I noticed that small Baptist churches tended to be as common as gas stations.

I made it to Meridian in a few hours and stopped at a McDonald's for lunch. There was a young black Marine NCO in the McDonald's, something of an attention-getter in a spiffy dress blues uniform -- I suspected he was a recruiter -- and folks were deferentially inquiring if he'd done time in Iraq. The scene was completely unremarkable, except for the fact that I realized that 50 years ago, the place would have been segregated and such a scene would have been unthinkable. I'm not moralizing, it was just such a hard thing to imagine: They used to do WHAT?!

I got confused getting back on I-20 and went eastbound; it wasn't much of a fumble, since there was an exit not far up the road and all I had to do was loop around to get back to going west, but I was still annoyed. The cruise to Jackson in mid-state was pleasant, the highway margins still being decorated with flowers -- predominantly a burgundy-colored flower that looked something like clover, which on later investigation from a shot I took turned out to be, duh, crimson clover. One of the semi-amusing things I spotted were billboards with mugshots on them, marked by text that shouted: STATUTORY RAPE IS A CRIME! It seems that Mississippi believes in public shaming.

The sun was shining dead in my eyes when I went through Jackson, making it hard to read the signs, but I didn't get sidetracked. Vicksburg was less than an hour down the road; I crossed over the Mississippi into Louisiana on a neat truss-cantilever bridge, intending to get shots of it and its paired railroad bridge from the west bank, but all I found there was swampy land, with no place to get off the interstate. I had to shrug and keep cruising towards Shreveport.

It was dark when I went through Shreveport and that made it interesting. I didn't realize it was a gambling town, looking like a "Reno of the South", with the skyline all lit up with gaudy casinos and big billboards advertising shows with big-star country musicians. It was only a bit farther to Marshall across the border in Texas and I didn't get in too late, though I was sorely aggravated when I missed the exit again. The Super-8 wasn't marked on the road signs, and since they are usually very easy to spot, I hadn't made a note of which exit number to take, something I decided would be a good policy in the future. Oh well, at least it was the last time on the trip I got screwed up. After looping back, I checked in and got a reasonable night's sleep. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* DOCTOR TATIANA (4): Previous installments in this series have suggested that female promiscuity enhances the chances of reproductive success, but didn't detail exactly why this is so. Partly it's obvious -- the more copulations with different partners, the more chances of success. About a tenth of human couples are infertile; about a tenth of these couples seem to have reproductive systems that are in fine shape, but the wife just can't conceive. It is generally thought that this is due to a genetic incompatibility between the partners, that each could produce children if they had different partners. This is not to suggest infidelity as a means of correcting the situation -- though it does happen.

There's more to promiscuity than that, however. A jacana is a swamp bird with oversized feet that allow it to walk on lily pads. The feet are interesting; what's also interesting about jacanas is that females form harems of males. The males do all the work in incubating and child care, and so to maximize the female's reproductive success, she has an evolutionary incentive to enlist as many males as possible into her harem. The hens can acquire harems with as many as four males, and can produce eggs fast enough to keep them employed. It's a nice deal for the female, who has firm control over the situation -- she's half again as big as a male and can easily push the males around, and in fact, does all the warlike work of defending the nesting territory.


The greater rhea, an ostrichlike bird of the pampas of South America, has a somewhat similar system. Again, the male does all the child-rearing -- but he's not part of a harem, the females don't hang around. A female will mate with the male, leave an egg, and then find another male, with a particular male acquiring a clutch of eggs produced by multiple females. This arrangement is actually common in fish, by the way.

Females can get other benefits from a range of lovers, for example nourishment. Male orange-rumped honeyguide birds, for example, provide beeswax to females for the privilege to mate. The more males the females pick up, the more beeswax they get. Chimpanzee females are notoriously promiscuous; one idea of why this is so is that it obscures who the father of her children really is, so all the males of her troop feel equally obligated to help protect the children. There are all kinds of good evolutionary reasons to be promiscuous, which is why monogamy tends to be rare. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* GREEN BLACKTOP: In an era of tight energy supplies and increasing concerns over global warming, technologies and processes that we have long taken for granted are coming under greater scrutiny. For example, as discussed in an article from WIRED Online ("Blacktop Gets Greener" by Charles Squatriglia), consider roadmaking. There are about 6.4 million kilometers (4 million miles) of paved road in the USA, with about 93% of that covered with asphalt -- and which have to be resurfaced periodically. According to civil engineering professor Hussain Bahia of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, anything that increases blacktop's recycled material content or cuts the energy needed to lay it down will not only have a big impact on the environment, it will also have an impact on how much it costs to make roads. As Bahia says: "This is a no-brainer."

Bahia is working in a $5 million USD research program organized under the "Asphalt Research Initiative (ARI)", the goals of which include making blacktop more environmentally sustainable. One of the major exercises to this end is the development of "cold-mix" asphalts that don't require so much energy to convert into road surface. Blacktop is about 95% sand and rock along with 5% oil, in the form of the "bottom of the barrel" leftovers from refining oils for transport and other uses. The mix is so thick that it has to be heated to about 150 degrees Celsius (300 degrees Fahrenheit) to allow it to be applied, which demands a lot of energy.

The cold-mix asphalts, also called "emulsions", don't require so much energy; they're in common use in other countries. One recipe involves grinding asphalt into fine particles, then mixing them with water and soaplike chemicals known as "surfactants" that hold the mix in solution until it's laid. Cold mixes require seven times less energy than hot mixes, and they minimize CO2 and other emissions; they would seem like too good a deal to pass up, but the inertia of the current way of doing things has prevented them from being used in the USA. The current approach has worked satisfactorily for a long time, road contractors are not eager to switch, and worse customers aren't certain that cold-mix materials will hold up under use, or how to properly specify the materials and the implementation of roads made with them. One of the goals of the ARI is to develop specifications and standards so that both contractors and customers know what they're dealing with.

Asphalt has been cheap, but even "bottom of the barrel" refinery material is skyrocketing in cost, having tripled over the past few years. Another component of the ARI effort is to add polymers to cold mix asphalts to stretch the use of materials, and roads longer-lasting as well as smoother -- which improves the gas mileage of vehicles using the roads. Recycled materials, including rubber, glass, and concrete, are already used in road building, and it's no big jump to think of extending the notion. According to Bahia, there's no real technical obstacle to changing the way the USA builds roads, the barrier is a "lack of sufficient knowledge". He adds: "And our job as a university is to provide the knowledge that will hopefully one day get us there."



* STONES IN MY PATHWAY: One of the many little issues that most folks don't give much thought to but end up being surprisingly important is that of litter on airport runways. "Foreign object damage (FOD)" is estimated to cost commercial aviation $4 billion USD in damages a year. In the worst case, FOD can be disastrous, with the crash of an Air France Concorde jetliner at Charles de Gaulle Airport outside of Paris traced back to the puncturing of a tire from a piece of metal shed by another jetliner on takeoff. 113 people were killed.

According to an article in AVIATION WEEK ("FOD Squad" by Edward H. Phillips, 12 May 2009), a number of systems are available to scan runways for FOD, and the US Federal Aviation Agency (FAA) is now performing an investigation of the technologies in order to set standards. The FAA is evaluating four options:

The FAA evaluation is being performed with assistance from the University of Illinois Center of Excellence in Airport Technology (CEAT). The evaluation will be performed over a full year to ensure that valid data is obtained for all usual weather conditions. The evaluations will involve placement of a range of objects on runways in various orientations and various conditions.



* FEED YOUR HEAD: The actress Carrie Fisher, best known as Princess Leia in STAR WARS, once wrote that when she got into recreational drugs she was after "mind expansion and pain reduction" -- but what she ended up with was "pain expansion and mind reduction." As reported in an article in THE ECONOMIST ("All On The Mind", 24 May 2008), we may actually be arriving in an era when drugs really will be able to provide "mind expansion". A recent report issued by the British Academy of Mental Sciences (AMS) suggests that "cognition enhancers" -- capable of improving short-term memory, mental alertness, learning ability, and concentration -- are likely to emerge over the next few decades. Many of these drugs are likely to be shot down by the regulatory approvals process, but given their potential, some are likely to end up on the market.

Actually, cognition enhancers are already here, sort of, through the "off-label" use of drugs such as Ritalin (methylphenedate) and Provigil (modafinil) by people who simply take such drugs to tune up their mental processes. There is some evidence that they do work, with subjects using such drugs capable of enhanced performance in short-term memory tests and in tests of their planning ability. According to AMS report, there is increasing use of these drugs to deal with fatigue and jet lag, as well as improve performance on exams and at work.

The prestigious British science journal NATURE ran an informal survey of its readership, which consists mostly of scientists, with 20% of the 1,400 who responded saying they had taken Ritalin, Provigil, or "beta blockers" -- drugs that have an anti-anxiety effect -- for non-medical reasons, for example to stimulate focus, concentration, or memory. Most had been able to get a prescription for the drugs or find a source on the internet. It's not surprising that the AMS report indicated use of cognition enhancers is likely to grow.

Cognition enhancers work by adjusting the balance of "neurotransmitter" chemicals in the brain that influence the operation of the brain's neurons. One such neurotransmitter is "glutamate", which boosts memory. A newly discovered class of compounds known as "ampakines" enhances glutamate production. Cortex Pharmaceuticals of Irvine, California, is testing ampakine drugs on elderly Alzheimer's patients and is getting positive results. Unlike stimulants such as caffeine or amphetamines, the drugs don't increase blood pressure or heart rate, nor do they give the user a "high", meaning they are not prone to be addictive. Another neurotransmitter, "acetylcholine", is involved in concentration, focus, and high-level thought processes, as well as memory. Drugs are in development that inhibit the breakdown of acetylcholine.

There are concerns over the widespread use of cognition enhancers -- for example, what if employers tried to enforce their use on employees? There are also worries about subtle long-term effects of widespread usage of such drugs, though advocates have pointed out that Ritalin is widely prescribed for children, which emphasizes that it is seen as very safe. Critics point out that amphetamines were widely used during World War II to keep front-line fighters going and remained in general use up to the late 1960s, when their potential for abuse became obvious enough to reclassify them from over-the-counter to prescription-only drugs.

If there are indeed no serious side-effects to the use of cognition enhancers, it's going to be a hard sell to convince people they should be banned; it would certainly be a hard sell to say that we wouldn't be collectively better off if we weren't thinking just a bit more clearly. There are those who will raise objections, of course -- but as we get older, the idea of taking a pill to stave off the slow dulling of our faculties just keeps sounding better and better.



* FLORIDA ROAD TRIP AGAIN (12): After leaving the Sun 'N Fun airshow early on the afternoon of Wednesday, 9 April, that left the question of what to do with the rest of the day. I had been planning to visit Tampa, just down the road, the next morning. Why not go now and spare coming back? I had plenty of time, so I drove west.

My first target was the Florida Aquarium downtown. It's a very nice facility, but after the superb Atlanta aquarium it was something of a letdown. I got some good shots -- one of a bluejay outside the facility as I was going it, it let me surprisingly close; a little screech owl perched above a swamp environment; a spiny lionfish; and in particular sea dragons. Sea dragons are camouflaged sea horses and come in two "flavors": "leafy" sea dragons that look like clumps of kelp, and "weedy" sea dragons that look like a branched plant with leaves sticking out. It appears, to no surprise, that they are adapted to different environments. I had a reasonable shot of leafy sea dragons from my visit to Sea World in September and had tried to get a shot of a weedy sea dragon in Atlanta that didn't turn out. This time I was able to get a good set of shots for both.

That done, I went north to the Lowry Park Zoo, or at least I tried to -- after getting scrambled driving around downtown Atlanta, I figured I would just make a beeline to I-275 and go north, but I took a wrong turn and spent about fifteen minutes trying to get straight. I was not happy to get scrambled for a second time on the trip, though except for annoyance no harm done, I got to the zoo in plenty of time.

Since I'd canvassed the zoo pretty well in September, this was just a quick tour to pick up things that I might have missed, and I only got a few shots -- snoozing white tigers, a number of exotic birds, kids on a camel ride, and a very nice shot of a sleeping red wolf. I got some good shots of a spectacular hornbill, it was caged by a screen of wires strung vertically and I was able to wedge the objective of my Canon Powershot between the wires. I hadn't bothered to take my old Nikon Coolpix mini-camera on the trip since it was the least capable camera I had, but that was an error: it has a small objective, meaning a thick overcast gives blurry shots, but it can be stuck through very small holes and gaps.


I also had some fun feeding the budgerigars -- parakeets, more or less -- and lorikeets. The "Budgies" were fed using popsicle sticks with seeds glued with sugar or something on the end. As I was leaving, I got a great shot of a dragonfly sitting on a wire as I went out the gate. Insects, as it turns out, are hard to shoot, but I got a good snap of this one.

* I did have an interesting misadventure on the way back to Kissimmee -- in fact I had been having misadventures intermittently all afternoon. My feet are weak from side-to-side, what might be called the "roll" axis in aircraft terms, and if I walk on uneven terrain, I have to be careful how I put my foot down, or it will simply flop to one side. If I'm lucky I fall down; if I'm not, I twist my foot. I haven't had problems with my right foot in a long time but I had nailed my left twice since the beginning of the year. Anyway, while heading for the exit at Fun 'N Sun, my left foot popped out again, and I didn't fall down -- I would have dropped into a wet drainage ditch if I had, but I would have been happier if I had. Also somewhat oddly, after I do this I can walk perfectly normally despite the fact that my foot swells up and turns interesting colors, since the affected foot components aren't used in ordinary walking.

Then, while driving back from Tampa, I stopped alongside the freeway to indulge my heavy-equipment fetish at a dealership that had heavy dump trucks, shovels, bulldozers, and so on, on display in a field. I got some good shots and went back to the car to wonder: Ahhhh ... where are my car keys?

I carry a kit bag for my camera and the like, and usually snap the keys on to a carabiner clip hooked to the bag; nothing there. I checked my pockets and went through the bag; nothing there. Fortunately I hadn't locked the car, that would have made me seriously worried, and checked the seats, floors, and wotnot; nothing there. Sigh, must have dropped them in the weeds. I spent about five minutes retracing my steps; nothing there, so I did it again, there being no other obvious option, and found the keys lying under the front bumper. Of course -- if I was going to drop them, it would likely have been by fumbling when I tried to hook them up to the carabiner. I made a mental note to always give the keys a tug when I made the hookup. After I got home I made up an auxiliary set of keys to put on a lanyard and now won't go out the door without wearing it.

Then I went further east to an Outback steakhouse that I had noticed on the way west to get dinner. I ordered a small sirloin steak and was eating it down when I took on a piece of meat that was a bit too big. For some reason I've been having more troubles swallowing things as I get older, and I had some difficulty swallowing the meat. I tried to force it down; it reached the point in my throat about level to the gap between my collarbones -- and stuck.

I don't recall having had an experience like that before, and I think I would have remembered if I had. I'm not sure how long it stayed stuck -- a minute? Maybe two? Estimates of time under such circumstances tend to be unreliable. It was trapped below my windpipe, so I wasn't really in any danger, but I was in a state of, ah ... discomfort. I made some interesting noises until I finally managed to choke it back up. The result was the pleasant woozy feeling one gets after passing an abrupt physical crisis. I don't recommend this as a way of getting high, though.

Most of the other clientele seemed to have regarded my behavior just as an exhibition of bad taste, which was OK by me, since a big fuss and an ambulance would have been an embarrassment. When I giddily told the waitress -- her name was Tabitha, I wondered if her folks were BEWITCHED fans -- what happened she was somewhat upset. Later a manager came over and asked me if everything was OK. I suspect they were worried about a lawsuit or the like. No doubt restaurant staff do not look forward to medical emergencies as part of an evening routine.

I cut the steak into very small pieces and finished my dinner. I will go to an Outback again. I like the food. But I'll order shrimp instead. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* DOCTOR TATIANA (3): The previous installment in this series discussed the biological basis of the war between the sexes. Another aspect of this conflict is the issue of sperm production. Sperm production varies considerably between different species of animals: some produce massive quantities of sperm, some are minimalists. Why produce more sperm than needed? It's biologically expensive, after all.

One issue is that the reproductive systems of females of some species are much more hostile to sperm than those of other species, with such "hostile" females killing off most of the sperm they are inseminated with. This seems like an entirely contrary situation from an evolutionary point of view, or for that matter simple common sense, but it's the reality, and nobody has a good explanation of why it is so. One suggestion is that the female reproductive system is a literally "nurturing" environment and so vulnerable to infection by pathogens, and so there's an evolutionary drive to make it as inaccessible to intruders up to a level that male sperm can overcome on a predictable basis.

There's a second issue that makes more sense, however: sperm competition. In species where females are promiscuous, males tend to produce greater quantities of sperm in hopes of drowning out the competition -- take more shots, there's more chances of getting a hit. Males of mammal species where the females are promiscuous tend to have very large testicles to support enhanced sperm production. As a contrary example, consider seahorses and their elongated relatives, pipefish. In these species, males carry most of the burden of reproduction. The female lays eggs in the male's brood pouch through an "ovipositor", with the eggs coming to term inside the male. The male inseminates the eggs in the pouch, and since there is no sperm competition, the sperm counts are minimally low.

* The balancing between sperm and eggs leads back to the fundamental question: Why are there males and females to begin with? Why not all hermaphrodites? It would seem to be the best of both worlds, everybody reproduces, but can still spread sperm around. However, under the influence of Bateman, the general consensus was that, as discussed in the previous installment, it was evolutionarily advantageous to have males that could spread their genes around, unhindered by the need to produce biologically expensive eggs and conduct child care.

That was a popular idea for a long time, and it is certainly true in some cases. If the human race was hit with a horror-movie pathogen that killed off 95% of the women, we'd be heading for a long-term population crash since the few women left would be hard-pressed to bear enough children to maintain population levels. If it killed off 95% of the men, population would likely not crash, because the surviving males could then keep a disproportionate number of women pregnant. These males would win the genetic jackpot.

The problem is, first, given that it can take a large number of sperm to have a chance of inseminating an egg, it's not necessarily easier to produce sperm, at least effectively, than eggs -- in fact, in some experimental circumstances, couplings proved more sperm-limited than egg-limited. The second is that, as noted, females don't necessarily raise the young, the seahorse and the pipefish being extreme examples.

So why males and females instead of hermaphrodites? There may be a simple answer. Hermaphrodites are traditionally associated with organisms that don't get around much -- slugs or flowering plants being good examples. The notion is that if all members of the population are possible sex partners for any member of the population, that doubles the chances of reproduction compared to bisexuality.

This is certainly true to an extent as well, but alas there are plenty of hermaphroditic species that get around perfectly well, so it's not universally true. Bivalves -- clams and their relatives -- have both sedentary and parasitic forms, with the sedentary forms being hermaphrodites and the parasitic forms being bisexual. However, barnacles -- which are crustaceans, related to shrimp and the like -- also have sedentary and parasitic forms, and for barnacles it's the sedentary forms that are bisexual and the parasites that are hermaphrodites.

An insight might be obtained from species where there are two genders, but they consist of hermaphrodites and males. The hermaphrodites can reproduce among themselves or with males. What seems to have happened in this case was that a mutation broke the female reproductive system of what is now part of the population. If another mutation broke the male reproductive system of part of the population as well, the result would be two sexes. It is fairly easy to lose a reproductive system, it is not so straightforward to acquire a replacement. In other words, males and females are "broken" hermaphrodites. Incidentally, sperm configurations tend to vary considerably among different species. Some species of fruit fly generate giant sperm; a wide number of organisms generate sperm that operate in teams of two; hooked sperm is fairly common as well; and roundworms generate sperm that look like amoebic blobs. Why the variation? There hasn't been a lot of investigation of the matter and so nobody has very attractive ideas. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* FLIP INSPECTED: A column by Reena Jana in the 28 April 2008 BUSINESS WEEK discussed the Flip Video camcorder from Pure Digital Technologies, which became a big hit from its introduction in May 2007. The San Francisco-based Pure Digital company was established in 2001 to produce cheap throwaway digital cameras, sold at drugstores and the like. These were very minimal devices, returned to the sales outlet to get prints. According to Pure Digital's boss, Jonathan Kaplan, the company started to get unsolicited feedback from customers that said they wanted a video camcorder that was cheap and easy to use. With the emergence of YouTube and other online video-sharing services, Pure Digital saw there would be a big market for such a device -- and so the Flip was born.

It was done with minimal marketing fuss and it might have seemed a big risk to some. Digital camcorders from the likes of Sony and Panasonic had been getting fancier and more sophisticated; was there really a niche for a bare-bones, "soap-bar simple", competitor? As it turned out, the niche was pretty large. People who might have been put off by the cost and complexity of a conventional camcorder liked the price -- half to a third the price of any other competitor -- and ease of operation.

The Flip actually is about the size and configuration of a bar of soap. It has a fixed-focus lens, though it can do a digital zoom; runs off standard AA cells, with no option for an AC adapter; uses fixed built-in flash ROM, with no option for plugging in an auxiliary flash ROM card, different Flip models offering a half-hour to an hour of storage; is fitted with a pivoting pop-out USB plug to transfer video to a PC, with the PC software automatically loaded into the PC over the USB connector; and features a set of controls about as intuitive and easy to use as those of a portable CD player.

Flip videocamera

The Flip is cute, it's fun, it's cheap, it's simple. It's available in a range of flashy colors; some chains carrying the Flip have "proprietary" colors not available in Flips sold at other outlets. Purists will turn up their nose at the Flip, with its fixed and limited functionality, and even Kaplan admits: "OK, so we don't have the highest-quality components or expensive paints." However, that was clearly the compromise needed to bring video recording to the masses who lacked the money or need for a more sophisticated camcorder. Pure Digital is now considering improvements -- more bang for the buck, and making the device even easier to use -- and investigating what else can be built with the minimalist Zen thinking demonstrated in the Flip.

ED: I usually walk around with a USB memory stick and a spare set of keys on a pendant string, and I keep thinking that my ideal gadget along such lines would be a USB memory stick with a voice-recorder and simple camera function. A digital camera, incidentally, can be used as a reminder device -- see something to be remembered for later, take a snap of it, doesn't matter if the snap is particularly good as long as the target is still recognizable.



* MINIMALLY INVASIVE SURGERY REVISITED: The fascinating subject of "minimally invasive surgery (MIS)" was discussed here in 2006. An article in BUSINESS WEEK ("Surgery Without The Slicing" by Catherine Arnst, 14 April 2008) provided an update and also discussed some of the issues with MIS as a business proposition.

This last March, doctors at the University of California in San Diego established a landmark when they removed the appendix of a patient named Jeff Scholz through his mouth. The doctors made a small incision in Scholz's navel to insert a camera and then shoved other tools down his throat to cut through his stomach, remove the appendix, and then suture him back up. He was out on the street the next day and completely back to normal in a few days. The surgical team then went on to remove a woman's appendix through her vagina.

Such operations are somewhat more sophisticated than laparoscopic surgery, which has been around for about two decades. Laparoscopic surgery still makes small incisions through the skin to insert surgical tools, while the advanced "scarless surgery" approach to MIS performs the operation through body orifices. Scarless surgery, or more formally "natural orifice translumenal endosurgery (NOTES)", was introduced about four years ago, and remains somewhat experimental. Advocates believe that NOTES not only leaves patients without any scars, but presents far less danger of infection, less pain and chance of "collateral damage", and a short hospital stay. The stomach has few nerve endings and heals remarkably quickly, which is not so surprising since it is continually regenerating its lining as it is eroded by stomach acids. NOTES also has the potential of being useful for reaching diseased tissues that simply cannot be reached by other means.

NOTES promises potential savings of billions of dollars in health care costs -- and that's where the bizarre logic of the health-care business starts to become a problem. While a NOTES surgery means less time in a hospital and so a lower overall medical bill, insurers pay for the surgery as a single line item without considering the overall cost of treatment. NOTES takes twice as long as ordinary surgery but the surgeons get paid the same -- and hospitals lose revenue when the patients are released more quickly. This is also true to a lesser extent for laparoscopic surgery, which is why that technique still tends to be underutilized despite the fact that it's been around for a long time.

However, patients are likely to see NOTES as pure gold, and once they start insisting on it, a hospital will have to meet the need or the patients will go to competitors. As the technique becomes more popular, no doubt the insurance industry will rationalize policies. It's also a potential goldmine for medical instrument manufacturers such as Johnson & Johnson, who see a huge market for sophisticated tools for NOTES surgeries.



* BACKGROUND CHECKS EXAMINED: There's a lot of information on ourselves floating around in cyberspace, but normally we don't worry about it much. An article in BUSINESS WEEK ("The Trouble With Background Checks" by Chad Terhune, 9 June 2008), shines a light on how much trouble that information can cause.

Theodore Pendergass was shocked when his application to the Walgreens pharmacy chain for a supervisor job was rejected -- not so much for the rejection as the fact that he was told a background check performed through an Atlanta-based outfit named ChoicePoint claimed he had stolen over $7,000 USD from the till of a previous employer. The incident demonstrated the kind of power background-check operations like ChoicePoint have, and how background checks can go wrong.

Pendergass had been working for a Rite Aid pharmacy in Philadelphia when, in early 2006, he was accused of looting the cash register and other malfeasance, to be eventually fired. He was cleared of the charges through a hearing for unemployment compensation, a Pennsylvania state labor referee judging that Rite-Aid had no evidence to pin the crimes on Pendergass. However, Rite-Aid had already submitted a negative report on Pendergass to a database run by ChoicePoint. Pendergass is working at a Starbucks these days, but he feels his career advancement has been unjustly blocked: "I worked hard in that store, and none of this stuff was true. I would be locked up somewhere if I stole $7,000."

* Background screening is a big and expanding business these days, with operations such as ChoicePoint, or California-based First Advantage or HireRight, raking in big profits. In 1996, only about half of America's firms did background checks; now almost all of them do. For about $60 to $80 USD per applicant, a background checking service returns a hefty file loaded with information -- not just criminal records, but educational history, credit history, and interviews with past associates of the applicant. Such interviews are a particularly dodgy source of information, since there's no saying those interviewed are telling the truth. Some screening companies insist they're careful in their research, but one official calls it an "unregulated industry with easy money and not a huge emphasis" on making sure the job is done right.

Theron Carter, a 61-year-old Michigan truck driver, worked for a trucking company for two weeks in 2005, before being fired after he complained about safety violations. He went to the Labor Department in response, to be awarded $31,000 USD in damages as well as back pay, with a judge also ordering the trucking firm to delete all "unfavorable work record information" submitted by the company to the USIS screening firm, which operates a "Drive-A-Check (DAC)" database commonly used in the transport industry. The company appealed and still hasn't removed comments from Carter's work record claiming he had been fired for "excessive complaints" and "company policy violation". Carter can't get work. His story isn't unique in the trucking industry, with truckers frightened of being "DACked". USIS officials have had to get on radio talk shows popular with truckers to defend their company, with some officials admitting mistakes happen, and saying that truckers can clear their names if they submit evidence showing the accusations are false. The reply, of course, is that under the law the burden of proof is on an accuser.

* In principle, background screening is controlled by the Federal Fair Credit Reporting Act, which requires that screeners follow "reasonable procedures" to ensure "maximum possible accuracy", and to give a copy of background reports to rejected applicants. Applicants can challenge the reports, but since employers are only obligated by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to wait five business days before taking on another applicant, that does little good. The screening provisions haven't been aggressively enforced, and to no surprise the FTC has been more focused on identity theft these days.

Screening companies have got themselves into hot water on occasion. In 2004, ChoicePoint offered a $40 USD software package through Sam's Club stores to give small businesses the ability to check up on applicants. The company then dropped the product in the face of angry feedback that they were selling a snooping tool to anybody that could be used to spy on anyone. The next year, 2005, ChoicePoint got scammed by identity thieves posing as small business operators and handed out the addresses, phone numbers, and Social Security numbers of 160,000 consumers. In 2006, the company paid a $10 million USD fine to the FTC and $5 million in compensation to the consumers affected.

Screening companies believe they're providing an important public service, and indeed employers need all the help they can get, since once a bad hire gets on board the result may be a great deal of trouble. However, once people are blacklisted by a screening service, it can be very difficult to get back in the clear again, and that gives a great deal of power to private organizations that necessarily have much more concern for profitability than accountability.



* FLORIDA ROAD TRIP AGAIN (11): On Wednesday, 9 April, my plan for the day was to go to the Sun 'N Fun airshow at Lakeview, near Tampa. As a follow-up to the helicopter trip the afternoon before, the first thing I did was check out the fancy Gaylord Palms hotel, one of the significant landmarks in Kissimmee. The helicopter pilot had told it was impressive, with an artificial rain forest inside the central court, and I thought I'd drop in before I hit the road and see if I could get some shots. It was a bit confusing to get in because there's no place to park nearby and I wasn't sure I could get access to the parking lots, not being a client of the hotel. The complex is sprawling, but I finally managed to find a visitor's parking lot -- they charged $12 USD for a day's parking and I figured I'd get stung for the lot of it, but what the heck, I was on a trip, it was just money, so I parked there.

The central court was extremely impressive, consisting of a greenhouse roof many stories above, with the courtyard lined by rooms facing inward, and a fake Spanish fort covered by vegetation in the center. There were various restaurants and shops lining the edge of the courtyard. At the east end of the courtyard there was a koi carp pond; on the west end, there was a gator pond -- the gators were well on the small side, however, not even a threat to small children.

Gaylord Palms Hotel

To my surprise, there were environments in the two wings as well, with a bar / restaurant in each. The east wing had what looked like a coastal cove, with a sailboat permanently docked there and game fish like tarpon swimming in the pool, while the west wing featured a swamp shack environment. The hotel was along the lines of a Vegas hotel-casino, but not as tacky. I was impressed, though it was too fancy for my taste -- it wasn't just the cost, it was that I'm completely out of place in high-society environments: "Would you care to select a wine?" "I don't even like wine."

It was well worth the quick visit though, I got a few good shots. When I drove out, to my surprise they said to go on through, no payment needed -- they don't dock people for just dropping in. It's definitely worth a quick discreet visit.

* Anyway, then on down the road to Lakewood. I wasn't sure what to expect -- it was one of the nation's big public fly-ins, something of a sister event to the well-known Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) airshow in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. Although Sun 'N Fun isn't run by the EAA, there is generally EAA participation, and pilot friends tell me the Sun 'N Fun and Oshkosh events are broadly similar.

The difficulty with me was that I've attended regional EAA fly-ins and they tend to be clubby affairs for the private pilots; I don't have a problem with that, I'm just not part of that group. I usually can find something interesting at an EAA fly-in, but not to the point where I place them high on my to-do list. I don't really like the airshow mob scene much anyway, the reward is in getting pictures. I was expecting to spend the day, but as I poked around I realized there wasn't that much there for me.

There was to be a flight show in the afternoon, but on checking the schedule it was mostly stunt flying and a few warbirds. Personally, I find stunt flying impressive and likely fun to do, but dull to watch. I suppose a spectator who was really into it could appreciate the niceties, but for me, been there and seen that. As far as warbird displays went, having been to Chino the year before for the warbird airshow there, it was unlikely they could come close to touching it here, since the selection of warbirds on the ground was modest compared to Chino.

So I only spent about three hours at Sun 'N Fun. It wasn't a waste of time, I got some good shots, particularly of ultralights buzzing around, plus a few parked warbirds and the new "very light jets" -- subscale business jets -- that are the rage today. I also got a nice shot of some prewar convertible sports car; another bystander told me it was a Cord, but on later investigation it turned out to be a 1936 Auburn 852 Supercharged Speedster. One picture of a restored example of the similar 1936 Boattail Speedster I found online gave a sales price of almost $400,000 USD, which made me go slightly pale. I don't normally lay a finger on a restored car, but if I'd had any idea of what that thing cost I wouldn't have got within ten feet of it. The visit was brief but it was well spent in itself. I have been thinking of going to the Oshkosh airshow; but if it's really that much like the Sun 'N Fun airshow, I'm not so sure. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* DOCTOR TATIANA (2): From an evolutionary point of view, it's no surprise that there's a battle of the sexes. To be sure, both males and females have an evolutionary directive to propagate their own genes -- if they don't, their gene line dies out -- so they have an incentive to cooperate. There are, however, limits to cooperation.

To show why requires establishing further background, the first issue being: why are there males and females? The major advantage of sexual reproduction, the "Red Queen's race", was established in the last installment, but why shouldn't organisms be hermaphrodites, with each organism being both male and female? It would seem to double the number of reproducers in a population, eliminating the "overhead" of males that don't actually bear young.

Traditionally, the belief was that an organism has an evolutionary incentive to produce females to generate new organisms, and males to "spread genes around". From this point of view, it might seem like a female could give birth to a number of females but only one male, with the male then spreading the parental genes around to every female he meets. However, due to competition between males, males don't normally have unlimited reproductive access to females, and the end result of this competition is a system in which females generally produce as many males as females. All this is true to an extent, but as discussed later, it's not rigid law: hermaphrodism persists in a serious way, and there are (admittedly special) cases where the "fifty:fifty" rule of males versus females doesn't apply.

Anyway, given males and females, there is a long-standing inclination to believe that females are, by evolutionary necessity, conservative and choosy about their sex partners, while males are inclined to be philanderers. This point of view was originally advanced by a biologist named A.J. Bateman in the late 1940s. "Bateman's principle", as it came to be known, became something of a pop-culture icon, expressed simply by the idea that females are chaste, males are cheats. The problem is that, as is often the case of moralistic lessons drawn from biology, this isn't generally true. Bateman came to his conclusion by observation of the little Drosophila melanogaster fruitfly, a popular lab animal from early in the 20th century. He didn't quite realize that his observations were incomplete, that further observations would blow his concept out of the water.

Females actually have a genetic inclination to be promiscuous, since it generally improves their chances of bearing young, and since the female actually bears the young, they will certainly have her genes. However, males have a challenge in that a male needs a female to bear his young, not that of some other male. Some male insects have penises adapted to scour out the sperm of rivals; others can use their penis to persuade a female to eject any sperm already resident.

Honeybees are a particularly interesting case. Queen bees only mate at the outset of their reproductive careers, storing up sperm that will be used through the rest of their lives. Males grossly outnumber the queens; only a handful will have a shot at her. As a result, when the male mates with the queen, at climax the male explodes, leaving its penis lodged in the queen. Why not? The odds of the male ever mating again are very poor, and if he kills himself to ensure that other male bees don't get a shot at the queen, it's all for the evolutionary good as far as his genes are concerned. However, given the fact that reproduction is an arms race, it's not too surprising that the penis of male honeybees has bristles on the end to allow it to pull out the penis of a late rival. The new arrival takes his shot and dies in turn.

love bugs

A comparable example is the "love bug", an insect well-known to Americans who live on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico. Twice a year, once in the spring and once in the fall, love bug larva mature into flying adults, with the males finding a female, mating with it, and then staying mated with it so no other male gets a shot. This is why they're called love bugs, since they are almost always seen coupled. Neither the male nor the female eats after acquiring its adult form; the male quickly dies after mating, with the female carting his dead carcass around while she finds a place to lay eggs, and then dies in her turn. Incidentally, what makes the love bugs so familiar to locals is that the bugs will form ghastly clouds during the times of their emergence, with cars spattered with their bodies -- which are acidic to the point where birds won't eat them, and which can damage the paint finish on a car if not cleaned off promptly.

The males of some species have acquired less drastic means of blocking competitors. Some rodents, for example, produce a material that plugs the reproductive tract of the female after he has inseminated her. Some female rodents, fighting back against the attempts of males to control their reproduction, have acquired the trick of pulling out the plug. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* GIMMICKS & GADGETS: POPULAR MECHANICS had a little article about the US military's "Joint Precision Air Drop System (JPADS)", an item I had heard about when it was in development but hadn't heard about since. JPADS is a GPS-guided parasail system, with an electric servo system moving the control lines of a parasail to land a payload in a preprogrammed area. It was developed in a multiservice program -- that's what the "Joint" in JPADS means -- and was put into service in Afghanistan in August 2006, where it has proven very useful in resupplying troops in the rugged Afghan terrain.


The big advantage is that a cargolifter aircraft using JPADS can drop payloads from 7,600 meters (25,000 feet), well out of range of ground fire from anything the Taliban has, with the payloads guiding themselves to a precise landing. JPADS isn't being used for the heavier payloads yet, but it won't be too long until it's being used to deliver Hummer vehicles and the like.

* The same issue had an interesting note on the "Buffalo", a vehicle being used by the US military in Iraq to deal with mines. It's basically a six-wheel "Mine Resistant Armor Protected (MRAP)" style truck -- featuring armor plate, armor glass, run-flat tires, and a "boat hull" underbody to deflect blasts -- with a 9.15 meter (30 foot) hydraulic arm ending in what roughly looks like an oversized garden fork. There's a video camera on the arm, and an operator in the Buffalo can use the arm to probe around for mines. The Buffalos are built by a defense contractor named "Force Protection". They were introduced into the Iraq theater in 2004, and more than 180 have been obtained at about $750,000 USD each. They work very well; Buffalo crews eventually spotted graffiti scribbled on the walls that read: KILL THE CLAW! -- and adopted it as their slogan.

* The notion of "distributed personal supercomputing" -- in which a computation-intensive task is performed by parceling it out to a massive network of privately-owned personal computers over the internet -- is not new, having been used for tasks such as breaking ciphers or determining the folding configurations of protein chains. A more recent derivative of this concept, in which huge networks of computer users play "games" that pile up their brainpower to solve difficult problems, was discussed here in March 2008.

Now, according to THE ECONOMIST, an outfit named "rosetta@home" that worked on protein-folding problems using distributed personal supercomputing, is getting into the "brainpower games" business with a system named "foldit", which challenges users to figure out how to fold proteins on their own. The more chemically stable the folded configuration, the more points a player gets. A trial run using 40 proteins with known folding configurations showed that foldit users could get answers faster than computers, even though the users weren't generally scientists. Apparently it's not so different from playing Tetris.

Having been proven, foldit is now being used to find folding configurations of proteins for which the configurations have not yet been determined. The next generation of the program will allow the users to modify proteins to optimize their configurations relative to prespecified "goals". Once again, a user won't have to have any particular knowledge of the sciences to do the job.



* DATA CENTER SCRAMBLE: As reported in an article in BUSINESS WEEK ("It's Too Darn Hot" by Steve Hamm, 31 March 2008), Iceland has been getting a lot of visits by officials from computing giants like Microsoft and Google lately. The relatively isolated and barren island might seem like an unlikely place for big business investment, but it has cheap geothermal electrical power, cheap land, and a cold climate -- which makes it an ideal site for network data centers.

The internet is dependent on such data centers, which consist of racks and racks of server computers in a nondescript industrial building, with the gear handling web search data, Facebook pages, YouTube videos. The industry doesn't advertise the centers much since they might be seen as strategic targets for terrorists. They're usually just nondescript industrial buildings that don't attract attention to themselves. However, they are different from most other industrial facilities in that they require a great amount of electrical power, not just to run the vast numbers of servers, but also to cool them off -- in fact, cooling runs to half the power bill. Chilly Iceland is an ideal site for a data center in almost all respects.

According to US government statistics, the cost of powering data centers doubled from 2000 to 2006, to $4.5 billion USD -- about the same as the bill for powering 5.8 million US homes -- and the cost could easily double again by 2011, with some predicting data centers drawing hundreds of megawatts. The exponential growth in computing power is running into tightening energy supplies and the operators are in a scramble to meet the challenge. Along with hunts for good sites, considerable effort is being focused on building servers that don't run so hot. Given the scale of the business, even a modest improvement pays: a midsize data center that consumes 25% less power will save about $4.5 million a year.

The big players regard the problem as a high priority. Three years ago, Microsoft began to come up with a long-range data center plan, and since that time the company has set up four major data centers -- in Chicago; Dublin; San Antonio; and Quincy in the state of Washington, provided by cheap power from nearby Coulee Dam. The company is now considering sites in Iceland and Siberia, using as a guide a "heat map" that organizes 35 factors for the selection, such as cost, availability of cheap power, and chilliness of the climate. Microsoft researchers are doing everything they can to make their data centers more efficient.

A large data center can cost $200 million USD and, once built, isn't cheap to upgrade to more energy-efficient technology. However, there are some quick fixes that can help a great deal. Since only about 10% of the servers are actually doing anything at one time on the average, system management software shifts jobs to make maximum use of running servers, with the idle servers then automatically put into standby. Some users are considering water cooling systems, which are more troublesome to install but require substantially less power.

Of course, vendors are eager to sell servers and other gear to Microsoft and Google by proclaiming low power consumption, but there's a problem: there's no equivalent of a standard miles-per-gallon rating for servers, which means that each vendor can pretty much proclaim power consumption specs in any way the vendor wants. An industry group is working with the US Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy to come up with standard specs.

Despite this difficulty, over the past decade chipmakers have been able to produce chips that clearly run much cooler. Work is also underway on liquid cooling systems that promise to be more energy-efficient than the current air cooling systems. Given the world's continuously increasing greed for computing power, the improvements can't happen soon enough.



* RESCUE MISSION: In February 2002 Ingrid Betancourt, a French-born woman campaigning for the presidency of Colombia, was kidnapped by insurgents of the "Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia" or "FARC" in its Spanish acronym, leaving behind her Colombian husband Juan Carlos Lecompte and two children by a previous husband, a daughter and a son. Betancourt became the most high-profile of all the hundreds of hostages held by the FARC and a public cause in both Colombia and France. Her husband flew over the jungle where she was believed to be imprisoned and threw out packets of pictures of her family to provide encouragement, but she never saw them.

A 2003 rescue attempt of a separate group of hostages ended in disaster, with the FARC murdering ten prisoners, including a former defense minister, rather than giving them up. Negotiations for the release of Betancourt went nowhere and a video released a year ago showed her gaunt and dispirited, leading to fears for her health.

Early on the morning of Wednesday, 2 July 2008, Betancourt and 14 other hostages -- including 11 Colombian soldiers and police plus three Americans, contractors for the US military whose surveillance plane went down in 2003, leading to their capture -- were rousted out of their jungle camp and led, hands bound with tie-wraps, down a path by FARC guerrillas led by an officer named Gerardo Aguilo Ramirez, who went by the name of "Cesar". They walked to a clearing where there were two unmarked Russian-built Mil Mi-17 "Hip" helicopters. Betancourt judged some of the helicopter crews to be rebels since they were wearing Che Guevara tee-shirts and concluded angrily that she and her fellow captives were just being herded around like cattle again. The prisoners were bundled into the helicopters, which then took off.

Once the machines were safely in the air, there was a sudden reversal of the situation: Cesar and another FARC soldier accompanying him were overpowered by the helicopter crews, to be stripped down and tied up in their turn. The hostages were cut loose and' told: "We're the national army. You're free." They had been rescued by a neatly executed con job that had been in motion for months.

Betancourt, dressed in a camouflage fatigue vest and a jungle cap and looking much healthier than she had in the video, had an emotional reunion with her mother in front of cameras, while there were public celebrations in Colombia and France. In France, her supporters displayed a poster of her marked simply LIBRE, and her son, now a teenager, shared the stage with French President Nicholas Sarkozy to announce joy at the news. She flew to France the next day to see her children and the president. The three Americans were flown to Texas; two of them had a leishmaniasis parasite infection and were in need of treatment.

* The scam that rescued the hostages, codenamed CHECK, had been months in preparation, and though it was the Colombian military's work, the US military -- long involved in quietly supporting and training the Colombians -- was part of the exercise as well. Three of the hostages being targeted by the operation -- Marc Gonsalves, Thomas Howes and Keith Stansell -- were US military contract personnel and the Americans wanted to get their own back.

Thinking about a rescue attempt began in 2007, when a Colombian hostage who had spent time in FARC captivity with Betancourt and the three American hostages managed to escape and provided intelligence. In early January 2008, the Colombian military learned that the hostages were going to be moved. Knowing the general area where the hostages were being kept, the jungle was seeded with video cameras that could relay images over radio links, while other ground, air, and space-based surveillance systems were used to keep a close eye on the region.

In February, one of the video cameras picked up the three Americans bathing in the Apoporis River. There was a flurry of excitement, but taking action was judged too risky; however, then a FARC fighter who had been mistreated by his superiors decided to get some payback, and assisted the government by convincing Cesar that FARC senior leadership wanted the hostages moved. Cesar began the relocation march on 31 May, with the movement carefully tracked.

Cesar had no idea he was being conned. Several senior FARC leaders had died or been killed earlier in the year, and along with the severe damage to the FARC's command structure, the organization's communications had badly broken down. The Colombian military and the Americans could easily intercept any messages sent by radio or cellphone, and it appears that rebel communications were being jammed. Under the circumstances, Colombian military intelligence was able to feed bogus messages both up and down the FARC's chain of command, with the leadership and Cesar's group both having completely bogus ideas of what was actually going on. Cesar was tricked into thinking the hostages were to be taken by helicopter to Alfonso Cano, the FARC's current leader, to discuss a possible hostage swap. French and Swiss diplomats were reported to be in the country, trying to get an opportunity to talk to Cano, which proved convenient for the scam.

On Monday, 30 June, President Uribe gave the go-ahead. The two helicopters carried four Colombian Air Force personnel, seven military intelligence officers, and the FARC turncoat. Two of the intelligence officers were dressed as guerrillas while the others were dressed in nondescript white uniforms, as if members of some humanitarian organization. All had been given a week and a half of acting lessons. Although the wait in the jungle clearing for the hostages was nerve-wracking, all went exactly like clockwork. The FARC turncoat is expected to get a major reward.

* The sting that rescued Betancourt and the other hostages was a major blow to the FARC, the only surviving major insurgency in the New World and, at 44 years of age, one of the longest-running. The FARC is widely if not universally detested by Colombian citizens: having got into the drug trade to support their insurgency, to absolutely no surprise the rebels became gradually more difficult to distinguish from gangsters, and their inclination towards kidnapping and hostage-taking has won then few friends.

The FARC has been staggering from repeated blows over the last year. In March, co-founder FARC leader Manuel Marulanda died, it seems of a heart attack, and two other top commanders were killed, one by a turncoat bodyguard and the other by a raid and airstrike by Colombian forces across the border into Ecuador. There was considerable tension between Colombia and Ecuador over the raid, with Venezuela backing up Ecuador. However, the raid also produced laptop computers with validated documents that demonstrated Venezuelan support for the FARC.

FARC ranks have been reduced to an estimated 9,000 fighters, but though the organization seems to be on the ropes, it isn't out of the fight yet. Colombian President Alvaro Uribe has made conciliatory gestures, the general feeling being that it would be wiser to have a negotiated settlement with some form of amnesty than go on with fighting for several more years -- all the more so because hundreds of hostages still remain in FARC hands.

Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez, embarrassed by the accusations of Venezuelan complicity in FARC terror, is now calling for peace talks. Although Chavez has long criticized Uribe, sometimes in the crudest terms, for his pro-American mindset, Caracas is now trying to be conciliatory and helpful. While Uribe has been trying to mend fences with Chavez, Uribe has also made it clear that the FARC is a Colombian issue: Venezuelan assistance in the matter is neither needed nor wanted. Some observers have warned Uribe that there now seems to be an opportunity to end an ugly insurgency that has been going on for decades, and that recent successes should not inspire the Colombian government to focus on sticks and forget about the carrots.



* FLORIDA ROAD TRIP AGAIN (10): After my brief but exhilarating aerial tour of Disney World on the afternoon of Tuesday, 8 April, I went over to catching the Cirque du Soleil (CdS) circus performance, LA NOUBA, at Downtown Disney. I had seen the CdS MYSTERE show in Vegas a few years back and been massively impressed, so my expectations were high.

I wasn't disappointed. The show began with two clowns working the audience. They were dressed as proper clowns -- not the complete clown regalia, but they had rubber noses, makeup, and floppy hobo clothes. They were running the classic "Bossy Clown" and "Bungler Clown" routine, carrying a pallet of boxes and working entirely at comical cross purposes. They harassed the audience a bit, in particular picking on the bald guys -- borrowing sunglasses from one of the audience to keep from being blinded by the glare. (I thought of my standard gag for my bald friends: "C'mon, that's not bald, it's a solar panel for a sex machine.")

The cast then filed into the auditorium in a procession, and the show properly began, starting off with a thunderous and surreal exhibition of the cast marching like automatons at crossed diagonals, with all sorts of small routines woven in and two performers dressed as "Kraftwerk cyborgs" in robotic outfits and dayglo makeup riding what Wikipedia told me later were called "German wheels". They were large dual metal hoops linked in parallel with grips so the performers could spread-eagle inside them, shifting their weight to roll around, or settle like a spinning coin and then rise back up again. I'd never seen anything like it and I was absolutely fascinated.

The show then settled into a series of routines embedded in a surreal environment, though many of them were actually fairly traditional circus-type acts, such as a high-wire act and trapeze act. One of the performers in the trapeze act tried to do a triple-somersault leap and grab, twice, and failed both times, but everybody applauded anyway just for trying. There were less conventional routines as well, including stunt bike riding; wild trampoline gymnastics -- I marvel at how they could they work up to some of these stunts without breaking their necks first; a nutcase exercise in piling up and performing gymnastics on chairs (with special interlocking fittings) taken to a nerve-wracking height; some painful contortions around a "door" suspended in mid-air; and a soaring aerial act involving running sweeps from the stage into the air wrapped in long flame-colored streamers hanging from the ceiling. The acts were supported by elaborate, ever-shifting stagework that rose and fell from the floor as needed.

One act that got particular attention was when four little Asian girls -- Chinese, Vietnamese, don't know, they looked identical from a distance -- ran out onto the stage in that cute little tippy-tappy way that little girls have and started doing a juggling act with what I learned later were known as "diablos". They're something like a yoyo -- the performer has two sticks with a cord tied between the ends, using them to spin and manipulate a spool resembling two cones joined together at the tips. They juggled them between each other in a dizzying fashion, formed human pyramids, and in general just completely slayed the audience.

There were various small comedy acts and the like between action routines -- throwing them continuously at the audience gets a bit wearying -- with the two clowns in particular engaging in various skits, such as playing Moon explorers, or cowboy and indian, or mommy and baby in the cart. The Bungler Clown did a solo act in which he tried to untangle a stack of chairs and got himself totally twisted up with ingeniously studied clumsiness. At the end, the cast did a curtain call, and the applause brought down the house -- when the four little girls ran out, the applause got incredibly thunderous, with shouts and whistles.

I was most impressed by the whole thing. It was far superior to the modest Nautilus show I had seen at Sea World Orlando on the previous Florida trip -- though of course that was a "freebie", came with the park admission, and was well worthwhile in itself. The CdS show was expensive but it was definitely worth the money. In fact, I should have bought a better seat -- there were no bad seats in the auditorium, but it would have been more spectacular close up. Certainly my limpid visit to Disney World had ended on a very high note. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* DOCTOR TATIANA (1): In 2002, a professor of biology named Olivia Judson, of Imperial College London, published a book on the evolutionary biology of sex titled DR. TATIANA'S SEX ADVICE TO ALL CREATION. It achieved the best-seller lists, and to no surprise: it was not only technically brilliant, it was also readable and cleverly written, taking the tone of a sex columnist dishing out advice to different species:


Dear Dr. Tatiana: I'm an Australian redback spider, and I'm a failure. I said to my darling: "Take, eat, this is my body," and. I vaulted into her jaws. But she spat me out and told me to get lost. Why did she spurn the ultimate sacrifice? Signed, Wretched In The Wilderness.


This is not a writing style to everyone's taste. Richard Dawkins wrote admiringly of DR. TATIANA, but regretfully had to say there was no way he could write anything like it and not feel ridiculous. However, it certainly makes for more interesting reading than, say, a doctoral thesis.

The subject matter does provides considerable food for thought. In evolutionary terms, sex is a particularly complicated topic. It helps to establish some background to show why.

The core idea behind modern evolutionary theory is that organisms undergo random mutations from generation to generation. Those mutated organisms that prove more "fit" -- able to find a meal, to avoid becoming a meal, to tolerate climate, to bear more offspring -- gradually dominate the population, causing their less "fit" brethren to fall by the wayside and die out. The process of winnowing out successful "adaptations" from the failures is called "natural selection". A pattern of adaptation that proves successful is called an "evolutionary stable strategy (ESS)".

It must be noted that the evolutionary process, though it follows definite fundamental rules, is not directed in any specific sense. No organism is trying to evolve, much less trying to evolve to a specific end. Organisms simply undergo mutations over generations, with the "winners" in the evolutionary lottery predominating and the "losers" dying out.

So how does sex fit into this scenario? Not all organisms practice sex -- bacteria and many other microorganisms simply reproduce by fission, with one bacterium dividing into two identical descendants, and even some multicellular organisms can give birth without a sex partner. From a simple evolutionary point of view, it might seem that such "asexual" reproduction should be sufficient, even preferable. There's no inherent reason humans couldn't reproduce asexually -- we'd all be females, with a mother bearing daughters who looked just like her. With asexual reproduction, every member of the population of a species can bear young, meaning asexual reproducers can reproduce twice as fast overall as a comparable population of sexual reproducers, since half the sexual reproducers are males that can't bear children themselves.

There are a number of theories, not all of them mutually exclusive, to explain sex. One scheme, found in two variations known as "Muller's ratchet" and a refined derivative called "Kondrashov's hatchet", suggests that asexuals tend to build up cumulative bad mutations that eventually kill them off. The problem with the ratchet-hatchet concept is that an asexual species consists of many different genetic variants, with new mutations creating more variants all the time, and among these branches there will be those whose genetic complement actually makes them more fit to their environment. Even if most of the branches are "defective", it doesn't matter because they die out and the "improved" branches simply reproduce and take over from the "losers".

The ratchet-hatchet concept is dependent on various assumptions in population genetics and mutation rates and may be valid under some circumstances. However, the most popular theory of why sexual reproduction is actually common is based on the fact that large multicellular organisms, like humans, have much longer life-cycles than bacteria, decades as opposed to a day or even less. Bacterial pathogens reproduce and evolve so quickly that they will eventually overwhelm the immune systems of their hosts -- and kill them off. Sexual reproduction permits large, long-lived organisms like humans to "scramble" their genomes on a generational basis, in effect "changing the key to the lock" of their immune systems and staying a step ahead of rapidly-evolving pathogens. Asexual reproduction works fine for bacteria; it tends to be problematic for larger organisms with much longer life-cycles.

This theory of the origins of sex is called the "Red Queen's race", after the character in Lewis Carroll's THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS, who had to run as fast as she could just to stay in the same place. The theory is highly regarded ... but there are a few examples from nature that just don't seem to fit into it properly. In fact, the whole story of sexual reproduction is extremely elaborate and confusing. We have a tendency to impose our own concepts of sexuality on the rest of creation, but as it turns out, there's a vast range of variations on the theme, and humans are in some ways freakish exceptions.

Further installments in this series will demonstrate just how complicated the matter of sex is -- though Judson's sex-columnist approach to the subject will be generally avoided. It just doesn't lend itself to a set of outline notes. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* PICO-PROJECTORS: Mobile phones and other handheld devices are very popular, but their users find their matchbook-sized displays something of a nuisance. As reported by THE ECONOMIST ("Looking At The Bigger Picture", 8 March 2008), work is underway to get around the bottleneck of tiny displays by installing "pico-projectors" in such devices to allow them to cast their image on a wall or tabletop.

Current desktop digital projectors work in two possible ways. One approach is to bounce a strong beam of light off a reflective "liquid crystal on silicon (LCOS)" display. The other approach, known as "digital light processing" uses a micromechanical array of tiny tilting mirrors. The mirrors only have two positions, but they can achieve grayscale by tilting back and forth rapidly in different on-off "duty cycles" -- the longer the "on" part of the cycle, the brighter the picture dot or "pixel". In both cases, full color is provided by three parallel elements operating through red, green, and blue filters.

Such technology is overkill for pico-projectors, being too big, expensive, and complicated; nobody's expecting pico-projectors to provide high-resolution displays anyway. A simpler approach is to use a single moving mirror, illuminated by a set of red, green, and blue laser diodes, with the picture scanned out line-by-line. Microvision of Redmond, Washington, has a working prototype about the size of a small mobile phone; it can be plugged into phone, media player, or laptop PC and has a resolution of 848x480 pixels. The scheme doesn't require lenses or other optics, and can cast a crisp image onto an uneven surface.

Symbol Technologies of San Jose, California, is also working on a single-mirror system similar in size to the Microvision device that can provide a resolution of 1024x768 pixels. Neither company plans to sell their current technology, the goal being to shrink their systems down to the point where they can fit into mobile phones and then go commercial.

The problem with single-mirror devices is that it is hard to get much more pixel resolution out of them. Variations on the scheme that promise more resolution include using rows of laser diodes, and more sophisticated scanning mirror systems. One particularly interesting approach is to illuminate a hologram, created by shining a laser onto an optical storage medium containing a diffraction pattern that produces a pre-recorded image.

Lumio of Menlo Park, California, is working on a "virtual keyboard", in which a hologram is used to project an image of a QWERTY-style keyboard on a surface. The system also includes a sensor that tracks the movements of a user's fingertips over the virtual keyboard, with the system providing a click every time a "key" is pressed. It's not as easy to use as a real keyboard, but it's a big improvement over using the tiny keyboard of a handheld device. Lumio is also talking to makers of kitchen appliances and medical equipment about embedding holographic projection interfaces in their products. The virtual keyboard would be invoked with a wave of the hand and the buttons would appear on an ordinary surface. The advantages are that the interface is unobtrusive, and the keyboard surface can be easily wiped clean, a useful feature in kitchens and particularly medical environments.

The limitation of holographic projection technology as used here is obvious, in that the hologram only stores one image. However, Light Blue Optics (LBO), a spinoff of Cambridge University in the UK, has managed to develop an LCOS array that can dynamically produce diffraction patterns to manipulate the light from red, green, and blue lasers. The LCOS array is bigger and more complicated than a single-mirror pico-projection system, but a relatively small diffractive LCOS array can produce an image with greater resolution. LBO has a prototype with a 864x480 LCOS providing an image with 1600x1024 resolution.

Size of course isn't the only concern for pico-projectors: there's also power consumption. The target power consumption for a pico-projector in a mobile phone is no more than 1.5 watts. Microvision's prototype runs at three watts, but the company is confident that power consumption can be cut. LBO feels their holographic system should easily meet power restrictions, because it doesn't require its illuminating lasers to be switched on and off as rapidly as a single-mirror system. Pico-projectors are expected to be on the market by 2010 or so, initially as plug-in devices and then as embedded subsystems.



* CONSERVATION CONFUSION: In 1989, according to an article in THE ECONOMIST ("Call Of The Wild", 8 March 2008), the signatory nations to the "Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES)" agreed to stop the trade in ivory. As of 2007, CITES had 172 signatories, which in effect meant that ivory trade is illegal everywhere. The problem is that it's still easy to buy ivory, most of which seems to come from illegally killed elephants. Rising wealth in Asia has been part of the problem: Asians particularly treasure ivory, and the demand has increased prices from $200 USD a kilo in 2004 to up to $900 USD now. It is even possible to get an ivory mobile-phone case. Some conservationists think that poaching is as bad, maybe worse, than it was before the CITES ban.

Conservationists actually praise CITES, and the ivory ban is regarded as one of its successes. Elephant populations in African countries where conservation efforts can be conducted and monitored have been rising significantly and steadily every year. Botswana and South Africa have so many elephants that these nations have been asking CITES to let them shoot more of them, though so far CITES has balked.

Part of the reason for that is that the situation is very bad in African nations where there's little concern about conservation or social order is fragile. A huge haul of ivory was intercepted in 2002, with the number of elephants killed for it estimated to range from 3,000 to 6,500. Most were believed to have been killed in Zambia, but the Zambian government reported the illegal killing of only 135 elephants in the previous ten years. It is estimated that only about a tenth of all illegal ivory is seized, which implies that 7.8% of Africa's elephants are being killed each year. Before the ban, the loss rate was estimated at 7%.

CITES bans trade in nearly a thousand animal and plant species, while regulating trade by permits for many more, but it's clearly an uphill effort. Poaching and illegal trade seems to be increasing, being driven by increasingly organized and effective criminal gangs. To be sure, some bans have proven effective. Exports of wild birds have dropped significantly due to CITES, while trade in big cat skins has also fallen drastically. In one significant success story, CITES and other efforts to restrict trade in the vicuna, a relative of the llama, and its wool have helped the vicuna population rise from about 12,000 in the 1960s to 250,000 today. Unfortunately, such successes are somewhat exceptions to the rule. The global rhino population has fallen from 75,000 in the early 1970s to about 11,000 today. Tigers have also done miserably.

* Nobody thinks that bans by themselves are a bad thing. They almost always get short-term results, as controls shut down previously legal trade. However, over the longer term illegal trade has a tendency to move into the vacuum. In the long run, the ban will only work if efforts are made to dry up public demand; the ban is coupled to incentives to conserve; and both the relevant governments and their citizens generally support the ban.

There have been successes in shutting down demand. Activists have made fur almost a fascist fashion statement, and fake furs are seen as an attractive replacement. It is also possible to get live substitutes, for example trading in birds raised in captivity. The rhino, in contrast, is in trouble because its horn is in demand for its supposed medicinal properties, and though there's really no medical value in powdered rhino horn, nobody's been able to sell the public on a substitute.

It's a bit trickier to create incentives to conserve. A ban on trading in wildlife isn't going to work if the locals don't see any value in preserving their wildlife. If people want to use the land, any wildlife obstructing use of the land is going to suffer accordingly. In countries like Kenya, rising human populations mean shrinking wildlife populations. More subtly, a flat European Union ban on import of wild birds knocked the props out from underneath an Argentine plan to conserve the blue-fronted Amazon parrot. The plan had envisioned sales of the birds to support itself, but without sales there was no way to fund a conservation effort for the parrot.

CITES hasn't been very enthusiastic about such managed trade, perceiving that it might well just be a front for illegal trade. However, tracking, cataloging, and DNA analysis of wildlife is making it much easier to keep tabs on trade. Another argument against the legal trade is that it would encourage illegal trade by promoting a market. CITES has, however, been flexible on captive breeding programs. The majority of crocodile and alligator skins being sold today is from captive animals, though a significant proportion still comes from the wild. Unfortunately, there are limits on the practicality of captive breeding programs: it's far cheaper to poach a wild tiger than raise one in captivity. There is also the subtle fact that even when a species can be raised in captivity and sold more cheaply than the wild product, the relative glut on the market undermines the perception that the species needs to be conserved in the wild.

Of course, no ban is going to work if the people supposedly responsible don't really give a damn. When the African elephant seemed to be in terminal decline in the 1980s, the losses were focused in four countries: Sudan, Tanzania, Zaire (Congo), and Zambia. That was no surprise, since the governments of those countries were trying to get rid of the elephants so the land could be developed. Governments can and do implement successful conservation programs, but they have to want to.

In short, while bans on trading in endangered species are a good thing, in themselves they are not enough, some thought has to be given to the underlying economics of the trade. Unless demand is curtailed, unless governments and their citizens see a benefit in conservation, the bans will tend to be undermined. Overall, this makes a case for flexibility in managed trade of wildlife -- a notion that conservation groups tend to regard as the work of the devil. However, a choice between managed trade and extinction isn't really much of a choice.



* ANOTHER MONTH: I think I may need to seek counseling. I wrote a third revision of INTRODUCTION TO EVOLUTIONARY SCIENCE this month after I kept making minor tweaks in the wording. Writing a document on that subject ends up being a bit like writing a legal brief, leading to indefinite refinement of the logic. It was bad enough to write a science document that had to touch on theology. Did I have to go through any of this in any of the other stuff I've written on science? Noooo ....

On a more amusing note, the Panda's Thumb website ran an entry on Richard Lenski, a biologist working on the evolutionary biology of bacteria who was targeted by the Conservapedia, a "well to the right of center" answer to the Wikipedia. The Conservapedia accused him of fraud and demanded to see his data, ignoring his replies that the data was in his published papers. Lenski raked them over the coals in an extended response, which cited "one of your acolytes, Dr. Richard Paley" as follows:


The only way this can be settled is if we have access to the genetic sequences of the bacteria colonies so that we can apply [Intelligent Design] techniques ... But with the physical specimens in the hands of Darwinists [sic], who claim they will get around to the sequencing at some unspecified future time, how can we trust that this data will be forthcoming and forthright?

Thus, Professor Lenski et al. should supply Conservapedia, as stewards, with samples of the preserved E. coli colonies so that the data can be accessible to unbiased researchers outside of the hegemony of the Darwinian academia ... This is simply about keeping tax-payer-funded scientists honest.


I started howling, not really at the idea of the Conservapedia trying to cope with bacterial samples, but because nobody involved realized that "Dr. Richard Paley" is a long-standing and extremely dry hoax, associated with the OBJECTIVE: MINISTRIES website. The tone of the remarks above changes drastically when the reader begins to suspect that the author is not exactly what he seems to be, and is simply feeding the lunatic fringe a bit more rope, the better to hang themselves with. "Dr. Paley" was busy a few years back, accusing Apple Computer of a Satanic plot, the details being both absurd and irrelevant. There was some outrage over the exercise in the blogosphere, but it got back to Richard Dawkins, who much to his credit immediately recognized it as a gag.

* I have been getting emails on occasion, asking me to place a banner ad on my site. They were obviously bogus because the products and services the ads were supposed to support had nothing at all to do with anything on my site, meaning I was being targeted at random, but I had no idea of what the game was.

I finally did some poking around and got at least half an answer. It appears that there are some scammers on the internet who like to distribute malware in the form of flash animations through banner ads. Since the big online advertisers are wise to such games, the scammers can't place their ads through them, so what they do is contact individual websites and try to get them to support their sneaky ads. I was a little surprised that flash animations could actually be used to write malware -- but given past history of the ingenuity of scammers, by no means astonished. There's no saying that all the requests to place ads were bogus, but it seems anyone playing this game is traveling in bad company.

A few weeks later I got an email from somebody claiming to be an official with a domain name registration company in China, telling me about a conflict between my website's domain name and somebody else who wanted to use it. I thought "scam" as well, and a little checking around showed it was a running fraud, using domain name conflicts as a way to pry money out of suckers. I have petty counterscams of my own to use on such folks -- no, I won't say what they are, no use giving up secrets.