* Entries include: Doctor Tatiana on the evolution of sex, the war against Islamic terrorism, finishing up Florida road trip, genetically non-identical twins, telemedicine, keeping the Beijing Olympics fed, ingenious small drones, traffic control software & improved transmissions, building up farming in Russia and US inner cities, Bruce Ivins & anthrax terrorism, difficulties with food aid, new developments in airships, the business of wind power in the USA, and cyber spies.
* NEWS COMMENTARY FOR AUGUST 2008: In late July, Barack Obama decided to take a break from running for president of the United States and go on a grand tour, flying in a jumbo jetliner displaying his name to the Middle East and Europe. In reality, of course, the trip was a roundabout campaign exercise, not a diversion but a way of shoring up his often-assailed lack of foreign-policy credentials.
The ploy might have backfired, with observers recalling how George Dukakis badly shot himself in the foot by playing in a main battle tank in the 1988 elections, but the tour was a triumph, with the senator greeted like a rock star in Berlin and appearing thoroughly presidential throughout. Obama also got lucky in a number of ways: although he had been roundly criticized for suggesting direct talks with Iran, the White House blindsided the critics by sending a senior State Department official to do just that. In addition, although Obama's notion of a 16-month timetable for withdrawal of American troops from Iraq has become much more of a political liability than it would have been in the dark days of 2006, the Bush II Administration and the Iraqi government came to an agreement on a troop pullout by 2011.
To be sure, the pullout is conditional, but the McCain campaign couldn't have been too happy about it. There was nothing they could dare say, however, since the Americans want to leave and the Iraqis want them to go. If it can be arranged, everybody will be the happier for it. For the moment, Obama is leading McCain in the polls -- if not by much, and McCain was gaining by the end of the month. Obama's selection of Senator Joe Biden from Delaware, a strong foreign-policy player, was regarded as a positive move, though how much it will gain the Obama campaign is of course unclear. November isn't that far away, but a lot can happen in that interval. Predicting a winner seems idle: we might as well just wait and see.
I was certainly glad I didn't live in Denver during the week of the Democratic National Convention there in late August. I heard that accommodations were so tight in Denver that rooms were let for the campaign even here in Loveland, about an hour's drive north of Denver city center on Interstate 25. I did catch some reports -- encouragingly, the Clintons were on their good behavior at the convention, throwing their considerable weight behind the Obama campaign.
* The first big world news this month was squabbling between Russia and Georgia over South Ossetia. The circumstances are complicated. The province of South Ossetia broke away from Georgia during a civil war in 1990 and proclaimed itself an independent nation, though the government is not recognized by any other country. The government of Georgia wants to take South Ossetia, as well as Abkhazia, another breakaway province. Georgians are actually a minority in South Ossetia, with most South Ossetians hoping to link up with their ethnic relatives in North Ossetia, which is an autonomous region in the Russian Republic.
In the spring of 2008, NATO said that Georgia would be allowed to join the alliance, which did not please Moscow at all; the Kremlin ramped up support for separatists in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Border squabbles began to ramp up, and on 7 August Georgian forces invaded South Ossetia. The Russians responded, sending in their own forces into Georgia and conducting airstrikes deep into the country. The Russians did not stay in Georgian territory but withdrew with deliberate slowness, using the incursion to crush Georgian military assets. There were numerous incidents of "ethnic cleansing" between South Ossetians and Georgians during the fighting. The Bush II Administration has used the incident to label Russia as an aggressor, though the facts are considerably murkier.
* Russia is also making a fuss over the deal signed in August between the US and Poland, allowing the Americans to set up an anti-ballistic missile interceptor battery at a disused Cold War-era base. The Kremlin has reacted very angrily, though the intent of the defensive system is simply to provide some protection for Europe against an isolated missile launch from Iran or another Middle Eastern state. The interceptor battery will only have ten missiles and could not possibly deal with the kind of missile barrage the Russians could deliver. However, the deal with the Poles also involved supplying other defensive systems, particularly Patriot surface-to-air missiles, and nobody was really all that surprised that the Russians were unhappy about the deal.
* In other big world news this month, President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan, facing impeachment, finally decided to resign -- once again returning the country to purely civilian rule. How this plays out of course remains to be seen. It is interesting to wonder if this time civilian rule will stick: once a country's military has acquired the habit of taking over every now and then, it can be a difficult habit to break. It has been noted that India, Pakistan's rival, may have its problems but the "coup disease" isn't one of them. Indian generals and admirals are given a certain consideration by the politicians for this reason. With the example repeatedly set by Pakistan -- not to mention other regional examples such as Thailand, Bangladesh, and worst of all Myanmar -- the idea of a coup in India is not as seemingly impossible as it is in the USA.
* A recent AP article reported that the state of Texas, never noted for tolerance of antisocial behavior, is setting up a pilot program to put GPS bracelets on truant students to allow their movements to be tracked and controlled. Texas is not planning to slap ankle bracelets on every student in the public school system, focusing instead on the hard cases, particularly kids with gang links and juvenile court records. Of course, the truants will not be able to remove the bracelets. Not too surprisingly, the American Civil Liberties Union has replied that, while there is clearly a problem with truancy that needs to be addressed, Texas may be exceeding the bounds of what is constitutionally allowed by going to ankle bracelets.
Linda Penn, a San Antonio-area justice of the peace involved with the program, insisted the exercise was necessary and prudent: "We are at a critical point in our time where we can either educate or incarcerate. We can teach them now or run the risk of possible incarceration later on in life. I don't want to see the latter. Students and parents must understand that attending school is not optional. When they fail to attend school, they are breaking the law."
* In one of the more bizarre news reports for the month, an American couple, Jim Clay Harper and Danielle Bremer, took an extended European trip this summer -- leaving in their wake spray-painted graffiti signed "Ether" and "Dani" on train cars in London, Madrid, Paris, Hamburg, Frankfurt, and elsewhere. On their arrival home to the USA, they were promptly arrested on outstanding felony charges for vandalism they had performed at home as well. The two are facing stiff prison sentences if convicted, since their "tagging" activities caused tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands of dollars of damage. Of course, their activities in Europe are not directly relevant to the charges they face in American court, but US law-enforcement officials are working with their counterparts across the pond to support any charges that may be brought against the couple in foreign courts.BACK_TO_TOP
* IDENTICAL TWINS? It has long been a general assumption, both among the public and the scientific community, that identical twins, product of a single fertilized egg that split at the outset, were clones of each other, for all practical purposes genetically identical. As reported in an article in SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN ("Copy That" by Charles Q. Choi, May 2008), much to the surprise of all, that's not completely true.
It is certainly known that identical twins are usually distinguishable, at least by those who know them well, and that they may have different medical histories -- one might be diabetic and the other not -- but this was chalked up to variations in development and environment. Molecular geneticists Jan Dumanski and Carl Bruder, both at the University of Alabama, Birmingham, performed a genetic study of nine sets of twins in which one of the twins suffered from Parkinson's disease or some other neurological disorder. They found surprising genetic differences: one of the twins might have missing a gene the other had, or might have two genes where the other had one. That being somewhat surprising, they investigated further, checking out ten sets of healthy twins. In one of the sets, one twin was missing an entire chunk of chromosome 2 present in the other, and preliminary results suggested eight of the other twins also had significant genetic differences. As Bruder put it: "I can't tell you what a shock that was."`
The researchers also said their analysis was coarse, only tracking the genome down to chunks 150,000 DNA bases or more long, and that an analysis with higher resolution would very likely reveal even more variation. Such "copy number" variations appear to be due to DNA breakage and repair during development. However, although it might be assumed that the changes occurred very early in development, in the twin with the loss of a chunk of chromosome 2, the change was observable in only about 75% of the subject's red blood cells, suggesting the change took place relatively late in development.
Bruder still says that identical twins are much more genetically similar than non-identical siblings, and that the relatively small changes between twins make them an interesting research tool: "When you look between people who aren't twins who have a disease or don't, there are so many other differences you have to sort through. But with twins, it's so much easier to find what's different." Such twin studies may help uncover how the environment affects the genome. Bruder says that the results of the study "shows us how much more dynamic the genome is than we thought -- it's changing all the time, for good or for not."
* A sidebar to the article explained how gene copy number variations, with some people having fewer or more copies of the same gene than others, are being seen as an increasingly important genetic phenomenon. Studies suggest that about 12% of the human genome consists of copy number variable regions, and that human cultures where the people have a starchy diet have additional numbers of copies of the gene for amylase, a starch-digesting enzyme found in saliva. It is increasingly apparent gene duplications may well be much more common than previously thought, and that rapid proliferation of gene copies may be driven by evolutionary selection pressures.
* In other news on genetic studies, the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) has initiated a $100 million USD "Human Microbiome Project (HMP)", in which samples of body wastes and swabs of the skin and body orifices will be taken from 250 volunteers, with the microorganisms uncovered run through genetic analysis. Researchers expect to discover about a thousand bacterial species, and obtain about 200,000 genes from the lot of them.BACK_TO_TOP
* REMOTE DIAGNOSIS: As reported in an article in THE ECONOMIST ("Telemedicine Comes Home", 7 June 2008), the island group of Tristan da Cunha is about as isolated as any place on Earth, stuck smack in the middle of the South Atlantic. There's no airfield on the islands, which might suggest it is a bad place to get seriously ill -- but in reality the islanders have access to some of the most sophisticated medical facilities in the world. With modern communications, Tristan da Cunha is by no means isolated, with "telemedicine" linking the islanders to medical specialists on far-away continents. The islands are the target of an experiment, titled "Project Tristan", to demonstrate the potential of telemedicine technology. A satellite internet link connects medical facilities there to a 24-hour emergency medical facility in the USA. Medical data can be sent across the ocean for analysis, with local doctors chatting with their mainland colleagues over video.
More can be done with the concept. Teleoperated robotic-surgery systems have been used to perform operations where the patient is on one continent and the surgeon on another. That, however, may be a flashy but misleading example of what telemedicine is all about; instead of making sick people well, it may be more about implanting sensors in people with chronic conditions and keeping track of their health via wireless. Even today, some pacemaker users get their implants checked over the phone line, ensuring that they don't need to visit a clinic unless it's really necessary. A German firm named BioTel is working on a set of wi-fi-enabled sensors to measure glucose levels, blood pressure, and weight, with the data uploaded to a remote server for monitoring. Other medical technology firms are working on similar notions.
One of the frustrating things about modern medical technology is that it has traditionally followed a different learning curve from that of, say, computing technology: instead of providing broader capability at ever lower cost, medical technology has evolved toward ever more specialized capability at continually increasing cost. Enthusiasts for telemedicine feel that its leverage off modern information technology will ensure that it bucks the trend of steadily escalating costs. With rising numbers of elderly in Western societies, telemedicine may help address the looming health-care crunch.
Since patients aren't always diligent or competent in making use of their medical resources -- particularly if they are seriously disabled in some way -- considerable work is being done on automating monitoring systems and making them easy to use. A Swiss building-management firm is now testing a "wired house" scheme, using a network of sensors on doors, mattresses, pill boxes, and the like to allow the automated tracking and management of the activities of elderly patients.
Extending the concept further, some researchers believe that the ultimate goal of telemedicine is to monitor healthy people, helping them spot problems before they become a threat. Effective preventive medicine is always better and cheaper than reacting to problems, and as long as the monitoring isn't intrusive people will embrace it. Smart toilets that can spot problems in body wastes are a popular idea, though they're still basically a future. Coupled with intelligent diagnostic software, citizens could live with a level of preventive health care that is completely impossible today. The end result may be a future in which a patient does not call a doctor to report a problem -- the doctor calls the patient instead.
* THE ECONOMIST also had an interesting report on an interesting cellphone attachment developed by a team under Dan Fletcher, a professor of bioengineering at the University of California, Berkeley. The "CellScope" is a digital microscope that can be used to, say, examine individual white and red blood cells. That sounds like a pure science nerd thrill at first, but that capability could allow a field health worker to call up a specialist and find out if the cells indicate the subject they were taken from had malaria.
Imagery could be relayed to a database to support, say, clinical trials of new anti-malarial drugs. CellScope could also be used to allow cancer patients to self-monitor cell counts, or allow farmers to get a diagnosis of the cause of a crop blight. The usefulness of CellScope for diagnosis from remote areas has attracted help from Microsoft, Nokia, and the US military's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. In production, CellScope is expected to cost less than $100 USD.BACK_TO_TOP
* FEEDING THE OLYMPICS: The Beijing Olympics Games are now over, and it was certainly the event the Chinese were hoping for -- though they would have been happier if the event hadn't been accompanied by a continuous low rumble about China's deficiencies in human rights. Still, they have a right to be pleased at the success of such a massive effort.
Just how massive the effort had been was outlined in part by an article in BUSINESS WEEK ("3.5 Million Meals In 16 Days" by Nanette Byrnes, 18 August 2008) on the staggering logistics of just keeping the visitors to the games fed. The lucrative contract for the job had been awarded to Aramark, a Philadelphia-based food services company that has catered 13 Olympics games since 1968. The Beijing Olympics were a particular challenge, not merely in terms of scale -- millions, even tens of millions of servings to prepare, feeding 10,000 customers per hour -- but in terms of dealing with China's uncertain food distribution system, the tendency of the Chinese to use unusually high levels of pesticides and hormones in food production, and the difficulty of finding foods preferred by Western visitors. Planning the operation took two years, and that wasn't a generous amount of time.
Aramark is no household name, but the 49-year-old company is often the caterer at US sports stadiums and amusement parks. It has a quarter of a million employees in 19 countries, with 20% of sales outside the USA, and also includes hospitals, colleges, and prisons among its clients. Aramark officials didn't comment on how much the company made from the Beijing Olympics deal, but they acknowledge that the contract was as a way of opening doors to much more business in China.
The company's management went to great lengths to make sure the exercise was a success. They hired almost 7,000 Chinese to staff the facilities and then trained them up to Western standards of customer service, teaching them to make eye contact and converse with customers about the food being ordered. Aramark got Chinese government help to work with farmers and show them how to grow non-Chinese crops like squash, and brought local food subcontractors up to speed on preparation of dishes like ravioli. For Chinese cuisine, Aramark managers deferred to local subcontractors, even building a hidden kitchen so that a chef could keep his Peking duck recipe a secret.
China's food distribution network was a major problem. Shipping and food quality standards are lax by Western standards. Refrigerated trucks and warehouses are rare, with most Chinese buying food in local markets from producers in the immediate area. Aramark, working with a Chinese partner, actually built a refrigerated warehouse for its own use. The company did try to buy most of the food in China, but roughly a quarter had to be imported; for example, Chinese producers simply could not provide the quantities of turkey meat needed for sandwiches. Aramark officials also made sure their supplies met reasonable quality standards, and there were no real issues over food with the Olympic teams.
Aramark executives say that working with Chinese required patience, since they tend to work on a basis of consensus and do not make decisions quickly. However, once the deadlines started drawing close, even the Chinese knew that things were going to have to get done and decisions had to be made.
* A related article in the same issue of BUSINESS WEEK focused on the foreign contractors involved in providing security for the games. While much of the security was home-grown -- surface-to-air missile sites were set up around the "Bird's Nest" stadium to protect it from aerial attack by terrorists -- foreign companies including Honeywell, Panasonic, Siemens, and even Segway provided security gear to China for the event. A photo with the article showed Chinese paramilitary police in black SWAT-type uniforms on Segway transporters, aggressively brandishing Type 79 submachine guns for the camera.
GE was a particularly big player, providing security systems for airports, subways, and other installations. Foreign vendors selling security gear expect to continue to do a brisk business in China even now that the games are over. Human-rights activists are nervous, as well they might be: while high-tech surveillance equipment can keep an eye on terrorists, it can also be used to keep an eye on dissidents, and few imagine that Chinese security forces are going to make too much of a distinction between the two.BACK_TO_TOP
* THE WAR AGAINST AL-QAEDA (2): Welcome to the Taliban Hotel, a homestead in northwest Afghanistan not far from the Pakistan border. In September 2007, an American patrol discovered the abandoned structure while chasing insurgents. It had been used as a rest station for fighters crossing over from Pakistan into Afghanistan, but it is now occupied by American and Afghan troops. Not only was the site on an important infiltration route, the nearby hills provide excellent looking posts for optical and electronic observation of the ungoverned province of North Waziristan, across the Pakistani border.
The Americans are doing more than just keeping an eye on things, however. They are also setting up a government compound that will include a police station; building a "cultural center" that will become a mosque; working with locals on development issues; and trying to organize a "jirga" or council of elders that will be able to exert control over the area.
The current American approach to fighting the war in Afghanistan is very different to the one adopted after the invasion of the country in 2001. At that time, the mission was "find, fix, finish" -- which was no more than a rephrasing of the classic and discredited "search and destroy" -- but by 2006 the military leadership had realized that this wasn't the road to winning the conflict. The goal was changed to "protect the population", to assist in economic development and improve governance, with the slogan becoming "clear, hold, build". The approach seems to be working, but there are too few troops -- both foreign and Afghan -- to do an adequate job, and in any case the enemy remains generally out of reach across the border in Pakistan.
* The "tribal belt" in northern Pakistan is a wild place, home to Afghan and Pakistani Taliban, Pakistani sectarians, Kashmiri militants, and an assortment of foreign fighters. The mix includes al-Qaeda's senior leadership, who provide ideological direction, technical expertise, and training to Islamic militants. The local Pushtun tribes have accepted foreign fighters among them, having forged links since the days of the fight against the Soviets in Afghanistan. Some of the foreign fighters have married into local families, and some of the locals have embraced the cause of global jihad.
Al-Qaeda keeps a lower profile in the Pakistan tribal belt than the group did in Afghanistan before its eviction in 2001, but has rebuilt a considerable level of strength, enough to throw weight behind the Afghan insurgency. Pakistani government troops sometimes turn a blind eye towards the insurgents, but sometimes they help the Americans hunt them. Relations between the troops on both sides of the border are friendly enough, but when American officers are asked if they regard Pakistani forces as friends or foes, the answer is often: "Both."
On 10 June 2008, an American air strike killed 11 soldiers of Pakistan's Frontier Corps in the course of an attack on insurgents operating near the border of Afghanistan's Kunar Provide. A few days later, the Taliban performed a bold attack on a Kandahar prison that released hundreds of their fellows from captivity; Afghan President Hamid Karzai threatened to send his troops the border into Pakistan. Afghan officials claimed that Pakistani intelligence has been implicated in attempts to assassinate Karzai.
American troops and CIA operatives do sometimes operate in Pakistan, and the US tries to obtain as much intelligence on what is going on over the border. There are occasional precision strikes by artillery or unmanned aircraft on high-value targets in the Pakistani border regions. American officers recognize that the terrain there is very rugged and the rule of government law weak, and so the Pakistani military would be hard-pressed to maintain order there even under the best circumstances. There are considerable doubts, however, that controlling the border regions is regarded as a high priority in Islamabad.
The tribal belt is something of a cultural inheritance and something of a political artifact. It was carved out in the days of the British Raj as a buffer zone with Afghanistan, and the independent state of Pakistan acquired it as a semi-autonomous region -- with its citizens not granted the same rights as those of the rest of the country, but also not subject to the same level of control. These days, the seven districts of the "Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA)", the official name for the tribal belt, are under the theoretical control of the president's officer, working through the governor of the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) and government "agents" appointed among tribal leaders.
Over the past few decades, the Pakistani government tended to encourage Islamist sentiment among the tribes. That proved handy in the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan, and it was no problem after the Soviets left, since the Pakistani government was pro-Taliban, seeing the Taliban as able to provide stability in Afghanistan and back up Pakistan against India. In 2001, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf made an abrupt U-turn and signed up for America's "war on terror", but he made no strong effort to root out Islamic militancy in the FATA, allowing al-Qaeda to regroup there. Apologists for the president said he was simply overwhelmed; his many critics suspected more sinister reasons, for example the destabilization of Afghanistan.
The Pakistani military did cause al-Qaeda considerable trouble for a time, but the tribal peoples helped the jihadis fight the government, and in 2006 President Musharraf was forced to call a truce. The end result was that Pakistan had an entrenched al-Qaeda and Taliban presence, and of course the Islamic militants didn't restrict their operations to Afghanistan. In December 2007, prominent opposition politician Benazir Bhutto was assassinated, and the job was generally believed to be the work of Islamic terrorists.
Early in 2008, the Pakistani Army performed a massive sweep through South Waziristan, the biggest of the FATAs. The army then invited in foreign journalists to show them the progress made, but a few days later a tribal leader conducted a press conference of his own to show he was not cowed, telling them he had no problem with continuing operations into Afghanistan: "Islam does not recognize frontiers or borders."
* The situation in Pakistan has now become even more confused. Musharraf's presidency was always legally shaky, since he seized power in a coup and often had to go to extraordinary lengths to wire together any resemblance to legality to his rule. He was also in an difficult political position, being pressured by the Americans to hit the Islamic militants harder, while being regarded by many as an American stooge. Musharraf's rule was gradually weakened, and in August 2008 he was forced to resign, under pressure from the legislature.
Not all were happy to see Musharraf go, some finding him preferable to the alternatives. The country remains plagued by economic and political turmoil, and many Pakistanis remain conflicted, even in denial, over Islamic militancy in their country. Pakistani Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani says that the country must deal with Islamic militancy in its own way, fighting terrorists earnestly, but in a way that will reassure a public made cynical by Musharraf's rule. Gilani says that the tribal areas need to be integrated into the rest of Pakistan legally, socially, and economically, and that deals are being made to bring peace to the region. However, most of the effort is in the hands of the Pakistani Army, which has not traditionally been all that keen to curb Islamic militancy. The Americans are promising $750 million USD in development funds in the region, but the Pakistani Army seems too weary of painful fighting to be overly interested.
There have been some political successes in the FATA, with secularist parties winning the vote against the militants in some instances, but there are so many heavily-armed groups in the region that the formal ownership of local government is not necessarily all that meaningful. A local official says that a series of Pakistani governments encouraged the arming of the citizens in the region -- but with the result that "this monster was created, and nobody knows how to handle it." [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT
* DOCTOR TATIANA (7): One of the more interesting issues relative to violence in sex is the issue of sexual cannibalism. In some species of mantises, spiders, scorpions, and midges (little biting flies), the females are so predatory that the male stands a very good chance of being eaten by his mate.
A male mantis usually approaches a female very cautiously, taking a careful step at a time until he is in position to mount her. Once he mounts, she can't get at him, so he can inseminate her with confidence. Getting off again is problematic, but even if he becomes a snack, he's at least managed to propagate his genes to the next generation. In fact, the female can tear his head off before he begins, and his body will still continue to go through wild reproductive contortions with her.
Male spiders have a tougher challenge. They have four mouth parts, little fanglike arms called "pedipalps", and the lower pair are used as penises. The female's genital openings are on her belly, and so there's no safe way for a male to inseminate a female without being vulnerable. Some species of spiders have acquired defenses that a male uses to protect himself. A male of the species Tetragnatha extrusa has modified fangs that he can use to block the female's bite; the male crab spider Xsyticus cristatus ties up the female before mating, demonstrating that animals can get kinky; and the males of the tiny spider Argyrodes zonatus secrete a drug that puts a female in a stupor, making them something like the frat boys of the animal world.
The hunting spider Pisaura mirabilis has an extremely sensible approach to the problem, presenting the female with a meal, neatly wrapped in spider silk. This keeps the female busy and hopefully well-fed while the male gets the job done. Those who praise the neat rationality of this approach might do well to realize that it was just one possible evolutionary solution to the problem and consider the Australian redback spider, mentioned at the beginning of this series, which actually insists on being eaten. The redback male is much smaller than the female, and what ends up happening is that the only really effective position for sex is when the female has the male in her jaws.
From the logical point of view, why should such situations exist? Organisms have an evolutionary drive to reproduce, and it seems bizarre to make it difficult. Wouldn't mantis and spider females that didn't pose a threat to their mates have a reproductive advantage over those that did, and so gradually push the cannibals out of existence?
To be sure, if a female has an excess of suitors, making a meal of some of them is to the advantage of her and her brood, and as long as the male can inseminate the female before he becomes a snack, he's basically served his evolutionary purpose. Still, sexual cannibalism has clear drawbacks, and so most females of carnivorous species do not prey on males. In fact, not all species of mantises and spiders practice sexual cannibalism, with rationality prevailing so that males don't run the risk of being both mate and dinner. However, evolution cares nothing for reasonableness, it only cares about what works, no matter how perverse and ugly it looks -- and so sexual cannibalism persists. [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT
* CHECK IT OUT: The US Navy is finally acquiring a new ocean-patrol aircraft, the "P-8A Poseidon", based on the Boeing 737 jetliner -- imagine a 737 bristling with antenna fairings plus torpedoes and missiles under the wings. The P-8A is intended to replace the long-suffering turboprop Lockheed P-3C Orion, but the Navy's search for that replacement was protracted and the P-3C is still having to soldier on, longer than anyone had expected it to.
One of the fairly obvious limiting factors in how long an aircraft can remain in service is airframe life. Engines can be overhauled or replaced, avionics can be updated to a degree, but once the airframe itself starts getting weary, the aircraft basically has to be rebuilt or it tends to do unpleasant things like shed a wing. It turns out that for an ocean patrol aircraft, one of the things that stresses the airframe, and also gobbles up fuel, is the need to descend to lower altitude to check out a target and then climb to patrol altitude again. It would be nice if the aircraft could check out the target in detail while remaining at altitude.
Ocean patrol aircraft usually carry a load of sonar buoys or "sonobuoys", in the form of cylinders launched from ejector tubes that parachute down to the sea to either passively listen for submarines or perform sonar echolocation on them. The sonobuoys relay their data back over a radio datalink to a processing system on board the patrol aircraft. The thinking is: why not build miniature drones that can be launched from the sonobuoy tubes? A mini-drone could be dropped over a target and then descend to give it a good looking-over.
Two companies are working on the scheme. Lite Machines of West Lafayette, Indiana, is developing the "Voyeur", which looks like an elongated lipstick tube. After it is dispensed from a sonobuoy tube, it parachutes down to operational altitude, where it deploys contrarotating helicopter blades. Advanced Ceramics Research of Tucson, Arizona, is taking a more conventional approach with their "Coyote", which is similar to designs of other "tube launched" mini-drone now in service: the vehicle pops out wings, fins, and a pusher propeller, then flies as a fixed-wing aircraft. Both designs are expendable.
The program envisions a mini-drone with an endurance of 1 to 1.5 hours and a cost in small quantities of $10,000 USD -- with the cost cut to half to a quarter of that sum for a buy of hundreds of thousands of units. Even at the top end of the price range, that's cheaper than the fuel wasted in descending and climbing again. The Navy also has a complementary program for a larger drone that could be dropped out of a patrol aircraft's bombbay to perform wide-area searches of its own; it would then fly to a land base for recovery. Several firms are working on demonstrators.
* Incidentally, the idea of dropping a drone from a sonobuoy tube is not, broadly speaking, all that new. There has been work on small drones that could be fired as an unguided rocket "warhead", and even test shots of a drone that could be sent downrange in an artillery shell -- which suggests an aircraft that could stand the shock of a lot of gees.
In other drone news, AVIATION WEEK reports that Ohio-based Defense Research Associates is developing an unusual hand-launched drone named the "Devilray" for the US Air Force Research Laboratory. The Devilray is a flying-wing type aircraft with a span of 122 centimeters (48 inches) and a weight of 2.7 kilos (6 pounds). Like most drones in its class, it is powered by rechargeable lithium batteries; what makes it unusual is that it will be capable of finding a power line with a magnetometer and then clamping onto the line, using inductive charging to top off its batteries. I had to check the date on the issue to make sure it wasn't 1 April.BACK_TO_TOP
* GETTING AROUND: One of the odd things about traffic jams is that they can occur even when the roadways are operating well below their actual capacity. It would be nice to see if applying some sort of digital intelligence to the problem would help; as reported in THE ECONOMIST ("Turn Left. No Right. I Mean Left", 15 March 2008), work is underway to such an end.
This summer, a traffic intelligence system will be deployed between New Jersey and North Carolina on 4,000 kilometers (2,500 miles) of congested Interstate 95 and its adjacent roads. The system will collect traffic data from road sensors, cameras, and reports from police patrols and the like. Very importantly, the system will also obtain data from the satellite navigation systems in thousands of vehicles -- mostly trucks and taxis -- that ride over these roads. The information will be crunched by a company named INRIX, a Microsoft spinoff based in Washington State. The results will be used by highway authorities, emergency services, and suppliers of navigation devices like Garmin, TomTom, and Clear Channel. Since commercial vehicles commonly carry navigation devices to help locate vehicles and schedule deliveries, the system has a ready-made user base.
While navigation systems in private cars tend to be much more the exception than the rule, mobile phones are common, and they can also be used to provide traffic data, since they are monitored as they pass from one cell to the next. TomTom is working with Vodafone to set up a traffic-information service this year in the UK, Germany, and the Netherlands. The scheme obtains traffic data from mobile phones, with the data then provided to navigation systems featuring mobile-phone connections.
One problem with navigation is that roads tend to change, sometimes temporarily as road work is performed and sometimes permanently as routes are added or changed. TomTom allows users to update maps on their navigation systems and then upload the results; after validation, the changes go into TomTom's map database. The scheme has been in place since last year, with a million updates provided in a total of 30 countries.
Traffic intelligence can not only benefit from such real-time data, it can also leverage off historical data. Journey Dynamics of the UK operates a computer modeling system that crunches both historical and real-time traffic data, factoring in weather, road work, and the idiosyncrasies of different kinds of vehicles -- big trucks don't climb hills as well as sports cars, for instance -- to provide optimum routes for drivers. It seems unlikely that all these gimmicks will be able to solve the problem of traffic jams, but few doubt that they will provide some relief.
* Another article in THE ECONOMIST ("Changing Gears", 7 June 2008), discussed the widening range of options available to car buyers for automotive transmission systems. Once upon a time, the transmission was a simple issue, the choice was either manual or automatic, with about 80% of Europeans choosing manual and about 90% of Americans choosing automatic. The option list has expanded in recent years, for example with the "automated manual" transmission, also referred to as the "semi-automatic" or "clutchless automatic" transmission. As with a manual transmission, the driver controls which gear ratio to use, but there's no need to stomp on a clutch pedal: an electronic system uses a set of actuators to actually perform the shift as indicated by the stick position.
The idea is actually not all that new, but it's only become practical recently. Some industry observers think the days of the clutch pedal are now numbered, in the same way that electronic fuel injection effectively killed off the carburetor in the 1990s. Some who are addicted to the coordination of stepping on the clutch pedal and snapping the stick shift into higher gear may regret the passing of the clutch, but the new technology is not only more effective, it is lighter because the gear changes are much more accurate and don't demand a gearbox that has to be built to put up with the abuse of sloppy shifting. Lighter also means cheaper: these days, digital smarts are a relatively minor part of the cost of a chunk of hardware.
The digital smarts can add additional functionality as well. The Ferrari 612 Scaglietti uses an automatic manual transmission with the stick on the steering column; it also has a button labeled AUTO that will tell the car to take over shifting in a fully automatic fashion that has little resemblance to the annoying sluggishness of a traditional automatic transmission. At low speeds, it does shift at a placid pace, but if the driver wants to get aggressive, the software smarts will shift as needed, with shift changes in milliseconds -- much faster than any human could achieve. The system was developed for Formula 1 racers.
One interesting variation on the automated manual transmission is produced by Borg-Warner of the US under the various names of "DualTronic", "Direct Shift Gearbox", or "s-Tronic", depending on what car manufacturer uses it. As with the Ferrari, gear selection can be manual or automatic; what makes the DualTronic transmission different is that it has two parallel gearboxes. One gearbox handles first, third, and fifth gear, while the other handles second, fourth, and sixth gear. This dual arrangement allows the instant shifting between consecutive gears by switching from one gearbox to the other, with the idled gearbox then shifting up two gear ratios to pick up when the load is passed back to it.
Such smart transmissions are usually intelligent enough to prevent a driver from doing dumb things, for example clumsily trying to shift into reverse by accident when the car is screaming down the freeway in high gear. The smart transmission also does much to improve fuel efficiency, though the cost premium is high at present. That is likely to change as automatic manual transmissions take over.
Much fuss has been made for a long time over continuously variable transmissions (CVTs), but CVTs tend toward the complicated and they don't buy much at high speeds. One answer to CVTs is to add more gear ratios -- manually shifting between eight gear ratios would seem absurd, but when the shifting's done by a chunk of silicon, there's nothing to it. The days when novices trying to figure out how to get a manual transmission to work, suffering through an uncomfortable learning curve of lurches and stalls, may be coming to an end -- to be replaced by an uncomfortable learning curve of just figuring out what kind of transmission a car actually has and understanding what it does.BACK_TO_TOP
* BACK TO THE SOIL: While the modern Russian state is currently awash is oil money, much of the dislocation left over by the collapse of the USSR still lingers. As reported in BBC WORLD Online ("Turning Russia's Rich Soil Into Riches" by Daniel Fisher), there are vast tracts of Russia that were once farmed but have been abandoned and reverted to the wild. Given the skyrocketing price of food on the international market, the redevelopment of Russian agriculture would seem like a no-brainer, but Russian authorities haven't been overly concerned about the matter.
Foreigners, however, are lending a hand. In 2002 two Britons, a commodities trader named Richard Willows and a farmer named Colin Hinchley, bought a large tract of abandoned land in the Penza region of southern Russia. Now the Heartlands Farm is a showcase for what can be done in Russia with modern agritech. Says Hinchley: "This land was just scrub land. It's not been farmed for eight or nine years, so we have to cut away the vegetation, the grass and all the trees and begun the cultivation process. The soil is very good and very consistent, considered one of the best growing mediums in the world ... So far we have managed to double the yields, but this year we expect three times a normal Russian yield -- around six tonnes a hectare."
Other foreign agro-industrial giants have followed, as have Russian entrepreneurs who see that the empty fields could be converted into gold. The growing agritech farms make a striking contrast to the poverty and backwardness of the rural peasantry alongside them, where the people scratch out a living using the same tools that their great-grandparents did; rural villages are often dilapidated and abandoned. The big industrialized farms, with their GPS-guided tractors and genetically modified crops, are the wave of the future, finally promising to bring the notoriously impoverished rural Russia into the 21st century. The main worry is that the modern Russian state is not that much more effective, and the temptation to skim money off the big farms may proved difficult to resist.
* In oddly parallel news, BBC WORLD Online also ran an article ("Urban Farming Takes Root In Detroit" by Matthew Wells), an American non-governmental organization (NGO) named Urban Farming is focusing on he agricultural development of the decayed inner city. In 2005, a Detroit singer named Taja Sevelle had a bright idea: take urban wasteland and convert it into vegetable gardens that would supplement the diets of local poor. Operating with a stake of a few thousand dollars, she managed to sell her ideas to the citizens of influence in Detroit. Now over 500 family-sized plots dot the long-blighted urban landscape.
Locals say they are astonished at the transformation and throw their weight behind raising the crops. Some work as part of rehabilitation programs conducted by the county jail; one of them says: "It's good for me to know that I'm helping somebody instead of hurting somebody."
Urban Farming is taking the concept across America and even overseas. There is some skepticism that the scheme will survive its initial utopian enthusiasm, but there are others who believe it's got nowhere to go but up. Says Nolan Finley, an editor at THE DETROIT NEWS: "Today's reality is that we have a lot of vacant space, and not much economic opportunity. You could have urban farming -- you could have livestock in some of these stretches of empty land. You could reforest it into tree farms so you're not maintaining a sidewalk, a power line, for a street that has two houses on it."BACK_TO_TOP
* THE WAR AGAINST AL-QAEDA (1): The loose-knit Islamic terrorist network now known as "al-Qaeda" had its origins in Pakistan two decades ago. Today the likeness of the movement's nominal head, Osama bin Laden, remains in wide circulation in the country -- particularly on books of matches marked with his face and a reward, now up to $25 million USD, for information leading to his capture. As reported by a survey on al-Qaeda in THE ECONOMIST ("Winning Or Losing?" by Anton La Guardia, 19 July 2008), the matchbooks suggest a dual story: al-Qaeda has been put on the defensive, with its leadership in hiding, but the network still remains at large and dangerous. Following the 11 September 2001 attacks on the USA, America declared a "global war on terror" against al-Qaeda; seven years on, the results of the conflict are ambiguous.
Al-Qaeda lost its base in Afghanistan but has regrouped in Pakistan; Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of the 911 attacks, has been put on trial at the Guantanamo Bay detention center, but Osama bin Laden hasn't been caught; other leaders have been killed or captured, but new ones have taken their places; the Islamic terrorist network has been weakened by its own excesses, but still finds plenty of young zealots willing to perform suicide attacks.
America has been spared further attacks and many plots have been foiled, but bombings have been successfully carried out in major European cities and elsewhere. Al-Qaeda remains the most dangerous security threat to Western nations and many other countries as well. Western intelligence worries that al-Qaeda is working on chemical, biological, and radiological weapons, or even may obtain a nuclear weapon.
* Al-Qaeda did not come out of nowhere. The terrorist attacks on international targets by Palestinian groups in the 1970s were remote ancestors of 911; Hezbollah used highly effective suicide bombing attacks against the US and others in Lebanon in the 1980s, with such suicide tactics becoming preferred in the Palestinian intifada that began in the 1990s; and Algerian terrorists who hijacked a French jetliner in 1994 planned to fly it into the Eiffel tower before they were taken down by French antiterrorist commandos.
What al-Qaeda introduced was a new mindset. To the extent that there were international terrorist attacks from the 1970s into the 1990s, they were generally outgrowths of regional conflicts. Al-Qaeda, in contrast, adopted a deliberate policy of attacking American interests around the world, focusing on strikes against "soft targets" intended primarily to rack up the largest possible "body counts" against unarmed civilians.
The network had its roots in the successful effort to evict the Soviets from Afghanistan in the 1980s. In the wake of the Afghan war, Islamic fighters believed they would enjoy further successes in their homelands, but extremist insurgencies in Egypt, Algerian, and other Islamic lands were quickly suppressed. Many fighters lost interest, particularly when the fighting in Afghanistan spiraled out of control after the Soviets left. However, a hard core survived and decided that a change in approach was required. Ayman al-Zawahiri, the Egyptian who co-founded al-Qaeda and remains its most vocal spokesman, articulated the new vision in his memoirs, titled KNIGHTS UNDER THE PROPHET'S BANNER. The problem with fighting governments in Islamic lands, as he saw, was that it did not deal with the ultimate cause of the trouble: these governments were stooges of the West, the "Jewish-Crusader alliance" as he called it, and no matter how hard these governments were attacked, their foreign patrons would back them up. Better to strike directly at the real source of the problems.
As he described it, such tactics would not only be "a blow to the great master", they would rally Muslims across the Islamic world to the cause of holy war -- jihad -- and would also strain the relationships between the Americans and their Islamic client states. Ultimately, the USA would either have to pull back or intervene directly in Islamic countries, and a direct intervention would turn the battle into a "clear-cut jihad against the infidels."
That was the agenda behind the 911 attacks, but at the outset the strategy seemed to have backfired. In 2001, America and its allies quickly defeated the Taliban in Afghanistan and evicted al-Qaeda from its bases there -- but then, flush with what seemed at the time an easy victory, the US decided that it was time to deal with Iraq's Saddam Hussein as well. He had been a thorn in the side of the US through most of the 1990s, and American conservatives had long been after his head. Saddam Hussein's connections to global Islamic terrorism, which were in reality weak at best, were played up as part of the drumroll to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. That also seemed to go well at first, but overconfidence led the Americans into a bloody fiasco. US troops ended up bogged down in a vicious struggle with insurgents, and Iraq proved the rallying point for Islamic militancy that al-Qaeda had been after.
* However, although nobody will ever be able to successfully describe the US invasion of Iraq as a stroke of brilliance -- there is little doubt that it will go down in history as a classic example of leadership shooting themselves in the foot -- by 2008, after much hardship, the Americans and their Iraqi allies seemed to be getting the upper hand. Now anti-terrorist experts and officials are sounding confident. Michael Hayden Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, told an interviewer in May 2008: "On balance, we are doing pretty well. Near strategic defeat of al-Qaeda in Iraq. Near strategic defeat for al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabia. Significant setbacks for al-Qaeda globally, and here I'm going to use the word 'ideologically', as a lot of the Islamic world pushes back on their form of Islam."
General Hayden was accused of complacency for his remarks. Professor Bruce Hoffman of Georgetown University in Washington DC, pointed out that al-Qaeda has been counted out of the fight before, and repeatedly come back literally with a bang. One of the problems with fighting the network is the fact that it is indeed a network: it does have a core organization, possibly numbering in the hundreds of "soldiers", but it has an octopus web of connections to militant Islamic groups around the world. Some counterterrorism experts compare it to a venture capitalist association that backs promising projects by enterprising groups that are otherwise independent. Al-Qaeda is an effectively stateless entity, entirely modern in its use of the "virtual caliphate" of cyberspace to support its aims.
The lack of major government backing weakens al-Qaeda somewhat. International terrorism supported by, say, Iran poses a much greater potential threat because of the resources the Iranians could provide. However, as usual a real threat trumps potential threats, and the immediate worry is al-Qaeda bombs going off in subway and train stations. We have an active war on our hands, and when fighting a war we have to ask: Are we winning or losing? [TO BE CONTINUED]NEXT
* DOCTOR TATIANA (6): This series has talked about the war of the sexes and described some of the tools used in the conflict -- tricks to disable the reproductive systems of females to prevent other males from gaining access, oversized testicles to overwhelm the sperm of rivals, and development of spectacular displays to impress potential mates.
There are also cases in which the war is just that, war. It is not unusual for confrontations to take place between competitive males, though they tend to be ritualized, the males generally having little evolutionary incentive to fight to the death for a chance to reproduce. After all, once they're dead their genes are out of the game for good. Usually the bigger male dominates, with smaller males beating a retreat, biding their time for another shot at it. In species where such male rivalries are strong, for example in elephants, the males tend to be substantially bigger than females.
However, sometimes males do have an incentive to fight to the death, generally in the case where the opportunity to reproduce is very restricted: a male only really gets one shot at it, and if he fails, his gene line dies out anyway. There are "annual" fishes that live in Africa and South America which only come to life in the rainy season, to then lay eggs in the mud and die off. The mud dries up and the eggs lie dormant until the next rainy season, when they promptly hatch into fish. The males then fight wildly among themselves for the chance to sire another generation; they will die soon anyway and have nothing to lose by staking their lives on the battle.
Males of some species have been able to come up with stealthy schemes to bypass confrontations. Consider the bluegill sunfish. Big sunfish males will set up a territory where females can come to spawn; the male then inseminates the eggs. There are runty sunfish that can crash the party because they look like and act like females. The big male lets the "transvestite" in, with the intruder then attempting to fertilize the eggs left by females.
* Males can also use force against females. Rape is actually fairly common among animals. The males of solitary bees, such as bumblebees, and solitary wasps tend to light onto any female who comes by without the slightest ceremony and can make quite a nuisance of themselves. Females of the sagebrush cricket will light on a male's back to chew up a set of vestigial wings; the wing stumps bleed, giving the female some nourishment. Females prefer virgin males who haven't been nibbled on. It's bait: a male grabs a female who checks him out with a beartrap-like structure on the male's back so the male can mate with her.
Anybody who's ever watched mallard drakes knows they can "gang bang" a hen, usually of another breed, and will rough her up to the point of tearing the feathers off the back of her head and leaving her bleeding. Of course, getting too rough with a female is evolutionarily counterproductive if the female is badly injured or killed as a result. Females may acquire countermeasures in response. Sharks tend to have rough lovemaking, with females sporting bite marks as a result, but the females have thicker skin than the males to tolerate it. They also bite back. Some extinct sharks had very odd structures on the top of the head that looked like handles, and it is believed they were -- such a structure was a "love handle" for a female to bite onto during sex, providing a bit more control over the operation.
In some species, such as the Australian seaweed fly, females always fight the males and the only way any male gets to mate is by forcing a female into submission. It sounds bizarre, but it is an ESS: the females are ensuring that only strong males parent their children. Wimps need not apply.
* Females do their share of fighting as well. Moorhens are lily-pad walker birds with oversized feet, similar to jacanas externally but not closely related to them. Like jacanas, male moorhens do the work of hatching eggs, and fat males are better at this, because they can hold out longer in the nest. As a result, a fat male moorhen is in considerable demand, and the females have it out over him.
In species where the male is supposed to help out raising the young, females will also go to considerable lengths to prevent the mate from straying, seducing him or hectoring him if he starts to stray, and also driving off competing females who might tempt him away. [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT
* GIMMICKS & GADGETS: THE ECONOMIST reported on a scheme by Dietrich Stein of the Ruhr University of Bochem to create a set of underground tunnels in the German Ruhr industrial area. The tunnels will be used by robot delivery carts that transfer cargoes between industrial sites or even to individual homes. The tunnels would be 1.6 meters (5.25 feet) in diameter, with the delivery carts running on rails and carrying load of up two standard pallets at 35 KPH (22 MPH). That's actually faster than typical traffic in the congested Ruhr; Stein is pushing the scheme on the basis that it will reduce traffic congestion and ensure reliable delivery of cargoes.
* Another ECONOMIST article reports that fingerprint reading systems are now becoming more widespread, as demonstrated by an internet fingerprint reader now being trialled by banks in Europe and South Africa. A user performing an online transaction is asked to provide a fingerprint, which is then compared to a fingerprint stored in a database. If it passes the comparison, the system then asks a user for a PIN code. More than one fingerprint can be used for authentication, and a particular fingerprint can be reserved to indicate that the transaction is being performed under coercion; the transaction will seem to go through but an alarm will actually be sounded. The finger will have to be alive and well for the system to work. The scheme provides very high security but at high cost, and so it may only be useful for those who demand more security than average. Voice signature systems are regarded as more applicable to the mass market.
* WIRED Online had an interesting short article on a visit to the US Federal Bureau of Investigation's (FBI) Regional Computer Forensics Lab (RCFL) in San Diego, California. The RCFL could be described generally as "CSI Digital", with the organization performing such tasks as the recovery of data from hard disks. One RCFL worker comments: "We've found video of gangsters rapping a song about a murder they committed."
Most of files recovered by RCFL had been deleted, but only a naive user believes that means the data has been destroyed. An ordinary delete means the sectors containing the data were simply disconnected from a file header and thrown back into the pool of sectors available on the disk for creating new files. Sectors containing useful data have even been recovered from hard disks that were damaged in fires.
The RCFL also works on other electronic systems, such as cellphones. Cellphones can be challenging because there are dozens of manufacturers, each with multiple models that have widely differing feature sets and operating principles. Evidence obtained includes a unique ringtone caught on a security camera during a holdup -- cellphones are always ringing at inconvenient times, aren't they -- and the notes kept by an Israeli suspect on his extortion activities.
The first US law enforcement computer lab was set up in 1998; there are now over a dozen. In 2007, the labs collectively performed more than 13,000 forensics examinations. RCFL alone handled more than 1,000 requests from 40 law enforcement agencies in 2007, including 171 child pornography cases and 160 murder investigations. In its early days, the RCFL examiners not only recovered the data, they analyzed it for evidentiary value based on the particulars of the case. But with exponentially growing data and caseloads, the 22 examiners at RCFL focus on collecting and preserving data in a manner that will hold up in court, then hand that data back to the police agency for analysis. No one can remember a case being thrown out because RCFL made an error, but they can remember cases where they found evidence that exonerated people charged with crimes.
* BBC WORLD Online had an interesting article on the "Design Against Crime" center at Central Saint Martins College in London. The center designs products designed to deter crime, using inputs both from law enforcement and criminals. Its products include "stealth belts" to hide valuables in underwear, laptop computer cases with alarms, and a "karrysafe" bag that shrieks if snatched.
The merits of a noisy bag might be debated, but the center's anti-theft chair sounds like a winner: a visitor to a pub or the like lifts up the seat top, stows valuables inside, and then sits on them. The latest gimmick developed by the center is an M-shaped bike stand, which ensures that anyone securing a bike to the stand chains up the frame, not the wheels. The center is now working on ideas to make mobile phone theft more difficult. Says one of the researchers: "I personally would like to design a phone that blows up when someone steals it." No doubt the final product will be something less drastic.BACK_TO_TOP
* ANTHRAX KILLER? Only a week after the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks on the USA, somebody sent off a set of letters to number of strangers. Within a month five people had died of anthrax, contracted from spores contained in the envelopes that had contained the letters. The five included two postal workers in Washington DC, a New York hospital worker, a Florida photo editor, and an elderly woman in Connecticut. Several others received the envelopes, but were saved by prompt medical attention. A national panic followed.
Nobody knew who sent the envelopes or why. The letters used the rhetoric of Islamic militancy, but their intended targets were generally liberals, suggesting a rightist was using the 911 attacks as a cover. Now, as reported by BBC WORLD Online, the mystery has taken another turn.
The US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) originally zeroed in on Dr. Steven Hatfill, who worked at the US military biological warfare center at Fort Detrick in Maryland, where the strain of anthrax had originated. Hatfill was finally exonerated after being thoroughly raked over the coals; he sued the Justice Department and won an award of $5.82 million USD in June 2008. Although the Hatfill investigation turned out to be a dead end, the FBI persisted, and in 2007 began to focus on a colleague of Hatfill's at Fort Detrick, 62-year-old Dr. Bruce Ivins. The evidence against Ivins began to pile up, and on 29 July 2008, he committed suicide by overdosing on non-prescription drugs.
Ivins' suicide left the Justice Department with the uncomfortable appearance of having hounded a man to death, and in the aftermath a Justice Department spokesman claimed that the evidence against Ivins was conclusive. Ivins had been responsible for the flask, labeled "RMR1029", that contained the specific anthrax strain used in the attacks; all others who might have had access to RMR1029 were cleared; Ivins had the non-trivial technical knowledge required to make use of the spores as a weapon; and during the timeframe of the attacks, Ivins spent much more extra time in the labs than he had before or did since.
The Justice Department did have their own reasons for wanting to finger Ivins as the culprit, and not all outsiders have found the case against him to be entirely convincing. Nobody can identify any strong motive Ivins might have had to perform the attacks, and statements by some who knew him that he was prone to write threatening letters were contradicted by others. The mystery of who actually sent the anthrax letters may never be resolved.BACK_TO_TOP
* FOOD AID FRUSTRATION: As discussed here in April 2008, the price of food is now beginning to persistently increase, in large part because of the demand for biofuels. This causes problems with food aid; an article in THE ECONOMIST ("Food For Thought", 29 March 2008), discussed the issue, which is threaded with ironies.
The first irony is that activists had long wanted higher food prices to help farmers in developing countries -- but though the high prices did help farmers, they also hurt city-dwellers and the landless rural poor who couldn't soak up the food price increases easily. Global food programs find their money isn't going as far as it did. The United Nations World Food Program (UN WFP) recently issued an urgent appeal for $500 million USD to cover higher food costs, while the US Agency for International Development (USAID), which is a major financier of food aid, wants $350 million USD.
The problem has been emerging gradually over the last few years. Even before the food price boom began, food aid funding was at historically low levels, possibly at half the level of two decades ago. Problems have also been on the rise. Central Africa and Afghanistan are the worst off, with about a third of the people in those nations going hungry; about a fifth to a third of the people of West Africa, the Indian subcontinent, and Bolivia aren't getting enough to eat; and there are even pockets of hunger in rich countries.
In a second irony, some activists feel the current crisis will actually improve matters over the long run, because food-aid policies to date tend toward the irrational, and could use some rethinking. One mistaken notion is that there is a global food shortage -- but this isn't the case, for the time being, there's plenty of food to go around. There are local problems, for example North Korea or Darfur, where politics and droughts cause real shortages, and food aid is definitely required. However, in most other places the problems are those of distribution and pricing, which are traceable more to government bungling than acts of nature. As one activist points out, America has droughts, but doesn't have famines.
Another irony is that the biggest problem is not sheer hunger from lack of food, but malnutrition from lack of the right food. This makes food aid more complicated than simply shipping bags of grain: it means fixing regional health-care system, making sure the food mix is appropriate, and educating locals in how to stay healthy. This is a lot of nitpicky work, and attracts much less effective lobbying than the grand goal of "preventing hunger".
Of course, bureaucracy is part of the problem as well. The USA has a policy of using tax dollars to buy food in America, with the food passed on to charities to sell elsewhere as a means of funding development. The system sounds murky and one economist has labeled it "a clever way to turn a dollar of taxpayer money into 50 cents for a non-governmental organization to spend." To compound the bureaucracy, the food must be shipped on American vessels. The Bush II Administration has acknowledged these problems, and the president has taken on powerful lobbies to try to push through more rational policies -- for example, placing more emphasis on procuring food from farmers in poor countries. CARE, a major US charitable organization, has now come out and refused to play the game by the old rules; the organization will accept donations, but will not accept food to sell for funding.
Josette Sheeran, boss of the WFP, is now working hard to change her agency's focus from simply shipping food aid to taking a broader view, expanding the WFP to provide surveillance and stockpiling instead of simply reacting to crises. Sheeran also believes that policies should be rationalized "in ways that complement them instead of distort them." Few are happy with the current dismal situation in world food aid, but there are those who see that it may drive some long-needed fixes in a system where much is broken.BACK_TO_TOP
* FLORIDA ROAD TRIP AGAIN (15): Sunday, 13 April, was my last day away from home. I got up early and took off north from Oklahoma City. My only real stop was the zoo in Wichita, Kansas. My timing was good, I got there just as it opened, but though the sun was shining brightly, there was a fairly nasty chill wind blowing. We hadn't had a very harsh winter in the Great Plains / mid-Rockies region, but spring had been slow in coming, and the climate felt more like March than April.
I wasn't sure I would pick up many shots, since I figured most of the animals would be hunkered down out of the cold, and I debated whether I should bother to drop in. I decided to do so on the basis that I might as well scope out the zoo facilities while I was there. It was actually a fairly nice zoo, too, though there was even more construction going on than there had been at the OK City zoo. They had an extensive aviary, but getting shots was very difficult -- my camera had got good and chilly, and so in the humid environment it was very difficult to keep fog off the lens.
I did get some good shots there and a few other places. The barnyard section of the zoo had exotic cattle -- water buffalo and African watusi cattle -- and there was nice Mexican wolf enclosure. One of the wolves seemed to be very cowed for no reason I could think of, slinking around with its tail between its legs; the others were just pacing around and paying it no particular mind. Anyway, I went through the zoo quickly and got back in the car, where I was glad to turn on the heat. My fingernails throbbed. I should've remembered to take along gloves.
* There's not much else to say about the trip back, other than as I got into eastern Colorado I noticed the remains of a snowstorm from the night before. Most of it had melted off, but there were still drifts in the hollows, some of them knee deep. It looked like there'd been quite a blizzard and I was glad I hadn't got caught in it. I got back to Loveland at a reasonable hour, though by that time the weariness was setting in and little annoyances were piling up; I had to get home before I got snappish.
Overall the trip was worthwhile. The high points were the Saint Louis Zoo, the Atlanta Aquarium, the ferryboat trip at Disney, the helicopter ride over Disney, and LA NOUBA. Everything else was generally satisfactory, though as I said a lot of it was just picking up spares and closing the file on a number of things. I don't have any interest in or plans to ever go to another theme park again, and after the visit to Sun 'N Fun I dropped plans of going to the Oshkosh air show.
That made the trip a bit unsatisfying, with the marginal accommodations in Kissimmee and the repeated driving screwups doing nothing to improve matters. That was sort of a shrug, however, since it was the last extended road trip I intended to take ... of course, I said that about the last one, but this time I felt more certain.
On a positive note, the trip came in well under budget, probably too much so, I should have spent more on hotel accommodations. I also had been trying to lose weight for a month before I left and was worried I would gain some of it back, but given the fact that I'm running around a great deal when I'm on the road and my meals are irregular, I didn't gain a bit. I did feel a bit better about things after I started sorting out the pictures later. They were, after all, the point of the trip, and the haul turned out better than I thought.
I do have plans to visit the big Aviation Nation airshow at Nellis AFB near Las Vegas in early November, but it'll be a short trip. I'll fly in -- I wouldn't want to risk getting trapped in the Rockies by a storm that time of year -- and catch a Vegas show, spend the night, see the airshow, maybe catch another show, spend the night, and fly out. I did some checking around and Cirque du Soleil actually has four different Vegas productions to choose from; this time I'll get a first-class seat, expense be hanged. Maybe next year I'll fly to Washington DC to get shots of the landmarks and the Smithsonian, though DC is the surliest place I've ever visited and I won't stay long. Other than that? I think my travel bug is fading out. [END OF SERIES]START | PREV
* DOCTOR TATIANA (5): One of the classic issues in the evolutionary biology of sex is the concept of "sexual selection", developed by Charles Darwin himself. Darwin was baffled as to why peacocks had such elaborate tails, saying the peacock's tail gave him the "shudders". Natural selection tends to weed out features of organisms that prove even slightly counterproductive to survival, and the peacock's tail certainly seemed to Darwin to be burdensome excess baggage. Incidentally, strictly speaking, the feathers come out of the back instead of the tail and so purists call it a "train", like a bridal train.
Anyway, Darwin wondered how evolution could produce such useless extravagance when it normally tended to create optimized adaptations. The fact that only the peacock, not the peahen, has the tail, was a big hint: sex had something to do with it. Darwin's idea was that it was a matter of female preference: peahens liked peacocks with impressive tails, and so that gradually encouraged the development of ever more impressive tails. It was later pointed out that the same process also tended to enhance the propagation of females that liked impressive tails, with the result that the development of impressive tails gradually "snowballed", until the tail was as much as the male could bear and still hope to survive. It is now generally recognized that this "feedback loop" tends to drive very rapid, extreme, and unique adaptations -- bright colors, elaborate tails, oversized racks of antlers, all of which amount to something of a giveaway clue that sexual selection has taken place.
The peacock's tail still seems like a whimsical extravagance, but a more modern line of thinking hints it has a basis in substance. The idea, known as the "handicap principle", suggests that only the healthiest males can properly support a decent tail, and so the tail is a sign that the peacock is likely to be a proper sire for a peahen's chicks. However, the tail seems to be a major investment just to allow the peacock to reproduce. To which the answer is: just to reproduce?! From an evolutionary point of view, reproduction is the ultimate goal, the drive to propagate genes. Simple "survival of the fittest" is only a means to that end; successful reproduction is the payoff.
The competition to reproduce can be intense, and so it is not surprising that it makes such adaptive demands on organisms. Sexual selection can produce features that make an organism more vulnerable, but the features persist anyway. Male field crickets will trill away loudly to attract mates, but in doing so they will also attract parasitic flies. The flies lay eggs in the crickets, with the fly larva killing the crickets a week later. In places where the flies become common, the singing of crickets becomes subdued as the loudest are killed off. When the flies are suppressed, the singing gradually ramps back up again in volume as the loudest males prove the most successful in attracting mates. [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT
* AIRSHIP DEVELOPMENTS: Airships were once common, but these days they embody the sort of technology that people keep tinkering with but which never seem to catch back on fire. However, there's certainly a lot of activity now and some of it might actually pay off.
AVIATION WEEK had an article on a California-based startup company named Worldwide Aeros that is now developing the "ML866 AerosCraft", a 64 meter (210 foot) long airship. It's not exactly a "lighter-than-air (LTA)" machine, however, being described as a "buoyancy-assisted aircraft with adjustable static heaviness".
One of the traditional problems with airships is the fact that they are designed to normally float up into the air, and so it can be a problem, sometimes a dangerous one, to keep them on the ground. A way around this is to design the vehicle so that it's normally heavy enough to stay on the ground, with the lifting gas only partly canceling out the weight, and can only get into the air when it's under power, using the vehicle's wings to obtain lift. That's where the term "buoyancy-assisted vehicle" comes from.
The concept has been around for a decades, but it wasn't until the US military's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) set up an investigation program a few years ago that anyone tried to developed such a machine. DARPA worked with Lockheed Martin to fly a full-scale demonstrator, the P-791, discussed here in March 2006. That particular program was canceled, but DARPA has continued to work on the concept with Worldwide Aeros, focusing on the development of an "adjustable static heaviness" system in which helium lifting gas is compressed to reduce buoyancy for landing and increase it for takeoffs.
Illustrations of the ML866 show something like a bulbous aircraft with an intake in the nose, stubby wings, and four stubby tailfins in an "X" configuration. The envelope is rigid, and designed to provide aerodynamic lift; the aircraft will use engine thrust vectoring for vertical takeoff and landing. It's being targeted at the business market and has a capacity of 28 passengers in roomy accommodations. Cruise speed is estimated at 220 KPH (120 knots), ceiling at 3,660 meters (12,000 feet), and range at 5,735 kilometers (3,100 NMI). This is one of those ideas that seems a bit like a long shot, but given the fuel crunch, if the economies are there it might be extremely attractive.
* In other lighter-than-air news, DARPA is now directing a program to develop a subscale demonstrator for a robot airship that would remain on station in the stratosphere for ten years. The production "Integrated Sensor & Structure (ISIS)" vehicle will be covered with solar cells; as the name implies, it will have an active-array radar integrated with the vehicle structure, with the radar able to track air targets out to 600 kilometers (370 miles) and ground targets out to 300 kilometers (185 miles). Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman are bidding on the contract for the demonstrator.
BAE Systems of the UK also recently unveiled a 22 meter (72 foot) long robot airship, the "GA22", at the Farnborough International airshow. It was originally developed by well-known sport balloonist Per Lindstrand can carry a payload of surveillance or communications gear weighing up to 150 kilograms (330 pounds) to altitudes of up to 1,980 meters (6,500 feet). At the present time, the GA22 is radio controlled, but the intent is to provide an autonomous guidance system.
Finally, a firm named SkyHook International out of Calgary, Alberta, Canada, has set up an arrangement with the Boeing helicopter division in Philadelphia (once known as "Vertol") to develop a hybrid neutral-buoyancy airship-helicopter, the "JHL-40", with a semi-rigid helium envelope, four tilting rotors, a length of 91 meters (100 feet), a range of 320 kilometers (200 miles), and a lift capacity of 40 tonnes (44 tons). Boeing will build two prototypes, with both US and Canadian certification expected in 2012. Off-the-shelf subsystems will be used when possible. Skyhook will be the sole user, and will contract out heavy-lift jobs in remote areas such as the Canadian Arctic. The JHL-40 will include living quarters for the crew of five, which will also provide a survival capability if the vehicle has to ditch in the remote wilderness.
The concept is not new. In 1986, the Piasecki firm flew the "PA-97 Heli-Stat", which consisted of a 105 meter (343 foot) aerostat on a frame joining four old Sikorsky H-34 Choctaw helicopters, with their tails cut off. The vehicle proved difficult to control in ground effect, resulting in a wreck that killed one of the test pilots. Boeing engineers believe that problem is now manageable.BACK_TO_TOP
* THE WIND BUSINESS: While wind power has been widely praised as a sexy green renewable energy technology, not too much attention has been paid to the business end of the matter. An article in BUSINESS WEEK ("Wind: The Power, The Promise, The Business" by Steve Hamm, 7 July 2008), took a closeup of how people are trying to spin money out of the wind.
Welcome to the Flint Hills of southeastern Kansas, where the wind blows often and strong. Pete Ferrell, a rancher and a fourth-generation Kansan, became a believer in wind power and his land now sites 50 of the 100 turbines of the Elk River Wind Project, with the complex providing 150 megawatts of energy. Ferrell had to push to make it happen, since local greens and politicians tied to the coal industry didn't like wind power, but he was persistent and the wind farm was finally set up in 2005. Ferrell is now one of the most prominent advocates of wind power in Kansas.
He's not a lone voice in the wilderness, either. The USA now has over 25,000 wind turbines generating 17 gigawatts of electricity. Capacity rose 45% in the last year and is expected to triple by 2012. However, growth is not necessarily going to come easily. America's prime wind power acreage is in the heartlands and along the coasts, and there are groups in both regions that oppose it. In addition, the electric power grid is inadequate to handle all the additional power generated by rapidly expanding wind farms.
It might seem that breezy Kansas would be a wind powerhouse, but the state has only about 300 turbines, while Texas has about ten times as many. The problem is that coal is king in Kansas as far as power is concerned, as demonstrated by a ferocious political rumble between Democratic governor Kathleen Sebelius and a Republican legislature, with the legislature pushing the construction of two new coal-fired power plants and the governor pushing back.
To compound the difficulty, to no surprise the most developed power infrastructure in Kansas is in the east, around Kansas City, while wind power is focused in thinly-populated regions to the west. Power-transmission system companies would like to install a proper power network to support wind power, and in fact the US Department of Energy (DOE) has paper plans to build a national "power superhighway" network to support new energy sources. The only problems are that it would cost $20 billion USD just to get started, and it can take years to wrangle through approvals through a hierarchy of bureaucracies running down to local authorities.
There's also the problem of cost: wind power costs about three times more than coal. However, coal prices are rising, and as critics point out, CO2 emissions aren't factored into the cost of coal. There's an enormous political battle going on all over the USA between those who believe that the cost of energy should factor in the appropriate carbon footprint, versus those who think that global warming is a fraud and carbon costs are a ripoff. Factoring in emissions and also the fact that wind power is more or less free after the plant has been installed, wind starts to look like a better bargain. States are increasingly requiring the use of more renewable energy, giving a boost to wind power.
It certainly seems like a bargain to a lot of Kansas farmers, many of them having been suffering economically; they see wind power as a way of advancing their fortunes. Pete Ferrell travels the state, advising groups of farmers who are interested in wind power on how to cut deals with developers; he's on offer as a consultant or even as a development director. He does warn that the day of the small wind power developer appears to be fading, that the big guys are getting into the business and squeezing the little guys. Any way that things turn out, however, it looks like wind power is here to stay in Kansas.
* A sidebar to this article looked at the somewhat troubled prospects for coastal wind power. It might seem that the big cities in coastal regions would be very happy to get sources of renewable power just offshore; they are, but there are factions who don't like the idea of wind turbines spoiling their seaward view. For almost eight years, critics have held up a wind power effort named Cape Wind, which has the goal of setting up 130 wind turbines in Nantucket Sound, about 8 kilometers (5 miles) south of Cape Cod. However, Jim Gordon, the entrepreneur driving Cape Wind, has been able to overcome most of the resistance, though he had to spend about $30 million USD to do it, in particular coming up with stacks of studies to show the wind farm would be a benefit to the region. Approval now seems likely, though not entirely certain; and once approved, Gordon still has to get financial backing for construction.
There's considerable interest in the result of this exercise, since sea breezes off America's coasts -- on the Atlantic, the Gulf of Mexico, even the Great Lakes -- are very strong and an obvious source of renewable energy. To be sure, it costs twice as much to set up an offshore turbine as one on land, but big coastal cities tend to suffer from high power costs to begin with and the premium isn't that big a concern. In fact, enthusiasm for coastal wind power is starting to grow, since the industry promises to provide jobs and economic development. Coastal wind power is already big in Europe; it has nowhere to go but up in the USA.
* An article in THE ECONOMIST elaborated on the big business of wind, discussing the plan of oilman T. Boone Pickens and his Mesa Power company to set up a network of wind farms running through the central USA from Texas to the Dakotas. The wind farms would cost a trillion USD to build, and another $200 billion would be needed to set up the high-voltage DC power lines to send the electricity elsewhere. Partly the idea is to free up natural gas currently used to provide electric power and use it to drive cars, possibly after conversion into a diesel-type fuel. Pickens believes that wind power will do a lot to make the USA more self-reliant in energy.
Mesa Power has already invested $2 billion USD to build the world's biggest wind farm in Pampa, on the Texas panhandle, with the company also building the power infrastructure to haul the electricity to Dallas. Although there's some resistance to wind farms among Texans, most are enthusiastic, since wind power has done much to revitalize many small dusty towns once headed for extinction. Many who live on the Texas panhandle feel that wind turbines couldn't do the scenery much harm anyway, one saying: "The landscape is an eyesore." Texas has gone from 180 megawatts of wind power capacity in 1999 to 5 gigawatts today, more than any other state in the Union.
There are some looming difficulties with expanding Texas wind power, however. Tax credits are about to die out, and the state's power infrastructure needs a lot of expensive upgrading. The Texas state government is now tinkering with a plan to build up the power transmission system, at a pricetag of $6.4 billion USD.
Pickens is doing everything he can to boost wind power, even spending tens of millions of his own money to promote it to the public. As Pickens puts it: "I've been a oilman all my life. But this is one emergency we can't drill our way out of." Although he sees a profit in it, he also wants to do something about energy independence, saying he is 80 years old and is worth $4 billion USD -- the money means less to him than getting the job done.
* For an interesting contrast, an article on energy issues in BUSINESS WEEK ("Nuclear's Tangled Economics" by John Carey, 2 July 2008) took a spyglass to John McCain's plans to build 100 new nuclear reactors, with 45 of them to be complete by 2030. Alas, although the latest designs for reactors are seen as extremely safe, the economics are still dubious: two years ago, a 1.5 gigawatt plant's pricetag was set at under $3 billion, but it's more than doubled since then -- and continuing to rise as price of construction commodities continues to skyrocket.
The US Congress is offering tax subsidies and $18.5 billion USD in load guarantees, with the loan guarantees seen as paving the way for commercial funding. However, as the price of a plant skyrockets, $18.5 billion USD is just peanuts and doesn't go very far. There are also few companies that have the expertise and plant to build critical reactor components; overall, while backers of nuclear energy are bullish, those who have the money to build new reactors are skittish. Nuclear power has a long history of being financially oversold but ruinous in practice; even if things have changed, financiers are going to need some convincing to buy in. Nothing is ever simple, is it?BACK_TO_TOP
* CYBERSPIES: As reported in BUSINESS WEEK ("The New E-Spionage Challenge" by Brian Grow, Keith Epstein, and Chi-Chu Tsang, 21 April 2008), on 5 September 2007, an executive at Booz Allen Hamilton became suspicious of an email that had supposedly been sent by the Pentagon, listing weapons that India was interested in buying. However, it had an attachment that, under investigation, proved to contain a virus that became known as "Poison Ivy" that would have covertly sent company information to an unknown recipient. The email headers were faked; nobody knew the real origin of the message, though it had been routed through South Korea, and the address that the virus reported to was in China. No antivirus program could have picked up Poison Ivy, since antivirus programs can only detect viruses that have already been identified. Anyone who has the skills to write a new virus from scratch can slip through such defenses.
The attack was different from the "phishing" attacks used by scamsters to con email recipients into giving up bank account information. Such emails are mass mailings that don't identify a recipient; this email was individually targeted, supposedly sent by a well-known Air Force official to a specific recipient at Booz Allen Hamilton. Such a precise attack is known as "spear-phishing". It wasn't hard for the hackers involved to pick the target, either, since a modest amount of "reconnaissance" on the open internet easily yields the names and contact details of officials with access to sensitive information.
US government agencies reported almost 13,000 cyber attacks in 2007, 55% more than in 2006, when the threat became visible. The defense community began to react, leading to a discreet meeting at the Pentagon between the military and the representatives of 20 major defense contractors where the threat was discussed. At that time, the Defense Department became so painfully aware of sophisticated, precisely targeted attacks on their systems that the military coined a new phrase to describe them: "advanced persistent threats".
It can be hard to determine where the attacks are coming from, but whatever their origin, they are as a strong rule not at all casual, not the work of kids playing pranks. Both Russia and China have already recognized the importance of the digital battleground. The Chinese are particularly enthusiastic about it, since they know they can't beat the US with brute force. Dozens of other countries are also engaged in military hacking operations at a lower level of funding. The battle is raging away, with hackers doing everything they can to penetrate US Department of Defense systems and systems of major defense contractors.
Both the Chinese and Russians deny they have anything to do with such activities. Says a Russian government spokesman: "Russia has never engaged in any kind of cyber intrusions in the US or any other countries. All these kinds of reports and articles that appear from time to time are pure speculation. They don't deserve to be commented upon." Of course intelligence services never admit that they are spying on anyone, and the simple truth is that, given the poor state of internet security, hacking is a cheap and effective means of obtaining intelligence. They'd be foolish if they didn't do it.
The Pentagon is believed to have a secret program, codenamed BYZANTINE FOOTHOLD, focused on dealing with the cyber threat. In January 2008, US President George Bush quietly signed an order known as the "Cyber Initiative (CI)" that committed billions of dollars to the struggle. The CI envisions reducing the number of portals between the government and the internet from over 4,000 to less than 100, allowing communications to be monitored more effectively; developing improved detection and defensive measures; requires that standards be developed to ensure that government information-tech purchases are secure; and promotes education to improve cyber security. For all the effort, however, there's still considerable uneasiness in the US defense community that the threat is manageable. Certainly nobody feels it's under control now, which leads to the uncomfortable question of how much nastier it would be if we weren't trying to stay on top of it.
* According to a related BUSINESS WEEK article ("Recruiting For The Cyber Wars" by Keith Epstein & Brian Grow, 15 April 2008), Uncle Sam wants to see more cyber geeks in uniform and has recently begun an advertising campaign to call them to arms. A video released on YouTube as part of the campaign displayed the Pentagon and said: "This building will be attacked 3 million times today. Who is going to protect it? Meet Staff Sergeant Lee Jones, Air Force Cyber Command, a member of America's only cyber command protecting us from millions of cyber threats every day."
While the military still believes in air support, boots on the ground, and firepower, there is an increasing recognition of the importance of the emerging cyberwar battleground -- and the brass admits they don't have a clear handle on how to fight that kind of a battle. Cyber Command, led by Air Force General William T. Lord, doesn't have a real home yet -- it's residing at Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana until it gets its own facility, probably in late 2009 -- and isn't fully staffed. Lord expects to have 500 personnel once Cyber Command is running on all cylinders, but it's a challenge finding young men and women with the right qualifications. Those on board don't remotely look like Special Operations Command material, but they have the computer geek skills the military needs.
Pentagon officials believe that our cyber adversaries may come up with tricks that nobody on the receiving end has even thought of yet. Says a senior US officer involved with cyber defense: "Our adversaries are very good. But I'm not sure we've seen their best." That's why Cyber Command was born. The military wants to be able to "hack back" into the systems used by intruders and take offensive actions of their own.
Some of the brass have had trouble getting their minds wrapped around the new thinking; when General Lord told Air Force officials that he wanted to get in touch with hackers through a forum on Slashdot / News For Nerds, some replied that he shouldn't do it. These folks weren't military, he was told, they weren't the kind of folks the services needed. General Lord ignored the feedback and did it anyway. The services need people for this challenge and nobody said they had to look like Rambo.BACK_TO_TOP
* FLORIDA ROAD TRIP AGAIN (14): I left Marshall, Texas, before sunup on Saturday, 12 April, on my way to Dallas. Just as the sun was coming up, I found a road rest stop that amused me enough to want to stop and take pictures -- all the picnic tables were under roofed structures that looked like little oil drill derricks. I had to wait a bit for the sunlight to fall on them, and as I was waiting I got a bit of luck, finding several cardinals bickering among themselves in the trees. I finally did get some workable shots -- not the best, but better than nothing.
My initial objective was the Dallas Zoo. This was another "pickup" exercise, I had canvassed it fairly well during the September trip and had no great agenda there, but it was on the way and my day's schedule was relatively relaxed. I wasn't planning on spending much time there, and on touring the exhibits I had to drop it down a notch from my earlier estimate, from five stars to four: it was still too dependent on cages. However, it's still a good zoo, and I did find some things I missed -- a "lemur island" in a pond, where a ringtailed lemur and larger ruffed lemur seemed to be playing something that looked like half dominance game, half hide-and-seek.
I had particular fun in the aviary in the kid's zoo. The birds had been raised around humans and they had little fear of them. I had one of the keepers get a shot of me with a friendly cockatiel, I recall named Clifton, sitting comfortably on top of my head; I could hardly persuade him to get off. I also got some good shots of an Indian mynah and some other exotics. There was a guinea hen there that was so fond of people that it kept getting underfoot. It was a very endearing creature, obviously fond of contact with humans, though it had an odd tendency to peck at the soles of my shoes.
I got out soon enough and headed north to Oklahoma City. My target there was the zoo, which was said to be mediocre, but I figured I might as well take it in as long as I was in the neighborhood. I did have some problems figuring out how to get in, my directions were confused and ended up getting into the rear, where there was heavy construction going on. Was the place shut down or what? I finally figured out my error and got in the front, at the very north end of the city park.
Actually, it was a pretty good zoo, at least three stars. The only problem was that there was in fact considerable and annoying construction going on. I supposed zoos tend to do get as much construction done as possible in the winter season so they can be set up for summer season. It had a nice aquarium and a fairly good aviary, where I got a number of good shots of exotic birds.
On leaving, I remembered that there was museum for the US Army 45th Infantry Division at the south end of the city park. It wasn't anything high priority, I don't go out of my way to get shots of tanks and the like any more since they tend to be rustbuckets, and it was getting too late to think it would be open -- but since I had the time to spare I checked it out. I was glad I did. It was closed, but they had a very nice selection of armor and artillery behind a cyclone fence, and it was easy to rack up shots. That done, I went north to crash out at a local Super-8 motel for the night. [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT
* ANOTHER MONTH: Not having much to say about my activities in July, I might as well report on my day down in Denver in the first week of June. There was an airshow at Rocky Mountain Airport in the northwest corner of the city, and since it was free, I decided to drive down and get some shots -- it's less than a hour drive south of Loveland. I was mainly after pix of a flight demo of the new Navy F/A-18E/F Super Hornet AKA "Super Bug" and I didn't want to hang around all day, so I decided to hit the Denver Zoo first and get some shots there first.
I hadn't been expecting to have the zoo visit amount to much, I was only planning visits to a few exhibits. However, I hadn't been there since before I began work on evolutionary science and my knowledge level had gone up a jump in the meantime. I also got a bit lucky. On previous visits there, I had tried to get shots of the coati mundis -- Latin American relatives of the raccoon and similar to them, most significantly differing in featuring a long nose -- but coatis are a bit hyperactive, either moving continuously or sleeping in crevices in their enclosure. They also seem to prefer shade and so it's hard to get good shots of them. I kept snapping away and I got some good if unspectacular shots.
I also found the indoor tropical small animals exhibit interesting, getting some reasonable shots of golden lion tamarins -- a pretty species of marmoset -- and to my surprise, got excellent shots of sengis, more popularly if incorrectly known as elephant shrews. They are sort of ratlike but have long legs and long trunklike noses -- they're not related to shrews, though they are in fact distantly related to elephants.
I visited the lorikeet enclosure to feed the birds nectar, but though they usually just mob visitors, for some reason they were skittish and very reluctant to feed. The following stop was an outdoor enclosure with secretary birds, which are eagle-sized ground-living African predatory birds with long legs, sharp beak, and a ruff of feathers behind the head. I was very lucky because the enclosure was mostly shaded, but one was sunning itself in a clear spot and it couldn't have been better posed. I'd been after pix of a secretary bird for some time and I just snapped away, taking dozens of shots -- hey, my Canon Powershot with a 2GB card has a capacity of a thousand shots, I'd be dense if I didn't take every shot I could. I got some full-body images, but lately I've taken also taken to getting head close-ups, since they seem to give a sense of the animal's "personality"
Next to that enclosure were chicken-wire cages with a kookaburra -- a big Aussie kingfisher -- and the always amusing toucans. I already had shots them both but not very good ones. I had remembered to take along my little old Nikon Coolpix pocket camera (I was toting three cameras around); its aperture is so small that it gives a blurred images even in a moderate overcast, but by the same coin I could lean over the rail and stick it through the holes in the chicken wire. The kookaburra just sat there for the camera, though it made the toucans a bit nervous and I had to shoot them over and over again. Every now and then they'd make a funny "clackclackclackclack" sound snapping their long beaks open and shut rapidly.
Then I went through the bird house, which I didn't recall having visited before; that done, sat through the zoo animal show for kids. It had a lot of interesting trained animals, including vultures, owls, and a crested seriema -- a ground-living predator bird from South America, something like a scaled-down secretary bird. The seriema was particularly fascinating because the trainers demonstrated what it did to lizards it caught: they gave it a plastic lizard and it repeatedly tossed as hard as it could onto a rock. Ouch. They also had a serval cat on a leash -- it was somewhat larger than a housecat, leopard-spotted, with long legs and ears; they had it bound up to about head height after snacks. Like most cats, it was all over the map on its leash. I got a stack of nice shots out of the show.
I finished off by visiting the tropical jungle house, which had some nice aquarium exhibits, in particular a mudskipper display. Mudskippers are fish from Southeast Asia with frog eyes that can crawl around on land. Like the sengis, I was surprised to see them there.
* That done, I cut across town to the airport to the airshow. It wasn't too packed, I didn't have to idle in line too long to get parking. I was amused while walking off the parking field to see a car with plates marked RBYSLPR -- obviously a Wizard of Oz fan. It turned out that killing off the morning at the zoo timed things just right, because I didn't have that much of an agenda there. One of the more interesting sights was a lineup of classic cars along one of the taxiways; I'm not that much into cars but they make nice photo subjects and I blasted away at them. They're kind of a pain to shoot, though -- even small defects or smudges make them look bad, and all the chrome plus shiny finish means lots of "glare stars", so I have to retouch them a good deal. One that I really enjoyed shooting was a 65 Ford Thunderbird convertible, with a cute freckle-faced girl sitting up on top of one of the seats. I thought she made a nice "junior car-show queen."
The crowd in fact was surprisingly pleasant, the general ambiance being that everyone was having a good time. That was a relief since sometimes such public mob scenes can get edgy, particularly from folks who can't quite accept that being in a big crowd means they have to adjust their usual notions of comfortable personal space and be a bit more thick-skinned than usual. I was doing a bit of people-watching; some of the hip young couples looked good enough to be TV stars.
The static airshow exhibits were nothing much or new, but there was a Czech L-39 Albatros jet trainer on display that got my attention. The pilot was showing kids around the jet and I asked him: "Is this thing as much fun to fly as it looks?" He grinned from ear to ear and said: "It's even more fun than THAT!" Wotta cool little rocket ship!
I didn't have to kill much time before the air displays. Only a single Super Bug, a two-seater, did the flight honors, which was somewhat disappointing, but not too much. The Super Hornet wowed the crowd, leaving streaks of condensation when it pulled up, and I got the shots I was after. That done, I left immediately, and went to an Outback restaurant for dinner. Then back to Loveland. I was impressed when I got home at what a mellow time I'd had -- I could hardly remember having a "perfect day" like that for a long time.
* I was reading through an interesting book called THE FIRST WORD by Christine Kenneally, on the origins of language. In one section on the origins of gestures, in particular pointing, it discussed a prof showing a video to a meeting of himself working with a chimp, separated by a wire mesh barrier. The chimp dropped some food through the mesh, pointed to it, and looked at the prof, who recovered the food and handed it back to the chimp. The prof commented to the audience: "I submit that there is a well-trained primate in this video -- but it is not the chimpanzee."BACK_TO_TOP