* Entries include: Doctor Tatiana on the evolution of sex, the war against al-Qaeda, antennas for solar power, more emphasis needed on energy efficiency, fourth-generation cellphone systems, intelligent surgical implants, improved mosquito nets, in-flight entertainment systems, resistance against vaccination, possible horizontal gene transfer in fish, mysterious migraine headaches, open-source hardware movement, and the Bush II Administration learns from mistakes.
* NEWS COMMENTARY FOR SEPTEMBER 2008: Following the resignation of Pervez Musharraf from the presidency of Pakistan, Asif Ali Zardari, widower of Benazir Bhutto, became president in his place. This shuffling of seats suggests the complexity of Pakistani politics -- Musharraf's seizure of power in a 1999 coup had been backed by many Pakistanis who were fed up with corrupt civilian governments. Zardari has a reputation as a corrupt politician, being named "Mister Ten Percent", for the "surcharge" allegedly added to contracts he had been associated with during his days as a government minister, and did time in prison on corruption charges.
One of Zardari's first moves was to declare war on Islamic militancy. The reaction was swift and shocking, with a huge truck bomb set off in front of the Marriott hotel in Islamabad on the night of 20 September. The fireball lit up the city like daylight, debris was thrown over a radius of a kilometer, and the blast left a monster crater in the street in front of the hotel. The hotel had been attacked before, it being a popular refuge for visiting foreign VIPs, but never on anything resembling this scale. The hotel caught on fire and blazed into the morning. Dozens were killed, mostly locals.
Nobody took responsibility, but the general belief was that the attack was the work of the Taliban. The preferred target would have been the government buildings down the road, but the security around them was much too tight. The attack is clearly a landmark in Pakistan's schizophrenic civil war, but of course what happens next is anyone's guess. The Pakistani Army has been engaged in a massive sweep through the border Tribal Areas more or less controlled by Islamic militants, sending hundreds of thousands of civilians fleeing into other regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan; reports on the effectiveness of the operation are, not surprisingly, contradictory and muddled.
Just to complicate things further, US forces as of late have taken to performing cross-border raids in pursuit of Taliban fighters. The US military has long operated surveillance drones over the Tribal Areas and taken a shot with a Hellfire missile when really tempting targets showed up, but incursions across the border were an escalation. Some observers suggested that the Bush II Administration wanted to pick up a high-profile "kill" -- who knows, Osama bin Laden himself? -- ahead of US presidential elections to bolster the Republicans. The raids were going a bit far, being an insult to a US ally; Pakistani Army forces hit them with warning fire and the raiders withdrew. Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, went to Islamabad to reassure the Pakistani government that sovereignty would be respected in the future. It appears that the raids may have also been a pressure tactic to encourage more earnest action against the militants.
The Islamabad bombing would seem to have been encouragement enough. The BBC chatted with Sadruddhin Hashwani, the owner of the hotel and one of Pakistan's richest men, as he walked through the gutted shell of the building in a tailored brown suit, directing the cleanup as coolly as if he was making changes in the grounds landscaping. Hashwani's response was Churchillian: "If I had been here I would have run after the bombers and caught them." He added: "We will reopen the hotel by the 31st December. There will be a celebration then. That is why I am here, every day. Tomorrow the main work will start putting back every room." He refuses to leave the hotel a depressing eyesore in the middle of the capital as a monument to the enemy: "This is a message. Pakistan must awaken and fight these terrorists."
* In late August, John McCain selected Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as his running mate. McCain said he wanted a "maverick" who could deal with the status quo; observers suggested that the facts that Palin was young (younger than Barack Obama), female, and to the right of McCain didn't hurt, either, and in fact the reaction of the well-right-of-center group was ecstatic. I suspect they see matters in terms of a "Palin-McCain" ticket instead of the other way around, or at least as a means of setting up one of their own for the Oval Office one of these days.
The Palin selection gave McCain a "surge" that put him all but level with Barack Obama in the polls, but some suspect that once the initial enthusiasm wears off, Palin may not be as big an asset as she might have seemed at first. Certainly, to the independents McCain's selection of Palin was effectively declaring that the presidential contest was going to be the "culture wars" writ large; given Palin's thin qualifications, it seems hard to believe there was any other motive for selecting her. The independents see factionalists from both sides as equally menacing to all but their own, and can now only view the race for the White House with a certain queasiness.
* I like to track the price of oil on bloomberg.com and play the game of "guess where the price will go next". There were hurricanes in the Caribbean early in the month and I thought the price would jump up as Gulf oil production shut down, but instead it finally dropped below $110 USD and then $105 USD a barrel. That was encouraging, but Texas oilman T. Boone Pickens suggested that it wouldn't be wise to think it would drop much below $100 USD a barrel. Producers would find that an attractive price point, optimizing profits without putting undue strain on the world economy, and if prices start to drop much below that level, they will cut production. It did bounce below $95 USD for a short time, shot up to almost $110 USD again, then fell back down to $100 USD.
Other economic news was more consistently depressing. The bankruptcy of financial house Lehman Brothers was a shock that sent the Dow Jones into free-fall, though it did bounce back once bargain-hunters moved in. The US government is moving to implement a $700 billion USD bailout. The bad news is not over yet.BACK_TO_TOP
* THE WAR AGAINST AL-QAEDA (6): From day one, Saudi Arabia was a major target for the leaders of al-Qaeda. The top leader, Osama bin Laden, was of course a Saudi himself; and the jihadis had an immense distaste for the Saudi royal family because of its close links with the Americans, who had even stationed troops in the country. Considering that Saudi Arabia contained the holiest shrines in the Muslim world, the status quo was intolerable.
The Americans knew their military presence was an aggravation and, having acquired forward bases elsewhere in the region, announced in April 2003 that the troops would leave. Despite that, on 12 May a set of bombs went off in Khobar Towers, a Western housing compound, killing 26. The event was the opening shot of a campaign of terror.
Yousef al-Ayeeri, al-Qaeda's boss in Saudi Arabia, had not actually been in favor in taking action at the time, believing that he needed another six months to train his people and build up a support base, particularly within Saudi Arabia's extensive religious community. Seif al-Adel, his superior in Iran, was not impressed by his arguments and ordered immediate action.
The result was a disaster for al-Qaeda. Within two years, Saudi counterterrorism forces had by all evidence decapitated the terrorist network in the country, leaving the rank-and-file isolated and on the run. Many of the 911 attackers had been Saudis, leading to a perception in the USA that Saudi Arabia was a hotbed of Islamic terrorism, but the Saudi counterterrorism campaign was so effective that many outsiders regard it as a model to be used in counterterrorism efforts elsewhere. The American attitude towards fighting terrorism is, as is somewhat the American style, inclined to brute force; the Saudis understood that while brute force was a necessary part of the equation, it had to be balanced by a softer "de-radicalization" program to make Islamic militants see the errors of their ways and undermine support for the terrorists in the general population.
The 12 May 2003 bombings didn't take Saudi authorities by surprise. They had been keeping an eye on Saudi citizens returning from locales such as Afghanistan, and after an accidental explosion earlier in May, the security services found a huge cache of weapons. 19 men were put on the wanted list, but al-Qaeda still managed to strike.
Saudi counterterrorism forces were initially staggered by the magnitude of the potential threat. One official said: "When the attacks started, the mosques were almost supporting them. We could not arrest 35,000 imams." The police and national guard were resolute, however, carrying out endless raids. They killed Ayeeri in less than a month after the attacks, and killed three more senior al-Qaeda leaders over the next two years. In the meantime, al-Qaeda's trademark bloodthirstiness erased most of their public support. A truck bomb in Riyadh in November 2003 mostly killed innocent bystanders; an attack on a police compound in April 2004 resulted in the death of a child. The authorities were not slow to play up such killings to the public.
Saudi authorities also choked off the funding stream to al-Qaeda, establishing tight control over alms-giving and money transfers. Websites run by al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabia eventually disappeared. Says an official: "They underestimated the Saudi police. But we are fortunate they started prematurely. If they had listened to Ayeeri, maybe they would be in a different position." The terrorists are still active in Saudi Arabia, though they are now disorganized and isolated: there have been a half-dozen attempts to attack the country's oil-production infrastructure in hopes of contributing to global economic jitters, and a Saudi general was murdered in his own home.
The Haj, the pilgrimage to Mecca, draws together huge crowds of Muslims from all over the world, making it a convenient meeting time for al-Qaeda terrorists. Saudi authorities are helpless to do much about it, since they do little to track the meetings of small groups of people in a sea of pilgrims. However, the Saudis have been able to exert considerable control over the activities of terrorists in the country, and heavy-handed police actions are only half the story, with propaganda and persuasion proving at least as important. Official propaganda avoids demonizing terrorists, describing them as "misguided" -- while avoiding terms like "jihadist" because it has self-glorifying Koranic implications.
The concept that the terrorists are merely "misguided" is not simply a ploy; Saudi authorities treat captured jihadis as victims of illness. Jailed militants engage in one-on-one discussions with Islamic scholars who try to show that al-Qaeda has perverted Islamic doctrine. Saudis arrested after returning from a stint in Iraq or even repatriated from Guantanamo undergo rehabilitation in a low-security camp outside Riyadh, where they participate in religious discussions, the arts, sports, and vocational training. They are permitted frequent home visits to reconnect with family, with those released given assistance in finding jobs and getting settled. Family members are given assistance too, with the program so widely seen as benevolent that Saudis like to joke that they wish they had been in the ranks under Osama bin Laden.
30-year-old Abdallah al-Suffyani is roughly typical of the young Saudis who go through the rehabilitation course. He had been secretly in love with a Saudi girl who was forced into marriage with another man. Abdallah was heartbroken and went to Iraq, where he hoped he could die a martyr's death. What he found was nothing but murder, and he hardly needed any persuasion that he had taken the wrong path after coming home: "I found Muslims killing Muslims, Iraqis killing Iraqis."
Not all those rehabilitated stay rehabilitated; two Guantanamo inmates who had been through the course and set free had to be hauled in again. A Saudi official suggested that there was a bright side to that, however: "Do you know who told us about them? Their friends." Not all can be rehabilitated, either: Saudi authorities are not nearly so sympathetic to al-Qaeda leadership, nor to soldiers for the cause who are clearly enthusiastic for and guilty of violent acts. About 700 people are now in jail, awaiting charges on terrorism charges. Five new high-security prisons are being constructed to ensure they don't go anywhere, with the structures ironically being built by the bin Laden family construction firm.
Roughly 75 people who were involved in the 2003 bombings will go on trial before the end of 2008. In keeping with the Saudi style for dealing with the issue, however, the focus will not really be on the crimes committed. Says a Saudi official: "It should not be a trial of the people, it should be a trial of al-Qaeda. The real victory over al-Qaeda will be when we defeat the ideology." [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT
* DOCTOR TATIANA (11): As this series has shown, there's a lot we don't know about the biology and evolution of sex, and some of what we do know leads to unanswered questions. Although the "Red Queen's race" theory of the origins is generally accepted, there are some cases where it just doesn't seem to work. One of the most famous is that of the "bdelloid rotifers", a family of microscopic animals consisting of on the order of a thousand cells that have been reproducing asexually for about 85 million years. It might seem that bacterial or viral pathogens would have zeroed in on them and wiped them out long ago, but they're thriving, doing better for themselves than some of their sexually-reproducing kinfolk.
When this was discovered, it was such a shock that critics suggested the bdelloid rotifers actually were sexual reproducers, we just weren't aware of it. This was not as contrived an argument as it sounds, since there were other "false alarms" with species that turned out to have males who were much smaller and different from the females and so were overlooked, even being misinterpreted as parasites. However, asexual reproduction, since there's no scrambling of genes, has a distinctive genetic signature, and genetic analysis proved beyond all doubt the bdelloids were asexual.
In reality, the bdelloids do not seem to torpedo the concept of the "Red Queen's race", so much as they pose the question of why they are exceptions to the rule. They have some unusual behaviors, for example the ability to go into a state of "suspended animation" called "anhydrobiosis", in which they shrivel up and can be revived later. Apparently, when the bdelloids revive, they have to stitch their genomes back together, which some suggest introduces enough genetic diversity to keep they going. Nobody's really sure, however, all the more so because there are sexually reproducing species that can pull the same trick. It does appear that anhydrobiosis can produce a degree of genetic variation -- the rotifer's genome tends to break down, to be then restored when the organism revives -- so it may actually serve some of the functions of sex.
* As a final comment on the evolutionary basis of sex, the question arises of what the subject has to tell us about the proper conduct of our personal (human) sex lives. The answer is: next to nothing.
Modern evolutionary theory has often been criticized for promoting an amoral view of the universe. The truth is that any lessons we might obtain from the sex lives of other organisms would be so selective as to little more than be useless. What, for example, can we make of the occurrence of sexual cannibalism in mantises, spiders, and midges? Unless human females were all vampires, it would be hard to think of a connection. As for other cases, a free love advocate might play up the sexual culture of bonobos, while a strict monogamist would play up the devoted relationships of hornbills. In either case, the linkage would only be one of prejudice, "cherry picking" examples designed to bolster a preconceived point of view, instead of considering the overall pattern of things -- which in reality is confusing, to put it mildly.
On the other side of the coin, it is instructive to see that the sexual arrangements of humans are not some fundamental law of the Universe -- other species do things their own ways. This fact may upset some among us, but it is simply an observable fact. There is a serious moral debate over human sexual conduct, but the role of evolutionary science in that debate has to be regarded as of little significance. Humans have their own reproductive strategies; the fact that other species may have radically different strategies is about as morally relevant as the fact that some other species have, say, compound eyes. We don't. Enough said. [END OF SERIES]START | PREV
* GIMMICKS & GADGETS: A little article in SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN pointed out that the push towards hybrid and pure-electric cars has a potential downside: they run quiet and pedestrians don't hear them as easily. Researchers at the University of California at Riverside blindfolded test subjects, then ran conventional and hybrid cars past them at 8 KPH (5 MPH). The subjects were only able to detect hybrids at a third the distance of a conventional car. When a moderate level of ambient background noise was added in, the subjects couldn't hear the hybrid until it was right in front of them.
The number of hybrid cars on the road is still small, and so there are no statistics demonstrating more accidents with pedestrians involving hybrids. Researchers at Western Michigan University have also shown that hybrids are just as noisy as any other car above 32 KPH (20 MPH), since wind and tire noise become as loud as they are for conventional cars. However, the Society of Automotive Engineers set up a committee in late 2007 to look into the issue.
Researchers involved with the exercise say that the sounds will not have to be loud or obnoxious, and in fact beeps, chirps, and so on simply tend to startle subjects and make them confused. A low purring sound works much better. Ironically, some of the latest conventional cars are so well-engineered that they are even quieter than hybrids, so the issue would have likely emerged sooner or later anyway.
* While the Beijing Olympic Games took center stage this summer, London was working up towards hosting the games in 2012. As reported in THE ECONOMIST, the London Olympics may feature an interesting mass-transit system: aerial cable cars.
The Olympics mean a makeover for London in general, with one major upgrade being renovation of a run-down district in East London, on the banks of the Thames. Rebuilding the area means rebuilding the transport system to support it; one particular issue is that there's no bridge across the Thames close enough to provide a convenient path over the river. The city government has considered a new bridge, but those in its potential path are unenthusiastic.
British Greens have suggested an alternative: building a cable-car system to shuttle people across the river. The idea is not as wild as it sounds, since Singapore, Zagreb, Istanbul, and Barcelona all have cable-car links as a component of their mass transit systems. Promoters for the London skycar link point out that it would be cheap to build and operate; would require little space; and would be able to handle 4,000 people an hour, with no problems with traffic jams. Besides, the skycars have a certain charm, and they would provide a neat complement to the London Eye, the giant Ferris wheel built for the millennium celebrations that is now one of London's most prominent and popular tourist attractions.
* In bizarre gimmick news, BBC WORLD Online had a report on a new structure set up in Manhattan: a model skyscraper 20 meters (65 feet) tall, designed by artist Chris Burden and consisting of about a million Erector Set pieces. It was a loose interpretation of the 30 Rock Building at New York's Rockefeller center. The structure was assembled in California by 30 workers with screwdrivers, then broken down into two parts for transport. It had a total weight of 7,250 kilograms (16,000 pounds).BACK_TO_TOP
* FARM TOWERS: POPULAR SCIENCE magazine, always a fine source of interesting but not necessarily plausible new ideas, had an intriguing article ("Farming In The Sky" by Cliff Kaung, September 2008) on a scheme to build farms as urban skyscrapers.
The concept is the brainchild of environmental scientist Dickson Despommier of Columbia University in New York City, though some other researchers have had similar ideas. Despommier envisions a $200 million USD, 30-story tower that covers a city block, capable of producing enough fruit, vegetables, and chicken to feed 50,000 people. The idea sounds wild, but a little consideration makes it sound less so. Modern agriculture is both infrastructure-intensive and resource-intensive; Despommier's farm tower would use highly efficient hydroponic gardening, providing per-acre yields an order of magnitude higher than those of a conventional farm, and operate as much as possible as a "closed cycle" system. The scheme would have a particular advantage in that it would greatly reduce the overhead of food transport, since the food would be consumed within the urban area.
Illustrations of the "farm tower" are certainly appealing, with the structure in the form of a tall cylindrical glassed-in "crystal palace". It's capped with solar panels and vertical wind turbines to help provide power. Crop plants would be grown in trays floating on hydroponic tanks, with the tanks also containing tilapia fish. Raising fish and crop plants in hydroponic tanks is synergistic: the plants absorb fish wastes as nutrients and keep the water clean.
Plant strains suitable to hydroponic farming would be selected or genetically engineered, with micronutrients important to the human consumers included in the nutrient solutions provided to them. The system is highly automated, with the trays circulating around the tank to pass under nutrient dispensers. Light is provided by energy-efficient LED arrays, with the output wavelengths tuned for the particular crop plants. The farm would operate 24:7:365.
Some crops, like potatoes or citrus trees, don't grow well in hydroponics, requiring soil or a coconut-fiber matrix. One concept grows such plants in a rotating drum with a light source in the middle, with the drum dipping the plants cyclically in a vat of nutrients. Robot arms would tend the plants, with sensors at the end to check for ripeness or disease. Incidentally, the farm tower is a "clean room" environment, with workers wearing white coverall suits and entering through airlocks to help keep out pests.
Raising cattle wouldn't be practical in the farm tower, and they aren't a very efficient source of meat anyway. Chickens and fish are much more practical for urban farming over the short term. Ultimately, meat might be grown in slabs from cow, pig, or chicken stem cells; synthesizing a steak in such a way would be challenging, but hamburger, chicken nuggets, and sausage would be perfectly practical. The farm tower's output is sold in an outlet on the ground floor.
The farm tower would only get a small fraction of its energy from the solar panels and wind turbines on top. The basement levels would be a sewage-treatment plant, fed by the surrounding urban area. In the basement, the sewage is treated under heat and pressure to break it down and sterilize it, with the water then extracted and the solid sludge burned to drive a steam turbine. Less solid sludge is treated to turn it into topsoil, and the water extracted is run through tanks of "bioremediators" such as zebra mussels and cattails to clean it up. The water is then useful for the farm itself, or may be run through another stage of cleanup for human consumption.
An eco-fantasy? Possibly, but as Despommier points out, a single tower could be built for a fraction of the cost of the farm subsidies paid out by the US government every year. Countries developing experimental "green cities", such as Abu Dhabi and South Korea, have been in touch with Despommier and may set up demonstration systems. It's an idea worth consideration.BACK_TO_TOP
* ENERGY EFFICIENCY? In an era of shrinking energy supplies and worry about greenhouse gas emissions, energy efficiency would seem to be a top priority. However, as reported in THE ECONOMIST ("The Elusive Negawatt", 10 May 2008), the hunt for "negawatts" has proven more difficult than might be expected.
Almost all surveys conducted for future energy development suggest that energy efficiency should play a major factor in our planning. Although the initial outlays for energy-efficient systems can be costly, they would easily pay themselves back in a decade or less and reduce carbon emissions in the bargain. The trendline for "energy intensity" -- the amount of energy required to produce a dollar of output -- for the USA has indeed been on the downslope, with reductions of 2% a year. This is partly because of transfers of heavy industry to places like China, but globally the trendline has been down 1.5% a year. The puzzle is that any analysis shows that it wouldn't be difficult to achieve much greater yearly reductions. So why isn't it happening?
One issue is complacency with the status quo, particularly in countries like Russia, where energy is publicly subsidized. In places where energy is expensive, for example Denmark, energy efficiency tends to be better. However, even that's not a hard and fast rule. Energy costs in Hawaii are above those of any other American state, but Hawaii's energy efficiency is not particularly impressive. The problem is that the rules of the marketplace don't tend to encourage energy efficiency.
For example, power companies usually want to sell more power, not less. Even other businesses have incentives to waste energy. A producer of a consumer electronic product has no strong incentive to ensure that it is energy-efficient -- the manufacturer doesn't pay the power costs, and adding any extra expense to the product to improve energy efficiency only makes it more expensive and less competitive. The same logic applies elsewhere. Landlords have no particular reason to care if their renters waste energy. Homebuilders don't have a major incentive to put together energy-efficient homes. Worse, even if builders advertised their homes were energy-efficient, in the absence of well-defined standards, how would buyers be able to evaluate such claims? This fuzziness also makes financing investments in energy efficiency troublesome.
There's a general realization that energy efficiency is a good thing; it's just a question of how to get from here to there. Firms that help other companies trim their energy costs are doing a booming business these days. The growth rate of the "energy service companies (ESCOs)" of the USA has been running at 22% a year recently; it was only 3% early in the decade. Their total revenues are in the billions.
The ESCOs have a business model that particularly appeals to their clients. An ESCO comes up with a plan and borrows to implement it, with the client then paying off the ESCO with a substantial chunk of the cost of energy saved. The client is out nothing up front, enjoying slightly reduced energy costs over the short run, and major savings once the ESCO is paid off. The major limitation is that ESCOs generally deal with the government, as well as schools, universities, and hospitals -- the business model is well too cumbersome for small businessmen and homeowners.
There has been some work on clever business plans to reach a wider market. The Clinton Climate Initiative (CCI), a non-governmental organization set up by former US President Bill Clinton, has persuaded municipal authorities in 40 big cities over the globe to coordinate their efforts to improve energy efficiency. The authorities dangle a big market in front of the noses of manufacturers of energy-efficient goods, the ESCOs that could install them, and banks to get the best deal for the cities. CCI has helped organize such deals in major cities, including Chicago, London, and New York.
However, governments seem more inclined to use more direct methods to encourage energy efficiency. A common tactic is to provide some standard that helps consumers recognize energy efficiency: the UK set up the "Energy Savings Trust" in 1993, while America created the similar "Energy Star", with compliance indicated by an appropriate label on a product. These are voluntary schemes, manufacturers don't have to comply; mainland Europe is stricter, with energy efficiency labels required for fridges, washing machines, and dishwashers. The UK has also required that homeowners selling their house must specify its energy efficiency to buyers.
Unfortunately, such labels are often ignored. Another tactic is to provide financial incentives: the US Federal government, for example, offers tax credits to manufacturers of energy-efficient goods, while a number of American states offer credits or rebates to buyers of such goods. China is now subsidizing production of energy-efficient compact fluorescent bulbs. Some governments feel such measures are too weak-tea and go straight to regulation. Australia has proposed banning incandescent light bulbs; many countries have adopted building codes and appliance standards to mandate energy efficiency. The Japanese government has a "Top Runner" scheme, in which appliances are competitively tested to see which in various categories are most efficient. Once the winners are selected, all the losers then have to reach the same levels in four to six years, or be heavily fined.
Manufacturers, particularly of autos, tend to protest the heavy-handed approach, saying that such regulations drive up prices and limit consumer choice. When the US Congress passed new fuel efficiency regulations in 2007, the complaints were addressed by setting different targets for light and heavy vehicles; the targets are an average across all such vehicles produced by a manufacturer. The claim that energy efficiency can only come at a cost premium is also heavily disputed by environmentalists.
Governments also like to add taxes to energy sales to support investments in energy efficiency, or mandate that providers reach certain targets in reductions. France specifies cuts in energy use; Britain in tonnes of carbon emission; and Italy in barrels of oil. In all such cases, impartial auditors monitor compliance and issue certificates, which can be traded. Several US states, including Connecticut, Nevada, and Pennsylvania, have adopted comparable schemes. However, such an approach does not undermine the basic incentive of a utility to sell more power -- they're businesses, their survival is dependent on the bottom line, and such mandated limits can feel like a noose.
Other US states have tried to "decouple" profits from sales volume: the state regulators set up a forecast of demand and tell the providers what they can charge to cover their costs and make a profit. If demand is low, the providers can raise prices to make the scheduled profit; if demand is high, prices have to be cut. California set up decoupling for natural gas in 1978, then decoupled electricity in 1982. In 2007 the state went further, creating "decoupling plus", the idea being to make investment in energy efficiency more financially attractive to the providers than building new plant capacity. A tax is added to the bills paid by consumers for energy, with the money then spent by providers to reach targets set by the regulator, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC). What happens then depends on how well a provider reaches the target:
The scheme is complicated but seems to be effective, with California's private utilities spending about a billion dollars a year on energy efficiency. Other governments take a more direct approach. Both Japan and China require their biggest firms to cut back energy consumption by a given percentage a year: if they don't, they're fined.
For all the efforts of government, subtle or not, they're still stuck with the laws of economics in the end. It's just a question of supply and demand: artificially reducing demand tends to result in cheaper energy, meaning people then have an incentive to consume more energy. In addition, cheaper energy means people have more money to spend and use it to go on trips or buy power-hungry gadgets. Studies of this "rebound effect" show it seems to cancel out about a quarter to a third of gains in energy efficiency. That doesn't mean the pursuit of "negawatts" is futile, of course -- but it does show that the new energy-efficient future is not going to be reached as easily as might be hoped.BACK_TO_TOP
* THE WAR AGAINST AL-QAEDA (5): After 911, effectively all of America wanted the people who planned the attacks brought to justice. One of the prime movers, Khalid Shiekh Mohammed, was indeed caught, but few observing the process involved in handling him would see much justice being done.
The emergence of the war on terror did in fact create an unusual legal situation. Al-Qaeda is effectively a stateless entity with which the United States is at war, which makes the status of captives taken in the fight unclear. The Bush II Administration decided that unusual circumstances demand unusual solutions, and so in 2002 set up a detention center at the US Guantanamo Bay military base in Cuba. There, so the thinking went, the captives would not be subject to American law and could be handled as the administration saw fit.
Whether "Gitmo", as the place is known, was a useful tool in the war on terror can be debated, all the more so because much of the intelligence obtained from the inmates there remains secret. What isn't sensibly arguable is that Gitmo was a global disaster for the American brand name. The camp became a symbol of high-handed abuse of power, contempt for due process and the rule of law, and even outright physical cruelty and torture. Under the glare of an international spotlight of bad publicity, treatment of the inmates there has become more civilized. In June 2008, the US Supreme Court decided that the inmates there had the right to seek justice in a Federal Court, undermining the whole rationale of the Gitmo system.
The vote in the high court was 5:4 -- surprisingly, not all the justices were unhappy with a ploy designed to bypass the court's authority and traditional American concepts of justice. The slender majority of them were, but even then the decision was a limited one. The court did not judge on the legality of the military commissions set up to handle the inmates at Gitmo; the standard of proof required to hold an individual in detention; the admissibility of evidence obtained under duress; and what access prisoners should have to secret information. Nothing was said about the roughly 21,000 prisoners being held by US forces in Iraq, or the 650 or so being held at Bagram in Afghanistan.
Although part of the rationale of setting up the Gitmo camp was to get the most dangerous terrorists out of circulation, of the 780 or so prisoners who ended up at the camp, the majority were simply released in the end, since they didn't prove to be quite as dangerous as believed. Of the 270 left, only 20 have had charges placed against them, and nobody expects more than 100 to be charged in all. About 60 are free to go in principle, but remain in detention because of various bureaucratic hangups. As for the roughly 110 left over, the attitude is that they are too dangerous to release, but nobody can figure out what to charge them with. They remain an awkward legal burden.
The real irony of Gitmo was that it was supposed to streamline handling of terrorists, but in reality the military commissions at the camp have only handled one case -- while US civilian courts have convicted more than 80 people on terrorism charges. Gitmo does not suggest military efficiency nearly as much as it suggests military bureaucracy at its worst. By trying to bypass the rules, the administration and the military simply blundered into a legal and administrative quagmire. Both American presidential candidates say they are going to shut down the Gitmo camp; and even US President George Bush says it should go as well.
The Bush II Administration still claims that Gitmo has provided critical information for the war on terror, but the camp not only outraged Muslims, it made stout American allies very nervous and unhappy. Even though many Western countries have toughened up their laws to fight terrorism, for example extending the period of allowable detention without charge and restricting free speech, Gitmo seemed to be going too far, and it has become a stumbling block for vital international cooperation in the global war on terror.
A British counterterrorism expert notes that any evidence obtained from Guantanamo is automatically tainted as coerced, inadmissible in a British court. He also adds that British Muslims are increasingly cooperative with the police and MI5, helping break up terrorist plots before they draw blood. Whatever intelligence might have been obtained from Gitmo, it has to be balanced against the possibility that the real or perceived mistreatment of Muslim suspects might restrain loyal Muslim citizens with red-alert warnings from coming forward. [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT
* DOCTOR TATIANA (10): The notion of sex as being driven by the "Red Queen's race" against pathogens is generally respected. In principle, it rules out incest, for the simple reason that incest reduces genetic variability and so makes large organisms more vulnerable to pathogens. In particular, it makes the odds of getting two copies of a rare and harmful recessive gene much higher than they are in the general population, which is why inbred groups of humans tend to suffer from unusual genetic afflictions.
However, there are some organisms that practice incest on a fairly regular basis. How can they get away with it? A fair number of insects, for example ants and bees, are "haplodiploid": females are the result of a coupling between mother and father and are "diploid", having a set of duplicated chromosomes, while males are born from unfertilized eggs and are "haploid", having a set of unduplicated chromosomes. If the males have any unhealthy recessive genes, they're going to be unhealthy, no two ways about it, and are likely to be weeded out. What this means is that recessive genes are much less likely to join up from couplings between brother and sister. Some insects have what amounts to a variation on this scheme known as "paternal genome elimination": males are born diploid but during development their father's contribution is wiped, leaving them effectively haploid.
In species that practice incestuous reproduction, the normal 50:50 gender rule of sexual reproduction breaks down. The reality is that such creatures have something of a hybrid system with features of asexual reproduction, offering rapid reproduction rates at the expense of genetic diversity. Since rapid reproduction is the name of the game, it makes evolutionary sense to have as few males as possible and focus on females who can bear young.
* There are other unusual variations on the theme of sexual reproduction. There are some organisms, for example, that practice sexual reproduction but do not have distinct eggs and sperm: their sex cells look generally identical, basically amounting to both being eggs. The result of such "isogamous" reproduction tends to end up being a proliferation of sexes.
So how does this work? Consider the "true slime mold". There are various types of slime mold, the most famous being the types of slime molds that live independently as amoebic organisms but then congregate to form a sluglike multicellular assembly for reproduction. True slime molds are somewhat different: they are big single-celled organisms with the cell containing vast numbers of nuclei. More importantly for the current argument, they are isogamous and have at least over 500 different sexes.
It might seem that isogamy implies only one sex, but sex really only defines who gets to breed with who. With an arrangement of distinct males and females, this is straightforward: females produce eggs, males produce sperm, and there's no doubt the two sexes are needed to get results. Such an arrangement also eliminates conflicts between the sex cells: if they were identical, fusion would demand some way of determining which sex cell would provide the cellular organelles to the offspring, which would greatly complicate sex. Since all the sperm effectively provides is half a genome, there's no real conflict.
In isogamous organisms, the situation is not so straightforward. Since the sex cells of each partner are broadly identical, sex involves some protocol of determining which partner will be dominant, passing its cellular organelles down to offspring while those of the other partner are discarded. (In some cases, one may contribute one subset of the organelles while the other contributes the rest.) That means that sex cells of the two partners are not completely identical, differing in some sort of markers, for example surface proteins, to determine who's in charge.
This is what leads to the proliferation of sexes in isogamous organisms. Suppose the system starts out with two sexes A and B; then a mutant form C that can mate with both A and B will have an advantage since it has more potential sex partners than either A or B. Once we have A, B, and C, then there is an advantage in having a new sex D that can mate with A, B, or C. The situation leads to an explosion of sexes. In true slime molds, sex is a factor of three different genes with a number of alleles that total over 500 possible combinations. Since these aren't really sexes as most people understand the term, some prefer to call them "mating types".
What is puzzling, however, is the fact that most isogamous organisms still only have two sexes, or mating types if you prefer. Nobody is quite sure why; one idea is that the conflict over cellular organelles in isogamous reproduction is so troublesome that only a few organisms acquire mechanisms that can deal with it if more than two sexes arise. The matter requires a bit more investigation.
* Humans have a certain tendency to see their own sexual arrangements as "normal", but as shown above that is absolutely not the case: there are creatures with sexual arrangements that are completely alien to our own. Consideration of more details only enhances the disorderly strangeness of sex.
The variations in parental care -- sometimes only by females, sometimes only by males, sometimes by both parents -- have already been discussed. For another example, consider sex determination. In humans, a male has a set of XY chromosomes that determine sex while a female has a set of XX chromosomes, and so the male determines gender of offspring. In birds, it's the opposite: a male has a set of ZZ chromosomes while the female has a set of ZW chromosomes, so the female determines sex. Some species of lizards have XY males, others have ZW females, so lizards swing both ways. In alligators, sex is determined by the temperature of the sand in which they lay eggs, cool sand producing females and warm sand producing males; while for snapping turtles and crocodiles, which are not at all closely related to each other, cool or very hot sand produces females, while midrange temperatures produce males.
There are also crazy arrangements among "serial hermaphrodites", species that tend to change genders over time. The blue wrasse is a harem creature, with a single male dominating a small school of females. If the male dies, the biggest female becomes a male and takes over the harem. Slipper limpets, more or less a type of marine snail, are all born male, but a solitary limpet tends to become a female, attracting mates. The limpets pile up, with females on the bottom and the males on top, the males using their long penises to reach the females. The slipper limpets take the "missionary position" very seriously, however, since if more limpets pile on, the limpets in the middle become females as well.
To help fill in this painting of sexual disorientation, consider the penis, which has been reinvented multiple times. A male can have multiple penises and they can be located anywhere on the body, and in fact there are species of sea slug that have a penis in the mouth. As mentioned, spiders use their pedipalps for penises, though oddly they have to load them up with sperm dumped on a specially-prepared web. Also as mentioned, in seahorses it's the females who stick it to the males through an ovipositor, which could be regarded as a type of penis. The paper nautilus, a relative of the squid and octopus, actually has a modified tentacle for a penis, and shoots it at a female, with the penis embedding itself in her.
* And so it goes. The sexual arrangements of the world of life not only do not follow human norms, they hardly seem to follow any norms at all. The only broad theme is that of the fundamental rule of evolution: whatever works. [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT
* 4G BATTLE: Wireless communications has become a massive global business, and as reported in THE ECONOMIST ("Culture Clash", 19 July 2008), there is an intense battle in progress over what the next technology standard will be.
There are two contenders for the "fourth generation (4G)" cellphone technology standard: WIMAX (essentially "Wi-Fi Max"), promoted by a group led by silicon giant Intel, and LTE ("Long Term Evolution"), promoted by a rival group led by telecom giant Ericsson. Both technologies promise flexible, high bandwidth wireless connectivity to link up not just cellphones and portable computing devices, but also digital cameras and electric power meters. The two factions don't see eye to eye:
WIMAX seemed to have the edge up to the fall of 2007. The standards were in place -- LTE was still in development -- and operators such as Sprint and Clearwire were setting up networks. However, setting up a WIMAX network is expensive and the economic downturn hobbled the efforts to do so; worse, auctions of the radio spectrum needed for WIMAX were delayed. LTE has now roared ahead, obtaining an endorsement from the GSM Association, a global club of wireless operators, while American giants Verizon and AT&T have committed to LTE. Now Ericsson officials talk down their noses at WIMAX, describing it as a "niche technology".
However, the winds might shift again. WIMAX has more appeal in countries where current wireless technologies aren't so entrenched and the "open" arrangement of WIMAX is appealing: in India, Tata Communications is building the world's biggest WIMAX network. WIMAX backers in the West are definitely not throwing in the towel just yet, with the group pour massive funds into the effort. Clearwire and Sprint are joining forces to set up a WIMAX operation named Xohm.
Even if LTE predominates in the end, WIMAX will still have had its effect. The LTE group has, with a few holdouts, retreated from their "closed" position and set up generous licensing agreements. There is even talk of merging the two specs. Industry observers find it unlikely that will happen, but the idea of an "evolutionary" 4G wireless system based on "open" standards might just be the best of both worlds.BACK_TO_TOP
* SMART IMPLANTS: An article from IEEE SPECTRUM ("Artificial Joints That Talk" by Prachi Patel-Predd, November 2007) discussed attempts to improve on artificial knees and hips. Such implants are marvels of technology and are a great benefit to those fitted with them, but they have serious limitations. Under normal conditions, they only last 10 to 15 years, and in about 1 patient in 50, they become infected soon after surgery and have to be removed.
Of course, implant designers are trying to improve the longevity and safety of the product, but it would also help to have a simple way to determine if an implant isn't working right: X-rays and other scans just aren't particularly adequate for the job. Thomas Webster, associate professor of engineering and orthopedic surgery, wants to develop implants that can check their own condition and report it by wireless to a handheld reader. Not only would such a "smart implant" be able to report an infection, it would be able to release drugs to deal with it.
Titanium is the material of choice of implants, since it is strong, light, and resists corrosion. Webster's smart implants still use titanium, but feature an anodized surface coated with carbon nanotubes, which provide the implant's sensing capability. There are three possible things that can happen to an implant: healthy bone growth, infection, or formation of scar tissue. Each of these three conditions results in a different electrical conductivity, and the nanotubes would operate as electrodes to measure the conductivity. Since an infection results in low conductivity, the high electrical currents produced in sensing the infection could also degrade a polymer casing on the implant to release antibiotics, with no electronic smarts involved. Of course, the implant would have electronic smarts in the form of a device resembling an RFID chip that could be read by a handheld device. Like a typical RFID chip, it would be powered by radio emissions from the handheld reader and wouldn't need a battery. The smart implant would be able to operate for years.
The research effort is still in its early stages, but progress so far has been encouraging. Implants made of anodized titanium covered with carbon nanotubes have actually shown that they encourage bone growth better than do current titanium implants. Webster isn't alone in the effort, either. In 2004, researchers at the Scripps Institute in La Jolla, California, were the first to implant an electronic artificial knee in a patient, with the implant featuring a strain gauge and wireless transmitter -- though the prime goal was just to gather data for improving current "dumb" implants. Researchers from the University of Tennessee in Knoxville and the nearby Oak Ridge National Laboratory have been working on implant technology featuring micromachines accelerometer sensors. Nobody is close to introducing smart implants to clinical trials and there's no prospect of seeing them in common use any time soon, but those involved regard the effort as highly promising.
* NEXT-GENERATION MOSQUITO NETS: As reported by an article from SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN ("A Better Mosquito Net" by Eva Kaplan, December 2007), mosquito nets are now undergoing a redesign to make them more effective in blocking the spread of malaria. Malaria afflicts a substantial fraction of the world's population, with the two groups most at risk being under-fives and pregnant women. In sub-Saharan Africa, a fifth of all childhood deaths are from malaria; pregnant women suffering from malaria can develop severe anemia and give birth to underweight babies who are less likely to survive. The World Health Organization estimates that 10,000 pregnant women and 200,000 infants die of malaria in Africa every year.
Many development agencies have pushed the distribution of mosquito nets to prevent Africans from being bitten in their sleep by mosquitos. Massive numbers of bed nets have been distributed, but so far they have not had any significant impact on the incidence of the disease. Some medical researchers say the problem is that the bed nets haven't been complemented by other interventions, such as use of insecticides. There are also stories that people don't use the nets for their intended purpose, for example using them to catch fish. One idea has been to charge a small fee for the nets so they won't be misused as much, but that would discourage many poor people from obtaining nets.
There may be a more basic problem: the nets aren't very well designed. There are two basic configurations of nets, circular and rectangular. The circular net hangs from the ceiling by a single string, with the net fanning out in a cone and tucked into a mattress on all sides. The rectangular net hangs from the ceiling on four strings, with the sides falling over the sides of the mattress and once again tucked in. These two configurations work OK for a proper dwelling with proper beds, but many of the poor live in mud huts with thatched roofs, with no bed other than straw or the like. The rectangular nets are very difficult to hang in a mud hut, and the circular nets are not all that effective. In any case, the nets are just in the way during the day and so have to be set up every night.
One option under investigation for a better mosquito net is a collapsible, tentlike structure, sort of like the crawl-through toys commonly seen in US playrooms. The challenge is to make the structure both sturdy and affordable; it will also have to be sized for children to ensure that older, hardier family members don't use it instead. Further rethinking may help mosquito nets finally put a real dent into malaria.BACK_TO_TOP
* FLY THE FRIENDLY SKIES: Once upon a time, "in-flight entertainment (IFE)" on an airliner trip meant a movie projected on a screen at the front of the aisle. Now, as discussed in an article in IEEE SPECTRUM ("Sit Back, Relax, and Enjoy the Entertainment", by Robert N. Charette, September 2008), airlines are providing their passengers with a full menu of gadget-happy multimedia entertainment services. An economy-class passenger on a new Airbus A380 super-jumbo jetliner can choose between 100 movies, 180 television shows, and 700 audio CDs.
Multimedia offerings on airliners are not that new, but previously they were reserved for first-class carriage. However, after some rethink the airline brass realized that since modern IFE was a paying proposition, it made no sense to restrict it to first class -- not only were there more economy passengers than first class passengers to lay down money for movies and music, usage rates per head were higher among economy fliers than first class. The reason was simple: economy accommodations tend toward the cramped and inconsiderate, so economy fliers are more interested in diversions. If offering IFE to economy fliers also increased customer satisfaction with the airline service, so much the better.
As discussed here last year, Virgin America Airlines has got into high-tech IFE in a big way, making it a selling point for their service. The Virgin system, named "Red", was designed by Panasonic Avionics Corporation. Passengers can use Red to listen to thousands of tunes, watch satellite TV and premium movies, or order a meal or drinks with a swipe of a credit card. Orders are transmitted over wi-fi to the cabin crew at the back of the aircraft, with the orders fulfilled as they come in. This eliminates the traditional nuisance of running a cart up and down the aisles and balancing the crew workload over the flight. Soda, water, and coffee are still free, incidentally. Red also allows passengers to store playlists of music for later flights, chat online with other passengers, and provide feedback on the airline's quality of service.
Virgin America is on the leading edge of airline IFE. However, most other US carriers are lagging in the technology compared to their competitors elsewhere. Singapore Airlines flies very long duration flights, over 18 hours maximum, and regards high-tech IFE as a way of easing passenger tensions and not making them feel like short-term prisoners. Studies show that well-designed IFE systems give passengers a greater sense of control over their environment.
Design of such systems has to be flexible, of course. Some passengers are sociable and want to network with their fellow travelers, while others dislike being in a crowd and want to use the system to escape from their uncomfortable reality. However, setting up a high-tech IFE system is not as simple as going down to Circuit City and placing an order. The IFE system integrates with the airliner seats, and so the seat supplier and IFE system supplier have to coordinate their solutions. Since the seat and IFE system have to integrate into an environment with very specific constraints on physical location and electronic interfaces, that makes the job risky if the suppliers haven't done one just like it before.
An airliner IFE system doesn't come cheap. On the new Boeing 787 Dreamliner, a Thales-built IFE system runs from $3 million to $4 million per aircraft. A single station on a jetliner can run to $35,000 USD or more. The IFE system is a major capital expense and a long-term investment. If a customer orders an IFE system in 2008, delivery won't be until 2013, and the system will operate for 15 to 20 years. Since that timeframe is far longer than the generational cycles of consumer media technology, the IFE systems have to be designed to be easy to upgrade. One way to ensure that IFE systems stay up to date is to make them as dependent on software as possible.
When the Boeing 777 jetliner was developed in the early 1990s, the aircraft's avionics package ran on 2.6 million lines of code, while the IFE system had a relatively modest 250,000 lines. The 787 Dreamliner, in contrast, has more than 6.5 million lines of code, not counting code obtained off-the-shelf, and the IFE system's code is almost as big. Such huge software systems can be a nightmare to develop, but they are easy to upgrade, and implementing functions in software instead of hardware tends to save weight. Weight is a major factor in airline operations since it affects fuel consumption; US Airways recently decided to update their old IFE systems primarily on the weight savings alone.
Some airlines have economized on weight further by not building in an IFE system. Alaska Airlines simply carries a set of "digEplayers" and a passenger can rent one for $10 USD on flights lasting more than three hours. This approach is likely too austere for most airlines, but even operators with full IFE systems can obtain additional weight savings with the technology. Emirates Airlines of Dubai got rid of all the paper supplied on the flights -- inflight magazines, entertainment guides, and so on -- on its A380 airliners, with the IFE system providing all this information instead. Other airlines are likely to copy this approach.
Another emerging trend is IFE systems that interface with passenger's personal devices, such as iPods. The big question that has to be addressed is whether the passengers will be able to obtain downloads from the IFE system, since that raises licensing issues. A good percentage of the cost of operating an IFE system is in media licensing, and downloads would clearly complicate matters further. Media providers are particularly nervous over IFE systems on Chinese and Russian jetliners, since both nations are very big on media piracy. Inflight internet connectivity is also emerging: American Airlines just introduced a wi-fi service on selected flights, and a number of airlines have announced plans as well.
In the near future, IFE systems will be even more sophisticated, with the system greeting passengers by name and offering help with services at their destination, such as restaurant recommendations and reservations. As a Panasonic official puts it: "If you want to have the same experience [at home] that airlines are putting on aircraft now, you would have to have your laptop, your set-top box, your TiVo, everything all hooked up through one remote and one screen along with a comfortable reclining easy chair."
Alas, no matter how fancy the IFE systems get, the airlines will still figure out a way to lose a passenger's luggage. Fancy multimedia systems? They're relatively easy. Other problems present much more of a challenge.BACK_TO_TOP
* THE WAR AGAINST AL-QAEDA (4): Although Europe is a prime target for Islamic terrorism, it should not be thought that the threat to European countries is entirely or even primarily from outsiders. In August 2006, British police raided an emerging terrorist network in the UK, with eight men now on trial for plotting to blow up at least seven airliners flying from London to airports in North America. The defendants claim they only plotted to set off a small explosion at Heathrow to attract publicity. Somewhat inconveniently for their case, the police seized a number of "martyrdom videos" during the raid that never made it onto the Islamic internet, but made for interesting viewing for the jurors.
One of the defendants, 30-year-old Umar Islam AKA Brian Young, sat for the video camera in front of a black flag inscribed with Koranic verse and went on about British military interference in Muslim lands, as well as the materialism of British life: "Most of you are too busy watching HOME & AWAY and EASTENDERS, complaining about the World Cup and drinking your alcohol ... I know because I've come from that." He said bluntly: "As you kill, you will be killed." Another one of the defendants protested in his video that the British made more of a fuss over killing foxes than killing Muslims.
Whether this particular plot was ever really any more than juvenile posturing is a good question, but there is no question that Islamic terrorism is a real and present threat to the cities of Europe. On 11 March 2004, Islamic terrorists attacked the Madrid rail system with ten remote-controlled bombs and killed 191 people. On 7 July 2005, four suicide bombers hit the London transport system and killed 52. Americans, with good reason, see the threat of Islamic terrorism as mostly coming from outsiders; Europeans, also with good reason, see it as mostly home-grown. The difference in circumstances helps explain why there is a difference in mindset over Islamic terrorism across the Atlantic: the Americans feel they are fighting a war, while Europeans feel that the matter should be handled by the police; Americans are attracted to the idea of military interventions elsewhere to attack terrorists, but Europeans worry much more about the terrorists in their midst.
Counterterrorism experts point out that home-grown European Islamic terrorists are generally the descendants of poor immigrants. The major attraction of violence to these folk is not religious zealotry but "jihadist cool", the appeal of "playing hero" to the young and egocentric -- American adolescents immersed in the conspiracy fringe adopt a similar heroic attitude, but rarely take it to the same extreme. Not long ago, some might have gone to Pakistan or elsewhere to fight jihad, but controls on travel have been tightened up, so they plan violence at home. Why things are so different in the US seems a bit puzzling, but it appears to be due to the fact that American society is more open to immigrants; religion is publicly respected there; American Muslims are less segregated and more dispersed; and they tend to be economically and socially more successful.
In any case, in 2007 MI5, the UK's domestic intelligence service, was keeping an eye on 2,000 people regarded as suspicious. British involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, plus the large number of British citizens of Pakistani descent, places the UK high on the target list. The threat is felt across the channel as well. Despite the fact that Germany opposed the war in Iraq, in 2006 two bombs were planted on commuter trains, and it was simple blind luck they didn't go off. In September 2007, German police broke up a plot to bomb German locales visited by American tourists. Denmark became a high-profile target when a newspaper printed anti-Islamic cartoons in 2005. France is used to terrorism, with Iranian-backed bombers striking in the 1980s and Algerian terrorists performing attacks in the 1990s. The result is that French anti-terrorism efforts are now unusually effective, making France a "hard target". However, French counterterrorism officials remained concerned about the intentions of AQIM, with Italy and Spain sharing in the worries.
Even when plots are foiled, there is a dark side, since jihadists end up in prisons -- where they can preach holy war to other inmates, and also obtain useful contacts with criminal gangs that can supply weapons and explosives. In 2004, Spanish police pounced on a group that was planning to blow up Spain's High Court and murder a prominent anti-terrorism judge; the plot had been cooked up in prison. In 2005, Los Angeles police busted an Islamic terrorist who was plotting to attack military recruiting centers, synagogues, and the Israeli embassy; he was an ex-con who had become a Muslim in prison. That particular case suggests that, if home-grown Islamic terrorism isn't a major threat in the USA at present, it might become so in the future. [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT
* DOCTOR TATIANA (9): As mentioned in the beginning of this series, humans are sexually freakish in some ways -- most particularly in the fact that they are monogamous, promiscuity being much more the exception than the norm among animals. Monogamy is unusual even among our close relatives: chimp females are wildly promiscuous, and their relatives the bonobos are just plain sex fiends. Humans honestly do seem to be monogamous as a rule, with (admittedly sketchy) genetic studies showing only a small percentage of children not being the offspring of the person they believe to be their father. Of course, divorces are fairly common in modern societies, but humans, sometimes after an early bout of sexual experimentation, predominantly tend towards long-term relationships.
Human history bolsters the notion that humans are instinctively monogamous. Sex communes don't seem to work out that well, being generally undermined by jealousies. Polyandry -- a female with multiple husbands -- is rare to the point of insignificant, though harems are fairly common in history. Harems are generally associated with authoritarian societies, with men of wealth and power obtaining multiple wives to raise big families. They even existed in some societies that were in principle monogamous, such as Medieval Europe, with a nobleman having a wife complemented with a number of concubines.
There are some who believe that feminism led to the general fall of polygamy, but it was a generally dead issue centuries before women's rights became a serious matter. Some have suggested that polygamy isn't an entirely bad deal for the wives, since they can collaborate to help take care of the kids. What seems to have killed off polygamy was actually the democratic revolution, since polygamy meant one male monopolizing females and leaving his fellows single for all their lives. To a modern society, that is not a healthy condition.
* There was a time when people believed monogamy was common in the animal kingdom. That was simply imposing a human bias on the external world. Nesting birds seem to be monogamous, but genetic studies showed that the males who took care of the nest were not at all necessarily the fathers of the chicks in the nest. These birds were "socially monogamous" in that the males and females formed up enduring pairings, but the pairings did not imply sexual fidelity.
Some animals do indeed seem to be monogamous, however. There is a species of mantis shrimp -- crustaceans with mantislike forelimbs -- that pairs up in adolescence, with the couple then creating a burrow on the seafloor from which they operate as ambush predators. They secrete a mucus to help them build the burrow, but in full maturity they can no longer generate the mucus. They are soft-bodied, which is OK for life in a burrow, but makes them hideously vulnerable if they leave. In other words, once these mantis shrimp couple up, they're stuck with each other.
Similarly, there are creatures such as the banded shrimp that have developed a "you and me against the world" lifestyle, with each partner aggressively attacking other members of its own sex, meaning neither partner has much chance to stray since the spouse will drive potential rivals off. Some hornbills also exhibit monogamy; the female is walled up in the nest with her clutch and is dependent on the male to feed them through a hole. Even if she were able to break out while playing mom, she has lost her flight feathers and is generally helpless. If the male is not entirely attentive to the female, the chicks are lost.
So why monogamy in humans? Was it driven by the need to care for children who take a long time and considerable education to mature? There are various explanations but human behavior is particularly complicated, and there is no general consensus on the matter. [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT
* GIMMICKS & GADGETS: As reported by WIRED Online, graphics chip makers NVIDIA and ATI have now released the latest generation of graphics processing hardware. Nvidia has unveiled its new GeForce GTX 260 and GeForce GTX 280 processors. ATI, now a subsidiary of chip giant AMD, also released two new chips, the Radeon HD 4850 and the Radeon HD 4870.
Few people but hardcore gamers might really care about processor boards to give computer games extra snap, but these products are more than just high-tech toys. Graphics rendering implies performing a large number of floating-point math calculations, and so the new processor chips amount to fast floating-point processors -- with performance measured in trillions of floating-point operations per second ("teraflops") -- that can be used for other intensive number-crunching tasks. The chips can be ganged together for parallel operation to produce a computing system more powerful than any available in the mid-1990s. Says an industry observer: "We're talking about every man, woman and child basically having a supercomputer on their desk."
The only problem is that the chips are designed for parallel operation, and writing software to take advantage of that capability is tricky. An industry consortium named Khronos, which was set up to define the "OpenGL" standard for computer graphics software, is now working towards an "Open Computing Language (OpenCL)" to develop standardized software for parallel processing hardware.
* The original Universal Serial Bus (USB) was a treasure for personal computing, finally providing a scheme that allowed users to hook up different gadgets to a PC without usually having to struggle with nasty configuration issues. The usual reaction of those who hooked up a USB device was a surprised: "Plug it in and it works!"
The low speed of USB was something of a bother, but then USB 2.0 came along, permitting transfers comparable or better than that of a fast internet connection. Now discussions are underway for a "USB 3.0", with data transfer rates kicked up by another order of magnitude, to 5 gigabits per second. The technology under consideration is along the lines of that of the PCI Express disk-drive interface. The spec is suppose to be released in 2009, though there is bickering among the players, with companies such as Nvidia and AMD claiming that Intel is trying to dominate the USB 3.0 definition.BACK_TO_TOP
* VACCINE NOT SPOKEN HERE: As reported in an article from MSNBC.com ("Vaccine-Wary Parents Spark Public-Health Worry" by JoNel Aleccia), the town of Ashland in southwest Oregon is famed for its Shakespeare festival. The arts-oriented little town, with a population of 21,000, also now has another distinction: about 30% of kindergartners have exemptions from the vaccines required by state law, a rate seven times higher than the rest of the state and about 12 times higher than the rest of the USA.
Parents who distrust government and medical authorities have dug in their heels on the vaccination of their kids, citing cases of bad reactions to vaccines and fears of health hazards ranging from asthma to autism. Health officials are exasperated, replying that the risks of vaccination are far lower than those of not vaccinating -- and that the failure to vaccinate one portion of the population puts the rest at risk. According to Dr. Ari Brown, a Texas pediatrician who speaks for the American Academy of Pediatrics: "When more than 10 percent of a community opts out of vaccinations, it leaves the entire community at risk because germs have a greater chance of causing an epidemic."
All US states permit medical exemptions from vaccination based on conditions that range from severe allergies and serious immune system problems to neurological disorders. All but two states allow religious exemptions; twenty-one states offer a broader provision for "personal belief" exemptions. In states where it is easy to get exemptions, they've nearly doubled since 1991.
Since people who are vaccinated against a disease have much less chance of being carriers of that disease and passing it on to others, there's a certain "safety in numbers" in vaccination of a entire population, since pathogens don't have a path to propagate through that population. Researchers feel that vaccine resisters are gradually undermining this "herd immunity", threatening those are immunocompromised or otherwise unable to tolerate vaccination, as well as those whose vaccinations didn't work or wore off.
According to the Federal Centers For Disease Control & Prevention (CDC), some diseases, such as mumps, can tolerate a herd immunity threshold as low as 75 percent. But more virulent diseases, such as measles or pertussis, also known as whooping cough, require collective immunity of up to 94 percent to avoid infection. The CDC recently reported that the number of measles cases recently reached its highest level in a decade, with about half the cases being children of parents who were vaccine resisters. Recent outbreaks of whooping cough have also been associated with vaccine resisters.
In 2006, the NEW ENGLAND JOURNAL OF MEDICINE reported that a 17-year-old Indiana girl who had returned from a trip to Romania set off a measles outbreak. She attended a gathering of 500 people the day after she got home, with 34 children falling sick, most of them kids who had not been vaccinated. Cost to contain the outbreak was estimated at $168,000 USD. Fortunately, vaccination rates in the area were 95% and there was no epidemic.
Jennifer Margulis, an Ashland writer and mother of three who didn't vaccinate her children for years, and then only selectively immunized them for a trip to Africa: "I think a child's immune system is so immature. You're putting known toxins in a child before they're two years old ... If you read the list of ingredients about what you're putting intramuscularly into your child, it's scary. They're not just giving you a little dose of dead bacteria."
Medical experts acknowledge that vaccines can cause problems and don't always work, but immediately add that parents are taking a far higher risk with their kids by refusing to vaccinate them. The CDC estimates that the "DTaP" combination vaccine for diphtheria, tetanus, and whooping cough causes severe problems only once in over a million vaccinations. In contrast, although measles is rare in the USA today, at its peak in 1958, before a vaccine was introduced, measles caused more than 763,000 infections and 552 deaths.
Vaccination is, to an extent, a victim of its own success. There was a time not so long ago that parents could expect to lose at least one of their children before they reached adulthood. Modern public-health measures, particular vaccinations, have made childhood mortality far more the exception than the rule. With that problem seemingly taken care of, parents unsurprisingly have focused on what appear to be more visible threats. Unfortunately, this calculation sometimes fails to take into consideration the fact that vaccines, however imperfect they may be in practice, are designed to protect and are tested for safety -- while pathogens have countless millennia of evolutionary experience in penetrating the body's defenses, and are continuing to acquire new dirty tricks.BACK_TO_TOP
* CROSSING OVER: As reported by an article in THE ECONOMIST ("A Cold Fish", 12 July 2008), briny sea water in Arctic and Antarctic regions can actually get several degrees below the freezing point of fresh water. Creatures like whales, seals, and penguins can ward off the cold by insulating themselves with layers of fat and burning up energy. Fish can't maintain themselves in such a way in cold waters, and so many fish in polar regions have come up with another way to survive: they produce "antifreeze proteins (AFPs)" in the blood that lock onto ice crystals and prevent them from growing.
AFPs are observed in both Arctic and Antarctic fish, but the AFP found in Arctic fish is unrelated in structure to that found in Antarctic fish: they're two different proteins that happen to work alike, the result of the "convergent evolution" of a common solution by different evolutionary paths. However, surprisingly, in the case of three Arctic fish species -- herring, smelt, and sea raven -- the AFPs are effectively identical even though the three different types of fishes have different ancestry. How can this be? The odds of the evolution of exactly the same AFP in different species are vanishingly small.
Peter Davies of Queen's University in Ontario, Canada, believes the answer is "horizontal gene transfer". In horizontal gene transfer, one species transfers part of its genome to another species. It happens all the time in bacteria, which is one of the reasons they acquire resistance to antibiotics so quickly. It is not known to happen between multicellular organisms and certainly not in macroscale organisms such as fish. However, as Davies points out, many fish do not have sex in the usual notion of physically hooking up: a female spawns a clutch of eggs and the male then scatters his sperm over them.
Under such circumstances, it is possible that sperm from one species of fish may cross with eggs from another species of fish. The usual results of such a cross would likely be fatal, but as Davies points out, if an egg was already fertilized with the proper sperm, it might be possible for the "alien" sperm to simply provide a few genes. A likely scenario? Maybe, maybe not, but the notion of horizontal gene transfer between macroscale organisms has long been thought impossible. The idea that it may not be certainly deserves further investigation.
* In other evo science news, BBC WORLD Online reported on the genetic analysis of woolly mammoth hair by an international team of researchers. The analysis was unusual in that it focused on hair, while traditional analyses of the genomes of extinct animals focused on samples from bones or preserved muscle. Although the assumption had been that the DNA in hair wouldn't be as intact, the researchers were surprised, one of the group, Dr. Tom Gilbert, saying: "The idea has been that all the DNA is in the root and that the shaft is DNA-void, or of much lower quality. This is why when we screened a whole load of mammoths, we thought we might be lucky if we took enough hair from one of them. Basically, for every mammoth we tried, it worked. That blew us away."
According to Gilbert: "The reason we think hair is so great comes down to the fact that as a structure, hair is made out of this material called keratin." It's a kind of protein that in a very simplistic sense can be viewed as a plastic that the DNA gets embedded in and surrounded by and protected by." The analysis of hair proving unexpectedly easy, the group believes that other keratin-based structures -- horns, nails, even feathers -- should also prove useful targets for genetic analysis.
The group focuses on "mitochondrial DNA", the semi-independent genomes associated with the cellular organelles known as "mitochondria". These mini-genomes do not take part in sexual reproduction and are handed down directly from mother to child, a trait that makes them useful for tracing genealogies. The researchers want to perform similar analyses on other ancient hair samples. Of course, the inevitable question is whether it is possible to recreate an extinct animal with DNA. Gilbert simply says that is beyond serious consideration at this time.BACK_TO_TOP
* THE WAR AGAINST AL-QAEDA (3): There was a time when the "Islamic State Of Iraq", as al-Qaeda styled itself in that country, felt on top of the world, issuing videos scored to triumphant music showing the explosive destruction of American Humvee trucks. They still crow these days online, but the reality is that al-Qaeda in Iraq is heavily on the defensive. Sunni tribal leaders who once supported al-Qaeda have turned against the group. Even an al-Qaeda leader admitted that the change in sentiment had something to do with the fact that al-Qaeda fighters had "got carried away with murdering and executions."
Things seemed to go so well for the jihadis at first. The US government tried to justify the invasion of Iraq in 2003 as a means of fighting terror, but in early 2006 an American National Intelligence Assessment declared that the effort had backfired, that the war in Iraq was "breeding a deep resentment of the US involvement in the Muslim world and cultivating supporters for the global jihadist movement." Al-Qaeda leadership had good reason to be pleased with themselves, having done much to bog down the world's greatest military power in a seemingly endless war, and inflicting considerable loss in blood and treasure on the Americans.
However, by that time the balance was starting to tip against al-Qaeda, partly as a result of the organization's own extremism. Many Iraqi Sunnis had welcomed al-Qaeda as saviors at first, but the jihadis were extremists, and like all good extremists they were not flexible when it came to differences of opinion. Those who disagreed with al-Qaeda leadership, or were simply seen as insufficiently dedicated to the cause, were killed. The most notorious among the extremists was Jordanian-born Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who was nicknamed the "Sheikh of Slaughterers" because of his bloodthirstiness, taking pleasure in sawing off the heads of bound and defenseless captives for the video camera. A captured letter from Ayman al-Zawahiri from October 2005 told Zarqawi that al-Qaeda was winning in Iraq, but that the ugly stuff needed to be toned down. Zarqawi didn't listen: the next month, November 2005, his people suicide-bombed three hotels in Amman, Jordan, slaughtering innocent bystanders -- most particularly decimating a wedding party packed with members of two Palestinian families. However much Muslims disliked the Americans, that was beyond the pale, and al-Qaeda's stock fell accordingly.
US forces finally hunted down Zarqawi in June 2006 and killed him. That was cause for satisfaction in itself, but a report then released by US Marine intelligence suggested that the Americans were losing the struggle in hot spots like turbulent Anbar province. However, by that time Anbar was turning around. US military officers were courting local leaders in the provincial capital of Ramadi, providing them with protection and helping rebuild. As one neighborhood calmed down, the Americans and Iraqis then moved on to other neighborhoods, with leaders who had been wavering reading the writing on the wall and joining the fight against al-Qaeda.
The process has continued ever since, leaving the terrorists with an ever-shrinking base. Al-Qaeda in Iraq is no longer taking the offensive against the Americans and Iraqi forces, instead being concerned with survival. Jihadis now prefer to go to Pakistan instead of signing up for the increasingly lost cause in Iraq. Coupled with a decline in active Shia militancy -- due in part to improved security, but also due to a cease-fire declared by radical Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr in August 2007 -- violence all over Iraq has been on a clear downward trend.
* The conflict in Iraq is not over, not by a long shot, but the direction does now seem to towards increasing stability, not stumbling dreadfully down towards hell as it had been into 2006. There have been fears that the hoped-for extinction of al-Qaeda in Iraq may just export veteran fighters elsewhere, just as the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan produced a generation of fighters that dispersed and helped set up al-Qaeda in the first place. Optimists point out that things are different now: the reliance on suicide tactics meant that the most motivated among the jihadis didn't live to go home; the extremist actions of Zarqawi and his like did much to discourage many fighters and sympathizers; and Muslim governments are paying much more attention to their citizens returning from Iraq or points unknown than was paid to fighters coming back from the war against the Soviets.
However, the hydra-like nature of al-Qaeda means that as one head is chopped off in one region, other heads seem to sprout up in others. Al-Qaeda seems to be regrouping in Yemen, Lebanon, and particularly North Africa. The long-running Islamic insurgency in Algeria, which collapsed of its own extremism, has revived as "al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM)", which has carried out attacks in Algeria and Tunisia. Nobody doubts that AQIM has its eye on further targets, north across the Mediterranean. [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT
* DOCTOR TATIANA (8): There is a tendency to label homosexuality as "unnatural" -- or at least there was in less politically correct days -- and from an evolutionary point of view, it would certainly seem like an aberration. Obviously, sexual behavior that doesn't lead to reproduction is an evolutionary dead end, certain to delete itself from the gene pool. The problem with that point of view is that homosexual behavior is by no means unusual among animals. The bonobo, a close relative of the chimpanzee and sometimes called a "pygmy chimp" -- though it's not really much smaller -- has a freewheeling social order based on near-continuous and near-indiscriminate sex, with homosexual couplings and sex with juveniles being perfectly normal in bonobo troops. Dolphins are so randy they will mount sea turtles; homosexual activity is observed in some birds; in captivity, both male and female Japanese macaques will fight over sex with an attractive female.
Why should such behavior persist? Some have suggested that homosexual behavior is a "neutral" adaptation, something that "just happens" and does neither harm nor good -- but a behavior that imposes even a slight reproductive disadvantage should eventually be driven out of the gene pool. Besides, if homosexual behavior is a neutral adaptation, then it's hard to understand why it's so widespread.
Homosexual behavior is obviously not as big a puzzle if it isn't exclusive. Some animals may just like to have sex with any conceivable partner -- there are some humans like that -- and as long as they score with members of the opposite sex part of the time, they can still propagate their genes. It might, in fact, be suggested that such aggressive sexuality is a pretty good way to propagate genes: shoot at anything that moves and you have a better chance of scoring hits. Non-exclusive homosexual activity might also have some useful function other than reproduction; it may be a way of establishing social dominance, or of strengthening group bonds. That certainly seems to be the case in bonobos, with their tribes held together by sex. If two humans casually greeted each other the way bonobos do, they'd be arrested.
But what happens when homosexual behavior is exclusive, when there's no couplings with the opposite sex? It should die out, shouldn't it? It hasn't. Evolutionary biologists have puzzled out a number of possible explanations, the most attractive being based on the idea that, while exclusive homosexual behavior is an evolutionary dead end in itself, it is a "side effect" of factors that aren't.
Sexually reproducing species are typically (though not always) diploid, with dual sets of chromosomes. A good number of (though not all) genes have multiple forms, or "alleles"; two different alleles may be "paired" in one individual. In some cases, it is useful to have a single copy of a particular allele, but not useful to pair two copies of that particular allele. The most famous case is "sickle cell anemia", a common genetic problem among peoples -- stereotypically but not necessarily black folk, incidentally -- who have traditionally lived in malaria-prone regions. Somebody who only has one copy of the gene that causes sickle-cell anemia actually has heightened resistance to malaria; somebody who gets two copies of the gene is anemic.
Maybe, so the thinking goes, homosexual behavior occurs in individuals who get two copies of a "gay gene" -- but those who only get one copy obtain some selective advantage off of it. There is some skepticism over this idea, because the genetic basis for homosexual behavior is generally unclear. There is some evidence that it does have a biological basis, but nobody's been able to pin it down to any specific gene or genes. Since we don't know the genes involved, it is certainly difficult to suggest what advantage might be granted by a single copy of any gene related to homosexual behavior.
A somewhat more attractive theory is that the genetics that promote homosexual behavior in males also promote unusual fertility in females. In this case, though some of the female's sons don't reproduce, she has so many children that it more than balances out. Right now, this is mostly speculation, and will remain so until we have a better understanding of the biological basis of homosexuality. Considering how controversial the subject is, that might take a while. [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT
* MIGRAINE MYSTERY: Anyone who has ever suffered from chronic migraine headaches finds them hard to explain to anyone who hasn't: the blinding hallucinations known as the "aura", followed by jabs of pain like the malevolent probes of an ice pick, accompanied by waves of nausea. The pain is sharp and piercing, not like the dull nasty pounding of an ordinary headache. Migraines have long been mysterious and in fact some doctors simply dismissed them as hypochondria. According to an article in SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN ("Why Migraines Strike" by David W. Dodick & J. Jay Gargus, August 2008), they are starting to be taken seriously.
Migraine sufferers usually are laid out once or twice a month for a day, but a fraction has them more often or for longer. What triggers them remains unclear -- fluorescent lights, stress, seasonal changes, booze, lack of sleep, and altitude have been cited as triggers. Anyone can suffer from migraines, but two-thirds of the sufferers are women in the age range of 15 to 55. Migraines do run in families, though the pattern of genetic susceptibility is subtle, complicated, and unclear. One of a set of identical twins may suffer from migraines, while the other will not.
Traditionally, the cause was believed to be dilation of the blood vessels in the brain, causing pressure on nerves. In the 1980s this was shown by improved brain monitoring instruments to be a medical superstition: the migraine is preceded by an increase in blood flow, up to three times normal, but during the session itself the blood flow is perfectly normal. It now appears to be related to a nervous system disorder, rooted in the brainstem.
The two primary components of a migraine include the aura, which is reported by about 30% of sufferers, and the pain itself. Describing the aura is difficult to those who have never had it: the closest comparison is to the experience of seeing stars after taking a blow to the face. Auras come in various forms, all scintillating and flashing, such as stars and particularly zigzag lightning bolts. Normally a session of the aura precedes the pain, but sometimes the two go together.
Aura is believed to be caused by "cortical spreading depression", a kind of "brainstorm" in which a wave of intense nerve cell stimulation propagates through the cortex, leaving behind "neuronal inhibition" -- in effect, the neurons have been taken "offline". Nerve action is controlled by a synchronized flow of potassium, sodium, and calcium ions. The "brainstorm" can upset the chemical balance so the neurons can no longer fire. Not surprisingly, during the "brainstorm" the neurons need much more blood, resulting in the observed surge of blood flow. When the neurons go offline, the bloodflow returns to the baseline.
Observation of the "brainstorm" shows that its activity directly correlates to the growth, persistence, and decline of the aura. The classic "lightning bolt" aura has alternating bright and dark streaks: the bright streaks seem to correspond to regions of hyperactivity in the visual cortex, with the dark streaks corresponding to regions that are offline. Mutations in genes associated with neuronal function seem to lead to susceptibility to migraines.
As noted, most migraine sufferers do not see the aura. Where the pain comes from is no mystery in itself. Most of the brain itself does not actually feel pain. The membranes that surround the brain, known as "meninges", and the blood vessels that infuse the meninges do sense pain, which is transmitted by the "trigeminal" network of neurons to a component of the brain stem called the "trigeminal nucleus". The pain is then passed up through the thalamus to the sensory cortex for our appreciation. The pain is coming from the trigeminal nerves -- but why they are stimulated is unclear. Some suspect it to be a by-product of the ionic imbalance produced by the cortical "brainstorm". Others believe that it may be rooted in the brain stem, the "Grand Central Station" of brain activity, with observations showing that some of the clusters of cells, or "nuclei", in the brain stem are activated during migraines.
At the present time, there are only a handful of drugs available to treat migraines, and none of them are effective more than half the time. Traditionally, migraine drugs were drugs developed for other purposes that just seemed to work on migraines sometimes. New efforts are being conducted to develop drugs on various theories of the root causes of migraines; those that prove effective may help provide a greater understanding of the affliction. However, migraine research is a low priority and progress in the field remains sluggish.
ED: I had migraines when I was a kid, getting them every month or so. I had classic symptoms: I would feel out of sorts, then start to get the zigzag lighting hallucinations in one corner of my field of vision, and they would then slowly grow to circle around my field of vision, never into the center, in rare cases going the full 360 degrees. They wouldn't actually fade out as such, they would finally expand to the edge of my field of vision and disappear over the "horizon", with the jabbing pains and surges of nausea following. Once that was over I was left with a "wet dishrag" feeling.
I was a little surprised to find out that people who spontaneously hallucinate in this way are rare; I didn't think it was that unusual, but I've only met a few people in my life who knew what I was talking about. I still get the hallucinations every now and then, but once I reached adulthood the headaches themselves stopped. The article mentioned nothing about auras without headaches, so I sent a polite email to Dr. Gargus, saying I appreciated the article, and asked if auras without headaches were unusual.
I got a very interesting answer. It seems that researchers in the field hadn't been particularly aware of that phenomenon, but the SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN article resulted in a number of people like me reporting auras without headaches to the editors of the magazine and the authors of the article, and they appear to be more common than thought.
It's not surprising that the researchers weren't aware that auras without headaches were fairly common. The auras aren't pleasant, but they're no more a threat than a case of indigestion, and in the absence of headaches few would bother to make a fuss over them -- if they know what the headaches are like in comparison. We don't remember pain as such. I can recall even over a gap of decades just how agonizing the migraines were and even categorize the cold needle jabs of the pain -- if that was hypochondria, then so is the pain of being smashed on the big toe with a hammer -- but fortunately, actual pain cannot be relived from memory. Still, thinking about the auras in writing up this article made me distinctly queasy.BACK_TO_TOP
* OPEN-SOURCE HARDWARE: The "open-source software" movement has had a significant impact on the software industry, resulting in a substantial body of free, high-quality software available on multiple platforms. Now, as reported in THE ECONOMIST ("Open Sesame", 7 June 2008), the open-source software movement is being followed by an "open-source hardware" movement.
The concept sounds a bit baffling up front, since when most people hear the words "open source", they think "free for the asking". Free software makes sense, since it's easy to copy programs as many times as desired; it's not so easy to copy hardware. However, in literal terms "open source" just means the sources -- the original program listings -- are available to whoever wants them. Open-source hardware, then, is hardware with the specs available to whoever wants them so the hardware can be modified by users.
It's not really a new idea. In the early days of personal computing, hobbyists generally put together their own computers, and the gear they bought usually came with the specs needed for modifying it. The revived open-source hardware era got rolling in earnest in 2005, when Sun Microsystems published the specs for its UltraSPARC TL processor chip and several other companies published design data on their hardware.
There are a number of companies now on the open-source hardware bandwagon, for example OpenMoko of Taipei, which provides the hardware specifications and source listings for is Neo1973 mobile phone. It should be noted, however, that companies enthusiastic about the open-source hardware concept don't necessarily release all the specs for their products. Gumstix, a company that sells little embedded computers, doesn't explain the workings of their motherboards. The iRobot company, which sells the Roomba robot vacuum cleaner, provides enough specs to allow the Roomba to be reprogrammed, but not replicated.
Obviously, users enjoy tinkering with hardware, but it's not quite so obvious what's in it for the companies. The main advantage is that the companies get free engineering out of it, sometimes well beyond the capabilities of their own staff. An early model of the OpenMoko phone didn't have wi-fi capabilities; users promptly came up with a low-cost way to add wi-fi to the device. The open-source hardware model is hard for tradition-minded businessmen to grasp since it's difficult to see how it can bring in a profit, but along with the free engineering it also leads to extreme customer loyalty, and a Sun official involved in open source commented: "Is Sun making money on open-source hardware? Absolutely. We can't measure it directly, but we do know the vector is going in the right direction."
There is an overhead to providing open-source specifications, of course. Detailed specifications can be extremely elaborate and difficult to produce, and subassemblies, for example chips bought from other vendors, may not be open-source themselves. The "geek crowd" inclined to open-source tinkering can also be a nuisance at times, and there's the question of just how many users are going to be willing to tinker with the products they buy. However, even users who don't tinker with their products can benefit from the tinkerings of those that do. The true believers in open-source hardware claim that the concept has a big future; those skeptical of the idea should recall that open-source software ran into the same skepticism at first.
* In other open-source news, BBC WORLD Online ran a report ("Legal Milestone For Open Source" by Maggie Shiels) on a decision by a US Federal appeals court that asserted the legal right of protection for open-source software even when it is given away free. The case was over, of all things, free software used to control model railroad systems. The plaintiff, Robert Jacobsen, runs the website for an open source software group focused on development of "Java Model Railroad Interface (JMRI)" software, which was loosely protected under a license provided by the Gnu Free Software Foundation. The license offered free use of JMRI but required that anyone making such use had to specify the authors of JRMI, identify the original source of the materials, and describe how the materials had been modified.
JMRI had been around for some time when commercial software developer Matthew Katzer began to sell similar software, which some suspected incorporated significant components of JMRI. Katzer took out a patent on his software, with the patent effectively covering technology previously available in the public domain, and then insisted that JMRI owed him hundreds of thousands of dollars in royalties for software downloads.
This was seen as sheer piracy, and the Creative Commons organization, which backs efforts in flexible intellectual property protection, filed an "amicus" or "friends" brief on behalf of Jacobsen. An initial ruling rejected Jacobsen's claim; the ruling was appealed, and the appeals court reversed the decision. According to the 15-page decision written by Judge Jeffrey White: "Copyright holders who engage in open source licensing have the right to control the modification and distribution of copyrighted materials. Open source licensing has become a widely used method of creative collaboration that serves to advance the arts and sciences in a manner and at a pace few could have imagined just a few decades ago."
The commercial use of open-source materials is widespread, and a court decision that denied the legitimacy of the free and proper use of open source would have disastrously undermined the effort. According to open source advocate Lawrence Lessig: "For non-lawgeeks, this won't seem important, but this is huge. In non-technical terms, the court has held that free licenses set conditions on the use of copyrighted work. When you violate the condition, the license disappears, meaning you're simply a copyright infringer. This is a very important victory."
Diane Peters, the general counsel for Creative Commons, told the BBC: "The Federal court recognized that even though licensees give up some rights it doesn't mean they have any less rights to access the remedies our law provides."BACK_TO_TOP
* SOLAR ANTENNAS: As reported in an article in AAAS SCIENCE ("Solar Gears Up To Go Somewhere Under The Rainbow" by Robert F. Service, 20 June 2008) discussed an innovative approach for generating electricity from sunlight, developed by the US Department of Energy's Idaho National Laboratory (INL) in Idaho Falls, Idaho. The idea is to use small antennas to perform the energy conversion; the technology not only promises high solar energy conversion efficiencies and low cost, it could also obtain energy from a sun-heated substrate after dark and from waste heat being otherwise dumped by industrial plants.
The idea of using antennas to collect electromagnetic energy and convert it into electricity is far from new. In 1964 William Brown, an engineer with US aerospace firm Raytheon, demonstrated a drone helicopter that flew on the power provided by a beam of microwaves. The key was an assembly mounted on the helicopter that Brown called a "rectenna" for "rectifying antenna"; the microwaves induced electrical signals in antenna elements that were then converted into direct current (DC) electricity by associated "rectifiers" (diodes) for use by the helicopter's electric motor. The concept has been refined since that time, with lighter, cheaper, and more efficient rectennas being used for further beamed-power flight experiments. The concept of solar power satellites promoted in the 1970s envisioned the satellites beaming their power with microwaves to huge rectenna arrays on the ground.
A few years ago, a group of researchers led by Steven Novack at INL decided to see if the same technology might be able to convert infrared radiation (IR) into electricity. The problem was that IR has a range of wavelengths two to five orders of magnitude shorter than microwaves. Since antenna elements are sized to the wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation they are expected to deal with, that meant elements in the micrometer size range, with detail features in the nanometer size range. To capture useful amounts of power meant arrays with millions of such tiny antennas.
These days, nobody sees building such an array as an impossibility, and Novack's team felt they could fabricate such patterns using thin films of gold on a silicon or plastic substrate. Tests show that antennas on a silicon substrate will convert 80% of the IR falling on them into electricity, while antennas on a plastic substrate will achieve 40% to 50% efficiency. The antenna could pick up IR from the Sun or from waste-heat sources.
The problem is that electromagnetic radiation induces an alternating-current (AC) signal into an antenna of the same frequency as the radiation, which for infrared is in the terahertz range (10^12 cycles per second). The AC signal has to be rectified into DC before it can be put to use, and nobody has ever developed a diode technology that operates at anything close to the terahertz range. Novack says that theoretical work suggests that such fast diodes could be made of three metal layers separated by ultrathin insulator layers. That means that much more work has to be done, but if the obstacles can be overcome, solar rectenna technology might become a competitor to classic solar cell technology.
* A related article from THE ECONOMIST discussed work on alternative schemes of concentrating sunlight. Traditionally, moving-mirror systems have been used to concentrate sunlight onto an array of solar cells, but such concentrators tend to be expensive and they also can thermally stress the solar cells. The "luminescent solar concentrator (LSC)" takes a more Zen approach, which is a panel that is covered with luminescent dyes. Sunlight energizes the dyes, which then produce light in convenient wavelengths that are shunted down a "light pipe" system to a solar array.
Most LSCs uses a plastic sheet impregnated with the dyes, with the sheet itself serving as a light pipe. It's a cheap approach, but the dye molecules tend to interfere with the light transmission through the sheet and reduce efficiency. The latest variation on the scheme uses dyes sprayed on a sheet of glass, with the light from the fluorescence being piped through the glass with little interference. One group of researchers has experimented with a scheme consisting of two dye-glass layers -- one on top that captures ultraviolet lights, the other on the bottom that captures longer wavelength light. The result is a considerable increase in the proportion of solar energy captured.BACK_TO_TOP
* ANOTHER MONTH: I did the second of my twice-annual road trips to Spokane in August. I'd made the first trip only few months earlier, in May, after getting back from my Florida road trip. On the May visit I'd taken an extended side loop into Nebraska, visiting the natural history museum at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln and the Strategic Air & Space Museum near Omaha, and then visiting my primary objective, Ashfall State Park near O'Neill to the north.
Ashfall was mentioned in the "Yellowstone Menace" series run here some time back: it has a "barn" where a herd of rhinos were left as they fell during a massive volcanic eruption 12 million years ago. The only problem with the visit was that I didn't notice from the website that the park was CLOSED MONDAYS and had to get a motel room in O'Neill. There was a used-book store near the motel and I picked up a Terry Pratchett novel to kill the time. It was useful to have wi-fi access so I could contact my folks to tell them I was running late, and also update my motel reservations.
Anyway, I got some good shots of Ashfall, including a panoramic set of shots of the rhino barn, though it was a lot of effort for a small payoff. Still, I knew once I got curious that I'd have to visit it; sometimes I wish I wasn't so obsessive. In compensation, on the way back I found an air museum outside of Ellsworth AFB in South Dakota that I hadn't known about, and got some good shots, particularly of a Nike-Ajax surface-to-air missile that was in fine condition.
The visit to Spokane itself was uneventful. On the way back, I went back through Utah, with a couple of targets to investigate on the way. The first was the "rocket park" at the ATK (previously Thiokol) solid-fuel rocket factory near Promontory, Utah, which turned out to be a very interesting stop, at least for someone who likes rockets and suchlike. I got a ton of shots.
The main attraction in Utah was the Bingham Canyon copper mine southwest of Salt Lake City. It's impossible to miss: it's a chunk of mountains that have been torn down and turned into huge tailings piles, visible from all over the city and beyond. I snaked up the road on the tailings piles and found the pit one of the most impressive, if appalling, sights I'd ever seen. It was a awesome hole in the ground, with huge ore-hauler trucks and monster shovels almost antlike in scale. Apparently the ore concentration was like 2%, but they could still smelt it out in a cost-effective fashion. However, they had to run the site 24-7-365; obviously none of the infrastructure could be allowed to sit idle.
I then visited the Hogle Zoo in the city -- a nice, middling sort of zoo -- and cruised back to Colorado through southern Wyoming. A reasonable sort of effort, though my car windshield got busted. I took a ding on the way out and considered having it fixed in Spokane, but it was just as well that didn't work out, since I got hit again coming back and it sent a hairline crack up the windshield. It wasn't much bother or expense to swap it out, insurance picked up most of the cost.
* As for the second trip, I usually go in the fall, but there was an air show at Fairchild Air Force Base outside of the town in August and I figured I might as well have something to do when I went back to the Northwest. I wouldn't have gone to Spokane normally in summer -- despite the fact that the town is on a higher latitude than Montreal, it can get very hot there in the late summer, hotter than it does in Colorado.
I took off northbound on Interstate 25 on Friday, 9 August. I've done the trip dozens of times and it's a bit eye-glazing. One thing that differed from routine was that I spotted an osprey nest in a box on a power pole north of Buffalo, Wyoming. I stopped and managed to get some good shots of the bird; normally ospreys are skittish, but this one had nestlings and was determined to keep an eye on me. Another difference was that the freeway was littered with Harley-Davidsons. I was puzzled for a while until it finally clicked -- oh yeah, the big Harley jamboree in Sturgis, South Dakota, was in progress.
I stopped over in Billings to visit Zoo Montana there. It's a fairly modest zoo, though I did get pix of their exhibit of pygmy marmosets, alas none of which worked out. They also have two somewhat forlorn-looking bald eagles in an open enclosure. Both are cripples, by the way, having been picked up after being injured; bald eagles are an endangered species and birds that can survive in the wild after rehabilitation are always released. I continued down the road to the little town of Whiteman, Montana, to spend the night, and then got into Spokane on Saturday to go to my folk's place. Not much going on there; the next morning my brother Steve picked me up and we went out to Fairchild Air Force Base to catch the airshow. I had been expecting it to be sweltering and it had been hot in Spokane during the week, but it was cloudy and unseasonably cool. I didn't take a sweatshirt along with me and I felt chilly all day.
The show was definitely worthwhile, however, with a lot of aircraft on display -- current Air Force types like the C-17, KC-10, KC-135R, F-15, B-52, and F-22, as well as plenty of warbirds, most significantly a Fouga Magister trainer and the only flying North American F-4 Fury -- a beefed-up carrier version of the famous F-86 Sabrejet. The F-22 Raptor flight performance was astounding -- it would do things that wouldn't have been controlled flight in almost any other aircraft, such as going into a climb, halting at the top of the climb, and then sliding back down along its flightpath. The show ended with the Blue Angels performance, which was less flashy than the Raptor flight, but still a real crowd-pleaser.
Unfortunately, the overcast ensured that most of my shots of aircraft in flight were dark and grainy; fortunately the sun came out a bit during the Blue Angels performance and I got some good shots. There was such a traffic jam getting off base that we were stuck there for two hours. Steve had XM Satellite Radio in his pickup and was tuned into the comedy channel, so we had something to do. Steve also showed off his countermeasures system. He's been directing a dam construction job in Helena, Montana, driving back and forth a few times a week -- a 500 kilometer (310 mile) drive each way and he does the round trip in one day. He's not above fudging on speed limits to reduce the trip time, so he has a radar-laser detector and jamming system. "Is that even legal?" I asked. "Well, I didn't buy it under the counter, so it must be in Washington State at least."
The next morning I did some poking around town and visited the office of Goebel Construction to see my other brother, Terry. He's usually got ten thousand things going and trying to deal with him is like playing on a freeway, but he was unusually mellow and was interested in all the shots I took at the airshow and elsewhere -- I was carrying a pocket disk drive loaded with my personal workspace from my desktop, so I gave him the full tour.
That done, I hit the road. The drive back home was routine. I spent the night in Missoula -- I should have stayed in Bozeman, it would have split up the journey better, something to remember for the next trip. The Harleys were generally gone from the roads on the way back, the festivities at Sturgis being over. I was somewhat relieved on getting back home to know that I had no more trips to take for the year.BACK_TO_TOP