oct 2008 / last mod aug 2015 / greg goebel

* Entries include: CLIMBING MOUNT IMPROBABLE, new PC adventures, the war against al-Qaeda, farming in skyscrapers, medical tourism on the rise, steampunk amusements, Brazilian ethanol, solar superstorms, Saudis against high oil prices, troublesome classification of prokaryotes, companies setting up their own clinics, and less to Russian assertiveness than meets the eye.

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* NEWS COMMENTARY FOR OCTOBER 2008: Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has long been a noisy critic of the USA in general and US President George W. Bush in specific, but for the most part it's tended to be more bark than bite. As discussed in THE ECONOMIST, Chavez went farther than he had before in mid-September when he expelled the American ambassador to Venezuela -- or more precisely told him he wasn't welcome to come back, the ambassador being out of the country at the time. The declaration was accompanied by the usual accusations that the Americans were trying to overthrow his government.

However, there was nothing in the long-running bad relationship between Chavez and the US government that had taken any particular turn for the worse -- so why the fit of bad humor now? To no surprise it turns out to be due to internal politics. Although Chavez still remains popular with many Venezuelans, crime and inflation are in runaway, with government services tending towards the inept and deficient. Internationally, investigations of Venezuelan high officials have fingered them as involved with drug runners and even terrorists in neighboring countries.

Hugo Chavez

The bark still remains more significant than the bite. The US needs to buy Venezuelan oil, and the Venezuelans need the US as a customer for their oil. This has managed to limit the hostility on both sides, but as it turns out the US has greater leverage in the arrangement. Chavez has courted favor with other South American countries by showering them with cheap oil, which has the interesting result of making the USA Venezuela's only serious paying customer. Oil prices have been dropping significantly as of late, which only tips the economic leverage more strongly in favor of the Americans -- who breathe easier, while Venezuela begins to gasp.

Chavez likes to play the buffoon for the audience. His adversaries have learned it is calculated, and that he shouldn't be underestimated; and yet at the same time, assessing the big picture suggests there is indeed a real buffoonery there, an inclination by Chavez to take the cheap and dirty route, seeking the short-term advantage and ignoring that it's a dead end over the without understanding that such an approach is doomed to failure over the long run. Not everybody is taken in by his anti-American grandstanding, either; as a former Venezuelan government minister wrote in a Spanish newspaper, many people now see "a politician making use of the old trick of yanqui imperialism in order to distract the unwary."

* As far the rest of the international news goes, it had a depressing sameness this last month: global financial breakdown. One can only hope that, having fallen, we've finally reached the bottom of the stairs. Jokes have been circulating about investment bankers: "This is worse than a divorce -- I lost half my money and I still have my wife."

It's an evil wind that doesn't blow someone good, and one of the ironic beneficiaries of the crisis has been British Prime Minister Gordon Brown. Brown's government has not been popular, suffering from a series of embarrassments -- one particularly unkind critic, reflecting on Brown's past reputation as an authoritarian and his current status as the butt of public jokes, suggested that he had gone from "Josef Stalin to Mister Bean". However, Brown's government took decisive action in the face of the banking crisis, quickly putting together and pushing through a sensible package of fixes. Other governments followed the British example, and Brown was praised in the world press. THE ECONOMIST suggested that he had turned from Clark Kent into Superman.

* Stateside, the presidential campaign is drawing to its close. I tend to feel sorry for the candidates after watching them run themselves to exhaustion for months on end. McCain has been generally written off for lost, though with only a few days until 4 November we can wait and see. Of course, the lunatic fringe has had to jump into the race. Two skinhead white-supremacist kids from Tennessee were picked up by the Feds, accused of concocting a plot to raid a black school, kill 88 black kids and decapitate 14 of them -- it seems these are magic numbers to the white supremacist crowd, I ask not why -- and then perform a kamikaze attack on Obama's motorcade, driving a car on a collision course while dressed in tuxedos and top hats.

This is the sort of thing that I sit and stare at for a minute, not knowing quite what to make of it. Of course I am very appreciative that the Feds busted up the plot, and feel that no matter what consequential bad things happen to these two kids, it's all right by me. There is, however, a certain black humor to it, the realization that no matter how crazy I think people can be, they still surprise me. It is hard to comprehend how people could come up with such a scheme and not wonder for at least a second if they were around the bend. "They have rules about this sort of thing! They have laws about this sort of thing! They make TV MOVIES about this sort of thing!"



* GIMMICKS & GADGETS: BUSINESS WEEK had an article on the First Data company of Denver, just down the road from me, and the "GO-Tag" technology. It's an interesting idea, if not exactly rocket science, consisting of an RFID tag with a memory that operates like a prepaid card. It can be embedded in any small item, such as a sticker or keychain fob, and transactions can be performed quickly and easily using the current prepaid card infrastructure. Obviously there are security features, but they weren't discussed in the article or on the First Data website.

According to the article, the company passed around promotional buttons at the recent Democratic National Convention in Denver that allowed attendees to get free snacks and drinks at concession stands. One interesting angle to this idea is that if GO-Tags became popular and retailers obtained readers to use them, it would seem to be an upgrade path to a fully electronic cash system.

First Data GO-Tag

* WIRED Online reports that Olympus and Panasonic have come up with a specification for a new modular camera system to compete with high-end digital single-lens reflex (SLR) cameras. Digital SLRs are popular, leveraging off the wide variety of interchangeable lenses available for 35 millimeter SLR film cameras, but they are also expensive and tend towards the bulky.

The Olympus-Panasonic "Micro Four Thirds" specification is an attempt to mate the smaller form factor of pocket digital cameras with an SLR-like interchangeable lens system. It achieves a thinner form factor by giving up on the flip-up mirror associated with traditional SLRs that diverts the image to the viewfinder. It isn't really needed in a digital camera, since an LCD linked to the imaging sensor can be placed in the viewfinder, or the shooter can focus using the camera's back-panel display. The Micro Four Thirds scheme also calls for a smaller lens mount, which will permit more compact optics.

Of course, the Micro Four Thirds standard is just that, a standard, and that means that different vendors will be able to provide interchangeable lenses that will work on any Micro Four Thirds camera. Digital camera buffs are excited, but the earlier Four Thirds modular digital camera standard, which has been around for some time and is the basis for Micro Four Thirds, hasn't exactly taken the world by storm. It seems most hard-core shutterbugs really do like the hefty traditionalist digital SLR format, which admittedly leverages off an enormous established base of high-quality 35 millimeter camera components. However, Micro Four Thirds may offer a price-performance point that will be able to achieve a critical mass and establish a new market below the high-end digital SLRs. Panasonic has already announced their first Micro Four Thirds camera, Olympus is working towards a product release.

Personally, I'm all in favor of the idea. I've owned seven digital cameras over the years, gradually working my way up in capability -- I still have four of them, each being suited to different tasks. However, I looked at digital SLRs and not only did they seem above my skill level, but I had the impression that even a cheap one would cost me more than all the digital cameras I've owned put together -- and that's not factoring in all the accessories. However, my skill level has been gradually rising and I did get a close-up lens for my Canon Powershot. It's clearly an improvisation, with the lens tacked on over the normal camera optics, but I've got a few spectacular shots of insects with it. Obviously my next camera is going to be some sort of modular system, and I think I would find the Micro Four Thirds form-factor a very attractive upgrade path.

* WIRED also had an interesting gimmick, one of those ideas that seems obvious once demonstrated: an ice-pack vest for athletes built by Nike. The vest is patterned with little triangular insulated "cells" containing a freezable material -- like the "blue ice" used in frozen cooler packs, possibly? -- and covered with flexible aluminum to reflect the sun. I doubt very much this gimmick could be used in a competition, but it would make practice distance runs much more bearable.



* CREDIT WHERE DUE: George W. Bush has turned out to be one of the most unpopular American presidents in living memory, and not without valid reason. However, as pointed out in an essay by Fareed Zakaria in NEWSWEEK magazine ("What Bush Got Right", 18 August 2008), a fair assessment has to concede that Bush II Administration has, to a degree, learned from mistakes, and even done some things right.

Certainly the Bush II Administration's initial efforts in the "global war on terror" are not generally regarded with much respect now: the invasion of Iraq; the blatant contempt for treaties, diplomacy and multilateralism. That being said, in the administration's second term, many of the policies that created so much antagonism have been altered, abandoned, or even reversed. The administration hasn't got that much credit for the changes, not just because of the inflexibility of the critics, but because of the inflexibility of the White House itself. George W. Bush is not the sort of person who likes to even tacitly acknowledge failure, so in many cases the changes have been made as quietly as possible.

Still, the changes are obviously there. Consider as a significant example Bush's appointments of the president of the World Bank. The first choice was Paul Wolfowitz, a hard-core neo-conservative who had been referred to as a "velociraptor" -- the term "hawk" being seen as inadequate -- and who was one of the prime movers in the invasion of Iraq. Wolfowitz was forced to resign from the World Bank after a scandal; Bush then appointed Robert Zoelleck, a non-controversial choice, noted for his competence. There was a time when Vice-President Dick Cheney was the most powerful adviser in the administration, but nowdays policy is being set by pragmatists like Condi Rice, Robert Gates, Stephen Hadley, and Hank Paulson. Unpopular figures like Don Rumsfeld and Alberto Gonzales are gone.

* Not everything has changed, and in some cases it's clearly little and late, but there have been clear and dramatic changes. The most obvious case is Iraq. A legitimate case could have been made for intervention, given Saddam Hussein's blatant and infuriating provocations through the 1990s, which made suspecting the worst of him by no means unreasonable. However, the case actually made seemed over the top at the time, with later events demonstrating that it was even more over the top than it sounded. Much worse, the invasion itself was performed in an inept and short-sighted way. US forces went in too short-handed to maintain order, with American soldiers sometimes watching helplessly as gangs of Iraqis hauled off truckloads of weapons from armories. There was no effective long-range plan for what to do after Saddam Hussein was overthrown; the occupation authority clumsily tried to overturn the entire social order, the result being chaos, civil war, bloodshed. The occupation of Iraq made the USA absolutely despised in the Muslim world.

By 2005, the failure of the Bush II administration's policies in Iraq was becoming painfully evident, with the violence on a spiral towards catastrophe. The initial moves toward change were tentative and incremental; for example, Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad began to communicate with Sunni leaders and militants in 2006, even while his bosses in Washington were condemning them as terrorists. American generals in Iraq, most notably theater commander General David Petraeus, were also learning from their own failures and advocating changes in tactics, for example supporting efforts by Sunni sheiks to take on al-Qaeda.

The White House remained torn between trying to stay the course and change tactics until the midterm elections of 2006, which resulted in the Democrats taking control of both houses of Congress. The writing was on the wall and even the most obstinate couldn't fail to notice it. Secretary of State Don Rumsfeld, another one of the architects of the Iraq War, left the administration and Iraq policy went through a massive review. Now, in 2008, the results are obvious: although everyone is holding their breath and the violence in Iraq continues, through the use of shrewder and more pragmatic tactics, the country has achieved a level of stability that would have been hard to imagine two years ago. Things are still far from satisfactory, but at least the direction of events seems to be going to the right and up.

The same modification of tactics has emerged elsewhere. Although the situation in Afghanistan has been becoming more difficult, US forces there have been praised for their dexterity and skill in dealing with complicated local politics, and have achieved significant successes in some regions of the country. The administration is pumping massive funds into reconstruction.

As far as North Korea goes, there was a time when Kim Jong Il was denounced as one of the architects of the "Axis of Evil". Now the administration is talking about taking North Korea off the terrorist list and has offered the country economic aid. Possibly more significantly, the administration, once assertively unilateralist, has worked hard to expand the number of players involved in negotiations with the North Koreans. Similarly, the mutterings about military action against Iran have been firmly quashed, and the Bush II administration is now pursuing a discreet diplomatic shuffle with Tehran, working closely with the Europeans. Hard-liners smolder at the resort to diplomacy and other "soft" measures. John Bolton, who was America's abrasive ambassador to the UN until the Democratic Congress refused to confirm his provisional appointment, has blasted such actions as "capitulation" -- though with the only real effect of demonstrating just how isolated the hard-liners have become.

As far as the Israeli-Palestinian dispute goes, the Bush II Administration began by giving the Israelis a green light to do what they pleased, one result being a disastrous war in Lebanon. Now George Bush is walking firmly in the footsteps of Bill Clinton, attempting to push towards a peace deal -- likely with no more luck, given the seeming impossibility of the situation, but at least it's a push in the right direction.

* The change of heart hasn't just applied to diplomacy, either. Early on, the Bush II Administration was pointedly disinterested in aid to poor countries; in 2008, the administration will spend $6 billion USD on AIDS assistance, mostly in Africa -- winning him praise from celebrity activists such as Bono and Bob Geldof. Although the efforts of the Bush II Administration to broker peace deals in southern Sudan and Darfur have not been very effective, few could lay the blame for that failure on the Americans.

However, the Bush II Administration still remains overly focused on the struggle against terrorism, willing to support unpleasant governments as long as they supposedly are fighting al-Qaeda. The focus on terrorism has also made the US slow to deal with emerging powers -- though the administration has made clear that America's relationship with China is a major issue in international relations. Initial inclinations toward confrontation were given up, and Bush went so far as to tell the Taiwanese that America would not take kindly to any formal declaration of independence of Taiwan from China. The American president even attended the opening of the Beijing Olympics, a gesture of deference that went over well with the Chinese public.

At the same time, the "born again multilateralist" Bush II Administration is attempting to set up a balance with China by strengthening the alliance with Japan and forging an alliance with India. Although America and India have traditionally had an arm's length relationship at warmest, the administration's support of New Delhi's nuclear ambitions has done much to lower the drawbridge over the moat between the two countries -- though to no surprise the nuclear relationship between America and India has had plenty of critics on both sides of the world.

* Citing the positive accomplishments of the Bush II Administration doesn't alter the negative half of the balance sheet, and it is unlikely that future historians will judge the administration kindly. Along with the disastrous invasion of Iraq, other grand blunders were made early on, in particular tarnishing the red-white-&-blue internationally by tapdancing over extralegal handling of prisoners, punctuated by clear incidents of brutality in the prison at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere. The administration's fiscal irresponsibility even shocked hardcore conservatives, and helped saddle the nation with massive deficits, which had seemed to be on the way out in the Clinton Administration. To be sure, the Bush II Administration has been blindsided by a nasty economic downturn that was more or less beyond their control, while the Clinton Administration presided over boom times -- but the White House has also put on an uninspiring performance on energy and environmental policy.

Still, even if those who hate George W. Bush cannot stand to admit it, the Bush II Administration will leave office with some useful structures in place -- and even in its failures, the Bush II Administration at least demonstrated the foolishness of paying more attention to the roadmap than to the road. The administration came into office with the conviction that all the policies of the Clinton Administration needed to be dumped in the trash bin. Eight years on, whether the administration can stand to admit it or not, it seems Bill Clinton was on the right track on some things after all.

Certainly the administration that enters the White House in 2009 cannot afford to make the same blunder of throwing all the policies of the old regime in the dumper. New ideas are welcome enough, but it would be prudent for the new administration to look over the balance sheet left behind by the Bush II Administration, see where there are obvious options for improvements, and build on things that are working right as they are.



* MEDICAL TOURISM: There's been considerable discussion in the media as of late over "medical tourism", in which patients from the US obtain operations in hospitals elsewhere at vastly less cost than would be demanded by a hospital at home. Although medical tourists have generally been enterprising patients so far, as reported in THE ECONOMIST ("Operating Profit", 16 August 2008), it's starting to become a more normal way of doing business: medicine is being globalized.

To be sure, globalization is not entirely new to the medical industry. Record-keeping, transcription of doctors' notes, and analysis of x-ray imagery has been outsourced to India and elsewhere for years, and wealthy patients have long visited foreign countries for medical care. For some years, Britons fed up with waiting on the National Health Service (NHS) to perform an elective surgery have gone abroad, sometimes with government assistance -- though shorter queues and stiffer rules in the NHS have undermined this trend.

However, in the past medical tourism was the rare exception. Now it promises to undergo a boom. One study suggests that the number of Americans going elsewhere for health care will jump to 6 million by 2010, up from 750,000 in 2007. It might reach 12 million by 2012, with the US pumping tens of billions of dollars into foreign countries for health-care services. Even industry observers who find such numbers exaggerated still agree that medical tourism is a growth industry. Europe's state-supported health systems don't give patients as much incentive to go elsewhere, but even there, more are taking the option of traveling to obtain more timely medical attention.

Asian hospital chains are the potential big winners in the deal, with big-time players, like Singapore's Parkway Health, doing all possible to bring in foreign patients. Thailand's Bumrungrad Hospital in Bangkok already receives tens of thousands of American patients a year, and has just opened up a new extension that can handle 6,000 foreign patients. American medical tourists are surging into India's Wockhardt hospitals.

Bumrungrad Hospital

Why the boom? One obvious reason is the skyrocketing cost of treatments in the American medical system, which have been judged almost seven times higher than the average in the rest of the world. However, there's been a cost disparity for a long time, so that in itself isn't the only reason. One driving factor is that hospitals in Asia and Latin America are reaching or exceeding the standards of quality of US hospitals, with those catering to medical tourism meeting the stringent requirements of the Joint Commission International (JCI), a non-profit group that assesses the quality and safety of health care services. In fact, compared to American hospitals, foreign hospitals often have far less excess baggage imposed by past history, allowing them to innovate and provide better services.

The other is that the US medical insurance system is failing, with over 45 million Americans uninsured and others underinsured. Priced out of the market, these "medical refugees" have little choice but to go elsewhere. Big business is also in severe pain from high US medical costs, and so a number of big employers have set up options for foreign medical care in their health plans. Some unions have seen fit to object and raise obstacles, but surprisingly the American Medical Association, the chief lobbying group for American doctors, recently issued supportive guidelines to help patients going abroad for medical care.

Medical insurers have been cautious, but with big businesses jumping into medical tourism, the insurers have been testing the waters, offering foreign care options in their business plans. Giant American insurer Aetna has launched a pilot project in coordination with Singapore hospitals. Aetna officials point out that the savings the company obtains aren't as great as might be expected since Aetna gets volume discounts at home, but medical tourism still pays off well for the most expensive procedures. Aetna officials also praise the quality of Singapore health care, which features greater transparency and better use of information technology -- driven by the need to sell the "product" to foreigners.

David Boucher, an official of American insurer Blue Cross Blue Shield was skeptical at first, until he visited Bumrungrad Hospital a few years ago. He was drinking coffee in the Starbucks in the hospital lobby and thought that "this is not a straw village clinic with rusty scalpels." He is now running a division to pursue medical tourism, seeing it as able to replace up to 8% of the insurer's services with cheaper alternatives over the short run. Over the long run, it might go as high as 20%.

Critics are warning of dire consequences from the boom in medical tourism, claiming that medical tourism will siphon off medical resources to treat wealthy foreigners, leaving poor locals to fend for themselves. Advocates dispute this dismal scenario. In countries that have inadequate health-care systems, such as India, the poor have been shorted for a long time, mostly as a result of government bureaucracy and corruption. Developing countries that have demonstrated a willingness to deal sensibly with the issue, such as Malaysia and Costa Rica, have good health care systems. More significantly, medical tourism brings in money and creates new medical infrastructure that helps locals as well as visitors, using facilities that achieve low cost with high quality not available before. Parkway Health officials note that at least 60% of their patients are locals.

Critics also suggest that medical tourism may provide a relief valve for the decrepit US medical system, which is in dire need of reform. However, medical tourism has its limits. Many procedures cannot be performed safely by flying a patient overseas, and there will always be worries about malpractice and legal liabilities. Advocates say that the main impact will be to make American hospitals more competitive. Confronted with foreign rivals that can eat their lunch, American hospitals will have to come to terms with them. Some American health-care providers are even setting up their own medical tourism programs. Medical tourism may not be the solution to America's health-care woes, but it promises to provide some help. It is certainly going to be a force to be reckoned with in the near future.



* NEW PC ADVENTURES (3): My tinkerings by fits and starts with my new PC from winter into spring jumped into high gear in mid-June, when I got advertising materials from Qwest on their DSL internet services. I had been struggling painfully with 56 KBPS dialup, unwilling to upgrade since local service providers were not handing me a very good deal -- but on poking through the package deals Qwest provided, I realized that I could get phone and fast internet for about the same as what I was paying for phone and dialup.

I snapped at the offer. I then realized that it didn't make any sense to set up fast internet on my old PC and then move it over, so I needed to get up to speed on my new PC immediately. Besides, my old PC was finally in the grip of "software rot", an accumulation of various system dings and conflicts; if I had wanted to stay on it, I would have had to clean it out and reinstall its OS anyway. I had been hoping to put off the jump to the new PC until I got some errands done, but I just sighed and decided to do it then, staying up late if I needed to.

The first thing was to get vim to work. This turned out to be laborious, since it was particularly fussy and tricky. For various reasons I ended up building a fairly elaborate batch file named "run_vim.bat" that transferred a file being edited to a buffer file in a fixed directory, ran vim on it, and then transferred the buffer file back to the original when done. The batch file had to do some management of buffer files -- I couldn't edit more than eight files at a time, but since it was unlikely I'd ever have more than four open, no big deal. It was a little klunky to use but I figured I could go back and clean it up later.

I had most of my old PC contents moved over and operational by the time I got the fast internet setup kit in late June. It was easy to install. Qwest sold an installation service for $40 USD but I figured it was just a case of rewiring my phone outlets. Actually, it wasn't even that much, it was just plugging in some filters and cabling a DSL modem together, the service was clearly targeted at the sort of folks who are stymied by routing a few cables around a desk. I was astounded at the speed increase ... another nice thing was that I could handle phone calls while I was online. I bought a DSL modem that had both LAN and wi-fi hookups from Qwest, so I could link my laptops into the network as well.

Having updated my phone connections, I figured I might as well also update my phone, since it was old and getting decrepit. I went to Walmart and bought a new cheap Vtech unit with an answering facility and mobile handset. I had to laugh after playing with it, thinking: "Just how old was the phone I got rid of, anyway?" On recollection, at least 15 years. The new one had digital voice storage that didn't sound like it was strained through several layers of old socks; nice features like a memory for phone numbers; and much easier to use, far more rationally designed. I was amused at the feature where if I mislaid the handset, I could press a button on the base station and make it ring. It was kind of a silly gimmick, since I was unlikely to set the handset back down on anything but the base station anyway, but it showed a certain attentiveness to user-friendliness and detail.

The Vtech phone was actually one of the most fun toys I picked up in the exercise, and I still find it fun to use. I was amused at feeling grossly behind the times in being dazzled by entirely ordinary features for a cheap modern phone. Call it the Rip Van Winkle effect. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* CLIMBING MOUNT IMPROBABLE (4): The range of variations in spider web structures is surprising. An orb web is a structure under tension and so has a disadvantage in that it gives prey some "purchase" to allow it to escape. The "triangle spiders" build a horizontal web that looks like a triangular fan with four struts, sticky threads across the fan, and a single thread from the vertex of the fan to another surface. This single thread is slack, but the spider sits on the thread and holds it taut. When prey hits the fan, the spider lets go and fan folds up around the prey; the spider may take further actions to adjust the fan to ensnare the prey further, then wraps it up in silk and bites it. The web has to be rebuilt after it is used for a capture.

The Pasilobus spider of New Guinea also builds a triangular web, but it works on different principles than the web of the triangle spider. The Pasilobus web is a simple triangle, with two side spokes, a thread running across the base of the triangle, a central spoke running down the middle of the triangle, and a few loose sticky threads strung from the central spoke to the side spokes. The sticky threads come loose easily on one end; prey flies into a thread and tries to fly off, but the spider pulls it in and kills it.

The "bolas" spider of South America does this one better. It hunts nocturnal moths -- male moths only, emitting a scent that mimics the pheromones of female moths to attract the males. An amorous male moth approaches the spider, which targets the moth with a thread weighted at its end by a mass. The thread has a coil contained in a droplet of water at the spider's end. The spider casts out the thread like an angler, snares the moth, and drags it in. "Ogre-eyed spiders", noted for their oversized main eyes -- spiders typically have two large eyes flanked by six small ones -- take a broadly similar approach to catching prey, hanging from a thread with a silk net between their legs, to drop on unsuspecting ground prey and scoop it up.

* Spiders have more uses for silk than just building webs, and in fact spiders that don't build webs also produce silk for their own purposes. When I flick my finger against a screen window to harass a little jumping spider on the other side, it hops off, but its fall is limited by a "dragline" it trails behind, allowing it to "rappel" farther down the screen.

Spiders, at least very small and immature ones, can even use silk to fly, simply throwing out a thread and being carried along on the wind. It should be noted that to a very small creature, the air seems much more viscous than it does to us, and so taking to the air is a bit more like swimming than flying. Spiders can "balloon" in this way over long distances; there are tales that in some rare cases the airborne spiders can accumulate to create small "clouds" of spider silk, but that may be a folk tale. It is known that airborne spiders will occasionally carpet landing areas with their silk.

The "diving bell" spiders of Europe and Asia actually build an underwater shelter that they fill up with air bubbles dragged down from the surface, using it as an underwater shelter. There are other aquatic spiders, incidentally, but they either carry air along with them in bubbles or can absorb oxygen from the water. It is said that there are spiders that actually built nets to catch aquatic prey.

This discussion of webs and silk suggests that spiders are a surprisingly diverse group of animals, and in fact listing all their variations would be difficult and exhausting. Another, well-known group of spiders are the "trap-door" spiders that live in a burrow, lined with silk and with a door that is made of layers of dirt and silk. The trap-door spider senses vibrations of passing prey and pops out to seize it. The spider is capable of holding the door down very tightly to block out unwanted visitors, which first and foremost to a spider means parasitic wasps.

The "pirate spiders" are an interesting if obscure group of spiders, specializing on other spiders as prey. They tug at a web to suggest a victim and then turn the owner of the web into a victim when she scuttles over to check. Spiders are dangerous prey, but pirate spiders have unusually good vision and are good jumpers, meaning they have a "first strike" advantage over their prey. While most people find it hard to like spiders, on closer investigation they seem, if not necessarily more pleasant, at least more interesting. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* AGE OF STEAMPUNK: As illustrated an article in IEEE SPECTRUM ("The Steampunk Contraptors" by Erico Guizzo, October 2008), people have a certain inclination to get involved in unusual hobbies. Few could be judged more unusual than work of "steampunk" advocates, who build more-or-less working realization of a Jules Verne / H.G. Wells "future past" that never really existed.

Take 46-year-old Sean Slattery of Littleton, Massachusetts -- nobody who would be thought all that unusual, a Linux system administrator, husband and father of two daughters; but when he goes into the garage to tinker he becomes Jake von Slatt of the Steampunk Workshop, taking a time trip into an alternate world. Currently he's working on a car, built from the chassis of a 1972 VW Beetle that he got on eBay and fitted with a fiberglass body that impersonates a 1929 Mercedes SSK. That's only the starting point, however: he needs to paint it black with gold trim, add brass headlights and other fittings -- and install a boiler so it will leave a trail of steam as it rolls down the road. How many other people can claim ownership of a Steampunk Roadster?

Steampunk lives in a land of gaslit streets populated by mad scientists with monocles and double-breasted lab coats, airships, aeronauts with zapguns, and steam robots. Some of the more fanatical stay in steampunk character all the time, even when they're at the supermarket, but Slattery isn't that hardcore, willing to remain in the contemporary timeline and only leaving it for a getaway. However, he is still dedicated: although he hasn't finished his Steampunk Roadster yet, he does have a "Steampunk Recreational Vehicle", a school bus with such features as a brass-adorned PC, perfectly in Victorian character.

Steampunk is not a new idea. The WILD WILD WEST TV series of the 1960s could be seen as an ancestor of the genre, preceding the publication of pioneering steampunk novels like Michael Moorcock's 1971 THE WARLORD OF THE AIR and the landmark 1990 novel THE DIFFERENCE ENGINE by Bruce Sterling and William Gibson. It wasn't until a decade or so ago, however, that a clique arose to try to implement steampunk technology, trading ideas with each other and competing to come up with the coolest of backward technologies.

steampunk adventurers

I-Wei Huang AKA "Crab Fu", an artist and animator out of Dixon, California, describes the steampunk imperative: "It's part art and part just tinkering with stuff, trying to create something that no one has really tried to do before." He has built an army of steampunk critters using scale model tanks and boats, electronics kits, and junk parts. His "Centipede" crawls on 32 legs, driven by a system of sprockets and chains; his "Lobster" has an aluminum carapace and a steam unit on the chassis of a toy tank.

Another California artist, Richard Nagy AKA "Datamancer", likes to build steampunk computers. His music-box steampunk laptop was discussed here back in December 2007, and he has since come up with the "Archbishop", a Gothic-themed desktop with stained glass and brass ornamentation. The field is starting to take off, with steampunk items increasingly traded on eBay and steampunk sites popping up on the web. There's even a "post-apocalyptic aeronaut" steampunk music group, Abney Park, out of the Seattle area.

There has been a backlash of sorts against it, with some critics calling it posturing, an amateur Disney exercise. The steampunks shrug; they're having too much fun to bother with disapproval, it's just for fun, the criticisms are nothing more than idle griping. Slattery is charging full steam ahead, considering even a steampunk bulldozer. He says: "My wife has been extremely tolerant, even on a few occasions when I found myself signing e-mails to her as 'Jake von Slatt.'"

* ED: I haven't read many of the steampunk novels -- now that I'm getting back into novels to a degree after giving up on them for a few decades, I'll probably start digging into them. I have been following the GIRL GENIUS online comic series by Phil & Kaja Foglio devotedly, however. It's up to seven print volumes now and is as elaborate as a clockwork android, with Agatha Heterodyne, heir to the Heterodyne clan of mad scientists, leaping her way through a 19th-century Europe full of steam robots, airships, and advanced Frankenstein monsters. Silliness? Well, of course it's silly -- isn't that the point?



* BRAZIL MEANS ETHANOL: While Brazilian President Luis Inacio Lula da Silva is on good terms with US President George W. Bush, there has been a degree of tension between the Brazil and the US over ethanol biofuel. As discussed in THE ECONOMIST ("Lean, Green, & Not Mean", 28 June 2008), while Brazil is a world powerhouse in ethanol, using the long-standing cane sugar industry as a platform, the US imposes an import duty of 54 cents per gallon on ethanol.

That isn't the only frustration Brazilians face over their ethanol, with the biofuel accused of being nowhere near as "green" as it's played up to be, as well as assertions that ethanol production is contributing to the rising cost of food. Activists also claim Brazilian sugar-cane production for ethanol is driving the deforestation of the Amazon jungles and bad treatment of farm laborers.

Brazilians themselves don't have too much problem with ethanol. Most new cars sold in Brazil can run the stuff straight -- that can't be done with normal gasoline-powered vehicles, since it rots hoses and fittings -- and it's cheap compared to gasoline. Sugar cane is an excellent feedstock, providing over eight times as much energy as was used to produce it, while corn ethanol only gives a 50% margin over inputs. It's not contributing to deforestation since the growing region is in Sao Paulo state, far from the rain forests, and sugar cane production only takes up a fairly modest 7 million hectares of land, meaning it has little overall impact on food prices. Brazilian biotech firms are tinkering with sugar cane to make it an even better feedstock.

Yes, it is true that Brazilian agriculture has seen exploitation of workers, but there's nothing unique about the sugar cane industry in that respect. In fact, for better or for worse, sugar cane production is increasingly automated and the need for cheap labor is rapidly fading out. That means no jobs in the fields for poor folks; but it also means the producers don't have to worry about accusations of maltreatment, and can provide an even cheaper and greener product.

Brazilians find the obstacles placed against export of Brazilian ethanol extremely irritating. Brazil does expect to export a total of 3 billion liters of ethanol to the USA in 2008, but that high level is only due to the high cost of corn, making Brazilian ethanol a bargain even with the high tariff. Brazilians think they could export far more if tariffs were scrapped, but they can't invest in the necessary infrastructure to support expanded production if they don't have a clear export market. The fact that Brazilians are getting annoyed not only with the protectionism but with the sniping was underlined when Lula da Silva complained about "fingers soiled with coal and oil" spouting off accusations about Brazilian ethanol. Whatever the actual limitations of Brazilian ethanol, it's hard not to sympathize.

* In other biofuels news, THE ECONOMIST had an interest survey ("Power Plants", 20 September 2008) on biofuels in India. The jatropha plant produces a pod that contains a cluster of black seeds; they're toxic and traditionally the only use for jatropha was to set up barriers to keep goats from grazing into crop fields. However, jatropha seeds can be crushed into an oil that can be used to drive a fuel-tolerant generator or pump, and the oil can be processed into biodiesel. India also has the Indian birch, with pods full of seeds that can be converted into biodiesel as well.

So far, Indian biofuels production is a future, but there is considerable excitement over that future. The government wants to obtain 20% of Indian diesel demand from biofuels by 2017. That would imply 140,000 square kilometers (54,000 square miles) of land set aside for biofuels crops. The idea of taking so much land for fuel production may seem contrary, particularly when the Indian finance minister recently spoke of diversion of cropland to biofuels as a "crime against humanity" -- but advocates point out that jatropha and the Indian birch can be planted on ground too dry and stony to support crop plants.

Advocates also point out it requires little watering; skeptics have replied that it can survive without much water, but it doesn't produce much seed unless it is properly watered. A more unarguable problem is that jatropha takes at least four years to mature, with Indian birch taking nine -- and it's a bit of a stretch for farmers to feel comfortable with making an investment of resources for such a deferred payoff. This difficulty is clearly understood, and there is organizational weight being the biofuels effort, in the form of the Indian firm Roshini International Bio Energy in Hyderabad; and D1-BP Fuel Crops, a collaboration between UK-based biofuels startup D1 Oils and giant British Petroleum. The farmers get education, resources, and a bit of "handholding". There's a lot of activity going on in biofuels these days; from a future perspective much of it will look like a joke, but some of it may have a big payoff.

* As a footnote to the subject of biofuels, POPULAR SCIENCE performed a back-of-the-envelope study on the energy available from methane produced by animal droppings in digester systems. According to their figures, an elephant will produce enough manure (90 kilograms / 200 pounds) to provide 39 kilowatts every day; a cow, 16 kilowatts; a llama, 3 kilowatts; a pig, 500 watts; a dog, 200 watts; and a chicken, 50 watts. A typical household runs 30 kW of electricity a day -- anyone who wants to run a house off manure will need to buy an elephant.



* THE LONG WAR: THE ECONOMIST ran an article in the 9 August 2008 issue titled "Win Today's Wars First", on the latest "National Defense Strategy (NDS)" paper from the Pentagon, which outlined the overall challenges facing America's military. While the paper did suggest possible conflicts with China or Russia down the road, to no surprise the current challenge is ongoing messy little wars, fought with messy alliances and with messy outcomes.

The catchphrase "Global War On Terror" is out. The new term is the "Long War" against violent extremist movements, emphasizing the fact that winning such fights is going to be neither easy nor quick. The focus is no longer on military power, but on "soft power" -- efforts to help support governments and societies that reject extremism, with focus not on the "fighting we do ourselves" but on helping prepare "our partners to defend and govern themselves".

The strategy paper is somewhat odd in that it was issued in the final months of a lame-duck administration, with the new administration certain to decide for itself what America's strategy should be. Defense Secretary Robert Gates clearly felt he wanted to make sure the incoming administration understood the vision that had been acquired the hard way and not make the same mistakes all over again. Indeed, it is very possible that Gates will stay on if McCain wins the election.

The tone of the paper is entirely different from the one issued in 2005, when Don Rumsfeld was in charge of the Pentagon. The 2005 paper spoke of defeating "adversaries at the time, place and the manner of our choosing", warned that rogue states should not assume that their sovereignty would be any obstacle to American action, and that the USA would work with allies "when we can".

The old brute-force image seems like a fantasy now. Gates sees a complicated world in which US power is constrained by realities, where military power is only one factor, arguably less important than diplomacy, economics, and influence-building. International treaties are no longer regarded not as a hindrance, instead being seen as a vital element of US security, with allies being assets who "often possess capabilities, skills and knowledge we cannot duplicate." It would be hard to imagine Rumsfeld making such an acknowledgment.

Dealing with "ungoverned spaces" like Pakistan's Frontier Region is no longer just a matter of being able to project American military power there, but of "working with and through local actors whenever possible". "Victory" is no longer defined simply as crushing an adversary, but instead of "discrediting extremist ideology, creating fissures between and among extremist groups and reducing them to the level of nuisance groups."

Of course, the Pentagon still needs to have the capability to confront "rogue states" like North Korea and Iran, and also keep an eye on China's growing economic, technical, and military power. Russia seems to be backsliding to authoritarian and xenophobic ways, making it a potential threat: "We do not expect Russia to revert to outright global military confrontation" -- they did that for several decades and figured out that it was a bad idea -- "but the risk of miscalculation or conflict arising out of economic coercion has increased."

America still remains the dominant military power on Earth, spending almost as much on defense as the rest of the world combined. However, this overwhelming power means that adversaries will seek "asymmetric" means to fight back, and so the US military must "display a mastery of irregular warfare". The paper does not provide much in the way of specifics of how to do so, making no recommendations for organizational changes or weapons procurement policies; the next administration will determine such things for itself. It does say that the US needs to spend "substantial but not infinite" resources to make sure China understands that America is not going to be any more of a push-over in the future than it is now -- but the priority is to fight and win today's wars.



* NEW PC ADVENTURES (2): After getting hardware lined up for my new PC, then I had to worry about software. For UNIX tools, I had been using a copy of the MKS Toolkit for Windows that I had taken home when I quit the Corporation, but it was way out of date and it was really too close to software piracy anyway. MKS was asking about $500 USD for a new copy, which was ridiculous -- their product was set up for developers, and all I needed was a few application tools that I could easily find as freeware. After some fumbling around, I finally found the Cygwin freeware UNIX toolkit on the web and downloaded it.

The Cygwin tools installed neatly and professionally, but then there was the problem of figuring out how to get them to work from Vista. It was easy to set up an association between my shell scripts and the Cygwin shell program -- the popular freeware "bash", for "Bourne-again shell", a clone of the simple Bourne shell -- so that executing a file with an ".sh" extension would automatically invoke bash. However, to run the scripts properly, bash also needed to know where to find associated UNIX utility programs and configuration files, and I had trouble figuring out a way to set up Vista so bash knew where things were.

After a fair amount of puzzling, I found the solution. Bash could actually read environment variables set up in DOS (Vista) batch files, so instead of linking my shell scripts directly to bash through Vista, I linked them to a batch file named "run_bash.bat" that set up environment variables appropriately, and then called bash. As it turned out, this was a cleaner solution than I had on my old PC, since I could provide any configuration information I liked by just modifying the batch file.

The other problem was getting a "vi" editor that worked. I'm very dependent on vi for text editing -- it's admittedly an antique solution, but once one has got up the nasty learning curve for using it, which I did years ago, it's extremely powerful and there's no sense in bothering with any other editor for non-formatted text. It turned out that the Cygwin tools also included an optional "modernized vi" named "vim" -- which I installed, to then run into a brick wall with its nasty configuration issues. I ended up stalled.

* Come new year 2008, I had other things to worry about, and I didn't get back to working on the PC again until the first of May. One of the problems was that all the script files I had on the old PC needed to be modified for use on the new PC, mostly by substituting an environment variable for hardcoded directory names. This promised to be a chore, but then I realized that it would be relatively easy just to set up a batch file named "run_sh.bat" similar to "run_bash.bat" and reconfigure the script files to run with it on the old PC. Once that was done, I could then simply port the scripts over without further changes. Much to my surprise, it turned out to be straightforward to get the updated script files to work on the old PC, and not much trouble to get them to work on the new PC.

In the interim, I had also moved from using MS Works to installing and using the freeware OpenOffice suite. All I really wanted was the spreadsheet; OpenOffice is Java-based a bit on the big and slow side, but it was nice to declare more independence from a particular platform -- OpenOffice runs on Mac and Linux -- and in particular from MS software. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* CLIMBING MOUNT IMPROBABLE (3): Once a spider has completed a web structure, there is the issue of making proper use of it. The spider has to monitor the web for vibrations indicating a struggling insect or other prey, then dash out onto the web to dispatch the prey with a bite and devour it before it manages to get free. One problem is that the spider may need to travel from one side of the web to the other to reach prey, and since the mesh is tight enough to trap prey, it raises an obstacle to the spider. Instead of going all the way to the edge of the web and back down again, a "free zone" -- a ring or radial where the thread isn't sticky -- is reserved to allow the spider to move quickly from one side of the web to another.

Another issue is where the spider sits. The obvious location is the hub of the web, with the spider dashing out the spokes towards prey. Many spiders do sit in the center of the web, but it has a drawback: it's the most most visible location to predators that eat spiders, such as birds and particularly parasitic wasps -- the arch-enemy of spiders. Some spiders have camouflage colors to help them hide at the hub; some build little silken refuges at the hub to lower their profile. Some spiders sit hidden off the web, monitoring for vibrations with a "signal thread" linked to the hideout. The dangerously venomous "funnel spiders" of Australasia have modified their webs into a funnel configuration, with a spider hidden deep in the funnel.

In any case, when prey becomes trapped by the web, the spider dashes out to deal with it. The bite isn't the only weapon used; silk comes in handy, with spiders wrapping up dangerous prey like wasps before sinking fangs into them. In the case of wasps that are well adapted to hunting the spiders, spiders may not even try to approach them, instead cutting them out of the web.

* As mentioned earlier, there are many variations on web configuration. Prey like moths and butterflies tend to shrug off spiderwebs, since their wings are covered with loose scales: they hit a spiderweb, the scales stick, they don't and simply fall away. Some spiders have specialized webs optimized to catch such prey, consisting of a classic orb web connected to a vertical ladder web. A moth hits high on the ladder, falls down free, but hits again, and again, and again until it sticks long enough for the spider to close in on it. Such ladder webs are found among both spiders in New Guinea and Colombia, but they clearly are of independent origin -- not only are they modified orb webs, but the New Guinea ladder web has the orb at the bottom, while the Colombian ladder web has the orb at the top.

Along with vertical and horizontal orb webs, there are also "three dimensional" webs, one of the most familiar being the "tangle web" of the notorious black widow spider. It is a messy, inelegant structure, but does have a definite organization, with the web featuring three levels: an upper level of support threads, a central level of tangle threads, and a lower level of sticky vertical trap threads. Ground-living prey stumbles into a trap thread, breaking its contact with the ground; the prey is pulled up into the matrix of trap threads to become further entangled. Sources are not clear on the function of the tangle threads -- they may be for intercepting flying prey and dumping it into the trap threads. There's an inclination to marvel at the elegance of an orb web, but though the tangle web looks like a mess, in its own way it's just as effective. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* GIMMICKS & GADGETS: POPULAR SCIENCE magazine had an interesting note on a Mars mini-rover designed by Angstrom Aerospace in Sweden that takes, as its design cue, a soccer ball (OK, "football" for the rest of everybody). It's an inflatable ball with a metal box inside featuring an axle running out both sides to accommodate antennas, TV cameras, and other sensors. The internal box moves the mini-rover by shifting a pendulum; there are solar cells on the surface to recharge the mini-rover's batteries.

The 5 kilogram (11 pound) mini-rover is designed to act as a remote unit for a larger Mars lander or rover. The mini-rovers are popped out of the main probe, to then inflate and go on their merry way. The main probe provides a communications link back to Earth. The mini-rovers are designed to survive up to 100 kilometers (62 miles) of travel: they can negotiate very harsh terrain and rarely get stuck. They're cheap, too, with Angstrom engineers claiming that they could build a batch of four for $6 million USD -- chump change by planetary exploration standards.

* A note on BBC WORLD Online took a snapshot of a project from the University of Sao Paulo in Brazil to develop a solar-powered wi-fi access point box that could be set up in remote locations where electric power supply is uncertain. The university's Professor Marcelo Zuffo said: "It was designed to work in an open environment, like a forest, a park or a low-income neighborhood." The module can simply be installed on a pole of some sort, then turned on with no concern for configuration. It includes a solar panel, a motorcycle battery, and a power management subsystem. It self-configures into a "mesh" network, with boxes linking up to each other automatically and passing data between each other to access the greater internet. The prototype boxes are now running on the university campus for testing. The long-range goal is to miniaturize them into a cheap book-sized configuration.

* As reported in THE ECONOMIST, researchers working at the US Department Of Agriculture and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have been working on a scheme to keep cattle on the ranch without being forced to string up barbed-wire fences, which can be expensive to install and troublesome to maintain.

The idea is an extension of the "electric collars" for dogs that provide a shock if Fido tries to leave the yard. The "Ear-a-round", as the cattle restraint device is known, looks like headphones for cattle, with a solar-powered box on top. The box contains a GPS receiver, a processor, and a wireless link; if cattle wearing the Ear-a-round try to stray off their preprogrammed range, they get either a shock or a shout through the device, generated in a direction to push them back on the range. The device can provide location data to or be reprogrammed from a central PC.

Tests show the Ear-a-round works well, with cattle quick to figure out what the rules are. At $600 USD each, however, the devices are way too expensive to be practical -- price has to be cut to $100 USD or less. It may not actually be necessary to fit an entire herd with one: the Ear-a-round may only need to be fitted to a few "herd leaders", with the rest of the cattle following their cue.



* SOLAR TSUNAMI: An article in SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN ("Bracing For A Solar Superstorm" by Sten F. Odenwald & James L. Green, August 2008), recalled the evening of 28 August 1859. Even as the sun was sinking below the horizon, in the Americas the phantom veils of auroral light could be seen down to mid-latitudes, growing vivid as daylight faded out. Cubans could see them directly overhead, and they were even recorded in ship's logs on vessels at sail near the equator. Telegraph systems went haywire.

Just before noon in England the next day, an astronomer named Richard C. Carrington was observing a set of particularly large dark sunspots on the face of the Sun. At 11:18 AM, he saw a vivid light flash from the sunspots. The Americas were treated to an even more spectacular light show that night, with the skies so bright that people could read newspapers under them. Telegraph systems became completely inoperable.

At the time, the auroras were a scientific mystery. Some thought they were falls of meteoritic materials, others suspected they were some kind of high-altitude lightning phenomenon. The 1859 incident suggested a link between solar activity and auroras, and showed that they were linked in turn to electromagnetic activity. Eventually, astronomers would determine that auroras were due to emissions of clouds of plasma from the Sun, falling in towards the Earth at the poles, where the planet's magnetic field was weakest.

northern lights

The solar storm that caused the 1859 incident was of a magnitude that only occurs once ever 500 years or so. At the time, it was not much more than a fascinating curiosity, but if it happened today, the results would be disastrous. Satellites could be fried, radio communications would be disrupted, and power grids all over the globe would be knocked out. A storm half as big as the 1859 storm could also do considerable damage. Storms of that magnitude occur once every 50 years or so -- the last was on 13 November 1960, and it caused global radio outages and other disruptions. By the odds, we're about due for another one.

* Solar activity rises and falls on a 11-year cycle. It reached the low point in January 2008, with the peak expected in mid-2013. During the last cycle, the Sun produced over 30,000 "storm" events, including flares -- localized high-energy bursts of particles and intense X-rays -- and "coronal mass ejections (CMEs)" -- giant magnetic bubbles that burst to throw out clouds of particles. Most of the time, the only effect of these storms is to provide a light show for inhabitants of northern latitudes, but they do range in size, up to the magnitude of the 1859 event.

Intense solar storms are known to produce nitrates in the atmosphere; Greenland ice cores reveal short-lived spikes of nitrates on an interval of about once every 500 years. The 1859 storm seems to have been the result of multiple large flares and CMEs occurring in short succession. The storm suppressed the Van Allen radiation belts, dumping charged particles into the atmosphere to contribute to the auroras, and damaged the ozone layer. The flows of charged particles in the sky set up currents that flowed through the ground and found their way into telegraph networks, resulting in some near-electrocutions of telegraph operators and fires at some telegraph stations.

In modern times, satellites will be the most vulnerable targets for such a "superstorm". Space radiation degrades spacecraft normally, and a solar storm only enhances the damage -- several communications satellites have been permanently disabled by "normal" solar storms. A superstorm would cause far more damage, in the tens of billions of dollars. However, satellite designers are aware of the space radiation hazard and have been coming up with ever more robust designs. In addition, the US National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) Space Weather Center keeps an eye on "space weather" and can send alerts to satellite operators, allowing them to put on hold orbital changes or other activities that might be risky to disrupt.

Earth-based power grids are a different proposition. Most power grids are fairly old infrastructure and not particularly robust. The induced currents could flood transformers, disrupting their operation or even frying them. A superstorm could easily knock out the entire North American power grid. Of course, radio communications would also be disrupted, with radio navigation systems like GPS rendered unusable. The radiation might also cause computer errors, but they would be "soft" errors, fixed by a simple reboot. Incidentally, even a solar superstorm wouldn't be all that dangerous to astronauts in orbit -- they'd get a about a month's worth of space radiation exposure in the storm. Passengers in a jetliner would get the equivalent of a CT scan.

There is only so much that can be done to "harden" the electrical power grid and radio communications against a solar superstorm. The most important capability is to provide advance warning; vulnerable power grids could be shut down before the storm begins, sparing it from being fried, and aircraft could find safe havens on the ground before their communications and navigation systems went haywire. NOAA's Space Weather Center provides daily reports to more than a thousand businesses and government agencies, but the operation is underfunded and poorly equipped. Much could be done on a fairly modest budget to improve matters, for example flying a constellation of inexpensive small "space weather buoys" to provide more effective coverage. The amount of money required will be vastly less than that needed to fix the damage caused by the next big solar storm.



* THANK THE SAUDIS? Back in the days of the 1970s energy crisis, the Saudis were using the "oil weapon" against the West, and resentment against them was running high. Although the prejudice lingers, as reported in BUSINESS WEEK ("The Saudis & OPEC: Behind The Flare-Up" by Stanley Reed, 6 October 2008) any resentment focused on the Saudis during the current energy crisis is seriously misplaced.

Saudi Arabia is OPEC's biggest oil producer and accordingly exerts a strong influence on oil price. The Saudis maintain a balance between their relationship with the rest of OPEC and with their customers, who number about 80 in all: when the price drops too low, the Saudis back OPEC, when the price gets too high, the Saudis back their customers. Right now they're backing their customers.

This is not out of any particular altruism. While the USA and Saudi Arabia have an alliance going back to Franklin Roosevelt that has proven surprisingly strong given the staggering cultural differences between the two countries, Saudi King Abdullah has taken a relatively independent line, being nowhere near as agreeable to the Americans as his late brother King Fahd. Saudi motives for holding down oil prices are based instead on a far-sighted perception of self-interest. The Saudis are integrated into the world economy, and running it into a ditch for short-term profits does them no good. More significantly, Saudi Arabia sits on about 260 billion barrels of oil and has a good reason to care about maintaining a long-term business plan. As one Saudi official put it: "We are concerned about the permanent destruction of demand. Those who buy hybrid vehicles are not going back to SUVs."

Iran and Venezuela, in contrast, are OPEC hard-liners, with leadership that doesn't worry much about the global economy, and with smaller oil reserves that they want to get as much for as possible while they last. They bitterly resent that the Saudis are pumping out over 9 million barrels a day, 10% more than their OPEC quota. The Saudis snap back in turn that Venezuela and Iran are relatively small-time players in OPEC, and their inefficient governments aren't very competent in the business anyway. Venezuela cannot meet its quota of 2.5 million barrels a day, while Iran struggles to pump its 3.8 million barrels a day.

Those who dislike OPEC have reasons to smile quietly and nod approvingly at Saudi policy, but the dark side is obvious. US leadership has been posturing for decades about American "energy independence", but that's the last thing the Saudis want, at least as long as they have oil to sell. The willingness of the Saudis to cut prices, from that point of view, is along the lines of a dope pusher who doesn't want to gouge his customers lest the junkies who purchase his product at premium prices finally decide to try to kick the habit. Those who remember the 1970s will also recall that when energy prices dropped, funding for alternative energy technology all but dropped dead. As long as prices remain high, the incentive to finally get off the oil habit remains strong; the Saudis know this and don't want to push their luck.

This is not slamming the Saudis. They are simply pursuing their own rational self-interests, and if we don't have the sense to do the same, they can only shrug. Alternative energy development will remain attractive as long as oil stays at least above $60 USD a barrel or so, and nobody's expecting it to go that low again. In the short term we certainly have to appreciate that the Saudis are helping to loosen the economic squeeze at a time when things are painfully tight.

* ED: Of course, the price of oil has not merely been dropping as of late but seemingly going into free-fall, dropping below $75 USD a barrel -- from the perspective of the last year, a preposterous bargain. This has not been good news for everyone: some airlines whose bosses believed the "$200 USD a barrel" projections signed up for futures contracts at what they regarded as "low" prices and are now, relatively speaking, paying through the nose. However, the lower prices at the pumps are a welcome relief for the rest of us, and I've even been thinking about a spring road trip, but the black lining in the silver cloud is that the falling price reflects an ugly fall in demand while the global economy goes into a tailspin.



* NEW PC ADVENTURES (1): In late 2007, a penpal was talking about upgrading his own PC, and I told him I usually didn't like doing so more often than once every five years -- it seems wasteful to upgrade more often, and besides there's always the temptation to wait in hopes of obtaining something even more whizzy down the road. My desktop PC was doing OK and I figured it was maybe four years old. Then I got to wondering when I bought it, and on checking discovered that it was six years old. Past time to upgrade, since I wanted to get on top of Vista lest I fall even further behind in my computer literacy, and my old PC could not run it. I keep a slush fund for "business expenses" for items like a PC, and I hadn't tapped it for a long time, so the money was no problem.

I went to Office Depot and picked up a "not quite bottom of the line" HP Pavilion desktop, with a 2.6 GHz dual-core CPU, 2 GB RAM, and 320 GB hard disk. The 2 GB RAM was really the important buying decision, since I had heard Vista wouldn't run well in any less. The 320 GB hard disk was nice but overkill for my purposes, since I hadn't come close to filling up my old PC's 40 GB hard disk, not being into video downloads. The Pavilion had the usual sorts of I/O systems -- USB, firewire, LAN, modem, a DVD burner drive, and set of slots for flash ROMs. The flash ROM slots were a useful feature, and since my old PC had the original painfully slow USB it was particularly good to get a PC with fast USB. No wireless interface -- it would have been nice, but I had no particular use for it, and later I would would get one anyway.

Once I got the PC home I started to run into details I hadn't quite thought out, one being the realization that my little laserjet printer had an old parallel interface. USB's thoroughly wiped out parallel and no PCs include a parallel interface any more. After a bit of thinking I figured that since parallel printers were still common, I could get a plugin card with a parallel interface for cheap at Walmart, or at worst find a USB-to-parallel converter box, though that sounded like a clunky fix. As it turned out, Walmart had a perfectly elegant solution -- a USB-to-parallel cable, with all the electronics built in. By 21st-century standards, USB is easy to implement, and the electronics could be contained in the parallel connector housing with no trouble.

* The next day I got to puzzling around with how to set up the new PC -- I had to configure some UNIX-style utilities to support the shell script tools I had written for my website, which promised to be a pain, and move over a fair chunk of files from my old PC. I was thinking of moving my current display system back and forth while I transferred, but after some consideration that seemed too troublesome. I had some ideas for solutions and went out to Walmart to check, and found a dual-PC switch box -- plug in USB keyboard and mouse plus display on one side, plug in USB connector and video out on both PCs on the other side.

I wired everything up and turned it all on. Initially I was worried, since my old PC didn't want to read the keyboard and mouse, but after thinking it over for a minute, the PC decided it could understand them after all. As it turned out, the switch box worked perfectly -- I could hit SCROLL LOCK twice to switch PCs, and set the new PC to do things while I kept working on the old. There was a tangle of cables at the back of my workstation table, but that was strictly a temporary inconvenience, as was the fact that every rare now and then I'd find my PC not responding to the mouse or something like that, forcing a reboot.

I was thinking I could use LAN to transfer files, but it proved easier just to use a flash drive to do the job -- and by coincidence, I'd just bought a 60 GB USB hard disk drive that I could use when the flash drive wasn't big enough. Doing big dumps to the 60 GB USB drive on my old PC was painful, though, requiring that I go take a bath or whatever while it chugged along; retrieving the dump on my new PC with fast USB was blazingly quick in comparison.

At first, I just swapped the phone lines when I wanted to switch modems, but then I realized that the modem on the new PC had an unpleasant "feature": a line-in jack, but no line-out jack. "OK, so how am I supposed to get my phone to work?" You guys trying to hint to me to stop messing around with 56 KBPS dialup and go to high-speed access? I went back to Walmart -- again -- and bought a little cheapie 3-to-1 connector to make sure I could deal with that problem.

I did find out that my old HP Scanjet scanner wasn't supported on Vista. HP flatly said it wouldn't work, but that might have been just a way of denying any responsibility to someone who wanted to try it. It was an old piece of gear anyway, still in good condition, but the software was poor from day one -- and Canon was selling a flatbed scanner for all of $50 USD anyway. Now I had most of the hardware pieces in place. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* CLIMBING MOUNT IMPROBABLE (2): Although spider silk is a fascinating topic, it is not as fascinating as the scheme a spider uses to construct her web. There are actually a number of different schemes, but a representative "orb web" be discussed here. This discussion refers to a vertically-oriented web, but some spiders make horizontal webs that aren't all that different in principle.


The first task in building a web is to string a single thread of silk from, say, one branch of a tree to another. The brute-force approach would be to fix a line of silk to one branch, then crawl the tree and up the other branch to attach it. Spiders will sometimes do this, but more generally they simply toss out a line of thread with a sticky flattened "kite" at the end. If the kite hits a target -- anything roughly the right distance away will work -- it sticks. If it doesn't stick, the spider reels the thread back in, eats it, and then tries again. Once she has a firm contact with the target, she fixes the thread on her local end and uses it to begin construction of the web.

As is, the initial thread is not all that useful for building a web, since it's likely to be too slack. The spider can hang a thread off of it and glue it to another branch to create a three-way "Y" structure, but on the other hand it's likely to be too short to do a good job of this, either. What she does is start devouring the thread from one end, working her way along the old thread as she pays out a new thread behind her, with her body proving a link between the two. By instinct, she pays out the new thread at a rate that results in the proper length. Having created this initial thread, she crawls back to its middle and then drops straight down, leaving a vertical thread behind her that she then fixes to the ground or other convenient surface.

The resulting "Y" structure forms the core of the web. Now the spider has to complete the structure, laying out the other spokes and a "ring" around the outer part of the spoke structure. This is a complicated procedure that defies easy description, with the spider manipulating two or even three threads at once; the end result is a basic orb web structure with 25 to 30 spokes. The actual number of spokes varies from species to species, and even from spider to spider of the same species; it is unclear if any one spider will always use the same number of spokes.

Once the basic structure is complete, the spider will then fill it in, circling around and around in a spiral while laying a thread behind herself. This appears straightforward, but there are some constraints that make it trickier than it sounds. The spiral has to have proper spacing so it won't have gaps through which victims can pass. It's easier for the spider to achieve the proper spacing if she starts from the hub and works her way out; on the outer regions of the web the spacing between spokes is wide, making it difficult to negotiate, and so it helps if she can work from the center, with one level of the spiral helping to construct the next. The problem is that the spiral has to be made of sticky thread that can catch insects, and that makes it not only more difficult to lay down, but a possible threat to the spider herself.

What the spider does is construct an initial, coarsely-spaced spiral from the hub out, made of non-sticky silk. She then works her way back in, laying a finer spiral of sticky silk, dismantling the initial spiral and eating the silk as it becomes gradually redundant. Once the sticky spiral is done, the web is effectively complete; all the spider has to do is adjust it, testing the tension in one direction from the hub and snugging up the web, then adjusting the web in another direction, and so on until the web is as tight as needed. Some spiders set up a bit of crochet work in the hub to help with the snugging. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* I've been maintaining a log of space launches for my own purposes for a number of years. I finally decided to include a listing of launches for the previous month in the blog every month, along with other interesting space news. This helps provide an entry as well as a little variety, and also ensures that I don't fall behind in maintaining the logs. In any case, space launches for September 2008 included:

-- 06 SEP 08 / GEOEYE 1 -- A Delta 2 booster was launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California to put the "GeoEye 1" commercial Earth remote sensing satellite into orbit for the GeoEye company. GeoEye 1 had a launch mass of 1,950 kilograms (4,300 pounds) and carried a payload of two imagers -- a color imager with 1.65 meter (5 foot 5 inches) resolution and a panchromatic grayscale imager with a 41 centimeter (16 inch) resolution. GeoEye was created in 2006 through the merger of the Space Imaging and OrbView companies. GeoEye 1 joined the company's Ikonos and OrbView 2 satellites in operational service.

-- 06 SEP 08 / HUAJING 1A & 1B -- A Long March 2C booster was launched from the space center at Taiyuan in northern China to put the "Huajing 1A" and "Huajing 1B" remote sensing satellites into near-polar Sun-synchronous orbit. The name "Huajing" meant "Environment" and the two were the first installments of an eight-satellite "Disaster Reduction & Environmental" constellation, intended to support disaster relief and Earth remote sensing. Huajing 1A and 1B each had a launch mass of 470 kilograms (1,035 pounds) and carried a payload of two CCD cameras with a resolution of 30 meters (100 feet), an infrared camera with a resolution of 150 meters (490 feet), and an "image formation meter" with a resolution of 100 meters (330 feet). In maturity, the constellation was to have four optical imaging satellites and four radar satellites. China was already a member of the international Disaster Monitoring Constellation (DMC) group, which operated five DMC satellites built by Surrey Satellite Technology of the UK and sponsored by Algeria, China, Nigeria, Turkey, and the UK.

-- 10 SEP 08 / PROGRESS M-65 -- A Soyuz-U booster was launched from the Russian space center at Baikonur in Kazakhstan to put the "Progress M-65" unmanned freighter-tanker spacecraft into orbit. It provided supplies for the ISS Expedition 17 crew of commander Sergei Volkov, flight engineer Oleg Kononenko, and NASA astronaut Greg Chamitoff; in particular, it carried a set of new Orlan-MK space suits. Progress M-65 docked with the ISS Zvezda service module on 17 September -- docking was delayed because NASA Mission Control in Houston had been shut down by a hurricane. The docking port had been vacated by the European Space Agency Jules Verne Automated Transfer Vehicle unmanned freighter-tanker on 5 September.

-- 20 SEP 08 / NIMIQ 4 -- A Proton M Breeze M booster was launched from Baikonur to put the Telesat Canada "Nimiq 4" geostationary comsat into orbit. Nimiq 4 was built by EADS Astrium and was based on the Astrium Eurostar 3000S comsat platform. It had a launch mass of 4,850 kilograms (20,695 pounds); a payload of 32 Ku-band / 8 Ka-band communications relay transponders; solar arrays spanning 39 meters (127 feet) when deployed; and a design lifetime of 15 years. It was placed in the geostationary slot at 82 degrees West longitude to provide direct-to-home TV services for Canadian customers of Bell TV of Canada, with Bell TV leasing the satellite from Telesat Canada.

-- 24 SEP 08 / GALAXY 19 -- A Sea Launch Corporation Zenit 3SL booster was launched from the Odyssey floating platform in the equatorial Pacific to put the Intelsat "Galaxy 19" geostationary comsat into orbit. The spacecraft was built by Space Systems / Loral and was based on the SS/L 1300 comsat platform. It had a launch mass of 4,690 kilograms (10,340 pounds), a payload of 24 C-band / 28 Ku-band transponders, and a design lifetime of 20 years. Galaxy 19 was placed in the geostationary slot at 97 degrees West longitude, to provide video services over North America and the Caribbean. It replaced the 11-year-old Galaxy 25 comsat, which was originally known as Telstar 5. The launch of Galaxy 19 gave Intelsat a constellation of 17 satellites.

-- 25 SEP 08 / GLONASS 724, 725, 726 -- A Proton M Block DM-2 booster was launched from Baikonur to put three Russian GLONASS-M navigation satellites into orbit. The spacecraft were designated "GLONASS 724", "GLONASS 725", and "GLONASS 726". This launch brought the GLONASS constellation up to 17 operational satellites, with an 18th undergoing on-orbit maintenance. The full constellation required 18 satellites.

-- 25 SEP 08 / SHENZHOU 7 -- A Long March 2F booster was launched from the Jiuquan space center in northwest China to put the "Shenzhou 7" manned space capsule into orbit. This was the third Chinese manned spaceflight, and it was the first to carry a full crew of three -- mission commander Zhai Zhigang, plus taikonauts (astronauts) Liu Boming and Jing Haipeng, all 42-year-old military pilots. (The first four Shenzhou flights were unmanned test missions.)

Shenzhou 7 crew

Shenzhou 7 also featured the first Chinese space walk. The Shenzhou spacecraft was based on the Soviet Soyuz space capsule and retained its modular configuration, with an unpressurized service and propulsion module at the base, a re-entry module in the middle, and an orbital module at the top. The orbital module was used as an airlock. Zhai performed the spacewalk using a Chinese Feitian space suit, with Liu acting as backup in a Russian Orlan space suit.

Shenzhou 7 later deployed a small monitoring satellite to take pictures of the space capsule in orbit. The satellite, designated "BX-1", had a mass of 35 kilograms (77 pounds); it was fitted with twin cameras and a maneuvering system to provide experience in maneuverable space robot platforms. The re-entry capsule parachuted safely to land in Inner Mongolia on 28 September after the crew had spent 68 hours, almost three days, in space. Future Shenzhou launch plans envisioned buildup from 2010 of a small modular space station using an unmanned Shenzhou derivative spacecraft as a core, to be supplied by an unmanned freighter Shenzhou derivative.

* OTHER SPACE NEWS: On 28 September the SpaceX Corporation finally performed a successful flight of the company's low-cost Falcon 1 booster after a string of initial failures. The flight was conducted from Kwajalein Atoll in the mid-Pacific and carried a dummy satellite payload; the payload failed to separate, but all other Falcon 1 systems worked as designed.



* TANGLED ROOTS: As reported in an article in AAAS SCIENCE ("Confusing Kinships" by John Bohannon, 23 May 2008), prokaryotic organisms -- the single-celled organisms traditionally referred to as "bacteria" -- pose a particular challenge to taxonomists. Prokaryotes are not only wildly diverse, but they have the ability to transfer genes between different species. At the level of multicellular organisms, the evolution of life demonstrates an orderly branching tree of descent -- but due to "horizontal gene transfer" between prokaryotes, that tree has tangled roots like a mangrove.

Classifying prokaryotes has long been troublesome. At one time, the prokaryotes were regarded as fungi; then as plants. In 1930, the first International Microbial Congress decided that the prokaryotes were their own kingdom of life, distinct from either fungi or plants. Even then they were described simply as bacteria, with classifications based on superficial criteria -- appearance (as rods or spirals), the diseases they caused, or whether they could be stained by a particular type of dye. These classifications were generally acknowledged as arbitrary, but they were convenient in allowing one microbiologist to understand what another was referring to.

It wasn't until the 1970s, when convenient means for examining the genomes and biochemistries of prokaryotes became available, that microbiologists were able to obtain a detailed understanding of their nature. The result was a shock: the organisms that had been simply described as bacteria turned out to be two different groups with wildly different biochemistries. In 1980, the two groups were formally described as separate kingdoms, the "bacteria" and "archaea", as different as plants and animals.

Microbiologists then began to focus more closely on prokaryote genetics and biochemistry in hopes of further untangling lines of descent, but the work seemed to diverge from a solution. One problem was that the body of knowledge of prokaryotes available to microbiologists at the time was based on several thousand different species that could be cultivated in the lab. However, genetic sampling of samples obtained from the environment showed that the species that could be cultured in the lab were a small fraction, less than 1%, of all the prokaryotic species that actually existed. Worse, although horizontal gene transfer among prokaryotes had been known from the 1950s, nobody had realized how common it is, or that it could occur between very different prokaryotic species. Not only did prokaryotes have the ability to transfer chunks of genes through a sex-like process known as "conjugation", they also could obtain them from viral infections, or even pick up gene fragments from their environment.

Modern taxonomy is heavily based on genomic analysis. A genome can be regarded as an enormous "serial number" whose changes over the generations gives an accurate map of the lines of descent of organisms -- or at least it does in the absence of horizontal gene transfer. Microbiologist R. Thane Papke of the University of Connecticut at Storrs points out that horizontal gene transfer makes it very hard to define the familial relationships between different prokaryotes in a way that isn't simply arbitrary: "Do you really have species at all?"

* Some microbiologists are confronting the challenge and searching for new ways to define a "species". One approach is "recombination". While conjugation often simply transfers little semi-independent loops of genetic material known as "plasmids", in some cases the genome of one prokaryote can pair up and mix with -- "recombine" -- with another. The frequency of recombination tends to drop off very rapidly as two species differ in features, and if this threshold could be defined, it would provide a tool to permit identification of species.

In some cases, however, researchers have been unable to pick clear patterns out of rates of recombinations between prokaryotes. Other microbiologists have suggested that prokaryotic lifestyles may be a better index of relatedness, arguing that even with horizontal gene flow, prokaryotes tend to cluster into different groups in different niches. This approach focuses on the ecology of bacteria, not the genomes, and so it actually abandons the concept of species as such, organizing prokaryotes into "ecotypes". Several research groups have worked to flesh out this concept.

Some microbiologists are unimpressed with the notion of ecotypes, believing it does little to make sense of prokaryote diversity, and there are those who are pessimistic that a clean solution will ever be found. Even in the worst case, however, in practice microbiologists will still have some sort of classification scheme, even if it's not that much of an advance on the ad hoc schemes of the past. Says Papke: "We need to be able to have a conversation."



* TAKE CONTROL: An article in BUSINESS WEEK ("The Company Doctor Is Back" by David Welch, 11 August 2008), provided more evidence, if any was needed, that the US health care system is completely out of control. According to the article, a number of large companies have got so fed up with dealing with the system that they are setting up their own clinics for employees.

Toyota built such a clinic at the company's truck factory in San Antonio, Texas, and the employees are glad to have it. The clinic's not completely free, but it fees are reasonable, and the patients are treated with a level of civility not always encountered in the outside hospital system. The clinic -- which is run under contract by Take Care Health Systems, a health-management services organization -- cost Toyota a cool $9 million USD to build, but company officials believe it will pay itself off quickly. They have plenty of good reason for that belief: the clinic can take care of routine problems on its own, doesn't have a motive to recommend gold-plated treatments, and can send patients to a specific outside specialist when necessary without running them through a costly maze.

To be sure, while doctors in private practice have an economic incentive to pile up bills, company doctors have an economic incentive to cut costs. There was once a time in the US when companies generally had doctors on the payroll, but the stinginess of company doctors became notorious and the practice died out, beginning in the 1930s. However, as the US health care system has continued to evolve into a greedy bureaucratic monster, companies are now taking a fresh look at the concept. Along with Toyota, Nissan Motor, Harrah's Entertainment, and Walt Disney Parks & Resort Group have signed up.

A recent survey shows that almost a third of employers with over a thousand employees have their own clinics, or plan to have one by 2009. Pharmacy chain Walgreens sees company clinics as a growth business and bought up Take Care Health this last spring. Walgreens already operates small clinics in over 200 of its outlets.

In setting up a clinic, a company determines general goals for the service, then contracts an outside firm to set up the clinic. While employees are generally free to use other clinics, they are given breaks on co-pays and handed other perks to encourage them to use the company clinic. The clinic at the San Antonio Toyota plant has three doctors, plus dentists, physical therapists, and other medical experts; it is fully equipped to handle medical emergencies. Rates are half that of a regular hospital, with an on-site pharmacy that sells low-cost generic drugs. Of the factory personnel, 60% are sold on the clinic. Another company that set up a clinic run by Take Care Health found out that the clinic only referred 4% of cases to an outside specialist; the norm in the US health-care system is 25%.

Walgreen officials say that every dollar invested by a company in an on-site clinic will return $3 to $5 USD, even though the doctors spend twice as long with patients as the national average. Since preventive medicine is far less costly than reactive medicine, the clinic's doctors also have an incentive to look out for the long-term health of their clientele, an incentive not shared by private practitioners and hospitals.

There are worries that the new company clinics may fall into the same exploitative rut that wrecked the old ones, and there are also concerns that employers might abuse access to the medical records of employees. Such issues are seen as a matter of setting up appropriate guidelines and making sure everyone understands them. So far, the scheme seems to be working well. This fall, Disney Parks & Resorts plans to open a $6 million USD clinic at the Disney World complex in Orlando to serve more than 40,000 Disney employees and their dependents. Says a Disney official: "We can't afford to wait for the government to solve this."



* THE WAR AGAINST AL-QAEDA (7): Al-Qaeda was born a violent organization, but as such it long carried seeds of its own diminishment. Jihadists conveniently ignore the fact that the Koran does not endorse indiscriminate slaughter; worse, they have awarded themselves the right to declare "takfir", or apostasy, or in other words decide who is really a Muslim and who is not. They also have embraced the puritanical concepts of "salafism", the imitation of the early Muslims or "salaf", and regard variations from the ancient ideal as corruptions.

Not surprisingly, such a mindset does not make friends. The jihadis of al-Qaeda even regard Hamas and Hizbullah, the front-line fighters against the Israelis, as corrupted. Of course the same mindset creates little constraint on violent actions, with the ranks of "legitimate targets" quickly expanding from political and military leadership to anybody who disagrees with the jihadis in the slightest. Also not surprisingly, history and polls show that the public around the jihadis quickly shifts from initial admiration to seeing them as mad dogs.

It isn't just the general public that becomes disenchanted; even radical activists can end up changing their tune. Salman al-Oadah, a Saudi sheik who was once jailed in Saudi Arabia and was admired by Osama bin Laden, made a televised appeal in 2007 to plead that Osama give up his violent ways. Sayyid Imam al-Sharif AKA Dr. Fadil, an Egyptian who was one of the founders of al-Qaeda in 1988 and a close associate of Zawahiri, delivered a blast against the jihadis from his lodgings in an Egyptian prison, insisting that "there is nothing that invokes the anger of Allah and His wrath like the unwarranted spilling of blood and wrecking of property." He approved of fighting the Westerners in Afghanistan and had mixed feelings about Iraq, but said that a jihad had to be declared by a religious figure with generally acknowledged authority, not simply announced on a website. He believed that 911 was actually a catastrophe for Muslims: "What good is it if you destroy one of your enemy's buildings and he destroys one of your countries?" Such rhetoric has clearly hit a nerve, with the al-Qaeda propaganda mill going into high gear to denounce the backsliders.

The leadership of al-Qaeda had hoped that 911 would polarize Muslims and the West, forcing people to take up sides on the battle lines. To an extent al-Qaeda succeeded, but the jihadis also discovered that the battle lines weren't that clear-cut, with the enemy also including fragile new governments and Muslim factions that were weary of terrorism.

* It would be a relief to say that al-Qaeda has been defeated, but that really isn't the case. Al-Qaeda is both an organization and an idea. The organization took a serious blow when it was evicted from Afghanistan, but it has managed to regroup to a considerable degree in Pakistan -- and may even rise to its old heights of terror if Islamabad isn't motivated to crush it.

As an idea, al-Qaeda still has its appeal. It may now be increasingly a youth cult, exploiting the anger and vanity of the young. The Muslim public may have come to the conclusion that al-Qaeda is a monster, but it is a monster that still inspires young Muslim men to blow themselves up and take dozens of innocent bystanders with them. Al-Qaeda does not need to be a mass movement to make an enormous amount of trouble, and its resources and support ensure that it will be a threat for some time to come.

Al-Qaeda's survival is partly predicated on the continuing unpopularity of the United States in Muslim lands. To a certain extent, that unpopularity was heavily inspired by the early fumblings of the Bush II Administration, but though the administration that will take office in 2009 will certainly discard part of that baggage, the simple truth is that America is going to be involved in Muslim lands, and there is only so much that can be done to soften that reality.

Ultimately, the West itself really cannot defeat al-Qaeda. To be sure, Western intelligence can break up plots and arrest terrorists, but the source of the trouble lies in the Muslim world, and there the real battle must be fought. Saudi Arabia has demonstrated some ways the fight can be won; the most the West can do is try to provide constructive support, and wait for better days. [END OF SERIES]



* CLIMBING MOUNT IMPROBABLE (1): Richard Dawkins' 1996 book CLIMBING MOUNT IMPROBABLE is an extended essay on evolutionary science, derived with considerable enhancement from a series of lectures performed by Dawkins. While it covers topics discussed in other books by Dawkins such as THE BLIND WATCHMAKER and so is not entirely news, it does take interesting close-ups on other matters topics in evolutionary science that are worth selectively outlining here.

* Consider, for the first topic, the spiderweb. It is a biostructure generally or completely unique to spiders. There is nothing unique about silk among insects and spiders -- caterpillars and moths use it to spin cocoons, with tent caterpillars using it to build something like caterpillar "cities", and worker weaver ants use it to create leafy structures -- but only the spiders have used it to build highly sophisticated traps.

There are hunting spiders, which stalk prey -- I see little "jumping spiders" on my screen window occasionally walking off with mosquitoes they've pounced on -- and the web spiders, which are "ambush predators", waiting for prey to come to them. Mantises and chameleon lizards are also ambush predators, hiding in camouflage and moving slowly to trap incautious insects. However, spiders may be thought to have done them much better, developing a trapping system that is much bigger than their own bodies and makes them lethally effective.

A spiderweb should be thought less of as a tool or weapon than an extension of the spider itself, produced by the spider's silk glands and a set of behaviors. A spider may be able to produce a half-dozen types of silk, each for a different purpose. The silk has to be flexible so that an insect won't simply tear through it, and not bounce back so fast as to bounce the insect back out of the web. Some forms of spider silk look like beaded necklaces, with little coils of silk in the "beads"; the beads act a little like windlasses, spooling out rapidly to provide "give" but coiling back up slowly to reduce bounce.

There's also the problem of making sure the victim doesn't get away after it hits the web, and so the web features sticky silk. Typically, sticky silk uses a type of glue, but there are some species of spiders, the "cribellate" spiders, that use a different approach. They exude a special sort of a silk and then run it through a comb on their leg, creating an elaborate tangle. The tangle can't be seen by the human eye, the silk looks smooth, but it's adequate to snare a victim's legs -- it's something like velcro. Spiders that use gluey silk must "refresh" the glue each morning, a somewhat laborious exercise; the cribellate spiders don't need to concern themselves with this task.

The sticky silk does create a problem: how does the spider keep from getting caught in her own web? (Female spiders are as a rule substantially larger than males and so are dominant.) Glue-using spiders have a special oil on their feet that helps keep them from getting stuck; webs are also built with "main spokes" that aren't sticky, with the spider using them to move about the web, crawling along with little claws on the end of the feet. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* BIG BAD BEAR? In August, the Republic of Georgia invaded the breakaway province of South Ossetia, and was promptly dealt staggering blows by an overwhelming Russian counterassault that spread devastation deep into Georgia. The Georgians had been foolish to provoke the fight, but the Russians had been doing all they could to inflame the situation over the last few years, out of irritation over Georgian notions of joining NATO. The Russian counterstroke had clearly been planned out in advance, to jump off at the first appropriate opportunity. The message: to tell the ex-Soviet republics on Russia's southern flank not to think that Russia was going to tolerate NATO members in its own backyard.

It seem like the Bear was back: Russia was a military force to be reckoned with again and was letting everyone know it. However, as reported in THE ECONOMIST ("Advancing, Blindly", 20 September 2008), there was something of a fine old Russian tradition in the operation: the Potemkin village, made up of false fronts to deceive outsiders that things are better than they really are. Russian forces were poorly equipped, with field commanders using cellphones for communications because they had nothing better. Coordination between ground forces and air power was poor, and several Russian jets were knocked out of the sky by Georgian surface to air missiles.

Russian defense spending has doubled in absolute terms since 2004, but it's still an order of magnitude smaller than that of the US. Inflation has wiped out much of the value of the increase in spending, and what does end up going to the military is depleted by runaway graft. The lion's share of the spending doesn't go to the ground-pounders and flyboys anyway. During the Cold War, the West relied on the nuclear deterrent to deter the USSR's massive conventional forces, but in the aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Union the situation has reversed, with the Soviets relying on the nuclear deterrent, which is maintained at the expense of conventional forces. The result is that Russian demonstrations of power, such as sending bombers on long-range missions, are purely for show, with the aircraft actually being barely useful for operational service. Much of the equipment across the board is antiquated.

There are some bright spots for the Russian military. Some Russian miltech is first-class, and export sales of the better Russian weapons helps bring in money for military reform. The services are trying to move away from their reliance on hordes of conscripts -- who are notoriously maltreated -- towards a service based on well-trained volunteers, or "kontraktniki". The Georgia operation was mostly conducted by professionals who demonstrated good discipline and a degree of competence. Even with this, the mighty Bear poses no real threat to its Western neighbors, though it is powerful enough to push around the lesser states to the south.

Foreign protest over the invasion of Georgia was almost entirely rhetorical. Even the Americans provided no real military backup for the Georgians: outsiders had no sensibly motive to get into a fight with Russia. However, that doesn't mean the Russians haven't paid a price. Russia's ambitions are not to restore the old Soviet empire, since even if there was the will, the resources aren't there to do the job. What the Kremlin wants instead is to see Russia respected as an important player on the world stage. Unfortunately for that vision, while the Georgia adventure suggested Russia is a force to be reckoned with, the Bear is now seen as a thug, and must suffer diplomatic and economic isolation accordingly.

The flexing of Russian muscle in Georgia did not cause real fear among Russia's neighbors to the West; the only serious lever it has on them is supply of natural gas, and efforts are being made among those states to wean themselves of this addiction. The perception is spreading that the current regime in Russia is simply not up to the job of bringing the country into the 21st century, and the perception of stubborn backwardness elsewhere clearly stings at home. As THE ECONOMIST put it: "[Vladimir Putin] likes to skip over Communism's mistakes and dwell on Russia's tsarist grandeur. But what did for both was imperial overstretch, a rotten economy and, like Russia's today, a mostly unaccountable ruling caste that led a proud country to disaster."



* ANOTHER MONTH: After a cue from AAAS SCIENCE magazine, I looked up the website "AIDStruth.org" online this last month. It takes on the "AIDS denialist" crowd -- lunatic fringers who might be better called "HIV denialists", since they claim AIDS isn't caused by HIV. I'd known about AIDS denialists for some time, but I figured they had disappeared in recent years -- with clearly effective drugs available to help AIDS patients, it would have seen that even the most persistent lunatic-fringers would have given it up.

I was underestimating them; they're still around. Unlike most lunatic-fringers, they cannot be possibly interpreted as harmless, and in fact I found out that some actually blame AIDS on anti-HIV drugs, discouraging people from taking them. I was shocked, partly because that went over the line into the outright criminal, but also out of astonishment that it seems nobody had sued their socks off over the loss of a loved one who listened to such advice. It would seem only too easy to do.

The site had a list of AIDS denialists who were no longer among the living, and mentioned a newsletter published by a denialist group that ceased publication after those involved ceased breathing. That came across as unseemly gloating, but I guess it was the ugly bottom line: you have AIDS; you refuse to admit HIV causes it, and deal with it appropriately; you die.

* While poking around in an issue of WIRED, I ran into a short article for visitors to comic conventions on how to speak Klingon, pirate, elvish, and ... "1337". Say what? After some investigation I found out that 1337 is a pidgin language owned by certain online communities, particularly gamers, involving a mash of acronyms, mangled words, and letters translated into numbers. It also links into cellphone short text messaging.

Many of the acronyms are fairly familiar, such as "ROTFL (rolling on the floor laughing"), "BTW" (by the way)", or "IMHO (in my humble opinion)". Some of the mangled words are familiar too, like "pwned" -- "perfectly owned", or in other words "somebody's well more than one step ahead of you." The translation between letters and numbers is from appearance: a "1" looks like an "L", a "3" looks like a backwards "E", a "5" looks like an S, a "7" looks like a "T". That's why 1337 is also known as "LEET".

Obviously learning 1337 is one of those skills acquired by those who don't have serious demands on their time, and in fact it's so obnoxious to everyone but the inner circle that forums tend to throw out people who write in 1337, or at least mock them as hopeless geeks. It reminds me a bit of the era of ASCII art in the 1980s and 1990s. I was really hot on ASCII art for a while, not to design cutesy pictures but as a means of creating technical illustrations. I even have a document I wrote on technical ASCII art gathering dust in my archives someplace -- just simple stuff, for example it's easy to put together bar charts with ASCII art, but it's not worth a bent penny for pie charts.

As far as the other languages appropriate to comic-cons went, I of course knew about Klingon -- the Paramount STAR TREK franchise had a linguist invent it for the movies (no, I can't speak it myself) -- and pirate is just a bunch of "shiver me timbers" and "scurvy dog" catchphrases strung together. But "elvish"? Did somebody actually fabricate a language of the elves? Silly me, on checking on Wikipedia there's at least a dozen of them, and in fact several were created by J.R.R. Tolkien as something of a philological hobby. It is unclear which elvish tongue is the most prevalent. I learn something new, amusing, and useless every day.


* I'm still fairly new to Vista and continue to make discoveries. I was fumbling with keypresses and accidentally hit some odd key combination; all the windows on my PC display lined up as a three-dimensional stack arranged as a diagonal. It only lasted for a second, it went away when I hit the keys again. I tried various key combinations and got nowhere; okay, RTFM, read the manual, I guess I'll go to online help. It turns out that this feature comes up on pressing the "windows flag key" and TAB together; the same keypress allows cycling through the windows.

It actually is a nice tiny feature, it makes sorting out an application window fairly straightforward -- it's basically like the old trick of cycling through windows with "Alt-TAB", but a bit more intuitive to use. It's called "Flip 3D" and is associated with the Windows Aero user-interface cosmetics package. I was relieved it wasn't a feature of old Windows that I'd been too dense to notice. Now that I'm getting settled down I'll have to go through the MS tutorials and find out what other features I'm missing.