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DayVectors

jan 2009 / last mod sep 2015 / greg goebel

* 22 entries including: CLIMBING MOUNT IMPROBABLE, AIDS at 25, China's global hunt for resources, dealing with IEDs, the evolution of the Earth's minerals, battlefield insect robots, nervous optimism over Iraq, Energy Star questions, Universal Bulletin Board Code, solar power plants with hot salt storage, green cities, military solar power satellites, economic worries for 2009.

banner of the month


[FRI 30 JAN 09] NEWS COMMENTARY FOR JANUARY 2009
[THU 29 JAN 09] GROWING THE STONES
[WED 28 JAN 09] WARBUGS
[TUE 27 JAN 09] HOLD YOUR BREATH IN BAGHDAD
[MON 26 JAN 09] THE IED TERROR (3)
[FRI 23 JAN 09] AIDS AT 25 (3)
[THU 22 JAN 09] GIMMICKS & GADGETS
[WED 21 JAN 09] FADING STAR?
[TUE 20 JAN 09] UNIVERSAL BULLETIN BOARD CODE
[MON 19 JAN 09] THE IED TERROR (2)
[FRI 16 JAN 09] AIDS AT 25 (2)
[THU 15 JAN 09] SPACE NEWS
[WED 14 JAN 09] HOT SALT POWER
[TUE 13 JAN 09] GREEN CITIES
[MON 12 JAN 09] THE IED TERROR (1)
[FRI 09 JAN 09] AIDS AT 25 (1)
[THU 08 JAN 09] GIMMICKS & GADGETS
[WED 07 JAN 09] POWER FROM THE SKY
[TUE 06 JAN 09] HAPPY NEW YEAR?
[MON 05 JAN 09] HUNGRY CHINA (4)
[FRI 02 JAN 09] CLIMBING MOUNT IMPROBABLE (12)
[THU 01 JAN 09] ANOTHER MONTH

[FRI 30 JAN 09] NEWS COMMENTARY FOR JANUARY 2009

* NEWS COMMENTARY FOR JANUARY 2009: Barack Obama's inauguration as the 44th president of the United States went off on 20 January without a hitch; white supremacists remained quiet while Obama delivered his inauguration address. The two Obama girls -- 10-year-old Malia and her 7-year-old little sister Sasha -- radiated excitement, as if Christmas had come again. Their father had also promised them a puppy once they settled into their new home. The two little girls have attracted considerable public attention, one publication saying the American public was "besotted" with them.

taking on the job

An inaugural address is one of the most significant in an American president's term in office, providing the intent of an administration, and it is worthwhile to excerpt it here. The president of course identified that the USA is currently faced with serious challenges:

BEGIN QUOTE:

That we are in the midst of crisis is now well understood. Our nation is at war, against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred. Our economy is badly weakened, a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some, but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age. Homes have been lost; jobs shed; businesses shuttered. Our health care is too costly; our schools fail too many; and each day brings further evidence that the ways we use energy strengthen our adversaries and threaten our planet.

END QUOTE

He affirmed that the American people were up to such challenges and continued:

BEGIN QUOTE:

Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America. [...] We will build the roads and bridges, the electric grids and digital lines that feed our commerce and bind us together. We will restore science to its rightful place, and wield technology's wonders to raise health care's quality and lower its cost. We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories. And we will transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age.

END QUOTE

The president here clearly outlined a "green" vision of the future for the USA. The remark about restoring science "to its rightful place" was cheered by the science community, which had felt slighted during the Bush II Administration. He then guardedly affirmed the role of government, as well as the importance of free markets:

BEGIN QUOTE:

The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works -- whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified. Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward. Where the answer is no, programs will end. [...] Nor is the question before us whether the market is a force for good or ill. Its power to generate wealth and expand freedom is unmatched, but this crisis has reminded us that without a watchful eye, the market can spin out of control -- that a nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous.

END QUOTE

The new president stingingly repudiated the Bush II Administration's heavy-handed approach to security issues:

BEGIN QUOTE:

As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. Our founding fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience's sake. [...] Recall that earlier generations faced down fascism and communism not just with missiles and tanks, but with the sturdy alliances and enduring convictions. They understood that our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please. Instead, they knew that our power grows through its prudent use; our security emanates from the justness of our cause, the force of our example, the tempering qualities of humility and restraint.

END QUOTE

The president outlined an agenda for Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as multilateral negotiations for nuclear arms control and global warming:

BEGIN QUOTE:

We will begin to responsibly leave Iraq to its people, and forge a hard-earned peace in Afghanistan. With old friends and former foes, we will work tirelessly to lessen the nuclear threat, and roll back the specter of a warming planet.

END QUOTE

Obviously mindful of the accusations of military timidity thrown at him during the campaign, the president commented emphatically:

BEGIN QUOTE:

We will not apologize for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defense, and for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken; you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you!

END QUOTE

The last clause above was delivered as if shot from a gun, and for an instant one could see the president's suit momentarily fade away and be replaced by desert camo fatigues labeled OBAMA -- Barack Obama is now the Commander-in-Chief of the world's most powerful military force, and it was clear he knows it. However, he quickly moved on to praise of American diversity and a vision of American leadership in the world:

BEGIN QUOTE:

For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus -- and non-believers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this earth; and because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation, and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself; and that America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace.

END QUOTE

The comment about "non-believers" was something unusual, it seems an attempt to tone down the culture wars. The president extended hopes for better relationships with Muslims, and a rebuke to governments inclined to America-bashing:

BEGIN QUOTE:

To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect. To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict, or blame their society's ills on the West -- know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy.

END QUOTE

The comment about "leaders around the globe" was clearly aimed at the likes of Vladimir Putin and Hugo Chavez, but ironically the Chinese government yanked it from the version released in China. Although the Chinese have no particular inclination to America-bashing, obviously the remark hit a sensitive spot. The president promised that America would not forget the world's impoverished peoples:

BEGIN QUOTE:

To the people of poor nations, we pledge to work alongside you to make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow; to nourish starved bodies and feed hungry minds. And to those nations like ours that enjoy relative plenty, we say we can no longer afford indifference to suffering outside our borders; nor can we consume the world's resources without regard to effect. For the World has changed, and we must change with it.

END QUOTE

Of course, the president had to end on a ringing note:

BEGIN QUOTE:

What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility -- a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task.

This is the price and the promise of citizenship. This is the source of our confidence -- the knowledge that God calls on us to shape an uncertain destiny. This is the meaning of our liberty and our creed -- why men and women and children of every race and every faith can join in celebration across this magnificent mall, and why a man whose father less than 60 years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath.

America. In the face of our common dangers, in this winter of our hardship, let us remember these timeless words. With hope and virtue, let us brave once more the icy currents, and endure what storms may come. Let it be said by our children's children that when we were tested we refused to let this journey end, that we did not turn back nor did we falter; and with eyes fixed on the horizon and God's grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations.

END QUOTE

* While Obama's inaugural address firmly rejected certain elements of the Bush II Administration policy, Obama was careful to start out the speech by praising Bush: "I thank President Bush for his service to our nation, as well as the generosity and cooperation he has shown throughout this transition." The new president and first lady saw off their predecessors deferentially, with the Bushes taken off by a White House helicopter.

George W. Bush had been fading out politically, since Obama had assumed an effective "shadow leadership" role following his election in November. As an editorial by THE ECONOMIST's American columnist Lexington pointed out, Obama was careful to say that the US could only have "one president at a time" -- but the public perception was that the "one president" was not George W. Bush.

Obama was dominating the headlines and to some extent, as Lexington explained, it was pure showmanship at work. Only a few years ago, Obama was a US senator of no particular prominence and no standing with a politically powerful dynasty, and the Obama apparatus made a habit of presenting their candidate as "presidential" as a straightforward campaign ploy. Obama clearly likes the image; he is, as Lexington said, "not a man who is uncomfortable with the trappings of power."

However, Obama was pushed by events into the role of shadow president faster than even he would have chosen. The Bush II Administration had simply run out of steam; although earnest and sometimes effective measures had been taken to correct some of the sins of the past, the failures dominated the public's perception of the regime in the White House. The Bush II Administration's responses to the economic crisis were also uninspiring, and possibly inevitable -- Bush too politically weak to drive through serious reforms, even if there had been enough time left for him to do it. Obama had to get cracking on an economic plan before he was in a position to implement it. It should be noted, however, that President-Elect Obama was careful to give a "no comment" when asked about the crisis in Gaza -- domestic policy is one thing, foreign policy another.

New presidents are given a period of grace, usually referred to as the "100 days", to get themselves on track in office; after that, the usual disillusionment sets in and the criticisms begin in earnest. How presidents handle this initial period may be extremely important to the future of their presidency. The grace period presents an opportunity along with plenty of risk. Obama's 100 days effectively started early, exposing him to that risk before he was even in control of the levers of power, and there has already been some disillusionment.

Some Democrats and many Republicans despised Hillary Clinton and did not like seeing her appointed to the office of secretary of state; the number of appointments of officials who were veterans of the Clinton Administration also displeased such folk, with the emerging Obama Administration mocked as "Clinton II". The left wing of the Democratic Party did not like the fact that Obama retained Bob Gates as defense secretary, nor were they happy to see James Jones, a retired Marine general who had been NATO supreme commander and a prominent McCain backer, handed the influential job of national security adviser

Overall, however, it seems Obama is getting off on the right foot. His supporters may not enjoy seeing their man embrace people they regard as enemies, but to the less partisan such actions suggest that Obama is as serious about governing from pragmatism as the Bush II administration was about governing from ideology. Some years down the road, when the Obama Administration is wrestling with the world's problems and inevitably fumbling some of them, it may be hard to sort through events and see clarity in them; but when Obama's time in office finally runs out and he becomes a lame duck in turn, we may hope he will not be as sadly diminished as was his unfortunate predecessor.

Personally, I honestly wish George W. Bush well. He made some very public mistakes and paid for them in his reputation. Ex-presidents do have an interesting way of being rehabilitated for their sins, and it is only proper to express some faith that his future services to our country will be valuable, honorable, and honored. As George W. Bush stepped onto the helicopter to go back to Texas, I could only think: "This is the first day of the rest of your life." Here's to making the most of it.

* In other news this last month, on Thursday, 15 January, US Airways Flight 1549 departed New York City's LaGuardia Airport at just before 3:30 PM on a flight to Charlotte, North Carolina. The Airbus A320 short-haul jetliner had 155 passengers and crew on board. 90 seconds after takeoff, the plane's captain, Chesley Sullenberger, saw a flock of birds loom up abruptly in his windscreen. There was a collision and both engines went dead, with the airliner turned into a glider over the Bronx. The copilot, Jeff Skiles, had performed the takeoff but had less experience with the Airbus than Sullenberger, who took control while Skiles tried without success to restart the engines.

Sullenberger could not count on being able to dead-stick the aircraft to an airport without running the chance of slamming into a building or a densely populated neighborhood, and told air traffic control that he was going to ditch in the Hudson River. He flew downriver over the George Washington Bridge, put the aircraft down smoothly on the water, all the passengers got out, Sullenberger went up and down the aisle to make sure everyone had got out, and then left himself. Ferries came to the aircraft's aid within a minute, followed NYC maritime emergency service; all passengers and crew were rescued, and the only injuries were some bruises and cuts. The aircrew was widely praised as heroic.

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[THU 29 JAN 09] GROWING THE STONES

* GROWING THE STONES: It's obvious after a moment's thought that the action of the Earth's biosystem has an impact on the planet's geology -- chalk beds and the like come to mind immediately -- but as reported in THE ECONOMIST ("How Rocks Evolve", 15 November 2008), the impact of the evolution of life on the stones themselves appears to be much greater than had long been assumed. Indeed, the stones themselves evolve and have been doing so since before the beginning of life on our planet.

Before the formation of the Sun and planets of our Solar System, there were no minerals as such, just gases and grains of dust, with a rare smattering of materials like small diamonds and olivine crystals, formed by exploding stars. The dust condensed into worlds, but at the outset the mineral structures of these worlds were very simple. Modern geology lists more than 4,000 distinct minerals, and only a small subset of them were found on the primordial Earth.

How did the others arise? A group of researchers led by Robert Hazen of the Carnegie Institution in Washington DC decided to investigate, and has now published their results in AMERICAN MINEROLOGIST. According to their paper, there are three different ways in which mineral deposits can form:

There's a popular misconception that, left to itself, the world will become more disorderly, but that's really only true for human artifacts; nature tends to work in cycles. These three natural processes can sort out the material components of the planet into deposits. The minerals in the deposits form in distinctive crystalline lattices, and once formed can give rise to new minerals, through reaction with water or the atmosphere.

In the early days of the Earth, the planet was essentially a ball of molten lava. Meteorite and ancient rock studies suggest that several hundred types of minerals arose in this era, including zircon, quartz, clay, and halite salt crystals. The smaller rocky planets of the Solar System, such as Mars and Mercury, did not evolve far out of this stage, but the Earth, and the similarly-sized Venus, remained geologically active, leading to even more mineralogical diversification. The Earth's shifting continental plates, for example, melted and reprocessed vast amounts of rock and concentrated chemical elements in new ways, creating ore deposits of copper, lead, zinc, silver, gold, and other metals.

the weathering planet

Over 1,500 minerals had arisen on the Earth before the origin of life about four billion years ago. The origins of life remain a matter of not much more than informed speculation at present; however, the general vision is that a self-replicating molecular system arose. No researcher is sure how, but none see the idea as unreasonable -- mineral deposits can provide surfaces for chemical reactions to take place at a rapid rate, and over hundreds of millions of years, vast numbers of reactions taking place over a planetary-scale "bioreactor" eventually led to the first self-replicating molecular system. In time, this system evolved to more effective self-replicating molecular systems, each one driving its predecessor into extinction by competition for resources, and finally to life as we know it today.

Once started, life processes would do much to alter the planet's composition. Cyanobacteria -- photosynthetic bacteria -- emerged to gradually create an oxygen atmosphere, oxidizing exposed stones to create rust from iron and similarly produce thousands of new minerals. Sea animals with hard parts -- shells and skeletons -- then arose, using the carbonate and calcium in the water as structural materials. The result was chalk beds and reefs, with the accumulations of bone, shell, and coral being compressed into a mineral known as calcite. On land, plants produced acids that converted volcanic minerals, such as mica, feldspar, and pyroxene, into clay minerals that ultimately led to rich soils. The biosphere continues to make use of the raw materials provided by the planet itself, converting them into different materials, with new processes continuing to arise. The deliberate and inadvertent effects of human actions are contributing to the evolution of the very stones of the world -- and it may be important to our future on the planet to understand exactly how.

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[WED 28 JAN 09] WARBUGS

* WARBUGS: At the beginning of the decade, the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) conducted an investigation into very small drones. The conclusion at the end of the investigation was that the technology for micro-drones the size of sparrows or even insects wasn't available at the time. The research effort wasn't a waste of effort -- it helped lead to the larger hand-launched mini-drones now in common use by US forces -- and the concept of micro-drones remained attractive. The idea just needed more work.

Now, according to an article in AVIATION WEEK ("Bugging The Bugs" by David A. Fulghum, 12 January 2009), the US Army Research Laboratory (USARL) is conducting research on military micro-drones and micro-robots under the "Micro Autonomous Systems & Technology (MAST)" program. The primary non-military research organizations involved include BAE Systems, the University of Michigan, the University of Maryland, and the University of Pennsylvania. A half-dozen other organizations are also working in MAST at a lower level of involvement.

The basic vision behind MAST grew out of BAE System's "WolfPack" scheme, a DARPA investigation a few years back in which small drones and other platforms distributed coffee can-sized sensors over a battlefield. The sensors, though not particularly sophisticated in themselves, could connect themselves by wireless datalinks to perform highly sophisticated signals intelligence (SIGINT), locating cellphones or other "emitters", and then direct jamming or signals infiltration attacks.

WolfPack wasn't fielded, but it worked out the basics of such a distributed intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) network. MAST is focused on the development of small robotic nodes for such a network, with designs under consideration including mechanical grasshoppers, spiders, bees, and dragonflies. Although large-scale machines that mimic natural organisms have a poor track record, when the machines shrink to the scale of such organisms, the mimicry works much better. Building an ornithopter -- flapping wing flying machine -- that could carry a pilot would be difficult and nobody's succeeded yet, but at the scale of birds and insects an ornithopter is a very efficient system. A spider micro-robot could get around rough terrain more easily than a small wheeled vehicle.

The first challenges in designing such micro-robots not only include getting them to work well and reliably, but to shrink their core systems -- processor, memory, wireless link, GPS receiver -- into a small package while giving them a power supply that provides reasonable endurance, along with a useful payload. Ideas being explored include legs that act as radio antennas and wings that act as solar panels. Given the size constraints, payloads are likely to be single-function: a small SIGINT package, a camera, an acoustic / seismic detector, a chemical or biological agent detector. A specific payload module might be plugged into a micro-robot to tailor it for a particular mission. MAST seems to be downplaying the idea of using the micro-robots as actual "shooters"; it's more sensible to use micro-robots to spot a target, and then toss in a smart munition to take it out.

BAE robospider

The next challenge is to network the "swarm" of micro-robots to make the whole greater than the sum of the parts, while not overwhelming the capabilities of a soldier's handheld PDA controller. This part of the effort is at least as challenging as design of the micro-robot nodes themselves, in particular demanding intensive software development of a wireless distributed-computing network. The system will have to be able to digest the data streams provided by the network of micro-robots to prevent the controllers from being overwhelmed by the flood of data. Figuring out how much processing should be performed in the micro-robots versus in the controllers is a topic being given considerable consideration.

MAST is a pure research effort, with no plan to actually field any gear developed under the effort; operational systems lie further down the road. However, given 21st-century technologies, the concepts being explored under MAST are absolutely not science fiction. A high-end mobile phone contains a processor, memory, communications link, GPS receiver, and camera at a price tag well below that of even an assault rifle. Says one researcher involved in the MAST effort: "I've got a thumb-sized Ipod Nano with two gigabytes of memory, digital signal processor, power amplifier, and you can't break it -- all for forty dollars. ... We're trying to ride that trend of cheap commercial technology like engineered materials that are LEDs imprinted into a polymer, or painted on ... and have power built in. It can be printed by the roll and you just tape it [to the delivery system]."

* ED: Of course, images of the robospider design from BAE Systems give an immediate creepy flavor of the TERMINATOR movies. There's something unusually frightening about the idea of being hunted down by little insect robots. They may not be able to make weapons out of them right away -- in the short term they may make for some really cool toys -- but it seems inevitable that they will get there before too long.

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[TUE 27 JAN 09] HOLD YOUR BREATH IN BAGHDAD

* HOLD YOUR BREATH IN BAGHDAD: American President Obama is committed to pulling the US military out of Iraq and focusing on the war in Afghanistan. This policy was made easier by the fact that the Bush II Administration was able to correct for some of the sins of the past and, through a "surge" of American troops, restore a degree of order to Iraq. The previous administration was even able to hammer out an agreement with the Iraqi government in November for the withdrawal of all US troops by the end of 2011. The Obama Administration can breathe easier, having had the solution to one big problem handed over on a platter.

Or has it, really? An article in THE ECONOMIST ("Is It Really Coming Right?", 27 November 2008) took a close-up of the situation in Iraq to try to answer that question. Violence has declined considerably, but Iraq is still a country tangled up in a wretched civil war, with hundreds killed in the fighting each month. There are few families that haven't lost members or relatives. The country remains deeply disunified and quarrelsome.

The primary tension is the split between the Sunni Muslims, who used to run things, and the Shiite Muslims, the country's biggest faction by good margin. However, there are also frictions between the Sunnis and Shiites on one hand and the Kurds in the north on the other -- not to mention a number of small factions, such as Iraqi Christians; about half a million Yazidis, who worship the Peacock Angel and are often regarded as pagans by other Iraqis; the Shabaks, who claim to be descendants of Persians; and the Turkomens, a reminder of the old Ottoman Empire of which Iraq was once a part. Not only are there hostilities between all the Iraqi groups, there are in some cases divisions and antagonisms within the groups. Such circumstances do not make for a peaceful environment. In towns and provinces where there is a mix of factions, there is agitation and hostility. However, upcoming provincial elections offer some promise of establishing more representative government, hopefully reassuring the citizens that they don't need to take up guns to settle their differences.

The provincial elections should point, for the first time in three years, to what sort of leadership the Iraqis want to run their country. The poll will also serve as a dry run for a general election due at the end of 2009. Furthermore, under the guidance of an energetic UN advisory team in Baghdad, the system for the provincial elections will be much more open than had been the case in earlier elections. The main shift in the elections is expected to be towards much stronger representation for Sunni Arabs, who have been under-represented and resentful in the post-Saddam state. A political battle is brewing between established Sunni parties and an array of groups emerging out of the tribal councils that have played so crucial a part in beating back insurgent forces, including al-Qaeda, especially in the western province of Anbar and along the Euphrates valley northwest of Baghdad.

A fight for supremacy within the current Shia establishment has also begun. A striking development is the rise of Nouri al-Maliki, Iraq's Shiite prime minister, as an emerging strongman. Despite his wooden persona in public appearances, he has surprised everyone by his increasingly ruthless displays of strength and determination. He was boosted by his success, early in 2008, when he personally directed the Iraqi army to sweep the Shia militias loyal to Muqtada al-Sadr, a radical cleric, out of Iraq's then-chaotic second city, Basra. The army promptly repeated that success in the then-lawless Shia slums of Baghdad, known as "Sadr City". Nouri has also manipulated senior appointments in the armed forces: the new divisional army commander in Mosul, for instance, is said to be a brother-in-law.

Nouri is said to be reaching out to Sunni politicians, military men and tribal leaders in the hope of widening his narrow base in the Islamic Dawa party -- actions that not all his Shiite brethren approve of, seeing the prime minister as shrewdly playing off different groups against each other. He is earning points with the Sunnis by demonstrating increasing impatience with the Kurds, who many Iraqis -- and even some American officials -- feel have become too cocky in their new-found federal autonomy. In August 2008 Nouri sent Iraqi army units into Khanaqin, a mainly Kurdish district under Kurdish administration. He and Massoud Barzani, a senior Kurdish politician, are increasingly nasty to each other. Barzani is said to have recently told Nouri to his face: "You smell like a dictator."

* In the coming election politics, Nouri will certainly take as much credit as he can from the deal hammered out with the US. Under the agreement, American forces, now about 146,000-strong in Iraq, will withdraw from the cities by the middle of 2009. All US military operations will require the assent of Iraqis. Americans will be barred from using Iraq as a launch pad to attack other countries.

The deal is not quite as iron-clad as it sounds. The timing can be modified by mutual consent, and even the requirement for American troops to withdraw from city centers may be open to flexible interpretation. The "Joint Security Stations", where American troops are entrenched in mini-forts scattered across the cities, have been an essential part of the military surge which, since early 2008, has suppressed the terrible sectarian bloodletting, especially in Baghdad. The stations are now jointly manned by Americans and Iraqis; Iraq's generals may well be reluctant to remove the Americans, possibly relabeling them as "advisers".

As far as Iraqi security capabilities go, they have improved considerably over the past few years. The Iraqi army and national police at last count numbered 266,000, alongside 257,000 local police, 36,000 border guards and more than 100,000 "Sons of Iraq" -- the militias formed by the mainly Sunni tribal councils. But even the best Iraqi units still rely heavily on the Americans for air support, not least the helicopters that are crucial in counter-insurgency, and for other technical skills, including communications, intelligence and logistics.

Despite continuing horrors all over the country, the violence has greatly subsided. In the second half of 2006, violent civilian deaths, mostly in Baghdad, amounted to around 20,000, counted in morgues and hospitals. Currently the killings are running in the hundreds per month, still shocking but a reduction by almost an order of magnitude. Still, life remains unpleasant enough there so that professionals who fled abroad, particularly most of Iraq's doctors, are reluctant to come back home. The country offers nothing resembling a secure environment where foreigners can come and do business. A number of foreign companies, especially in the oil sector, have signed big deals, but no major foreign banks or businesses have thought it feasible to set up shop in the open in Baghdad. Though safer than it was, Baghdad is still the most dangerous capital in the world.

* As the recently departed American mastermind of the surge, General David Petraeus, repeatedly said, the gains made in Iraq remain "fragile and reversible". The upcoming elections are seen as encouraging, but the country continues to be politically and socially divided. Corruption is normal, with tribal and family ties ensuring who gets the good government jobs. Iraqis have a weak national identity, and very little sense of a culture of democracy, tolerance, and pluralism.

In short, the new Iraq union of Shias, Sunnis and Kurds desperately needs to build a sense of nationhood. The withdrawal agreement means that soon Iraqis will be left alone to define their own destiny. Once the occupiers have left, the chances that the Iraqis will attain a stable, federal, pluralist democracy must, for the present, be rated as no better than even.

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[MON 26 JAN 09] THE IED TERROR (3)

* THE IED TERROR (3): The triggering system of an IED is the vulnerable link in the system, and much of JIEDDO's technical work to defeat IEDs has focused on dealing with the triggering system. Early on, in 2003 and 2004, IEDs used in Iraq and Afghanistan typically were triggered by wireless devices, such as cellphones, long-range cordless phones, wireless key fobs, walkie-talkies, and wireless doorbells. One of JIEDDO's predecessor organizations quickly came up with a jamming system, designated "Counter Radio-controlled IED Electronic Warfare (CREW)", that could be carried on a vehicle. CREW generated a "bubble" of radio jamming noise to drown out any wireless devices trying to trigger an IED. Improved jammers with names like "Jukebox" and "CVRJ" have also been fielded.

However, insurgents were quick to respond to the jammers, ramping up the cycle of measure versus countermeasure. They started going back to using command wires -- pairs of buried copper wires linked to a simple switch -- and "victim operated" triggers, such as pressure plates or crush wires, with crush wires being two conductors run through flexible tubing that make electrical contact when the tubing is squashed by a tire or a foot. These triggering schemes aren't affected by jammers, though they are inferior to wireless triggering schemes: command wires complicate siting, and victim-operated triggers aren't selective about targets.

JIEDDO hasn't stood still. One of the results of the organization's early efforts was that focusing on IEDs themselves wasn't really the crucial part of the job. It was like swatting wasps instead of burning out the nest, and so the cry went up: "Attack the networks!" Destroy the terrorist networks that make the IEDs, so the thinking goes, and IEDs will no longer be a problem. JIEDDO has been criticized for not paying more attention to the problem of terrorist networks, but those associated with the organization say that is unfair, since most of the work along such lines was and remains classified. Destroying the networks meant identifying them and that is obviously an intelligence task -- getting contacts into the social networks, obtaining technical intelligence, and assimilating it. JIEDDO has acknowledged the use of sophisticated database software to sort through the pile of intelligence and obtain a clearer picture of it. More significantly, before his retirement in November 2007 as director of JIEDDO, US Army General Montgomery Meigs revealed the existence of the "Counter IED Operations Integration Center", which he described as "very powerful intelligence fusion operation" that was active in "that line of operations we call 'attack the network'."

Lieutenant General Thomas F. Metz, the current commander of JIEDDO, described in an interview the actual sort of thinking that goes into the effort: "Say you know a particular part of your district gets a larger proportion of IEDs. You want to study it, layer in all the data: signals intelligence, significant events over a couple years, moving target indicators from JSTARS [Joint-STARS, a Boeing 707 jetliner loaded with radar and intelligence gear], HUMINT [human intelligence] reports. You have to take it on faith from me that actionable patterns begin to form."

Says an Army counter-IED trainer: "You won't find the IED itself. You look for other indicators. Trash right after a route clearance. Disturbed soil. An area strangely devoid of activity, or a heavily laden vehicle with no occupants. A donkey cart by itself -- somebody's livelihood, so why is it abandoned? Why is no one there?" Over the past year in Iraq, military patrols guided by local people, often former insurgents, have uncovered thousands of IEDs.

* ED: Incidentally, the name "Montgomery Meigs" is well known to students of the US Civil War. Montgomery Meigs was the Union quartermaster-general, a notably sensible and competent man; President Lincoln liked to drop by his office and chat with him, in particular finding the general a useful sounding board when things weren't going well, even asking him for advice. The current General Meigs is a descendant of the Union quartermaster-general -- obviously the Meigs family has a strong military tradition. [TO BE CONTINUED]

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[FRI 23 JAN 09] AIDS AT 25 (3)

* AIDS AT 25 (3): The ideal objective of HIV vaccine research is a vaccine that prevents infection completely, or in other words provides "stabilizing immunity". The idea is to induce neutralizing antibodies that could recognize all the mutant forms of HIV and block them from entering cells. That means finding components of HIV that remain relatively invariant or "conserved" among all the different mutant strains, making those components "universal" targets for the immune system.

Once scientists discovered that to enter helper T cells, HIV must attach to a "CD4 receptor" molecule and usually to a "co-receptor" molecule called "CCR5", both found on the surface of a helper T cell, then blocking the ability of the virus to bind to those two receptors became a major objective of vaccine research. One of the main targets of that effort was a "glycoprotein" on the outer shell of the virus that makes contact with the two receptors before the virus fuses with a cell. Unfortunately that protein, known simply as "Envelope", turned out to be even more variable than the rest of the virus. One of the first HIV vaccines to be tried in humans, called "AIDSVAX", was designed to induce antibody responses against Envelope. After a five-year trial beginning in 1998, the vaccine was judged a failure. In fact, nobody has any real clue as to how to induce broadly neutralizing antibodies against HIV, and so other options are being explored.

One is the development of a vaccine that won't prevent infection, but will lower the likelihood of actually getting sick. Such a vaccine would keep virus levels low by inducing killer T cells that would promptly destroy cells infected by HIV, preventing viral levels from skyrocketing at the initial phases of the infection. That would help protect the body's population of T cells.

Such a vaccine would also reduce the probability of transmitting the infection to others. After the initial surge of viral replication, virus levels in untreated HIV-positive subjects usually settle at about 30,000 virus copies per milliliter of plasma. However, those whose viral loads are less than about 1,700 copies per milliliter turn out to have a much reduced risk of passing the virus on. The approach, then, has been to come up with an HIV vaccine that can limit viral loads to less than 1,700 copies per milliliter.

Studies of monkeys infected with the "simian immunodeficiency virus (SIV)", a close relative of HIV, helped lend weight to this approach, as did the fact that there were rare cases of both humans and monkeys, referred to as "elite controllers" or "long-term non-progressors", whose immune systems are able to keep HIV levels at a low level even without vaccines or drugs. These individuals typically feature variant genes encoding MHC molecules, with these molecules being important factors in arming killer T cells to deal with foreign antigens.

Researchers had high hopes for a recent trial of an HIV vaccine developed by Merck and aimed at inducing anti-HIV killer T cells. After considerable investigation, the company came up with a vaccine that used a common cold virus known as "adenovirus type 5 (Ad5)" to insert three HIV genes into cells, with the expectation that the cells would manufacture HIV proteins. The immune system would then be tricked into thinking the body was infected with HIV and would mount a protective response. The proteins used, called "Gag", "Pol" and "Nef", are relatively conserved across HIV variants.

The candidate vaccine failed in trials, with volunteer test subjects mounting relatively weak T cell responses, running to about 10% to 20% of those in the elite controllers. Furthermore, the cellular responses were specific to only three regions of the viral proteins; in contrast, elite controllers normally make between three and six specific responses against the Gag protein alone. The failure of the Merck vaccine trial was a huge blow to researchers, provoking energetic discussions about whether an effective vaccine against HIV will ever be possible. [TO BE CONTINUED]

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[THU 22 JAN 09] GIMMICKS & GADGETS

* GIMMICKS & GADGETS: BBC WORLD Online had an interesting article on a new robotic tool to treat cancer known as the "Cyberknife". It uses a linear accelerator mounted on a robot arm to deliver precision radiation treatments to a patient's body. X-ray cameras keep track of the patient's position and breathing, with the Cyberknife positioning its arm to perform the best "precision strike" on tumors. It's best suited to treating tumors that are in locations that make conventional radiotherapy difficult. French medical researchers report very good results with the machine: "We have treated just over 200 patients in 18 months, and all couldn't have been treated with conventional radiotherapy -- so it is a big plus for our patients." The Cyberknife is now in use in over a dozen countries.

Cyberknife

* As reported in THE ECONOMIST, tanks and other armored combat vehicles can crawl over terrain denied to most wheeled vehicles, but they do so at a price. Tank treads are noisy, hard on road, their vibrations are hard on crews and the tank itself, and the treads wear out fast. Armored vehicles rarely drive to the front lines themselves, being hauled to forward areas on tank transporters.

Rubber pads have been sometimes attached to treads to reduce the hardship, but the pads also wear out quickly. Now new high-durability rubber-like materials mean the steel tracks can be dispensed with completely. Denmark is now in the process of replacing all the metal tracks on their armored personnel carriers with rubber ones. The rubber tracks are more reliable, less damaging all around, and much lighter -- improving mobility and fuel economy. At the present time, they can only be used on vehicles of up to 20 tonnes (22 tons), not 50 tonne (55 ton) main battle tanks, but in maturity rubber tracks are expected to completely replace the old metal track technology.

* On a whim I bought a new digital music player, a little 1 GB Sansa Clip unit to complement the Zen Stone player I already had. I didn't really need it that much, but I thought it would be useful to have a player loaded with lively tunes for the gym and another loaded with low key ambient music for the library or the like. The Sansa was cheap, well within my monthly budget.

As it turned out, it was the best music player I'd ever bought. It has a clip on the back, which makes it much more convenient to wear than a player with a lanyard. The Zen Stone doesn't have a display and can be tricky to use, while the Sansa has a small display and the easiest, most intuitive user interface of all the music players I've owned. The Sansa also provides greater sound volume.

Sansa Clip music player

I've become fond of a type of cheap headphone sold by Philips, in which the earphones are linked by a plastic frame that wraps around the back of the head instead of over the top. The scheme is comfortable and delivers good sound volume, with another advantage being that only one cable is required -- one cable means less tangling than two. Normal cheap earbuds are compact and handy, but don't deliver sound volume as well and are less convenient to use. The one problem with the Philips is that the frame is weak where it links to the headphones and so it has to be handled with a bit of care.

For more stationary use, I've finally started seeing boom box stereos on the market that can play digital music from USB flash drive or the like. I bought a Philips DC185 boom-box with a USB port -- actually, it's an iPod docking unit, but it works fine with a USB flash drive and no iPod. It seemed to work fine at first, but I ended up going through a troubleshooting session with it. I noticed after a time that it would refuse to play all of certain tunes, simply cutting them off in midstream and jumping to the next tune. This was obnoxious and I wondered if I had made a big mistake in buying it.

I noticed that it seemed to cut off the longer tunes, so I cleaned up the file system on the USB drive, thinking the box couldn't keep up with buffering. No joy. I finally got to wondering if the box simply didn't like the audio file format. I was using low-sample-rate WMA audio files, so I got a format conversion utility -- the nice freeware "Switch" utility -- and converted them to MP3s. Problem solved. I think the WMA decoder in the box was hitting some bits in the files that it misinterpreted as an END OF FILE command. The reason the longer files seemed to have a problem was because the likelihood of hitting that bit pattern in the longer files was greater -- in fact I started to get suspicious about my original hypothesis when I noticed that one of the files seemed to cut out after a few moments.

The DC185 does have one annoying feature: it doesn't include a plastic insert to plug up the iPod dock if it's not used and it leaves an ugly hole there. It does comes with a cardboard insert that I flipped over, but the white cardboard doesn't look too much better than the hole. I found some nice glossy photos in discarded magazines to cover the cardboard with.

Sigh, I'll end up completely upgrading my low-budget home music system again -- eh, not that it wasn't cheap to begin with. I went out and bought a couple of 2 GB flash drives for the boom-box and other uses, and I had to think of how astounding it would have seemed 25 years ago to have bought a 2 GB mass storage device the size of a pack of chewing gum for $15 USD. Sci-fi stuff!

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[WED 21 JAN 09] FADING STAR?

* FADING STAR? In September, an article in these pages discussed the difficulties in attaining improved energy efficiency. These difficulties were highlighted by an article in BUSINESS WEEK ("A Tainted Badge Of Honor" by Adam Aston, 13 October 2008) that discussed the well-known US "Energy Star" logo.

The logo is recognized by 70% of US households, and the Energy Star website claims the scheme is effective, with reductions each year now achieving efficiencies equivalent to shutting down all American road traffic for half a year. There are complaints, however. By US Department of Energy (DOE) rules, the Energy Star label is awarded to dishwashers or other appliances that achieve the top 25% rank in energy efficiency for their categories. The problem is that in 2007, 60% of dishwashers won the Energy Star. That wasn't doing so bad either, since in 2006 92% of them did.

Energy Star logo

To be sure, that reflects improved energy efficiency across the line, but that isn't precisely the way things are supposed to work. Energy Star is a voluntary program, set up to encourage manufacturers to keep on improving the energy efficiency of their products. That means that, as efficiencies improve, the DOE has to keep raising the bar, but in reality several years may pass before they actually do so.

Confounding the issue is that enforcement could be better. The nonprofit Consumers Union recently tested two refrigerators from different companies and found out that they actually meet the Energy Star power ratings announced on their labels -- but only if the icemaker was turned off, which doesn't happen in practice. With the icemaker on, one of the fridges ran at twice the power consumption stated on the label. Admittedly these were exceptions; the last time the rules were updated for that class of refrigerator was 2004, and at that time fridges in that category rarely had icemakers.

Critics are also unhappy about the fact that there is no independent auditing organization for Energy Star. The DOE will only spot-check products and generally must rely on manufacturers handing them valid data. Other regulatory stickers, such as the well-known Underwriter's Laboratory (UL) sticker, require that an independent company perform the certification, with the manufacturers paying for the effort. UL tests are not painfully rigorous or expensive and do not burden manufacturers; there's no reason on the face of it that Energy Star could not be handled by a similar organization.

Energy Star does carry some clout, and not merely with consumers. Federal and state governments specify it, and states have implemented programs to encourage consumers to buy Energy Star products. Energy Star is a worthwhile concept, but if it should be done, it is better that it be done right. The current administration in the White House has not been noted for its enthusiasm in tackling energy and environmental issues. Hopefully the next administration will tighten up the rules for Energy Star and make sure it's on track.

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[TUE 20 JAN 09] UNIVERSAL BULLETIN BOARD CODE

* UNIVERSAL BULLETIN BOARD CODE: Having started a message board for this blog, I have been learning about the "Universal Bulletin Board Code (UBBC)", the ultra-simple but very useful little markup language for formatting text on message boards. Statements include:

   [b]bold text[/b]

   [i]italic text[/i]
   
   [u]underlined text[/u]

   [s]strikethrough text[/s]
 
   [center]centered text[/center]

   [list]
   [*] list item 1
   [*] list item 2
   [*] list item 3
   [/list]

   [list=1]
   [*] numbered list item 1
   [*] numbered list item 2
   [*] numbered list item 3
   [/list]

   [list=a]
   [*] alphabetic list item 1
   [*] alphabetic list item 2
   [*] alphabetic list item 3
   [/list]

   [url]http://somewebsite.org[/url]

   [url=http://somewebsite.org]Some Web Site[/url]

   [attachment]someattachmentfile.txt[/attachment]

   [email]my email address[/email]

   [img]http://someimagestoragesite.org/someimage.jpg[/img]

   [quote]quoted text[/quote]

   [quote="Quote Author"]quoted text[/quote]

   [pre]preformatted text[/pre]

   [center]centered preformatted text[/center]

   [left]left-aligned preformatted text[/left]

   [right]right-aligned preformatted text[/right]

   [font=somefontstyle]text in unusual font[/font]

   [size=15]BIG TEXT[/size]

   [sup]superscripted text[/sup]

   [sub]subscripted text[/sub]

   [color=red]Red Text[/color]      (Hexcodes will also work.)

   [:-)]                            ("Smiley" or "emoticon", many available.)

   [hr]                             ("Horizontal ruling" or simple line.)

Some sites support specialized codes, such as a code for linking in a YouTube video:

   [youtube]some youtube video[/youtube]

Codes can be generally combined -- for example:

   [i][b]bold italic text[/b][/i]

Notice, however, that the nesting order is important. The following is not likely to work:

   [i][b]bold italic text[/i][/b]

It is possible to set up a link activated by clicking on an image with nesting. The following UBBC code sets up an image named "click.jpg", and clicking on it links to the "somewebsite.org" site:

   [url=http://somewebsite.org][img]http://mygfx.net/click.jpg[/img][/url]

UBBC codes look like much simplified HTML. In fact, once upon a time message board postings were coded in HTML, but it was just too troublesome. UBBC codes are translated into HTML before being expressed. The UBBC is not all that much of a standard, however; not all message boards support all these codes, and different message boards may give different results for the codes they actually support. Message boards will often provide guides for the codes they actually support.

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[MON 19 JAN 09] THE IED TERROR (2)

* THE IED TERROR (2): All IEDs include a power source, a trigger, a detonator, and a main charge. The power source is usually a battery, used to supply electricity to a detonator, usually a blasting cap, that sets off the main charge. In 2004, as IEDs began proliferating in Iraq, the main charge was typically made up of artillery rounds lashed together to explode simultaneously, the casings shattering to provide shrapnel. Bomb makers also liked to pack ball bearings or nails around the main charge to increase the mayhem.

In recent years, Sunni insurgents in Iraq have turned to home-made explosives for the main charge. The primary reason for the switch is that the Americans are now equipped with armored vehicles and it takes a big charge to knock them out. The homemade explosives are made from fertilizer, with ammonium nitrate fertilizer mixed with fuel oil (ANFO) and a booster, or from urea obtained from fertilizer and treated with nitric acid to produce urea nitrate. Given how chaotic life is in Iraq, it's hard to control the distribution of fertilizer, and it only takes a small fraction of total fertilizer use to support the bomb-makers.

Usually the explosive is packed into a five-gallon tub or can. The detonator might be a TNT charge stuffed into a bag along with a detonator; the bag is often the tough plastic bag used to stow US MRE rations. A triggering mechanism is added, and then the IED is ready to "rock & roll". A weapon of that size can easily destroy a light vehicle like a Hummer truck, and can damage a heavier armored vehicle, like an MRAP (mine-resistant ambush protected) truck.

The two most dangerous types of IEDs are "deep-buried" IEDs and "explosively formed penetrators (EFPs)". Only about a tenth of the IEDs found in Iraq fall into these two categories, but they are responsible for about 40% of the casualties. A deep-buried IED can have a charge weighing hundreds of kilograms, capable of tossing an MRAP through the air like it was a kid's toy. An EFP includes a heavy concave copper dish, called a "liner", that is wadded up by the detonation of the main charge to slam at high velocity into the target above. An Army officer with the Corps of Engineers was in a heavily-armored vehicle known as "Wolf" that was the target of an EFP attack: "We went into an intersection, and the EFP went off and went right through our vehicle. The molten metal came up underneath us, and there were a few shrapnel pieces that were inside the compartment. But, for the most part, it missed us." He still had to be medevaced to Germany for emergency surgery to save his life. He had been through four previous IED attacks, but none of them were remotely that savage.

EFPs tend to be strongly associated with Shia militia groups. They are not all that low-tech: the liner has to be carefully machined, and seated on a metal tube full of plastic explosive, with the tube slightly longer than the diameter of the disk. The US has, with plenty of good reason, accused the Iranians of supplying EFP components to their Shiite ally groups in Iraq. EFPs are often detonated by a passive infrared sensor, with the triggering system also including a radio-controlled override that allows the triggerman to let other vehicles pass and then arm the EFP just before the desired target arrives at ground zero. The sensor then picks up the heat of the vehicle and fires. The triggering system is also very sophisticated and believed to be made in Iran.

US forces then adapted to the EFPs by fitting a device called a "rhino" to the front of vehicles -- basically a hot glow plug in a metal can on a rod of adjustable length to spoof the EFP sensor into firing. In a classic measure, countermeasure, counter-countermeasure cycle, the insurgents then added time delays to the EFP triggering system to ensure that it didn't go off too soon. [TO BE CONTINUED]

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[FRI 16 JAN 09] AIDS AT 25 (2)

* AIDS AT 25 (2): To understand why developing an HIV vaccine has proven so difficult, it is first necessary to understand how vaccines have traditionally been produced. There are several different approaches, but they all stimulate the body's natural immune defenses to deal with target pathogens. Flu vaccines, for example, are produced by inactivating the current strain of the virus and then administering the killed viruses by injection. Immune cells in the deep layers of the skin recognize the viral proteins as intruders, and direct the body to produce "antibody" proteins that will hook up with those proteins to target any intruder carrying them for destruction by other immune system components. Any live virus that then shows up is quickly dealt with.

In 1962, Albert Sabin licensed a successful vaccine made from live but attenuated polioviruses. Because this live vaccine is able to infect cells to a limited degree, it induces not only antibodies but also a "cellular immune response" from specialized cells known as "T lymphocytes" or "T cells". By relying on both arms of the immune system, the Sabin vaccine ensure that if polioviruses evade the antibody defense and infect host cells, the T cells will destroy the infected cells.

These two approaches represent the basic principles used to produce vaccines for the last half-century. Unfortunately, they don't work with HIV, which targets the immune system itself; it is highly adapted to evading the body's defenses. When HIV first infects a new host, the virus starts rapidly reproducing itself inside host cells, and the new viruses move on to take over additional cells. The viral replication is very rapid; within a month a victim can have up to 100 million copies of the virus per milliliter of blood. Normally, the first line of the body's immune defense is the innate or "nonspecific" immune system, which consists of cells that patrol the body for intruders. Some types of these cells will destroy any cells they find that are infected, but the initial attack of HIV is so intensive that this has little effect.

However, at the same time, a subclass of the innate immune system cells known as "antigen-presenting cells" are swallowing up some of the viral proteins, so they can be presented to more specialized immune system cells to incite a more targeted immune response. These more specialized cells include the T cells, which actually consist of two classes: "helper" T cells and "killer" T cells. The helper T cells play a major role in sounding the alarm to get the cellular immune system working and in focusing its attack.

Antigen-presenting cells first display the foreign proteins, or "antigens", they have sampled to the helper T cells, using "major histocompatibility complex (MHC)" molecules to present the fragments. The helper T cells, in turn, use their "T cell receptors" to recognize the antigen-MHC complexes. Once activated, the helper T cells activate the killer T cells, handing them the target antigen. Once the killer T cells have an ID on the intruder and receive a chemical signal from helper T cells, they multiply, then move out on a seek-and-destroy mission. This "killer T cell response" kicks in about three weeks after infection, and it destroys most virus-infected cells. Virus levels fall precipitously, and the victim feels much better.

Unfortunately, the battle has already been lost. The helper T cells are a significant, possibly the most significant, controlling element in the immune system -- and HIV targets the helper T cells themselves, replicating in them and destroying them. More specifically, HIV targets a subclass of the helper T cells know as the "memory helper T cells", which record antigen patterns from previous infections by other pathogens. The body's immune system is soon damaged beyond recovery.

As if that wasn't disastrous enough, HIV gets trickier at evading killer T cells over time. HIV is an "RNA retrovirus": instead of using the DNA molecule that most organisms use as a genetic code, it uses the similar RNA molecule, which is used to produce DNA that is spliced into the host cell's genetic material. RNA tends to mutate faster than DNA, and the process of inserting the viral genetic material into a host cell genome is sloppy. HIV mutates rapidly as it infects cells, and to make matters even worse, if two different viruses infect the same cell, they can "mix and match" their genomes. In short order, new generations of viruses appear that won't be recognized by the immune system.

This "shape shifting" capability is a particular frustration to designers of vaccines, since it defeats both arms of the immune system, undermining the efforts of both antibodies and killer T cells. Even if a vaccine produces a strong immune response at the outset, it doesn't take long for HIV to come up with a variant that isn't recognized any more.

Flu viruses also tend to be "shifty", but only to the extent that each new strain that emerges every year or so requires development of a new vaccine. HIV is much worse, mutating at a rate thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, of times faster than that. [TO BE CONTINUED]

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[THU 15 JAN 09] SPACE NEWS

* Space launches for December included:

-- 01 DEC 08 / YAOGAN 4 -- A Long March 4D booster was launched from Jiuquan to put the "Yaogan 4" remote sensing satellite into near-polar Sun synchronous orbit. The official story was that it was to support environmental observation, urban planning, crop studies, emergency response and space science experiments. The Yaogan satellites were developed by the China Academy of Space Technology; there is a cloak of secrecy over their details and it is suspected they are dual-use satellites, with military applications.

-- 02 DEC 08 / COSMOS 2446 (OKO / US-KS) -- A Molniya-M booster was launched from the Russian Plesetsk Northern Cosmodrome to put a secret military payload into high-inclination eccentric "Molniya" orbit. The payload was designated "Cosmos 2446". It was believed to have been an "Oko" AKA "US-KS" type missile early warning satellite, joining two other Oko satellites, Cosmos 2422 and 2430, in orbit.

The Oko spacecraft complemented the geostationary "Prognoz" or "US-KMO" early-warning satellite system; there were two operational US-KMO satellites at the time, Cosmos 2379 and Cosmos 2440. This was apparently the last launch of the Molniya booster, after about 225 flights since 1964. Further launches of comparable payloads were to use the similar Soyuz booster.

-- 10 DEC 08 / CIEL 2 -- A Proton M Breeze M booster was launched from Baikonur to put the "Ciel 2" geostationary comsat into orbit for Ciel Satellite of Ottawa, Canada, majority owned by satcom giant SES of Luxembourg. Ciel 2 was based on the Thales Alenia Space Spacebus 4000 C4 comsat platform, had a launch mass of 5,560 kilograms (12,260 pounds), and a payload of 32 Ku-band transponders. It was placed in the geostationary slot at 129 degrees West longitude to provide video services for Canada and the USA.

-- 15 DEC 08 / YAOGAN 5 -- A Long March 4B booster was launched from Taiyuan to put the "Yaogan 5" remote sensing satellite into near-polar Sun synchronous orbit. The official story was that it was to support environmental observation, urban planning, crop studies, emergency response and space science experiments. The five Yaogan satellites were developed by the China Academy of Space Technology; there is a cloak of secrecy over their details and it is suspected they are dual-use satellites, with military applications.

-- 20 DEC 08 / HOT BIRD 9, W2M -- An Ariane 5 ECA booster was launched from Kourou in French Guiana to put the Eutelsat "Hot Bird 9" and "W2M" geostationary comsats into orbit. Eutelsat 9 was based on the EADS Astrium Eurostar E3000 comsat platform, with a launch mass of 4,880 kilograms (10,760 pounds), a payload of 64 Ku-band transponders, and a service life of 15 years. It was placed in the geostationary slot at 13 degrees East longitude to provide TV and radio services to homes in Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East. It replaced the Hot Bird 7A comsat that had been in that orbital slot; Hot Bird 7A was then moved to 9 degrees East longitude to replace the 9-year-old Eurobird 9 satellite.

Eutelsat W2M was built by a collaborative effort between EADS Astrium and Antrix, the commercial arm of the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO). It had a launch mass of 3,463 kilograms (7,636 pounds) and a payload of 32 Ku-band transponders for TV broadcast and data services. It was placed in the geostationary slot at 16 degrees East longitude to provide coverage of central, southern, and eastern Europe; the Middle East; and islands in the Indian Ocean region. W2M replaced the 10-year-old W2 satellite. [ED: W2M failed after a few weeks in orbit.]

Eutelsat W2M comsat

-- 23 DEC 08 / FENG YUN 2E -- A Long March 3A booster was launched from Xichang to put the "Feng Yun 2E" geostationary weather satellite into orbit. Feng Yun 2E had a launch mass of 1,390 kilograms (3,064 pounds). It was the third Chinese geostationary weather satellite, replacing Feng Yun 2C and complementing Feng Yun 2D. This was the 11th Chinese space launch of 2008 -- a record for the country, matching the number of payloads launched by the USA in 2008.

-- 25 DEC 08 / GLONASS-M x 3 -- A Proton M Block DM booster was launched from Baikonur to put three GLONASS-M modernized navigation satellites into orbit. They were designated "GLONASS 727" through "GLONASS 729" (AKA "COSMOS 2447" through "COSMOS 2449"). The launch brought the GLONASS constellation up to 16 fully active satellites, with full coverage of Russia requiring 18 satellites and full global coverage requiring 24 satellites. Russian authorities stated they planned to have an operational constellation of 30 satellites (including spares) by 2011.

* OTHER SPACE NEWS: AVIATION WEEK magazine had an article in the 22 December 2008 issue on Chinese activities in smallsats and microsats. The Chinese military has a particular interest in such technologies, the general idea being to "outfly" the USA in a crisis by sending up satellites faster than they can be neutralized. To this end, the Chinese are developing an air-launched booster named the "Shenlong (Sacred Dragon)", roughly along the lines of the US Orbital Sciences Pegasus booster. Details remain secret, but a photo has been released of a Shenlong slung on the belly of a H-6 bomber (a Chinese copy of the Soviet Tupolev Tu-16 "Badger" bomber of the 1950s). Shenlong has thermal protection tiles and may be reusable. American observers worry that it may be used as a component of an antisatellite system. It will certainly be useful for low-cost commercial space launches, often of Chinese-made microsatellites sold on the global market. Shenlong is expected to go into operation in 2009.

Planned Chinese smallsat launches for 2009 include:

The Chinese Academy of Space Technology (CAST), one of the prime movers in China's space program, is developing standardized smallsat buses to reduce costs and lead times, including CAST968A/B/C, CAST2000, and CASTMINI.

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[WED 14 JAN 09] HOT SALT POWER

* HOT SALT POWER: IEEE SPECTRUM ran a short article ("Largest Solar Thermal Power Plant To Start Up" by Peter Fairley, October 2008) on a new solar-thermal power plant named "Andasol 1" that has just been completed near Andalucia in sunny Spain. It has a solar collector array with a total area of 510,000 square meters (61,200 square yards), circulating 28,500 tonnes (31,350 tons) of molten salt that store heat to allow the plant's 50 megawatt steam turbine to run up to 7.5 hours after sundown.

The solar collector array consists of 24 kilometers (almost 39 miles) of trough-shaped mirrors that heat synthetic oil in collector tubes to up to 400 degrees Celsius (750 degrees Fahrenheit), the thermal limit the oil can tolerate. The hot oil circulates into the power block, where it vaporizes water into steam to drive the turbine. At peak power times, the array will generate almost twice as much heat as the turbine can tolerate. The surplus heat is dumped through a heat exchanger into the thermal storage system, consisting of two insulated tanks, each 14 meters high and 36 meters in diameter (46 x 137 feet) full of molten potassium and sodium nitrate salt.

Andasol 1 solar power plant

The two tanks are maintained at different temperatures. The "cold" tank, which actually is maintained at a 260 degrees Celsius (500 degrees Fahrenheit) to keep the salts molten, pumps the salts through the heat exchanger, with the output going into the "hot" tank at 400 C. When the Sun goes down, the direction of salt flow is reversed, with the hot salt heating up the oil through the heat exchanger. There is the hazard of the salt "freezing" in a hot spell that reduces the heat exchanger's efficiency, but Andasol 1 is designed to allow the tanks and heat exchanger to be drained when they're not in use. The pumps that drive the hot salt cannot be easily drained and so they must be kept heated, but the power losses are expected to be minimal.

The developers, Solar Millennium of Germany and Madrid-based construction firm ACS/Cobra, acknowledges that the thermal storage system did increase the initial cost of the plant, but that day-night utilization will more than pay for itself, allowing the plant to produce 50% more power than a plant of the same size without storage, bringing in an additional 24 million Euros a year at today's power prices, boosted by a government solar-energy subsidy. The partnership is working on an "Andasol 2" and looking down the road at an "Andasol 3".

Abengoa Solar and Sener of Spain are each testing solar thermal plants of a different design, featuring integrated molten-salt storage. Instead of heating synthetic oil, the solar array heats molten salts in the central receiver. The approach is more compact and the salts can also be heated to a much higher temperature than oil. The same scheme was used at "Solar 2", a 10 megawatt demonstrator plant built in New Mexico by the US Sandia National Laboratory in the 1990s.

However, US organizations working on solar thermal power are less interested in thermal storage, primarily because while European states tend to use subsidies to encourage renewable energy production, US states tend to be more inclined to mandates -- making the up-front cost of installing capacity more of an issue. US advocates of the technology feel that is changing as utilities adopt "peak power" pricing rates, paying more for electricity at peak times. This gives an incentive to add storage to thermal solar plants, since they would then be able to store up heat at off-peak times and generate electricity at a premium during peak times.

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[TUE 13 JAN 09] GREEN CITIES

* GREEN CITIES: The "City Of Tomorrow" has a long and curious history, with past experimental schemes having mixed results as best. A survey from SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN Online ("Eco-Cities: Urban Planning For The Future" by David Biello) inspected the latest fad along this line, environmentally-conscious "green cities".

Welcome to what used to be Treasure Island Naval Air Base, built on top of land reclaimed from San Francisco Bay in the 1930s. By 2020, the island's military origins will have largely vanished from sight, replaced by a community with 6,000 apartments and condominiums. According to the engineering firm Arup, which is building the community, the homes and local businesses will get half their power from renewable resources, including solar electricity and solar water heating. The street grid was laid out 35 degrees off due south to maximize the sunlight falling on rooftop solar arrays, as well as to block brisk bay winds. Every location on the island will be a short walk to a ferry terminal to San Francisco. A local organic farm will produce fresh produce for the residents, using fertilizer obtained from the output of the island's existing water treatment plant.

The Treasure Island community will of course not be entirely environmentally neutral. Gary Lawrence, an Arup official, explains: "It doesn't seem feasible given the available technology and the need for the owner to make a profit to go for net zero carbon. We're going to make it as carbon-neutral as possible." He adds that they are doing what they can without adding a "price premium" for green design.

Arup is doing similar work elsewhere. In August 2005, the Shanghai Industrial Investment Corporation hired the firm to design Dongtan, an "eco-demonstrator" satellite city for Shanghai, with the eco-city built on Chongming Island, a big alluvial island at the mouth of the Yangtse River. The concept was to set up a small development initially that would expand to 500,000 residents by 2050, while maintaining the island's natural wetlands that provide one of the largest bird refuges in an overpopulated country. The goals for Dongtan were ambitious: zero waste, power from sea breezes, no fossil-fuel vehicles.

However, Shanghai has been booming rapidly and work on Dongtan has been put off. A bridge and tunnel link to the mainland are under construction and should be available for partial use in 2009, at which time work on the eco-city is expected to ramp up in earnest. Despite the delays, Arup officials are upbeat -- senior Chinese government remain enthusiastic about the idea, and in fact Arup is involved in the development of at least four more eco-cities in China.

In oil-rich Abu Dhabi, work is proceeding on the eco-city of Masdar. Planners Foster & Partners envision a city where electric cars -- "personal rapid transit pods" -- running through underground tunnels and elevated rails will carry the citizens from point to point, with autos banned. Solar power plants are now being built on the site to exploit the plentiful sunlight to generate electricity for lighting, air conditioning, and desalinizing sea water; wind and geothermal power will also be exploited. Water will be recycled, being used to grow crops in enclosed farms, while walls and narrow streets will funnel cool breezes.

Masdar street scene

Masdar will be associated with a new "Masdar Institute of Science & Technology (MIST)", with ambitions to become a world-class technical institute -- there isn't one in the Arab world at present. It will also link to an industrial center, a "Silicon Valley" for green technologies. Abu Dhabi leaders believe Masdar will position the country for a prominent role in the world after oil.

It all sounds very shiny and marvelous, though it comes at price: Masdar will have a very high level of central control, with business activities and construction required to conform to the plan. Cities tend to be lively places, and imposing such controls may not result in a community anyone really wants to live in. More generally, critics suggest that the eco-cities are merely "greenwash", flashy Disney-style exercises, all style and no substance. Others admit that the eco-cities may shoot too high and miss the target -- but add that they may help validate concepts that will be applicable on a wider scale. After all, it hardly hurts to experiment.

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[MON 12 JAN 09] THE IED TERROR (1)

* THE IED TERROR (1): The American military has suffered considerable casualties in the campaign to pacify Iraq, with the lion's share of the damage done by "improvised explosive devices (IEDs)". IEEE SPECTRUM ran an article ("Countering IEDs" by Glenn Zorpette, September 2008) to show the efforts being made to counter such weapons.

The US military is certainly taking the problem seriously, having spent $12.4 billion USD since 2005 on counter-IED equipment, technology research and development, and other measures, with the work directed by an organization currently known by the optimistic name of the "Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization (JIEDDO)". JIEDDO formally states that its mission is to defeat IEDs as "weapons of strategic influence". That wording acknowledges that IEDs are not intended to defeat a military force in a stand-up battle; IEDs instead simply drain and demoralize an enemy. The wording also implies that there is no way to completely neutralize IEDS, with the actual goal being to continuously diminish their effectiveness. JIEDDO's approach is holistic, involving training forces in counter-IED tactics; acquiring intelligence to penetrate and destroy terrorists networks involved in planting IEDs; and providing new technologies to deal with the threat.

There is a perception that JIEDDO may be overemphasizing the technological fix. The organization's budget for 2008 was $4.38 billion USD, and $2.57 billion was applied to development of counter-IED technologies. A civilian official in the employ of the military says there is a suspicion that the approach is "hide and pray: hiding behind more armor and praying that there's a technical solution to all this." There's been more criticisms along this line, but it is actually hard to find anyone either inside or outside of JIEDDO who believes that a technological "silver bullet" will be found that will solve the IED problem. However, by the same coin, it is hard to find anyone who doesn't think that technology will provide an important part in that solution.

Combat experience in Iraq and Afghanistan has shown that the most effective way to halt IEDs is to obtain the cooperation of locals. US forces in Iraq didn't see major declines in IED attacks until they obtained cooperation from local citizens, enlisting their help in determined efforts to wipe out the insurgents planting the IEDs. The problem is that it is impossible to guarantee local support in a conflict, and so other methods have to be pursued. The issue becomes all the more important because the IED is now the weapon of choice for insurgents all over the world, with hundreds of attacks in a dozen countries. Although the US is going to get out of Iraq sooner or later, the IED threat is not going to go away.

IED versus Humvee

The IED threat is not really new. Command-detonated mines were used by guerrillas in World War II, and during the Vietnam War the VietCong used them extensively against US forces, often making them out of unexploded American munitions. Afghan mujahedin used them against Soviet forces during the war in Afghanistan in the 1980s. However, it was the Irish Republican Army that first brought the use of IEDs to an art form, creating a spectrum of weapons from the crude to the highly sophisticated. In the early 1970s, the British Army was dealing with as many as 1,400 IED attacks a year. That's only a third or a quarter as many attacks as take place in Iraq and Afghanistan. Things are sure to get worse over the long run; nobody expects them to get better. [TO BE CONTINUED]

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[FRI 09 JAN 09] AIDS AT 25 (1)

* AIDS AT 25 (1): As discussed in an article from SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN Online ("25 Years Later: The AIDS Vaccine Search Goes On" by David I. Watkins), in the spring of 1981, a technician at the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta noticed there had been five orders over the previous few months for a drug used to treat a very rare form of pneumonia, named Pneumocystis, usually only found in patients whose immune systems had been compromised by immunosuppressive drugs. The tech informed her superiors and a team investigated, finding all five cases to be young gay men from Los Angeles.

The probability that this clustering was coincidental was too small to be taken seriously. Other reports came in establishing an abrupt rise in diseases associated with compromised immune systems. Karposi's sarcoma is one such disease; it is normally extremely rare, but 26 cases of it were reported in 30 months. The victims were young gay men from California and New York. All the victims had compromised immune systems that, and were generally young gay men who lived in San Francisco, Los Angeles, or New York. By 1982, these men were recognized as suffering from a new disease, which was named the "acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS)".

They were only the leading edge of the wave. Further investigation showed that whatever caused AIDS had a long latency period, which meant that there might be large numbers of invisible asymptomatic infections among the public. Gay men didn't turn out to be the only victims either, with clusters of cases among recipients of blood transfusions, particularly hemophiliacs, as well as intravenous (IV) drug users and Haitian immigrants. Not long after, the first demonstrable cases of heterosexual transmission of AIDS were reported among sex partners of IV drug users.

It seemed likely that the agent that caused AIDS was passed in sexual secretions and blood, and so researchers hunting for the agent began detailed investigations of blood and other samples taken from AIDS patients. Several teams of researchers investigated and tracked down the virus causing the infection, which was given the name of "human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)". The discovery of HIV led to a certain sense of relief, the feeling being that the disease could be brought under control. In 1984 Margaret Heckler, the US Secretary of Health & Human Services, was able to inform a press conference that the culprit, the "human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)" had been discovered. Heckler told the reporters: "We hope to have such a vaccine ready for testing in approximately two years."

* We still haven't got a working AIDS vaccine. Heckler's optimism was not foolish or irresponsible: traditionally, once a pathogen causing a disease had been discovered, a vaccine was likely to follow, and the medical community was optimistic as well. However, HIV turned out to be no typical virus. In 2007, a major clinical trial of an AIDS vaccine developed by pharmaceutical giant Merck had to be cut short because the vaccine was clearly not working, and might actually be causing harm. In the summer of 2008, another vaccine candidate got the axe before it even reached clinical trials, since it was not showing that it would be any improvement on the earlier vaccine.

The consensus is that traditional approaches to vaccines do not work against HIV, and the only way forward is to learn more about the virus and develop entirely new schemes for coming up with vaccines: it's back to the drawing board. However, that's not the same as saying that researchers have learned nothing in a quarter-century of struggle against HIV. The silver lining behind the war against HIV is that the hunt for defenses against the virus has led to major advances in biomedical knowledge, and every failure has led to new knowledge. That's not enough, but there is a sense that the struggle is not hopeless. [TO BE CONTINUED]

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[THU 08 JAN 09] GIMMICKS & GADGETS

* GIMMICKS & GADGETS: As reported in SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN Online, the US Army has directed development of a sticky-sided plastic sheeting material named "X-FLEX" that is intended to be applied to the interior side of the exterior walls of buildings in combat zones. If there's a explosion outside, the tough X-FLEX sheeting prevents fragments of concrete and brick from flying around and causing injury. To apply the sheeting, the wall is cleaned, a backing layer is peeled off the sheets, and the sheets are applied to the wall. The sheets are then further secured with fasteners at the top and bottom of the wall. A primer may be used to ensure a better stick.

* As reported in an article from BBC WORLD Online, car theft is a major problem in the big cities of Brazil. On the average, a car is stolen once every 12 minutes in Rio de Janiero and once every three minutes in Sao Paulo. The thefts are generally the work of organized gangs -- often drug traffickers -- who will operate in the most prosperous and seemingly safest districts of the cities. People who value their lives do not try to stop a car theft in progress. The cars usually end up in the city slums, the "favelas", which are so dominated by gangs that uniformed police never go into them except in large, heavily armed groups, and when they do they often have a battle on their hands. Undercover cops do operate in the favelas, and some of them moonlight, helping victims of car theft recover their vehicles.

Now many Brazilians fit their cars with an anti-theft system. If a car is stolen, the victim phones the car crime center, giving the police a password issued with the anti-theft system, details of the vehicle, and where it was stolen. A wireless message sent to the vehicle then shuts it down, with the vehicle reporting its GPS location. A recovery team is sent out to pick it up. From August 2009, all new vehicles sold in Brazil will have to have an anti-theft system. Nobody's entirely sure the scheme will work, since thieves tend to be clever, but the generally feeling is that something has to be done.

* As reported by SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, oceanographers have long relied on survey vessels and remote-sensing satellites to study the oceans, but their access to the deeps has been limited. Now, the US National Science Foundation (NSF) is starting up an "Ocean Observatories Initiative (OOI)", a $330 million USD effort to set up a remote sensing infrastructure on the seafloor.

The installations will feature both fixed and mobile elements. Long cables will be moored to stations on the seafloor, with upgradeable instrument packages moving up and down on the cables. Autonomous underwater vehicles will perform forays around these stations, following preprogrammed paths while taking measurements. Illustrations also show seafloor rovers operating from the stations to set up instruments or perform measurements themselves. Cables will provide power and communications for the stations.

Researchers plan to set up three instrument arrays in polar regions, with observations helping to determine the impact of climate change. An array will be placed in the Atlantic off of Cape Cod to monitor the changes in the local ecosystem affecting the fishing industry; this array will relocated to other locales every few years. A very large network will be placed on the Juan de Fuca plate in the Pacific off the shores of the Pacific Northwest. All the data will be collected online, with an interactive interface permitting access to all those who want it. The OOI is in preliminary definition phase, with commitment to deployment not expected before 2010.

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[WED 07 JAN 09] POWER FROM THE SKY

* POWER FROM THE SKY: The notion of "space solar power (SSP)", in which satellites in geostationary orbit soak up sunlight and beam power down to Earth on microwave beams, was promoted in the 1970s. It was a fascinating idea, but certainly not at all practical at the time; it generally went the way of platform heels and disco fever. Now, as reported in AVIATION WEEK ("Soft Power" by Frank Morring JR, 8 December 2008), the US military is giving the idea a serious looking-over.

Part of the issue is that the military has a major environmental footprint, and there is a sincere concern to reduce the environmental impact of military operations, as well as reduce dependence on foreign oil. The more directly self-interested part of the issue is that supporting military forces in the field can be logistically troublesome, often requiring fleets of diesel generators, resulting in expensive power -- it can cost hundreds of dollars to get a gallon of fuel to a field location. Given the peculiar energy economics of field operations, the idea of simply setting up a "rectifying antenna (rectenna)" array to soak up microwave power beamed at will from space is very attractive. Once the array was in place, the power would be effectively free and available as long as needed. Overall costs would be about the same as using diesel generators, with the cost declining as SSP infrastructure was established and refined.

solar power satellite

The Pentagon's National Security Space Office (NSSO) released a report that advocated investigation of SSP in October 2007, with the report briefly mentioned in these pages in November 2007. Not only did the report say SSP could provide "power on demand" to field forces, it could also keep surveillance drones in the air indefinitely and support networks of ground sensors that weren't limited by battery power. The report saw government funding of SSP as promoting civil applications as well: "A government-led demonstration of proof-of-concept could serve to catalyze commercial space sector development."

The report identified challenges, of course. Laser beamed power was ruled out because the technology to do the job properly wasn't likely to be available in the near future, and use of lasers might suggest to the public that the SSP stations were merely covert weapons of mass destruction. The microwave technology is here, and it's safe -- the power received at ground level would be about as much as might be picked up from normal leakage from a microwave oven. However, microwave technology means putting a lot of metal in orbit, and the report pointed out that current launch technology can't do the job.

The report didn't mention the Ares V heavy lift booster being developed by the US National Aeronautics & Space Administration (NASA). The Ares V will be able to put over 180 tonnes (200 tons) into low Earth orbit and would certainly be useful for lofting an SSP satellite. NSSO is discussing space technology experiments with NASA aimed at SSP, using the International Space Station as a base. The ground rectenna array would cover a good amount of area, but it would be basically low tech, a mesh strung on poles over the ground.

John Mankins, a senior official at Managed Energy Technologies and a longtime SSP advocate, believes that a pilot SSP plant could be operating in 10 to 12 years. Risk-reduction and early development work would be low-risk, running about three years, with a pricetag of about $100 million USD. That sounds like a lot, but it's only the cost of putting a midsized space satellite into orbit. A flight demonstration would take another three years, with another four to six years to put a pilot plant providing five to ten megawatts into orbit. Total development would be about $10 billion USD; the NRRO report suggested that the US could join forces with close allies to foot the bill. Whether the idea is really more practical now than it was in the 1970s is a good question, but the SSP concept is so attractive that it certainly deserves to be given a fair investigation.

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[TUE 06 JAN 09] HAPPY NEW YEAR?

* HAPPY NEW YEAR? THE ECONOMIST had a special issue on THE WORLD IN 2009, with one article considering the possibilities for the US economy in 2009. It did not actually offer a prediction, instead providing background and presenting a range of alternate scenarios. The article pointed out that If it was a question of economic fundamentals, the USA would not be in too much trouble, with things remaining poor through much of 2009 but picking up towards the end. The real problem is the wild chaos in the financial system that has toppled long-established players and frightened away investors. Much depends on how successful government measures have been in restoring confidence.

In terms of the fundamentals, America entered into this recession -- that's what it is, whether the government wants to admit it or not -- in fair shape. Businesses had been operating in a lean fashion since the end of the dotcom bubble in 2001 and didn't have a lot of fat to trim; stock prices were sensible relative to revenues; and there was little glut in production capacity. The one major sore spot was housing, with house prices and construction rising to unsustainable levels by 2006. Now the value of housing has returned to its long-term trendline, though unsurprisingly there remains an excess of unsold housing and the construction market is painfully sluggish. The general sense is that the housing market has at least bottomed out. Mortgage delinquency rates will stop rising, thanks to government efforts to contain the problem. Loan defaults will drop, helping to restart lending.

There's still no doubt things will be bad in 2009 -- it's just a question of how bad. It isn't unreasonable, if optimistic, to hope the recession of 2009 will be fairly mild, along the lines of the recessions of 1990:1991 and 2001, with a modest contraction in growth and unemployment rising by two or three percentage points.

It is perfectly reasonable to see a recovery beginning in 2009, but the expectation is that it will be almost invisible. Recessions in the immediate postwar period tended to be deep and abrupt, but the downturns have been flattened by better management, as well as growth of services that are less vulnerable than manufacturing -- and the fact that financial deregulation has reduced the impact of actions by the Federal Reserve Bank. Cleaning up the bad debt left behind in the wake of the disasters in the financial sector is certainly going to take years; lending rules are going be permanently tighter, and home construction is not going to be a particularly attractive business for a good time to come.

America's population is ageing and can no longer count on rising home prices or the stock market to fund retirement, and that translates into more savings. That is not such an unprecedented or bad thing: in the 1980s, Americans saved about 9% of their income, but the ratio had fallen to a mere 2% by the end of the century. Europeans typically still save about 9% of their income. The problem the US faces is the possibility that the savings rate will rise very abruptly and consumer demand will fall in pace, deepening the recession.

The dollar is weakening and that means American consumers will find imported goods as less affordable. The silver lining is that American exports will become more attractive, and America will become a more desireable vacation spot for foreign visitors. There is also a silver lining in the fall in fuel prices and inflation, due to low demand and high unemployment; borrowers are happy with low interest rates that may well go even lower.

The really ugly issue in the mix remains the financial system. If government actions have honestly got things back on the level, we have endured the worst and can expect to see things back on an upward trend. If not, the dominoes will continue to fall, with the government taking ever more drastic actions to try to halt the bleeding. Under such circumstances, the recession could be as bad as those of 1981:1982 or 1973:1975, with output falling by 3% and employment rising in the range of 4%. The Bush II Administration's fixes to the financial system were reactive, and though they seemed to have worked for the time being, the Obama Administration will need to come up with a thought-out policy and regulations to back it up. Quickly.

There is another possibility. What if investor confidence in the financial system quickly rallies? Bargain-hunters will jump in to buy up undervalued mortgages and bank shares, the markets will take off again, and businesses will regain their former energy. After a few sluggish quarters, the American economy will be firing on all cylinders again. That's highly optimistic -- but it has happened before, and it could happen again.

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[MON 05 JAN 09] HUNGRY CHINA (4)

* HUNGRY CHINA (4): China's economic growth has been so rapid that the government is now trying to slow it down a bit. Partly this is because the economic expansion is going out of control, and government officials want to redress the ugly imbalance between economic growth in the cities and continuing poverty in the neglected countryside. Current planning has not been entirely adequate: an electrical power shortage led to a surge in coal-fired powerplant construction, but the powerplants were generally built in the coastal regions, where the main population is, while the coal had to be hauled from the interior. That meant straining the rail system, and many Chinese powerplants have been forced to obtain coal from overseas.

This is all the more disagreeable because many government officials would like to reduce the country's dependence on imports, which the officials see as making the country vulnerable to blockade. China is now building up strategic stockpiles of materials to provide 30 days' supply in an emergency.

However, one of the big pressures to slow down and reconsider matters is the environmental threat. Burning so much coal has led to ghastly air pollution; lack of sulfur dioxide scrubbers has led to acid rain that has cut into crop yields and public health. Clean water supplies are under increasing pressure as well, and the fact that sewage treatment is much more the exception than the rule is making matters much worse. The World Bank estimates that Chinese pollution costs the country at a hundred billion USD a year, or about 5.8% of GDP. Although Chinese protests led to the withdrawal of World Bank figures of hundreds of thousands of Chinese killed by pollution every year, some officials of China's "State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA)" claim the environmental costs are worse than the World Bank estimates, rivaling China's economic growth rate.

Chinese officials have traditionally been in denial on global warming, but they are starting to take the idea more seriously as wild weather becomes more common. The public has not been complacent about environmental problems, with protests over noxious factories and the like running only second to land disputes as a source of public protest.

The government wants to make China more efficient and cleaner. Car fuel-economy standards are strict, and energy efficiency ratings are applied to all kinds of appliances. The government has raised export duties and lowered import duties on refined metals to try to shift energy-intensive smelting elsewhere. Efforts are being made to get out from under China's excessive reliance on coal, with natural gas being used in some powerplants. Advanced nuclear power plants are under construction, while use of renewable energy sources such as wind turbines and hydropower is on the increase. The plan is for renewables to provide 15% of China's power by 2020.

SEPA is trying clean up existing coal-fired power plants, with the big plants to install sulfur scrubbers and the small ones simply shut down. SEPA is also working with French water supply giant Veolia to build new sewage treatment plants. There is a particular effort to sanitize China's notoriously dirty and dangerous coal-mining industry.

Unfortunately, while few doubt the sincerity of SEPA officials, there is some skepticism over their capability. SEPA has only a tenth of the staff of America's Environmental Protection Agency for a country with four times the population of the USA. SEPA lacks direct enforcement capability: all SEPA can do is ask local officials to intervene, and if the local officials don't care, nothing happens. In reality, few small power plants have been shut down, the large ones don't always use the scrubbers they install, while dirty and dangerous small coal mining operations remain widespread. Statistics show that China is not meeting any of its environmental goals and that SEPA is fighting a losing battle.

* Part of the traditional complacency over the issue was due to the fact that in the earlier years of economic development, the energy-inefficient and wasteful factories and powerplants set up during Mao's era were unable to compete and fell by the wayside. It seemed the problem was, to an extent, taking care of itself. Then, in 2002, the trendline reversed as modern Chinese heavy industry expanded. The result is a "slow shockwave" that propagated through China's economy and then, due to Chinese import demand, spread around the world.

Some economists think China's hunger for resources was inevitable at its stage of development. Others think it is due to poor regulation, particularly in terms of providing economic incentives that drive growth at what turns out to be counterproductive cost. The government is trying to change the incentive system, but the momentum is very great and it's been an uphill struggle. Bringing in money enriches Chinese industrialists and their government cronies, while the drawbacks of runaway growth are spread over the general public.

China's demand for resources has challenged other nations, but the greatest challenge is in China itself. The current system is neither desireable nor sustainable for China. Chinese economic policy is now in the uncomfortable position of trying to not merely to catch up with the West in economic development, but to leapfrog to a more sustainable industrial and economic model that nobody else has quite achieved yet. That would be a neat trick if the Chinese can pull it off -- but though Chinese leadership has done some things right, the government still leaves something to be desired, and there's no great cause for optimism that the leadership can. [END OF SERIES]

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[FRI 02 JAN 09] CLIMBING MOUNT IMPROBABLE (12)

* CLIMBING MOUNT IMPROBABLE (12): Once a female fig wasp has wriggled into a fig fruit, generally tearing off her wings in the process, she pollinates the female flowers inside, and then lays eggs in some of them. The female wasp is highly disciplined in pollinating the female flowers, unpacking pollen from the pockets on her body and applying to the female flowers, one by one.

She is also disciplined in only laying in some of the flowers. If she laid in all of them, her grubs would eat all the seeds in the fruit, and the fig tree would not reproduce. Being an organism with about as much brains as a washing machine -- a high-end washing machine, maybe, but not much smarter than that -- it may seem a bit hard to understand how she could discipline herself in this fashion, all the more so because it would seem in her short-sighted advantage to lay in as many flowers as possible. The more grubs she lays, the more her gene line will be propagated, except for the fact that there won't be fig trees left for the gene line to be propagated in.

It's the fig tree that provides the discipline. In some species a fruit has two types of female flowers, "long" and "short". The ovipositor of the wasp cannot reach the bottom of the long flowers and so she leaves then alone, laying only in the short flowers. In other species of figs, it seems the tree can sense when all the flowers in a fruit have been used up by some overambitious mutant female wasp, and the tree drops the fruit, ensuring the end of that mutant line. In any case, once the wasp has completed her task of pollinating and laying eggs, she dies, having served her function in life. The cycle begins again.

There are variations in this scheme among fig wasps -- remember there are hundreds of species of fig trees and each has its own species of wasp. The "ecology" of the fig fruit is also complicated by the fact that, since the fruit is an inviting environment, a lot of freeloaders try to cash in. There are plenty of parasites, including beetle, fly, and moth larva, as well as mites and small worms. There are parasitic wasps, with the females having very long ovipositors that they can use to punch through the walls of a fig fruit to lay their eggs inside. There are even "meta-parasite" wasps that lack the ovipositor; they wait for another parasitic wasp to punch a hole and then lay their own eggs. The parasites may be tiny monsters, equipped with vicious jaws to fight their own kind and other species.

All this complexity suggests at first sight some kind of Design at work, but the problem with that viewpoint is that there's too many variations on the themes -- Design implies standardization on the "best" Design, while evolution suggests "try anything that works". There's too much working at cross purposes -- it's hard to make too much of the benign convenience of the relationship between fig tree and fig wasp without considering the inconvenience of the parasites that freeload off the process. It reflects opportunism, not a scheme with any neat moral.

The human mind still tends to sense that there is some sort of plan involved here, at least to the extent that there are highly elaborate games and strategies involved in the environment within the fig fruit. It is not, however, anything that resembles a human plan, nothing like a technology implemented with blueprints and manufacturing specs. If it does reflect a "dream in the mind of the Creator", it is clear that the Creator does not dream in any way like we do. On saying that, the next thought is to wonder how impossibly vain it would be to think that He would. [END OF SERIES]

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[THU 01 JAN 09] ANOTHER MONTH

* ANOTHER MONTH: As discussed in the blog in the previous month, I set up my old Dell laptop computer in my living room as a BOINC scientific computing server. I set a short timeout for powering-down the display, but then I got to thinking that there were times when having a large clock in the living room could come in handy. I started looking around for clock screensavers that I could enable with a tap on the keyboard (and a minute time-out), and found plenty online.

Then I got nervous about some of the "completely free downloads", knowing perfectly well that some come with adware or worse attached. After poking around on Google to see what kind of reputation some of the prospective sites had, I found the "McAfee SiteAdviser" website. It turns out that McAfee, well-known vendor of antivirus software, also provides reviews of download websites through SiteAdviser, identifying those that like to sneak in adware along with the downloads. SiteAdviser is free and a good value -- it identified some of the sites I was looking at as troublemakers or at least questionable.

I finally installed a clock screensaver from an outfit that sold them instead of offering them as freeware, which meant they didn't have the same motive to cheat. They had a "trial" version for free and a "premium" version at a modest price. The trial version was fully functional for 15 days and then reverted to a "basic" configuration that could be run as long as desired. I didn't need any of the fancy stuff, so I just stayed with the basic version and it did the job fine. After a few weeks of running the clock on the laptop, I found out that the basic version retained the ability to chime the hour. I enabled that feature and found out that I liked it very much. There's something reassuring about chiming the hours during the night, and it also helps me keep track of the time during the day when I'm trying to get things done.

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