* 21 entries including: parasites, Russia in the 21st century, elevators explained, nanotube radio, evolution and cooking, sexting, BWB cargolift aircraft, business in Iraq, observing worlds around distant stars, and FBI spyware.
* NEWS COMMENTARY FOR MAY 2009: As reported by BBC WORLD Online, after a period of attempts at accommodation, the Pakistani government has ramped up the war on Islamic insurgency, sending the army into the unruly tribal areas. The result has been a mass exodus of the inhabitants of that region, with an estimated 1.4 million people having become refugees since the start of heavy fighting. The army has encouraged them to flee, since much of the fighting is in towns and cities where the locals are likely to get caught in the crossfire.
* At the other corner of the Indian subcontinent, the 26-year-old insurgency of the Tamil Tiger rebels against the Sri Lankan government is now it its bitter endgame as the Sri Lankan military moves in to finally crush the rebellion. In mid-month, the military announced that the leader of the Tigers, Velupillai Prabhakaran, had been killed in the fighting. The final government push has led to a mass exodus of civilians from the combat zone at the northern end of the island, with international relief organizations warning of a massive humanitarian disaster.
There was celebration in the streets of the capitol, Columbo, but more cautious voices warn that, having won the war, the government needs to realize that it also must win the peace. Victory on the battlefield gives the government a strong hand in making a settlement, but if that hand is overplayed, the result will not be peace but simply an intermission in the fighting for a generation.
* North Korea detonated another nuke this last month, but it only registered at about 4.5 kilotons yield. Some commentators wondered if it was a fraud, that the North Koreans had merely detonated 4.5 kilotons of conventional explosive. That sounds mad, but it turns out that in 1985 the USA detonated a charge of 4.8 kilotons of ammonium nitrate fuel oil (ANFO) explosive at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. The MINOR SCALE detonation, as it was codenamed, remains the biggest conventional explosion in history.
In any case, North Korea has also been performing missile tests in what seems to be a frenzy of provocations. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated that "there are consequences to such actions", though the other side of the coin White House spokesman Robert Gibbs commented: "We're certainly concerned and take any threat seriously, but my sense is they're trying to get renewed attention through sabre-rattling and bluster and threats."
* Roxana Saberi -- an American citizen of Iranian-Japanese parentage from Fargo, North Dakota who had been found guilty of being a spy in Iran -- was allowed to go free. Saberi, a journalist, was arrested by Iranian authorities in January 2009 for buying a bottle of wine, an illegal act in the Islamic Republic, with prosecutors then upgrading the charge to working as a journalist without a valid press card. In April, the charge was changed to spying, and she was sentenced to eight years behind bars. On 11 May she was released after an appeal, the sentence being changed to two years and suspended, with Saberi returning home.
Nobody familiar with Saberi or the case thought there was any serious basis for believing she was a spy; the general belief is that some faction among the Iranian authorities simply wanted to raise tensions with the USA. The fact that she was so quickly released after the trial suggests that she had outlived her usefulness, or that other factions had intervened and imposed sensibility. One wonders, however, if the fact that the highly photogenic Saberi had been Miss North Dakota in 1997 was held against her by the authorities.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* SCIENCE NOTES: As reported by the ASTRONOMY NOW website, solar researchers are intrigued by a lack of unusual energetic activity on the Sun. The Sun has never been this calm since the beginning of the space age. The Sun tends to vary from quiet to active on a roughly 11-year cycle. At peaks of activity, the Sun generates sunspots and flares, to then quiet down as its magnetic field gradually shifts and then reverses polarity. The reversed magnetic field increases to another peak of activity, and then the cycle starts again. The Sun, having reached a minimum, now seems generally content to stay there, with the expected onset of increased activity reluctant to make an appearance.
Nobody is particularly alarmed at Sun's idle behavior, since we haven't been observing it in real detail for even half a century yet. We can obtain clues for solar activity going back much farther, however. At times of high activity, the Earth's upper atmosphere is disrupted and more cosmic rays hit the ground; tracks of cosmic rays are left in tree rings and can be used as an indicator of solar activity. Solar researchers believe that, along with the 11-year cycle, there's a much longer underlying cycle that requires centuries to complete, shifting from "grand maximums" to "grand minimums". There appears to have been a grand minimum, known as the "Maunder Minimum", which took place between 1645 and 1715 and coincided with a "mini ice age", during which the river Thames froze over. Solar researchers suspect that we are now passing out of a grand maximum.
Such observations have undermined global warming critics who have claimed that climate change is due to solar activity: solar activity is declining on the average, but the mean global temperature is still rising. In fact, the declining level of solar activity should mitigate global warming, though solar researchers tend to be skeptical that the cooling effect will be very noticeable. They also point out that when the Sun is quiet, such eruptions as do occur tend to be unusually violent, presenting the unpleasant possibility of solar storms that could wreck space satellites and disrupt the power grids.
* Anybody who's ever lived down South knows about mockingbirds -- pretty birds, but more noteworthy for their extreme aggressiveness. Cats idly strolling close to a mockingbird nest are angrily dive-bombed, pecked at, and driven off swiftly. Mockingbirds will do much the same to humans who seem to threaten their nests.
As reported in DISCOVER Online, mockingbirds are surprisingly selective in their attacks. Following up anecdotal reports, researchers at the University of Florida in Gainesville identified two dozen mockingbird nests. A volunteer was assigned to go up to the nests and investigate them closely; in a few days the volunteer was identified by the mockingbirds as a threat and attacked, even if the volunteer wore different clothes. Passer-bys were not attacked; and when a second volunteer took over the job, it took a few days for the mockingbirds to recognize the new volunteer as a nuisance and step up the attacks. Animals seem to prove more and more just how smart they are all the time.
* Along similar lines, BBC WORLD Online had an interesting little article about animal intelligence studies performed with rooks -- the rook being a European bird that any American would call a crow, but has a distinct featherless ring around the base of its bill. The group of birds known as the "corvids" -- crows, magpies, jays -- is noted in general for its intelligence, and experiments with New Caledonian crows showed them to be very clever, able to bend pieces of wire into a hook and use it to fish treats out of a tube.
Researchers in the UK performed roughly comparable experiments on rooks. In one set of experiments, the researchers created transparent plastic test fixtures, in which a rook had to drop a stone down a tube to pop open a trap door and get a treat. The fixtures had different size tubes; the rooks were not only smart enough to figure out they needed to drop the stone down the tube, they could easily determine that the smaller rock was the best tool for the job when the fixture had a small tube.
The researchers then came up with a similar test fixture, but with two tubes and trap doors -- one part featuring a large tube that provided a small stone, the other with a small tube that yielded the treat. The rooks had little trouble figuring out the two-step procedure to get the treat, using a large stone to get the small stone and then the small stone to get the payoff. The rooks were also able to pull the same trick as the New Caledonian crow, bending a piece of wire to fish a treat out of a tube. This was a bit surprising because New Caledonian crows use twigs and spines used to pry insects and grubs out of bark, while rooks are not known for being tool-users.
I get a kick out of crows -- they have a comical way of walking. I have an ongoing interest in local bluejays as well. I try to get pix of them but it's hard to get shots. I can go into a freeze and trick sparrows into landing nearby, but jays never buy it: Just who do you think you're fooling?
* As reported by BBC WORLD Online, a team of paleontologists discovered the remains of an ancestral seal in Northern Canada that dates back about 23 million years. The "proto-seal", which has been named Pujilla darwini, is the oldest known seal fossil -- with "Pujilla" meaning "young sea mammal" in the tongue of regional Inuktitut native tribes, and of course "darwini" being in honor of Charles Darwin's bicentennial.
The fossil was about 65% complete, permitting a detailed reconstruction of the animal. The proto-seal actually resembled a long-legged otter more than a seal, and its flattened foot structure suggests it had webbed feet. It was found in what was once a crater lake, along with fish fossils, strongly suggesting that it had an otter-like lifestyle in fresh waters.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* ELEVATORS EXPLAINED: SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN's "Working Knowledge" column generally has interesting discussions of ordinary things. The January 2009 column focused on the elevator.
The classic "traction elevator" is, to an extent, a straightforward device. It consists of a box or "cab" with sliding doors, traveling on four vertical rails, hauled up and down by a drive system under the direction of a controller module -- inevitably a digital control system these days. Passengers get into the cab, with the controller closing the doors and then moving to other floors as directed by the buttons pushed by the passengers -- with the passengers able to open the doors again by a push of a button if necessary. The cab moves to a desired floor, the doors open again, passengers get in and out. Passengers can also activate an emergency stop and set off an alarm if necessary.
The cab is hooked to the controller via a flexible cable that provides power as well as a signal path. The controller turns an electric motor on or off to activate the drive system and haul the cab up or down. The motor drives a large pulley or "sheave" over which a set of cables are looped, with one end of the cables connected to the cab and the other to a counterweight. For fast elevators, the sheave is usually directly driven by the motor; for slower elevators, the motor works through a gearbox. The passage of the elevator trips a switch associated with each floor of the building, allowing the controller to keep track of the cab's location and update the floor indicators in the cab appropriately.
A cable is attached to one side of the cab, with the cable looping down over a wheel at the bottom of the shaft and back up to a rotating "governor" wheel at the top. The governor has a centrifugal clutch that engages when the governor spins too rapidly, activating safety clamps on the cab that latch onto the guide rails. The governor system is entirely mechanical and simple in operation, but just in case all else fails, there's a hydraulic bumper at the bottom of the shaft to break the fall of the cab.
* All this would be basically familiar to an elevator designer fifty years ago or longer, except for the fact that an electromechanical controller would have been used in the old days -- and older elevators wouldn't have had fire alarm and TV security camera systems. How long piped music has been around is an interesting question.
However, elevator design has not stood still. A traditional elevator requires a machine room at top that takes up valuable building space, and so the push is on to shrink the drive mechanism so it is compact enough to fit inside the elevator shaft. With modern electronics, shrinking the controller is easy; permanent-magnet gearless motors are now available that are much smaller but just as powerful as traditional electric motors, while some elevator makers have turned to steel belts instead of sets of cables, permitting a smaller sheaf.
Customers are also interested in energy efficiency, and the hefty electric motors of the elevator system of a large building can be power hogs. One issue is the counterweight, which is sized to match the average load of a given elevator. That means that for a light load going up the counterweight is too heavy, while for a heavy load going down the counterweight is too light, and brakes have to be used, wasting energy as heat. Some new elevators use regenerative braking instead, returning the excess energy to the building's electrical system instead of wasting it.
In large buildings like big hotels with multiple elevators accessed from the lobby, instead of pushing a button associated with a particular elevator, passengers select the desired floor from display terminals with touchscreen input. The controller system is "smart", able to sort out the floor requests and optimally schedule the individual elevators, informing the passengers at the terminals which elevator to take.
* The article covered other interesting details:
What about "turbolifts" that Kirk and Spock use to move between and around decks on the Starship ENTERPRISE? Alas for STAR TREK fans, it is unlikely that such technology is going to be widely available in the near future, though it's hard to say nobody's working on it.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* NANOTUBE RADIO: One of the peculiarities of dramatic technical breakthroughs is that it can often take some time to figure out how to put the breakthrough to practical use. When the laser was invented, it was almost a solution in search of the problem; now lasers are everywhere. In much the same way, the discovery of 3D graphite structures, the "fullerenes", in the 1980s attracted a lot of attention, but it's taken time to figure out what can be made of them. As reported in an article in SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN ("The World's Smallest Radio" by Ed Regis, March 2009), a team of researchers at the University of California at Berkeley (UCB), led by physicist Alex Zettl, has figured out an intriguing application for tubular fullerenes AKA "carbon nanotubes": build nanoscale radio receivers out of them.
There's some dispute over who exactly was the first to discover carbon nanotubes, but Japanese physicist Sumio Iijima was the first to make a public splash with them when he announced in 1991 the discovery of "needlelike tubes" on the tip of a graphite electrode. Graphite consists of carbon atoms linked together in hexagonal cells that form sheets, and a carbon nanotube simply consists of such a sheet rolled up to form a tube. Researchers soon found the nanotubes had a variety of configurations: single-walled, double-walled, and multiple-walled; straight, bent, or looped into donuts. The nanotubes had extraordinary tensile strength, meaning they were very hard to pull apart from the ends, due to the very strong chemical bonds in the hexagonal graphite cells.
Zettl is the head of the "Center for Integrated Nanomechanical Systems" at UCB. He got the idea of using a carbon nanotube as a radio when he was thinking about development of cheap, small, environmental sensors that could be simply scattered about and relay their measurements back to a data-acquisition system. While working on the project, one of Zettl's graduate students, Kenneth Jensen, found that if a carbon nanotube was planted on a surface with the other end free, forming a cantilever, the beam would vibrate when a molecule landed on its free end. Molecules of different masses would result in different frequencies. Zettl noticed that some of these frequencies overlapped those in the commercial radio bands, and got to wondering if there might be a technological connection.
The simplest and most ancient scheme for audio radio broadcast is known as "amplitude modulation (AM)". An audio signal is converted to electricity and then added to a high-frequency "carrier" signal to produce a composite or "modulated" signal. Plotted out, this modulated signal looks like the carrier signal except that it varies in strength in step with the modulated audio signal "envelope" -- hence the name "amplitude modulation". The modulated signal is amplified to boost its power and sent to an antenna, which broadcasts the modulated signal as radio (electromagnetic) waves. The modulation is used to permit different audio signals to be broadcast at the same time by using different carrier frequencies or "bands". If two AM radio transmitters are broadcasting on the same band, they interfere with each other, which anyone who has listened to an AM radio in a car has heard on occasion.
Zettl knew that a radio receiver consists of four basic elements:
Once demodulated, the information signal could be sent to a speaker system or other device. What the UCB researchers discovered was that all four elements could be implemented using a carbon nanotube placed between two electrodes.
Zettl and Jensen began by mounting a nanotube on a electrode. They used a multiwalled nanotube about 500 nanometers (billionths of a meter) long and 10 nanometers wide, about the size of some viruses, too small to be made out in an ordinary optical microscope. The only reason that they used a multiwalled nanotube was because it was a bit bigger than other variations, making it easier to mount on the electrode; a single-walled nanotube would otherwise work just as well. They used a process known as "chemical vapor deposition" to build the structure, with vaporized carbon being deposited on the electrode to build up the nanotube.
The tip of the nanotube was rounded off, and a second electrode was set up some distance away from the tip. A small direct current "bias" voltage was placed across the two electrodes, with the negative voltage on the electrode mated to the base of the nanotube and the positive voltage on the electrode beyond the tip of the nanotube. A speaker system was placed in series with the DC bias circuit. That was all there was to the "nanoradio".
Thanks to a phenomenon known as "field emission", electrons leaked from the tip of the nanotube to the positive electrode, setting up a current flowing through the DC bias circuit. When an AM signal was broadcast to the nanoradio, the nanotube vibrated in step with the signal, with the tip of the nanotube farther away at the extremes of its swings, reducing the field emission and the current in the circuit. That meant that the electric current flowing through the DC bias circuit varied as well, with the signal output over the speaker.
Demodulation was taken care of automatically. If we observe a macroscale rod vibrating at high frequency, it just looks like a continuous uniform blur, we can't perceive it fast enough to make out the vibrations -- though we will notice if the vibrations get stronger or weaker since the blur gets bigger or smaller. In the same way, high-frequency vibrations of the nanotube due to the carrier signal at any specific strength effectively blurred into a constant DC current, but the DC current varied along with the strength of the vibrations due to the AM envelope. Zettl, Jensen, and other members of the team got the nanoradio to work in January 2007, picking up the old Eric Clapton hit "Layla", followed by the STAR WARS theme.
What about tuning? It was possible to select a particular radio band by changing the length of the nanotube, altering its mechanical resonance frequency, but that restricted the radio to a specific band. However, it could be tuned over a range of bands simply by changing the DC bias voltage.
While the nanoradio still remains a lab toy, Zettl believes there is no real obstacle to turning it into a manufactured product. He sees it as having a wide range of applications: hearing aids and cellphones that could fit into the ear; insect-sized microbots; capsules with drugs and a nanoradio that could be used to target specific tissues in the body. Zettl has patented the nanoradio and is now licensing the technology to interested parties.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* RUSSIA IN THE 21ST CENTURY (4): Anyone who takes the statements of the Russian government at face value might not see too much wrong with the country, but it would be difficult to overlook corruption so widespread, from top to bottom of the society, as to have become the norm instead of the exception. A corruption index recently produced by Transparency International ranked Russia at 2.1 out of 10, the country's worst showing in eight years, about on a par with Kenya and Bangladesh. Corruption is estimated to account for almost 20% of Russia's GDP.
A Moscow businessman stopped by a traffic cop was asked to pay 30,000 roubles. That was too much even for a Russian to swallow -- the businessman refused, and asked why the bribe was so unreasonable. The policeman blandly replied that he needed renovate his mother's flat. All Russians know how universal the corruption is, they complain about it, but their complaints do no good.
The majority of Russians don't actually see bribery as corrupt, and in fact the Russian language has different words for a bribe offered to an official to expedite paperwork and for a bribe obtained by threats and coercion. Small and medium-sized businesses get hit the worst, since they are seen as money pots and don't have the resources to defend themselves. The fundamental problem is not a genetic inclination of Russians to pay bribes, but the fact that Russia continues to operate on the archaic but by no means uncommon principle that the people exist to serve the state, not the other way around. The authorities don't see bribes as thievery; they are a right.
The leadership denounces corruption, but not with complete sincerity. In 2003:2004, the state effectively snatched the Yukos oil company, arresting the company's boss, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, and throwing him in prison, where he still languishes. The company was broken up and sold in an opaque auction to the state oil firm Rosneft, which is dominated by the sloviki. In effect, instead of taking bribes from companies, the leadership has eliminated the middleman so that money flows to them directly.
Since they make the law, the law won't touch them, and the courts are corrupt themselves. The Russian judiciary is independent on paper, with judges appointed by the president or the upper chamber of parliament acting on the president's recommendation. Unfortunately, judges first have to be screened by a government commission, and once they are on the bench their "chain of command" effectively traces up to the Kremlin. Judges are measured on their ability to process cases, with the result that an acquittal in a criminal case is almost unheard of.
Jury trials were implemented through most of Russia in 2002 and have an acquittal rate of 20%, but prosecutors have come up with dodges to bypass the juries -- for example, secretly planting people with police or security backgrounds in a jury so the verdict can be overturned if it's disagreeable. In commercial courts, as a rule judges decide on the basis of who hands over the biggest bribe. The European Court of Human Rights is flooded with Russian cases, and big Russian companies usually take their cases to London. The courts serve the interests of the government, and the government is corrupt.
Still, the leadership has reason to dislike corruption in others. Having accumulated wealth, the sloviki don't like the idea of being looted in turn. The government is trying to reinforce the rule of law, but the effort is the left and right hands working at cross purposes. Worse, corruption has become a system of management, based on the notion of "kompromat", or compromising material. Bosses ensure control over their subordinates by ensuring they have plenty of kompromat on them to keep them in line. Russian activists say the only way to fight corruption is through a strong civil society, where the people have and can exercise real rights; true political competition; free media; and independent courts. Unfortunately, the Kremlin is so mired in corruption that it is difficult to imagine it as the source from which such reforms might flow. [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* THE PARASITES (4): Along with his observations of the life cycles of flukes, Johann Steenstrup speculated on the origin of what were called "bladder worms", which were the worms found in cysts in a pig's tongue that Aristotle had observed. They could be found in any muscles of mammals; nobody knew where they came from, but Steenstrup, following up on his other ideas, suggested they were a stage in a life cycle of some an organism that had a different appearance at other times in its life. Other biologists, noting that the bladder worms had some structural similarities to tapeworms, suggested they were tapeworms that had "gone off the rails" somehow, to become deformed and distorted.
In the 1840s, a German medical doctor living in Dresden named Johann Kuechenmeister read of such notions and refused to accept that the bladder worms were mere dead ends, writing: "It would be contrary to the wise arrangement of Nature, which undertakes nothing without a purpose. Such a theory of error contradicts the wisdom of the Creator and the laws of harmony and simplicity put into Nature." A modern biologist might not express the idea in the same pious terms, but would agree with the sentiment: Nature's adaptations generally have a rhyme and a reason.
Kuechenmeister believed that bladder worms were an early stage in the life cycle of tapeworms. He astutely realized that bladder worms were often found in prey animals -- mice, pigs, cows -- while tapeworms were found in predators -- cats, dogs, humans. He suspected that predators eating prey meat swallowed the cysts, which became tapeworms. In 1851, he began experiments to validate his theory, initially feeding cysts from rabbit meat to foxes, to find that foxes developed tapeworms within a few weeks. He performed a similar experiment with mice and cats, with much the same results. In 1853, in a particularly impressive experiment, he fed bladder worms from a sick sheep to a dog, which soon began to excrete tapeworm segments. He fed the segments to a sheep, which began to stagger around a little over two weeks later. It was killed, with Kuechenmeister examining its brain to find bladder worms.
* This was brilliant work, but Kuechenmeister was a doctor, not a scientist. When he reported his findings, professional biologists had trouble believing him and dismissed his work. One problem with his studies was that parasites can sometimes be very species-specific, and in some cases he fed bladder worms to the wrong host species, which never developed tapeworms. He knew that pork carried a certain species of bladder worm and that the butchers of Dresden were often afflicted with a certain species of tapeworm, but though he could feed the egg sacs to pigs and get bladder worms, he couldn't feed the bladder worms to dogs and get tapeworms.
Kuechenmeister suspected that particular species of tapeworms didn't thrive in dogs, and so he crossed an ugly line and decided to experiment on humans. He got approval from the authorities and in 1854 fed soup and sausage containing the bloodworms to a condemned man. After the convict was beheaded three days later, Kuechenmeister performed an autopsy and found tapeworms beginning to grow in his intestines. He performed a similar experiment in 1859, with a lead time of four months, finding huge tapeworms in the convict during the autopsy.
There is a broad perception that our ancestors were less ethically squeamish than we are today, but many scientists who read of Kuechenmeister's experiments were shocked, regarding them as disgusting and unconscionable. However, though his methods were unpleasant, he had proven his point, and also demonstrated that parasites might not need to take on free-living forms during their life cycles: they could live in a prey species for one part of the life cycle, and then a predator species during another. [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* GIMMICKS & GADGETS: Specialty glass and plastic manufacturer Romag in the UK has come up with a new scheme for recharging electric vehicles (EV): a carport whose roof is covered with photovoltaic (PV) cells to allow it to recharge the EV parked underneath it. Each "PowerPark" canopy can provide a maximum of 1.5 kilowatts peak, and even in the relatively gray UK one can provide an estimated 1,100 kilowatt-hours of electric power per year. The canopies feed into the power grid when a vehicle isn't charging from them.
The first PowerPark canopy was installed at Romag company headquarters, and Romag says additional installations are planned around the United Kingdom. A Romag official said: "Interest has been received from supermarket chains, schools, airports, train stations, hospitals [and] commercial office buildings in the UK, Middle East and Far East. The US would be an excellent market for the canopy."
* As reported in WIRED ONLINE, the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is bringing the WANTED poster into the digital age. FBI agents in Arkansas have been using the website "BanditTrackerArkansas.com". In six months, the Feds managed to grab ten suspects who had been listed on the site.
Noel Andrew Jackson, who held up the Arvest bank in Springdale, Arkansas, was an easy catch, since he stood 196 centimeters tall and weighed 110 kilos (6 feet 5 inches and 242 pounds); he was also covered with distinctive tattoos. The little guy with a goatee and a sailor's cap who robbed a Kroger's supermarket in Little Rock wasn't quite so distinctive, but he was apprehended thanks to hints such as: "the robber fled in a white pickup truck bearing California tag 6DOP40."
WANTED posters are a long tradition, but BanditTrackerArkansas.com -- and its sister site for Texas, "BanditTracker.com" -- are a little more sophisticated than a poster. Descriptions of the suspect and the crime are provided along with imagery from the bank's surveillance cameras, both inside and out. The crime scene is then plotted on a Google Map. For people who like to play detective, it can be more fun than an online game.
* In crowded central Amsterdam, as reported by POPULAR SCIENCE magazine, the Dutch are taking an interesting approach to acquiring more space by going underground. The "Alternative Multifunctional Underground Space" or AMFORA in its Dutch acronym, will have, once completed in 2028, six levels, with three for transport and parking, and three for shops, sports halls, cinemas, or the like, plus a "piping and cable street" to permit easy access to utilities systems -- a trash disposal network might be implemented as well. AMFORA will cover a square kilometer of ground, providing six square kilometers (2.3 square miles) of space in all.
AMFORA will be built underneath the city's canals since it isn't practical to build under existing structures. Water seep isn't seen as much of a problem, since though Amsterdam is soggy on the surface, it sits on a bed of watertight clay, making it easy to keep the diggings dry. It's not so easy to build down from the canals, with construction to take place by filling in a stretch of canal 300 meters (1,000 feet) long with sand to permit laying down a basic underground structure; the sand will then be dug up and used to fill in the next segment for construction work.
* In a very straightforward gimmick, THE ECONOMIST reported on a new "emergency communications system" for mining safety, dreamed up at the University of Utah. There's not much to it, the scheme amounting of little more than a hefty iron plate bolted into the wall of a mine in a work area, with trapped miners smashing on it to let rescuers know where they were.
Geophones -- microphones used to monitor seismic activity -- would be able to locate the miners from the vibrations set up by the iron plates. Miners will bang on rocks and the like when they are trapped, but it's hard to pick a signal like that out of the noise. A particular plate not only provides a signal that can be picked up, due to differences in the surroundings each plate has a different "signature" that can be recorded for use in emergencies. The researchers conducted a field test in an abandoned Utah copper mine and all went well. They suggest that miners would also be able to communicate in morse code or the like by banging on the plate.
* In memory of a famously nostalgic gimmick: the Fisher-Price toy company announced that it was scaling back its product line of reels for the classic View-Master stereo viewer. The well-known viewer is still being sold, but the only slides left on the market are a few kiddie titles.
The View-Master was an extremely simple but very intriguing piece of gear. It was introduced at the 1939 World's Fair and became an overnight sensation. During World War II, the armed forces produced training reels to allow GIs to identify friendly and hostile aircraft and ships. Businesses produced custom reels to promote their products and services. Medical students used it to study human anatomy. More than 1.5 billion reels have been printed, and every one of them could be used in every View-Master ever built. There was never any competition to the standard.
Ironically, 3D movies are a craze these days, and it's not too far-fetched to think that the digital 3D experience will soon be common in homes as well. One hopes so -- there was something fascinating about the View-Master to those who grew up with it, and on reviewing decades-old memories I can not only recall images, such as the sci-fi shots of exhibits of the 1964 World's Fair, I can even visualize the stereo effect.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* NOW WE'RE COOKING: As reported in an article in THE ECONOMIST ("What's Cooking?", 21 February 2009), cooking is obviously an important factor in human life. All societies cook as a normal practice, usually with a cooked meal in the evening as a more or less social event. Richard Wrangham, an anthropologist from Harvard University, believes that the importance of cooking has been underestimated. As he points out, the human brain is a fuel hog, consuming a fifth to a quarter of the body's energy -- a fact completely believable to anyone who has noticed how one's brain tends to conk out when hunger sets in. Wrangham believes that cooking was one of the major enabling innovations in human evolution, a "killer application" that allowed the evolution of modern humans.
One of the oldest primate species generally agreed to be human is Homo erectus, which emerged about 1.8 million years ago. It was an upright ape that was generally similar to a modern human, and in fact the high end of the range of its brain size overlapped the lower end of the range of human brain size. Like a modern human, Homo erectus had a narrow rib cage and pelvis, suggesting a small gut. Traditionally, the small gut has been attributed to the belief that Homo erectus lived primarily on meat, which typically provides more food value per weight than plant. The idea has been that meat could allow a smaller gut to support a larger brain.
Wrangham disagrees with this idea, with his analyses showing that Homo erectus still couldn't have got enough to eat on a diet of raw meat. Even modern "raw foodists" have trouble keeping up their weight, and they have access to plants and animals that have been bred for centuries to provide maximum food value. Pre-agricultural humans confined to raw food would have been hard-pressed to stay fed. Cooking changes the equation, however, altering food in three ways:
On the face of it, this argument might sound like an evolutionary "just so" story -- an idle speculation that can be arbitrarily accepted or not -- but Wrangham has done his homework to add weight to the idea. Studies of human digestion, he found, once concluded that cooked and raw food was digested equally well, but it turns out these studies were flawed: they compared food input to fecal output, failing to factor in the reality that the bacteria in the human lower intestine do a lot of digestion for their own benefit, with the bacteria in effect living off the human digestive tract's table scraps. The real human digestive work taking place in the stomach and small intestine. Studies with patients fitted with sampling bags on the end of the small intestine show that only about 50% of the food value is extracted from raw food, while up to 95% is extracted from cooked food.
Another interesting experiment, conducted on rats, didn't examine cooking but instead focused on the effectiveness of softer foods. Researchers ground up food pellets and compacted them into new soft pellets, feeding them to a groups of rats, while feeding ordinary hard food pellets to a control group of rats. Despite the fact that both groups were fed the same amount of food, after 26 weeks the study group weighed a staggering 30% more than the control group. Wrangel suggests that the modern tendencies toward obesity are not generally due to overeating but to the prevalence of soft processed foods, which people like to eat and which are easily digested.
Specific archaeological evidence for cooking only goes back about 200,000 years -- but at that time it was practiced in separate regions by both humans and their near relatives, the Neanderthals. Unless the two groups invented cooking separately, their common ancestor species may well have known about it to begin with, and the common ancestry goes back about 400,000 years. Traces of human fire-making in the era of Homo erectus are ambiguous, but fire-making doesn't leave much but ashes and charcoal that don't age well. Few are absolutely convinced yet that Wrangham is right, but his ideas are intriguing, and set an agenda for further research.
* In related news, SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN had a column on whether raw vegetables are healthier food or not. Of course it is obvious that cooking helps "predigest" food, but "raw food" advocates point out that it also breaks down vitamins and denatures enzymes that help in digestion. The facts of the matter are more ambiguous. Cooking is known to degrade vitamin C, but it's easy to get an adequate supply of vitamin C by drinking fruit juice or the like, without have to go through the trouble of consuming quantities of raw foods. A study performed last year of almost 200 test subjects following a raw-food diet showed they had high levels of beta-carotene -- an antioxidant found in dark green and yellow fruits and vegetables -- but average levels of vitamin A and low levels of the antioxidant lycopene, a red pigment found predominantly in tomatoes and other "rosy" fruits such as watermelon, pink guava, red bell pepper and papaya.
Studies suggest lycopene can reduce risk of cancer and heart attacks. Cooking actually boosts its concentrations in food by breaking down cell walls and releasing it. Cooked carrots, spinach, mushrooms, asparagus, cabbage, peppers and many other vegetables also supply more antioxidants, such as carotenoids and ferulic acid, to the body than they do when raw -- at least if they're boiled or steamed.
Deep fried foods are notorious sources of free radicals, caused by oil being continuously oxidized when it is heated at high temperatures. These radicals, which are highly reactive, can injure cells in the body. The antioxidants in the oil and the vegetables get used up during frying in neutralizing the free radicals. How microwaving affects nutrition wasn't addressed in the article.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* SEXTING: The video phone was a popular cheesy prop in old sci-fi stories, but in the 21st century it has become a reality. It wasn't quite what the old stories imagined, with two people staring at each other's face over a desktop phone; thanks to camera phones, it's more like pocket cameras that can be used to record and send interesting pictures and videos.
The stories also didn't imagine some of the implications of such a technology. One of these implications, as reported by an article on BBC WORLD Online ("Alarm Bells Ring Over 'Sexting'" by Penny Spiller) is the use of phones for "virtual" sexual interactions by teenagers. The practice, known as "sexting", involves a student using a camera phone to send a picture of him or herself in some state of undress to a girlfriend or boyfriend. Sexting might be shrugged off as adolescent damnfoolery, but it's being taken very seriously, and for some valid reason. Once a lewd image is sent over wireless to somebody's cellphone, there's no real barrier to block it from reaching the greater internet and ending up on, say, a social-networking website.
Sexting is surprisingly commonplace and extremely insecure. A survey performed in the USA last year of over 1,000 teenagers revealed that one in five 13-to-19-year-olds had sent sexting images of themselves. A third of the boys and a quarter of the girls said they had seen sexting images that were supposed to have been sent privately to somebody else. An 18-year-old girl in Cincinnati, Ohio, sexted herself to a boyfriend, with the photo leaking out and being circulated among her student community. Her MySpace and Facebook pages were repeatedly tagged with "slut", "whore", "porn queen"; she was ruthlessly harassed, and hanged herself in June 2008.
Sexting also slips into the domain of criminal activity. Sending or distributing sexually explicit images of a minor is illegal in many countries; it is also illegal to send sexually explicit images of any sort to a minor. Mutual consent makes no difference. In the USA, the result has been a number of high-profile actions by law enforcement against teenagers over sexting -- with the accused threatened with child pornography charges, even though in some of the cases the teenagers sending the images were the ones in the sexually explicit images. Child pornography is a very serious charge, making the accused into a sex offender, and many parents, school officials, police, and prosecutors are wondering if this is "going nuclear".
A current case now in court in the state of Pennsylvania is being closely watched by several interested groups. George Skumanick, the district attorney of Wyoming County, Pennsylvania, ran into a number of cases of sexting and tracked down the perpetrators, numbering about 20 students. He gave them a choice of either taking an extended education course or possibly facing child pornography charges. Three girls and their parents refused to cooperate, and are now suing Skumanick with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
Skumanick points out that he never charged any of students with crimes; he simply told them it was a possible alternative. However, Witold Walczak, legal director for the Pennsylvania ACLU, who is handling the case for the students, suggested that Skumanick was playing far too casually with high explosive: "Child porn is about the abuse and exploitation of minors by adults. That's not happening here. The kids who do this are doing potential harm to themselves. They are both the perpetrator and the victim. Why would you want to compound that with a criminal prosecution and conviction?"
About 20 sexting cases have emerged in the USA over the past few months, but it's not just a case of "Those Silly Yanks" again. The same issues have been coming up in the UK, New Zealand, and Australia. The state government of New South Wales has begun an education program, following reports that girls as young as 13 were sexting.
Few of those engaged in the debate over sexting are challenging the need for education to tell teenagers about the hazards, but there is a recognition that for the present the legal options for dealing with sexting offenders are, as one activist puts it, "insane". A number of US states are considering new laws that would establish sexting as a misdemeanor and not a sex crime. Although Pennsylvania is not among those states, District Attorney Skumanick has suggested that it should be.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* RUSSIA IN THE 21ST CENTURY (3): Anyone visiting Yekaterinburg, an industrial center in the Urals, would get the impression the new Russia is doing pretty well for itself. Shiny new buildings are soaring up, the latest cars are much in evidence, the modern airport would be a credit to any city. Yekaterinburg, a traditional center for mining and metals, is something of a typical example of the Russian economy at work these days. With commodities prices high until late, it was flooded with money from cheap credit and sales of natural resources, freely spent in oversized supermarkets, restaurants, and car dealerships.
Oil, gas, and metals account for about 80% of Russia's exports, and up to recently they provided a very nice ride. For about five years the economy has been growing at about 7% a year; measured in dollars, the rise has been even more dramatic. While some of the money has been put into a stabilization fund, much of it has been fueling a wild consumer boom. Real incomes have more than doubled since 1999, and the growth in retailing has averaged 12% a year. Russians were long starved of good restaurants, hotels, and shops, so now they're making up for it. Besides, with uncertainty about the future, spending seems more attractive than saving.
There has been plenty of capital investment as well, though it is mostly focused on extractive industries. However clumsy the Yeltsin regime, the economic reforms of the 1990s did free private industry, and private industry was the engine of a decade of growth. Growth was fastest in sectors not weighed down by the legacies of the Soviet state, but private ownership also showed that it could help out Soviet-era elephants. For example, consider Uralelektromed, a major copper producer based in the Urals. Over the past five years the company's revenues have tripled, with company bosses investing in new infrastructure, including plenty of American-made gear, and exporting high-quality copper wire to Europe.
Alas, the energy of the Russian private sectors shows just how bad the public sector really is. Although booming business has meant more tax revenue for the government, the government used the money to raise the pay of government workers and refurbish government offices. Those are not bad things in themselves, but the money wasn't spent on improving roads and railway lines, with nothing done to improve the infrastructure to make life easier for private business and the citizens in general. Worse, while the money was rolling in, there was no drive for reform -- no interest in tightening up the banking system, strengthening property rights, and establishing the rule of law.
Once the money stopped flowing in so fast in 2008, the irresponsibility of government policy and the superficiality of the Russian economy became apparent. With commodity prices plummeting, exports went down to a trickle. Russia exports little in the way of finished goods, and in fact the country's only Russian exports goods for which there is a real demand are sophisticated weapon systems. Vladimir Putin crowed when the West ran into economic trouble, but he didn't crow for long. Now many of the buildings rising above Yekaterinburg are unfinished shells, their work cranes motionless.
The Kremlin is of course trying to respond to the economic crisis, but the way in which the government is trying to do so has the fingerprints of the sloviki all over it. Money is being handed out, but there is little transparency in the process, and large sums appear to be going to those who have good government connections. The overall result seems to be the resurgence of state control over the economy -- though the new order less resembles the old central-planning system than it does members of the sloviki empire-building, based on taking control of private enterprises.
There was of course empire-building under the old system, but at least officially the goal was to get things done. The new system that is emerging feels like a "KGB economy", based on monopolies rooted in dodgy state-private partnerships, in which the sloviki get the profits while the state gets the debts. Calling it "nationalization" doesn't quite fit, since one of the results can be funneling state property into private bank accounts. As has been pointed out, the KGB never trained its people in business practice or good governance; they were instead trained in coercion and dirty tricks, to do what they thought proper without much concern over the propriety of the means. Once they abandoned any commitment to ideology, coercion and dirty tricks were all they had left. [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* THE PARASITES (3): Humans have been familiar with parasites for a long time. We knew about fleas, lice, ticks, biting flies, and mosquitoes before we came out of the trees. Two millennia ago, Aristotle described creatures living in tough cysts in the tongues of pigs. Both Jews and Muslims learned to avoid eating pork, since pigs were often infected with a roundworm parasite, now known as Trichinella spiralis -- people didn't know about the worm as such, but they did know they got sick from eating pork. Cultures learned a long time ago to gradually coil up an emerging guinea worm on a stick over a period of a week or so, since snapping it off would leave the dead remnant in the leg, causing a fatal infection. Herbal remedies were available for intestinal worms, and some were very effective.
However, for the most part nobody recognized that these afflictions were due to other organisms taking up residence in the human body. Now we only see that as an obvious fact in hindsight. Parasites were often believed to be symptoms of some "distemper" of the body, not a cause. As late as the early 19th century, there were medical scholars who couldn't believe that a guinea worm was an organism. Why should they have? It was so simple in appearance, like some sort of blood vessel that had just decided to burst out of the leg.
Similarly, though people recognized tapeworms in the intestines of animals; could see tapeworm segments in feces of animals and humans; and could see flukes on the livers of sheep -- the name came from the old Anglo-Saxon word "floc", meaning "flounder", since the flukes looked like small flatfish -- the general assumption was that they had just "spontaneously generated" in the body, in the same way that maggots supposedly spontaneously generated in wounds. Nobody had ever seen flukes crawling into a body, and so it seemed likely they had simply arisen there.
In the 1670s, a Dutch shopkeeper named Anton van Leeuwenhoek built the first primitive microscope and observed microscopic animals whose existence came as a surprise. When his bowels became upset, he observed samples from his feces and found various squirming creatures living in them. With scholars armed with such tools, they began to find more and more strange organisms living in mammals, fish, frogs, birds.
In the next century, careful studies showed that meat would not grow maggots if isolated from flies, and maggots would grow into flies, demonstrating that they were two forms of the same beast and that spontaneous generation had nothing to do with them. However, for the most part scholars continued to believe that flukes and tapeworms and the like were spontaneously generated, again for the reason that they were never observed entering the body. That might seem in hindsight to be unreasonable obstinacy at work, but the notion of spontaneous generation had been around for a long time and wasn't seen as particularly unreasonable. The real hangup was that there was not much recognition at the time that the juvenile forms of many creatures had little resemblance to their mature form. To be sure, people knew caterpillars went into a cocoon to become moths and butterflies and that tadpoles grew up into frogs, but the more general experience was that baby animals -- mammals, birds, reptiles, fish -- looked like small versions of adult animals.
* A Danish biologist named Johann Steenstrup began to unravel the mystery in the 1830s, when be conducted careful studies of flukes. Flukes were well-known to naturalists, having been observed in a wide range of animals; it was known they laid eggs, but nobody had ever seen what could be recognized as a baby fluke. Naturalists were, however, aware that bodies of fresh water inhabited by certain species of snails were full of creatures they called "cercariae", which looked like miniature flukes but had long tails. Steenstrup scooped up samples of ditch water, full of cercariae and snails, and observed them carefully to find that the cercariae would burrow into the body and shells of the snails, drop their tails, and form little cysts. After a time, Steenstrup opened up the cysts and found flukes in them.
Steenstrup noticed that snails were host to a range of freeloaders besides the cercariae and flukes -- one that looked like a shapeless bag, another creature that looked like a yellow worm full of cercariae, and a yet another that looked like a hairy fluke. Steenstrup proposed that they were all just different parts of the lifecycle of the fluke -- eggs became the hairy form, which became the shapeless bag, which gave rise to the yellow worm, which generated cercariae in turn, to then become cysts and mature flukes. Steenstrup summed it up neatly: "An animal bears young which are, and remain, dissimilar to their parent, but bring forth a new generation, whose members either themselves, or their descendants, return to the original form of the parent animal."
Steenstrup's contemporaries found his ideas outrageous, but further investigation proved him right. In fact, such elaborate life cycles would prove to be nothing unusual among parasites. [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* SPACE NEWS: Space launches for April 2009 included:
-- 03 APR 09 / W2A -- A Proton Breeze M booster was launched from Baikonur to put the Eutelsat "W2A" geostationary comsat into orbit. The spacecraft was built by Alcatel Alenia Space and was based on the Spacebus-4000C4 platform. It had a launch mass of 5,895 kilograms (13,000 pounds), plus a payload of 46 Ku-band / 10 C-band transponders and an S-band mobile communications transponder. It was placed in the geostationary slot at 10 degrees East longitude to provide communications and data services to Europe and Africa.
-- 03 APR 09 / WIDEBAND GLOBAL SATCOM 2 -- An Atlas 5 booster was launched from Cape Canaveral to put the US Department of Defense's "Wideband Global/Gapfiller Satcom 2 (WGS 2)" geostationary comsat into space. WGS-2, also known as "USA 204", was built by Boeing, being the second in a series of six WGS spacecraft. It was based on the Boeing 702 comsat platform, with a launch mass of 5,895 kilograms (13,000 pounds). The spacecraft was placed in the geostationary slot at 60 degrees East longitude to provide communications support for US forces operating in the Middle East and South Asia under Central Command.
-- 14 APR 09 / BEIDOU G2 -- A Long March 3C booster was launched from Xichang to put the "Beidou G2" navigation satellite into orbit. Beidou G2 was the sixth Beidou satellite launched and the second in the new "Compass 2" series.
-- 20 APR 09 / RISAT 2, ANUSAT -- An ISRO Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) was launched from Sriharikota to put the "Radar Imaging Satellite 2 (RISAT 2)" into orbit. RISAT 2, built by Israel Aerospace Industries, had a launch mass of 300 kilograms (660 pounds) and carried a synthetic aperture radar for day-night / all-weather observations. ISRO announced that it was for disaster management, but observers suggested it was a dual-use satellite, capable of military surveillance. It was clearly a follow-on to the Israeli TECSAR radar satellite, launched by a PSLV in 2008.
Although ISRO had developed their own radar imaging satellite, RISAT 1, it was actually bumped on the launch manifest to permit launch of RISAT 2. The launch also carried the student-built ANUSAT microsatellite, built by Anna University in India, which carried a store-&-forward communications relay payload. It had a launch mass of 37 kilograms (82 pounds).
-- 20 APR 09 / SICRAL 1B -- A Zenit 3SL booster was launched from the Sea Launch Odyssey platform in the equatorial Pacific to put the Italian military "SICRAL 1B" geostationary comsat into orbit. SICRAL 1B was built by Thales Alenia Space and was based on the Italsat 3000 platform; the name is the Italian acronym for "Italian System For Secure Communications & Alerts". The spacecraft had a launch mass of 3,040 kilograms (6,700 pounds), with the payload including EHF, UHF, and SHF components to support both fixed and mobile communications. The satellite featured both radiation-hardening and secure communications channels. It was placed in the geostationary slot at 11.8 degrees East longitude to provide support for Italian military forces and other Italian government organizations. It followed the SICRAL 1 spacecraft, launched in 2001.
-- 22 APR 09 / YAOGAN 6 -- A Long March 2C booster was launched from Taiyuan to put the Chinese "Yaogan 6" Earth observation satellite into orbit.
-- 29 APR 09 / COSMOS 2450 (KOBALT-M) -- A Soyuz-U booster was launched from the Plesetsk Northern Cosmodrome to put a secret military payload into orbit. The spacecraft was designated "Cosmos 2450" and was believed to be a Kobalt-M surveillance satellite, featuring two small film-return "buckets" and a returnable main payload capsule.
* OTHER SPACE NEWS: As reported by BBC WORLD Online the Russians have been considering a replacement for their long-standing Soyuz space capsule for some time now. The latest iteration is a space capsule design that doesn't use parachutes to land -- instead, it fires rockets to perform a soft landing.
The issue is that the Russians are hoping to end their use of the southern launch complex at Baikonur in Kazakhstan, and are now working on a new launch complex in the Russian Far East, to be named "Vostochny (Eastern)". The problem is that by giving up on Kazakhstan, the Russians will also lose a large range area where capsules can return to Earth. The only convenient place to land in Russia itself is in a narrow strip of land in relatively populous European Russia. That makes a spacecraft that can perform a controlled landing preferable. Concepts such as wingless "lifting bodies" and "transformers" with pop-out wings were investigated -- but were too expensive and risky to meet the target introduction date of 2018 for the new spacecraft. Examination of the rocket-assisted landing scheme showed it could do the job, reducing the landing target area to an ellipse of only 2 x 5 kilometers (1.2 x 3.1 miles).
The Russian space firm RKK Energia released drawings of such a vehicle, named the "Advanced Crew Transportation System (ACTS)", in July 2008. There was some surprise by outsiders when it was realized its reentry capsule didn't use parachutes, instead relying on 12 solid-propellant soft-landing rockets and retractable legs. The reentry capsule would perform a normal reentry, engaging the rockets at an altitude of 600 to 800 meters (1,970 to 2,625 feet), slowing the vehicle until it entered precision landing mode at an altitude of about 30 meters (100 feet).
There was apparently considerable internal debate over the scheme, some Russian space technology experts considering it too risky. Ideas were floated for liquid rockets instead of solid rockets, since a liquid rocket engine can be throttled while a solid rocket cannot. The current concept for the "Prospective Passenger Transport System (PPTS)" now envisions use of a rocket soft landing under normal circumstances and a parachute landing for backup if the rocket system fails. For a parachute landing, the rocket module would be discarded to ensure that the parachute system can handle the load.
The idea of using a rocket landing system is not entirely new. In the 1990s, the US tested an unmanned 1/3rd-scale demonstrator of a re-usable launcher, the McDonnell-Douglas "DC-X". The demonstrator couldn't go into space, but it could lift off on rocket power, then set back down on the ground again. The demonstrator was successful as far as it went, but it was finally wrecked in an accident and that was the end of it.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* NASA TALKS BWB: The flying wing has attracted aviation designers since before World War II. It's an elegant concept, an aircraft in which the entire airframe contributes to lift, resulting in maximum aerodynamic efficiency. In practice, flying wings haven't been a roaring success, being used mostly because they're more difficult to pick up on radar and are a good configuration for a "stealthy" aircraft, such as the B-2 bomber.
However, aerodynamic efficiency means a more fuel-efficient aircraft. As reported by AVIATION WEEK ("Shaping The Future" by Graham Warwick, 2 February 2009), the US National Aeronautics & Space Administration (NASA) is very interested in one of the latest incarnations of the flying wing, the "blended wing / body (BWB)" aircraft -- known in NASA buzzspeak as the "hybrid wing / body (HWB)" aircraft.
A BWB is not exactly a pure flying wing, since there's clearly a fuselage and a wing, it's just hard to figure out where one ends and the other begins. The concept is not new, though the notion of a BWB as it is seen today emerged in the 1990s. NASA became interested in the notion and worked on a program with Boeing to build two "X-48B" flying drone BWB models, with the first performing its initial flight in the summer of 2007. The X-48B had a span of 6.5 meters (21 feet) and was powered by three RC model-class turbojet engines. It was intended to validate low-speed handling issues -- handling has proven benign, with few "funny" stall characteristics.
Models are all very nice, but what putting the idea to use? NASA is looking down the road at an "N+2" generation aircraft, with much lower noise levels and 40% less fuel burn than the modern and efficient Boeing 777, and sees the BWB as a way of achieving that goal. Researchers believe that an operational N+2 BWB could be available as early as 2020.
For the moment, the focus is on wind-tunnel models and simulations, based on the phased "N2A" and "N2B" designs, developed jointly by Cambridge University in the UK and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the USA, the two concepts differing primarily from the earlier Boeing design for the X-48B by using twin tailfins instead of wingtip winglets. The first-phase N2A design features twin turbofans mounted on pylons above the rear of the aircraft -- the engine module installation being much like that of a conventional jumbo jetliner, but with the modules installed upside-down. NASA engineers see the N2A as achieving a good portion of the necessary noise reduction -- moving the tailfins in to flank the engines helps -- and 25% fuel reduction.
The second-phase N2B design uses much different engine technology -- embedding the engines in the fuselage and fed through serpentine inlets, with a single engine "core" turning several fans. By eliminating the draggy external engine mount, the N2B might be able to achieve the 40% fuel limit, but the need to develop new engine technology pushes the concept out past 2020. Boeing researchers are also investigating the composite fabrication processes needed to manufacture the unusual N2B airframe in a light but rugged fashion.
NASA is not working with the airlines on the BWB, the initial target being a military cargolifter / tanker. The airlines are taking a "wait & see" attitude, since there are issues for use of the BWB as a jetliner -- the seating will be unconventional, with passengers sitting in what feels like an auditorium, not a normal jetliner with rows of seats along the sides of the fuselage. There are concerns over excessive rise and fall of passengers on seats to the side of the aircraft during banking maneuvers, and a particular concern over passenger escape in an emergency. In 2008, Greenwich University in the UK ran a trial with a partial mock cabin to determine how quickly a BWB could be evacuated in an accident. The notional aircraft used in the test would have 1,024 passenger seats, 21 crew, and 20 exits; average time to get everyone out was under 86 seconds, the target being 90 seconds. That's reassuring, but the airlines are going to need a lot of reassurance before they take a chance on the BWB.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* DOING BUSINESS IN IRAQ: We tend to take commerce for granted and forget just how dependent we are on it. As discussed in an article in THE ECONOMIST ("It's The Economy, Stupid", 18 April 2009), people living in Iraq are only too aware of its importance. Decades of dictatorial mismanagement, UN sanctions, an American invasion, and civil war did much to break down the mechanisms for simply getting day-to-day things done. Many of the insurgents captured by Americans had no particular axe to grind in planting roadside bombs; they had no other work, were desperate for money, and somebody was willing to pay.
Three ex-US military officers -- Dan Rice, Wayne Culbreth, and Andrew Eberhart -- decided to do something about it, and set up the "Marshall Fund", a private-equity fund making only non-oil investments in smallish firms in Iraq. Says Rice: "Without thriving businesses and the jobs they create, Iraq will never be stable." Late in 2008, the fund closed on its first investment, a tomato-processing plant in the northern region of Harir.
Rice and his partners are not just trying to set things right, they hope to make money doing it: where there's demand, there's opportunity. They're not the only ones thinking along such lines, either. Several multinational companies, including GE and Daimler Benz, have set up shop in Iraq since things started to settle down in 2007. Iraq has many attractions for investment: big oil reserves, plenty of water, good farming land, strategic location, and almost 31 million Iraqis in need of a wide range of goods.
That said, Iraq is of course not a perfect business environment: the violence hasn't stopped by any means, and the country has little tradition of private enterprise. Under Saddam Hussein's regime, the state controlled everything from interest rates to jobs at the bloated state-owned enterprises (SOEs) that dominated the economy. After the Americans arrived in 2003 with certain zeal for exporting the capitalist road, the occupation government abolished tariffs, liberated interest rates, and implemented bankruptcy laws along with other basic business regulations. The SOEs were shut down by limiting their access to cash, cutting pay rates by 60%, and banning the government from doing business with them.
Like most of the measures implemented early on, the economic effort just didn't work. In 2006, with over half the potential Iraqi workforce unemployed, the Americans changed course, creating the "Task Force for Business & Stability Operations" to get the private sector rolling. The problem with the initial effort was that it was a "top down" scheme, based on the expectation that once the "big picture" was put right, the details would spontaneously start to take care of themselves. They didn't, so the Task Force took a "bottom-up" approach, working to get Iraqi businesses going so Iraqis, would have more jobs and a stake in national stability.
One tool was to ensure that American contracts went directly to Iraqi businesses. Since 2006, $2 billion USD of US contracts have been signed with over 5,000 Iraqi firms. The Task Force also realized that choking the SOEs was a blunder: however imperfect, they were generally functional organizations in a country where such things were for the moment not the norm, and the US has pumped $50 million USD in getting the SOEs back on their feet. The biggest job, however, was to find outside companies willing to invest money and expertise in Iraq's SOEs and private firms; the Task Force brought in and accommodated visitors in Baghdad's Green Zone enclave, with the visitors then talking to Iraqi businessmen and government officials about possible deals.
The approach seems to be working. For example, Iskandiriyah is a manufacturing town with networks of factories controlled by two SOEs. In 2006 the Task Force arrived to get the factories going again, and now they are turning out machine parts, trailers, and machinery for the oil industry. Case New Holland, a manufacturer of construction equipment owned by Fiat of Italy, started assembling tractors there in 2007. About 5,000 Iraqis have picked up jobs at the plants and the town is considered stable.
The Marshall Fund worked with the Task Force to invest $6 million USD in the tomato-processing plant in Harir. Iraqi imports $100 million USD of tomato paste each year, even as Iraqi farmers see their excess harvest rot away for lack of any means to turn them into cans of paste. Setting up the factory means jobs for locals, a market for farmers, locally-made product for shopkeepers -- and hopefully profits for the investors.
In 2008, foreign companies invested $910 million USD in private Iraqi joint ventures, while individuals and investors like the Marshall Fund put another $500 million USD into startups. The irony is that only nervy investors are willing to place bets on Iraq, and under more benign circumstances the rate of investment could be much greater. The drop in oil prices has forced the Iraqi government to scale back expenditures, reducing economic activity, and the eventual withdrawal of the Americans presents the threat that everything may well go back to hell again once they're gone -- but given the choice between commerce and prosperity versus conflict and poverty, Iraqis have a motivation to choose prosperity.
* In a brief article in a later issue, THE ECONOMIST discussed the Iraqi banking system. To the extent it's still working, it's unbelievably archaic: no way to make a withdrawal from a branch other than the one in which the money was originally deposited, no real use of ATMs or plastic or electronic transactions in general. Now B-Plan Information Systems of the UK is modernizing the state-owned Rafidan Bank, bringing it up to standards seen as perfectly ordinary elsewhere: electronic transactions, transparency across branches, direct deposits, ATMs, plastic. Training staff is troublesome: B-Plan is bringing a hundred employees up to speed, but a total of 7,000 have to be trained. The bank is making a bet on a peaceful and prosperous future.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* RUSSIA IN THE 21ST CENTURY (2): Russian resentment against Americans is ironic in that Russians have a prominent streak of flag-waving that mirrors the same habit in Americans, and however much Russians dislike America, they want American things. One of the most striking examples of this irony was the Russian pop hit from a few years back titled "I Was Made In The USSR", a nationalistic rock anthem that just happened to be Bruce Springsteen's rousing classic "Born In The USA", set to new Russian lyrics.
Russians crave Western goods and culture, even while they sneer at the societies that produce them. The Soviets liked to claim that the future belonged to their "progressive" ideology, though the claim grew ever less enthusiastic over time. The modern Russians cannot make such a claim, but they do like to insist that their nation is perfectly modern and equivalent to the West -- for example saying that their presidential elections are no different from those in America. Westerners are not impressed. They know their own institutions are far from perfect, but find the political and social backwardness of Russia so evident as to make comparison with the West a joke: "Walk on two legs, not on four -- are we not Men?"
The contrast arises from the fact that Russia's elite likes the comfortable Western lifestyle, but rejects key principles of Western governance. Lilia Shevtsova of the Carnegie Moscow Center, a think tank, points out that "hostility towards America and the West sustains the authoritarian and corrupt rule of the rent-seeking elite, which portrays its narrow corporate interests as the interests of the nation." They want to have their cake and eat it too, taking what serves their interests while rejecting the value system that rides along with it. The elite is in a conflicted position and it makes them insecure, with America the target of their insecurity.
This insecurity only feeds the professional paranoia of the sloviki who run Russia. The Kremlin does not really believe in the benefits of cooperation, instead seeing international relations as a zero-sum game. If America is strong, Russia must be weak; if Russia becomes stronger, it will happily be at America's expense. This is not much more than rivalry for its own sake, driven by insecurity: Russians are far more preoccupied with America than Americans are with Russia.
The Kremlin does want Russia to become a major world power of the 21st century, but Russia's economy is far too dependent on export of natural resources. The government exploits and harasses private businesses, in effect working to ensure that they remain weak and uncompetitive. Corruption is so widespread that it is seen as normal. Russia's population is shrinking by 700,000 souls a year. The gap between rich and poor is great and growing -- the rich buy expensive townhouses, while rural villages decay into dilapidation. If Russia does become a great power, it seems it will be more in spite of government policies than because of them. [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* THE PARASITES (2): Visitors to undeveloped countries quickly learn just how much damage parasites can do. In Africa, the best-known parasitic affliction is malaria, spread by Anopheles mosquito bites that infect hosts with the Plasmodium parasite. There are several strains of Plasmodium that can infect humans, the most dangerous being Plasmodium falciparens. The parasite attacks red blood cells, causing anemia, fever, chills, nausea -- and in the worst case coma and death. Malaria is a particular killer of children.
There is no vaccine or cure for malaria, but there are preventive drugs -- as well as preventive health measures, such as bed nets, that can be highly effective. The parasite cycles between mosquitoes and the animals the mosquitoes bite; not all Anopheles mosquitoes are infected with the disease, and once the cycle of mosquito-human infections is broken, bites from the mosquito are not particularly dangerous. However, attempting to implement appropriate public-health programs in countries that are poor or troubled by social disorder is difficult.
The misery inflicted by malaria is rivaled by that due to African sleeping sickness, spread by the biting tsetse fly that carries the trypanosome protozoan responsible for the disease -- Trypanosoma brucei, which comes in two regional forms. Sleeping sickness once rendered wide regions of Africa off limits to humans or cattle, which are also attacked by a strain of the disease. The disease starts with fevers, headaches, and joint pains, then causes painfully swollen lymph nodes. Once the parasites set in, they cause a wide range of disorders, including anemia as well as kidney and heart disorders. When the parasites infect the brain, the victim becomes confused, with the sleep cycle disrupted -- which is where the disease gets its name.
If untreated, the disease is almost always fatal. Around the beginning of the 20th century, one epidemic killed over half the population of Uganda. Drugs able to deal with the parasites were available from 1910, but they were drastic treatments -- merely able to poison the trypanosomes faster than they killed the patient. The most common treatment at present uses an arsenic-based compound that kills almost a tenth of the patients given it; better drugs are now available, but they are too expensive for general use. The only really effective methods for dealing with the disease are preventive, and by the 1960s such measures, mostly targeting the tsetse fly host, had all but eliminated sleeping sickness. Unfortunately, thanks to bad governance and breakdowns of order, it has made a comeback in many places.
Malaria and sleeping sickness are among the worst African parasite infections, but they are far from alone:
There are treatments, some of them highly effective, for most of these afflictions, but very often victims have no access to help. Worse, although the resources being pumped into defeating HIV / AIDS and high-profile parasitic infections like malaria are all for the good, the campaigns have distracted attention from less prominent maladies. In some cases, these parasitic infections could be wiped out in a generation if there was the will, but with so many different threats it's hard to stay focused on them all.
There's an ugly nature lesson in this list of monstrosities. We have a tendency to romanticize nature, and indeed nature can be staggeringly beautiful -- but parasitism is the way of the world. Dissect a tropical frog and it is effectively an ecosystem of parasites, running easily to a dozen distinct species. Parasitism is common, with some suspecting that the number of parasite species easily outnumbers all other species of eukaryotic organisms combined. We have been increasingly realizing that in our own, human, struggle against parasites, in some cases we may not be able to "win" so much as we will come to an accommodation. [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* SCIENCE NOTES: As is well known, malaria is spread by mosquitoes, and so one of the obvious measures to fight it is to kill off the mosquitoes with insecticides. However, small, numerous, and fast-breeding organisms such as mosquitoes have a tendency to evolve insecticide resistance very quickly and such a brute-force approach has steadily diminishing returns. As reported by THE ECONOMIST, A team of researchers under Andrew Read at Pennsylvania State University thinks a smarter approach would be to work with evolution instead of against it -- by selectively killing older mosquitoes.
The trick is mosquitoes aren't born infected with the malaria protozoan, instead acquiring it as they get older from infected victims -- incidentally, only females get infected, the males are sap-suckers and don't encounter the protozoan. The older the mosquito, the greater the odds of being infected. Their lifetimes are not long, and it can take up to two weeks for a mosquito to become infectious to humans after being infected itself. The Penn State researchers got to wondering what would happen if only the older female mosquitoes were killed off. They believed that would destroy the most dangerous component of the population, with the female younger mosquitoes able to reproduce and create the next generation. There would be no reduction in the levels of mosquitoes, but the next generation wouldn't be selected for insecticide resistance.
To see if the idea held water, the researchers constructed a computer model, with the result that the number of infectious mosquito bites fell by 95%, with little or no resistance passed on to the next generation. A simulation isn't the same thing as a real-world trial, of course, but it clearly suggested the idea was worth further consideration.
But what measures could be taken to preferentially target older female mosquitoes as opposed to the rest of the population? One idea is to use existing chemicals in dilute amounts, since older mosquitoes are more vulnerable to insecticides. The Penn State researchers have a different idea, however, using a fungus that has a latency of 10 to 12 days, allowing mosquitoes to breed before killing them off. A trial is being set up in Tanzania, with fungal spores sprayed on bednets and house walls. If successful, the scheme could put a big dent in malaria -- though it won't keep us from being bitten.
* I got a tipoff from the BBS about an interesting symbiotic mollusc, a sea slug named Elysia chlorotica, which feeds on algae. Thanks to its diet, it's generally green in color, and can also photosynthesize to help it get through lean times because it integrates the chloroplasts from the algae into its own biosystem.
Now there are some organisms that have a symbiotic relationship with photosynthetic cyanobacteria -- sometimes controversially known as "blue-green algae" -- and that is not very surprising, since such symbiotic relationships are common and in fact such a symbiotic relationship appears to have led to modern plants. However, the sea slug isn't really symbiotic, since it devours the algae, just retaining the chloroplasts.
The chloroplasts would not do the sea slug much good by themselves; the trick is that the slug is biologically adapted to make use of them, and to that end has genes to generate the appropriate supporting biosystems for the chloroplasts. The really interesting feature is that these genes seem to be effectively identical to comparable genes in the algae the sea slug eats. It appears the sea slug actually obtained the genes from the algae through some sort of "horizontal gene transfer". How? Nobody seems very sure. Horizontal gene transfer is known to occur in multicellular organisms in unusual cases, so the idea isn't preposterous, but it's certainly going to demand more work to figure out what happened in this case.
* As reported by DISCOVER Online, scientists investigating Blood Falls, a rusty red discoloration on the face of the Taylor Glacier in Antarctica, have found more than they expected. Water occasionally erupts up from the depths below the glacier to cover the surface; the water is clear at first, but it's full of iron-rich compounds and quickly oxidizes.
The source of the water is an extremely salty lake buried under 400 meters (1,300 feet) of ice. As it turns out, the lake is not lifeless, being inhabited by bacteria that live on sulfur and iron compounds. The bacteria have been isolated there for at least 1.5 million years, when the glacier rolled over the lake, creating a cold, dark, oxygen-poor ecosystem. With no light or volcanic action, the only organisms that could survive were those that could obtain sustenance from the minerals trapped in the lake with them. It seems that the bacteria obtain energy by reacting sulfur with iron, cycling the sulfur through several oxidation states. The oxidized sulfur then reacts with carbon to power bacterial metabolism.
* As reported by WIRED Online, the US Department of Energy (DOE) is now offering a record amount of supercomputer time, 1.3 billion processor hours, for open, unclassified research, sending scientist in a frenzy to get their simulations in the queue. From 2010, the winners will have an opportunity to run the most detailed science simulations ever.
The time will be provided by the "Jaguar" supercomputer -- a Cray XT at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee -- and the "Intrepid" supercomputer -- the IBM Blue Gene at Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois. 1.3 billion processor hours might seem like a challenge for just two machines, but they're up to it -- Jaguar has been updated from 32,768 processors to 180,832 processors, while Intrepid went from 32,768 processors to 163,840 processors. Jaguar currently has a peak performance of 1.64 petaflops (1.64x10^12 floating-point operations per second), making it the second most powerful computer in the world, behind the IBM-built "Roadrunner" at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, which is used for classified research on nuclear weapons. Simulations in the queue include models of supernova explosions, galactic dark matter distribution, combustion of biofuels, protein folding in "mad cow disease", thermoelectric materials for capturing waste heat from tailpipe emissions, and high-resolution climate models.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* SEEING DISTANT WORLDS: AAAS SCIENCE ran a review of the science headline stories for 2008 in the 19 December 2008 issue, with one of the "winners" being the first direct imaging of extrasolar planets.
For over a decade, astronomers have been piling up evidence of extrasolar planets, with over 300 discovered so far. Three methods have been used to find extrasolar planets:
All three of these techniques also have the limitation that they do not provide an image of an extrasolar planet, instead working by some lesser or greater degree of indirection. It might seem that with the huge new telescopes springing up every year that we should be able to see extrasolar planets, but it's a tricky job. The first problem is that telescopes on the ground have to peer through the Earth's atmosphere, giving a blurred and shifting image. The second problem is that the planet is right next to a star that is vastly brighter than it is, and so seeing the planet is like trying to see a match next to a spotlight.
The first problem can be dealt with by placing a telescope in space, the Hubble Space Telescope being the most famous example. Another approach is to design a ground-based telescope with "adaptive optics", using actuators to adjust the optics of the telescope to compensate for atmospheric shifts. The light from the parent star can be blanked out by placing a "coronagraph" in the optical path to block the light, or by using software to subtract the light of the star, creating a "virtual coronagraph".
After over five years of tinkerings and observations along such lines, astronomers are now beginning to report results. The most compelling report is of observations of three objects orbiting a star with the catalog number "HR 8799", 128 light-years from Earth. They have masses from 5 to 10 times that of Jupiter, and orbit their parent star from 24 to 68 times farther than the orbit of the Earth from the Sun. They are unusually massive and of course have been found in orbits much wider than those found by other extrasolar planet search methods. Theorists find the discovery startling because their models suggest such big planets shouldn't form so far out. Back to the blackboard.
Three other teams have reported imaging a single planet orbiting a distant star, the most prominent being a planet about three times the size of Jupiter orbiting the bright star Fomalhaut. The results in all cases are sketchy and somewhat uncertain, but being able to see a distant planet is a feat in itself, and astronomers are certain to drive much farther down the learning curve.
* In a follow-up to this article, in April astronomers announced the discovery of the lightest exoplanet found so far, in the Gliese 581 star system, some 20.5 light-years away. The planet, designated "Gliese 581 e", has a mass 1.9 times that of the Earth. It's very close to the parent star, with an orbit of only 3.15 Earth days, and so is likely not inhabitable. As the "e" designation suggests, it is the fifth planet discovered in the Gliese 581 system; all the others are well larger, with "b" 16 times the mass of the Earth. It was discovered by the HARPS spectrograph system attached to the 3.6 meter (142 inch) telescope operated by the European Southern Observatory in the Andean heights of La Silla, Chile.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* FBI SPYWARE: Everybody who goes online is aware of "spyware", the type of malware that resides on a PC to spy on the user and report interesting items -- credit-card numbers for example -- back to an eavesdropper over the internet. As reported by WIRED Online ("FBI Spyware Has Been Snaring Extortionists, Hackers for Years" by Kevin Poulsen), information recently released by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation shows that the Feds have been using much the same technology for at least the last seven years.
The FBI software, known as the "computer & internet protocol address verifier (CIPAV)", takes up residence on a suspect's computer and then secretly sends information to an FBI server in western Virginia. While the FBI says little about CIPAV, it became public knowledge in 2007, with the bureau used it to track emailed bomb threats against a Washington State high school back to a 15-year-old student named Josh Glazebrook. The first threat against Timberline High School was a handwritten note, which was received on 30 May 2007, which led to the evacuation of the school. The emails began on 4 June:
I will be blowing up your school Monday, June 4, 2007. There are 4 bombs planted throughout Timberline High School. One in the math hall, library hall, main office and one portable. The bombs will go off in 5 minute intervals at 9:15 AM.
The school was evacuated again; nothing happened, but the messages kept coming. Students with MySpace accounts began to receive invitations from "Timberlinebombinfo," another MySpace user claiming to be the bomber.
Local police subpoenaed MySpace and the e-mail services used to make the threats, but to no surprise they found the trail was disguised by routing it through a number of computers in Italy. The FBI got involved, with an agent requesting a warrant from a Federal judge on 12 June to obtain permission to target the "Timberlinebombinfo" MySpace account with CIPAV. Of course, the FBI did not detail how CIPAV penetrated the account; the suspect was obviously smart enough not to fall for something as obvious as an executable attachment to an email, and MySpace doesn't include an email service anyway. It does have a messaging system and it seems likely the FBI leveraged the messaging system to exploit a "hole" in a web browser or browser plug-in on the target computer.
Once resident on the target computer, CIPAV then collected such information as network addresses, username, currently running programs, operating system, and so on. It did not collect any content and it was designed to shut off after 60 days. CIPAV's primary utility appears to be in tracking down suspects that use proxy servers or anonymizing websites to cover their tracks.
The warrant was issued and Glazebrook was arrested the next day. He pleaded guilty in court, was sentenced to 90 days in juvenile detention -- less time served before trial -- and was fined $8,852 USD to compensate the school for security expenditures. The judge also barred Glazebrook from using computers, video games, or mobile phones for two years, and of course Timberline expelled him. He had been trying to pin the threats on another Timberline students; other students fell for the scam, and the victim was forced to change schools in the face of intensive abuse.
Not too surprisingly, CIPAV has been energetically used in a large number of cases:
CIPAV has been used to catch other extortionists, makers of bomb threats, and a hacker who unwisely tried to impersonate an FBI agent online. In fact, CIPAV seems to have been so heavily used that Justice Department lawyers have warned not to overdo it: "While the technique is of indisputable value in certain kinds of cases, we are seeing indications that it is being used needlessly by some agencies, unnecessarily raising difficult legal questions (and a risk of suppression) without any countervailing benefit."COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* RUSSIA IN THE 21ST CENTURY (1): THE ECONOMIST ran a survey ("Enigma Variations" by Arkady Ostrovsky) in an attempt to make out the uncertain entity that is the new Russia of the 21st century. The survey uses as its starting point Christmas Day 1991, when the Soviet flag flying over the Kremlin was traded for good with the Russian flag, and the last Soviet president, Mikhail Gorbachev, handed in his resignation. Gorbachev of course tried to strike an optimistic note, saying that "free elections ... free press, freedom of worship, representative legislatures, and a multi-party system have all become reality." His American counterpart, President George H.W. Bush, sang a similar tune, saying that the "United States recognizes and welcomes the emergence of a free, independent, and democratic Russia."
The end of the Soviet Union was far less violent than anyone might have expected, but given a long history of authoritarian rule coupled to social and economic collapse, those proclaiming the emergence of a shiny new Russia were clearly doing it with their fingers crossed. Going on two decades later, not many were startled that the Russia that emerged from the rubble is not all that free and democratic.
In addition, although the Cold War ended with the fall of the USSR, the hostility didn't disappear by any means. In August of 2008, Russia fought a short and victorious war with Georgia, once a part of the USSR. The Russians conducted the war to defend the provinces of Abkazia and South Ossetia, which had broken away from Georgia. There was of course an argument over the rights and wrongs of the two sides in the fight -- but observers also noted the subtle way the Kremlin sold the war to the Russian public as a means of putting paid to American interference in Russia's own back yards.
From the tone of things in Russia, it might be thought that the Cold War had never really gone away. The country is now run by the "sloviki (tough guys)", former KGB spooks like Vladimir Putin who are professional paranoids, inclined to see everyone as enemies; political opposition has been crushed; journalists who get too noisy occasionally end up dead; the state media blasts the Americans; and military parades march down Red Square again. New Russian President Dmitriy Medvedev, generally seen as a tool of Putin, announced in his first state of the nation address on 5 November 2008 that Russia would target its nuclear missiles at Europe if the US went forward with plans to set up an anti-missile defense system in Eastern Europe.
It is true that the temperature isn't that cold, that the hostility is more theatrics than substance. The new Russia, unlike the Soviet state, has no ideological conflict with the West; in fact, it's hard to see what ideology it does stand for. There are private businesses, free markets of sorts, and considerable public enthusiasm for imported consumer goods. Russian firms are listed on foreign stock exchanges, with their managers wearing tailored suits and puzzling over spreadsheets on their laptop computers. The elite maintains foreign bank accounts, owns posh properties in the UK, and sends their kids to the best universities in the US and Britain. Russian citizens can travel abroad, buy what they want to buy, amuse themselves as they please, and listen to any music they like. They can even criticize the government -- though since the government controls the mass media, it's hard to get much volume doing it.
The government is heavy-handed and elections are dubious contraptions; still, it remains popular. Russian propaganda is loud and one-sided, but it's been pointed out that while Soviet propagandists tried to tell the people what they should think, their modern successors are merely telling the people what they want to hear. The dilapidation of the 1990s was a collective humiliation for Russians and it was easy to feel resentment against the Americans. When Putin and the sloviki came to power in 2000, they were very strong and vocal in this resentment, with the hawkishness of the Bush II Administration helping make the message very popular.
Putin was also shrewd in exploiting nostalgia for the Soviet era. Nobody really wants the old system back, but its symbols of power are stylish. One of Putin's first decrees was to restore the Soviet national anthem. Josef Stalin, one of history's most brutal tyrants, is regarded as heroic by many Russians, who identify him as the nation's most assertive and powerful ruler, its greatest tsar. Observers who had their fingers crossed in 1991 might have been disappointed -- but hardly too surprised. [TO BE CONTINUED]NEXT | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* ANOTHER MONTH: I got into the Twitter broadcast short-messaging service this last month after a suggestion by a contributor to the site BBS. I wasn't that familiar with it, but there's not much to it -- I can broadcast short messages over the Twitter system, and anyone who has signed up to "follow" my messages using my Twitter username gets them. Of course I can "follow" anyone else on Twitter through their username as well.
Getting up to speed was frustrating, since the Twitter website is poorly designed -- one big thing is that they apparently didn't check it against the FireFox browser and it just flatly doesn't work with it, with buttons disappearing and the like, and I had to use Internet Explorer to sign up. They also give newbies an automatic list of people to follow, which I found obnoxious -- "No, I don't want to read messages being sent to me by Brent Spiner or Ashton Kutcher." -- all the more because the procedure for "unfollowing" people isn't completely obvious. And then, to be even more obnoxious, there are spammers who infect Twitter, immediately following anyone who comes on board on the hopes that they'll get curious and check on the follower, to get a load of spam in the face. I had to get rid of them, too.
The Twitter learning curve was somewhat exasperating, though hardly unexpected for something new. I'm still not convinced that Twitter's particularly useful for my needs, but I shall see. Obviously it does have potential -- natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina were apparently subjects for lively realtime Twittering, and apparently recently the Twitter crowd spontaneously reported on an alien invasion of Earth.
* While poking around on the WIRED GeekDad blog, I found some links to small firms that make accessories for Lego sets. I had wondered how folks who make "LegoToons" -- cartoons using images of Lego figures ("minifigs") and Lego constructions -- got some of the more exotic parts for the scenes. I wonder no more; if I were so inclined I could obtain, say, various types of automatic weapons or medieval kit from "Little Armory Toys", "BrickArms", or "BrickForge". The prices were surprisingly reasonable for low-volume specialty items. I was tempted to pick up the "Space Marine armor" kit from BrickForge so I could have my own HALO-type guardians around the house.
GeekDad also had some related and amusing pix from a Flickr resident named "PowerPig", who likes to snap the chipmunks that visit his backyard. There are plenty of squirrels here in northeast Colorado, but they're not much better than rats with furry tails; I never see chipmunks around here, and I definitely miss them.
* After much effort, the blog has now reached a certain stable point. I have 50 entries, ten weeks, stockpiled, balanced to cover the different categories: Monday article serial, one-shot articles for Tuesday and Wednesday, column for Thursday, and a book serial for Friday. The stockpile gives the flexibility to maintain the blog on a steady basis if I have to drop working on it for a few weeks or I run into a dry patch for materials. It also gives me more chance to review and enhance articles before shipping them out the door.
An eight-week stockpile would be adequate, ten weeks is generous. Finding interesting one-shot articles requires the most effort; the Monday and Friday serials tend to accumulate fast, too fast, and generally take care of themselves. With the stockpile built up, I'm looking forward to fleshing out some of the articles in the pipeline -- and actually having an evening or two a week when I don't have to worry about producing yet another blog entry.COMMENT ON ARTICLE