jun 2009 / last mod oct 2015 / greg goebel

* 22 entries including: parasites, Russia in the 21st century, new lightweight smart missiles, smart infrastructure, cellphones in prisons, DNA from mammoths, AQIM terrorists in North Africa, hunting for dark matter, high-altitude airship drones, extreme pollinator adaptations, and vaccines-autism hysteria.

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* NEWS COMMENTARY FOR JUNE 2009: As of 30 June 2009, urban security in Iraq was completely handed over from the US military to Iraqi security forces. 130,000 American troops are still "in country" but they are keeping a relatively low profile. There is some public enthusiasm for the pullback, but people are also holding their breath in fear that the security situation will go back to hell again. President Obama wants to keep the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq on schedule; it will be interesting to see what happens if things start going badly wrong.

US pulling out of Iraq

* National elections went forward in Iran this last month, with incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad winning reelection against challenger Mir Hossein Mousavi. The election results led to widespread street demonstrations and accusations of vote fraud.

Some commentators are drawing parallels with the demonstrations that led to the fall of the Shah of Iran a generation ago, as well as later demonstrations of "people power", such as the fall of the Berlin Wall. Possibly so, the current leadership of the Islamic Republic of Iran is not universally liked. However, the Islamic Republic has faced down public challenges before and may well do so again.

Six months from now things may have settled back to the status quo -- then again, it is certainly interesting to think they may not. The unrest does have a different tone this time around in that it features open disagreements among Iranian leadership. Even among the clerics there has long been a group that sees political control of Iran by the mullahs as neither good for them nor good for the country, and there is a broader worry about the way the Revolutionary Guards are increasing their power at the expense of other centers of power -- a process that suggests a military coup in slow motion. Few see any potential in the struggle for the overthrow of the Islamic Revolution, but there is pressure to try to change the course of its future evolution.

The Obama Administration has been fairly quiet on the issue, for the sensible reason that an endorsement by the Great Satan is not likely to do the Iranian opposition much good. However, the president did make a public statement saying that America and the international community were "appalled and outraged by the threats, beatings, and imprisonments of the last few days." Obama scoffed at the accusations of the Iranian government that the unrest was being orchestrated by others: "This tired old strategy of using old tensions to scapegoat other countries won't work any more in Iran."

* In somewhat startling news, according to AVIATION WEEK, the Japanese government is engaged in a debate over repealing the nation's ban on arms exports. This policy has been firmly entrenched in non-militaristic Japan for decades, but economic and political pressures are rendering that position unrealistic.

The issue is not that Japanese want to become major arms exporters; even advocates of the change insist that new rules will prohibit export of weapons to nations with histories of human-rights abuses, support for terrorism, and contempt for arms-control regimes. Japanese companies also know they cannot compete with big arms exporters like the US, Israel, or even Belgium, and do not want to. The issue is that the current rules block the Japanese from effective international cooperation on arms development: it is impossible to co-develop a weapon system with an outside partner if Japanese law says the partner can't use it.

Traditionally, the Japanese have built their own weapons -- sometimes developing them from scratch, more often modifying or license-building somebody else's weapons. This policy infamously tends to produce trailing-edge designs at unpleasantly high cost. That wasn't such a problem in the past when the government was more inclined to distribute taxpayer pork to Japanese heavy industries, but that's not really consistent with good governance, and it has led to nasty international disputes over unfair trade practices. Given regional threats, the Japanese government also has an incentive to get more bang for the military budget.

Weapons development has become ever more complicated and expensive, and so international cooperation has become the norm; Americans inclined to flag-waving are sometimes startled to find out how much gear our troops are carrying that is of foreign origin -- for example, the US Army's shiny new UH-72 Lakota utility helicopter was "born in Germany", and has its roots in a German-Japanese design collaboration. The Japanese see lifting the export ban as important to keeping their defense industries current and prosperous.



* LIGHTWEIGHT FIREPOWER: There was a time when military technology was on the leading edge and consumer technology trailed in its wake, but in the 21st century the relationship has become badly reversed, with military equipment being technological generations behind consumer gear -- and much more expensive in the bargain. To be sure, military forces cannot possibly operate in the "here today gone tomorrow" lifecycles of consumer technology since military gear has to be far better qualified and tested, but it still seems like the military should be able to get better leverage off of the fast-moving technological mainstream.

The military drone field has been moving rapidly, however, with other military technologies following in its wake. Since many drones are on the small side, there has a been a push to acquire small "smart" guided weapons to give them some punch. Such small guided weapons would also be useful for ground-pounders fighting "dirty little wars" against insurgents who lack armored weaponry, meaning heavy armament isn't always needed to deal with them. Insurgents also often fight in urban areas that demand selective use of firepower to avoid hitting innocent bystanders. Think of such munitions as "smart bazookas", built on the same scale, but with much more intelligence.

One such weapon is the "Lightweight Multirole Missile (LMM)" made by the Belfast division of the European Thales defense conglomerate. The Belfast division was previously Shorts of the UK, which had built the Blowpipe, Starstreak, and Starburst series of infantry-launched anti-aircraft missiles. The LMM is a clear successor to that family, being compatible with Starstreak / Starburst launch systems.

Thales Lightweight Multirole Missile

The LMM uses laser beam riding guidance -- the shooter shines a laser at a target and the missile stays on the beam -- though Thales is working on an alternate "semi-active" missile seeker that will be able to home in a target illuminated by a laser target designator. The missile weighs 13 kilograms (28 pounds), has a two-phase (boost / sustain) solid rocket motor, and has four tailfins plus four moving forward control fins to provide high agility. The 3 kilogram (6.6 pound) warhead has a proximity fuze and is built around a hollow charge in a fragmentation case. It won't take out a tank, but it will be effective against a wide range of lighter land, sea, and air targets. Maximum range is 8 kilometers (5 miles). Production is expected no earlier than 2011.

* The LMM is on the big side to be thought of as a "smart bazooka"; the US Naval Air Warfare Center (NAWC) at China Lake in California has come up with a better approximation of that concept with the "Spike" missile, not to be confused with the Spike series of anti-armor missiles built by Rafael of Israel. The US Navy's Spike has a length of 63.5 centimeters (25 inches) and a weight of only 2.4 kilograms (5.3 pounds), with 1 kilogram (2.2 pounds) of that being a contact-detonated warhead. It is powered by a solid-fuel rocket motor and has a range in excess of 2.2 kilometers (2,400 yards). It uses a launcher that weighs about as much as the missile. It is fitted with a video guidance seeker that can be locked onto a target before firing, giving it a "fire and forget" capability, though a semi-active laser seeker is also being investigated. The Navy would like to be able to produce the Spike for $5,000 USD a missile, an extremely low price for a guided weapon. There doesn't seem to be any commitment to production just yet.

* The Pentagon is also working on a next-generation smart weapon in a somewhat larger size category under the "Joint Air-to-Ground Missile (JAGM)" program. The goal is to develop a missile for all the US armed services to replace the TOW, Hellfire, and Maverick missiles for use on helicopters, attack aircraft, and drones. The JAGM program follows in the tracks of the "Joint Common Missile (JCM)", which had similar goals but was canceled in 2007 for various reasons; JAGM was restarted in JCM's wake, with a Boeing-Raytheon team and Lockheed Martin both being given initial development contracts in 2008. The technology development phase will end in 2011, with a single vendor selected at that time. The JAGM is to go into service in 2016.

Raytheon Joint Air-to-Ground Missile

JAGM will feature a rocket motor the same size as the Hellfire motor but with greater range, as well as a "combined effects" warhead and a multimode seeker. The JAGM will have a range of 16 kilometers (10 miles) when fired by a helicopter and 20 kilometers (12 miles) for fixed-wing launchers. The combined-effects warhead will be able to engage heavy armor, ships, troops, buildings, and bunkers. The multimode seeker system will include three targeting mechanisms: semi-active laser, infrared imaging, and millimeter-wave radar. The three-mode seeker will permit targeting in almost all weather conditions, day or night, and will be capable of autonomous "fire and forget" operation, even against moving targets. Of course, it will also be able to operate in a target designation mode, which is important for safety reasons when performing attacks in the vicinity of "friendlies".

One of the other significant features of the JAGM is that it will be a "plug and play" munition, able to be loaded on to almost any launch platform, with the missile's software querying the platform and configuring the appropriate interface protocols. The missile will determine what sensors are available on the launch platform and then assign the appropriate optimum seeker mode. A safety system will allow carrier-based aircraft to come back down on the deck without being forced to jettison its JAGMs.



* THE PARASITES (8): The Plasmodium parasite that causes malaria is a particularly tricky beast. After its initial stay for a week or so in a liver cell after infecting a host, it then goes into the bloodstream to find a red blood cell to infect. Having infected the cell, it takes two days the for the parasite to absorb the hemoglobin in the red cell and produce sixteen copies of itself, which break out into the bloodstream again to find new red blood cells to infect.

Red blood cells are not particularly attractive hosts. In fact, they're barely cells at all; unlike most of our body's other cells, they don't have a nucleus, they don't carry any genetic code. They are churned out by the "stem cells" in our bone marrow and cannot replicate themselves. They are effectively bags of hemoglobin, used to carry oxygen through the bloodstream, with minimal metabolic machinery and a flexible structure -- the membrane of the cell being backed by a network of proteins that are knitted together and flex like a concertina, preventing the cell from rupturing as it's forced through small blood vessels. Red blood cells are expendable items, wearing out in time, with decrepit old red blood cells being weeded out when they pass through the spleen.

The Plasmodium parasite requires special adaptations to make a living from a red blood cell. The first problem is getting into the cell, penetrating the membrane and the tough protein network. The parasites can't swim, but they can creep along the walls of a blood vessel using a set of hooks that they shift along their length, something like a tank tread. The parasite's head has receptors that can detect a red blood cell; once a cell comes by, the parasite latches onto it and, using a set of molecules secreted by a ring of chambers around its head, creates a hole through the membrane. The parasite squeezes through the hole, coating itself with an envelope of secretions as it does so. Once inside the red blood cell, the hole snaps shut and the parasite is snug in its new home.

The second problem for the parasite is making use of the cell's contents to stay alive and replicate. The parasite has a mouth of sorts, and opens it to swallow a droplet of hemoglobin, drawn in through the parasite's protective envelope of secretions. The droplet is then digested by enzymes produced by the parasite, with the enzymes breaking down the hemoglobin into chunks and neutralizing the iron core of the hemoglobin molecules, the iron being toxic to the parasite. So far so good, but the problem is that hemoglobin isn't enough to permit the parasite to live and replicate. It also needs amino acids to build proteins, and amino acids are scarce inside a red blood cell: the contents are 95% hemoglobin. In addition, as the parasite grows and replicates rapidly, it needs to dispose of its wastes.

In a true cell, the parasite could hijack the cellular machinery to provide all its needs, but the red blood cell just doesn't have that machinery. That means that the parasite has to provide it by itself. It extends an elaborate network of tubes out of its envelope through the red blood cell and the cell membrane that allow it to pull in amino acids and dump wastes. Exactly how this network works is unclear, but it is clear that the parasite undermines the cell walls -- which would have the drawback of making the cell a target for "cleanup" when it goes through the spleen. That not being good for the parasite, it produces molecules called "chaperones" that help the matrix of cell wall proteins continue to flex even as they are being undermined.

That's strictly a temporary measure, like stimulating a dying animal so it continues to be lively even as it's on the road to oblivion; sooner or later the red blood cell stiffens and the spleen is certain to identify it for disposal. The trick for the parasite is to make sure the cell never gets to the spleen. The parasite exudes proteins that clump up under the cell membrane, giving it a bumpy appearance, and then generates sticky molecules through the bumps. The dying red blood cell clumps up against blood vessel walls and ceases to move with blood circulation. Plasmodium spends another day completing its replication, to finally burst out of what remains of the red blood cell, leaving the remnants of its host behind as debris. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* GIMMICKS & GADGETS: As reported in THE ECONOMIST, tuberculosis (TB) is a particularly troublesome disease: unlike most bacterial infections, it tends to be chronic, hanging around for the long term, and similarly requires a long-term drug regimen to get rid of. Patients have to pop pills regularly for half a year, and the drugs have nasty side effects, including nausea, diarrhea, headaches, and insomnia -- with one drug, rifampicin, turning tears, sweat, and urine reddish orange. Since the symptoms of the disease go away in about two months of treatment, patients have an inclination to mistakenly assume they're cured and give so up on taking the nasty drugs.

Simply browbeating patients to convince them they're not close to out of the woods isn't all that effective, and so researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) came up with an interesting incentive program, which they call "XoutTB". A patient is handed stamp-sized patches that change color when exposed to the urine demonstrating the use of the TB drugs, with the patch revealing a code. The code can be sent by text message using a cellphone to win free airtime minutes on the phone.

The XoutTB project began in the spring of 2007, with the launch of the "Yunus Challenge", a now-annual contest at MIT to promote development in poor countries, named in honor of Muhammad Yunus, a Nobel prize-winning pioneer of developing-world microfinance. MIT medical engineer Jose Gomez-Marquez originally wanted to leverage off of microfinance networks to reward diligent TB patients with micro-loans. The banks weren't interested in playing along, but cellphone companies were. The costs were small, implementing XoutTB required little investment, and the benefits were substantial.

An initial test with 30 patients in Nicaragua went well, and now a second trial is underway in Karachi, Pakistan. There are some cultural issues to deal with -- one being that local clinics tend to operate short hours and with short staff, hardly circumstances beneficial to encouraging TB patients to take their drugs. In addition, the group most in need of attention is young women, but Pakistan is a male-dominated culture, with parents and husbands often forbidding women to own mobile phones. Ideas are being floated for alternative incentives, for example rewards of food supplements, which would help in treatment programs anyway.

The real world is a messy place and trials always reveal problems; it's just the way things are. If the problems can be overcome, the XoutTB team believes such incentive programs can be greatly expanded. The anti-retroviral drugs used to deal with AIDS, for example, have to be taken for the rest of a patient's life, and taking medicines for chronic conditions like diabetes and high blood pressure can be troublesome as well. It may seem a bit ironic to go to such efforts to get people to do what is in their own best interests to do in the first place, but it can't hurt to add a little incentive.

* General Electric (GE) Global Research has now demonstrated a "micro-holographic" disk system that can put 500 gigabytes of data on a single disk the size of an ordinary DVD or CD-ROM. Holographic storage can achieve much higher densities than traditional optical media because it stores data in the volume of the disk instead of on the surface. The micro-holographic disk can store the equivalent of 20 single-layer Blu-Ray disks or 100 DVDs; it's strictly a lab demo at the present time, however, with no timeline for commercial introduction.

* THE ECONOMIST reported on another interesting gimmick: hybrid vehicles using compressed air as backup power source, or at least an indirect one. The concept is a bit different from that of an electric hybrid, which has both an electric motor or motors and a piston engine. In this pneumatic hybrid scheme, the vehicle's only automotive power system as such is a piston engine; the gimmick is that slamming on the brakes uses the energy of deceleration to pump air into a storage vessel, with the compressed air then released into the engine intake to boost power.

There's been some work on developing vehicles with a relatively small engine fitted with a turbocharger, which uses a turbine in the exhaust pipe to drive an intake blower to provide a boost in engine power and efficiency. However, turbochargers are relatively complicated and expensive, and they also feature a "lag" in the delivery of power, since the blower only comes up to speed as the engine does. A pneumatic boost system is much simpler, cheaper, and has no lag.

Researchers at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich have been tinkering with a pneumatic hybrid system. They estimate that it could provide up to 30% greater fuel efficiency compared to a normal auto under stop and go traffic conditions -- as with all hybrids, it won't make any real difference for long-distance freeway driving -- and offer 80% of the fuel savings of an electric hybrid vehicle at a significantly lower price.



* SMART INFRASTRUCTURE: As discussed in an article in BUSINESS WEEK ("Brains In The Concrete And Steel" by Steve Hamm, 2 March 2009), it was rush hour in Minneapolis, Minnesota on 1 August 2007, and cars were packed on the Saint Anthony Falls Bridge. At 6:00 PM, the bridge gave way, killing 13 and injuring 145. The disaster became a symbol of the decay of America's public infrastructure.

A new Saint Anthony Falls Bridge rose from the ruins. The 386 meter (1,200 foot) long structure seems unremarkable, but it is a leading-edge design, packed with sensors to track strain, movement, temperature, vibration, and corrosion and provide warnings of failure; the bridge also features an anti-icing system to keep the bridge safe in winter, as well as traffic-monitoring system based on video cameras that tracks vehicle flow and reports accidents. High tech used in the design and construction of the bridge allowed it to be completed three months ahead of schedule.

In the meantime, the wheels of politics have turned and the USA is ready to invest more than $500 billion USD over the next five years to get America's infrastructure back into shape. The money will come from President Obama's stimulus package, plus a separate transportation bill that the US Congress is expected to approve in September. New high tech promises to make the most of those government dollars.

There is a debate over high tech in infrastructure construction, however. Advocates believe that it would be foolish to not make use of the most modern technology; and not at all incidentally, high-tech companies ranging from Cisco to HP to Bechtel to GE are eager to get a slice of the government pie. Critics don't like the idea of funneling money to the high-tech sector, asserting that traditional construction schemes help keep the working people on the job, and also worry about high-tech boondoggles. They point to New Jersey's E-Zpass freeway toll collection system, which turned out to be a nightmare, running well behind schedule and over budget.

The Federal government hasn't taken sides, mostly because the stimulus package empowers the states to spend the money as they see fit on their infrastructure. Some see the whole feud as a non-issue anyway. Jon Chiglo, a civil engineer with the Minnesota Transportation Department who managed the $234 million Saint Anthony Falls Bridge reconstruction, says that there is no reason that modern technology can't be incorporated into new construction; the issue boils down to effective construction management, which is needed in any case. He points out that the sensor network in the new bridge only cost a million dollars, less than half a percent of the bridge's cost.

There are plenty of advanced technologies that are well proven and easily pay for themselves; nobody has good reason to play guinea pig with expensive or unproven technology. Chiglo says: "We don't want to experiment." There's no particular need to install a high-speed data network or the like in a bridge, while there's every good reason to use the tech that makes the bridge cheaper and safer: "We plan to be energy-smart and resource-smart in the way we build and maintain our infrastructure." Florida's infrastructure planning has also a high-tech flavor, with an official of the Florida Transportation Department saying: "Including intelligent transportation systems has become a natural part of the considerations we give to any project."

However, the plans of many states make no mention of any use of improved technology, focusing on traditional infrastructure exercises such as repaving freeways. Advocates believe such a mindset is short-sighted, since the tech involved is low-cost and extremely cost effective. Basic sensor networks are well-established and are now so cheap that they can be justified on safety grounds alone. The anti-icing system used on the Saint Anthony Falls bridge is relatively exotic, but given Minnesota's infamous winters it was regarded as worthwhile, and the US Transportation Department estimates that such weather-management systems can lower snow and ice control costs by 10% to 50%.

Traffic-monitoring systems -- made up of networked video cameras and sensors linked to a website for display -- are also demonstrably cost-effective in urban areas where heavy traffic justifies them. A study performed by researchers at Florida International University estimated that the $9.9 million USD needed for the system that monitors traffic in Broward County yields $142 million USD a year in lower traffic time, fuel consumption, emissions, and accidents.

The next generation of infrastructure technology promises to be even cheaper and more effective. The sensors in the Saint Anthony Falls bridge are wired together; advanced sensors will be wireless, reducing the cost of stringing the connections. Some researchers envision wireless microsensors that could be literally painted onto a structure, using vibrations or heat or sunlight for power. San Francisco is introducing a wireless network supplied by a startup company named Streetline that finds empty parking spaces, with motorists directed to them using a car's map display or a smartphone.

Few really want to push the leading edge of technology in America's upcoming reconstruction exercise, and in many cases there's no strong reason to do so -- there's not much high tech in repaving a section of freeway. However, the cheap and straightforward technologies applicable to infrastructure were once leading-edge themselves, and a few years down the road what we would think of as radical may well be commonplace. In the hundreds of billions being spent over the next few years, it may well pay off to use a small amount of it to experiment.



* CELLPHONES BEHIND BARS: As reported by an article in WIRED magazine ("Prisoners Run Gangs, Plan Escapes, And Even Order Hits With Smuggled Cellphones" by Vince Beiser, May 2009), on 9 October 2008 Texas state senator John Whitmire, chairman of the Texas Criminal Justice Committee, got a call he would never forget. The caller told him: "I know your daughters' names. I know how old they are. I know where they live." The menacing caller then proceeded to provide an extensive list of details to back up his claim.

Whitmire said later that the call "scared the hell" out of him, as well it might: it was from Richard Tabler, a Death Row inmate sitting in the Polunsky Unit prison near Livingston, an hour's drive north of Houston. Tabler, who had been convicted of murdering two people and was strongly suspected in the murders of two others, had called Whitmire on a Motorola cellphone that had been smuggled into the prison. Tabler, who had a long history of violence, had gunned down the owner of a nightclub, along with a friend of the owner, after a dispute. Tabler freely admitted he killed the two men; he waffled on whether he killed two teenage pole dancers a few days later. Tabler later claimed he wasn't really trying to threaten Whitmire, he was just trying to tell the authorities about the abuse of prisoners in the lockup and was trying to get Whitmire's attention.

Nobody's actually supposed to have cellphones in prison, but in 2008 Maryland prison officials picked up almost a thousand handsets, while 2,800 were found in California prisons. Cellphones give inmates a certain "virtual mobility" that can be very dangerous. Prisoners have used voice and text messages to harass victims, intimidate witnesses, run gangs, and organize escapes -- in one incident, cellphones were used in a breakout in Tennessee in which a guard was killed. Sometimes prisoners just use cellphones to raise hell for the fun of it: an Indiana inmate doing 40 years for arson used a cellphone to harass a young woman he'd never met, and then for more kicks phoned in bomb threats to the state fair. Prison officials regard cellphones as a top-priority threat.

When Whitmire got the call from Talbot, the senator heard out the prisoner's complaints and made sure he got Talbot's number. Whitmire then called John Moriarity, the Texas prison system inspector general, and pointedly asked how an inmate in a maximum-security facility had got hold of a cellphone. Moriarity's office subpoenaed the records for the phone Talbot had used; to their shock, they found out it had made 2,800 voice calls and text messages over the previous month, with at least nine other prisoners using it. On 20 October 2008, Texas Governor Rick Perry ordered a crackdown, with searches coming up with 128 phones -- including 12 found on Death Row.

Convicts have always been able to communicate with the outside world through various dodges, but cellphones make it much more convenient and effective. A New Jersey state official reported listening in to a conference call among members of the Bloods street gang -- with the call including gang members in three different lockups. In 2007 Patrick Byers, who had been busted for a street murder in Baltimore, used a cellphone from the city detention center to track down the specifics of Carl Lackl, a witness to the murder, and arranged for Lackl's killing for $2,500 USD. Lackl was gunned down at his home on 2 July 2007. In 2006, Brazil provided a particularly fearsome example of just how much trouble cellphones can cause. Leaders of the country's biggest gang, the "Primeiro Comando da Capital (PCC)", became annoyed at the transfer of some PCC members to higher-security institutions and initiated a set of simultaneous prison riots and street battles in which hundreds were killed.

* The "North Branch Correctional Institution (NBCI)" in the hill regions of western Maryland is one of the most modern high-security prisons in the USA, with sensors, video cameras, and other high-tech gear. However, prison officials admit they can't keep cellphones out. Inmates get cellphones through all kinds of tricks -- hollowed-out bars of soap, glued-together stacks of graham crackers. In other places, cellphones have been delivered by pigeons, or arrows shot over the prison fence.

The easiest way to get one is from a corrupt prison guard: it's profitable, and if a guard comes in with a cellphone but leaves without it, who's going to be the wiser? One California guard told authorities he'd made $100,000 USD in a year selling phones, mighty tempting money on a guard's pay. In addition, the penalties for an inmate being caught with a phone are trivial: it's a rule violation, not a crime. Phones are also small and easy to hide, being stashed in Bibles, shoe heels, and toilet pipes. An inmate can make good money renting out a phone to other inmates.

NBCI has surprisingly used dogs to track down cellphones. It turns out that cellphones have a distinct smell and dogs can be trained to scent them out. A British official trained the first dogs in 2006; NBCI's dogs have found dozens of cellphones. The dogs, however, are not completely foolproof, since the scent is faint. ITT Corporation is offering a more high-tech solution, ironically named "Cell Hound", which can locate and display a map of cellphone usage. Demonstrations of the Cell Hound system can be shocking, with an ITT manager saying: "The maximum security sector of one prison we went to looked like a telemarketing center." Several prisons have bought into the system, but it's not foolproof either -- by the time a transmission has been tracked down, the cellphone's disappeared again.

Whitmire and others have suggested there's a simple way to deal with the problem, with Whitmire saying at a recent Texas senate hearing: "Jam the damn things!" That turns out to be not so simple, since only the Federal government is legally allowed to jam communications, and jamming is indiscriminate: the prison staff wouldn't be able to use cellphones either. There is some thought of setting up a "femtocell" base station in prisons that would intercept all phone calls and only pass through those that are authorized -- which would be a clean solution from both the technical and legal point of view, if it could be made to work economically. However, right now the whole notion of jamming prison cellphones is bogged down in debate.

Some suggest that it might be wiser just to bite the bullet and allow the inmates to make phonecalls legally, with the prison monitoring the calls. While inmates can use cellphones to create no end of trouble, investigations show that most of the calls from prison are perfectly harmless -- chats with parents, wives, girlfriends, kids, by inmates who are lonesome and heavily restricted in their contacts with the outside world. One California con said: "Cellphones are the best thing since conjugal visits. And being a lifer, I don't get those. I call my mom three or four times a week. And I text my daughter every night." Even most of Tabler's calls were to his mother and sister, who paid for the minutes -- which got them in trouble with the law after the Texas crackdown.

Prisons do have phones for collect calls, but access to them is limited and they are expensive landlines that can easily rack up hundreds of dollars a month in collect fees for the families of inmates. To be sure, prisons aren't supposed to be comfortable -- but few officials in the criminal justice system dispute surveys that show inmates who maintain family ties while they're in the slammer are much less likely to end up back behind bars after they've been released. Even Texas, noted for being tough on crime, is installing more landlines in prisons.

Tabler says he became very unpopular in the prison community after his call to Whitmire and the following crackdown, with Tabler even claiming gangs have taken out a contract on him for screwing up their business -- which seems a bit redundant for an inmate on Death Row. However, the crackdown passed, and things have gone back to normal, with Texas prison officials admitting they keep right on finding cellphones.



* RUSSIA IN THE 21ST CENTURY (7): THE ECONOMIST followed up the survey of Russia with two highly relevant articles: "Restive Russians" (4 December 2008) and "Uncle Volodya's Flagging Christmas Spirit" (30 December 2008).

Vladimir Putin likes to play Santa, handing out goodies to keep the public happy. During a recent phone-in session with a public, a 9-year-old girl asked friendly "Uncle Volodya" to be a magician and give her a new dress. Abraca-pocus! The girl and her family were promptly brought to Moscow, where Putin gave the girl her dress in front of the TV cameras. It must be said that Putin understands the worth of corny public theater.

It must also be said that he knows when to shut the cameras off, because even as the Moscow magic session was in progress, riot police were busting heads in Siberia. Public unrest there began after the government raised import duties on foreign cars. The Japanese don't like to buy used, and so their old vehicles have ended up in Siberia, where they are very much liked even though they have right-hand driver's seats. Indeed, the business in second-hand Japanese cars is very economically important to the region. Protests began against the duties, and so the Kremlin flew special police units to Vladivostok from the Moscow area to restore order. Local police couldn't be counted on to do the job, because they drive used Japanese cars themselves. State-controlled TV channels carefully ignored the ruckus, which only inflamed the protests. Locals were not merely angry over being economically manhandled; they were sick of being treated as colonial subjects by a distant government in Moscow.

There have been signs of protest elsewhere. A roofer named Evgeny Kolesov became a public hero after he was selected as a juror in the trial for those accused of murdering investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya. When heard on the radio that the jury in the trial had voted to exclude the media, he went to one of the few radio stations not under state control to say he had refused to sign a request by the court to do so. Kolesov said he could not take part in such a trial, because a small lie leads to a bigger one. He was dismissed from the jury and matters went on along without him, but in a country where dishonesty is normal, it astounded everyone that a nobody had the sheer spine to stand up and protest.

On 29 November, some 200 residents of a Moscow suburb went to the streets to protest the beating of a local journalist who had written about corrupt officials. The protesters were photographed by plainclothes police, but did not hide their faces. A few weeks later, Muscovites engaged in another protest, with hundreds of drivers occupying a special road lane reserved by government bigwigs, who typically drive along it on their way to the Kremlin with security escorts and push the people off the road. Unable to pull over hundreds of cars, the astonished traffic police simply waved all of them through.

These were small acts of defiance in a sea of indifference, but the worsening economic situation may lead to a sea change in attitudes as workers lose their jobs. The most vulnerable are the "monocities", relics of Soviet central planning build around a single large factory or industry. The social discontent is the Kremlin's worst nightmare and the government pays very close attention to the industrial cities. The country's growth has hit a wall, times promise to be difficult for all, and Russians don't like it.

The attempts of state TV to cover up the problems have only aggravated the discontent. As one political analyst put it, the Kremlin now has the choice of allowing politics back on to TV screens or clearing people off the streets. The violence in Vladivostok suggests that it has so far chosen the second. As if in preparation for unrest, Russia's servile parliament has just abolished jury trials for such crimes as organizing mass riots and treason, while also expanding the definition of treason.

The difficulties are certain to lead to political changes, but the Putin regime seems secure for the time being. The Kremlin is still sitting on a pile of rubles, Putin is still popular, and the likes of Evgeny Kolesov are rare. However, if Russia runs out of money before commodity prices recover, Putin's popularity may fall drastically, and the Kolesovs may become less unusual. Russians have complementary traditions of corruption and courageousness; corruption is the rule today, but if misrule continues, courageousness may yet reassert itself. [END OF SERIES]



* THE PARASITES (7): Along with the trick of finding a specific home in a host, parasites often have adaptations to make sure they stay in that specific home. This is not necessarily trivial. Fish, for example, may be hosts to many species of copepods, the little crustacean parasites, residing in the eye, the scales, or the gills, the nose, or the heart. Although all these copepods are closely related -- or at least more related to each other than any is to another crustacean like a shrimp or barnacle -- they can look very different from one another, with configurations adapted to their living quarters.

parasitic copepods

Every shark, for instance, has its own particular scale geometry, and different copepods are adapted to living on different sharks, with legs that grasp the scales perfectly, like a lock and key. If the parasites didn't hang on tight, they would be swept away by the turbulence of the sea to starve and die. A copepod that infests the eye of the Greenland shark has a modified leg in the shape of a mushroom that it plunges into the eye to anchor itself.

For another example, tapeworms might seem to have a secure home in the intestine. Tapeworms are so seemingly cozy in their environment that they do not have an internal digestive system -- they have no mouth or gut, they absorb food directly from the intestine, using skin carpeted with fingerlike projections that soak up nourishment. The intestine itself is covered with similar projections; the tapeworm is something like an intestine turned inside out.

However, tapeworms don't have everything their way. The peristalsis of digested materials through the intestines could easily flush them away if they didn't have adaptations to cling to their intestinal home. Some tapeworms deal with the pressure of the flow of material through the intestines by simply locking themselves into one place using hooks and suckers on their heads, but others are unanchored, shifting up and down the intestines to follow the movement of food. When a host drives food into the intestines, these parasites detect it and move "upstream" to intercept it. They then drift with the food, following it down the intestines until changes in the peristalsis tell them they are nearing the end, and then they move back up again. When such tapeworms get long -- and they can get very long -- their locomotion can be elaborate.

Hookworms also take up residence in the intestine. Hookworms are born from eggs that nurture in damp soil, with the larva then looking for a host. If a host swallows the larva, they will go straight to the intestines; otherwise, they will burrow into a host and, like blood flukes, work their way into the circulatory system. They pass into the lungs, and when the host coughs, they travel down the esophagus.

Once in the intestines, they grow to adults about a centimeter long. They do not feed on the material passing through the intestines, instead feeding on the intestines themselves. They have a mouth ringed with sharp teeth and a digestive system; they dig into the intestinal lining for a meal. This inflicts intestinal bleeding on the host; the blood should quickly clot in the wound, ruining the hookworm's meal, but the parasite generates molecules that suppress the clotting, at least as long as the hookworm feeds. Once the hookworm's fed, the blood clots quickly; no utility in letting the host bleed itself to death right away, since that would kill off the hookworm's gravy train. Biotech companies have investigated the hookworm's biochemical trickery to develop anticlotting drugs. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* SCIENCE NOTES: DISCOVER Online reports that researchers have found the human navel to be an "oasis" of bacteria. Most of our skin is an "arid desert", but relatively warm and moist parts of the body, like the navel and armpits, are heavily populated by microorganisms. As part of the "Human Microbiome Project" -- the ambitious effort to genetically identify all the microbes living inside and on the human body -- the researchers analyzed microbial DNA from samples taken from 20 sites on the skin of 10 healthy volunteers. The bacteria were taken from sites that were categorized as "dry", like the forearm; "moist", like the navel and armpit; and "oily", like the space between the eyebrows. The search uncovered far more bacterial species than expected, covering 205 different families.

They also found that different locales on the body have different bacterial "ecosystems": the complement of bacteria in the navel is wildly different from that in the armpit. The populations were surprisingly uniform between test subjects, however, with the navels of the subjects all having similar populations. The study will help to understand the bacterial populations of healthy skin, which may give some insights into the causes and control of skin diseases, such as eczema.

* As discussed in THE ECONOMIST, surgically removing a cancer tumor is a tricky business: even if the obvious tumor is removed, there may be remnants of cancer cells left behind that may eventually demand another surgery. Roger Tsien and his colleagues at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) have come up with a trick to help surgeons spot all the cancerous tumors. Tsien, who shared the 2008 Nobel prize in chemistry for his work on green fluorescent protein, had figured out a way to make cancer cells glow, targeting them for surgeons.

It's not so hard to dye cells; cells have negatively charged surfaces and so a positively charged fluorescent dye will stick to them. However, getting the dye to only stick to cancer cells is trickier. To pull off the trick, the UCSD team leveraged off of "matrix metalloproteinases (MMPs)", which are enzymes that cancer cells generate that chew through connective tissue and other material. Healthy cells rarely make MMP, so it is a good marker for cancer cells.

To create a "smart dye" that can selectively target cancer cells, the UCSD researchers synthesized a hairpin-shaped protein molecule, with a fluorescent dye integrated into one of the tips. That tip is positively charged while the other tip alongside it is negatively charged, meaning the protein molecule is neutral and won't stick to cells. However, the amino acids -- the building blocks of proteins -- in the bend in the hairpin are easily attacked by MMPs, which break the hairpin in half. The negative half is repelled away, while the dyed positive half hooks up to the cancer cell.

Tests on mice show the scheme to be effective. The UCSD group has also incorporated gadolinium, a metal used as a contrast agent for magnetic-resonance imaging (MRI), into their smart dye, allowing a detailed MRI scan to be made of a patient before an operation and to check out the patient afterwards. Tsien has even modified the smart dye to target other molecules, such as the blood-clotting factor known as thrombin. This variant of the smart dye lights up arterial plaques most at risk of becoming dislodged, to cause a heart attack or stroke. Nobody has used the smart dye for actually treating patients yet, but the potential of the technology is obvious.

* An article in AAAS SCIENCE reports that, as fiber-optic communications link take over the world from intercontinental comsat links, university astronomy programs in Japan, Peru, and Tasmania have been benefited from the "recycling" of old big comsat dishes, donated by telecom firms to be used as radio telescopes.

The old comsat dishes are small, generally about 30 meters (100 feet) in diameter, and they have to be re-engineered with new receiver technology; they also were originally designed to simply stare continuously at a comsat in geostationary Earth orbit, and their drive mechanisms have to be updated to steadily track the Earth's rotation and keep an eye on a cosmic target. However, upgrading the old comsat dishes costs only about 5% of the cost of building a new dish of equivalent size. The recycled radio telescopes are great for student projects, and they can be used as nodes in "very long baseline interferometer" networks.



* MAMMOTH DNA: As reported in an article in SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN ("Decoding The Mammoth" by Kate Wong, January 2009), researchers have been able to decipher an astounding 50% of the genome of the mammoth, the elephant's extinct hairy relative. This is by far the biggest portion of a genome ever recovered from an extinct animal, and hints at the possibility that some day we may be able to recreate the mammoth.


A research group led by Webb Miller and Stephan Schuster of Pennsylvania State University obtained the DNA from hair obtained from two frozen Siberian woolly mammoths, using a "high-throughput sequencing system". Before this, the biggest amount of DNA obtained from an extinct creature was 13 million base pairs, only about 1% of a genome. The Penn State group, in contrast, sequenced over three billion base pairs. They focused on sequencing DNA from hair shafts, which tends to produce good-quality DNA -- the DNA from the skin or muscles of an organism tends to be corrupted by the bacteria that promote decay.

While interpretation of the data is still underway, what has been learned so far is that the two mammoths analyzed were at least different races, if they weren't different species. Past consideration of the mammoth suggested that all belonged to the same species, but the evidence is accumulating that there was considerable diversity among the beasts.

The components of the mammoth genome sequenced so far are in bits and pieces, however. The researchers are waiting for completion of the genome of the African savanna elephant, which is likely to be similar enough to provide a "road map" to help fit the puzzle pieces of the mammoth genome in their right places. Given a knowledge of the genomes of modern elephants, the genome data for the mammoth could in principle be used to recreate the mammoth by modifying the DNA in the egg cell of an elephant. Schuster believes that about 400,000 changes would produce an animal very much like a mammoth; a true replica would require several million changes. Of course, nobody has ever tried to reconstruct an organism in such a way and there are substantial major technical hurdles to accomplishing such a feat, but there is no reason to believe that it can't be done sometime down the road.

Miller believes that analysis of mammoth genomes could provide data on the evolution of the beasts and hints as to why they died out. The Penn State team is similarly trying to decipher the genome of the thylacine or "Tasmanian tiger", which died out in the last century, both in hopes of cloning it as well and to obtain clues as to why the beast died out.

* In related news, as reported by BBC WORLD Online, a group of researchers has announced the sequencing of the genome of a female Hereford cow. The work was performed by more than 300 scientists in 25 countries and took six years to complete. The cow has 22,000 genes, 14,000 of which are common to all mammals. The other 8,000 are unique to the cow and control its specific features. Understanding the cow-specific genes may allow scientists to come up with cows that produce more milk; grow faster; be more resistant to disease; and even have less flatulence, reducing their emissions of methane, a greenhouse gas.

The announcement of the sequencing of the cow gene was quickly followed by the announcement that the mouse gene had been sequenced. The mouse genome is also of considerable interest, if for a different reason than the cow genome: the mouse is of course a popular lab animal and it is useful to have a better grasp of how good an "analog" to humans it is in biomedical studies.



* AQIM AT LARGE: As reported by an article from the Associated Press ("In Algeria, Al-Qaeda Extends Franchise"), the Sahara desert may seem like a vast wasteland, but militants that roam the sands along the southern border of Algeria find it a hospitable environment for trade in weapons, drug, and illegal migrants. Terrorists use these activities to support actions elsewhere; European counter-terrorist services believe these North African terrorist groups operate a half-dozen cells in Europe. They recently announced the murder of a British tourist in Mali and are still holding a Swiss hostage.

The militants call themselves the "al-Qaeda of the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM)". AQIM is a loose network linked to Osama bin Laden's global jihad. AQIM contributes to the greater cause by recruiting radicals in northern or western Africa, sending them to fight in the region or in Iraq. The al-Qaeda network provides them with the prestige of the movement, plus know-how and contacts. Said Jean-Louis Bruguiere, France's former top counterterrorism judge and an expert on North African networks: "The relationship with the al-Qaeda mother company works like in a multinational. There's a strong ideological link, but the local subsidiary works on its own." Another counterterrorism official describes AQIM as the local branch of a fast food franchise, "only for terrorism." McDonald's with an attitude.

Counterterrorism experts have been piecing together a picture of AQIM that shows it is becoming a serious menace. A French official says at least six AQIM-associated cells had been uncovered and dismantled in France over the past few years, fortunately before they could strike. Recently, Spanish authorities swept up 12 Algerians believed to be part of an AQIM support cell; with this action followed by arrest warrants in Italy for two Tunisians, two Moroccans, and an Algerian thought to be plotting attacks on a church and subways. The French official added: "For now, we've been good. But we've basically been lucky."

* The French were thoroughly aware of Algerian Islamic terrorists as far back as the 1990s, when a string of subway bombings rocked Paris. French counterterrorism units stepped on the militants hard, and the terrorists also foundered in Algeria; four years ago, the movement seemed to be on the fade. The core organization, then known as the "Salafist Group for Call & Combat", had been born in 1992 as part of the "dirty war" between the Algerian government and Islamists that claimed the lives of about 200,000 people. The organization lost influence by its murders of Muslim civilians and was torn by internal feuds, with discouraged fighters turning themselves in to take advantage of government amnesty programs.

The new leader or "emir" of the group, Abdelmalek Droukdel, decided to reverse the decline by forging stronger connections with the global al-Qaeda movement. His agents met with Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden's deputy, and other al-Qaeda leadership in countries like Sudan, Lebanon, or Yemen. Initially, there was some suspicion of the Algerians: even by al-Qaeda's savage standards, they were indiscriminately vicious in their attacks. However, after a year of talks and testing, al-Zawahiri publicly endorsed the "blessed union" on 11 September 2006, the fifth anniversary of the devastating al-Qaeda attacks on the USA. AQIM was born, risen from the ashes.

AQIM focused on Western targets in Algeria, or tourists and Jews in Morocco, leveraging off al-Qaeda tactics including roadside bombs and suicide bombers. The first AQIM suicide bomber attacks took place on 11 April 2007; on 11 December 2007, AQIM scored a major success by hitting the United Nation's headquarters in Algeria, killing 37 people, including 17 UN staffers.

Although AQIM has made use of al-Qaeda techniques in its actions, the main benefit to the Algerians of the brand name is access to the global system of websites and forums on the internet, which are useful outlets for propaganda and videos of attacks. That publicity has been enough to keep AQIM alive and thriving in the region: terrorism is war on the cheap, and there's enough local support to eliminate any need for direct funding by the greater al-Qaeda apparatus.

AQIM is increasing its presence in Tunisia and Libya, and Moroccan security officials say they shut down terrorist cells every few months. The US military is also now working against the AQIM threat, with the Pentagon's new Africa Command helping to back Saharan states in border patrols and cross-border cooperation. AQIM is definitely active in these regions; the British and Swiss hostages were among four tourists and two UN officials snatched during the winter near the Niger and Mali borders. Except for the Swiss hostage and the murdered Briton, all the others have been released. AQIM demanded a huge ransom and release of a Muslim cleric held in a UK jail.

However, the heart and soul of AQIM remains in the cities of Mediterranean Algeria. The militants are not admired by all: along with trafficking, they support themselves by robbery, extortion, and kidnapping for ransom. Says a local member of an antiterrorist militia: "They're not al-Qaeda, they're just a Mafia." He adds: "We're not frightened. We're well-armed."

* Algerian officials say that AQIM is being defeated. The authorities have in fact busted several large cells this year, and a number of local "emirs" have turned themselves in. Several former leaders, or "repentants" as Algerian officials call them, have called for an end to the insurgency. The authorities believe there are only about 500 to 800 fighters left, a fraction of their former strength, but add that they are "hard to catch because they're taking refuge in remote mountains and forests."

Unfortunately, violence remains widespread. There were over 80 significant bombings in Algeria in 2008, with over 600 people killed. Into the spring of 2009, there were over 60 bombings. A construction company manager and his son were snatched by a roadblock set up by AQIM terrorists, with the father released to obtain ransom for his son; the terrorists demanded $55 million USD, but settled for $28,000 USD, said to be about half the going rate. The father got his son back, but feared that they would be murdered after he handed over the money. The were let to go in peace, the father saying: "They didn't even behead me. What kind of al-Qaeda is this?" The terrorists did have him deliver a message, cockily saying that they were going to attack a local police station -- which they did on 26 March, injuring four officers in a hail of automatic weapons fire.

With 100,000 military police, 80,000 government-funded militiamen, and 150,000 police -- the number of actual military personnel is a state secret -- the Algerian Defense and Interior Ministries are by far the country's biggest employers. The cost of security to the state is well greater than that of education. If there's no more than 800 AQIM fighters in circulation, they're demanding major expenditures in the effort to stamp them out.

It wasn't so difficult to fund the fight against AQIM when oil prices were high, Algeria being an OPEC member, but it has been more troublesome lately. The country is poor in general, with high unemployment, and 70% of the population being restless youngsters under the age of 30. The security forces can and do arrest or kill many militants, but unfortunately the insecure environment tends to provide a supply of replacements. Al-Qaeda has been beaten before, but like the hydra, when a head is cut off -- others grow back in its place.



* RUSSIA IN THE 21ST CENTURY (6): The new order in Russia set up by Vladimir Putin has been established on the basis of stability, with the people kept tractable if not happy by rising incomes and greater private freedoms. Most of the citizens accept that they have no real say in how things are run; most don't really care. The police and the public health apparatus may be nightmarish, but Soviet society conditioned Russians to work the system, and rising incomes have made it easier to do.

Only the elite has really done well, however, while most Russians struggle to get by. The world economic downturn has made that struggle far more difficult. Polls show that the majority of successful young urban Russians are considering emigration. Polls also show that confidence in and respect for the government is low, and it seems likely that the Putin regime will emerge from the crisis generally discredited with the public.

The failures of leadership have collided with reality and the result is a Russia that is unstable, unpredictable, and dangerous. The most optimistic view is that the current crisis will provide an impetus for reform, leading to the establishment of true multiparty democracy and the rule of law, an honest effort to take on corruption, and trimming down on the flag-waving.

Unfortunately, that is the least likely scenario. While polls show that almost half of Russia's social elite -- including businesspeople, doctors, lawyers, and so on -- don't like the current order, there is no significant support for liberal politics. The Kremlin has even set up their own front "democratic" parties to pull in liberal-minded voters. After all, the Putin regime doesn't really have an ideology other than staying in power, and so there's no particular problem with adopting whatever ideological flavor that seems useful.

The more likely scenario is that the current regime will tighten the screws further, or be replaced by an even more nationalistic and authoritarian one. Some Russian liberals tend to blame the Americans for the increasing tilt towards nationalism, with the heavy-handed unilateral actions of the Bush II Administration playing into the hands of Russian hardliners. That was true to an extent, but the Americans merely aggravated tendencies that were already there. The Obama administration is demonstrating more finesse, making the America-bashing card harder to play.

Russian leadership is suspicious to the core, and the tensions are getting worse. Nobody will be very surprised at more fighting in the south -- in the restless Muslim republics in the North Caucasus, against Georgia, possibly against the Ukraine. The Soviet Union was generally predictable and stable; the current Russian state is highly insecure, which makes it much more dangerous. It retains control over large numbers of nuclear weapons -- disturbing enough given the mindsets of the people in charge, more disturbing when the possibility that nuclear weapons may end up in the hands of rogue states or terrorist organizations is considered.

America and the West have to tread a fine line between appeasing Russia and ignoring it. Given the rigidity and fragility of the Russian state, the future is deeply uncertain. That makes Russia dangerous -- but it also gives some basis for hope. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* THE PARASITES (6): Parasites such as flukes might seem to be primitive creatures, but they exist inside the complicated environment provided by a host, and have precise adaptations to prosper. Consider, for example, the blood fluke Schistosoma mansoni, which begins its life inside a snail living in a pond, to then drill out of the snail and search for a human ankle to burrow into. The fluke doesn't do well in the sun, so if it feels the heat of daylight on it, it sinks lower into the water, but continues to smell for the molecules that target its new host. When it senses a target, it swims frantically toward it, and on contact bores its way in. Human skin is tougher than the flesh of a snail; although the fluke produces chemicals to soften the skin, its tail snaps off as it burrows inside. With a few hours' work, it reaches a capillary, not much larger than the immature fluke itself, and drags itself through it using a pair of suckers. It crawls through the network until it reaches a major blood vessel, to then be swept around through the circulatory system, cycling around through it as many as three times.

The ultimate target of the fluke is the liver, however, and once it reaches the liver, it settles down for the moment to consume blood and grow. It matures into either a slender female or a larger male, and either way produces a signal to attract the opposite sex. When the two sexes meet, the female "snap fits" into the male, and the tightly-bonded pair depart the liver into the veins that support the gut. The journey to the final destination takes several weeks, with the embrace of the male bringing the female to her reproductive state.

The final destination depends on the species of fluke. In the case of S. mansoni, it's near our large intestine; but for S. haemotobium, it's the bladder, and for S. nasale -- a blood fluke of cows -- it's the nose. Whatever the destination, the fluke couple find a spot to settle down there for the remainder of their lives. The male drinks blood while supporting the female; the female pours out eggs. Some of the eggs end up lodged in the host and cause inflammation, but most end up in the intestines and are excreted. If they're lucky enough to be excreted in a body of water, they can find a snail to begin the cycle again.

* Just figuring out what the fluke does was tricky enough; trying to figure out how it does it was much more troublesome. One of the big puzzles was how the fluke navigates through the body. How could a blood fluke, which barely has a brain, figure out how to probe though the dark vessels of the body to find the liver and then move on to its specific final home? A researcher named Michael Sukhdeo took on this challenge, though his advisers warned he might be taking on too much: parasitologists had been trying to figure out the puzzle of fluke navigation for a long time and come up with zeroes.

It might seem that the fluke could just smell its way using chemical tags associated with the target, but though Sukhdeo started with that assumption, he quickly found out, as had others before him, that he was going nowhere. He persisted, however, finally settling on studying the liver fluke, Fasciola hepatica, which is generally a parasite of cattle and, as its name implies, targets the liver. Like S. mansoni, it starts life in a pond snail, but after it exits the snail it simply seeks out solid ground, where it forms a tough cyst and waits to be eaten by a grazing animal. After being eaten, the cysts survive the journey through the digestive tract until they reach the intestines, where the cysts burst open and the flukes burrow their way through the intestine walls to the liver.

What Sukhdeo finally realized was that the body was too active an environment to permit a simple smell-based targeting scheme to work -- the blood's circulation is very strong and the chemical makeup of the blood shifts continuously. It would have been like trying to follow up smells in a storm. What if, Sukhdeo wondered, the fluke was finding its way using some brute-force idiot-proof algorithm? His studies showed that F. hepatica followed a simple procedure:

It took about a decade of work to unravel the navigation of the liver fluke. As Sukhdeo said: "It seems that all the ideas people had before were wrong, so we're starting from scratch." [TO BE CONTINUED]



* SPACE NEWS: Space launches for May 2009 included:

-- 05 MAY 09 / STSS-ATRR -- A Delta 2 7920 booster was launched from Vandenberg AFB to put the US Air Force "Space Tracking & Surveillance System Advanced Technology Risk Reduction (STSS-ATRR)" mission into orbit. It was a prototype for an advanced missile launch warning system; details were classified. It was built by General Dynamics, and had a mission life of a year.

-- 07 MAY 09 / PROGRESS 33P (ISS) -- A Soyuz-U booster was launched from Baikonur to put the "Progress 33P" tanker-freighter spacecraft into orbit on an International Space Station (ISS) supply mission. It docked with the ISS Pirs module on 12 May after several additional days to test new flight avionics, delivering supplies and station propellant to the Expedition 19 crew of commander Gennady Padalka, flight engineer Michael Barrett, and flight engineer Koichi Wakata.

-- 11 MAY 09 / ATLANTIS (STS-125) / HST SERVICING MISSION -- The NASA space shuttle Atlantis was launched from Cape Canaveral on the fifth and final mission to service the Hubble Space Telescope. The crew included commander Scott Altman (fourth flight, having been on a previous Hubble mission), pilot Gregory C. Johnson (first flight), flight engineer Megan McArthur (first flight), plus mission specialists John Grunsfeld (fifth flight, having been on two previous Hubble missions), Michael Massimino (second flight, having been on a previous Hubble mission), Andrew Feustel (first flight) and Michael Good (first flight). The mission involved:

One of the original rationales for the mission was to provide the capability to deorbit the Hubble -- it was originally supposed to be recovered by the space shuttle but that proved unrealistic. The mission attach a new NASA "Low Impact Docking System (LIDS)" ring and a retroreflector homing target to the base of the Hubble, permitting an unmanned mission to attach a deorbit booster later. With the docking ring fitted, the option remained open to perform more servicing missions to the Hubble with the replacement Orion crew vehicle, but no further missions were planned.

After two days of delays due to weather problems, Atlantis touched down at Edwards AFB in California, having spent over 12 days and 21 hours in space. The shuttle orbiter was returned to Florida by a 747 shuttle carrier aircraft, departing California on 1 June and reaching Florida the next day.

-- 13 MAY 09 / HERSCHEL, PLANCK -- An Ariane 5 booster was launched from Kourou to put the "Herschel" and "Planck" astronomy satellites into space. Herschel was an infrared astronomy satellite, intended to scan the sky in the far-infrared and sub-millimeter ranges, from 55 to 672 microns.

Herschel satellite

Herschel was the most powerful space telescope launched to that time, with a 3.5 meter (11 foot 6 inch) mirror, substantially bigger than the Hubble's 2.4 meter (7 foot 10 inch) mirror. Herschel had a launch mass of 3.3 tonnes (3.6 tons). The spacecraft's mirror was fabricated from silicon carbide (SiC), a rigid, lightweight material with excellent machining and thermal properties. The Herschel mirror only weighed 300 kilograms (660 pounds), compared to the 1,000 kilograms (2,200 pounds) of the Hubble mirror. The SiC mirror was fabricated in twelve pieces and brazed together in a vacuum environment. Herschel's telescope was cooled to 70 degrees Kelvin using a helium-filled Dewar bottle; the 2,300 liters (607 US gallons) of coolant was scheduled to last three and a half years. The imaging system included three instruments:

Herschel was placed at the Sun-Earth L2 libration point, 1.5 million kilometers (932,000 miles) beyond the Earth from the Sun, along with the "Planck" cosmic microwave background mapper. Planck had a launch mass of 1.8 tonnes (2 tons), a 1.5 meter (5 foot) mirror, and an array of sensitive microwave receivers, all cooled by a cryogenic system. Planck was designed to obtain a CMB map with greater resolution than those available before, scanning nine bands in the range of 30 to 900 GHz.

Planck satellite

-- 16 MAY 09 / PROTOSTAR 2 -- A Proton Breeze M booster was launched from Baikonur to put the "Protostar 2" AKA "Indostar 2" direct broadcast geostationary comsat into orbit for ProtoStar LTD of San Francisco. Protostar 2 was a Boeing Satellite Systems BSS-601HP comsat; it had a launch mass of 3,904 kilograms (8,609 pounds), plus a payload of 13 S-band and 27 Ku-band transponders. It was placed at the geostationary slot at 107.7 degrees East longitude to provide direct TV broadcast, internet access, and other communications services for the Asia-Pacific region.

-- 19 MAY 09 / TACSAT 3, SMALLSATS x 4 -- A Minotaur booster was launched from Wallops Island to put the US Air Force "TacSat 3" experimental satellite into orbit. TacSat 3 was built by Orbital Sciences Corporation for the Pentagon's Operationally Responsive Space program, with ATK providing the spacecraft bus.

TacSat 3 had a launch mass of 400 kilograms (880 pounds) and carried a high-resolution multispectral imager, the "Advanced Responsive Tactically Effective Military Imaging Spectrometer (ARTEMIS)", built by Raytheon. ARTEMIS operated in 400 spectral bands and was under the control of "smart" software that allowed the satellite to search for targets meeting predefined criteria, stored in an onboard library. TacSat 3 could download results of observations directly to tactical terminals to provide immediate support for the warfighter in the field. The spatial resolution of the imager was not announced. The mission was expected to validate the concept of "agile" space tactical intelligence assets and had a planned duration of a year. TacSat 3 included two secondary payloads: the US Navy "Satellite Communications Payloads", intended to relay intelligence from ocean buoys to a ground station for distribution to tactical elements; and an Air Force technology test, the "Space Avionics Experiment".

The flight also carried four microsats. The largest was the NASA "PharmaSat 1" microsat, a 4.5 kilogram (10 pound) spacecraft intended to observe the effects of antibiotics in yeast cultures in 48 sample containers. The other three were CubeSats, including "CP-6" from California Polytechnic State University, "AeroCube 3" for the Aerospace Corporation; and "HawkSat 1" for the Maryland-based Hawk Institute for Space Sciences.

-- 20 MAY 09 / MERIDIAN 2 -- A Soyuz 2-1a Fregat booster was launched from Plesetsk to put the second "Meridian" military comsat into high-inclination "Molniya" orbit.

-- 27 MAY 09 / SOYUZ TMA-15 (ISS) -- A Soyuz booster was launched from Baikonur to put the "Soyuz TMA-15" manned space capsule into orbit on an International Space Station (ISS) support mission. The three crew on board included Soyuz commander Roman Romanenko (first flight) of the Russian Space Agency, astronaut Frank de Winne (second flight) of the European Space Agency, and astronaut Robert Thirsk (second flight) of the Canadian National Space Agency. The capsule docked with the ISS Zarya module on 29 May, with the three newcomers joining current residents ISS commander Gennady Padalka of the Russian Space Agency, NASA astronaut Michael Barrett, and Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata to form the full ISS "Expedition 20 / 21" crew, the first to include the full complement of six, with representatives of all five space agencies working on the station.

* OTHER SPACE NEWS: President Obama selected retired Marine Major General Charles Bolden, a former NASA astronaut, to become the administrator of the US National Aeronautics & Space Administration. He will replace Michael Griffin, who was appointed to the post in 2005. Griffin had hoped to stay on as NASA Administrator in the Obama Administration, but as per custom for senior government political appointees he submitted his resignation when the new administration entered office, and the resignation was accepted. Bolden had been an advisor to Obama on space policy and it appears the president wanted his own man in the job. Griffin took an educational post at the University of Alabama in Huntsville.

Bolden still has to be confirmed by the Senate, but that's seen as a formality, his qualifications for the job being excellent. He served as a combat pilot in Vietnam, flying more than a hundred combat sorties in a Grumman A-6A Intruder attack aircraft. He went on to be a test pilot, then an astronaut, flying four shuttle missions. He has a BS in electrical science from the US Naval Academy and a masters in systems management from the University of Southern California. He will be the second astronaut to take the job. He will be the first person of color to become NASA administrator; the fact that he is black is irrelevant to his qualifications but it is unlikely to harm him in the confirmation process.

Charles Bolden

The Obama Administration is also performing a broad review of the space program, the job being done by a committee chaired by Norman Augustine, a former boss of Lockheed Martin who chaired a similar committee during the Bush I Administration in 1990. There's a budget crunch and NASA simply has more on its plate than can be sensibly funded. The committee should have a report available on its conclusions no later than the end of August 2009.

* As reported in THE ECONOMIST, NASA has been working on a "space internet" based on the "delay (disruption) tolerant network protocol (DTN)". A space communications network obviously has different constraints from the terrestrial internet, the most apparent being that time delays in communications from distant planets may have time lags of up to hours. There's also the fact that access to communications may not be continuous: a Mars rover generally has to use an orbiter as a communications relay to Earth, which means the rover has to store its messages until the orbiter is in line of sight, and that communications sessions have to be carefully planned out. The goal of the DTN is to automate the sessions as much as possible. As one researcher working on DTN put it: "The idea would be that you could send data from France to Mars in a seamless way."

The first test of the DTN was performed in November 2008, using the EPOXI spacecraft -- originally launched as the Deep Impact comet flyby probe -- now in orbit around the Sun in preparation for a second comet flyby next year. DTN software was downloaded into EPOXI and communications sessions were then performed between the probe and Earth. The next step, to be completed by September 2009, is to upload improved DTN software to EPOXI and also bring the International Space Station up on the network.

Researchers at Ohio University are now distributing an implementation of the "DTN protocol stack", so that programmers can write software using DTN such as web browsers, email clients, and file-transfer protocols for use between manned and unmanned nodes in the DTN network. It will also require an extension of the internet naming system, so that researchers can get automated emails from, say, "rover@nasa.gov.dtn.mars".



* DARK MATTER CLOSE TO HOME: Decades ago, astronomers observing the rotational rates of galaxies realized from the rates of galactic spin that they were about five times more massive than they should have been from estimates of the mass of their stars, planets, and interstellar clouds. Despite intensive study, the "dark matter" of the Universe remains mysterious -- some suspecting it may be a misunderstanding, though nobody can say where the misunderstanding lies. The mystery is getting a lot of attention.

As reported in an article in SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN ("Neighborhood Darkness" by Charles Q. Choi, January 2009), theoretical physicist Stephen Adler of the Institute For Advanced Physics in Princeton, New Jersey, suggests that we might find out more about dark matter by looking closer to home. He believes that a precise measurement of the mass of the Earth and its Moon as a system may give a greater mass than the sum of two measured separately.

Adler came to this idea partly through examination of studies of lunar-orbiting spacecraft, whose flight around the Moon is generally carefully tracked to produce gravity maps, and the Laser Geodynamics Satellites (LAGEOS) geodetic survey satellites -- spheres that have been in orbit around the Earth for decades, fitted with laser reflectors to permit their orbit to be tracked with great precision, providing detailed gravity maps. Adler then compared the data from these two sources from that provided by laser measurements of the Moon's orbit, obtained from laser reflectors left on the Moon's surface by the Apollo missions decades ago.

Adler estimates that the gravitational pull between the Earth and Moon is greater than it should be, and estimates that the discrepancy could be accounted for if there was 24E12 tonnes of dark matter between the two bodies. He believes that the presence of significant amounts of dark matter in our Solar System might account for small anomalies in the trajectories of deep-space probes, and also for an unexplained excess of heat observed in most of the Outer Planets: he proposes that the heat comes from impacts of dark matter particles.

Adler is admittedly working at the edge of known physics, and there is some skepticism of his claims, for example with some theorists suggesting that if there ever were substantial clumps of dark matter in the Solar System, gravitational interactions with the planets should have ejected them a long time ago. However, Adler's ideas are definitely seen as thought-provoking, and since nobody has a really good handle on the dark matter puzzle yet, nobody's rejecting any new ideas out of hand.

ED: I looked up the LAGEOS satellites and to no surprise they are just passive laser reflectors, basically "disco balls" with no electronics or other support systems. They are solid brass spheres with an aluminum outer shell covered with 426 laser reflecting prisms, giving them the appearance of big sparkly golf balls. They are 60 centimeters (2 feet) in diameter and have a mass of 411 kilograms (906 pounds). They were made solid and heavy to help them remain stable in orbit.

LAGEOS satellite

Two were sent up: LAGEOS 1 was launched in 1976 as the sole payload of a Delta booster, while LAGEOS 2 was put into space in 1992 during a space shuttle mission in 1992. They orbit at an altitude of 5,900 kilometers (3,700 miles) and are expected to stay in space for over 8 million years. An international network of laser rangefinder systems tracks keeps careful track of their movements.



* HIGH-ALTITUDE AIRSHIPS: Airships are a concept that seem to endlessly linger at the margins, finding uses in particular niches such as advertising or tourism. They were in much wider use as recently as World War II, helping to protect America's coasts against Axis submarines.

Tethered balloons or "aerostats" are now in regular use for surveillance and radio relay in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, but though the gasbags are blimp-shaped and often incorrectly called blimps, they are unpowered and so relatively inflexible in operation. As reported in an article in AVIATION WEEK ("High Hopes" by Graham Warwick, 6 April 2009), Lockheed Martin has been working for the last few years on an unmanned "High Altitude Airship (HAA)" that could linger for weeks, even months, in the stratosphere, maintaining an "angel's eye view" of activities on the Earth's surface below. The Pentagon's Missile Defense Agency ordered an HAA prototype in 2005, but funds were cut in 2008. Now Lockheed Martin is working on an HAA demonstrator, named the "High Altitude Long Endurance Demonstrator (HALE-D)" for the US Army's Space & Missile Defense Command (SMDC), with first flight scheduled for August 2008.

High Altitude Airship

The SMDC picked up the HAA program from the Missile Defense Agency and decided to scale it down, funding it as one of a set of low-cost demonstrations of different HALE-D technologies. The original prototype concept envisioned an airship that could float at 18,300 meters (60,000 feet) for a month, carrying a 225 kilogram (500 pound) payload; the HALE-D airship will stay at the same altitude, but only for two weeks and with a tenth the payload.

The HALE-D airship will have a length of 73.2 meters and a diameter of 18.4 meters (240 x 70 feet), with a volume of 14,000 cubic meters (500,000 cubic feet). That makes it about twice the size of the Goodyear blimp and a bit smaller than the aerostats that Lockheed Martin builds. The airship's power system is being leveraged from spacecraft technology, with an array of thin-film photovoltaic (PV) cells on top that will provide 15 kilowatts to the propulsion system and also charge a 40 kilowatt-hour bank of lithium batteries. The PV array and the battery system are both modularized so that failure of one module will not bring everything down. The payload, to be provided by SDMC, will include a comlink and a sensor.

The vehicle management system includes dual communications datalinks; a Global Positioning System / inertial navigation system guidance unit; and flight control computers, with the computers having their own backup batteries. Propulsion is provided by twin two-kilowatt electric motors; four would be preferable for an operational system. The airship will be able to fly at up to 37 KPH (20 knots) at its operational altitude, enough to allow it to maintain station.

The airship is being built by Akron Airdock, home of the Goodyear blimp. Once completed, it will be flown from Akron to a test location. If the HALE-D airship works out, it may lead to a production vehicle, which is seen as carrying a 900 kilogram (2,000 pound), 15 kilowatt payload to 19,800 meters (65,000 feet) for 30 days.

The Army is very hot on obtaining a long-endurance airship surveillance platform, with officials saying it was needed "last year" for operational use, and has issued a preliminary request for designs of a "Long Endurance Multi-Payload (LEMP)" platform that could carry a payload of 1,135 kilograms (2,500 pounds) to 6,100 meters (20,000 feet). The requirement specifies a "hybrid" airship, one with negative buoyancy that only stays aloft due to lift. The LEMP is not expected to have extreme endurance, meaning it will have to come back down to the ground on regular basis -- and hybrids are much easier to handle on the ground than traditional positive buoyancy airships,

* In related news, the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has awarded a contract to Lockheed Martin for development of a subscale demonstrator for another robot airship, intended as a high-altitude radar platform. As envisioned, the production "Integrated Sensor & Structure (ISIS)" airship will be covered with solar cells, with an active-array radar and fuel cells to keep the vehicle working at night. The radar was originally supposed to be integrated with the airship skin, but the conclusion was that it was cheaper and more effective to mount the flexible array on a cylindrical gasbag, called the "pill", mounted vertically in the center of the airship. From 21,300 meters (70,000 feet), the radar will be able to track air targets out to 600 kilometers (370 miles) and ground targets out to 300 kilometers (185 miles). ISIS would be able to remain on station for months, even years, and would be able to self-deploy to anywhere on Earth in no more than 10 days.

ISIS is envisioned as over 300 meters (1,000 feet) long with a radar array covering 6,000 square meters (65,000 square feet). So far, development work has come up with airship structural materials that reduce overall weight to a quarter and increase lifetime from about a year to over 20 years. Work on active array radars has reduced array weight by a factor of more than 10 through use of cellphone network technologies, with the array operating at low power levels that eliminate need for cooling.

The subscale demonstrator for ISIS is expected to fly in 2013. It will be 137 meters (450 feet) long and will carry a Raytheon-built radar array with an area of 500 square meters (5,400 square feet). 20% of the array area will be for an X / UHF band array, with 100,000 transmit-receive array modules, while the other 80% will be for a UHF array. The operational ISIS radar array would have seven million transmit-receive modules.



* RUSSIA IN THE 21ST CENTURY (5): Along with corruption, another evident sign of the rot inside the Russia state can be seen in the dying villages that dot the countryside. The young do not want to stay down on the farm and so flock to the big cities, with villages gradually turning into ghost towns. The fadeout is greatly enhanced by the fact that the Russian birth rate is low and the death rate is high. The population of 142 million souls is shrinking by 700,000 a year, and may fall under 100 million by 2050. The government has tried to put the brakes on the decline, but so far it's been much too little, much too late.

The problem began during the Cold War. The Soviet Union was so preoccupied with building arms to defend the state from the West that the well-being of the citizens was neglected, with little funding put into the health-care system. By the mid-1960s population growth had turned the corner from positive to negative, with life expectancy falling along with it. The Russian health-care system is a relic of the Soviet state -- neglected, indifferent, corrupted.

Life expectancy has been particularly reduced by alcohol. Russians tend to drink much more than Westerners -- and not just vodka, which tends toward the high proof, but ghastly forms of "hooch" that people elsewhere would regard as madness to drink, not just moonshine but even perfumes and windshield wash. Drinking is something of a Russian tradition; the Soviet state did a lot to escalate the custom, raising vodka production to high levels in the 1960s. Vodka has since remained plentiful and cheap. One of the simplest ways to cut down on alcoholism would be to make hard spirits more expensive and difficult to obtain, but most of the booze is produced illegally and not taxed anyway. The government has done little about it. Nobody could accuse the sloviki of taking a nannying attitude towards the citizens.

And then there's AIDS. It started out slow in Russia, amounting to a modest 7,000 cases in 1997. Now the official figure is over 430,000, the biggest in Europe, and the World Health Organization suspects the real total is twice that. Most victims are under 30; two-thirds are drug users, but the pandemic is spreading into the general population. The government seems to be waking up to the problem, but has been slow to take action.

The only short-term solution to the population implosion is to encourage immigration, but Russians are hostile to the notion. Most immigrant workers in Russia are Central Asians; until recently, the rules all but discouraged them from coming. The laws have been relaxed, but not enough, and most migrant workers remain illegals. The migrants also keep a low profile, since the police treat them bad and skinhead gangs treat them worse. The attitude of the majority of Russians towards immigrants is neatly summed up by the slogan: "Russia For The Russians". That attitude does not take into account the fact that if things continue as they are, one day there may be a Russia with no Russians. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* THE PARASITES (5): In the 1860s, the great French biologist Louis Pasteur conducted experiments that finally administered the deathblow to spontaneous generation. Pasteur kept broth in a flask with a neck that was bent to admit air but keep out particulates; the broth didn't go bad until he broke the neck. He also demonstrated that microorganisms were a cause of disease, and that sanitary procedures in medical practices could prevent their transmission.

The German scientist Robert Koch elaborated on Pasteur's findings to develop a procedure for isolating microorganisms that caused diseases. It was logical to assume that a microorganism found in a patient with a particular disease might be a cause of that disease. To demonstrate that it was, Koch suggested that the microorganism first be isolated and grown in a pure culture. The microorganism would then be inoculated into a host, and if the host came down with the disease, exhibiting an association with the same microorganism, the microorganism could be reasonably assumed to be the cause of the disease.

Armed with Koch's procedure, medical researchers took on bacterial infections, and later tackled viruses. However, parasites were comparatively neglected. The limitation of Koch's procedure was that it worked well enough with bacteria, which had simple life cycles -- they reproduced by fission, with one bacterium splitting into two more or less identical clones -- but didn't always work very well with parasites, since they tended to have elaborate life-cycles. For example, by the early 20th century researchers had determined that malaria was caused by the Plasmodium protozoan parasite, but found its life-cycle very difficult to unravel, since it shifts form from generation to generation:

Bacteria could often be cultured by growing them in a petri dish with sugars, but cultivating the Plasmodium parasite meant simulating different environments in two very different organisms. Nobody figured out how to culture Plasmodium until the 1970s. Treating such parasites also proved very difficult -- very importantly, we still don't have a workable vaccine against malaria. Incidentally, parasites whose life-cycles span two unrelated species are nothing unusual.

Parasites were neglected not only because of their basic intractability, they were also disregarded because they were mostly tropical pathogens. In Europe and America, where most of the medical research was done, the primary threats were from bacteria and viruses, sanitation having done much to suppress the threat of parasites. Parasites not being a problem there, they were a second priority. In addition, there was a certain, in hindsight odd, tendency to underestimate parasites. Partly that was a reaction of disgust -- humans loathe parasites, regarding them as malevolent and miserable beings, and even modern parasitologists sometimes find their subjects of study hard to take -- but it was taken to the extreme of simply dismissing them as evolutionary trash.

The British zoologist Ray Lankester, for example, wrote an essay in 1879 titled: "Degeneration: A Chapter In Darwinism" -- in which he suggested that parasites were a perfect demonstration of "degenerate" organisms. His most pertinent example was the Sacculina barnacle, a parasite of crabs. Barnacles are crustaceans, relatives of crabs themselves, and in its larval stage the Sacculina barnacle looks very much like a shrimp larva. Once it infects a crab, however, it grows into a mere sac of digestive and reproductive organs, fed by tendrils extended through the crab's body. As Lankester put it: "Let the parasite life once be secured, and away go legs, jaws, eyes, and ears; the active, highly gifted crab may become a mere sac, absorbing nourishment and laying eggs."

Lankester followed up on such observations by suggesting in a heavy-handed way that humanity might be going the way of the parasite, following a trajectory towards degeneration -- a notion that found its way into popular culture, providing a feedstock of sorts for political zealots. In modern times, though few still have much liking for parasites, Lankester's viewpoint on the nature of parasites like Sacculina is seen as antiquated and quaint.

"Improvement" and "degeneration" represent human value judgements; evolution simply drives toward organisms that are better adapted to their environment and lifestyles. Like them or not, parasites are generally well-adapted to their ways of living, and calling them "degenerate" is merely an empty-headed sneer against organisms that pay as much attention to it as would a rock. Unpleasant as it is, the Plasmodium parasite is a biological marvel; and though few of us fail to find the Sacculina barnacle disgusting, it turns out to have some amazing tricks of its own. Considering how difficult it has proven to deal with parasites, we dismiss them at our own risk. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* GIMMICKS & GADGETS: As reported by POPULAR SCIENCE magazine, a skyscraper race seems to be underway in the Persian Gulf. Dubai's Burj Dubai is currently the world's tallest building, at 701 meters (2,300 feet), but Kuwait is now breaking ground on the much taller "Burj Mubarak al Kabir" which, when completed in 2016, will be 1,001 meters (3,284 feet) tall. The height was deliberately specified to evoke THE ARABIAN NIGHTS.

The Burj Mubarak is to be the centerpiece of the "City of Silk", a built-from-scratch metropolis set up on the Tigris-Euphrates delta. Kuwait's population has been growing rapidly and the new city is to help provide more living space. The skyscraper is mainly a giant apartment block, divided into seven 30-story neighborhoods, each with its own offices, schools, and hotels, with four-story "town squares" separating the neighborhoods.

Wind is of course a threat to such a tall structure, and so London-based architect Eric Kuhne devised it as three distinct towers, each with a wedge-shaped floor plan, linked together at the tip of the wedge in an overlapping fashion to form a triangular core. That allows the three towers to brace each other; to dampen vibrations that might disturb the residents and undermine the structure, there is a control surface two to three meters wide running up each side of the tower. These adjustable "ailerons" divert winds to keep them from creating turbulence and vibrations.

* As reported by WIRED Online, in early April the Honda Company of Japan put on a public show of their "walking assist" robotic systems in New York City. They are designed to be worn by laborers or people who have trouble walking without assistance -- particularly old folks who have trouble walking any distance or climbing stairs. While the walking assist systems are clearly experimental and there is no commitment to production at the present time, they are clearly light and mobile enough to be practical. Two different systems have been developed:

The prototypes were tailored to the relatively small average stature of Japanese, but Honda engineers say that scaling up to handle larger users will not be difficult.

* BBC WORLD Online reports that UK police are gradually establishing a national network of TV cameras to observe roads and track particular license plates. There's nothing extremely new about road-observation cameras or the ability to read license plates, but the network will consolidate their observations into a single server, allowing any one law enforcement official to track a car on the roads anywhere in the country. The police feel that the camera network will be a major benefit to public security, but civil-rights activists aren't so enthusiastic. An antiwar protester ended up on a police "hotlist" and was pulled over to be interrogated as a potential terrorist even though he hadn't been accused of a crime. Even some UK government officials admit the regulation and oversight of the network leaves something to be desired.

* In an interesting article on a developing-world gimmick, BBC WORLD Online went to war-torn South Sudan to check out their new ambulances: dirt bikes with sidecars. The region has a hideous rates of mortality in childbirth, with one in six mothers dying in the process. Mothers giving birth in even a basic clinic have a much better chance of survival, but clinics are few and far between, and the roads are very bad.

The ambulances, which cost about $6,000 USD each, have a sidecar where the patient can lie back, shielded by a sunscreen and protected to an extent from the rough ride by cushions and heavy shock absorbers. Malawi has already used motorbike ambulances to more than halve maternal death rates. Villagers in Southern Sudan are so delighted to see the ambulances that they put on celebrations and dances to welcome their arrival.



* EXTREME POLLINATORS: I picked up a set of NATURAL HISTORY magazines from the discard pile at the library, and one issue had an article titled "The Flower And The Fly" (by Laura A. Sessions & Steven D. Johnson, March 2005) showing how nature could come up with creatures as or more freakish than those cultivated by human breeders. The lead case in point was the "meganosed fly", a pollinating fly of southern Africa that is the size of a bee but is fitted with a proboscis five times as long as its body.

To understand why the meganosed fly has such an extraordinary honker requires backtracking back the history of the pollination business. Up until late in the age of the dinosaurs, plants simply dumped their pollen to the wind in hope it would find a mate someplace else. Plants still do this, as any hay fever victim knows, but at that time certain plants acquired regular visitors -- say insects that liked to feed on plant sap. These visitors had a liking for a particular group of plants, and as they went from one plant to another like it, they often carried pollen along with them, fertilizing plants. This gave plants with such inadvertent "partners" greater reproductive success than plants that simply threw away their pollen in hopes of getting lucky.

And so began a cycle in which variants of plants emerged that proved more specialized and effective in dealing with pollinators, providing inducements such as nectar to the pollinators that encouraged the evolution of variants of pollinators more tightly adapted to dealing with the plants. The cycle led to modern flowering plants and their pollinators. This partnership between flowering plant and pollinator also tended to become specialized: in the ultimate extreme, a plant that only had one type of pollinator that could not deal with any other type of plant would ensure the plant would get precisely targeted pollen delivery, and the pollinator would have its own reserved food supply.

The English naturalist Charles Darwin understood such patterns of "coevolution" of plants and animals well over a century ago. In his musings on orchids, he noted that the Malgasy orchid had a pool of nectar over a hand's length deep inside the flower. Darwin suggested that there had to be a pollinator, he presumed a moth, that had a proboscis that long to reach the nectar. It wasn't until early in the 20th century that such a moth, a long-tongued hawk moth, was found on Madagascar. As it turned out, the meganosed fly and its relatives proved even more vivid examples of extreme pollinators, since they are much smaller than the hawk moth but have probosces roughly the same length.

The meganosed fly interacts with a "guild" of plants that, though not closely related, have comparable features and similar lifestyles. The plant guild associated with the fly includes types of geraniums, irises, orchids, and violets that all have long, straight floral tubes, no scent, and flowers that close at night. In contrast, bird-pollinated flowers tend to be large, red, and unscented, while moth-pollinated flowers tend to be long, narrow, white, and scented in the evening.

The meganosed fly and the guild of plants it deals with have gone to an extreme stage in coevolution. At one time, the ancestors of both were not so extreme, with the fly featuring a more modest proboscis and the plants not having such deep tubes. However, the plants with deeper tubes could only be serviced by flies with long probosces, and by restricting access to a subset of pollinators the plants ended up with a reproductive advantage. This process went on in a feedback cycle to produce the extremes of today.

The limiting factor in such specialization is that pollinators need a fair population of flowers to stay alive and prosper, and it's unlikely that any one species of flowering plant has the numbers to keep its pollinators in business by itself. The meganosed fly interacts with a guild of plants featuring similar characteristics; any cycle that tended to increase specialization to a single plant would gradually reduce the numbers of flies until it went out of business.

Very tight coupling between plant and pollinator seems to suggest some intelligent hand in the matter, but in reality extreme specialization has a big drawback. Both plant and pollinator end up being heavily dependent on each, and if one dies out, so does the other. Extreme specialization tends to be an evolutionary dead end -- but one that evolution, in its short-sighted and purely opportunistic way, keeps coming up with, over and over again.



* VACCINES & AUTISM: While vaccines are clearly one of the great inventions in medicine, providing a high degree of protection from a wide range of diseases, they have become controversial. It has always been known that vaccines present some risk due to adverse reactions and the like, but the risks were orders of magnitude lower than the risks of not being vaccinated. However, there has been considerable controversy over a supposed link between vaccinations and childhood autism.

As reported in an article from DISCOVER magazine ("Why Does The Vaccine-Autism Controversy Live On?" by Chris Mooney, June 2009), on 12 February 2009 the US Court of Federal Claims in Washington DC ruled that there was no evidence of a link between the "measles mumps & rubella (MMR)" vaccine, as well as vaccines that include thimerosal (a mercury-based preservative), and autism. That sets a powerful legal obstacle to those trying to push cases based on the alleged link, but for the time being, it's not likely to quiet things down.

The notion that there is a link between vaccines and autism continues to get a lot of play in the general media, on blogs, and from celebrity activism. Research has consistently shown no evidence of such a link while providing plenty of evidence for the efficacy of vaccines, but the controversy has created a movement, led to a flurry of lawsuits, and even provoked abuse and threats against researchers who have downplayed the possibility of a vaccine-autism link.

To be sure, childhood autism is difficult and expensive to treat, and heart-breaking for the families affected. It also at least seems to be much more common than it was: 20 years ago only one child in 10,000 was diagnosed as autistic, now it's one in 150. Nonetheless, the medical community sees the effort to blame autism on vaccines as a potential health-care disaster -- as senseless as taking a sledgehammer to the furniture to rid a home of a termite infestation.

There has long been resistance to vaccines, most notably among chiropractors, but the high-profile vaccine-autism furor began in 1998, when British gastroenterologist Andrew Wakefield and his colleagues published a paper in THE LANCET, a prestigious medical journal. The paper focused on twelve children with behavioral disorders, nine of them autistic, finding they suffered from intestinal inflammation. The paper suggested that the MMR vaccine caused the inflammation, which released toxins that affected the children's' brains. Wakefield publicly announced the group's finding in a press conference, and the MMR vaccine became a controversy in the UK.

On the other side of the Pond, fears were rising about the use of thimerosal in vaccines. The preservative was introduced in the 1930s to prevent bacterial contamination of vaccines. Mercury is a potent heavy-metal neurotoxin and can be dangerous in large doses, but the amount of mercury in a dose of vaccine containing thimerosal is very small, usually described as slightly less than one would obtain from eating a tuna fish sandwich. In addition, the mercury in fish and other sources of mercury obtained from the environment is in the form of the compound methyl mercury, while thimerosal contains ethyl mercury, which the body tends to excrete much more rapidly than methyl mercury, limiting its accumulation.

Nonetheless, in response to concerns, in 2001 the US government announced a selective ban on the use of thimerosal; with modern single-use vaccine packaging, there was less need for it anyway. The ban was specifically described as precautionary, with the government saying there was no evidence that thimerosal was hazardous. In the meantime, researchers started investigating the facts behind the supposed vaccine-autism link, while some concerned parents and lawyers started building legal cases.

Only a few weeks after the Federal court's decision in February 2009, environmental lawyer Robert F. Kennedy JR denounced the court's judgement. Kennedy has been pushing the thimerosal-autism link since 2005, when he published an article in ROLLING STONE titled "Deadly Immunity" that attacked the US health establishment, accusing officials of a conspiracy to suppress the truth that thimerosal was dangerous. That same year journalist David Kirby published the book EVIDENCE OF HARM, which also pushed the vaccine-autism link and helped bring the public debate to a boil.

Such allegations, however, had little basis in fact, there being zero credible evidence of a vaccine-autism link. The Institute of Medicine (IOM) of the US National Academy of Sciences (NAS) published a metastudy based on 16 surveys in four countries, with 14 surveys showing no link and two dismissed for "serious methodological flaws". The critics claimed the surveys that showed no link were flawed themselves, and claimed the IOM was acting in behalf of the "conspiracy".

It is easy to scare people and not so easy to reassure them, but a backlash is beginning to emerge -- with books, blogs, and celebrities beginning to stand up for the use of vaccines. It is impossible to rule out the possibility that there may be evidence of hazards associated with vaccines hiding out in the statistical noise; the difficulty with the criticisms, however, is that the benefits of vaccines are so solidly established as to make the use of them a no-brain decision. The US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has pointed out that the use of vaccines against smallpox, diphtheria, measles, polio, and rubella has reduced the mortality of these diseases by 99%. Parents who refuse to vaccinate their children are not only putting their kids at greater risk, they are exposing the rest of community to greater risk by creating potential clusters of infection.

As far as childhood autism goes, the general belief is that it is more of an inherited condition than environmentally caused. If one identical twin is autistic, the probability is 60% that the other will be as well, with no such strong correlation across other sibling relationships. Autism is a complex disorder and it is difficult to rule out environmental influences, but on the other side of the same coin it is hard to pin one down as well. As far as the supposed rising incidence of autism goes, there is suspicion that the increase is an artifact of improved diagnosis and greater public awareness of the condition, and it's really no more or less common than it ever was.

Wakefield's paper in THE LANCET has been discredited. Further epidemiological studies did not support its conclusions, and most of his co-authors have retracted the autism implications of the study. THE LANCET has also backed off from the study. A series of investigative articles in THE TIMES of London revealed that Wakefield had ties to vaccine litigation cases in the UK, and the articles even went so far as to suggest Wakefield faked his data. Such an accusation is like "going nuclear" in scientific circles, but given the similarly "thermonuclear" impact of Wakefield's original claim, it's not surprising that the exchange is taking place.

Similarly, continued agitation against thimerosal has had the ironic effect of undermining the claims of the critics. While the failure of studies to find it posed a hazard might be shrugged off, it is more difficult to shrug off the fact that, since the implementation of the ban on thimerosal in 2001, there has been exactly no drop in the incidence of childhood autism.

Trapped by inconvenient evidence, the critics are now increasingly "moving the goalposts", for example claiming that administering multiple vaccines to kids at one time overwhelms their immune system. The critics are also claiming they are not opposed to vaccines, just that the vaccines that are in use are "bad" -- though the standards they invoke make it hard to figure out what vaccines are "good". Since the critics believe statements of medical authorities are worthless or fraudulent, it is hard to understand what evidence could reassure the critics that alternatives are any better -- when alternatives even exist.

Researchers are appalled at the single-minded determination with which flimsy accusations are contrived and thrown at one of the most vital arms of modern health care. To be sure, a resurgence of diseases long driven to the margins by vaccines would put a decisive stake through the heart of the anti-vaccine crusade, but that would be an ugly price to pay just to say: "I told you so."



* ANOTHER MONTH: Life is uneventful these days but it occasionally has its surprises. I live on the outskirts of Loveland, Colorado, and there's a field I drive past on the way south to my house where horses graze. I was driving past the other day and looked out into the field to thing: Funny looking horses! And then I noticed some had antlers.

There turned out to be a small herd of elk, with antlers covered in velvet, taking a break in the field. I keep one of my older zoom cameras in my car permanently, so I stopped and got shots. They were attracting a bit of attention from other passers-by as well, but the beasts seemed generally unconcerned. There's nothing unusual about elk in the region, but it was definitely unusual to see them grazing right next to a local neighborhood. I suspect they were on their way to the high country and thought the field would be a nice place to stop for a while.

A few days later I was on my morning walk and saw two of them wandering around through residential streets, stopping traffic. I waved down a cop and told him about it -- elk being big, strong, and potentially dangerous creatures when in close contact with humans -- but he was unconcerned: "Nah, happens all the time."

elk visiting Loveland

* I was at the supermarket one day and was lucky to get shots of some classic Buick -- I don't leave the house any more without a camera. The owner noticed me snapping away. Sometimes people will get really upset at someone taking pictures of their car, but a classic like that is supposed to attract attention. He said something like: "Nice, isn't it?"

I replied: "The big problem with shooting cars like that is too much chrome. In direct sunlight the shots have 'glare diamonds' all over them. You the owner?"


"What year is it?"


"Ah, yeah, then after Pearl Harbor they shut down production until '45 or '46."

"Actually they built some in 1942, but only as military staff cars."

I laughed. "Yeah, I could see Patton riding in the back of something like that." He laughed, too.

1941 Buick Super 8

* I was startled to see an article in THE ECONOMIST that cited statistics claiming that in the last quarter of 2008, the average American watched 151 hours of TV a month. I got to thinking: that's about five hours a day. Two hours a day would be no surprise, three not too surprising, but five? That's the average? That astounds me -- where do they get the time?

I'm not snobbish about video, I like it a lot, but I would be hard-pressed to find either the time or the material to watch more than three hours of video a week. In a sense, I don't even have a TV right now since I never got a converter box after the USA went digital a few months back. I end up living mostly on DVDs. I haven't got into video downloads yet -- one of these days.