* 23 entries including: parasites, green military, NASA-ESA collaboration in Jupiter exploration, agricultural colonialism, end of business-methods patents, voice websites for illiterates via cellphones, biodiesel from coffee, India national ID effort, DARPA shape-shifting machinery effort, and fluctuating oil prices.
* NEWS COMMENTARY FOR JULY 2009: The War on Terror continued on pace this last month, with terrorists bombing the Marriott and Ritz-Carlton luxury hotels in Jakarta, Indonesia. At least nine were killed, including two suspected suicide bombers, and over 50 injured. The Marriott attack took place in the basement car park, while the Ritz-Carlton attack was in the restaurant at about 0730 AM; the Ritz-Carlton attack took place less than two minutes after the Marriott attack. There was apparently a third terrorist, with an unexploded bomb found in a room at the Marriott, but at last notice the police have not apprehended a suspect.
Indonesian security is good and this is the first major terrorist operation in the country since a set of bombings in Bali in 2005. The authorities suspect the attack was performed by the long-standing Jemaah Islamiah terrorist group, but no one has claimed responsibility.
* US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has been determined in his efforts to cut back on unneeded defense programs to release funds for more important programs, but he has been relearning the truth that defense programs tend to keep rising from the dead. One of the high-profile targets in the cuts has been the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor program. The Raptor was designed in response to the potential emergence of a new generation of Soviet fighters -- which, thanks to the fall of the USSR, never actually flew.
The US Air Force continued to acquire the Raptor as insurance against the emergence of future threats, but it is extremely expensive -- about a quarter of a billion USD per fighter -- and it is not particularly relevant to the "dirty little wars" now in fashion. Gates wants to stop production after the delivery of the last current order for Raptors, after a delivery of a total of 187 operational aircraft. However, Congressional backers of the F-22 program have been lobbying for more aircraft, though President Obama has threatened to veto any attempt to push through more production orders.
In a recent speech in Chicago, Gates said: "The grim reality is that with regard to the budget, we have entered a zero-sum game. Every defense dollar diverted to fund excess or unneeded capacity ... is a dollar that will be unavailable to take care of our people, to win the wars we are in, to deter potential adversaries, and to improve capabilities in areas where America is underinvested and potentially vulnerable. That is a risk that I will not take and cannot accept." As far as the attempts to push for more Raptor production went, Gates said: "It is time to draw the line on doing defense business as usual. The president has drawn that line."
Gates reflected that when he was the boss of the CIA, he was accused of overestimating threats to the security of the USA. He insisted that he did not "molt from a hawk to a dove" when he ordered the current round of defense cuts and that he believed the world to be "a dangerous and hostile place" for America. "But the nature of the threats to us has changed. And so too should the way our military is organized and equipped to meet them."
The Senate seems to agree, later shooting down attempts to push more Raptor production through the legislature. Whether that ends the matter or not remains to be seen. I wouldn't bet on it.
* In the "Reality As Outrageous Undercover Agent TV Series" category, during July the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) drew the net closed on a ten-year investigation of corruption and money laundering in the state of New Jersey, arresting more than 40 people, including politicians, officials, and (believe it or not) five rabbis.
The probe has a complicated history, reports indicating that a number of different cases were involved in the investigation, but that they had links to one another. The investigation originally started out focusing on a money-laundering ring, with an informant working for the FBI approaching a group of rabbis from the Syrian Jewish community in Brooklyn and the New Jersey borough of Deal to help hide his assets. The informant made out checks to charities run by the rabbis; the rabbis cashed the checks and gave the money back to him, minus a cut. The money laundering ring spanned the USA, Switzerland, and Israel. One of those arrested had also been involved in illegal trafficking in human organs for a decade, buying kidneys from poor Israelis for about $10,000 USD each, with the kidneys sold to the end user for $160,000 USD each.
The informant was then introduced to local politicians and officials. Posing as a developer, he offered them bribes to get their assistance. The dragnet swept up New Jersey state legislators; several mayors; and building, planning, and fire inspectors. An FBI agent who had been working on the case said: "New Jersey's corruption problem is one of the worst, if not the worst, in the nation. It has become ingrained in New Jersey's political culture."
The online video accompanying the article was almost comically stereotypical: the neatly-dressed prosecutor at the podium in front of the press conference righteously announcing the arrests, and Federal agents escorting the suspects out of buildings with their hands cuffed behind their backs. One of the suspects had a jacket pulled over his head; one of the rabbis was holding his hat over his face. While I have no doubt there are people who, when offered a bribe or shady deal for the first time, answer without hesitation: "Sure!" -- I suspect that more often it's a case of just cutting corners in a gradually escalating fashion, and not thinking anything's wrong until the Devil catches up. As far as the unnamed informant in the article goes, I suspect he's on the Witness Protection Program and is now living under a new identity.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* GIMMICKS & GADGETS: As reported by IEEE SPECTRUM, the Obama Administration has as one of its long list of objectives the goal of providing broadband internet connections to Americans who live in rural and other areas that are underserved by broadband providers. Even before the new administration took office, in February billions of dollars in loans and grants were set aside by the Federal government for just that purpose.
The big winner of this government generosity is likely to be "broadband over power lines (BPL)", in which radio frequency data transmissions are performed over the 60-cycle power grid. BPL is something of a cheap and dirty approach to broadband: to no surprise, power lines are a noisy transmission medium, demanding a higher degree of error correction, but on the plus side the connections are already there to any house on the grid.
International Broadband Electric Communications (IBEC) of Huntsville, Alabama, one of the high-tech centers of the South, is already hooking up customers over BPL. IBEC provides a premium service of 3 megabits per second for about $90 USD a month, though the company's bread and butter is a 256 kilobit per second service for about $30 USD a month. That sounds pretty slow, but if the only alternative is 56 kilobit per second dialup, it's still welcome. Development of "smart grid" technology is also boosting BPL, since it provides a straightforward means for smart electric meters to communicate with servers -- though wi-fi is preferred for smart grid connectivity in locales where the wireless network is already well established.
* SCIENTIC AMERICAN Online had a short note on the new Belgian Princess Elisabeth Research Station in Antarctica, which was designed with "green power" in mind. Most of the electricity is provided by eight wind turbines; they're a generally reliable source of power since the average wind speed at the site is 85 KPH (53 MPH) and gusts can reach almost four times that. A Scots firm named Proven Energy provided the turbines. The station also gets electricity from photoelectric panels, at least for six months out of the year, and has solar thermal panels to help melt snow for water. Now that's "off the grid"!
* The use of RFID tags for tracking the luggage of airline passengers was discussed here in March 2007, with the article pointing out that airlines were reluctant to adopt RFID luggage tracking because the RFID tags were more expensive than the current barcode system. A barcode tag runs to 2 cents; an RFID tag runs to up to 17 cents. Factor in the volumes and that runs to a fair amount of money. However, as reported by AVIATION WEEK, a study performed by the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport (DFW), Cisco Systems, and Oracle showed that if all the economic factors are considered, system-wide RFID use saves 49 cents per bag. Mishandled baggage costs airlines about $150 million USD a year, not considering the cost due to customer dissatisfaction, and the current barcode system requires a greater level of labor than RFID even when everything is working well.
Previous studies of RFID for airline baggage handling have been generally focused on whether the scheme would work at all, not on its detail economics. The savings cited by the new study are clearly tempting, but of course there's a catch: the savings only accrue if RFID is the norm, and that means a hefty investment in infrastructure, which is hard to justify when the airlines are feeling the pinch -- even if it does save them money over the long run.
I wondered on reading this why the airlines would need to actually provide the tags. Ultimately, wouldn't luggage be sold with RFID built in? The RFID tag could be used in the shipping and sales process, then used to store the buyer's particulars, with the airlines writing in their own data to keep track of the luggage in transit. Of course, that's one of those simple ideas that leads to a proliferating tree of complications, but it's certainly worth a look. I have to think that eventually all durable products will have at least a tiny brain to track themselves through their lives. In fact, I can see a time when people take product intelligence for granted and wonder how it could have been done any other way.
* As an instructional tale about how whizzy tech can end up being taken for granted, an article in the WIRED Online blogs discussed how a UK dad gave his kid an old Walkman cassette tape player to try out. The kid was a trouper and put the Walkman through its paces -- people laughed at him carrying it around on his belt -- to report back how clumsy it was that he could only listen to music on a tape sequentially, that there was no random access to tunes. The dad did have to point out that the tape could be flipped over and didn't have to be rewound. Of course, the Walkman did have an AM-FM radio as well, but the kid still had to say: "How could anyone have ever thought this was a credible technology?!"
One laughs, because in hindsight it certainly doesn't seem very credible, but that's ignoring the fact that the Walkman was effectively representative of the music player tech of its generation. Before the introduction of the music CD there was effectively no random access to music, except by lifting up the phonograph arm manually and moving it to another track, and what the Walkman offered wasn't functionally so different from what would be provided by best home stereo system. I felt a certain relief when I finally got around to throwing away my old audio tapes. One wonders what tech we are perfectly happy with now that will look just as silly in another generation.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* TO JUPITER TOGETHER: As reported by an article in AVIATION WEEK ("Jupiter, Jointly" by Jefferson Morris and Frank Morring JR, 23 February 2009), the US National Aeronautics & Space Administration (NASA) and the European Space Agency (ESA) are putting together a plan for a joint mission to Jupiter. The "Europa Jupiter System Mission (EJSM)" envisions the launch of two orbiter probes in 2020 using separate boosters, to both arrive at Jupiter in 2026.
The NASA probe, currently referred to as "Jupiter Europa", would have a launch mass of about 5,000 kilograms (11,000 pounds) and would be sent into space on an Atlas 5 booster. Its mission plan involves four flybys of Jupiter's volcanically-active moon Io along with multiple flybys of the frozen moon Callisto, with the probe then settling into long-term orbit around the moon Europa. Europa is of particular interest because its cracked surface suggested liquid oceans under its icy surface and the possibility of life, or at least prebiotic chemistry. Once in orbit around Europa, the NASA probe will produce global maps of the world, using imagers to examine the moon's surface and a penetrating radar to look under the surface. The maps and surface analysis are seen as instrumental to the design of a lander probe, since it's not practical to design a lander until Europa's surface conditions are understood.
The Jupiter Europa spacecraft is currently seen as being powered by a multimission radioisotope thermoelectric generator (MMRTG), like those currently being carried by the NASA New Horizons Pluto probe and the Cassini Saturn orbiter. However, it is possible the probe might instead be powered by an "advanced stirling radioisotope generator (ASRG)" now in development. An RTG, which heats bimetallic thermoelectric strips to generate electricity, has a maximum efficiency of no more than 8%, while the ASRG, with its externally-heated piston drive, gets up to 30% efficiency, resulting in a lighter and less expensive power system. However, RTGs are well-proven and reliable, having no moving parts; few are going to be willing to risk a probe with an expected 15-year operational life on the ASRG unless its reliability can be very strongly demonstrated.
The Jupiter Europa probe will have a high-bandwidth data transmission system, allowing it return "floods of data" -- in contrast to the uncomfortably constrained data stream returned by the Galileo orbiter due to its damaged high-gain antenna.
The ESA probe, currently referred to as "Jupiter Ganymede", is not as far along in definition as Jupiter Europa. Jupiter Ganymede is envisioned as focusing the Jovian moons Callisto and particularly Ganymede, the biggest moon in the Solar System. Ganymede is the only moon with an active magnetic field and may, like Europa, have buried oceans. However, neither the NASA nor ESA probes have received a formal go-ahead yet, and both agencies have competing programs on their plates.
That hasn't discouraged the two agencies from discussing a follow-on mission, the "Titan Saturn System Mission", which would involve a NASA orbiter and an ESA lander / balloon probe to explore Saturn's smog-covered moon Titan. It's an ambitious mission concept and for the moment the investigations are on a preliminary basis, mostly focused on determining its practicality and utility.
* In other space news, AVIATION WEEK reports that China is getting ready to orbit the country's first space station, "Tiangong (Space Palace) 1", to be launched before the end of 2011. As described, Tiangong 1 resembles a relatively small can with twin solar arrays, stacked to a larger can, with docking ports on each end -- one for a Shenzhou space capsule, the other for a Shenzhou-derived unmanned freighter spacecraft.
Tiangong 1's launch mass will be 8.5 tonnes (9.35 tons), only about half the mass of a Soviet Salyut space station. The weight of Tiangong 1 is limited by the needed to stay below the lift capability of the Long March 3 booster family. In compensation, unlike the initial Salyuts, Tiangong 1 will be resuppliable, and the orbital module segment carried by Shenzhou capsules will provide more living volume once attached to the station. The mission is expected to last one to two years, the primary goal being technology test and experiments, with only occasional crew stays. The unmanned Shenzhou 8 capsule will be launched in 2011 to perform the first docking, to be followed if all goes well by the manned Shenzhou 9 and Shenzhou 10 missions.
A follow-on station is in the works, with a launch mass of 20 tonnes (22 tons). It will be put into orbit by the new "Long March 5" heavy-lift booster, currently in development and slated for service in 2014. The Long March 5, which will be in a class with the US Delta 4 Heavy booster, will be a family of boosters built around a core with a height of 59.5 meters (195 feet), a diameter of 5 meters (16 feet 5 inches), and a launch mass of 643 tonnes (707 tons). The main engines will burn liquid oxygen and kerosene to provide 1,179 kN (120,020 kgp / 265,000 pounds) thrust.
Chinese officials have talked about using the Long March 5 to support manned Moon missions. Since the booster isn't in the same class as the US Saturn V Moon rocket, it is believed that the plan is to assemble a Moon vehicle in Earth orbit using several Long March 5 launches. Part of Tiangong 1's mission is to validate rendezvous techniques that could be useful for such a program. There doesn't appear to be a commitment to a Chinese manned Moon flight at this time.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* OUTSOURCING THE FARM: As reported by an article in THE ECONOMIST ("Outsourcing's Third Wave", 21 May 2009), as food supplies have tightened up over the past decade, there's been a rise in countries investing in agriculture elsewhere to make sure they can stay fed. For example, early in 2009 King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia held a ceremony to celebrate the arrival from Ethiopia of the first batch of rice grown under a government initiative to promote Saudi agricultural investment abroad. As part of the initiative, Saudi investors spent $100 million USD to lease land from the Ethiopian government and grow wheat, barley, and rice on it, with the food sent back home. The investors are exempt from taxes for the first few years. It might sound like a fair enough arrangement on the face of it -- the Saudis get food while Ethiopia gets investment money -- but there's the uncomfortable fact that between 2007 and 2011, the World Food Program will spend a total of $116 million USD to provide hundreds of thousands of tonnes of food to 4.6 million Ethiopians who are threatened by hunger.
The Saudi program is not unique by any means; many wealthy countries are investing in poor countries to buy or lease farmland, with most or all the crops raised then shipped back home. Supporters say such programs not only provide revenue to countries that need it, they also bring modern agritech into countries where farming has been financially neglected for decades. Critics blast such programs as "land grabs", claiming that local farmers end up getting pushed off their traditional lands, with locals going hungry while foreign-run farms haul off the food.
* There's nothing completely new about foreign investment in farms; it was done in Russia after the fall of the USSR, with foreign investors snapping up large farm plots that had gone to seed. Before that, there were many attempts by European nations to set up "flagship farms" in ex-colonies, for example Britain's bungled attempt in the 1940s to mass produce peanuts in southern Tanzania. The term "banana republic" goes back even further, to the days when foreign fruit companies dominated small tropical countries for fruit production.
However, the new agricultural investment has a different flavor. One is that the deals are so much bigger. A major land deal used to be for about 10 square kilometers (3.9 square miles) of land, but recent deals are much bigger. In the Sudan alone, South Korea has signed deals for 60 square kilometers (23 square miles), the United Arab Emirates (UAE) for 40 square kilometers (15 square miles), and Egypt for another 40 square kilometers. A Sudanese government official says that a fifth of the land in Sudan, Africa's biggest country -- sometimes called the "breadbasket of the Arab world" -- has been set aside for foreign investment.
These deals aren't even the biggest. China, which not surprisingly is a leader in foreign agricultural investment, has obtained the rights to produce palm oil for biofuel on 280 square kilometers (108 square miles) in the Congo; if all the land reserved is put to work, it will constitute the world's biggest palm-oil plantation. The Chinese are negotiating a deal of comparable scale to produce biofuels in Zambia, where Chinese-run farms are said to produce a quarter of the eggs on the market in Zambia's capitol Lusaka. Some estimates set the number of Chinese working at farms in Africa at a million; not too surprisingly, there is hostility against the Chinese in many African nations.
According to the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), a think-tank based in Washington DC, from 1,500 to 2,000 square kilometers (550 to 770 square miles) of farmland in poor countries has been the subject of transactions or talks since 2006. That's equivalent to all the agricultural land in France and to a fifth of all farmland in the European Union. IFPRI calculates the value of these deals in the range of $20 billion USD to $30 billion USD, about ten times the size of an emergency package for agriculture recently announced by the World Bank, and 15 times more than the American government's new fund for food security. Economic analysts call the trend "outsourcing's third great wave" -- the first being that of manufacturing in the 1980s and the second being that of information technology in the 1990s.
Besides the scale, there are other differences. In the old days, the focus was on cash crops such as coffee, tea, sugar, bananas; these days they focus on staple foods like wheat, corn, and rice, or biofuel production. It used to be the case that foreign farm investment was mostly private. In contrast, although private investment in farms, most notably by large companies and investment firms, is important in the former Soviet state, the current binge of deals elsewhere is dominated by government-to-government transactions. For example, Saudi officials have visited Australia, Brazil, Egypt, Ethiopia, Kazakhstan, the Philippines, South Africa, Sudan, Turkey, Ukraine and Vietnam to talk about land acquisitions.
There is a significant difference between private and government investment in agriculture abroad. Private investment tends to boost world trade, since the investors want to increase production and their customer base. The governments, however, are out to bypass world markets and get exclusive sources of food for their citizens. The global economic troubles of the past few years led to export taxes and temporary bans on food exports in a number of countries, which led importing governments uncertain about access to food in the future. A government with a starving population was not likely to be popular with its people, and so the leadership had a strong motivation to ensure that food kept coming.
In countries that could do so, the solution was to ramp up domestic food production; China is spending massive amounts to improve rural infrastructure, both to increase the food supply and deal with rural poverty. However, not all the food importers had that option. Saudi Arabia had tried to be self-sufficient, but the effort was a boondoggle, with expensive food production and, worse, rapid depletion of underground aquifers. The answer was to farm abroad; some observers suggest that since the Saudis had plenty of land at home, what they were really after was water. In any case, other countries followed the Saudi example.
* The governments of countries selling or leasing have not seemed at all unhappy about foreign agricultural investment, and in fact have sent road shows to the Gulf states to promote agricultural deals. Sudan permits investors to export 70% of the crop, even though the country is the recipient of the largest food-aid operation in the world. Pakistan is offering 50 square kilometers (19 square miles) of land and promising Gulf investors that a security force will be set up to protect the assets.
Poor countries tend to see the land deals as an opportunity to reverse decades of underinvestment in agriculture. Average growth in cereal yields in Africa has fallen to a third of what it was in the 1960s, with the agriculture productivity there now the lowest in the world. Lack of investment has been one of the major contributing factors. Foreign investors not only bring in money but are offering to provide new seeds, better jobs, schools, clinics, and roads.
Worries remain. Large farms work well elsewhere, but they have a dismal track record in Africa, with big mechanized farms often ending up going back to the bush and expensive farm machinery rusting away. There is popular annoyance over the foreign buyouts as well: when the government of Madagascar tried to push a deal with Daewoo Logistics of South Korea to lease out half the country's arable land, the public uproar led to the ouster of the president. In Zambia, one of the biggest gripes of the opposition party is the huge Chinese biofuels deal.
Part of the hostility is due to government callousness in handing over the land to foreigners. The governments generally claim that the land they are handing over is "vacant" or owned by the state, but those lands are only too often in use by locals who have been farming or herding on it for generations -- property rights are a relatively new concept in Africa, and in many African countries the property laws are uncomfortably loose. The locals end up getting shoved off the land, they unsurprisingly don't like it, and they raise a fuss that makes life uncomfortable for the government. When the government is encouraging foreign investors to ship off food when locals are going hungry in a famine, the fuss gets louder and angrier.
IFPRI officials believe that the farmland deals are not necessarily bad and can be made to work on a basis of mutual benefit, as long as foreign investors sign up for and practice a "code of conduct" governing their behavior. A number of organizations, most notably the African Union, are working on such codes, which stipulate respect for customary rights; sharing benefits with locals, for example not just bringing in foreign workers; and abiding by national trade policies, for example not exporting food when there's a famine in progress locally. Codes of conduct are all very fine, but they are easily ignored. Foreign agricultural investment is booming ahead, like it or not. Whether it will turn out on the balance for good or ill remains to be seen.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* GREEN MILITARY (4): Although this series has focused on green energy for fixed base military facilities, as mentioned it is also something of an issue for tactical operations. Keeping a military organization in the field supplied and operating in remote field environments is troublesome -- some estimates place fuel as about two-thirds of logistical tonnage -- and green power offers the opportunity to reduce the logistical "tail" of field operations.
The military, for instance, is very interested in hybrid vehicles. The latest generation of the Army "Heavy Expanded Mobility Transport Truck (HEMTT)", the oversized four-axle vehicle used for heavy hauling on the battlefield, is a hybrid, with the machine's ability to provide electric power to tactical systems a definite plus. The military is now considering a replacement for the long-serving "Hummer" light truck, with hybrid power systems being a serious consideration in the plan.
Tactical systems such as radar and communications need lots of power, which has been traditionally been provided by diesel generators. They are expensive to operate, relatively troublesome to maintain, and obnoxiously noisy -- which is not only wearying for those in earshot but makes tactical concealment more difficult. The fact that the generators produce a lot of heat also makes them highly visible to infrared sensors.
Fuel cells promise a more efficient, flexible, lightweight, and quiet solution to the problem. Fuel cells are a 19th-century invention, but they weren't put to practical use until the Americans developed them for spaceflight in the 1960s. Modern fuel cells are not all that fussy about fuel, capable of using methane, biogases, methanol, and other combustibles. They are highly efficient and accordingly have reduced emissions, they are quiet, and they do not run as hot as a diesel generator. The military is very interested in fuel cells: the US Army recently signed a contract with DRS Technologies to provide more than 5,000 "Tactical Quiet Generators (TQG)" in 3 kW, 5 kW, 10 kW, 15 kW, and 100 kW configurations. The Army isn't the only buyer, either: by the end of 2009, DRS expects to have delivered more than 30,000 TQGs. There has also been some thought to fuel cell powered vehicles.
A combat soldier also has to lug around a lot of electronic gear -- communications gear, GPS, a small computer -- and batteries are both heavy and quickly depleted. Small fuel cells are light and will operate as long as they are provided with fuel cartridges: all an infantryman needs to do to recharge is swap out an empty fuel cartridge for a full one. The Army has signed a contract with the Protonex company to develop a compact 250 watt fuel cell for tactical use. The British are also investigating small fuel cells for the frontline soldier.
The US Army now has a requirement out for a portable wind turbine system that would weigh less than 20 kilograms (45 pounds), could be collapsed into an eighth of its volume for transport, and be able to operate reliably in harsh environments -- from arctic regions to deserts, in hailstorms and high winds. As discussed here in January 2009, the military has even considered the possibility of beaming power down from satellites in geostationary orbit to support military forces in the field. Certainly this option is much farther out than the use of fuel cells, but it is interesting that such an advanced idea is being given serious consideration. It may not prove practical, but it is an indication of how far sighted the military is about energy that it is being seriously examined in the first place.
* As a footnote to this series, the US military has made plenty of use of solar-powered streetlights to help provide security in Iraq and Afghanistan -- sometimes fighting the battle means just making it harder for people to sneak around at night instead of shooting at them. However, the military has also taken a page from the renewable energy development at US bases to help deal with the disastrous failings of the electrical grid in Baghdad. Dozens of sites, such as hospitals, are being fitted with solar panels to make sure that they have better access to power. It's taken decades but renewable energy finally seems to be nearing the full ignition point. If the military is taking it seriously, it's no longer just a pipe dream of old hippies. [END OF SERIES]START | PREV | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* THE PARASITES (12): Not only do parasites have elaborate adaptations to find and live in a host, they also need to have means of protecting themselves from the host's attempts to kill them off. We have a highly evolved immune system that provides highly effective "countermeasures" against unwanted visitors. Parasites have figured out "counter-countermeasures" to render the immune system ineffective.
Our immune system has two components, an "innate" system and an "adaptive" system, both heavily if not exclusively based on a range of different "white blood cells" generated from "stem cells" generated in the bone marrow. One of the most significant components of the innate system is the "macrophage", a type of white blood cell that occupies the tissues under our skin and internal "mucosal" linings. The macrophage has molecular "receptors" that can recognize important and relatively constant biochemical markers, or "antigens", of various common classes of pathogens. Once the macrophages recognize pathogens, they engulf and digest them. The innate system also includes proteins known as "complement", mostly generated by the liver, that will cut holes in unknown invaders and kill them, or mark them for attack by other immune system elements.
The innate immune system is "dumb" in that it cannot learn to attack an unfamiliar pathogen; a macrophage's receptors are fixed, capable of recognizing a range of cues from long-standing pathogens, and cannot be altered, except by gradual evolution over generations of the host organism that produces the macrophages.
The adaptive immune system, in contrast, can learn to targeting unfamiliar pathogens. A certain type of white blood cell known as a "dendritic cell" for its fringed appearance that coexists with the macrophages will also digest invaders -- and will then migrate through the body's network of lymph vessels to the "secondary lymphatic organs" that support the immune system. The most prominent of the secondary lymphatic organs are the "lymph nodes", bean-shaped nodules arranged through our body. Once in a lymph node, a dendritic cell will present antigens from the pathogens it has digested to white blood cells known as "T cells" and "B cells", allowing them to recognize the invader.
There are two major types of T cells, the "helper" T cells, which help regulate the immune reaction, and the "killer" T cells, which destroy host cells that have been infected by the pathogen and are displaying antigens from the pathogen. The B cells, in contrast, produce a type of protein known as "antibody" or "immunoglobulin" that will link to pathogen antigens, targeting them for destruction by other immune system components such as complement. After an infection passes, some B cells and T cells survive to "remember" the pathogen so that the immune system can respond quickly to a new infection by that pathogen.
* It was observed over a century ago that patients suffering from African sleeping sickness may go through multiple cycles of seeming to improve, only to fall back again and ultimately die. Obviously there was some war going on between the immune system and the trypanosomes that caused the disease, but nobody knew enough about the immune system at the time to understand the details.
It is known now that at the peak of a trypanosome infection, the trypanosomes in the host's body are all typically covered with the same biomolecules. They should be, and are, easily targeted by the immune system, which then wipes them out ... or at least wipes most of them out. The problem is that a trypanosome has a set of different gene segments that it can swap, one at a time, into the gene for producing the surface biomolecule, and the parasite does so about once every ten thousand divisions. The result is a new surface biomolecule that the immune system doesn't recognize, and so the trypanosome thrives again. Eventually, the invader simply wears the immune system down.
In addition, the changes in the coat biomolecule are not random. If the body was infected by trypanosomes with different coat biomolecules at the same time, the immune system would be able to crush them all in parallel. Similarly, if one trypanosome came up with a coat biomolecule that the immune system had dealt with before, the trypanosome would be immediately targeted and destroyed. As a result, the trypanosome steps through its coat changes in a particular sequence following the initial infection, with this sequence remaining much the same in separate hosts. [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* SCIENCE NOTES: An article in AAAS SCIENCENOW commented that termite nests are crowded, warm, and damp, which would seem to make them ideal environments for bacteria, fungi, and other pathogens. Not too surprisingly, the termites have adaptations to deal with that threat. Researchers at the University of Maryland found that termites secrete an enzyme that they slather over their bodies and their nest. The enzyme attacks the cell walls of bacteria and fungi, either killing them directly or making them susceptible to other countermeasures. The researchers also found that the enzyme could be neutralized by a sugar derivative known as GDL. That raises the possibility of using GDL to make termite nests more vulnerable to pathogens as part of an environmentally benign pesticide scheme. GDL is by all evidence harmless to humans, even being used as a food additive.
* The science blogosphere had a buzz running on a group of French researchers who came up with a powerful high-tech approach to examining fossils of insects and the like in opaque chunks of amber. While fossils of insects trapped in amber are nothing unfamiliar -- they were one of the plot elements in the JURASSIC PARK movies -- in the past such specimens could only be reasonably examined in transparent amber.
The French researchers bombarded 640 of samples of opaque amber dating back 100 million years -- to the Cretaceous, the last great era of the dinosaurs -- with synchrotron X rays, using an imaging technique known as "propagation phase contrast microradiography" to spot fossils trapped inside, and then using "phase contrast microtomography" to get a 3D image. Fissures in the amber tended to obscure the X ray images; the researchers figured out that soaking the amber in water and then probing it worked better because water and amber have similar densities and the water-filled fissures went almost invisible. The exercise paid off very well, with 356 fossils discovered of wasps, flies, ants, spiders, and other animals. They were typically very small, one example being a fossil wasp only 4 millimeters long. The researchers speculate that larger creatures found it easier to escape being trapped. They also used the same approach to give a close examination to feathers, presumably of dinosaurs, trapped in amber from the same time period.
* I'm not overly sympathetic to global warming deniers, but I will concede there is some basis for skepticism over global warming, and that it is possible that current agitation over the matter may seem overblown in a few decades. However, the available data certainly doesn't justify blindly dismissing the matter -- much less flaming it off as a conspiracy of the Evil Empire of Science -- and more to the point, the available data seems to be increasingly herding the deniers into a corner. As a case in point, as reported by AAAS SCIENCE, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, have published a study that deflates the notion that global warming may be due to a variation in the flux of "cosmic radiation", the rain of energetic particles that pours in on our planet from deep space.
In the late 1990s, a group of Danish physicists suggested that Earth's cloud cover seemed to vary proportionally with the flux of cosmic rays hitting the upper atmosphere. A lower cosmic ray flux meant less cloud cover and more solar heating. The physicists admitted that the correlation didn't prove any causal relationship between cosmic rays and cloud cover, and there were criticisms that the data really didn't support the correlation, either. However, other researchers pointed out that the ionized molecules left in the track of cosmic ray impacts on the atmosphere might well provide "cloud condensation nuclei (CCNs)" that could help create clouds. Others commented out that the Sun's magnetic field tends to dampen the flux of charged cosmic ray particles into the inner Solar System, and so there might be a link between solar activity and cloud cover.
The CMU researchers put together a computer model that factored in cosmic ray flux, the Sun's activity cycle, the physics of ionization trails, the formation of CCNs, and the creation of clouds. The model revealed that cosmic ray flux was two orders of magnitude too weak to account for any real variation in cloud cover. The problem is that the ionized particles created by a cosmic-ray track are just too small to help form clouds in any reasonable timeframe; they're lost in the noise of other cloud-forming processes. Computer models are not entirely persuasive proof, and there has been some criticism of the model's assumptions -- though other models do seem to be validating the CMU work. Says Jeffrey Pierce, one of the CMU researchers who put together the simulation: "It's possible the models are missing something important; it just doesn't seem likely."COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* BUSINESS-METHOD PATENTS STRUCK DOWN: As reported by an article in IEEE SPECTRUM ("The Death of Business-Method Patents" by Steven J. Frank, March 2009), the infamous "business-method patent" has finally bit the dust. On 30 October 2008, the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, which had established a decade earlier, ruled against it in the case of IN RE BILSKI -- and though the US Supreme Court has yet to follow up on the judgement, it's effectively certain that the Supremes will affirm the circuit court judgement. If anyone wants to obtain legal protection for new modes of shopping, delivering legal services, reserving a rest room on an airplane, or settling futures contracts, the US Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) is not going to cooperate.
Critics of the business-method patent craze were very happy with the ruling. They believed that business-method patents had turned the patent system into a Frankenstein monster. Patents had been issued for using a laser pointer to tease a cat and for a way of playing on a children's swingset. By covering almost any conceivable activity, the patent system was threatening to crush the innovation it was meant to promote.
The origin of the craze was almost accidental. For over a century, business methods had been excluded from patent protection. Patents, as the Supreme Court put it in 1980, were meant for "anything under the sun that is made by man." That meant something material, "stuff", not a procedure. European and Japanese patent protection imposed effectively the same limit. The problem was that nobody had ever come up with a really strong legal definition of "business methods", so it was hard to know if they could be regarded as "stuff" in some fashion.
In 1998, the circuit court judged on STATE STREET BANK & TRUST CO V SIGNATURE FINANCIAL GROUP. Signature had a patent on a data-processing system for calculating the best way to allocate the assets of a mutual fund, and State Street Bank wanted the patent overturned. The court decided to let the patent stand, believing that software and data-processing techniques were entitled to protection protection. Almost as an afterthought, as something of a legal experiment, the ban on business methods was dropped in the judgement.
The courts had been wrestling with the patentability of software for years before that. Where could the line be drawn between software innovation and simple use of well-established procedures and algorithms in software? In fact, the Supreme Court had tried three times to draw that line, most recently in the 1981 case of DIAMOND V DIEHR, which involved a patented rubber-curing operation based on a mathematical formula known as the "Arrhenius equation", traceable back about a century to Swedish chemist and Nobelist Svante Arrhenius. The court upheld the patent, saying that although math can't be patented, an otherwise patentable process doesn't become ineligible simply because it involves math. The Arrhenius equation wasn't patentable in itself, but everyone agreed it was possible to patent new ways to cure rubber, and their reliance on math didn't matter.
The problem is that all software ultimately reduces to algorithms, yet only some software controls actual "stuff", like the baking of rubber. If the rest is merely math and therefore unpatentable, does that mean patents must be denied to all software that runs nothing but itself? Back in the 1990s, courts were uncomfortable going that far. Computers were working their way into almost every aspect of life, and it seemed wrong to deny patent protection to software in general.
However, despite determined efforts, the courts were unable to come up with a useful patentability test for software. The PTO, unable to obtain clear guidance from the courts, simply played it by ear, examining software patents and accepting those that involved a more than simple number-juggling. The courts were not all that unhappy with that arrangement, and the court did not intend to upset it when it decided in the STATE STREET case that a mutual-fund management system was patentable.
The problem was that Signature's system was not just an abstraction or equation, but an obviously useful approach to managing specific business functions. As a result, the court decided to extent patent protection to any "practical application" of an algorithm, formula, or calculation that produces "a useful, concrete and tangible result." However, this turned out in practice to be a very vague test. The court failed to articulate what it meant by "practical utility" and so removed a key restraint on patenting abstract ideas -- such as business methods -- without introducing a new restraint. Maybe nobody could patent overnight delivery, but what about computing fees based on how far a package travels and when it arrives?
Given the pressure that competition was placing on software and internet businesses, in hindsight it was no surprise that, the courts having opened the door a crack, a flood of patent applications poured through it. The PTO was caught up in the tsunami, and filings for business-related ideas surged fivefold between 1998 and 2000. Actual grants for computer-implemented business patents rose fivefold from 1997 to 2006.
The floodgates finally slammed shut in October 2008, when the circuit court denied a patent to Bernard L. Bilski and Rand A. Warsaw for a method of hedging risks in a commodity trading system. STATE STREET was dead, with the court saying that a process must either convert one sort of "stuff" into another sort of "stuff", or it must be tied to a "particular machine".
Unfortunately, the courts were back to groping around for a formula again. The court decided that data could be regarded as "stuff" if it represented "stuff" -- say a datafile encoding an X-ray. However, there's plenty of software out there that can perform functions on any kind of data, whether it represents specific "stuff" or not. And what did a "particular machine" mean? Did it mean any ordinary PC? If so, that was hardly a restriction. Was a restriction really even desireable? Would the courts deny patent protection to Google's latest search systems just because they ran on any PC?
The whole intent of patent protection is to balance the rights of the inventor against the benefit to society as a whole. If inventors do innovative work that benefits society, they have a right to be rewarded for it and are entitled to patent protection, at least for a time. They are not, however, entitled to simply contrive schemes for their own personal benefit to obstruct the use of things on which they have no honest claim. But who decides whether protection is justified or not? If the PTO does it, who can deny patent applicants the right of appeal? There's a lot of money involved in patent disputes and that ensures they are painful.
The only thing that can effectively be done is to fall back on global custom in patent law. One common feature is the focus on what is "made", as opposed to merely "thought". Other well-established criteria include the universal unpatentability of laws of nature, physical phenomena, abstract or disembodied ideas, and pure math. A particularly important consideration is that an invention must also be different from past efforts and, critically, sufficiently innovative beyond them to merit the distinction of a patent -- that is, "non-obvious". Playing on a swing would not be patentable.
The notion of coming up with rigorous legal definitions of what may or may not be patentable in an age of software may be nothing more than an illusion. The most that can be done is to examine enough of a body of cases to establish new customs on what is patentable and what is not. That won't be a neat process, but it's difficult to think of what the alternative is.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* EXPLOITING THE CELLPHONE: THE ECONOMIST reported on the kind of gimmick that, once proposed, seems entirely obvious, though it really wasn't. Guruduth Banavar, director of the IBM India Research Laboratory, knew that cellphones were widespread in India, with about one cellphone for every three people -- and they are often shared by family members and friends, meaning any Indian is well more likely than not to have access to a cellphone. However, illiteracy is widespread in India, which meant that there were many Indians who have a tool to access the web but can't use it. The solution: create voice-based "web pages" using a voice-based version of the well-known "hypertext markup language (HTML)" known as the "voice extensible markup language (VXML)".
VXML is not entirely new, with work on a standard from 1999 and the current spec at VXML 2.1. It works like HTML, with pages written with a similar set of tags providing menus and links. Presentation is from audio files and voice-synthesized text, while inputs are from phone keys or potentially voice recognition. VXML is widely used in the automated answering systems we all know and love for their charm and user-friendliness.
It seems the idea of using VXML specifically to network the illiterate is new, and Banavar has taken a step ahead by coming up with software to allow the illiterate to add comments to VXML pages and even build their own VXML pages. A user can select a template, with the system walking the user verbally through the setup. A carpenter or autorickshaw driver could set a VXML-based website to advertised services and perform transactions with customers. Tests at the IBM lab show even complete illiterates have little trouble setting up a VXML page using the system, and it is now in field trials.
Of course, the scheme demands installation of server systems to host the pages, but Banavar thinks they could be subsidized by governments, or commercial providers could take a small cut of transactions or advertise. Voicemail systems tend towards the obnoxious and adding commercials to them hardly seems likely to make them more fun to use, but for those who can't read, it will all seem like a bargain though probably even they will find it annoying at times as well: "If you want the Argument Clinic, press ONE, but we'll insist that you that you pressed the wrong number. If you want the Abuse Clinic, press TWO, you stupid git. Press THREE for more options -- but first you have to listen to a word from our sponsor ... "
* In related news, THE ECONOMIST showed how cellphones are being put to use for data gathering. As an example, a California non-profit named INSTEDD, for "Innovative Support to Emergencies, Diseases, & Disasters", is promoting the use of cellphones for disaster response. Founded in 2007 by seed money from Google and the Rockefeller Foundation, INSTEDD has now released open-source software to collect, share, aggregate, and analyze data from cellphones. The scheme is in trials in Cambodia, where health workers send text messages with relevant data to a central server. The sender's location is determined for each of the messages, with the messages popping up as icons on a map of the region under observation. Clicking on the map allows text messages to be sent back to the field; the scheme is known as "GeoChat". INSTEDD officials say the exercise is no mere gimmick, allowing vital information to reach decision makers in less than a day, instead of weeks as per old manual schemes. Several Southeast Asian nations have adopted Geochat, with the system providing real-time data on outbreaks of disease to national health ministries.
The same approach is broadly applicable to other problems. A study of well-water contamination in Bangladesh being conducted by researchers from Columbia University uses sensors installed in wells scattered over the countryside, with locals reporting readings using cellphones hooked up to a central database. INSTEDD researchers are convinced of the potential of the technology, envisioning a global network named "Archangel" to link together cellphones, satellite imagery, sensor stations, and a wide range of other sources to get the "big detailed picture" on a wide range of issues of concern.
Coupled to this concept is the fact that online systems for scientific analysis using the "wetware" of volunteers have had no shortage of people coming forward, happy to make a small spare-time contribution to scientific research. Having the volunteers log useful data with cellphones is a straightforward extension of that idea. At present, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh are using sensors distributed to groups in environments as diverse as San Francisco and Accra, the capitol of Ghana, to monitor air and water quality, with the results uploaded to a website.
Plugging sensors directly into cellphones will provide even more capability. Finnish cellphone giant Nokia has developed a prototype cellphone with built-in environmental sensors. There's still a long ways to go towards the global cellphone data network of the future, but advocates are excited about the possibilities.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* GREEN MILITARY (3): Military interest in solar power is not restricted to facilities in sunny desert regions. At McGuire AFB, about a half-hour's drive from Trenton, New Jersey, solar power is a significant component of an effort to get the base completely off the power grid by 2015. McGuire has been selected as "model energy" base to see what can be done with renewable energy. The selection of an installation in New Jersey was not arbitrary: the state government grants generous renewable-energy credits and energy prices over 40% higher than the US national average, putting McGuire near the top of the list for candidate sites.
Solar isn't all there is to the exercise, of course. Program officials began by replacing a poorly-insulated roof on an oversized warehouse and have installed "smart meters" in large buildings to identify those structures whose "green" refurbishment will provide the greatest yield. Even with such modest efforts, in a year's time base electricity use has dropped by 14%. Next on the list: placing solar panels on the roofs of a number of warehouses; replacing old lighting with energy-efficient fluorescent systems; and replacement of the central heating plant by installing more efficient furnaces in some individual buildings, and ground-source heat pumps in others. The heat pumps transfer heat to a building from geothermal wells dug 120 meters (400 feet) deep.
Program officials say that initially the Air Force and McGuire had to grope around about what the model-energy concept meant, but now the effort is on a roll. The base energy team believes that they will be able to halve the base's 2003 power usage by 2011. They are also now laying down plans for solar and biomass power facilities. The plans include a 2 MW solar array, to be sited between a dormitory and a pair of daycare centers on the base. A 6 MW plant, installed near the edge of the base, is being considered. The two plants would go a long ways toward providing the 12 MW of electricity McGuire uses on a regular basis.
Not all military bases have access to renewable-energy resources or credits, and in cases where neither is at hand it is more troublesome to set up a renewable energy system that can pay itself off in a reasonable timeframe. The US Army is also trying to take bases off the power grid, with the goal of achieving five "net zero energy" bases by 2015. The exercise can be laborious.
At Fort Huachuca, Arizona -- pronounced "wah-CHOO-kah" and nicknamed "Fort Sneeze" -- energy program officials there managed to trim power consumption even as the base population grew by replacing inefficient lighting, installing a small wind turbine as well as rooftop solar panels, and setting up two of the military's first "solar collector walls". A solar collector wall consist of a heat-collecting panel set up about a hand's width in parallel with the south wall of a building; fans are used to distribute warm air that accumulates behind the panel through the building. Although the past history of passive solar systems is unimpressive, the walls have proven effective and popular, being installed at other Army bases in the USA.
However, although the military does have its enthusiastic green-energy boosters, not everybody in the services takes the idea very seriously, and an energy program manager at Huachuca says things can be frustrating: "We're trying to be leading edge, bleeding edge, but the problem is we get a lot of resistance. It's not all doom and gloom, but we've got to turn the ship very, very slowly."
Some advocates believe the ship is starting to turn more rapidly as the case for renewable energy builds up. A recent Pentagon report suggested that bases needed to build up "energy independence" or become vulnerable in an emergency to attacks on the external power grid. Bases do have backup diesel generators, but they are an expensive solution, and renewables promise to reduce the pain.
Still, the advocates are not overly ambitious. The services are combat-oriented and that means that weapons and tools for actual operations are at the head of the funding queue. Says an official at a Pentagon energy office: "We're mostly looking in the 100-kW to the little-smaller-than-a-megawatt range, to have security of energy and to lock in electricity prices. We want to produce enough renewable energy, but we're still struggling with the life-cycle cost issues."
What greatly encourages the advocates is the fact that the military's energy programs have in some cases been able to more than pay for themselves, making the shift to green power almost impossible to resist. The expectation is that the goal of providing 25% of the military's energy from renewables seems perfectly realistic, possibly even too conservative. [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* THE PARASITES (11): As pointed out in previous installments, parasites often jump from one host to another, for example jumping from an insect or other vector to a human host and back to the vector again. That's not necessarily a trivial procedure, and parasites have acquired adaptations to get the job done. For example, the filarial worms that cause elephantiasis are transmitted in their larval stage via mosquitoes, which has the interesting consequence that people can only be tested for infection by the filarial worms after sundown. Mosquitoes come out at night, and once it gets dark the larval worms come up close to the skin in hopes of being sucked up by a mosquito. When morning comes, the worms move back down into the host's core, making them harder to detect. Nobody is exactly sure how they keep track of the time of day -- one idea is that they track shifts in body temperature.
Fleas don't have particularly complicated life-cycles, but fleas riding on a female rabbit can sense, from hormones in her blood, when she is about to give birth. The fleas then crowd to the rabbit's face; after she gives birth, she nuzzles and licks the litter, with the fleas jumping off to take up residence on the babies. The babies cannot tend for themselves very well and they make good hosts. After the babies mature, the fleas jump back on the mother in hopes of scoring on another litter.
Moving from host to host can be particularly troublesome when hosts are solitary and live in areas where life is thinly spread. For example, the spadefoot toad of the Arizona deserts spends eleven months out of the year buried in the dirt in a state of barely perceptible animation. In July and August the rains come, with the toads emerging at night to mate and eat like crazy, sinking into the mud to ride out the hot day. The young that are born mature very quickly, and when the rains stop, they all take up the inert underground existence again.
The spadefoot toad would seem like an unpromising host for a parasite, since the toad doesn't get around much and so provides no great opportunity to find new hosts. In fact, few parasites have zeroed in on them, but in an example of the peculiar "no niche left unexploited" determination of evolutionary adaptation, about half of the toads are host to a handful of flatworm parasites that have taken up residence in the toad's bladder. The flatworms are named Pseudodiplorchis americanus and are a member of a group known as "monogeneans", which are generally parasites of fish, making a living on the scales.
While a toad is in its long state of rest, a female flatworm simply drinks blood and accumulates eggs, which hatch into larvae. As long as the toad remains still and underground the larvae can't be very active -- if they kill the toad before it comes to the surface, the parasite family line dies out. When the rains come, the toads go active; now awakened, they soak up water through the skin and flush wastes out of the body, with the bladder working overtime. The flatworm mother recognizes the activity, but waits until the toad is sexually aroused to release the larvae, which blast out the toad's bladder and into the pool of water in which the toad is carousing.
The spadefoot toads will go underground again come the morning, so the larvae have to find another toad to infest before the sun comes up and fries them in the drying mud. The spadefoot toad is the only host of Pseudodiplorchis americanus, and so the larvae have to be able to identify other animals to reject them as hosts. They can do it, nobody's sure how, but the general belief is that the spadefoot toad has distinctive skin secretions that make it a good target.
Once the larvae find a toad to infest, their challenges have not ended, either. It might seem straightforward to simply bore into the host, get into the circulatory system, and find the bladder, but once again the straightforward option isn't the one that evolved. The larvae climb up onto a toad's head, crawl through the nostrils, then make their way down the windpipe, drinking blood, to finally end up in the lungs. The larvae hang around in the lungs for about two weeks, growing into young adults that then crawl back up the windpipe, to take U-turn and go down the esophagus.
Since the toad can easily digest far tougher fare than the flatworms that might seem a suicidal gambit, but the flatworms have accumulated a skin full of bubbles containing chemicals that neutralize the toad's digestive chemicals. They can't keep that trick going for long, so they move quickly through the digestive tract, finally making their way to the bladder. The timing of this sequence of events is critical: if the flatworms don't make it to the bladder by the time a toad goes dormant again, they're doomed. [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* GIMMICKS & GADGETS: Alex Zettl and his nanotechnology lab at the University of California at Berkeley was mentioned here in May 2009 for an ingenious nano-sized AM radio receiver made from a carbon nanotube. AAAS SCIENCE reports that the lab has now come up with a demonstration for a mass storage device based on carbon nanotubes containing a single iron crystal. An electric current can shift the crystal from one end of the nanotube to the other, allowing it to store a digital "1" or "0". The experiment was far from a demonstration of a practical mass storage system, but Zettl points out that, unlike most modern mass-storage systems, such a carbon nanotube memory would be physically stable for centuries, even millennia.
* BBC WORLD Online had an article on an interesting application of the Second Life virtual-world system, discussed here in the past. British medical researchers working with Imperial College London (ICL) are building a "virtual hospital" in Second Life in which they will be able to provide a step-by-step visual "explanation" of particular medical procedures to patients.
The primary targets of the effort are mentally impaired patients who may not be able to understand what a hospital is recommending to them on the basis of a verbal description, making "informed consent" from such patients very troublesome. The visual approach is much less ambiguous and can be more easily understood. The researchers are planning to begin trials with a test group come the fall.
* A Brazilian reader tipped me off to a very interesting gimmick, the "V Communicator Mobile (VCM)" from a US firm named VCom3D. VCM is a multimedia authoring system for the Apple iPod, and US troops in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Sudan are now carrying iPods with VCM-based content. The military uses the iPod essentially as a "smart phrasebook" that a soldier can use to not only get desired phrases in, say, Arabic, but also speak them out loud. In addition, the iPods are loaded with videos to, say, educate the troops about local gestures, as well as maps and other materials. The iPod can be hooked up to a loudspeaker to deliver messages directly. The iPods are fitted with wrist straps, making them easy to use carry and use. Soldiers are also issued a pouch and a solar charger for the device. The soldiers can add their own materials as they see fit. Troops who have used the VCM have been very enthusiastic.
* I also got tipped off by the BBS to a BBC WORLD article that reported on another military gimmick, a new ration developed for the US Army. The military has long had two classes of rations, including the "Meals Ready to Eat (MREs)" that can be eaten straight out of the pouch, and lightweight freeze-dried rations traditionally known as "Long Range Patrol (LRP)" or "lurp" rations. A soldier can carry more LRP rations than MREs, but the LRPs demand water to allow them to be reconstituted. The new rations are updated LRPs that incorporate a filter consisting of layered sheets of plastic with nanosized holes that allow water to pass but block bacteria and other contaminants.
The filter allows troops to use dirty water sources to prepare the rations for eating, meaning soldiers don't necessarily have to haul water along with them. The concept appears to be similar to that of the "Lifestraw" tube that allows drinking from foul water supplies, which leads to the interesting question of whether troops are being issued Lifestraws these days. The filter in the ration pack is so effective that, Army researchers say, soldiers could even use their own urine to water the rations. They add that the filter won't block out urea, which would cause kidney damage over time, and so urine can't be used on a regular basis. I don't think they really need to worry about the troops making a habit of that particular practice -- all armies have a few animals in the ranks who will pull any fool stunt, but that would really be pushing it.
Incidentally, while discussing this item on the BBS, somebody mentioned the "MRE bomb". "Say wot?" A little poking around on YouTube showed how soldiers will take the little cardboard chemical heating pad shipped with MREs, shove it into a big plastic soft-drink bottle or the like, pour in water, seal the bottle, shake it up, and then watch the evolved gas build up pressure until the bottle bursts with a satisfyingly loud bang. Being a soldier tends toward the boring, and with too much time on their hands, the troops are inclined to come up with imaginative amusements.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* BIODIESEL FROM COFFEE: THE ECONOMIST had an interesting note ("Fueled By Coffee", 7 March 2009) on one of the most surprising sources of biofuels: coffee grounds. A group of researchers at the University of Nevada has found that coffee grounds make a efficient feedstock for biodiesel. A car burning it gives a faint smell of a hot cup of java. THE ECONOMIST does run April Fool's gags, but this was well before April and they were serious. The extraction scheme is based on what is known as "transesterification", in which the grounds react with alcohol in the presence of a catalyst:
One particular beauty of coffee-based biodiesel is that it doesn't affect the supply of coffee for drinking. Palm oil biodiesel production competes with palm oil production for the kitchen, but the coffee grounds are used after they've gone through the kitchen. The scheme is surprisingly efficient, with no more than 7 kilograms of grounds needed to supply a liter of biodiesel, and given that it uses a waste resource, the biodiesel is about as cheap as it comes. The feedstock is not all that scarce; the USA uses up 7 million tonnes of coffee a year, which translates into hundreds of millions of liters of coffee biodiesel a year. That wouldn't be a major component of US fuel use, but it would be a profitable business in itself. Sigh, now I envision a nagging recycling programs for coffee grounds -- not that it would matter to me, since I don't drink coffee.
* Another article on renewable energy from the WIRED blogs discussed the possibility of biofuels made from duckweed. Duckweed is a pond plant that looks like a little round floating leaf and can generate simple flowers -- it's off a much more recent branch of the evolutionary tree of life than the single-celled green algae now being used experimentally for biofuel production.
Duckweed tends to grow well in waters polluted by sewage and is very useful for environmental remediation. It is high in starch -- it's eaten as food in some parts of Asia, and not too surprisingly given its name, ducks are very fond of it -- and it makes a good feedstock for production of ethanol or other biofuels. Obtaining biofuels while cleaning up water seems like a very attractive game, but it also sounds a bit too good to be perfectly true.
In yet another item of renewable energy news, as reported by an article from BBS WORLD Online, researchers at Nottingham University in the UK have come up with a scheme to convert banana waste into briquettes that can be burned in cookstoves for cooking, heating, and lighting. Bananas are more than a treat in Africa, being a major food crop available in a number of varieties. Producing a banana results in ten times as much plant waste by weight as the banana itself -- so the discards represent a useful resource that could reduce the drain on firewood and other combustibles. Making the briquettes is very simple. A pile of rotting brown banana peels and banana leaves is mashed up, mixed with sawdust, compressed, and then dried in the sun for a few weeks to create the briquettes. The peels act as a sort of glue to bind the briquettes together. They burn easily and steadily.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* SHOW YOUR ID: In the 21st century, India presents something of a "double vision" of the shiny, high-tech New Digital India, superimposed on the older image of a poverty-stricken nation burdened with an ineffective government. As suggested by an article in THE ECONOMIST ("Peering Into Their Murky World", 2 July 2009), there are Indians who believe that the New Digital India has great potential for uplifting the country as a whole.
As the specific case in point, consider the issue of identification. India acknowledges at least 20 different proofs of identity, such as birth certificates, driver's licenses, and of course caste certificates -- this is India, after all. Unfortunately, none are universally recognized. This is not only inefficient on the face of it, but it made life difficult for poor Indians who migrate around the country, since they often become nonpersons, losing access to government assistance programs because their "Below Poverty Line (BPL)" qualifying card was only recognized in their original locale.
In January, the government announced a proposal to issue a uniform biometric ID card to all the country's 1.2 billion inhabitants, with much made of its potential for guarding against illegal immigrants and, in particular, foreign terrorists. On 25 June, the government announced that Nandan Nilekani -- co-founder of Infosys, one of India's biggest computer-services companies -- had been recruited and given ministerial status to run the scheme. It caused some public excitement to think that the traditionally hidebound government had opened its doors to welcome the country's entrepreneurial elite.
Nilekani has written of what he sees his "Unique Identity Authority Of India" will look like, envisioning a vast server network that will store detailed data on every Indian citizen, with the records keyed to the national ID card. Central, state, and local government will have access to the server system, using it to dispense welfare benefits, issue passports, update land records, and so on. Nilekani sees the new ID system as helping to streamline government, as well as give Indians much greater access to financial services -- right now only a third of Indians even have bank accounts.
There are possible pitfalls, of course. One is that the system is intrusive, providing a Big Brother capability to track the citizenry -- though given that India has an only too active terrorist threat, both from Islamic extremism and a growing Red insurgent movement, the security is to a degree welcome. Then there's the challenge of just trying to get the government to get with the program, a task that could be compared to kicking a sponge the size of an elephant. Nilekani understands that and that is why he asked for, and got, the high rank he felt he needed to get the job done.
There is also the fact that no program of such scale of magnitude and complexity is going to work perfectly. However, given the choice between a new system that works imperfectly and an old system that is badly broken, it's not hard to see which way attitudes are going to tilt. One of the indications of just how bad things are now is that some Indian states have more BPL cards in circulation than they have people. Hopefully, under the new system the sums will add up somewhat more neatly.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* GREEN MILITARY (2): The US Navy's renewable energy program covers other promising sources of energy besides geothermal. At Naval Air Station Corpus Christi in Texas, Navy staff are measuring the winds that flow around the base to check the site's potential for wind power. Says one staffer: "This bay is the windsurfing capital of the world -- it's always windy. But even knowing that, there can still be risk for an energy-services contractor to put up a turbine. But if we've already collected the wind data, it'll lower their risk and lower the price, and that's the big key for us."
If the wind turbine facility is installed, it will be the service's first in the continental USA. However, the Navy is already using wind power at San Clemente island, off the coast of California, and at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. Four 950 kW wind turbines have been spinning here at Gitmo since 2005; of course Cuba doesn't provide power to the base, and so traditionally the electricity had to be supplied by diesel generators. Under such circumstances wind looked more than slightly attractive; the wind turbines can't ensure continuous power, but they have greatly reduced the load on the diesel generator system and easily paid for themselves.
The US Air Force is no slouch in renewables either. Nellis Air Force Base (AFB), outside Las Vegas in sunny Nevada, has the nation's largest photovoltaic solar power array -- 72,417 panels providing 14 MW. The panels are motorized to track the Sun, though oddly they are all laid almost flat when the Sun is low in the sky. Engineers from SunPower Corporation, based in San Jose, California, found out that as dusk approaches the panels will tend to shadow each other, and they got more power if they laid them out flat.
The array covers 56 hectares (140 acres); on hillier parts of the array, the distributed computerized controller system takes terrain into account to ensure the optimum power return. There's one tilting motor and one controller per cluster of a few dozen panels. Moving the panels allows the array to produce 30% more power than it would have if the panels had been fixed. Weather stations are dotted through the array to track air temperature, wind speed, and solar radiation. The central controller for the array uses the data to determine how much power the array should be generating, allowing the performance of the array to be tracked, and identifying elements that don't seem to be working up to spec.
* The Nellis solar array came at a price -- $100 million USD to be exact, and on the face of it, it could take a half-century for it to reach economic breakeven. However, Nevada's energy laws dictate that the state's utilities increase the amount of power generated by renewables by 3% every two years. That gave Nevada Power, the local utility, an interest in the exercise.
The project began in 2004 when a solar-energy developer called up the Air Force bureaucracy to leave a voicemail. At first the proposal went nowhere, but after running through some quick figures officials started to think the idea wasn't so crazy after all. It took two more years of internal lobbying to get the proposal to fly, but then the energy staff at Nellis went into high gear on the project, weeding through proposals to select one that seemed the most attractive. The base agreed to lease out the land for the project at a nominal fee. A financing company, MMA Renewable Ventures, was brought in to pay the up-front costs; it now owns the equipment and sells the power to the base. MMA then sold the renewable-energy certificates it acquired for the installation -- each certificate generally amounts to one megawatt-hour of power generation -- to Nevada Power. The end result is a three-way deal: MMA provides the power, Nellis uses it, and Nevada Power gets the credits.
The results of the arrangement were startling: Nellis ended up paying bargain prices for the electricity. The imaginative financing made expensive solar a real buy, and there have been many inquiries from other organization, even Disney Corporation, on how the model might be applied elsewhere. It is certainly being applied elsewhere in the military, with military bases in sunny climes getting on the bandwagon -- Davis-Monthan AFB in Arizona is now working on a solar power array as well. [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* THE PARASITES (10): The specializations of parasites tend to fit different species into different "niches" in a host body, and in fact a host body may amount to a "micro-ecology" of different parasitic organisms. The bigger the host, as a general rule the greater the number of different species of parasites, since a bigger host has more niches. The gills of a single fish may accommodate dozens, even hundreds of different species of parasites. The intestines may seem like a uniform sort of environment, but they're not really completely uniform -- for example, there's a lot more food value coming into the intestines than comes out of it, with gradations of food value between those two endpoints. The bowels of a duck may have over a dozen species of parasitic worms in coexistence. Parasitic worms even divide up the human eye, with different worms in different components.
From an evolutionary point of view, such specialization makes sense. A parasite would be best off if it could infect many different components of a host body, but there are competing parasites. The problem with being a generalist is that it's hard to compete with a specialists optimized for a single niche, and a generalist parasite would gradually be squeezed out by parasites that were highly adapted to fit into individual host niches. Of course, as the competing parasites become more specialized in one niche, the less they are able to fit into any other niche.
The competition gets rougher when the parasites compete for the same niche. A snail can be infected by a dozen different species of fluke, but they all have to reside in the snail's digestive gland, and in general parasitologists only find one species of fluke inside the gland. These flukes may have devoured their competitors or released chemicals to make life harder for them.
* The most savage competition takes place in parasitic wasps. Parasitic wasps are notoriously gruesome parasites, the stuff of horror movies. They fly around to smell out a host, stereotypically a caterpillar, though they can parasitize other insects or spiders. When the wasp finds a caterpillar, she lights on it and jams her ovipositor in the soft section between the caterpillar's segments, laying from a few to hundreds of eggs, depending on the wasp species. Some species sting the caterpillar as well to paralyze it, but others simply let it go on about its business.
Once the eggs hatch, the larvae emerge inside the caterpillar's body and feed. Some just drink its blood, while others will eat its flesh. They avoid damaging the caterpillar's vital organs so they won't lose their gravy train too quickly. After a few days or weeks, the larvae bore out of the caterpillar, plugging up the hole behind them and weaving themselves inside cocoons attached to the dying caterpillar. Once the larvae mature, they emerge from their cocoons as full-grown wasps and fly off, leaving the dead caterpillar behind.
The wasp Copidosoma floridanum parasitizes the caterpillar of the cabbage looper moth. The wasp larvae of this species take a long time to mature, a full month, and so competition from other parasitic wasps is a real threat. As a result, Copidosoma has developed extreme measures to deal with competition.
Usually the wasp lays only two eggs in the host, one for a male and one for a female. These eggs follow an unusual path of development, replicating to split apart into hundreds of clone wasps. Not all the wasps are the same, either; in about four days, the female egg will produce about 200 small "soldier" larvae, with tapered tails and ugly-looking mandibles. The soldiers migrate through the caterpillar's bloodstream and then latch on to the exterior of the caterpillar's breathing tubes with their tails, weaving in the caterpillar's blood currents. If any intruder comes past -- even a larvae from another Copidosoma -- they snag it with their mandibles and suck it dry.
In the meantime, the two original eggs have produced about a thousand more larva, about half being males and half being females. These are "reproductives", different from the soldiers, generally featureless organisms with a mere siphon for a mouth that drift passively in the caterpillar's bloodstream. After the reproductives get to a certain size, the soldiers can tell the difference between male and female reproductives, and then start slaughtering the males. Since one male can inseminate many females, males are less valuable for propagating the next generation of wasps, and so killing them off ensures more host resources for the female reproductives. In the end, the wasps that emerge from the caterpillar are overwhelmingly females, with a handful of males that go on to mate with female wasps from other caterpillars.
It might seem absurd to produce the males and then kill them off, but evolution just uses whatever works, not what might be seen on reflection as the tidy solution; evolution is thoughtless. In another characteristic of evolution, it is inconsiderate: the soldiers are expendable items, just as much as the caterpillar. When the host dies, so do the soldiers. As the saying goes, Mother Nature is a bitch.
And yet, as ugly as the wasp's way of living is, we can't personally complain. Cabbage looper moth caterpillars are major crop pests, and the Copidosoma wasps do a lethally efficient job of killing them off. In this case, the bitch is on our payroll. [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* SPACE NEWS: Space launches for June included:
-- 18 JUN 09 / LRO, LCROSS -- An Atlas 5 booster was launched from Cape Canaveral to put the NASA "Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO)" Moon probe into space. The spacecraft was placed into a polar lunar orbit at a very low altitude of 50 kilometers (31 miles) for a year of observations. LRO had a launch mass of 1,916 kilograms (4,225 pounds) and its payload consisted of:
The LRO mission was originally to use a medium booster, but NASA decided to use a larger Atlas 5 -- the 410 model, without any solid rocket boosters -- as insurance against any weight increases in the spacecraft. The bigger booster also permitted addition of a "crash lander" probe named the "Lunar Crater Observation & Sensing Satellite (LCROSS)".
The Centaur upper stage of the launch vehicle was directed to impact on the Moon's south pole, with the LCROSS "Shepherding Spacecraft (S-S/C)" trailing behind. The impact of the Centaur upper stage, at a velocity of about 9,000 KPH (5,600 MPH), released a huge plume of material, leaving behind a crater 30 meters across and almost 5 meters deep (100 x 16 feet). The 900 kilogram (1,984 pound) LCROSS performed observations with a camera and spectrometers, relaying data through the LRO, before crashing itself, fifteen minutes after the first impact. LCROSS carried an instrument payload of four infrared cameras, one visible-light camera, three spectrometers, and a photometer to observe the impact. LRO performed follow-up observations of the crater left by the upper stage.
-- 21 JUN 09 / MEASAT 3A -- A Zenit 3SLB booster was launched from Baikonur to put the "MEASAT 3a" geostationary comsat into orbit for MEASAT Satellite Systems of Malaysia. MEASAT 3a was built by Orbital Sciences and was based on the company's Star 2 comsat bus. It had a launch mass of 2,366 kilograms (5,216 pounds), carried a payload of 12 C-band / 12 Ku-band transponders, and had a design life of 15 years. It was placed in the geostationary slot at 91.5 degrees East longitude to provide communications and data services for Europe, Africa, the Middle East, Asia, and Australia.
-- 27 JUN 09 / GOES O -- A Delta 4 booster was launched from Cape Canaveral to put the NASA / NOAA "GOES O" geostationary weather satellite into orbit. GOES-O had a launch mass of 3,175 kilograms (7,000 pounds); its primary payload was an imaging system, with higher resolution than the imagers carried by earlier GOES spacecraft, and a radio sounder system to obtain profiles of atmospheric properties. It carried a "space weather" secondary payload to keep track of solar storms and other space energetic activity. GOES-O was launched as an on-orbit spare, being redesignated "GOES-14" after being validated in orbit. The Delta 4 booster was in the "Medium+" configuration, with twin strapon boosters.
-- 30 JUN 09 / SIRIUS FM5 -- A Proton Breeze M booster was launched from Baikonur to put the Sirius XM Radio "Sirius FM5" direct broadcast radio geostationary comsat into orbit. Sirius FM5 was based on the Loral 1300 comsat platform. It had a launch mass of 5,820 kilograms (12,830 pounds) and a design life of 15 years. It was placed in the geostationary slot at 96 degrees West longitude. It was the eighth in the Sirius XM fleet, with four Sirius and four XM spacecraft in orbit at the time; Sirius and XM joined forces in a 2008 merger.
* OTHER SPACE NEWS: AVIATION WEEK reports that the French government is pushing its European space partners to support development of an "Ariane 6" heavy-lift booster to replace the current Ariane 5. The Ariane 6 is envisioned as a modular system, capable of supporting different configurations to put 3 to 6 tonnes (3.3 to 6.6 tons) of payload into geostationary orbit, at a lower cost than the $20,000 USD per payload kilogram of the Ariane 5. Fielding would be in the 2020:2025 timeframe. In the meantime, the French are encouraging work on an Ariane 5 midlife upgrade to increase its load capability by 20%, with fielding in 2016.
* AVIATION WEEK also reports that China intends to launch a "Chang'e 2" Moon orbiter in 2010, which will operate at half the altitude of the Chang'e 1 orbiter, launched in 2007. Chang'e 2 will be followed by "Chang'e 3", which will soft-land a rover near the lunar equator, with the rover powered by a radioisotope thermoelectric generator to operate for three months. A lunar sample-return mission is expected in 2017. Chinese space officials say that a Chinese manned lunar landing could take place, given the political will, between 2025 and 2030.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* SHAPE-SHIFTING MACHINERY: SIGNAL, a defense electronics magazine, ran an article ("Programmable Matter Research Solidifies" by Henry S. Kenyon, June 2009) that discussed one of the latest US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) projects. DARPA works on leading-edge technologies for the Pentagon, and the "Programmable Matter (PM)" program certainly fits the charter, focusing on the development of machines that can physically reconfigure themselves for different jobs.
DARPA envisions a PM system in the form of a "can" with a interface panel, toted by soldiers in a vehicle. A soldier needs, say, a wrench of a particular size; he inputs a request for that wrench into the can, which then goes to work for a few moments, with the soldier then lifting up the lid of the can and pulling out the wrench. When done, the soldier puts the wrench back into the can, which can then be used to produce a new tool -- for example, a small snakelike reconnaissance robot.
The concept is not along the lines of a rapid prototyping system that builds an object from scratch. Instead, a PM system uses various building blocks and snaps them together to get the desired tool. When the tool's no longer needed, the building blocks can be broken back down for later re-use. The building blocks would be based on what DARPA officials involved in the program call "mesomatter", which would be modules with processing power and interfaces, ranging from dust-sized to pebble-sized. There would be various classes of mesomatter, arranged in a logical grid to fit together with each other.
Phase 1 of the PM project has been completed, with teams from Harvard, Cornell, and the Massachusetts Institute Of Technology (MIT) whose members covered a wide range of disciplines: computer scientists, roboticists, biologists, chemical engineers, mechanical engineers, physicists and artists. They're now working on Phase 2. The research teams have been excited about the exercise, building prototypes faster than DARPA officials have expected them to. One team has focused on "self-folding origami" machines that use specialized sheets of material with built-in actuators and smarts that can fold themselves into various three-dimensional configurations, while another's approach is a "Rubik's cube" mechanism that shuffles around components. Chemical and biochemical processes are also being investigated.
At the end of Phase 2, the teams must be able to assemble four or five three-dimensional solids of specific sizes and shapes from a set of building blocks. Once this "proof of concept" is complete, then the researchers will go on to Phase 3 and investigate applications. Too far out there? Maybe; some of DARPA's projects have crashed and burned. Still, when poking around at the leading edge, sometimes there can be a big payoff in an unexpected result, and even if the project's stated goals are unachievable, the research effort can lay the groundwork for more practical efforts down the road.
* AVIATION WEEK also had an article on the newest DARPA programs in progress or planning, these efforts being a little more practical in tone:
One suspects that, as government agencies go, DARPA is a really fun place to work.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* OIL PRICE ROLLER-COASTER: It wasn't long ago that oil prices hit the unprecedented high of $147 USD a barrel, and then as the economy slowed plunged with equally unprecedented rapidity to startling lows. As reported by an article in THE ECONOMIST ("Bust & Boom", 21 May 2009), oil prices may be primed to bounce back up again.
In the short term that seems a bit implausible. Demand for oil is still falling, and US oil inventories have been as flush as they have been since 1990. There's not even much storage capacity available right now to handle the glut; there's talk of leasing tankers that have been idled just to store the excess. The oil producers are not pumping close to their maximum capacity, OPEC having announced three rounds of production cuts since September 2008 in hopes of stabilizing prices.
Yet .... on 20 May 2009, oil rose to over $60 USD. That doesn't sound too bad in itself, but three months earlier it had been trading at a low of $34 USD. The fact of the matter is that the fundamental problems that drove up oil in the first place are still in effect, and they're catching up with the market. The problems are straightforward: most of the world's "easy" oil has been pumped, and much of the world's oil deposits are in the hands of nationalistic governments that block foreigners from exploiting them. That means that oil companies end up trying to find oil in inhospitable locales, such as the deep seas off Africa or in the Arctic, which means more expensive oil. To compound the problem, the new deposits tend towards the small and are quickly depleted.
With higher prices it might seem obvious that smaller, more expensive wells will still pay for themselves, but in the 1980s and 1990s, when oil was still cheap, the oil companies didn't have the money to invest in new oil production. When the boom started, they were not in a position to take advantage of it. At the height of the boom, with the price setting record after record, production outside OPEC even fell. The worry is that once the global economy starts to fire up again, the stockpiles will be drained very rapidly and the upward spiral will start all over again.
The solution might seem to be to increase investment in preparation for that day, but with the market for oil soft, investment has fallen by 15% to 20%. That may sound shortsighted, and officials of the major Western oil firms -- most prominently Exxon Mobil, Royal Dutch Shell, Chevron, and British Petroleum -- insist that they don't base their investment on oil development on current prices, but on the expected price in the future. It can take ten years to develop an oilfield and waiting for prices to rise in the short term is not thinking ahead. If anything, given that most oilmen expect prices to rise in the mid-term, one would expect them to be increasing their investment, to capitalize on the good times to come.
The majors do seem to be trying to maintain investment in the future, but the roller-coaster ride on oil prices over the past few years certainly has spooked them. Shell, for example, has delayed expansion plans for Canada's tar sands -- discussed here a years back -- a tarry viscous form of oil that requires lots of processing and is so less profitable than the conventional sort. The small oil firms don't have the deep pockets of the majors and are trapped in the bottom of the price cycle whether they like it or not.
Even the majors don't look all that major in terms of the global oil market, since most of the world's oil is in the hands of the nationals. The better managed of them, notably Saudi Aramco, are investing in the future, though Aramco's ambitions are dampened by the fact that much of the company's current capacity is idle. In places where the nationals aren't so well run -- Russia and Venezuela as ugly examples -- new investment has slowed to a crawl. Oil service firms, particularly Schlumberger, are having hard times and cutting staff. The falling investment even affects existing capacity: not only are current wells being drawn down, but there's been a shortfall in necessary maintenance that is accelerating the decline.
The soft market for services does end up offsetting the falling investment to an extent. It's a buyer's market now, at least in some sectors: renting a drill rig in Southeast Asia cost $225,000 USD a day last year but only $160,000 USD a day in April. However, the lack of investment means that there's not enough trained staff to support real expansion when the day comes that it will be needed. The national oil companies are not showing much ability to make exploration for new deposits easier, either. Iraq's oil industry is still mired in reconstruction and bureaucracy, while Iran's industry is crimped by foreign sanctions and the inept economic policies of its government. Nigeria has been unable to deal with unrest in its oil-producing regions, making oil production there more difficult.
So will oil prices go through the roof if oil consumption starts rising again? Possibly, but then again with each oil shock, efficiency measures end up being implemented that help reduce dependence on oil. Governments are also now adjusting policies to improve the efficiency of energy use and increase the use of alternatives, such as biofuels. Restrictions on carbon emissions may start to bite into oil consumption as well. Unfortunately, few were able to predict in any detail the changes in oil price over the past few years, and it would be foolish to trust we will do better in the future.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* GREEN MILITARY (1): Articles in these pages over the past few years have described how the US military has become a real fan of renewable energy. An article in IEEE SPECTRUM ("A Less Well-Oiled War Machine" by Sandra Upson, October 2008) surveyed the Pentagon's green power plants. The article begins at China Lake, California, best known as the site of the US Navy's weapons test center. It's a dry, barren place, which is why it's a good place for weapons testing, but now it turns out China Lake has another benefit: it's a great place for geothermal power.
In fact, the US military plans to become the world's biggest single user of geothermal power. This is not because the military brass have become zealous tree-huggers by any means. The US military is a very big organization with facilities and equipment all over the world, and military brass feel the pinch of high energy costs just as much as everyone else does. Defense installations in the USA gobble up 1% of America's energy budget -- no private organization comes close to using that much energy.
Every time the price of oil jumps up it means financial pain, all the more so because the military tends to rely on mobile systems that are particularly energy-intensive. The service's total spending for power in 2007 was a staggering $13 billion USD. Of that, more than half went to jet fuel, which is used by aircraft, some battle tanks, and the occasional generator. The DOD's 577,000 buildings account for a quarter of its energy use. In addition, the armed services often operate large contingents in theaters where there is little or no access to grid power, and taking their power with them is very troublesome in terms of logistics and simple labor. Besides, US dependence on foreign energy sources is a clear strategic vulnerability that makes the brass uncomfortable. Last but not least, the military is ultimately in service to the American public, and needs to be sensitive to public perceptions and desires.
The services have plenty of good reason to "go green", and ironically much of the effort in that direction so far have been on the initiative of base commanders who just happen to like the idea. Don Juhasz, chief of energy and utilities for the US Army: "There are enough of us deep within the DOD [Department of Defense] who see that, long term, if we're going to be here 50 years from now, we need to be leaders and drive the country towards the future we want. We need to set the example."
* The military's need for cheap energy explains why the US Navy has desert geologists on the payroll, responsible for one of the biggest geothermal power plants in the USA -- a 270 megawatt (MW) plant at Coso Hot Springs on the China Lake military reservation. It's all part of a plan put together by the DOD to obtain 25% of its electricity from renewable sources by 2025. In contrast, in 2007 the Pentagon produced or purchased renewable energy to cover about 12% of electricity needs.
The China Lake region is an excellent area for geothermal power, with estimates of power potential running to 600 MW. In comparison, the total amount of geothermal energy produced in the USA right now is 3,000 MW / 3 gigawatts (GW). Geothermal power involves driving deep wells to draw hot water or steam from the depths of the Earth; drilling the wells is neither easy nor cheap, and it is important to drill them in the right places.
That's where the geologists come in. They line up sites by looking for evidence of geothermal activity, such as hot mud pits and steamholes, or by scanning geophysical databases -- Google Earth is a useful tool -- for evidence of faultlines or other geostructures associated with useful geothermal sites. Once a potential site has been listed, the geologists then go over it in detail, analyzing surface features and performing measurements to get an understanding of the underground features. However, in the end, the decision to drill is just educated guesswork. As one of the geologists working for the Navy told the author of the article: "Until we drill a hole in the ground, I know as much about this rock as you do."
That's one of the difficulties that has held back geothermal power. Navy geologists are trying to refine their tactics, for example leveraging off aircraft surveys with lidar -- laser radar -- which may help zero in on active fault lines that other mapping methods tend to miss. Still, despite the obstacles, the military is gradually ramping up use of geothermal power. A 30 MW plant is to be built at Naval Air Station Fallon in Nevada, on fields that could ultimately yield as much as 160 MW. Another base in Nevada, Hawthorne Army Depot, is sponsoring exploration for geothermal sites within its boundaries.
The particular beauty of the Navy's geothermal program is that it is effectively self-funding. The China Lake plant is a commercial operation under Navy contract, and by the agreement with the firm that runs it, the service gets a discount on power purchases that amounts to almost $15 million USD a year. A third of that funds the ten geologists in the Navy geothermal power office, with the rest funding other renewable energy efforts. As the service saves more money on renewable energy, it finances further development of renewables. It almost seems like financial perpetual motion. [TO BE CONTINUED]NEXT | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* THE PARASITES (9): While the malarial Plasmodium protozoan parasite is tricky, the Trichinella roundworm responsible for trichinosis has its own interesting nasty bag of tricks -- first and foremost being that that even though it is a multicellular worm, it manages to take up residence inside a single host cell.
Trichinella eggs hatch in the intestines of the host organism, with the worm then drilling through the intestinal lining to access the bloodstream. The worm flows through the body and finally takes a branch into a fine capillary, where it finds a long, spindly muscle cell and penetrates it. At first, the muscle cell seems to atrophy, changing from wiry to smooth and disorderly; however, the roundworm is not so much wrecking the cell as just remodeling it into a home.
Trichinella hijacks the muscle cell's DNA, and restructures the muscle cell by forcing it to produce collagen -- the fibrous protein that makes up hair and nails -- to encapsulate the cell. The parasite also makes the cell produce a signal molecule named "vascular endothelial growth factor", which directs the growth of blood vessels, creating a network of capillaries wrapped around the collagen capsule that allow the parasite to draw nourishment from the host's blood.
Incidentally, we are not Trichinella's normal hosts. The roundworm faces a challenge in that its host has to be eaten by another mammal to pass the parasite along. We're a dead end for the roundworm: humans are only infrequently prey of other animals, and we bury or burn our dead so that the corpses will not become meals for scavengers. Trichinosis is also one of the reasons that human cannibalism, along with being widely seen as reprehensible, tends to be an unhealthy diet.
* As mentioned in an earlier installment, roundworms are serious plant parasites. Roundworms that live in plant roots are estimated to destroy 12% of the world's crops each year. One particular genus of "root-knot nematodes" named Meloidogyne has behavior that mirrors its Trichnella relative, but tailored to plant hosts.
A Meloidogyne roundworm hatches in the soil and crawls around to find the tip of a root. The roundworm uses a spike in its mouth to stab into the root, with the parasite's saliva causing the surface cells to burst, allowing the roundworm to creep inside. It drives its way in until it reaches the core of the root, where it stabs several cells, injecting chemicals into them to hijack their cellular systems.
Normally, the cells in the root of a plant draw in water and nutrients from the soil, to then pump them through the circulatory system of the plant. Under the influence of the roundworm, however, the cells start drawing water and nutrients from the plant, with the parasite then drawing in turn from the accumulation. However, the swelling of the cells may threaten to burst the root open, which would wreck the roundworm's happy home. It has no worries along that line, however, since it makes surrounding cells multiply to form a sturdy protective knot around the root -- which is why it is known as a "root-knot" nematode. [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* GIMMICKS & GADGETS: THE ECONOMIST had an article on a new approach to tooth root canals. Anyone who's ever had one knows they're no fun, and they also sometimes have to be repeated since it's hard to completely wipe out the bacteria in the tooth root. Researchers at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles (USC, not the same place as UCLA), have come with a better way to kill them off: use a dental plasma torch.
"Say wot?" Since plasmas are usually thought of as generated by high temperatures, on the face of it that sounds like an appalling idea. However, "cold plasmas" can be generated by electrical fields, as shown by the "flames" known as "Saint Elmo's fire" that appear on the masts of ships in electrical storms. The USC researchers came up with a prototype plasma dental tool and found it could clean up infected teeth neatly; the ionized oxygen atoms, obtained from air, in the cold plasma were particularly effective in destroying bacteria. The same technology may also be applicable to infected wounds.
* WIRED Online's blogs have been providing the usual stream of interesting gimmicks, of varying levels of credibility:
One of the more intriguing gimmicks from the WIRED blogs was from a US firm named KCI Communications, which sells a "Smart Black Box (SBB)", sort of like an airliner flight recorder for cars. It's tacked up to the top of the windshield and takes continuous video through a fisheye lens, logging the car's current GPS coordinates, speed, direction. It also includes a shock sensor that "freezes" its track for the 15 seconds before and 5 seconds after the impact in the device's SD card flash memory. The SBB costs about $300 USD, which is not bad for its capabilities. It may not occur to everyone that they actually need the thing, but KCI officials suggest it could be useful for beating the rap on a speeding bust -- and that it might become very popular if insurance companies start offering a discount to drivers who use it.
One potential problem with the SBB is that it's a relatively spendy item that a thief can see immediately and so might to a fair number of busted windshields. I suppose that it could be made to be easily popped out and pocketed for security; another option would be to assign a serial to each unit, not so hard to do this days, meaning anyone who tried to use a stolen unit to present a case to the law would run the risk of being busted.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* ANOTHER MONTH: BBC WORLD Online ran an interesting little article on a behavioral study performed in the UK in which students were asked about their attitudes toward receiving an organ transplant from a criminal. A good proportion of the students were averse to the idea of obtaining the heart of a murderer. Along the same lines, about one in three organ donor recipients claim they have had personality changes that they attribute to the influence of the personality of the original donor.
Reality imitates bad horror movies. And yet .... I sympathize, we seem to have a natural inclination towards superstition. It appears as though along with the capability for logical thought, we necessarily acquired the ability to construct logic on false premises and fantastical connections. I find it amusing when, as I often do, I notice superstitious influences on my own behavior.
* There was a "hot rod" show over at the local county fairgrounds this last month. I like cars but I'm not all that big on them, and much prefer honest classic cars to "funny cars" -- too toyish in style for my taste. However, even though the admission was the better part of twenty bucks, I'd been pretty much a homebody all year long, so on the chance there were some classics at the show, I went on a brief camera trip.
I paid my money and did a quick sweep of the fairgrounds. It was worth my time, there were many pretty cars, all of which were so neatly made up that the idea of laying a finger on them made me cringe. Classic rock tunes were played over the PA system, which seemed to fit the ambiance perfectly. I was particularly impressed with a yellow 1934 Dodge convertible brought up to a peak of modernization, without compromising its traditional appearance. The upholstery was new, the rumble seat probably looked better than it did when the thing came off the showroom floor.
There was a fellow sitting nearby, and I asked him: "This yours?"
"Thanks." I was about to leave but suddenly had a hunch and stuck my head over the car door to check out the dashboard. My hunch was right, and I said: "I just KNEW you had to have an iPod in this thing!" He laughed.
The mix of technology from different eras in that car reminded me a bit of the BATMAN ADVENTURES animated series of the 1990s. One of the interesting features of the series was that it had a 1940s ambiance, using car and clothing designs from the decade plus a fair amount of Art Deco style, but they stealthily spliced modern technology in with it. They'd have a postwar-era car run into a telephone pole and pop out airbags; or show Bruce Wayne watching a football game played with 1940s-style football helmets, and checking a replay on the VCR.
BATMAN ADVENTURES was actually much better scripted and more imaginative than any of the BATMAN Hollywood blockbusters, though that's not saying much. I liked the Joker: "Harry, you welshed on a bet with me, and I hate welshers -- so I broke out of Arkham Asylum, and now I'm going to give you a vicious beating with this bunch of bananas!"
"Joker, you're crazy!"
"Oh, I KNOW! I've got a CERTIFICATE and EVERYTHING!"COMMENT ON ARTICLE