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DayVectors

feb 2010 / last mod dec 2015 / greg goebel

* Entries include: JFK assassination, phosphorus depletion & agriculture, domestication of the housecat, the problem with state referendums, chocolate instead of cocaine in Peru, forecasting solar storms, agricultural robots, 3D printing systems, Himalayan glaciers not melting, Deb Roy monitors his baby son to learn about language development, Obama space plan, ORS-1 reconnaissance satellite for field warfighters, Northrop Grumman Hybrid Launch Vehicle, and HIV resistant hosts.

banner of the month


[FRI 26 FEB 10] NEWS COMMENTARY FOR FEBRUARY 2010
[THU 25 FEB 10] SCIENCE NOTES
[WED 24 FEB 10] SOLAR STORM WARNING
[TUE 23 FEB 10] ROBOTS FOR THE FARM
[MON 22 FEB 10] THE TROUBLE WITH PHOSPHORUS (2)
[FRI 19 FEB 10] THE KILLING OF JFK -- LEE HARVEY OSWALD (3)
[THU 18 FEB 10] SPACE NEWS
[WED 17 FEB 10] 3D PRINTING
[TUE 16 FEB 10] NO MELTDOWN IN THE HIMALAYAS?
[MON 15 FEB 10] THE TROUBLE WITH PHOSPHORUS (1)
[FRI 12 FEB 10] THE KILLING OF JFK -- LEE HARVEY OSWALD (2)
[THU 11 FEB 10] GIMMICKS & GADGETS
[WED 10 FEB 10] LISTEN CLOSELY
[TUE 09 FEB 10] OBAMA'S SPACE PLAN
[MON 08 FEB 10] THE TAMING OF THE CAT (3)
[FRI 05 FEB 10] THE KILLING OF JFK -- LEE HARVEY OSWALD (1)
[THU 04 FEB 10] SCIENCE NOTES
[WED 03 FEB 10] SPACE EYES FOR WARFIGHTERS
[TUE 02 FEB 10] DEFYING HIV
[MON 01 FEB 10] ANOTHER MONTH

[FRI 26 FEB 10] NEWS COMMENTARY FOR FEBRUARY 2010

* NEWS COMMENTARY FOR FEBUARY 2010: THE ECONOMIST ran an article titled "The Tyranny Of The Majority" (19 December 2009) that took a close-up on the role of the public referendum in the US, particularly in California, where the concept has been embraced with a vengeance. As an example, the article held up a 2008 California ballot initiative that regulated the keeping of fowls along with banning gay marriage, which had been previously upheld by the courts. This particular initiative was revealing in that it demonstrated the inclination of such measures to micromanage governance -- was it really necessary for the voters to take control of the treatment of fowls, instead of encouraging the state government to deal with the matter? -- and to determine the rights of minorities by majority vote -- which, whether one thinks gay marriage is a good thing or not, was something that the US Constitution's Bill of Rights was very specifically designed to avoid.

There's nothing new about US state referendums; South Dakota was the first US state to make provision for them, in 1898. It was the infamous California Proposition 13 of 1978 that changed the landscape, capping property taxes and demanding a supermajority of the legislature to pass tax increases. By the 1990s, the number of California ballot initiatives had soared, with big money interests backing their own pet causes with attack ad campaigns and obnoxious robot phone calls. As Robert George, chief justice of the California Supreme Court, recently remarked, the voter initiative has now "become the tool of the very types of special interests it was intended to control, and an impediment to the effective functioning of a true democratic process."

Few deny that the end effect on California's government has been disastrous. Voters are happy to get new schools and roads, but not so happy to pay more taxes to fund them. Politicians know this, and try to avoid raising taxes unless the need is evident and they can obtain political cover. Now, thanks to ballot initiatives, they can't raise taxes even when the need is painfully obvious, with the result that California's state government is drowning in red ink. Arizona and Oregon, which are also big on referendums, are not far behind.

Partly the California referendum disease is due to the political polarization of the state, with the citizens having so little confidence in the wingnut-dominated and gridlocked legislature that there's a general feeling referendums work better. However, there is an increasing realization that enough is enough. To be sure, few think that referendums are a bad idea in themselves; Switzerland has done them for ages, with generally effective results. US states could learn from the Swiss, most notably in the fact that Swiss referendums are used sparingly. Reforms being floated for California include tightening up the signature-collection process for establishing referendums -- it's currently too easy to do, and worse only for groups with a lot of money -- and allowing the state legislature to amend referendums before they are submitted to a vote.

In the end, elected representatives are supposed to be responsive to the will of the public. However well or poorly they are in practice, it makes no sense to elect them and then bypass them, attempting to micromanage government in a disjointed way by throwing referendums over the wall -- with decisions established by noisy public electoral fights, dominated by those with the money to shout the loudest.

* An article from TIME Online discussed how Peruvian farmers in the San Martin department, located in the eastern regions of the Andes on the fringes of the Amazon rain forest, have enjoyed considerable success in giving up growing coca plants, used for producing cocaine, and switching to cacao beans, used for producing chocolate. Coca was profitable but it meant violence and war, with insurgent groups like the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement and the much more vicious Maoist Shining Path staking out their turf in the coca lands.

The rebels were ultimately defeated and now coca farming has been reduced to a minor industry in San Martin, having been supplanted by cacao and coffee. The shift was encouraged by the Peruvian government and the US Agency for International Development (USAID). While San Martin is an exception to the rule in Peru -- the country remains the world's second biggest cocaine producer, after Colombia -- Peruvian cacao exports have risen by 400% over the last decade, with shipments in 2010 expected to reach 35,000 tonnes (38,500 tons).

The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) is working with the Peruvian Institute for Tropical Crops (ITC) to identify new varieties of chocolate that could be used as the basis for a connoisseur's market, examining 342 varieties from 12 locales. Neighboring Ecuador is also pursuing the specialty chocolate market. It may seem ironic that these Latin American nations are moving from one addictive substance to another, but at least people won't kill over chocolate .... well, at least most of them won't.

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[THU 25 FEB 10] SCIENCE NOTES

* SCIENCE NOTES: DISCOVERY CHANNEL Online ran a note on images obtained by the Hubble Space Telescope of the distant world Pluto. The images are not particularly spectacular on the face of it, merely showing a sphere with fuzzy light and dark markings, not even in a league with the indistinct images of Mars taken before the Space Age. However, Pluto is just a faint dot of light and impossible to make out in any detail from ground-based telescopes -- it's like trying to pick out details of a soccer ball from 64 kilometers (40 miles) away -- and by that standard, the images are impressive.

Astronomer Mark Buie of the Southwest Research Institute (SWRI) in Boulder, Colorado, spent four years crunching the Hubble Pluto image data on 20 computers. Pluto's surface is covered with methane, and the dark regions are believed to be due to the conversion of the methane by the Sun's faint ultraviolet light into more complex dark organic compounds -- "tholins", or "star tars" as the late astronomer Carl Sagan called them. The new map is more detailed than earlier maps, and also reveals clear changes in the patterning of Pluto's surface in contrast to the older maps. We should get our first real map of Pluto in 2015, when the US New Horizons probe performs a flyby of Pluto and its moons.

Hubble images of Pluto

* Back in December, a note here discussed a study that had identified a candidate for the cause of "chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS)", in the form of a retrovirus named XMRV. The announcement was made cautiously pending confirmation, which was just as well, since AAAS SCIENCE now reports that a group at the Imperial College London tried to validate the study and came up zeroes. The leader of the new study, retrovirologist Myra McClure, said that not only did they fail to spot a correlation, they didn't even spot XMRV: "If there was one copy of the virus in those samples, we would have detected it."

There's been some puzzling as to how the two investigations came up with such entirely different results using basically the same methodology. The people involved are communicating to figure out where somebody went wrong. In any case, as far as CFS goes, it's back to the blackboard again. [ED: This was the first phase in what would become a messy implosion of the XRMV theory.]

* As reported by DISCOVERY Channel Online, Japanese researchers at Mie University have now used selective breeding to produce a goldfish with translucent skin. The little beast's heart can be seen beating inside of it. The primary objective of the exercise is provide an alternative to dissections in school biology classes, a practice that has been under increasing fire from animal-rights activists. Says Yutaka Tamaru, an associate professor at the university who worked on the project: "You can see a live heart and other organs because the scales and skin have no pigments. You don't have to cut it open. You can see a tiny brain above the goldfish's black eyes ... Having a pale color is a disadvantage for a goldfish in an aquarium, but it's good to see how organs sit in a body three-dimensionally."

Frogs have traditionally been the victims of biology-class dissections, but another team of Japanese researchers, at Hiroshima University, has already come up with translucent frogs. The research team says they should be commercially available in Japan later this year, though the cost will be a bit steep -- about 10,000 yen (over $100). Export sales are expected later.

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[WED 24 FEB 10] SOLAR STORM WARNING

* SOLAR STORM WARNING: Back in October 2008, an article here discussed how a monster solar storm in 1859 caused brilliant auroras that could be seen on the equatorial seas and knocked out telegraph systems all over the Northern Hemisphere. If a "superstorm" of that magnitude struck today, it would fry satellites and disrupt the Earth's power grid, causing massive damage. Such superstorms are only estimated to happen about once every 500 years, but not surprisingly they also tend to coincide with the peak in the 11-year cycle of solar activity, with the next "Solar Maximum" to take place in 2012 or 2013.

The title of an article in AAAS SCIENCE asked an uncomfortable question about this issue and gave an even more uncomfortable answer: "Are We Ready For The Next Solar Maximum? No Way, Say Scientists" (by Richard A. Kerr, 26 June 2009). There is a general belief in the "space weather" community that there has been progress in the field, that they're better off than they were a decade ago, but the science remains immature -- and we are also ever more dependent on systems that are vulnerable to such storms, from overtaxed power grids to cellphones to GPS satellites. A committee set up by the US National Academies in 2008 concluded that a solar superstorm could cause damage in the trillions of dollars, and that it would take four to ten years to recover. Even a less intensive major storm, like the one that occurred in 1921, could cause immense trouble.

Advanced Composition Explorer

In the mid-1990s, the space weather community had effectively no ability to forecast. Instruments were in place to provide notification that a solar storm was in progress, but by then it would be too late. That changed in 1997, when the US National Aeronautics & Space Administration (NASA) launched the "Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE)" to keep an eye on the Sun. ACE was positioned at the Earth-Sun L1 equilibrium point, about 1.5 million kilometers (930,000 miles) from the Earth towards the Sun, where the space platform could provide an alert of the arrival of a "coronal mass ejection (CME)", a bubble of high-speed protons and other charged particles erupted by the Sun.

coronal mass ejection

ACE can provide a half-hour to an hour of advance notice before a CME hits the Earth's magnetosphere and give an indication of its total energy. It can also report on the orientation of the magnetic field associated with a CME -- an important factor, because the CME can only enter the Earth's magnetosphere if the polarity of the CME's magnetic field is reversed to Earth's. ACE provided the very first advance warning of a solar storm in 1999.

Unfortunately, while ACE was a big step forward, even the US Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC, formerly the US Space Environment Center) admits current forecasts leave much to be desired: a third of all major storms are not detected and a quarter of the warnings are false alarms. Very severe storms are rare, and given the lack of experience in dealing with them, nobody has much confidence in being able to predict them. Longer-range forecasting can be performed by extrapolation from observations of solar activity, but the results so far have only been slightly better than simply assuming that current solar conditions will persist. Obtaining an accurate space weather prediction more than eight hours into the future is seen as beyond current capability. In effect, space weather forecasters are about where Earth weather forecasters were a half-century ago.

Earth weather forecasts, while still dodgy, are much better than they were 50 years back, thanks to satellite observations and in particular to ever more refined computer models, which now can give useful predictions for a week in advance. Space weather researchers feel they can make similar progress through computer modeling, but they're new to the game and observational data is very thin. To make matters worse, the space weather environment is much more diverse than the Earth's atmosphere, with conditions ranging from the solar corona to the Earth's upper atmosphere and the Earth's surface -- from "Sun to mud" as the researchers like to put it. That means that any space weather model may incorporate up to a dozen submodels.

There is an organizational apparatus in place to help with the effort. Two centers have been working on Sun-to-Earth models for most of this decade, with one center at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and the second at Boston University, coordinating work among 11 other institutions. An interagency modeling center was set up at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland a decade ago and is currently evaluating several dozen submodels. Finally, the SWPC is constructing a test system for debugging candidate submodels.

Unfortunately, although there has been progress, few believe that a useful forecast capability will be in place by the time of the next Solar Max. Researchers are simply hoping they will have the tools when Solar Max comes back again after that. In the meantime, ACE is getting elderly, while the complementary SOHO observatory, also at the Earth-Sun L1 point, is two years older than ACE. They could fail at any time. No replacement for ACE is in the pipeline. ACE may not provide much of a forecast capability -- but once it goes, we're back to square zero.

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[TUE 23 FEB 10] ROBOTS FOR THE FARM

* ROBOTS FOR THE FARM: As discussed by an article in THE ECONOMIST ("Fields Of Automation", 12 December 2009), modern farming is an automated, high-tech industry. The latest combine harvester from John Deere or New Holland is a technological dream, guided in its work by a computer running a preprogrammed plot, using Global Positioning System satellite signals to determine its location while the operator supervises in air-conditioned comfort. Such machines are expensive, but they well pay for themselves in increased productivity.

However, some crops, for example fruits like apples and strawberries, still rely heavily on manual labor. It's becoming harder to find people to pick fruit at a wage farmers can afford to pay, with the logistical difficulty greatly aggravated by the fact that picking a crop is a seasonal activity that has to be done quickly in a short timeframe. Lacking enough hands to do the job means leaving fruit rotting on the plants. There is an enormous economic incentive to automate the job, even if the gear to do it is expensive, and so there is a lot of interest in developing such gear.

Since picking apples is different from plucking strawberries, the "agribots" or "agrobots" under design have different forms, with each optimized for one or a few crops. Some have hefty mechanical arms and are towed by a tractor through an orchard or vineyard. Some are fully autonomous, like the robot rice-planter being developed by Japan's National Agricultural Research Center. Other agrobots prowl the aisles of experimental greenhouses.

Despite the difference in forms, the agrobots share some underlying enabling technology, with its origins in factory automation. Factory automation is highly evolved, the product of decades of refinement, and provides a technological base for farm automation -- though farm robots have a much tougher job than factory robots. That's because the environment inside a factory is uniform, unaffected by weather and temperature, and product parts are also uniform in shape, as well as predictably positioned. An agrobot has to contend with variable lighting, weather, fruit shapes, and fruit positions. Fruit also requires substantially more care in handling than most product parts. However, factory automation technology has been extended to meet the challenges of the farm environment -- with the cost of the tech falling enough to bring the cost of such machines into practical reach of farmers.

Agrobot technology is not just attractive as a means of getting the crop in; considered as a system, agrobots could change the way the farmers run their business. Crop-tending robots could keep watch over a crop while it's growing, using vision systems, laser measurement sensors, satellite navigation, humidity sensors, and other instruments to profile each plant, with an entry on that plant kept in a database; the condition of the soil in the field would be mapped out as well. Watering and fertilizers could be delivered to each plant on an individual basis, with a sprayer robot visiting plants with pest infestations or disease to dispense the appropriate chemicals in precise doses. A planning system would track the progress of the crop, estimate yield, and send out a picking robot to haul in the produce when it's ripe -- with the produce automatically sorted by size or other parameters. The cost of the system would be partly offset by improved yield and more efficient use of water, fertilizer, and chemicals.

This is an ambitious vision, but parts of it are emerging. California raisin producers have been increasingly automating the harvest of their grapes, with harvester machines able to distinguish between grapes that have dried on the vine and grapes that haven't dried yet; the undried grapes are laid on a rolling paper tray to dry in the sun. Estimates show that bringing in the harvest by such automated means costs only about 60% as much as it did when it was all done by hand. More is on the way: Vision Robotics of San Diego has demonstrated a prototype of a robot that can prune grape vines -- a skill that requires the robot to build up a 3D model of the target vine and then use a library of rules to do the job right. The company is using the same basic technology to build apple- and orange-picking robots.

Progress in agrobotics is being made incrementally, since some tasks are easier than others: it's not as big a problem if an agrobot bruises fruit intended for juicing as it is to bruise fruit intended for direct purchase. It is also much easier to build agrobots that operate in the controlled environment of greenhouses than it is to build them for operations in an outdoor farm. Agrobotics is an emerging field and it's not quite here yet, but everyone involved believes that sooner or later it is going to be the way things are done down on the farm.

* In related news, a note in WIRED magazine ("Evolution Factory" by Damon Tabor, November 2010) discussed how the giant German chemical firm BASF, which has an agritech component, has set up a robotic plant nursery in an old azalea greenhouse in Ghent, Belgium, to evaluate crop plant specimens. The plants are run through a cycle with a minimum of human handling:

After three months or so, the plants are ready to be harvested. Seeds from the most promising plants are sent out for field trials. The agrobot future is arriving more quickly than we might have guessed.

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[MON 22 FEB 10] THE TROUBLE WITH PHOSPHORUS (2)

* THE TROUBLE WITH PHOSPHORUS (2): To produce enough food for a proper diet for a single individual, modern agriculture needs to use about 22.5 kilograms (50 pounds) of phosphorus a year. 22 million tonnes (24 million tons) of phosphorus is mined each year, typically from phosphate rock, to support this need. Current estimates of global resources of phosphate rock run to 163 billion tonnes (179 billion tons), with the rock yielding about 8% phosphorus. Those deposits are enough to last almost a millennium in principle -- but in practice that sum includes sources, such as high-carbonate minerals, where extracting the phosphorus is economically impractical, as well as deposits in regions that are inaccessible. Less than a tenth of that phosphorus is actually in forms or places where it can be exploited.

Those places are not evenly distributed, either. Just four countries -- the US, China, South Africa, and Morocco -- control 83% of world phosphorus resources. The US reserves are estimated at 1.2 billion tonnes (1.3 billion tons) of phosphate rock, with the reserves being mined out at about 30 million tonnes (33 million tons) a year. That's not enough to cover US needs and so America imports phosphate rock. China has high-quality reserves, but does not export, so the US mostly imports from Morocco.

Some geologists are not convinced there is any looming phosphorus crisis. Estimates of the size of mineral resource reserves traditionally have tended to be conservative, and as prices of a mineral increase, deposits that were ignored become profitable to exploit, in effect increasing the supply. However, the current rate of discovery of previously unknown deposits of phosphate rock is low and does not give encouraging support to the notion that there are vast quantities of phosphate rock hiding just out of our sight.

The strong possibility that we are running low on phosphorus tends to lend more urgency to conservation measures. One option is to improve farming methods that reduce erosion, such as terracing and no-till farming. Recycling inedible biomass -- stalks, leaves, stems -- and animal waste from meat and dairy production will also help conserve phosphorus. Human sewage is a major potential source of phosphorus, with urine being a good source of nitrogen as well. Separation of solid and liquids can be performed at sewage treatment plants or even high-tech toilets. However, while lead sewage pipe is generally obsolete, old pipe systems still linger, resulting in heavy metal contamination of human wastes that makes them inappropriate for use as fertilizer. An effort to phase out lead pipe would eliminate this problem.

The dream that human society can become fully self-sustaining, able to recycle materials indefinitely to beat the threat of resource depletion, has been around for decades, but it has proven very difficult to achieve, and no one realistically sees it as happening in the near future. However, there are measures that can be taken now to make better use of resources, and given the looming crunch, there are practical and economic reasons to give them serious consideration.

* ED: A later article in SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN described some pilot projects going on to produce fertilizer derived from wastewater. Of course, advocates believe that such recycling is perfectly practical on an economic basis, but they point out that the potential for phosphorus recovery from sewage is relatively small scale. The real payoff, about an order of magnitude greater, is in handling animal and farm wastes.

THE ECONOMIST also had an interesting article on the use, or rather misuse, of nitrogen-based fertilizers. The supply isn't such a problem, we can get ammonia for fertilizer from the air if it comes to that, but it's used wastefully, with some estimating that only a third of it ends up growing plants. The rest either becomes runoff that causes algal blooms in bodies of water, or releases nitrous oxides, a potent greenhouse gas. It is possible to time the application of fertilizers more carefully to reduce waste; countries such as Denmark have been able to cut fertilizer use in half through such measures. Researchers have also been able to genetically modify some crop plants to get by efficiently on low levels of fertilizer. [END OF SERIES]

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[FRI 19 FEB 10] THE KILLING OF JFK -- LEE HARVEY OSWALD (3)

* THE KILLING OF JFK -- LEE HARVEY OSWALD (3): As pieced together from Yuriy Nosenko's testimony and other sources, Lee Harvey Oswald arrived in Helsinki, Finland, on 10 October 1959. The USSR would only admit foreign tourists if they had a visa and were on carefully controlled package tours. Oswald got his visa quickly and was in Moscow by 16 October.

Some conspiracy theorists have found Oswald's quick arrival in Moscow suspicious, claiming it obviously had to have been planned out by the KGB ahead of time, pointing to the ease with which Oswald obtained a visa. In reality, Oswald had been preparing for the trip for about a year, and had been trying to teach himself Russian, though he would never learn to speak it very well. There is no evidence to support the tale that the Marine Corps or anyone else gave him lessons; the Warren Commission came upon a rumor that Oswald had studied Russian at the US Army's Monterey Language School, but on investigation no paper trail or witnesses demonstrated he had ever been near the place. As far as the quick visa was concerned, although even the Warren Commission found that suspicious, the Soviet embassy in Helsinki had been authorized to grant visas without clearance from Moscow and had no difficulty in handing them out quickly. Other American visitors going to the USSR through Helsinki at the time found the process just as efficient.

On arrival in the Soviet Union, Oswald made it clear to the authorities that he wanted to stay. He wasn't particularly wanted. He was a nobody, his background being a private in the Marines who had never been in any position of authority and whose only contact with any secret operation was watching U-2s as blips on a radar screen -- which the Soviets had been doing for years. The Soviets had plenty of experience with such nobodies blowing in, and had largely found them far more trouble than they were worth.

Conspiracy theorists make much of the remarks of John E. Donovan, who as a Marine lieutenant had been Oswald's boss at Atsugi and El Toro. Donovan told the Warren Commission that Oswald's defection was a potentially serious security breach:

BEGIN QUOTE:

I recall that [Oswald] was gone for some period of time, and shortly before I got out of the Marine Corps, which was mid-December 1959, we received word that he had showed up in Moscow. This necessitated a lot of change of aircraft call signs, codes, radio frequencies, radar frequencies. He had the access to the location of all bases in the West Coast area, all radio frequencies for all squadrons, all tactical call signs, and the relative strength of all squadrons, number and type of aircraft in a squadron, who was the commanding officer, the authentication code of entering and exiting the ADIZ, which stands for Air Defense Identification Zone. He knew the range of our radar. He knew the range of our radio. And he knew the range of the surrounding units' radio and radar.

END QUOTE

However, Donovan made it clear that the security breach was only in potential, adding:

BEGIN QUOTE:

If you had asked me a month after I left that area, I could not have told you any [data about installations] but our own. Had I wanted to record them, I certainly could have secretly, and taken them with me. Unless he intentionally with malice aforethought wrote them down, I doubt if he would have been able to recall them a month later, either.

END QUOTE

In addition, not all the information Donovan believed Oswald had access to was very significant -- the locations of bases, for example, which anyone could have determined with some driving around; and the authentication codes, which Donovan admitted were "methodically changed" on a regular basis.

Donovan had more to say to the HSCA. He had told the Warren Commission that he had no real memory of Oswald from Japan, saying: "If I knew him in Japan, I don't remember." -- but told the HSCA that Oswald was, somehow, on the inside of the U-2 program and that while Oswald was in Japan he, Donovan, had personally observed Oswald running around taking pictures of everything, as well as establishing contacts and relationships with a range of exotic and suspicious characters. The improvement in Donovan's memory seems to have been linked to conversations with conspiracy theorist Edward Epstein. Donovan wasn't the only witness who had nothing much to say early on -- and then became a wellspring of information after sessions with a conspiracy theorist.

In any case, no Pentagon documents relating to Oswald's defection to the USSR suggest his action caused any real distress. His clearance as a Marine was CONFIDENTIAL, meaning he had no access to information classified SECRET or above; Donovan claimed that enlisted personnel working at the Atsugi radar station were required to have and were given SECRET clearances, but interviews with Oswald's enlisted colleagues at the Atsugi station showed they had CONFIDENTIAL clearances. Donovan clearly overestimated Oswald's access to sensitive information.

Yuriy Nosenko flatly said: "We had better information already coming from KGB sources than he could ever give us." Oswald was debriefed, but as one official later said: "There were conversations, but this was such outdated information, the kind we say the sparrows had already chirped to the entire world, and now Oswald tells us about it." The KGB saw no value in him and judged him mentally unstable. When he applied for Soviet citizenship, the Soviets turned him down. On 21 October, on being given a final refusal and told to leave the country, Oswald slashed his wrist and had to be rushed to the hospital, where blood transfusions saved his life. After the suicide attempt, the KGB was even more certain they didn't want Oswald, but they were also not sure of what to do with him. The US and the USSR were in one of their intermittent periods of trying to get along better, and a dead American citizen would be very troublesome for relations.

A few weeks after the suicide attempt, on 13 November he was interviewed in a Moscow hotel room by Aline Mosby, an American reporter working for UPI. The interview revealed little of Oswald aside from the expected posturing, but it would have one lasting result. The article Mosby wrote about Oswald would be looked up later after he became famous; conspiracy theorists zeroed in on a comment in the article that didn't seem to square with what else was known about Oswald, in which he said he had lived in North Dakota. However, Mosby provided a copy of the article to the Warren Commission, retyped from her notes, and it says nothing about Oswald living in North Dakota, instead saying that he had lived in New Orleans. It appears that somewhere along the line of transcription of notes in the earlier publication of the article, the abbreviation "NO" for "New Orleans" ended up being misread as "ND" for "North Dakota", this error being carried on into other sources and causing a fair amount of confusion.

Anyway, the wheels of Soviet bureaucracy turned, and in early 1960, Oswald was granted a temporary right to stay and sent to the city of Minsk. According to Nosenko, he was kept under passive surveillance by the KGB -- and in fact, surveillance audio files obtained by the KGB on Oswald surfaced after the fall of the USSR. Any active interaction with him by KGB personnel was strictly forbidden.

He got a job in a factory and, with the help of a stipend provided by the government, it seems as a modest reward for defecting, was making good money by Soviet standards. Observations of his lifestyle in Minsk suggested a person with no interest in snooping around and a substantial interest in going to dances. However, life in the USSR didn't match the fantasy he had put together in his head of a truly classless society, and by the end of 1960 he had become disillusioned. In February 1961, Oswald began to write the US embassy to obtain help so he could return to the USA. The embassy told him to come to Moscow so they could talk to him face to face. This was somewhat difficult since Oswald wasn't allowed to move around freely, and an exchange of letters followed.

During this time, he met a pretty Russian girl named Marina Prusakova. She liked him, he seemed to be doing well for himself -- he had his own apartment, which was unusual among Soviet working men -- and they were married on 30 April 1961. Although Marina later denied it, some around the couple suspected that she also thought Oswald would be her ticket to live in the USA. [TO BE CONTINUED]

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[THU 18 FEB 10] SPACE NEWS

* SPACE NEWS: Space launches for January included:

-- 28 JAN 10 / GLOBUS -- A Proton Breeze M booster was launched from Baikonur to put a Russian military geostationary comsat into orbit. It was believed to be an "improved Raduga" AKA "Globus" spacecraft.

-- 16 JAN 10 / BEIDOU-2 3 -- A Long March 3A booster was launched from Xichang to put a "Beidou (Big Dipper)" geostationary navigation satellite into orbit. It was the third second-generation Beidou spacecraft to be launched.

* OTHER SPACE NEWS: According to AVIATION WEEK, NASA's Ames Research Center in the San Francisco Bay area is now working on a Moon orbiter, the "Lunar Atmosphere Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE)" for launch in 2012. It will orbit low over the Moon to measure its trace atmosphere and dust using three instruments:

The probe will also carry a "Lunar Laser Communications (LLC)" system developed by Lincoln Laboratories at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The LLC will support data rates of up to 600 megabits per second. LADEE will be the first to use the Ames "Modular Common Bus", a scheme that permits different classes of spacecraft to be assembled from a common set of elements. The probe will also be the first spacecraft launched by the new Orbital Sciences Minotaur 5 medium-lift booster. [ED: Launch was delayed to late 2013.]

LADEE probe

* As discussed earlier this month in a report on the Obama Administration's space plans, there has long been a tension between advocates of manned and of robotic space exploration. However, it seems a bit puzzling that the issue is persistently presented as one OR the other instead of one AND the other. As a case in point, although NASA would like to develop a new heavy-lift booster to support manned space missions, as suggested by a note in AVIATION WEEK, such a booster would also have plenty of application for robotic missions.

Not only would a heavy-lift booster permit launch of large, sophisticated robotic Outer Planets probes, but it would be able to loft first-class space telescopes to the outer Sun-Earth Lagrangian stationary point, where they would image planets in other star systems. Manned space missions would complement such an effort by shuttling astronauts to the Lagrangian point for telescope servicing and update. We are now in a period of deciding what we want to do in space, and it can be seen as an opportunity to pursue interesting new options.

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[WED 17 FEB 10] 3D PRINTING

* 3D PRINTING: There's nothing all that new about the concept of "three-dimensional printing", in which the digital specifications for a component can be fed to a printer unit that then turns out a completed example of that component, fabricated from plastic or other materials. As reported by an article in THE ECONOMIST ("A Factory On Your Desk", 3 September 2009), what is new is that 3D printing has arrived and is a big business, estimated at a total of $1.8 billion USD in 2008 and growing rapidly.

uPrint 3D printer

A number of manufacturers are now selling 3D printers, with prices ranging from $10,000 USD to over a million dollars -- the price of course being roughly proportional to the size, sophistication, and quality of parts that the printers can turn out. It might take an hour or less to turn out a simple, small part, or up to a day to make a big, sophisticated part. The best machines can produce parts accurate to a tenth of a millimeter. High-end machines can also fabricate items with multiple moving parts, using several colors and materials.

3D digital modeling systems have been a treasure to engineers, but no matter how good the modeling system, ultimately parts have to fabricated to make sure they actually fit together. Traditionally, the job of turning out such parts was assigned to skilled craftsman, with the task being slow and laborious. With 3D printing, a digital model can be sent to a printer and fabricated much more cheaply on the spot. A US firm named Timberland used to obtain test examples of new shoe soles in a week at a cost of $1,200 USD. Now, thanks to a 3D printer made by Z Corporation of Burlington, Massachusetts, it takes 90 minutes and costs $35 USD. 3D printing means a serious streamlining in the development processes, with designers able to obtain mock-ups or functioning prototypes quickly for testing, and to get feedback from marketing or customers.

* The earliest scheme for 3D printing was known as "stereolithography", used in the first commercial 3D printing machine, introduced in 1986. The part was laid down a thin layer at a time, using a liquid resin that was selectively cured by an ultraviolet laser. When the pattern for a layer was complete, the build tray dropped to allow another layer to be created. Once all the layers were built up, the uncured liquid resin was cleaned out in a chemical bath to unveil the completed part. A roughly similar scheme, "selective laser sintering", was also used early on, with a high-power laser selectively melting and fusing powdered ceramic, glass, or metal, one layer at a time.

Z Corporation's modern 3D printer system uses an inkjet scheme, with the machine's printing heads selectively laying down a liquid binder over a layer of white powder. When the layer is completed, the bed is dropped a fraction of a millimeter, with a new layer of powder laid down and rolled flat for printing. Color is added as part of the print to create multicolored items; several different types of powder can be used to create components of hard plastic, flexible plastic, or casting materials suitable for building molds. Laying down a layer takes 15 to 30 seconds. When all the layers have been laid down, the unprinted "sacrificial" powder is blown away and the item is rolled out.

3D printed model

Objet of Israel also uses an inkjet process in its 3D printers, but takes a different approach. The inkjet heads lay down two types of polymer: one which cures to a firm gel when exposed to ultraviolet light, the other which cures to a hard state. The gel is a sacrificial material, used to provide structural support for cavities and overhangs, and is washed away with water from the finished item. As with the Z Corporation 3D printer, the Objet printer can produce items with components featuring different materials and colors.

Another approach is "fused deposition modeling", with Stratasys of Minneapolis the market leader in this technology. The basic concept is not so different from the inkjet schemes, the variation being that a moving nozzle is fed a filament of thermoplastic that it heats up and lays down in layers. Sacrificial layering can be added by various means when needed.

* Industry officials see the market for 3D printing going in two directions. One is towards cheaper and simpler printers that every engineer or designer can have on a desk to produce concept models. The other route is toward more expensive and capable machines, with an eye towards using them for actual manufacturing. Traditionally, fabricating components for a product means obtaining tooling at considerable expense and lead time. A high-throughput 3D printer, in contrast, could roll out any desired component on demand, and then move on to build another component. Traditional manufacturing also means fabricating separate components and then assembling them as a subsystem; a 3D printer can construct the entire subsystem at one time, greatly reducing the complexity of manufacturing.

In both cases, industry remains the target market, but as costs of 3D printers drop, the possibility begins to emerge of a public market. Late-night TV host Jay Leno, noted for being a very hard-core automobile enthusiast with an impressive collection of classic cars, bought a Stratasys system to help fabricate parts for his machines. He scans a part for a car and then obtains a plastic replica, which is then fitted to the car. If a metal part is ultimately required, the plastic part simply provides a fit check, with the final part created by computer-controlled machining from the digital model used to generate the replica.

Most consumers don't have Leno's deep pockets, but a few firms are already providing 3D printing services to the public. A customer can contact a shop, hand them a digital model, and get a quote for printing the part; on payment, a custom part will be shipped overnight, arriving the next day. The time can be envisioned when 3D printers will be cheap enough for anyone who wants one to buy one. Right now, it's easy to find paper models of aircraft and the like online that can be downloaded and printed on a color printer; it's no great stretch to imagine a day when plastic models, replicas, and toys can be downloaded as well. More sophisticated items might well be downloadable farther down the road. Nobody honestly sees a capability like a sci-fi matter replicator on the horizon, but in twenty years, people may be their own manufacturers for an ever-widening range of goods.

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[TUE 16 FEB 10] NO MELTDOWN IN THE HIMALAYAS?

* NO MELTDOWN IN THE HIMALAYAS? While global-warming deniers can be exasperating, they do score a few legitimate points -- one of which is that the specific evidence for global warming can be inconsistent. As a case in point, an article in AAAS SCIENCE ("No Sign Yet Of Himalayan Meltdown, Indian Report Finds" by Pallava Bagla, 13 November 2009) discussed a recent report that suggests, despite popular impressions, the glaciers of the Himalayan mountains are not showing signs of retreat. The report, by glaciologist Vijay Kumar Raina, previously of the Geological Survey of India, contradicts the widely held perception that the 10,000 or so glaciers flowing out of the Himalayas are shrinking rapidly. While that view has become widely accepted -- being cited in the 2007 report of the UN International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) -- Raina asserts that this conclusion is based on selective measurements of a handful of glaciers and is incorrect.

Some of Raina's colleagues in the glaciology community still accept the IPCC conclusion, with one saying that the Indian government has an "ostrichlike attitude in the face of impending catastrophe." However, India's environment minister, Jairam Ramesh, says that "we don't need to write the epitaph for glaciers", but concedes that the Himalayan ecosystem needs to targeted for intensive investigation because "the truth is incredibly complex."

* The Himalayas have snow and ice sheets covering more than 30,000 square kilometers (11,600 square miles), with the ice-covered mountains described as the "third pole". Records tracking the glaciers of the mountain system were started in the 19th century, with the oldest records showing most of the glaciers advanced in the wake of the "Little Ice Age" that gripped the Northern Hemisphere. The glaciers began to retreat in the early 20th century. Comprehensive satellite data shows that about a fifth of the Himalayas' ice coverage has disappeared since 1960.

Himalayan glaciers

Raina's report concurs with that general observation, but cites data from several Indian research groups that shows the rate of retreat of many glaciers has slowed over recent years -- while some glaciers have stopped shrinking or are actually advancing. For example, the Gangroti glacier, a source of the Ganges River, shrank by 5% of its length from 1934 to 2003, but over the last few years it has come to a standstill. Some climatologists do agree that the IPCC dropped the ball in stating that the glaciers of the Himalayas were disappearing. The climate community knows perfectly well that even if global warming is happening, that doesn't imply that the effects will be straightforward and predictable. A warmer average temperature will shrink glaciers at low altitudes, but at high altitudes the temperature generally remains cold enough to maintain the glaciers, with increases in snowfall even causing them to advance. The IPCC report warned that the loss of Himalayan glaciers would cause the Ganges to dry up, resulting in an agricultural calamity for India, but recent studies have suggested that was off-base as well -- that the Ganges is mostly fed by monsoon rains, with glaciers only contributing a few percent of the river's flow.

Critics of Raina's report suggest in turn that he may have been misled himself by a temporary shift in climate, for example recent heavy snowfall or unusually cloudy weather. Both sides agree, however, that trading shots over such issues is misguided -- the Himalayan environment is indeed incredibly complex, and demands much more observation and research. As one says of the Himalayan glaciers: "Truly, we know less about them than any other place on Earth."

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[MON 15 FEB 10] THE TROUBLE WITH PHOSPHORUS (1)

* THE TROUBLE WITH PHOSPHORUS (1): It is now obvious that in the wake of the explosion of human population on Earth over the last few centuries, resources we once took for granted are in danger of running out. An article in SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN ("Phosphorus: A Looming Crisis" by David A. Vaccari, June 2009) suggests we are facing a possible crisis in the supply of phosphorus.

What makes phosphorus significant is the marking on packages of fertilizer that reads: 19-12-5. Those numbers give the percentages of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium in the fertilizer. It's not so hard to get the nitrogen, since we can get it out of the air, and available deposits of potassium should last for centuries -- but current known deposits of phosphorus are likely to be depleted by the end of this century. Although human population growth has slowed down, the number of souls on this planet continues to increase for the time being, and without access to phosphorus obtaining the fertilizer to grow crops may be very troublesome.

We may be facing trouble even in the short term, since the supply of phosphorus is very unevenly distributed, making it vulnerable to disruption. The USA is the second-biggest producer of phosphorus, after China, with America producing 19% of the globe's total -- but 65% of that comes from pit mines near Tampa, Florida, which may be depleted in a few decades. 40% of known untapped phosphorus reserves are concentrated in Morocco, which for the time being is a friendly, stable nation, but it's still uncomfortable to realize that a single nation has a potential chokehold over global phosphorus supplies.

On the other side of the coin, the use of phosphorus in agriculture has proven environmentally troublesome, leading to depletion of phosphorus from the soil, and accumulation of phosphorus in waterways, leading to "algal blooms". The challenge is not merely one of obtaining phosphorus but also ensuring that phosphorus is used wisely. The two challenges are closely linked.

* Phosphorus, usually in the form of the phosphate ion (PO4- - -), is essential for all forms of life. It forms the backbone of DNA and cell membranes, and is the active component of the molecule adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the cell's main unit of energy storage. The average human body contains about 650 grams (1.43 pounds) of phosphorus, mostly in the bones, and a human needs to consume about a gram of phosphorus a day to stay healthy.

Phosphorus is an element, and as such it is not, strictly speaking, depletable. Coal and oil -- hydrocarbons -- are molecular materials that are burned to obtain energy, degrading them into carbon compounds that have lost their energy value. In contrast, our use of phosphorus never really destroys it, instead merely transforming it into less convenient forms.

In nature, the distribution of phosphorus is automatic and cyclical. Phosphorus weathers from rocks, to be taken up by plants and the animals that eat the plants. Through cycles of birth, death, and decay the phosphorus loops through a local ecosystem dozens of times, though eventually it runs off to the ocean. In the sea, marine organisms recycle the phosphorus hundreds of times, but eventually the phosphorus becomes part of the sediment. The sediment becomes sedimentary rock, which over tens of millions of years may be uplifted to land, where weathering releases the phosphorus again.

In prescientific agriculture, human and animal manures were used as fertilizers, and the result was that phosphorus was returned to the soil. The rise of urban centers and modern agriculture to support them then broke this cycle: manures weren't put back into the land, and manure-based agriculture wasn't productive enough to support the urban populations anyway, with manufactured fertilizers required to maintain high crop yields.

To compound the difficulties, tilling the soil disrupts it and promotes runoff of phosphorus and other nutrients, while flood control prevents floods from carpeting low-lying areas with phosphorus-rich sediments. The sediments flow into the seas and lakes, creating the algal blooms mentioned above that choke the oxygen out of water by the decay of plant matter, resulting in "dead zones" and depleted fisheries. [TO BE CONTINUED]

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[FRI 12 FEB 10] THE KILLING OF JFK -- LEE HARVEY OSWALD (2)

* THE KILLING OF JFK -- LEE HARVEY OSWALD (2): Even before 22 November 1963, American authorities were aware that Lee Harvey Oswald had spent time in the USSR, but they didn't know what he had been doing there. In January 1964, after Oswald had become notorious, a lieutenant colonel in the Soviet KGB intelligence service named Yuriy Nosenko was visiting Geneva as part of a disarmament commission, and went to the CIA to defect. He was granted asylum and taken to a safe house in the USA for debriefing. There he shocked his interrogators by telling them that he had been responsible for surveillance of Lee Harvey Oswald during Oswald's stay in the Soviet Union.

The bottom line of Nosenko's story was that the KGB had kept an eye on Oswald, but had never regarded him as worth recruiting. This was a remarkably convenient revelation, and in fact the CIA thought it much too convenient. The agency was worried about double agents infiltrating the organization and had been warned by other defectors about plants. Although Nosenko had been working for the CIA since 1962, the agency's head of counterintelligence, James Angleton, was convinced Nosenko was a plant, sent to cover the tracks of the KGB's "real" involvement with Oswald.

One seeming inconsistency in Nosenko's story was that most evidence suggested he was actually a captain in the KGB, not a lieutenant colonel, and that his rank had been inflated as a ploy to enhance his attractiveness to the CIA. As it turned out, his promotion had taken place just before his defection, and not all the records reflected his change in rank at the time. More significantly, Nosenko had told the CIA that he had received a recall order telling him to come back home from Geneva, and that he suspected his cover had been blown. The CIA never discovered any recall order, and Nosenko eventually admitted he had made up the story to pressure the CIA into taking him in, saying that he faced being shot if he went back home.

The FBI got wind of Nosenko's defection and, from information provided by Soviet informants -- the bureau did not perform foreign intelligence but was responsible for domestic counterintelligence -- judged Nosenko to be legitimate. Angleton didn't buy it, and Nosenko was treated as a captured spy. He was locked up in a house in Washington DC, held inside its boarded-up attic, and very roughly interrogated. He was later moved to a special secret prison facility at Camp Peary, the agency's training facility, to be kept in solitary confinement on minimal rations. No matter how hard the CIA squeezed him, however, Nosenko refused to admit that he was a plant. He had every reason to resist, since if he caved in he had no future in the US, and if he had been sent back home he would certainly have been executed. Later defectors consistently vouched that he was legitimate -- to end up being labeled plants themselves.

However, in June 1966 Richard Helms became director of the CIA. Helms took an interest in Nosenko's case and felt his status needed to resolved, and so an experienced agency spycatcher named Bruce Solie was assigned to review the case. Solie waded through reams of material provided by Angleton and his people that supposedly proved Nosenko was a plant. Solie thought it all smelled like a hatchet job and decided to take a closer look. One day Nosenko was removed from his cell at Camp Peary, blindfolded and shackled, then driven off in a car. He was certain that he was going to be taken to an isolated location and executed, to end up in an unmarked grave, but he ended up at a safe house in Washington DC, to later be transferred to a rural farm, where his living conditions improved significantly. Solie interrogated him repeatedly, finally submitting a report in September 1968 that concluded Nosenko was legitimate. In the spring of 1969, Nosenko was released, being hired on by the CIA and given some compensation for the harsh treatment he had been given.

In the 1970s, the HSCA looked over Nosenko carefully and concluded that he was an unreliable witness, since some of comments he had made much earlier didn't gibe with those he made later. However, although conspiracy theorists have continued to insist he was a plant, both the CIA and the FBI finally gave him a clean bill of health and ended up regarding his information as gold. All information that has come from Russia to the present has confirmed Nosenko really was a defector. [TO BE CONTINUED]

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[THU 11 FEB 10] GIMMICKS & GADGETS

* GIMMICKS & GADGETS: An article from DISCOVERY Online discussed "invisibleBracelet.org", an online service that maintains health history information accounts for users at a cost of $5 USD per user per year. It's intended primarily to assist emergency medical services (EMS) responders by providing data for patients with diabetes or other chronic medical conditions.

EMS workers can access an account using a PIN number listed on a patient's wallet card or key fob. Each account also can list next of kin, with EMS workers able to send out an alert over email to the contact list in case of an emergency. The service is intended to complement "medical alert bracelets" often worn by people with chronic medical conditions. The "invisible bracelet" system is less cumbersome and provides information and contacts more rapidly.

* Researchers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in Troy, New York, have developed a lab prototype of a new battery, based on carbon nanotubes and sheets of paper. The battery consists of a sandwich of two sheets of paper that have been "inked" with a solution of carbon nanotubes separated by a sheet of un-inked paper, then placed in an electrolyte. The battery can be rolled or, in principle, printed on cardboard boxes, and uses no heavy metals. A Stanford team has followed up this exercise with a battery based on carbon nanotubes and cloth, suggesting the possibility of a battery for "wearable electronics".

* As reported by an article in THE ECONOMIST, an autopsy is a time-consuming, expensive, and often difficult procedure, which restricts its utility. Now a team of Swedish researchers is working on a system to perform "virtual" autopsies. The corpse to be examined is first scanned by a computerized tomography (CT) X-ray machine, with the scan itself taking less than a minute and 25,000 images, each image being a slice through the body. The transparency of the body to X-rays varies with the density of the tissues or objects -- such as a bullet -- in the path of the scan, with the variations in density showing up in the X-ray images. Software analyzes and assembles all the images into a 3D representation of the corpse, presented using an NVIDIA graphics card. Air pockets show up as blue, soft tissues as beige, blood vessels as red, and bone as white. A pathologist can inspect the virtual corpse using a computer mouse.

The researchers have also built a "virtual autopsy table", using a large touch-sensitive LCD panel that up to six people can crowd around, probing through the virtual corpse with a sweep of a finger, removing layers of muscle to zoom in on organs, cutting into them with a virtual knife. Swedish police have already used the virtual autopsy system in hundreds of cases, and have found it very effective in nailing down evidence -- such as the angle of a bullet's trajectory -- that isn't all that easy to figure out in a real autopsy. The virtual autopsy has a particular virtue in that it does not alter the evidence.

* According to a note from WIRED Online, a UK data security firm conducted a survey showing that Britons sent 4,500 pocket "thumb" flash memory drives to the dry cleaners along with their clothes in 2009. The survey was intended to sound a warning that thumb drives pose a data security risk. It seems matters are improving, however, since that was only about half the number found in 2008.

What makes this story interesting is to envision someone living in 1985 visualizing the idea of someone in 2010 sticking a 2 gigabyte mass storage unit in a pocket and then forgetting about it. In those days, a typical mainframe computer didn't have 2 gigabytes of mass storage! Flying cars may be as much a fantasy in 2010 as they ever were, but some of our tech is, by the standards of the past, nonetheless sci-fi.

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[WED 10 FEB 10] LISTEN CLOSELY

* LISTEN CLOSELY: Humans have an innate capability to learn and use language that far outstrips the communications capabilities of even the chattiest of our fellow animals. As reported by an article from BBC WORLD Online ("Big Brother Untangles Baby Babble" by Jonathan Fildes), there is an ongoing argument over the roots of human language, the question being: "nature versus nurture?" Do children learn language on the basis of an innate capability? Or is language something they are taught by the people around them? A professor of robotics named Deb Roy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Media Lab has been working on the question by simply listening in, very thoroughly, on babies as they progress from babble to coherent speech.

Roy became interested in the issue in 2005 while working on machine communications. He noticed that the studies he found on the emergence of language in babies only took fairly brief snapshots of a baby's language development, which he found much too sketchy to provide insight. Others agreed. Steven Pinker of Harvard University, a well-known "evolutionary psychologist", commented: "Current samples that the field works with -- typically an hour of recorded speech a week -- are one to two orders of magnitude too small for our scientific purposes."

At the time, Roy's wife was expecting, and in anticipation of the arrival of his child, Roy wired up his home with 11 fisheye-lens cameras activated by motion sensors; 14 omnidirectional microphones; server computers with vast quantities of mass storage; and a kilometer (3,300 feet) of wiring to link it all together. Every waking moment of the baby was to be recorded for analysis. Roy called the effort the "Human Speechome" project, as something of a pun on the Human Genome project. The baby, a boy, was monitored every day for three years from 8:00 AM to 10:00 PM, with the system gobbling up 200 gigabytes of data every year. The total came to 150 terabytes, with 70% of the boy's waking moments tracked.

* Now Roy's group is taking on the hard part, trying to sort through the ocean of data accumulated in those three years. Specialized software tools were built to help. The first, named "Total Recall", was effectively a viewer, allowing the 25 channels of data collected to be sorted out and inspected. Given the ability to scan through the data stream, the next task was to actually transcribe what the baby had said, which Roy estimated ran to over 10 million words.

That turned out to be tough. Roy's research group first tried to use off-the-shelf speech recognition software, but it wasn't up to the job of picking out speech from household background noise, with error rates up to 90%. Human transcribers had the skill to sort through the noise, but it was laborious, requiring about ten hours to transcribe an hour of speech. That was obviously a nonstarter as well, but the MIT researchers decided it could be made to work if the human transcribers were given a software tool to help. The tool, "Blitzscribe", scans through the audio data stream to find speech in the recordings and chop it up into convenient chunks for a human transcriber to deal with. Now transcribing an hour of speech only requires two hours of work. The output of the effort not only includes the speech, but how it was said -- its "prosody" -- and who said it. An associated tool, named "TrackMarks", was put together to analyze the video data stream, figuring out such elements as the relative location of the speakers and the orientation of their heads.

Roy is nowhere near coming up with a "grand unified theory of language" yet, but he feels he has acquired some interesting insights even in this early stage of analysis. For example, his team has been able to zero in on a process that he calls "word birth", or the time when a baby first learns how to use a word. The analysis shows that parents subconsciously simplify sentences until the baby gets the idea. As Roy puts it: "We essentially meet him at the point of the birth of the word and gently pull him into the language."

A profound revelation? Maybe, maybe not; scientific theory is often built up from small insights instead of an apple falling on one's head, but not all small insights are actually worth anything. However, as Roy points out, this shows the kinds of questions that can be addressed with the tools and data he now has.

* There's one big problem with his experiment, however: it only covers one subject, Roy's own son. To be persuasive, much more data will have to be accumulated on other babies, and few are eager to go through the labor and expense of duplicating Roy's experimental setup. Roy was aware of that issue from the outset and never regarded his effort as much more than a pilot program.

The MIT Media Lab is now producing more convenient tools for the job and for similar jobs. One of the first products is the "Speechome recorder", which looks something like a high-tech floor lamp. It has an overhead arm with a microphone and camera, as well as a camera at toddler eye level in the base. The base has a touchscreen panel for control and status, and enough mass storage to accumulate data for several months. The recorders are now being put to use in studies of autistic children.

Roy also sees the work done on analysis for the Speechome project having applications elsewhere, for example in "smart" video camera systems, or in models of how humans move around in living spaces -- which might be useful in architectural design. However, the core of the effort was always to determine how babies learn to talk, and the Roy sees the possibility of duplicating that capability as the big payoff: "What if we can build a machine that can step into the shoes of a child and learn in human-like ways? Imagine transferring that into a video-game character or into a domestic robot that can now learn to communicate and interact in social ways. I see a lot of pathways back."

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[TUE 09 FEB 10] OBAMA'S SPACE PLAN

* OBAMA'S SPACE PLAN: The recommendations of the Augustine Committee on the future of the US space program were discussed here some months back. The Obama Administration has considered those recommendations, and on 1 February 2010 President Obama announced the conclusions.

The basic message was simple and straightforward: the Constellation program, the plan established by the Bush II Administration in which the US National Aeronautics & Space Administration (NASA) would return to the Moon as a stepping stone to Mars, was to get the axe. The NASA space shuttle will be retired no later than 2011, as previously planned, while the International Space Station (ISS) will continue operations to at least 2020. With the shuttle gone, the US will not have a manned spaceflight capability for some years. In the new space order, that gap will be plugged by commercial space companies responding to NASA contracts.

The cancellation of Constellation was not at all surprising, since the program was in serious budget trouble; it was simply not affordable. What was surprising was that the Obama plan, as stated, said nothing specific about what the US planned to do about manned spaceflight. What the new plan does specify sounds on the face of it as a general reassessment of the US manned space program:

BEGIN QUOTE:

The President's Budget cancels Constellation and replaces it with a bold new approach that invests in the building blocks of a more capable approach to space exploration that includes:

END QUOTE

While the Augustine Committee had encouraged continued development of the Orion space capsule and work on the "not Shuttle-C" heavy-lift booster, the plan as released said nothing about them. The president made it clear that planning was still in progress and that a detailed roadmap for NASA wasn't going to be in place for months. That makes commentary on the plan ambiguous for the time being.

The pessimistic point of view being floated is that the Obama Administration is giving up on US manned spaceflight. That's the common unhappy opinion of Congresspeople whose districts include aerospace industries involved in manned space, and a big fight is expected over the plan. However, not everyone who is interested in space exploration is an enthusiast for manned missions, the attitude being that robotic missions are much cheaper and more useful, and to that faction the "pessimistic" view is actually welcome. The support for robot missions rings through loud and clear in the Obama space plan. No more "cart before the horse"; no longer, so the advocates say, will robotic programs be starved and looted to support manned programs.

Manned spaceflight advocates reply in frustration that it makes no sense to explore space if humans don't do it themselves -- but their exasperation with the Obama space plan may be exaggerated. The optimistic point of view is that the Obama space plan doesn't kill off manned spaceflight, it simply says that the US needs to step back and completely reconsider the matter. The plan envisions giving NASA almost $6 billion USD in additional funding over the next five years, with a strong focus on development of new technologies and a commercial manned spaceflight capability. NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, an ex-shuttle pilot, has told critics the agency is not giving up on the heavy-lift booster on which manned deep-space missions are predicated -- though he does warn it won't be flying until after 2020. The hike in funding renders the outcry of "NASA is being gutted" implausible -- while those agitated over the cancellation of the Constellation program are stuck with the problem of explaining where the money would come from for a program that was going nowhere in any hurry after expenditure of about $9 billion USD, and presented NASA with the ugly choice of deorbiting the ISS in 2015.

The Apollo program of the 1960s was a clear and impressive success for NASA, but by 1975, when the program was ending, NASA's mission needed to be fundamentally reexamined. It didn't happen. NASA went forward with a space shuttle, then a space station, as "flagship" programs -- both conceived with weakly defined goals, both suffering from serious cost and development problems as NASA pursued them with inadequate resources and half-hearted political support. Of course, NASA has had its significant successes in the previous decades as well. Maybe now we sit down, review what's been done right, what's been done wrong, figure out what can actually be done on a sensible budget, and finally get things on track. For the time being, what happens next is anyone's guess.

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[MON 08 FEB 10] THE TAMING OF THE CAT (3)

* THE TAMING OF THE CAT (3): There's no way of knowing how long it took to turn wildcats into housecats, but animals can be domesticated very rapidly. In 1959, Soviet researchers began a program to produce tame silver foxes on a fox farm, and within decades ended up with docile foxes. Interestingly, they had many of the same neotenous characteristics as dogs. However, it seems unlikely that Neolithic farmers performed much selective breeding on cats and so it probably took centuries, even millennia, to produce the housecat as we more or less know it today.

The second oldest hint of cat domestication is from Israel, where a dig found a cat molar about 9,000 years old. The third oldest remnant is from Pakistan and is about 4,000 years old. The scarcity of cat remains in that timeframe suggests that cats and humans had yet to link up in a big way. The first really hard evidence of cats mingling with humans comes from Egyptian paintings dating back 3,600 years that show cats sitting under chairs, sometimes collared, or eating from bowls -- one suspects that even then, they could be picky eaters. Given the large number of Egyptian paintings of cats, it's not surprising that it was thought for so long that Egyptians were the first to domesticate the housecat.

Now we know that cats had been living around humans for a long time before that, but certainly the Egyptians were fond of cats. 2,900 years ago, the housecat had become the national deity of Egypt, the goddess Bast or Bastet, and mummies of housecats are very common. The Egyptians revered the cat so much that they banned export of the beasts, but they had spread from Egypt to Greece by 2,500 years ago. During Greek and Roman times, cats clearly rode on grain ships to keep rats in check, with the little felines spreading around the shores of the Mediterranean and then up into Europe, where they were well-established 2,000 years ago. Oddly, housecats seemed to have reached Britain before the Romans arrived, with scholars still puzzling over who might have brought them there.

cat of Egypt

Of course, cats migrated East as well, becoming established in India and China. Isolated from Western housecat populations, due to "genetic drift" Asian housecats evolved into distinct races, the best-known being the Siamese and the Burmese. Genetic analysis suggests these races emerged at least 700 years ago. In recent centuries, cats came to the Americas and Australia, though being relative newcomers in those lands they have not developed into distinctive races.

* Human selective breeding of cats for interesting features seems to be a relatively recent phenomenon: in Egyptian paintings, housecats have much the same coloration as wildcats. Most modern breeds of cats were developed by enthusiasts in Britain during the 19th century, with the first "fancy cat" breeds exhibited at the Crystal Palace in London in 1871. A Persian won the prize, though there was considerable excitement over the Siamese.

Today, cat fanciers recognize about 60 different breeds of cats. Only about a dozen genes control the variation between these breeds -- coat color, fur length and texture, and so on. The genetic variation between different breeds of cats is very slight, on the order of the general variation between French and Italians. Cats in no way compare to the genetic diversity of dogs, which range in form from chihuahuas to great danes. The greater variability of dogs is not surprising, since dogs have been bred for many purposes for a long time, with dogs performing jobs such as guard duty, pulling sleds, livestock herding, tracking by smell, and so on. In contrast, to the extent cats have a job, the only serious one is hunting mice -- and it seems they basically exploited that opportunity themselves.

Cats appear to have hooked up with us because it was to their convenience, and no one who understands cats would dispute that notion. Housecats are still very similar to their wildcat ancestors, exhibiting only a few minor difference. They have slightly shorter legs, a smaller brain and, as noted by Charles Darwin, a longer intestine, which may have been an adaptation to living on kitchen scraps.

However, modern artificial insemination and in-vitro fertilization technology suggests that the housecat is on the threshold of a genetic flowering, as human breeders hybridize cats with other feline species to create radically new breeds. The "Bengal" and the "Caracat", for example, resulted from crossing the house cat with the Asian leopard cat and the caracal, respectively. Love cats or kick cats, they're here to stay. [END OF SERIES]

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[FRI 05 FEB 10] THE KILLING OF JFK -- LEE HARVEY OSWALD (1)

* THE KILLING OF JFK -- LEE HARVEY OSWALD (1): The obvious place to start in examining the JFK assassination is to take a close look at Lee Harvey Oswald. He was born in a rundown neighborhood of New Orleans, Louisiana, on 18 October 1939. His mother was Marguerite Oswald, his father was Robert E. Lee Oswald, who was Marguerite Oswald's second husband and had died two months before the birth. Marguerite had two other sons, Robert Oswald and John Pic, Pic being the son of Marguerite's first husband. It was not much of a happy family, Robert and John later having little good to say about their mother, describing her as high-strung, irresponsible, self-centered, paranoid, greedy, and domineering. Some authors have suggested that's an exaggerated read on Marguerite, that she did try hard to take care of her kids, but few people had any liking for her and that strongly tended to color judgements of her.

Marguerite found things so difficult to deal with that she put Robert and John in a boarding school / orphanage. Lee was a toddler at the time and the boarding school couldn't take him; Marguerite clumsily tried to enlist a range of caretakers while she tried to hold down a job, resulting in a completely unstable environment for the young Lee. In 1942, when he was three, she managed to get him into the boarding school as well, which actually a fairly benign environment, with Robert and John looking out for him.

In 1944 she pulled her sons out of the boarding school and took them to Dallas, Texas. She had a relationship with a Dallas businessman named Edwin Ekdahl, having married him in 1945. Lee became very fond of Ekdahl and even accompanied him on business trips. However, the marriage gradually broke down, the couple going through a nasty divorce in 1948. During this time, Lee's life was unsettled and his brothers noticed he was becoming ever more quiet and withdrawn.

Lee's unsettled life continued over the next few years. John joined the US Coast Guard in 1950, while Robert joined the US Marine Corps in 1952. Lee looked up to Robert and, inspired by Robert's example, decided he wanted to sign up with the Marines as well once he was old enough. In the summer of 1952, Marguerite took Lee to New York City, where John was stationed, with the mother and son moving into the apartment rented by John and his wife Marge. The arrangement was troublesome, with Marguerite feuding with Marge and annoyed with John for, not surprisingly to anyone else, siding with his wife against his mother. One day, Lee menaced Marge with a pocketknife, and punched Marguerite in the face when she intervened. Things were out of control, with Marguerite and Lee soon leaving. Lee was never friendly to John after that.

Lee bounced from one school to another, often absent from classes. He was finally examined by a psychiatrist, who found the boy angry, withdrawn, antisocial. Most revealingly, Lee Harvey told the psychiatrist: "I don't want a friend and I don't talk to people." When asked if he preferred the company of boys or girls, he replied: "I dislike everybody."

Things got so bad between Lee and the New York City school system that proceedings were started to put him in a home for disturbed boys, where he would receive psychiatric care. Some case workers involved had recognized that Marguerite seemed to be a big part of Lee's problems, the mother being both overly indulgent and overly controlling, and prying him loose from her seemed like a good idea -- to the authorities at least. Of course Marguerite didn't like it, and at the beginning of 1954, she took Lee back to New Orleans. The authorities in New York City had no jurisdiction out of state and Lee basically dropped off their radar screen.

Those who knew Lee after he went back to New Orleans found him standoffish, insolent, and inclined to get into fights. For whatever reason, he started reading about Communism and was taken with the idea. He never really investigated the subject in depth and never joined the Communist Party, but the basic concept appealed to him. Otherwise he didn't seem to have much in the way of interests, being indifferent to his studies and with no extracurricular activities; in 1955, he did join the Civil Air Patrol but only attended a few meetings before dropping out. He dropped out of school late that year and worked at menial jobs.

Despite his interest in Communism, he still wanted to emulate his brother Robert and join the Marines -- Robert thought it was mostly to get away from Marguerite and John agreed, both having gone in the military themselves primarily for that reason. Lee tried to sign up in October 1955, lying about his age -- he was only 16 -- but the recruiters didn't buy it. In July 1956, Marguerite and Lee moved to Forth Worth, Texas, where Robert was living and working, having finished his hitch in the Marines. Lee went back to school there, only to drop out again; he turned 17 in October 1956 and promptly signed up with the Marines.

Lee Harvey Oswald in the Marines

Oswald went through boot camp training at Camp Pendleton near San Diego, California, scoring marginally under-average in general aptitude tests, but ranked in the mid-range in rifle marksmanship, with a score of 212. Conspiracy theorists insist he was a terrible shot, but the Marines heavily emphasized rifle training, and one of his NCOs later commented that he was "a slightly better than average shot for a Marine, excellent by civilian standards."

On leaving boot camp he went to Jacksonville, Florida, and then Biloxi, Mississippi, for training as a radar operator. Following graduation, he ended up at an air traffic control station near Atsugi Air Base in Japan near Tokyo. Atsugi at the time was operating the super-secret Lockheed U-2 spy plane and some conspiracy theorists have suggested there was a "spooky" angle to Oswald's activities there -- maybe Soviet agents decided Oswald was in a position to help the Communist cause and signed him up as a spy. However, the Marine radar station had no real clearance into U-2 operations; to the group, the U-2s were simply featureless blips on radar that came and went, difficult to tell from any other aircraft flying into or out of the base. He didn't even know much about the radar systems he used, being trained simply to operate them, with little or no understanding of their design principles -- and they were hardly ultra-secret technology.

* Oswald seemed to be doing okay for himself in the Marines for a time, but he gradually became a disciplinary problem, a "screwup" as they say in the military, and he was court-martialed twice. The first time was in the fall of 1957, when he accidentally shot himself with a 0.22-caliber derringer he liked to play with; he wasn't supposed to have personal weapons around the barracks and he was busted in rank. The second time was in the spring of 1958, when he tried to pick a fight with an NCO, and ended up in the brig for almost two months. Some conspiracy theorists have suggested there was something "spooky" about his time in lockup as well, that Oswald was actually being drilled by the CIA or some other black organization while he was supposed to be imprisoned -- but the idea is pure speculation, with no support in the evidence or from witnesses.

Conspiracy theorists also play up an incident that took place between the two court-martials, while Oswald was on field duty in the Philippines. On 5 January 1958, a Private Martin Schrand was shot and killed while on guard duty at the Naval Air Station at Chibi point. The incident was bizarre: Schrand had been killed by a shotgun blast fired vertically up through his armpit, and his shotgun had been discharged. Tests showed that the same model of shotgun could be accidentally discharged by dropping it on its butt with the safety off; it appears that Schrand's death was a freak accident. The only way he could have been shot by someone else up through the armpit was if the shooter had been lying on his back on the ground and stuck a shotgun up beneath Schrand's arm. What was the visible connection to Oswald? Other than that he was in the Philippines at the time, none whatsoever.

Yet another item was that during 1958 was that Oswald was treated for, as described in the medical report: "Urethritis, Acute, due to gonococcus." What was puzzling was that the officer who made up the report said the origin of the disease was "in line of duty, not due to own misconduct." This is a puzzling statement -- what was Oswald doing as part of his military duties that could give him a dose of the clap? Conspiracy theorists have read into this comment an elaborate intelligence connection, but it appears that the "line of duty" remark was nothing unusual in Marine medical reports on troops who contracted venereal disease: they could potentially be disciplined for such things, but since it was a common affliction, the medical staff just used "in the line duty" as a bureaucratic dodge to let them off the hook.

* In any case, Oswald rotated back to the US in late 1958, ending up in El Toro, California. By that time, after his time in the brig -- a Marine brig is notoriously unpleasant even by the standards of lockups -- he was completely disenchanted with the Marines and was making little secret of his Communist sympathies, with some Marines good-naturedly nicknaming him "Oswaldovich". Although most of the other Marines thought he was bright, with an intellectual streak, given his negative attitude his proficiency in his work steadily slipped -- when he requalified on the rifle range in 1959, he only scored 191, still qualifying but a clear drop from the 212 he had scored in 1957. He just didn't care. He did care enough about future plans to get himself a "General Educational Development (GED) qualification from the Armed Forces Institute, scoring "satisfactory" on the GED tests. The GED was generally accepted by colleges as a substitute for a high school diploma.

Oswald managed to swing a "dependency discharge" to care for his "disabled" mother -- Marguerite had indeed hurt herself, but not severely; she had talked a doctor into declaring her disabled so she could get payments. Lee Harvey Oswald was discharged from the US Marine Corps on 11 September 1959. He applied for and was accepted by a college in Switzerland, but that was just a dodge to allow him to get a passport. His real destination was the USSR. He left the USA on a freighter on 20 September and effectively dropped out of sight as far as American authorities were concerned. [TO BE CONTINUED]

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[THU 04 FEB 10] SCIENCE NOTES

* SCIENCE NOTES: As reported by an article from BBC WORLD Online, the peculiar head of the hammerhead shark has long puzzled zoologists. What's it for? Is it a swimming aid? Or does it have something to do with smell, or electrical sensitivity? Now research suggests that it provides excellent binocular and all-round vision.

Two American scientists wired up various hammerhead species to monitor brain activity, placed them in a tank, and then displayed lights in various positions to see how the sharks reacted. The beasts demonstrated an ability to see all around themselves, and to gauge distance of targets -- with the width of their field of view of depth perception increasing with the eye separation of the hammerhead species. A normal hammerhead like the lemon shark has an overlapping field of view only ten degrees wide; in contrast the winghead shark, with a much wider head, has an overlapping field of view of 48 degrees. The eyes of these sharks are positioned slightly forward on the "hammer" to give better forward vision, but they can also see nearly straight up and straight down, as well as peer back with a slight tilt of the head.

hammerhead sharks

* WIRED Online had an interesting report on the various configurations of talons of different kinds of birds of prey -- raptors -- showing how they had specializations for different lifestyles:

* SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN reports that researchers have deciphered the genome of yet another important crop plant: corn. The effort was originally pushed in the 1990s by the US National Corn Growers Association and was partly performed with money from the US National Science Foundation. Corn growers see the genome effort as pushing the development of new varieties that provide more value while using fewer resources to grow.

Corn has a big genome, running to about 2 billion DNA base pairs (BP), compared to 2.9 billion BP for the human genome. Corn actually has about 32,000 genes, 12,000 more than humans, crammed onto ten chromosomes as compared to the 23 chromosomes of humans. The relative complexity of the corn genome made it a difficult subject of study, and so it took some time to decode it. The researchers point out that it's not so surprising that plants can have larger genomes than animals, since plants have much less control over their environment. One of the scientists pointed out that plants can't move away if things get difficult on the patch of dirt where they're rooted: "A plant essentially has to stand there and take it."

Corn was domesticated about 10,000 years ago from a Mexican grass named teosinte. Although modern corn is a monstrous mutant compared to its teosinte precursor, the genomic analysis suggests that process of domestication only involved about 100 to 200 genes. Interestingly, the genetic variation between corn strains is high, with the researchers comparing the genetic difference between any two corn varieties as at least as great as that between a human and a chimp. However, plants hybridize much more easily than animals, and crossing corn strains usually results in fertile offspring.

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[WED 03 FEB 10] SPACE EYES FOR WARFIGHTERS

* SPACE EYES FOR WARFIGHTERS: As reported by an article in AVIATION WEEK ("Eyes For Centcom" by Amy Butler, 30 November 2009), the Goodrich and ATK companies are now collaborating on a new military reconnaissance satellite intended strictly for the warfighters in the field. The "Operationally Responsive Space 1 (ORS-1)" satellite is a fast-track project, to be launched 24 months after authorization to proceed -- which was given late in 2008. Although traditionally US surveillance satellites have been under the control of the US National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), ORS-1 will be effectively owned by the US military Central Command (CENTCOM), which controls operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other areas of the Middle East.

ORS-1's payload will consist of an electro-optic & infrared (EO-IR) camera, based on the series of "SENIOR YEAR Electro-optic Reconnaissance System (SYERS)" multispectral EO-IR cameras developed for the Lockheed Martin U-2 manned spyplane. The re-use of SYERS payloads on ORS-1 will allow systems that currently handle U-2 intelligence to handle ORS-1 intelligence. ORS-1 is being built around the spacecraft bus ATK developed for the TACSAT 3 experimental quick-response military surveillance satellite, launched in May 2009 and mentioned here last June. Like TACSAT 3, ORS-1 will look like a fat tube mounted on top of a hexagonal box, with three solar arrays extending from the base of the box. ORS-1 will improve on TACSAT 3 by adding a propulsion system for orbital maneuvering.

ORS-1 is expected to have a launch mass of 450 kilograms (1,000 pounds), and will be launched by a Minotaur-1 small booster into an orbit that will allow it to overfly CENTCOM's operational theaters several times a day. While spacecraft often require an extended period of on-orbit checkout before they can be put into service, the goal for ORS-1 is to have it at work a week after launch. Control will be provided by the Air Force Satellite Control System network, which will upload new mission taskings for the spacecraft several times a day.

While ORS-1 will not provide the same resolution as the large imaging satellites flown by NRO, the smallsat's imagery will still have adequate resolution to perform targeting -- the SYERS system provides geolocation data along with its imagery -- or provide cues to other surveillance platforms when more resolution is needed. Mission design lifetime is a year, but the spacecraft will carry enough fuel for up to four years of operation.

* In related news, the US Army is now considering a low-orbit space surveillance system codenamed KESTREL EYE for the grunts in the field. The KESTREL EYE spacecraft, which has its roots in a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) investigation, is being designed by Intellitech Microsystems; it is envisioned as a micro-spysat with a launch mass of 9 kilograms (20 pounds) carrying an imager with a swath width of 8 kilometers (5 miles) and a resolution of 1.5 meters (5 feet). Cost ceiling is set at a million USD per spacecraft -- dirt cheap as satellites go.

1.5 meters is not great resolution, but it would be plenty handy for ground-pounders wondering exactly what's over the next hill, allowing them to determine the layout of defenses and spot any heavy gear the black hats have on hand. Currently the idea is to launch a demonstrator in 2011. The operational constellation would have 30 spacecraft, with the imagery pumped to a network of servers that could be accessed by troops carrying tactical terminals.

* In further news, Northrop Grumman has publicized a concept for a "Hybrid Launch Vehicle (HLV)" intended for quick-response space missions, devised by the company under a study funded by the US Air Force. The HLV would consist of an unmanned reusable winged vehicle carrying a small expendable booster on its back. The HLV would be launched vertically, with the winged vehicle using rocket power to accelerate to Mach 7 and reach an altitude of 45,750 meters (150,000 feet), where the expendable booster would be released -- to either put a payload into orbit or send a conventional weapon downrange to a distant target. The winged vehicle would then fly back using some type of airbreathing propulsion, to land on a runway like an aircraft.

Northrop Grumman Hybrid Launch Vehicle

It will take no more than 48 hours to turn the HLV around for a new flight. Different configurations are envisioned for flying either medium or heavy payloads. The Air Force is after other concepts from other companies, the intent being to select one concept down the road for development as a subscale flight demonstrator. Northrop Grumman believes the HLV could cut launch costs by two-thirds compared to the use of a current expendable launch vehicle.

The immediate reaction is: We've heard that one before. Low-cost, fast-turnaround access to space is a dream that's been around almost since the beginnings of spaceflight, and it's a mirage that keeps fading off over the horizon. However, now space tech seems to be moving along more predictably, and the concept seems more credible than it would have twenty years ago. Arthur C. Clarke was said to have commented that space exploration was really a 21st-century activity, brought on prematurely by political competition in the 1960s -- and realities seem to be bearing out that insight.

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[TUE 02 FEB 10] DEFYING HIV

* DEFYING HIV: The HIV retrovirus that causes AIDS is notorious for its ability to gradually grind down the immune system of a host. Nobody's figured out how to make an effective vaccine to stop HIV and there's no cure for it, though antiretroviral drugs can slow down the virus enough to give a patient a reasonably normal lifespan. As reported by an article in AAAS SCIENCE ("HIV Natural Resistance Field Finally Overcomes Resistance" by Jon Cohen, 11 December 2009), one of the deepest and possibly most significant puzzles in this unpleasant scenario is that there are individuals who seem to shrug off HIV. Understanding how they do so may help researchers find new tactics to fight AIDS.

* In 1989 Stuart Shapiro, an American virologist, took his pregnant wife Awuor, born and raised in Kenya, to the doctor for a health check. The result was a hideous revelation to the couple: Awuor was HIV-positive. The doctor recommended that the pregnancy be terminated, since the baby was almost certain to be HIV-positive as well, doomed from birth. The couple decided against it and Awuor gave birth to a daughter, Akinyi.

Stuart went to work for the US Food & Drug Administration to make sure he knew about the latest advances in anti-HIV drugs, but they didn't come fast enough to save Awuor, who died in 1996. However, Stuart saw a silver lining in the tragedy. He had been with Awuor for seven years before she had been found HIV-positive, but in the years after she was diagnosed, all tests showed him to be HIV-negative. Akinyi always tested HIV-negative as well. There was something in the makeup of father and daughter that allowed them to block HIV infection.

HIV resistance is clearly rare, and for a long time some researchers refused to believe it actually existed. AIDS has a long latency time, meaning people don't get sick quickly, and for all anyone knew maybe such people just hadn't fallen sick yet. However, the evidence piled up and the disbelief gradually faded out. In November 2009, the first scientific conference on HIV resistance took place in the city of Winnipeg, in the Canadian province of Ontario. Shapiro was one of a hundred scientists in attendance, representing not only the community of HIV resistant, but also the US National Institute of Allergy & Infectious Diseases (NIAID). Shapiro is a program manager at NIAID, overseeing a high-profile grant program to a university consortium named the "Center for HIV/AIDS Vaccine Immunology (CHAVI)". He encouraged the attendees at the meeting to exploit what the HIV resistant had to tell them: "I don't want them to leave any stone unturned."

* Unfortunately, while researchers have been turning over the stones, they haven't made much progress. Dozens of studies have examined people who by all the odds should be HIV-positive, but aren't: "discordant couples" like the Shapiros, babies of HIV-positive mothers like Akinyi, hemophiliacs who received transfusions of tainted blood, intravenous drug users, prostitutes and their clients, and promiscuous gay males. The problem is that the various studies have been performed with little thought of collaboration, with different researchers using different tests and different measurement criteria.

One of the purposes of the Winnipeg conference was to try to impose some order on the chaos. The meeting was organized by Frank Plummer, boss of the Canadian National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg. Plummer had been tracking the health of a hundred Nairobi sex workers for two decades and -- following a hint from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF), a major donor to AIDS research -- decided that it was time to get people together on the HIV resistance phenomenon.

The meeting tended to highlight the confusion in the field. Talks were delivered on studies of HIV resistance groups including Nairobi prostitutes, Italian discordant couples, Vietnamese intravenous drug users, and Swedish gays, with different research projects coming to widely differing and in some cases directly contradictory conclusions. After sitting through the sessions, immunologist Michael Lederman of the Case Western University in Cleveland, Ohio, said that he was "quite pessimistic that we're going to sort this out."

Lederman thinks that one of the problems is that it is difficult to characterize the actual exposure to HIV of most of these groups. He has focused on a group that is relatively easy to characterize: hemophiliacs in the USA and Europe who received contaminated lots of blood-clotting factors in the early 1980s. About 5% of these people did not become infected. Investigation showed that the blood of these HIV-resistant hemophiliacs differs from normal blood in that their killer T cells do not replicate rapidly in response to an HIV attack -- but Lederman does not know if that observation is honestly significant, or just some incidental effect. CHAVI is working on a larger study that involves HIV-resistant hemophiliacs, though the collaboration is also targeting other groups.

If the Winnipeg meeting didn't provide much illumination, it did encourage the researchers to form a consortium to share data and standardize their procedures. For all the difficulties they face, Shapiro says that one problem they won't have is finding volunteers from the community of the HIV-resistant: "We all wonder why we didn't get infected. It's almost like being a Holocaust survivor. And if studying us can help bring an end to the epidemic, it can help us make some sense of our lives and the suffering we've seen and felt."

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[MON 01 FEB 10] ANOTHER MONTH

* ANOTHER MONTH: I finally broke down and bought a Blu-Ray video disk player this last month. I wasn't sure that Blu-Ray in itself was any big deal, but manufacturers are starting to push the format, with pricing for disk sets starting to show a skew favoring Blu-Ray against traditional DVD. Given that Blu-Ray players have finally dropped in price to comfortable levels, I decided that it was time to read the writing on the wall and get with the new program.

I figured that as long as I bought the Blu-Ray player, I might as well buy a large-screen TV along with it. It was only a 26 inch (66 centimeter) unit, but it was of course more affordable than the bigger TVs, and besides given my fairly compact quarters, putting anything larger in my living room would have been like setting up a 2001 SPACE ODYSSEY monolith there.

Of course, having got all of this new gear, I had to rent a Blu-Ray video to see if it made much difference. The answer was NOPE: Blu-Ray might have made a difference with a much larger TV, but for the 26-inch display the effect wasn't so much better than that of a conventional DVD that I would have really noticed. [ED: Five years on, the Blu-Ray player has been hardly used. Blu-Ray was overtaken by video downloads; DVD survives, high definition couldn't put a dent in it.]

* Two Decembers ago I got to looking over the illustrations for my website and decided that the text I used to label the illustrations wasn't satisfactory. "OK, I guess I relabel them, then." That didn't seem like a really big job, might take me a few months of part-time effort at most -- but I had been working over the previous few years to bring the illustrations up to a better standard, and I figured I might as well do that, too, though I knew it would be more effort.

It took fourteen months to finish. Actually, of the 200-plus documents I had to update, only about 20 required any detail attention, and about half of them were fairly easy to fix. It was the last ten that were the problem, demanding that I clean up old drawings that were not up to spec and produce new drawings. To complicate matters, I also had a pile of old drawings that never ended up being used in documents that also needed to be brought up to spec; half-completed drawings in the queue; and a buffer of images I wanted to turn into drawings. I threw some of the pile away, but not that much, knowing it wouldn't make any sense to throw out an item I would likely come back to later.

All done now. There's something dreary about backlog, work that would be fun when fresh is tiresome when it's been queued up. Now I'm being much more careful about feeding drawings into the pipeline faster than I can complete them. The appalling thing was that when I emptied the queue, I realized that it was the first time I'd cleaned it out since I started at least ten years ago.

* I get email from strangers a few times a week. Given that internet communications tend toward the surly, it might be thought that much of my email is unpleasant, but in reality hostile messages are surprisingly rare, and in fact I get some very pleasant ones. However, I also get a fair number of nitpicks -- plus people after an answer to some obscure question, spamming the internet with email to anyone they think has the slightest possibility of giving them an answer. The odds of such a brute-force scheme actually working are very slight, but such folks tend to be pigheaded, believing that obstinacy will compensate for competence. They of course never read the comments on my email page that tell them it is extremely unlikely I can answer such questions.

Getting nasty with such folk is futile, along the likes of getting annoyed with a concrete block. It turns out to be more useful, at least for me, to see them as a source of entertainment. One asked me about the disposition of a particular group of World War II aircraft, and I replied: "They were actually flown by Flash Gordon and the Lost Planet Airmen. It seems they were a serious thorn in the side of Ming the Merciless." Another sent me a picture of a fin-covered cylinder from some aircooled piston engine and asked me to identify it. Taking a cue from the GIRL GENIUS steampunk webcomic series, I replied that it was a hive for alien robot mind control wasps. "Might be worth some money one of these days."

For some reason, I never hear back from these guys.

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