may 2010 / last mod jan 2016 / greg goebel

* Entries include: JFK assassination, fight over global warming, Monsanto revisited, Eyjafjallajokull volcano eruption, imaginary elements, Beech King Air 350 in combat, IAEA working on nuclear repository schemes, truffles investigated, firefly flashes, and ad-hoc wireless networks.

banner of the month



* NEWS COMMENTARY FOR MAY 2010: Britain conducted general elections this last month, the result being a Parliament hung between the three largest parties -- Labour, the Conservatives, and the Liberal Democrats. The Tories and Lib-Dems cooked up a deal, with Labour's Gordon Brown being shown the door of Number 10 Downing Street while the Tories' David Cameron moved in, Nick Clegg of the Lib-Dems becoming his deputy. Given the relatively small voter base of the Lib-Dems, the election was a clear win for them, getting them into top office if in a subordinate role.

David Cameron & Nick Clegg

Not much attention was paid to the election on this side of the Pond, Gordon Brown never having had much of a profile here, and nobody thinking that a Cameron government will mean any serious change in the US-UK relationship. That is not the case for Continentals, since Cameron is a noted Euroskeptic who is regarded with some fear and contempt by EU advocates. What to say, see what happens, wish Cameron and Clegg good luck.

* On 26 March 2010, an explosion rocked the South Korean Navy warship CHEONAN -- a POHANG-class corvette -- and sent the vessel to the bottom, with 46 crewmen lost. In late May, the South Korean government announced that the remains of a North Korean torpedo had been recovered along with the wreckage of the CHEONAN, strong evidence that the corvette had been deliberately attacked by a North Korean submarine.

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak did not authorize a military response, but stated that further hostile actions would be met with force, and that South Korea would impose trade sanctions on the North Korea. The United States condemned the North Korean attack and called for multinational sanctions against Pyongyang, appealing specifically to China -- China being, along with South Korea, North Korea's biggest trading partner. Pyongyang called the accusation a "fabrication" and threatened war if sanctions are imposed. Nobody is exactly sure why the North Koreans performed such a provocative act; some suggest that Pyongyang only understands terror and can think of no other card to play.

recovering the CHEONAN

* It appears that being a senior Pentagon military officer these days is not always fun, thanks to having a boss like Defense Secretary Robert Gates. In a recent speech to the Navy League, Gates pointed out that the "gusher" of defense spending that followed 911 has been turned off, and given that the US military continues to be heavily involved in foreign interventions, business as usual is just not going to work.

Gates has already terminated production of the F-22 superfighter and canceled the US Army's wide-ranging Future Combat Systems (FCS) program. There were howls of protest over the F-22 cancellation, though the F-22 will end production with a fairly substantial fleet of 187 aircraft in service, and important FCS sub-programs continue to march. A few weeks back, Gates sent out shockwaves by publicly wondering why the USA needed to support eleven carrier task forces when "in terms of size and striking power, no other country has even one comparable ship."

In the Navy League speech, Gates focused on the military's health-insurance program, TRICARE, which has proven a political football, with premiums remaining the same since it was set up a decade ago while health costs have skyrocketed. Gates also said he wanted to take on Pentagon bureaucracy, pointing out that a decade ago a decision might have to go through 17 levels to be approved -- but now it's up to as many as 30 levels.

Gates' predecessor as defense secretary, Don Rumsfeld, once famously blasted the "military's PowerPoint-pushers", but failed to make much of a dent in the system. Gates may be more up to the challenge. Rumsfeld was noted for being an overbearing boss on occasion, but he wasn't quick to send people to the guillotine when things weren't going right. Gates, in contrast, is said to be polite and understated to deal with -- but officers who don't deliver soon find themselves looking for a new job.

* Among the items on the list of headaches Gates has to deal with is the endless pain of the US Air Force's effort to get a new inflight refueling tanker aircraft, last discussed here back in March. Actually, that item was in error since it said that the Northrop Grumman / EADS team pushing an Airbus-based tanker had given up on the deal. That didn't turn out to be completely true -- Northrop Grumman had pulled out, but EADs has decided to go ahead without their American partner, taking on the prime contractor role. And the band plays on, out of key ...

* While America and Russia are not on the friendliest of terms, the relationship is not one of armed confrontation as it was in the Cold War, the Russians not even retaining residual interest in global revolution. As evidence of this, on 9 May 2010 -- the 65th anniversary of the end of the war in Europe -- a US Army infantry company marched down Red Square in Moscow as part of the annual "Victory Day" parade, representing America as part of the Allied coalition that defeated Hitler. It was the first time active-duty US troops participated in the parade.

Things may not be well between the USA and Russia, but they are clearly much better than they were for a generation. Indeed, it seems that the Kremlin is taking a softer line in international diplomacy for the time being. The Russian agenda may not always be agreeable, but they seem to have shelved being obnoxious for its own sake -- at least for the moment.



* THE KILLING OF JFK -- LEE HARVEY OSWALD (15): Some debunkers have tried to make out Silvia Odio as just another crackpot over her story of being visited by Lee Harvey Oswald in Dallas, but even Vincent Bugliosi, noted for his skepticism, found her story believable. She had a history of emotional problems, but her psychiatrist testified that these were "situational", caused by personal emergencies, and that her word was credible. She was a person of good reputation, educated, who on occasions mingled with Dallas high society: she was pretty and some of her men friends were prominent citizens who took her around the town. She was articulate and specific in her story, without being too specific -- if she didn't know the answer to a question about the matter, she would say she didn't know -- and she didn't change the story over time. She didn't go out of her way to talk to the authorities, they only heard about her indirectly, and she tried to avoid publicity over the matter. She hadn't been inclined to talk about it because she worried she might be branded a nut or opportunist.

Given various assumptions, it is possible that Oswald might have been able to get to Dallas on the evening of Thursday, 25 September, without contradicting what was provably known about his movements at the time. 25 September was within the range of days that Odio thought the three callers might have knocked on her door. Some conspiracy theorists have seized on Odio's story as evidence that Oswald was actually engaged in some kind of covert operation -- but as debunkers have pointed out, if the story was true, it was perfectly consistent with Oswald's silly games. He'd tried to con Carlos Bringuiere and other anti-Castro Cubans in New Orleans, he could well have been trying the same trick again.

In fact, the comments from Leopoldo gave the story much of its plausibility, since they had exactly the tone of pumped-up trash talk one would expect from Oswald. Leopoldo's description of the man as "kind of nuts" was on the mark as well -- almost everybody who met Oswald quickly judged him "kind of nuts". There was nothing in the story that suggested Oswald was an accomplice of the two Cubans; in fact, it seems clear they didn't trust him.

Conspiracy theorists, on the other hand, have played up the notion that the "Oswald" seen in Mexico was some sort of impostor, a matter of which more is said later. However, while conspiracy theorists have been enthusiastic in cooking up notions of "Oswald doubles" or even "Oswald triples" that made Oswald appear to be in two places at once, it appears that to the extent the alternate sightings had any substance to them at all, they based on mistaken identity, and in fact in a few cases there was a trail that led to men who actually resembled Oswald. To the extent they were doubles, it was unintentional, and no other link than a resemblance was ever established between them and Oswald.

Conspiracy theorists would become very fond of using such "switcheroo" ploys in their tales, but nobody has ever identified anyone as having deliberately impersonated Oswald -- or even come up with a tale that hangs together of what sensible purpose the supposed impersonation operation was supposed to have accomplished. The Odio story doesn't add up perfectly, but if nobody can get things to add up right, why do they have to add up to a conspiracy? [TO BE CONTINUED]



* GIMMICKS & GADGETS: WIRED Online reports that the Blu-Ray Association, the industry group backing the Blu-Ray disk format, has proposed new "multilayer" formats for the technology. The "BDXL" format -- the "XL" seems to mean "extra-large" -- specifies three to four layers, with write-once capacities of 100 GB or 120 GB, or rewriteable capacities of 100 GB. Contrast this with the 25 GB or 50 GB densities of current DVD technology. No, the Blu-Ray group is not sneakily trying to render all the Blu-Ray movie players that have been sold obsolete; the BDXL formats are intended for data archiving.

A second format, the "Intra-Hybrid Blu-Ray Disk (IH-BD)" is just what the name says, a hybrid, with a 25 GB read-only layer and a 25 GB rewriteable layer that users can access for annotation. The IH-BD seems like an interesting idea; possible applications include coursework, with a student reading materials from the disk and storing work exercises back to it.

* DISCOVERY CHANNEL Online reports that a team of researchers from IBM and Stanford University have developed a method of improving the recycling of polyethylene terepthelate (PET) plastic, commonly used in plastic bottles. Plastics recycling has traditionally suffered from the problem that recycled plastics "downgrade": they can only be used in low-quality plastic products like mats and so on. Traditionally, recycled plastics have been treated with metal oxide or metal hydroxide catalysts that linger in the recycled product and weaken it, preventing it from being recycled again.

The research team found that processing PET with moderate heating in a solution of ethylene glycol with a organic catalyst named "carbene" generates an output of "like new" PET that can be used in any application that normally uses the plastic. The research team claims that carbene is as effective as traditional catalysts, doesn't weaken the output product, and is environmentally benign. The research team doesn't see the process as being ready for industrialization for a few more years, but believes that over the long run it might provide a basis for recycling a wider range of plastics, breaking the polymers in used material down into monomers for re-synthesis.

* BUSINESS WEEK had a note on a new gadget from Japan, the Sony "Dash", which comes across as something like a small cheap touch tablet PC with an 18 centimeter (7 inch) display and a casing with a wedge cross-section, allowing it to be stood up on its base. WIRED Online took a look at it and gave it a thumbs-down, judging it a mickey-mouse tablet PC, but BUSINESS WEEK understood exactly what the Dash was all about: it's a really cool alarm clock. The Dash has speakers, a microphone, a USB port, a headphone jack, and wi-fi capabilities. Thanks to its set of downloadable applets, it can be used to access various web services, listen to internet radio stations, or even download videos. If people want to just use it as an alarm clock, there are 200 clock display options to choose from.

Sony Dash

I'm not sure I would actually want to buy the Dash, particularly at its current price of about $200 USD, but I could eagerly buy something like it at, say, $100 USD. Think of a user-configurable clock that could display trance clock screen-savers for those restless nights and also play music, or the occasional video -- and give weather updates, news headlines, or be used as an audio recorder. Of course there's all sorts of questions about how convenient it would be to configure such a gadget, but given that the Dash has a wi-fi interface, there's no particular challenge in providing a "remote console" that can be brought up on a laptop or a desktop to do the job.

I have a little netbook that I basically use as a household appliance, displaying Japanese language flashcards while I eat or playing music, and the idea of a cheap PC designed as an appliance is very attractive. Get tired of using it for one thing? Reconfigure it and use it for another.

* The notion of using implants to help victims of brain disorders is by no means science fiction -- as discussed here some years back, brain implants are in widespread use and highly effective. Now the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is working on a project to greatly enhance the capability of brain implants. The effort is named "Reorganization & Plasticity to Accelerate Injury Recovery (REPAIR)" and is focused on troops with "traumatic brain injury (TBI)" -- a common problem with soldiers who have been caught in the shockwaves of explosive blasts. As is often the case with DARPA programs, REPAIR is a relatively low-budget exercise, with about $15 million USD being spent to fund research teams at four institutions. The program is being led by Stanford and Brown Universities.

The research effort will focus on understanding the brain and devising means to "patch around" damaged brain areas. A team at Stanford is pursuing a scheme they call "optogenetics", in which light pulses precisely stimulate neurons, to construct advanced implants. The Stanford researchers see their implant as a web of electrodes or optical fibers, laid out on the surface of the brain, picking up neural activity in one brain area and then stimulating activity with light pulses in another. Of course, they intend to experiment on mice and then monkeys first.

Not too surprisingly, the tinfoil hat brigade had to reply online to the WIRED article, suggesting the military was really after mind-control technology, with soldiers to be used as guinea pigs. As a recent cartoon put it: "ONLINE COMMENT SECTIONS: Putting the ZEROES back into ZERO-SUM GAME."



* THE FRIENDLY GREEN GIANT? As reported by an article in THE ECONOMIST ("The Parable Of The Sower", 21 November 2009), high-profile US agritech giant Monsanto -- discussed here in 2008 -- attracts both wrath and praise. Activists accuse the company of irresponsible tinkering with genetically modified (GM) foods and using its market clout to squeeze the poor. However, Bill Gates -- now using his Microsoft money to play full-time philanthropist working to fight global poverty and disease -- sees Monsanto's innovations in food production as essential to the health and prosperity of the developing world.

Of course Gates is associated with a company with a reputation for being at least as overbearing as Monsanto, but Josette Sheeran, the head of the United Nations World Food Program, is also a Monsanto fan. The company's CEO, a Scotsman named Hugh Grant -- of course not the same person as the actor -- sells the case for his company in grand terms, claiming that without the leading-edge agritech that Monsanto is developing, there is no chance of doubling global agricultural output by 2050 while using less land and water. Where is the reality between the contrary visions of the company?

* Monsanto's roots are in pharmaceuticals and chemicals. The company was originally formed in 1901 to produce the synthetic sweetener saccharine. In 2000, Monsanto merged with drugmaker Pharmacia & Upjohn; two years after that, the group's agricultural activities were spun off into the "new" Monsanto. At that time, the company was best known for the herbicide Roundup. However, Roundup is no longer the company's cash cow, with its share of Monsanto's revenue shrinking towards 10%; there's even talk of selling Roundup off. Monsanto now gets most of its $11.7 billion USD in annuals sales from seeds -- increasingly of GM or "transgenic" varieties -- and from licensing genetic traits. The company owes much of its fortune to a 1980 US Supreme Court decision that gave the green light to patents on organisms. Now GM seed is Monsanto's star product line, blessed by company marketeers with the name "Genuity", in hopes of providing a flavor of the "genuine, authentic, and original."

Name games may seem a bit silly, but they are part of the effort of Monsanto -- and other GM agritech players like DuPont and Syngenta -- to ease the worries of the public and policymakers over GM food. Monsanto has achieved success in this effort in much of the world, particularly Latin America, but Europe remains a hard target.

One of the things that defenders of GM foods like to point out is that our traditional crop plants are not all that "natural" to begin with. For example, the ancestor of corn, teosinte, was just a fairly ordinary grass that has, with encouragement through selective breeding, turned into a mutant monster. Monsanto still uses selective breeding, though it is massively augmented by modern genetic analysis tools. For example, Monsanto uses an instrument called a "corn chipper" to carefully nick a precise chip off a specific cornseed, with the chip then genetically analyzed. Markers in the genome help determine the potential benefits of the seed, with the seed then handled accordingly. As Grant enthusiastically puts it: "It is the mother and father of all dating agencies. We can analyze every single seed we harvest, do a health check, guess what its grandchildren will be like, send it anywhere in the world."

Of course, it's the GM seeds that have earned Monsanto the jeering nickname of "Mutanto" from green activists. So far, Monsanto's big selling point in GM seed has been for weed and pest control. The company likes to push "Roundup Ready" crops tolerant of herbicides that kill off weeds growing among them. Another angle has been to genetically integrate natural pesticides into plants to deal with pests -- drastically reducing or even eliminating the need to spray expensive and environmentally troublesome pesticides.

All that's well and good, but what farmers really like are higher yields. Monsanto has now introduced "SmartStax" corn, which is advertised to increase yields by 5% to 10%, and "Roundup Ready 2 Yield" soybeans, which have yields 7% to 11% higher that the "Roundup Ready 1" soybeans they replace. Next up: soybeans that incorporate healthy "omega-3" fatty acids, using a gene obtained from algae; crops that don't need as much nitrogen fertilizer; and "drought tolerant" crops that make more efficient use of water.

Roundup Ready 2 Yield soybean test plot

* Monsanto's pitch on GM crops seems hard to resist: GM crops provide health benefits; reduce the need for pesticides, fertilizers, and water; and provide higher yields. With global population continuing to increase, so the argument goes, without GM foods a lot of people are going to starve; indeed, many are starving now. As far as Grant is concerned, thanks to GM agritech the world food challenge is "eminently solvable". In contrast to this bright shiny message, anti-GM activists tend to end up being painted as neurotic and obstructionist Luddites.

However, Monsanto doesn't look quite so shiny when it comes to company business practices. Since being spun off, it's acquired over 20 companies and gained a firm hold on the agritech market. Antitrust organizations have accused Monsanto of actually restraining progress in GM agritech, and some of the company's bigger acquisitions were only after severe scrutiny by the antitrust office of the US Department of Justice (DOJ). To be sure, Monsanto has freely licensed its tech, even to competitors, if of course at a price. However, Monsanto has also been attacked for what are described as grasping ways of doing business, in particular insisting that farmers have to buy fresh seed each year -- and enforcing the company's strict licensing rules with an army of attack lawyers. The DOJ is aware of complaints against the company for strongarm tactics, and is showing signs of becoming less tolerant.

Monsanto is aware of the company's bad image and is working on initiatives to help feed Africa's hungry, giving away seeds and know-how for the "Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA)" project, a joint public-private partnership that is partly funded by the foundations run by Bill Gates and his pal Warren Buffett. Monsanto is also working with the "Millennium Villages" project led by well-known anti-poverty activist Jeffrey Sachs. Grant insists that these projects will generate no royalties for his company -- though he also believes that helping African farmers become productive and prosperous will eventually mean sales of Monsanto GM seed down the road.

As much as anti-GM activists demonize Monsanto, it is obvious that Grant honestly believes his vision of a future world staying fed with GM foods. He insists that even in America, crop yields can be doubled. "We have just scratched the surface," he claims, pointing to the fact that it took ten years for the first billion acres of GM foods to be planted after GM tech hit the market in 1996 -- but the second billion took only three years. "We are where transistors were in the 1970s."



* SHADOW OF THE VOLCANO: While the eruption of the Eyjafjallajokull volcano in Iceland this spring caused massive disruption to air traffic over Europe, as reported by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("Small Eruption In Iceland", 24 April 2010), it did not take the authorities completely by surprise. In February 2008, officials from air-traffic-control (ATC) services across Europe, as well as representatives of weather services and airlines, ran a simulation exercise that envisioned the eruption of Katla, another Icelandic volcano and in fact a neighbor of Eyjafjallajokull.

Given details of the "eruption" of Katla, researchers at the "Volcanic Ash Advisory Center (VAAC)" in London -- one of nine regional centers that provide such advisory services for the world -- set their computer models running. They placed representations of the plume "produced" by the volcano in the weather-forecasting models run by the UK's meteorological office, the Met, where the London VAAC resides. The results showed the ash plume sweeping down the North Sea into the Low Countries and eastern England before the end of the day. The warnings were passed on to ATC centers, where the controllers looked over how they would get warnings out, reroute hundreds of flights, and cancel a thousand more.

The exercise only lasted for a day, and the only people inconvenienced were those involved in it. It merely hinted at the chaos that resulted when Eyjafjallajokull erupted, resulting in extended flight cancellations. Various European regulatory agencies, such as Britain's Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), took a tough line, declaring any place the ash might have gone as a "no fly" zone.

plume from Eyjafjallajokull

The authorities were criticized for being much too cautious. To be sure, nobody denies that volcanic ash is hard on jetliners: it gets sucked into a jet intake, melts in the combustion chamber, and then encrusts the cooler parts of the engine, leading to failure. Low concentrations can cause subtle damage to engines that can be hard to spot. However, the decision to stop flights gave no consideration to risk level: if there was any perceived risk, the jetliners were grounded. What compounded the difficulty was that the models that predicted the distribution of the ash plume were not particularly specific. After a week, the authorities cautiously scaled back on the cancellations.

* As the 2008 exercise showed, everybody is aware that Iceland's volcanoes can cause problems. Iceland sits astride the mid-Atlantic ridge, a volcanically-active fissure that runs almost from pole to pole. Iceland has about 33 volcanoes that have erupted since the end of the last Ice Age, 12,000 years ago.

The eruption of Eyjafjallajokull, as opposed to other Icelandic volcanoes, was unexpected, since it has only erupted three times since Iceland was settled in the 9th century CE. Katla, 25 kilometers (16 miles) away, was a much more logical candidate, since it has erupted very roughly once every half-century and has a tradition of more spectacular eruptions, up to a hundred times bigger than Eyjafjallajokull's. However, Eyjafjallajokull's eruption proved atypical, particularly in throwing up very fine ash that could easily disperse far and wide. The fine ash was due to the viscosity of the lava and the fact that the volcano was under a glacier, leading to an unusual interaction between lava and water. Prevailing wind patterns sent the ash towards Europe instead of Greenland or the Azores.

What makes authorities nervous is that Katla could be much more troublesome. Previous eruptions of Eyjafjallajokull have been followed by eruptions of its neighbors; that may just be coincidental, but there also may be deep underground "plumbing" between nearby volcanoes that allows one to influence another. Katla last brewed up in 1918 and, on the basis of simple averages, it is overdue for a new eruption; some worry that the long delay means it's going to be a big one. It would mean wider evacuations of Icelanders and much more disruption in Europe. Geological studies show a volcanic eruption, possibly from Katla, left ash across northern Europe about 10,300 years ago. Such a large eruption could even temporarily disrupt global climate, causing a "year without a summer".

Iceland's volcanoes could do much worse. The eruption of Laki, discussed here in 2008, emitted a toxic cloud that spread death all over Western Europe. An eruption of the Oraefajokull volcano in 1362 is believed by some to have been the biggest volcanic eruption in Europe since the cataclysmic eruption of Santorini near Crete in the 17th century BCE. What makes this issue more worrying is that the activity of Icelandic volcanoes seem to follow a cycle. For the last half-century, Iceland has been relatively quiet. It may not be so in the course of the next half-century.



* THE FIGHT OVER GLOBAL WARMING (5): An impartial observer might well have cause for bewilderment over the arguments of climate researchers concerning water vapor concentrations, positive and negative feedback mechanisms, and the interpretation of stacks of climate data. The researchers themselves are stuck with wading through the bog, and have turned to computer modeling to see if they can make things clear.

Such models slice the atmosphere up into stacks of blocks or "cells", with each cell being associated with a set of parameters. In execution, the program running the model determines the inputs and outputs of each cells, covering the entire set of cells once per cycle. The models involve vast numbers of cells and require considerable computer power; in fact, given current computer hardware, it's out of the question to build a global model with cells approaching, say, a kilometer on a side, since the computing requirements would go through the roof and climb towards the Moon.

The models are good enough to accurately simulate features of the real-world climate system, such as monsoons, trade winds, and seasons. They also have the interesting feature that all of them predict global warming, and in fact they predict more warming than could be accounted for by simple theoretical considerations of the effects of CO2 and water vapor, the most extreme prediction being a drastic increase of 4.4 degrees Celsius. In these models, clouds end up enhancing warming -- though even some AGW advocates have their doubts over the actual effects of clouds. Observations haven't so far haven't been able to help resolve the issue.

climate simulation rainfall map

Along with the behavior of clouds, the sensitivity of the models is also dependent on concentration of aerosol particles; the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines in 1991 dumped a layer of sunlight-diffusing sulfur particles into the stratosphere, leading to a temporary cooling that fits with the models as well. Again, however, there is an ambiguity involved -- some aerosol particles are reflective and provide a cooling effect, others such as soot absorb sunlight and provide a heating effect. The models do seem to track the response of climate to aerosol concentrations over the 20th century fairly well.

Climatologist Reto Knutti of ETH Zurich suggests that may be simply because the models were tweaked to make them come out right, but that isn't entirely a bad thing: what's wrong with adjusting the assumptions of a model to conform to reality? It's no more objectionable than adjusting the sights of a target rifle to make sure it's on the bulls-eye -- as long as the tweaks are made consistently, the result is a more valid model. Still, as more "fudge factors" are added to a model, it becomes ever more ad-hoc and less grounded in basic physical principles.

* However, data available on what seems to have happened in the prehistoric past does suggest the sensitivity of the models is realistic. During the Ice Ages, the expanded polar icecaps did increase the reflectivity of the Earth, contributing to cooling, but studies show they couldn't have kept the Earth cool on their own. The Earth also had relatively low CO2 concentrations, and factoring in high sensitivity gives a reasonable fit to the known global temperatures. Before the Ice Ages, the Earth had slightly higher CO2 concentrations than today but was a good deal warmer, again suggesting sensitivity.

Of course the critics have found historical data useful for their cause as well. The critics point out that the Earth's climate is never in "equilibrium", shifting on a continuous basis. Advocates reply that this is unarguably true -- but wonder why critics believe that favors their case, since the shifts tend to imply a sensitive climate, and some of the more severe climate shifts didn't seem to be very good for the health of many of the Earth's inhabitants.

The critics like to emphasize that relatively recent climate history, over the past millennium, suggests that what's going on now is nothing particularly unusual or disastrous, with tree ring data playing an important part in their case. Yearly tree rings will be wider or narrower depending on yearly climate, and can be used to assemble a history of yearly climate over a long period of time. The best known, or most notorious, of studies based on tree rings was published in the science journal NATURE in 1998, plotting out climate change over the past millennium and displaying a steep rise in the 20th century. The plot became known as the "hockey stick" plot for its sudden upward change in angle.

A retired Canadian mining consultant named Stephen McIntyre thought the hockey stick plot too neat and dug into the science under it, becoming very suspicious of its validity, with critics then widely suggesting in his wake that it was bogus. A 2006 report from the US National Research Council (NRC) actually conceded some of the points made by McIntyre and others, with one set of tree-ring data seen as particularly questionable. Critics were very encouraged by the NRC report -- despite the fact that it concluded the hockey stick plot remained much the same after the errors had been weeded out.

The critics were most strongly critical of the hockey stick plot because it ignored the "medieval warm period (MWP)", a time of relatively high temperatures in the North Atlantic region, with vineyards in England and Viking settlements in Greenland. The whole business is, like all the other elements of the climate quarrel, bitterly argued, with critics saying the MWP demonstrates that natural variation dominates the climate system, rendering human CO2 emissions irrelevant -- while advocates claim that a global analysis shows it was a localized episode at most, with no evidence of a warmer planet overall at the time. Besides, why make a fuss about vineyards in England? In 1977, over 120 vineyards were in operation in the UK. There were only a handful in the 19th century, but it seems that was more due to the fact that the British of the era simply didn't like wine than due to climate. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* THE KILLING OF JFK -- LEE HARVEY OSWALD (14): Records show that Lee Harvey Oswald passed through the border from Texas into Mexico at Nuevo Laredo on Thursday, 26 September 1963, and similarly show that he checked into a hotel in Mexico City the next day, Friday 27 September. However, there is some mystery about his movements between the time he cashed his unemployment check in New Orleans on the morning of 25 September and his arrival in Mexico on the afternoon of 26 September.

Later a number of people came forward to tell the authorities that they had extended chats with Oswald on the bus during his trip to Mexico. There is a difficulty that other people came forward and said that they had seen Oswald elsewhere during the timeframe he was supposed to have been on the bus trip to Mexico. The spottings placed him at everywhere from Florida to Hawaii. Investigation turned up no records to suggest Oswald was elsewhere, and none of the supposed visual sightings by any one witness were validated by anyone else. A Mrs. Lee Dannelly of the Selective Service office in Austin, Texas, said she had talked to a "Harvey Oswald" on Wednesday, but there is no paper record of Oswald being at the office, nor did anyone else remember him there.

However, one story of Oswald popping up in an unexpected place may carry weight. A Cuban-born woman named Sylvia Odio of Dallas claimed to have been called on by three men one evening in late September 1963, roughly during the timeframe of Oswald's trip to Mexico. She didn't know any of them; two were anti-Castro Cubans, who she believed were named "Leopoldo" and "Angel" or "Angelo", while the third was a white American, who they identified as "Leon Oswald". Her younger sister Annie let them in and got a look at them as well, but didn't talk much with them. The two Cuban men claimed to have news about Odio's parents, who were in prison in Cuba; the white American was apparently just along for the ride and spoke no Spanish, so he didn't have much to say.

A few days later, Leopoldo called up Odio and asked her what she thought of "Leon Oswald". She replied to the effect that she hadn't given him much thought. Her caller said that his group were trying to check him out, they thought he was "kind of nuts", that he'd been saying the anti-Castro Cubans didn't have any guts, that they should have assassinated JFK for selling them out at the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961; that he was an ex-Marine and an "expert shooter"; that he could infiltrate Cuba and kill Castro. She didn't hear from Leopoldo again, and what he had said didn't really register to Odio until Oswald's face was making headlines -- when she realized to her shock that "Leon Oswald" was the same man. Annie Odio also identified the caller as Lee Harvey Oswald.

The Warren Commission discounted Odio's story, partly because of the lack of corroboration, partly because there were contradictions in determining how Oswald might have swung a side trip to Dallas along with his trip to Mexico. The HSCA was more generous, thinking it was just a sincere case of mistaken identity. No searches for the mysterious Leopoldo or Angel turned up anything but false leads. If they honestly existed, clearly they knew it wasn't wise to be associated with the notorious Lee Harvey Oswald. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* Space launches for April included:

-- 02 APR 10 / SOYUZ TMA-18 -- A Soyuz Fregat booster was launched from Baikonur in Kazakhstan to put the Russian "Soyuz TMA-18" manned space capsule into orbit on an International Space Station (ISS) support mission. It carried three crew, including commander Alexander Skvortsov, flight engineer Mikhail Kornienko, and NASA astronaut Tracy Caldwell Dyson. The spacecraft docked with the ISS Poisk module two days later, joining the ISS "Expedition 23" crew of commander Oleg Kotov, NASA astronaut Tim Creamer, and Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi.

-- 05 APR 10 / SHUTTLE DISCOVERY (STS-131) -- On 5 April 2010, the NASA space shuttle Discovery was launched from Kennedy Space Center on "STS-131", the 33rd shuttle docking with the International Space Station (ISS). It was the 131st shuttle mission and the 38th flight of Discovery. There were seven crew, including:

Discovery carried the Leonardo "Multi-Purpose Logistics Module (MPLM)" with supplies and experiments for the ISS, along with an Ammonia Tank Assembly (ATA) that had been returned to Earth from the ISS by Discovery STS-128 for refurbishment. The flight also included the second test of the "Tridar" 3D laser camera, being evaluated as rendezvous and docking sensor. Discovery landed at Kennedy Space Center on 20 April 2010, after 15 days 2 hours 47 minutes in space.

-- 08 APR 10 / CRYOSAT 2 -- A Dnepr booster was launched from Kazakhstan to put the "CryoSat 2" ice-cap observation satellite into orbit for the ESA. It replaced CryoSat 1, which was lost on launch in 2005. The 720 kilogram (1,590 pound) Cryosat carried a radar instrument, the "Synthetic Aperture Interferometric Radar Altimeter (SIRAL)", designed to probe through ice sheets to measure their thickness. SIRAL was a Ku-band device with a weight of 62 kilograms (138 pounds), and derived from the "Poseidon 2" radar altimeter currently carried by the earlier the US-French "Jason" satellite. Cryosat also carried a radio receiver that picked up signals from several dozen ground stations to provide a precise measure of its orbital parameters. The satellite was placed in a Sun-synchronous orbit at an altitude of 800 kilometers (450 miles).

Cryosat 2

-- 15 APR 10 / GSAT 4 (FAILURE) -- An Indian Space Research Organization Geostationary Satellite Launch Vehicle was launched from Sriharikota to put the "GSAT 4" experimental navigation and communications satellite into orbit. The GSAT 4 spacecraft had a launch mass of 2,220 kilograms (4,894 pounds) and carried a Ka-band transponder for broadband and multimedia communications trials, as well as a GPS augmentation transmitter to support air traffic control. This was the first flight of the "GSLV D3" variant of the booster, with an Indian-built cryogenic third stage. Unfortunately, the upper stage went out of control and the payload did not make orbit.

-- 16 APR 10 / COSMOS 2462 (KOBALT-M) -- A Soyuz-U booster was launched from the Plesetsk Northern Cosmodrome to put a secret military payload into orbit. The spacecraft was designated "Cosmos 2462" and was believed to be a Kobalt-M surveillance satellite, featuring two small film-return "buckets" and a returnable main payload capsule.

-- 20 APR 10 / OTV -- An Atlas 5 booster was launched from Cape Canaveral to put the Air Force "X-37B" AKA "Orbital Transfer Vehicle" unmanned spaceplane testbed into space, discussed here last year. The Atlas 5 501 configuration featured a 5 meter (197 inch) fairing, no solid rocket boosters, and an upper stage with a single Centaur engine.

OTV / X-37B spaceplane

-- 24 APR 10 / SES 1 -- A Proton Breeze M booster was launched from Baikonur to put the SES World Skies "SES 1" geostationary comsat into orbit. SES 1 was built by Orbital Sciences and was based on the Orbital Star 2.4 medium comsat bus. It carried a payload of 24 C-band / 24 Ku-band transponders. It was placed in the geostationary slot at 101 degrees West longitude to provide direct-to-home communications services for North America.

-- 27 APR 10 / COSMOS 2463 -- A Kosmos 3M booster was launched from Plesetsk to put "Cosmos 2463", apparently a Parus-type military navigation satellite, into orbit.

-- 28 APR 10 / PROGRESS 37P -- A Soyuz booster was launched from Baikonur to put a Progress tanker-freighter spacecraft into orbit on an International Space Station (ISS) supply mission. The spacecraft linked up with the ISS Pirs docking module three days later.

* OTHER SPACE NEWS: According to AVIATION WEEK the US Air Force (USAF) is now considering a notional "Reusable Booster System (RBS)" to replace the current Delta IV and Atlas V Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles (EELV) from 2025. The scheme envisions a combination of liquid oxygen / kerosene rocket propellant (LOX-RP) and liquid oxygen / liquid hydrogen (LOX-LH2) stages. A medium-lift vehicle would have a re-usable LOX-RP first stage and an expendable LOX-LH2 second stage, while a heavy-lift booster would have dual re-usable LOX-RP boosters flanking a re-usable LOX-LH2 core, with a re-usable LOX-LH2 upper stage.

Following basic technology tests, a demonstrator will be flown in the 2016:2017 timeframe. The ultimate goal is to reduce costs by 50% over the EELV. The re-usable stages will have a lifetime of 100 shots, with the engines replaced every 10 shots. NASA is likely to cooperate. It is unclear if this plan has any connection to concepts being floated to develop a re-usable booster vehicle to launch light "quick reaction" military space payloads. In any case, the history of re-usable launch vehicle development is a long and dismal one, and all we can do is hope for the best this time around. [ED: Faint hope, the RBS program went south.]



* ELEMENTARY: There was a buzz going around the blogosphere concerning one Russell Walks, who came up with a "periodic table of imaginary elements" found in various sci-fi & fantasy works. Walks was selling the table as a wall poster and didn't provide a particularly readable version on his website, but of course, to precisely zero surprise, Wikipedia has an extensive article on the topic.

periodic table of imaginary elements

Those I'm familiar or would like to have been familiar with include:

There's a lot more on the Wikipedia list, but it gets a bit repetitious, with some clear duplication of what sounds like the same material under different names. Obviously the International Union of Pure & Applied Chemistry needs to set up a working group to develop a proper IUPAC standard.



* BEECH KING AIRS AT WAR: Beech Aircraft Corporation seem to be a firm believer in technological evolution. Achieving success in the postwar period with the single-engine "Bonanza" piston light civil aircraft, the company soon decided to build a twin-engine derivative, unsurprisingly known as the "Twin Bonanza", primarily for the US Army. The Twin Bonanza working out well, the company tweaked it with a new, bigger fuselage and more powerful engines to come up with the "Queen Air", again for the Army; to then convert the Queen Air to twin turboprops and come up with the "King Air".

The King Air itself has been built in an evolved range of variants, including the stretched "Model 1900" airliner, with the sleek and elegant King Air proving popular with both civil and military users. As reported by an article from FLIGHT GLOBAL ("Hawker Beechcraft Finds Unexpected Market With King Air 350" by Stephen Trimble), when Hawker Beechcraft, as the company is now known, introduced their new "King Air Model 350ER" at the Paris Air Show in 2005, company officials weren't expecting it to be any gold mine, believing they would only sell 40 or so. The "ER" stood for "extended range", with the primary market being military or government oceanic patrol.

Beech officials were pleasantly surprised to find out they were wrong. Business is slow for many companies these days, but Beech can't build the King Air Model 350ER fast enough. Thanks to the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, military forces were in need of relatively low-cost aerial surveillance platforms; the Model 350ER's good load capability and eight hour endurance made it the right machine at the right time. Company officials aren't giving hard numbers, but so far they've sold more than 50 Model 350ERs, and have more on the books.

While civil users of the Model 350ER have mostly acquired it because of specific needs for a long-range light transport and not for surveillance, Beech officials also see a potential market in the maritime insurance industry, flying patrols over pirate-infested waters. As expensive as it is to operate the aircraft, it's much more expensive to cover shipping losses, and a fleet of surveillance machines would pay for themselves easily.

* The Model 350ER was modified for greater range than the baseline Model 350 by extending the engine nacelle on each wing to accommodate twin 450 liter (118 US gallon) fuel tanks, for a total increase of 1,800 liters (475 US gallons). Wingtip tanks had been used on some earlier King Air variants, but they would have only added 380 liters (100 US gallons), and the tip tanks were draggy anyway. The extended engine nacelles, which protrude over the trailing edge of the wing, provide a distinctive recognition feature for the model 350 ER. The Model 350ER, nicknamed the "flying fuel tank", can fly nonstop from California to Hawaii -- which not only translates to long endurance, but the ability to self-deploy to any location in the world, an important consideration for a military aircraft without an inflight refueling capability.

King Air Model 200 versus Model 350ER

The additional fuel meant the Model 350ER had to be spec'd for higher gross weight, from 6,800 kilograms (14,995 pounds) to 7,480 kilograms (16,495 pounds). Stronger landing gear was installed, using assemblies from the landing gear for the Model 1900D airliner; the gearing in the rudder trim tab was beefed up to handle the higher weights; and the software for the Rockwell Collins Proline 21 avionics suite was modified to deal with the Model 350ER's altered take-off characteristics. The twin Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6A-60A turboprop engines, providing 785 kW (1,050 HP) each, were not upgraded, the power levels being seen as adequate, though dictating a relatively long takeoff run in "hot & high" environments like Afghanistan.

* The military's embrace of the Model 350ER was largely thanks to US defense secretary Robert Gates. US forces were in desperate need of more surveillance capability in Iraq and Afghanistan, with unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) being hard-pressed to cover the job. Conventional military thinking suggested it would take four years to get new surveillance assets on the job. Gates wanted it done in 12 months. The brass had learned that what Gates wanted, Gates got -- and if he didn't get it, heads were likely to roll.

Of course, the 12-month requirement meant grabbing what was available off the shelf. The US Air Force had already been involved in obtaining King Air Model 350ERs as surveillance platforms for the Iraqi Air Force. The US military was fond of the King Air, known as the "C-12 Huron" to the military, having operated various versions of it for decades and having plenty of pilots who were comfortable flying it. King Airs and the earlier Queen Airs had been used in combat surveillance roles of various sorts as far back as the Vietnam War.

What really changed thinking about the use of the Model 350ER were UAVs, or rather the lightweight sensor systems developed for them. Over the past decade, UAV sensors had become increasingly capable for their size, and they could be easily carried by the King Air. The result was the USAF "Liberty Ship" program or "Project Liberty", in which King Airs were fitted with a sophisticated sensor turret and an off-the-shelf signals intelligence (SIGINT) system. Seven used King Air 300s, a used King Air 350, and 23 new King Air 350ERs were to be put into the surveillance role, with the first going into service last year.

Project Liberty MC-12W

Project Liberty was not the end of it, either. King Airs are now a common sight in Iraq, with both old machines and new machines carrying various surveillance suites -- in some cases, the King Airs are operated by civilians under contract to intelligence services. The Army has converted old King Airs to the "Enhanced Medium-Altitude Reconnaissance & Surveillance System (EMARSS)" configuration for special requirements, and is now working towards a formal program to field a new-build EMARSS fleet, likely based on the King Air 350ER. None of the aircraft appear to be carrying munitions just yet, but given the emergence of little smart glide bombs, again originally designed for UAVs, there's talk of King Airs carrying weapons so they can deal with targets of opportunity that might disappear before a strike platform can arrive.

The emergence of the manned King Air surveillance platform bucks the trend towards use of UAVs in combat surveillance. The main problem with UAVs is that they simply can't be built fast enough to keep up with demand; however, the King Air also has a certain capability beyond that provided by UAVs, since it turns out to be useful to have warm bodies keeping an eye on things from the sky over the battleground. Maybe the King Air is just a stopgap to a future when the UAVs have the numbers and capabilities to run the whole show, but for now the King Air Model 350ER is proving a tidy money-maker for Beech.



* THE FIGHT OVER GLOBAL WARMING (4): To advocates of the AGW scenario, both the theoretical considerations of the warming effect of carbon dioxide and the data as stated add up to an obvious case that the world is warming up, and that continuing with "business as usual" is going to make matters much worse.

Theory backed up by lab studies on the absorption of infrared by CO2 suggests that, on its own, a doubling of CO2 concentration would add 1 degree Celsius to the global temperature. Current projections show that CO2 concentrations will double from the pre-industrial level of 280 PPM to 560 PPM by 2070. Notice the changes involve doubling: it would require raising concentrations to 1,160 PPM to raise temperatures another degree Celsius.

On the face of it, a 1 degree Celsius change hardly seems worth making such a fuss about. However, climate is complicated, and increasing CO2 has complicated effects -- some of which might in principle cause "positive feedback", enhancing the increase in temperature, others which might cause "negative feedback", decreasing it. The question boils down to: what is the sensitivity of climate to CO2 concentrations? Advocates believe the positive feedback mechanisms are important and that climate is sensitive; critics focus on the negative feedback mechanisms and claim it is insensitive.

The biggest factor in feedback is water vapor. Again, both sides acknowledge that water vapor is the predominant greenhouse gas; to the critics, that means that increases in CO2 concentration are irrelevant. Advocates don't see it that way, pointing out that CO2 still is an important contributor, and more significantly, its properties relative to water vapor make CO2 the lever in the equation. One of the characteristics of CO2 is that the sinks that draw it out of the atmosphere, most significantly through the photosynthetic operation of plants, operate slowly. That means that a rise in CO2 concentrations can take a long time to fall back down. Water, in contrast, simply falls out of the sky as precipitation, and water vapor concentrations can change very rapidly -- everybody knows that the weather can change from humid to dry overnight. CO2 concentrations don't, can't fluctuate anywhere near that rapidly.

Obviously, water vapor is produced by evaporation, mostly from the seas, and also obviously an increase in global temperatures means a higher rate of evaporation. That suggests that a temperature increase due to a rise in CO2 concentrations could well be amplified by positive feedback from an increase in water vapor concentrations.

The critics shoot back that this view ignores the negative feedback effects of an increase in water concentration. As mentioned earlier, of course an increase in water vapor concentrations can also produce more clouds and bigger snowfields, making the Earth more reflective and producing a cooling effect. In the 1990s Richard Lindzen -- a professor of meteorology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) -- made a case that the negative feedback effects of an increase in water vapor meant no drastic warming.

The formation of clouds is actually ambiguous in several ways in its effects on climate. Clouds do reflect sunlight, of course, but they also reflect radiation from below, helping trap more heat. In addition, condensation of water droplets is an "exothermic" process, it releases energy, and so formation of clouds tends to produce local warming. Still, Lindzen's notions have been taken seriously, with satellites put into orbit to map global water vapor concentrations and theoretical studies performed to get a better grasp of the issue. The current consensus is that, overall, water vapor provides positive feedback, and that theory says a doubling of CO2 concentration will produce a rise in temperature of 1.7 degrees Celsius. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* THE KILLING OF JFK -- LEE HARVEY OSWALD (13): After Lee Harvey Oswald got out of court on 12 August, he was interviewed by a journalist named Bill Stuckey, who ran a weekly program on Latin American affairs named THE LATIN LISTENING POST on New Orleans radio station WDSU. Stuckey was familiar with the local anti-Castro Cubans and was interested in Fair Play For Cuba as a means of providing a counterbalancing pro-Castro viewpoint.

Oswald liked the media attention, and in fact on Friday, 16 August, he was filmed by a local TV station handing out leaflets for Fair Play For Cuba. He had two assistants helping him with the leaflets, but he had paid them $2 each to work for him for a half hour. He felt like the TV spot was a big step forward. Even better, the next morning, Saturday 17 August, Stuckey showed up at Oswald's apartment and asked him if he wanted to tape a segment for THE LATIN LISTENING POST. Oswald jumped at the chance, he taped the interview, and it was sent out over the airwaves. Oswald's eagerness to broadcast his Communist ideology to the world creates difficulties for conspiracy theorists who claim he was a Red agent -- it being unlikely that any such agent would go so far out of his way to advertise that he was a Red -- but then suggest he was just trying to convince people he was a Red, when he actually was a (very well concealed) Rightist.

In any case, thanks to Oswald's inclination to tell lies, the broadcast backfired on him. On Monday, 19 August, Stuckey proposed to Oswald that he debate the pro-Castro Cubans on the evening of Wednesday, 21 August. Oswald accepted, but Stuckey got to checking Oswald's background with the authorities, and of course none of it matched the falsehoods he had told. Oswald showed up for the debate, only to have Stuckey tear him to shreds on the live mike, showing he was a fraud and disloyal to his country. Oswald was so devastated that Stuckey, feeling sorry for him, actually bought him a beer after the show was over.

The public humiliation burst Oswald's short-lived bubble. He effectively dropped his political activism, such as it was, and started playing a lot more with his rifle. Marina asked him what was going on and he said, to her shock, he was thinking of hijacking an airliner to Cuba. He started working out in the apartment to build up his strength for the hijack attempt. Marina whispered to her daughter: "Junie, our papa is out of his mind." He tried to outline how she could help with the hijacking, to which she replied: "A pregnant woman, her stomach sticking way out, a tiny girl in one hand and a pistol in the other? ... Only a crazy man would think up something like this." Marina finally managed to convince her husband that he might come up with a less drastic way of getting to Cuba.

* One anti-Castro Cuban, Antonio Veciana Blanch, claimed later to the HSCA that during this time, he had seen Oswald talking to a CIA officer known to him, Blanch, as "Maurice Bishop". Veciana also said that in 1973 he had been paid a quarter of a million dollars by Bishop to end his relationship with the agency. There was no record of any CIA officer of that name, the agency said they'd never had contacts with Veciana, and Veciana was never able to provide any evidence to back up his assertions -- in particular, nobody around him had ever met or heard of the mysterious "Maurice Bishop", and Veciana was never able to authenticate the CIA payoff. The HSCA judged him an unreliable witness. A conspiracy theorist named Gaeton Fonzi -- who had actually been a staff counsel for the HSCA -- identified "Maurice Bishop" as a CIA agent named David Atlee Phillips, who steadfastly responded that the charge was false; nobody has ever been able to link Phillips to the assassination in any materially important way.

A Cuban bar owner named Orest Pena came forward in 1975 to claim that Oswald met with an FBI agent several times at his bar. Pena said he hadn't come forward earlier because the FBI had threatened him. When Pena was questioned by the HSCA in 1978, he became very evasive, responding to requests for specifics with: "I cannot answer that question." To the extent that the HSCA managed to get facts out of him, they turned out to be demonstrably wrong. The HSCA called his testimony "frequently evasive" and dismissed him as a unreliable witness.

In any case, Oswald decided to go to Mexico and visit the Cuban embassy in hopes of being allowed entry to Cuba. He got a tourist card from the Mexican consulate in New Orleans on 17 September, allowing him to stay in Mexico for 15 days. Ruth Paine was to take Marina and June back to Dallas; Paine showed up with her kids on 20 September, and left on Monday, 23 September, with Marina and June to stay at the Paine's house in the Dallas suburb of Irving. Oswald had to stay until 25 September to pick up an unemployment check; he cashed the check that morning and left town sometime during that day, with his apartment back rent unpaid.

* In the meantime, the New Orleans police and the local FBI had been checking out the stories Oswald had told them, and of course nothing added up. Their general conclusion was that Oswald was just a harmless nut, not too different from the many other dubious characters, well known to the authorities, who liked to play at being some sort of pulp-fiction hero and told big bogus stories. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* GIMMICKS & GADGETS: AVIATION WEEK magazine reports that BAE Systems has been working with the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to develop a -- get this -- 1.8 gigapixel camera for airborne surveillance applications. The "Autonomous Realtime Ground Ubiquitous Surveillance Imaging System (ARGUS-IS)" is capable of keeping an entire city in its view from a height, which is not so impressive, but has the capability of tracking specific individuals walking around in that city, which is.

Initial tests of ARGUS-IS were conducted on a Sikorsky Black Hawk helicopter in 2009. The gimbal-mounted system consists of a wide-area array with a field of view of 60 degrees, ganged with four telescopic zoom lenses each featuring a 92.5 megapixel imager. The array uses 368 cellphone camera chips coupled to onboard processing to give an overview of the target area, plus up to 65 "windows" with a resolution of 640x480 pixels on close-up targets, with a frame rate of 12 to 15 frames a second. The number of windows is effectively limited by the bandwidth of the communications link sending the data out from the surveillance platform. The podded system will be easily carried on a range of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). The current ARGUS-IS is a fair weather / daylight system; DARPA is working towards a infrared imaging follow-on for foul weather / night operation, designated "ARGUS-IR".

* WIRED ONLINE blogs reported on a definitely "out of the box" concept for green energy production proposed by a team of South Korean researchers. Their scheme envisions an ocean-going catamaran pulled by a parafoil kite with a surface area of 600,000 square meters (1.2 million square feet) flying at an altitude of about 1,500 meters (almost a mile). The catamaran would have a turbine underneath of it that would generate electric power, which would then electrolyze water into hydrogen and oxygen.

Of course, there's a few technical obstacles to getting the idea to work -- one being that the parafoil envisioned is about a thousand times bigger than any built to date. Personally, I'm of the belief that crazy ideas should be investigated, at least to determine whether it's worthwhile to pump any serious money into them. Even if they're unworkable in themselves, they may contain half of a good idea. Crackpottery only begins when people refuse to take WRONG for an answer.

* As reported by DISCOVERY CHANNEL Online, a group named "AfricaAid" has come up with a clever gimmick: a soccer ball that stores up energy while it's being kicked around, with the ball taken home to provide electricity for an LED. It uses an induction system, like those on human-powered flashlights, to store the energy, with about 15 minutes of play providing the equivalent of three hours of light. It's just experimental right now, with demonstrators being tested by kids in Kenya and South Africa.

The article linked to a related gimmick by an outfit named "Designaffairs STUDIO" called the "Swirl", which is a beachball-sized plastic sphere with a sealing lid. With a push handle attached, it can be used to fetch water, being rolled along like a lawn mower. The handle can be removed so the Swirl can be kicked around like a ball, in which case it makes a dandy kid-powered washing machine.


I suppose developing world gadgets are the same as developed world gadgets in that most of them end up being silly gimmicks, and that's what might end up happening here. However, take ten new ideas, if nine are silly gimmicks, that means one works. I noticed in the corporate world that most products are duds or not particularly successful; it's the handful of products that are big hits that really keep the company afloat. Trying to figure out which one will be a hit in advance is the tricky part.



* ATOMS FOR PEACE? Nuclear nonproliferation is a nightmare issue, but as reported by an article from BBC WORLD Online ("International Nuclear Bank -- Helping World Peace?" by Humphrey Hawksley), there are signs of hope.

In 1953, US President Dwight Eisenhower tried to help curtail the emerging nuclear arms race through a program titled "Atoms For Peace". He proposed that America and the USSR establish a joint stockpile of enriched uranium that other countries could draw on for their nuclear power programs. Eisenhower was a man of peace who wanted to divert the nuclear arms race into more constructive channels; he failed, and the nuclear arms race went exponential.

In the 21st century, Eisenhower's vision is re-emerging. In November 2009, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) made a deal with Russia to set up a stockpile of 120 tonnes (132 tons) of nuclear fuel at a plant at Angarsk, near Irkutsk in Siberia. In 2010, the IAEA intends to come to a broader agreement with Kazakhstan to set up a stockpile of 60 tonnes (66 tons) at a plant in the east of the country. The idea is to offer a source of enriched uranium to roughly 60 developing countries who are after nuclear power so they do not need to perform enrichment themselves. As long as they adhere to IAEA regulations, they will get the uranium no matter what the standing of their politics or human rights record -- even if a client country is under an international sanctions regime.

IAEA / Atoms For Peace

The deal with Kazakhstan evolved out of the country's move to eliminate the nuclear weapons stockpile left in the country after the fall of the Soviet Union. That led in time to the concept of the international nuclear fuel bank, to be set up at the sprawling Ulba metallurgical factory at Ust Kamenogorsk -- which in a previous era was a Soviet "closed city" that specialized in nuclear fuel production. There's plenty of storage space at the facility, and rail connections that could take the nuclear fuel anyplace in the Old World.

The plan is that Kazakhstan will cede sovereignty of the area to the IAEA, so that the storage site would be diplomatic territory, like the UN headquarters site in New York City. The IAEA would own the nuclear fuel and have complete jurisdiction over its use. US President Barack Obama fully backs the scheme, with the US Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) being one of the prime movers in diplomacy for setting up the fuel bank.

Some potential clients are nervous about the idea of placing their faith in a nuclear fuel source they don't control, but then again enriching uranium is a very expensive and potentially "dirty" process. They can also expect intense diplomatic pressure if they try to develop their own enrichment facilities while claiming the measure is "strictly for peaceful purposes" -- if they had a guaranteed source of low-cost nuclear fuel, the only practical reason for spending billions to set up an enrichment facility would be for weapons production, and nobody would believe any claims to the contrary. On the other side of the coin, there may be complaints about the idea of giving bad actors like Iran and North Korea enriched uranium, but the reply's obvious: Would anyone prefer they made it themselves?



* TRUFFLES EXAMINED: While mushrooms are familiar to all, their fungal relatives the truffles, a prized gourmet item, are obscure. Partly this is because they grow almost invisibly underground, with dogs -- and it is said pigs -- trained to sniff them out. Even when a truffle is dug up, it doesn't look like much more than a nondescript organic lump inside a layer of skin. According to an article from SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN ("The Hidden Life Of Truffles" by James M. Trappe and Andrew W. Claridge, April 2010), scientists were long ignorant of them as well.


Field studies over the last two decades have improved our understanding of truffles. Fungi are neither animals nor plants; while they take root like plants, they don't photosynthesize, instead obtaining nutrients through a network of threadlike "hyphae" spread through their growth medium, such as soil or decaying organic matter or manure or whatever. What we see as a mushroom is actually a central "fruiting body" at the center of the hyphae network, a reproductive organ that generates and distributes spores by throwing them to the winds. Truffles are similar, except that the fruiting body and its cargo of spores grows underground. Technically speaking, "true" truffles, which are the kind sold on the gourmet market, are members of the Ascomycota phylum of the fungi, but there are also "false" truffles of the phylum Basidomycota that are functionally very similar, though they're not sold for food.

The first serious scientific investigation of truffles was performed in the 19th century by a German botanist named Albert Bernhard Frank on behalf of would-be truffle growers. Frank observed that truffles grow underground near tree roots, with their hyphae growing around and into a tree's tiny feeder rootlets that the tree uses to absorb water and nutrients. While fungi were generally seen as parasitic in those days, and not without plenty of good reason, Frank believed the relationship between truffle and tree was symbiotic, with each partner providing resources to the other. Frank's ideas weren't given much credence at the time, but a century later he would be proven right.

It turned out that numerous mushroom and truffle species are symbiotic partners with trees. The interface between such a fungi's hyphae and a tree's rootlets forms a shared absorptive organ known as the "mycorrhiza". The fine hyphae can penetrate the soil much more thoroughly than the tree's relatively coarse rootlets, giving a tree better access to water and soil nutrients, with the tree paying the fungus back by providing sugars and other biomolecular nutrients the fungus cannot synthesize on its own. Even more surprisingly, this symbiotic relationship is almost universal among trees, making them reliant on the fungi for survival. It is also common among herbaceous plants -- which lack a woody stem -- though they're hooked up with different fungi.

Genetic and morphological evidence suggests that truffles evolved from mushrooms, which leads to the question of what evolutionary pressures drove mushrooms underground. The fact is that the exposed position of a mushroom's fruiting body makes it vulnerable, particularly to climate. Once it went underground, it was relatively protected from hazards, and also no longer needed to go to the trouble of constructing such an elaborate fruiting body. However, that left the truffle with the problem of how to reproduce.

What the truffles did was enlist animals to help. While a truffle is growing it remains invisible to foragers, but once it matures and is ready to distribute its spores -- which it produces asexually -- it generates a distinct aroma that filters up through the soil. Animals dig up the fruiting body and eat it. The truffle's spores are robust and pass through an animal's digestive system, being spread in the animal's droppings. A wide range of animals include truffles in their diet, including rodents, armadillos, baboons, and bears, not to mention some molluscs and insects. Some species of animals, such as the North American flying squirrel, rely on truffles as a primary food source. Incidentally, humans only favor about a dozen of the thousands of species of truffles, the rest having aromas and flavors that are either uninteresting or repellent.

Not all truffles use aromas to spread their spores. A New Zealand species named Paurocotylis pila grows up through the ground as it matures, producing a brightly colored fruiting body that looks like a berry favored by local birds. Some other truffles found in Australasia take still another approach, with their spores in the form of a powder that is dispersed when an animal bites into and eats its rind. Even if a truffle doesn't get eaten, the fruiting body decays, releasing the spores into the soil, with soil arthropods like pill bugs or whatever then grubbing through the debris and spreading the spores.

Fossil evidence suggests truffles have been around from about 50 to 85 million years. They tend to be common in temperate regions -- fungi don't do well in cold regions, mushrooms do well enough in tropical regions, but in regions with cold winters and hot dry summers, living underground gives truffles an advantage.

Humans have now domesticated truffles, though it took a long time to figure out how; it wasn't until the 1960s that French agronomists came up with a scheme to raise potted oak and hazel seedlings along with black Perigord truffle spores in greenhouse, with the seedlings transplanted to suitable outdoor soil to form truffle orchards or "truffieres". It takes about five years to get the first truffle crop. It's not easy, Americans didn't manage to get working truffieres until the 1980s, and the crop is small -- the biggest US grower of black Perigord truffles turns out about 100 kilograms of truffles a year, but given how much truffles sell for, that's not doing at all badly. However, the most prized Italian white truffle simply refuses to grow in a greenhouse. Its genome is now being sequenced in hopes of figuring out how to grow it commercially.



* THE FIGHT OVER GLOBAL WARMING (3): The concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere are small, a fraction of a percent. That means its effectiveness as a greenhouse gas is disproportionately greater than of water vapor on the basis of the total mass of each gas, and so increments in the concentrations of CO2 could have a disproportionate effect. However, that's where the trouble really begins, because "could" isn't the same as "does" -- it's not entirely clear from the data just how temperature rises with CO2 concentration, or in other words what the "sensitivity" of climate to CO2 concentration really is. Climate is a noisy phenomenon, making it hard to spot and track changes, and the oceans can absorb a good deal of heat, inserting considerable inertia into the system.

Three sets of records of land surface temperature readings are available, one of which was put together by the East Anglia CRU, and all three show evidence of warming. Despite the bad press handed to the CRU, the climate research community regards all three data sets as generally valid. The critics are not so impressed, believing that in organizing the data -- an extremely tough job on the face of it, given its sheer size -- the researchers who compiled it introduced a bias demonstrating a warming trend by judging data that didn't fit their preconceived views as erroneous and throwing it out.

Critics have also suggested that the warming trend in the data may be an artifact. Weather stations have been increasingly surrounded by urban areas during the interval in which climate data has been collected. Urban areas are dotted with heat sources such as buildings and expanses of blacktop, and so as cities spread around weather stations, they may be making the measurements warmer than they would be otherwise. Anthony Watts, a retired American TV weatherman who runs a climate critic blog, started a project based on a website titled "surfacestations.org", in which volunteers track down weather stations in the USA and help assign them a "grade" based on the additional warming caused by urban structures like parking lots. The website's map is largely complete, and on the basis of the "grades" it suggests a clear bias in evaluating temperatures toward the warmer.

urban weather station

Watts admits that he has no formal educational credentials in climate science, and his counter-critics suggest that, despite his effort to establish rigorous criteria for assigning "grades", all he is actually doing is accumulating anecdotal information obtained by a group of like-minded critics with a collective bias towards skewing the "grades" to make their case. Advocates also point out that Watts and his group are focusing on a small component of the case for AGW, while remaining oblivious to a wide range of other evidence.

In fact, climate researchers compiling the data have been aware of the "heat island" effect, and have been careful to site new weather stations more carefully. As far as the old weather stations go, they have tried to compensate for skews -- adjusting the data in a way that actually downplays the perceived evidence for global warming instead of exaggerating it. In practice, it doesn't even seem to be that big of a deal. Weather services have long known that sitings of weather stations can influence measurements -- but not necessarily in the direction of "warmer". Certainly, a weather station next to a big parking lot may record hotter temperatures, but one in a shady grove of trees in a town on an otherwise treeless sun-baked prairie may record cooler temperatures.

As anyone suffering through a hot night knows, it can make a big difference if a breeze comes up and disperses the urban "hotspot" into the surrounding countryside -- but on the average, comparisons of data from still nights and windy nights doesn't show a significant difference. A recent paper published by researchers from the US National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) argues that when the data from sites that "surfacestation.org" gave low grades was segregated from sites that got good grades, the warming trendline was indistinguishable.

Even advocates admit that temperature measurements could be improved, and in fact there is discussion over how to do a better job. In February 2010, the British national meteorological office, the "Met", called for the creation of a new set of databases compiled in a rigorously transparent fashion and more open to the public. The idea that such a database would halt the charges of "conspiracy" is of course implausible. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* THE KILLING OF JFK -- LEE HARVEY OSWALD (12): On Monday, 5 August, Oswald went into a local clothing store run by a Cuban exile named Carlos Bringuier and offered to help train anti-Castro Cubans in guerrilla warfare tactics. He handed the Cubans there some wild story about being trained in the subject in the Marines; it appears he was playing James Bond, trying to infiltrate the organization. They didn't buy a word of it, correctly thinking he was up to no good.

On Friday, 9 August, one of the Cubans working at the store saw Oswald on a corner passing out Fair Play For Cuba fliers. The Cuban went and got Bringuier and another Cuban, with the three tracking down Oswald on the street and angrily confronting him. The Cubans became aggressive; Oswald folded his arms, daring them to hit him. The police arrived and arrested all four of them. The Cubans got out on bail of $25 USD each, but Oswald spent the night behind bars. According to Marina Oswald, that was the first time since they had been living in New Orleans that he hadn't spent the night with her in their apartment.

The next morning, Oswald was questioned by New Orleans police Lieutenant Francis Martello about Fair Play For Cuba. Oswald told him a pack of lies, and then, when the interview was over, asked to speak to an FBI agent. Agency John Quigley talked to Oswald later. Quigley was the Saturday duty officer and was obligated to respond. Oswald handed him the same pack of lies he had given Martello, giving evasive replies when asked about his Fair Play for Cuba chapter -- on being asked about the mysterious "Hidell" mentioned on some of the flyers, Oswald said he had never actually met him, but he had talked to him on the phone. The meeting was not secret and Quigley wrote up a report for FBI files afterward.

Why Oswald asked to talk to the FBI remains puzzling. Conspiracy theorists make mountains of the incident, but it's at least as puzzling for them -- if Oswald had been working undercover for the FBI, he would have had more discreet ways of getting in touch with his handler and not risked blowing his cover by contacting them so directly. It is clear that Oswald regarded the FBI as the author of many of his difficulties, and one can speculate that he simply wanted to throw up a smokescreen to the Feds in hopes of keeping them off his back. Any other speculation work about as well. Incidentally, some conspiracy theorists claim -- following up on the idea that Oswald had lived in North Dakota, supposedly established in his 1959 interview with Aline Mosby in Moscow -- that Oswald also told Martello he had lived in North Dakota, but nothing in the records actually bears that out.

In any case, the FBI did nothing to help him with the police or bail him out; that afternoon, after going around with his extended family in New Orleans on the phone, a family acquaintance named Emile Bruneau called up a local official and got Oswald released. Oswald and the Cubans went before the judge on Monday, 12 August; the case against the Cubans was dismissed, Oswald was fined $10 USD for disturbing the peace -- which in all fairness to Oswald seems a bit unjust, since the Cubans had set on him. He paid the fine and went his own way. [TO BE CONTINUED].



* SCIENCE NOTES: I found a old link to an article on WIRED Online from a few months back that discussed how plants have a degree of social behavior. For example, if an Impatiens pallida, a well-known garden flower, is planted by itself, it will grow roots as fast as it can to block out competing plants. However, grow a number of impatiens together, and they limit the growth of their roots. Other plants have demonstrated a similar ability to cooperate.


Of course, there's no awareness involved, just the stimulation of one plant to chemical signals of its own kind, and adjusting its bioprocesses in response. Other research hints that a sagebrush plant will boost its immune system if a neighboring sagebrush plant is infected with a pathogen. Research on plant sociality is still very immature, with those working in the field believing they are only scratching the surface, but are excited at learning how plants that have all the apparent awareness of a brick can support surprisingly elaborate behaviors.

* A story was making the rounds of the science blogosphere concerning a biological idiosyncrasy found in Japanese, thanks to their inclination to eat seaweed -- specifically the "nori seaweed" AKA Pophyra leucosticta used to wrap up sushi rolls. The intestinal bacteria of the Japanese include a gene that produces an enzyme named "porphyranase" that breaks down the cell walls of the seaweed, allowing it to be digested.

It is suspected that the gene for the enzyme was obtained by "horizontal gene transfer" between the intestinal bacteria and bacteria that normally infect the seaweed. The seaweed is often consumed raw; while its bacterial hitchhikers are not suited to living in our intestines, they appear to have transferred vital genes to bacteria that are. Biology just keeps getting more and more complicated, doesn't it?

* Fuss has been going on for years over the potential health hazards of cellphone use, with various studies demonstrating health risks which seem to be somewhere near the noise threshold of statistical significance -- whether below or above that threshold is a good question. Now, according to a note from SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN Online, a study by researchers at the University of South Florida has demonstrated health benefits of cellphone use.

The researchers performed studies of mice from a strain genetically predisposed to Alzheimer's disease. Mice that were exposed to cellphone signals for two hours a day demonstrated that they continued to navigate mazes for substantially longer as they aged compared to the control group mice who weren't exposed to cellphone signals. The researchers suggest the signals interfere with the formation of the "amyloid plaques" that gum up the brain as Alzheimer's progresses. There's something amusing in this "turnabout" scenario, though since the energy emitted by cellphones always seemed too low to cause any harm, it seems equally unlikely to do any good. On the flip side of that coin, if it can be shown cellphones really do help stave off Alzheimer's disease, then that makes it more plausible that they really can cause harm.

* An article from BBC WORLD Online discussed the work of Dr. Emily Holmes, an Oxford University psychiatric researcher, who has a definitely idea for helping people who have just survived some hideous traumatic incident: give them a handheld tetris game and tell them to play it.

This is one of those ideas that sounds crazy on first inspection, but it makes a certain amount of sense. Anybody who's ever got hooked on tetris knows just how hideously addictive it is -- even thinking about it gives me obnoxious visions of blocks falling down the screen. Holmes, in her research on post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), found that after a traumatic incident, victims were strongly inclined to dwell on their misfortune, revisualizing it over and over, fixing it solidly in the brain in the course of a few hours. Give someone a distraction that occupies the visualization functions of the brain during that period, and it may prevent the traumatic memory from becoming solidly established.

Holmes has conducted research in which two groups of volunteers are shown videos of graphically shocking events; after the showing, one group was allowed to sit quietly, while the other played tetris. The group that played tetris had far fewer memories of the events than the control group, and the memories were not as vivid.


BTW, after reading this I suddenly got an itch to play tetris. It was easy to find a free online game site that had a fairly nice Flash implementation, and soon I was gradually ramping up my scores from game to game. Alas, as my scores ran higher I ran into increasing acceleration of the gameplay, reminding me of just why tetris is so good at producing a nervous breakdown. OK, enough, I'm done.



* CODE OF THE FIREFLY: An article by Carl Zimmer -- well-known popular author in the biological sciences -- for the NEW YORK TIMES ("Blink Twice If You Like Me", 29 June 2009) took a closeup of firefly researcher Dr. Sara Lewis of Tufts University in Massachusetts. Anybody who's ever seen fireflies floating around in the dark knows how fascinating they are, but Lewis has taken the fascination to a high level of detail. Wandering around in a meadow after dark, she has no problem identifying from their flash patterns three different species of fireflies engaged in their muted fireworks:

All the fireflies in the air are males; they are calling to females hiding out in the grass. If a female sees the pulse pattern of her own species and is the mood for love, she responds with one flash, always on a precise interval after the male's flash. Lewis can "speak firefly", using a penlight to duplicate the flash patterns of particular species, and can get females to respond. She says: "Most people don't realize there's this 'call & response' going on. But it's very, very easy to talk to fireflies."


Fireflies became a fascination to Lewis when she was a grad student at Duke University in North Carolina, researching the lives of coral reef fish. She was between grants in 1980 and would spend her evenings watching the hypnotic lightshows of fireflies in her backyard. Most folks would just enjoy the performance, but being a scientist, of course Lewis got curious, and started investigating the fireflies.

In evolutionary terms, fireflies are particularly fascinating, with an unusual behavior that has, as the differences in firefly flash codes indicated, branched out along diverse paths. How and why did this behavior arise? Lewis noted from her casual investigations in her backyard that she could find hundreds of males but only a handful of females, which suggested "sexual selection" at work.

Sexual selection was a concept devised by the 19th-century English naturalist Charles Darwin in his development of the basis for modern evolutionary theory. Darwin observed that competition to reproduce could drive evolution off along some very strange paths, with males that had characteristics that made them better at courtship reproducing more effectively and spreading their characteristics at the expense of those males who weren't so effective at courtship. The end result was a cycle that could drive very bizarre adaptations for courtship purposes, the best known being the colorful tail of the peacock.

Darwin didn't understand all the details of sexual selection and it can be a subtle matter, but it's enough to say that the competition between firefly males to mate with a female tends to select the males with the most impressive courtship flashes, and so over the generations the flashes become more and more impressive. Darwin himself had given little or no thought to the firefly as a case study in sexual selection, and in fact nobody paid them too much mind until the 1960s, when Dr. James Lloyd, a biologist from the University of Florida, managed to figure out the flash codes for a number of species of North American fireflies.

In 1984, Lewis was in a postdoctoral research program at Harvard University when the fascination of fireflies took over and she decided to give up research on fish. She learned Lloyd's firefly codes and then jumped into the mating habits of fireflies. It was known that fireflies spend two years as larvae in the ground, to mature into adults with a short lifespan of two weeks, during which they spend their time flashing and reproducing and can't be bothered to eat. Nobody knew the specifics of their mating habits, however: did the females mate with one male, or did they mate repeatedly? Lewis hunted down mating pairs in the evening and set up flags so she could find them again, checking on them repeatedly during the night. In the morning, they were still coupled.

The fireflies that Lewis found in her backyard and the meadow in Massachusetts were only a tiny fraction of the 2,000 or so species of fireflies found around the globe. All firefly species glow as larva, using an enzyme-driven chemical reaction that produces light to give a warning that they are full of foul-tasting substances and that predators should leave them alone. Genetic analysis of the relationships between firefly species suggests that is why fireflies acquired the ability to produce light in the first place.

In the distant past, adult fireflies did not produce light, and in fact for modern firefly species, the adults still don't. However, some did hang on to the larval ability to produce light; some modern species haven't gone beyond simply glowing, but others have acquired the intriguing flash codes as a scheme for communications -- a "sexual semaphore" system. Lewis observed in her studies that a female firefly might maintain interleaved flash conversations with a dozen males, but she would zero in on a conversation with one male and only mate with him. Further investigation showed that females were extremely picky about which one; in some species, males with the fastest pulse rates were chosen, while in others they preferred males with the longest pulses.

One of the aspects of sexual selection that escaped Darwin was that the bizarre features that it produced, like the tail of the peacock, were not as useless as they looked. It was realized much later that they could been seen as "honest advertisements" of the fact that the male was healthy and would be a good father; an unhealthy peacock could simply not produce an impressive tail. It was straightforward for Lewis to think that the healthiest male fireflies were those that could flash the fastest or the longest.

In the case of fireflies, the females had an even stronger evolutionary motive to find the healthiest males. Although it wasn't understood until recently, when Lewis and her colleagues figured it out, when a male firefly inseminates a female he also injects nutritious packets of protein along with the sperm. Since adult fireflies don't eat, that "nuptial gift" provided by the male can mean a bigger clutch of eggs from the female. Lewis is now investigating the linkage between fast and long flashes and the size of the nuptial gift.

What complicates the issue is that it doesn't really take that much energy for a male to produce light; it costs him more just to fly around. One puzzle is that, since producing light is so cheap, male fireflies should be able to produce more light than they do, and the competition for females should have driven much more impressive lightshows. That suggests there is some other factor involved that is restraining the light-emitting capability of the males.

That factor appears to be predatory fireflies. Evolution is opportunistic and has inclinations to the ugly; in fireflies, the result is firefly known as Photuris, which preys on the males of other species. Sometimes the predators will spot a flashing male victim and dive onto him; sometimes they will respond to a male's call with a flash response of their own and let him come on his own. Either way, the end is the same, with the unfortunate male grabbed in the mandibles of the Photuris and sucked dry.

Lewis and her colleagues built flashing traps that attracted the Photuris fireflies. It turned out that the traps with faster flash rates caught more of the predators. While more conspicuous flashes are better for attracting females, they are also better for attracting predators, and so the two selective forces remain in a balance. Fireflies are charming to watch at night; but an informed knowledge demonstrates that the show has a underlying drama.



* AD-HOC WIRELESS NETWORKS: Now that wi-fi networking is all but universal, we've learned to take wireless digital communications for granted, having faith that our notebook computers and handheld devices will always be conveniently near to a wireless access point for a hookup to the world. Still, we're dependent on the wireless network infrastructure; as suggested by an article from SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN ("The Rise Of Instant Wireless Networks" by Michelle Effros, Andrea Goldsmith, & Muriel Medard, April 2010), what if we didn't need that infrastructure? What if the devices themselves were the network as well?

The idea is not completely new, nor is it particularly exotic in broad concept. Our notebooks and handheld devices have wireless interfaces to allow them to access a wi-fi network; it requires little or no additional hardware to allow each of these "nodes" to act as a relay, passing on data for other nodes in an "ad-hoc" network. Ad-hoc networks could continue to operate even under disaster conditions that take down the fixed wireless infrastructure, becoming more powerful as nodes are added, and degrading gracefully as nodes are removed.

In addition to maintaining communications under disaster conditions, ad-hoc networks would be useful in any place lacking a fixed wireless communications infrastructure. The military is very interested in them for field operations; they could be used to support scientific field studies based on networks of distributed sensors; or to provide communications for poor neighborhoods and remote villages; or to link all the "smart" devices in the gradually emerging "digital home".

Parts of the technology are already in place. The popular Bluetooth communications link provides a capability to set up small ad-hoc networks over short range. In San Francisco, a startup company named Meraki Networks connects 400,000 local citizens to the internet over a pioneering ad-hoc network. However, wider use of ad-hoc networks will require some improvements in technology.

* Current wireless devices like cellphones are dependent on fixed infrastructure, such as cellphone towers and their associated routing systems. The arrangement is a simple one from the point of the cellphone: it communicates through a cellphone tower, and the dedicated cellphone network infrastructure handles all the routing from point to point. With an ad-hoc network, however, a device has to communicate reliably through a network that is dynamic, always changing, with nodes being continually brought in and dropping out. Messages from the device have to be able to navigate through the network to the addressed destination, with no data lost if a node drops out.

Routing is not a computationally trivial problem even in a fixed network, and it is more troublesome in a dynamic network composed of nodes with limited computing power. The problem is not one that any single node can solve; it has to be addressed by the collective using hivelike rules. One basic principle is that pathways aren't determined using an overall map, with messages instead asking for directions as they pass from node to node. Each node maintains a temporary list of connections with its "neighboring" nodes, with a message then sent to the appropriate neighbors, usually traveling over more than one path to improve reliability. Of course, as the number of messages traveling over the ad-hoc network increases, so does the likelihood that the network is going to be swamped.

From the point of view of reliable delivery of a single message, the best solution would be to send an entire message over every possible path, but then the entire network would end up being dedicated to serving that one message, with traffic quickly bogging down. If the entire message is sent over fewer paths, as the number of paths decreases, the risk of losing the entire message increases. In practice, the message is broken down in "packets", with each packet sent over a number of paths, and the packets reassembled appropriately at the destination.

Obviously, getting such a packet-oriented scheme to work reliably demands clever management schemes. One of the basic elements is make sure that "meta-information" on how a message has been broken down and should be reassembled is sent to the destination, so it knows how to fit the packets back together into the message. Then of course, there's also the problem of routing the individual packets; again, the more paths a packet is sent over, the higher the probability the packet will get to its destination, but the probability of interference becomes greater as well.

Actually, if overall traffic volume is low, interference isn't much of a problem, at least if packet size is kept small -- that way, messages won't hog the paths long enough to inconvenience other nodes on the network. If traffic volume is high, interference becomes an issue that has to be addressed. One approach used by some cellphone schemes is "spread spectrum" communications, in which one cellphone "channel" is spread over a wide band, with a specific "coding pattern" defining the signal levels associated with that channel over the band. More channels can be shoved through the same band using different coding patterns until the band gradually saturates.

* The nondeterministic nature of ad-hoc networks also poses another challenge: characterizing their operation. It is very difficult to determine their performance and implement schemes to guarantee delivery of data, as would be needed for a voice conversation. It is unlikely that ad-hoc wireless networks will ever be able to compete on the basis of performance with fixed networks -- but ad-hoc networks will be valuable if the fixed network goes down or isn't available in a location. Not too far down the road, it's likely that we'll have both: our devices will use a fixed wireless network if it's available, or do the job themselves if it's not. Fixed and ad-hoc networks should be seen more as complements than alternatives, a next step in the evolution of communications as our environment becomes increasingly wired.



* ANOTHER MONTH: My work on the JFK assassination series in the blog has of course expanded my vision into the online world of conspiracy theorists. Sure, I knew all along they were crazy, but there's a major difference between knowing crazy in principle -- and having to wade through crazy in detail just to figure out where the booby traps in a subject are. It's just asking for trouble to casually state something as a fact in a document without realizing that it's hooked up to a ton of willful misconceptions in circulation on the internet.

It's not all troublesome, however. A cynic suggested to the conspiracy theorists that they were on the wrong track, that the Illuminati weren't the ones behind the evil conspiracies, it was instead the "Guild of Calamitous Intent (GCI)". Huh? On investigation via Wikipedia, it turned out to be a fixture of a late-night cheap-&-sleazy cartoon series shown on the CARTOON NETWORK titled THE VENTURE BROTHERS. The GCI advertises as the most important organized labor group representing supervillains, far outstripping the "Peril Partnership" and the "Fraternity of Torment" in membership and influence.

The Guild Of Calamitous Intent

The GCI owes its popularity to its ability to protect its members from the law, as well as to its excellent health and dental plan. The GCI has managed to obtain a truce with the authorities by holding its members to an "Honor Code" -- for example enforcing a court restraining order on a pedophile supervillain to keep him away from kids -- in line with the guild motto: "Hate You Can Trust!" As a result, the police and other public security organizations leave actions against supervillains to superheroes. The GCI also has cooperative relations with the superhero community, at least to an extent: superheroes can contact the GCI to be interviewed and then assigned a supervillain arch-enemy at an appropriate matching level of capability.

Incidentally, the boss of the guild, the mysterious "Sovereign", is actually David Bowie, who is a shapeshifter -- didn't we always suspect something like that? OK, from now on every time I hear dire warnings about the Illuminati, I know I'll think of the Guild of Calamitous Intent. It's just as plausible, but more fun.

* Somebody mentioned on the site message board that I ought to add ALT text to the illustrations on the website -- that's the text that comes up in a little popup when holding the mouse cursor over a picture online. I thought that over for a moment and decided: Yeah, I ought to do that. I put provisions for it in my homegrown formatting tools to support the site photo archive, so it was just a question of adding text to the web pages.

So next I thought: Let's see, there's like 1,200 pages on the site and at least 2,800 illustrations ... hmm. Quite a bit of effort for such a near-invisible improvement, but having figured I should do it, it was either do it or put it on the pile for later. So I did it. It wasn't quite as painful as I expected; after sorting through the web pages, only about 850 needed updating, and I got it done in three months.

One of the problems was that sometimes I'll make a tweaky change in a document and set aside the altered copy to accumulate more changes for a release down the road, so I had a pile of "old versus new" duplicated files. I didn't want to have to add ALT text to both versions, so instead I did the fastest possible updates I could -- skimming through the text and doing a spell-check -- and released them as new revisions. That's poor procedure of course, it's a good way to accumulate what programmers call "bit rot", but for the mature documents it couldn't cause much harm, and for those that weren't so mature, I just put them back on the queue for a more thorough update later.

Not the most rewarding use of time I admit, but it gave me a chance to proof the illustrations update from last year -- I found a dozen or two bogus captions -- as well as add a few improved illustrations, and having text associated with the illustrations helps search engines nail them. Besides, when editing the text, it's nice to have a tag there that tells me what the illustrations associated with the text actually are. Still, I was really getting sick of it by the time I got down to the last few dozen pages.