jul 2010 / last mod jan 2016 / greg goebel

* Entries include: JFK assassination, Crystal Palace, Ug99 mutant stem rust fungal plague, spring Northwest road trip, Panasonic Fusion advanced airliner seat, EADS hybrid helicopter, DASH7 remote RFID communications scheme, natural gas glut, Despommiers on farm towers, movie theater business booming thanks to 3D flics, Snowball Earth scenario not popular, US JPATS prisoner air transportation system, and Evil Overlord versus conspiracy theorists.

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* NEWS COMMENTARY FOR JULY 2010: In response to the North Korean sinking of the South Korean corvette CHEONAN in March, the US and South Korea conducted a joint exercise named INVINCIBLE SPIRIT in the Yellow Sea in July. The centerpiece of the exercise was the US Navy aircraft carrier USS GEORGE WASHINGTON, complemented by escort vessels as well as US and Republic of Korea Air Force combat aircraft. Ground troops were not involved, but they will engage in follow-up exercises.

Although the exercise was declared "strictly defensive" in nature, officials were not at all coy in making clear that it was also a warning to North Korea. The exercise was accompanied by a visit of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and US Defense Secretary Robert Gates to South Korea, with Clinton announcing new sanctions against North Korea. When asked what sort of changes in behavior the US and South Korea were after in North Korea, an anonymous Pentagon official answered: "Not blowing up naval vessels would be a good start."


So far, Pyongyang has done nothing in response but bitterly complain and threaten to go nuclear. No doubt the reaction is: "We've heard that tune before." -- but when dealing with crazy people, there's always some doubt over what they are capable of doing. We grow so used to dangerous situations that it can come as a tremendous shock when disaster finally strikes.

* There are of course other dubious regimes in the world, for example the one currently occupying the Kremlin. To be sure, the Russian government is not in the basement league with Pyongyang, but it seems that every time the Bear shows his snout, he looks a little bit more tattered and fleabitten. Case in point, as reported by THE ECONOMIST ("Russia's Empty Empire", 26 June 2010), the contrast being Russia's imperial pretensions and reality. In 2008, Russian President Dimitriy Medvedev spoke the Russian "zone of privileged interests" -- the Russian backyard, essentially the post-Soviet states -- in which Western intrusion would not be welcome. It was enshrined in a political structure named the "Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO)", with members including Russia, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Belarus, and Armenia.

Events have gradually shown that Russia's control over this "backyard" is minimal. Take, for example, Belarus, in principle a good Russian ally. Alyaksandr Lukashenka, the country's boss, strikes an authoritarian and anti-American line that goes over well in Moscow. Russian leaders are not so happy about Lukashenka's inclination to play Russia off against the European Union to extract concessions from both sides, while also snubbing Russian diplomatic efforts. When Belarus refused to pay for a gas price hike, the Russians turned down the gas supply taps to Belarus.

The Russians also end up relying on coercion with other members of the CSTO, if not always with much effect. The Russians tried to pressure Kurmanek Bakiyev, the strongman boss of Kyrgyzstan, into getting rid of an American airbase in the country. Bakiyev managed to squeeze a big aid package out of the Russians in exchange for a promise to evict the Americans; Bakiyev then broke his promise, instead simply raising the rent on the base. Recent ethnic turmoil and chaos in Kyrgyzstan led to the ouster of Bakiyev, which was observed with pleasure in the Kremlin. Russian bosses were not so happy when Belarus gave him asylum.

They were also not happy at the violent unrest and ethnic clashes in Kyrgyzstan, since they proved just how feeble Russia is. Russia announced a "hands-off" policy towards the country and refused to intervene, a striking contrast to Russian intervention in Georgia in 2008. There was really no other option; the simple fact is that the Russian Army is too poorly trained and equipped to take on the job. There is also no support among other members of the CSTO for doing so, and Russian citizens don't like the idea either -- they have a lot of bigotry against Central Asians, and few of them like the idea of Russian boys getting killed sorting out Central Asia problems.

Observers have suggested that, while everybody knows Russian democracy is a sham, it is now becoming apparent that Russian imperial ambitions are just as fake. There is an inclination to gloat over Russian troubles, but what for? An inept and weak Russian government is not in anyone's interests. Sadly, from the Tsar to Stalin to Brezhnev to Putin, Russia has never been well-governed, and it is very hard to know when it ever will be.



* GIMMICKS & GADGETS: As reported by WIRED Online, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have come up with a low-cost way to permit a simple webcam to perform gesture recognition, with users wearing cheap lycra gloves featuring 20 distinct patterns in 10 different colors. The patterns allow gestures to be easily recognized, with software matching video inputs against a library of prerecorded patterns.

The software first crops out everything in its field of view except for the gloves, with the cropped image reduced to 40 x 40 pixels. The program then searches through the library for the closest match, and issues the appropriate command as an output. The library is large, running to hundreds of megabytes, but modern personal computer hardware can keep up with the demand. The multicolored gloves are silly-looking, though the researchers say they may be able to achieve the same effect with less gaudy gloves. Practical, maybe not; still, it gets points for clever.

* The Massachusetts Institute of Technology also released a video on their "invisible mouse", in which a camera and laser mounted on a PC display observe a user's hand going through the motions of manipulating a mouse -- moving it around, tapping on the mouse buttons -- without a mouse present. The tracking system duplicates the mouse actions. Again, practical? Well ... cute at least. The video describing it spliced in scenes from a 1940s TOM & JERRY cartoon in which Jerry the mouse paints himself with invisible ink to torment Tom the cat -- and "torment" is the right word, since those old cartoons were notoriously sadistic.

* As reported by WIRED Online, the UK firm Lotus Engineering performed an exhaustive "weight reduction" exercise on a standard Toyota Venza auto, and determined that its weight could be cut by over a third while increasing the pricetag by only 3%. Cutting the weight by a third can potentially improve fuel economy by 25%. The weight reduction involved greater use of aluminum and composite materials, along with reductions in numbers of assemblies. For example, the Venza body uses more than 400 parts, overwhelmingly made of steel; the Lotus redesign cut the number of parts to 211, using 37% aluminum, 30% magnesium, 21% composites, and 7% high-strength steel. The reduced-weight Venza was identical in appearance to a standard Venza except on detail inspection, and the redesigned vehicle met safety and quality targets. The study claimed that all the manufacturing processes needed to build a lightweight auto will be practical in the 2020 timeframe.

Toyota Venza

* In somewhat surprising gimmick news, DISCOVERY CHANNEL Online reports that a startup company in Tucson, Arizona, named Verdant Earth Technologies is offering a hydroponics farm built as a standard 6 meter (20 foot) shipping container. The mini-farm is fitted with five trays where plants grow in a nutrient-rich solution instead of soil. The company offers several illumination options; in use, the mini-farm is hooked up to water and power, and then it's ready to go. The mini-farm can turn out 2,000 heads of lettuce in a month. The fact that the plants aren't grown in soil means they don't use much water, and since the container is a closed environment, pesticides aren't required. It's a very interesting idea, though it is somewhat unclear what the target market is.

* BBC WORLD Online reports that Clipper Windpower Marine (CWM), the UK arm of a US wind power company, is now working on a giant ocean-based wind turbine, the "Britannia", which will dwarf the well-known "London Eye" ferris wheel. When the Britannia goes online in 2012, it will stand 175 meters (574 feet) above the North Sea, with three blades each 72 meters (236 feet) long and weighing 30 tonnes (33 tons). It will provide about 10 megawatts (MW) of power, two to four times more than existing wind turbines. Scaling up a wind turbine is not entirely simple since the forces on the structure tend to build up with size, but engineers at CWM believe that wind turbines may get even bigger than 10 MW. One says: "There isn't a technical issue that screams out size limit."



* THE PARTNERSHIP GAME: As reported by an article from BBC WORLD Online ("Acacia Plant Controls Ants With Chemicals" by Victoria Gill), the symbiotic relationship between ants and acacia plants of the tropics is well known: the plant provides the ants with sugary nectar, and gives them shelter in warrens the ants make inside its bark. If herbivores try to nibble at the acacia plant, the ants swarm out on the attack. Some Africa species of acacia ants can drive off giraffes by biting them and stinging them.

ants & acacia

The ants and the acacia plant haven't actually agreed to be partners -- they don't have the brains to agree to anything. The plant simply has features convenient to the ants, and the willingness of the ants to attack potential threats to their acacia home is convenient to the plant; the coincidence of interests means they both thrive. Over time, the mutability of both has led to refined features supporting the relationship, to the point where they are heavily reliant on each other.

Given that the arrangement is no more than one of mutual convenience, to no surprise the presence of the ants is not entirely convenient to the acacia. To reproduce, the plants have to produce flowers, which have scents and nectars to attract pollinators. The ants should be attracted to the flowers and eat them up. To avoid this problem, acacia plants have acquired "extrafloral nectaries" where the ants can find nectar in quantity, as well as little food nodules called "beltian bodies" on leaf tips for the ants, meaning they have less need to raid the flowers.

That still doesn't actually prevent the ants from attacking the flowers, so the acacia plant also has a barrier to discourage the ants. Of course, flowers release volatile organic chemicals to attract pollinators, which is why flowers can smell nice; in the case of the acacia plant, the mix of volatile chemicals includes an ant repellent that makes the ants keep away from the flowers. This repellent doesn't smell bad to bees who come to pollinate -- in fact, it seems to be an attractant, serving the plant both ways. The repellent is released in quantity while the plant is generating pollen. Once the production of pollen falls off, the production of repellent falls off as well. At that point, the flower should have been pollinated and generating seed; allowing the ants to approach the flower helps protect the seeds.

Ant societies tend to maintain communications by smells using chemicals they produce known as "pheromones", and researchers who have investigated the ant-acacia relationship suspect the repellent actually mimics an ant pheromone, possibly one used to provide a warning of danger. The selectivity of the acacia's repellent seems somewhat magical, but from an evolutionary standpoint, it makes perfect sense. The repellent wouldn't even have to be all that strong. Obviously, if bees aren't bothered by the repellent, mutant ants that weren't bothered by it either could easily arise -- but then, by attacking the flowers, such ants would ensure that their home had no future, and so neither would they. The development of the repellent system seems clearly co-evolutionary: those ants that were most sensitive to one of the volatile compounds produced by an acacia flower would be the most likely to keep their happy home, while acacia plants that generated better repellent would be the most likely to continue to reproduce without interference from their ant partners.

* In related news, WIRED Online ran a note on the South American ant Azteca andrea, which colonizes trees, particularly Cecropia obtusa, and has acquired specialized adaptations for its lifestyle. The bottom of the Cecropia leaves is covered with fibrous loops, and the ants have hooks on the ends of their legs to allow them to hang onto the bottom of a leaf, lying in wait in a row running along the edge of the leaf. When an insect like a moth touches down on the leaf, the ants simply reach up and clamp onto it with their jaws, pinning it in place while other ants swarm over the victim and tear it apart, a bit at a time.

The ants help protect the plant from insects that would eat its leaves. The plant and the ants appear to have co-evolved, since both the loops on the bottom of the leaves and the hooks on the feet of the ants are unusual. Incidentally, it appears bumblebees do have similar hooks and the flowers they pollinate provide loops to allow them to hang on easily. The concept is along the lines of that of velcro -- though ironically velcro was inspired by nature in the first place, specifically from the clinging seeds of burdocks.



* CENTURY 21 AIRLINE SEAT: There was a time when a seat on an airliner was just something a passenger sat in, but as reported by an article from FLIGHTGLOBAL Online ("Panasonic Reveals Integrated IFEC Seat" by Mary Kirby), the design of airline seats is now definitely a high-tech endeavor. Partly this is due to the widespread use of in-flight entertainment systems -- discussed here a few years back -- but there's also a push to improve the seat itself, in particular reducing its weight.

Panasonic Avionics is now promoting the leading-edge "Fusion" airline seat, developed by Panasonic in collaboration with design firm Teague and a number of airline seat manufacturers, including Weber Aircraft. The Fusion integrates lightweight, touch-screen "in-flight entertainment and communications (IFEC)" tech in a slimline economy-class seat based on Weber's carbon fiber Model 5751 seat.

Panasonic Fusion airliner seats

The Fusion offers higher reliability with lower cost, power, and weight than previous IFEC solutions. The seats can be obtained with 18 or 23 centimeter (7 or 9 inch) lightweight displays, with their touch interface eliminating the need for extraneous buttons or peripherals. On-screen navigation, flight attendant call, reading light control, audio jack, and USB port are incorporated into the display. Illuminated jacks and a credit card slot on the monitor are easy to find in all cabin lighting.

Panasonic wants to use in-flight communications to provide email and social networking functionality as part of its Fusion offering via services like Twitter and Facebook. The slimline configuration and light weight of the seat translates to more space for passengers -- though unfortunately that may actually mean cramming more passengers into an aircraft instead of giving passengers more space. The consolidation of controls into the display module helps make the seat easier to install or remove, with the company shooting for performing either operation in two to three minutes.

* HYBRID HELICOPTER: In other flight technology news, AVIATION WEEK reports that the European EADS conglomerate is working on a hybrid light helicopter. The helicopter design is of conventional main-tail rotor configuration, with the "fenestron / fan-in-tailfin" configuration used in many European helicopters, but with the rotors featuring electric drive. The drive motors get power from dual lithium battery packs, backed up by two "opposed-piston opposed-cylinder (OPOC)" two-stroke diesel engines driving generators. The propulsion system does result in higher weight, but this is compensated for by reduced fuel load thanks to much higher fuel economy. When operating on pure electric power, the helicopter is also quieter, a consideration for landings and takeoffs in urban areas.

The main rotor drive axle can be tilted forward in flight to reduce drag and increase efficiency. At high speeds, the tail rotor can also be turned off for greater efficiency, with the tailfin being used to cancel main rotor torque -- a trick considered with other helicopters with a fenestron tail rotor system, though so far nobody's got it to work.

OPOC piston engines, incidentally, don't have a cylinder head -- there's dual pistons with the piston heads facing each other in the same cylinder. They're nothing new, they've been around in various forms for about a century; they promise high power-to-weight ratios and efficiency, but no doubt given their obscure history they have drawbacks as well. I get the impression they tend to be two-strokes, that four-stroke operation is not well-suited to the scheme. In any case, EADS isn't talking yet about when they plan to get a demonstrator hybrid helicopter into the air.



* THE CRYSTAL PALACE (1): While scavenging through the discard magazine pile at the local library I found an old issue of SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN that had an interesting article, titled "The Crystal Palace" (by Folke T. Kihlstedt, October 1984).

The Crystal Palace was one of the most forward-looking structures built in Victorian England, and is rightly judged to be one of the great buildings of history. It was made of glass paneling, light and cleanly simple in appearance in an era when buildings were supposed to be solid and ornate -- which is why many Victorians were uncomfortable with it, it was exactly the opposite of what they were used to. A later generation would appreciate its innovation, both in terms of appearance and in terms of the advanced techniques used in its construction.

Crystal Palace

The Crystal Palace was originally built in London's Hyde Park in 1851 to house the "Great Exhibition Of The Works Of Industry Of All Nations", the first world's fair. The structure was dismantled in 1852 and then re-erected on the eastern slopes of Sydenham Hill, opening its doors again in 1854. It served for generations as a hall for exhibitions and entertainments, until it was tragically lost in an accidental fire in 1936.

* The concept behind the Crystal Palace was as a building that provided vast internal space without partitions to permit the display of all the technological products of civilization obtained by the Great Exhibition. The exhibition itself was the brainchild of Henry Cole, a senior civil servant; it was endorsed by Prince Albert and sponsored by the Royal Society of the Arts.

On 13 March 1850, the Building Commission announced a competition for a structure to house the Great Exhibition. The building had to be temporary in nature; economical of material and labor; simple in arrangement; easy to expand; and cover an area of 7.3 hectares (18 acres), generally to a height of one storey. The deadline for submissions was April; the commission received 245 designs and rejected them all as not meeting spec, which was not surprising since the spec was very demanding. The commission then came up with its own concept and put it out to bid for detail design, even though it didn't really meet spec either.

That didn't go over well with the public and Parliament. Enter Joseph Paxton, son of a farmer, with little formal education, who had become the superintendent of gardens for the Duke of Devonshire in 1826. Paxton was a genius at his work, as well as politically shrewd; on 7 June 1851, he managed to get assurances that if he submitted a bid for the commission's building he would also be permitted to submit his own design along with it. Eight days later, working with his staff and associates, Paxton submitted his design.

Joseph Paxton

Paxton wasn't inclined to just wait for a response, selling his concept both to the public and to MPs in the meantime; the fact that the design did meet spec certainly didn't hurt his case. On 26 July 1851, the commission accepted the design, with the firm of Fox & Henderson selected to build it. The contractors worked with Paxton to tweak the design, and performed tests to check out critical elements. When everyone was reassured that Paxton's radical concept was sound, construction went forward and was completed in a mere 39 weeks.

The Crystal Palace opened on 1 May 1851, less than 14 months after the Building Commission had announced the competition. It was a remarkable exercise in Victorian organization and engineering, and it would lead to Paxton obtaining a knighthood as well as a seat in Parliament. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* THE KILLING OF JFK -- THE ASSASSINATION (3): There was a crowd around Dealey Plaza by noon on 22 November 1963, waiting for the presidential motorcade to come through. At roughly a quarter past the hour, there was a fuss when a man in the crowd had an epileptic fit and was hauled off to Parkland Hospital in an ambulance.

Conspiracy theorists liked to claim the incident was "staged" as a diversion to allow assassins to take up positions unnoticed, citing as evidence that no patient corresponding to the incident was logged in hospital records. Actually, the FBI got curious about the incident as well and tracked down the epileptic the following May. His name was Jerry Belknap; he had been taken to the hospital emergency room, but it was packed and he realized he wasn't going to get treatment any time soon. He felt better after taking water and an aspirin, and so he left without registering. As evidence for his story, records showed he had paid a $12.50 USD ambulance charge.

It was 12:29 when the first car in the motorcade turned off Main Street onto Houston and rolled toward the TSBD, with this car carrying Dallas Police Chief Jesse Curry, Sheriff Bill Decker, and Forrest Sorrels, the local chief of the Secret Service.

the Kennedys & the Connallys, 22 November 1963

The presidential limousine followed about two car lengths behind. The driver was Secret Service Agent William Greer, with his colleague Roy Kellerman alongside. Texas Governor John Connally and his wife Nellie were in the fold-down jump seats in the middle, while the president and the first lady were in the rear. The president and his staff had insisted that the plastic bubble top be pulled off so the crowd could see the dignitaries; there were no Secret Service men on the running board in the rear. There were four motorcycle escorts, at a comfortable distance behind.

Conspiracy theorists make much of the security arrangements, claiming for example that the bubble top was removed without Kennedy's say-so. Actually, the bubble top was not remotely bullet-proof, it was just for protection against the weather; the weather was warm and sunny, and JFK was there to be seen, so it was removed. As far as security procedures went, it is clear from photos of other JFK motorcades that security had been tighter in the past -- or at least it was at least up to early November. JFK was responsive to criticisms that his motorcades and security blocked city traffic and made life troublesome for locals, so when he visited New York City on 14 November, his motorcade featured relaxed security and even stopped for traffic lights. Secret Service men were not at all happy, but JFK was the boss, and if he said his chauffeur was going to stop for traffic lights, it would be done.

L. Fletcher Prouty, a retired US Air Force officer turned conspiracy theorist, claimed that buildings overlooking a presidential motorcade were closed up until the president passed as a matter of "standard procedure", but that was absurd. It would have been completely impractical in the downtown of a city of any size, and photos of people in various cities leaning out of balconies to watch JFK pass by are not hard to find. In Dallas, once again, the president wanted to be seen, and in fact had ordered the limo stopped twice to greet the crowd. The fact that Kennedy was, by his own decision, proceeding at low speed through a city in an open-topped car, which in itself presented him with a level of threat not heavily balanced by any consideration of where various security personnel were situated.

The presidential limousine was followed by a Cadillac convertible loaded with Secret Service men and presidential aides. Vice-President Johnson was in the next car with his wife, Texas Senator Ralph Yarborough, and Secret Service men. The rest of the motorcade carried local dignitaries, press cars, and finally two buses -- one for VIPs and one for the press.

The presidential limousine turned onto Elm Street, right in front of the depository. It was 12:30. The crowd was enthusiastic and Nellie Connally turned to tell JFK: "Mr. President, you can't say that Dallas doesn't love you."

Kennedy replied to the effect: "No, you certainly can't." Those were his last reported words.

After the limo completed the turn, a shot rang out; many witnesses thought it was a backfire or fireworks, with one witness named Virgie Rachley, who worked at the TSBD, seeing sparks fly off the pavement behind the presidential limousine as if a firecracker had been tossed. Secret Service men weren't sure what was going on but they assumed an attack, with Johnson's Secret Service escort ordering him to get down, to then cover the vice-president with his body.

Connally was an enthusiastic hunter and immediately judged the sound to be a rifle shot. He turned around to the right to see what was happening. Next to the TSBD, a witness named James R. Worrell heard the shot, to look straight up and see a rifle muzzle sticking out of the window; one of the photographers in the president's press entourage, Bob Jackson, saw the rifle muzzle sticking out of the window as well. Howard Brennan, who had noticed the solitary white man in the window earlier, rechecked the window and saw the man there aiming a rifle to then fire a second shot. The president's arms then jerked up to his neck level while Connally cried out: "Oh no, no, no!" -- with his wife pulling his head into her lap. The governor saw blood on his shirt and exclaimed: "My God, they're going to kill us all!"

Greer, in the driver's seat of the limousine, was confused for a moment, not knowing what was going on, and actually slowed down to a crawl while he turned around to look at the president -- an error of judgement that the conspiracy theorists would also make much of. At that moment a third shot rang out, with Howard Brennan watching the shooter, and the right side of the president's head exploded in an ugly flash of blood and tissue.

Jackie Kennedy started to crawl over the back of the limousine. Secret Service Agent Clint Hill, who had dashed out of the car behind, shoved her back in; Kellerman shouted at Greer to go, and Greer stepped on the gas while Hill tried to shield the president and first lady with his body. The limousine sped out of Dealey Plaza. Brennan saw the man in the window pause for a moment after the third shot, as if to make sure he had done the job, and then disappear.

* In the TSBD, below the sniper's nest, Jarman jumped up as the shots rang out: "That's no backfire! Someone's shooting at the president!"

Williams got to his feet: "No bullshit!"

Norman said: "I think it came from above us -- I'm sure of it." They went to the west side of the building, observing the railroad yard, throwing open a window to observe the excitement. Jarman then noticed plaster dust in Williams' hair: "That shot probably did come from above us."

Norman, who was familiar with rifles, commented: "I know it did. I could hear the action of the bolt and the cartridges hitting the floor." As Norman described it later: "When the first shot came, I heard BOOM, then klik-klik BOOM, klik-klik BOOM."

This testimony would be useful later in establishing the source and number of shots, and not surprisingly conspiracy theorists have nitpicked at it. Why didn't the three men hear the shooter stepping across the floor above after he fired the shots? The answer was that after the shots were fired, there was so much commotion that they couldn't have heard the footsteps. Why did the three go to the west side of the building when they thought the shots came from above? Because they were baffled as to why people were running there, with Norman much later telling Gerald Posner that he was thinking: "Where the hell are they going? The guy who shot is right up there." [TO BE CONTINUED]



* There was an unusually high level of space launch activity this June, with a dozen launches including:

-- 02 JUN 10 / BEIDOU-2 4 -- A Chinese Long March 3C booster was launched from Xichang to put a "Beidou (Big Dipper)" geostationary navigation satellite into orbit. It was the fourth second-generation Beidou spacecraft to be launched.

-- 02 JUN 10 / SERVIS 2 -- A Russian Rockot booster was launched from the Plesetsk Northern Cosmodrome to put the Japanese JAXA "SERVIS 2" technology demonstration satellite into orbit. SERVIS stood for "Space Environment Reliability Verification Integrated System" and was developed by the Institute for Unmanned Space Flyer in Tokyo, with Mitsubishi Electric Corporation as the prime contractor. The spacecraft had a launch mass of 740 kilograms (1,630 pounds) and carried nine commercial test payloads, including a 64-bit CPU and a GPS receiver system, to evaluate their reliability in a space environment over a year-long flight test. It followed "SERVIS 1", launched in 2003 by a Rockot booster, which performed a two-year test of its payloads.

-- 03 JUN 10 / BADR 5 -- A Russian Proton Breeze M booster was launched from Baikonur in Kazakhstan to put the "Badr 5" geostationary comsat into orbit for Arabsat. The spacecraft was built by a collaboration between Thales Alenia Space and EADS Astrium and was based on the EuroStar 3000 comsat bus. Badr 5 had a launch mass of about 5,440 kilograms (12,000 pounds), carried a payload of 56 Ku-band / 4 Ka-band transponders, and had a design life of 15 years. It was placed in the geostationary slot at 26 degrees East longitude to provide communications services to the Middle East. The name "Badr" is Arabic for "Full Moon".

-- 04 JUN 10 / DRAGON BOILERPLATE -- A SpaceX Falcon 9 booster performed its initial flight from Cape Canaveral. It carried a boilerplate mockup of the SpaceX Dragon supply capsule. The vehicle made orbit as planned. As per intent, the mockup remained attached to the upper stage.

-- 10 JUN 10 / STSAT 2 (FAILURE) -- A "Korean Satellite Launch Vehicle 1 (KSLV)" AKA "Naro 1" was launched from the Naro space facility at the southern end of South Korea to put the "Science & Technology Satellite 3 (STSAT 3)" into orbit. This was the second launch of a South Korean booster, the first KSLV 1 launch being performed in August 2009 and ending in failure. The KSLV 1 was based on a first stage with a Russian-built liquid fuel engine, while the second stage had a Korean-built solid-fuel engine. The vehicle did not reach orbit, being lost a little over two minutes in flight.

-- 14 JUN 10 / SHIJIAN 12 -- A Long March 2D booster was launched from Jiuquan to put the "Shijian 12" technology demonstration satellite into orbit. Shijian means "Practice" in Chinese.

-- 15 JUN 10 / PRISMA & PICARD -- A Dnepr booster was launched from Yasny in Russia to put the Swedish "Prisma" and French "Picard" satellites into orbit. Prisma was a technology demonstration mission, actually consisting of dual spacecraft, "Mango" and "Tango", that performed orbital rendezvous. Mango was the larger spacecraft, with a launch mass of 150 kilograms (330 pounds), while Tango had a launch mass of 40 kilograms (88 pounds); Mango could perform precision maneuvers, while Tango operated as a target spacecraft.

CNES Picard

The CNES Picard was a solar studies spacecraft, with a launch mass of 145 kilograms (315 pounds). It had a planned mission lifetime of two years, with the satellite observing the Sun using a suite of three instruments:

-- 15 JUN 10 / SOYUZ TMA-19 (ISS) -- A Soyuz booster was launched from Baikonur to put the "Soyuz TMA-19" manned space capsule into orbit on an International Space Station (ISS) support mission. The crew included Fyodor Yurchikhin (third space flight), Doug Wheelock (second space flight), and Shannon Walker (first space flight). They docked with the ISS Zvezda module two days later, joining the ISS "Expedition 24" crew of Alexander Skvortsov, Mikhail Kornienko, and Tracy Caldwell Dyson.

-- 21 JUN 10 / TANDEM-X -- A Dnepr booster was launched from Baikonur to put the "TerraSAR-X Add-oN for Digital Elevation Measurement (TanDEM-X)" satellite into orbit for the German Space Agency (DLR) and EADS Astrium. TanDEM-X had a launch mass of 1,350 kilograms (2,975 pounds) and was designed to orbit in formation with the TerraSAR-X radar satellite, launched in 2007, at a distance of a few hundred meters, with the two spacecraft working together to provide elevation data.

Both satellites carried an X-band radar system and collaboratively detailed surface features to a horizontal resolution of 12 meters (39 feet) and a vertical resolution of less than 2 meters (6.6 feet). The two spacecraft were expected to return a detailed 3D surface map of the Earth after two and a half years of observations, with the data to be released in 2013. The data was expected to have both civil and military applications.

TanDEM-X & TerraSAR-X

-- 22 JUN 10 / OFEQ-9 -- An Israeli Shavit solid-fuel booster was launched from Palmachim Air Base, near Tel Aviv, to put the "Ofeq (Horizon) 9" spy satellite into orbit. While details of the spacecraft were classified, it is known it had a launch mass of about 270 kilograms (600 pounds) and was believed to carry a telescopic imaging system. The Shavit booster and the satellite were built by Israel Aerospace Industries, while the satellite payload was built by Elbit Systems.

-- 26 JUN 10 / ARABSAT 5A, COMS 1 -- An Ariane 5 ECA booster was launched from Kourou in French Guiana to put the "ArabSat 5A" and "COMS 1" geostationary satellites into orbit. Arabsat 5A was a comsat, built by Astrium and Thales Alenia Space and based on the Eurostar 3000 comsat platform. It had a launch mass of 4,945 kilograms (10,900 pounds), a payload of 26 C-band / 24 Ku-band transponders, and a design life of 15 years. It was placed in the geostationary slot at 30.5 degrees East longitude to provide communications services for the Middle East.

COMS 1 the first multipurpose "Communications, Ocean, & Meteorological Satellite" for South Korea. It was built by EADS Astrium, was based on the Eurostar 3000 platform, and had a ten-year design life. It had a launch mass of 2,450 kilograms (5,400 pounds) and a payload consisting of an experimental Ka-band communications package, a weather observation system, and an ocean survey system. It was placed in the geostationary slot at 128.3 degrees East longitude.

-- 29 JUN 10 / PROGRESS 38P (ISS) -- A Soyuz booster was launched from Baikonur to put a Progress tanker-freighter spacecraft into orbit on an ISS supply mission. The initial docking attempt three days after launch failed, but a second docking attempt the next day succeeded.

* OTHER SPACE NEWS: In a substantial vote of confidence, following the successful initial flight of the SpaceX Falcon 9 commercial space launch booster, the Iridium company awarded SpaceX a contract with a value of almost half a billion dollars to launch the replacement Iridium low-orbit comsat network from 2015 into 2017. Thales Alenia Space of France will build the 72 replacement satellites. The contract to SpaceX includes funds to design and build a multi-satellite dispenser system; for the moment, nobody's sure just how many Iridiums a Falcon 9 can carry in one shot, so the number of launches involved is unclear at the time being.

Falcon 9 on the pad

* A survey run in AVIATION WEEK on the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) discussed future ISRO plans beyond the successful launch of the Indian CartoSat 2B remote sensing satellite:

ISRO has developed a sophisticated ground infrastructure to support the organization's efforts. The "Indian Deep Space Network", for example, is sited in Byalalu Valley, outside the metropolis of Bangalore. The site has an 18 meter (59 foot) dish and a new 32 meter (105 foot) dish set up for Chandrayaan-1. ISRO also maintains a collaborative international network of stations, the "Telemetry, Tracking, & Command" network, to stay in touch with Indian space probes and satellites.



* DASH7 FOR RFID: It might seem that with the spread of low-power, low-speed wireless standards -- like the popular Bluetooth interconnection scheme and the ZigBee home network -- there wouldn't be much need for another standard. However, as reported by IEEE SPECTRUM ("Dash7 Wireless Networking Gains Momentum" by David Schneider, February 2010) another scheme, known as "Dash7", is starting to take off.

Dash7 is not all that new, with its roots going back two decades; it was established as a specification in 2004 by the International Standards Organization (ISO) as "ISO 18000-7". Its niche is in intermittent, very low power communications over a range of at least a kilometer, with a particular focus on radio-frequency identification (RFID) applications. Unlike traditional "passive" RFID, a Dash7-based RFID tag does require a (coin-type) battery, but its power demands are so low that the battery can last years.

Dash7 operates in the radio band around 433 megahertz (MHz), which is already in use for technology such as keyless entry systems for cars. That band is well lower than the 868 MHz, 915 MHz, or 2.4 gigahertz (GHz) bands used for ZigBee -- the 2.4 GHz band being the most popular for ZigBee and also for many wi-fi schemes. Dash7 operates on a straightforward "command-response" scheme, meaning that a node is queried and replies; the scheme does not require an elaborate peer-to-peer networking protocol. Dash7 is not meant to handle video, audio, or other streaming data; its communications usually involve a single data packet of no more than 256 bytes. Multiple data packets can be sent in response to a query, but that drains power and really is overkill for the application.

Dash7 was originally devised by Savi Technology of Mountain View, California, being initially used by the US military from the early 1990s to track shipments of war materiel. It was a good business for Savi, but the Pentagon was nervous about relying on a single supplier, and so the military pressured the company to set up license agreements with other manufacturers. After licensees entered the military market with their Dash7 products, Savi officials decided that Dash7 might be poised for a wider commercial market, and set up the "Dash7 Alliance" with roughly 30 other companies in March 2009. Savi liberalized their licensing, cutting down up-front fees and royalties to generate enthusiasm.

The strategy worked, with several companies attracted to the idea of getting on board a common, interoperable remote RFID standard. Chip vendors like Texas Instruments and Analog Devices are now offering one-chip Dash7 solutions and development kits. While Dash7 is unlikely to become a household word like Bluetooth, it stands to have a considerable impact in the commercial-industrial RFID arena.



* GAS GLUT: Over the past decade, there's been a consistent crunch on fuel supplies -- but as reported by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("An Unconventional Glut", 11 March 2010), it turns out that not all the news is bad. Five years ago, North American production of natural gas was on the decline, with imports set to rise. Now domestic production is booming, with estimates of enough gas buried under the continent to suggest the idea of self-sufficiency. Other regions may also be sitting on top of currently-unappreciated gas deposits. Enthusiasts believe natural gas will change alter the equation in the climate change debate, threaten coal's dominant role in electricity production, and undermine the power of oil exporters.

The key to this proposed revolution is the Barnett Shale, an underground geological structure near Fort Worth, Texas. Few clearly appreciated the importance of this shale formation until Mitchell Energy, a small "wildcat" drilling company, leveraged off two oilfield techniques -- hydraulic fracturing or "fracking" and horizontal drilling -- to release natural gas trapped in shale-rock formations. Fracking involved blasting a mix of chemicals and other materials into the formation that shatters the rock into a matrix of small pieces, allowing gas to seep into the well so it can be extracted; a "proppant", such as sand, prevents the gas from leaking away. In horizontal drilling, the drill bit is turned sideways to penetrate the formation from the side.

The presence and extent of North American gas shales was not news, but nobody thought it was economically feasible to exploit them. However, the jump in energy prices since the turn of the century changed the equation; Mitchell's experiments in extracting the gas from the shales, which began in the 1990s, suddenly became profitable, all the more so because economies of scale and improved processes have cut production costs in half. Natural gas from shale is now an unbelievable bargain.

The Barnett Shale by itself currently supplies 7% of America's gas. Shale and other reservoirs once judged unexploitable, such as coal-bed methane and "tight gas", now supply half of US natural gas demand. Producers are looking over new prospects for exploitation all over the continent. One authority estimates that there's enough natural gas under North America to satisfy needs for a century; others think that's conservative. In 2008, Russia was the world's biggest natural gas supplier; in 2009, with production of more than 600 billion cubic meters, the USA likely pulled into the lead. North American gas prices have fallen by over half in two years.

Compare the wide-open frontier in natural gas to the increasingly dismal and troublesome scenario for oil. Producer nations like Russia and Venezuela have become increasingly unfriendly to Western oil companies, with the only other opportunities for hunting oil in locales where it is hard to get at, such as the floors of the deep oceans -- the recent oil platform blowout in the Gulf of Mexico is not going to help matters any. Big Oil is now finding natural gas very attractive. Late in 2009, Exxon Mobil bought up a natural-gas firm named XTO for a tidy $41 billion USD. Other big oil companies are also demonstrating interest in natural gas.

* Shale deposits are found all over the world, so in principle the North American success story could be replicated elsewhere. The International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates global reserves to be over 920 trillion cubic meters. Some believe there is much more; the only way to find out is to explore and drill, and that's what is happening all over the world.

China is eager to develop domestic energy sources and is encouraging work to develop China's natural gas resources. The IEA believes China and India have huge untapped reserves of natural gas. The gas scramble is also going on in Europe -- originally as an effort by small-player companies, but now the big players are jumping in. It may take a decade for natural gas production to ramp up in these regions, but current big natural gas exporters, like Russia's Gazprom, are worried about the signs.

The exporters are in trouble because natural gas exploitation is expensive, demanding a lot of infrastructure, for example pipelines from remote areas, or plants for liquefying natural gas for oceanic transport. The global economic slowdown then led to a drop in demand, just as exploitation of natural gas was ramping up in North America. Now there's a global natural gas glut and prices have, as noted, plummeted. Of course, this hinders local producers as well, but they can still make money at the lower prices, and compared to other available options the profits are good. The exporters, in contrast, have taken it in the teeth. Gazprom has been forced to shelve some ambitious gas production projects. The change in the natural gas landscape has also cast a shadow over the uncomfortable efforts to build gas pipelines from Russia to Europe.

To be sure, there's no guarantee that China and Europe will uncover the same treasure chest of natural gas as has been discovered in North America -- though current exploration activities should clarify that issue in a year or so. In addition, while natural gas is regarded as one of the "greenest" hydrocarbon fuels, environmentalists are worry that the underground assault on shale deposits may pollute water aquifers and create other sorts of problems. Environmentalist resistance is on the rise -- and it's likely to become worse in Europe, where the regulatory environment is generally tougher and drilling can't be done in the wide-open spaces as it is in North America.

* However, if the gas glut continues, it could fundamentally change the energy business. Half of US power generation runs on coal; with generous natural gas supplies, it would make sense to convert much of that capacity to gas. If a "carbon tax" was implemented, natural gas would be seen as much preferable to coal, since gas only produces about half as much carbon per unit of energy as coal. Coal companies, with their powerful lobbies, have been digging in their heels over the issue -- but ironically, oil companies that once resisted a "carbon tax" have become more enthusiastic about the idea as their business has become increasingly leveraged off of natural gas.

natural gas powered bus

And, if we've really got a good deal on natural gas, why stop at power plants? T. Boone Pickens, a corporate raider turned energy developer, is promoting natural gas as a vehicular fuel. Even at present, there's nothing all that unusual about fleet vehicles or buses running on natural gas; Pickens believes that if the fleet of tractor-trailer rigs cruising America's highways was converted to burn natural gas, it would slash oil imports. Concepts are being floated for a network of natural-gas filling stations dotting the US interstate.

This scenario remains largely speculative for the time being; changes of this scale would require massive investment and labor, and other options are in the wings that might be more attractive. However, natural gas might still play a significant role in the effort to wean the world from its dead-end oil addiction.



* DARK HARVEST (2): There are only two labs in the world that are authorized to work on plant pathogens like the Ug99 stem rust: the USDA's "Cereal Disease Laboratory (CDL)" near Saint Paul, Minnesota, and one in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. The labs only handle live cultures of the spores during the winter; since these two places are covered with snow and deep cold during that time of the year, any spores that escape will die before they can do harm. For the rest of the year, plant pathogens are put in deep freeze. Ug99 is regarded as so dangerous that it has its own freezer system, to prevent anyone from grabbing the wrong sample by mistake.

Although CDL was familiar with stem rust before Ug99 appeared, it wasn't seen as a particularly important subject for investigation. However, once the spread of Ug99 became apparent, stem rust went to the top of the priority queue. CDL researchers have found Ug99 an efficient pathogen, able to thrive in a host without doing it much harm until the fungus reaches an overpowering level, and then generating vast numbers of spores that escape to infect new hosts. In 2005, the CDL came up with a model showing how the spores might spread given regional weather patterns, and predicted it might next strike Iraq and Iran. Ug99 appeared in Iraq in 2007 and Iran in 2009. However, CDL researchers are somewhat puzzled that the fungus hasn't shown up someplace else on the globe, having hitched a ride on a jetliner.

That's only a small relief. Of course the fungus is mutating, with at least four variants found so far -- and they are gradually nailing known wheat resistance genes. CDL researchers are trying to obtain a better understanding of the basic mechanisms the fungus uses to infect wheat plants, in hopes of coming up with a defense that the pathogen may not be able to defeat.

* In the meantime, field workers are working on development of new wheat strains that will slow down if not necessarily halt Ug99. The problem with current wheat strains is that they rely on specific genes like Sr31 or Sr24 for protection -- or in other words, their defense is dependent on a single "lock" that stem rust could open if it stumbled onto the "key" through a mutation. It's an all-or-nothing deal, and anybody with sense knows how quickly a pathogen could evolve to overcome such a defense. Now the idea is to identify a half dozen or so genes, each of which only provides a mild amount of resistance in itself, but which cumulatively provide an effective defense. Such a wheat plant would have a half dozen small locks instead of one big one, and stem rust would have to stumble onto half a dozen keys to break the defense.

Researchers feel they should have a Ug99-resistant plant based on such multiple "minor genes" ready for use in about four years. Alas, no only is this a long time while Ug99 continues to spread, but even when the new wheat is available, farmers may be reluctant to adopt it if they're not in any apparent danger from stem rust. One of the problems with selective breeding to obtain specific features like fungal resistance is that other desireable features of the plant may suffer -- the plant may not be as productive, for example. That presents farmers with a hard choice of accepting a certain reduction in yield to ward off a disease that they don't know if they're going to run into or not. They would have good cause to think that decision over -- but in the meantime, the Ug99 spores continue to spread, carried silently on the winds. [END OF SERIES]



* THE KILLING OF JFK -- THE ASSASSINATION (2): Along with claims that Oswald wasn't on the sixth floor of the TSBD when the presidential motorcade came past, other reports surfaced of spottings by observers outside of the TSBD of different people who were supposedly on the sixth floor or thereabouts:

However, Robert Edwards, a college student, and Ronald Fisher, a county auditor, were standing at the corner of Elm & Houston and waiting for the presidential motorcade, when Edwards saw a figure standing at the window of the southeast corner of the sixth floor of the TSBD. Edwards nudged Fisher, who looked up and also saw the man. The description they gave later matched Oswald, with Edwards saying the figure was standing in front of a wall of cases and boxes. Edwards found the figure puzzling because of his lack of animation: "He was just staring out the window."

Yet another witness, Howard Brennan, a 44-year-old steamfitter, was in the crowd nearby and noticed Williams, Jarman, and Norman, leaning out a window of the TSBD and chatting cheerfully among themselves; he then noticed a white guy in the window above, sitting quietly all by himself. Brennan thought that was odd, since everybody else seemed to be watching in groups with some excitement. The fact that Brennan correctly noted the presence of the three black men on the fifth floor window below the "sniper's nest" suggests that he had a clear grasp of details. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* SCIENCE NOTES: As reported by WIRED Online, although virus are such rudimentary biosystems that it's uncertain that they can be thought of as actually alive, they are capable of some interesting tricks. A recent study shows that the cucumber mosaic virus (CMV) manages to make its host plant smell juicy and succulent even as it withers. Aphids, which normally feed on cucumber and other squash plants, are attracted to the smell -- though they quickly find out there's not much to feed on there and depart. However, they remain on the diseased plant long enough to be tainted by the virus, which they carry off to infect healthy squash plants.


Research is showing that this sort of strategy is fairly common among pathogens. Trees infected with Dutch Elm disease attract insects, as do wheat plants infected with rust fungi, providing carriers for the pathogens. Hamsters infected with the leishmania protozoan attract sandflies, which bite the hamsters and spread the disease. There is some evidence that humans suffering from malaria attract mosquitoes. A better knowledge of such phenomena may lead to improved disease control strategies.

* WIRED Online had a note on a recently discovered set of animals that gave zoologists something of a surprise: they are the only multicellular animals known that live all of their lives in an anoxic -- oxygen-free -- environment. Such "anaerobic" lifestyles are common among single-celled organisms.

The organisms were members of the phylum Loricifera, a very obscure bunch of animals that live in ocean sediments, none of beasts being much bigger than about a grain of pepper. They have a little cuplike shell with a pile of tentacles coming out of the top. The three species of anaerobic Loricifera were dredged up from the bottom of the Mediterranean; they lack mitochondria, the cellular organelles used to process oxygen, instead relying on a different organelle, the "hydrogenosome", to support their metabolism. Hydrogenosomes are also found in some species of anaerobic single-celled organisms.

* As reported by an article from AAAS SCIENCE Online, since the 1990s astronomers have known that all the galaxies in the Universe contain a supermassive black hole in their cores. These black holes can reach masses of billions of suns and devour huge volumes of gas and dust, producing enormous amounts of radiation. Astronomers have also noted that some large galaxies are dominated by old stars, as if the processes that generate new stars aren't in operation in these galaxies. Was there a connection between the scarcity of new stars and extreme activity of supermassive black holes?

A group of astronomers at the University of Nottingham in the UK investigated this question, performing a five-year, broad-spectrum investigation of about 100 galaxies with active supermassive black holes. The researchers focused on determining the rate of growth of the black holes from the total flux of radiation being emitted, and comparing the mass of the black holes to the mass of their host galaxies to determine how much mass the black holes had sucked up.

The group's conclusion was that the active periods of these black holes can last hundreds of millions of years, generating massive amounts of X-rays that sweep all the dust and gas out of the galaxies. About a third of these galaxies have lost all their dust and gas, meaning that they can never form new stars in any numbers. Such galaxies are now on a path of inevitable decline, to ultimately go dark and fade out. Incidentally, during the active phase the radiation would be strong enough to prevent life from arising in such an energetic galaxy, but once the core black hole settled down, life might then arise on planets among the stars there.



* FARM TOWERS REVISITED: The notion of creating farms as urban skyscrapers, promoted by environmental scientist Dickson Despommier of Columbia University in New York City and discussed here a year ago, got another review from an article written by Despommier for SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN ("The Rise Of Vertical Farms", November 2009).

The author estimated that supporting the current global human population of almost 7 billion people requires a total amount of arable land equivalent to the entire South American continent. Population is expected to peak in 2050 at over 9 billion; to support everyone will demand the addition of new cropland equivalent to the area of Brazil, and finding that land is clearly a challenge. Farming also has a major environmental impact, using the lion's share of clean water supplies; causing water pollution through runoff of fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, and silt; and soaking up large amounts of fossil fuels. Global warming threatens to make matters more difficult by rendering land currently under cultivation useless for growing food.

Despommier believes that his "farm towers" could be the solution. They could be sited on empty urban areas or on the upper floors of commercial buildings, with much more efficient use of water and fuels than open-air farming. The fact that produce would be consumed locally would decrease fuel needed for transport. The controlled environment of the farm towers would also be useful in reducing the need for pesticides and herbicides -- and would be better able to endure calamities such as droughts that would wipe out crops raised on open farmlands, or even global calamities such as a major volcanic eruption that could cause a frosty, crop-killing summer season.

farm tower

* The idea of growing crop plants in artificial indoor environments instead of outdoor farms is not a fantasy. In fact, three indoor farming techniques -- drip irrigation, aeroponics, and hydroponics -- are well established:

Despommiers envisions performing indoor agriculture in a 30-story tower covering a city block. Plants would be irrigated by processed city wastewater, with all waste from the tower burned in basement incinerators for power. Light would be provided by high-efficiency LED arrays. Food production would be highly automated, with plants grown on slowly moving "assembly lines" as a continuous process, day and night, all year long. The facility would be operated as a "clean room" environment to keep out pathogens and pests. Associated facilities could raise chickens or fish or shrimp.

The fact that the vertical farm could produce food all year round would ensure that its productivity would be at least twice as great per unit area as a typical open-air farm. As far as areas available for setting up farm towers, Despommiers notes that even a congested metropolitan area like New York City has abandoned facilities and condemned buildings more than adequate to support an extensive vertical farming infrastructure -- and as noted, vertical farms could also be integrated with structures built for other purposes. Of course, construction and operation of vertical farms means jobs for citizens.

The farm tower scheme is obviously dependent on efficient lighting and access to relatively cheap power; Despommiers himself also makes it clear that actually implementing a farm tower requires detailed answers to a list of concerns, pointing to the infamous Biosphere 2 experiment as an example of how not to do things. Although Despommiers is clearly in sales mode when he talks about his farm towers, he flatly admits that there's no way to actually validate the idea without implementing it and seeing how well it works. However, the potential payoff could be substantial, and he asks: "What are we waiting for?"



* A NIGHT AT THE MOVIES: There was a time not long ago when the movie theater business seemed to be heading onto the rocks, with ticket receipts declining as DVD sales ramped up. However, as discussed by an article in THE ECONOMIST ("The Box Office Strikes Back", 8 May 2010), that was then, this is now. Since 2005, ticket revenues in North America have risen by 20%; elsewhere, by 35%. There's a global boom in "multiplexes", or theaters with more than eight screens, with plenty of customers pouring in to fill the seats: Russians made about 90 million visits to the cinema in 2006, rising to over 130 million in 2009.

As far as the market for DVDs -- as well as the Blu-Ray follow-on and digital video downloads -- it's turned dismal, with revenue declining by 8% since 2005. The problem is not so much that they're unpopular, it's due to the declining price of rental services, thanks to low-cost distribution schemes like Netflix, and the Redbox DVD vending machine network. An overnight rental from Redbox costs a dollar; Blockbuster charges several times that, and since most of the business is in big hits, the larger selection provided by Blockbuster hardly matters.

Why is a night at the movies popular? For one, movies have the traditional virtue of being a cheap night out: "Let's get out of the house, let's go to the movies." However, new tech is playing a big part. When James Cameron produced his blockbuster sci-fi extravaganza AVATAR, he wasn't just trying to come up with another hit film: by making it in 3D with a new generation of technology, he was trying to define a future vision for the theater business. There was skepticism that AVATAR was anything more than a gimmick, but so far events are proving Cameron right. Recent growth in movie ticket sales have been coupled to 3D hits like AVATAR and ALICE IN WONDERLAND. Theaters have been ramping up the premium they charge for 3D versus 2D showings from $1 USD to $3 USD, and theater-goers have hardly flinched.

The hidden enabling technology underlying the 3D revolution is the digitization of cinema. The number of screens served by digital projectors around the world rose from about 3,000 in 2006 to 16,400 in 2009. Instead of handling cans of film, theaters get digital downloads from satellite feeds, allowing them to adjust their viewing schedules rapidly in the face of varying customer demand. Digital technology also happily makes displaying 3D movies much easier.

The Canadian IMAX film company has been a particular beneficiary of digitization. The giant-screen IMAX films have long been a staple of museums and the like, with movies focused on topics like natural history or space exploration -- but that was a niche market. A single print of an IMAX film cost about $25,000 USD and so it had to be shown for a long time to pay off. With digital distribution it's an order of magnitude cheaper to handle an IMAX movie, and IMAX is booming, with multiplexes setting up IMAX screens, yanking front-row seats to fit the giant screens in.

night at the IMAX

The movie boom is particularly evident in India, where people tend to be enthusiastic movie-watchers of both Hollywood blockbusters and their indigenous Bollywood song-dance-action romances. Multiplexes have been springing up in India over the past few years, with some featuring innovations like well-spaced reclining seats, tray tables, and a waiter service. The concept of an evening of luxury with entertainment also seems to be catching on elsewhere.

Thanks to innovation, the movie business seems to be prospering for the time being. The biggest problem with the cinematic new world order is that, while 3D and IMAX tech work well for flashy action fare, they are almost irrelevant, even overbearing, for drama, suspense, and mystery. Glitz is being traded for story, and stories for grown-ups are fading as a result. Flash can wear thin after a while, and if it does, without a story to tell audiences may start staying at home again.



* DARK HARVEST (1): For all our modern technology, we remain very much at the mercy of pathogens, thanks to their ability to evolve around the defenses we have created against them. We fear the pathogens that attack us directly the most; but that leaves plenty of fear left over for the pathogens that attack our crops, leaving us vulnerable to starvation.

An article from WIRED magazine ("Red Menace" by Brendan I. Koerner, March 2010) opens with a narrative of researchers poking around in a wheat field in Kenya. The researchers were plant pathologists, investigating a strain of fungus known as "Ug99" that causes the disease known as "stem rust" in wheat. After a fungal spore lights on the leaf of a wheat plant, it infiltrates the plant, producing crimson pustules on the plant's stems and leaves. Ultimately those pustules burst open, throwing millions of new spores to the winds, leaving behind a shriveled plant.

Stem rust had been a long-standing threat to wheat crops up to about a half century ago, when agricultural researchers were able to breed wheat strains that could defy the attacks of Puccinia graminis, the formal name of the fungus. Even then, however, everyone realized that a new strain of P. graminis might well emerge that could overcome the wheat plant's new-found defenses. Such a strain emerged in Uganda in 1999 -- hence the designation "Ug99". One of the researchers commented: "It's an absolute game-changer. The pathogen takes out pretty much everything we have."

Ug99 is spreading through Africa and into the Middle East. It has been detected in Iran, and seems poised to infect the Punjab, the breadbasket of South Asia. Once it spreads through the Old World, it would only take a single lucky spore to hitch a ride on a jet passenger to spread the catastrophe to the New World.

stem rust

* Humans have been familiar with stem rust since the Bronze Age at least. The Romans sacrificed to the gods to plead for mercy from the fungus, and early English settlers in Massachusetts Colony suffered through some very lean times when stem rust wiped out their wheat crops. During the First World War, an attack of stem rust destroyed a third of the US yearly consumption of wheat, forcing families in the Midwest to subsist on corn mush. In response, the US government set up a campaign to exterminate barberry, the plant that serves as a reservoir for P. graminis. Such measures helped, but did not stop the fungus: losses from a two-year infestation in the mid-1950s ran to billions of dollars.

In the early 1940s, the US Rockefeller Foundation, unable to perform charitable works overseas due to the world war, focused on Mexico, dispatching a young agronomist from Iowa named Norman Borlaug there to see what could be done to improve Mexico's desperate agricultural crisis, which had been partly caused by several years of attack by stem rust.

Borlaug would become famous for developing new high-productivity strains of wheat, priming what would become known in the 1970s as the "Green Revolution" and winning him the Nobel prize. His work on wheat also focused on making the high-yield strains resistant to stem rust. In those days, coming up with improved crops was not a high-tech operation, instead involving plodding work with selecting and cross breeding strains of plants, a process Borlaug would later describe with refreshing honesty as "mind-warpingly tedious." The most resistant strains incorporated a gene designated "Stem Rust 31" AKA Sr31, which had been obtained through crossbreeding with rye. The new resistant wheat strains ended the threat of stem rust.

Or at least they did for a time. In 1998 an agronomist named William Wagoire, who had been a student of Borlaug's at Cambridge, visited a crop research center in Uganda. Wagoire had been working in Mexico on wheat strains that could resist yellow rust, a milder fungal infection, and planted them in Uganda, where yellow rust was prevalent. However, when the stalks matured, they showed very worrying symptoms of stem rust. He doublechecked to make sure the plants had the Sr31 gene and doublechecked the symptoms, then got more worried. Analysis of samples of infected plants sent to South Africa conclusively demonstrated they were infected with a new strain of P. graminis that could overcome Sr31: Ug99.

Uganda's tabloid press, which had been peddling tales of how Western scientists had brewed up HIV to kill off Africans, attacked Wagoire, claiming that he had created Ug99. Wagoire found it "a very trying time", but the furor blew over. The discovery of Ug99 hardly made an impression elsewhere, with a US Department of Agriculture (USDA) report published in 1999 pointing out that there were wheat strains with other resistance genes -- particularly Sr24 and Sr36 -- that could resist Ug99, and that the outbreak was in a remote, isolated area of mountainous Uganda. Unfortunately, two years later it was found in Kenya; then Ethiopia; then the Sudan. By 2006, it had hopped the Red Sea and was afflicting Yemen. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* THE KILLING OF JFK -- THE ASSASSINATION (1): The flooring on the sixth floor of the Texas Book Depository was being replaced and the only people with particular business up there that day were the workmen; they were all TSBD employees, the work wasn't contracted out. The floor still had plenty of books and boxes that had been moved to the sides, and so there was no reason to be particularly suspicious of Oswald when he came upstairs. One of the workmen, Charlie Givens, told the Warren Commission that Oswald was still there when the workers went down the elevator to the lunchroom at about 11:45 AM; Givens had to go back up to get a pack of cigarettes he had left and saw Oswald again closer to noon.

Conspiracy theorists like to cite a report provided later that day by an FBI agent in which Givens supposedly claimed he actually saw Oswald in the first floor lunchroom at about 11:50 AM. However, the report was casual, not a signed affidavit by Givens, and there is good reason to think it was a garbling of what Givens said -- for the simple reason that the Dallas police had talked to Givens before the FBI did, and what Givens told Dallas cops up front was consistent with what he told the Warren Commission later.

The sixth floor had two elevators and a staircase at the west side. There were six double windows at the east side, overlooking Elm Street, where the president's motorcade was to pass by. That afternoon, investigators would find boxes set up in what was described as the "sniper's nest", with a wall of boxes piled up for concealment and boxes piled up next to the southeast window, where they could support a rifle. Another TSBD employee named Bonnie Ray Williams actually ate his lunch on the sixth floor around noon, but said that the piles of boxes provided plenty of concealment for someone trying to hide there. At around 12:05, Williams went down to the fifth floor, where he met up with two other workers, James Jarman and Harold Norman to watch the presidential motorcade come past. The three men were directly below the sniper's nest.

Conspiracy theorists have raised a number of arguments to demonstrate that Oswald wasn't on the sixth floor at that time. One suggested that the seventh floor would have been a more likely choice for a sniper, since it had an enclosure on the southeast corner -- but the enclosure had a glass door, making it worthless for concealment. In addition, the window sills were high and there was a ledge between the sixth and seventh floors that partly blocked the line of fire.

The TSBD employees had generally formed up in little groups for the event; none of them reported Oswald among them. Indeed, to the extent that anyone recalled seeing Oswald around at all that morning, they suggested that he seemed to be making himself more scarce than usual. After his arrest, Oswald tried to claim he was in the first floor lunchroom with James Jarman. Jarman said he didn't see him. The TSBD employees had broken early for lunch so they could watch the motorcade -- even if Oswald had actually eaten lunch with Jarman, since Jarman had made it back up to the fifth floor, it would have hardly been difficult for Oswald to have then made it to the sixth.

Conspiracy theorists have persistently invoked witnesses who placed Oswald in the first floor lunchroom, but to the extent that anyone did say they'd seen him there, it was before the arrival of the presidential motorcade, long enough to have given Oswald plenty of time to go back upstairs -- even the anomalous report the FBI supposedly obtained from Givens that placed Oswald in the first floor lunchroom did so at 11:50, well before the arrival of the motorcade. 15 years after the event Carolyn Arnold, one of the secretaries at the depository, said she had seen Oswald in the second floor lunchroom at 12:25, as she was going out to watch the motorcade. This observation was not corroborated by other TSBD employees, in fact it wasn't even corroborated by Oswald, who as noted claimed he was in the first floor lunchroom. Pauline Sanders, another TSBD employee, said she had been in the second floor lunchroom, leaving at about 12:20, and hadn't seen Oswald.

A grainy photo taken by a reporter of people standing in the doorway of the TSBD seemed to show Oswald among them -- but the person turned out to be a TSBD employee named Billy Lovelady, who actually did resemble Oswald slightly. When the picture made the rounds, Lovelady identified himself as the subject, with several other people who were present backing him up. Despite this, conspiracy theorists persisted for years in insisting that the person in the doorway was Oswald, much to the annoyance of Lovelady, who commented: "Hell, I'm better looking than he was."

Even today, a few conspiracy theorists make a fuss over Lovelady, claiming he was just a "ringer" used by a conspiracy to conceal the fact that Oswald was really in the doorway, insisting that Lovelady and the corroborating witnesses were lying. The main rationale for this was that the FBI took shots of Lovelady wearing a short-sleeved shirt with broad dark and white stripes, while the picture of the man in the doorway had a long-sleeved dark plaid shirt on. Lovelady was wearing the short-sleeved shirt when he was photographed by the FBI on 29 February 1964, and due to a mixup the FBI reported to the Warren Commission that was what he had been wearing on 22 November 1963. Lovelady actually showed up in two other photos on 22 November 1963, following the assassination, wearing the long-sleeved dark plaid shirt.

Billy Lovelady & Lee Harvey Oswald

Most conspiracy theorists eventually accepted that it was Lovelady and not Oswald in the picture. Actually, although some conspiracy theorists insist that the figure in the doorway looks more like Oswald than Lovelady, anybody else comparing a photo of Lovelady and a photo of Oswald to the "mystery" figure in the door would conclude without much doubt that the figure is Lovelady, who had a longer, bonier face and a higher hairline than Oswald -- the HSCA went through a more formal analysis to come to the same conclusion. Conspiracy theorists have tried to prove the opposite by contrasting the photo of the person in the doorway with a photo of Lovelady from the 1970s, when he had clearly aged and in fact didn't look very healthy, instead of the pictures taken by the FBI in 1964. Besides, once again, Oswald told the police he was in the first floor lunchroom during the shootings -- not watching the motorcade from the TSBD doorway. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* GIMMICKS & GADGETS: On consideration, the idea of closing up a wound by stitching it up with a needle and thread seems appallingly primitive. As reported by WIRED Online, the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the Pentagon's "blue sky" research organization, thinks there may be a better way using advanced tech. In DARPA-driven experiments, researchers have figured out a way of coating an open wound with a special dye, which is then illuminated with a handheld laser for a few minutes. The dye promotes the formation of a seal using the tissue's collagen. The seal is watertight and, once formed, blocks out infection.

The goal of the effort is to improve medical attention for battleground casualties. Concepts include patches that can seal up eye injuries until the victim receives proper attention at a hospital. The researchers believe their techniques are highly effective and not too far away from operational introduction, but need to move on to their use in invasive surgeries and serious tests on humans instead of lab animals. Down the road, they envision refining their procedures to the level of being able to repair damaged corneas or broken nerves.

* In somewhat related news, DISCOVERY CHANNEL Online reports that researchers at the French Institut Nationale de la Sante et de la Recherhe Medicale (INSERM / National Institute of Health & Medical Research) have developed a scheme to heal cavities in teeth -- not just drill them out and fill them, but to actually encourage the tooth to restore itself. They apply a gel loaded with a peptide named "melanocyte-stimulating hormone (MSH)" to a cavity, and about a month later the cavity is gone. They've only tested it on mice so far, and it certainly sounds like it belongs in the "too good to be true" category. However, the work does sound promising, and MSH may also help with healing broken bones.

* Bad-girl Hollywood actress Lindsay Lohan made the tech blogosphere pages after failing to show for a court hearing, instead preferring to remain in Cannes for the film festival. The judge was not pleased and had her slapped with an electronic ankle bracelet that not only tracks her movements, but also can tell if she's been boozing.


The bracelet samples perspiration from the skin with a sensor on a half-hour basis and sends out a wireless alert if alcohol is detected. It's not all that new; the manufacturer, AMS of Denver, Colorado, has been selling the "Secure Continuous Remote Alcohol Monitoring (SCRAM)" bracelet since 2003, and it's in widespread use in the US, with well over 100,000 people ordered to wear one. Lohan isn't the only celebrity to wear one; in fact, this is the second time she's been slapped with a SCRAM.

Law enforcement officials find SCRAM highly effective, and in fact report that in a few cases SCRAM users have asked to keep it on even after their mandated time is up; they know they have a problem and it helps them stay on the wagon. The latest version of SCRAM is much lighter than the original. SCRAM costs about $1,500 USD -- no, it's not available to private citizens, such as control-freak parents who want to keep track of their kids. Incidentally, in late-breaking news, the court decided that more severe measures needed to be taken with Lohan due to her persistence in violating probation, and sentenced her to 90 days in jail.



* NO SNOWBALL? In 1998, a group of Harvard geoscientists suggested that the Earth may have frozen over completely a half billion years ago, with life only clinging on near volcanic vents and other geothermal sources. As reported by an article from AAAS SCIENCE ("Snowball Earth Has Melted Back To A Profound Wintry Mix" by Richard A. Kerr, 5 March 2010), although the vision of an iceball Earth certainly attracted attention, it hasn't done well in the face of criticism, some now saying: "The hard snowball is dead." The Earth was certainly cold at the time, but increasingly the belief is that the planet was a slushball, not sealed in ice.

The idea of a "snowball Earth" was suggested by geobiologist Joseph Kirschvink of the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in 1992, but his thinking on the matter was admittedly speculative. The idea really didn't gain ground until 1998, when Harvard geologist Paul Hoffman and his colleagues published a paper that suggested that tropical glaciation that occurred about 650 million years ago would have led to a complete freeze. The glaciers, so the paper suggested, would have increased the reflectivity of the Earth, throwing more solar heat back into space, with the positive feedback driving the cooling trend until the Earth was locked in ice. However, recent computer modeling by Mark Chandler and his colleagues at the Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York City hints the positive-feedback chilling wouldn't have done the job. According to Chandler: "We can get ice on land. It's the ocean we can't freeze over." He explains that oceans can hold a lot of heat and shift it around in currents, preventing a complete freeze-up.

Some researchers have altered the "snowball" model to a "thin ice" concept. In this scenario the Earth is frozen over, but only thinly so in the open oceans, enough light getting through to keep marine phytoplankton in business. The idea hasn't been popular; advocates of a complete freeze-over of any sort are now on the defensive. Field research conducted by researchers at Imperial College London showed that glacial deposits from the supposed era of the frozen Earth showed evidence of sediments in movement at the time, implying liquid water instead of ice.

One of the key arguments presented by Hoffman and his colleagues was the presence of unusual geological deposits in the era that they claimed could were only consistent with the vision of a frozen planet. Further investigation has undermined the persuasiveness of that argument -- or at least it has for some. Hoffman is sticking with his opinion, saying that "the evidence is getting stronger and stronger" for a snowball Earth. He still admits that it's going to take more work to sell the idea: "I don't expect to live to see the conclusion on snowball Earth, though I think I know how it will turn out."

* GOD OF DESTRUCTION: In other Earth catastrophe news, it was long known that the reign of the dinosaurs was effectively ended 65 million years ago in what is referred to as the "Cretaceous-Tertiary (KT) event". Nobody had any clear idea for a long time as to what happened, but from the 1980s, research demonstrated that there was a huge crater, about 180 kilometers (112 miles) in diameter, buried under the Yucatan peninsula and centered on the town of Chicxulub that date from the time of the KT event. The Earth was hit by an asteroid about 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) in diameter that caused not merely an enormous blast, but also hemispheric fires from hot debris scattered into near space, and profound climate shifts. It left behind a global sediment layer enriched in the element iridium, which is a marker for some types of asteroids.

As discussed by an article in THE ECONOMIST ("I Am Become Death, Destroyer Of Worlds", 24 October 2009), there was a strong sense that the cause of the KT extinction had been discovered. The Chicxulub impact was just too tidy, a global cataclysm that took place at the appropriate time. However, not everyone was convinced, some arguing that though the impact did indeed occur and was certainly a catastrophe of Biblical proportions, the fossil record of the KT extinctions did not precisely fit the idea that the impact was responsible for killing off the dinosaurs. Some species seemed to have disappeared well before the impact, some well after; it was also hard to follow the rhyme or reason as to which species lived and which died out.

Now Sankar Chatterjee of Texas Tech University has thrown another spanner into the works, though one that reinforces the impact hypothesis from another angle. There is a basin about 500 kilometers (310 miles) across off the west coast of India, which contains a big undersea mountain named "Bombay High" that rises about 5,000 meters (16,400 feet) above the seafloor. Chatterjee suspects that the basin is an impact crater, which he named "Shiva" after the Hindu god of destruction; Bombay High is the result of an upwelling of magma from the fractured crust.

It has long been known that there were massive volcanic eruptions late in the Cretaceous that produced the massive basalt structures known as the "Deccan Traps". These eruptions had been considered a possible cause of the KT extinction before the discovery of the Chicxulub crater, and at least as a contributing cause after that discovery. Chatterjee was investigating the Deccan Traps when he came up with the concept of Shiva. At lower levels, he found dinosaur nests embedded between layers of basalt about 10 to 15 meters (33 to 50 feet) thick; then he found a layer about 2 kilometers (1.25 miles) thick, dating back about 65 million years.

What could have caused such a massive eruption? Further investigation showed shocked quartz and iridium in the area, which are markers for impacts. Chatterjee believes that Shiva is the scar left behind by an asteroid about four times bigger in diameter than the Chicxulub asteroid, with the impact being about a hundred times more powerful.

But if that is so, then why is there only a single iridium layer in the sediments at the KT boundary? Originally, Chatterjee speculated that the two impacts happened at the same time, the two asteroids being fragments of the same body. More research has suggested that the Chicxulub impact occurred about 300,000 years earlier -- but that's not long on the geological timescale, and it might well have resulted in two iridium layers right next to each other that blend into one. Closer investigation is suggesting that the iridium layer may well have two distinct sublayers. Chatterjee does admit that his ideas are "very speculative" and there has been considerable skepticism, but Shiva clearly deserves more investigation in any case.



* FLIGHT OF THE JAILBIRDS: A photo-essay from WIRED magazine ("Relocating Prisoners", June 2010), took a closeup of the "Justice Prisoner & Alien Transportation System (JPATS)", an airline run by the Federal government for, as the name suggests, transport of prisoners and illegal aliens. Decades ago, prisoners had been hauled on commercial airliners under guard, but it was a clumsy, insecure, and expensive process, driving the gradual evolution of a specialized government penal air service. The ultimate result, JPATS, was created in 1995 through the merger of an airline run by the US Immigration & Naturalization Service and another run by the US Marshals Service. JPATS is run by the Marshals Service through JPATS headquarters in Kansas City, Missouri. Last year, JPATS hauled 350,000 prisoners and aliens, with the prisoners either being taken to prison facilities or to trial locations and the aliens usually being sent back home.

Articles are inconsistent on the details of the JPATS fleet. It appears to have about eight midsize jetliners -- types including the Boeing 737, the more venerable Boeing 727 trijet, and the McDonnell-Douglas MD-80 / DC-9 -- plus smaller aircraft, such as the Swearingen Metroliner twin-turboprop feederliner, used for special transport missions such as those involving very dangerous prisoners who demand maximum security. Some of the aircraft are clearly leased, with livery of organizations such as Miami Air or Planet Air, but others are unmarked and may be government-owned. The operation is of course nicknamed "Con Air". Schedules of JPATS flights are not announced to the public, and convicts are not told they are being transferred until the last moment -- after all, it's not like they've got much to pack up, and there's no reason to give them time to evaluate opportunities.

fly Con Air

If flying on a commercial jetliner can seem a hassle at times, contrast such discomforts with those of flying Con Air. The prisoners are taken to the jetliner under armed guard; when they change hands, they are patted down and their paperwork checked. If the paperwork isn't correct, if for example a prisoner doesn't have medical records, he or she doesn't get on board. JPATS will run mixed-gender flights, by the way. The prisoners wear handcuffs, leg shackles, and a belly chain. Unusually dangerous prisoners may be given additional restraints, including what's called a "black box" that immobilizes the prisoner's wrists against the belly chain; prisoners with behavior approximating that of Hannibal Lector are even fitted with face masks. The prisoners cannot be chained to the seats, however; Federal Aviation Administration safety rules forbid it. Effort is made to avoid conflicts between prisoners, for example by transporting prisoners from rival gangs on different flights.

Teams of guards keep a close eye on the prisoners, with three guards watching over them at all times, and the multiple guard teams rotating every 15 minutes to make sure the guards stay alert. Firearms being a bad idea on an aircraft, the guards are armed with tazers. There's no inflight entertainment; prisoners can't even read a book or magazine. They get a simple lunch in a paper box / tray; the seat-back tables were removed lest some prisoner try to dismantle one and make weapons out of its metal supports. Visits to the restroom are under supervision, with the restroom door left open.

On arrival, the prisoners are taken to their destinations via JPATS ground transport. The prisoners may be marked, for example with an "X" on the back of one hand, to sort them out if there's multiple destinations for a planeload. JPATS officials say they've never had an escape and that violence is rare. WIRED photographer Zana Woods was still nervous in being confined to an aircraft loaded with hard cases, but it seems the passengers were generally polite and friendly, happy to see a female face; when they deplaned, some asked her: "Text me." -- and one beamed: "Out in eight months!"



* SPRING NORTHWEST ROAD TRIP (3): I left Moses Lake for Spokane on the morning of Sunday, 9 May. It was an uneventful day, just hanging around with family. I stayed at my brother Terry's place overnight and then hit the road in the predawn hours of Monday, 10 May.

I was taking a roundabout route home, heading down the back highways to Boise, Idaho. There was a zoo there I wanted to check out; the plan was to spend the night in Twin Falls, Idaho, and then hit some places in Salt Lake City on the way back home Tuesday.

I was figuring that I might see something interesting on the road to Boise, not having gone that way in decades, but I found nothing of great interest. I did find the view from the hills above Lewiston, down in the bottom of the Snake river gorge, impressive, getting some detail shots of the pulp mill there from a "scenic view" road stop. However, the rest of the trip south was uneventful.

pulp mill, Lewiston, Idaho

It got to raining as I approached Boise. I ended up with a navigation problem going into town -- I had expected I would connect to Interstate 80 first, but I arrived on the back streets of the town, which threw my planned routes to the zoo for a loop. No big deal, though I ended up doing a bit of "squirrel caging" and had to stop for a bit to puzzle out my map sheets. Still, between the rain and going in circles visiting the zoo seemed increasingly like a poor use of time, and I half wondered if I should just forget about it and drive on -- it didn't look like much of a zoo, why bother? However, if I didn't visit the zoo I would continue to be curious about it and be tempted to come back. No. Do it and be done with it.

I did manage to check out the zoo, finding out it was indeed nothing much; I didn't even take any shots. After I left I reconsidered my plan for the rest of the trip. I was ahead of schedule, the weather was generally lousy, and I wanted to get back home anyway, I decided to just go straight back to Loveland and not bother with the side trip to Salt Lake City.

That meant getting online to change motel reservations. I knew a McDonald's almost always had a wi-fi hookup, except in high-traffic locations where they don't want people hanging around, so I found a McD's in Boise and set up my laptop. I had to puzzle around a bit to figure out how to get it work. I was under the assumption it was a free service, sort of like a hotel wi-fi, but at least at that outlet that didn't turn out to be the case, it required online charges. Fortunately, anybody with a Qwest or AT&T account could still get on for free, and I had a Qwest account.

I canceled my motel reservation in Twin Falls and then looked over my road atlas for a new night stop. I picked out Evanston -- just across the border from Utah in southwest Wyoming -- then used Yahoo maps to check how far it was from Boise. It was reasonable drive, so I made a motel reservation for that evening. Although folks with a smart cellphone probably can do that sort of thing anywhere, it was sort of a sci-fi moment, marveling at how inconceivable it would have been to have had that kind of information at my fingertips in a fast-food joint a quarter of a century ago. The whole side trip to Boise was something of a bust, but my online tinkerings in the McD's helped retrieve it a bit.

cattle feedlot, southern Idaho

I did a little more squirrel-caging getting out of Boise, getting on the freeway going west instead of east, but I got that straightened out in a hurry. The trip to Evanston was also uneventful; about the only thing of interest I saw along the way was a cattle feedlot in southern Idaho right along the freeway -- I stopped and took some shots. There was a long empty stretch on I-84 from Rupert, Idaho, to Snowville across the Utah border, and I got a bit worried about gas. There was a gas station about halfway along that stretch and I thought to refuel, but the prices were extortionate. I did some figuring about range and decided there was little risk in continuing on to Snowville -- but I was still nervous about the gas tank indicator until I made it to Utah. I was also wondering if the prices in Snowville were just as bad, but actually they were lower than the average for the trip.

* I got into Evanston, Wyoming, a little late that night and crashed out. I rose early on Tuesday, 13 May, and hit the road about 05:30 AM, heading east on I-80, with no other concern but to get home. Unfortunately, if I'd thought I'd weather problems on the out leg of the trip were troublesome, they were trivial compared to what happened on the return leg.

Everything was okay until about 6:00 AM and then the snow started coming down -- wet, slushy, dense snow, leading to great moments in terror. It wasn't too bad as long as I could keep going straight, but lane changes were frightening and I decided they were a bad idea. They were not, however, remotely as frightening as what happened when a tractor-trailer rig passed me in the other lane: it came up alongside me and then hit me with a wave of slush that completely blanketed my windshield, with my reaction being a frozen paralyzed thought of: I'M DEAD. I turned the wipers up full and after a short agonizing delay I could see again.

I think that happened about two or three times. The first time was the worst because I wasn't really expecting it; the other times were still not that much better. The most I could do was make sure I checked out the road ahead and behind before I went blind. In hindsight, it might have been better just to have got off the road, though I'm not sure I had good opportunities to do so. Certainly had the weather continued to dump wet snow it would have been mad to keep on driving, but to no surprise it didn't. I was figuring that I would pass out of the storm by about 6:30 AM, while worrying that it might be snowing all the way across southern Wyoming. Fortunately I was out of it by 6:20 AM. The rest of the trip was no problem -- it got foggy and misty once I hit Laramie, but compared to the excitement I had that morning, it was hardly troublesome.

I got back into Loveland, Colorado, by midday, to unpack and clean up my car. The weather was still chilly, and in fact it snowed the next morning. Anyway, another Spokane trip checked off. I'm planning to go back in late August, with a loop back via Salt Lake City to check the places I missed this time around. I think I can feel reassured at not getting snowed on then -- but given how erratic the weather can be in the high country, I'm not going to flatly rule it out. [END OF SERIES]



* THE KILLING OF JFK -- LEE HARVEY OSWALD (20): On Thursday, 14 November 1963, the White House approved the Trade Mart as the appropriate site for the president's luncheon in Dallas. That same day, two Secret Service agents scouted out possible routes and talked with the Dallas police about the matter. The police reviewed the route on Friday, 15 November, and that evening the DALLAS TIMES HERALD announced that the presidential luncheon would take place at the Trade Mart; the next day the paper announced that the presidential motorcade would drive down Main Street, where the citizens could turn out to view the procession.

Oswald called the Paines' house on Friday to talk to Marina about a visit -- he liked to check ahead of time to see if it would be okay, but the Paines had visitors and she said it wasn't. He called again on Saturday, telling Marina he had gone to the local motor vehicles bureau to get a driving learner's permit, but it had been crowded and he left. His landlady, Gladys Johnson, later confirmed that Oswald had only called Marina that weekend and only stepped out once. The next day, Sunday, Ruth Paine called the boardinghouse to ask for "Lee Oswald", to be told nobody of that name was there. Ruth relayed that to Marina; when Oswald called again on Monday, Marina lit into him: "All of these comedies! First one thing, then another! And now this fictitious name!"

After the argument, Oswald sulked through Tuesday and Wednesday, not calling Marina. That Tuesday, 19 November, the DALLAS TIMES HERALD published the route of the president's motorcade, showing that it would move along Main Street, then turn into Dealey Plaza, a public square on which the Texas Book Depository bordered. The route involved a right turn from Main Street onto Houston Street; a very short drive up Houston past a decorative pool to Elm; and a left turn onto Elm, which curved back towards Main to go under a railroad overpass running over Elm, Main, and Commerce Street on the far side of Main. The turn from Houston to Elm brought the motorcade directly in front of the depository, with the hairpin turn there slowing it down. The curve of Elm to the triple underpass meant that anyone in the upper floors of the depository had an unobstructed view of the motorcade driving very nearly directly away from the building.

Some conspiracy theorists have claimed the motorcade route was changed at the last minute to bring it past the depository; that was only due to a map published later that was too low-resolution to show the turn onto Elm. No changes were made to the announced route, and in fact it was the only reasonable way to get on the Stemmons Freeway and to the Trade Mart from Main Street -- there was a STEMMONS FREEWAY KEEP RIGHT sign on Elm that would play a small role in events.

There were also claims mysterious strings were pulled to get Oswald the job in the TSBD; there's no evidence to support any such claims, and more to the point Oswald had got the job about a month before the motorcade route had been determined. A few conspiracy theorists have even claimed the routing of the motorcade past a location where Oswald was working was so impossible on the basis of probabilities that it had to be a setup. What were the odds, so they claim, of the president being brought into connection with Oswald by pure accident?

This is really nothing but "pseudomath", a calculation intended to give a fake gloss of sophistication to a line of reasoning based on flimsy assumptions -- the bogus assumptions being that there was only one potential threat to the president and only one place an attack could happen. In reality, since the invention of the railroad, presidents have been generally highly mobile, visiting many population centers during their administrations, and during that time there was always likely more than one person who was a potential assassin.

What are the odds that for all these presidents, any one of them might encounter in the course of his travels one of several possible threats somewhere? Considering the odds from past history suggest it is unpleasantly high. There has been an assassination attempt on roughly one out of every three US presidents, with four presidents killed. Experience suggests that the actual odds of a US president being murdered are about 10% -- hardly remote odds, indeed worse odds than confronted by combat soldiers. The president has for obvious reasons a very high level of personal security protection, and threats still get through the shield.

The DALLAS MORNING NEWS ran the same details of JFK's visit on the 19th and the 20th. Oswald liked to read the papers, making a point of going through them each morning in the lunchroom on the first floor of the depository. He couldn't have missed the front-page articles on the motorcade route. What he made of the news is of course a matter of speculation, but on Thursday, 21 November, he treated himself to a good breakfast at a restaurant, as if something special was up, and that morning asked Buell Frazier for a lift to Irving to "pick up some curtain rods". Somewhere along the line, Oswald put together a long bag using brown paper and tape, apparently obtained from the TSBD.

Frazier dropped him off at the Paines' house that evening. Marina was still angry with him, though he tried to be conciliatory. He ate dinner with Marina and the Paines, acting very taciturn; Marina, trying to break the ice a bit, brought up the presidential visit to Dallas, but he wouldn't comment. She found this odd and asked if he knew about the route of the president's motorcade; he replied he knew nothing about it. He went to bed unusually early. Ruth Paine went out to the garage at about 9:00 PM to putter around; she found the light was on, suspecting Lee had been there for some reason and forgotten to turn it off.

Marina found him tense and restless that night. He got up before her and soon left, saying goodbye without kissing her as he usually did. When she got up, she was startled to find that he had left her $170 USD on top of the bedroom bureau, which was likely about all the money he had in the world. She didn't notice that he had also left his wedding ring in a cup on the bureau. She'd never seen him take it off before.

That same morning -- Friday, 22 November -- Linnie Mae Randle, Buell Frazier's sister, saw Oswald through the kitchen window, carrying a long item in the paper bag he had assembled. Before they left, Frazier asked Oswald what was in the bag, and he replied: "Those are curtain rods." When they got to the depository, Oswald seemed to be in a hurry to get inside with the package. Co-workers noticed Oswald broke from his usual routine that morning, not bothering to read the newspapers. By mid-morning, crowds were beginning to gather outside, in preparation for the presidential motorcade. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* ANOTHER MONTH: Some time back, I was thinking over the infamous "Evil Overlord" list and realized how applicable it is to conspiracy theories. While the Evil Overlord list basically applies to comic books and movies, conspiracy theories operate at about the same level of intellectual accomplishment, and so a customized Evil Overlord list applies very neatly.

evil overlord: not a job for incompetents

That said, when I am an Evil Overlord:

* A quiet month, more or less, the most significant thing I did being to upgrade my desktop PC to Windows 7. I'd already done my laptop, and the fact that it was no bother made me confident that doing the same to the desktop was no challenge. Well, in itself it wasn't, but some of the tools I had on my desktop turned out to be very "fragile", incapable of being disturbed in any serious way and continuing to work. The problem was that they were the tools I used to perform my website formatting, so I was disastrously out of business for a few days.

I got everything cleaned up, and in fact my desktop installation is now far more robust than it was -- which is gratifying, given that getting there knocked about a week out of my work schedule. I'll detail the matter later, mostly so I don't forget any of it the next time something like it happens.

* And then, one morning, for some reason I cannot understand my office chair decided to take a tilt to the left. It was killing my back; the next morning I considered what I needed to do to fix it. I took a hammer and did some pounding to realign the chair base, but whatever shift in the mechanism that had caused the tilt in the first place seemed to be permanent.

After some frustrated mental fumbling, I had a brainstorm. I went over to Home Depot, got a little bag of flat washers, and pulled off the base of the chair using a hex wrench -- these things are designed for easy assembly or disassembly. I put it back together but inserted two washers between the base and the chair seat for each of the two bolts on the left -- and the chair was level again. I don't know if it will remain so, but it was satisfying to figure out the solution, if not so satisfying to blow away the better part of a morning doing it.