aug 2010 / last mod jan 2016 / greg goebel

* Entries include: JFK assassination (series), system update adventures (series), Crystal Palace (series), solar fuel synthesis, poor countries with lots of disease obtain low IQ scores, safety hazards of highly automated systems, controversy over palm oil production, fungicides lead to resistant fungal infections?, US Army LEMV surveillance airship, adjuvants explained, Franklin Chang-Diaz and VASIMR rocket propulsion system.

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* NEWS COMMENTARY FOR AUGUST 2010: As a landmark of sorts, this last month the 4th Stryker Brigade of the US Army's 2nd Infantry division left Iraq, the troops moving into Kuwait. The move was planned out carefully and kept secret to forestall attacks on the convoy. It was the last US combat brigade to leave the country, after seven years of military occupation. 6,000 support troops followed by the end of the month, ending formal US combat operations. At its peak, the occupation force had 150,000 soldiers. 4,415 US troops were killed there; Iraqi casualties are estimated at about 100,000.

The US Army is by no means out of Iraq entirely, however, with roughly 50,000 troops still in-country to advise Iraqi forces and protect US interests. The US Special Operations Command (SOCOM) also maintains a presence in Iraq. Formally speaking, these forces cannot perform military operations without authorization from the Iraqi government, but of course they respond to hostile acts against them without seeking permission.

The soldiers were glad to go; the Iraqis had more mixed feelings. The Iraqis were not particularly happy to have the Americans there, but the soldiers at least provided some order in the unsettled society the American occupation created. Life in the country remains difficult, with ongoing terrorism and an ineffective government; some suspect the troops that remain in Iraq may not go home at the end of 2011, officials on both sides worrying that they will still be needed. However, US President Obama has made it clear he is committed to getting the troops out.

Iraq remains a dismal place to live. Almost a quarter of the citizens live under the poverty line. 15% of Iraqis are unemployed, another 28% are underemployed. Clean water is problematic, as is electrical power. Violence is way down from the ghastly peaks of 2006:2007, but terrorism continues to be a menace. There is some optimism that things are likely to get better; then again, considering the standard of comparison that wouldn't seem hard to achieve.

* The Iraqi economy remains shakily afloat thanks to oil. As reported by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("Hard To Get Out", 19 August 2010), the way the Iraqi government approaches the oil business speaks volumes about the way things are done there. When a group of executives from an international oil company came to Baghdad recently to sign a deal, they hardly got the red-carpet treatment: instead, immigration officers held them for several hours until the officials decided the "suspicious" visitors were free to go.

The Iraqi government started auctioning large oil fields last year and got an enthusiastic response. Now the attitude is one of caution. Increasing Iraqi oil production from 2.5 million barrels a day to 12 million barrels a day, a quarter more than Saudi Arabia pumps now, will take more than the six to seven years that the government projects, not least because of Iraq's ongoing political violence.

In the past six months the oil infrastructure has increasingly become the target of insurgents. Pipelines are a favorite, as are refineries and oil-ministry offices. In response, a special police force that guards vital oil installations has been beefed up, but given the expansion of the oil sector, it's hard for security to keep pace with growth. There are other difficulties: trade unions are becoming more militant over wages, while tribal associations are demanding their cut of the oil money, one tribe asking for a dollar a barrel. The government has become increasingly impatient with obstacles to oil development and has, on occasion, threatened to send in the troops.

There is also political opposition in the Iraqi parliament over the oil deals, with some MPs saying the deals are not fair to Iraq and need to be reconsidered. Lawsuits against the oil firms are working their way through the courts. Given the prominence of the oil business in Iraq it's not surprising it's become a political football, but oil ministry officials are exasperated all the same.

Logistics are a particular problem. Oil production requires heavy gear, and importing the mass of hardware needed has swamped Iraq's tiny port at Umm Qasr. Developing the port could take a long time, with one complication being that it is close to territory disputed by Iran. Another complication is that Umm Qasr is infested with smugglers, and where there are lots of thieves, there's usually a lot of theft and valuable gear has a tendency to disappear. Neighboring Kuwait has talked of building a new border post in the desert so that companies can bypass the port and bring in rigs on vehicles, but it has set no date.

Finally, many of the oilfields remain littered with landmines. Specialists have been brought in to clear them out. However, given the list of troubles faced by the oil business in Iraq, extracting the mines may be easier than extracting the oil.

* An article in THE ECONOMIST ("The Democracy Bug Is Fitfully Catching On", 24 July 2010) reported on an encouraging trend: Africa, once noted for misgovernance and conflict, is having an unprecedented year of elections, with a score of the 48 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa to go to the polls by the end of the year.

As a encouraging example of the new vision, consider the west African country of Guinea, which was under the control of strongman Lansana Conte for two decades. After Conte's death two years ago, the army seized power, which was certainly a traditional African story; but the coup leader was attacked and injured by one of his aides, with other members of the junta saying that the country would go back to civilian rule after elections, which the military promised not to contest. The first round of presidential elections took place on 27 June and went peacefully, and will be followed by a runoff.

Why the change in mindset? One is that citizens are getting very tired of "Big Men" and corrupt ruling parties. There was widespread public anger and unrest in Nigeria at the way the ruling People's Democratic Party conducted a farce of an election in 2007, and so upcoming elections will feature safeguards and neutral observers to help ensure they are free and fair. In addition, during the Cold War African dictators could play East and West off against each other to stay in power, but now aid money and diplomatic support is more conditional, with African leadership having to worry about image. Even regional African groupings are starting to demand higher standards for their members.

Of course, given that corrupt governments are still common in Africa, it's not surprising there are plenty of corrupt elections, with recent polls in Ethiopia and the Sudan proving embarrassingly one-sided. If the Big Men are under more pressure to clean up their acts, they're also getting better at faking it. However much African leaders praise democratic reforms, many such as Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe have proven skillful at hanging on to power at all costs, and in absolute contempt for any principles of responsible governance.



* SYSTEM UPDATE ADVENTURES (3): By Tuesday, my PC was effectively operational again after a week's work -- I was very surprised, I figured it would take me many weeks to get back up to scratch, but everything worked out better than I expected. Actually, after cleaning up all the mess, I was well better off than I had been before I started; not only was my system rationalized, the batch files worked an order of magnitude faster than the script files. The little C utilities I wrote were fast as well -- of course they were, there was hardly anything to them.

The whole experience really soured me on Cygwin. The reason it's so slow is that it runs on an emulation layer. That's what also effectively makes it such a nightmare to maintain: it demands administration of two environments, Windows and the UNIX emulation system, that don't get along all that well. It wouldn't have been so bad except that the documentation for Cygwin is typical terse hacker stuff, the kind of cryptic notes where one has to have a good handle on the system for it to make any sense at all.

To really get me annoyed, I decided to get rid of Cygwin, finding it a clunky nuisance on my PC hard disk -- but that turned out to be painful. The installation was protected, and though I searched for how to change owners on all the files, all I could really find was how to change them one at a time. So I went through all the Cygwin directories, changing their ownership and deleting them. It took about three hours, and I got to bed late and irritated. I'm certain there was a better way, but I had to balance just how long it would have taken me to find it, in contrast to just doing the brute-force thing and being done with it. Since I wanted to see the back of Cygwin, I did the brute-force thing.

It was also possible to download the GNU UNIX-style utilities compiled directly for Windows, and no doubt they would have been easier to maintain and run faster. However, I was reluctant to do so. The tool I really needed to get working was Python, and tinkering around with the GNU tools would have distracted me from learning Python and building up a toolset with it. Indeed, Python seems like it might over the long run be the full solution, with all my batch files converted into Python programs, ensuring a high degree of platform independence. I don't have any reason to do that now, what I've got is working and working well, but it would be nice to have that option as a backup capability.

* Losing Cygwin did have one major drawback -- I didn't have a copy of the VI text editor on my PC any more, and I'm very dependent on VI. I crossed my fingers, downloaded GVIM, the graphical version for Windows, and installed it. It turned out to work very well, being far superior to the old Cygwin VIM installation; GVIM was much better integrated into the Windows environment, with mouse cut-&-paste facilities being particularly appreciated. Other nice features provided by GVIM that I wasn't used to in VI included real-time spellchecking, and highlighting all targets of a search, a trick that comes in handier than I would have expected.

I've always felt a little backwards using VI, but GVIM makes VI a perfectly modern tool and there's no further need for embarrassment. GVIM also has mouse pull-down menus, though they were almost useless to me since I know the VI keyboard commands instinctively and they're less trouble. GVIM even has a sophisticated macro programming language, it seems as a comeback to VI's rival EMACS, though I have no need for macro programming at this time.

GVIM is robust but still a hacker job, configuration would be very difficult for a naive user -- the user has to tweak a configuration file. However, the documentation available is fair, and I could figure out everything I needed to fairly easily. Doping out function-key mapping was troublesome, the problem being that CTL-V is used as per Windows for pasting text, which leads to a clash with its traditional VI use for embedding control characters in text. After some investigation, I discovered that CTL-Q could be used as an alternate for embedding control characters, and I was flying. Later I downloaded GVIM onto my laptop as well; no more struggling with Notepad when I'm on the road. I owe the GVIM gang some money one of these days. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* THE KILLING OF JFK -- THE ASSASSINATON (7): While investigators checked out the sixth floor of the depository, TSBD officials performed a roll call on the first floor of depository employees. All were accounted for except Oswald and Charlie Givens, and Givens was soon located. Of course there was no saying the shooter had been in the TSBD, so the police scoured the area around Dealey Plaza. Over an hour after the shooting, they found three tramps in a railroad car a few blocks away; the three were photographed being led away. The police held them for a short time and, finding nothing particularly sinister about them, released them. The police made little record of the matter and so conspiracy theorists would find the "Three Tramps" extremely suspicious.

J.D. Tippit

Dallas police began stopping people who matched the description provided by Howard Brennan and sent out on broadcast. At about 1:15 PM, Officer J.D. Tippit saw a man wearing a gray jacket, walking along 10th Street. Tippit pulled over and called out to him. Tippit did not radio in what he was doing; Dallas police procedures did not require that he do so just because he saw someone who seemed suspicious. The man went up to the police car and said something to Tippit through the passenger window. Tippit apparently didn't like what the man said, since the police officer got out of the car and walked around the front towards him. Tippit never made it around the car; the man pulled out his revolver and gunned him down, pumping multiple bullets into the policeman, the last being a carefully-aimed shot to the head.

A witness named Helen Markham, a waitress, at a nearby bus stop watched the ugly scene unfold. The killer came toward her and she shrieked in terror, thinking he would shoot her next. Two other witnesses, Virginia Davis and her sister-in-law Barbara Davis, heard the shots and went out their front door, to see the killer cutting across their front lawn, emptying cartridge cases from his revolver and reloading. Markham was screaming: "He shot him! He's dead! Call the police!" As the shooter ran off, Markham recovered her wits enough to go to Tippit's aid, but there was nothing she could do. Later she told the HSCA that Tippit "tried to speak to her but just managed gurgling noises." The policeman had actually been killed immediately; Markham mistook the noises of Tippit's dying body as an attempt to speak.

A taxi driver named William Scoggins was eating his lunch in his cab nearby; he heard the shots, saw Tippit fall, and hid behind the rear of his taxi when the shooter came running by with a pistol in his hand. An auto mechanic named Domingo Benavides was driving a pickup and was the closest the shooting took place, seeing the policeman fall and the shooter running away, emptying the spent cartridges from his revolver and reloading.

Benavides stopped and tried to call in a report on the police car's radio. The dispatcher at the police station heard somebody fumbling with the radio, but Benavides couldn't get it to work; a moment later a passer-by named T.F. Bowley, who had stopped to see what the excitement was all about, took over the radio and called in a report. The call was logged at 1:16 PM. Benavides and the two Davis sisters scavenged up four spent cartridges and later gave them to the police. There were other witnesses as well -- according to a story, Dallas police kept quiet about one, since he was a married man visiting the home of his mistress, who asked police to be discreet. Having so many other witnesses, the police decided not to push the matter.

There were two used-car lots nearby and several people, hearing the shots, came over to see what happened, to see the shooter running from the scene of the crime with a pistol raised in the air. One of these witnesses, Ted Callaway, shouted at him; the killer paused and shouted something back, then went on moving. The shooter dashed through a gas station lot, dropping his jacket. Callaway, an ex-Marine with extensive combat experience, went to the scene of the shooting, got Tippit's pistol, then had Scoggins drive him around the area, looking for the shooter. They didn't find him and returned, with Callaway handing the pistol back over to police who had come to the crime scene; the police were relieved to get the weapon out of his hands. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* GIMMICKS & GADGETS: IEEE SPECTRUM reports that Yale University engineers have built a simulator prototype of a new scheme to warn car drivers there's another car in their blind spot. "Blind spot" warning systems are already commercially available, but the approach they use is to provide warning lights on the rear-view mirror -- a scheme that the Yale group believes is distracting, judging drivers are already suffering from visual overload. The Yale researchers instead designed a car seat that has vibrating transducers in the car seat to provide a directional warning to the driver.

BBC WORLD Online took that notion well more than one better in a report on researchers working with the US National Federation for the Blind to design a car that can be driven by blind people. The car will of course be wired with camera and laser sensors, providing feedback to the driver via vibrating gloves, a vibrating vest, air jets, audio cues and speech input / output. This is the sort of item that results in staring off into space. A challenge? To say the least. Impossible? The answer to that question is to consider just how far off we are from cars that drive themselves.

* In particularly clever gadget news, the tech blogosphere was running articles on a design concept named "Move-It" that was up for the James Dyson innovation award competition for the UK. Move-It consists of a kit of three cardboard parts intended to turn any carton with a weight of up to 20 kilos (44 pounds) into a self-moving trolley. The parts include a handle (actually two configurations thereof) and two wheel assemblies, all backed with stickum to allow them to be attached to the carton. The wheels look like they're made of plastic, but they're stiff cardboard with a layer of thick plastic tape. The kit can be reused and ultimately recycled.

Move-It system

* As reported by WIRED Online, researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology have developed a new method of administering vaccines: a band-aid-like patch featuring a hundred "microneedles" that's slapped onto a subject's skin. The needles dissolve in a few minutes, releasing vaccine into the subcutaneous region. The patch is easily handled and safe, since its packaging keeps it sterile until use, and it can't be reused. It is less painful than a hypodermic needle, and it may be more effective; a hypodermic needle injects a vaccine into muscle, where immune cells are scarce, while the patch injects a vaccine under the skin, where they are plentiful. The patch has only been tested on animals so far, however.

* DISCOVERY CHANNEL Online that researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have come up with a next-gen rechargeable battery that features layered carbon nanotubes as the positive electrode and lithium titanium oxide as the negative electrode. The new battery has superior charge density, high current output capability, and quick charge time. It has been demonstrated to work for over a thousand charge-discharge cycles with no significant degradation in performance. Sounds marvelous -- the catch? The catch is that the battery is currently being made by a laborious handwork process, and nobody's quite figured out how to manufacture the device cheaply in quantity. They're working on that.



* FUEL FROM THE SUN: The nice gleaming green view of the future envisions a society where renewable energy sources provide low-cost energy without net carbon-dioxide emissions. One of the important components in this scenario is a shift towards biofuels, such as biodiesel or sugar cane ethanol -- but biofuels have their critics, who claim they contribute to rising food costs and aren't all that green when considered as an end-to-end process. As discussed by an article from AAAS SCIENCE ("Sunlight In Your Tank" by Robert F. Service, 11 December 2009), some researchers think that biofuels are the wrong solution to the problem in the first place: why not cut out the middleman and synthesize liquid fuels directly from solar power?

It's the dream recipe: take atmospheric CO2 and H20, cook them with concentrated solar power in a chemical reactor, and produce feedstocks for fuel. No more worries about emissions or energy independence, and no worries about intermittent sunlight since there's no need to operate around the clock. A loose network of solar-fuels enthusiasts over the globe has already demonstrated that the technology can be made to work, having built demonstrator units producing tens to hundreds of liters of energy-rich feedstock gases every day. The only problem is making such schemes work economically: for the present, solar-fuel advocates admit they cannot compete with fossil fuels unless a tax is put on carbon emissions.

* Solar fuels have traditionally been seen as something of a long shot. There was initial interest in the idea in the wake of the 1970s energy crisis, with groups in the US, Europe, and Japan investigating catalysts that could drive fuel conversion using any heat source, but when oil prices dropped in the early 1980s, such work was abandoned. In the early 1990s, small-scale solar fuels research resurfaced in Germany and Switzerland; from 2003, there was a burst of interest in the concept in the US, with the US Sandia National Labs being one of the players, but the funding ran out a few years later.

Despite the discouraging past history of solar fuels work, enthusiasts feel they have an ace going for them: scalability. The problem with other solar-driven renewable technologies, like photovoltaic electricity and biofuels, is that they tend to only use a narrow band of the spectrum of sunlight that reaches the ground. Solar fuel systems, in contrast, are based simply on focusing sunlight to produce heat, meaning they use all the sunlight. In addition, while solar electric power systems are limited by the fact that they can't produce power 24 hours a day, for solar fuel synthesis the lack of continuous sunlight is not that big a deal.

The objective of solar fuel systems is to crack CO2 or water. These gases can be broken down if they get hot enough, but the resulting mixture has a tendency to recombine easily with a bang, and so a useful process also needs to sort out the end products. Richard Diver, a solar engineer at Sandia, has constructed a demonstration reactor built around a set of 14 rings about 30 centimeters (a foot) across, made of cobalt and iron oxide (rust), that cycle between two reaction chambers:

thermochemical syngas synthesis

Other solar fuels researchers are using different catalysts, such as zinc oxide, and different reactor schemes. Unfortunately, none of the schemes have demonstrated an energy efficiency in converting sunlight to fuel of more than a few percent. There are also difficulties with the various catalysts used: iron oxide, for example, has a tendency to melt into inert slag if it gets too hot.

That's discouraging, but these are experimental systems, and solar fuel advocates say there's a huge range of possible catalytic materials available for consideration. Theoretical analysis shows that there's no inherent obstacle to multiplying efficiency by a factor of ten, and most believe that 20% conversion efficiency should be reached by 2020. However, even at that, price of the fuel will be about $10 USD a gallon, ridiculously uncompetitive with other fuel sources -- as long as no carbon tax is involved. Solar fuel advocates admit that their technology probably isn't going to save the world, instead seeing it as another option among many that need to be pursued. If one option doesn't work well, another may, and there may well be possibilities for hybrid technologies to get the best of both.

* As discussed in a footnote to this article, some solar fuels researchers are taking a more conservative approach, for example using solar heat to convert natural gas to a liquid fuel. That's not a carbon-neutral scheme by any means, but there's a lot of natural gas out there, and it's a lot more useful and easier to handle if it can be cheaply converted into a convenient liquid fuel.

Sundrop Fuels of Louisville, Colorado, is taking a flatly brute-force approach, using solar heat to cook waste biomass and create fuels. It's just a solar approach to classic synthetic fuel technology: heat up biomass in the presence of steam to produce syngas, which is then converted to synthetic fuel. Other than throwing in solar power, there's nothing in the scheme that wouldn't have been perfectly familiar to chemical engineers fifty years ago. It's not a very efficient scheme either, but it does have the attraction that the inputs -- solar power and plant waste -- are free, and the process is also carbon-neutral. Sundrop plans to have a plant operating by 2012 that can churn out 19 million liters of diesel or other fuels.



* THE DISEASE FACTOR: Intelligence testing has always had a somewhat dodgy flavor to it, particularly when testing seems to show variations in intelligence by national or ethnic derivation. Now, as reported by an article in THE ECONOMIST ("Mens Sana In Corpore Sano", 3 July 2010), it seems we may have been missing something in such studies: that people in poor societies may indeed rank low on intelligence measures, as an ugly consequence of the prevalence of disease in such places.

A recent study by Christopher Eppig and his colleagues at the University of New Mexico (UNM) makes a strong case for a struggle between intelligence and public health. They point out that the brains of newborn children demand 87% of the children's metabolic energy, declining to 55% in five-year-olds, and still soaking up about 25% in adults -- even though the brain only accounts for 2% of the weight of an adult. Competition for this metabolic energy is likely to impair brain development, and parasites and pathogens compete for it in several ways. They may feed on host tissue directly, or hijack molecular machinery to reproduce; those that live in the gut can steal food from the host, while all keep the immune system active and soaking up more energy.

The researchers backed up their ideas with a thorough statistical analysis, correlating intelligence scores against disease burden. The intelligence scores came from work conducted earlier in this decade by Richard Lynn, a British psychologist, and Tatu Vanhanen, a Finnish political scientist, who assembled intelligence tests for 113 countries, backed up by follow-on work by Jelte Wicherts, a Dutch psychologist. The UNM researchers obtained the disease burden from United Nations World Health Organization "disability adjusted life years (DALY) lost by 28 infectious diseases; such data exists for 192 countries.

At the bottom of the list of average national intelligence scores sits Equatorial Guinea, with Saint Lucia second to last. Third to last is a tie between Cameroon, Mozambique, and Gabon. All these countries rate near the worst in the list for burden of infectious diseases. At the top of the list for average intelligence scores lies Singapore, followed by South Korea, then China and Japan in a tie for third place. The US, Britain, and most Western European countries rank slightly lower. Of course, these nations are noted for their high levels of public health. The correlation between intelligence scores and disease burden is about 67%, and the likelihood of that being a matter of chance is about one in 10,000.

These findings are highly suggestive, but public health researchers know better than to think that correlation means causation, and so the UNM researchers tried to screen out other possible causes. Other factors considered for the link between nationality and low intelligence scores included income, education, levels of urbanization, climate, and even "challenging environments" -- that is, environments that give people more of a mental workout than dull menial labor. The analysis shows these other factors disappear or become negligible in comparison to the disease burden.

In addition, there is direct evidence that infections and parasites affect cognition. Intestinal worms may do so, as can malaria, but the UNM researchers believe diseases that cause diarrhea are the worst offenders, since they literally drain children at a time when they should be developing. Oddly, however, the UNM paper suggests that some afflictions, specifically asthma and other allergies, may well have a positive correlation to intelligence, since they seem to be a consequence of children growing up in relatively pathogen-free environments where their immune systems are weakly challenged.

Another prediction is that, as countries develop, intelligence scores should rise. This has been observed and is known as the "Flynn effect" after its discoverer, James Flynn. Flynn didn't know why there was such a correlation; the UNM paper suggests a possible cause. It also suggests that developing countries need to emphasize public health to prevent the erosion of their human capital. Making people healthier would be a good idea in any case.



* SYSTEM UPDATE ADVENTURES (2): Having laid down the groundwork for rebuilding my website formatting tools, I jumped into getting things working. I wrote a little C utility name "rpstr", for "replace string", to replace the UNIX-style "sed" utility. It was simple, only able to search for a string without the capability of handling wildcard characters; it was easily converted from small programs I'd already written, the sticky point being to figure out how to splice string output in C. I figured it would be a pain -- it was. Handling strings in any reasonable dialect of BASIC is trivial; in C it requires expertise, though I understand that C++ has routines that make it easier. I was fortunate to find some similar example code online, and I was able to apply some educated guesswork to get it flying.

Later I modified the code to produce "rpline", which searched for a text tag and replaced the entire line in the text file the tag was on. I also wrote a little C program called "fnstr" to find a string in a file -- Windows does have a command-line program named "FIND" to do that job, but I didn't see it as convenient. They were so trivial to knock off that it was no bother to make them.

In parallel, I was converting script files to batch files. The three high-level formatting scripts were easy to convert; they were just lists of commands, they didn't look so different as shell scripts or as batch files. The underlying "links" batch file was worrisome because I knew it was complicated, and I might have trouble reverse-engineering what it did -- but it turned out to be easier than I thought. Over time I had added various "special features" that ended up unused. I threw them out and the batch file ended up being much simpler and more robust.

* By Saturday morning, I was effectively operational, and it was time to start converting the dozens of formatting scripts in directories to batch files. It was straightforward to write a batch file to do most of the conversion, though I still had to tweak each of them a bit. It was a lot of time-consuming grunt work.

One trap I ran into was that -- unlike shell scripts -- if I call batch files from another batch file, the child batch file shares context with the parent batch file. What that means is that if the child batch file changes a directory, the directory change is valid for the parent batch file as well. Shell scripts don't work that way; the child shell script cannot change directories for the parent shell script. That meant any higher-level batch file that went from directory to directory, running lower-level batch files, had a strong tendency to lose track of directories and crash. I thought I could get around this problem by just storing the original directory in a variable and then changing back when I was done:

   CD C:\SomeDir
   CD %CDIR%

Alas, I didn't stop to think that variable names also shared context, and so if SOMEBATCH.BAT had a variable named "CDIR", it would step on the contents of the variable. After getting a bit flustered, I discovered that there was a feature in batch files to address this issue, in the form of the commands "PUSHD" and "POPD". The "PUSHD" command saves the current directory on a stack and then changes to the specified directory; "POPD" then grabs the directory off the stack and changes back:

   PUSHD C:\SomeDir

Of course, since these commands are stack-oriented, directory changes can be nested as many levels deep as desired. "PUSHD" and "POPD" were apparently there all along, but since I rarely called one batch file from another in the old days, I didn't need them and so I never paid them any mind. Incidentally, it is possible to call batch files without sharing context, by running another CMD.EXE shell:


-- but this isn't particularly convenient, and it's a good bet to be slower. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* THE KILLING OF JFK -- THE ASSASSINATION (6): While Oswald was making his way to his boarding house, various law enforcement people were swarming over Dealey Plaza. Howard Brennan had given the police a general description of the shooter he had seen in the sixth-floor window of the depository -- "slender white male about thirty; five foot ten; a hundred and sixty-five", carrying a rifle, Brennan couldn't give details of clothing -- and the police broadcast an alert to be on the lookout. Although some conspiracy theorists claim the police sent out an alert for "Lee Harvey Oswald", the authorities hadn't linked the shooter to him at that time. The police also had another witness, a 15-year-old black lad named Amos Euins, who said he had seen the shooter in the TSBD window, with Euins originally claiming he was a black man; then saying he wasn't so sure, and couldn't identify the shooter.

The Texas School Book Depository quickly became a focus of the investigation. By 12:45 it had been sealed off, with police searching the building. At 1:12 PM, Deputy Sheriff Luke Mooney found the sniper's nest on the sixth floor, with three expended cartridge cases on the floor, but no weapon. He called up his colleagues; the cases were photographed where they were lying and then dusted for fingerprints by Lieutenant Carl Day, boss of the Dallas crime scene search unit. The dusting did not reveal fingerprints, but as Day pointed out later: "That's routine. You can handle them and still not leave a mark."

Day also dusted the windowsills, but he knew it was probably hopeless; they were covered with dry cracked paint, which doesn't take prints well. No prints were revealed, but dusting the box used as a prop for the weapon revealed a clear and fresh palm print. Ultimately, several palmprints and fingerprints matched to Oswald were found in the "sniper's nest" and validated by multiple qualified analysts. However, of course Oswald carried around cartons in the TSBD as part of his job, and so the prints discovered there were not strong evidence in themselves that he had anything to do with the assassination.

The FBI ultimately found 25 other prints that were legible enough to be analyzed in the area, with all matched to TSBD employees whose whereabouts during the assassination were known, except for one palmprint that was never identified. The unidentified palmprint was not too surprising, since the cartons had been shipped from elsewhere and handled in the course of their trip to the TSBD. Reporters also canvassed the sixth floor of the TSBD over the days following the assassination and may have moved some things around.

* In any case, at 1:22, Deputy Sheriff Eugene Boone and Deputy Constable Seymour Weitzman found a rifle wedged between boxes by the rear stairwell. They didn't touch it, allowing Day to give it a look-over. He pulled it out carefully by its sling, with a local news camera man filming him as he did it. The weapon was old and weathered and Day knew it was unlikely to that prints would take on it. It proved to still have a round in the magazine. The police also recovered an improvised paper bag, which the police assumed was used to carry the disassembled rifle, in the sniper's nest, and Day found it had a nice palm print on one end. He finally gathered up the evidence and went back to his lab.

It should be noted that on 2 December, a TSBD worker discovered a clipboard that had been left behind a stack of books not far from where the rifle was from. It was the clipboard that Oswald had been carrying around on the morning of 22 November, with paperwork for orders he had been assigned to fulfill. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* Space launches for July included:

-- 10 JUL 10 / ECHOSTAR 15 -- A Proton M Breeze M booster was launched from Baikonur in Kazakhstan to put the "EchoStar 15" geostationary comsat into orbit for EchoStar Communications. The spacecraft was built by Space Systems / Loral and was based on the SS/L LS-1300 comsat platform. It had a launch mass of 5,521 kilograms (12,175 pounds), a payload of 32 Ku-band transponders, and a design life of 15 years. It was placed in the geostationary slot at 61.5 degrees West longitude to provide direct-to-home broadcast services for customers in the USA.

EchoStar 15

-- 12 JUL 10 / CARTOSAT 2B, SMALLSATS x 4 -- An Indian Space Research Organization Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle was launched from Sriharikota to put the "Cartosat 2B" remote sensing satellite into space, along with the "SRE 2" recoverable space capsule. Cartosat 2B had a launch mass of 694 kilograms (1,530 pounds) with a payload of a grayscale camera with a resolution of 80 centimeters (2.6 feet) and a swath width of 9.6 kilometers (6 miles), backed up a 64 gigabit solid-state recorder to accumulate observations between downloads. The launch also included four small satellites:

AISSat 1

-- 31 JUL 10 / BEIDOU-2 5 -- A Chinese Long March 3A booster was launched from Xichang to put a "Beidou (Big Dipper)" navigation satellite into orbit. It was the fifth second-generation Beidou spacecraft to be launched. It was placed in geostationary orbit.

* OTHER SPACE NEWS: AVIATION WEEK had some comments on US weather satellite strategy, which is now in a state of adjustment. The Pentagon and the US National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) had been collaborating on a new polar low-Earth orbit weather satellite system, providing close-up observations to complement those of the NOAA "Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellites (GOES)", with the new low-orbit system given the clumsy name of the "National Polar-Orbiting Operational Environmental System (NPOESS)". NPOESS was supposed to replace the military's "Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP)" and NOAA's "Polar Operational Environmental Satellite (POES)" systems.

As occasionally happens with big government tech projects, NPOESS went completely out of control, the partners ended up at odds while the schedule slipped out five years and estimated costs roughly doubled to $15 billion USD. The Obama Administration gave NPOESS the axe in February 2010; in the new vision, the military will develop its own weathersat system for morning observations, while NOAA will develop its own weathersat system for afternoon observations. Mid-day observations will be performed by the European Eumetsat organization's "Eumetsat Polar System (EPS)", Eumetsat being partnered with the US on the effort. The first EPS satellite, "Metop-A", was launched in 2006.

The military is still considering options for what is now known as the "Defense Weather Satellite System (DWSS)". Given that the first DWSS spacecraft is to be launched in 2018, the military may not have the luxury of simply starting over from scratch. As far as NOAA goes, the agency's first "Joint Polar Satellite System" spacecraft will simply be a clone of the Ball-built "NPOESS Preparatory Project (NPP)" demonstrator satellite, to be launched in 2011. The JPSS-1 clone will fly in 2014, with JPSS-2 flying in 2018. As far as Eumetsat goes, the second EPS satellite, "Metop-B", will fly in 2012, with the third and last, "Metop-C", to go up in 2016.

AAAS SCIENCE adds that climate researchers were not at all happy to find out that JPSS will drop the "Total & Spectral Irradiance Sensor (TSIS)" that was planned for NPOESS. TSIS is seen as critical for maintaining detailed measurements of solar irradiance for global climate modeling. The only current solar irradiance sensor in orbit is on the SORCE smallsat, launched in 2003 and five years beyond its design life. The Glory smallsat, to be launched this year, will also carry a solar irradiance sensor. NASA says it is committed to fly TSIS one way or another, but to guarantee continuous coverage, it will have to be launched by 2014.

* There was some excitement in the comsat community beginning last April, when the Intelsat Galaxy 15 geostationary comsat, launched in 2005, decided to stop paying attention to ground commands, having been apparently damaged by a solar flare. It then drifted past the positions of a number of other geostationary comsats; there wasn't much worry it would collide with them, but Galaxy 15 remained operational and its transmissions could cause interference. There was work to relocate comsats to make sure that communications services weren't interrupted by the "zombie" drifting past them.

Galaxy 15 is expected to finally go out of control completely in late August or early September, to then lose lock on the Sun so it will no longer be able to properly direct its solar panels. Once the power drains down enough, the satellite will go into a reset mode, potentially allowing control to be regained before the satellite is lost completely. Orbital Sciences, which built Galaxy 15, is incorporating fixes into new comsats to prevent something like this from happening again.

* The little cheap "CubeSat" satellites have proven very popular, with student, amateur, and commercial organizations putting together the tiny spacecraft for launch as secondary payloads. A California firm named Interorbital Systems is now pushing even cheaper little "TubeSats", selling the basic spacecraft for $8,000 USD. That puts building a satellite into the realm of the dedicated hobbyist.

Interorbital is also intending to launch the TubeSats, using the company's "Neptune" booster system; the price of the TubeSat includes launch as well. A Neptune booster is built around clusters of "Common Propulsion Module (CPM)", each being a single pressure-fed rocket unit fueled by fuming red nitric acid oxidizer and a hydrocarbon-type fuel. The baseline "Neptune 30" booster features five CPMs plus a solid-fuel upper kick stage, organized as three stages overall and capable of putting 30 kilograms (66 pounds) into low Earth orbit. Neptune variants range up in size to those capable of putting a manned space capsule into orbit or launching a mid-sized planetary probe.

The basic Neptune concept follows a scheme devised by the German space startup OTRAG in the late 1970s and early 1980s. OTRAG is not necessarily an inspiring model for the concept, however, since the firm ran into a series of problems and never flew a payload. Whether Interorbital can do better remains to be seen; I honestly wish them luck, and will be keeping an eye out for their activities.



* BOOBYTRAPPED: We live in an increasingly automated world in which elaborate machines are acquiring ever greater smarts to allow them to operate with ever less supervision. As reported by an article from IEEE SPECTRUM ("Automated To Death" by Robert N. Charette, December 2009), while these machines often work marvelously, it's clearly very hard to design them to make absolutely sure they don't go dangerously crazy under conditions that the designers never really factored in.

On the afternoon of 1 August 2005, Malaysia Airlines Flight 124, a Boeing 777 jetliner, departed Perth, Australia, on a flight to Kuala Lumpur. Roughly 18 minutes into the flight, as the jetliner was approaching cruise altitude on autopilot, the aircraft pitched up sharply and started to climb rapidly. Moments later, the stall and overspeed indicators came on simultaneously -- telling the crew that the 777 had effectively stopped flying, while reporting it was flying much too fast. The crew of course didn't know what to make of that; the pilot disconnected autopilot and turned the nose of the aircraft down, only to have the auto-throttle command more thrust, sending the aircraft rapidly down. The pilot manually moved back the throttles, with the 777 reacting by pitching up again and climbing. The pilot finally regained control and turned back to Perth before he got any more surprises. Nobody was hurt, though the crew and passengers had a ride that was well more exciting than they had bargained for.

The Australian Transport Safety Bureau investigated the incident and determined that the fault lay in the jetliner's "Air Data Inertial Reference Unit (ADIRU)". The ADIRU was built around an inertial reference system with accelerometers on three axes; the accelerometers were redundant, with two on each of the three axes. One accelerometer had failed in 2001; its partner failed after the takeoff of Flight 124. That shouldn't have been particularly troublesome, the crew should have been able to fly the aircraft -- but unfortunately the autopilot system then tried to use the old broken accelerometer to fly the aircraft. The designers of the ADIRU had never considered that particular sequence of events and had never tested for it.

Industrial psychologists have realized for decades that increasing automation of systems has been creating an unpleasant safety quandary. While critical systems like jetliners still require human oversight, the operators increasingly have less and less to do most of the time; when something goes wrong, the operators then have to react, usually promptly, in the face of unfamiliar circumstances. Worse, as the systems grow more reliable, the unfamiliar circumstance grows ever more freakish, making the challenge to the operators even greater.

Raja Parasuraman, a professor of psychology at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, has been investigating the issue of the challenges automation poses to human operator oversight. Says Parasuraman: "There will always be a set of circumstances that was not expected, that the automation was not designed to handle, or other things that just cannot be predicted." As system reliability approaches, but never quite reaches, 100%, "the more difficult it is to detect the error and to recover from it."

In June 2009, a subway train of the Washington DC Metro red line operated by Janice McMillan rear-ended a stationary train. McMillan was killed, along with eight passengers; 80 other passengers were injured. It appears that the safety-signal system failed to detect the stopped train. McMillan saw the stopped train and hit the emergency brake, but her train was moving too fast to stop in time.

DC Metro crash, 2009

Of course, as the system reliability approaches 100%, while it is true that error detection and recovery becomes more difficult, it also means that errors are much less frequent. It would be a crackpot exercise to play up the threat of automation without acknowledging that, on the balance, automation has made the world safer. This was only the second fatal crash in the DC Metro system in 33 years of operation; in 2008, customers took 215 million rides on the Metro without any fatal accidents. In the USA, excluding collisions between trains and automobiles, 27 people were killed and 324 injured in train accidents in 2008. In contrast, in 1910 W.L. Park, superintendent of the Union Pacific Railroad, claimed that "one human being is killed every hour, and one injured every ten minutes." That worked out to almost 9,000 people killed and over 50,000 injured per year. The same improvement in safety is true in other transport systems: Boeing estimated that in 2000, the world's commercial airliners carried 1.09 billion people on 18 million flights, with only 20 fatal crashes.

Increased automation isn't a threat to us; on the contrary, we're well better off for it. The issue is that even highly reliable automated systems still pose a certain level of hazard, and the nature of these systems makes reducing that level of hazard troublesome. Many fewer people may be getting killed on modern aircraft -- but with even fewer people getting killed, people are still getting killed. This not just undesireable in itself, it opens up operators and manufacturers to expensive and embarrassing litigation. A small defect rate is much preferable to a big defect rate, but the goal, however difficult as it is to attain, is no defects at all.

The answer is to figure out better interfaces between machines and their operators. As one aviation systems engineer put it, automated systems need good two-way communications: when the operator tells the system to do something, the system needs to make it clear that it is actually doing it. There's also the question of operator training: instead of simply assuming that operators will have the knowledge to react in the face of emergencies, they need to be trained to deal with them in simulators -- with worst-case scenarios introduced without warning -- or to the extent possible on the actual equipment they operate.



* THE PALM-OIL PROBLEM: It is an unfortunate reality that things rarely turn out to be simple. As discussed by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("The Campaign Against Palm Oil", 24 June 2010), a case in point is the seemingly placid subject of palm oil. Officials of international corporate giant Unilever did not think the subject at all placid on 21 April 2010, when Greenpeace activists dressed as orangutans stormed the company's headquarters building in London, with further orangutan actions across Europe against Unilever and other firms. The demonstrators unfurled banners to declare their message: UNILEVER -- DON'T DESTROY THE FORESTS! The protesters were angry because Unilever is a major buyer of palm oil, and they claimed that palm oil production is leading to the destruction of Indonesian rainforests. The company got the message, declaring that the company would obtain all its palm oil from "sustainable" sources by 2015.

Greens are often accused of hysterical exaggeration, but in this case there was justice in their concerns. Between 1967 and 2000, the area under cultivation in Indonesia expanded from less than 2,000 square kilometers (770 square miles) to more than 30,000 square kilometers (11,600 square miles). Deforestation in Indonesia for palm oil and illegal logging is so rapid that a report released by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) in 2007 said that most of the country's rainforest might be destroyed by 2022. Although the rate of forest loss has declined in Indonesia in the past decade, UNEP says the spread of palm-oil plantations remains a major threat to rainforests in Indonesia and Malaysia.

In Sumatra and Borneo, palm-oil production threatens elephants, tigers and rhinos, as well as orangutans. Enormous amounts of carbon dioxide are released as forests and peatlands are destroyed; deforestation makes Indonesia one of the world's largest carbon-dioxide emitters. To be sure, palm oil has helped contribute to economic growth in producer countries, though even that benefit ends up being tarnished when locals are chased off their lands to make room for plantations.

Buyers of palm oil are finding it ever harder to turn a blind eye to such problems. Even though Unilever buys only 4% of global palm oil production, that still makes the company the biggest single buyer, and so it has become a target of activists. Other companies that have attracted protests include food producers Kraft, General Mills, and Nestle; agribusiness giant Cargill; and HSBC, a bank. Activists have got their attention, and the companies are now paying more mind to what goes on at the ends of their supply chains.

orangutans invade Switzerland

* The palm-oil story began in 1848, when it was discovered that the oil palm, a native of West Africa, grew well in the Far East. Its giant bunches of red fruits were rich in oil that proved useful in soap and later as a lubricant for steam engines. Demand increased, with plantations springing up in Malaysia in the 1930s. As the industry grew, cultivation spread to Indonesia. Today, these two countries produce 90% of the world's palm oil, with the oil used in the production of a wide range of products from peanut butter, margarine and ice cream to lipstick, soap, shampoos, and shaving foam. Palm oil is commonly used as a cooking oil across Asia, and is becoming more popular as a feedstock for biodiesel -- with laws encouraging the use of biofuels pushing demand.

With the rise in demand, price of the oil has been increasing; it's softened a bit recently, but the average price in 2010 has been about $800 USD a tonne. Global production is expected to reach almost 47 million tonnes in 2010. The oil palm is an efficient crop plant, yielding up to ten times more oil per hectare than soybeans, rapeseed or sunflowers. Any substitute would need more land.

Traditionally, concerns over palm oil were discussed within an organization named the "Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO)". Set up in 2004, the RSPO involves growers, processors, food companies, investors, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Its goal is to encourage the industry to produce "sustainable palm oil", that is, certified as not been produced on land that should have been conserved. The RSPO has proven ineffective, with the majority of players simply ignoring it; its members only account for 40% of palm-oil production. Critics snipe that RSPO actually stands for "Really Slow Progress Overall". Greenpeace published a report critical of the RSPO a few years ago, ultimately leading to the protests against Unilever and other companies.

Since Unilever committed itself to using only palm oil certified as being from sustainable sources, more than 20 big companies -- including Procter & Gamble, Unilever's arch-rival, and candy-maker Mars -- have followed suit. Greenpeace, however, insisted that Unilever make sure that its "sustainable" suppliers were actually playing by the rules; Unilever agreeably checked into the matter. The results were not so agreeable, with a company official saying: "We found that, in one way or another, all of our suppliers have technically infringed either RSPO standards or Indonesian law. It isn't as easy as saying just pick the best, we can't. We are not in a position to do that. The industry almost certainly has to go through fundamental change." There wasn't all that much Unilever could do to push the change, either; the company might have been the biggest single buyer, but control over only 4% of the market gave Unilever very little leverage with producers.

Nestle, although a much smaller buyer of palm oil than Unilever, found the accusations painful enough to take unprecedented action, making sure that companies running "high-risk plantations or farms linked to deforestation" were dropped from its supply chain. To obtain intelligence, Nestle recruited The Forest Trust (TFT), a charity based in Switzerland, to conduct a rigorous independent review of its palm-oil supply chains. The RSPO has said that if independent investigations by the TFT or others show any of the RSPO's members are violating the organization's rules, they will be thrown out.

* All this is very encouraging to Greens, but they have only managed to put pressure on big Western firms; there are plenty of buyers in Asia that haven't been touched. There is also the problem that the base of the supply chain consists of a jumble of different plantations that are difficult to monitor, and it is very difficult to trace back where a batch of palm oil came from. Some skeptics call the idea of sustainable palm oil a "myth".

Still, Greens continue to pressure the big players, lobbying for new disclosure requirements to require companies to list activities that could be linked to deforestation. The fact that the World Bank, the United Nations, the European Union, and many national governments are paying more attention to the deforestation issue is adding to the pressure. Internet social networking adds yet more force to the squeeze. Besides, not surprisingly many, though certainly not all, of the staff of big companies honestly embrace the need to protect the forests.

The pressure has also got results in Indonesia, with the Indonesian president recently announcing a two-year moratorium on new concessions to clear natural forests and peatlands, as well as an intent to set up a national certification body. Some argue that the palm-oil industry can continue to expand in Indonesia through productivity gains and the availability of grassland or previously deforested land. There's some doubt over that claim -- but there's no doubt that the fight over palm oil is going to continue for some time to come.



* SYSTEM UPDATE ADVENTURES (1): As mentioned some time back, this last spring I decided to update my desktop PC to Windows 7. I'd already updated my laptop to Win7 and it was no bother, in fact it really didn't look that different after I'd done it. I wasn't expecting trouble -- but I got it.

I did the update on Monday, 7 June, and it seemed to be okay in itself, but then I tried to run the shell scripts that I used to format the pages for my website. I had been running UNIX-style tools under the freeware Cygwin environment; configuration had been tricky, but I'd come up with some Windows batch files to do the job. None of it was working any more. I tried one trick after another but it was no use, and the sketchy hacker-type documentation for Cygwin was all but useless. I even tried restoring my old Windows installation, but no joy; nothing worked.

I was feeling a bit stressed because I had to format new HTML pages to keep my blog going, and I was out of business for doing so. After struggling with the problem into Wednesday, I decided to bite the bullet, dump Cygwin, and convert all my shell scripts to batch files, backed up by some simple C programs to replace UNIX-style tools where necessary. I dropped all my other workload I could possibly drop to deal with the matter.

* Having reinstalled Win7, the first thing I managed to do on Thursday was acquire a limp-along capability to format simple HTML files. I'd written a formatter in C long ago that was the core of my formatting scheme, and it was still working fine. I threw together some quick batch files to support it and managed to get some files that were workable, at least with a little manual cut-and-paste of HTML code from HTML files I already had formatted. It was a completely impractical for formatting any large project, but it would do for the moment. I was able to get formatted blog entries up on the website with a gap of only about two days.

The next phase of the work was writing a few simple C utilities. This turned out to be simpler than I thought. One reason was that I had a tool I'd written named "splice" that would search through a text file for a tag and then replace the tag with the contents of another text file. I figured I'd written it in Awk, which had disappeared along with Cygwin, but it turned out I'd written it in C. I had been expecting that to be a big task, but that item had taken care of itself.

I still had to write some simple C programs, and there was the problem that I didn't have a C compiler on my Windows system. I had heard of a freeware "Tiny C Compiler (TCC)" and looked it up online. I was dreading the learning curve of installing it, but it was easy, just download and install. That left the problem of getting it to work, and the notes supplied with TCC didn't seem very helpful. All I wanted to do was give TCC a simple one-file C program and having it compile it to an .exe program, but I couldn't figure out the options for doing so. Then I just decided to try:

   tcc someCprog.c

-- and it promptly spat out "someCprog.exe". I felt a bit dense, though I was still pleased; isn't there a rule somewhere than says software can't be easy to use? To be sure, TCC is a toy C compiler, but then I'm a toy C programmer and it fit my needs perfectly. All the programs I write are small and use plain-vanilla C, and so if TCC was workable at all, it would be easily able to compile them. The lack of support features in TCC wasn't a problem; I rarely program in C and the simplicity of operation was far more useful to me than extensive tools that would take time to learn and I would soon forget. TCC is a nice hobbyist tool.

* In the meantime, I got started getting back up to speed on batch files. I waded through an old writeup I'd made in the early 1990s on writing batch files to refresh my memory so I could convert the set of script files I had:

Along with refreshing myself on batch programming, I had to learn more about use of batch files under Windows. One issue was that I didn't want to "hardcode" pathnames of directories into the batch files, since that would mean I'd have to modify them all again if the system installation changed. I quickly figured out that batch files could use Windows environment variables, so I set up an environment variable to define the base directory needed by the batch files.

Originally I used the Windows registry editor to set the environment variable, but that's dodgy -- the registry is extensive and hard to navigate, making errors very easy. I later found out there was a much simpler and safer way to do it:

I don't know when this was added to Windows, but it certainly made life much easier for me. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* THE KILLING OF JFK -- THE ASSASSINATION (5): A short time after Oswald left the TSBD, a young man got onto a bus at a stop not too far from Dealey Plaza. There were only a handful of passengers on the bus; by coincidence, one was Mary Bledsoe, who had thrown Oswald out of her boarding house a few weeks earlier. Bledsoe recognized him as the man who got on. The bus got bogged down in traffic; the driver of the car in front got out and told the bus driver, Cecil McWaters, that the jam was because the president had been shot. Oswald decided to get off the bus.

A few minutes later, at the Greyhound bus station two blocks away, cab driver William Whaley picked up a young man. Although Whaley was puzzled by all the police cars racing around, the passenger said nothing and Whaley didn't ask him about it. Whaley let the passenger out some distance from boarding house where Oswald had been staying. Shortly thereafter the housekeeper there, Earlene Roberts, saw "O.H. Lee", as she knew Oswald, enter and go into his room in a hurry, "almost running". He left in a hurry as well, having put on a jacket despite the fact that the day was now clearly too warm for one. The jacket wasn't the only thing he picked up. It was about 1:00 PM. Nobody would ever figure out where Oswald thought he was going.

* Roberts did add an unsettling touch to her recollections. She testified in April 1964 that while Oswald was there, a police car parked by the boarding house, honked its horn, and drove off. In a report obtained by the Dallas police dated 5 December 1963 and in a conversation with a reporter that day, she made no mention of it, though she did report that about a half hour later the police came to the boarding house looking for Oswald. After she came forward with her story about the police car in April 1964, she changed it in June, saying the police car honked its horn after Oswald left the apartment building, without Oswald paying the matter any mind.

In addition, Roberts had poor vision -- the deposition for her April testimony records her as saying that she couldn't "see too good how to read" and waiving her signature of it -- but she reported that the license plate number gave it as "car 207". Records indicated that car 207 was nowhere near the boarding house at the time she said she saw it. She then said it was "car 106" -- no, it wasn't around either -- and then "car 107" -- again, no joy. She had actually spoken with various Dallas reporters after the assassination but never mentioned the incident, and when the reporters found out about her revised story they looked her up again. One asked her why she hadn't said anything, but she simply got "very flustered" and couldn't give a straight answer.

Roberts' employer at the apartment, Gladys Johnson, told the Warren Commission that Roberts had some "bad habits". On being asked to elaborate, Johnson said that Roberts had a custom of "making up tales ... just a creative mind, there's nothing to it, and just make up and keep talking until she makes a lie out of it ... she is a person who doesn't mean to do it but she just does it automatically ... I don't understand it myself."

Not only was Roberts' testimony dubious, but even assuming it was true, it was hard to fit the incident into any coherent conspiracy theory. According to the story, the police didn't come into contact with Oswald -- and if honking a horn was supposed to have been some sort of important signal to Oswald, what would have happened if somebody just driving by had honked a horn for whatever other reason instead? [TO BE CONTINUED]



* SCIENCE NOTES: The science blogosphere was running a buzz on kudzu, an Asian vine that was imported to the US Southeast, where it proved only too successful -- overgrowing the landscape and choking out native plants. As it turns out, not only is kudzu a pervasive eyesore, it is also a potential air pollutant.

Kudzu is a legume, related to peas, and can perform "nitrogen fixation", grabbing nitrogen out of the air and, working with symbiotic bacteria in the plant roots, converting it to nitrogenous compounds the plant needs to grow and live. When the plant's leaves fall off the plant, they are decomposed by bacteria in the soil; the nitrogen compounds released in the decay include nitrous oxides or "NOx", which is released into the air. Once released, NOx leads to the creation of ozone, the toxic O3 molecule. Normally, legume concentrations are too low to be a concern, but kudzu has achieved such staggering concentrations that the ozone it indirectly produces can be a significant problem in some locales. As if kudzu wasn't enough of a pain to begin with ... incidentally, it's also becoming a pest in parts of Italy and Switzerland.

kudzu attacks a telephone pole

* As reported by a blog entry from DISCOVERY magazine online, the Caribbean island of Trinidad is home to Pitch Lake, the world's biggest hot asphalt lake. Researchers investigating the lake have discovered that, though Pitch Lake seems like an uninviting environment, it is still loaded with microorganisms. A wide range of "extremophile" organisms, capable of living in environments that would kill normal organisms, have been found, but this is the first time anybody has found life in pools of hot asphalt.

Analysis of the samples shows a wide range of organisms, about a third of which were previously unknown. Nobody has yet determined the mechanisms by which these organisms survive in such a noxious environment. The idea that life could thrive in pools of sticky hydrocarbons is tantalizing because it suggests the possibility of life on Saturn's moon Titan, which has a surface covered with hydrocarbon deposits. However, the organisms found in Pitch Lake may not actually be good models for hypothetical Titanian organisms -- the Pitch Lake organisms may have conventional metabolic processes that don't really take advantage of their hot asphalt environment, maybe instead being basically conventional organisms that have acquired tricks to protect themselves from the environment. Research continues to characterize these organisms and determine how they survive.

* WIRED Online reports that a recent paper by Eric Wolf and Brian Toon, two atmospheric scientists at the University of Colorado in Boulder (UCB), has provided a suggestion on why the early Earth wasn't an iceball. About 3 billion years ago, the Sun was only about two-thirds as bright as it is now, and under such circumstances the Earth, as it is now, would have frozen over.

All geological evidence says it wasn't, that the ancient Earth had liquid oceans, and so there's been puzzling for decades as to why. In 1972, the late astronomer Carl Sagan and his colleague George Mullen suggested that an atmosphere laced with a small amount of ammonia, a strong greenhouse gas, would have provided the necessary warming. However, follow-on studies suggested that solar ultraviolet (UV) radiation would have decomposed the ammonia. In 1996, Sagan added that possibly the atmosphere of the early Earth was full of organic haze, like that of Titan, which would have filtered out the UV. Unfortunately, once again follow-on studies deflated that idea, showing that the organic particles would have agglomerated to block out all light.

Earth & Sun

The UCB paper suggests the models showing agglomeration of the organic particles were too simplistic, that instead the particles would have formed up long chains, creating a matrix of nanosized "threads" with a fractal organization. The matrix would have blocked UV while allowing visible light through, with traces of ammonia at levels of no more than a few parts per million trapping the heat. Astrophysicist Christopher Chyba of Princeton commented that though the UCB paper likely wasn't the last word on the "faint Sun" problem -- another recent paper suggested that the Earth was darker in color then, which would have also helped keep the planet warm -- but that the resolution of the issue seemed within reach: "Given these recent papers, we can probably say the early faint Sun problem is not one of the problems any more in solving the origin of life."



* A FUNGICIDE THREAT? As reported by an article from AAAS SCIENCE ("Farm Fungicides Linked To Resistance In A Human Pathogen" by Martin Enserink, 27 November 2009), while it is well-known that overuse of antibiotics is breeding pathogens that defy medical treatment, there's an unsettling possibility that antibiotics aren't the only problem in this regard. A team of Dutch researchers led by Paul Verweij, of the Radbound University Nijmegen Medical Center, recently published a paper suggesting there may be a link between heavy use of fungicides to protect European orchards, vineyards, and grain fields, and the increasing resistance to treatment of infections with the fungus Aspergillus fumigatus.

A. fumigatus is found almost everywhere in the soil, as well as piles of decaying plant matter such as compost. Its spores are widely spread on the wind, and of course they are often inhaled by humans. That's not generally a problem for healthy people since the immune system can deal with the fungus, but it can be be lethal to patients with compromised immune systems -- and there are cases of apparently healthy individuals who have been violently afflicted by the fungus, often following unusually heavy exposure to the spores.

A class of drugs known as "azoles" can treat such infections, though A. fumigatus sometimes proves resistant to treatment. Usually the mutations that promote resistance differ in each case; a study in the UK of resistant fungus identified 18 distinct mutations. However, Verweij's team found that 94% of the resistant fungus found in the Nijmegen medical center and 69% of those from other Dutch hospitals all had the same mutation. Verweij suggests that's because patients breathed in resistant fungi that were already present in the environment.

Azoles are not merely used as drugs to treat humans for fungal infections, they are also used as fungicides to protect crops, being very heavily applied in Europe. The idea that such heavy agricultural use of azoles might be breeding resistant fungi isn't new; a panel was set up by the European Union to investigate the matter almost a decade ago, though the panel concluded in 2002 there was no evidence of a threat. Verweij admits that his group hasn't quite proven a link between azole use as an agricultural fungicide and resistant fungal infections in humans, but he points out that further studies by his team have shown that A. fumigatus samples obtained from the environment -- local flower beds, compost heaps, garden centers -- showed that resistant fungi with the specific mutation discussed in their paper are common.

The study has been denounced by some researchers as scaremongering, and certainly producers of azole fungicides are not happy about it. Verweij admits that the end result could be a ban on many fungicides, but for the time being more research needs to be done. For now, the most that can be done is make sure that climate control systems in hospitals and other care facilities do a good job of filtering out external air, that immunocompromised patients wear face masks when out of doors, and that people dealing with old rotten piles of plant waste exercise care in doing so.



* LEMV IN THE WORKS: Airships are a concept that seem to remain just offstage forever. However, the US military has been interested in using airships as "unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV)" for surveillance, as discussed here a year ago. As reported by an article from AVIATION WEEK ("Rise Of The Airship" by Graham Warwick, 5 July 2010), that effort now seems poised for takeoff, with the US Army awarding a $517 million USD contract to Northrop Grumman for development of the "Long-Endurance Multi-intelligence Vehicle (LEMV)", scheduled to be in service in Afghanistan as early as 2012.

LEMV concept

The LEMV will be a "hybrid" airship, with negative buoyancy -- it can't just float off the ground, it has to use lift from forward flight to take off. Hybrids are much less vulnerable to the troublesome and sometimes dangerous ground-handling problems that afflict positive-buoyancy airships, and they also do not require venting gas or dumping ballast to perform altitude control. The LEMV will orbit at high altitude over the battle theater, performing observations over a wide ground footprint using day and night video, radar, and signals intelligence (SIGINT) payloads. Its data handling system will fuse the various sensor inputs and deliver them to tactical warfighters below.

The LEMV will be able to stay on station at 6,100 meters (20,000 feet) for at least three and possibly four weeks, carrying a payload weighing 1,600 kilograms (3,500 pounds). It will be able to do the job of a dozen medium-sized fixed-wing UAVs, using fewer personnel and at a far lower operating cost. While the LEMV is being built in response to present war needs, over the longer run Northrop Grumman sees it as also useful for communications, border security, and disaster relief. With modifications, the LEMV could be used as a cargolifter.

Northrop Grumman is not actually going to design the airship, the firm instead working with a company named Hybrid Air Vehicles (HAV) of Cardington in the UK -- the Army is in a hurry and that means leveraging off available technology. HAV has been flying a piloted hybrid airship, the "HAV3", for some time; the LEMV air vehicle, the "Condor 304", will be an optionally-piloted, scaled-up version of the HAV3, with a length of 90 meters (300 feet).

The LEMV will obtain 60% of its buoyancy from helium lifting gas and 40% of its buoyancy from lift; there will be twin ducted fans on each side that can be rotated forward or straight up, permitting vertical landing and short takeoff. The fans will be driven by four Thielert Centurion turbo-diesel engines; the vehicle will be able to stay on station with only one engine operating. Maximum speed will be 150 KPH (90 MPH / 80 KT). The LEMV will feature a nonrigid envelope, using materials already in service with aerostats (tethered balloons) and provided by ILC Dover, an experienced manufacturer of aerostats and other inflatable products. The airship systems will be integrated at the HAV plant in the UK, while Northrop Grumman puts together the mission systems at the company facility in Melbourne, Florida.

A rigid structure running two-thirds the length of the underside will house the optionally-manned cockpit plus avionics and communications systems racks at the forward end, with removeable fuel tanks at the aft end. The two ends are linked by an I-beam assembly, to which sensor packages can be mounted. The mission system will have a flexible and modular open architecture, allowing payloads to be easily swapped out under field conditions. The payloads will feature a common interface specification to allow them to be plugged into the airship's networking, power, and cooling services.

The basic airship will be delivered to a former blimp base at Tillamook, Oregon, for initial flight tests in mid-2011. These trial flights will be piloted. Following this test phase, the airship will be ferried to Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona for service trials, including unpiloted flights. The first air vehicle is scheduled to be ferried to Afghanistan by the end of 2011, to undergo a 45 to 60 day operational evaluation. Contract options permit the Army to keep the first vehicle in the theater; the contract also includes options for two more airships, to be funded if the first one seems like a good idea. The first airship will be fitted with off-the-shelf sensors, again because the Army is in a hurry, but Northrop Grumman will provide the sensors for the second and third machines.

The first LEMV will carry a video sensor system, a VADER small synthetic aperture radar, and a SIGINT payload provided by Northrop Grumman; the communications payload will feature multiple datalinks to control the vehicle and maintain the flow of surveillance data to the ground. Northrop Grumman is working with Systems Applications International Corporation (SAIC) on the ground environment, with the LEMV data streams to be integrated into the "Distributed Common Ground Station (DCGS) Mobile Basic" intelligence distribution network Northrop Grumman is now implementing for the military.

If the second and third vehicles are built, they will incorporate various improvements over the first. One improvement under consideration is more powerful engines, permitting up to twice as much payload and, thanks to more fuel, longer endurance. Design changes could also accommodate bolt-on containers for cargo or passengers. Enthusiasts believe that the LEMV will bring airships in from the margins; however, given decades of false starts, there is still reason to be cautious. [ED: Indeed -- all the military LTA projects were later canceled.]



* THE CRYSTAL PALACE (2): Joseph Paxton's Crystal Palace was a huge structure, spanning 563 by 124 meters (1,848 by 408 feet), with an extension on the north side covering 285 by 14 meters (936 by 46 feet). It was covered with 83,650 square meters (900,000 square feet) of glass, which was a substantial chunk of the UK's yearly glass production. It was held up by 3,300 cast-iron columns, 2,224 primary girders, and 38.6 kilometers (24 miles) of main gutter, with 330 kilometers (205 miles) of wood sash holding the glass in place. The weight of glass in the Crystal Palace came to 364 tonnes (400 tons). The glass was all produced by Chance Brothers & CO of Birmingham -- no doubt the contract was highly profitable to the firm -- and it was the largest sheet the company was able to produce, with dimensions of 124.4 x 25.4 centimeters (49 x 10 inches). The panes were actually blown into hollow cylinders, then sliced down one edge and "unrolled" under heating onto a flat form.

Although the scale of the structure was overwhelming, it was elegantly simple in construction. It was built around an array of hollow cast-iron columns linked by girders in the form of trusses that supported a flat roof of glass panes in a "pleated" configuration -- that is, the glass panels of the roof alternated between sloping up and sloping down, on 1.2 meter (4 foot) intervals. Paxton had come up with the pleated scheme during earlier work on greenhouses, finding it provided better lighting and increased structural strength. To further increase strength, wrought-iron rods were connected in diagonals as bracing. The components were highly standardized, with only two heights of columns and three lengths of girders -- a basic length, plus two and three times the basic length.

Paxton's critics believed that the Crystal Palace was dangerously weak and wouldn't stand up to high winds, but the building proved perfectly sturdy. Paxton further demonstrated his insight by specifying many of the components in a "prestressed" format, for example casting the girders with a slight upward camber, so that they would bend straight when placed under a load and not sag.

The technical details of the Crystal Palace were impressive enough, but the industrial organization behind the effort was even more impressive, with the design, production, delivery, and assembly of the building requiring a mere 17 weeks. The entire exercise, from start to opening to the public, took six months. The only way that such a large structure could have been completed so fast was through modularization and standardization of components.

The feat was all the more impressive because standardized interchangeable components were still basically something new at the time -- it might well have been impossible to build such a structure a generation earlier. Paxton and his staff thought the entire process out in detail, for example using covered carts or "traveling stages" to allow workmen to install the glass panes on the roof. Using the stages, 80 workmen were able to install almost 19,000 panes with their sashing in one week. Machines helped hoist and haul materials on the site; there was even a machine to paint components before they were put into the structure.

* As noted, many Victorians did not like the Crystal Palace's appearance of lightness, preferring more evidently solid structures. However, many others found it breathtaking. A German visitor declared: "We cannot tell if this structure towers a hundred or a thousand feet above us ... all materiality is blended into the atmosphere."

The Crystal Palace was quickly copied by exhibition halls elsewhere. A wood and glass structure obviously patterned on the Crystal Palace was put up in Dublin in 1852; another copycat structure was built in New York in 1853; and in Munich in 1854. It was less the aesthetics that excited people than the irresistible economy of the modular design. Paxton's concepts of structural design also suggested new possibilities; in 1852 an architect named Burton proposed to build a 300 meter (1,000 foot) high structure using exactly the same modular units as the Crystal Palace, just rearranged vertically. It was a brilliantly forward-thinking idea for the era and clearly foreshadowed the glass tower skyscrapers of the next century, but it was hopelessly impractical at the time: wrought iron was simply not strong enough to do the job. Steel production would have to become much more productive and economical before it could be accomplished.

The aesthetic of the Crystal Palace was most prominently exploited in covered shopping arcades or galleries, which became a typical fixture in large cities by the 1880s. Many survive today, the best known being the Galleria Vittoria Emanuele in Milan. The covered galleries really didn't make that much use of the modular techniques developed by Paxton, but they enthusiastically embraced his belief in the triumph of light. Crystal Palace concepts were more closely embodied in large department stores that emerged in European cities in the period.

Galleria Vittoria Emanuele II

Paxton himself believed much more could be made of his ideas. In 1855 he proposed the "Great Victorian Way", a covered boulevard circling London, complete with rail transit and air conditioning. It was a daring idea, something along the lines of the domed cities that the eccentric American visionary R. Buckminster Fuller would propose a century later. The Victorians tended to think big, finding grand projects more challenging than intimidating, but Paxton's idea was too much even for them.

The destruction of the Crystal Palace in 1936 was a national shock: it was a British landmark that all knew and generally revered. Since that time there have been various efforts to rebuild it, but so far none have got to the stage of rebroken ground. It may not be wise to bet that the Crystal Palace will rise again any time soon, but it would be hard-hearted not to wish those working to make it happen the best of luck. [END OF SERIES]



* THE KILLING OF JFK -- THE ASSASSINATION (4): The shooting in Dealey Plaza threw the crowd there into mass confusion. Marrion Baker, a Dallas motorcycle policeman well behind the presidential limousine, kept his head, reacting immediately on hearing the first shot. He thought the the shots were coming from the TSBD and also noticed a flock of pigeons flying off the building, as if startled. Baker gunned his motorcycle up to the front steps of the depository, dismounted, and ran inside, where he met the building manager, Roy Truly; they tried to take the elevator up, but it didn't come down, and so they decided to take the stairs at the rear of the building.

On the second floor, Baker noticed a man through a window in a door and aimed his pistol at him, shouting: "Come here!" Baker noted the man was moving rapidly, but was not winded; on the policeman's command, he came over. Truly was going up to the third floor but stopped and came back down; Baker asked him: "Do you know this man?" The man was Oswald, Truly knew him, and told Baker: "Yes." Oswald didn't seem jumpy or apprehensive in the least, and so Baker and Truly decided to keep on going up the stairs. Ultimately they ended up on the roof, where Baker had thought the shots had come from, but he discovered that the walls around the edge were too tall to shoot over, and there was no place above them where a shooter could have taken up a position.

Meanwhile, Oswald went through the office area and took the front stairs from the second floor to the main floor, on his way out the front. Had he tried to go out the back, he would have been intercepted, since two construction workers, George Rackley and James Romack, had decided to keep an eye on the rear exits, and were relieved by police a few minutes later. Nobody went out the rear exits. In contrast, the front exit was left unattended for at least ten minutes. On his way across the second floor, Oswald walked past another worker there, Mrs. Robert Reid, who had come back to her desk in a panic. She told Oswald that somebody had shot at the president, but he just mumbled something and didn't break stride. She noticed he was carrying a full bottle of Coke; he had apparently bought it in the second-floor lunchroom after the confrontation with Baker, who told the Warren Commission that Oswald had been carrying nothing in his hands.

Three minutes after the shooting, Oswald was out of the TSBD. Reporter Robert MacNeil, then with the JFK press entourage and later a well-known news anchor, was running into the building to find a phone and ran into a young man who was going out. MacNeil later suspected the man was Oswald, though he wasn't certain. Later Oswald would say under interrogation that he had run into a Secret Service man when he left, possibly misinterpreting MacNeil's press badge. No Secret Service man reported crossing paths with anyone leaving the TSBD, and under the circumstances they would have had good reason to notice somebody trying going out the door.

* Otherwise, no witnesses recalled seeing Oswald leave the building. Some witnesses claimed they saw other individuals not matching any description of Oswald leaving the TSBD in a rush after the shooting, but given the excitement there's no reason to read too much into any such claims. One Richard Randolph Carr claimed he saw a man with a hat, tan sport coat and hornrimmed glasses leaving the TSBD in a hurry heading south after previously spotting the same man on the 6th floor of the building.

As corroboration of this report, conspiracy theorists like to cite James Worrell, who as noted previously looked up to see a rifle barrel sticking out of a window of the TSBD. Worrell also saw a man leaving the TSBD in a hurry, heading south, but said the man was wearing a dark sports coat and had no hat. There are problems with both testimonies -- Carr was hundreds of yards away, the details of Worrell's report were contradicted by other witnesses. There is a particular difficulty with reading much into the matter since the mysterious person or persons described by both were headed south. That would have taken them towards the excitement instead of away from it, inconsistent with fleeing the scene of a crime. Carr and Worrell may have seen someone or other, but there wasn't much to get excited about in their testimonies even on the face of it.

Worse, Carr continued to embellish his story over the years, with later versions contradicting earlier ones and Carr adding in features such as government agents telling him to "keep his mouth shut" if he knew what was good for him. He didn't; nothing happened to him, though he claimed that there had been repeated attempts on his life, that he had even killed one of his assailants. Carr finally passed away in 1996. Apparently if there was a ruthlessly efficient plot to kill JFK, the assassins had such trouble with Carr that it took them 33 years to do him in. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* GIMMICKS & GADGETS: A note from WIRED Online described the origins of the infamous parking meter, documented in a 1935 patent application by Carl C. Magee of Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. McGee was a prominent lawyer, newspaper editor, and civil servant, and in his capacity as a member of the Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce traffic committee, he was assigned to solve downtown parking problems. Workers would park their cars on the street and simply leave them during the day, leaving no parking places for shoppers and other visitors on short-term visits.

Magee's concept was simple. The meter consisted of a mechanical timer in a module on a post; the user inserted a coin, then twisted a lever to deposit the coin and set the timer -- not only did users have to pay, but they powered the device as well. The timer moved an arrow indicating how much time was left, with a red TIME EXPIRED flag popping up at timeout to alert a patroller that the car should be ticketed. The first parking meter appeared on the streets of Oklahoma City in July 1935, eating up nickels. The idea was of course not popular with the public -- it never would be -- but it worked as designed. It solved the parking problems and it brought the city revenue. The patent was granted in 1938, with Magee apparently doing pretty well for himself in the manufacturing end of the scheme. Attempts to challenge parking meters in the courts had little success.

The mechanical parking meter remained unchanged for decades. Electronic meters started popping up in the 1980s, and since that time they have continued to be refined, with wireless communications and electronic-cash schemes opening new doors for 21st-century metering. Security is an important consideration, parking meters long having been the targets of thieves and vandals. Placing piggy banks on posts alongside the streets is asking for robbery; the fact that almost everyone dislikes parking meters only compounds the problem.

parking meters

* BBC WORLD Online reports that the city of Madras in India has come up with one of the world's first blood banks for dogs. Surgery on injured or ailing dogs can be troublesome because of the lack of available replacement blood supplies; the blood bank plans to obtain donations of blood from dogs brought in by their owners to provide a stockpile. It is at the moment a nonprofit exercise, being run by the Tamil Nadu Veterinary & Life Sciences University. The handling of the blood is exactly the same as it is for humans. No comment in the article on blood typing in dogs, however, which would have been an interesting consideration.

* In related news, a local paper here in Loveland, Colorado, reports that a veterinarian named Janice Bright at Colorado State University up the road north in Fort Collins is actually implanting heart pacemakers, discussed in detail here a few months back, in cats, dogs, and horses. She's been doing it since the 1980s and has implanted them in about 150 animals in all. It seems nobody actually makes pacemakers for pets; Bright gets them from mortuaries -- donations from human users who, uh, don't need them any more -- or manufacturers disposing of unsalable display items. Apparently implanting pacemakers in pets isn't that unusual, being done by veterinarians elsewhere, though it certainly doesn't seem like a normal practice.

* The tech blogosphere ran a buzz on a gimmick being sold by "USB Brando", an outfit that sells USB trinkets, some practical but much along the lines of the blatantly kitschy. The particular gimmick, the "USB Mail Box Friends Alert", was not all that practical, being a little plastic postal box with USB connector. After being plugged into a USB slot and configured with associated software, when email arrives on the PC, the mailbox lights up.

"And?" That's it. Useless? Very nearly, but it certainly is kind of cute. In even more ridiculous gimmick news, WIRED reports on a hackjob by Mike Haeg, mayor of the little town of Mount Holly, Minnesota, in which Haeg took the guts of a Bluetooth headset and stuck them inside a toy plastic pistol. When he gets a call, he pulls out the pistol, sticks it in his ear, and pulls the trigger to answer. Imaginative and amusing, yes, but I'm not sure I want to get anywhere near a person that crazy.



* ADJUVANTS EXAMINED: Vaccines are one of the true miracles of modern medical technology, having done much to extend human life expectancy over the past few centuries. While vaccines have an impressive track record, as reported by an article from SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN ("Boosting Vaccine Power" by Nathalie Garcon & Michel Goldman, October 2009), it is possible to get even more mileage out of them through the addition of "booster" components known as "adjuvants".

Humans and other vertebrates have an "adaptive" immune system; if we are infected with many, though not all, common pathogens, we get sick once, and then won't fall ill to the pathogen again -- the immune system "remembers" it from the first time and knows how to deal with it if tries to make a comeback. Vaccines attempt to "prime" the immune system to recognize a specific pathogen through a "safe" exposure to that pathogen, using either "attenuated" (weakened) strains of the pathogen, or "inactivated" (killed) pathogen, or simply major "protein subunits" from the pathogen.

However, as noted above, the immune system doesn't remember all pathogens. Some, like the Plasmodium protozoan parasite that causes malaria, the influenza virus, or the notorious human immununodeficiency virus (HIV) alter their surface proteins rapidly to confuse the immune system, and so far nobody has developed vaccines that can consistently defeat them. Vaccines are also not very effective in subjects, such as the elderly, who have weak immune systems. In addition, some researchers have considered using vaccines to treat conditions that the immune system rarely if ever notices, such as cancer, allergy, or Alzheimer's disease, but so far such work has made little progress. More effective vaccine technology is needed to deal with such problems.

One approach is to add "stimulants", the adjuvants, to the vaccine mix. The name comes from the Latin adjuvere, meaning "to help". They're nothing all that new, some adjuvants having been in use for more than a century. However, a century ago nobody had more than the most general idea of how the immune system worked, and adjuvants were added simply because they seemed to help; nobody knew why. Now we have a detailed understanding of the immune system, and that opens the door to development of much more effective adjuvants.

* When a pathogen enters the body, it is initially attacked by the "innate immune system", the most prominent player being a "white blood cell" known as the "macrophage" that engulf a pathogen. The innate immune system is "hardwired": it has a certain broad ability to identify pathogens but it cannot enhance that ability over the lifetime of the host. The innate immune system cannot learn from experience.

However, the "adaptive immune system" can learn to identify new pathogens. When pathogens invade the body, they are engulfed by another white blood cell, the "dendritic cell". Its primary purpose is not to destroy pathogens as such; it instead ingests them and migrates to the body's lymph nodes and other "lymphatic organs", where it presents protein fragments of the pathogen, or "antigens", to activate another set of white blood cells, the "B cell" and the "T cell":

After the infection has been wiped out, some of the B cells and T cells will be retained as "memory cells", allowing the adaptive immune system to react much more quickly to a second infection by the same pathogen. The adaptive immune system can learn from experience.

* Vaccines don't always cause a strong enough immune response to be useful. That's where adjuvants come in. In the 1880s, a bone surgeon named William B. Coley of the New York Cancer Hospital became intrigued when he heard that cancer patients who had become infected with a strain of Streptococcus bacteria named Streptococcuus pyogenes showed signs of tumor remission, with tumors even disappearing in some cases. In 1881, Coley began to administer live and then killed bacteria to cancer patients and got positive results, though he had no more idea of what was going on than that the bacteria somehow seemed to prime the host immune system to attack cancer cells.

Over the following decades, other researchers tinkered with various substances to see if they could boost the immune response for vaccines. The French veterinarian Gaston Ramon and the English immunologist Alexander T. Glenny tried adjuvants such as tapioca and aluminum hydroxide to boost the effectiveness of diphtheria and tetanus vaccines for animals. In the 1920s, other researchers found that vaccines containing alum -- a class of various aluminum salts -- or vaccines formulated as emulsions of antigens in oil and water could boost vaccine immune responses. There was also research into the use of "lipopolysaccharide (LPS)", a component of the cell walls of some bacteria, as an adjuvant. However, such a trial-&-error approach also had its misses, with the additives often causing inflammation, and adjuvant research ran out of steam.

It picked up again in the 1980s, mostly because of the desperate challenge HIV posed to vaccine development. New adjuvants were seen as a possible tool in the battle against HIV. Researchers were still hobbled by their ignorance of the detailed operation of the immune system, but that changed in 1997 when research finally revealed important features of the workings of the dendritic cell. A dendritic cell is necessarily "hardwired" to recognize a broad range of pathogens; the research showed that the cell's recognition was based on a set of "Toll-like receptors (TLRs)" that could identify certain traits of pathogens, such as LPS. A total of ten different dendritic cell TLRs have been recognized to date. It became apparent that one of the ways adjuvants worked was by stimulating dendritic cells through their TLRs.

* Armed with this knowledge, researchers have been trying to come up with vaccines that can tackle pathogens that have up to this time been untouchable. The pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline has been working on a malaria vaccine, targeting a relatively invariant protein antigen on the Plasmodium parasite and employing an oil-in-water emulsion adjuvant scheme. Preliminary tests of the vaccine under lab conditions showed it much more effective than the same antigen using alum as an adjuvant. Field tests in Gambia demonstrated over 70% effectiveness, a first in malaria vaccine research. An improved vaccine, using a lipid derived from LPS, is now being introduced into testing.

Thanks to the improved understanding of dendritic cell TLRs, researchers are now able to design adjuvants to produce a high degree of stimulation of the dendritic cell, even an ability to guide the direction of an immune response -- that is, the balance of the adaptive immune response in churning out B cells and antibodies, versus production of T cells. New vaccines with tailored adjuvants have demonstrated much improved effectiveness. New seasonal flu vaccines have been developed that can provoke a strong immune response in the elderly; there has been progress in vaccines to promote remission of tumors; and work towards a vaccine that could relieve hay fever.

Of course vaccines, like any medication, have their hazards, but the trials are being conducted with a careful eye towards possible side effects. So far the new vaccine formulations have proven safe. Researchers in the field feel that they are on the threshold of a new age of rationalized vaccine development that promises safer and far more effective vaccines.



* THE VASIMR OPTION: Franklin Chang-Diaz is by all evidence an achiever. An American of Costa Rican origins, he obtained a doctorate in plasma physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and then signed up with US National Aviation & Space Administration's (NASA) astronaut corps. At NASA, he flew a total of seven space flights from 1980 to his retirement from the agency in 2005 -- a record number at the time of his final flight. As reported by AVIATION WEEK ("Close Encounter" by Mark Carreau, 14 June 2010), Chang-Diaz, now CEO of space startup Ad Astra Rocket Company of Houston, Texas, is working towards a revolution in space flight.

Franklin Chang-Diaz

The revolution takes the shape of a new plasma rocket engine, the "Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasmic Rocket (VASIMR)". VASIMIR uses hydrogen or argon as a propellant, first ionizing it with radio-frequency (RF) energy, and then injecting it into a thrust chamber where oscillating magnetic fields and RF energy heat it to millions of degrees Celsius. A magnetic choke controls the flow of the hot plasma through the exhaust nozzle. If the magnetic choke is constricted, the flow of plasma is small, but the temperature remains high. This gives low thrust but extremely high efficiency, up to two orders of magnitude greater than that of chemical rocket propulsion, useful for interplanetary cruise. If the magnetic choke is opened up, the flow of plasma is high, but the temperature is low. This gives high thrust and lower efficiency, still about an order of magnitude greater than chemical propulsion, useful for initial boost out of planetary orbit. A manned Mars mission could boost rapidly through Earth's radiation belts and then cruise in sustained thrust mode, reaching Mars in eight weeks.

Nobody's flown a VASIMR yet, but it's not for lack of effort. On 30 September 2009, Ad Astra performed a full thrust test of the company's VX-200, a 200 kilowatt VASIMR bench prototype. The VX-200 is expected to lead to the VX-200-1, which is currently scheduled to be tested in orbit on the International Space Station from 2014, drawing electrical power from the station's oversized solar arrays. The VX-200-1 won't be an operational system either, but Ad Astra is now working with NASA and Boeing to fit a backup engine, the VX-200-2, to a solar-powered asteroid rendezvous probe. Boeing's principal contribution will be a high-efficiency solar array developed by the US military's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). If all goes well, the asteroid probe could be launched as early as 2015.

VASIMR-powered space tug

Although blue-sky advanced space tech schemes tend to appear and disappear with a discouraging regularity, the successful bench test of the VX-200 has excited the space community -- VASIMR isn't a fantasy any more. Ad Astra is working closely with NASA, having been supported under a series of US government Space Act agreements, but Chang-Diaz is reluctant to allow the company to be completely dominated by the agency: "What if we put NASA in the critical path, and then two years from now they change their mind? NASA will still be there, but we will be dead. We are marching down a specific plan with very clear goals and very clear results. Achieving those goals and results is essential to our survival."

The plan envisions building and leasing plasma rockets for missions ranging from satellite servicing to orbital debris cleanup -- the Obama Administration seems very interested in the cleanup effort -- to both manned and unmanned deep space missions. The ultimate goal is a VASIMR powered by a 200 megawatt space nuclear reactor for a manned Mars flight, or for unmanned outer planet probes. Eight weeks to Mars is very attractive; a flight with chemical fuels would take much longer and leave the crew dangerously exposed to space radiation. As for Outer Planet probes, VASIMIR could cut a mission to Jupiter from six years to three, reducing the cost of program support during the interplanetary cruise phase and stretching the observation phase of the mission.

Although not everyone is happy about the drastic changes the Obama Administration is trying to make at NASA, Chang-Diaz is enthusiastic: "NASA is in an very interesting position right now, with a huge opportunity to really dream like it's supposed to, to really map out the bold mission architecture that looks deep into the future ... a really big vision of access to the Solar System. But don't get me wrong. This is very strong medicine ... it's something we should have done twenty years ago." Starry-eyed talk from a space cadet? Possibly, but few such are the veterans of seven space flights.



* ANOTHER MONTH: I get into exchanges of fire online with creationists every now and then, a dumb thing to do I admit, but sometimes I can't restrain myself. One exchange gave me a reference to Granville Sewell, a creationist mathematician who supposedly had used the second law of thermodynamics to disprove evolutionary science.

I got curious enough to poke around and it turns out that Sewell is known primarily in the evo science blogosphere for an essay that he wrote in which he claimed to have written a program in FORTRAN that he ran on a laptop computer to simulate the physical history of the world -- and evolution just didn't occur. He tried tweaking it, nope, still didn't happen. In fact, no matter what he did, evolution didn't happen. The results of his simulation proved that evolution was impossible.

an imagined world

Now there was some dumbfounded response to Sewell along the lines of: "Did we understand this right?" -- as to how Sewell could have created a program of such transcendent complexity and capability that could be run on a laptop computer. The reply came back in turn that of course he hadn't really written such a program, he had just postulated it as an imaginary "thought experiment." When I had first read Sewell's essay I suspected that was the case, but I wasn't entirely sure: creationists do make claims along such lines, and more significantly it was puzzling as to what the point of such an exercise might be: "OK, let me get this straight: the results of a nonexistent imaginary simulation prove that evolution can't work."

On thinking it over, what Sewell was offering was an "argument of incredulity", saying that he couldn't imagine that a simulation could be written that would possibly show how evolution could work. Of course it was a goofy way of putting it; I could just as easily respond that evolution worked perfectly in my imaginary computer simulation -- but that would be matching his silliness with my own. Then again, at least I'd be silly on purpose.

In any case, the posting was stale, several years old, and the responses to the posting suggested that Sewell's idea wasn't all that popular. Nothing more for me there; time to move on. About all I could conclude was that modern biological science was safe from Granville Sewell; and that no matter how low I set my expectations of lunatic fringers, I still end up overestimating them.

* Readers may have noticed that last month's blog was unusually heavily illustrated. I decided to see if I could have, on the average, one illustration for every entry, 22 in all -- no particular strong reason, just wanted to see if it could be done. On accomplishing it, I see no reason to bother to try again -- at least three illustrations a week is all that's needed and more achievable.

Having archived last month's blog entries, I now have 60 monthly archive files. I had to think about that for a second: okay, at least 20 daily entries per month for 60 months ... 1,200 daily postings? HOW?