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DayVectors

sep 2010 / last mod feb 2016 / greg goebel

* Entries include: JFK assassination, Boeing 787 Dreamliner & 747-8, CSI gives jurors unrealistic ideas about forensic science, Volvox genome versus single-celled algae genome, RoboBees, cadavers in safety tests, Dutch difficulties with Q fever, cause of severe winter of 2009:2010, Belyaev's experiments in fox domestication, and swarm algorithms.

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[THU 30 SEP 10] NEWS COMMENTARY FOR SEPTEMBER 2010
[WED 29 SEP 10] THE TROUBLE WITH CSI
[TUE 28 SEP 10] GOING MULTICELLULAR
[MON 27 SEP 10] THE DREAMLINER TAKES FLIGHT (3)
[FRI 24 SEP 10] THE KILLING OF JFK -- THE ASSASSINATION (11)
[THU 23 SEP 10] SCIENCE NOTES
[WED 22 SEP 10] ROBOBEES
[TUE 21 SEP 10] DEAD ON THE JOB
[MON 20 SEP 10] THE DREAMLINER TAKES FLIGHT (2)
[FRI 17 SEP 10] THE KILLING OF JFK -- THE ASSASSINATION (10)
[THU 16 SEP 10] SPACE NEWS
[WED 15 SEP 10] Q FEVER FIASCO
[TUE 14 SEP 10] SNOW CRASH
[MON 13 SEP 10] THE DREAMLINER TAKES FLIGHT (1)
[FRI 10 SEP 10] THE KILLING OF JFK -- THE ASSASSINATION (9)
[THU 09 SEP 10] GIMMICKS & GADGETS
[WED 08 SEP 10] THE TAMING OF THE FOX
[TUE 07 SEP 10] THINK LIKE AN ANT
[MON 06 SEP 10] SYSTEM UPDATE ADVENTURES (4)
[FRI 03 SEP 10] THE KILLING OF JFK -- THE ASSASSINATION (8)
[THU 02 SEP 10] SCIENCE NOTES
[WED 01 SEP 10] ANOTHER MONTH

[THU 30 SEP 10] NEWS COMMENTARY FOR SEPTEMBER 2010

* NEWS COMMENTARY FOR SEPTEMBER 2010: Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad set off a stink bomb in a speech to the UN General Assembly on 23 September that, among a range of other things, suggested the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks on the USA might have been plotted by US leadership, that the American government could have "orchestrated the attack to reverse the declining American economy, and its grips on the Middle East, in order to save the Zionist regime [of Israel]". He stated that the "majority of the American people as well as most nations and politicians around the world agree with this view."

US representatives at the UN walked out on the speech, and were joined by representatives of the EU, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Costa Rica. Ahmadinejad later told reporters: "I did not pass judgment, but don't you feel that the time has come to have a fact-finding committee? The fact-finding mission can shed light on who the perpetrators were, who is al-Qaeda ... where does it exist? Who was it backed by and supported? All these should come to light."

Ahmadinejad has demonstrated an inclination towards Holocaust denial in the past, but hasn't played the "911 conspiracy card" up until now. Some believe the accusations were for domestic consumption, in retaliation for the Obama Administration's blasts against Ahmadinejad's regime; observers noted that Ahmadinejad took a much softer line in personal interviews. US President Barack Obama described the remarks as "offensive" and "hateful', and that it was inexcusable to make such comments in New York City itself, where most of the victims of 911 died.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

Obama's comments were what might be expected, but for those like me on the sidelines, the strongest reaction was one of disbelief. It isn't surprising to learn that heads of state can be tyrants -- but it is surprising, and in some ways more frightening, to hear one channeling a crackpot from an internet forum. However, on the broader view, it's for the good that Ahmadinejad has joined the ranks of 911 conspiracy theorists, lending his credibility to their cause.

* While Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez has consistently trumped the political opposition since becoming president of the country, parliamentary elections late in September handed him a setback, with the opposition umbrella group, the "Table For Democratic Unity" AKA "MUD" in its Spanish acronym, gaining enough seats to overturn the two-thirds majority of Chavez's United Socialist Party AKA "PSUV". However, there was no doubt that the MUD was going to make gains, since in 2005 the opposition boycotted elections, protesting that they were rigged -- and effectively handed Parliament to the PSUV. MUD officials claim they could have done even better in current elections had districts not been gerrymandered to give the electoral advantage to the PSUV. In any case, the vote is seen as a test case for presidential elections in 2012.

During the campaigning, the opposition was careful not to directly attack Chavez, who actually likes to invite abuse as a means of distracting opponents from focusing on the issues. There were plenty of issues to focus on, since Venezuela's economy is in poor shape, Chavez's government is getting an ever-rising reputation for inept bureaucracy, and crime is out of control -- Caracas is one of the most violent and dangerous cities in the world, some claiming it's even more unsafe than Baghdad. In any case, whatever else might be said about Chavez, he definitely has staying power, and though he has been inconvenienced, he's not remotely close to down and out.

* As reported by BBC WORLD Online, Japanese authorities were embarrassed to learn that 230,000 Japanese citizens over the age of 100 were unaccounted for. It began last July, when Japanese police checked up on Sogen Kato, believed to be 111 years old. They found him in his bed -- where he had died 30 years earlier, and now reduced to a mummy. His 81-year-old daughter hadn't reported his death and continued to pocket his pension checks, raking in about 9 million yen -- roughly $106,000 USD. The discovery led local governments to check up on their eldest citizens, to discover that many of them couldn't be found. One citizen of Yamaguchi prefecture was supposedly 186 years old.

The problem was due to the antiquated and notoriously unreliable family registry system -- with some suspecting omissions tracing back to the end of World War 2, when Japanese society was in ruin. The national resident registry, which incorporates census and pension data, is much more reliable, though after a check the Health Ministry admitted about 400 centenarians were still unaccounted for.

Part of the discrepancy appears to be deliberate fraud, as in the case of Kato, with relatives concealing the deaths of elders to keep bringing in pension checks. However, Japan has an unusually elderly society, with about 20% of the population over age 65. Factoring in the decay of traditional family structures, the end result is that many oldsters live, and sometimes die, alone and unknown. The situation is likely to get worse -- by 2050, about 40% of Japanese society will be over 65 -- but for now the authorities are making a determined effort to make sure all the centenarians are properly accounted for.

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[WED 29 SEP 10] THE TROUBLE WITH CSI

* THE TROUBLE WITH CSI: Reading Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories is fun at a certain young age; go back to them later and they don't look so impressive, with Holmes handed neatly packaged parlor-game clues from which he derives unambiguous conclusions to foil the sinister Professor Moriarity. As reported by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("The CSI Effect", 24 April 2010), the popular CRIME SCENE INVESTIGATION TV series, thanks to its similar reliance on overly tidy clues and pat conclusions, is making life more difficult for the courts because jurors often have inflated ideas of what forensic evidence can actually accomplish.

It's called the "CSI effect", defined by American criminologist Monica Waters as "the phenomenon in which jurors hold unrealistic expectations of forensic evidence and investigation techniques." Simply put, jurors who are fond of watching CSI think they know a lot more about forensic science than they really do. In one case, jurors in a murder trial wondered why a blood-spattered coat worn by the defendant hadn't been given a DNA test. The reason was because the defendant flatly admitted he had been at the scene of the crime, and so the DNA test wouldn't have revealed anything that wasn't already known.

About two-thirds of defense lawyers and judges agree that jurors have bogus ideas about forensic evidence. Jury selection is now taking longer, since prospective jurors have to be screened to weed out self-appointed forensic "experts". Prosecutors are spending more time explaining to juries why some kinds of evidence are not relevant, and have even taken to bringing in "negative evidence" witnesses just to show that investigators looked over the crime scene and didn't find anything useful. Defense lawyers can sometimes benefit from the CSI effect, using the lack of high-tech evidence to instill "reasonable doubt" in juries -- but that cuts both ways, since there are times juries will look down their noses at evidence that could get a defendant off the hook.

In any case, lawyers find themselves often explaining that real-world evidence has its ambiguities. For example, while the prospect of a "false positive" in fingerprint identification -- matching the wrong person to a fingerprint -- is very low, the prospect of a "false negative" -- failing to match the right person -- is relatively high, about 10%. DNA matching is well more reliable, but it isn't perfect either. There is also the fact that investigators can be incompetent, and that simple mixups can happen even when they're not.

Crooks like to watch CSI too, but ironically it has been more to their advantage. That makes sense, since if they think investigators have more capability than they actually do, the criminals have more motive to take precautions. They use bleach to clean their tracks by destroying DNA, wear rubber gloves, and tape shut envelopes instead of licking them. Sometimes the CSI effect helps the law, however: in one case, jurors asked to be shown DNA evidence derived from a cigarette butt that defense lawyers had failed to present. When it was, the defendant was acquitted.

fiction versus reality

Lawyers and judges are not generally inclined to blame the producers of the CSI shows for their difficulties, since the shows were never promoted as documentaries or were intended to be technically accurate. It's just that people really want to believe in Sherlock Holmes: a perfectly efficient genius who is guaranteed success in his pursuit of justice. The problem is that the real world doesn't generally work that way. It may be disappointing -- but we just have to get things done with ordinary people.

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[TUE 28 SEP 10] GOING MULTICELLULAR

* GOING MULTICELLULAR: For billions of years, all life on Earth consisted of single-celled organisms. Multicellular organisms like ourselves are a fairly recent development, and in hindsight it might seem that they were a big jump from their single-celled ancestors.

Not so fast. There are some simple multicellular organisms that suggest early multicellular organisms weren't that different from their single-celled ancestors. After all, single-celled organisms easily form colonies, and a multicellular organism can be seen as a more tightly-knit colony, with members taking on specializations. One particularly vivid example is the Volvox, a simple ball of photosynthetic cells, with single-celled relatives. As discussed by an article from AAAS SCIENCE ("Volvox Genome Shows It Doesn't Take Much To Be Multicellular" by Elizabeth Pennisi, 9 July 2010), a new analysis of the genome of the organism Volvox cateri has been compared with the genome of a single-celled relative, Chlamydomonas reinhardtii, to reveal there are startlingly few genetic differences between them. One biologist commented: "Even major evolutionary transitions can be accomplished via relatively subtle genetic changes."

volvox

Volvox carteri is found in ponds and has a relatively complex life cycle. Adults consist of about 2,000 flagellated cells embedded in a spherical extracellular matrix, with 16 larger germ cells inside. The germ cells grow into embryos, with the dividing cells in each growing into a hollow ball with the cells connected by cytoplasmic bridges. Initially, the flagella of the embryonic cells face into the interior of the ball, but soon the embryo turns inside out, with the flagella now facing outward. The "juveniles", as the embryos have become, continue to expand until they burst out of the parent, which then dies.

In 2005 James Umen, a cell biologist at the Salk Institute in San Diego, California, teamed up with Simon Prochnik and Daniel Rokhsar of the US Department Of Energy's Joint Genome Institute (JGI) in Walnut Creek, California, and others to sequence the genome of Volvox carteri. The JGI had already obtained the genome of its relative Chlamydomonas reihardtii, a single-celled organism with two flagella that lives in soil and fresh water, and comparison of the two genomes was obviously a matter of interest.

Indeed it was. The 138-million-base Volvox genome turned out to be 17% larger than the Chlamydomonas genome, but there was no evidence that the bigger size was due to the presence of more genes -- Volvox seemed to just contain more repetitive DNA. Both organisms appear to have about the same number of genes, about 14,500, and on inspection it was hard to find any genes that seemed greatly different.

* The group's finding parallel what Nicole King of the University of California, Berkeley, and her colleagues observed when they compared the genes of a choanoflagellate -- an animal-like single-celled organism -- and several multicellular animals. The choanoflagellate has protein subunits AKA "domains" previously thought to be unique to multicellular life, leading King to suspect that multicellularity along that part of the tree of life was less due to new genes than to shuffling and recombining existing genes or parts of genes.

Says Umen of the Volvox research: "What we found was even more similarities between the unicellular and multicellular organism. The key transition is not inventing a whole bunch of genes and proteins; you just have to change the way you use what you have."

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[MON 27 SEP 10] THE DREAMLINER TAKES FLIGHT (3)

* THE DREAMLINER TAKES FLIGHT (3): While Boeing was pushing forward on the brand-new 787 jetliner, the company was also leveraging off technology developed for the 787 to renew the Boeing 747, the first commercial "jumbo jet", now over 40 years old. The prototype of the updated 747, the "747-8", performed its initial flight on 8 February 2010.

The 747-8 has a length of 76.2 meters (250 feet) and a span of 68.3 meters (224 feet 7 inches) -- 5.5 meters (18 feet) longer and 3.95 meters (13 feet) wider in span than its 747 family predecessor, the 747-400. The 747-8 is slightly longer than the rival Airbus A380 super-jumbo jetliner, but is significantly lighter, with a maximum takeoff weight of 442 tonnes (975,000 pounds) to the A380's 544 tonnes (1.2 million pounds). The 747-8 is powered by four GEnx 2B67 turbofans with 296 kN (30,160 kgp / 66,500 lbf) thrust each that give the aircraft a cruise speed of Mach 0.85.

747-8F prototype

The initial prototype is a "747-8F" air freighter. The 747-400F air freighter is very popular and the 747-8F is intended to follow in its steps, with Boeing claiming that it improves on its predecessor by providing 16% more cargo capacity, 17% lower fuel costs, and 16% lower operating costs. A prototype of a 747-8 jetliner version will fly in 2011 -- but there is less interest in the jetliner than the freighter version, and Boeing sees it as a niche product. The 747-8 jetliner will seat 467 in a typical three-class configuration, as opposed to 416 in the 747-400.

* The 787 program not only led to the 747-8F, it also led to the 747 "Large Cargo Freighter (LCF)" or "Dreamlifter". The Dreamlifter is a specialized aircraft, not intended for mass production or for sale on the general market. It emerged to support the 787 program, which was established on the basis of partnerships in Japan and Italy. Each of the partners got a workshare in the program, which led to the problem of hauling large aircraft subassemblies to Everett. Moving them by sea would be too slow, so the decision was made to convert four old 747-400F air freighters into oversized cargo carriers with a bulged fuselage, along the lines of the classic "Super Guppy" cargo carrier.

747 LCF Dreamlifter

The oversized fuselage of the Dreamlifter features a tail assembly that breaks at the aft pressure bulkhead and hinges open to the left. Cargo volume is three times that of a standard 747-400F, and in fact the 747 LCF has more cargo volume than any aircraft ever flown. The LCF can carry bulky payloads, with a maximum radius of 3.76 meters (12 feet 4 inches). The assemblies are relatively lightweight and within the load capability the LCF inherited from the 747-400F -- in fact, although the Dreamlifter can carry bulkier cargoes than the 747-400F, it can't carry as much weight, with maximum takeoff weight reduced to 92%.

The tailfin was increased in height by 1.5 meters (5 feet) and forward ballast was added to compensate for aerodynamic and center-of-gravity changes caused by the enlarged fuselage. The cargo bay is heated but not pressurized. The tail is supported by a stand when the aircraft is being loaded and unloaded, with the stand carried by the aircraft. The aircraft deck is selectively reinforced and integrates roller systems to assist cargo handling. Other than the changes to the airframe, the aircraft did not receive any serious modifications, such as the latest engines and avionics, and the modified fuselage was built out of plain old aircraft aluminum, not fancy composite materials.

The first 747 LCF began trials in early 2007. Evergreen Aviation Technologies Corporation of Taiwan, a collaboration of EVA Air and GE Engines, performed the modifications, with design work performed by Boeing's Moscow Design Center in Russia. All four Dreamlifters are now in service. [END OF SERIES]

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[FRI 24 SEP 10] THE KILLING OF JFK -- THE ASSASSINATION (11)

* THE KILLING OF JFK -- THE ASSASSINATION (11): When six Dallas policemen came out to the Paine house at about 3:00 PM on November 22 to ask about Lee Harvey Oswald, Ruth Paine let them in even though they didn't have a warrant. Of course, she and Marina Oswald had heard the news about JFK's assassination -- they would have had to been living deep in the woods not to -- but Ruth hadn't made any connection between the incident and Lee.

Marina had, particularly after the news had identified the Texas School Book Depository as a site of interest. She knew that Lee had been keeping his rifle rolled up in an old East German blanket in the Paine garage, and to reassure herself, she had gone to the garage and checked. The blanket was rolled up there as it usually was, and she assumed the rifle was still inside without bothering to investigate further. When the two women and one of the policemen went into the garage, the policeman asked Marina if Lee had owned any weapons. With Ruth translating, Marina indicated that Lee had owned a rifle and kept it rolled up in a blanket, which she pointed out to the policeman. The policeman unrolled the blanket. There was nothing inside; Marina went pale. The police took Marina and Ruth Paine down to the police station; Michael Paine, who had arrived at the house, went with them.

The police also drove over to the boarding house where Oswald had been staying. They were confused by the fact that he was living there under the alias of "O.H. Lee", but with Oswald's likeness now being presented on TV, Earlene Roberts was able to link him with "O.H. Lee", and let the police into his room, which they searched for evidence after getting a warrant. They didn't find much except for some Leftist literature and some documents in Russian, which they found startling enough -- it wasn't the sort of thing often seen in Dallas -- but hardly any proof that Oswald was an assassin.

Oswald under arrest

* In the meantime, Oswald was being run through his first interrogation session at police headquarters. He denied everything, including things that were easily shown to be lies: "I never owned a rifle myself ... I was never in Mexico City." Marina was simultaneously telling the police that he did own a rifle. Why did he leave the TSBD? "Because of all the confusion, I figured there would be no work performed that afternoon so I decided to go home. I changed my clothing and went to a movie."

Secret Service men and FBI Agent Hosty were present during the interrogations. The Dallas police had not been at all happy to learn that the FBI had been keeping tabs on Oswald and hadn't bothered to tell local law enforcement that Oswald was a potential threat. Hosty, who was in an uncomfortable situation with his own superiors relative to the Oswald, did not point out that the FBI had no reason to believe Oswald was dangerous. After all, he had no history of run-ins with the law over acts of violence, had never written threatening letters or the like; and though Oswald had lived in the USSR, he had no connections or capability to be a useful agent to the Soviets. The FBI had looked him over when he came back home and judged him harmless, an obnoxious nut at worst. Hosty failed to make that clear to the police; he simply told them that the FBI did not involve local law enforcement in counterintelligence work unless there was a necessity to do so.

On realizing that Hosty was one of his interrogators, Oswald became indignant: "You've been at my home two or three times talking to my wife. I don't appreciate your coming out there when I was not there." He accused Hosty of intimidating Marina by threatening to ship her back to the Soviet Union. Hosty then made the connection with the note he had received from Oswald earlier. That couldn't have made Hosty any more comfortable with the situation, and indeed the letter would lead to trouble over the long run. [TO BE CONTINUED]

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[THU 23 SEP 10] SCIENCE NOTES

* SCIENCE NOTES: There's been excitement in the science media over the latest new fossil find: a soaring bird found in Chile named Pelagornis chiliensis dated to 5 to 10 million years old, with a wingspan of about 5.2 meters (17 feet) and a weight estimated at 29 kilograms (64 pounds), making it the biggest flying bird ever discovered. It's been classified as a "pelagornithid", a group of birds noted for toothlike protrusions on the lip of its beak.

Pelagornis chiliensis

Its configuration suggests a soaring bird that cruised over the oceans, skimming the waters to snap up fish with its long toothy beak. Scaling effects mean the weight of a bird increases more rapidly than its ability to generate lift, and it is believed that P. chiliensis was about as big as a bird can get and still fly. The toothed beak configuration is very interesting, since from their origins birds had teeth for tens of millions of years. Toothed birds disappeared with the end of the dinosaur era 65 million years ago, but the pelagornithids ended up "re-evolving" teeth again -- but significantly in a very different form than the teeth of their distant ancestors.

* The series run here on parasitism last year had comments on the protozoan Toxoplasma gondii parasite, which targets felines while being more or less harmless when it infects humans. THE ECONOMIST recently ran an article on Toxoplasma that provided a few new insights.

As was discussed previously rodents, for example rats, are usually the intermediate hosts for Toxoplasma, and though the parasite does not do the rats great physical harm, it can alter their behavior, making them almost blithely indifferent to the possibility of being eaten by a cat -- in fact, enhancing their curiosity to the point of taking foolhardy risks. How the parasite did this trick was uncovered in 2009 by Glenn McConkey of the University of Leeds in the UK. Examination of Toxoplasma's genome showed that it had a gene coding for enzymes involved in the production of a neurotransmitter molecule named "dopamine".

Dopamine is implicated in human schizophrenia, with an antipsychotic drug named "haloperidol" operating by blocking dopamine receptors. Joanne Webster of Imperial College, London, who has been investigating Toxoplasma, found that rats infected with Toxoplasma and administered haloperidol lose their casual suicidalness, providing strong evidence that dopamine really was manipulating them. McConkey has now genetically modified Toxoplasma to remove the enzyme genes, with plans to infect rats and observe the effect.

As far as effects on humans hosts go, the evidence of altered behavior is sketchy -- but it is very suggestive. A study published by American researchers in 2003 showed that schizophrenics were three times more likely to be infected with Toxoplasma than the general population. Several European research teams have observed a similar disparity between people involved in auto accidents -- both drivers and pedestrians -- and the general population. Studies also correlate humans infected with Toxoplasma with short attention spans, poor reaction times, and a lack of interest in novelty.

The disinterest in novelty is puzzling, since it's almost exactly the reverse of the effect of Toxoplasma in rats. Of course, humans are rarely eaten by felines, and so we're not really part of the life-cycle of the parasite; its effects have not been fine-tuned on us. In any case, even those who have conducted the studies don't really believe they've proved a real connection between Toxoplasma and human behavioral anomalies. While people unfamiliar with biomedical research tend to find such correlations convincing, the professionals know that biomedical studies are easily confounded; correlations don't necessarily imply causes, a coordinated rise in schizophrenia and Toxoplasma infections may actually be due to another, unknown, factor driving both. Research continues.

* Every month or so the decoding of new genomes is announced -- the decoding of the wheat genome was mentioned here not long ago. Another one of the latest is the genome of the cacao tree, the beans of which are used to make chocolate. What makes this genome effort a bit more interesting than usual is that there were two rival genome sequencing efforts: one funded by US candy-maker Mars, the other by the company's rival Hershey.

cacao pods

The cacao tree genome is surprisingly small for a plant, with about 420 million base pairs -- only about a seventh that of the human genome. Over the long run, understanding the genome of the cacao tree should help improve its resistance to disease, increase yields, and help generate new varieties of chocolate. About 70% of the world's cacao crop is raised in West Africa, and improved cacao strains will benefit to millions of small African farmers. Both research groups are making their genome data publicly available; the two genomes are of different varieties of the cacao tree, permitting comparison between the two datasets.

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[WED 22 SEP 10] ROBOBEES

* ROBOBEES: There's been considerable research on insect-sized flying robots over the last decade, mostly for military applications. POPULAR SCIENCE described a more peaceful application being investigated by Gu-Yeon Wei and Rob Wood, two electrical engineers at Harvard University: insect-sized flying robots to pollinate plants. Given the alarming decline in bee populations in recent years, a mechanical backup could be important in making sure orchards keep producing fruit.

Wei had been working on a robot fly, and became interested in developing a similar flying robot that could operate collectively in a hive scheme. He hooked up with Wood, and the two consulted biologists on the behavior of bees to see what could be mined for the little flying robots. By late 2009, research had progressed to the point where the US National Science Foundation granted the effort $10 million USD in funding. Operational RoboBees aren't flying yet, but the Harvard team believes they should have a small demonstration "hive" in operation by 2015.

RoboBee

As envisioned, each RoboBee has a lightweight chassis carrying a micro fuel cell for system power, and for flapping twin carbon-fiber wings to fly around. Bees can spot distinctive ultraviolet patterns on flowers for recognition and orientation; the RoboBee emulates this capability with an array of ultraviolet sensors. The RoboBee also has light sensors to read the position of the Sun as a direction check -- another trick learned from bees -- and a simple camera system to scan the ground below for tracking speed and range. Two antennas support a wireless datalink system, in addition to acting as "whiskers" to keep from bumping into things. Dedicated circuits handle basic functions like balance and hovering, while a processor performs high-level decision making.

In operation, a farmer would tow a RoboBee "hive" into a field. Scout RoboBees then leave the hive, canvassing the area with their sensors and collectively building up a map that identifies the flowers within its borders. The map completed, worker RoboBees -- with a less sophisticated sensor system but a heftier micro fuel cell pack for more endurance -- start their rounds, pollinating the plants in the area. When a RoboBee runs short on power, it returns to the hive, inserting its three legs in its docking station to recharge and perform heftier data transfers than would be convenient over wireless. The Harvard group believes RoboBees could be useful for other tasks, such as environmental monitoring or hunting for survivors of a disaster. If they're thinking about military applications, they're not saying much about it.

* In related news, a group of researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is working on a microdrone system they call "Flyfire" as a modern take on skywriting. Prototypes of Flyfire robots appear to be hybrids of the popular little toy coaxial helicopters with a body that looks like a spherical flashing-LED toy. The idea is to launch a swarm of Flyfire robots for nighttime displays, with the robots arranging themselves in various patterns to provide different images. The robots themselves aren't really the big challenge, it's controlling them all so they can form up the patterns. Flyfire sounds a little like a long shot, but it would certainly be very impressive -- if it can be made to work.

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[TUE 21 SEP 10] DEAD ON THE JOB

* DEAD ON THE JOB: Crash-test dummies, discussed in detail here in 2008, are well known to the public, chatty dummies even being the stars of a very popular US car-safety advertising campaign in the 1980s: DON'T BE A DUMMY -- BUCKLE UP! As reported by an article from WIRED Online ("How Cadavers Made Your Car Safer" by Justin Hyde, 26 August 2010), crash-test dummies aren't the only important tool in safety testing: although nobody advertises the fact, it can also involve human volunteers who offer their bodies for destructive testing after they have no further use for them.

Every part of a car related to safety -- steering columns, laminated windshields, side-impact air bags, and so on -- has been validated by cadaver tests. Ford has been heavily promoting the inflatable rear seat belts in the 2011 Explorer, proudly announcing they provide five times the protection of a conventional belt; the company is less outspoken about the use of cadavers in development of the belts. Of course, Ford isn't unique in such practices, cadaver tests also used by other organizations, prominently the military. The armed services need to understand how effective protective gear will be against blasts and other combat hazards, demanding the use of cadavers.

To no surprise, the public tends to get upset to hear of corpses being mutilated in testing -- even though it's done with public safety in mind and with the legally validated consent of donors who made it clear they wanted to participate -- so companies keep it as quiet as possible. When a Swedish researcher told a newspaper in 2008 that General Motors and Saab were using cadavers in research, both companies quickly denied it. They weren't precisely lying: cadaver tests require specialized facilities and expertise that car companies usually don't have. However, some universities do, with companies and government organizations making use of their services. The US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration funds dozens of cadaver tests at university labs every year, while many schools also receive grants from automakers, with the data usually made available to the public.

Ford was the first car manufacturer to offer inflatable seat belts, and that meant the company was moving into unknown territory. How could company engineers be certain that the inflatable seat belts wouldn't end up doing more harm than good? That dictated thorough testing for every contingency that could be reasonably imagined, much of which could be performed with crash-test dummies. Still, Ford couldn't know for certain how the inflatable seat belt might affect internal organs and tissues, and so the company funded cadaver tests.

In typical cadaver tests, researchers wrap the body, including the head, in stockings, both to ease testing and out of respect for the dead. The arms and hands, if present, are bound to keep them motionless. Sensors record the forces on various parts. After the test, researchers use X-rays and autopsies to examine any damage to the cadaver. Universities performing such tests of course have standard procedures for handling cadavers, covering everything from telling donors' relatives how the body will be used to properly disposing of the remains afterward.

After the news leaked that auto manufacturers were using cadaver tests, there was some protest online by those who couldn't understand why crash-test dummies couldn't do the job. The reality is that nobody would resort to cadaver tests if they didn't have to: not only are cadaver tests distasteful, they're also expensive. Still, there's every incentive to reduce their use, and Ford is moving steadily towards increased reliance on digital simulations.

Cadaver tests aren't as necessary as they once were anyway, since impact protection technology is now fairly mature -- even cheap cars offer airbags -- and manufacturers are now focusing on crash prevention technologies. Albert King, a professor at Wayne State in Detroit, Michigan -- "Motor City" -- has been working in cadaver research since 1966. King says the school's cadaver tests have fallen off in recent years, from about one a month to a handful a year. Although the work seems ghoulish, King has published estimates that safety improvements made as a result of such tests through 1987 saved thousands of lives a year.

ED: Personally, I wouldn't mind donating my body to a crash test. I'm a bookish sort and not into extreme thrill-seeking -- but it would be nice to do a real job of it just once, if as a postscript.

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[MON 20 SEP 10] THE DREAMLINER TAKES FLIGHT (2)

* THE DREAMLINER TAKES FLIGHT (2): No paying passenger has taken a trip on the Boeing 787 Dreamliner yet, but the company built a full-scale interior mockup to suggest what the aircraft has to offer. Passengers coming into the front of the aircraft enter through an open "lobby" instead of passing by a galley, greeted by a blue LED lighting arrangement that suggests a skylight. The lighting is provided by LEDs throughout the passenger cabin; not only are the LEDs more reliable and less power-hungry, but they also are more controllable, with lighting sequences designed to reduce flight weariness and, hopefully, jet lag.

787 interior

Lighting remains standard during boarding and cruise flight, being adjusted to warmer tones during meals. After eating, the cabin is bathed in a relaxed lavender hue, with the lighting fading down when it's time to sleep. The most impressive part is the wakeup, however, with the light rising in a sunrise sequence from purples and oranges to yellows and then white light against a blue sky.

As far as the annoyance of being hit in the eyes by the sun when somebody opens a window shade goes, the 787 doesn't have window shades: the windows have an electrochromic dimmer system. A passenger can change the transparency of a window with a switch, with the flight crew able to regulate the level of transparency of the window. Thanks to the composite construction, the windows are also 65% larger than on previous Boeing jetliners, with a tall aspect ratio so both kids and basketball players can see out.

While coach passengers can't expect to get much more of a footprint to themselves than before, the ceiling is arched to give more of a sense of spaciousness. The overhead storage bins are about 20% bigger, but they drop down when opened and pop back up when closed to give more headspace. In addition, again thanks to the 787's composite construction, humidity can be increased without worries about promoting corrosion, and cabin pressure can be increased as well -- to an altitude equivalent of about 1,830 meters (6,000 feet) instead of the traditional 2,440 meters (8,000 feet).

The 787 is designed for very quiet operation, both to improve passenger comfort and to meet public noise regulations, with features such as the serrated rear edge of the engine nacelles previously noted. Even the fan blades are designed to be quieter. Another feature is a "Smoother Ride Control" capability in the aircraft's flight control system to reduce bumpiness due to turbulence.

* Three variants of the 787 are planned initially:


Boeing 787

All variants have a fuselage cross section of 5.74 meters (18 feet 10 inches) and a height of 17.1 meters (56 feet). Specs of the different variants include:

   ___________________________________________________________________
 
   787-8:
   ___________________________________________________________________

   wingspan            60.1 meters                197 feet 3 inches
   length              56.7 meters                186 feet
   max takeoff weight  227,890 kilograms          502,500 pounds
   range               14,150:15,170 kilometers   7,650:8,200 NMI

   seating             210:250 passengers
   cargo volume        125 cu_meters              4,400 cu_feet
   ___________________________________________________________________

   787-9:
   ___________________________________________________________________

   wingspan            60.1 meters                197 feet 3 inches
   length              93.4 meters                206 feet
   max takeoff weight  247,165 kilograms          545,000 pounds
   range               14,800:15,725 kilometers   8,000:8,500 NMI

   seating             250:290 passengers
   cargo volume        153 cu_meters              5,400 cu_feet
   ___________________________________________________________________

   787-3:
   ___________________________________________________________________

   wingspan            51.8 meters                170 feet 
   length              56.7 meters                186 feet
   max takeoff weight  170,070 kilograms          375,000 pounds
   range               4,625:5,640 kilometers     2,500:3,050 NMI

   seating             290:330 passengers
   cargo volume        125 cu_meters              4,400 cu_feet
   ___________________________________________________________________

The 787-9 was originally supposed to have a wider wingspan than the 787-8, but the longer span led to excessive complications, and so Boeing turned to a scheme called "hybrid laminar flow control (HLFC)" to improve the efficiency of the shorter wing. Boeing sees the market for aircraft in the class of the 787 as running to 3,500 aircraft over the next 20 years, and hopes to capture half that market. [TO BE CONTINUED]

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[FRI 17 SEP 10] THE KILLING OF JFK -- THE ASSASSINATION (10)

* THE KILLING OF JFK -- THE ASSASSINATION (10): With JFK dead, one of his aides, Mac Kilduff, went to a side room where Lyndon Johnson and several Secret Service men were staying close but out of the way. Kilduff addressed Johnson as: "Mr. President." Of course all knew what that meant. Kilduff said he wanted to announce JFK's death, but Johnson, worried that there were other assassins in motion, told Kilduff to wait until he, Johnson, could leave. Johnson had become president with what amounted to a national crisis thrown in his lap, and he needed to get back to Washington DC immediately to perform damage control. After Johnson had left, Kilduff went into a hospital classroom that had been assigned use as a press room. It was 1:33 PM when he mounted the dais and announced: "President John F. Kennedy died at approximately 1:00 Central Standard Time today here in Dallas."

Kilduff said that the vice-president had not been hit and, reflecting the widespread confusion that day, added that Governor Connally hadn't been hit, either. At the time, Connally was struggling for life under the care of Dr. Robert Shaw, a chest surgeon. Shaw began work at about 12:45 PM, moving the governor from the trauma room to surgery at about 1:30, to then spend two hours performing repairs on Connally's damaged lung and chest muscles. Shaw said later: "His wounds were life-threatening, and without prompt care he would have died."

The stretcher used to carry Connally from the trauma room to surgery had been set aside; later Daryl Tomlinson, the hospital's senior facilities engineer, bumped into the stretcher and a bullet rolled down, to be trapped between the gurney and the wall. This little incident would have long-running repercussions.

O.P. Wright, a hospital personnel officer and an ex-cop, came into the room, with Tomlinson pointing out the bullet to him. Wright got hold of an FBI agent and told him about the bullet, but the agent apparently didn't want to get into the way of the Dallas police and said the investigation wasn't the FBI's responsibility. Wright then found a Secret Service agent, but the agent begged off as well; Wright finally just put the bullet in his pocket. About a half hour later Secret Service Agent Richard E. Johnson agreed to take it off his hands.

By 1:40 PM, Kennedy's body had been placed in a bronze casket for transport to Washington DC -- but then Dr. Earl Rose, the Dallas County medical examiner, insisted that the corpse stay in Texas, where the crime had been committed, for an autopsy as required by Texas law. As the law read at the time, the murder of the president fell under the jurisdiction of Texas state authorities, not the Federal government. A Dallas justice of the peace named Theron Ward who was in the hospital somewhat uncertainly backed up Rose, but the Dallas County district attorney, Henry Wade, told Rose over the phone to let the Secret Service men take the body. Rose didn't want to comply, but the presidential party wasn't going to leave without JFK's corpse. One reason was that Jackie Kennedy was not going to rest until somebody properly took her husband's body off her hands; another reason was, again, that Lyndon Johnson needed to get back to Washington DC quickly -- but he knew if he left Dallas without JFK's body, he'd be raked over the coals by the press and the public.

A hot argument followed. Doctors Clark and Baxter threw in their weight on the side of the Federals, Baxter later explaining that his thinking was "twofold ... One, the president was above state laws. And second, Earl was sort of a sensationalist ... I did not want him to do that autopsy ... I am sure he would have missed points that have since come up." Ultimately, backed up by District Attorney Wade's approval, the Secret Service men bulled their way through and took the casket. Later, Federal law would be modified to ensure that no such argument took place again.

At 2:04 PM, an ambulance left Parkland with Jackie Kennedy, Brigadier General Godfrey McHugh, four Secret Service men, and the casket. Ten minutes later the ambulance arrived at Love Field, with the casket loaded into AIR FORCE ONE at 2:18 PM. Several seats were removed to accommodate the casket; there was no way that Kennedy's body be put into the cargo hold.

The aircraft did not leave immediately. After conferring with Attorney General Bobby Kennedy on the phone, Johnson waited for Federal District Court Judge Sarah Hughes to arrive and give him the oath of office of President of the United States -- all the job required was the authority to administer a legal oath, any American judge could handle the matter. The ceremony, such as it was, took place at 2:37 PM, with Jackie as witness. AIR FORCE ONE left ten minutes later, with Jackie staying in the rear with the coffin the whole trip.

Lyndon Baines Johnson becomes president

There were criticisms of LBJ by Kennedy loyalists who regarded him as presumptuous for flying back to Washington DC on AIR FORCE ONE instead of the vice-presidential AIR FORCE TWO, but AIR FORCE ONE carried the secure communications systems for the commander in chief. As of a few minutes before takeoff, Johnson had become president, and he had every right and reason to fly back in AIR FORCE ONE -- all the more so because at a time where Cold War tensions were normal, for all Johnson knew the assassination might well be the opening blow of an assault on the USA. In fact, US intelligence services were operating on an emergency basis at the time, searching for any indication that America's adversaries were taking unexpected action against the USA. The conclusion, after a few days of around-the-clock activity, was that there was no evidence of any operation in motion that could be linked to the assassination, and everyone breathed easier.

* Following the announcement of JFK's death, the news spread at astonishing speed across the USA and then around the world. Popular CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite told the nation: "From Dallas, the flash apparently official, President Kennedy died at one o'clock Central Standard Time -- two o'clock Eastern Standard Time -- some thirty-eight minutes ago." Cronkite had to pause, fighting back tears; he cleared his throat and continued: "Vice President Lyndon Johnson has left the hospital. We don't know to where he has proceeded. Presumably, he will take the oath of office and become the thirty-sixth president of the United States."

Cronkite's response was by no means unusual; in fact, his conduct was restrained in comparison with the grief displayed by many. The general reaction, aside from those who had honestly hated JFK and cheered over his death, was one of numbed shock. Few would ever forget the moment they heard the news. The load of telephone calls in the wake of the president's murder was so great in New York City and Boston that it paralyzed the telephone systems in those cities for a time. [TO BE CONTINUED]

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[THU 16 SEP 10] SPACE NEWS

* Space launches for August included:

-- 04 AUG 10 / RASCOM-QAF 1R, NILESAT 201 -- An Ariane 5 ECA booster was launched from Kourou to put the Afro-European "Rascom-QAF 1R" and the Egyptian "NileSat 201" geostationary comsats into space. Rascom-QAF 1R replaced the Rascom-QAF satellite, which was launched in 2007 but had an abbreviated service lifetime due to a system failure. Rascom-QAF 1R was built by Thales Alenia Space and was based on the SpaceBus 4000B3 platform. It had a launch mass of 3,050 kilograms (6,725 pounds), and a payload of 12 C-band / 8 Ku-band transponders. It was placed in the geostationary slot at 28.5 degrees East longitude to provide communications services to Africa.

NileSat 201 was built by Thales Alenia Space and was based on the SpaceBus 4000B2 comsat platform. It had a launch mass of 3,200 kilograms (7,055 pounds), a payload of 24 Ku-band / 4 Ka-band transponders, and a design life of 15 years. The spacecraft was placed in the geostationary slot at 7 degrees West longitude to provide home communications services to Africa and the Middle East.

-- 10 AUG 10 / YAOGAN 10 -- A Long March 4C booster was launched from Taiyuan to put the "Yaogan 10" Earth observation satellite into orbit. Chinese sources claimed it was a civil remote sensing satellite, but it was generally judged to be a military radar imaging satellite.

-- 14 AUG 10 / AEHF 1 -- An Atlas 5 booster was launched from Cape Canaveral to put the first "Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF)" military geostationary comsat into orbit. The spacecraft was built by a collaboration between Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman. It was based on the Lockheed Martin A2100 comsat platform, with a launch mass of 6,085 kilograms (13,420 pounds) and a design life of 14 years. AEHF 1 featured encrypted / low probability of intercept communications, along with jam resistance and resistance to electromagnetic pulse disruption.

AEHF 1

AEHF 1 was to be placed in the geostationary slot at 90 degrees West longitude. However, after being placed in geostationary transfer orbit, the satellite's main engine failed. AEHF 1 was also fitted with Hall-effect electric thrusters and hydrazine thrusters, and so a plan was put together to use them to nudge the comsat into its final orbit, roughly eight months later than planned. Additional fuel use for the boost procedure is expected to be minimal enough to permit the spacecraft to complete its 14-year mission.

AEHF will eventually replace the long-standing Milstar military comsat network, with one AEHF having more bandwidth than all five current Milstar spacecraft put together. AEHF supports crosslinks with the current Milstars and is compatible with current communications terminal equipment. The Atlas 5 booster was in the "501" configuration, with a 5 meter (16 foot 5 inch) fairing, three solid rocket boosters, and an upper stage with a single Centaur engine. Two more AEHF satellites are currently planned for launch, with the second scheduled for a 2011 flight and the third for 2012.

-- 10 AUG 10 / TIANHUI 1 -- A Long March 2D booster was launched from Taiyuan to put the "Tianhui 1" Earth mapping satellite into orbit. The payload consisted of a 3D survey camera, a CCD camera with resolution of 5 meters (16 feet), and a multispectral imager with a resolution of 10 meters (33 feet).

* OTHER SPACE NEWS: The ESA GOCE gravity-mapping satellite, discussed here following its launch in March 2009, was unable to return data after the failure of its two flight-control computers, one dying in February and its backup following in July. The two computers suffered from different faults, and mission staff developed a software patch to link operational subsystems of the two computers together.

However, before the patch was uploaded, in early September controllers tried raising the temperature in the satellite's computer compartment, and the faulty computer came back on line. Work is continuing on the patch in case the problem arises again. Before the failure in July, the satellite had already obtained two-thirds of the expected baseline mission data and had completed four of its six baseline mission phases. GOCE still has enough fuel to keep it flying properly into 2012, beyond its expected design life.

* NASA recently announced selection of payloads for the "Solar Probe Plus (SPP)" mission, currently scheduled to be launched in August 2018. The heavily shielded SPP will skim through the outer corona of the Sun, approaching to within 6.4 million kilometers (4 million miles) of its surface during its 24 passes. The spacecraft will have a launch mass of about 610 kilograms (1,350 pounds) and will carry a suite of five instruments, including three particle analyzers; a wide-field imager; and an electric-magnetic fields analyzer that will also serve as a dust detector, reading dust strikes on its antennas. Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland will build and operate the spacecraft for NASA, with the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory running the research program.

Solar Probe Plus

* The space media has been discussing a study of astronauts who had spent six months on the International Space Station (ISS) in zero gravity. Despite a strict exercise regimen, with the astronauts spending hours a day on the treadmill, they lost 40% of their muscle strength. Beefing up before going to space made no difference; indeed, astronauts who had beefed up simply ended up with more to lose and so lost it the fastest.

The "lack of load" on muscle fibers leads to their atrophy. That suggests a three-year trip to Mars might well be fatal. NASA is concerned about the issue, with astronaut now having a "weight training" system on the ISS named the "Advanced Resistive Exercise Device (ARED)", which used vacuum technology and flywheels to simulate weights. However, it seems likely more effort will need to be focused on developing a spinning spacecraft to provide artificial gravity.

* There's been talk of a manned mission to a near-Earth asteroid (NEA) as a precursor to a manned Mars mission, but as reported by AVIATION WEEK the number of candidate NEAs turns out to be on the small side. A list of 44 candidates was examined, being screened for size -- they had to be over 50 meters (165 feet) across -- and for orbits that would permit a round-trip time of 180 days or less in the 2020 to 2050 timeframe. Only three NEAs made the cut:

This was somewhat discouraging news, all the more so because NASA officials warned even these targets might be ruled out down the road; a robot probe will of course be sent in advance of a manned visit, and the observations of the probe may show the NEA to be an unsatisfactory target. Improved propulsion, like the VASIMR concept discussed here last month, or a longer mission duration would bring more NEAs within reach -- though as noted above there are good reasons to try to keep the mission to under 180 days.

* As discussed by an article from AVIATION WEEK, Elon Musk's SpaceX Corporation is riding high after the recent successful initial flight of the company's Falcon 9 medium booster, but the company's ambitions don't stop there. The Falcon 9 is to be followed by the "Falcon 9 Heavy", with triplicate clustered first stages and three times the lift capacity; the company is also working on a more powerful "Merlin 2" rocket motor to follow the current Merlin 1 engine, to increase Falcon 9 / Falcon 9 Heavy lift capacity by about 10%.

Over the longer run, SpaceX envisions scaled-up "Falcon X" and "Falcon X Heavy" boosters with the Merlin 2 engine that roughly triple again the lift capacity of their Falcon 9 / Falcon 9 Heavy predecessors -- with the ultimate goal being the monster "Falcon XX", more capable than the Saturn V booster that put astronauts on the Moon, with the ability to put 140 tonnes (154 tons) into low Earth orbit.

What to do with such a huge booster? Send astronauts to Mars. SpaceX officials are proposing a deal of sorts, with the company to develop the Falcon XX heavylift booster while the government, possibly with international cooperation, restarts work dropped decades ago on nuclear thermal propulsion systems for an interplanetary Mars craft. SpaceX envisions the Mars mission being supplied by ten interplanetary space tugs, powered by solar-electric drives and each carrying about 4 tonnes (4 tons) of payload, cycling between Mars and the International Space Station on 390-day round trips. Another blue-sky idea? Sure, but coupled with other new ideas being floated, such as the VASIMR drive, Mars may end up actually being in reach.

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[WED 15 SEP 10] Q FEVER FIASCO

* Q FEVER FIASCO: The obscure disease known as "Q fever" has traditionally been of interest only to farmers and veterinarians, being generally recognized as a disease of livestock -- and not a particular nasty one at that, causing abortions and stillbirths in pregnant animals but not otherwise doing much harm. However, as reported by an article in AAAS SCIENCE ("Questions Abound In Q-Fever Explosion In The Netherlands" by Martin Enserink, 15 January 2010), Q fever is raising hell among the Dutch, putting 2,300 of them in the hospital in 2009 and killing six of them. That was a massive jump from the 1,000 Dutch Q fever patients in 2008, and far more than the 182 in 2007. Just before Christmas 2009, the Dutch government decided to cull about 40,000 pregnant goats at more than 60 farms in hopes of putting a stop to the worst outbreak of Q fever in modern medical history.

Q fever was first identified among slaughterhouse workers in Brisbane, Australia, in 1935. It was called "Q" for "query" since the agent was mysterious at the time, but the pathogen was isolated in 1937 and found to a be a bacterium, which was given the name Coxiella burnetti. It was one of the "rickettsia", a class of bacteria with some virus-like characteristics, being "intracellular parasites" that can only survive in a host cell. Typhus is the best-known member of the rickettsia; another infamous member is the bacterium that causes Rocky Mountain spotted fever.

Coxiella burnetti

The Netherlands has one of the world's greatest concentrations of goats, about 350,000, four times the number there in 1995; the country has some of the biggest goat farms in the world. Ironically, the Dutch got into goats after devastating swine flu outbreak wrecked the Dutch pig industry in the early 1990s. In any case, the heavy concentration of goats makes a superb breeding ground for Q fever.

Q fever remains a confusing pathogen. It can affect mammals, birds, and arthropods -- with ticks being a common disease vector, spreading it in their droppings. Among humans, Q fever has traditionally been seen as linked to those with an association with livestock, such as farmers, veterinarians, and slaughterhouse workers. There was work on using as a biological warfare agent; it's not very lethal, but it's relatively convenient to produce and handle, and it can make an enemy army too sick to fight. There are unconfirmed rumors that an outbreak of Q fever among Nazi troops in the USSR during World War II was caused by a Soviet bioweapons attack.

Improved bioassays, it seems partly developed in response to bioterrorism worries, have shown that Q fever is more common among humans than once thought, and the global rise of the disease over the last ten years may be no more than an artifact of improved diagnostics. However, nobody thinks the Dutch Q fever epidemic is an artifact -- too many people are getting sick. For comparison, in all of the USA, there are only about 100 to 200 cases a year.

Dutch public health officials are frantic. What is unprecedented and baffling is that most of the people who have fallen ill have no association with livestock. While Q fever is known to be spread among humans via contaminated milk and cheese, tick bites, and even in a few cases by sex with infected partners, suspicion has fallen heavily on pregnant goats. The placenta and birth fluid of infected pregnant nanny goats who have aborted is absolutely loaded in Q fever bacteria and is a clear hazard. That still doesn't really explain why Q fever is jumping from goats to people who don't live around goats. One idea is that bacteria released by goats during abortions ends up in manure, and when the manure is spread on fields, after it dries the bacteria are carried away by the wind. Unfortunately, as shown by the ghastly rise in human Q fever cases in 2009, a ban on spreading manure in 2008 did little good.

Another idea is that the emergence of Q fever among the Dutch in 2005 was due to the rise of a new strain of bacteria that is much more contagious than traditional strains. Genetic typing shows that all Dutch patients sampled have a unique strain of C. burnetti. Still, although research is being urgently conducted on the outbreak, nobody is certain of what is happening.

The decision to cull all pregnant goats was an act of desperation. There was no way to easily determine if goats were infected or not, so the conclusion was to kill them all. Of course, goat farmers are not at all happy about losing over a sixth of their herds. The government is providing compensation for the slaughtered goats, but not compensation for lost productivity due to thinned herds.

Dutch public-health authorities insist that the slaughter is a one-time operation. A French firm named CEVA is now producing a Q fever vaccine for goats, and quantities should be adequate to provide protection for Dutch goat herds by the end of 2010. The vaccine is not absolutely effective in preventing infections, but it is good at preventing abortions, which should cut down the bacterial load dumped into the environment considerably. Unfortunately, since so little is understood about the outbreak -- and since quantities of C. burnetti produced to date will almost certainly linger in the environment, possibly for years -- Dutch hospitals are still expecting to see plenty of Q fever patients this year. The best hope is that 2010 will be nowhere near as bad as 2009.

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[TUE 14 SEP 10] SNOW CRASH

* SNOW CRASH: During the last winter, there were very heavy snowfalls in Europe and the American East Coast, with climate skeptics wondering how such an event squared with the dire predictions of global warming advocates. As reported by an article from BBC WORLD Online ("Huge Snowfall Caused By Rare Clash Of Weather Events" by Pamela Rutherford, 1 September 2010), weather researchers have investigated the matter and concluded the severe winter was due to a rare, once a century, collision of two weather systems, and was independent of any long-term climate shift.

winter in DC, February 2010

By analyzing 60 years of snowfall measurements and satellite data, researchers concluded the anomalous weather conditions were caused by an unusual combination of an "El Nino" event and the rare occurrence of a strongly negative "North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO):

The harsh winter was due to a combination of El Nino with one of the most negative NAOs ever observed. Says Richard Seager, a meteorologist with the Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University in the US: "The NAO on its own doesn't cause much precipitation in America. It just makes it cold. The El Nino makes the US wetter than normal, so combined with the NAO it caused the precipitation in America to fall as snow."

The researchers believe it is unlikely this combination will recur in the near future. Data from tree rings have shown that Northern Europe and Eastern North America had a similar harsh winter in 1783:84. There has been some thought that the harsh winter of that time was caused by the catastrophic eruption of Iceland's Laki volcano, discussed here a few years back, but the evidence suggests that it was another El Nino / NAO coincidence.

As far as the notion that the winter of 2009:2010 contradicted assertions that the globe is warming, it should be noted that other regions of the Earth, such as the Western USA, had a relatively mild winter. As Seager puts it: "Weather will continue to be weather. You have to average over a lot of weather to get the climate trends. There doesn't seem to be any need to evoke anything else other than that."

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[MON 13 SEP 10] THE DREAMLINER TAKES FLIGHT (1)

* THE DREAMLINER TAKES FLIGHT (1): After several years of work and a delay of about two years, Boeing finally got its "787 Dreamliner" jetliner -- discussed briefly here a few years back -- into the air on 15 December 2009. The first customer deliveries will take place in 2010, with the launch customer being Nippon Air Lines. The company has over 800 orders on the books.

WIRED Online's blogs took a tour of the new aircraft and the authors were suitably impressed. The 787 has a general configuration not all that different from its Boeing ancestors like the 767 and 777 jetliners, but the Dreamliner is a completely new design, with a composite airframe; optimized aerodynamics; modern avionics; all electric systems; plus fuel-efficient, clean-burning, and quiet Rolls-Royce fanjets. Boeing claims the 787 will be easier, safer, and cheaper to operate, with 20% less fuel consumption than comparable existing jetliners.

Boeing 787

The 787 program was announced in 2002, originally as the "7E7". At that time, bitter rival Airbus was pushing the A380 super-jumbo jet, with a capacity of over 500 seats -- even 800, if somebody wanted to really pack in the passengers. Boeing had pioneered the jumbo jetliner with its groundbreaking 747, but though the company considered upscaling the 747, that didn't seem to be the way to go. The A380 was predicated on a "hub & spoke" model of air travel, with a super jumbo jet only really practical for travel between major hubs; passengers would have to transfer to other transport to get to "spoke" destinations. Boeing believed that what passengers wanted was more direct-to-destination flights.

Of course, at the time fuel costs were becoming an obvious limiting factor on air transport, and so Boeing engineers wanted to make the 787 as efficient as possible. That meant focus on lightweight carbon-epoxy composite materials, with the 787 to be one of the first large civil aircraft to be largely built of composites. Boeing decided to make the most of composite design, abandoning the traditional aircraft framework and using large integral composite materials for strength. The idea was to obtain substantial weight savings -- though by taking such a new approach, problems with the composite assemblies ended up causing program delays, and the weight savings didn't turn out to be quite as substantial as expected. However, composites also don't corrode as does traditional aircraft aluminum, and they are also easier to form into more aerodynamic shapes. The 787 features a new wing design with raked wingtips.

The 787's twin fanjets are another innovation. The Rolls-Royce Trent 1000 is a state-of-the-art turbofan, providing high thrust-to-weight performance, improved fuel efficiency, low noise, and low emissions. Airlines can also choose new General Electric (GE) GEnx fanjets with similar capabilities. Very significantly, while traditionally jetliners have used "bleed air" from the engines to drive most aircraft systems, the 787 is based on electric systems to perform cabin pressurization, de-icing, and other functions. The engines still have to provide the motive power for these systems by driving electric generators, but the overall result is more efficient, and replacing the cumbersome plumbing of bleed air ductwork with electrical wiring means less weight.

One of the first things anybody notices about the 787 is that its engine nacelles have a zigzag edge around the rear. This reduces exhaust noise, which not only translates into less need for aircraft sound insulation for passenger comfort, but fewer complaints from people living near airports. Boeing claims the noise footprint of the 787 is only 60% of that of a comparable contemporary jetliner, allowing the aircraft to operate from airports where noise restrictions would otherwise banned it. [TO BE CONTINUED]

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[FRI 10 SEP 10] THE KILLING OF JFK -- THE ASSASSINATION (9)

* THE KILLING OF JFK -- THE ASSASSINATION (9): At midday on 22 November 1963, medical staff were eating lunch at Parkland Hospital in Dallas when the paging system called for the chief of surgery "stat". It was very unusual to page a department head for an emergency. The chief of surgery and most of the other senior medical staff were in Galveston for a meeting, so one of the surgeons present, Dr. Ron Jones, answered. After a short conversation, Jones hung up the phone and told people to get to Emergency -- the president was being brought in after being shot.

The presidential limousine soon roared up to the entrance. Connally was lying in his wife's lap, hardly conscious, his clothes covered with blood. Jackie Kennedy had her husband's head in her lap. There was blood and bits of brain tissue spattered about the seats. Agent Clint Hill, who had been clinging to the rear of the car during the frantic drive over, appeared dazed. When attendants came up, Connally managed to stagger to his feet but then collapsed, to be grabbed and hauled into emergency. With the doctors there, Jackie Kennedy let go of her husband, who was then strapped onto a gurney and taken inside. The president was still alive, but those close enough to see him well didn't think he would be breathing for much longer.

Two nurses, Diana Bowron and Margaret Henchliffe, cut away the president's clothes and managed to get his back brace off -- JFK had very severe back problems. The doctors quickly noticed a small wound below the president's adam's apple; Dr. Charles Carrico felt around on the president's back, but didn't find the small wound there. The Parkland doctors never turned him over to examine him from the rear. Carrico got a breathing tube for an automatic respirator down the president's throat while intravenous probes were inserted for providing blood and fluids. Dr. Marion "Pepper" Jenkins, in the anesthesiologist's position at the head of the operating table, did not notice the head wound, since Kennedy had a good head of hair and there was blood over much of the president's upper body. Jenkins later said that nobody saw the head wound at the outset; Ron Jones agreed.

The president's throat appeared blocked by bleeding from the wound in his throat, interfering with the respirator tube, and so Dr. Malcolm Perry performed a tracheotomy, cutting open the windpipe to permit the tube to be inserted directly. Perry's cut went over the exit wound. Three other doctors -- Charles Baxter, Paul Peters, and Robert McClelland -- made a chest incision to drain blood or fluid. Steroids were administered intravenously. However, the president's vitals were in clear decline.

There were people milling around in the emergency room. Agent Hill was walking around in an unnerved fashion with a pistol in his hand until somebody finally led him out to cool off. The first lady stayed in the emergency room; she was occasionally persuaded to leave, but she would keep coming back in.

The president's pulse stopped and Perry began a closed-chest massage; the doctors debated an open-chest massage, but by this time Jenkins had noticed the head wound. There was a priest, Father Oscar Huber, nearby and Jenkins asked him how soon after death last rites could be performed, with the priest answering that he could do it within an hour of death. Jenkins then told the other doctors: "I think you better look at this first. We have no way of resuscitating him. I think it's time to declare him dead." Dr. Kemp Clark, the only neurosurgeon there, came forward to inspect the wound.

Clark confirmed the head wound was fatal -- indeed, JFK had effectively been dead the instant the bullet hit his head, his lifesigns had just been the fading impulses of the body shutting down. Perry was still at the heart massage; Clark told him it was too late, but Perry wouldn't stop. Clark became emphatic: "No, Malcolm, we are through." The doctors had been working about twenty minutes. Baxter, the emergency room boss, went to Jackie Kennedy and told her: "Mrs. Kennedy, your husband is dead. We will not pronounce him dead until he has had last rites."

She did not leave the room. Most of the other folk there drifted out. Jenkins later said nobody wanted to examine the body with the first lady there. Baxter led the woman over; she kissed the corpse over its body and then broke down to weep. Father Huber administered last rites; Baxter and some assistants removed the life support kit and performed some cleanup. The body was wrapped in white sheets and other material to await the arrival of the casket.

Kennedy was 46 years old. The doctors assigned the time of death as 01:00 PM, with Clark signing the death certificate. It must be emphasized that the Parkland doctors did not perform anything resembling an autopsy; they were working under frantic conditions in a futile attempt to save JFK's life, and didn't even give his body a full visual inspection while it was in their hands. [TO BE CONTINUED]

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[THU 09 SEP 10] GIMMICKS & GADGETS

* GIMMICKS & GADGETS: The tech media has been playing up a new camera imaging chip being promoted by a company named InVisage of Menlo Park, California. Current camera chips are based on light-sensitive silicon CMOS transistor arrays; InVisage's new idea is to coat a silicon array with a polymer layer containing "quantum dots", particles made of "metal chalcogenides" -- glassy materials composed of combinations of metals like zinc, indium, bismuth, or lead with selenium, sulfur, or tellurium. The spectral response of a quantum dot is a function of its size: large dots pick up red light, small dots pick up blue light. By dividing the imaging chip into a silicon control array and a highly efficient layer of quantum dots, InVisage officials believe the chip will provide high efficiency, low noise, an ability to work in low light, and low cost. The company intends to target the high-volume camera phone market first.

In other camera news, although we might think our 12 megapixel camera is pretty spiffy, according to WIRED Online the Canon company decided to build a CMOS imaging chip literally an order of magnitude better, with a resolution of 120 megapixels (13,280 x 9,184 dots). Cramming in more pixels wasn't easy, since noise has a tendency to rise with imager density, and reading out so much data is time-consuming. However, the chip can capture 1,920 x 1,080 HD video at 9.5 frames a second. There's no plans for selling the imager just yet; it would seem absurd for a consumer camera, the images would simply be unwieldy, but certainly there are scientific, military, and professional markets for a super camera.

* DISCOVERY CHANNEL Online reported on a fascinating idea floated at a recent technology workshop in Denmark: a grocery store where the food is grown in the building, in hydroponic or aeroponic tanks, with customers simply pointing out the produce they want to buy and obtaining it fresh. The "AgroPolis" grocery, as it is named, would also support aquaculture, with an restaurant as part of the facility serving seafood out of the tank as entrees. Practical? Maybe, maybe not, but it's certainly a slick idea.

AgroPolis concept grocery

* THE ECONOMIST reports that diesel engines used on cargo vessels are notably "dirty", generating soot and providing up to a third of human-made contributions of nitrous oxide (NOx) pollutants. The problem is incomplete combustion. Reinhard Strey of the University of Cologne believes the solution is to add water.

That sounds nuts, but it's actually been known for a long time that injecting water into the fuel mix will promote more complete combustion. The problem is that oil and water don't mix very well. Strey's answer is to add a "surfactant", a two-headed molecule that has an affinity for water on one side and oil on the other, allowing them to mix in an "emulsion" -- a detergent is an example of a surfactant. That's also not a new idea, but the problem is that over time, the diesel oil / water emulsion still tends to separate.

Strey's spent years working on finding a surfactant that provides long-term stability, and has finally zeroed in on a mix of oleic acid -- a fatty acid found in many vegetable oils -- and nitrogenous compounds known as "amines". The surfactant made from these materials operates without stirring, forming a very fine emulsion that's indefinitely stable. Using this fuel mix in a marine diesel cuts the soot output to nil and cuts NOx emissions by 80%. Strey is working with German engine manufacturer MTU to see if his scheme can fly in the real world.

* WIRED Online had a report on a gadget designed by computer engineer Braddock Gaskill called the "Humane Reader", a miniature electronic book reader intended for use in poor countries. The Humane Reader is built around two 8-bit microcontrollers and uses a TV for display output. The device includes an optional keyboard, a micro-SD Card reader and a composite video output. It uses a standard micro-USB cellphone charger for power. It can hold the equivalent of about 5,000 books, including an offline version of the Wikipedia, and requires no internet connection.

Gaskill describes the Humane Reader as "an absolute basic system that can deliver Wikipedia and e-books for educational and non-profit use." He believes it can be produced for $20 USD in volume. Gaskill also wants to add some features to the Humane Reader, such as a micro-USB port and an infrared link and sell it as the "Humane PC" for profit, though it will still be dirt-cheap by computing standards.

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[WED 08 SEP 10] THE TAMING OF THE FOX

* THE TAMING OF THE FOX: One of the items often found in introductory evolutionary science texts is the story of how Soviet researchers selectively bred foxes at a fox farm to eventually produce foxes that were surprisingly doglike in their behavior, and even their appearance. Very few of these texts say much about the matter, however, and after a while it begins to sound a bit like a scientific folktale. Fortunately, AMERICAN SCIENTIST ran a detailed article on the exercise -- "Early Canid Domestication: The Farm-Fox Experiment" by Lyudmilla N. Trud, March:April 1999 -- available online.

Dmitriy Konstantinovich Belyaev was born in 1917. Details of his early life are unclear, but he did acquire credentials as a biologist and worked in the Soviet animal husbandry apparatus, eventually becoming the head of the Department of Fur Breeding at the Central Research Laboratory of Fur Breeding in Moscow. Unfortunately, his career took a turn for the worse thanks to the influence of Trofim Lysenko, a quack scientist who got the ear of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin. Lysenko managed to paint biologists who accepted mainstream genetics instead of his crackpot ideas as "counter-revolutionaries", with the result that many biologists were sacked, sometimes even imprisoned.

Belyaev lost his position, but during the 1950s he continued his work on animal genetics under the cover of physiology research. He emigrated to the city of Novosibirsk in Siberia, where he helped set up the Siberian Department of the Soviet (now Russian) Academy of Sciences, becoming director of the Institute of Cytology & Genetics there in 1959 -- a position he held for the rest of his life. Belyaev was a perceptive and energetic scientist who was very interested in the evolutionary change of animals under extreme conditions, with a focus on animal domestication and in particular on fur-bearing domesticated animals.

Belyaev noticed, following in the footsteps of observations by Charles Darwin, that there seemed to be common themes in the physiology of domesticated animals. In the wake of domestication, animals would demonstrate more variation in size, leading to dwarf and giant breeds; changes in coloration, for example splotchy coat colors; alterations in fur, with changes in length, or to wavy or curly configurations; emergence of special features, such as the turned-up tails or floppy ears seen in dogs; and assertion of a year-round breeding season.

Belyaev suspected that the genes selected for in the process of breeding for docility were linked to all these other features, and wanted to conduct experiments to see if he was right. He chose as an experimental lab a silver fox farm in Estonia, beginning his work there in 1959 with 30 male foxes and 100 vixens. The only selective breeding criteria was tameness, with tests devised to see how readily pups approached their handlers. Once offspring reached sexual maturity, they were sorted according to their tameness.

Belyaev died in 1985, but the experiment continued. 40 years and 45,000 foxes after the experiment began, the result was a population of about a hundred clearly domesticated foxes, each the product of from 30 to 35 generations of selection. The pups of these foxes fight with each other for attention by a human handler. Some escaped, but they always came back; it is unlikely they would be able to survive in the wild. The tameness seemed linked to low adrenalin levels.

Some of the foxes were born with novel traits, similar to those of dogs -- splashes of white on the fur early on, then floppy ears and a rolled-up tail. Where these "incidental" traits came from was puzzling. There was a suspicion that they were "recessive" or hidden traits that were already lurking in the fox population and were brought out by inbreeding, but the selective breeding program was designed to avoid inbreeding as much as possible, and in any case some of the new traits were "dominant", not recessive: if a fox had one copy of that gene, its effects would be visible.

A subtler suggestion was that the various incidental effects obtained by selecting for tameness were due to the fact that the "tameness" trait was controlled by a complex of genes or a "polygene", and the adjustment of the polygene came up with these incidental traits. However, as Belyaev noted, the incidental effects observed in the foxes were surprisingly similar to those observed in other domesticated animals, particularly dogs. What seemed to be happening was that selecting for tameness did not so much alter specific other features of the foxes directly so much as it influenced the embryonic development of the foxes. A slightly different direction was taken before a fox was born, with adjustments in hormone levels resulting in various features like coat color and floppiness of ears being altered from that point.

domesticated fox kits

* ED: I had heard that Belyaev ran a parallel experiment, somewhat as a "control", to breed foxes for aggressiveness, but the article said nothing about the matter. Fortunately, YouTube videos are available on Belyaev's foxes, and they had videos on both tame and aggressive strains. The tame foxes jumped up at the wire of their cages to beg for attention; the aggressive foxes crouched back, snapped, and emitted an unpleasant high-pitched moan.

The 1999 article claimed the fox research effort had fallen on hard times after the collapse of the USSR, with the researchers struggling to support the effort by selling pelts culled from the group and cooking up a plan to sell them as pets. A 2009 video from Russia on YouTube suggests that the plan did well, with pet foxes becoming a national craze. In fact, it seems to be a profitable line of business, with the report saying a tame fox sells for thousands of dollars, and it's uncertain that much research is being done any more.

Unsurprisingly, animal-rights activists are unhappy with the matter. Myself, I would think a tame fox would be an excellent pet -- being small, it could be kept in a house and city with no great trouble and modest expense, though I would prefer one that looked as much like a "natural" fox as possible. They do appear to have some quirks, for example they like to dig like crazy, and not surprisingly they are very paranoid of large dogs.

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[TUE 07 SEP 10] THINK LIKE AN ANT

* THINK LIKE AN ANT: Ants are not particularly brainy creatures, generally operating on the basis of simple and predictable rules of behavior. As discussed by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("Riders On A Swarm", 12 August 2010), in the collective of an ant colony, it turns out such simple rules can add up to surprisingly sophisticated behaviors. Software researchers are learning to exploit such phenomenon for their own use.

The software research community got interested in the lessons of the "swarm intelligence" of ants and other colonial insects in the early 1990s. One of the pioneers in the field was Marco Dorigo, now at the Free University of Brussels in Belgium. Early on, Dorigo was intrigued to learn that ants are good at finding the shortest possible route between a food source and their nest, a behavior that suggests a classic computational challenge, the "traveling salesman" problem. Given a list of cities and the distances between them, the salesman must find the shortest route needed to visit each city once. As the number of cities grows, the problem gets more complicated, demanding ever more computer power. The traveling salesman problem isn't just an amusing puzzle either, since "network optimization" is an important consideration in many fields.

Ants solve their version of the traveling salesman problem using chemical signals called "pheromones". When a worker ant finds food, she takes it back to the nest, leaving behind a pheromone trail that other ants will follow. The more ants that walk the trail, the stronger the smell becomes. The pheromones evaporate quickly, however, so once all the food has been gathered, the trail soon goes cold. The evaporation of pheromones also means that long trails tend to be less attractive than short ones. The end result is an optimized network, set up by ants doing little more than "following their noses".

In 1992, Dorigo and his group began developing "Ant Colony Optimization (ACO)", an algorithm that simulated a group of ants wandering over an area while laying down pheromones in their tracks. ACO proved useful at solving traveling salesman-type network optimization problems; since then, it has grown into a family of algorithms that have had many applications.

The most successful applications of ACO have been in logistics. Migros, a Swiss supermarket chain, and Barilla, Italy's leading pasta-maker, both manage their daily deliveries from central warehouses to local retailers using "AntRoute", a software package developed by AntOptima -- a company spun off from the Dalle Molle Institute for Artificial Intelligence in Lugano (IDSIA), a European center for swarm intelligence studies. Every morning, AntRoute calculates the best routes and delivery sequences, depending on the quantity of cargo, its destinations, delivery windows and available delivery vehicles. An IDSIA official says that AntRoute can produce a new delivery plan for 1,200 vehicles in 15 minutes.

Swarm algorithms have also been applied to the problem of routing information through communication networks. Dorigo and Gianni Di Caro, another researcher at IDSIA, have developed "AntNet", a routing protocol in which packets of data hop from node to node, leaving a trace that signals the "quality" of their trip as they do so. Other packets sniff the trails and choose their paths accordingly. In computer simulations and tests on small-scale networks, AntNet has been shown to outperform existing routing protocols. It is more agile at adapting to changed conditions, such as increased traffic, and more robust in the face of node failures. AntNet is experimental, however; applying it to current fixed communications networks would imply scrapping an enormous investment in infrastructure. The scheme may find application in the emerging technology of "ad hoc" wireless networks, discussed here some months back.

Another approach to swarm intelligence, "particle swarm optimization (PSO)", invented by James Kennedy and Russell Eberhart in the mid-1990s, was inspired more by schools of fish or flocks of birds than by swarms of insects. When somebody first sets out a bird feeder, it can take time for the first bird to find it, but then the birds start to flock to the feeder. PSO models this effect: artificial birds fly around randomly, but keep an eye on the others and always follow the one that is closest to "food". While ACO tends to be well-suited to "discrete" problems, such as the routing of vehicles and packets, PSO tends to work better for "continuous" problems, such as optimizing the configuration of an aircraft wing. There are currently about 650 tested applications of PSO, ranging from image and video analysis to antenna design, from diagnostic systems in medicine to fault detection in industrial machines.

* Dorigo is now working to extend swarm intelligence to robots. A swarm of small, cheap robots can achieve through co-operation the same results as individual big, expensive robots -- and with more flexibility and robustness; if one robot fails, the swarm keeps going. Dorigo has a "Swarmanoid" project ready to roll, based on three types of small, simple robots, each with a different function, that cooperate in exploring an environment. "Eye-bots" take a look around and locate interesting objects; "foot-bots" give "hand-bots" a lift to targets identified by the eye-bots; and the hand-bots pick up the targets. When they're all done, they all go back home.

The Swarmanoid operates without any detailed plan, without central coordination, working on the basis of the rules followed by the little robots. Dorigo suggests his "bot-swarms" could be useful for surveillance and rescue -- for example, locating survivors and retrieving valuable goods during a fire.

Dorigo's original inspiration was ants, but he's found inspiration from other insects as well. For example, his group has developed a scheme to allow robots to detect when a swarm member is malfunctioning. This was inspired by the way some fireflies synchronize their light emissions so that the firefly populations of entire trees flash on and off. The robots do the same, and if one light goes out of synch because of a malfunction, the other bots can react quickly against the nonconformist -- either isolating it so that it can't cause trouble, or calling it back to base to have it withdrawn.

* The intelligence demonstrated by swarms whose members are individually simple-minded is surprising, and some researchers wonder if the our own intelligence doesn't operate, at least at a basic level, in the same way. For example, Vito Trianni of the Institute of Cognitive Sciences and Technologies in Rome, the way bees select nesting sites is strikingly like what happens in the brain. Scout bees explore an area in search of suitable sites. When they discover a good location, the scouts return to the nest and perform a "waggle dance", similar to the one used to indicate patches of flowers, to recruit other scouts. The higher the perceived quality of the site, the longer the dance and more bees are recruited, until enough scouts are involved and the rest of the swarm follows. Substitute nerve cells for bees and electric activity for waggle dances, and the result is a fair description of what happens when a stimulus produces a response in the brain.

Proponents of "swarm cognition", like Trianni, think the brain might work like a "swarm" of nerve cells -- an idea which seems all the more appealing because the brain doesn't seem to feature top-down coordination. Even complex cognitive functions, such as abstract reasoning, might simply emerge from local interactions of nerve cells. We tend to look down on the supposed mindlessness of ants; but collectively, they are less mindless than they seem individually, and the collective represented by the human brain may have much in common with the communities of ants.

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[MON 06 SEP 10] SYSTEM UPDATE ADVENTURES (4)

* SYSTEM UPDATE ADVENTURES (4): As far as Windows 7 itself went, I was basically pleased with it; it seemed robust enough and the boot times were substantially faster. It really didn't seem like much different from Vista otherwise, there being only a few noticeable new features:

Apparently other features for media support and the like were added, but I haven't really noticed them. I'm fairly comfortable with Windows but I know I'm missing a few tricks; I was tempted to buy a Win7 book and dope it out, but checking such out on the bookstore stands showed that they were generally mostly stuff that I knew mixed with some stuff that I didn't, including things that I didn't really need to know. If the local library gets a book like that, I'll check it out and skim through it to see if I can find much of interest.

* Upgrading to Win7 also meant updating various tools. Some, like Adobe PDF reader and Flash, ended up getting installed almost automatically while surfing. Other items I had to install included:

Of course there was the software for my Canon scanner -- the software stinks but works -- and my Quest network -- ditto -- not to mention all the petty hassles of making sure my email accounts were set up correctly, my wi-fi hookups to the other PCs in my house were working, and so on. All in all, the end result of the upgrade effort was satisfactory, which was a relief given the panic mode I was in after I began. I think I've got things so much tidier now that if I had to do a complete upgrade again, it would go much more smoothly. [END OF SERIES]

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[FRI 03 SEP 10] THE KILLING OF JFK -- THE ASSASSINATION (8)

* THE KILLING OF JFK -- THE ASSASSINATON (8): Not long after the shooting of Officer Tippit, sirens of police cars were wailing up and down the streets of Dallas. At Hardy's Shoe Store the store manager, Johnny Calvin Brewer, saw a man duck in, wait for the cop cars to pass, and then go back out again. Brewer found the man suspicious and followed him. The man went to the nearby Texas Theater; the ticket clerk, Julia Postal, saw him come "flying around the corner", but she was distracted and didn't notice him sneak into the theater, past the concession clerk, William "Butch" Burroughs, who didn't notice him either.

Johnny Brewer was following close behind the man and saw him go inside. Brewer asked Postal about the man who had just dashed in; she replied she hadn't seen him. Brewer checked the exits, found they were locked, and judged that the man was still there. He looked around the audience but couldn't see anyone in the dark.

Postal had heard a radio report about the president's shooting and told Brewer: "I don't know if this is the man they want in there, but he is running from them for some reason. I am going to call the police, and you and Butch get on each of the exit doors and stay there." On calling the police, Postal described the man, with the dispatcher saying: "Well, it fits the description."

The dispatcher radioed out at about 1:45 PM that a suspect was in the Texas Theater. All the police cars in the area converged on the building, arriving at about 2:00 PM and going to the back. Some conspiracy theorists have asked why the police responded in such force to deal with a person who had done nothing more than go into into a movie theater without paying for a ticket, but that's being thick: the police were after a shooter who had killed Tippit -- as one Dallas policeman put it later, when a cop gets killed, "it's just like someone killing your wife." The site of the shooting being within walking distance, and, given that murders rarely took place in quick succession in Dallas, likely had shot JFK as well -- particularly since the suspect in the theater matched the general description provided by Howard Brennan.

Johnny Brewer had hopped up on stage when the theater management turned up the lights and spotted the man. He let the cops in, who thought he was the suspect and shoved a pistol into his ribs. He hastily explained who he was; they noticed he was wearing a jacket and tie and so didn't match the description of the suspect; and released him. Brewer pointed out the man sitting in the audience. Later, some conspiracy theorists would describe Brewer as a "mysterious unidentified individual" who tipped off the cops and then disappeared, but there was nothing mysterious about the matter.

Some cops accosted two men up front as a diversionary tactic. The actual target tried to brass it out, pretending he was just another member of the audience, allowing the cops to sneak up on him and confront him. Officer Maurice "Nick" McDonald told Oswald to stand up; he did so, with McDonald later reporting Oswald commented: "Well, it's all over now." -- a comment that did not suggest surprise at being arrested.

Oswald then punched McDonald in the face with his left hand and pulled out his revolver with his right; McDonald punched him back and grappled with him. Three other cops piled onto Oswald, with Oswald pulling the trigger of his pistol, causing the hammer to pinch closed on the flesh between McDonald's thumb and forefinger. They finally subdued him and got the pistol away from him, while he hollered about police brutality. He wouldn't identify himself. They dragged him out of the theater and through a crowd that had gathered around the theater, with people shouting: "Kill the son of a bitch!" "Hang him!" The arresting officers noted that after he stopped resisting, he seemed completely unemotional.

The police hauled him over to police headquarters downtown, where they got his ID, with documents identifying him as either "Lee Harvey Oswald" or "Alek Hidell"; he tried to be cagey with them, claiming he was Hidell, but his boss from the TSBD, Bill Shelley, was there and identified him as Oswald. Captain Will Fritz, chief of homicide, having come back from directing the investigation at the Texas School Book Depository, planned to send detectives over to Irving to pick up the mysteriously missing "Lee Harvey Oswald". Fritz was told that he could "save the trip, because there he sits." Fritz sent the detectives over to the Paine house anyway to check the place out.

* Incidentally, there's a vague story that the Dallas police received a mysterious "tipoff call" from the Bell helicopter plant in Fort Worth that fingered Oswald. This tale appears to be traced to a suspicious-sounding phone call from the Bell plant overheard by an operator on Saturday, after Oswald was already in custody, that was never actually traced to anyone in particular. In any case, there was no reason to invoke a "mysterious phone call" in Oswald's arrest:

In a similar vein, in 1987 Butch Burroughs told conspiracy theorist Jim Marrs that he saw Oswald enter the theater at 1:00 PM, before Tippit was shot, and even sold him popcorn at about 1:15. However, in 1964 Burroughs had told the Warren Commission that he had no awareness of Oswald before the cops hauled him out. [TO BE CONTINUED]

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[THU 02 SEP 10] SCIENCE NOTES

* SCIENCE NOTES: The science media reports that an international consortium headed by a British research team has published a rough draft of the genome of the wheat plant. It may seem strange that it's taken this long to obtain the wheat genome given the plant's importance, but wheat is a hybrid grass, with six sets of chromosomes as opposed to our two sets -- its genome is five times bigger than ours, and was accordingly much more difficult to sequence.

* WIRED Online passed on a report of a paper authored by a team of researchers led by Alain-Jacques Valleron, an epidemiologist at the Institut Nationale de la Sante et de la Recherche Medical in Paris, on the 1889 "Russian flu" pandemic. The researchers examined records from 172 cities around the world and came to the conclusion that it only took four months for the flu to spread over the globe. The results suggest that, were a new flu pandemic to break out, placing controls on air transport would do no more than briefly delay the spread of the disease. The study backs up computer models that show much the same effect. The suggestion is that the interconnectedness of cities is much more important to the spread of disease than speed of transport.

The Russian flu was significant because it was the first major epidemic to strike Europe in the wake of the development of the railroad network. The pandemic was relatively mild -- similar in effect to the flu outbreaks of 1947, 1957, 1968, and 1977, not remotely in a league with the ghastly 1918 pandemic. Oddly, even though the pathogen theory of disease was understood in 1889, very strange ideas were floated for the origins of the flu, including unusual solar activity and emissions from volcanic eruptions. The confusion was due to the fact that, while bacterial pathogens were well known at the time, viruses are so much smaller than bacteria that they can't be seen through an optical microscope and remained unknown, so there was no visible evidence of a pathogen in samples taken from the afflicted.

* The science media also discussed the discovery of a relatively new fossil discovery named Nectocaris pteryx -- what has been described as a tiny ancient squidlike creature. It dates from the Precambrian era, a time where the fossil remains are scanty and the gaps in our knowledge considerable. Nectocaris was actually found in the famous Canadian Burgess Shale deposits decades ago, but figuring out exactly what it was given there was only one example proved troublesome, the suggestion being that it was some sort of arthropod, along the lines of a primitive shrimp.

Recent discoveries of 91 more Nectocaris fossils helped clarify its nature. As reinterpreted, Nectocaris had a clear resemblance to a modern squid, though it was tiny, only a few centimeters long. It featured a kite-shaped body, eyes on stalks, a jet tube for moving around, and twin tentacles -- it seems the squid family has tended to replicate tentacles over the aeons. There is still some dispute over the interpretation of the beast, with work continuing on the matter.

* One of the interesting things about systems of organisms, for example ant colonies, is that though they are highly organized, they're not under central control. There's no "central coordinator" handing out elaborate sets of orders to individual ants; instead, an ant colony gets by using simple "local rules" that govern the conduct of the ants.

As discussed by a note in WIRED Online from last year, such collective behavior can be seen in leafcutter ants of the jungle regions, which scour up leaves to be used as mulch to grow edible fungus back in the nest. Although the ants travel along specific paths to forage for leaves, they obey simple rules that guarantee they don't get in a snarl doing it. Says entomologist Audrey Dussutour of the University of Sydney: "I've been working with ants for eight years and have never seen a traffic jam -- and believe me, I've tried."

Early on, Dussutour noticed that on wide paths, outbound ants without a load will maintain a separate stream from inbound ants carrying a load. That wasn't particularly surprising; Dussutour was more interested in what would happen with ants moving along a narrow twig, which was the ant equivalent of a one-lane highway. Research showed that outbound unladen ants always yielded right-of-way to laden inbound ants. Ants sometimes came back home without a load; if they did, they just followed an ant with a load, making no attempt to get ahead. Humans, of course, do not like following slow traffic, but it turns out to be beneficial to the ants: by avoiding traffic jams, the ants end up moving faster.

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[WED 01 SEP 10] ANOTHER MONTH

* ANOTHER MONTH: BUSINESS WEEK magazine often runs interesting articles on scams, with one article on frauds pulled off on the elderly catching my eye. It isn't news that oldsters are a prime target of scamsters -- the best target being an old widow who was overly dependent on her husband and whose judgement has deteriorated. As the article pointed out, the elderly often have an accumulation of assets that make them worth ripping off. Insurer MetLife estimates that America's senior citizens get taken for $2.6 billion USD a year.

What was startling about the article is that a good number of the scammers are elderly themselves. Case in point was Ronald Keith Owens, a 74-year-old California conman, who stole $2.6 million USD pushing non-existent investments. He got 60 years in prison. Says a financial-industry official: "It's astounding that you can't even trust older people any more."

* I had just gone to bed one night late this month, listening to the crickets chirping outside my window and starting to drift off, when I heard a roar increasing in volume from outside. It sounded like a helicopter, but the sound was unusually deep and load. I jumped up and went to the window, slid open the screen and stuck my head out.

At that moment a helicopter came overhead. All I could see of it was its pattern of landing lights and the beam of a searchlight, but I judged from the size of the thing it was a military Boeing Chinook heavy helicopter -- like a freight car with a cab up front and a rotor on each end. I knew the sound of the things from my days at Fort Hood, Texas, long ago. It seemed to end up hovering over a small lake to the west of me; I threw on some clothes and drove over to see what I could find, but it was gone.

I could smell smoke after I went back to bed, and I wondered if it wasn't carrying a fire-fighting bucket, getting a reload from the lake. Later I found that a barn had burned down not too far from me and that was likely what I smelled; it seems implausible that such heavy artillery would have been needed for dealing with a barn on fire, and so the visitor is likely to remain a mystery. It was very much the sight in the dark, its lights and maneuvering suggesting an alien UFO far more than any flying machine I had ever seen. Exciteable people too far away to hear the loud noise might well have taken it for one. [ED: Later on, I found out a Sikorsky Skycrane, another big helicopter often used for fire-fighting, was operating in the area, so my theory that it was a Chinook was likely wrong.]

* Most people tend to find winters a drag. My problem is summers. It's not the heat so much as the fact that I find it hard to sleep at nights from late June into early August, and I gradually get run down. I've considered installing air conditioning in my house, but every time I've examined the idea, it just doesn't seem sensible compared to the limited need I have for it. A good small evaporative cooler on casters would do the job perfectly, northeast Colorado tends toward the dry and evaporative coolers generally work very well. The problem is the word "good": I've had evaporative coolers and they've always been junk, with no way to replace the filters once they mildew up, and no way to clean them out thoroughly. It would hardly seem difficult to design them to be easily maintained, but it appears that they're targeted for a low-cost / throwaway market.

Anyway, when I get run down, I respond by becoming more organized, getting more diligent in my work schedules, listing up things I need to do and then knocking off the items. By the time the weather cools off again, I'm generally running smoothly on all cylinders. One thing I try to do each year is go through my house and tidy things up thoroughly -- rummaging through every closet and box down to a low level of detail, figuring out what to toss and organizing what's left behind. I usually do this early in the year, but thanks to delays it became part of the late-summer program this year. It's not too difficult, being orderly by nature the house doesn't get particularly out of control between cleanups; I do a bit for fifteen minutes or so each day and it doesn't take long to get everything nailed down again.

The interesting thing is that in checking through every box I find things I had forgotten about. Last October I'd made a road trip to New Mexico and north Texas; I'd bought a pack of AA cells to power my cameras, but on the day I drove south I came up zeroes when I needed to swap out batteries, and so had to buy a pack of them from a Wal-Mart in southern Colorado.

When I got back home, I looked around for the AA cells I thought I'd bought and came up zeroes again. I wasn't even entirely sure I'd bought them. I shrugged and forgot about the matter. However, while I was checking through the closet where I kept luggage and various tote bags, I found an athletic-kit bag that seemed peculiarly heavy on one end. I unzipped the compartment on the end and found eight AA cells inside. Light bulb went on in my head: Oh. So that's where they went. I'm going through the rest of the house now. Maybe I'll find some other goodies I hid from myself.

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