nov 2010 / last mod feb 2016 / greg goebel

* Entries include: JFK assassination, system updates revisited, Bangladesh versus global warming, solar power from Stirling engines, DNA drugs, Japan sells products to the developing world, cellphones from India's Micromax, anomalous black hole and giant pulsar, Triassic extinction, hybridization reconsidered, Richard T. Whitcomb, and AIDS in Russia.

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* NEWS COMMENTARY FOR NOVEMBER 2010: National elections in the US take place like clockwork every two years -- the president gets elected every four years, but senators get elected to the Senate, the upper house of the legislature, every six years and representatives get elected to the House of Representatives, the lower house, every two years. Hence the interesting American custom of "mid-term elections", which often turn out to be a vote of confidence on the current occupant of the White House.

The bottom line of the 2010 elections was that the House of Representatives shifted back to the Republicans, with the White House and Senate still controlled by the Democrats. Loss of the House meant dislodging Democrat House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the first woman to hold the position. She was broadly unpopular, generally seen as a hyper-partisan and uncompromising, with polls showing her approval ratings were less than a third of the voters, while disapproval ran almost two-thirds.

The shift to the Right shouldn't have been a surprise. As was commented here after Obama was elected, the Democrats were riding a wave of public disgust over the failings of the previous Republican Administration, and being told: "You're not as bad as the other guy." -- is a weak sort of mandate, quickly withdrawn, as demonstrated by the recent vote. There's considerable suspicion of both parties, manifested in the fact that Independent voters now make up the biggest single block. Independents by definition vary widely in convictions, but one of the common threads is an disgust with partisanship.

Is a centrist party about to take shape? It's not a good bet, since the current two-party arrangement has so much momentum, or at least inertia, behind it. However, it does happen ever rare now and then in US politics, the last time being the emergence of the Republicans from the disintegration of the Whigs in the 1850s. Certainly it seems absurd that the biggest voting block among Americans refuses to identify with either of the parties, and so it would seem that a new centrist party would have a ready-made and powerful constituency.

* In Colorado, the voting results were mixed. Despite the conservative tilt of the state, pockets of liberalism like Boulder and Aspen being exceptions and not the rule, a motion to reject the Obama Administration's national health-care plan -- actually in effect to censure it, since state laws can't override Federal laws -- was defeated, if narrowly. A set of Right Republican initiatives went down in flames, with strong voter disapproval.

Although I don't pay much attention to state politics, I shared the disapproval, registering shock while I was making out my mail-in ballot: "You want to mandate that state taxes can only be passed with public referendums? I don't think so!" I've no problem with oversight of government, but that was essentially trying to emulate the ringing success of straightjacketed California state politics here in Colorado. It seems I was not alone in finding that a very unattractive idea.

While sniping at California's notoriously dysfunctional state politics is much too easy, the mid-term elections there took a significant step in finally putting a stake through the heart there of a quaint and long-standing American political custom, known as "gerrymandering", at least in that region.

Democratic nations have mechanisms for adjusting proportional representation in response to census data, and in most places it's done by a notionally independent commission. However, in US states it's traditionally been the prerogative of the state political apparatus -- with the result that there's a strong temptation to alter the boundaries of voting districts to ensure safe majorities for the incumbent party. The scheme got its name in 1812, when Governor Elbridge Gerry of the state of Massachusetts rearranged voting districts to give an edge to his Democratic-Republican Party. Maps of the lunatic linkup of districts suggested the shape of a dragon or "salamander"; the joke then made the rounds: "That's not a salamander, that's a Gerry-mander!"

the monstrous Gerry-mander of 1812

While some claim that gerrymandering has its good features, it's generally seen as dodgy at best, prone to corruption. California voters took initial steps to turn redistricting over to an independent commission in 2008; now they've passed "Proposition 20" to complete the process. Gerrymandering in California looks like a dead issue. Of course, California is only one state, but it is an influential state, and whether other state legislatures like it or not, they may be pressured to follow California's example.

* One of the interesting things about economic downturns is that they do blow somebody good, and as reported by BUSINESS WEEK, American farmers are making out like bandits. While US farmers had been worried about competition from Russia and the Ukraine, drought has stifled their output, and so America's highly efficient big farms of the Midwest and South have been doing a fantastic business selling grain, soybeans, pork, and a wide range of agricultural commodities to the growing appetites of emerging economies, particularly China.

Some farm observers say 2010 will be the best year US farmers have seen in a quarter of a century. Low interest rates are fueling the farm boom, while the money being raked in by farmers is flowing downstream to manufacturers of farm gear, fertilizers, and seed. The rest of the country should be so lucky, but farmers have had their tough times, and it's difficult to begrudge them their good times. However, that silver lining is part of a very black cloud: although America is proving an agricultural powerhouse for the time being, as far as the globe is concerned, agricultural production is not keeping up with demand, and some fear a world food crisis is now emerging.



* BANGLADESH BRACES FOR GLOBAL WARMING (1): Global-warming deniers have been skeptical of the evidence that human emissions of greenhouse gases have been heating up the world. When they do concede the possibility, the skeptics like to suggest that the effects of global warming won't be all that serious, certainly not serious enough to warrant the kind of fuss now being made over the issue.

It would certainly be nice to find out that we're overreacting to the threat of global warming, but as reported by an article from AAAS SCIENCE ("Hot, Flat, Crowded -- And Preparing For The Worst" by Mason Inman, 30 October 2009), the nation of Bangladesh faces horrendous difficulties if we're not. About a fifth of the country is a meter or less above sea level, while forecasts of the rise of sea levels are running to two meters. Along with the threat of land disappearing under the sea, salt waters will also reach into fresh water sources, rendering substantial areas of land that remain above sea level useless for cultivation.

map of Bangladesh

Changes in climate may be threatening enough even ignoring rising seas. Already the signs are disturbing. Over the past few years, northwest Bangladesh has only received half the winter rainfall the area received over the last half-century, preventing the local farmers from planting a winter crop. To compound the troubles, in 2009 the monsoon rains came a month late, cutting short the main growing season. The locals are now forced to try to subsist on a single crop.

Climate studies for the region suggest that if average global temperatures rise by 3 degrees Celsius by 2100, the monsoon will be delayed another two weeks. Rainfall will become less frequent, but when it comes it will be much more intense. Seasonal floods already appear to be getting more destructive. Bangladesh is traditionally prone to droughts, floods, and cyclones; things can be bad enough normally, and so the idea that they're going to get worse is unpleasant. As a local conservation worker puts it, Bangladesh is "nature's laboratory for natural disasters."

The government of Bangladesh is rising to the challenge, however, having recently approved a wide-ranging strategy for dealing with climate change, with the effort including civil engineering projects to protect the citizens from flooding and rising sea levels, as well investigations of new farming practices and technologies. Bangladesh has implemented more community-based projects to help prepare for climate change than any other country.

For example, with help from the "Livelihood Adaptation To Climate Change" -- run by the United Nations Food & Agriculture Organization (UN FAO) -- and Bangladesh's Department of Agricultural Extension, farmers in the town of Basuldanga, in the northwest of the country, have been experimenting with new crops and farming methods. They've dug ponds to store rainwater and have planted vegetable gardens in previously unused plots between their houses, growing such crop plants as spinach and gourds, using seed provided by agricultural field offices. The village has so many such plots that it's been nicknamed "subzee gram" or "vegetable village". Says a local farmer: "Vegetable cultivation can't replace the loss of a [rice] paddy, but it provides a little bit of help." [TO BE CONTINUED]



* THE KILLING OF JFK -- THE ASSASSINATION (18): The Secret Service had linked up with a distressed and agitated Abraham Zapruder on Friday, and after some misadventures managed to get the film from Zapruder's movie camera developed. Zapruder showed it to journalists the next morning -- Saturday, 23 November -- offering the movie to the highest bidder. Zapruder had conflicted feelings about the movie, wishing he'd never made it, but he had, and having done so he had to think about its use to help put his kids through college, as well as its potential for abuse. He wanted to get as much money for it as possible, as long as he could get assurances that it would not be sensationalized. LIFE magazine got a deal with him for $50,000 USD -- a fair sum of money now, a small fortune then.

Zapruder's camera

LIFE magazine reporters were busy elsewhere that morning, casing the Paine residence. Marguerite Oswald and Ruth Paine hadn't hit it off; Marguerite rarely got along well with anyone and Ruth Paine had an assertive personality, so the two were bickering almost from the start. The LIFE reporters offered to put Marguerite, Marina, and the two little ones up in a posh hotel downtown; Marguerite seemed to like the attention and accepted. Ruth Paine was glad to see her go.

Rumors were still floating around that the FBI had known Oswald was a threat and hadn't taken any preventive action, with the rumors enhanced by remarks made to the press by the Dallas chief of police, Jesse Curry. Curry had responded to questions by reporters saying that the FBI had known about Oswald but had not informed the police about him. The comments were quickly broadcast over the news media; FBI Directory J. Edgar Hoover got wind of them very fast and was promptly on the phone to Gordon Shanklin, the head of the Dallas FBI office, expressing displeasure. Shanklin called Chief Curry and suggested that he be more circumspect; Curry agreed and passed out the word for his people to be careful about what they said about the FBI. Later that day, Curry told newsmen that he wasn't "accusing the FBI of not cooperating or of withholding information because they are under no obligation to us, but have always cooperated with us 100%."

Back in Washington DC, Lyndon Johnson was trying to move into the Oval Office. Some perceived that LBJ was acting with unseemly haste, but JFK's abrupt death had of course thrown things into chaos, and Johnson had his work cut out for him to get matters sorted out. Johnson did manage to hold his first presidential cabinet meeting that day. Along with the cabinet meeting, there was a memorial service for JFK in the White House, attended only by the Kennedy family and JFK intimates; it was said to be the first time a Catholic mass had been performed in the White House. That afternoon, President Johnson formally addressed the public, eulogizing Kennedy, saying: "All who love freedom will mourn his death." Indeed, formal expressions of condolences were pouring in from all over the world, with even JFK's political enemies publicly honoring his memory.

* Given the madhouse at Dallas City Hall and the relatively poor security there, Chief Curry wanted to get Oswald over to the county jail that afternoon, but the transfer wouldn't be possible until the interrogation was tied up. The interrogation was taking time, with Oswald being grilled from midmorning on Saturday, 23 November. Will Fritz asked most of the questions; he was a very good interrogator, entirely methodical and unflappable. On being asked about the "package of curtain rods" Oswald claimed he knew nothing about them, the only thing he had taken to work was his lunch in a bag -- ironically, although Frazier had said Oswald was carrying a bag of "curtain rods", Frazier had also claimed that for once, Oswald wasn't carrying a lunch bag on the morning drive on 22 November. Oswald continued to deny that he owned a rifle. When asked point-blank if he had shot JFK and Governor Connally, he flatly denied it: "I didn't shoot John Kennedy. I didn't even know Governor John Connally had been shot." He was finally taken back to his cell.

In the meantime, Fritz's detectives were casing the Paine residence. They had done a quick search the day before, coming back with the blanket the rifle had been rolled up in, but now they were more thorough, focusing on the garage. The authorities had already traced back his mail-order purchase of the Carcano from Klein's Sporting Goods. It had been bought by "A. Hidell", of course, but Oswald had done a good job of letting everyone know that was an alias he liked to use, and the investigators knew who had bought it. The handwriting on the order paperwork was quickly confirmed to be Oswald's. The money order used to purchase the weapon was tracked down later that day, with the handwriting again confirmed to be Oswald's.

At 1:10 PM, Oswald met with Marina and his mother Marguerite. Lee was not at all happy to see Marguerite there, asking Marina in Russian: "Why did you bring that fool with you? I don't want to talk to her." Marina replied: "She's your mother. Of course she came." There wasn't too much else specific for anyone to say; Marina had the "Fascist Hunter" pictures on her, but when she asked Lee if it was safe to talk, he replied with dripping sarcasm: "Of course. We can speak about absolutely anything!" -- and so Marina didn't mention the photos.

Lee reassured them: "It's a mistake. I'm not guilty." However, Marina knew Lee, knew that he would be raising hell if he'd been wrongly arrested, and left with the ugly feeling that Lee was in fact guilty. Later that day, she tore up the "Fascist Hunter" pictures she was carrying and tried to burn them in an ashtray in the hotel room. They didn't burn well, so she flushed the scraps down the toilet. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* GIMMICKS & GADGETS: As reported by DISCOVERY CHANNEL Online, Lake Kivu in Rwanda seems peaceful on the surface, but hidden beneath its calm waters are huge reservoirs of methane and carbon dioxide that, if they were to burst to the surface, would threaten the lives of two million people living around its shores. Kivu is one of the three known "erupting" lakes in the world. Thanks to nearby Nyurangongo volcano, the lake has thousands of years worth of accumulation of volcanic gases dissolved in its waters.

Lake Kivu also turns out to provide a benefit. The Rwandan government has just recently built the Kibuye powerplant along the lake's shore, which siphons off the noxious gases and uses the methane as fuel for three large electric generators. For now, the plant produces 3.6 megawatts of electricity, enough to power more than 4% of the country. In two years, the plant will provide energy for a third of the country's power needs; ultimately the lake will supply the majority of Rwanda's power.

The lake still presents a threat. Kivu is stratified, meaning there is no mixing between the lake's warm, upper layer and the deep, colder layer. When gases enter the lake, they dissolve and migrate down to the denser, deep layer. The temperature and density differences act as a cap, preventing the gases from escaping back up to the surface. However, warming air temperatures could disrupt the cap by reducing the temperature difference between the two layers. The effect would be like opening a soda bottle; the dissolved gases would fizz up to the surface in a huge and disastrous eruption.

Such an event has happened elsewhere. On 15 August 1984, Cameroon's Lake Nyos erupted, releasing a huge white cloud of concentrated carbon dioxide that suffocated hundreds of people and animals. Kivu is a much larger lake, with far more people living around it. To prevent another eruption at Nyos, the Cameroon government built pipes that that drain gases from the deeps of the lake, drawing off the gas at a low rate. The Kibuye powerplant does the same job, while obtaining energy at the same time.

* Although regenerative braking -- in effect, running an electric motor in reverse as a generator to obtain braking effect and recovering some energy doing it -- is fairly common in modern electric and hybrid cars, the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transport Authority (SPTA), which runs the subways in Philadelphia, has taken the idea to a new scale. The SPTA has installed a huge battery bank on Philadelphia's most heavily-used subway station to recover electricity from subway trains pulling into the station.

The battery system will store megawatt-hours of energy, either using it to drive outbound trains or dumping it back on the power grid. The PSTA spends about $20 million USD on electricity a year, and officials believe they could cut electricity consumption by 40% if the regenerative system was installed at all stations, making it very cost-effective to do so.

* The job of forward air controller (FAC) has been around since World War II, with a ground spotter operating in a combat area directing airstrikes via radio to attack aircraft overhead. Modern datalink and satellite communications has enhanced a FAC's capability, but now as reported by AVIATION WEEK, the US military's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is working on a scheme named "Precision Close Air Support (PCAS)" to effectively put the FAC in the driver's seat.

Under PCAS, a FAC would actually be able to take command of sensors and munitions on an aerial strike platform. With a wearable display, the FAC would have a better view of the combat situation, be able to determine the most effective attack, and also be able to assess the results of an attack. DARPA plans a "live fire" demonstration in 2014, using an "optionally piloted" Fairchild A-10 Warthog tank-buster aircraft with twin targeting pods. The twin pods will be used to demonstrate how one aircraft could be used by more than one FAC. The Air Force sees the demonstration as an important step to the development of a next-generation attack drone system.

Fairchild A-10 Warthog

WIRED Online reports that the US Navy is similarly developing a system to put control of drones in the hands of the ground-pounders. The Navy requirement is somewhat more ambitious, however, not merely envisioning that the troops will take control of drones for surveillance and attack, but also for cargo delivery and medical evacuation. Too ambitious? Possibly -- but the robot battlefield of the future doesn't seem as far away as it once did.



* SOLAR POWER FROM STIRLING ENGINES: The Stirling engine has been around for almost 200 years, having been devised by British inventor Robert Stirling in 1816. It's a conceptually elegant device: apply heat to one end, leave the other end cool, and the engine spins away, driven by a heated gas sealed inside and shuttled around by a set of pistons. Since it's not an internal combustion engine, it can use almost any source of heat. However, the Stirling engine has never really amounted to much but an interesting toy, having a poor power-to-weight ratio, though it has been used as an electric generator on spacecraft.

As reported by an article from SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN Online ("Are Engines The Future Of Solar Power?" by Cynthia Graber), people haven't given up on the Stirling engine. A 1.5 megawatt (MW) demonstration site is now in operation, with the generators provided by Stirling Energy Systems (SES) of Arizona. 1.5 MW is a very modest output, but SES has much bigger projects in the queue, dependent on how well the demonstration works out.

SES began work on solar Stirling systems in 1996, obtaining patents from companies such as Boeing, to then partner with the US Sandia National Laboratory to get the technology to work. The result, the "SES Suncatcher", consists of a moveable dish-shaped mirror that can track the Sun, with the Sun's heat driven on a "power conversion unit (PCU)" at the focal point. The PCU features four pistons and hydrogen gas as the "working fluid". There are 60 Suncatchers in the demonstration array.

Suncatcher array

The test units have demonstrated an efficiency of over 30% in converting sunlight to electricity, while other current solar power systems are hard-pressed to reach 20%. However, Stirling generators tend to be seen as too expensive, unreliable, and hard to maintain -- the PCU has to work at high temperatures that are hard on machines -- and SES has to prove the case with the demonstration system. SES officials feel their technology can do the job, and point out other advantages of their scheme: it doesn't require the large quantities of water and the cooling system required for solar turbogenerator systems, and since each element of the Stirling array is an independent generator, the array is fault-tolerant.

The original prototypes of the Suncatcher were of course hand-built, but building the demonstration array required constructing 60 units in three months. Since setting up a large solar Stirling powerplant might require building that many units in a day, SES officials went to automotive engineering firms to figure out out to design for manufacturability. The production version slashed the number of parts by 60% and similarly cut the weight. An SES engineer claims the production unit is "much more reliable, much cheaper to assemble, with fewer parts and fewer places to leak."

Larger solar Stirling powerplants will consist of sets of 60-generator 1.5 MW arrays like the demonstrator, linked in clusters of six to provide 9 MW per cluster. SES officials are talking about 750 MW plants, and intend to break ground on operational arrays in California and Texas this year.



* DNA DRUGS ARRIVE: As reported by an article from SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN ("DNA Drugs Come Of Age" by Matthew P. Morrow & David B. Weiner, July 2010), back in the 1990s considerable research was performed on using direct injections of DNA as vaccines against "difficult" pathogens like the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). However, trials showed the DNA vaccines were ineffectual, so the researchers went back to the lab to see if they rethink matters and figure out where they had gone wrong. Ten years on, the researchers now have DNA vaccines that are demonstrating great promise in providing a high degree of immunity along with safety, with the same technology being investigated for uses in other aspects of immune therapy and the direct delivery of medicines.

Traditionally, vaccines have been made of protein components of pathogens; killed pathogens; or weakened or "attenuated" pathogens. Component vaccines were the safest, having no chance of causing an infection, but also provoked the weakest immune response; attenuated pathogens were the most effective in provoking an immune response, but they were the least safe, since the pathogens might not always be as "attenuated" as was believed. At the outset of research on DNA vaccines, they promised to combine high effectiveness with high safety. From the outset the primary target was HIV, which mutates rapidly, making it a very difficult target for vaccines.

The original idea was to inject loops of DNA, known as "plasmids", into a host, with the plasmids carrying a set of genes coding proteins from a pathogen. The plasmids would be taken into host cells, a process known as "transfection", with the proteins encoded by the plasmid "expressed" by the cell's machinery. Since the plasmid wouldn't have the genes necessary to successfully assemble the pathogen, it couldn't cause an unintended infection, but the expressed proteins would provoke a strong immune response. The immune system has no ability to recognize foreign DNA -- DNA looks chemically like DNA, no matter where it comes from -- and so the plasmid itself wouldn't be attacked by the immune system and neutralized. DNA vaccine production also promised to be easier than production of traditional vaccines, such as those for influenza, and since DNA is stable at room temperature, there would be less need for refrigeration.

The trials in the 1990s were a great disappointment. It appears in hindsight that the plasmids weren't able to penetrate cells in adequate numbers, and when they did, they weren't able to stimulate adequate production of proteins. Work on DNA vaccines wasn't abandoned, but other avenues of investigation came to the forefront.

* DNA vaccines came back into fashion when the other approaches to an HIV vaccine didn't work, either. Researchers who hadn't given up hope on DNA vaccines had significantly refined them in the meantime, developing schemes for improving plasmid penetration into target cells; enhancing protein production inside target cells; and enhancing the immune system response to the proteins.

New vaccine delivery schemes are an important part of the new approach. Injecting vaccines with a hypodermic needle isn't really a very effective way to administer a vaccine, since it injects the vaccine into muscle where immune system cells are scarce. Transdermal patches and other needle-free schemes, such as the "Gene Gun" that uses pressurized air to blast plasmids through skin, actually dump vaccines into the immune system cells standing guard underneath the skin. An auxiliary scheme known as "electroporation" uses a set of electrical pulses to force the cells to open up the pores in their membranes, improving their update of plasmids by as much as a factor of a thousand.

The plasmids themselves have been enhanced. Just providing a code for a pathogen protein wasn't enough; the same protein can be coded for by a range of similar DNA sequences, and some of the DNA sequences are easier for a cell to replicate than others. Genes coding for molecules known as "adjuvants" unrelated to the pathogen, intended to stimulate the immune system -- discussed here a few months back -- were also added to the plasmids, providing a self-stimulation feature.

* The new DNA vaccines haven't gone through advanced trials yet, but they seem very promising. Researchers believe the technology has applications beyond vaccines, such as plasmid delivery of certain medications and immune therapies to suppress cancers.

Use of plasmids to deliver medications is something of a hybrid step between administering a medication and true gene therapy. The plasmid encodes a drug to fight a specific disease; a cell fabricates the drug from the plasmid, but the plasmid doesn't become integrated into the cell genome -- which caused difficulties in gene therapy. One example already in use is a plasmid-based drug administered to pigs along with electroporation, with the plasmids generating a hormone that encourages the development of fetal pigs, preventing their loss. It works effectively with a single injection despite the fact that pigs are generally big animals. No DNA-based drugs for humans have been formally approved yet, but several are in trials, for example one designed to produce "growth factors" to deal with congestive heart failure.

DNA immune therapies basically amount to DNA-based vaccines that promote an immune response to cancers. None have been approved yet, but trials suggest they can be effective, with a treatment for dog melanomas -- skin cancers -- increasing the survival of dogs by a factor of six.

As far as DNA-based vaccines go, now they're much more effective than they were a decade ago. Vaccines that can target a range of influenza strains have been developed, and DNA vaccines are now back in the race towards the development of an effective HIV vaccine. Given how hard a target HIV has proven in the past, it's difficult to say that an workable vaccine is right around the corner, but even if not, DNA vaccine and drug technology seems poised for much greater medical use across the board.



* SYSTEM UPDATES REVISITED (5): After all my efforts I had a neatly-integrated wireless household computing network. Unfortunately, while I was tinkering with setting it up, my HP desktop would occasionally crash abruptly for no obvious reason. It stopped doing so after a while -- but then a few weeks after I'd completed the networking effort, it started doing it with increasing frequency. Checking for malware and cleaning up the PC didn't seem to change matters, and so I suspected it was an intermittent hardware error.

The desktop was only three years old, but I didn't want to struggle with a machine that would crash on me every now and then -- I needed a reliably working machine NOW. I promptly went out and bought a new desktop, the cheapest Compaq Pavilion I could find at Office Depot. I went through the same exercise as before to update my system, installing all the software I needed, and all seemed to go smoothly -- though I had the complication that the hard disk on my old PC was full of personal information, and if I dumped the old PC people might be able to find data on finances or the like I wouldn't want to share. I had to spend a few hours making sure all personal files were deleted.

Yeah, I know, somebody with the proper software can recover deleted files from disk sectors, but I wanted to make sure nobody could casually read the files left on the disk. Later on, somebody told me it was easy to find freeware disk-wipe utilities on the web -- duh, right, it's not rocket science to write a utility to carpet-bomb disk sectors, I should have thought of that.

However, I ran into real trouble when I ran my HTML formatting batch files. They just plain refused to work, generating improperly formatted output. I thought at first it was due to the fact that the little C programs I had written to support the batch files weren't compatible with 64-bit Win7. I tried recompiling them; no joy. I tried installing 32-bit Win7; still didn't work. I got to wondering if I was barking up the wrong tree and took a closer look at the bugs in the formatted files. What I finally realized was that I had major errors in the batch files themselves relating to "escaping" characters like "<" and ">" and so on. I'd had considerable difficulty in originally writing the batch files and jumping through hoops to handle the escapes, resulting in a pile of messy fixes. I changed the batch files to do the simple and straightforward thing, and they worked.

It was a fairly easy solution and I was relieved to find out I wasn't really in big trouble again. The baffling thing was that the old batch files shouldn't have worked to begin with. In fact, while cleaning them up, I found a fundamental bug that should have been an immediately obvious show-stopper. Why did they work? Obviously I'll never find out. At least the exercise gave me some confidence that my little homegrown C programs don't seem to have any problem with 64-bit Win7; all the problems I saw in formatting were due to the batch file errors. Next time I set up a Win7 PC, it'll be in 64-bit mode.

* However, I ended up getting into a jam by reinstalling Windows. I just blandly ignored the fact that Windows product keys are linked to PC hardware, and since I had installed that copy of Win7 on the old desktop, Microsoft had that copy of Win7 keyed to the old PC. Soon I started getting warnings that my copy of Windows wasn't validated. I also ignored them once or twice, but then it finally soaked in for me to worry about it -- which was wise, because after 30 days without activation unspecified "bad things" were likely to happen.

But where was the product key for Windows for the new PC? It didn't come with any DVDs or paperwork worth mentioning. After some worried poking around, I finally found it tagged to the PC chassis. I typed it in and all was well. In hindsight I was being dense, but I think it was a blind habit from the old days, when was doing a lot of professional tinkering with PCs and didn't need to worry too much about validating an OS -- if I had a copy, I could install it. Can't do things that way any more.

* As far as the old HP desktop went, I wasn't certain it really had a hardware error, and so I wiped it and reinstalled the OS. I bought a USB wi-fi interface to hook it up to the rest of the network; I figured that even if I couldn't get the PC to work, the wi-fi interface would be a nice item for my toybox. At first, the PC seemed to work okay, but then it finally started refusing to boot; it was dead after all.

Perversely, I felt somewhat relieved at that: it vindicated my judgement, I didn't need to fiddle with the thing any more, and I didn't have any clear use for the PC anyway. However, it would have been better to have had a working PC and then figured out something to do with it. I almost forgot before throwing it out to salvage the RAM cards; I pulled out two 1 GB cards. My new Compaq only had one free slot, but plugging in one of the cards got me up to 3 GB total.

* Incidentally, in response to the earlier series on the Win7 update, I got a tipoff on the message board for new keyboard shortcuts supported by Win7, some of which were definitely handy -- the "WIN" key mentioned in the list is the one on a PC keyboard with a MS-Windows logo:




* THE KILLING OF JFK -- THE ASSASSINATION (17): Unfortunately, the carelessness of the Bethesda autopsy would help spread doubts. There would be lingering confusion over the positioning of the throat shot. The paperwork provided by the autopsy for the position of the entry wound for the throat shot was inconsistent, which complicated determination of the trajectory of the bullet. Further complicating the issue was the fact that JFK's clothes suggested the bullet entered lower on his back. This problem was actually easily dealt with, the suggestion being that JFK's seating had caused his clothes to "ride up" on his back, and though conspiracy theorists often reject this idea, in fact photos taken during the presidential motorcade on 22 November 1963 consistently show that to be the case. It should be noted that the bullet holes on the back of JFK's jacket and shirt were clearly entry holes, the threads being punched inward.

Another matter was that some of the notes taken during the autopsy were spattered with blood; Hume simply rewrote the notes and then burned the bloody sheets of paper in his fireplace, worrying that they might be put on display. There were also some ambiguities in the autopsy report; matters were further complicated by the testimony of about a half-dozen witnesses peripherally involved in the autopsy, who later gave reports of wounds observed on JFK's corpse inconsistent with the autopsy results. The reports tended to differ among themselves as well as change over time, and none of these witnesses had actually been in a position to give the wounds a careful inspection.

* A more perplexing issue was the fate of JFK's brain. It was removed during the autopsy, it wasn't until 1966 that anyone realized it was gone, and nobody ever figured out for certain what happened to it. Conspiracy theorists get very excited about this issue, and not without some reason -- maybe JFK's brain revealed something that contradicted the autopsy findings, and so it was destroyed. However, due to the lack of evidence, nobody's been able to do much but try to leverage off inconsistencies between the testimonies of various involved parties to generate conspiracy theories, including one absolutely bewildering "switcheroo" scenario in which JFK's brain was swapped with somebody else's. Such tales amount to nothing more than speculations with no real support in the evidence, and despite the claims of conspiracy theorists, no forensic pathologist believes the brain could have provided any evidence that would have compromised the recorded results of the autopsy.

One qualified pathologist who did claim the missing brain was important was Dr. Cyril Wecht, a prominent critic of the medical conclusions of the Warren Commission, a generally dissenting member of the panel of nine pathologists assembled by the HSCA, and on the whole friendly to conspiracy theorists. While many have disagreed with Wecht's various statements over the years, few have questioned his qualifications or called him a nut. Author Vincent Bugliosi spoke with Wecht over the phone about the doctor's notions, with Wecht admitting that even without the brain the evidence for the impact of the bullet from the rear was undeniable from the rest of the evidence. What Wecht claimed that JFK might have been hit simultaneously by a second bullet that hit him from the side.

Wecht was aware that any reasonably powerful bullet that hit JFK in the head from the right would have caused damage in the left side of Kennedy's head -- the one that hit from the rear had blasted all the way through JFK's skull, there would be nothing implausible about the "other bullet" doing the same. Such damage would have been evident even without considering the missing brain, and so he suggested the second bullet might have been "frangible" ammunition, used in shooting galleries for safety reasons since it breaks up into little fragments on impact, or some similarly "soft" sort of ammunition. Few have found this line of thought very persuasive -- why use ineffective ammunition for an assassination? -- and even Wecht admitted that the possibility was remote.

Anyway, as far as what happened to the brain went, what is known is that Admiral Burkley obtained the brain in a stainless steel bucket and had it stored, along with other autopsy-related material, in a locked Secret Service file cabinet in the White House. In April 1965, Bobby Kennedy requested that these materials be transferred to the US National Archives for safekeeping, with an inventory list made at the time showing the brain was indeed part of the kit sent there in a footlocker. A month later, Bobby Kennedy sent his personal secretary, Angela Novello, over to the National Archives to pick up the footlocker. Nobody asked Novello what she intended to do with it, and as far as the paper trail went, it disappeared.

About a year and a half later, in October 1966, a friend of the Kennedy family named Burke Marshall arranged the transfer of autopsy materials back to the government, with the kit including the footlocker. Examination of the footlocker showed it no longer stored the brain and tissue samples obtained from JFK. When the HSCA went over the issue later, Novello couldn't remember anything about the footlocker; Marshall claimed that Bobby Kennedy did not want any physical remains of JFK to be put on display, and so the Kennedy family disposed of them. Since Bobby Kennedy was murdered himself in 1968, the HSCA couldn't ask him about it. Although the matter is bizarre, none of the sketchy details available suggest it's an honestly important or controversial issue, and even if they did, it's hard to see what more could be said about it now. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* Space launches for October included:

-- 01 OCT 10 / CHANG'E 2 -- A Chinese Long March 3C booster was launched from Xichang to put the "Chang'e 2" Moon orbiter into space. The spacecraft had a launch mass of 2,495 kilograms (5,500 pounds). It followed Chang'e 1, which was launched in 2007, and in fact Chang'e 2 was originally built as a ground spare for Chang'e 1, though Chang'e 2 was substantially modernized. The mission was planned to last a minimum of six months.

-- 06 OCT 10 / SHIJIAN 6G, 6H -- A Chinese Long March 2B booster was launched from Taiyuan to put the "Shijian 6G" and "Shijian 6H" technology demonstration satellites into orbit. Shijian means "Practice" in Chinese. The focus of mission was announced as "space science", but it may have been a test of a cooperative automated rendezvous system.

-- 07 OCT 10 / SOYUZ TMA-1M (ISS) -- A Russian Soyuz booster was launched from Baikonur in Kazakhstan to put the "Soyuz TMA-1M" manned space capsule into orbit on an International Space Station (ISS) support mission. The capsule carried ISS "Expedition 25" crewmembers Scott Kelly (third space flight), Aleksandr Kaleri (fifth space flight), and Oleg Scripochka (first space flight). This was the first flight of a new Soyuz upgrade, featuring general avionics improvements, most importantly a new flight control computer and improved displays. The spacecraft docked to the Poisk module on the ISS Zvezda command module, with the Soyuz crew joining the current Expedition 25 residents of the ISS, including commander Douglas Wheelock, astronaut Shannon Walker, and cosmonaut Fyodor Yurchikin.

-- 14 OCT 10 / XM 5 -- An International Launch Services Proton Breeze M booster was launched from Baikonur to put the "XM 5" geostationary comsat into space for Sirius XM Radio. XM 5 was built by Space Systems / Loral and was based on the SS/L comsat bus. The spacecraft was placed in the geostationary slot at 85.2 degrees West longitude, serving as an operational spare for the direct-broadcast radio service offered by Sirius XM.

second-generation Globalstar comsats

-- 19 OCT 10 / GLOBALSTAR 2 x 6 -- A Soyuz Fregat booster was launched from Baikonur to put six second-generation "Globalstar" comsats into orbit, designated "Globalstar M074" through "Globalstar M077" and "Globalstar M079". The spacecraft were built by Thales Alenia Space and were the first installment on a total of 24 satellites, intended to upgrade the Globalstar constellation. The new satellites had a 15-year design life, twice that of the older satellites, and had a launch mass of 700 kilograms (1,543 pounds).

-- 27 OCT 10 / PROGRESS-M 08M (ISS) -- A Russian Soyuz booster was launched from Baikonur to put a Progress tanker-freighter spacecraft into orbit on an International Space Station (ISS) supply mission.

-- 28 OCT 10 / W3B, BSAT 3B -- An ESA Ariane 5 ECA booster was launched from Kourou in French Guiana to put the Eutelsat "W3B" and Japanese Broadcast Satellite System Corporation "BSAT 3b" geostationary comsats into space. W3B was built by Thales Alenia Space and was based on the company's Spacebus 4000 C3 comsat platform. It had a launch mass of 5,369 kilograms (11,839 pounds), carried a payload of 53 Ku-band / 3 Ka-band transponders, and had a design life of 15 years. It was to be placed in the geostationary slot at 16 degrees East longitude to replace the W2M comsat, which was launched in December 2008 but failed after a month in orbit. However, W3B suffered a fuel tank leak on arrival into orbit and was declared a loss within a day.

Ariane V ECA on the pad

BSAT 3b was built by Lockheed Martin and based on the Lockheed Martin A2100A comsat platform. It had a launch mass of 2,060 kilograms (4,542 pounds); a payload of 12 Ku-band transponders -- eight active transponders and four spares; and a design life of 15 years. It was placed in the geostationary slot at 110 degrees East longitude to provide direct communications services to homes and businesses in Japan.

-- 31 OCT 10 / BEIDOU-2 6 -- A Chinese Long March 3C booster was launched from Xichang to put a "Beidou (Big Dipper)" navigation satellite into orbit. It was the sixth second-generation Beidou spacecraft to be launched and the fourth geostationary satellite in the series.



* JAPAN EYES THE DEVELOPING WORLD: While the Japanese haven't had much to celebrate about for the past few decades, as reported by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("The New Frontier For Corporate Japan", 7 August 2010), Japanese companies have been doing well for themselves recently, with giants such as car-maker Toyota and consumer electronics maker Sony posting healthy profits as of late.

Where are the profits coming from? Not from Japan, where the economy has been struggling along and the population is shrinking; not from North America and Europe; but from the developing world. For example Shiseido, Japan's biggest cosmetics firm, has doubled sales in China over the past five years, with the company recently extending its presence to the Balkans and Mongolia, as well as opening a factory in Vietnam.

From 2000, the share of Japan's exports to the USA halved, while the share of exports to Europe fell by a third. The new frontiers for Japan's exports are the "BRICs" -- Brazil, Russia, India, and China -- and the "MINTS" -- Malaysia, Indonesia, Nigeria, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia -- along with Vietnam and the Balkans. By one estimate, 80% of global growth in trade markets to 2050 will take place in the developing countries.

Adjusting to the new realities requires a change in mindset towards focusing on tailoring products for regional markets. Consumer electronics manufacturer Panasonic is increasingly hiring local engineers to design the company's export products, one official saying: "If Japanese engineers did it, they would create a Japanese product." In India, the power grid strains to keep up with demand, so the company sells energy-efficient air conditioners there, featuring quiet operation since they tend to run all day. In China, air conditioners are relatively scarce and a status symbol, so they're built stylish and flashy. Indonesians don't need much space in a refrigerator for vegetables, since they typically buy produce and eat it fresh, but they need lots of space for two-liter water bottles to store water that they boil for purification in the morning -- one suspects an energy-efficient ultraviolet purifier system would be an attractive product for Indonesia as well. Panasonic has been rewarded by a bottom line jumping into the black from the red.

Japanese carmakers are also doing well in the developing world. Toyota sells a car named the "Etios" in India for about $10,000 USD, while Nissan builds a compact car named the "March" in India and Thailand, with the bulk of components obtained locally. Nissan also plans to build the March in China and Mexico; the car was produced in Nippon, but now it is imported from Thailand, a taste of things to come.

Nissan March

The yen is strong for the time being, hurting exports from Japan, though on the other side of the coin it makes foreign acquisitions cheaper. The strong yen has prodded Japanese companies to produce abroad and source parts there. Handling an international labor force is proving complicated, with work forces in developing countries sometimes turning out to be less docile than Japanese workers. That hints at a final barrier to tackle: opening up the top ranks of companies to non-Japanese. That's a big step to take, but if Japanese firms want to play in the global market, they have a strong incentive to globalize their leadership as well.

* MICROMAX ROLLS: Of course, developing world companies have a strong incentive to design product tailored for their own local markets. As a case study, an article in BUSINESS WEEK ("Giving Indians The Phones They Want" by Mehul Srivastava, 16 August 2010) zeroed in on phone-maker Micromax of India.

In 2007, executives at Micromax, then a service provider in northern India near New Delhi, noticed one hot summer afternoon how an enterprising peddler with a bicycle and a car battery was making a little money selling electricity to villages who had cellphones but no other real access to power; only 25% of India's households are connected to the power grid. Obviously the villagers had different needs than more prosperous cellphone users; less than a year later, the company came out with its first cellphone, the "X1i". As far as features went, it was very plain-vanilla; but it had a much larger battery than other cellphones, and power-saving electronics that allowed it to operate for five days, or sustain itself on standby for a month.

Since that time, Micromax has come out with a diverse line of phones, designed in India and manufactured by partners in China. The baseline phone is $40 USD, and the company is fairly modest in adding whizzy capabilities such as GPS, preferring to add cheap enhancements such as an FM radio receiver, or a music player that plays tunes off of preprogrammed memory chips sold my neighborhood shops. Another feature adds the capability of using a phone as a Wii-like remote for a TV-based video game system.

Micromax Q66 Eclipse

One particularly popular feature of Micromax phones is that many of them allow users to handle multiple phone accounts. India's cellphone use is heavily biased towards prepaid schemes, and phone time is dirt cheap, so it's common for users to have multiple accounts. To accommodate this practice, most Micromax phones can handle two SIM cards -- the little plastic-and-metal ID cards that slip into a cellphone to authorize use of an account. One phone has a motion sensor, allowing a user to change accounts by simply snapping the phone over and back again. A high-end phone features costume jewelry adornments and a flip-open full alphanumeric keyboard; it costs a mere $75 USD.

Micromax has about 4% of the phone market in India, which given the overall market size is no bad business. Indian firms have been growing at the expense of Finnish giant Nokia, which still dominates but is gradually shrinking. Nokia has been slow to tailor phones for local markets, and takes the time to give them a thorough qualification; Micromax does a quick-and-dirty job of testing and can turn out a new product in four months. Nokia's trying to become lighter on its feet, but it's a challenge for such a big organization.



* BLACK HOLE ANOMALY: The notion of black holes -- superdense mass concentrations that fold space around them, forming a "hole in space" from which nothing can escape -- was considered by physicists from before World War II, but it was regarded as absurd, a mere monster of theory. Observations of the cosmos by astronomers in the 1960s and 1970s forced the physicists to reconsider, and since that time the physics community has come to accept the existence of such "monsters".

As reported by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("Win Some, Lose Some", 16 September 2010), astronomers have observed objects they believe are black holes in the form of compact cosmic objects with masses several times that of the Sun, and in cores of galaxies containing mass concentrations ranging from 100,000 to 50 billion times the mass of the Sun. There's a degree of guesswork in the matter since black holes can't be seen directly -- everything that goes into one, including light, essentially never comes back out -- but they can be examined on the basis of their effects on their surroundings, and theory says that objects of such mass and compactness simply have to be black holes.

Theory shows that the black holes formed from stars should have a minimum mass 25 times that of the Sun, being the remnants of huge but short-lived stars that blew up in supernovas. Such a huge amount of matter is needed for a collapse into a point of infinite density, a "singularity", surrounded by a boundary, the "event horizon", defining the point of no return: anything that passes through the event horizon disappears from the Universe and is not seen again. Smaller stars, those between 8 and 25 times the mass of the Sun, will eventually collapse, but following the supernova explosion, they form "neutron stars", small superdense stars composed mostly of neutrons. Stars with masses of less than 8 Suns will simply expand into red giants, to then fade into planet-sized white dwarf stars.

* Or so the theory goes. However, a team of astronomers working at the Very Large Telescope (VLT) run by the European Southern Observatory in Chile and led by Simon Clark and Ben Ritchie of the Open University UK has used the VLT "Fiber Large Array Multi-Element Spectrograph (FLAMES)" instrument to discover an anomaly, in the form of a "magnetar", a neutron star with a magnetic field vastly stronger than that of the Earth. Magnetars are unusual but a number have been found, and another one is not in itself particularly big news. The issue with this particular magnetar is that it should be a black hole.

Westerlund 1 in the infrared

The magnetar was found in a star cluster named "Westerlund 1", located 16,000 light-years from Earth, composed of large numbers of massive, bright, young stars that were created as a group somewhere from 3.5 million to 5 million years ago -- a brief time on the cosmic scale. Massive stars don't live as long as their smaller brethren, with the most massive stars living out their lives and exploding in supernovas very quickly. Westerlund 1 is so young, however, that it only contains one magnetar, presumably the remains of the most massive and short-lived star in the cluster.

Given the youthfulness of Westerlund 1, the star would have to have been at least 40 times more massive than the Sun to have exploded so quickly. To validate this idea, the astronomers focused on an eclipsing binary star system designated "W13". The two stars in the W13 system spin around a common center of gravity, and since the plane of their orbit is in the line of sight to Earth, they pass in front of each other on a regular cycle, allowing the timing of their orbit to be determined. Their orbital velocity can be determined from the "Doppler shift" of their light spectra, and with that data the size of their orbit, and so their mass, can be determined. Observations show that the two stars have masses of 21 and 33 Suns -- and since the star with a mass of 33 Suns hasn't exploded yet, that means that the star that produced the magnetar had to be more massive than that.


A star of 40 Suns shouldn't have formed a neutron star, it should have instead collapsed into a black hole. If current theory is true, the parent star somehow must have got rid of 90% of its mass before its implosion. However, nobody knows how that could have happened. It may simply be an anomaly, caused by extraordinary circumstances for which astronomers may be able to do little more than speculate, and then go on about their business. If another one much like it is found, things are likely to become more troublesome and interesting.

* SUPER PULSAR: In related news, WIRED Online reports that astronomers have found a "pulsar" -- a neutron star emitting a radio beam and spinning rapidly to produce a regular radio pulse -- bigger than any other found to date. The pulsar, designated "J1614-2230", is a member of a binary system along with a white dwarf star.

The white dwarf permitted the estimation of the pulsar's mass, through a roundabout technique that leveraged off relativistic physics. According to Einstein's theory of general relativity, beams of electromagnetic radiation, in this case radio waves, are delayed if they pass by a massive object, with the delay increasing with the mass.

Astronomer Paul Demorest of the US National Radio Astronomy Observatory and colleagues used the Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia to observe how the intervals between the radio pulses changed at different points in the pulsar's orbit around the white dwarf over the course of its 8.7 day cycle. A new instrument named the "Green Bank Ultimate Pulsar Processing Instrument (GUPPI)" measured the pulse delay with unprecedented precision. Armed with an estimate of the white dwarf's mass and a knowledge of the period of the binary system, the researchers were able to estimate the pulsar's mass as 1.97 Suns. The biggest known up to this discovery had a mass of 1.67 Suns, with typical neutron star mass in the range of 1.25 to 1.44 Suns.

There's nothing that greatly defies theory in such a large mass, but it is a puzzle as to how a neutron star got so big: was it born that way, or it did it scavenge mass off of its stellar partner? Theorists should have fun considering that issue. The massive neutron star may also provide insight into unconventional theories that suggest a neutron star may not be entirely made of neutrons, it may also have exotic types of matter -- heavy "strange" particles like hyperons or kaons. Such theories place a limit on how big a neutron star featuring such exotic matter can be before it collapses under its own weight; the mass of J1614-2030 places a constraint on such theories.

Said one astronomer: "If you're able to establish that there really is an object out there with high mass, it takes a lot of the predictions you would make with the exotic forms of matter and different particles, and says: 'I'm sorry, you're wrong. Try again.'"



* SYSTEM UPDATES REVISITED (4): I was on a roll after getting my home wi-fi network working, and so I decided to keep on rolling. As mentioned, I was using the old Dell laptop to run BOINC, but the Dell was in sorry shape, operating in a very slow and congested fashion. I didn't know exactly what the problem with it was; I hadn't been surfing the internet with it, but I suspected it had been infiltrated with malware anyway. In any case, rebuilding WinXP on the Dell seemed like a good idea.

As mentioned earlier, I was using the Dell laptop as a BOINC server, and on the perception that it was failing I bought an Acer netbook to replace it. The Dell didn't fail and I ended up just using the Acer netbook as a digital jukebox. On considering the task of rebuilding WinXP on the Dell, I realized that it would make a lot more sense to use the netbook as the BOINC server and the Dell as the jukebox. As a jukebox, the Dell would only be used intermittently, maybe a few hours a week, instead of letting it cook 24:7:365; given its elderly condition that would stretch out its lifetime considerably. Besides, the netbook used less power and so it was cheaper to leave it on all the time.

There was a time when I reinstalled Windows on PCs on a regular basis, but I hadn't done it in a long time, and so I was a bit muddled on where to start. Just sticking in the WinXP re-installation CD and running it from the existing WinXP installation didn't work, Windows refused to overwrite its own installation. On thinking it over, I recalled I needed to boot from the CD instead; after some puzzling, I remembered that I could do that by pressing function key F12 during boot.

I booted from the CD and tried to reinstall, but it didn't like that, either. OK, so I deleted the C: partition and rebuilt it; then WinXP installed fine. Or at least I thought it was fine, except for the fact that I was only getting a 640x480 pixel display centered in the laptop's LCD. I poked around to change display driver options, but I couldn't find the driver; it seemed I was just operating on a VGA-baseline default. After tinkering with driver CDs that were part of the installation kit, I finally got the display driver installed and could set full-display operation. Oddly, however, I never found the display driver on the driver CDs, it just seemed to have magically appeared on the Dell at one point, and I know not where it really came from. Sometimes things get handed to me from out of nowhere; I shrug and accept them.

Anyway, next I installed the drivers for the Belkin wi-fi card to get on the internet, and started downloading WinXP updates. I ended up downloading XP Service Pack 2 and its associated files, then XP Service Pack 3 and its associated files -- possibly I could have gone straight to Service Pack 3, but I just went with the flow, seeing no reason to try to play clever. I got Internet Explorer 8 along with the Service Pack 3 update; however, I had to specifically download Windows Media Player 11 and Microsoft Security Essentials. I reconfigured the Dell laptop back onto WIFINET, and I was effectively flying.

* Getting the Acer netbook to work as a BOINC server was simple, just a matter of downloading the BOINC software from the web. One difficulty was that I didn't remember my old logins to the various BOINC projects; whatever, I just made news ones and hoped they cleaned out dead user accounts every now and then. BOINC appears to have a limitation in that a participant has to have a login with each project, instead of establishing a central login with BOINC itself that all the projects used.

The Acer netbook worked fine as a BOINC server, but after a few days I noticed something lacking. I had been running a clock screensaver on the old Dell laptop; I never looked at the clock, but I found the chiming on the hours useful, in particular a more pleasant wakeup call than an alarm clock. I hunted around online and found a little utility named "ClockSmith Lite" that provided chimes -- no clock as such, but I didn't need it -- and installed it on the netbook. It worked well, except the internal speaker on the netbook was feeble and hard to hear. I plugged in a set of USB speakers scrounged from my computer toybox and that did the job. The new chimes are actually a bit prettier than the old, and with ClockSmith Lite I could also chime on the half-hour, which helps pace me in my activities.

* The old Dell laptop was responding very sluggishly, but as a digital jukebox that didn't matter. I put a music playlist in the startup folder, and all I do is turn the laptop on; it boots and runs with no fuss. When I'm done, I press the OFF button and off it goes.

After running with it in this fashion for a week or two, I noticed one of the front panel LEDs blinking. I checked in the manual and it said the battery pack was trying to charge; well duh, after seven years no doubt the batteries were stone cold dead, and so I just yanked the battery pack, and the blinking stopped. I found it mildly annoying to leave empty the hole where the battery pack had been. The battery pack was bonded together and I couldn't simply undo some screws to yank the lithium cells, so I sawed off the pack about an inch from the front. The false front didn't fit very tightly in the hole, so I super-glued it in place; it wasn't like the Dell was going anyplace but the junkheap a few years down the road.

When I sawed across the surfaces of the battery pack I tried not to cut into the lithium cells, but I scratched them up a bit. I set aside the cells after roughly yanking them out, then got to thinking: Lithium cells are a fire hazard, aren't they? Indeed, I found them sputtering and smoking. I took some cutters and made sure all the connections between them were severed, then put them in a glass jar and set them outside on a gravel bed where they couldn't do harm if they torched up, as a safe place to store them until I could dispose of them properly. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* THE KILLING OF JFK -- THE ASSASSINATION (16): While AIR FORCE ONE was en route from Dallas with JFK's body, his personal physician, Admiral George Burkley, told Jackie Kennedy that an inspection -- he avoided the cold term "autopsy" -- would need to be performed on her husband's body, and that he would arrange it for her. Jackie said she didn't think it would be necessary, but the admiral replied that it had to be done, and that she could choose any hospital she preferred to do the job -- the Walter Reed Army hospital, the Bethesda Navy Hospital, or a civilian hospital. The admiral added that a military hospital would be preferable, since a US president is also commander in chief of US forces. Jackie selected Bethesda, since JFK had been a Navy man. The appropriate arrangements were made.

AIR FORCE ONE landed at 5:58 Eastern Time at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland. The casket was pulled out of the jetliner and loaded onto an ambulance. The ambulance then departed in a motorcade; Bill Greer drove the ambulance, with the passengers including Jackie Kennedy, Admiral Burkley, Secret Service Agent Kellerman -- and Bobby Kennedy, who had gone out to Andrews to meet the party. Jackie had suggested Greer drive the ambulance, since the Secret Service man was in a wretched state over his fumble on slowing down the limousine after hearing the shot behind him.

There were thousands of people at Bethesda when the ambulance arrived; the casket was unloaded in preparation for the autopsy. The autopsy was to be performed by a team under 39-year-old Commander James Humes, who had been tapped by Admiral Ed Kenney, the Navy's surgeon general, to do the job, with Humes forced to cancel a dinner party. Humes selected 41-year-old Commander J. Thornton Boswell to assist. Although both doctors had performed autopsies on corpses with gunshot wounds before, they didn't have extensive experience on the matter, and so Humes called up the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology to obtain a specialist on the matter. He was recommended Army Colonel Pierre Finck, a ballistic expert. The three doctors were all professionals with considerable experience. Some conspiracy theorists have disputed their competence, suggesting the autopsy team was part of a conspiracy -- but as noted, the hospital performing the autopsy wasn't selected until AIR FORCE ONE was en route.

JFK's body was first photographed and X-rayed. A Navy corpsman started to take the photographs, but it was quickly realized that he didn't have a security clearance. The corpsman was dismissed and his film was exposed; later this incident would be inflated into a tale that a Secret Service agent arbitrarily took the film from the corpsman and exposed it. In any case Joe Stringer, the chief of photography of the medical school, then took the shots. Some conspiracy theorists also claimed the photographs were taken by FBI men with no medical experience, a claim that Humes denounced as "an incredible lie." Conspiracy theorists have insisted the photographs and X-rays were faked, but no evidence supports that claim. Photo experts employed by the HSCA confirmed they were valid; multiple shots were taken of each view, allowing stereo imaging of a scene, and it would have been very hard to fake stereo images. The X-rays were confirmed as being those of JFK and not somebody else by comparison with older X-rays of JFK.

The autopsy took three hours. Bethesda was a teaching hospital and dozens of people watched the procedure -- hardly suggesting that the people conducting the autopsy thought they had something to hide. The autopsy concluded that JFK had been shot twice from the rear, with one shot entering the base of neck, the other blasting off part of the right side of his skull. The autopsy was later criticized as hasty, sloppy, and unprofessional, but though the medical experts employed by the HSCA were among the critics, from the records of the autopsy even they agreed the conclusion was still correct: JFK had been hit by two shots from the rear.

One of the fumblings of the autopsy was that the Bethesda doctors didn't realize that the bullet that had hit JFK at the base of the neck had gone all the way through him. This was a confusion caused by the attempt of the Parkland doctors to perform a tracheotomy, which had effectively masked the exit wound. Humes was very puzzled as to where the bullet had gone, but talked with Perry over the phone the next day, Saturday, and realized the incision in the throat was over the exit wound. Incidentally, the call cleared up matters for Perry as well; once again, the Parkland doctors had never turned JFK over and never saw the back wound.

As an odd footnote to this issue, decades later a San Diego doctor named Robert Livingston claimed that he had called Humes from San Diego to inform him that the throat wound was an entry wound -- but "FBI agents" forced Humes to hang up on him. The call was supposed to have taken place before Humes talked to Perry; Humes said he'd never even heard of Livingston and called the story "ridiculous". A cover-up? Possibly, but then there's the question of how Livingston could have possibly known anything about JFK's wounds, and Livingston never contacted the Warren Commission or the HSCA.

In any case, the FBI didn't get wind of the clarification concerning the throat incision, and their early investigation of the assassination was misled by the initial impressions of the Bethesda doctors -- which is why the FBI report stated that of the three shots believed to have been fired, two had hit JFK and the third had hit Governor Connally. Conspiracy theorists make much of the fact that the Bethesda doctors weren't able to determine that the wound went all the way through JFK, but they could only really probe it to finger depth. Besides, if the bullet didn't go all the way through JFK, that leads to the obvious question: if the bullet didn't exit the body, then it would seem plausible that the bullet would have still been there -- but nobody involved with handling JFK's body ever said a bullet was found in the throat wound.

There was no real ambiguity over the analysis of the fatal head wound. There was inward beveling of the bone on the entry hole into the skull and a clear forward dispersal pattern of bone and metal fragments in JFK's head -- the bullet had obviously broken up on impact and left an expanding "spray" of lead in JFK's brain. No professional examination of the autopsy evidence has ever differed with the conclusion of the Bethesda doctors: JFK was hit by two bullets from behind. As discussed later, conspiracy theorists have gone to extreme lengths to show the autopsy data was faked.

* The autopsy was finished around midnight. The morticians then attended to JFK's corpse, embalming it for burial. They were done by the dark hours of the morning of Saturday, 23 November. Kennedy's body was then returned in a casket by a auto procession to the White House, to lie in state in the East Room -- much as Abraham Lincoln's body had been placed there in 1865. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* SCIENCE NOTES: As reported by an article from BBC WORLD Online, snare traps are commonly used for hunting in Africa. Such traps consist of a loop of iron wire attached to a bent sapling, with the loop held in place by a a vine rope. Any animal stumbling into the snare knocks loose the rope, with the sapling snapping back and snugging the wire around an animal's limbs or neck. Two Japanese primatologists working in the bush in the country of Guinea found that the local chimpanzees were very wise to the snares. The researchers observed the chimps finding the snares, inspecting them cautiously, and in a few cases disarming them by shaking the sapling or dislodging the vine rope trigger.

In all cases, the chimps were very careful to stay clear of the wire loop. The chimps seemed to have learned how to disarm the traps by inference; it would have been difficult to do learn by trial and error, since errors were very likely to be fatal. The researchers suspect the behavior is a "meme": one clever chimp figured it out, and since then the tradition has been passed down in the chimp tribe. Generally, chimps in other regions of Africa remain entirely clueless about how to deal with snares.

* A note run here a few months back discussed how little bobtailed squid camouflage themselves from predators lurking below by generating light from their belly to match the illumination from above. As reported by an article from DISCOVERY CHANNEL Online, it turns out that this is a fairly common trick among marine life, with some shark species capable of it. Belgian researchers at the Catholic University of Louvain performed a study of the Norwegian velvet-belly lantern shark -- of course named for its ability to produce light, generated by a set of light-emitting organs known as "photophores" on their belly. The sharks use their eyes to monitor light levels and tweak their own light production to match. There's some suspicion that the illumination is also used for attracting the opposite sex, though the study provided no specifics to support the idea.

* A story running through the science blogosphere described an experiment conducted at the US National Institute of Standards & Technology (NIST) in Boulder, Colorado, that performed a test of Einstein's theory of general relativity. Einstein postulated that time runs more slowly in a gravitational field, and the stronger the gravitational field, the more slowly time runs; he also postulated that time runs more slowly in a moving object. The NIST experiment was based on two optical atomic clocks sitting on top of steel. At the core of each clock was an aluminum ion, vibrating at a precise rate of more than a million billion times a second. A 75 meter (245 foot) optical link was strung between the two test fixtures, allowing their relative timing to be compared with precision. Two tests were actually performed:

The validation of Einstein's theory of relativity wasn't really the most significant feature of the experiments; relativity has been thoroughly validated and this was just another arrow in the quiver. The experiments were actually elegant demonstrations of the sort of high precision measurements that are a NIST specialty.

* As reported by WIRED Online, researchers studying images on Google Earth ended up finding one of the most recent meteor impact craters on Earth -- a 45 meter (150 foot) wide scar in southwestern Egypt, just north of the border with Sudan, that seems to be only a few thousand years old. Italian researchers from the University of Siena, who have been investigating the crater, did some back-checking and have spotted it in satellite imagery going back to 1972. The crater was named the "Kamil crater" after a local landmark.

Kamil crater

The rim of the crater stands about 3 meters (10 feet) above the surrounding plain, which is partially covered with swaths of light-colored material blasted from the crater by the impact, like spokes from the hub of a wheel. Such "rayed craters" are common on the moon and other airless bodies of the solar system, but they're very rare on Earth because erosion and other geological processes quickly erase their traces.

In the course of site surveys in 2009 and 2010, researchers found over 5,000 iron meteorite fragments weighing a total of over 1.7 tonnes (1.9 tons). The team estimates that the original meteor weighed in the range of 5 to 10 tonnes (5.5 to 11 tons) and hit the ground at a velocity of about 3.5 kilometers (2.2 miles) per second, with most of the object vaporized in the collision. Initial analysis of soil samples show the impact took place no more than 10,000 years ago, and probably less than 5,000 years ago.



* TRIASSIC EXTINCTION: It's known from the geological record that there have been several episodes of mass extinctions during the history of the Earth. The best-known is the Cretaceous-Tertiary (KT) extinction, which took place 65 million years ago and marked the end of the three ages of dinosaurs; it's popularly thought to have been the result of a giant asteroid impact, though there is debate over the matter. The biggest mass extinction was at the end of the Permian period, 251 million years ago. Nobody is sure why it happened; over 90% of the species of marine animals and 70% of the species of land animals died out, which cleared the stage for the dinosaurs.

As reported by an article in THE ECONOMIST ("Easy Come, Easy Go", 27 March 2010), there was also a mass extinction about 201.4 million years ago at the end of the Triassic period, the first of the ages of the dinosaurs. It was a clear disaster for marine species, with up to about half dying out, though it wasn't as devastating for land species. The relatively modest Triassic extinction hasn't been given as much attention as the KT or Permian extinctions, but now a paper has been published by Jessica Whiteside and her colleagues at Brown University in Rhode Island that sketches out a plausible scenario as to what happened.

The paper proposed that the extinction was due to the creation of the North Atlantic by the drifting continents. The Brown researchers obtained their clues from fossils trapped between lava layers that were produced by geological activity during that time. They focused on two sites in what is now eastern North America in which a set of giant lakes formed on a layer of lava, with plant matter then accumulating at the bottom of these lakes -- to be covered by later eruptions.

The fossil plant matter provided a clue through its ratio of carbon isotopes. They incorporated carbon-12 (C12) and the much rarer carbon-13 (C13), with the ratio of C12 to C13 reflecting geological activity. The layers of plant matter showed that the C13 concentrations first dropped, then rose very high, before then gradually declining to something much more like modern levels. Importantly, the episode in which the C13 fell coincided with what is known as the "Triassic fern spike", which tags the time at which the mass extinction occurred on land to within a remarkably precise period of a few thousand years. The ferns were thriving at the expense of Triassic forests: something killed off the forests, and the hardy ferns then thrived until the forests reasserted themselves and overshadowed the ferns once more. Other work has suggested the oceans became acidic at this time, becoming a less benign environment for shelled creatures, which declined abruptly.

As the Brown researchers pieced events together, the split between the proto-European and proto-North American landmasses produced massive volcanic eruptions and correspondingly large quantities of carbon dioxide, which created a greenhouse effect and global heating. The heating melted the icy deposits at the bottom of the ocean known as "methane clathrates", dumping large quantities of methane into the atmosphere; the gas was enriched in C12, which caused the drop in the C13 ratio. The methane helped boost global warming, with the increased carbon dioxide concentrations acidifying the the oceans and causing the die-off of shelled animals.

Acid rain and global warming didn't do terrestrial species much good, either. However, the higher CO2 concentrations encouraged growth of marine phytoplankton, preferentially absorbing C12 and causing the C13 ratio to climb rapidly. The balance was slowly restored, with the new species of the Jurassic arising to take the place of the lost species of the Triassic.



* HYBRIDIZATION RECONSIDERED: The English naturalist Charles Darwin spent considerable effort investigating the phenomenon of "hybridization", in which two related species of organisms interbreed to produce a mixed offspring. As reported by an AP article by biologist Sean Carroll ("Hybrids May Thrive Where Parents Fear To Tread", released 13 September 2010), as thorough as Darwin was, he didn't go quite far enough: it's becoming obvious that hybrid organisms are surprisingly common.

On 15 May 1985, trainers at Hawaii Sea Life Park were startled when a gray female bottlenose dolphin named Punahele gave birth to a dark-skinned calf that partly resembled a much larger male false killer whale that lived in the same pool with the dolphin. There was absolutely no doubt who the father was: a bottlenose dolphin has 88 teeth, a false killer whale has 44, and the calf had 66. The calf was named a "wholphin" for "whale-dolphin";


Of course, the dolphin was penned up with the whale, but such things clearly happen in the wild, with a hybrid of a grizzly bear and polar bear shot in the Canadian Arctic in 2006 -- mentioned here at the time. Freakish? Not necessarily. Some biologists estimate that as many as 10% of animal species and up to 25% of plant species may occasionally breed with another species. This raises the possibility of abrupt emergence of a new and distinctive species through hybridization.

Humans have often crossbred different species that do well enough in captivity, with examples including the "zorse" or zebra-horse, the "beefalo" or bison-beef cattle, and of course the long-familiar mule or donkey-horse. However, wild hybrids have a number of strikes against them. Even if members of different species are inclined to mate, if they are too genetically different or have different numbers of chromosomes, the offspring either are too sickly to survive or, if they are healthy, they're infertile -- zorses and mules being examples of usually infertile hybrids. Another problem is that hybrids are usually vastly outnumbered by their parent species and can't compete against them.

However, in some cases hybrids end up being superior to their parents in certain respects, allowing them to prosper. Several examples are now known from nature; DNA analysis is also allowing biologists to spot hybridization events in the past history of modern organisms.

The familiar sunflower is a hybrid success story. Canadian researchers have found that two widespread species, the common sunflower and prairie sunflower, have combined at least three times to give rise to three hybrid species: the sand sunflower, the desert sunflower, and the puzzle sunflower. The parental species thrive on moist soils in the central and Western states, while the hybrids have moved into more extreme niche habitats for which the parent species isn't well-suited. For example, the sand sunflower is limited to sand dunes in Utah and northern Arizona and the puzzle sunflower to brackish salt marshes in West Texas and New Mexico.

Plants tend to hybridize more easily than animals, but there are examples of interesting wild animal hybrids, such as hybrid flies. In the past 250 years, various forms of honeysuckle have been introduced to the Northeastern states. In the late 1990s, American researchers that this invasive honeysuckle was infested by a particular fruit fly species, known as the "Lonicera" fly. On analyzing its DNA to determine its relationship to other fruit flies, the researchers were startled to discover that it was a hybrid of two closely related flies, the blueberry and the snowberry maggots. In lab experiments, the researchers found that the Lonicera hybrid preferred its honeysuckle host plant over its parent species' host plants, and that each parent species preferred its own host plant over the other's. However, both parents did infest honeysuckle, which could have provided a meeting place for matings between the two parent fly species.

The most provocative report of possible animal hybridization came from the recent analysis of more than 60% of the Neanderthal genome sequence, which raised the possibility that our ancestors mingled their genes with Neanderthals. Comparison of human and Neanderthal genomes show they're 99.84% identical, indicating that the two bloodlines split from each other each other about 270,000 to 440,000 years ago. Neanderthals were already established in Europe and the Middle East when modern humans left Africa about 100,000 years ago. Ultimately the Neanderthals died out, leading to the puzzle of why they did so. One notion is that humans gradually killed them off, but there's another angle: possibly humans crossbred with them and genetically assimilated them.

Of course, genetic assimilation wouldn't have been all one way, opening the possibility that humans carry Neanderthal traits. Early studies of Neanderthal genetics showed no influence in the human genome, giving no support to the interbreeding idea. However, in 2010 a much larger portion of the Neanderthal genome was obtained by Svante Paabo and colleagues at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. It now appears that 1% to 4% of the genome of Europeans and Asians -- but not Africans -- was the contributed by Neanderthals mixing with Homo sapiens, possibly in the Middle East 50,000 to 80,000 years ago. It's tempting to think that some Neanderthal versions of genes enabled modern humans to adapt to new climates and habitats.

On reading Darwin from the point of view of the 21st century, it is astonishing how much we have learned in over 150 years. Darwin's modern critics like to point out how little he knew, but the reality is that in the vast majority of cases, Darwin's problem wasn't that he went too far -- it was that he didn't go far enough; and it is only too easy to believe that if he was told of what we know now, he would feel every pleasure at the generous way his ideas have panned out.



* SYSTEM UPDATES REVISITED (3): Getting my Win7 machines to talk wi-fi was straightforward. Trying to get the XP machines working along with them was more of a challenge, because they had different notions of configuration. I started out with the first of the Acer netbooks, named "ROBIN". Getting the wireless connection itself working was easy; I just clicked on the wi-fi icon on the taskbar, then got a view of wi-fi connections. Before selecting one, I clicked on "Change advanced settings" to make sure I had the wi-fi settings straight.

The first tab on the dialogue box that came up just gave basic items for the connection, such as defining use of TCP/IP, enabling client operation and printer sharing, and so on -- they were all properly set by default. Under the "Wireless Networks" tab, I selected the "myquest0953" connection, then set its "Properties" -- automatic connection, NO 802.1x authentication, and "Open / WEP" security, adding the network key.

Now I could connect. I went to the "Network Setup Wizard" under "Control Panel" and told the PC:

I finished the wizard. All done? Not quite, since for any directories I wanted direct access to from another host, I had to individually set permissions to do so. It's easy, I went into Windows Explorer and right-clicked on the desired directories, selected "Sharing & Security" on the menu, and set sharing for the directory. Now I was all done.

The second netbook, named "CREEPER", should have worked the same, but it wouldn't even connect over wi-fi. I couldn't figure out why until I noticed an error message I got while poking around said I lacked a certificate. What? Sounded like some sort of authentication problem ... ah, 802.1x authentication must be set. It was, I turned it off, and after full configuration the second netbook worked as well. Incidentally, I have no particular idea of how 802.1x authentication is supposed to work, but it seemed logical to me that it wouldn't work very if the PCs weren't all set to use it.

Configuration was also similar on the old Dell laptop, named "GREYGHOST", except that unlike the other portables I owned, it didn't have a built-in wi-fi interface, instead using a Belkin wi-fi card. Setting up the wi-fi link required using Belkin software, at least at first; then I noticed the Belkin software had an option for reverting control to WinXP. I set that flag, and from then on setup was the same as it was on the two netbooks.

I wasn't expecting my efforts to work out so cleanly, and I was a bit surprised to find out I was communicating between all five PCs. As a test, on each PC I got into the files of the other four. I felt ridiculously pleased with myself.

* As a footnote, wireless security can be provided by three different schemes: WEP, WPA, and WPS. Which is preferred? That depends.

WEP stands for "Wired Equivalent Privacy". WEP is old and offers weak security. It is common, however, and older systems may not have anything better, often forcing its use. It's adequate for, say, keeping the neighborhood kids out of one's home network, but doesn't stand up well to a determined attack -- apparently it can be bypassed by examining data packets.

WPA -- "Wi-Fi Protected Access" -- offers better security. It comes in two variants: "WPA" and "WPA2". The original WPA was just the "quick fix" for WEP, while WPA2 is the finished product. In any case, WPA provides a more secure communications protocol, and the encryption is stronger as well. WPA2 is the current standard and the best choice, especially when combined with a really strong password and AES-128 encryption.

Finally, "WPS (Wi-Fi Protected Setup)" supposedly offers high security along with ease of use. Alas, it presumes that all the devices in the network are compliant with WPS, and if they're not, it buys little or nothing. It's a spec in search of standardization. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* THE KILLING OF JFK -- THE ASSASSINATION (15): While the Dallas police interrogated Oswald that Friday, Lieutenant Carl Day examined the Carcano rifle found at the Texas School Book Depository. He found partial fingerprints near the trigger guard and on the main barrel of the rifle, though they were too incomplete to be matched to Oswald. Day did manage to "lift" a faint palm print off the stock that did match to Oswald.

Day did little more because he was then notified the FBI wanted to get their hands on the rifle. He locked it up, and an FBI agent came at about 11:30 PM that evening to pick it up. Day gave him the rifle but not the palm print. The FBI would conduct their own tests on the rifle on 24 November; they couldn't find the palm print, but that wasn't too surprising, since Day's lift of the faint print could have effaced it from the stock. The FBI requested the palm print on 24 November and Day had it sent on. FBI investigators validated the palm print by observing that the background patterns on the print matched the rifle stock.

The print evidence remains controversial, with conspiracy theorists claiming it was fabricated. It's impossible to rule that out, but there's no credible evidence it was faked. Photographs of the prints were analyzed later by various experts, some saying they were inconclusive, others claiming that photographic enhancement showed they were Oswald's. Honest arguments can be made against the validity of the evidence the prints provided against Oswald -- still, the print evidence certainly did nothing to exonerate him.

The paraffin test was useless. It was easily prone to false positives; it could give a positive on a subject who had urinated and not bothered to wash his hands, or had simply handled a weapon. To the extent that it worked, it worked better with a pistol, where a shooter's hands were easily contaminated with gun blast, than a rifle, where the breech seal and the length of the weapon made contamination much less likely. The test showed nitrate residues on Oswald's hands but not on his cheek.

Conspiracy theorists tend to shrug off the positive indication from Oswald's hands, consistent with but not proof of shooting a handgun, and play up the lack of positive indication from his right cheek. It was a non-issue either way. The paraffin test has been regarded as forensically worthless for decades, easily challenged in court if presented as evidence, and some claim that even when it was in use, it was often merely as a tactic for harassing and pressuring a suspect. The Warren Commission had the FBI run a test, with an FBI agent firing Oswald's Carcano rifle three times and then given a paraffin test. There were no residues on the agent's cheek.

* Incidentally, in 1964 a character named John Franklin Elrod, a drifter and alcoholic, turned himself in to the police in Memphis, Tennessee, handing them a sawed-off shotgun and saying he was thinking of killing his estranged wife. According to the rambling story he told the Memphis cops, he'd been arrested by Dallas police on 22 November 1963 as something of a suspicious character, to be placed either in Oswald's cell or in a neighboring cell; Oswald then told him elaborate details of a conspiracy.

On investigation, Elrod's story turned out to be nothing. Oswald had been in a cell by himself, under observation. The cell was in an isolation block, having solid walls in the back and on both sides. According to the Dallas police, the neighboring cells weren't occupied, and even if they had been, there was no way anyone in them could have talked to Oswald without being overheard by the police keeping him under observation. In addition, the Dallas police had no record of having Elrod in custody at the time -- and of course there's the interesting question of why Oswald, tight-lipped during interrogations, would have blabbed so freely to Elrod, who the suspicious Oswald would have had every reason to suspect was a plant. Very few people ever took Elrod seriously. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* GIMMICKS & GADGETS: Some time back, the blogosphere ran a strange buzz more or less titled "VAMPIRE ROBOT WILL FEED ON DEAD BODIES!" This is the sort of thing one expects to hear on the internet and takes not at all seriously. As reported by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("Munching Machines" 12 June 2010), there was a basis for rumor, but it was of course much less sensational: a scheme for a military robot for field operations that could forage for plant waste that is burned to drive a steam engine, with the steam engine producing electrical power for the robot and its batteries. The robot could also provide power for other devices.

The machine, the "Energetically Autonomous Tactical Robot (EATR)" -- is being developed by Robotic Technology of Washington DC, partly on funding by a contract from the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). The EATR would accompany troops in the field, foraging for biofuel materials at halts, then carrying equipment for the troops when they moved out again.

As envisioned, EATR picks up vegetation with a robot arm that feeds it into a shredder. The shredded plant material is fed into a combustion chamber, where it is efficiently incinerated to boil water in a set of coils. The steam drives a radial engine with six pistons. The output steam is condensed and fed back into the coils; the water must be distilled to prevent mineral buildup. Along with plant waste, EATR could also be run off gasoline, diesel, kerosene, cooking oil, or anything else that could be reasonably burned -- despite the media hysteria about the "vampire robot", corpses don't burn all that well, it takes fuel to cremate them, so there was never any idea of using them as a fuel source. The radial engine drives an electric generator to power the EATR's motors and systems, as well as charge its batteries. The systems would include a laser / camera system linked to image-recognition software that would allow the EATR to recognize fuel sources.

EATR can be seen as an electric generator that can use almost any available fuel supply, with the added feature that it can scavenge fuel on its own. Supplying military forces in the field with fuel is troublesome and expensive -- end-to-end cost of delivering a gallon of diesel to troops in the field can be hundreds of dollars -- making EATR potentially very useful. The robot could also be used for long-range reconnaissance, operating autonomously. It might even have civilian applications, for example cruising through farmland to collect weeds and insect pests, which it would then incinerate to keep itself moving.

* Finnish cellphone giant Nokia has come out with a clever low-tech gimmick: a bicycle-powered cellphone charger. It's basically built around the well-established tire-drive generator that runs bike night lights, just with a processing / connector module added. The charger is being targeted at countries where bikes are common but the electrical infrastructure is dodgy, with introduction to take place in Kenya.

* On a smaller scale, as reported by DISCOVERY CHANNEL Online, nanotech researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, have developed a nanomechanical motor driven by a laser beam. The little "light mills" are only 200 nanometers in diameter; they look completely flat, but their optical properties mean they seemed curved to the appropriate wavelengths of laser light. While such a machine wouldn't be practical in the macroscale, in the microscale scaling effects make them very powerful, able to turn a mass thousand of times their size suspended in water. The research team believes their light mills may have wide applications in biomedicine, but for now they're focusing on making them suitable for production.

* Another item that made the rounds was a concept by a design office named "Choi+Shine" for a line of high-voltage powerline pylons being considered by the government of Iceland. The most stereotypical high-voltage pylons are latticeworks of metal struts; Choi+Shine rearranged the basic sub-elements of the lattice to create a giant latticework manikin on the order of 45 meters (150 feet) tall, with the powerlines in its "hands". The basic design is flexible, allowing the manikins to be give a male or female appearance, as well as a wide range of postures -- holding the powerlines high, holding them low, standing up straight, walking up a hill, or kneeling. They are constructed of the same elements as conventional pylons and, in principle, are not much more expensive to build.

This is definitely a clever idea, but also a somewhat creepy one. Imagine going around a bend and suddenly spotting a line of latticework giants extending off over the horizon. I could just imagine myself thinking: Did I just see one of them move?


* In other strange inventions, WIRED ONLINE discussed the work of Tyler Clites and Nannan Zhang, Lego meisters who collaborated to put together a table-sized post-apocalyptic diorama titled CONTAINMENT. It's built around a sinister factory, complete with working elements such as a monorail that goes nowhere much in particular, sited in a toxic wasteland.

As the saying goes, there's a fine line between a hobby and a mental illness. It doesn't really compare to the 1990s work of an artist who put together concentration camp Lego kits, complete with well-design faux Lego boxes. At least if CONTAINMENT is grim, it's a grimness that remains more in the realm of fantasy.



* RICHARD T. WHITCOMB: The name of Richard T. Whitcomb is hardly widely known, though aviation enthusiasts are familiar with him, knowing he was an an American aerodynamicist who had been a pioneer in the development of supersonic aircraft, thanks to his work on the design principle called "area ruling". However, even few enthusiasts know much more about Whitcomb than that. Whitcomb died in Hampton, Virginia, on 13 October 2009 at age 88; a few months later, AIR FORCE magazine printed an article ("Richard Whitcomb's Triple Play" by Richard P. Hallion, February 2010) that showed just how influential Whitcomb actually was.

Whitcomb had been born in Illinois in 1922. When it came time to go to college, he got a scholarship to the Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts. Most of his classmates went into industry when they graduated, but Whitcomb was interested in fundamental aerodynamics and wanted to go into research. At the time, the primary organization for aeronautical research in the USA was the "National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA)", which would later become the primary seed organization for the US "National Aeronautics & Space Administration (NASA)". Whitcomb joined NACA in 1943, obtaining a position at NACA's Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory at Langley Field in Virginia -- now the NASA Langley Research Center at Langley Air Force Base. While his superiors told him at the outset that he would work on flight instrumentation, he replied that he would prefer to work on aerodynamics. They were agreeable and let him do so.

Richard T. Whitcomb

It would have been difficult to have picked a better time to get into aeronautical research than 1943, when the new jet engines were promising vastly improved aircraft performance, with aircraft designers contemplating machines that could punch through the speed of sound -- Mach 1. Whitcomb's early work at NACA focused on improving the wind tunnel, where models of aircraft were placed in a high-speed airflow to validate their aerodynamics. The problem with wind tunnels as they existed was that they "choked" when the airflow approached the speed of sound. In response, he developed the "slotted throat" wind tunnel, which featured carefully placed vertical slots that helped prevent turbulence and permitting smooth supersonic airflow.

Whitcomb then used the slotted wind tunnel to examine the aerodynamics of models of supersonic aircraft. Whitcomb noticed from photographs of the models under test that there were strong shock waves at the leading and trailing edge of the wings where they joined the fuselage, causing drag that increased with speed. Whitcomb and his NACA colleagues discussed the matter, and finally, one day in 1951, he had a brainstorm: the airflow just needed someplace to go. If the fuselage was tapered down in diameter just behind the wing, the turbulence and drag wouldn't occur.

The principle became known as "area ruling". Formally, it dictated that the cross-sectional changes along the length of an aircraft should be minimized; in practice it meant that supersonic aircraft should have a "wasp-waisted" or "coke bottle" shaped fuselage. Following wind tunnel tests to validate the idea, a landmark secret NACA document describing area ruling was released in September 1952.

It came just in time. At the time, the US Air Force (USAF) was working on a new supersonic interceptor, the Convair YF-102 Delta Dart, for which much was hoped. However, test flights that took place in the fall of 1952 showed that the YF-102A wasn't capable of breaking through Mach 1. NACA analyses demonstrated that area-ruling would fix the problem; Convair engineers spent overtime redesigning the aircraft, and when the revised Delta Dart went back to flight test in 1954, it had no problems reaching its design speed. Whitcomb won the prestigious Collier Trophy in 1954 for his work, which heavily influenced the design of Mach 2 combat aircraft for decades.

* Area ruling wasn't all of Whitcomb's legacy. After NACA was absorbed into NASA in 1958 Whitcomb continued to work there, focusing on supersonic jetliners during the 1960s. In the early 1970s, Whitcomb came up with the idea of a "supercritical wing", which had a subtly modified profile and a mostly flat top, with the cross-sectional curvature of the wing mostly in the rear. The supercritical wing incrementally raised the "critical mach number" of the wing -- that is, the speed at which airflow started to break into shock waves. A jetliner that could cruise at up to Mach 0.82 might, after being fitted with a supercritical wing, cruise at Mach 0.86 or more, using the same amount of fuel. A Vought F-8 Crusader supersonic fighter was modified with the wing for NASA flight tests and validated the concept. The supercritical wing provides a clear increment of fuel efficiency and has since become common in commercial aircraft and military transports.

The third of Whitcomb's innovations is the most obvious: the winglet. Aerodynamicists had long known that vortices off the wingtips caused drag and reduced flight efficiency, and experiments had been conducted with various fittings on the wingtips to see if the vortices could be suppressed. Whitcomb took a careful look at the problem and came up with a design for a fin, a winglet, that he felt would address the problem. In 1979, a Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker was modified by NASA with the winglets to conduct test flights, showing that the winglets improved range by a startling 7%. Winglets have since become very common on commercial aircraft and military transports; aircraft manufacturers like them not merely because they improve efficiency, but because they usually also improve the looks of the products.

winglets on jetliners

Whitcomb left NASA in 1980 to focus on physics research. His innovations had proven very influential, but he felt that aerodynamics had become a mature field, commenting in 2003 that he wouldn't recommend aeronautics as a research career: "It's pretty well stabilized. No big things have come up in aeronautics since my inventions, and it's been 20 years since I left."



* AIDS IN THE EAST: As reported by an article from AAAS SCIENCE ("Late For The Epidemic: HIV/AIDS In Eastern Europe" by Jon Cohen, 9 July 2010), when the Iron Curtain finally collapsed in 1991, Eastern Europe and Central Asia were all but untouched by the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). Russia had less than 1,000 reported cases, and a good number of them were children who had been accidentally infected in hospitals. Many public health officials in the region thought the advanced immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) caused by HIV would never be a serious problem there: after all, HIV was spread by intravenous drug use, gay sex, heterosexual promiscuity, and prostitution, and those behaviors were much more characteristic of the degenerate West.

Now the Russian Federation and the Ukraine have twice as many HIV-positive citizens as Western and Central Europe combined; in fact, AIDS is a big problem in all the post-Soviet states. According to a report by the UN Program on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), at the end of 2008 there were 1.5 million HIV-infected people in the East. The report added the region is the only place where HIV infections continue to rise. UNAIDS and other groups began to sound the alarm in the mid-1990s, but most of the governments of post-Soviet states paid little attention.

It is widely recognized that intravenous drug users (IDUs) are a driving force in the spread of HIV, but the government of Russia has proven particularly pigheaded in rejecting "harm reduction" schemes, such as distributing methadone -- a substitution treatment for heroin and other opiates -- as well as exchanges of needles and syringes, despite the fact that such efforts have proven demonstrably successful elsewhere. Those working on the problem do say that they have made progress, for example in preventing transmission of HIV between mothers and their children, and in providing anti-AIDS drugs; however, they remain deeply frustrated in other areas, particularly in the failure to come to grips with the problem posed by IDUs.

Up until the mid-1990s, IDUs didn't seem like an issue, but then their rates of HIV infection began to skyrocket. The causes are obscure, with researchers pointing at the rise of "chernaya" -- a cheap drug made from cooking poppy straw left from processing the plants for seeds and oil -- as well as an ephedrene-based drug known as "vindt", with both administered by syringes lacking any sanitary handling. Some blame the Roma, the gypsies, for kick-starting the epidemic, but though some Roma have been in the drug trade, there's no particular basis for blaming the HIV epidemic on them. Later in the 1990s, heroin use started to take off.

It's hard to say just how bad things are now, because Russia and the Ukraine don't take proactive measures to sample the population for HIV infection. Gay men and IDUs are unlikely to come forward willingly, feeling with good reason that they will be persecuted if they do. In the Ukraine, the funds are lacking to even test people who want to be tested. UNAIDS can only guesstimate at the total level of infection, based on data from other countries filtered through a number of assumptions. UNAIDS believes that in 2007 about a million Russians were HIV-positive, over a percent of the adult population, but Russian government stats from 2009 placed the burden at half that and government officials say they don't buy the UNAIDS figures. UNAIDS estimated that in 2007 well over 440,000 Ukrainians were HIV-positive, about 1.6% of the adult population; Ukrainian government figures from 2009 set the number at over 160,000.

Admittedly, good data on HIV in the East is hard to come by. Projections by US intelligence in 2002 claimed that 11% of the adult Russian population would be HIV-positive by 2010, which everyone now agrees was overblown. Some researchers, both in the East and West, believe that the rate of increase is slow or has ground to a halt. Given the lack of data, however, there's no guarantee that's the case, and most agree that there has been a near-criminal failure to promote simple preventive measures. Activists have been trying to plug the gap, for example giving condoms to prostitutes and suggesting they get their customers to use them.

The official health-care system isn't entirely hopeless; there are well-equipped AIDS centers in Moscow and elsewhere in the East, with good access to antiretroviral (ARV) drugs. The problem is that these clinics do little for the IDUs, who are the worst of the problem. Some of the IDUs, as mentioned, don't want to come forward, don't believe they have a problem; some have swallowed HIV-denialist doubletalk and believe ARVs will make them sick. Some physicians, who often lack resources, tend to dismiss the IDUs as lost causes, or try to pressure them into kicking the habit -- telling the IDUs won't get ARVs until they get off drugs. Many IDUs also end up in prison, where they get very poor health care.

In fact, health care remains very spotty in the rest of the East as well, with states unable to bring their Soviet-era health systems up to proper modern standards. There have been advances here and there, and activists feel that they are making progress -- but they have to deal with the fact that time moves more slowly in the land around them.



* ANOTHER MONTH: The local public gym is undergoing a remodeling, which has been a bit of a nuisance to deal with, with exercise equipment shuffled here and there. I'll be glad when it's done. I did spot an interesting gimmick in the course of the process: a crane was lifting large glass panels to an upper floor, and it was using a gripper head with four suction cups to grab onto the panels. It probably wasn't anything all that new, but I'd never noticed anything like it before, so I snatched my camera out of my kit bag and took some shots.

A friendly workman was nearby and I told him: "That's quite the gimmick. Might seem a bit insecure on the face of it, but it looks pretty secure."

"It can handle 700 pounds [320 kilograms]". Probably with less chance of breakage as well.

suction-cup crane head

Carrying a camera turns out to be useful in unexpected ways. I was in a bookstore and saw some titles I wanted to look up on Amazon.com for reviews. No need to write the titles down, I just took out my camera and snapped shots of their spines. Similarly, I spotted a sign at the local library giving a location where I could drop off used books and DVDs; instead of writing it down, I just took a shot of it.

* In another interesting gimmick, I opened up a box of frosted corn flakes and found a packet in it that turned out to contain a mini CD-ROM with a set of three little PC games. I tried loading them and the install process was so clunky that I cut it short in disgust, not wishing to do my PC any more insult, and threw away the CD-ROM. However, I had to think it was a clever idea. It took me way back to being a kid and getting plastic gimcracks out of a cereal box.

By the way, the cereal was the "store brand" -- Kroger, associated with the regional King Soopers store chain. I tend to buy cheaper store brands in most cases unless it's proven a bad idea. According to THE ECONOMIST, store brands are doing well these days, with the persistent economic misery persuading people to trim pennies from their grocery expenditures. Traditionally, big manufacturers of household goods tend to weather out an economic downturn fairly well -- people still need to buy toilet paper -- but the big-label manufacturers of household goods are hurting, thanks to rising acceptance of store brands.

Ironically, it turns out that the growth in sales of store brand products is mostly among more affluent shoppers -- which makes sense, poorer shoppers have been buying the store brand all along. The supermarket chains know they're onto a good thing and have been "upscaling" some of their store brand products. I noticed this with the store brand ice cream. I almost always buy double vanilla, and the last time I did so I couldn't find the usual product. I finally realized they'd revised the product line, with the ice cream in new plastic tubs, replacing the old paper tubs, featuring a new "premium product line" logo: "Private Selection". Good heavens, what does that even mean?

* Writing for the blog got a bit out of control recently. I like to have a stockpile of articles; acquiring stand-alone articles for the Tuesday and Wednesday postings is the most troublesome, but I ended up finding an excess of materials to write up. It took some work to grind through them and now I'm way ahead for the moment, with articles I won't be able to post for months. The stockpile's draining down now, fortunately; ironically, after I got done writing up the materials I ended up at loose ends for a week or so, wondering what to do next.