dec 2010 / last mod feb 2016 / greg goebel

* Entries include: JFK assassination, summer Northwest road trip, Bangladesh braces for global warming, energy for the developing world, National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON), reprogramming cells to behave like stem cells, handheld blood testing unit, Raman spectroscopy for medicine, increasing prevalence of counterfeit drugs, lack of morphine for Africans, wind power on Indian reservations, potential pollution reductions in China by cleaning coal, the "uncanny valley" in robots and digitally-modeled humans,

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* NEWS COMMENTARY FOR DECEMBER 2010: The Obama Administration, having managed to push through a national health-care act last March, is now faced with defending it from attacks by conservatives. The "ObamaCare" act, as it is known, ensures that all Americans have medical coverage, but does so by making medical insurance mandatory, the effective date being 2014. As reported by BUSINESS WEEK ("Guess Who's Running To ObamaCare's Rescue?" by Drew Armstrong, 22 November 2010), although conservatives are furious about the mandatory coverage requirement and are pushing to have it judged unconstitutional, the US healthcare industry regards its defense as its number-one lobbying priority.

That is not at all surprising, since requiring that all Americans take out health insurance is a big win for the health insurers. In addition, the provisions of the ObamaCare package provide other goodies for the healthcare industry -- for example, an expansion of the Medicaid program that doctors like, and a ban preventing Medicare from negotiating drug prices, which makes drug manufacturers happy. True, the ObamaCare act was, as is often the case for log-rolling legislation, a bureaucratic contraption that made no one perfectly happy, but the general perception in the healthcare industry is that any tinkering with it is likely to make things worse for them, and will certainly result in fighting expensive battles all over again.

Yanking out the insurance mandate would be more than mere "tinkering", however. Along with the mandate, health insurers were told they couldn't deny coverage to clients with pre-existing conditions or raise premiums on sicker clients. Without the mandate the health insurers are, to put it bluntly, screwed. ObamaCare may be a contraption, but even most conservatives admit that poor Americans deserve access to health care, and the critics may find coming up with a better contraption troublesome. For the moment, ObamaCare seems safe, even though control of the House of Representatives has shifted back to the Republicans: the split Congress makes it difficult to pass legislation, but at the same time it makes it difficult to take effective action against legislation already in place. The general awareness is that the real battleground on ObamaCare will be the national elections in 2012.

* Regarding the comments on the results of the mid-term elections in California run here last month, an article in THE ECONOMIST described in more detail just how much things have changed there. Bucking the national trend, the result wasn't a shift to the Right; in fact, Democrats dominated the election results, with Republic Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to be replaced by Democrat Jerry Brown, the state attorney general, who was governor in 1975:1983.

Jerry Brown

Brown will have his work cut out for him. California is in dismal condition, with unusually high levels of unemployment and feeble tax revenues. The legislature took over a hundred days to pass a budget, a record, and deficits are getting worse, with services being cut in response. Many of California's problems stem from its dysfunctional politics, the result of schemes for "direct democracy" gone nuts, discussed to an extent here a year ago.

Brown had been present at the creation of this nightmare, having been forced in 1978 to implement over his objections the infamous "Proposition 13" -- a creation of an anti-tax, hobble-government movement that cut property taxes and dictated that new taxes could only be pushed through by a two-thirds majority in the legislature. Proposition 13 put a fiscal straightjacket on local government, with schools in particular suffering. Further applications of "direct democracy" only made things worse, dictating more spending on schools and tougher criminal sentencing -- while refusing to authorize the taxes to pay for them.

Even within the painful constraints of the system, the legislators have been doing a lousy job. Thanks to gerrymandering, the state was split into Democrat and Republican factions that are typically at each others' throats. The gerrymandering meant that electoral fights were only really in the primary elections, between members of the same party, with the result that contenders competed with each other to see which could be more extreme. What made matters even more painful is that, thanks to a voter initiative back in the 1930s, it took a two-thirds majority to pass a budget.

As mentioned last month, the mid-terms effectively disabled gerrymandering. That means politicians will no longer have safe districts and will have to compromise to reach a broader range of voters. California also adopted an "open primary" system, imported from Washington state to the north: voting in primaries will not be restricted to members of a single party, anybody of any political stripe can vote for anybody running in a primary election, a procedure that will do much to constrain extremists. In addition, a budget can now be passed by a simple majority of the legislature.

It will be interesting to see how well these reforms work in cleaning up California's political logjam, though even optimists admit the chaos won't disappear overnight. The optimists, however, are buoyed up by the significant progress made to date, plus the fact that there appears to be a political consensus for tackling the state's remaining political problems, with objectives such as prudent constraints on public referendums, a reformed tax system, and longer term limits for legislators. Jerry Brown has even been testing the waters for the idea of handing back to local governments the power to raise taxes. Politics is by nature ugly and chaotic; but in the end people just have to make it work. What's surprising in in this case, however, is that a system that's broken seems to somehow be managing to fix itself.



* SCIENCE NOTES: The science blogosphere reports that a species of trematodes -- the parasitic flatworms generally known as "flukes" -- has been discovered in a California snail that features a hivelike specialization of forms. Researchers at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB) found that the fluke species known as Himastla species B has reproductive "breeders" up to 2 millimeters sitting quietly inside the snail, pumping out eggs -- as well as much more mobile, non-reproducing "warriors", no more than 4% as big, that use their oversized jaws to light into other intruding flukes, including other colonies of flukes of their own species. The warriors would either tear into their adversaries or just gobble them up whole.

* As reported by BBC WORLD Online, a group of Dutch and German researchers have discovered that when tobacco plants are attacked by hornworm caterpillar larvae, the plants call for help. The plants emit volatiles that are altered by caterpillar larvae, with the smell of the altered volatiles attracting insects of the species Geocoris -- a type of "true bug", known as a "big eyed bug" for its oversized eyes -- that feed on the caterpillar larvae and eggs. The researchers were puzzled as to why the caterpillar saliva was an active ingredient in the attractant: given that the saliva attracted unwanted attention, it would seem that over time predation would have winnowed out caterpillars with attractive saliva. Possibly the saliva is correlated to some benefit that compensates for the increased risk of predation.

* DISCOVERY CHANNEL Online ran an article discussing how Harry Potter is causing a decline in owl populations in India. Harry Potter is very popular there, and so parents have been obtaining owls picked up by poachers. This is hopefully a self-limiting fad: raptors aren't easy to care for and they are really not very good pets. Owls are also under pressure in India because traditional Indian folk magic sees their body parts as providing mystic power. All owl species in India are protected, but their numbers have been declining. At least Harry Potter hasn't inspired a similar fad for pet owls elsewhere.

Harry Potter with companion

* Incidentally, while I was checking through DISCOVERY CHANNEL Online for articles, I suddenly realized the irony that I had recently dropped SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN Online off my personal link list and wasn't bothering to check it any more. SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN is a venerable publication, established in the 19th century, and through most of my life it was a source of serious science, often from the world's most prestigious scientists. Indeed, when I was young and naive I would fail to realize just how little of some of the articles I actually understood, how much it went over my head.

OK, it's not really a good thing in itself for writing to be hard to understand, but from the 1990s SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN began an unmistakeable slide towards the other extreme, with increasingly diluted science content and a steady increase in op-ed fluff. Now it's more soapbox than science. It's not that I necessarily disagree with their editorial positions, it's just that I'm after the science and find the preaching a bore. I can get interesting material out of THE ECONOMIST or WIRED or even BUSINESS WEEK these days, with a lot less overhead.

How the mighty have fallen when I find DISCOVERY CHANNEL Online, the bargain basement of science reporting, worth my time, and I toss SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN into the dumper. At least DISCOVERY CHANNEL Online has a sense of fun. I saw SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN in the racks at the library and turned up my nose at it -- only to then feel sad. SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN had been a fixture in my life from when I was a teenager and I assumed it always would be; I observe its ruin with a sense of loss.



* FRUIT FLY END RUN: While the idea that symbiotic processes are an important factor is nothing new in evolutionary biology, in the past few decades discoveries have made it increasingly clear just how important it is, particularly with respect to "endosymbionts" -- symbiotic organisms, typically bacteria, that live inside a host body. According to WIRED Online, as a case in point, thanks to endosymbiotic bacteria, North American fruit flies have rapidly acquired resistance to a nasty parasite.

A few decades ago, biologist John Jaenike of the University of Rochester in New York state observed that the fruit fly Drosophila neotestica was suffering badly from infections by a roundworm named Howardula aoronymphium. A roundworm would invade a fly, mature, and then lay thousands of eggs. The eggs hatched into worm larvae; they wouldn't kill the fly outright, but it would be so debilitated that it wouldn't be able to reproduce. Samplings from the eastern USA suggested that one in four fruitflies was infected.

Further research by Jaenike showed that some of the flies infected by the roundworm seemed healthy, with the roundworm and her larvae seeming sickly instead. The difference was the presence of bacteria named Spiroplasma. How the bacteria attacks the roundworm still isn't understood, but the correlation between the presence of bacteria and the sickliness of roundworms is very strong, so there's little doubt the bacteria don't do the roundworms any good. In the early 1980s, Spiroplasma was present in just 10% of fruit flies; now it's 80%, and the pattern of infection is rapidly moving westward.

Evolutionary theory suggests that when a species is placed under "selection pressure" -- for example, fruit flies are attacked by roundworms -- then those members better able to deal with the selection pressure will gradually come to dominate the population as those less able to cope dwindle. Traditionally, the expectation would be that fruit flies featuring a mutation that gave their immune system an enhanced ability to fight the roundworm infection would gradually predominate. The fruit flies did this scenario one better by unintentionally adopting bacteria to do the job. Since the bacteria are passed on from parent flies to offspring, as well as between flies by parasitic mites, the propagation of the new "selective advantage" is very rapid. The fruit flies get protection from roundworms, while the bacteria get comfortable long-term hosts, and both thrive.

There's nothing in this scenario that contradicts traditional evolutionary theory, it's just that the elaboration of the scenario was something not easily predicted. The interesting question now is whether the rapidly-acquired partnership between fruit fly and bacteria is freakish, or nothing particularly unusual. Some researchers suspect it's nothing unusual, since insects and other arthropods don't have immune systems with the same level of elaboration and capability as do mammals such as ourselves; a habit of acquiring defenses in the form of bacteria or other microorganisms that get along with the insect host while attacking invaders would be immensely helpful.

Suspicions aren't proof of course, but there is plenty of evidence of peculiar interactions between insects and bacteria. Another bacteria known as Wolbachia infects a large number of different insects, with a range of puzzling effects. Wolbachia will turn some male insects to females, and in some species of fruit flies, it will kill all male offspring -- but only if the mother alone was infected to begin with; if the father was also infected, the offspring turn out fine. It is certainly true that not all features of biosystems necessarily make any functional sense -- it's not like Wolbachia can come a plan as such, mutations in its genome just tend to alter its behavior, with those alterations possibly providing a selective advantage; a selective disadvantage; or doing things that don't really make much difference. However, the elaborate pattern of the effects of Wolbachia infections does hint at some method in the madness.

Anyway, the games of fruit flies and their bacterial endosymbionts are all good fun, but is there any particular practical application to this research? It might not seem obvious, but it may have major implications. Roundworm infections are a serious scourge in Africa and elsewhere, causing ugly afflictions such as river blindness and the ghastly swellings of elephantiasis. Jaenike is currently performing research to see if Spiroplasma can also be used to attack human roundworm infections. We may be able to learn useful tricks from fruit flies.



* ENERGY FOR ALL: As reported by a survey in THE ECONOMIST ("Power To The People", 4 September 2010), about 1.5 billion people -- a fifth of the Earth's population -- have no access to electric power, while a billion more have an unreliable and intermittent supply. The majority of these power-deprived citizens, about 85%, live in rural areas beyond the power grid. Giving everyone access to power isn't a simple proposition: the United Nations estimates that at least $35 billion USD a year needs to be invested into power systems until 2030 to make sure everyone can plug in. That level of investment isn't happening, and on the face of it the proportion of the world's population without access to power is not likely to budge by 2030.

There is, however, a movement to leverage off new technologies like rugged, energy-efficient light-emitting diodes (LEDs) to provide "bottom-up" solutions for people. Advocates believe that a flexible, distributed approach to power production and use may well prove more efficient than government-driven "top-down" solutions -- citing as a precedent the way undeveloped countries have eagerly embraced the mobile phone, bypassing the need for an expensive landline phone system and, just as importantly, establishing business models tailored to the poor, such as prepaid cards. In simpler terms, given the right products and the right business models, the poor can pay their own way.

A good place to start on the effort is lighting, which historically led to the development of the power grid in the first place. In May, the World Bank conducted a "Lighting Africa" conference in Nairobi to promote private-sector solutions for the issue; fifty firms displayed their products, up from a handful a few years back. Business interest is being driven by a combination of a rising perception that there is indeed a profitable market on the "bottom of the pyramid" and that the steadily falling cost of relevant tech, such as LEDs and solar panels to power them, means products the poor can afford. Enthusiasts for LED lighting believe that it could make kerosene lamps obsolete in a decade or two; kerosene is expensive, contributes to indoor pollution, and presents a fire hazard. Prices still need to come down: the cheapest solar lantern now available costs about $10 USD, but it needs to cost $5 USD to be within everyone's reach.

Tech is fine in itself, but it's not the whole story: new approaches to applying tech are needed as well. In South Asia -- India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh -- about 570 million people, mostly in rural areas, have no access to electricity, but considerable ingenuity is being applied towards fixing that problem. One concept is to use available biomass as a fuel to power a village-level "micro-grid". An Indian firm named Husk Power Systems feeds rice husks into a biomass gasifier to drive World War II-vintage electric generators; the rice husks would otherwise just be left to rot. Wires are strung through the village on bamboo poles to distribute electricity to about 600 families per generator.

Husk biomass generator

Husk was founded three years ago and has set up five mini-grids in Bihar, India's poorest state, where rice is the staple crop. The company hopes to have 50 mini-grids in operation by the end of 2010. Consumers pay door-to-door collectors in advance for power, while Husk also rakes in a 30% government subsidy for construction costs. The company's pilot plants reached financial "break-even" in six months.

Emergence BioEnergy -- founded by Iqbal Qadir of the Legatum Center for Development & Entrepreneurship at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology -- is taking an even lower-level approach in Bangladesh, assisting individuals with technical advice, tools, and microfinance loans to set up their own power generation systems. For example, a cattle farmer might run a small generator off of cow manure to power a refrigerator to keep his milk cool, while selling his surplus power to neighbors. The operating model is very similar to that used to kick-start mobile phone use in Bangladesh by Grameenphone, Bangladesh's biggest mobile operator, Qadir being one of the company's founders. Emergence BioEnergy is now running pilot programs; if they pan out, the plan is to roll out a bigger program in 2011 in cooperation with BRAC, a giant microfinance and development NGO.

Many of those working on such projects feel that while it's all very well and good to give poor people access to power, it's even better to give them opportunities to make money as well. Selco Solar of India has, for example, developed a solar-powered sewing machine. The company has also set up a lab in Karnataka state where engineering interns from the US, Britain, and elsewhere can hobnob with local expertise to come up with solutions to problems. One project at the lab is a banana dryer, run by sunlight when the sun is available, by biomass when it's not, to produce packets of dried banana -- ensuring that farmers don't have to sell their crop when it's fresh.

While such "bottom up" schemes are appealing, they're not trivial to implement in a useful way. Setting up a pilot micro-grid in a village is not a big challenge; setting up micro-grids in thousands of villages is. Financing is a problem, with most funding provided for the time being by foundations and angel investors. Microfinance organizations would also seem to be likely backers, but the problem there is that they're generally organized, as the name implies, for handling small funds -- and though bottom-up power systems are cheap by developed world standards, they're still well more expensive than, say, mobile phones. Implementing such schemes also demands trained personnel and organizations to back them up.

If government funding isn't a necessity for micro-energy schemes, governments can play a role by being cooperative, or at the very least just getting out of the way. Ethiopia charges a 100% tariff on solar imports, while Malawi charges almost 50% on LED lighting systems. Some justify high duties on the basis that poor people don't buy such fripperies -- but a few decades ago, the same might have been said of mobile phones, and on the basis of that comparison, choking off access to solar panels and LED lights seems hard to defend.



* SUMMER NORTHWEST ROAD TRIP (3): When I got up the next morning, Saturday 28 August, I half thought of adding the Lagoon theme park to my agenda for the day, but it had been marginal on the face of it and I had no particular interest in going out of my way to do it. In fact, on assessing the visits I planned, I doubted I'd stay in town beyond noon.

On checking out of hotel, I went over to a nearby small municipal airport to see if there was anything interesting to take shots of. It was a minimal operation, so I headed south to Tracey Aviary, in Liberty Park downtown. It wasn't too hard to find; I was alarmed when I got to the park to find it half-ringed with off-road vehicles massing for a protest against restrictions on use of off-roaders in public lands; I was afraid I would get caught up in an endless procession of vehicles, but fortunately it didn't start until after my visit there.

Tracey Aviary is a nice little facility, sort of like a mini-zoo dedicated to birds and with about a dozen exhibit clusters. I got a few shots, particularly of sun conure parrots and white-faced whistling ducks, and then moved on. Worth a visit to anyone passing through downtown SLC.

sun conures

The next stop was the Living Planet Aquarium in the suburb of Sandy to the south. I had no problems getting there, but I was a bit amused to see what the aquarium amounted to. It looked like a large retail store that had been converted to an aquarium; it lacked a central large tank, but it had three interesting galleries -- a Utah aquatic gallery, a tropical fish gallery, and an Amazon jungle gallery. It was credible enough for what it was, but I only spent about ten minutes there and moved on.

On going back north from the aquarium I concluded I would indeed not be in town for long. I had planned to take an overnight stop in Green River in southern Wyoming, but it was only about 800 kilometers (500 miles) back to Colorado, and I could make that easily enough before late. Somehow spending an evening in a small town in Wyoming with nothing in particular to do didn't strike me as a good use of my time.

That meant getting online to cancel my reservation. I stopped at a McDonald's to get online; I asked if they had wi-fi, the worker there said no -- I think she just didn't know and didn't want to bother, but it still left me hanging fire on canceling the hotel reservation. I had to do it before 4:00 PM or I'd get charged for the night. It may be superstition, but I have a perception that when things start going wrong at the outset, they have a perverse tendency to keep on successively going wrong, demanding every effort to steer them back on track.

I went to the Hogle Zoo on the way out of town. I wasn't expecting to spend long there; I didn't, I got a few photos and left, looking for a place to get online to kill my hotel reservation. There's a winter resort area about a half hour east of Salt Lake City; I spotted a McDonald's there and got off the freeway. This time around getting online was no problem, but the motel reservation online system itself was balky -- it refused to let me access the reservation.

By that time I was getting flustered, badly compounded by the fact that I hadn't eaten since a light breakfast at the hotel in Salt Lake City, and I was getting a pounding hunger headache. Worse, for some reason the resort area was insanely packed -- it was like driving around in a big-city downtown area on a busy day. I located a Subway to buy a sandwich, and found it extremely crowded, not helped by the fact that the workers there seemed mindlessly oblivious to the traffic jam inside and did nothing to try to straighten it out. I did keep my patience, just barely, and wolfed down the sandwich along with a painkiller pill.

What was I just saying about things going wrong? I was relieved to get back on the road and off to Wyoming. I feared I would have the pounding headache all the way back home, but about an hour later the food and painkiller had kicked in and I felt fine. That left me still dangling on the hotel reservation, but I got to Green River at about 3:30 PM and stopped by the hotel to cancel it personally. "OK, all fixed now."

It was uneventful the rest of the way home, until I got to Cheyenne, Wyoming, just after dark. A tractor-trailer rig passed me in the left lane; I didn't think much of it until the driver decided to cross back into the right lane -- which I happened to be occupying at the time. I went onto the shoulder and honked; he got the message and turned back into the left lane. I keep thinking that we drive so much that we forget just how dangerous it really is. It certainly got my adrenalin going.

I got back into Loveland about 9:00 PM. It took me about two hours to unpack and get my charge-card transactions logged, after which I finally crawled into bed. It was warm in the house and I had the fan on, blowing across my chest; I was so tired I knew I would go out quickly, that I'd turn off the fan later when it got cool -- and that I wouldn't recall doing it in the morning. Yep, that was what happened. Incidentally, I knew better than to crash out with the fan blowing across my face: I did that once, to wake up after midnight with my tongue dried out and so swollen it plugged up my mouth.

I didn't have any complaints about the trip, other than I suppose chancing getting killed on the freeway once or twice. The trip back through Salt Lake City didn't amount to much, but I hadn't expected it to -- I figured I might as well just take the side trip now so I wouldn't bother with it again. The trip was four days, which it would have been in any case, and it was a lot cheaper than I expected. I really enjoyed my long-range road trips a few years back; it's a bit distressing to see how abruptly playing tourist ran out of steam. I can't see taking another road trip for fun until 2012 at least, maybe not until 2015. If I go, it'll have to be something clearly worth the bother. [END OF SERIES]



* THE KILLING OF JFK -- THE ASSASSINATION (22): At midmorning on Monday, 25 November, JFK's casket was taken to Saint Matthew's Cathedral in Washington DC in a somber military procession for a funeral mass. Hundreds of thousands of people lined the procession route, again watching with unsettling silence. The caisson bearing the casket was followed on foot by President Johnson and scores of influential world figures, giving the Secret Service a case of severe anxiety, particularly since they had no way of knowing if there was some conspiracy behind JFK's assassination had other targets in the crosshairs.

the Kennedy family at JFK's memorial

The mass was conducted by the prominent Richard Cardinal Cushing, Archbishop of Boston, an old family friend. The service over, the casket was taken to Arlington National Cemetery to be laid to rest. All the proceedings were observed on TV live by much of the nation. The sight of Jackie Kennedy in black and veils lighting the "eternal flame" marking the gravesite was burned into the memories of all who watched.

Back in Dallas, J.D. Tippit was buried that afternoon as well. The church was filled and many others stood outside. There were hundreds of police in uniform, along with Tippit's wife Marie and the dead officer's three kids. The family hadn't been wealthy before Tippit's murder and now the breadwinner was gone, but the Dallas Police Department took up a collection that was promoted by ABC News anchors Chet Huntley and David Brinkley. The family ended up with about $650,000 USD in donations, enough to ensure that they had no financial worries. Even convicts chipped in.

Lee Harvey Oswald was buried that evening after a truly painful day for Robert Oswald, who repeatedly found that nobody wanted to have anything to do with the matter, one minister telling Robert: "Your brother was a sinner." The police managed persuade relevant players to go along, pleading the distress of the family. Lee was put to rest at the Shannon Rose Hill Memorial Park Cemetery in Fort Worth, Texas. After a short and unhappy life he had found as much peace as he was going to get. Later, somebody stole the tombstone with Oswald's name, date of birth, and date of death; it was replaced with a simple marker labeled merely with: OSWALD.

* The death of Lee Harvey Oswald ensured that it will never be known exactly what he thought he was doing. It is certainly easy to suspect that he would have enjoyed, with a smirk on his face, the massive and long-lived confusion he managed to create.

It might also be suspected that Oswald might not have smirked if he had known that people wouldn't stop bothering him even after he was dead. In a 1975 book titled KHRUSHCHEV KILLED KENNEDY, a British writer named Michael Eddowes proposed yet another "switcheroo" ploy, claiming that the person who had returned from the USSR was not Oswald but a KGB assassin named "Alek" who had been swapped for him. Of course Alek, then went on to murder JFK. The HSCA called the scenario "nonsense", but Eddowes insisted on pursuing the matter. With Marina's assent, Eddowes pushed for the exhumation of Oswald's body, and the grave was finally dug up on 4 October 1981.

Water had leaked into the coffin and the corpse was in an advanced state of decomposition -- ghastly pictures of it are in circulation online -- but comparison with Oswald's military medical and dental records gave a conclusive match. The skull also demonstrated that it had been opened, with the "cap" then replaced, this process having been performed by the Dallas coroner, Earl Rose, as part of his autopsy on Oswald's body, though of course that wouldn't have proven the body was not "Alek's"; however, Oswald had undergone a mastoid operation as a child, and the traces of the operation were present as well. The head of the examination team, reported: "We independently and as a team have concluded beyond any doubt, and I mean any doubt, that the individual buried under the name of Lee Harvey Oswald in Rose Hill Cemetery is in fact Lee Harvey Oswald."

Although conspiracy theorists often have problems taking WRONG for an answer, Eddowes accepted the findings and moved on. Oswald was re-interred and since then has rested in peace. To precisely no surprise, however, not everybody accepted WRONG for an answer: the results of the exhumation were challenged a year later by Paul Groody, the mortician who had embalmed Oswald for burial in 1963. Groody, who had been consulted during the exhumation, claimed that Oswald had been buried in a very robust vault that shouldn't have leaked, and that it didn't appear the skull of the corpse had ever been opened.

Groody wondered if somebody had switched heads on the corpse, though he admitted that his recollections might be incorrect. Conspiracy theorists believed Groody was on to something, citing as suspicious the fact that the report on the exhumation wasn't published for over two years. However, it's nothing unusual for technical journals to have a long backlog for publication of articles, and more to the point professionals in the funeral business replied that no burial vault is remotely impervious to damage, that even well-built vaults can leak, and they can be damaged by the slow local shifting of the earth. As far as Groody's comments on the corpse that was exhumed, he never examined it closely and wasn't in a position to contest the results of the examination. Groody was not known as a sensationalist or a crank, and it appears that he simply jumped to conclusions. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* Space launches for November included:

-- 02 NOV 10 / MERIDIAN 3 -- A Russian Soyuz booster was launched from the Plesetsk Northern Cosmodrome in Russia to put the third "Meridian" comsat into highly elliptical orbit. The Meridian was intended to replace the Molniya and Parus comsats.

-- 04 NOV 10 / FENGYUN 3B -- A Chinese Long March 4C booster was launched from Taiyuan to put the "Fengyun 3B" satellite into low Earth Sun-synchronous orbit. It was an experimental three-axis stabilized Earth observation and meteorological satellite, with a payload of 11 instruments. Payloads included:

Fengyun 3B had a design life of two years. It was the second of four Fengyun 3 spacecraft, with the last two to be operational systems.

-- 05 NOV 10 / COSMO-SKYMED 4 -- A Delta 2 7420 booster was launched from Cape Canaveral to put the Italian "Cosmo-Skymed 4" radar satellite into orbit. COSMO stood for "Constellation of Small Satellites for Mediterranean basin Observation", with the spacecraft built by Thales Alenia Space Italia for the Italian Space Agency and the Italian Ministry of Defense.

COSMO-SKYMED spacecraft

Each of the four satellites was equipped with an X-Band Synthetic Aperture Radar instrument for environmental monitoring, resource management, and military surveillance. Each spacecraft could produce 450 images per day. The Italian Space Agency funded about 70% and the Ministry of Defense provided about 30% of the funding. Civil imagery had a resolution of a meter; military imagery had sharper resolution, but the exact value was classified. With four satellites, the revisit time to any location on the globe was six hours.

-- 14 NOV 10 / SKYTERRA 1 -- A Proton Breeze M booster was launched from Baikonur to the first of two "SkyTerra" mobile communications satellites into orbit. The spacecraft was built by Boeing for SkyTerra LP. It was based on the BSS 702HP comsat platform and had a launch mass of kilograms (11,900 pounds). It was placed in the geostationary slot at 101.3 degrees West longitude to service North America.

-- 19 NOV 10 / SMALLSATS x 5 -- A USAF Minotaur 4 booster was launched from Kodiak Island to put five smallsats into orbit, including:

-- 22 NOV 10 / NROL-32 (USA 223) -- A Delta 4 Heavy booster was launched from Vandenberg to put a secret military payload into space for the US National Reconnaissance Office (NRO). The spacecraft was designated "NROL-32". It was suspected to be a signals intelligence satellite.

-- 24 NOV 10 / ZHONGZING 20A -- A Chinese Long March 3A booster was launched from Xichang to put a "Zhongzing 20A" AKA "ChinaSat 20A" geostationary communications satellite into orbit. It was believed to be based on the DFH-3 comsat bus; although it was announced as a civil spacecraft, it was thought to have been a secure military comsat.

HYLAS 1 comsat

-- 26 NOV 10 / HYLAS 1, INTELSAT 17 -- An Arianespace Soyuz 2-1A booster was launched from Kourou to put the "HYLAS 1" and "INTELSAT 17" geostationary comsats into orbit. HYLAS stood for "Highly Adaptable Satellite"; it was designed to provide broadband internet connections to rural European customers. HYLAS 1 was operated by Avanti Communications of the UK with funding from the ESA, the UK government, and private investors. The spacecraft was built by EADS Astrium, being based on the I-2K satellite platform from Antrix, the commercial arm of the Indian Space Research Organization. HYLAS 1 had launch mass of 2,570 kilograms (5,666 pounds), a payload of 8 Ka-band spot-beam transponders plus 2 widebeam Ku-band transponders, and a design life of 15 years. It was placed in the geostationary slot at 33.5 degrees West longitude.

Intelsat 17 was built by Space Systems / Loral and was based on the SS/L LS 1300 Omega platform. It had a launch mass of 5,540 kilograms (12,215 pounds), a payload of Ku-band / C-band transponders, and a design life of 15 years. It was placed in the geostationary slot at 66 degrees East longitude to provide communications services to Europe and Asia.

* OTHER SPACE NEWS: The Air Force's X-37B unmanned spaceplane, launched on 20 April 2010 and discussed here last May, landed at Edwards Air Force Base on 3 December 2010, after 225 days in space. No details of the classified mission were released. It was the first controlled landing of a US robot spacecraft; the Soviets had actually done it once before, on the sole flight of the Buran space shuttle, which was test-flown without a crew in 1988.



* NATIONAL ECOLOGICAL OBSERVATORY NETWORK: Ecology has long been a subtle science, an attempt to unravel the "tangled bank" of relationships between organisms and their environments. It has traditionally been a small-scale, low-budget sort of work, characterized by individual investigators and research teams each doing pretty much their own thing and then collectively comparing notes. As reported by an article from AAAS SCIENCE ("A Groundbreaking Observatory To Monitor The Environment" by Elizabeth Pennisi, 23 April 2010), that's now changing in a big way, as the US National Science Foundation (NSF) breaks ground on the "National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON)", a coordinated network of environmental observatories spread over all 50 US states, organized into 20 different ecological "domains".

The core idea isn't completely new. In 1980, the NSF set up five ecological monitoring sites under the "Long Term Ecological Research (LTER)" program, which has since grown to 26 sites -- including two in Antarctica and one off the Fiji islands in the South Pacific. LTER, funded at $30 million USD a year, has been widely praised, with observations, for example, providing data on plant diversity in the face of climate change.

By the late 1990s, however, there was a sense that something better than LTER was needed. LTER was effectively a set of uncoordinated experiments set up under a common organizational umbrella; obviously, there were potential rewards in a large-scale coordinated ecological studies program, providing more consistent data from a network of sites. There were also potential pitfalls in such an ambition as well, with many in the US ecological science community seeing such a wide-ranging program as a possible bureaucratic monster that would soak up the field's funding and roll roughshod over the good science already being done. The end result was several years of discussions -- with plans floated, to be shot full of holes and sent back to the drawing board, the process slowly converging to a consensus.

The end result was NEON, a plan conceived to generally keep the science community happy while handing NSF a scheme capable enough to be worth the taxpayer's money. According to David Schimel -- chief executive officer of NEON INC, the nonprofit consortium that runs NEON -- the idea was to build "one giant Earth-facing telescope." The basis of the plan was a set of articulated science goals, along with a well-defined set of measurements to achieve those goals. As one ecologist put it, things had to be "measured in the same way in every place" in order to let researchers "statistically integrate the information to look at processes at a bigger scale."

For example, determining what biology to monitor was tricky because the assortment of animals and plants is different for each domain. NEON's organizers decided to focus on a "common subset" of key groups, ignoring organisms such as ants and frogs to focus on beetles, mosquitoes, birds, deer, mice, and microbes -- with the microbes to be characterized by DNA sequencing. The team also had to develop plant-sampling procedures that worked the same in grasslands as they did in forests.

Every site will have a tower standing about 10 meters (33 feet) above the existing vegetation, with the tower mounting instruments to measure climate variables such as temperature and wind speed, as well as the exchange of carbon dioxide between the atmosphere and the land and vegetation in the immediate vicinity. NEON stations will also measure soil carbon dioxide and other soil characteristics, and will use fiber optic video cameras, to monitor root growth.

Three airplanes will be equipped with spectrometers to observe the "greenness" of vegetation, with their data linked to satellite imagery. The aircraft will also carry cameras and lidar to measure forest canopy heights and biomass. All together, NEON's instruments and people will monitor 550 variables, with the data released to the public after being screened. NEON will also provide analyses of data, and use models to predict parameters that can't be measured directly.

The twenty NEON domains were assigned by a US Forest Service effort in which each square kilometer of the USA was inspected by a supercomputer on the basis of nine variables -- such as days below freezing, amount of precipitation in the growing season, and so on -- with a domain then assigned appropriately. Once the domains were determined, station sites for measurements were determined. Each domain will have a single permanent "wildlands" station, with an expected lifetime of at least 30 years, and two temporary sites that will change location every three to five years.

Site selection was complete in 2007, with NSF signing off on the plan in 2009. Work should begin soon, with initial construction funding expected to be $20 million USD a year, ramping up to $100 million USD a year, and the network to be completed in six years of work. There's still some nervousness over NEON among the US ecological community, but advocates have been doing all they can to address concerns. They also caution that NEON is something new and unprecedented, and as with anything new it's bound to be a learning experience with its share of difficulties and disappointments. One says: "We'll learn a lot from NEON."



* REPROGRAMMING THE CELL: Research into "embryonic stem (ES)" cells -- baseline human cells that can develop into any specialized human cell -- suggests they have considerable promise for advanced medical treatments for a range of conditions, but the fact that at one time such stem cells could only be obtained from human embryos made them an unavoidable political minefield.

As discussed by an article from AAAS SCIENCE ("New Technique RiPS Open Stem Field Cell Field" by Gretchen Vogel, 8 October 2010), in 2006 a technique known as "cellular reprogramming" was discovered that offered a path around the minefield, modifying adult stem cells so they behaved as if they were embryonic. The researchers inserted extra copies of four genes into adult cells, giving them the ability to develop into almost any cell type in the body. The potential of such "induced pluripotent stem (iPS)" cells was obvious and the technique was picked up by many biolabs. Researchers also figured out how to use much the same trick to turn one mature cell type into another by inserting key genes for the desired cell type.

However, cellular reprogramming isn't a perfect solution. The reprogrammed cells retain the copies of the inserted genes, which makes them prone to forming tumors, and could also potentially confound experiments. In addition, there's evidence that iPS cells aren't perfect stand-ins for ES cells, retaining a subtle cellular memory of the original adult cells they were produced from. On top of these problems, the procedure is inefficient, with only about one out of a thousand cells actually being reprogrammed after being treated; and it takes a month for the iPS cells to appear.

Now a new approach, based on "RNA-induced pluripotent stem (RiPS)" cells, may be able to fix those problems. Stem cell researcher Derek Rossi of Harvard Medical School in Boston and his colleagues inserted synthetic RNA molecules coding the genes provided in the classic reprogramming scheme. RiPS produces many more reprogrammed cells in half the time, and since the RNA breaks down eventually, the reprogrammed cells are genetically identical to the desired target cells.

Rossi says his initial attempts to use RNA to induce protein production were stymied by cellular defenses against viral infections, with the defenses attacking foreign RNA and sometimes triggering "programmed cell death" -- in effect, commanding an infected cell to commit suicide so it won't produce new viral particles. Then the research team found that if they modified two of the usual bases of the RNAs, they could produce synthetic DNAs that a cell would accept as its own. By inhibiting interferon, a key component of the cell's internal defensive system, they got the cell to express even more of the desired proteins. Lab tests showed that up to 4% of the cells targeted, one out of 25, could be reprogrammed in two weeks.

Further experiments showed the RiPS cells are a much closer match to ES cells. The technique can also be used to reprogram adult cells to become other adult cell types. Rossi says the scheme is easy to work with: "If you have basic molecular biology tools, you can make these RNAs." However, competing researchers working on other approaches say that while the RiPS scheme is a big advance, it still leaves much to be desired in terms of cost and convenience, with work continuing in parallel on other schemes. Rossi admits that RiPS isn't perfect, but points out that it has a wide range of applicability, being able to program cells to make "designer proteins" and also useful as a probe of cellular gene expression. Rossi believes the sky's the limit: "You can do anything with this technology."



* SUMMER NORTHWEST ROAD TRIP (2): I got up early on Thursday, 26 August, and drove the rest of the way to Spokane, getting there before mid-morning. It was pleasant at the time, I took a walk on the trails along the Spokane River. The rest of the day was family business.

Towards the afternoon, the weather started turning peculiarly unpleasant, with a hot dry wind blustering in, carrying a cloud of dust. It was a fire-fighter's nightmare, and I could smell smoke in the dust. From my brother Terry's house in the hills on the south side of the Spokane Valley, I could barely see the hills on the north side. That evening the Moon came up, just past full, looking very bone-white and creepy in the dusty skies. I could feel the dust as a faint grit in my throat.

Not having much business in Spokane, I only spent the day there. I went to bed late and got up early on Friday, 27 August -- thanks to a mixup with time zone translations, an hour earlier than I should have. That wasn't good because I knew I was likely to nod off on the road going to Salt Lake City. I noticed as I packed up to leave the very fine film of dust all over my car.

I made it to Missoula in good time. I was checking the airport there as I passed on the freeway to see if I could spot anything interesting, and somewhat to my surprise I did -- what looked like an old Navy Orion four-engine ocean patrol aircraft in bright orange colors for service as fire-bombers. I got off the freeway and took some very nice shots of two Orions on the tarmac -- they looked like showroom condition. They were labeled "Aero Union", which on later investigation is based in Chico, California; presumably the two aircraft were in Montana to help fight the regional fires.

P-3A water bomber

That was stimulating, but not enough to get rid of the drowsies. About a half hour east out of Missoula, I finally turned off on a rest stop to take a nap. It was perfect weather for it -- not hot enough to get stuffy in the car while resting, not cool enough to shiver -- and so I stuck a small pillow behind my head on the headrest of the driver's seat, set my stopwatch, and leaned back in hopes of falling off ....

Some timeless time later a little voice in my head said: WAKE UP. I did and checked my stopwatch: 24 minutes. I'd gone out like a light. I was afraid I'd continue to be sleepy for the rest of the trip, but I was reasonably alert all the way.

I drove east towards Butte and then took the south turnoff on Interstate 15 towards Salt Lake City -- I was planning on seeing some sights on the way back home. I was trying to make good time, because I wanted to visit the Lagoon theme park there that evening. While I was planning for the trip, I had found out about the Lagoon online; I stared at the webpage the longest time, the last visits I made to theme parks were busts, and I couldn't expect much more this time around. However, I figured as long as I was in Salt Lake City I should check it out and be done with it, otherwise I'd stay curious. It might be fun, scoping out the colorful park lights in the dark -- and if it wasn't, I was preprepared to cut my losses and walk out the gate immediately. What tipped me over the edge on it was the fact that the Lagoon was open late, to 10:00 PM, on Friday night; I had nothing better to do on Friday evening and stood nothing in particular to lose. I'd get up on Saturday morning and move on to the rest of my targets. Having set my expectations low, I couldn't see it would do any harm.

In any case, I was ahead of schedule on the drive. While cruising through southern Idaho I ran into the dust storm again and worried it would dog me down into Utah, but I got through it after about an hour. It was dull driving most of the time, though I did get some interesting photos through the windscreen of my car of a convoy of three tractor-trailer rigs hauling the oversized blades of a wind turbine, a common sight in the region these days.

wind turbine rotor blade in transport

Alas, as I got into north Salt Lake City and checked into my hotel, it was lightning and thunderstorms, not promising for a trip to a theme park. I actually felt like chancing it anyway, lacking anything else to do that evening, but on consideration I gave the idea the boot. I went to a K-Mart next door to the hotel and bought a movie on DVD, which I watched on my laptop PC. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* THE KILLING OF JFK -- THE ASSASSINATION (21): While the police dealt with Jack Ruby, the ambulance had arrived and then sped off with the unconscious Oswald. It got to Parkland hospital at 11:30 AM. Dr. Malcolm Perry and Dr. Ron Jones, who had helped attend to JFK on Friday, were the first to work on Oswald, though other doctors soon streamed in. It soon became clear it was hopeless; Oswald was too badly injured, the bullet had done an extraordinary amount of damage, and he'd lost too much blood. He was declared dead at 1:07 PM.

Even as Oswald faded away, back in Washington DC, John F. Kennedy's body was being taken from the White House to lie in state at the Capitol building. The coffin was taken from the White House on an artillery caisson pulled by six white horses, with a riderless horse trailing behind. Hundreds of thousands of people lined the street, though they were eerily silent. JFK was eulogized in proper ceremony by Congress. As the event was in progress, it was interrupted by the news of Oswald's death. The Capitol building stayed open late to allow all the citizens there to pay their respects. The TV networks were running near-continuous coverage, not even broken by commercials.

JFK's coffin carried into the Capitol building

That afternoon, Marina, Marguerite, and Robert Oswald visited Parkland Hospital to see Lee's body. Much to Robert's disgust, Marguerite went on about having Lee buried in Arlington National Cemetery, the woman having latched on to to some mad idea that Lee had been some kind of secret government operative; Robert snapped at her: "Oh, Mother, forget it!" -- but to no surprise, she wouldn't shut up; she never, ever did. They soon found themselves under tight security, the authorities fearing that vigilantes might also take action against Oswald's relatives.

* That evening, Gordon Shanklin called Agent Hosty into his office. Shanklin had been very upset when he found out about the note Oswald had given Hosty, even though Hosty had reassured him "it was no big deal", just "the usual guff". Shanklin worried that any such contact was going to be played up as indicating the bureau had "advance warning" of the assassination, even though the note gave no clue of any such thing. In a staggering act of bad judgement, Shanklin handed Hosty the note told him: "Oswald is dead now. There can be no trial. Here, get rid of this." Hosty did so, tearing it to pieces and flushing it down a toilet.

Shanklin and Hosty had crossed the line into the illegal, and ended up giving credibility to accusations that the agency conspired to suppress the facts. The facts wouldn't leak out until 1975, when Hosty came clean. Shanklin said he didn't know anything about it, but several other agents in the Dallas office had seen it. Shanklin had a convenient memory.

Incidentally, later the receptionist who had taken the note from Oswald said it included a threat to blow up the FBI office, a notion which was played up in the 1975 revelations on the case -- but Hosty said the note could not be read until it was unfolded, and the receptionist had no business or good reason to go out of her way to read it. Obviously, if Oswald had made such a threat, the authorities would have hardly ignored it: he would have been hauled in immediately, and as clearly paranoid as Oswald was of the FBI, he would have realized that. The note simply consisted of a complaint and a irritable request to be left alone.

If Oswald had been working for the authorities, he would have had no reason to make threats. Some conspiracy theorists even claim the note actually contained a tipoff from Oswald to warn the authorities about the plot to kill the president, but if Oswald was heroically trying to pass on a secret that could cost him his life, he did it in a notably careless way, and then did nothing to follow it up. Oswald certainly didn't mention after he was arrested that he had tried to warn the authorities, telling them that he was really on their side; when he finally did meet Hosty, all he did was tell the FBI agent off, echoing what Hosty claimed had been said in the note.

* Also that evening, in response to the international excitement over Oswald's murder, District Attorney Henry Wade spoke to the press to give reassurances that Oswald had indeed been guilty, that the police hadn't mishandled the case. The information available was in a very confused state and the police certainly had mishandled the case -- however valid any excuses they might have had, Oswald was dead. Chief Curry, having been asked to be circumspect by the FBI, refused to back Wade up, and Wade ended up giving the reporters a mishmosh of facts, half-truths, and outright nonsense, concluding that "without any doubt, he [Oswald] was the killer."

It was a foolish rush to judgement that did little but inflame public suspicions as the inaccuracies in the district attorney's statements were gradually revealed. The press conference was observed with pain by the FBI; no sooner had Wade finished the press conference, he got a call from the bureau, asking him in so many polite but firm words to shut up. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* GIMMICKS & GADGETS: As reported by WIRED Online, the Chinese have now obtained, at least for the time being, the world's most powerful supercomputer, the "Tianhe-1A". The supercomputer uses 7,168 NVIDIA Tesla M2050 graphics processing units (GPUs) and 14,336 Intel Xeon CPUs and is capable of clocking 2.507 petaflops -- a petaflop being 10^15 floating point calculations per second. An innovative high-speed interconnect scheme improves throughput between the nodes in the system. The Tianhe-1A took the title away from the US Cray Jaguar XT5 at Oak Ridge, mentioned here in 2009.

The use of GPUs appears to be an innovation; according to the Chinese, if they hadn't used GPUs, with their powerful floating-point processing capabilities, the Tianhe-1A would have demanded 50,000 CPUs and twice as much floor space to create a supercomputer with the same processing power. Tianhe-1A consumes 4.04 megawatts, a third of what it would draw if it were built entirely with CPUs; the computer has 262 terabytes of memory and is housed in 140 refrigerator-sized cabinets. Tianhe-1A was designed by the Chinese National University of Defense Technology, and will be operated as an open access system for scientific computation.


AAAS SCIENCE reports, however, that Chinese researchers are confronted with a software bottleneck in using such a powerful supercomputer. Writing programs that can run efficiently on massively parallel machines isn't trivial, and only 1% of the applications run on the Tinahe-1A's predecessor, the Dawning 5000A at the Shanghai Supercomputer Center, use more than 160 of that supercomputer's 30,720 cores. In contrast, 18% of the applications running on the Jaguar XT-5 use 45,000 to 90,000 of the machine's 150,162 cores.

The problem is cost: the Chinese have been reliant on supercomputer software purchased from the USA and other countries, but the price is proportional to the number of CPUs in the supercomputer, and the bill can get painful as the number of CPUs increases. Chinese researchers complain that the government is spending large amounts of money to develop glitzy hardware, but only a hundredth as much on developing software to make use of it.

* Gimmicks tend to live on flash, but some get by on straightforward functionality. One such example of pragmatism floated around the tech blogosphere is the "Camioncyclette", a product of designer Christophe Machet. It looks like nothing more than a classic clunker-type bicycle with small wheels and wire baskets front and back, allowing it to carry heavy loads. The "low to the ground" arrangement of the baskets keeps the center of gravity manageable, with a double-sided kickstand allowing the bike to stand up straight when parked fully loaded. The only concession to fanciness is disk brakes -- pad brakes don't work so hot when trying to slow down a heavily-laden bike. Machet has an all-up prototype, but the Camioncyclette isn't in production yet.

* Fallout shelters may now seem like a comedic icon of Cold War America, but it turns out they've never really gone out of style. Governments like to obtain underground shelters to protect their leadership and other assets, and so there's a business out there for those who have the expertise to make them. Radius Engineering of Terrell, Texas, has that expertise, offering underground shelters ranging in size from those that can accommodate a half-dozen people to those that can handle thousands. Prices range from hundreds of thousands to tens of millions of dollars, depending on capability.

digging in

The shelters are set up underneath buried fiberglass enclosures -- fiberglass is more robust buried in the ground than concrete, and is also harder to detect with ground-penetrating radar. Facilities have fuel and supplies storage, hydroponics gardens, air filtration systems, and periscopes; along with living quarters, large facilities have meeting places and a recreation center. It seems plausible that water is recycled. To no surprise Radius is mum about who buys their product, but it appears their clientele includes private citizens -- one would imagine paranoids with fat wallets.



* HANDY ANALYZER: POPULAR SCIENCE magazine had a writeup in the April 2010 issue on a handheld medical analyzer developed by Columbia University bioengineer Sam Sia, working with Claros Diagnostics of Woburn, Massachusetts, to perform on-the-spot blood testings for patients in remote locations. The analyzer, to cost a few hundred dollars in production, has dimensions of about 24 x 10 x 7.5 centimeters (9.5 x 4 x 3 inches) and performs its analysis using a disposable injection-molded plastic plug-in card about the size of a credit card and threaded with sets of back-and-forth channels ranging from about a millimeter to a thousandth of a millimeter in diameter. The analyzer contains a microprocessor, a micropump, LEDs, and photodetectors, and it's used as follows:

The analyzer is powered by a 9-volt battery that will keep it running for about two weeks. The prototype is being field-tested in Rwanda.

* RAMAN SPECTROSCOPY FOR MEDICINE: As reported by BBC WORLD Online, advanced research is now in progress that may result in portable laser medical diagnostic devices that could check for a range of medical conditions, using a technique known as "Raman spectroscopy".

Raman spectroscopy involves the measurement and analysis of the intensities and wavelengths of light scattered from molecules. It's nothing new, being already used the pharmaceutical and chemical industries -- for example, to observe combustion processes to see how efficient they are and what end products they discharge. Its use in medical diagnosis is generally experimental at present. Michael Morris, a professor of chemistry at the University of Michigan in the USA, has been using Raman spectroscopy for the past few years to study human bones. So far, he has been working on cadavers, but he says it could prove useful for living patients: "You can replace a lot of procedures, a lot of diagnostics that are out there right now. The big advantage is that it's non-invasive, pretty fast -- much faster than classical procedures -- and more accurate."

When a person is sick, or becoming sick, the chemical composition of the tissue is different from that of healthy tissue, the different composition giving a different Raman spectrum. Morris says: "Raman gives you a molecular fingerprint, a composition of whatever it is you're measuring. In diseased states, the chemical composition is either slightly abnormal or very markedly abnormal, depending upon the diseases."

The diagnoses could be carried out in a matter of minutes and without need for X-rays. Morris explains: "A patient simply puts his or her wrist on a table and then we have the optical fibers delivering laser light ... connected to a holder, a sort of a bracelet made out of silicon, that is strapped to the patient's wrist. We turn on the laser and after we've collected enough signal in a few minutes, we turn it off. In principle, it will take a couple of seconds to interpret the results."

Besides bone diseases, the tool could prove effective in detecting early tooth decay, and drawing blood might become unnecessary for some tests. For instance, to determine cholesterol levels, Morris says that one would simply have to point the laser "where you would be looking to draw a blood sample at the crook of the arm, where the blood vessels are very close to the skin."

Another application could be using Raman as a non-invasive alternative to a typical mammography -- a process that uses low-dose X-rays to screen patients for signs of breast cancer. The Raman spectrum from a breast scan could reveal benign or malignant tumors, depending on characteristic changes in the protein structure and in the relative amounts of protein, lipids and nucleic acids in the tissue.

British researchers at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in Didcot and at the Gloucestershire Royal Hospital have been using Raman to analyze calcifications in breast tissue that might be early signs of cancer. According to Nicholas Stone, head of the biophotonics research unit at the hospital: "We could target those calcifications and make a decision about whether they're benign or malignant. If they're malignant, or look like they are, you would come back for a biopsy. If they're benign, which is 80 to 90% of the cases, you would not come back for a biopsy. In the UK alone, that would save about 80,000 patients from having secondary procedures."



* BOGUS DRUGS ON THE RISE: While law enforcement tends to land heavily on those who smuggle recreational drugs like heroin or cocaine, as reported by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("Poison Pills", 4 September 2010), those who traffic in counterfeit medicines can generally expect light punishments if they're caught at all, the authorities not seeing good reason to get overly upset at people pushing fake Viagra pills. However, counterfeit drugs are becoming a real menace. Not surprisingly, pharmaceutical manufacturers are against them, and have been working on better identification schemes as well as lobbying governments to take more severe action. The Pope has spoken out against counterfeits and encouraged global action on the matter.

Bogus medicines have been a real problem in the undeveloped world for some time. While they may be made of harmless ingredients, they're sometimes dangerously sloppy copies of the real thing, and may even incorporate potentially toxic materials. Even when they're harmless in themselves, their consumption may be dangerous to patients who have severe conditions and are under the mistaken belief they are undergoing effective treatment. Studies suggest that in Africa and Southeast Asia, anywhere from 15% to half of the drugs sold are fakes. The data is uncertain, since countries with the most fakes may be lax in enforcement, deflating the real figures, but it's clear that tens of thousands of people in the developing world are dying every year from bogus drugs.

Now the problem seems to be making itself felt in the developed world. Drug giant Pfizer's Viagra is obviously at the top of the list of counterfeiting targets, but company investigators have found fake versions of at least 20 of Pfizer's other products infiltrating legitimate supply chains in 44 countries. The investigations show that, while counterfeit drug operations have been traditionally based in developing nations, they are now also coming out of places like the UK and Canada. The fraudsters are becoming more sophisticated as well, figuring out how to fake the holograms on drug product packaging. There's tens of billions of dollars in the global market for counterfeit drugs, with plenty of profit to be found all around the world.

US software giant Oracle has developed a package named "Pedigree" to help drug firms "trace and track" their products through the supply chain, from factory to consumer. Rival IBM has a similar software offering, and has been tinkering with RFID tags integrated into drug packages to assist in keeping an eye on the movements of drugs; materials company 3M and drugmaker Abbott Laboratories have also been working on an RFID-based drug-tracking system. Johnson & Johnson, another big drug firm, has a website that provides information to help authorities determine if drugs are bogus or for real.

Poor countries don't have the same level of access to tech, and RFID schemes don't do much good when the drugs are sold by street hawkers. However, a startup in Ghana named "mPedigree" has come up with a cellphone-based system to help fight counterfeit drugs. Participating drug companies emboss a special scratch-off code on drug packages; consumers send in a free text message with the code and get back a reply indicating if the medicine is the real thing or not. The service has completed trials and is now entering use. The government of Nigeria, where bogus medicines are commonplace, has announced it will adopt the mPedigree scheme.

mPedigree system

Crooks are ingenious and there's no way to stop them cold, but those involved in the struggle against counterfeit drugs point out that any useful countermeasure helps, and by "hardening the target" reduces the profit margin for counterfeiters. If the payoff in medicines shrinks enough, counterfeiters will switch to other products, like shoes or handbags. They'll still be ripping people off -- but that's better than killing them in the bargain.

* MORPHINE FOR AFRICANS: As reported by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("Drugs In Africa", 30 September 2010), Africa isn't generally noted for the quality of its health-care systems. One particularly ugly failing is a scarcity of morphine.

Since morphine is derived from opium, it's a controlled drug: governments have to report its usage. The global supply is plentiful, but the distribution uneven. The International Narcotics Control Board, a UN body that oversees controlled drugs, says 90% of the world's morphine is administered in rich countries, while in contrast morphine and other painkillers such as pethidine and dihydrocodeine are hard to find in poor countries. For Africans, that means that those suffering from chronic conditions, victims of accidents or violence, and women in labor simply must endure the pain. Given the general primitiveness of Africa's medical practice, many African patients whose lives might be saved by adequate treatment are doomed to death -- and given the lack of morphine, it's likely to be an unnecessarily painful death.

Kenya is ahead of many African countries in palliative care, with its own hospice movement, but only seven of Kenya's 250 hospitals have reasonable access to morphine. Even when morphine is available, the annual supply is limited to some 1,500 patients -- a fraction of a percent of the actual need. Morphine simply should not be that hard to get. Money isn't the obstacle, since soluble morphine costs only a few cents a dose, and Africa gets big money for AIDS victims. Some of the funds could be diverted to palliative care. Morphine is easily stored and administered.

The failure of Africa to make effective use of morphine and comparable drugs is partly due to ignorance, partly due to a stigma against the use of morphine. Worse, the law in many African countries is poorly written, leaving hospitals liable for misplaced controlled drugs, a real concern when so many drugs are pilfered and then sold on the black market. Nobody believes that the situation is going to change any time soon; until it does, Africans will continue to endure pain they don't need to suffer.



* SUMMER NORTHWEST ROAD TRIP (1): I took my late-summer road trip to Spokane in August. Family business meant it had to be late in the month, which was a bit inconvenient because I had to splice trip planning with a lot of logistics I usually take care of at the end of the month -- paying off charities and the taxman, setting up the blog archive for the month, nitpicky stuff like that. I left Loveland, Colorado, early on the morning of Wednesday, 25 August. They'd been working on an update of the main intersection between Loveland and Interstate 25; I'd seen a report that it had been completed, and so I decided to go that way.

That was a big and very dangerous mistake. The old intersection was one of these ramp schemes where the off-freeway traffic crosses with the on-freeway traffic -- getting on can get dicey sometimes, but at least there's the option of simply dodging back off if it looks too hazardous. I must have misread the article, since the old scheme was still in place, sort of. I came down the on-ramp only to find that the off-ramp was blocked off and channeled me into the flow of traffic, just as a tractor-trailer rig came roaring past. I managed to get through with a vivid sense that I had just come unpleasantly close to getting myself killed. What remains really frightening was that after it was over, I didn't know exactly what had happened -- and I still don't.

Anyway, from then on the trip was generally peaceful, except when a Wyoming state trooper pulled me over for doing 80 MPH in a 75 MPH zone. I couldn't quite follow what was going on there; either he was overzealous or the authorities were playing "get tough" as the end-of-summer holidays got underway. Being a "slow lane" driver, I found it obnoxious; lacking cruise control, my speed can easily vary by 5 MPH one way or another, particularly on hilly terrain -- and besides, central Wyoming is the middle of nowhere, it's not like speeding is a traffic hazard. I shrugged and decided to keep it to 70 MPH; that would keep me out of trouble.

The only other thing of interest in the trip north through Wyoming was the stop in Casper. I was in a McDonald's and was in line with a family from a religious commune in the area -- Mennonites or Hutterites or whatever -- wearing 19th century clothes. That was nothing particularly strange, such religious communes are common out in the rural West, but the group had a little blonde girl, maybe like three or four years old, in a long blue print skirt, who insisted on playing peek-a-boo with me from behind her mother's long skirts. Being on the tall side, little kids sometimes find me fascinating.

I finally got to Missoula, Montana that evening for my night stop. There was a big plume of smoke blowing over the town from the south; I'd seen dingy skies and firefighting helicopters earlier, and it didn't take a rocket scientist to figure the fire-fighting crews were busy. Not much I could do about it but shrug and go to bed. I usually throw the flip bolt on the door in hotel rooms; after I'd crashed out, somebody tried to get in -- I suspect the keycard lock was broken -- but was stopped by the bolt. That saved me some trouble; from now on, I keep the bolt thrown by default. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* THE KILLING OF JFK -- THE ASSASSINATION (20): After sunup on Sunday morning, 24 November, the Dallas police fussed over the transfer of Oswald to the county jail. At 9:30 AM, Will Fritz had one final interrogation session with the prisoner. In attendance was Dallas postal inspector Harry Holmes, who had come to city hall that morning to see if he could be helpful. Fritz met Holmes in the hallways and judged that he could be, since the case involved postal investigation issues. Fritz asked Holmes if he would like to join the interrogation. Holmes replied: "I sure would."

In response to questioning, Oswald claimed he was eating lunch in the first floor cafeteria of the TSBD when the president was shot. As far as the killing of Tippit, the reply was: "I don't know what you're talking about." He did admit he went to Mexico City, claiming he was trying to get back to Russia. As far as the "package of curtain rods" went, Oswald said: "Mr. Frazier must have been mistaken, or else thinking about the other time he picked me up." Oswald denied denied owning a rifle or getting any parcels sent to "Hidell". Oswald was admitting nothing whatsoever. The interrogation session ended up being stretched out about an hour longer than planned, mostly because Holmes had questions for Oswald concerning use of postal services that dragged on.

Security checks were meanwhile being performed in the basement, where Oswald was to be taken to be picked up for the trip over to the county jail. At about 11:15, Oswald was hauled off in handcuffs for the transfer; there was a momentary delay when he asked to change to warmer clothes, putting on a sweater. At 11:20 he went out the door, flanked by policemen. There were reporters there, making a fuss; distracted, the police reacted too slowly when a man dashed out of the crowd towards Oswald. It was Jack Ruby; he was friendly with the police and many of the cops knew him, with one shouting out: "Jack, you sonofabitch, don't!"

Jack Ruby attacks Oswald

Ruby shoved the pistol into Oswald's body and pulled the trigger. It was all being covered live to the entire nation, one newsman crying out over the airwaves: "He's been shot! Lee Oswald's been shot!" The cops piled on Ruby and managed to get the pistol away from him; lying on the concrete, Ruby said: "I hope I killed the sonofabitch!"

The police called for an ambulance, but the bullet had almost gone all the way through Oswald. A cop asked him: "Is there anything you want to tell us now?" Oswald shook his head slightly: No. The cop kept asking him, but Oswald was clearly slipping away.

While the ambulance from Parkland hospital was on the way, some of the police had taken Ruby upstairs in City Hall, searched him, and stripped him down. One cop who knew Ruby said: "Jack, I think you killed him."

"Somebody had to do it. You all couldn't."

The police asked him how he'd got into the basement; Ruby told them that he'd snuck down the exit ramp as a car was leaving, that somebody had shouted at him but he'd just kept going: "It was one chance in a million ... If I had planned this, I couldn't have had my timing any better."

In fact, he'd just got there when Oswald came out, Ruby might not have even broken stride, and if Harry Holmes hadn't showed up Ruby would have missed his window of opportunity; even the additional minute or so it took for Oswald to get and put on his sweater might well have left Ruby hanging.

The police knew that they were in very deep trouble for allowing Oswald to be killed, but others were not so unhappy. A crowd was waiting at the county jail for Oswald to arrive; when they were told he had been shot, there was cheering and applause.

Ruby was interrogated and of course the number-one question was: "Why?" Ruby gave a rambling explanation of what he'd been doing for the last 24 hours, how upset he was, and concluded: "I guess I had worked myself into a state of insanity to where I had to do it. I was afraid he might not get his just punishment. Sometimes they don't, y'know ... I guess I just had to show the world that a Jew had guts, y'know."

When asked if he had any accomplices, Ruby replied: "No." No matter how many times he was asked, to the end of his life, Ruby would always insist, desperately insist, that he had acted alone, that he had no involvement with any conspiracy. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* SCIENCE NOTES: Our nearest known relatives, the Neanderthals, disappeared about 40,000 years ago, and there's long been puzzling as to why they vanished. One possibility raised is that humans killed them off, but as reported by an article from DISCOVERY CHANNEL Online, archaeologist Liubov Golovanova of the ANO Laboratory of Prehistory in Saint Petersburg, Russia, suspects humans may be "not guilty" in the extinction of the Neanderthals. According to a study by Golovanova and his colleagues, at least three volcanic eruptions about 40,000 years ago devastated Neanderthals' western Asian and European homelands, leading to their destruction. Humans escaped extinction because they lived in Africa and southwestern Asia, which were not as heavily affected by the eruptions.

The Russian study focused on soil, pollen, animal bones and stone tools from Mezmaiskaya Cave in southwestern Russia's Caucasus Mountains. Excavation of the cave began in 1987. Chemical analyses of soil layers in the Russian cave identified two types of volcanic ash marking separate volcanic eruptions in western Asia between 45,000 and 40,000 years ago. Plant pollen recovered in the cave indicates that extremely cold, dry conditions prevailed around the time these ash layers formed.

Other researchers, led by anthropologist Francesco Fedele of the University of Naples in Italy, have recently reported evidence of an unusually large volcanic eruption in Italy around 40,000 years ago, which created a "volcanic winter" that devastated the environment of southern and eastern Europe. Neanderthal populations in the regions were not large, and these three volcanic events, along with others not yet discovered, may have been enough to push the Neanderthals over the precipice. Signs of Neanderthal culture at Mezmaiskaya Cave declined sharply after the first western Asian volcanic eruption and disappeared after the second blast. Artifacts associated with Stone Age humans then appeared in the cave about 38,000 or 37,000 years ago. The scenario is interesting, but obviously needs to be supported by more evidence.

* As reported by BBC WORLD Online, the latest new fossil find is of a giant penguin, dug up in Peru and about 36 million years old. Inkayacu paracasensis was about 1.5 meters (5 feet) tall, pretty big for a bird -- twice as heavy as the Emperor penguin, the largest living penguin species. It had a long, straight beak, longer than that of modern penguins.

The feathers were very well preserved, with the researchers able to examine structures known as "melanosomes" whose size, shape, and arrangement determine the color of feathers. They showed the bird featured brown and gray coloration, very unlike the "tuxedo" appearance of modern penguins. Researchers studying penguins have learned that the depth to which penguins can dive is proportional to body size; the ability to hunt in deep waters may well have driven Inkayacu paracasensis to its large size.

On poking around on this item, it seems that one fossil penguin species, Waimanu tuatahi, is actually 60 million years old, dating from right after the extinction of the dinosaurs. This animal was recognizably a penguin, with wings too small to permit flight and the ability to waddle upright on its feet. However, the beak was very long and slender, while the wings were much longer proportional to the body size than the wings of a modern penguin.

* In related news, BBC WORLD Online reports that paleontologists investigating the Indonesian island of Flores have found the remains of a giant marabou stork, roughly 1.8 meters (6 feet) tall and with a weight of 16 kilograms (35 pounds), dating back 20,000 to 50,000 years. Flores is noted for its giant and dwarf species, both living and extinct, the most famous being the extinct miniature hominin known as Homo floriensis or the "hobbit", only about a meter (1.1 yards) tall. The island was also home to dwarf elephants, and is still home to giant rats and the Komodo dragon, a giant monitor lizard and the biggest living lizard.

Dwarf and giant variants of animals tend to arise on islands; a full-grown elephant might find it difficult to stay fed in the restricted range available on an island, while a pygmy version wouldn't have that problem. At the other end of the size range, a relative lack of predators could lead to an "arms race" between prey species, such as giant rats, and resident predators, such as storks or monitor lizards. The extinction event that put down the giant stork and the hobbits appears to have been a major volcanic eruption, eruptions being common in the Indonesian archipelago.

* The microecology of predatory pitcher plants was discussed briefly here last year, showing how a range of organisms lived in the little bodies of liquid stored by these plants. A note from AAAS SCIENCE discussed a particularly surprising inhabitant of the little Nepenthe pitcher plants of Borneo: a frog species where the males are a bit more than 10 millimeters long, about the size of a small pea, named Microhyla nepenthicola. The females are twice as long.

Their tiny size means a high ratio of surface area to volume, and so they can't stray too far from their pitcher plant home lest they dry out and die. The only way that naturalists spotted the little frogs was from the fact that they're surprisingly noisy for their size, with the males issuing raspy calls at dusk. While M. nepenthicola is the smallest known Old World frog, there are New World species that are even tinier, measuring in at under 10 millimeters: the gold frog of Brazil and the Monte Iberia dwarf frog of Cuba.



* WIND POWER FOR THE TRIBES: The American Indian tribes did not do very well in the face of settler encroachment, being ultimately forced onto reservations. They did preserve considerable autonomy, but the lands they retained were often dismal and barren, swept by the persistent winds of the prairie. As reported by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("Harvesting The Air", 3 April 2010), that wind is increasingly being seen as a resource. The tribes that inhabit reservations in North Dakota, South Dakota, and Montana live in poverty even though they have enough wind to generate 886 million megawatt-hours a year. According to the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), if only 1% of this power was tapped, it would provide the tribes with $3.6 billion USD of revenue over 20 years. Indian tribes are very interested in wind and other renewable energy sources, with legislation in the works to give them a leg up in their efforts.

Unfortunately, there are obstacles. One is the lack of adequate electrical transmission infrastructure, a problem that notoriously bedevils renewable energy efforts. However, the tribes have other difficulties more unique to themselves. One is, ironically, their political autonomy: it tends to put off investors who aren't sure of the rules on reservations and worry that the rules may be changed abruptly some time down the road. In another irony, the fact that the tribes don't pay taxes means that tax subsidies that might boost wind projects elsewhere don't work on reservations.

wind turbine on Pine Ridge reservation

What makes the matter particularly ironic is that tribal autonomy is supported by Federal government authority, adding a troublesome layer of big-government bureaucracy to dealings with the tribes. One developer trying to put up a wind farm on a reservation in South Dakota complained: "It took the Bureau of Indian Affairs over a year to look over a document that a good lawyer could do in five days." There's only one commercial wind farm in operation on a reservation -- the Campo reservation in California -- at the present time, and the tribe doesn't own the facility.

The government has been trying to help. From 2002 to 2008, the US Department of Energy provided about $16.8 million for studies and demonstrations, while NREL has been providing advice and training to the tribes. Legislative efforts are underway to knock down obstacles -- but they can only do so much until broader US national energy policy and laws are rationalized. Right now, several tribes are working on projects as best they can under the circumstances. Of course it's frustrating to have to work against the system, with one of those working on tribal wind projects saying: "Every day, with the wind blowing heavily, I look at all that money blowing by."

* CLEAN THE COAL: America isn't the only country that has run into bureaucratic obstacles on the road to the new age of energy. In its breakneck rush to develop, China has acquired an ever-greater demand for energy that has strained the nation's ability to deliver. As reported by an article from AAAS SCIENCE ("In Quest For Energy, China Ignores Simple Answer" by Hao Xin, 4 June 2010), a combustion researcher named Xu Xuchang of Tsinghua University, has come up with a simple way to significantly improve the efficiency of China's vast network of coal-burning powerplants, while reducing air pollution in the bargain: wash the coal first. The response? Not very interested.

China has an energy conservation plan for 2006 through 2010 that calls for a 20% reduction in energy intensity -- energy required to produce a unit of GDP -- and a 10% reduction in pollution. The goals aren't close to being met, despite the conviction of government officials that things need to change.

In the early days of China's new economic development, from 1980 to 2002, energy intensity dropped by an average of 5% a year. However, that was mostly due to phasing out of grossly inefficient Mao-era infrastructure. From 2002 to 2005, energy intensity rose 3.8% year as the Chinese economic boom drove unprecedented growth in demand for energy. Determined efforts by the authorities did demonstrate some improvements in various sectors, but the benefits were drowned out in a flood of rising energy demand.

Along with slowing down or reversing the demand for energy, Chinese officials also want to shift the country's power production away from coal, but that isn't happening either. That means, as Xu points out, making better use of coal is absolutely essential. Powerplants and some 480,000 coal-fired boilers account for up to 85% of China's coal consumption. Because this coal isn't washed or sifted, it's high in sulfur and ash, and too powdery. The result is poor combustion, which not only means inefficient use of the fuel but air pollution as well, with coal burning producing more than two-thirds of the country's sulfur dioxide emissions and the bulk of particular matter pollution. Xu says that washing the coal will improve efficiency by 15% and automatically cut down on emissions.

Sounds like a good deal, but the coal mines, the railroads, and the power industry are all fighting the idea, believing it will drain their profits. To get anywhere, the government will have to step in, but despite its authoritarian nature China's government is in many ways surprisingly weak. To obtain statistics on energy consumption, for example, the government relies on reports from factories, with no way of verifying them. Obviously things need to change -- but until they do, China will keep burning dirty coal.



* UNCANNY VALLEY: As reported by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("Crossing The Uncanny Valley, 18 November 2010), computer animators and roboticists are confronted with a peculiar challenge in trying to make their figures more humanlike. The problem was illustrated by two computer-animated movies released in 2004, THE INCREDIBLES and THE POLAR EXPRESS. THE INCREDIBLES used cartoony characters that nobody would mistake for real life, and it was a smash hit. In contrast, THE POLAR EXPRESS did everything possible to make their characters look realistic, including motion capture of live actors -- and audiences were generally repelled, finding the characters reminiscent of creepy zombies.

THE POLAR EXPRESS had wandered into the "uncanny valley", a concept suggested by Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori in 1970. It wasn't something that Mori had honestly researched, it was just an idea based on his intuition that making robots more humanlike only yielded improvements in how comfortable people felt with them up to a certain level -- and then making them look more humanlike simply made them seem creepier, at least up to the point where it's difficult to tell from the real thing. He called this gap in the curve the "uncanny valley".

Go to Disney World to see the STAR WARS R2-D2 robot, which has no resemblance to a human at all, resembling nothing more than a trashcan on wheels, and which communicates in chirps and squeaks; it's simply cutesy. His colleague C-3PO has a generally human form but it's highly stylized, and nobody has any real problem with it. Go watch the robotic Abraham Lincoln and it's unconvincing, somewhat repellent: unlike R2-D2 and C-3PO, it's trying to pretend it's human, and it doesn't succeed. It wouldn't succeed even with more modern robotics technology, and in fact trying to improve on the tech might just make it more repellent. The Abraham Lincoln robot is stuck in the uncanny valley.

Chin-Chang Ho and Karl MacDorman of the Indiana University School of Informatics are now trying to assess the subtleties of human behavior that create the "uncanny valley", suggesting that Mori was approaching the problem from the wrong angle in framing it as an issue of "familiarity" and "comfort level". They also are skeptical of some suggested alternatives, such as "warmth" and "likeability" -- pointing out that animated Disney villains are rarely either, but that doesn't make them "uncanny". They believe the proper focus should be on "eeriness".

That might seem like offering six of one to a half dozen of the other, but the researchers did perform an experiment to test out their idea. They assembled a group of several hundred college undergraduates as test subjects, to then show them ten video clips, five of robots and five of animations. The robots included the disk-shaped Roomba robot vacuum cleaner, and four humanoid machines of increasing likeness to humans; the animations included clips from THE INCREDIBLES, THE POLAR EXPRESS, and an animation of Orville Redenbacher, the well-known US popcorn magnate who died in 1995.

The volunteers were asked to give scores on dozens of scales for each video: "machinelike" to "humanlike", "synthetic" to "real", and so on. Scales that turned out to measure the same qualities with different words were eliminated and the researchers eventually zeroed in on 19 that described aspects of four underlying qualities that they labeled "attractiveness", "eeriness", "humanness" and "warmth". According to the researchers, all were important for the design of humanlike robots and characters, but only two -- "humanness" and "eeriness", were needed to explain the "uncanny valley".

intriguing or eerie?

Levels of "eeriness" were indicated by eight descriptive scales, including "ordinary" to "supernatural", "boring" to "shocking", and "uninspiring" to "spine-tingling". Plotting "humanness" along the horizontal axis and "eeriness" along the vertical gives the "uncanny valley" plot. Essentially, the researchers had established Mori's insight in a more rigorous fashion, which should help those developing robots and computer animations to better conduct test group studies on how convincing their human analogues are. Does that bring us substantially closer to human analogues that can't be told from the real thing? That's hard to say, but it will give those working towards that goal a better sense of direction.



* BANGLADESH BRACES FOR GLOBAL WARMING (2): The United Nations has built up about $350 million USD in four funds to help high-risk locales deal with climate change, including pilot projects to fight malaria in Colombia and to build up shorelines on the Pacific island nation of Kiribati. However, although $350 million USD may sound like a lot of money, the World Bank believes the overall cost of helping high-risk areas will run to about $100 billion USD -- and that's only if effective measures are taken globally to put the brakes on global warming.

Bangladesh has been paying attention to the issue for several years, but it wasn't until 2007 that the level of threat was really understood. That year, after two severe floods and a cyclone, rice production fell short of needs by 10%. In some districts, half the crop was lost. Citizens waited in long lines for handouts and food riots broke out.

Although the "Green Revolution" tripled Bangladesh's rice production through use of better seed, more irrigation, and fertilizers, growth in rice productivity has now stalled. Bangladesh has to increase productivity by 40% by midcentury to keep up with population growth. Global warming makes that challenge all the tougher: models put together by Bangladeshi researchers show that while an increase in average temperature of 2 degrees Celsius will not affect rice production, an increase of 3 to 4 degrees will cut production by 25%.

However, the researchers believe that shifts to new varieties of rice or other crops, like maize, will help. Scientists at the Bangladesh Rice Research Institute (BRRI) in Dhaka have been experimenting with rice that can survive floods, with the rice planted in concrete "swimming pools" surviving under water for two weeks, twice as long as ordinary rice. They're also working with rice strains that can tolerate high salt levels, and even "aerobic" rice that can grow on dry ground -- just like wheat or corn. Unfortunately, the scientists are not gaining much ground on strains that have better tolerance to drought and heat.

* As for the rising seas, Bangladesh's strategy calls for building a Dutch-style system of coastal "polders" -- pockets of land protected by earthwalls a few meters high to shield against high tides and moderate storm surges. A network of such embankments has already been built; the plan calls for strengthening and extending the network.

That kind of engineering work doesn't come cheap; the current cost estimate is about a billion USD a year for the next five years. So far, the government has only been able to come up with $70 million USD for a trust fund, but other countries have pledged contributions. Observers believe that to weather the looming crisis will demand the best of all Bangladeshis; it can't be just a top-down effort, with the government telling the people what to do, but a bottom-up effort as well, with the people telling the government what needs to be done. Bangladesh has long been regarded as something of a poor cousin of a nation, but if Bangladeshis rise to the challenge, they may provide a role model for work elsewhere to cope with global warming. [END OF SERIES]



* THE KILLING OF JFK -- THE ASSASSINATION (19): Although Marina had disposed of the "Fascist Hunter" photos she had been carrying, she didn't know that Lee had also left a print and two negatives in his kit stored in the Paine's garage. The Dallas detectives scouring through the garage quickly found the print and the negatives, and immediately recognized their significance. The detectives also found an ad clipping for Klein's Sporting Goods that listed a Mannlicher-Carcano rifle for sale, along with various items related to Lee's hobby of forging documents. The cops packed up everything of interest and went back downtown.

They missed two books in Russian belonging to Marina, a cookbook and a book on baby care; a week later Ruth Paine handed them over to the police, asking that they be passed on to Marina, but the cops gave them to the Secret Service instead. In early December, they found in the cookbook the note in Russian that Lee had written to Marina before his assault on General Walker, giving her instructions on what to do "if I am captured".

At 2:15 PM, Oswald was put into another lineup for identification by taxi drivers Whaley and Scoggins. Oswald complained bitterly about this and that; the police ignored him. Whaley quickly identified him as the man who had taken a ride in his cab: "That's him, all right!" Scoggins didn't have any doubts either, telling the police that Oswald was "the man I saw running from the scene." Oswald was then taken to his cell, where scrapings were taken from under his fingernails and hair samples were obtained, with the samples then turned over to the FBI for forensic analysis.

* At 3:40 PM, Robert Oswald finally got to speak with Lee. Robert was not happy to see Lee's bruised face, but Lee reassured him: "I got this in the theater. They haven't bothered me since. They're treating me all right." Of course they were; the world was watching and roughing up the prisoner was out of the question. They chatted a bit, and then Robert finally worked up the nerve to ask the question: "Lee, what the Sam Hill is going on?"

"I don't know what is going on. I just don't know what they are talking about. Don't believe all the so-called evidence."

"You don't know?! Look, they've got your pistol, they've got your rifle, they've got you charged with shooting the president and a police officer -- and you tell me you don't know?! Now, I want to know just what's going on."

Lee stiffened up. Robert looked him in the eye; Lee replied: "Brother, you won't find anything there." When their ten minutes were up, Robert said: "I'll be back." Lee replied. "All right. I'll see you." Robert never spoke with him again.

* That afternoon, Lee tried to call lawyer John Abt in New York City. Failing to get through, he called Ruth Paine and asked her look into the matter for him. Abt was out of town for the weekend and Oswald would never get in touch with him; Abt would later say he wouldn't have taken the case anyway. Incidentally, a scrap of paper popped up later with two phone numbers on it, the note having been scribbled down by the switchboard operator. One number was that of a John David Hurt of Raleigh, North Carolina, with the switchboard operator recalling there was a call either from or to Oswald from that number. As it turned out, Hurt had been in US Army Intelligence during World War II, which suggested to conspiracy theorists a "spook" connection to Oswald.

The HSCA looked into it, but Hurt said he had no clue about the matter. After he died in 1981, however, his widow reported that her husband, who had drinking problems, had become distraught after hearing of JFK's assassination and got drunk. In his alcohol-soaked state of mind, Hurt decided to call up Oswald, presumably to give him a piece of his mind -- but failing to get through, Hurt just left his number. After he sobered up, Hurt was too embarrassed to admit to what he had done.

In any case, Oswald then talked from his cell with the president of the Dallas Bar Association, H. Louis Nichols, who had come over out of concern about his legal representation. Oswald repeated that he was trying to get Abt to take the case. Oswald seemed very calm about everything; not belligerent, not cowed.

At about 6:30 PM, he was put through another interrogation. The police had made prints off the "Fascist Hunter" negatives. Will Fritz reminded Oswald that he claimed yesterday he'd never owned a gun. Oswald replied: "That's right, I never owned a gun."

Fritz pulled one of the prints out of an envelope and asked: "How do you explain this?" It took Oswald by surprise and he became defensive. Fritz asked him: "Well, is that your face in the picture?"

"I won't even admit that."

"That's not your face?!"

"No, that's not even my face! That's a fake. I've been photographed a number of times since I got here -- first by the police, and now every time I get dragged through that hallway. Somebody has taken my picture and put my face on a different body ... It was entirely possible that the police department has superimposed this part of the photograph over the body of someone else. The Dallas Police were the culprits."

Fritz pressed Oswald; Oswald stonewalled him, even refusing to explain why he carried the false ID with the "Hidell" name. Finally Fritz gave up for the moment, and Oswald was taken back to his cell. Conspiracy theorists have long wondered just what Oswald had meant when he shouted out he was a "patsy", but he made it clear in the interrogation exactly what he saying: he was accusing the police of trying to frame him.

* At 7:00 PM Chief Curry gave a press conference, talking about how the rifle had been traced back to Klein's Sporting Goods, commenting vaguely about the "Fascist Hunter" photos, and mentioning Oswald's "Hidell" alias. J. Edgar Hoover, who was of course following matters closely, was outraged that the Dallas police would discuss details of evidence to reporters -- investigations and trials were not supposed to be conducted in the newspapers. Hoover called up Shanklin again and told him to make sure Curry stopped blabbing to the press. Shanklin called Curry and had a chat with him.

Things went quiet for a few hours, with Oswald sleeping in his cell. In the dark hours of the morning of Sunday, 24 November, the Dallas sheriff's department, the Dallas police, and the Dallas FBI office got an anonymous call, with the caller claiming he was the spokesman for a group that was going to kill Oswald. The caller was never identified. The fact that there were plenty of people who were willing to kill Oswald was not a surprise, but the threat did increase worries over Oswald's security. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* GIMMICKS & GADGETS: WIRED Online reports that the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is working with Case Western Reserve School Of Medicine to develop drugs that can immediately acclimate soldiers to high altitudes. Mountaineers who climb to high altitudes gradually adapt to the thinner air; the DARPA program wants to get the adaptation working within minutes, with the drugs increasing the blood concentration of nitric oxide, which dilates blood vessels.

The drug will likely be administered using an inhaler, and may have plenty of other applications, for example to help the anemic. DARPA wants to have functional drugs in hand in three years; the agency doesn't actually field any of its projects directly, but the Case Western group is working with the US Food & Drug Administration to lay the groundwork for FDA approval, leading to production.

* WIRED ONLINE has also been discussing DARPA's work on vaccines. One of the more groundbreaking elements in this effort is an agency program named "Prophecy", the goal of which is to identify viral threats before they strike. The research effort is focusing on understanding "virus-host interactions", as well as sequencing viral genomes and predicting possible mutations that could render them more dangerous.

And if an emerging threat is spotted, what then? Another facet to DARPA research is the "Accelerated Manufacture of Pharmaceuticals (AMP)" effort, the goal of which is to quickly turn out new vaccines and monoclonal antibody therapies on demand -- the target being 3 million doses in 12 weeks. One facet in this effort are programs at Texas A&M University and Canadian biotech startup Medicago INC to turn out vaccine proteins using genetically-modified (GM) tobacco plants. It's not a new idea to use GM plants to turn out drugs in general and vaccines in specific, but so far the idea hasn't amounted to much.

Even 12 weeks might be way too long a delay in the face of a serious emergency, so DARPA is also working on an AMP-related research effort at Arizona State University (ASU) that would be able to cook up a vaccine targeting an unfamiliar pathogen from a cold start in a week. The ASU effort is based on a toolkit of "synthetic antibodies" AKA "synbodies"; the idea is that the unfamiliar pathogen will be quickly analyzed, with a mix of synbodies that lock onto it quickly selected from the toolkit. If the synbodies were stockpiled in bulk, it would be possible to immediately start producing the vaccine, which would provide "acquired immunity" against the pathogen.

The ASU researchers think that a toolkit of 10,000 properly-selected synbodies would be able to nail any pathogen, but that 100 will be enough to meet DARPA requirements for the time being. Of course, such one-week vaccines could only be used on an emergency basis; mainstream use would demand extensive trials that would make the short turnaround for vaccine production irrelevant. It may be possible over the long run to streamline qualifications for such synbody-mix vaccine -- but one does not need to be an antivaccine activist to think that caution might seem warranted.

Replenish spray cleaner

* Although it might not be thought that the technology for using household spray cleaners could be improved all that much, a company named "Replenish" has come up with what they think is a better idea. Spray cleaners are, to no surprise, mostly water; and so Replenish just supplies a spray bottle without the water, the active ingredients being provided in a module that screws onto the base. A bottle with a module is expensive, $8 USD, but the capsule can support four refills, and when it's exhausted a new module costs only $4 USD. The bottle's spray mechanism is good for at least 10,000 squirts. While Replenish plays up the environmental angle, the scheme also rates well on reduced shipping costs -- no need to load down transport carrying water -- and on the pricetag for the consumer. It may not amount to much but a gimmick; then again, in ten years it may be the norm.



* ANOTHER MONTH: One of the readers on the site message board tipped me off to a review of some preposterously overhyped $7,500 audio cables on Amazon.com. The review was a work of art -- obviously the author was very familiar with H.P. Lovecraft:


I have only a little time ...

We live underground. We speak with our hands. We wear the earplugs all our lives.

PLEASE! You must listen! We cannot maintain the link for long ... I will type as fast as I can.


We were fools, fools to develop such a thing! Sound was never meant to be this clear, this pure, this ... accurate. For a few short days, we marveled. Then the ... whispers ... began.

Were they Aramaic? Hyperborean? Some even more ancient tongue, first spoken by elder races under the red light of dying suns far from here? We do not know, but somehow, slowly ... we began to UNDERSTAND.

No, no, please! I don't want to remember! YOU WILL NOT MAKE ME REMEMBER! I saw brave men claw their own eyes out ... oh, God, the screaming ... the mobs of feral children feasting on corpses, the shadows MOVING, the fires burning in the air! The CHANTING!


We live underground. We speak with our hands. We wear the earplugs all our lives.

Do not use the cables!


voices of the darkness

Incidentally, the review gave the product a one-star rating; having gone viral, it got over 3,000 "helpful" votes, no doubt much to the irritation of the manufacturer of the cables. It reminded me of a flap online back in the 1990s over similar grossly overpriced "monster cables", with critics pointing out that double-blind tests demonstrated no difference between the monster cables and ordinary cables. The response was to attack the validity of double-blind tests -- if a sucker is born every minute, every hour or so one is born who works at being a sucker.

* I was poking around on THE ECONOMIST's website and noticed it had a bar at the top of the page that would pop down when the page was scrolled to allow readers to flag the article on Facebook, Twitter, or email, along with a website / internet search box. It was a bit annoying at first until I noticed a button on the left side of the bar that could be clicked to turn it off.

Someone mentioned that the bar was provided by Apture, so I looked them up. It seemed straightforward enough to use: sign up, copy their HTML code, paste it into my web pages at the end before the </BODY> tag, and I would be flying. On tinkering with it, it didn't seem to work at first; then I set some configurations on the bar, such as color, on my account on the Apture website, and it worked fine. [ED: They discontinued it the next year. It was fun while it lasted.]

* Along with the Apture bar, this month I managed to finish indexing and uploading this year's batch of photos, giving a total of over 3,000 photos now. Handling the photos turned out to be an overly protracted exercise, tinkering about 15 minutes a day for half a year. Maintaining a large archive of photos or the like ends up being surprisingly troublesome and time-consuming.

Similarly, I finally got done proofing all the old blog archives, ending a lengthy cycle of work in making them more accessible. In the course of the proofing I made some updates, adding an illustration here and there, adding crosslinks, and dropping comments or items that seemed irrelevant in hindsight. I find that political commentaries don't always age well. On very rare occasions I've been dinged by readers for my disinterest in controversial issues, but why? They can be pointless when they're current, and forgotten ten years later.

What to do now that I'm done proofing? Start over again. Proofreading never really gets done; the errors get cut in half, but there's always one more bug.

* I have an admittedly tendency to get drawn into online feuds until I get so sick of the barking that I run home and lock the doors. I finally realized it was just fits of restlessness and boredom that were driving me into it; I decided that as long as I was going to be wasting time on idle diversions, I might as well find less obnoxious and more rewarding idle diversions.

I've been getting into online flash games -- there's several sites that collect them, with the games running a wide range of capability and quality. Some are crass and some of the clones of classic arcade games like GALAGA and CENTIPEDE don't respond to inputs adequately, a fatal flaw for an action game. However, there was a modern descendant of SPACE INVADERS named ROBOTS & ALIENS that was zippy and clever, obliquely reminiscent of the work of cartoonist Genndy Tartakovsky.


I was particularly amused by a game named NUCLEAROIDS. It involves a set of atom-like elements in various configurations; for each level of play, the player detonates one and hopes the chain reaction will wipe out a specific number of elements. As far as the gameplay goes, it doesn't amount to more than pressing the button and trusting to luck. That's not really a problem, though, since it's less like a game than it is like setting off fireworks, and on that basis it's really fascinating.