jan 2011 / last mod mar 2016 / greg goebel

* Entries include: JFK assassination, war on the deficit, the logic behind ObamaCare, Alzheimer's challenge, Commodore 64 PC resurrected, campaign against illegal logging, copper theft, dung beetles inspected, assassin bugs raid spider webs, South Africa gets serious about AIDS, using probiotics to prevent pneumonia, probing the virome, and GigaPans.

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* NEWS COMMENTARY FOR JANUARY 2011: The Obama Administration's national health-care reform package, the "Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act", has proven controversial, as discussed here last month. The most controversial element of "ObamaCare", as the act is popularly known, is the "individual mandate" or "insurance mandate", which requires that all Americans obtain health coverage, with the government providing assistance to poor folks to do so and fining citizens who do not. The mandate is scheduled to go into effect in 2014.

The insurance mandate will stand or fall in the Federal courts. Preliminary shots have been fired in that battle, yielding mixed messages. The state of Virginia has Western and Eastern Federal court districts; on 30 November 2010, circuit court Judge Norman K. Moon of the Western district upheld the constitutionality of ObamaCare -- but two weeks later, on 13 December 2010, Judge Henry E. Hudson of the Eastern District ruled it unconstitutional, calling it an "unchecked expansion" of congressional authority that "would invite unbridled exercise of federal police powers."

In SEBELIUS V. VIRGINIA, the case judged on by Hudson, the government claimed the right to impose the insurance mandate under:

Hudson was unimpressed by this argument, and there's no certainty that such reasoning will impress Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, seen as the likely swing vote in the US Supreme Court, which will have the ultimate judicial say on the matter. To ensure that ObamaCare survives, the Obama Administration will need to provide convincing arguments that the government is not overreaching its authority.

The administration actually has a solid argument on its side. In a related case in Florida filed in November, 41 top economists, including three Nobel laureates, filed an "amicus curae" brief -- a legal brief by interested outside parties in a court case -- to argue that health care has unique characteristics that justify the insurance mandate, characteristics not shared by other markets such as food and housing, and so provides no basis for an "unchecked expansion" of Federal power. One of the signatories of the brief, 90-year-old Kenneth Arrow of Stanford, has been probing the legal peculiarities of health care since 1963, when he wrote a well-known paper titled "Uncertainty and the Welfare Economics of Medical Care," mentioned in the brief. Arrow and the other economists say simply that, without the insurance mandate, health-care reform is doomed.

There is a general consensus that all Americans should have health coverage. The brute-force approach would be to simply establish a comprehensive government health-care program, supported by taxpayers, but that was never in the cards. As argued by the economists, the only practical alternative is for everyone to obtain personal health-care plans. Healthy people have no immediate incentive to buy expensive health-care coverage, so the cost of coverage will be weighted towards the sick, further discouraging buy-in by the healthy; optional health-insurance is trapped in a vicious cycle it cannot escape. Amitabh Chandra, an economist at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government who also signed the brief, wrote in an email: "We don't let people buy car insurance after they've wrecked their cars, or after we find their house is on fire. For the same reason, the individual mandate is absolutely key."

No other markets have the peculiar characteristics of health care. Customers don't know exactly what health services they need or sometimes how to get them; their decisions can have a public effect, for example in the case of an HIV-positive patient spreading the virus; and competition is restrained by various factors. Medical care is unavoidable, expensive, and most significantly can't ethically be denied, and so those who can't afford coverage end up shifting the costs onto people or institutions with deeper pockets. In his ruling, Judge Hudson claimed that ObamaCare attempts to regulate commercial "inactivity," that is, not buying insurance, making the law more intrusive than laws governing commercial "activity" that the Supreme Court has upheld in the past. The economists reject this reasoning, saying that opting out of insurance isn't "inactivity" -- it's a decision, conscious or not, to throw oneself on the mercy of the hospital emergency room or taxpayers.

There have been suggestions for how to save health-care reform if the insurance mandate is struck down, but none of them escape the fundamental logic of the situation: if all Americans should have health coverage, then either the government does it with taxpayer dollars, or everybody has to buy health coverage. The insurance mandate does come across as overbearing, but what's the alternative? To insist on the status quo is to support the principle of the "free ride", neither fair to those who end up paying the bill, nor to those who are reduced to such a desperate measure.



* THE KILLING OF JFK -- THE BALANCE OF EVIDENCE (3): Along with Jean Hill, there were a number of other witnesses who claimed to have seen a "grassy knoll shooter" on 22 November 1963. Jim Marrs played up a witness named Jesse Price who was supposed to have seen a shooter running away with what might be a gun, but all Price said in his 22 November statement to police was that he had seen a young man running with something in his hand, which Price judged might have been a hat. Price did say that he heard up to six shots, which Marrs highlighted -- but carefully avoided mentioning that Price claimed he had heard the last shot about five minutes after JFK was hit.

Price wasn't called to testify before the Warren Commission; Marrs claimed it was because he knew too much, but it seems more likely from his statements that it was because he knew nothing. Price later sensationalized his story a bit for Mark Lane, a lawyer who became one of the most high-profile conspiracy theorists, claiming that the young man was probably carrying a gun, meaning a pistol, though there's no evidence anyone took a pistol shot at JFK.

Several witnesses -- including as mentioned Jean Hill -- reported at the time seeing a "puff of white smoke" near the triple underpass, which was picked up by conspiracy theorists as proof that a shot had been fired from there. One of the best-known witnesses was Sterling Mayfield ("Sam") Holland, a supervisor for the Union Terminal Railroad (UTR). He was watching the presidential motorcade on 22 November 1963 from the top of the triple underpass, in the company of two Dallas police officers -- Earle Brown and James Lomax -- and about eight co-workers, and claimed he saw a puff of white smoke in the grassy knoll area.

However, Holland located the puff of smoke as coming from in front of the fence at the back of the grassy knoll, which would have left a shooter completely exposed and easily observed by all in the vicinity, and when asked by the Warren Commission to identify where he thought the sound of the shots was coming from, he indicated he believed they were coming from the direction of the TSBD. In addition, in 1966, on being shown the Moorman photo, Holland claimed he could clearly see the "grassy knoll shooter", though most folks looking over it would be hard-pressed to see any such thing. Holland also claimed in his affidavit to the Dallas police on 22 November 1963 that he saw a Secret Service man stand up from his seat in the presidential limousine with a "machine gun" and then fall back down, something not seen by other witnesses or in the Zapruder movie.

Several others who had been on top of the triple underpass on 22 November claimed to have seen the "puff of white smoke":

Yet another supposed witness, sort of, to the "puff of white smoke" was William Baetz of Yonkers, New York. In late 1966 the Dallas police got a call supposedly from Baetz in which the caller claimed to have seen the puff of smoke from behind the fence on the grassy knoll. The police got the name as "Daetz" and it took a while for the FBI to track down the caller. When the bureau spoke to Baetz, he said he had been home in Yonkers on 22 November 1963, not in Dallas, and that he had never made any such call to the Dallas police. Call records showed that somebody had made the call to Dallas on his line, but Baetz continued to deny it, claiming it was somebody playing tricks on him. Whatever the truth was, that was as far as it went. Some conspiracy theorists have claimed they can see the "puff of white smoke" in photos taken of the grassy knoll area on 22 November 1963, but all others see is a patch of glare.

Although the "puff of white smoke" keeps showing up in conspiracy theories, it's absurd -- as anybody with the most casual familiarity with firearms knows, normal smokeless ammunition might at most produce a slight wisp of smoke on firing, less visible than a curl of cigarette smoke, that couldn't be seen from outside of spitting distance, and given how breezy the day was, it would have dissipated immediately. Some who claimed they saw the puff of smoke also admitted they didn't think it had anything to do with the shooting. In fact, there was a steam pipe running near the triple underpass. The "puff of white smoke" might have been from a dirty vehicle exhaust, or steam from the steam pipe.

Much the same could be said of "nosewitnesses" who claimed they smelled gunpowder, some of them being nowhere near the shooting. Any smell of a few shots fired in the open on a breezy day would have been faint at best, and certainly wouldn't have given much clue as to where the shots were coming from. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* GIMMICKS & GADGETS: While "smart" machine vision systems have been discussed here in the past, BBC WORLD Online reports that a firm named "Audio Analytic" out of Cambridge in the UK has developed a smart "machine listening" system to complement security cameras. The system does not just tack on microphones to a security system; it includes software that profiles the sounds that the microphones pick up, examining their pitch, tone, and timing to see if they suggest a threat.

Audio Analytic officials admit the system does suffer from false positives, but they don't see that as a real problem. A security guard may have to monitor dozens of displays, making it hard to notice any one thing going wrong, and the smart listening system can flag an incident for further inspection. In one test, a subject got angry at a coffee machine that took his money and gave him nothing back; the system flagged it as an event, but those observing easily figured out what was going on.

* BUSINESS WEEK discussed another "smart" machine vision system, the "Mobile Plate Hunter-900", developed by ELSAG North America and in extensive use by US police to track down stolen cars. Externally, the system consists of a two-camera imager mounted on each side of the trunk of a cop car to scan traffic as the car goes down the road. Each imager has a grayscale camera, good at picking out license plates, and a color camera, to identify car color. The data picked up by the imagers is run through a database of stolen vehicles, stored locally on a hard disk; if there's a match, the officer is notified through a notebook computer. The system is fast enough to keep up with as much traffic as could be imagined. ELSAG says that the system has led to the recovery of 10,000 stolen cars.

* As reported by BBC World Online, Britain's Lord Chief Justice, the somewhat awkwardly named Lord Igor Judge, complained about the abuse of internet social networking by jurors, saying it was undermining the jury system. Lord Judge said some jurors had surfed the internet to research a rape case, and a judge in Manchester had to dismiss a jury and restart a trial after a juror went onto her Facebook page, gave details of a trial and asked friends: "Did he do it?"

Lord Judge also said it was too easy for jurors to bombard Twitter with messages while engaged in a trial, disrupting the proceedings. He commented that "the misuse of the internet represents a threat to the jury system which depends, and rightly depends, on evidence provided in court which the defendant can hear and if necessary challenge." He said judges need to warn jurors in the strongest terms not to use the internet to research cases or to give details of cases they are deliberating on. He wants the notice in jury rooms to be amended to include a warning that such research could amount to contempt of court, and could lead to charges against offending jurors.

* THE ECONOMIST reports that spam, the seemingly unstoppable blight of the internet, appears to be on the fade. Spam filters have been getting tougher and reducing the flow to a percent or two, while other policing methods are having an effect -- in particular, China clamped down on mass looting of ".cn" domain names from Russia by tightening up registration rules. It is a truism that spam can make a profit even with a very low response rate, but as the spammers ramp up the number of spam emails they send out, they draw more attention to their activities and invite countermeasures. In 2008 researchers investigating spammers found that a spam campaign that pushed out 350 million emails only got 28 responses; the response rate has continued to drop since then.

If only in hindsight, classic spam was so crude and clumsy that it seems obvious it didn't have a future over the long run. There's no particular reason to celebrate, however, since cyberscammers have simply moved on to greener pastures, for example "trojans" that hijack a PC to find vital data such as bank logins and credit-card numbers. Social networking sites like Facebook appear to be the new frontier for online ripoffs, with writers of malicious software easily staying one step ahead of efforts by operators of such systems to improve security. The invention of the internet opened up a can of worms; as the saying goes, the only way to get them back in again is to find a bigger can. However, spammers are ingenious at finding more worms.



* ALZHEIMER'S CHALLENGE: As reported by THE ECONOMIST ("No End To Dementia, 17 Jun 2010), ten years ago researchers believed they were on track to providing a cure for Alzheimer's disease. Drugs had become available to help treat symptoms, and there seemed to be progress towards a deeper understanding of affliction, opening the door to a real solution.

It didn't happen. A long list of hoped-for cures have failed in late-stage clinical trials, at enormous cost to the companies working on them. The latest of these, "Dimebon", made by drug giant Pfizer, was abandoned early in 2010, after $725 million USD had been spent on research and development. In June, a group of pharmaceutical firms cooperatively released the results of eleven trials; it is unusual for pharma companies to share data, but they're getting desperate.

Alzheimer's disease is a serious problem. The physical frailty of the elderly can be generally coped with; mental frailty is much more troublesome, wretched for the victims and for those who care for them. In America, Alzheimer's costs an estimated $170 billion USD a year, and as lifespans increase it is getting more common. The number of of people suffering from the disease is expected to triple by 2050. Everyone wants a cure, the money is there, but nobody knows how to do the job.

The physical manifestations of the disease that Alois Alzheimer noticed in 1906 are sticky plaques of one type of protein, now known as "beta-amyloid", and nerve-cell-engulfing tangles of a second type, called "tau protein". Since 1991, the most popular notion has been that the disease is caused by the plaques, and that the tangles are incidental. That led to a focus on drugs that remove amyloid plaques, and now five such drugs are on the market. However, these drugs do no more than delay the onset of dementia; after a time they cease to be effective, and the disease runs its predictable course. That has dampened enthusiasm for the plaque theory. Most researchers continue to believe beta-amyloid is the culprit, but the new vision is that free-floating protein molecules, not the proteins in the plaques, are to blame. A recent study showed that mice without plaques, but with floating beta-amyloid, were just as afflicted by the disease as mice with both.

Another fundamental problem is that, whatever is causing the damage, treatment is starting too late. By the time someone presents symptoms, such as forgetfulness, the brain is already in a significant state of disrepair, and even a "cure" is unlikely to restore lost function. That means that biochemical diagnostics to provide "early warning" would be very helpful. Now the "Alzheimer's Disease Neuroimaging Initiative (ADNI)", set up by the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) in 2004, is measuring the levels of certain proteins in the cerebrospinal fluid of people who may have Alzheimer's, or may go on to develop it. Though the project is still in its early stages, it has already helped develop a test to diagnose the early stages of the disease.

The "Dominantly Inherited Alzheimer Network (DIAN)", based at Washington University in Saint Louis, is taking a different approach to the biomarker question. DIAN is studying families with a genetic predisposition to early onset of Alzheimer's. Members of the families who are very likely to fall prey to the disease prematurely can be identified by genetic markers, allowing their biochemistries to be compared in detail with relatives who lack the markers and aren't so vulnerable. It may seem cold and clinical to use people condemned to early decrepitude as guinea pigs -- but if it's going to happen regardless, we should at least learn from it.

Real progress on Alzheimer's is going to demand a lot of work, and that will cost big money. Given the painful existing cost and even more painful potential future costs of the disease, it would seem that would be money well spent; however, Alzheimer's research, on which the NIH spent $643 million USD in 2006, is to receive only $480 million in 2011. It has not been singled out for these cuts, they're part of a general belt-tightening. However, given the importance of the matter, it might be wise to reconsider priorities.



* COMMODORE 64 REBOOTED: There seems to be a trend for the moment to recycle the 1980s, with 2010 ending with the release of an updated TRON movie in 3D. In another sign of this trend, the tech news blogosphere announced the return of the "Commodore 64 (C64)". The C64 was one of the more popular PCs of the 1980s, a machine that looked like a fat keyboard with an 8-bit CPU -- the 6510, an enhanced derivative of the popular 6502 used on the Apple 2, with the 6510 being generally associated with the C64 -- and a whopping 64 kilobytes of RAM. It used a TV for a display and was mostly focused on games, though there was a substantial applications base for it. Commodore then went on to introduce the Amiga, an early "multimedia" machine, that found a popular niche. The company went bust in 1994.

Since that time, the company's tech has faded in and out, with some gaming units produced that can play C64 games. In 2010, the company was revived as "Commodore USA", the plan being to develop machines to carry on the Commodore tradition with modern tech. The first to go out the door is the "C64X", which looks very much like the old C64 and even has the crisp clicky keyboard ... but has a dual-core Atom processor, 2 gigabytes of memory, a DVD drive, slots for flash memory cards, and a surplus of interfaces -- USB, wired LAN, wi-fi, high-res video output (driven by an Nvidia graphics chip), HDMI, and so on. No mention of hard disk drive, though no doubt USB and flash drives will be supported.

Commodore C64X

As far as software goes, the C64X by default runs the Commodore "Workbench 5" OS, a Linux derivative tailored to give the old Commodore "look and feel", though the C64X can run Windows ("if you must"). Of course, it can be booted in an emulation mode to run classic C64 games. Prices and delivery date haven't been announced. Commodore USA is also working on a series of Amiga machines of several levels of capability, and making noises about notebook and tablet PCs.



* WAR ON THE DEFICIT (3): Streamlining the US tax system would certainly help reduce the nation's budget deficit, but new taxes may have to be introduced to get the debt under control. At present, compared with other countries, America taxes income too heavily and consumption too lightly. A sensible solution would be a value-added tax (VAT); every other rich country has one -- they have a bad reputation in the USA because at one time European VATs could be absurdly high, but thanks to EU rules they've become much less unreasonable. The Domenici-Rivlin report suggests a 6.5% "debt-reduction sales tax"; a carbon tax, or a higher gasoline tax, could play the same role.

The proposals are bold, but none of the people making them currently holds office. Will America's politicians grasp the nettle? A study by Alberto Alesina of Harvard University has found that, contrary to political wisdom, governments that enact austerity measures are often re-elected: Denmark's in the early 1980s. and Sweden's and Canada's in the 1990s, for example. Support for Britain's austerity-preaching Conservatives has remained strong, though the measures won't bite until next year.

However, Britain's lesson is not of much use for America. The UK's parliamentary system gives a government much more freedom to act, provided it has a majority. In America, a president must convince both the Senate and the House to go along; and nowdays even the minority party can block legislation in the Senate. The Obama Administration will have to move towards the center and push very hard to make austerity stick.

Voters are the biggest issue. In Britain, the Tories spent months before they were elected preparing the public for austerity, but voters in America do not seem remotely ready yet. In a recent CBS News poll, 56% of respondents said Congress should focus on the economy and jobs; just 4% thought the deficit should be its priority. It's true that both Reagan and Clinton were re-elected after pursuing austerity in their first terms, but they were buoyed by strong markets; as mentioned, there's a serious worry now that fiscal tightening now will simply delay recovery.

The problem is that every day the solution to the deficit problem is put off makes it just that much tougher to solve. Domenici compares the seriousness of the deficit with the bombing of Pearl Harbor: "America is on the threshold of potential economic devastation. The day of infamy is close." The big difference, however, is that the public doesn't know it yet. "It's not like they bombed Hawaii."

American leadership has been bogged down in posturing and sniping. Much of that is just plain old politics as usual, of course, but both sides of the aisle will need to deliver much the same message to the public to tell the citizens that things aren't working as they are, and that changes are going to be painful. However, ultimately the spotlight remains focused on Barack Obama. His leadership hasn't proven particularly inspiring, and his administration has been the target of endless sniping from the extremes on both the Right and the Left. The sniping from the extremists is going to get even louder if he moves to the center and takes unpopular actions; but those in the center may applaud if Obama starts demonstrating some steel. Those who will call him a villain no matter what he does shouldn't distract him from the rest who honestly want him to be a hero. [END OF SERIES]



* THE KILLING OF JFK -- THE BALANCE OF EVIDENCE (2): Conspiracy theorists of course place emphasis on witnesses whose testimony contradicts the findings of the Warren Report, suggesting more (but never less) than three shots from directions other than the depository. One of the better known of these witnesses was Jean Hill, who was standing on the far side of the street from the depository with her friend Mary Moorman when the shots hit the motorcade right in front of them. Moorman was taking a Polaroid instant camera shot at the moment, and ended up getting a shot of Jackie holding on to the wounded JFK.

The two women were in the Zapruder movie. Hill's proximity to the killing ended up making her a bit of a celebrity, leading to interviews and sessions on talk shows. According to Hill's initial statement on 22 November, she claimed that the president looked at them -- later adding that she'd shouted out to him. Hill claimed that there were two shots, a pause, then "three or four" more shots, with men in plain clothes firing back. She saw a man near the depository running away, and went across the street after him. Hill did not see that the man was armed, and she specifically told the Warren Commission that she did not see the man take any shots at anyone. She also told the Warren Commission the man looked like Jack Ruby -- though Ruby's whereabouts at the time were well known and he was nowhere close to Dealey Plaza.

Hill was mocked for saying that Jackie had a "little white dog" with her, which was not true -- but it seems that somebody had given Jackie a bouquet of white flowers that some misinterpreted as a white stuffed toy, so Hill could be given the benefit of the doubt on that. However, not much else of Hill's testimony checked out. In the Zapruder movie, Hill and Moorman are just standing there on the side of the street like the other spectators, with JFK giving them no particular notice as the limousine drove past. Of course, there was flatly no return fire, none of the crowd of other witnesses saw any such thing, and Hill admitted she wasn't too sure about that. As far as dashing across the street, photos taken after the president's limousine had sped away show Hill and Moorman still standing where they had been. In response to this observation, Hill said she had crossed the street, but decided to come back to Moorman.

A reporter named Jim Featherston of the DALLAS TIMES-HERALD noticed the two women after the shooting and went over to talk to them. Featherston, who was wearing a press card with his name on his lapel, was interested in Moorman's picture and asked the two to come to the pressroom in the nearby courthouse. They agreed. In the pressroom, Hill gave impressions of what had happened -- Moorman said she had been too busy taking the picture to notice what had gone on in detail. Hill told a TV crew that she hadn't seen a gunman or the actual firing of shots; Featherston warned the two women to be careful about what they said to the TV crews lest they find themselves misquoted later. The police later found out about the two women, and asked Featherston to tell them not to leave until they had been questioned.

* The police obtained two of Moorman's photos for evidence. Apparently she got them back later, since she sold the one taken just after the shooting through an eBay auction in 2008, netting a cozy $175,000 USD off of it. Conspiracy theorists have read a good deal into this photo, claiming that a zoom blowup of the image shows various suspicious figures, most prominently the "Badge Man", named for the fact that conspiracy theorists believe the fuzzy pattern of light and dark blobs show a muzzle flash obscuring a man with a badge on his chest, maybe a cop.

The "Badge Man" was "discovered" by conspiracy researcher Gary Mack, who is actually respected by conspiracy debunkers, being seen as fair and level-headed. However, anybody inspecting the blowup would have to think as much could be read into clouds. "Colorized" versions of the "Badge Man" image are in circulation, but it should be realized that the Moorman photo was monochrome and the colorized images are imaginative.

Conspiracy theorists insist they see someone there, but the "Badge Man" was supposed to be standing behind the fence on the grassy knoll, and would have had to shoot over an intervening concrete retaining wall to hit JFK. It would be difficult to understand why the shooter would have picked a location obscured by the wall when the fence was unobstructed only a few paces to the "Badge Man's" right; to have made the shot over the wall would have required that the "shooter" be standing on a ladder or chair -- and one analysis of the size of the "person" in the image suggests he would also have had to be positioned over 10 meters (11 yards) behind the fence on his perch. Either that, or he was a really tiny person.

the Badge Man

More importantly, the "Badge Man" shot would have hit JFK from the side, which isn't borne out by the autopsy data, and might well have hit Jackie, or people standing on the far side of the street. Indeed, a shooter firing from that position might well have expected to have people standing in the line of fire to the presidential limousine. Some think the pattern is just a set of reflections off a coke bottle left on the corner of the concrete wall, evident in a photo taken by another witness named Jim Towner on 22 November 1963. The real fact of the matter is that the blowup is too fuzzy to prove much of anything; we have much better pictures of Bigfoot. The HSCA looked over the Moorman photo very carefully and concluded it provided no substantial evidence of a grassy knoll shooter.

In any case, in her original statement to the police, Hill basically confirmed Featherston's story -- that he had asked them to come to the pressroom and that they had gone there voluntarily. When interviewed by the Warren Commission, Hill changed the story, claiming that "Featherstone" had forced them to go to the courthouse and effectively held them prisoner there, telling them to keep their mouths shut, with Moorman's pictures confiscated. Featherston later objected to the stories Hill told about him, with Moorman backing up Featherston. Although conspiracy theorists make much of Hill's statements and claim that the Warren Commission tried to suppress them, Featherston was not called to testify when he could have done much to discredit Hill.

* Hill did much of the discrediting on her own later. In the 1980s she provided conspiracy theorist Jim Marrs with a much more thrilling story, saying she had seen somebody shooting at the president from behind the wooden fence on the grassy knoll, mentioning a "puff of smoke" and later adding a "flash of light" as well. Instead of the sinister "Featherstone", she and Moorman were strongarmed by two plainclothes types who threatened them.

Hill was aware that this contradicted her early testimony; she claimed that her Warren Commission testimony was a fabrication, that she had been bullied into making false statements by Arlen Specter, one of the special counsels for the Warren Commission and later a prominent US senator. It is true that Specter was known for an abrasive personal style, being nicknamed "Snarlin' Arlen", but the court transcripts don't suggest he was trying to intimidate Hill. The response to that observation was of course that the transcripts were faked -- but if she had been coerced into making statements, it is puzzling as to why the "coerced" statements didn't match the findings of the Warren Report.

In fact, if the Warren Commission had wanted to suppress what she had to say, it is puzzling as to why she was even called as a witness. After all, the commission didn't call Moorman as a witness. Hill claimed that there had been several attempts on her life. Since Hill had little security protection, it is clear that if anybody did try to kill her, they didn't try very hard. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* Space launches for December included:

-- 05 DEC 10 / GLONASS x 3 (FAILURE) -- A Proton Briz M booster was launched from Baikonur in Kazakhstan to put three Russian GLONASS navigation satellites into space. The booster suffered a failure and the payload fell into the Pacific in the region of Hawaii.

-- 08 DEC 10 / DRAGON C1 -- A SpaceX Falcon 9 booster was launched from Cape Canaveral on its second flight. It carried the first "all-up" SpaceX Dragon supply capsule, designated "Dragon C1". The capsule reentered after two orbits, landing in the Pacific off of northern Mexico, and was successfully recovered. The Dragon had a pressurized cargo volume of 10 cubic meters (353 cubic feet) and had an unpressurized "trunk" to accommodate cargo or carry satellites for deployment, with a volume of 14 cubic meters (494 cubic feet).

Dragon capsule recovery

The Falcon 9 also carried eight nanosats, all "3U" (triple-unit) Cubesats, consisting of three baseline 1U Cubesats stacked up. They included:

SpaceX is now working on a crewed version of the Dragon capsule, the main changes being addition of an environmental control system, an escape system, and seats. The escape system will be integrated with the capsule, not implemented as an escape tower that's discarded after ascent. However, SpaceX officials warn that bringing a crewed Dragon capsule into service could cost a billion dollars.

-- 15 DEC 10 / SOYUZ TMA-20 (ISS) -- A Soyuz booster was launched from Baikonur to put the "Soyuz TMA-20" manned space capsule into orbit on an International Space Station (ISS) support mission. It carried ISS Expedition 26 crew Dmitry Kondratyev (first space flight), Catherine Coleman (third space flight), and Paolo Nespoli (second space flight) to the station. The Soyuz capsule docked with the ISS on 17 December, with the new crew joining the existing Expedition 26 crew of Scott Kelly, Alexander Kaleri, and Oleg Skripochka.

-- 17 DEC 10 / BEIDOU IGSO -- A Long March 3A booster was launched from Xichang to put a "Beidou (Big Dipper) IGSO" geostationary navigation satellite into orbit.

-- 25 DEC 10 / GSAT 5 (FAILURE) -- An ISRO Geostationary Satellite Launch Vehicle was launched from Sriharikota to put the "GSAT 5" AKA "INSAT 4D" experimental navigation and communications satellite into orbit. The GSAT 5 spacecraft had a launch mass of 2,220 kilograms (4,894 pounds) and carried a payload of 24 C-band / 12 extended C-band transponders for broadband and multimedia communications trials, as well as a GPS augmentation signal transmitter to support air traffic control. The booster exploded 50 seconds into the flight.

GSLV failure

-- 26 DEC 10 / KA-SAT -- A Proton Breeze M booster was launched from Baikonur to put the Eutelsat "KA-SAT" geostationary comsat into space. The spacecraft was built by EADS Astrium and was based on the company's Eurostar E3000 comsat platform. It had a launch mass 6,150 kilograms (12,560 pounds), a Ka-band communications payload providing 82 spot beams, and a design lifetime of 15 years. It was placed in geostationary slot at 9 degrees East longitude to provide communications services to European customers.

-- 29 DEC 10 / HISPASAT 1E, KOREASAT 6 -- An Ariane 5 booster was launched from Kourou to put the Spanish "Hispasat 1E" and Korean "KoreaSat 6" geostationary comsats into space. Hispasat 1E was operated by the Hispasat firm of Spain. The spacecraft was built by Space Systems / Loral; it had a launch mass of 5,320 kilograms (11,725 pounds), a payload of 53 Ka-band transponders with a Ku-band capability, and a design life of 18 years. It was placed in the geostationary slot at 30 degrees West longitude.

KoreaSat 6 was operated by KT Corporation of Seoul. It was built by Orbital Sciences Corporation, with the payload provided by Thales. The spacecraft had a launch mass of 2,845 kilograms (6,275 pounds) and a design life of 15 years. It was placed in the geostationary slot at 116 degrees East longitude.

* OTHER SPACE NEWS: As discussed here some months back, the Galaxy 15 comsat slipped its ground control leash and spent nine months drifting along the geostationary orbit plane, threatening to disrupt satellite communications as it continued to broadcast TV signals. The comsat finally lost orientation in mid-December, breaking lock on the Sun with its solar panels and triggering a reset on 23 December. Control was regained and it is hoped the satellite can be returned to full operational service. Final analysis showed that a static electricity buildup had originally disrupted the spacecraft's operation.

* As reported by BBC WORLD Online, European scientists are now preparing for a space mission, to be launched in 2012, that will map the flows of the oceans of the world by measuring their magnetism. The three "Swarm" satellites, now being built by the European EADS Astrium company, will be capable of extremely sensitive measurements of the Earth's magnetic field. Dr. Hermann Luehr, of the German Research Center for Geosciences (GFZ) and a leading investigator on Swarm, explained how Swarm is supposed to work: "When salty ocean water flows through the magnetic field of the Earth, an electric field is generated and this electric field again makes a magnetic field. We hope to have the possibility to measure the ocean currents which are so important for climate dynamics, because oceans are transporting a lot of heat. The German Champ mission was the first to see at least the tidal signal, but with Swarm we want to be able to monitor the currents themselves."

Most of the Earth's magnetic field is generated by convection of molten iron within the planet's outer liquid core, but there are other components that contribute to the overall signal, including the magnetism retained in rocks. Swarm's goal is to investigate all the components; pulling out the small part produced by ocean movement is going to be a challenge, since only about one part of the magnetic field in 50,000 is due to ocean currents. That means the Swarm spacecraft have to be built with excruciating care to make sure their own magnetism is minimized and their magnetic interactions thoroughly characterized.

Each satellite looks like a slender wedge covered with solar panels and fitted with a long tailboom. The tailboom carries the sensitive magnetometer instruments, isolating them from the trace magnetic fields produced by the spacecraft's electronics. Assembly is extremely painstaking; for example, glues used for the construction have to be purified of magnetic materials, and any screwdriver or wrench used to put things together has to be degaussed.

The Swarm satellites will launched on a single booster into a polar orbit some 300 to 500 kilometers (185 to 310 miles) above the Earth's surface. Two of the satellites will circle the planet in tandem, while the plane of the third spacecraft will be offset and gradually diverge over the course of the mission. This arrangement of orbits will make it easier to sort out the magnetic field components.

* Although much attention has been focused on SpaceX's Falcon 9 commercial booster, the Falcon 9 is by no means the only contender in the commercial space race. Orbital Sciences Corporation -- well-known for its Pegasus, Taurus, and Minotaur light boosters -- is now moving towards the initial launch of the company's "Taurus II" booster.

Taurus II

The Taurus II is by default a two-stage booster with a height of 40 meters (131 feet). Bucking Orbital tradition, the first stage is liquid-fueled, not solid-fueled, powered by twin Aerojet AJ26-62 engines burning liquid oxygen and RP (refined kerosene). These engines are based on a Russian design developed for the ill-fated Soviet N-1 Moon booster of the 1960s. The second stage uses an ATK CASTOR 30A solid rocket motor; a more powerful, restartable liquid-fuel second stage is in development. An ATK STAR 48 kick stage can be added for deep-space missions. The Taurus II has a 3.9 meter (12 foot 10 inch) diameter fairing, allowing it to accommodate relatively bulky payloads. Payload weight to low Earth orbit is a maximum of 5,100 kilograms (11,245 pounds); payload weight for interplanetary missions is a maximum of 1,500 kilograms (3,310 pounds).

The Taurus II can be launched from any of the four primary American launch facilities: Cape Canaveral, Vandenberg AFB, Kodiak Island, and Wallops Island. One of the important missions intended for the booster is resupply of the International Space Station (ISS). The booster is designed to be relatively economical, easy to handle, and reliable.



* SAVE THE TREES: While reports from the environmental front tend toward the dismal, as discussed in an article from BBC WORLD Online ("Major Decline Seen In Illegal Logging" by Richard Black), some good news still shines through. According to an analysis by the London-based thinktank Chatham House, illegal logging in the world's forests has fallen by 22% since 2002. The report says that consumer pressure, legal restrictions by importing countries, and media attention have all contributed -- but adds that further improvements won't come so easily.

The biggest documented falls in illegal logging have been in Brazil, Cameroon and Indonesia, three of the world's most heavily forested countries. Indonesia has seen a drop of 75% in a decade. Cameroon's figure is 50%, and Brazil is between the two. Sam Lawson, the report's lead author, says that though those figures "sound like a lot ... illegal logging was such a bad problem in those countries that even though it's reduced substantially, it still is a bad problem. So in Indonesia, for example, 40% of the harvesting is still illegal." While illegal logging is often performed by small groups, large and well-funded organizations are also involved.

logging in Indonesia

Several initiatives have been set up over the last decade to clamp down on illegal logging, both in countries that produce wood and those that import it. Countries signing up to the European Union's (EU) "Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade (FLEGT)" agreement were obliged to supply legally cut timber only, and received in return financial and technical help to make their forestry sustainable. The US passed an amendment to the "Lacey Act", which imposes sanctions on anyone importing timber illegally. The European Parliament has more recently voted through a ban on illegal timber. Such measures are forcing timber companies to implement "traceability" schemes, whereby every piece of wood can in principle be traced back to its source.

The Chatham House report encourages Japan, as the country that imports the highest per-capita amount of illegal wood, to pass similar legislation. The report also targets other Asian countries, with Lawson saying that China is not merely a major importer, but that China is "increasingly acting as a processing country, the factory of the world; so a lot of the illegally sourced wood that ends up in Europe and the US passes through Chinese factories." Vietnam also processes large volumes of illegal timber; the report urges the Vietnamese to ban illegal timber imports and establish policies that require all timber used in government projects to be demonstrably legal.

Getting any such government measures to work is of course difficult in politically unstable countries where the rule of law is weak, for example Madagascar and the Democratic Republic Of The Congo. Not only does illegal logging deplete their forests, but forest roads built to support such activities also cause severe environmental damage. Andris Piebalgs, the EU Commissioner for Development, says that the key in such cases is "to demonstrate with positive examples that countries benefit a lot if they move out of illegal timber. Countries with with well-managed resources will have much more money for development."

Unfortunately, Lawson says all the easy steps have been taken. Media attention and activism has also been distracted from the logging issue by other problems, particularly climate change -- though international efforts to deal with climate change do include control of logging as part of the agenda. The prospect for further improvement may seem discouraging; but then, more has been accomplished so far than anyone might have hoped.



* THE GREAT COPPER ROBBERY: Looting of copper wire and pipe from buildings and other structures is a form of thievery typically associated with lawless societies like Iraq, but as reported by an article from BUSINESS WEEK ("The Wire" by Ben Paynter, 29 November 2010), thanks to skyrocketing copper prices, it's become a real problem in the USA as well.

Welcome to Dallas, Texas, and the office of the Dallas Police Metal Theft Unit (MTU), commanded by Lieutenant Richard Dwyer. Thanks to a lively export market, mostly to China, the price of copper has increased by a factor of four since 2001, making it an attractive target for thieves. From 2002 to 2007, reports of metal theft in Dallas jumped by a factor of ten to 3,339 per year; it has declined from that peak, but stealing copper is still a big business.

copper scrap

Dallas isn't alone. Over the last three years, thieves have raided 130 cellphone towers in eastern Virginia and North Carolina. They shut down an aircraft control tower in Ohio; disrupted the irrigation system of Pinal County in Arizona, ruining a harvest; looted the refrigeration systems of Indiana state's biggest food bank in Indianapolis; stole the wiring from five tornado sirens near Jackson, Mississippi; and took down train signals in Nevada. A particularly nervy gang used a backhoe to dig up a large section of backup power lines in Missouri that yielded them an estimated half million USD. Cops in Minneapolis and Cincinnati say that crooks check foreclosure lists, and then descend on vacated homes to rip out copper pipes.

What makes the thefts particularly troublesome is the incidental damage they cause, with estimates of the repair costs running to $10 USD to $25 USD for each dollar's worth of metal stolen. A 2008 FBI report stated that widespread copper theft "presents a risk to both public safety and national security." Some of the thefts do include a bit of black humor, with occasional reports and gruesome images of thieves in competition for the "Darwin Awards" killed while trying to steal high voltage lines -- but cleaning up the mess afterward ends up being a good deal of unwanted trouble and expense as well.

The Dallas Police MTU was formed in the mid-1990s. It's a small unit, with an officer and three or four agents; as troublesome as metal theft is, other crimes are more troublesome and so metal theft ends up being low priority. What made the job more troublesome was the difficulty in identifying stolen metal; the cops learned to identify "casting marks" that identified parts and also acquired a fair knowledge of how to identify different copper parts.

In early 2008, the MTU started to focus on scrapyards, where copper is often "fenced" by thieves. A city ordnance passed in that year gave the police the power to inspect "secondary metals" shops -- in simpler terms, metal recyclers -- requiring Dallas recyclers to tag and hold incoming copper for five days for police scrutiny; the police could seize and investigate any item for up to 60 days. During the summer of 2009, the MTU began to investigate Mid City Recycling, a new operation of obscure origins that ran out of a warehouse in the seedy south side of Dallas. Undercover officers playing shady characters sold off discreetly marked copper items to Mid City; when uniformed officers showed up for an inspection, many of the "suspicious" items seemed to have vanished without a trace.

The MTU began to zero in on Mid City, racking up a list of violations. Since working through the criminal courts would have been troublesome, the cops went to the Dallas Permit & License Appeal Board and got a 15-day business suspension. That might seem a slap on the wrist, but it hurts business badly, and for marginal operations it can help put them under -- Mid City went out of business some months later.

The MTU cops say that most of the scrap dealers are conscientious; they don't generally want any trouble with the law. The Dallas ordnance placing them under increased police scrutiny also requires that they keep imagery of their customers, merchandise, and vehicles, presumably obtained from site security systems. In 2009, enforcement got more teeth when Texas made it a felony to interrupt a public utility or transportation line, or to possess stolen copper tubing or condensers.

Police forces of various municipalities are increasingly consulting with each other on the best ways to deal with metal thieves. Private concerns targeted by the thieves are also taking action. AT&T set up video alarm systems to protect its cellphone towers -- they work very well, with losses due to service cuts dropping from $7.3 million in 2008 to $2.2 million USD in 2009. AT&T and other companies vulnerable to copper theft are also implementing a range of tagging schemes to allow metal to be traced after it's stolen. Progress is being made, but it remains an uphill struggle, it being difficult to protect something as widespread as copper wire and plumbing. As Lieutenant Dwyer commented: "They used to say thieves would steal anything not nailed down. Now even if it's nailed down, they want it."



* WAR ON THE DEFICIT (2): From his first days in office, Barack Obama promised to make "hard choices" on the deficit and not burden America's children with "a debt they cannot pay". Few would notice any hard choices being made. The Obama Administration has been faulted for the $814 billion USD stimulus plan, but government stimulus is a well-established tool and any administration would have given it a shot; the real issue is, while the Bush II Administration played the starring role in the recreation of the deficit, the Obama Administration seems to have adopted a viewpoint of "ignore and it will go away", becoming an accomplice in the crime.

Although Paygo was reinstated in 2010, it exempted choice items that Obama wanted, including keeping Bush's tax cuts for 98% of households. The new health-care law is in principle deficit-neutral, but being neutral it does nothing to fix matters. The CBO estimates that Federal healthcare spending will almost double, from 5.5% of GDP in 2010 to 9.8% in 2035 -- as it would have if reform had never happened.

That failure to act led to considerable skepticism when Obama appointed a bipartisan commission on deficit cutting, which produced its report on 1 December 2010. Its chairmen -- Alan Simpson, a former Republican senator, and Erskine Bowles, a former chief of staff to Bill Clinton -- jumped the gun and put out a draft proposal. Another committee of experts, chaired by retired Republican Senator Pete Domenici and Alice Rivlin, a former budget director for Clinton, came out with a proposal as well. All the plans are focused on getting the deficit down to 60% of GDP. Such displays of solidarity in an era of noisy partisanship seem a little hard to buy, as is the fact that all the proposals, while differing significantly on details, have the same uncomfortable bottom line: America needs austerity, focused more on spending cuts than on tax increases, the exact ratio of the two being a matter of debate.

In the USA, the easiest part of spending to target are discretionary items such as law-enforcement and defense, which are subject to yearly authorizations. Both Obama and Congressional Republicans have pledged to slash discretionary spending -- but with the fine-print qualification that defense spending won't be touched. That places more than half the discretionary spending out of bounds. However, even if defense spending was included, discretionary spending is less than 40% of the total budget; entitlements make up most of the rest, and they're the root of the deficit.

Social Security is easiest to fix, because its annual shortfall will stabilize after 2035. Indexing the retirement age to longevity would both reduce future costs and encourage people to work longer, boosting potential output and tax revenues. The Domenici-Rivlin report proposes a subtler approach, indexing lifetime benefits to longevity. As lifespans lengthen, a person could still retire at, say, 66, but with a smaller annual benefit. Further savings would come from slowing the rate at which benefits to upper-income earners grow and raising the maximum salary subject to the payroll tax.

Rising health-care costs are more troublesome, largely because of swelling demand for services and an ageing population. Under the proposals being offered, richer patients would pay for more of their Medicare coverage. The services available under traditional Medicare and Medicaid -- for the elderly and the poor respectively -- would also have to be rationed. Paul Ryan, the leading Republican on budget matters in the House of Representatives, has proposed replacing traditional Medicare with vouchers to buy private insurance. The Domenici-Rivlin plan recommends that publicly funded private insurance should be offered alongside traditional Medicare. A new independent panel, created under Obama's health reform to monitor payments and services, may slow the rate of benefit growth, at least if Congress lets it work. On Medicaid, the Federal government could switch from matching state spending to block grants, as it did with welfare, shifting the burden of controlling services and caseloads onto the states.

A more efficient way to increase revenue would be to reform the tax system. The system is riddled with credits, exemptions, deductions and other loopholes that cost a trillion dollars a year in lost revenue. Some of the loopholes, like the earned-income tax credit, benefit the poor; but the well-off benefit most, because the value of a tax break -- for example, on mortgage interest -- rises with a taxpayer's tax rate. The lower rate on capital gains and dividends also mostly benefits the comfortable. Eliminating such breaks would broaden the tax base; it would probably also make it possible to lower marginal rates, even below the levels of Bush's tax cuts. It's absurd to maintain high tax margins on the wealthy, only to give them loopholes that make up for them, or better. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* THE KILLING OF JFK -- THE BALANCE OF EVIDENCE (1): Since Lee Harvey Oswald never stood trial, no formal verdict was ever passed on him as to his guilt in the assassination of John F. Kennedy. However, the evidence does lead to conclusions. A good place to start is to ask how many shots were fired on the presidential motorcade. Although there have been different countings, the rough consensus is that:

From the "earwitness" accounts, one would feel reasonably confident that three shots had been fired; anyone who would insist on playing up the testimony of the small number who said more than three shots were fired would have to then dismiss the larger number who claimed less than three shots were fired. The related question is where the shots were perceived as coming from. Of the "earwitnesses" who said they could determine the direction of the shots:

Of course, Dealey Plaza's arrangement almost guaranteed confusion over the direction of the shots, being an open area partly ringed by relatively tall buildings, giving it the acoustic characteristics of a canyon. One early comment by investigators claimed that Abraham Zapruder said the sound of the shots was behind him, meaning the grassy knoll, but in his testimony to the Warren Commission, Zapruder denied it. He was asked: "Did you form any opinion about the direction from which the shots came by the sound, or were you just upset by the thing you had seen?"

Zapruder replied: "No, there was too much reverberation. There was an echo which gave me a sound all over."

Dealey Plaza

This "reverberation" also left open the possibility that multiple shots were fired simultaneously, a notion that conspiracy theorists have played up. However, the fact that a clear majority identified the depository as the source of the shots tends to lend weight to the conclusions of the Warren Report. The simple fact that all except a tiny minority of the "earwitnesses" identified the shots as coming exclusively from one direction tends to undermine conspiracy theories, which generally postulate two or more shooters, one firing from the front, the other from the back. The biggest group of "earwitnesses" said there were three shots, all from the direction of the TSBD; the second biggest said there were three shots, all from the direction of the grassy knoll.

Conspiracy theorists have persistently tried to switch the weight of the earwitness accounts to emphasize the grassy knoll. For example, in his 1967 book SIX SECONDS IN DALLAS, Josiah Thompson tabulated that less than two-fifths of the witnesses heard the shots coming from the TSBD, while over half heard them coming from the grassy knoll. An examination of Thompson's tabulation showed he had used any ambiguity in testimony to claim that a witness was "uncertain", even when a witness identified the general direction of the sound of the shots; and interpreted any witnesses who flatly claimed to be uncertain as saying the shots came from the grassy knoll. Although Amos Euins said he saw someone firing out of an upper floor window of the TSBD, since Euins said he couldn't describe the person, Thompson categorized him as "uncertain"; and claimed that Abraham Zapruder said it came from the grassy knoll, even though Zapruder actually said he had no idea where it was coming from. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* SCIENCE NOTES: Lungfish are relatively obscure compared to the other major groups of fish -- the familiar bony fish, and the cartilaginous sharks and rays -- but lungfish have been around a long time, with some impressive species in their ranks. As reported by DISCOVERY CHANNEL Online, a fist-sized lungfish tooth discovered in Nebraska, clearly identified as a tooth in the upper jaw of a subgroup of lungfish that fed on shellfish, suggests a dinosaur-era monster with a length of about 4 meters (13 feet). That's twice as long as the biggest living lungfish.

Since there's only a tooth, there's been no attempt to declare the finding a new species -- paleontologists have a bad reputation for extrapolating too much from "just a tooth", so nobody's eager to read too much into the discovery. The origins of the find also weren't all that informative: a Nebraska citizen found it in 1940 and turned it over to local scholars, with the tooth stashed away for over half a century in a drawer, to be finally retrieved and recognized as something unusual. To add to the confusion, while the group of lungfish the tooth is associated with only lived during the age of the dinosaurs, there's no dinosaur-age deposits near the locale where it was found. Nobody knows how it got there; it may have been washed downstream, or picked up by a migratory prehistoric American as a "magical object" and carried overland.

* The DISCOVERY CHANNEL Online entry linked to an older article that discussed Sinorthisaurus, a birdlike running predatory dinosaur known from China during the late Cretaceous period, over 65 million years ago. The article reported on a paper from Chinese paleontologists that suggested it was venomous. Why? Because it had large sabrelike teeth on the forward top sides of its jaw, with the fanglike teeth featuring grooves, and linked to cavities in the jaw that could have accommodated venom glands. The arrangement very much resembles that found in some modern venomous animals; the researchers suspect the dinosaur's attack was like that of a modern cobra, with the beast biting into prey and then holding on to work venom into it.

* In other fossil news, a new member has been uncovered of the group of quadruped dinosaurs known as "ceratopsians", rhino-like quadrupeds with the back of the head forming a shield over the back. The most archetypical of the ceratopsians is the classic triceratops, with a horn on the nose and two horns on the shield.


The new species has no horns, but it does have a huge flamboyant shield with a frilled edge. The beast's discoverer, Yale paleontologist Nicholas Longrich, was so impressed with it that, while discussing what to name the thing over beers with some of his colleagues, he came up with the most fitting name: "mojoceratops". Longrich didn't actually dig the dinosaur out of the ground, instead uncovering it as a unappreciated element across several museum collections. The frill's ornamental nature suggests it was a sexual advertisement, along the lines of a peacock's tail.

* As discussed by BBC WORLD Online, the Oriental hornet -- a large brown insect with a wide yellow stripe around its abdomen, found from the Near East to India -- has a unusual distinction for an animal: it's partly solar-powered.

oriental hornet

Wasps are typically most active in the morning, but the Oriental hornet is most active at mid-day, indicating something different about its metabolic processes. Detailed examination of the surface of its exoskeleton shows it is arranged to trap light; a yellow pigment named "xanthopterin" in the band around its abdomen actually converts the light into electrical energy. The exact biochemical pathways by which the hornet obtains metabolic energy from the Sun hasn't been unraveled yet, but there's no real doubt that the hornet gets a boost from sunlight.



* DUNG BEETLES UP CLOSE: One of the fundamental notions of evolutionary theory is "sexual selection", the tendency of some animals to develop exaggerated features to attract a mate or otherwise assist in procreation. The best-known example is, of course, the tail of the peacock, but the exaggerated horns of some species of beetles is also well known.

As discussed by Carl Zimmer's blog THE LOOM at DISCOVER magazine online, a team of researchers at the University of Montana (UM) has done some interesting research into the evolution of the horns of Onthophagus dung beetles. These beetles have worldwide distribution; they find piles of dung, dig a tunnel underneath it, with the female beetle rolling up a ball of dung at the end of the tunnel and then lay eggs on it. The male beetle maintains guard over the tunnel, blocking the entry of threats, including other male beetles who want to mate with the female. This leads to an "arms race" of sorts, with male beetles obtaining longer horns to either overcome the defense or block the offense.

dung beetle statuary

The UM researchers extracted DNA from 48 different species of Onthophagus and used the sequence to figure out their evolutionary relationships. They then reconstructed the changes in the horns as new species arose, and finally inspected the natural history of individual species -- where they lived, how they lived, and so on. The study concluded that the common ancestor of these 48 beetle species had a single horn growing from the base of the head. As new species arose, they tended to grow bigger horns, and they also tended to grow horns from new parts of their bodies. On the other hand, sometimes a lineage with elaborate horns gave rise to species with much smaller ones; sometimes one horn became two which became one. The diversity was startling, all the more so because 48 species is only a small fraction of the total for Onthophagus, which has over 2,000 species.

One of the puzzling things in the elaborate patterns of evolution of the horns of these dung beetles is why they got smaller in some species. If there was indeed an "arms race" going on, that would be entirely unexpected. Obviously, there are other "selection pressures" at work. One clearly is the expense of growing horns -- since they can get as long as the male's body in some species, that's a big penalty. Acquiring larger horns can be at the expense of other organs -- for example, the growth of horns can result in smaller eyes.

Considerations of the lifestyles of the different species suggested exactly how such tradeoffs occurred. For example, dung beetles use their horns to smell out dung; this is easier in a forest than in a pasture, since the dung dries out faster in the open. As it turns out, four out of five species that acquired longer horns lived in forests. For another example, beetles that operate at night need bigger eyes; in seven out of nine cases where horns were lost, the beetles were nocturnal. Dung beetles may not have the most inspiring lifestyle, but they still have their fascinations.

* BITER BIT: DISCOVERY CHANNEL Online had an interesting note on "assassin bugs" -- predatory insects, members of the order Hemiptera, the often nondescript "true bugs". A recent study by researchers from MacQuarie University in Australia showed how some assassin bugs have turned to preying on spiders, by tricking the spiders into deciding they've found prey. The bugs find a spider web and, being careful not to become snared in it, vibrate the silk strands to simulate an insect struggling in the web. When the spider dashes out to bundle up its prey, the assassin bug spears it with its proboscis and drains it dry.

Spiders do not necessarily respond to any disturbances of a web; the assassin bug's manipulation of the web models that of an insect actually caught in the web -- it's not a perfect simulation of a fly struggling in the web, but it's good enough to fool the spider. It seems like a deliberately devious ploy, but the assassin bug isn't taught the trick, instead being born programmed with it. It's an interesting puzzle to figure out how such a behavior might have evolved; one might speculate it originally began simply as a trick for escaping spider webs that sometimes ended up producing a meal, and over generations, it ended up being an optimized method of producing a meal. Incidentally, the article noted that sometimes the spiders win, and have an assassin bug for lunch.

* ED: Mosquitoes often rest on the screen window of my bedroom / office, and sometimes I find little hunting / jumping spiders with a mosquito in their jaws on the screen. This last summer, I finally had the strange luck to spot a spider hunting a mosquito. The spider moved across the screen so slowly and stealthily that I had to look very closely to see it move a leg ever so slightly as it closed in on the mosquito. The spider got to within about six to eight body lengths of the mosquito, and then leaped so fast I didn't see it move -- it was just suddenly there, with the mosquito in its jaws.

About a week later, I saw the same scene reenacted, but this time I knew the spider's chances weren't as good -- the mosquito was facing the spider, reducing the chance of surprise. The spider did get within attack range and pounced, but the mosquito simply disappeared before the spider landed.



* SOUTH AFRICA CONFRONTS AIDS: As discussed by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("South Africa & AIDS", 2 December 2010), South Africa has one of the most horrendous HIV-AIDS problem in the world: with only 0.7% of the world's population, the country has 17% of all the people infected with AIDS, a staggering 6 million out of a population of 50 million. Already 3 million South Africans have died of AIDS, with a thousand more dying every day. Since many of the victims die in their prime, they leave behind armies of orphans and deprive South Africa of much-needed labor and skills. In the past two decades, the life expectancy for black South Africans, where the pandemic is focused, has dropped from 60 years to an appalling 47 years.

The problem grew monstrous under a decade of denialism by former president Thabo Mbeki, who rejected the idea that AIDS was actually caused by HIV, and refused to take effective action. Under current President Jacob Zuma, that attitude has turned around; now South Africa has the world's biggest antiretroviral (ARV) drug treatment program, with ARVs provided to a million patients, double the number of three years ago. South Africa has also launched the world's biggest HIV testing campaign, with a target of checking 15 million people in as many months. In 2009, the government spent 17.6 billion rand ($2.1 billion USD) to confront the pandemic, with a third of the cash provided by international donors.

It hasn't been enough. Although new HIV infections fell by a third between 2002 and 2008, they're still running at around 1,350 a day. Surveys show that only four out of ten sexually active men under 35 routinely use condoms, and just one in four has ever had an AIDS test. The epidemic is aggravated by South Africa's exceptionally high rate of rapes.

Jacob Zuma is not seen as the best role model in this regard, since he is noted for his large number of wives and mistresses, as well as a fair herd of children born in and out of wedlock. However, Zuma has stepped up to the challenge by publicly undergoing two HIV tests, both proving negative. Of course, Thabo Mbeki has always refused to be tested for HIV. Under Zuma's government, two-thirds of those in need of ARVs are now getting them, though the government admits it is unlikely to reach its target of 80% coverage by 2011. Most of the problem is a lack of medical staff, but one turns out that one of the ARVs, Stocrin, is a target for South Africa's gangsters, who steal it from patients or clinics to cook up a recreational drug known as "wunga" -- a brew of Stocrin, cannabis, rat poison, and other ingredients -- as nasty it sounds, cheap and extremely addictive.

Progress is still being made. Thanks to the government's AIDS-testing campaign, launched in April, many more people are being tested, though at barely half the ambitious planned rate of a million people a month. Many more men are also getting circumcised following research showing that this substantially reduces their chances of being infected with HIV.

As noted, South Africa's black population has been worst hit, with 14% infected with AIDS. That contrasts with 1.7% of "coloreds" (mixed race) and a mere 0.3% of Indians and whites. It appears that this huge disparity is that black South Africa males are unusually promiscuous and also hate to wear condoms. Clearly, solving South Africa's AIDS problem also means working on public attitudes.



* WAR ON THE DEFICIT (1): America is now confronting a monster budget deficit that can't be ignored and isn't going away any time soon. As discussed by THE ECONOMIST ("Confronting The Monster", 18 November 2010), there are signs that American leadership is finally waking up to the need to deal with the problem if it's ever going to go away at all. Although US President Barack Obama and senior Republican leadership rarely see eye to eye, on 15 November 2010 Mitch McConnell, leader of the Senate Republicans, called for a ban on "earmarks" -- pet projects politicians like to tag onto spending bills. Obama publicly endorsed McConnell's proposal.

Earmarks aren't really any big deal; they're certainly obnoxious, but they only account for about a half percent of US Federal spending. As far as more substantial efforts to cut the deficit go, Democrats and Republicans are not in agreement. What is likely to happen is a reborn era of austerity like that of the USA from 1982 to 1997, marked by tax increases and entitlement cuts.

America's budget deficit for the fiscal year that ended on 30 September stood at $1.3 trillion USD. At 9% of gross domestic product (GDP), it is the second-largest deficit since the Second World War -- Fiscal 2009 was the biggest. The staggering deficit does reflect the effects of the recession and the temporary stimulus; but even without those factors, the financial future looks grim. Given current policies, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates that the total Federal debt, now 62% of GDP, will hit 87% by 2020, and adding in state and local government borrowing brings the total up toward 110%.

According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the USA has one of the worst debt problems in the developed world and, more significantly, is unusual in that the government has no plan to deal with the problem. Germany has passed a balanced-budget constitutional amendment; Britain's coalition government has launched a determined four-year program to slash the UK's deficit; French President Nicolas Sarkozy has finally prevailed in a bitter struggle to raise the pension age.

The USA has a good reason and a bad reason for inaction. The good reason is that the economy isn't ready for shock treatment. Economic growth in the second half of this year has been a painful 2% at an annual rate, while unemployment, at 9.6%, remains near its peak. The effects of the stimulus are wearing off, so fiscal policy now leans towards contraction. If taxes rise or spending falls too fast, the economy could drop back into recession, as happened in Japan in 1997.

The bad reason is a lack of discipline, reflected in a culture of entitlements. From 1946 to 1981 entitlements expanded, most significantly with Medicare and Medicaid in 1965, while taxes were cut, most famously in Ronald Reagan's first year in office, in 1981. Reagan soon changed his course, however; Reagan's critics had sniped at his campaign promises to cut taxes while conducting a defense buildup, suggesting his arithmetic was faulty -- and in fact, it was. Coupled to the 1981:1982 recession and high interest rates, Reagan ended up staring in the face of an enormous deficit. He didn't flinch, however, and accepted the need for more taxes. Taxes were raised in 1982, 1983, 1984, 1987, 1990 and 1993; in 1986 a sweeping tax reform eliminated many exemptions. Entitlements were trimmed: in 1983, a bipartisan deal led to cuts in future Social Security pensions payouts, a gradual increase in the retirement age, and a higher payroll tax.

In 1996 Bill Clinton and Republicans in Congress joined hands to remake welfare, limiting how long recipients -- mostly single mothers -- could receive benefits, and shifting most responsibility to the states. Austerity was aided by new budget rules. The most significant was the Budget Enforcement Act of 1990, which imposed caps on discretionary spending and also introduced the "Paygo" rule: any tax cut had to be offset by a spending cut, and any increase in entitlements had to be matched with a tax increase. By 1997, the deficit had fallen sharply.

Fiscal policy then flipped back to giveaway. Ironically, the change in the winds was due to the Balanced Budget Act of 1997, which was actually intended to balance the budget by 2002 through measures such as limits on Medicare payments to doctors. However, the act also provided a generous new child tax credit and cut capital-gains tax, the first major tax cut since 1981.

With stocks booming, tax revenues rose as well, pushing the budget into surplus in 1998 -- four years ahead of schedule. The deficit was dead, or so it seemed. Congress repeatedly overrode the 1997 cuts on Medicare payments. George W. Bush cut taxes on income in 2001, and on capital gains and dividends in 2003; in 2003 he signed into law the first big entitlement in years, the prescription-drug benefit. In 2002 Paygo lapsed. With the budget in surplus, some tax cuts were inevitable, but the Bush II Administration cut back on taxes with a vengeance. When the economic bubble burst, the deficit came roaring back, an even more frightening monster than it had been twenty years earlier. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* THE KILLING OF JFK -- THE ASSASSINATION (23): Marguerite Oswald never stopped claiming up to her death in 1981 that her son Lee was innocent, saying that he was a secret agent for somebody or other, though she was never able to provide evidence for who it was. Marina Oswald believed early on that he was guilty, but in the late 1970s decided that there must have been some truth to the conspiracy theories and felt he was working for someone. Marina was of little help to the conspiracy theorists, however, since she didn't change her tune on any testimony of substance -- she admitted her husband had the Carcano rifle, admitted she took the "Fascist Hunter" photos, and admitted Lee had told her about taking a shot at General Walker. She flatly stated that if Lee had been involved with a conspiracy, she had no details on with who, despite the fact that she was closer to him than anyone on the planet. Conspiracy theorists have generally labeled her an unreliable witness.

Robert Oswald ultimately had no doubt that Lee had killed JFK. The US Public Broadcasting Service interviewed him for a 2003 program on Lee, with Robert explaining:


There is no question in my mind that Lee was responsible for the three shots fired, two of the shots hitting the president and killing him. There is no question in my mind that he also shot Officer Tippit. How can you explain one without the other? I think they're inseparable. I'm talking about the police officer being shot and the president. You look at the factual data, you look at the rifle, you look at the pistol ownership, you look at his note about the Walker shooting. You look at the general opportunity -- he was present. He wasn't present when they took a head count [at the TSBD]. You look at all the data there, and it comes up to one conclusion as far as I'm concerned -- the Warren Commission was correct.

... I would love to be able to say that Lee was not involved in any way whatsoever, or much less to the extent that I believe that he was. This is a struggle that has gone on with me for almost 30 years now. This is mind over heart. The mind tells me one thing, and the heart tells me something else.

But the facts are there ... What do you do with his rifle? What do you do with his pistol? What do you do with his general opportunity? What do you do with his actions? To me, you can't reach but one conclusion. There's hard physical evidence there. True, no one saw him actually pull the trigger on the president [except Howard Brennan] but ... his presence in the building was there. What he did after he left the building is known: bus ride, taxi ride, boardinghouse, pick up the pistol, leave, shoot the police officer. Five or six eyewitnesses there. You can't set that aside just because he is saying: "I'm a patsy." I'd love to do that, but you cannot ...

He did not and would not talk to any of the interrogators about anything of substance. Anytime they brought anything up that pertained to the assassination of the president and the shooting of the police officer, he knew nothing about it. He would talk about anything else ...

We know he owned a rifle. You've got all kinds of documented evidence. They've gone to the extreme measures to prove that he owned that rifle. You've got the backyard picture. They've got the original negative. They've got the camera. You've got all the physical evidence that ties together. If it was any other murder case other than the President of the United States, it would have been resolved right then. Consequently, people left it wide open. It's good that people raise questions and say: "Wait a minute, let's take a second look at this." But when you take the second look and the third and the 40th and the 50th, hey, enough's enough. It's there; put it to rest.


Conspiracy theorists say that Robert Oswald has no credibility. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* GIMMICKS & GADGETS: A purely electric vehicle (EV) is nice for running around a city, but it's no good for trips of much longer than about 160 kilometers (100 miles). A hybrid car can handle the job, but it's overkill for normal driving about town. As reported around the tech blogosphere, a company named "Electric Motors And Vehicles (EMAV)" our of Wakarusa, Indiana, has come up with a clever compromise solution, the "Power Regeneration Unit (PRU)".

The PRU looks like a fairly ordinary small-car trailer with a lid, but the bed of the trailer features a set of lithium-ion batteries, with a four-cylinder 750 cc diesel engine driving a generator -- as well as an electric motor driving the trailer's own wheels. The PRU is hooked up to the EV through a "smart hitch" that allows the trailer to know what the car is doing while supplying it with electricity in return. The PRU even has a GPS location unit to allow the trailer's smarts to know where the terrain is likely to be challenging.


EMAV claims that the PRU can give an EV a range of 1,130 kilometers (700 miles) on 22.75 liters (6 gallons) of diesel -- implying a fuel economy of about 50 kilometers per liter (116 miles per gallon). Only a quarter of the internal volume of the trailer is taken up by the power system, leaving plenty of room for hauling gear. The PRU can also be run as a stand-alone power generator if needed. EMAV actually hasn't built a PRU yet, but none of the technology required is a show-stopper. It's an extremely elegant idea, the significant problem being one of price: EMAV suggests it will run about $15,000 USD.

Dang! However, since most drivers would only need the EMAV occasionally, it might make sense to set up a fleet of them and rent them out, with utilization rate of even 50% paying off the stiff pricetag in a fair hurry. Rent it for a hundred dollars a day, it would easily pay itself off in a year, with enough margin to support maintenance; after the year is up, it would be mostly gravy. A driver could take the EMAV cross-country, drop it off after arriving at the destination, and then rent another for the trip back; if it was a question of relocating across the country, it would be cheaper and more convenient to rent an EMAV than have the car transported on a train or truck. The business model isn't that different from U-Haul trailers, and in fact it would seem like a straightforward extension of U-Haul's business. Of course to catch on, the interface scheme between car and EMAV would have to be standardized.

* The concept of a "road train" -- a scheme being investigated by the European Union (EU) in which cars automatically tailgate a bus or other heavy vehicle rolling down a freeway -- was described here last year. WIRED Online had an update on the exercise, discussing the current status of research being conducted by the EU's "Safe Road Trains for the Environment (SARTRE)" program. SARTRE has spent the last year conducting studies and performing simulations, as is now moving on to a single-car test to validate sensors, actuators, and the control system. It will be followed by a two-car test, with the ultimate goal being a five-car system, to be tested in 2012.

A video produced by Volvo that accompanied the article showed how the simulations were used to determine how comfortable test subjects were with letting a car drive itself. It would seem particularly nerve-wracking to watch the steering wheel turn on its own and not touch the thing. Another aspect of the effort was the tech being developed to support the driver in the lead vehicle, for example with a truck fitted with an alcohol breathanalyzer -- plus a video system to keep an eye on the driver's face to see if he or she is nodding off. Maybe someday we'll have cars that drive themselves; I suspect that we will get there using cars that partly drive themselves part of the time.

* An article from IEEE SPECTRUM described how researchers at Loughborough University, in Leicestershire in the UK, have developed an electronic system that can warn of an impending landslide by picking up the telltale sounds of shifting earth.

Engineering geologists have known for decades that in the buildup to a landslide, there's a barely perceptible ground movement -- on the order of about a millimeter a day -- along an underground plane known as the "shear surface". The configuration of the shear surface reflects the volume of the ultimate landslide and the speed at which a chunk of earth can move down a slope. Scientists also know that it's possible to predict a landslide by listening for sounds made by particles rubbing against one another at the shear surface. The problem is that, to no surprise, such sounds are extremely faint and attenuate rapidly. A waveguide, made of a hollow pipe inserted in a hole dug deep enough to reach the shear plane, helps in detecting faint sounds, but soft materials such as clay produce sounds so faint that they strain the sensing ability of even the most discriminating acoustic sensors.

Some earlier research focused on low-frequency sounds, which don't attenuate so rapidly -- but that audio band is prone to noise, producing false positives. The Loughborough researchers decided to focus on high audio frequencies, taking readings at a rate of 20 to 30 kilohertz. They dealt with the attenuation by the simple procedure of filling the space around a waveguide with gravel, which makes a grinding noise as the earth shifts. Movement in itself, while a clear indication of a threat, is less useful an indication of an imminent landslide than acceleration. The system simply counts the rate at which movement exceeds a threshold, with the count rate giving an index of the acceleration of the soil. The system is so sensitive that it can pick up movements of a thousandth of a millimeter per minute.

Besides acting as an early warning system, the device can be used to measure the effectiveness of efforts to stabilize soil, such as draining or regrading. Right now the research group is trying to cut the cost of the system, since the primary users will be poor countries where landslides are common. The current plan is to have a system ready for introduction in 2012.



* PROBIOTICS AGAINST PNEUMONIA: The idea that we humans coexist with a "microecology" of symbiotic microorganisms and, if we play our cards right, can exploit our relationship with them has been discussed here in the past, notably in 2007. A study published by researchers at the Creighton University School of Medicine in Omaha, Nebraska, added weight to the idea by showing that regular doses of "probiotic" bacteria given to hospital patients on mechanical ventilators resulted in fewer cases of pneumonia.

Probiotics are dosings of hopefully beneficial live microorganisms administered to deal with a range of medical conditions, such as antibiotic-associated diarrhea, lactose intolerance and irritable bowel syndrome. Solid evidence for the effectiveness of probiotics has been hard to come by, but the paper -- written by Lee Morrow, an associated professor of medicine at Creighton, and his colleagues -- does demonstrate clear effectiveness of probiotics in dealing with pneumonia.

The researchers administered a solution containing the human intestinal probiotic bacteria Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG or a placebo to 138 critically ill patients on ventilators. The study was "double blind", in that neither the researchers nor the patients knew if they were administering the bacteria or the placebo. The patients were given treatment twice a day; the result was that those on probiotic treatment had half the number of cases of pneumonia compared to the control group taking the placebo.

The researchers chose to target "ventilator-associated pneumonia (VAP)" for the study because VAP is increasingly dominated by antibiotic-resistant pathogens, and there's no prospect of other new treatments for it in the foreseeable future. VAP afflicts almost 30% of patients on ventilators; it can be acquired when microorganisms in the mouth or the ventilator gear are inhaled. It causes health complications in patients who are already very ill, translating to higher health costs at least and deaths at worst. According to one observer not associated with the research effort, the results "hold promise for trying to prevent an infection that has serious morbidity, mortality and is a major factor for hospital costs that we're trying to contain."

Patients receiving the probiotic treatment were also less likely to suffer from diarrhea caused by Clostridium difficile, a bacterium commonly found in health care facilities, and required less antibiotic treatment when C. difficile infections occurred. No side effects were associated with either the placebo or probiotic treatment. Previous studies have also demonstrated the effectiveness of probiotic treatment against VAP, but nobody's sure just how the bacteria do the job. Further studies are needed to establish probiotics as an acceptable treatment.

* PROBING THE VIROME: In related news, a note from WIRED Online discussed a paper written by microbiologist Jeffrey Gordon of Washington University in Saint Louis and colleagues that investigated the viral complement of the "microbiome" that lives inside of us. Researchers have been so focused on intestinal bacteria that the "virome", as it has been named, has been neglected.

Says Andrew Gewirtz of Emory University in Atlanta, one of the co-authors of the study: "The idea was that having a virus, under any circumstance, is basically bad. Sometimes it causes disease, sometimes not, but having viruses present is abnormal. As the complexity of the microbiota became appreciated, people have wondered whether that is really true, or if there's a normal population of viruses. This is the first paper to look in a systematic way."

Because intestinal tracts are difficult to study directly, Gordon's team sampled DNA from the stool samples of four identical-twin pairs and their mothers. They identified which sequences came from bacteria and which from viruses. Unlike intestinal bacteria, which are relatively consistent between siblings, viral profiles varied significantly. Given the lack of knowledge of the virome, nobody knows exactly why it should vary between individuals, but testing over time showed that the individual viral communities were stable. The microbiome and the virome seem to coexist and it is possible they may even cooperate. Gerwitz suspects that "viral genes are just providing that little something that bacteria don't have."

More than 4,000 different viral strains were ultimately identified in the study, 80% of which hadn't been seen before. Gordon's team next intends to see what happens when human virome samples are added to mice engineered to contain human microbiomes. Microbiome studies are in progress all over the world, and Gordon's team hopes their work will remind other researchers not to forget about the virome.



* YOU CAN SEE A LOT JUST BY LOOKING: As reported by an article from AAAS SCIENCE ("Panning For Science" by Karen A. Frenkel, 5 November 2010), following the landing of the US National Aeronautics & Space Administration's (NASA) Mars Exploration Rovers on the Red Planet in 2004, mission scientists became particularly intrigued by the output of the "Pancam" imager carried by each rover. Pancam provided a wide-angle image of the Martian terrain, with operators able to zoom in on fine details at will.

Illah Nourbakhsh, robotics team leader for the mission at NASA Ames Center in the San Francisco area -- then on sabbatical from Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania -- was particularly taken with the imagery: "The pan had so much resolution, it felt like peering through a little hole in the wall into another world. What stunned us was this feeling of presence, which a simple picture that is not interactive doesn't give you." Nourbakhsh chatted with his team to see what potential the technology had; one of the team members, a computer scientist named Randy Sargent suggested they develop an "explorable imaging" system for applications closer to home.

Nourbakhsh liked the idea, and Sargent developed a prototype for what would become the "GigaPan" system. The GigaPan involves a digital camera on a robotic mount under control of a processor system. A user keys in the specifications for the pan, with the processor calculating the size and number of exposures required to build it; the processor then steps the camera through the pan, using a mechanical actuator to push the shutter button, and stitches the images together with software. The resulting pan image has orders of magnitude more resolution than an HDTV image; the biggest GigaPan can produce pans of a staggering 100 gigapixels -- 10,000 times more resolution than an ordinary digital camera.

GigaPan camera system

A typical PC will choke on handling images of such size, so Nourbakhsh and his team set up an online server system at "www.gigapan.org" for storing and inspecting GigaPans. Users compare hunting through a GigaPan to inspecting nature through a huge magnifying glass, an immersive experience where viewing a backyard scene might reveal with a zoom a visiting hummingbird, even an ant on a leaf.

Sargent -- who now wears two hats, one with NASA Ames and the other with CMU -- and Nourbakhsh -- back at CMU and in charge of the university's CREATE Lab -- founded GigaPan Systems LLC in 2008 to produce GigaPans, selling them at close to cost, prices running to less than a thousand USD for a top-end system, a third that for the bottom end. The two are continuing development of the technology as part of the "Global Connection Project", a joint effort of NASA Ames, the CREATE Lab, Google INC, and the National Geographic Society. As of late 2010, over 5,000 GigaPan systems have been bought and the website hosts 40,000 panoramas, with tens of millions of visitors a year. Nourbakhsh began training scientist to use GigaPans in 2008, with over 120 researchers using the system in their work.

A US-based paleoanthropological team used a GigaPan to scan a cliff in Saudi Arabia inscribed with petroglyphs from the New Stone Age, when the environment was wetter and more like the African savannah. Says one of team, archaeologist Sandra Olsen of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh: "You can see grains of sand, details of grooves and peckings, and the relationships between the images, which is important for dating." Olsen adds that GigaPan reduces the amount of time spent in expensive and occasionally troublesome on-site research: "We can be there briefly producing GigaPans, take that data home, and study images at our leisure on a wide-screen computer." It also makes sharing data with colleagues easier: "This is the closest to being there."

M. Alex Smith, an ecologist at the University of Guelph in Canada, uses a GigaPan to monitor a campus forest named the Dairy Bush as it endures encroachments from urbanization of surrounding areas and invasive species. The amount of detail in the imagery is astounding, with Smith reporting: "There's a chokecherry [on this pan] full of insects from spring to fall that I wasn't seeing, and assassin bugs and parasitic wasps I wasn't aware of." Smith even put together a time-lapse video of his pans and put it on YouTube. Sargent and Nourbakhsh have recently developed a viewer to permit viewing of time-lapse GigaPan videos, with the user able to time-travel forward or backward through a pan sequence, then halt and zoom in as desired.

John Rawlins, a curator at the Carnegie Museum, is using the GigaPan to archive and share a bug collection with 17 million items. The pans provide exquisite detail of the bugs, delivering a better inspection than could be obtained through a microscope. Rawlins foresees that pan archives will soon be smart enough to permit searches using automated image analysis and pattern recognition. For now, he's collaborating with other researchers to develop a microscope-based GigaPan system; NASA researchers have even been working on a GigaPan system based on an electron microscope.

Of course, GigaPan has its limitations -- for example, it can take hours to assemble a complete pan, and sometimes the stitching software ends up producing a patchy image, due to variations in lighting over the duration of the pan. Nourbakhsh also raises concerns that GigaPans are another step into turning people into digital couch potatoes, glued to a computer screen. For all that, however, few working with the technology fail to be astounded at the visions of the world now available to them.



* ANOTHER MONTH: I live under the flight path of Denver International Airport (DIA) along the approach from the northwest. I'm actually about an hour's drive from DIA, but I can still see my neighborhood flying in from that approach.

I was a bit startled to find out that DIA is on the conspiracy theorist hotlist. I was aware that the airport is known for its "swastika" layout. It has four sets of runways, two sets going east-west and the others going north-south. The central terminal plot is of course rectangular, and so the four sets of runways are staggered on each side of the plot -- voila, a swastika. I don't think anybody's made too much of this as anything more than a "gee whiz" observation. I vaguely recall some conspiracy theorist wondering why they chose such an "inconvenient" layout, though I would be hard-pressed myself to figure out any more space-efficient way of handing the four sets of runways.

Conspiracy theorists have seized upon other aspects of DIA as the basis for their conspiracy theories -- in particular, the murals painted by artist Leon Tanguma in the baggage claim area. I don't recall seeing them them myself; apparently they're just artwork on environmental and peace themes. However, the tinfoil hat brigade claims the murals are Illuminati propaganda promoting a dictatorial one-world government. Worse, the local Freemasons had some minor involvement with the public works part of DIA and there's a dedication marker there with the square and compass of the Masons -- well, we all know the Masons are an Illuminati front, aren't they?

Denver International Airport

Somehow I find this unpersuasive, wondering why a secret conspiracy would leave clues around in public places about its existence. I mean, who's running this outfit, the Riddler? Certainly it sounds like a ploy that should make the Evil Overlord list. Going beyond the supposed clues, there are conspiracy theorists who claim that there's an enormous underground complex underneath DIA, complete with prison areas where the Illuminati plan to lock up the Resistance, and outfitted with ultrasonic generators that make people sick.

Trying to backtrack where all this came from leads, big surprise, to nowhere in particular. Some of the conspiracy theorists claim the amount of material used to construct the airport was far greater than the visible facilities could account for, but factoids quoted by conspiracy theorists seem to originate in an alternate dimension and have to be regarded accordingly. I did find a bunch of photos supposedly of the "secret places" at DIA, and as far as I could see they were of the parking garage, various back-area facilities like heating and ventilation, and the tunnels for the electric trains that shuttle between the remote and main terminals. They could have been pictures of a secret facility for all they revealed, but without signs like, say: SECRET MIND CONTROL MACHINERY DANGER KEEP OUT! -- it was hard to think much of them one way or another.

I haven't been to DIA in years -- I hate to fly. I don't mind the aircraft, I just hate to pay for the privilege of being pushed around by the security, however justified the necessity. I did like riding the DIA riding the trains. They mounted little shiny plastic props on the walls of the tunnels and it's fun to watch them spin as the train whooshes past. The trains also make a pleasant chiming noise when they open the doors.

* The Sanyo TV I bought last year died disappointingly quickly, but I still wanted to get a new TV. I didn't want to buy a Sanyo again; there were Vizio TVs on the stands, but I assumed they were made-in-China junk. I finally found out that Vizio is a US-Taiwanese outfit and has a good reputation, so I bought a Vizio LED TV. It's only a 22 inch (56 centimeter) set; the Sanyo was 26 inches (66 centimeters) and I hadn't found that size all that big a deal, any bigger TV would have crowded out my living room, so I settled for the smallest and cheapest I could buy.

I was a bit surprised at the Vizio being a LED TV -- had they finally developed low-cost high-resolution LED matrix displays? Nah, duh, it was LCD, it just had LED backlighting; apparently the industry decided to call such "LED TVs" because it sounds sexier. Anyway, I got the thing home and set it up, to find that it had a wi-fi interface and allowed me to surf the web or download movies. It was a pain configuring it with the remote; there's a USB port on the back of the TV, but it wouldn't recognize a USB keyboard, which I found annoying: "Come on, people, you can find a keyboard driver anywhere."

On going through the web capabilities of the TV, I came to the conclusion that they were worthless. Basically, I could run news or weather or other headlines and watch YouTube videos, but I could do the same more conveniently on my PC instead of trying to surf using the remote. In any case, the bandwidth on my wi-fi interface wasn't adequate to even run YouTube videos -- not really the fault of the TV of course, but that still rendered the TV useless for web video downloads. Besides, although I could in principle get movie downloads off of Amazon.com straight to the TV, the download selection was poor, I don't watch many Hollywood movies to begin with, and it cost $2.99 USD per download, as compared to $1 USD from the RedBox vending machine.

I suppose I might have poked further and discovered a few useful tricks, but it didn't seem promising to do so. After finding out that the TV was web-enabled I thought I had a nasty learning curve to deal with, but in the end it's just a TV; it does all I bought it to do and does it well. The audio was tinny, but I bought some cheap Logitech speakers and they provide much better sound. The TV also has a VGA-style video input plug, and I'm thinking of hooking up my netbook to it to run screen-savers and the like just for fun. One of these days I'll have more bandwidth and video downloads will be practical, but for the time being, "the future isn't now".

Incidentally, I still don't have access to broadcast TV. I bought a desktop digital TV antenna but all I can pick up are some UHF channels, so I just get by on DVDs. I don't really miss broadcast or satellite TV. The city has just completed renovation of the gym here, and they added large overhead TVs for the exercise gear; they run ESPN, CNN, and FOX, and I have to say I find it annoying, mostly because of the continuous flickering in and out of TV commercials. Some of the new exercise machines actually have built-in flat panel TVs, and I think that might actually be a benefit, eventually: it would be nice to work out on a stepper or a treadmill with a "road racer" game of some kind, or at least have a hypnotic screen saver to pass the time while working up a sweat.