feb 2011 / last mod mar 2016 / greg goebel

* Entries include: JFK assassination, influenza, bearded goby thrives in a dead sea, UK trims back on packaging, healthy vending, artificial pancreas, smart systems for battlefield surveillance, USAF airship, rising ocean acidity, city of Kristianstad goes green, and wireless medicine.

banner of the month



* NEWS COMMENTARY FOR FEBRUARY 2011: The chain reaction of populist agitation that swept the nations of Islam from North Africa to Iran and felled leaders in Tunisia and Egypt was of course the big news of the last month, presenting both hopes and fears for those involved and for outsiders. As reported by an editorial in TIME magazine, although Libya was a latecomer to the game, events there are turning out to be the most explosive of all.

All of the regimes in the nations affected by the unrest are or were authoritarian, but the Libyan People's Republic under Muammar Qaddafi is a special case. Qaddafi has been in power for 41 years and he's well-exercised in maintaining his control over the country. Scores, maybe hundreds of people have been killed in demonstrations over the past weeks, with reports of fighter aircraft strafing clouds -- but a total news blackout has kept a lid on stories getting out of the country. However, thanks to the internet, which has been a big factor in the uprisings across the Islamic world, cellphone videos of violent events in Libya have been uploaded to blogs, and Twitter messages have been leaking out news as well.

Several Libyan diplomats have broken with their government, siding with the protesters and denouncing government violence. Some pilots of fighter aircraft took their jets over the desert and ejected, letting the machines crash into the sands rather than use them against the people. Troops have gone over to the rebels and a pitched battle appears to be in progress for Tripoli. Elsewhere, the United States froze assets of the Libyan regime and the United Nations imposed sanctions.

Muammar Qaddafi

The grievances of Libyan protesters are not so different from those of Tunisia and Egypt: no jobs for youth and authoritarian rule. There is a big difference in Libya, however; in Tunisia and Egypt the military refused to crack down on the protests, but Qaddafi has plenty of loyal troops who won't hesitate to fire on crowds. Libyans are absolutely aware of the risk, remembering in particular a 1996 prison uprising in which security forces killed at least 1,200 people. The fact that the people are willing to take such risks gauges the depths of their outrage against the Qaddafi regime. Says one observer in London who has been in touch with Libyan dissidents: "Egypt is also seen as a big, heavily military-controlled dictatorship. The Libyans I've spoken to say: If Egypt can do it, we should be able to do it, too."

* In US news, as discussed by an editorial in TIME by Michael Grunwald, the Obama Administration has taken a great deal of flak over its economic stimulus program, with critics denouncing it as classic wasteful government -- but on a closer look, it doesn't seem quite like business as usual.

Traditionally, broad Federal programs have spread cash around the country like peanut butter, providing funds for pork-barrel projects down to the local level. The Obama Administration rejected this model, preferring instead to distribute funds via competition-based, peer-reviewed, results-oriented grant programs that reward only the best applications. One of the most prominent of these efforts is the "Race to the Top" education program, but the stimulus generated similar competitions in energy, transportation, housing, health care and broadband. And Obama's 2012 budget proposes new "races to the top" in everything from juvenile justice to workforce development to agricultural research.

The $4.35 billion USD Race to the Top program demonstrates the underlying thinking. By setting clear goals and guidelines -- the cash was reserved for states that carefully measured student and teacher performance, promoted charter schools and adopted other accountability-based reforms -- the program encouraged 41 states to change laws or policies before the Feds even spent a penny. The application process also encouraged cooperation among school leaders, teachers' unions, parent groups and elected officials. The program has received bipartisan support, with boosters including Jeb Bush, George Will, and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Now Obama wants to pour another $1.4 billion USD into education competitions, including an "Early Learning Challenge Fund" to encourage reforms in early-childhood education, a "First in the World" program to improve in higher education, and an additional "Race to the Top" targeting school districts instead of states.

The stimulus featured other grant programs, which as a rule received far more applications than could be funded. A $2 billion USD program seeking new approaches to stabilizing foreclosure-ravaged neighborhoods received $15 billion USD worth of applications, while Obama's $8 billion USD high-speed rail initiative received $55 billion USD worth of applications. The Department of Energy (DOE) received a blizzard of 3,700 responses to its solicitation for blue-sky ideas that could transform the clean-energy landscape; 37 received first-round funding, with the DOE's seal of approval helping generate private venture capital as well.

Actually, with $35 billion USD in stimulus cash to distribute through competitive programs -- for everything from energy-efficiency programs to battery factories to advanced biorefineries -- the DOE itself is now a powerhouse venture fund. To help evaluate the applications, Energy Secretary Steven Chu recruited more than 3,000 independent experts, who devoted about 50 person-years to the task. The Department of Transportation (DOT) was flooded with nearly 1,400 applications for its first 51 grants, and DOT officials say the program energized their bureaucracy; it turns out that civil servants work a lot harder when they're assigned to help evaluate whether projects would be good for America instead of whether projects have submitted all their paperwork.

Obama's budget includes $100 million USD for a "Race to Green" competition for innovative state and local building codes, and $200 million USD for a similar race for communities that invest in electric vehicles and charging stations. There's $380 million for a "Workforce Innovation Fund" to reward successful approaches to job training, and $120 million for new performance-based juvenile justice system schemes. Add to that $32 billion USD for competitive transportation grants designed to promote safety, livability and innovative approaches to reducing congestion, along with a $30 billion USD national infrastructure bank that would provide merit-based loans and grants.

The stimulus package remains controversial, with Republicans denouncing it as a failure, the administration declaring it a success, and both rolling out statistics to support their point of view. Still, the Obama Administration deserves credit for taking a close look at the massive bureaucracy under its control and asking if business as usual is really the best way to get things done.



* THE KILLING OF JFK -- THE BALANCE OF EVIDENCE (7): Having discussed the number and possible origins of the shots fired at Dealey Plaza, the next item to consider is one of the most prominent and heavily argued pieces of evidence in the assassination case, the Zapruder video. The video rate of the 8 millimeter camera was 18 frames per second, with the total movie running 486 frames, or 27 seconds, with 343 of the frames, or 19 seconds, showing the presidential limousine.

Zapruder movie

The video has been endlessly analyzed frame by frame, and there's no getting around listing what the frames show:

* The consensus from the evidence is that only three shots were fired. The consensus is also that the first shot took place around frame 160 in the Zapruder movie and it was a miss. The basis for this is the fact that many witnesses timed the first shot as being just after the presidential limousine turned onto Elm street. Governor Connally told the Warren Commission: "We had just made the turn ... when I heard this noise which I immediately took to be a rifle shot." Johnson's wife Lady Bird also indicated hearing the shot after their car turned the corner. Less prominent witnesses gave similar timing as well. The Zapruder movie also shows people reacting to some incident after frame 160 -- Connally begins to turn around, a girl who was running in pace with the motorcade on the far side of Elm stops and looks up towards the TSBD.

No bullet associated with the first shot was ever recovered. A witness named James Tague who was standing well downrange, near the triple underpass, was hit in the cheek by a chip of concrete, arguably at this time, with a chipped curb later identified as the possible impact point of the bullet or more likely a fragment of the bullet. The curb was later removed by the FBI and the chipped-out section analyzed, showing it to have surface traces of lead and antimony consistent with a bullet. However, the Western Cartridge Company 6.5 millimeter bullets were copper jacketed, and no trace of copper was found.

Incidentally, conspiracy theorists claim that the chip of concrete that hit Tague in the face proves there was a sniper in the Dal-Tex building, because a straight line could be drawn from Tague to the chipped-out curb to the building. However, even if true, that proved nothing, since there was no particular reason for the chip to fly in exactly the same direction as the bullet -- the impact obviously created a "spray" of particles over a range of directions.

At that point in the sequence, the line of sight between the "sniper's nest" on the sixth floor of the TSBD was partly obscured by an oak tree, which would have obstructed a shot from there. It is suspected that the bullet hit a tree branch and was knocked off course, with the subsequent impact breaking it up. One of the fragments hit the curb, sending a fragment of concrete into Tague's face. All this is somewhat informed speculation: what is known about the first shot is consistent with a miss fired from the "sniper's nest", but in the absence of hard information it's not possible to absolutely prove that it was, or whether it was fired from someplace else. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* SCIENCE NOTES: As reported by WIRED Online, the Crab Nebula, the tangled remains of a supernova explosion 6,500 light-years away from Earth and observed in 1054 CE, has long fascinated astronomers. It has been known to have a pulsar in its core -- a pulsar being a neutron star, the collapsed cinder of the star that produced the supernova, emitting regular pulses of radio waves. Now it turns out that violent activity persists in the Crab Nebula, in the form of occasional energetic outbursts.

The explosions were observed by two high-energy observatory spacecraft, the Italian Space Agency's (ASI) AGILE satellite, and the US National Aeronautics & Space Administration's (NASA) Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope. On 19 September 2010, AGILE determined that the Crab Nebula's gamma-ray brightness had more than doubled, to stay that way for three days; Fermi confirmed the observation. Sorting back through older observations showed that previous flares had occurred, but had been dismissed as observational anomalies -- the AGILE telescope recorded an outburst in the fall of 2007, while the Fermi team spotted one in February 2009.

The suspected source of the energetic flares is the flood of electrons poured out by the pulsar at the nebula's core. However, astrophysicists are still puzzled about the electrons get amped up to the staggering energies, 10^15 electron volts or more, needed to generate the gamma ray emission. In one preferred model, the stage is set for any kind of gamma-ray emissions -- steady or short-lived -- when electrons generated by the nebula's central pulsar encounter strong magnetic fields in the surrounding debris. The electrons gyrate around the magnetic fields, being pumped up to energies high enough to emit gamma rays.

Crab Nebula

The problem is the relative brevity of the flares, which wouldn't seem to give the electrons enough time to build up adequate energy. The rapid loss of electron energy should also produce strong magnetic fields, but the observations suggest the actual magnetic field isn't a tenth as strong as would be expected on that basis. The short duration hints that the gamma rays are produced in a relatively small section of the inner nebula. One suggestion is that the pulsar's own electric field helps accelerate the electrons rapidly, causing them to emit gamma rays; another suggestion is that that the pulsar's wind of charged particles rams into and compresses the magnetic field in the nebula -- with the field then finally giving way in a short, violent burst of energy.

While the theoreticians puzzle out the possibilities, observational astronomers are trying to nail down the "active region" where the September outburst occurred. That isn't a simple task, since visible light and X-ray images show that the nebula is made up of a chaotic tangle of wisps and jets. A series of portraits taken by the NASA Chandra X-Ray Observatory beginning a few weeks after the September flare shows that the base of one of the jets has brightened, possibly pointing to the origin of the flare.

* On 14 February, Valentine's Day, the NASA Stardust probe performed a flyby of the comet Tempel 1, returning spectacular images. Tempel 1 had previously observed by the NASA Deep Impact probe in 2005, with Deep Impact firing a hefty slug into the cometary nucleus to probe its interior and composition. Stardust, launched in 1999, had previously performed a flyby of the comet Wild 2 in 2004, returning a capsule loaded with samples of the cometary coma to Earth in 2006. Stardust was then repurposed for a follow-up flyby of Tempel 1, with the mission formally renamed "Stardust New Exploration of Tempel" or "Stardust-NExT". It seems unlikely that much more use can be made of the elderly Stardust probe, but that remains to be seen.

Tempel 1 from Stardust-NExT

* As reported by BBC WORLD Online, the peat moss Sphagnum subnitens is commonly found across northwest North America, from Oregon to the Aleutians, growing in bogs and fens, forming carpets that vary from green to red to brown in color. It's not native to the continent, instead being an arrival from Europe that landed here 200 to 300 years ago. Surprisingly, genetic analysis of S. subnitens samples show that all the North American plants were derived from a single ancestor; its European siblings show no such genetic uniformity. It is also found in a restricted range in New Zealand, but analysis of the New Zealand population suggests there were two different ancestors there. S. subnitens is hermaphroditic, as is not unusual in plants; it can "self-fertilize" itself, essentially reproducing asexually, resulting in genetically uniform offspring. The plant is robust, able to thrive in a range of environments despite its lack of genetic diversity.

* New fossils seem to be turning up at an accelerating rate. Now the science press reports that a spectacular cache of 20,000 fossils has been found in a hillside at Luoping in southwestern China. The beautifully preserved remains include molluscs, sea urchins and arthropods, alongside larger animals such as carnivorous fish and the first ichthyosaurs, predatory marine reptiles that resembled modern dolphins.

About 250 million years ago, at the end of the Permian period, the Earth underwent its most disastrous mass extinction, with only about 10% of species surviving. The Chinese fossil bed dates from the middle of the Triassic era, a few tens of millions of years after the "Great Dying", and provide an unusually comprehensive snapshot of the marine ecology of the time. The Luoping fossils suggest that small organisms at the bottom of the food chain recovered quickly from the catastrophe, recovering numbers and diversity within two or three million years. With their populations stable, animals higher on the food chain then recovered, with species such as spiraled ammonites -- squidlike creatures with spiral shells -- becoming widespread. Then larger animals such as fish and ichthyosaurs began to recover. The mass extinction at the end of the Permian led to the dominance of the reptiles, whose members had been bit players before the catastrophe.



* LIVING IN THE DEAD ZONE: As reported by an article from AAAS SCIENCE ("How A Little Fish Keeps Overfished Ecosystem Productive" by Elizabeth Pennisi, 16 July 2010), the conventional wisdom among oceanic ecologists is that when jellyfish come to dominate a marine ecosystem, it's effectively the end of the road: few creatures eat jellyfish, and the jellyfish tend to crowd other animals out. However, a group of South African and Norwegian researchers have found that a seemingly dead-end oceanic region off the coast of Namibia in southwest Africa is more lively than it seemed at first, thanks to a fish about as long as one's hand, named the bearded goby AKA Sufflogobius bibarbatus.

Up to the 1970s, that oceanic region was a rich fishery, particularly for sardines. It's a site where deep Indian Ocean currents rise towards the surface, promoting the growth of plankton. Filter-feeding sardines kept the plankton numbers down, with the sardines supporting larger marine predators -- but as the sardines were overfished, the plankton population exploded. Dead plankton sank to the bottom and rotted, eliminating oxygen in the bottom layer and creating what's called a "dead zone". Jellyfish devoured the overabundant plankton, with jellyfish numbers exploding in turn. However, to everyone's surprise, the bearded goby turns out to do well in this seemingly malign environment, providing food for mackerel, penguins, seabirds, and seals.

Samplings, soundings, trawlings, and lab tests by the research team showed what was going on. Most of the region's sea bottom is covered with thick mud rich in hydrogen sulfide (H2S), supporting a micro-ecosystem of bacteria that use H2S to live. Since most other organisms find H2S toxic, the bottom tens of meters of water there are mostly lifeless. These bottom waters have only 10% of the oxygen they would have if the ecosystem was healthy.

However, it turns out the gobies actually live there during the day. Lab studies show that in low oxygen water, the fish just stop pumping water through their gills, in effect holding their breath. Their predators can't deal with the dead waters, so as long as they're in the dead zone they stay alive, in the meantime snacking on seafloor debris and worms known as "polychaetes" not normally favored by fish. Since the gobies aren't in full operating condition for the time being, they don't digest the food they scavenge from the ocean floor while they're in the deeps.

Come nightfall, the gobies go upward, recover their oxygen levels, start to digest what they ate at the bottom, and otherwise go about their business -- but they're not undefended there, either, because they like to hang around jellyfish, which drive off most other fish off with their stinging cells. The gobies don't mind because have a thick, slimy skin that seems to protect them from the stingers. In addition, while few other fish will eat jellyfish, examinations of the gobies show about 60% of their diet is jellyfish tissue.

The researchers don't believe the ecosystem is on its way towards recovery to its original condition, but they find it intriguing as to how the goby has exploited conditions unfavorable to other fish. It's an ill wind that blows nobody good.

* In related news, from the 1940s to the mid-1970s two General Electric plants dumped polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), plus dioxins inadvertently produced along with them, into the Hudson River in New York state, resulting in bottom sludge that's about as toxic as it gets. Researchers at New York University have, however, found that a local fish, the Atlantic tomcod, seems to be perfectly happy in that toxic environment.

The tomcods, it turns out, manage to sequester the toxins in fats, with this adaptation produced by a change in a single gene. Cells contain receptors named "aryl hydrocarbon receptors (AHR)" or "dioxin receptors" that can be bound by dioxins and related compounds, leading to cell malfunction. Tomcods have two AHRs, logically designated "AHR-1" and "AHR-2", with AHR-2 much more vulnerable to dioxins than AHR-1. There are variants in the receptors, with one AHR-2 variant much less vulnerable to dioxins than others -- and that receptor variant is vastly more common among Hudson River tomcod than in other tomcod populations.

The tomcod have adapted to the toxins, and that gives them another advantage in that the fish that prey on them generally haven't, meaning the tomcod are to a degree poisonous to their predators. The predators may well adapt in time; the bottom line of the tales of the bearded goby and the Atlantic tomcod is that nature adapts -- but it's not necessarily a pretty sight to watch it happen.



* WRETCHED EXCESS: THE NEW YORK TIMES reports that Britain actually has regulations banning "excessive packaging", enforced by the Trade Standards Agency, an organization better known for tracking product counterfeiting. While that may seem overbearing to Americans, the regulations were driven by high costs of trash disposal. British regulations on excess packaging first took effect in 2003, in an effort to reduce the waste stream, focusing on items that cannot be recycled and so go into a landfill. Those rules, strengthened two years ago in response to environmental concerns and an awareness that the nation's landfills were reaching their limits, now require that producers keep packaging to the minimum required for product safety, hygiene and consumer acceptance.

The regulations have set off a nationwide experiment in rethinking how familiar products are sold. To be sure, people generally understand the pressures that drive packaging. DVDs and flash memory sticks, for example, are sold in outsize packages to prevent theft, and of course attractive packaging helps push products -- but consumers still gripe about products such as chocolates, cosmetic creams, and online purchases sent in huge boxes in which a tiny item is "nearly lost" in a array of paper, plastic and cardboard.

The authorities report some successes. The government-financed "Waste Resources Action Program (WRAP)", for example, which has been collaborating with companies such as Mars, Cadbury and Nestle to streamline the packaging of boxes of candy, says that the use of boxes, foils and bows for chocolate Easter eggs was down anywhere from 25 to 55 percent last year in the UK. And a growing number of companies have signed on to a voluntary program established in 2005, named the "Courtauld Commitment", under which they pledge to reduce packaging.

To solicit customer opinion, the supermarket chain ASDA -- owned by US retail giant Wal-Mart -- last year asked shoppers to toss items that they felt were overpackaged into a box by the market's entrance so that the company could consider how best to repackage them. ASDA also recently completed a trial program for laundry products, in which customers were given a reusable pouch that they could fill with fabric softener from pumps at the market. Tubes of tomato paste and toothpaste have traditionally been boxed because they're prone to dents, and boxes are easier to stack for display -- but today, the tomato tubes at many stores are arrayed like soldiers, cap down, in a perforated cardboard display that protects them. Some changes adopted by manufacturers and retailers are less visible, like the use of thinner glass for beer bottles and thinner plastic bags for salad greens.

The laws that enforce the reduction in packaging may be an annoyance to producers at times, but even they can obtain a benefit. Less packaging generally means lower material costs, as well as less energy required to transport product to market. Packaging is something we tend to take for granted, but because it is so universal it has a big impact, and there's plenty of opportunities for benefits in rethinking it.

* HEALTHY VENDING: As reported by an article from BUSINESS WEEK, the push for a healthier diet for American kids has led to a minor business boom, with about a dozen small companies now operating vending machines that sell healthy foods in schools. This business owes its origins to a 2004 Federal law that requires school districts to come up with policies to give their students healthier diets. The resulting hodgepodge of rules quickly drove companies selling candy and fizzy drinks through vending machines in schools to seek their fortunes elsewhere.

healthy snacks

One of the firms that moved into the vacuum, Fresh Healthy Vending (FHV), a franchise operation out of San Diego, provides vending machines selling granola bars, fruit smoothies and juices, and packages of baby carrots. One of the most popular items is Pirate's Booty Cheese Puffs. FHV has vending machines in about 2,000 locations, three-quarters of them schools; franchisees buy a machine for about $11,000 USD, then obtain restock via the internet from the parent company. Schools and other facilities that permit the machines on their grounds get a 15% cut on profits. Big operators like Canteen are also testing the waters on healthier vending machine fare, but the little guys aren't that worried: as specialists, they can carve out a niche, and new laws coming down the pipeline to rationalize healthy food for kids are likely to create a surge in business that will boost all those involved.



* THE INFLUENZA MENACE (3): In the late 1920s, Richard Shope finally isolated the influenza virus, from pigs. The influenza viruses are "orthomyxoviruses", which have a helical protein coat that is folded inside a fatty lipid envelope, and diameters from 90 to 120 nanometers. There are three main groups of flu viruses, unsurprisingly named "A", "B", and "C". The B and C families only infect humans and are not particularly dangerous. The A family, however, infects a wide range of animals -- swine, horses, poultry, aquatic birds like ducks -- as well as humans. Influenza A also has unique properties that allow it to cause epidemics and infect the same host multiple times, defying the host immune response. One is that it uses an RNA genome, instead of the DNA genome universally found in nonviral organisms; RNA is less stable than DNA, making it more prone to mutations. Furthermore, DNA polymerases -- enzymes used in genetic replication -- have some ability to correct coding errors, while RNA polymerases do not.

In addition, each influenza A virus contains eight RNA molecules, or eight "chromosomes", termed segments 1 through 8, which vary in length from 890 to 2,341 nucleotide bases. Segments 1 through 6 are each one gene long and encode the information for a single protein, while segments 7 and 8 each comprise two genes, encoding separate proteins. In total, 8 RNA molecules encode 10 proteins -- 8 of which are found in the virus particle, and 2 of which are synthesized in an infected cell but are intermediates that never enter the fully assembled virion.

There are a wide range of strains of influenza A viruses, distinguished by two structural "surface proteins": "hemagglutinin (HA)", with at least 15 variants; and "neuramidase (NA)", with 9 known variants. Strains are identified by the combination of these two proteins: the 1918 flu was an "H1N1" strain, prevalent up to 1957, when a pandemic introduced the "H2N2" strain -- which was replaced in turn by the "H3N2" strain in 1968.

H1N1 viral particles

The threat posed by any flu strain is a function of how unfamiliar it is to a host immune system. The flu virus provides five molecular targets or "epitopes" to the immune system; if only one epitope in a new strain differs from the epitopes of a known strain, the immune system doesn't have a big problem with the new strain. Of course, it gets worse as more epitopes become unfamiliar.

* Epidemics of viral disease most often occur from some ecological disturbance, for example when people are displaced in war to locations where they may be attacked by the virus. Alternatively, the virus may be introduced to a population that had no previous exposure, as when smallpox devastated the Amerindians and the Inuit. A third pattern can be seen with poliovirus, which was endemic to many regions, but only became troublesome when public health measures increased the numbers of susceptible hosts.

Influenza A conforms to none of these patterns. It has two epidemic patterns, both occurring in the fall and winter. The first pattern periodically sweeps through a location yearly or every few years, appearing suddenly, persisting a few weeks, and then disappearing as fast as it came. The second type of epidemic pattern is pandemic, appearing as a rapid worldwide spread of the disease, on occasions such as 1918 with enhanced lethality.

Our body responds to viral infections by mobilizing the immune system, inactivating the virus particles with antibodies, and using killer T cells to destroy host cells infected with the virus. That leads to a recovery from the disease and, for many diseases, lifelong immunity, which prevents reinfection and severely limits the number of hosts available to a virus, restricting its spread. Influenza A's inclination to mutate rapidly makes it a shifting target, with gradual changes in its genome being responsible for the local epidemics.

A very different mechanism comes into play when a pandemic influenza A sweeps around the world. In this case, the virus replaces one of its genes with a new one, producing a protein the immune system has never seen before. This radical change, termed "antigenic shift", produces a virus that is still influenza A, but with one or more gene replacements, and which can reinfect populations that were previously infected by its ancestors.

Over the past hundred years, there have been five great global influenza A pandemics, in 1890, 1900, the great pandemic of 1918, 1957, and 1968. Because the virus was not isolated until 1933, it was only possible to sample viruses beginning with the 1957 pandemic. It is now apparent that every new pandemic is accompanied by a radical change in epitopes of the influenza virus; antibodies no longer recognize any of them. On the face of it, the odds of this happening are very small. The probability of two independent mutations occurring is the product of the individual probability of each event. If a mutation occurs in one in a million viruses to change one epitope, then two mutations in that same virus will only occur once in 10^12 viruses. Five independent mutations in the same virus would only occur once in 10^30 viruses, and there aren't that many viruses in the world.

One possibility is that an influenza strain that infects another animal performs a "jump" to humans. While such a strain might not be particularly dangerous to pigs, it would be unfamiliar to the human immune system and so would be very dangerous. In practice, influenza strains that infect one species usually do poorly in other species, not being "tuned" by selection to propagate in an unfamiliar host. However, there is always the ugly chance that a virus might find a new host even more susceptible than the old.

Another possibility is that two different strains of influenza virus could infect the same host cell, with their chromosomes shuffled together in the product virus as a new "hybrid" strain. Such "genetic re-assortment" has actually been observed in various studies, though again as a rule they're not particularly effective -- but again, there's still the chance that they could get lucky. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* THE KILLING OF JFK -- THE BALANCE OF EVIDENCE (6): Another popular tale from Dealey Plaza is about how people ran up to the grassy knoll after the shooting as if in pursuit of an assassin, suggesting there was actually one there. Actually, the "rush up the grassy knoll" tale is true as far as it goes -- as mentioned earlier in this series Jarman, Williams, and Norman were baffled to see all the people running to the open area to the west of the TSBD. The problem is that it's hard to understand out why it is supposed to be significant.

As noted with the "earwitness" accounts, the majority of witnesses thought the shots had come from the direction of the TSBD while the bulk of the rest thought they had come from the grassy knoll. Obviously, after the shots were fired, there were a lot of agitated people running around, trying to figure out what was going on; since a gunman was unlikely to try to escape east across Elm into the open area in the middle of the plaza, that meant the running around was going to be concentrated on the TSBD and the grassy knoll. The stockyard behind the grassy knoll was an obvious route of escape for a shooter and so an obvious place to check.

Dallas deputy sheriff Luke Mooney, who was part of the rush, later said: "At that time, it seemed to have been the most logical place to begin looking unless you had actually known from where the shots originated, which I didn't." Other Dallas lawmen said pretty much the same thing. Apparently there were plenty of bystanders thinking along the same lines or were just tagging along, with one witness, Charles Brehm, describing the movement up the grassy knoll as follows: "They were running up to the top of that hill, it seemed to me, in almost in a sheep-like fashion following somebody running up those steps. There was a policeman running up those steps also. Apparently people thought he was chasing someone, which he certainly wasn't."

Some conspiracy theorists claim that the authorities tried to discourage people from running in that direction; if they did, the reports of people swarming over the area suggests nobody paid them any mind. If any of the people in the swarm had seen a gunman there, they weren't in any hurry to tell the authorities about it -- none of those mentioned above who claimed they saw a shooter there said anything specific about the matter for years.

The grassy knoll was actually a poor position for an assassin, since it was exposed and the only routes of escape were even more exposed. Since it was at ground level, it was almost certain to be photographed by shutterbugs in the crowd observing the presidential motorcade; a shooter would also be confronted with the possibility of bystanders creating obstacles in the line of fire. The railyard area included a parking area for the police, which means the assassin would have run the chance of encountering police coming or going. No witnesses who ran up the grassy knoll reported seeing anyone with a rifle. No physical evidence of a shooter was found in the area -- the two cartridges were a dead lead -- though evidence was found in the TSBD. Were there reasons to be suspicious of the grassy knoll? Yes. Has any investigation turned up consistent witnesses or physical evidence demonstrating a shooter there? No.

* Jimmy Files' story about the assassin in the Dal-Tex building suggests it as another possible location for a shooter, with conspiracy theorists playing up an open window seen in photos on 22 November as suspicious. The window was from a walk-in closet, which was supposedly used by a sniper. However, neither the Warren Commission nor the HSCA paid much attention to the idea of a shooter in the Dal-Tex building -- for the simple reason that there were plenty of people in the building and on the sidewalks in front of the building at the time, watching the motorcade, and none of them saw any evidence of a shooter in or heard any shots from the building.

Yet another location conspiracy theorists have played up as a location for a shooter was a storm drain on the north side of Elm below the grassy knoll. That seemed a bit implausible on the face of it, since the storm drain mouth was at the level of the pavement, providing a very poor field of fire, and in fact the idea collapsed when a little investigation showed that there was no way the limousine could have even been visible from the storm drain mouth when the shots hit JFK. However, conspiracy theorists continue to say there was an assassin hiding in the storm drain. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* Space launches for January included:

-- 20 JAN 11 / ELEKTRO-L1 -- A Russian Zenit 3F booster was launched from Baikonur in Kazakhstan to put the first "Elektro-L1" geostationary weather satellite into orbit. The spacecraft had design lifetime of 10 years, a launch mass of 1,700 kilograms (3,750 pounds), with a primary payload of visible and infrared imagers, plus a rescue system receiver as a secondary payload. It was placed in the geostationary slot at 76 degrees East longitude, over the Indian Ocean.

Delta 4 Heavy launches NROL 49

-- 20 JAN 11 / NROL-49 (USA 224) -- A Delta 4 Heavy booster was launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California to put a secret military payload into space for the US National Reconnaissance Office (NRO). The spacecraft was designated "NROL-49" AKA "USA 224". It was thought to be an electro-optic imaging surveillance satellite.

-- 22 JAN 11 / HTV 2 -- A Japanese H-2B booster was launched from Tanegashima Island to put the second "H-2 Transfer Vehicle (HTV 2)", an unmanned freighter, into orbit on an International Space Station (ISS) resupply mission. HTV 2 was built by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and had a launch mass of 15,875 kilograms (35,000 pounds), including 3,855 kilograms (8,500 pounds) of payload. It was formally named "Kounotori (White Stork)"; the spacecraft docked with the station's Harmony module on 27 January.

H-2 Transfer Vehicle

-- 27 JAN 11 / PROGRESS 41P (ISS) -- A Russian Soyuz booster was launched from Baikonur to put a Progress tanker-freighter spacecraft into orbit on an ISS supply mission. The payload included the "ARISSat-1", a 30 kilogram (66 pound) amateur radio satellite.

* OTHER SPACE NEWS: The firm known as Microsat Systems Canada INC (MSCI) has only flown one spacecraft -- a small astronomy platform named "Microvariability & Oscillations Of STars (MOST)", launched in 2003 -- but MSCI is planning a much more ambitious scheme, the "CommStellation", a network of 78 small satellites that will provide a global wireless internet backbone.

Each satellite would have a launch mass of about 150 kilograms (330 pounds) and support a bandwidth of 12 gigabits per second. The satellites would be launched 14 at a time, using six launches, with the final constellation featuring 12 satellites and a spare in each of six polar orbiting planes at an altitude of about 1,000 kilometers (620 miles). The CommStellation network will not link directly to end users, instead linking local telecoms and internet service providers into the global network via 20 ground stations. David Cooper, president and CEO of MSCI, commented: "Industry estimates to extend [the global] fiber network are on the order of seven billion dollars and will take 10 years to implement. CommStellation will be about one-tenth of that cost and be twice as fast to implement." The company is in the process of hunting up financial backing.

* The Bush II Administration's Constellation space program envisioned a set of technologies for a post-shuttle future that included, among other things, a new booster, the "Ares 1", which was to have a 5-segment solid rocket first stage, derived from the 4-segment shuttle solid rocket booster, and a liquid-fuel upper stage. The solid-rocket first stage was to be built by ATK, while the upper stage was to be built by Rocketdyne. A "boilerplate" "Ares 1-X", with a dummy upper stage, was launched from Kennedy Space Center on 28 October 2009, but that was as far as it got: faced with major budget shortfalls, the Obama Administration canceled the Constellation program last year.

Liberty booster

However, the Obama Administration pushed "commercial space" more or less in its place, and so ATK officials saw an opportunity, talking to space manufacturer EADS Astrium of Europe to effectively continue the Ares 1. The result, the "Liberty" booster, looks much like the Ares 1 and still uses an ATK solid-rocket first stage, but now the second stage is a derivative of the first stage of the Astrium Ariane 5 booster, powered by a Vulcain 2 liquid oxygen / hydrogen engine. The Liberty could put over 20 tonnes (22 tons) of payload into low Earth orbit. It could be flying by 2013 and delivering crews to the ISS by 2015, if the will is there. The booster is being proposed for seed funding under the NASA Commercial Crew Development 2 (CCDev-2) effort.



* ARTIFICIAL PANCREAS: As reported by an article from WIRED Online ("Robotic Pancreas" by Dan Hurley, 19 April 2010), American technogeek Jeffrey Brewer had made enough money in his internet startup business that in 2001, when he was 32 years old, he was wealthy enough to retire for the rest of his life. He didn't want to go so far, instead simply dropping out of his work and taking a year-long trip to Australia with his wife and two kids. However, when they got back, they noticed their seven-year-old son Sean was drinking and urinating almost continuously. In September 2002, after a trip to the doctor, they found Sean had type 1 diabetes.

Previously known as "juvenile diabetes" because it's usually diagnosed in childhood, type 1 diabetes is the severe form of the affliction. It comes on suddenly, caused by a mysterious autoimmune response that destroys the the insulin-producing beta cells in the pancreas. Treatment demands insulin injections and disciplined hour-by-hour diet control. Short-term, the main risk is hypoglycemia -- low blood-sugar level caused by too much insulin -- which leaves patients exhausted and confused, leading to unconsciousness and death if not treated immediately with something sweet. But the opposite problem, high blood sugar, raises the long-term risks of kidney failure, blindness, amputation, and heart disease. Either way, type 1 diabetics live on the edge, a cupcake away from a coma.

Nurses taught the Brewers how to inject the insulin and how to prick Sean's finger for the drop of blood to test his blood-sugar level with a little meter. They learned a simple algorithm: If their son's blood sugar was this high, give him so many units of insulin; if it was this much higher, give him that much more. It's a crude scheme that every one of the more than a million type 1 diabetics in the USA deals with daily.

* Brewer quickly became disgusted with the routine. "I had this logbook. I'm testing Sean every few hours, and I'm thinking, this is crying out for automation. A computer should do this and would do it better." Brewer visualized a fully automated, self-regulating "artificial pancreas" that would sense blood-sugar levels continuously and release just the right amount of insulin at just the right time without any intervention by the patient. Brewer, a driven sort, set out to make it happen.

He quickly found out that not everyone was enthusiastic about his vision. Manufacturers were afraid of liability, academics weren't interested in improvisation, and the US Food & Drug Administration (FDA) was fearful of letting the life of a patient hang on an electronic box. What made the situation particularly ironic was that none of the components of the artificial pancreas represented a real technical challenge. An insulin pump had been approved back in the late 1970s, and a continuous glucose monitor that read the output of a sensor implanted under the skin was nearing approval at the time -- it's now on the market.

All Brewer had to do was fit a controller, something like an iPod, between the pump and the sensor, activating the pump on the basis of the sensor readouts. It wasn't quite that simple in practice, of course. There would be a time lag between the sensor readout and bigger time lag to the effect of the insulin pump, meaning that it would be very easy to overshoot or undershoot. The software had to be intelligent and have predictive capability. Brewer believed it was well within the realm of possibility.

Brewer did find people interested in his artificial pancreas, particularly Aaron Kowalski, assistant vice-president of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF). Kowalski liked the concept, all the more so because he was a type 1 diabetes patient himself and could easily see the usefulness of Brewer's artificial pancreas. However, since its founding in 1970 the JDRF had been focused on curing diabetes and hadn't paid much attention to prosthetics. Late in 2004, at a JDRF board meeting, Brewer got the organization's attention by offering them a grant of a million USD if the JDRF bought off on the artificial pancreas concept. A few months later, the board replied that they would seriously consider doing so if Brewer could show the idea had some substance. In October 2005, after months of intense legwork, Brewer and Kowalski presented their plan to the board -- which approved the foundation's "Artificial Pancreas Project".

Progress was rapid at first. In 2008, researchers at Yale University reported results from one of the first human trials of a computer-controlled glucose monitor and insulin pump. When their subject group of 17 teens managed their own pumps, the Yale team found, their blood-sugar levels remained in balance less than 60% of the time. When the computer was in charge, the teens were in balance over 80% of the time. That was encouraging, but nowhere near adequate to obtain FDA approval for the artificial pancreas.

In the meantime, however, Boris Kovatchev -- head of computational neuroscience at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville -- persuaded the FDA to let him bypass animal studies for each new version of the device and instead rely on "in silico" studies, that is computer simulations. By the spring of 2009, Kovatchev was running the biggest clinical trial of artificial pancreas technology to that time, in collaboration with researchers in France and Italy. The tech proved highly effective. The JDRF has been ramping up funding to make the artificial pancreas a reality.

* Brewer has still not been able to overcome the inertia of the necessarily conservative FDA, protesting that the agency is "worried about the theoretical safety issues, but that ignores the greater danger from existing pumps." If a diabetic goes unconscious with current pumps, it will continue to keep pumping and possibly kill the patient. All familiar with artificial pancreas technology see it as the solution to such problems.

Brewer, with his background in fast-moving internet startups, finds it hard to understand the deliberate motions of the FDA, which has historically-validated reasons for being cautious and methodical. The agency has put a priority on evaluation of the artificial pancreas, with one FDA official involved: "We've had what might be seen as a slow start, but with new product lines, it's normal for the FDA to start slowly and move faster as we gain experience. We have made tremendous advances behind the scenes, and a lot of that has to do with the JDRF."

Brewer and Kowalski can see the light at the end of the tunnel, being confident the FDA will approve a semi-automated insulin dispenser within five years. What will Brewer do then? Maybe take a well-deserved year off again. Making a fortune in internet startups was an accomplishment; helping out diabetics would be a very satisfying sequel.



* EYE ON THE BATTLEFIELD: WIRED Online reports that the US military's blue-sky research organization, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), is working on next-generation machine vision for military applications. The military has been acquiring an ever-increasing number of cameras and other sensors of increasing resolution and field of view, with video feeds flooding back from unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and other surveillance platforms. Trying to sort through the flood is becoming ever more impossible.

The new DARPA effort is focused on "visual intelligence", that is, the ability to monitor imagery and report interesting events in it. That's basically what machine vision in general is supposed to do, but the military's requirement is more demanding than current commercial applications. The problem is that current technology requires a warm body to watch a video stream and then notify warfighters; it's a waste of manpower, it would be much preferable to have the video system do the watching on its own and tip off the warfighters directly.

DARPA has tapped twelve research organizations to work on the "Mind's Eye" program, asking them to investigate (brace yourself) "novel contributions in visual event learning, new spatiotemporal representations, machine-generated envisionment, visual inspection and grounding of visual concepts." More pragmatically, the goal is to spot "operationally significant activity and report on that activity so warfighters can focus on important events in a timely manner." Given advances in autonomous control of unpiloted aircraft, we might envision robot aircraft that fly themselves to a battle area, tip off ground forces to adversary activity and, if authorized to do so, take on the Black Hats on their own.

Clearly, the Mind's Eye program is mostly a grand objective right now, but DARPA has had plenty of successes, and nobody would rule out the possibility that the agency will accomplish all that it has set out to do. If that happens, then a decade from now we will be living with far smarter machine vision that makes the judgements on its own. Nobody has to be a luddite to find that prospect distinctly creepy.

* SMART AIRSHIP: As reported by AVIATION WEEK, the US Air Force is already planning to introduce a smart aerial surveillance system to be fielded in the near future, based on an airship. The effort follows in the wake of the US Army's LEMV robot airship program, discussed here last summer.

The USAF has been working on various aerial surveillance programs, one of them being the BLUE DEVIL system, consisting of a wide-area daylight-infrared camera and a signals intelligence subsystem, fitted with datalinks to feed intelligence data to ground forces and other platforms. The "BD-1" system has been operationally deployed on an experimental basis on at least four Beech King Air 90 platforms. Now the USAF's Big Safari office, which handles fast-track reconnaissance system development, is porting the system as the "BD-2" to a TCOM Polar 1000 airship, with the platform to be operational before the end of 2011.

The program started out under Army control, but then the Army moved off to work on the LEMV. The Air Force's robot airship will be huge, 107 meters (350 feet) long, and will be able to maintain station at 6,100 meters (20,000 feet) for 3 to 7 days. The airship will be able to handle modular payloads with weights of up to 1,135 kilograms (2,500 pounds). The US Navy currently operates a manned airship, the MZ-3A, for test and training, and the Air Force will use it to get up to speed on the BD-2 system. It appears the BD-2 will have enhanced sensor systems, and will have a "mini-supercomputer" with 2,000 CPU cores to sort through the floods of observations, find events of interest, and report them directly to combat forces.



* THE INFLUENZA MENACE (2): By October 1918, the actual extent of the US influenza pandemic was becoming more apparent, with the disease killing almost 200,000 Americans in that month. Public health workers called for people to wear gauze face masks, and many did. In reality, they were no real defense against the tiny influenza virus, but they likely did some good by encouraging better hygiene and less physical contact. Disinfection measures were taken and public places were finally closed in cities where the flu was raging, but given the airborne nature of the flu such measures were only marginally effective. Flu vaccines were developed, but none were successful.

Still, public awareness of the pandemic remained surprisingly limited. President Woodrow Wilson was almost the only person who could have focused public attention on the pandemic, but he was deeply preoccupied with directing the war effort. Awareness of the pandemic was also constrained by its unpredictable patterns of assault. Some towns were hit hard, while nearby towns were unaffected. Some groups of people suffered heavily, while others were unscathed. Attempts were made by researchers to deliberately infect remarkably selfless military volunteers with the flu, and astoundingly failed.

1918 flu victims in public auditorium, Oakland CA

Where the flu hit hard, the citizens were more than aware of the problem. People dreamed up homegrown cures, such as eating red-pepper sandwiches or putting sulfur in their shoes -- measures that would be echoed by the quack cures promoted during the AIDS pandemic more than half a century later. Stories were told of people visiting friends who seemed healthy, only to find out that they died the next morning. In Philadelphia, 528 people died in a single day. Bodies lay in the gutters in some bad neighborhoods in big cities. Police found children walking around untended, their parents incapacitated or dead. A laborer in Chicago went crazy and cut the throats his wife and four children, who were all ill with flu. People grew paranoid, harsh laws were passed. Some wondered if the flu were a divine retribution, or if the pandemic would lead to the collapse of civilization. One nurse in Milwaukee called it the "year men cried."

Although the medical technology of the time wasn't up to dealing with the problem, the people in general rose to the challenge. The actual number of people who were infected and who died remains hard to figure, since the proportions varied from place to place, but it appears that at least 1 in 50 of those who fell ill died. Given the staggering number of deaths, that meant that a tremendous number of Americans were terribly ill, and those who remained healthy were confronted with the overwhelming challenge of keeping society in operation. Doctors and nurses demonstrated superhuman endurance and dedication. Businesses and private clubs opened their doors as temporary hospitals.

By November, the flu finally seemed to be on the decline, and when the Armistice was declared on 11 November 1918, there was no keeping people off the streets for any reason. Another wave of the flu occurred at the end of the year, with a severity somewhere between that of the spring and fall outbreaks. The great flu pandemic fizzled out early in 1919.

* The pandemic of 1918 was over about as quickly as it had begun. It had killed tens of millions of people around the world, almost certainly more than had died in combat during the four years of trench warfare in Europe. A half million Americans died, several times as many as were killed in action. Tens of millions more Americans had been infected, possibly as much as a quarter of the nation's population.

The devastation of the flu pandemic and the agonizing failure of medical science to seriously deal with it were largely forgotten by the public. Katherine Ann Porter's novel of the disaster, PALE HORSE, PALE RIDER, was one of the few mementos of the time to survive as a reminder to future generations. It did lead to a greatly expanded PHS, with an impressively meticulous disease reporting system. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* THE KILLING OF JFK -- THE BALANCE OF EVIDENCE (5): There are people who have been fingered or even claimed themselves they were the assassin on the grassy knoll. One candidate for the grassy knoll shooter was a Dallas cop named Roscoe White, who died in 1971. In 1990, his son Ricky White, an unemployed salesman, conducted a press conference announcing that his father had been the grassy knoll shooter. Ricky White said he knew this from entries he read from his father's diary in 1982. Where were the diary entries? Ricky White then claimed he'd lost them.

Apparently Roscoe White had crossed paths with Oswald in the Marines, at least in a loose sense, the two men having shipped out to Japan on the same vessel and been stationed for a time in the same locale, but there was no other connection between the two men. There's no evidence that Roscoe White was even at Dealey Plaza on 22 November 1963, much less that he was part of a conspiracy. Investigators who were in contact with Ricky White on the story came up zeroes on his claims, and found that he reacted with distress on being told so; they concluded he was running a hoax, cooked up to sell to the media.

* Another, more prominent "grassy knoll assassin" was James Sutton AKA James Files, who was sent to prison in Illinois for 50 years in 1991 for the attempted murder of two police officers. According to Files, he was in the employ of Chicago gangster Johnny Roselli, being sent down to Texas a week before the assassination to link up with Lee Harvey Oswald. The two men spent most of the week canvassing Dallas and Dealey Plaza -- which made the fact that Oswald was clearly present at work at the TSBD all that week a bit hard to understand.

On the morning of the assassination, Files and Roselli met with Jack Ruby at a pancake house, where Ruby provided a map of the presidential motorcade route and false Secret Service badges. At the appointed time, Files took up station at the fence behind the grassy knoll, with Ruby sitting at the bottom of the knoll. Files was armed with a Remington XP-100 pistol -- a very unusual weapon, something like a bolt-action carbine crammed down into an oversized handgun format, firing the Remington Fireball 0.221 caliber (5.6 millimeter) cartridge -- he claimed was given him by a CIA agent, while an accomplice, Mob hit man Charles "Chuckie" Nicoletti, took up station in the Dal-Tex building with a rifle. Nicoletti wounded JFK with the throat shot, with Files then finishing him off with the head shot using the Fireball pistol. According to Files, Oswald didn't fire a shot, he didn't kill Officer Tippit -- that was done by a third assassin who was supposed to have killed Oswald, but in some undefined scenario ended up killing Tippit instead.

Remington XP-100

There's not a detail of significance in Files' story that can be corroborated -- Nicoletti was indeed a Mob hitman, but he wasn't around to talk to anyone about the claims made by Files, having had three bullets pumped into his head in 1977. To the extent that there is evidence related to Files' story, it contradicts him -- again, Jack Ruby was clearly not in Dealey Plaza at the time of the assassination. Files' story has unsurprisingly also changed and grown in the telling, with the interesting feature that all, repeat all, the people he cites as involved in the assassination happened to be dead. According to Files, they were "silenced by the conspiracy", which for some reason allowed him to roam free for several decades. Not all that incidentally, stories with much the same features of convenience are common among those revealing some variation on the "conspiracy".

The question of course arises as to why Files would want to make up a story that implicated himself in a monstrous crime. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out the answer: Files made it clear that if he was set free, he would be able to provide "solid proof" of all his claims. As farfetched as his story was, since he had no chance of outliving his prison sentence, he had nothing much to lose. In 1994, the NEW YORK POST summed up File's claims with a story titled: "Call This JFK Tale Knoll And Void". To no surprise, most conspiracy theorists don't pay any attention to Files; the surprise is that some do. That effectively puts them in the interesting position of claiming that Chief Justice Earl Warren and President Gerald Ford were liars, but that the word of a lifelong criminal can be trusted. In any case, Files is still in prison.

* Incidentally, two spent cartridge cases were dug up on the grassy knoll in 1987, though it is unclear from sources if they were actually 0.221 caliber Fireball cartridges or similar but longer 0.222 cartridges. What type of cartridges they were is not an important issue, since examination of the Remington identification stampings on the cartridge cases demonstrated they had been produced after 1971. How they ended up on the grassy knoll is another good question, but irrelevant to the JFK assassination. Files claimed that he left a cartridges on the scene "as a calling card" -- apparently he wanted to make sure that if he was caught, he would be able to supply some proof to the authorities that he really had shot JFK.

Conspiracy theorists have also played up a report that a 0.38 caliber revolver was found in a paper bag at Dealey Plaza on 23 November 1963, some saying it was found behind the grassy knoll, some saying it was found in the TSBD. Eventually, the police report was tracked down, and indeed it claimed a 0.38 caliber revolver had been found in a paper bag on 23 November -- but it was found near the corner of Ross Avenue and Lamar Street, several blocks away from Dealey Plaza. Another story made the rounds of two men sighting-in a rifle at Dealey Plaza on 20 November; the police report said the incident took place on Continental Street, not at Dealey Plaza. Suspicious? Possibly, but they sound more like ordinary police blotter reports, with no visible connection to the assassination. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* GIMMICKS & GADGETS: Sunny California is enthusiastic about solar power, with organizations increasingly installing solar systems over their parking lots and on top of buildings. As discussed here a few years back, Google was a pioneer in the exercise, but as reported by the NEW YORK TIMES, the California public school system has now got into it in a big way.

At least 75 elementary school, high school, and community college campuses, mostly clustered around San Francisco, have collaborated with banks and other backers to set up solar power systems on their grounds that now provide a total of about 20 megawatts of power. The backers finance the systems and sell the electricity back to the schools, with Federal and state tax incentives sweetening the pot for the investment. According to one school official, the solar panels provide 75% of his district's annual electricity needs during the school year, he said, and 100% of its summer needs. Typically, the installations consist of solar panels covering parking lots.

solar carpark, Milpitas school district

Although the economics of solar power can be tricky, particularly when tax incentives are a factor in the equation, school officials say that they will save tens of millions of dollars over 20 years. The idea is catching on elsewhere, with schools in New Jersey also planning to install solar panels. There has been some resistance in California, however, with citizens in some towns complaining that the solar arrays are an eyesore. Right now, the solar systems are purely functional, essentially industrial in appearance; but advocates see no reason that a little design might do wonders to improve their looks. In any case, it's not like a parking lot was an oasis to begin with.

* Along similar lines, as discussed here two years ago, the US military is very interested in renewable energy, even for use in combat zones. It can be staggeringly expensive to get fuel to the front lines, and so leveraging off local renewable energy sources can easily pay for itself. As reported by the WIRED Online blogs, India Company of the 3rd Battalion, 5th US Marine Regiment, experimentally set up an array of solar panels at their base in Afghanistan's Helmand province. The panels, known as "Ground Renewable Expeditionary Energy System (GREENS)", can be transported by a Hummer truck or helicopter and easily set up on site. While there was some uncertainty over how well such technology would work out in the field, the Marines report that the GREENS cut the fuel consumption for the diesel generators used to produce power at the base by almost 90%. Not only that, the solar panels don't have the obnoxious roar of the diesel generators.

Along with the large fixed solar panels, to recharge radio batteries the Marines have a flexible solar panel that's light enough for a single trooper to carry, called a "Solar Portable Alternative Communication Energy System (SPACES)". They also have a photovoltaic tarp called PowerShade that fits over a standard tent to light it up. Given the success of the experiment, it seems likely that solar power will become much more common at US advance bases in South Asia.

* An article from WIRED Online pointed out that the electric / hybrid car future has a necessary consequence: mountains of lithium-ion batteries. What happens to the old batteries when they're swapped out with new ones?

Automobile manufacturers are taking the question seriously, and feel it won't be a problem. The trick is that even when lithium-ion batteries get too old to provide adequate range for a car, they'll still retain two-thirds or more of their capability -- making them very useful for fixed-site energy storage. Says a Volvo official: "We expect to see an entirely new industry arise to use these batteries. Every hospital has a huge battery backup in the basement. So do power plants, military installations, some skyscrapers. There's some fascinating business opportunities there that are just now being discovered."

Wind and solar installations don't work all the time, so relatively cheap power storage systems would be handy. Power grids need to provide an excess of power at peak times; a bank of batteries would be able to provide that increment without demanding extra generation capability, with the batteries recharged at periods of low demand. Similarly, industrial organizations could store cheap energy at off-peak times and use it in place of costly peak energy. Auto makers such as GM and Nissan are working with partners on plans to "reuse, resell, refabricate and recycle" electric vehicle batteries.

Skeptics point out that it would take a preposterously expensive bank of batteries to store a night's worth of power from a solar plant. There's also the question of how satisfactory used batteries would be for backup applications, which as a rule demand a high level of reliability. Advocates believe that as production volumes increase, batteries will become cheaper, and don't actually believe it would be possible to simply sell off used batteries "as is" -- they'll have to be refurbished and re-engineered first. That implies more effort in designing batteries for convenient refurbishment and, when they finally reach the end of the line, recycling for their valuable materials, presumably to make new batteries. In any case, we seem to be facing a new era of batteries in which they will become orders of magnitude more common.



* ACID OCEANS? As reported by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("The Other Carbon-Dioxide Problem", 3 July 2010), rising levels of atmospheric carbon-dioxide have effects beyond simply raising global temperature: atmospheric carbon dioxide reacts with ocean waters to produce carbonic acid, and so the higher the carbon dioxide concentrations of the atmosphere, the more acidic the oceans.

It's a slight trend, to be sure, it's not like the oceans are turning into baths of corrosive acid -- but rising acidity does have its effects. One is interference with the formation of carbonate structures produced by corals, shellfish, and the widespread single-cell oceanic plankton known as "foraminifera" or just "forams", and some surveys seem to show that just such interference is taking place. One researcher calls ocean acidification "the other CO2 problem" and "global warming's evil twin".

Of course, a potential threat is not the same thing as a real one. Acidification does seem to be happening: an oceanic measuring station in the Pacific Ocean northwest of the Hawaiian Islands has shown a clear correlation between atmospheric CO2 concentrations and oceanic acidity. However, the trendline is very "noisy", with the signal being easily hidden in normal variations in acidity. For example, photosynthetic plankton will soak up carbon dioxide from the waters, while non-photosynthetic organisms will release it; since photosynthesis only really occurs at the surface of the oceans, waters welling up from the deeps will increase the measured acidity.

There's also the question of just how sensitive oceanic ecosystems are to acidity. Iris Hendricks of the Mediterranean Institute for Advanced Studies performed a "meta-analysis" of existing research that showed the sensitivity of organisms to acidity varied over a wide range, with some even seeming to prefer acidity. Her conclusion was that expected levels of ocean acidification did not pose a real threat. Some critics suggest there was a bias in the studies she analyzed, but without being able to identify the bias, there's no way of knowing if it leads to exaggeration or understatement.

Even on the face of it, the fact that some organisms are more sensitive to acidity than others might still be very troublesome. If, say, some species of photosynthetic plankton are insensitive to acidity, they will prosper at the expense of plankton that is more sensitive, and so by that logic levels of plankton will remain roughly constant; but ecosystems often involve specific chains of connections between organisms, and altering the populations of specific organisms could lead to complicated and troublesome follow-on effects.

Such uncertainties cry out for hard data and more research. That's the rationale behind the "European Project on Ocean Acidification (EPOCA)", the most ambitious ocean-acidification study being conducted to date. One of the facets of EPOCA is an experiment being conducted offshore of the Arctic island of Spitsbergen, involving nine contraptions known as "mesocosms" -- plastic tubes open at one end that actually look much like giant condoms, 17 meters (56 feet) long. The mesocosms are placed in the ocean and filled with seawater, with the open mouths of the tubes held above water by floating collars. The mesocosms provide "microecologies" in which researchers can observe the effects of acidification.

mesocosm array off of Spitsbergen

Microecologies are all very well and good, but determining effects on large-scale ecologies can't really be done in the lab, making the chains of cause and effect harder to nail down. Studies of Australia's Great Barrier Reef show that corals seem to be having more trouble laying down reefs -- but is that a signal or noise? If it is a signal, is it due to acidification, or overfishing, or even to global warming? The Earth is a system of monstrous complexity; researchers know this, and as they press forward for answers they are generally careful to point out just how hard it is to get them.



* GREEN CITY: Although "green" environmental initiatives are common these days, they have a tendency to be public relations gimmicks instead of anything of substance. As reported in an article from THE NEW YORK TIMES ("Using Waste, Swedish City Cuts Its Fossil Fuel Use" by Johan Spaner, 10 December 2010), nobody could think the environmental aspirations of the city of Kristianstad in southern Sweden, the home of Absolut vodka, are mere hype. Ten years ago, the city leadership decided that they would end reliance on fossil fuels; now the city and surrounding county, with a population of 80,000, essentially use no oil, natural gas or coal to heat homes and businesses, even during the long cold winters.

Kristianstad, Sweden

That brings up an image of a city decorated with wind turbines and solar panels, but that's not the case. Kristianstad is an agricultural center, heavily involved in food processing, and the alternative energy schemes used there reflect the focus on farming. The city gets its energy from a wild range of feedstocks such as potato peels, manure, used cooking oil, stale cookies and pig intestines. A ten-year-old plant on the outskirts of the city feeds such materials into digesters to produce biogas -- mostly methane -- which is either burned directly to produce heat and electricity, or piped off to fuel cars. Once Kristianstad began to produce its own energy, opportunities seemed to pop up everywhere: Kristianstad also burns gas produced from an old landfill and sewage ponds, as well as wood waste from flooring factories and tree prunings.

Thanks to high fuel prices and taxes, many European countries have been turning to renewable energy. While the most prominent efforts have focused on wind power and hydropower, in agricultural regions there is considerable interest in energy obtained from biomass, such as farm and food waste. Germany alone supports 5,000 biogas digester systems, often on individual farms.

In Kristianstad, the push towards biomass energy coexists awkwardly with old fossil fuel technologies. Tanker trucks that once delivered heating oil now deliver wood pellets, the primary heating fuel in the city's outlying areas. Across from a busy Statoil gas station is a modest new commercial biogas pumping station, owned by the renewables company Eon Energy.

The startup costs, handled by the city and through Swedish government grants, have been considerable: the centralized biomass heating system cost the equivalent of $144 million USD -- covering the construction of a new incineration plant, laying networks of pipes, replacing furnaces, and installing generators. However, city officials say that the payback has already been significant: Kristianstad now spends about $3.2 million USD each year, to heat its municipal buildings instead of the $7 million USD it would spend if it still relied on oil and electricity -- and though that wouldn't seem to give a very fast payback on the cost of infrastructure development, some sort of infrastructure would have had to be built or at least refurbished over the long run anyway. The city fuels its municipal cars, buses and trucks with biogas fuel, avoiding the need to purchase nearly 1.8 million liters (almost half a million US gallons) of diesel or gasoline each year. The operations at the biogas and heating plants bring in cash, because farms and factories pay fees to dispose of their waste and the plants sell the heat, electricity and car fuel they generate.

Kristianstad began its energy makeover in the 1980s, following the oil price shocks of the 1970s. To save on fuel consumption, the city began laying heating pipes to form an underground heating grid to provide "district heating". Such systems use one or more central furnaces to heat water or produce steam that is fed into the network. It is far more efficient to pump heat into a system that can warm an entire city than to heat buildings individually with boilers.

District heating systems can generate heat from any fuel source, and like New York City's system, Kristianstad's initially relied on fossil fuel. But after Sweden became the first country to impose a tax on carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels, in 1991, Kristianstad started looking for substitutes. By 1993, it was taking in and burning local wood wastes, and in 1999, it began relying on heat generated from the new biogas plant.

combined heat / power plant, Kristianstad

Some buildings that are too remote to be connected to the district heating system have been fitted with individual furnaces that use tiny pellets also made from wood waste. Burning wood in this form is surprisingly clean and efficient; such heating has given birth to a booming pellet industry in northern Europe. Government subsidies underwrite purchases of pellet furnaces by homeowners and businesses; pellet-fueled heat costs half as much as oil.

Having eliminated fossil fuels for heating, Kristianstad is now moving on to eliminate their use in transport. That means ramping up production of biogas. Kristianstad is looking into building satellite biogas plants for outlying areas and expanding its network of underground biogas pipes to allow the construction of more filling stations. At the moment, there's something of a chicken-and-egg problem: even though biogas fuel costs about 20 percent less than gasoline, consumers are reluctant to spend $32,000 USD (about $4,000 USD more than for a conventional car) on a biogas or dual-fuel car until they are certain that the network will keep growing.

* ED: One of the interesting angles in this article is that Kristianstad's approach to renewable energy also amounts to embracing what might be called "appropriate energy" -- appropriate to needs and particularly available resources. A related useful concept might be called "energy diversity"; instead of being limited to a fairly small range of power sources, in an era of more expensive energy we are obtaining a larger menu of sources from which localities or even individuals can select as appropriate to their needs.

The comments on fuel from wood pellets brought back a vague memory from childhood of people who burned such pellets in coal furnaces. I recollect that they were relatively large pellets pressed together from coarse sawdust and wood chips. Although no doubt there's an evolutionary relationship, it appears that modern wood pellet technology is more sophisticated, with the configuration of pellets derived from sawdust and other waste wood optimized for combustion and for feeding from automated hopper systems. The technology was basically established in Northern Europe, but it is catching on in some forestry-oriented regions in the USA.



* THE INFLUENZA MENACE (1): The set of respiratory diseases known as "influenza" has been with us a long time and we are all very familiar with the affliction. It was described as far back as the 16th century, and of course was certainly associated with some of the epidemics known before that time. The most prominent form of the disease is seasonal, and manifests itself respiratory infection that can progress from a hacking cough and sore throat; to chills, aches, headaches, fever, and sometimes gastrointestinal distress. It isn't possible to acquire a permanent immunity to influenza; an infection one year may or may not protect the victim from an infection the next year. In most cases, it isn't particularly dangerous to a healthy person, with the greatest risk from secondary infection by pneumonia or other the like. However, in some cases influenza has proven a monstrous threat.

In the spring of 1918, an influenza epidemic hit Fort Riley, Kansas. The first recorded case occurred in March, when a private named Albert Gitchell went on sick call with chills and fever. By the end of the week, hundreds of soldiers were hospitalized. Influenza epidemics were nothing new, and though the disease hit hard, killing 46 men at Fort Riley, the matter was not regarded as being any more than a temporary problem.

This particular influenza seemed odd, however. Although the patients had fevers, their body functions otherwise seemed depressed. Another puzzle was the fact that although flu traditionally seemed to attack the very young, the very old, and others whose resistance to disease was weak, this new wave of flu seemed to target healthy people in their 20s and 30s.

Traditionally, epidemics tended to be blamed on corruptions or changes in the air. The old term for ill health, "miasma", literally means "bad air", and the name "influenza" apparently comes from Italian for "influence of the cold", though some historians think it may have come from Italian for "influence of the stars" since epidemics were sometimes blamed on astrological alignments. By 1918, medical authorities were familiar with bacteria and other relatively large pathogens, but viruses were too small to be made out in microscopes and were poorly understood.

Nobody had isolated the virus that caused influenza. The notion of "bad air" seemed to stick in people's minds, and some noted that before the outbreak, Fort Riley had been almost blacked out by a choking blanket of dust and smoke from burning pig manure by howling prairie winds. It is vaguely possible, if far from certain, that the foul cloud carried influenza viruses. The outbreak spread to other camps, and military doctors did what they could to deal with it. The top Army brass remained focused on getting American troops overseas to fight the Hun. Two million men went across the Atlantic to fight in France, and in the packed troopships the flu spread with them.

* Sometime during the summer of 1918, the nature of the flu changed. The puzzling features of the disease were enhanced by new and drastic symptoms. Patients now suffered from vomiting, dizziness, labored breathing, and heavy sweating. In some cases, they broke out in purple blisters. They had violent nosebleeds and coughed up great quantities of greenish mucus.

The death toll began to rise. Sometimes victims died within a few days of showing symptoms, and doctors performing autopsies reported that in some cases the lungs of the dead looked like "melted red currant jelly". The flu spread through France, then to England and to Spain. The flu was particularly violent in Spain, killing a total of eight million Spaniards, and so acquired its name as the "Spanish flu" -- even though evidence suggests it started in the USA. It spread into the ranks of the Kaiser's army across the trenches, with the Germans calling it "Blitz Katarrh". Soon the pandemic spread over the entire globe with shocking speed, moving to Russia, China, India, Japan, Africa, South America. People dropped on the streets in Rio de Janiero, and in South Africa trains arrived at their destinations and had to offload the dead.

nurses & influenza patient, 1918

The flu came back to America with returning troops, and though it was generally localized to military camps for a few months, it then spread to the general population. The pandemic was in high gear by September 1918. 10,000 deaths from flu were recorded throughout the US in that month, three times more than had taken place in August. At one military camp in Massachusetts, 90 men were dying every day. The prominent pathologist Dr. William Henry Welch performed autopsies on corpses that were "blue as huckleberries", due to the oxygen starvation caused by the destruction of the patients' lungs.

Welch was forced to admit: "This must be some new kind of infection." The US government's Public Health Service (PHS), under Rupert Blue, had to be called into action. It wasn't up to the challenge. In 1918, the PHS was a small organization with a yearly budget of $3 million USD, which was regarded as a pittance even at the time. Blue was a competent and experienced public health official, but there was simply not much he could do. Statistical tracking of flu cases was sketchy at best, and Blue's authority was as limited as his financial resources. The US had never seen a pandemic so fast-moving, virulent, and widespread. He concluded that far-reaching quarantine measures would be impractical under the circumstances, and few today could reasonably disagree.

Blue was also hobbled by the fact that a third of the country's doctors and even more trained nurses were in uniform at the time. To assist, on 11 October 1918 Congress unanimously voted a million dollars in funds to help cope with the pandemic. Blue set about recruiting physicians for the Volunteer Medical Service Corps, an auxiliary to the PHS. He also presently sent out a call for the states to ban large gatherings. However, not all the authorities and public figures responded. Many city officials took an "it can't happen here" attitude, and since the earlier epidemic of "war fever" had yet to run its course, some authorities stated that the whole pandemic was a Hun fabrication, designed to hinder the war effort. Bans on public gatherings were slow in coming. At the end of September, a national effort for war bond subscriptions put hundreds of thousands of people in public marches from coast to coast. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* THE KILLING OF JFK -- THE BALANCE OF EVIDENCE (4): Along with the Union Terminal Railroad employees on top of the triple underpass who observed the events on 22 November 1963, a fourth UTR employee named Lee Bowers observed events from the second floor of a signal tower along the railroad line, from which he had a clear view of the open area to the south behind the picket fence, where the supposed "grassy knoll assassins" had fired from. The signal tower was about 115 meters (125 yards) from the fence.

Bowers made a number of vague statements to the Warren Commission, claiming for example to have seen "one or two men" and "some sort of commotion" behind the picket fence, but couldn't "pinpoint what happened". However, Bowers had said nothing about such matters in an affidavit he provided to the police after the assassination; and in 1966, Bowers then told Mark Lane that he had seen "a flash of light or smoke", which he hadn't mentioned to the Warren Commission. For three different interrogations Bowers gave three different answers, making it puzzling exactly which one was the truth.

* The list of witnesses who claimed to have seen a "grassy knoll shooter" also includes a deaf-mute named Virgil Hoffman, who in 1967, four years after the assassination, told the FBI that he had seen two men suspiciously running away from the scene. That was all there was to the story, Hoffman not saying the two men were armed or otherwise suspicious. The FBI checked out the story, interviewing Hoffman's family, with both his brother and father saying Virgil had in the past "distorted facts of events seen by him", with the father saying he doubted Virgil had "seen anything of value".

Conspiracy theorists speculated that the family was lying to protect Hoffman from the "conspiracy". It seems Hoffman was determined to push his luck, however, since ten years later, in 1977 he came forward again, telling a much more elaborate story about two assassins, one with a rifle and one with a pistol. The FBI looked into the matter again, but none of the details checked out. Hoffman continued to embellish the story over the following decades -- apparently the "conspiracy" was too frightened of him to "shut him up".

* Another witness who observed strange things on the grassy knoll was Gordon Arnold, who in 1963 had been a 22-year-old soldier home on leave in Dallas. In 1978, Arnold came forward with a confused story of running into a Secret Service agent on the grassy knoll; when the shooting started, Arnold hit the dirt, hearing a flurry of shots being fired over him. He was then set upon by two cops who kicked him while he was lying there and confiscated the film from the camera Arnold had been taking pictures with. Arnold explained that he hadn't come forward for 15 years because he was afraid of being killed, but that leads to the question of why he came forward in 1978 -- he would have been safer either to not come forward at all, or to have come forward immediately and told all he knew so the "conspiracy" would have no motive to "shut him up".

In 1988, Arnold came up with a revised story, in which the Secret Service man became a CIA agent and only one cop set upon him. In reality, none of the stories Arnold told hold much water, because there are plenty of pictures of the grassy knoll in the aftermath of the shooting, and none show anything that look like the authorities kicking a man lying on the ground. Photos do show what looks a person near the concrete retaining wall on the grassy knoll, this figure being known as the "black dog man" because the shadowy figure looks like a black dog sitting on its hindquarters. However, the location of the "black dog man" doesn't square with Arnold's movements as he described them; no other photos even hint at his presence, and eyewitness reports that square with some parts of his story don't align with other parts of it.

Incidentally, there are many reports of "Secret Service agents" running around the scene in the aftermath -- who eventually had an odd tendency to evolve into "CIA agents". Actually, except for the Secret Service agents assigned to guard the presidential motorcade, who remained with the motorcade as it sped out of Dealey Plaza, there were no Secret Service agents there for at least 20 minutes after the shooting. It appears there were plenty of plainclothes Dallas police in the area, however, who were easy to misinterpret as Secret Service agents. There was more specifically the case of James Powell, a Spec-4 enlisted man in Army intelligence stationed in Dallas, who wanted to watch the presidential motorcade that day and went to Dealey Plaza in civilian clothes. He followed the mob running into the parking area behind the grassy knoll; when police challenged him, he flashed his ID and told the cops he was a "special agent" with military intelligence. He didn't make it clear that he wasn't there in any official capacity.

* Finally, in 1978, yet another witness named Tom Tilson, who at the time of the JFK assassination had been an off-duty Dallas policeman, came forward to claim he had seen somebody scrambling down the west side -- the "far" side -- of the triple underpass, get in a car, and drive off in a hurry. Tilson followed him in his own car, with his daughter getting the license number. Tilson knew Jack Ruby and said if it wasn't Jack, it was his twin. Tilson claimed he reported the man to the Dallas police and gave them the license number of the car. There's no record of any such thing, which might suggest a conspiracy, but Tilson also said he lost the piece of paper with the license number on it and had forgotten it. His daughter said she didn't recall the incident.

Again, Jack Ruby was known for certain to be nowhere near Dealey Plaza at the time of the assassination -- OK, maybe Tilson did see Ruby's twin. Tilson was a witness in the London mock trial; Vincent Bugliosi asked him why he didn't come forward to finger Ruby when Oswald was announced as having been charged with killing JFK. Tilson said he didn't make the connection with Ruby until Ruby killed Oswald -- however, Tilson still didn't make an issue of it for 15 years. It still might be thought that though these witnesses didn't always give coherent stories, they might still have seen something important. However, none of the stories they gave agreed with each other, making it difficult to figure out exactly what that "something" might be. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* SCIENCE NOTES: As reported by THE ECONOMIST, while there's been considerable fuss over the possibility that the snows of the Himalayas may be threatened by global warming -- as discussed here last year -- it turns out that the high snowpack may be at hazard from a more mundane threat: soot.

Soot isn't all that unexpected in the cities of Asia, or in places like Southeast Asia where forests are being cleared; more surprisingly, as reported by Angela Marinoni and her colleagues of the Institute of Atmospheric Sciences & Climate in Bologna, Italy, soot is even widespread at altitudes above 5,000 meters (16,400 feet). When it carpets glaciers, it accelerates their melting.

The Italian researchers have been investigating Himalayan soot since 2006. In that year, a long-term study of concentrations of aerosol particles, including soot, was initiated at the Nepal Climate Observatory / Pyramid, at an altitude of 5,079 meters (16,660 feet) in the Khumbu Valley. The researchers were expecting the air to be pristine, but they found that thick haze, loaded with soot, was nothing unusual on the mountain slopes. During the dry pre-monsoon months between January and May, for about one day in five the Khumbu Valley was blanketed by a dense brown cloud.

Analysis of atmospheric circulation patterns showed that winds could haul in soot and dust from as far away as Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa. The mountain system also acts as a chimney, funneling air pollutants from the Indian plains into the heights. Marinoni says that the soot could increase the rate of melting by anywhere from about a tenth to a third. Marinoni isn't raising the alarm over the glaciers disappearing, instead pointing out that faster melting means worse flooding down below -- through it's hardly reassuring to be confronted with a regional calamity instead of a global one.

* The notion of a "gravitational lens", a cosmic mass concentration that distorts the images of deep-space objects, have become familiar to astronomy enthusiasts, with lensing often given away by circular arcs of light known as "Einstein rings". However, as reported by WIRED Online, the visual effects of gravitational lensing aren't always so obvious, and so an international collaboration of astronomers is seeking smarter software to help do the job.

Einstein ring

The effort is designated "Gravitational Lensing Accuracy Testing 2010 (GREAT10)". Astronomers have had plenty of ideas of their own on how to spot gravitational lensing, but they got to thinking that others with different skillsets might be able to show them tricks they haven't thought of. Following up that notion, they posed the GREAT10 challenge to the public, with particular hopes of drawing in those working in machine learning and image analysis. One of the ultimate goals of the effort is to map the distribution of the mysterious "dark matter" and "dark energy" suspected to fill the Universe -- but which so far has proven a theoretical phantasm, evading attempts to detect it directly.

* As reported by AAAS SCIENCE, in October the United Nations Food & Agriculture Organization (FAO) proudly announced that it had suppressed rinderpest, a notorious disease of cattle. Rinderpest is a viral infection, the pathogen being related to viruses that cause human measles and canine distemper. The rinderpest virus spreads through exhaled droplets and the droppings of infected animals, causing fever, diarrhea, dehydration, and death within days. It primarily afflicts young animals; those that survive are immune for life. Rinderpest could have disastrous effects on populations of livestock that were unfamiliar with it: after it was introduced into the Horn of Africa in 1889, killing 90% of the cattle, as well as oxen, wild buffalos, giraffes, and many antelope species. The result was widespread famine among the Ethiopians and the Masai peoples.

The FAO decided to tackle rinderpest in 1994 under the "Global Rinderpest Eradication Program (GREP)". At the time, the disease was common in an arc from central Africa to India. A vaccine had been developed that didn't need refrigeration, allowing workers to backpack it in to remote areas. There were challenges in organization of the program -- particularly in regions of Africa where warfare had broken down social services -- but now reports of rinderpest infections have simply stopped. GREP is keeping watch to see that rinderpest doesn't come back, while the FAO considers other animal diseases to target.



* MEDICINE GOES WIRELESS: The hookup between radio, a relatively old technology, and personal computing, a relatively new one, has produced a synergistic offspring, generally known as "wireless", with enormous potential. For example, as reported by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("When Your Carpet Calls Your Doctor", 12 April 2010), wireless technology is already having a major impact on health care. One market research firm estimates that the market in the USA alone will rise from $2.7 billion USD in 2007 to $9.6 billion USD in 2012. Big firms have jumped in; industrial giant General Electric (GE) and mobile operator Sprint having joined forces to sell wireless tech to the medical industry. The product offerings generated by the alliance include "CareScape", which permits the secure monitoring of patients' health using mobile phones. Other vendors offer comparable products.

Mobile phones are a very obvious delivery platform for wireless healthcare, with one healthcare research thinktank estimating that at present two-thirds of America's doctors have smartphones. A third of America's doctors use "Epocrates", a program for mobiles and laptops which offers instant information on drug-to-drug interactions, treatment recommendations, and so on. Epocrates will soon be able to access "electronic health records (EHRs)" of patients via mobiles.

While medicine generally seems to be lagging decades behind in the use of digital data systems, the near universality of mobile phones gives advocates optimism that wireless tech can help bring medicine into the 21st century. Already, there are hundreds of health-related apps for mobile phones, and mobile-phone operators -- particularly Jitterbug, which caters to the elderly with easy-to-use phones -- are now increasingly offering health services. The tech isn't just for the rich world, either, with wireless firms operating in places from Rwanda from Peru, offering services such as public-health campaigns offering advice via text messages.

* There's more to the matter than mobile phones, of course. Many companies are coming up with "home health" devices featuring wireless technology. Some are clearly clinical in nature: Medtronic, a medical devices giant, is developing a bedside monitor that wirelessly tracks the blood sugar levels in diabetic children sleeping nearby. GE has come up with "body sensor networks", tiny wireless devices that track the vital signs of wearers. Subtler innovations may prove even more useful, such as "magic carpets" placed in the homes of the elderly that can sense erratic movements and predict a fall; standards are being developed so that scales and blood-pressure monitors can wirelessly transfer readings to doctors' offices, or personal EHR services like Google Health.

All this tech does not just allow doctors to make more accurate diagnoses, prescribe more effective treatments and keep closer track of patients' conditions; it also provides a new range of options in dealing with patients. Discovery Health, a South African insurer, uses a variety of different methods to get patients with chronic diseases to follow through on their treatments, from text messages reminding them to take their pills to rewards for good behavior. Virgin HealthMiles, an American rival, has taken the same idea a step further, using online social networks, through which co-workers or family members can cheer on or nag patients electronically, in order to encourage exercise or weight loss. Patients seem to like such gimmicks; one patient who suffers from ulcerative colitis, for example, has created a forum for fellow sufferers that can be accessed through an iPhone application.

Indeed, such new approaches actually end up "crowdsourcing" medical treatment to patients, at least to a degree. Patients often ignore lectures by doctors, but are more inclined to listen to supportive friends and family. Doctors and nurses are not always on hand to encourage healthy behavior, but mobile phones and other wireless gadgets can be. It may not be the case that wireless tech will completely bring backwards medicine up to date; but the odds seem good that it will make a difference.

* As reported by another article from THE ECONOMIST ("An Online Medic", 4 September 2010), airlines handle a lot of passengers, and so the odds of having a medical emergency during a flight are fairly high. The question is whether such a medical emergency demands diverting the flight to get the passenger to a hospital immediately: diverting a flight is expensive and troublesome, and more often than not the passenger doesn't need immediate treatment. It's impractical to treat every medical problem that pops up on a flight as urgent, since they're often false alarms -- but the airlines know they dare not take a chance with the life of a passenger. As a result, the airlines have turned to remote diagnosis.

For an example, during a flight from Mumbai to London, a male passenger complained that his right hand was swollen and that he couldn't move his fingers. The flight attendants hooked up the passenger to a remote diagnosis system carried on the aircraft that measured the passenger's vital signs, including pulse, blood pressure, and an image of his hand, and transmitted them to a ground-based medical analysis team. The passenger's condition worsened; the system was then used to transmit an electrocardiograph (ECG) trace. There was no evidence of a heart problem, and so the flight continued on to London, with a doctor on board stabilizing the patient.

The remote diagnosis system, named "Tempus", was made by RDT of the UK, a company that specializes in wireless tech for security, industrial, transport, and infrastructure systems. RDT not only sells the device for use on jetliners, but also on ships and isolated locations like oil platforms. The Tempus isn't so different from some of the portable monitoring systems hauled by ambulance crews, but it is designed to be compact and rugged. It features a simple touchscreen interface, allowing it to be used by minimally-trained personnel, and can use a wide range of communications interfaces, including satcom, wi-fi, and Bluetooth connections. It can simultaneously transmit a wide range of vital signs such as ECG, blood sugar, and blood oxygen levels, along with voice and video.

Tempus remote diagnostic system

RDT has developed a heavily ruggedized military version that is now being evaluated by the US Special Operations Command. The militarized Tempus is waterproof, can operate over military radio links, and is capable of silent operation so that it will not give away a combat team's location. Since it is to be used by combat medics who have medical training, it offers additional capabilities, including an ultrasound probe that can be used to check for internal injuries, and a video laryngoscope, which can be used to clear a patient's airway -- a potentially dangerous procedure, with the video camera allowing a medic to see what's going on close-up.

The device can be preloaded with the medical histories of the members of the combat team is it being used by; or potentially obtain such information from emerging "smart" dogtag technology. The ability to obtain an accurate remote assessment of a casualty will allow a field commander to judge whether a combat operation should continue or be scrubbed. RDT is continuing to enhance the Tempus product line, working to add more measurement capabilities, such as a stethoscope to analyze a patient's breathing, and very significantly to record all the history of the patient's condition and what treatment steps have already been performed. The history will be available over a wireless link, or can be downloaded to a memory stick.



* ANOTHER MONTH: It's interesting to watch changes take place. While I was over at the town gym I saw a news report on US school systems that are thinking about giving up teaching kids longhand writing -- block letters now being seen as good enough. After all, in an era of text messaging and cheap printers, how much to people communicate in longhand any more? The report brought back extremely vague memories of being a kid and going through all the longhand writing drills over and over again. I don't think longhand will be missed; it was never particularly easy to read to begin with. Now I never write in longhand.

Another little change that I notice is that tee shirts and sweatshirts no longer have tags on the inside of the back of the collar, the tag information being simply printed onto the cloth. It's a very minor thing -- the only impact being that it's harder for me to pull on a sweatshirt in poor light and figure out if I'm putting it on backwards.

* I finally got around to checking out 3D cinema, watching TRON: LEGACY at the local multiplex theater. I had seen 3D shorts at theme parks but I hadn't seen any feature films in 3D. I was hoping for an "immersive experience" -- but alas, despite the flashy effects, all was forgotten the instant I left the theater. The movie itself was nicely produced, but the script was on the logical level of a Saturday-morning kiddie cartoon show; that was about all I was expecting, but the 3D effects did surprisingly little to save it. I've long preferred to stay at home and watch DVDs; I don't think 3D is enough to tempt me to start going back to movie houses.

* More successfully, the Cirque du Soleil's ALEGRIA roadshow came through Loveland and, having been impressed by the other two times I've seen CdS performances, I had to go. Alas, the local Budweiser Events Center is more set up for sports and the like, and it didn't measure up at all to the experiences I had seen in a proper theater environment -- I bought a front-row seat but I wasn't worth the expense, and to tell the truth, having had the same experience under better circumstances, even going wasn't that good a use of the money: "Been there, done that."

contortionists from ALEGRIA

However, I was not expecting to nor did I have any complaints about the performance. It simply astounds me that people can accomplish such feats. Yeah, watching the trampoline routines I can believe they are physically possible, but on observing these people bound and spin over each other's heads at high speed, I don't understand how they managed to learn how to do such things without killing themselves first.

As usual, stunt routines were interleaved with clown acts, and on reflection I have to think that the experience rested more heavily on the clowns than it did on any of the other performers in terms of the audience impact. Any one stunter only performed once or twice, but the three clowns came out again and again, and worked to interact with the audience. Sometimes they'd run parodies of the preceding stunt routine. In one of the clown routines, the clown was caught in a blizzard, which was implemented by blowing piles of little rectangles of thin white paper in a gale across the stage into the front-row audience. I was thinking I was going to be picking pieces of paper out of my clothes and hair when I got home, but I didn't find any; the piles of paper kept the custodial staff busy, however.

* Incidentally, as for watching DVDs, my DVD player gave out and I bought a new cheapo Sony player. It had a feature I don't recall seeing in any of my previous DVD players. I tend to watch TV series on DVD instead of movies, and if I watch an episode on one night, then come back to the next episode later, the player remembers what the next episode is and all the settings. It retains settings if I swap out a DVD for another and then swap them back again later. The setting memory is handy because I usually set Japanese dialog with subtitles when I watch an anime series, and it's a minor nuisance to set up every time I watch.

* My Casio electronic keyboard finally started to lose notes, which was not too startling since it was on the order of 20 years old -- I was surprised it had held up as long as it did, being hammered on every day. I promptly ordered a replacement from Amazon in the form of a Yamaha YPG-235. I was sticking my neck out a bit since I bought it without having given it a "test drive" and I worried that the sound quality would be poor.

Yamaha YPC-235

It arrived promptly, though I had some difficulties getting hold of the AC adapter for it that I would prefer to forget. Once I got the AC adapter and fired up the Yamaha, I knew I'd made the right choice, the sound quality was outstanding. It had over 400 different voices to play in; I went through them all and noted the ones I was likely to use.

The keyboard had an enormous number of other features, such as touch sensitivity and auto-accompaniment. I turned off the touch sensitivity, it wasn't really much like that of a piano and I found it more trouble than it was worth. As far as accompaniment went, I didn't feel any great need for a build-in drum-rhythm machine. I did like the fact that I could record five user songs, and on learning I could download to a PC over USB I figured it would be a nice cheap way to produce MIDI files. Alas, it appears Yamaha is one of those firms that understands hardware but has no clue about software: after struggling to figure out how to install the software that came with the keyboard on my PC, it turned out that all I could download from the keyboard was a backup file. That was obnoxious, but no big deal: I could record performances on the keyboard and use recording software on my laptop to create MP3 files from playback.

Overall, the keyboard was a real bargain for about $225, much superior to my old Casio. Incidentally, while I was waiting for the keyboard and adapter to arrive, I practiced on another Casio I had that had itty-bitty half-sized keys. It's a really toylike instrument, fun in its own way, I'm pleased that I can play it as well as I do; most pianists would look at it and say: "You must be joking." However, it got tiresome to practice on it every day.