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DayVectors

mar 2011 / last mod mar 2016 / greg goebel

* Entries include: JFK assassination, responsive space, nuclear insecurity, influenza, Libya strike, rebuilding Japan after quake, evolution of the marsupials, boom in rare earths mining, city bicycle renting systems, Supreme Court rules on vaccine case, Nautilus-X space cruiser, Microsoft Kinect gesture-recognition system a big hit, and Air Force finally selects new KC-46A tanker.

banner of the month


[THU 31 MAR 11] NEWS COMMENTARY FOR MARCH 2011
[WED 30 MAR 11] LIBYA STRIKE
[TUE 29 MAR 11] REBUILDING JAPAN
[MON 28 MAR 11] RESPONSIVE SPACE (1)
[FRI 25 MAR 11] THE KILLING OF JFK -- THE BALANCE OF EVIDENCE (11)
[THU 24 MAR 11] GIMMICKS & GADGETS
[WED 23 MAR 11] EVOLUTION OF THE MARSUPIALS
[TUE 22 MAR 11] NOT SO RARE EARTHS
[MON 21 MAR 11] NUCLEAR INSECURITY (2)
[FRI 18 MAR 11] THE KILLING OF JFK -- THE BALANCE OF EVIDENCE (10)
[THU 17 MAR 11] SPACE NEWS
[WED 16 MAR 11] BIKING IT
[TUE 15 MAR 11] DAY IN COURT
[MON 14 MAR 11] NUCLEAR INSECURITY (1)
[FRI 11 MAR 11] THE KILLING OF JFK -- THE BALANCE OF EVIDENCE (9)
[THU 10 MAR 11] SCIENCE NOTES
[WED 09 MAR 11] EXPLORING THE SOLAR SYSTEM IN NAUTILUS-X
[TUE 08 MAR 11] KINECT ON A ROLL
[MON 07 MAR 11] THE INFLUENZA MENACE (4)
[FRI 04 MAR 11] THE KILLING OF JFK -- THE BALANCE OF EVIDENCE (8)
[THU 03 MAR 11] GIMMICKS & GADGETS
[WED 02 MAR 11] STRAIGHTEN UP & FLY RIGHT
[TUE 01 MAR 11] ANOTHER MONTH

[THU 31 MAR 11] NEWS COMMENTARY FOR MARCH 2011

* NEWS COMMENTARY FOR MARCH 2011: As was discussed here before Barack Obama took office, closing down the prison camp for terrorist suspects at Guantanamo Bay ("Gitmo") in Cuba was likely to be problematic. Truer words could not have been spoken. Obama promised to shut down Gitmo in January 2009, giving himself a deadline of a year -- and two years later, it's still in operation. As discussed by an editorial in THE ECONOMIST ("How To Close Guantanamo:, 26 February 2011) by the rotating US commentator, Lexington, given political realities, maybe it's time to rethink things.

Former US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said in his memoirs that Guantanamo was the "least worst" option available to the Bush II administration to keep dangerous suspects out of circulation. Gitmo was very secure, and it gave potential escapees no particularly promising place to go; since Cuba detests the installation in the first place, using it as a terrorist internment camp did nothing to make relations any worse. As Rumsfeld put it: "What was the alternative -- letting them go and then hoping to catch them as they were committing their next terrorist attack against the American people?"

Of course, one of the other virtues of the camp was that it allowed the Bush II Administration to deal with the prisoners without constraint of normal legal due process -- and not without some justification. The legal status of foreign terrorist prisoners was very ambiguous, since they weren't Americans or even US residents, making the application of US civil law uncertain; and since they weren't members of a formal army, they weren't legally covered as normal prisoners of war, either. Unfortunately, this virtue turned out to have a severe drawback, displaying the USA on the international scene as a thuggish state, indifferent to the rule of law, this vision being heavily underlined when stories of rough treatment of the inmates became public.

Now that the rough treatment of prisoners is by all appearances a thing of the past, defiance of due process remains the worst feature of Gitmo. Or at least worst to some: Senator John Cornyn of Texas praises the fact that Gitmo's extralegal status keeps terrorists out of circulation as a positive good. While Cornyn is unusually blunt, the fact that every attempt to move high-profile detainees from Gitmo to the USA has met with bitter political opposition in Congress suggests that the sentiment he has expressed is not all that unusual in practice.

guard tower at Guantanamo

Now here's where it gets interesting. Benjamin Wittes, a senior fellow at the generally moderate Brookings Institution in Washington DC, has argued in his book DETENTION & DENIAL that since Obama is unable to close Gitmo, the president should stop pretending he's trying to do so. It may be a political embarrassment for the president to go back on his promise; it is certainly an embarrassment for him to go on failing to keep it. Witte believes Obama should accept that Gitmo is the reality, and use the base as a model of how democratic states handle terror suspects.

Take as a starting point the fact that Gitmo, while hardly a paradise, is a much less unpleasant place than it was. Most of the prisoners originally imprisoned there are long gone, with less than 200 deemed "hard cases" left. The inmates have access to legal counsel; the Federal courts have a degree of oversight; while journalists and members of human-rights groups often visit the camp, and have plenty of access to the facilities and the inmates. The visitors give the camp a clean bill of health about the treatment of the prisoners, aside from their legal status.

Witte suggests that Obama go a step further, to make Gitmo "a symbol not of excess, not of lawlessness and evasion of judicial review, but of detention under the rule of law." Witte goes beyond that to say that a Gitmo should become the designated center for extended detention of terrorists captured anywhere in the world, allowing the inmates the benefit of the standards and transparency established for the camp.

It hardly takes cynicism to wonder if that would be just trying to put a happy face on a dirty business, and to ask if the standards at the camp could ever really be seen as proper. On the other hand, the ambiguities over the legal status of terrorist prisoners that led to the establishment of the camp in the first place are clearly not going to be brushed away. Most significantly, it seems a unbreakable fact that there's simply no way to shut the camp down. Politics is the art of the possible, and the best is the enemy of the good, as the sayings go; if Gitmo is the reality, the only option left is to make it work as well as possible.

* India has always been plagued by official corruption, and recently it seems to be getting worse, with high-profile investigations of high officials accused of being on the take. The problem is that India is becoming more prosperous, and so there's more money to steal. However, thanks to the internet, Indian citizens now have a tool to fight back, via the "ipaidabribe.com (IPAB)" website. On IPAB, visitors can report incidents where they were shaken down for a bribe; what happened to them if they refused to pay a bribe; incidents where they might have expected to have been asked for a bribe, but weren't; and procedures for fighting demands for a bribe.

There were videos on the website by the IPAB coordinator, T.R. "Raghu" Raghunandan. In one he explained an equation devised by Robert Klitgaard, dean of the RAND Graduate School and an expert on international corruption, that outlined the conditions for corruption:

   Corruption  ==  Monopoly  +  Discretion  -  Accountability

Corruption is most easily performed by a monopolistic organization; any client who doesn't want to pay up has no alternatives. The organization also needs to have discretionary power; that is, when things aren't done by set procedures and standards, the organization has a lever to use against clients, giving preferred treatment to clients who pay and prejudicial treatment to those who do not. The way in which a lack of accountability encourages corruption is almost too obvious to mention -- indeed, undermining accountability doesn't lead to corruption, it is corrupt in itself, and which is why authoritarian regimes are almost inevitably prone to the corruption disease.

The interesting thing about corruption is not that it exists, since it exists everywhere. There's plenty of it in the USA -- but it's generally invisible, not a normal part of life; performed in secret; and punished, sometimes severely, when it becomes public. The interesting question is how a society in which it has become ingrained as a normal part of life gets rid of it.

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[WED 30 MAR 11] LIBYA STRIKE

* LIBYA STRIKE: Following the popular uprising against Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, there was considerable equivocation among the international community over providing support to the rebels fighting the government -- but on 18 March, the United Nations Security Council endorsed implementation of a "no-fly zone" to suppress Libyan government airpower that had been punishing the rebels. That was merely a "green light" for action and no plans were announced at that moment, but a French government spokesman indicated that if Qaddafi did not cease his attacks on his people, action would start "soon".

The assault began the following afternoon, with French aircraft performing strikes while the Americans and British followed up with an intensive wave of cruise missile attacks, with more than 110 missiles launched. The operation was codenamed Operation ODYSSEY DAWN by the US, while the British designated it Operation ELLAMY and the French called it Operation HARMATTAN. The initial phase of the air offensive appears to have been focused primarily on knocking out Libyan air-defense and command-control infrastructure to eliminate challenges to air superiority. Other nations are contributing to the effort; NATO formally took over the operation a week after it began.

Tomahawk strike against Libya

The fight involves a substantial commitment of the first-line combat resources of the Coalition states:

It appears that the 110-kilogram (250-pound) GPS-guided Small Diameter Bomb was a preferred munition for the Americans since it reduced the chances of collateral damage to civilians in the strikes. Similarly, the British seem to be relying on the Brimstone missile, an advanced derivative of the relatively lightweight Hellfire missile. An F-15E was lost due to mechanical difficulties on 21 March, with both aircrew ejecting and being rescued.

The goals were to suppress Libyan air power and block government attacks on civilians. It was made very clear that there was no plan to target Qaddafi personally. The freezing of Libyan government assets outside the country is intended to complement the military campaign by reducing the funds available to Qaddafi to continue his war effort, in particular to fund the African mercenaries fighting for him. Qaddafi is thought to have billions of dollars in gold reserves, but bullion isn't a very convenient medium of exchange, and exchanging it for currency is problematic given the strict sanctions.

The action was actually mostly driven by Britain and France. The US, having been badly bitten in the last decade by excessive enthusiasm for "regime change", was more ambivalent, having absorbed the lesson that it is relatively easy to throw out a regime, much more difficult to then obtain a new regime that is any better. Germany abstained from the UN vote and is maintaining a low profile on the operation. And for Qaddafi? He has denounced the "terrorist" attacks on his country and pledges "a long war". At that, he is being generally taken at his word. COMMENT ON ARTICLE

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[TUE 29 MAR 11] REBUILDING JAPAN

* REBUILDING JAPAN: The earthquake that hit northeastern Japan on 11 March 2011, triggering a devastating tsunami and crippling the nuclear plant at Fukushima, killed roughly 10,000 people, with many more still unaccounted for. Many more would have been killed had Japanese building standards not been so stringent, but they were still not good enough. Nobody expected a quake with a magnitude greater than 8.0 in the region; the 11 March quake was of magnitude 9.0 -- which translates to about 30 times more powerful than magnitude 8.0. The Fukushima nuclear plant was supposed to have been built to ride out disaster, but it wasn't built well enough to ride out this one.

The amount of material damage is estimated at about $200 billion USD. That poses the question of how long it will take Japan to get back on its feet. As discussed by an article in THE ECONOMIST ("The Cost Of Calamity", 17 March 2011), societies can be surprisingly resilient, and it may not be all that long. The calamity has caused power outages in regions outside of the quake zone -- oddly, parts of Japan run on 60 cycle power while others run on 50 cycles, making it difficult to redistribute power over the national grid. Toyota had to halt production in six factories, though only one was flooded.

However, within days Toyota announced that production of spare parts was restarting. Japan had suffered another disastrous earthquake in Kobe in 1995, which killed 6,000, rendered 300,000 homeless, and completely wrecked 100,000 buildings while damaging many more. 40% of industrial capacity was shut down and the city's container port, the sixth biggest in the world, was hit hard. Despite that, only 15 months later Kobe was all but fully operational again.

The quick rebound was in good part because countries like Japan have the resources to rebuild, as well as the spare capacity to keep people fed and shift production to undamaged facilities. Rebuilding is easier than generating facilities from scratch because the goal is to reconstruct preexisting patterns, not develop entirely new infrastructure. The rebuilt infrastructure will generally be superior to that it replaces, resulting in in higher productivity. Reconstruction also means good business for construction firms and the like, though it doesn't necessarily mean an economic boom for a country as a whole since spending is diverted from other activities.

Japan's economy is more fragile in 2011 than it was in 1995 and rebuilding is likely to be more difficult; the World Bank does expect the economy to be back on its feet before the end of the year, but says it will take about five years to make good all the damage. There's also the continuing uncertainty over the crippled reactor at Fukushima, which at last notice still remained out of control. For now, Japan has a tough and unhappy job to clean up the damage, tend the injured, and honor the dead.

devastation of the tsunami

* As reported by TIME magazine, one of the consequences of the calamity has been an upsurge in quack medications to protect Americans from the radiation being released by the Fukushima plant. Actually, the increment of radiation isn't anything to worry about on this side of the Pacific, and the medications are not really useful anyway.

People who are exposed to radiation are often administered potassium iodide (KI), which accumulates in the thyroid gland and prevents the uptake of radioactive iodine that could lead to thyroid cancer. That's all it actually does -- but quacks have been pushing KI as a broad-spectrum protection against radiation, and the US Food & Drug Administration is seeing a surge in sales of their nostrums; of course, most of the KI pills being pushed are fakes. Along with reporting the fraud, the FDA provided an amusing list of various claims associated with bogus medications in general:

* The BBC also reports that a SMS message falsely attributed to the Beeb has been circulating in Asian countries, with the text reading as follows:

BEGIN QUOTE:

BBC FLASH NEWS: Japan Government confirms radiation leak at Fukushima nuclear plants. Asian countries should take necessary precautions. If rain comes, remain indoors first 24 hours. Close doors and windows. Swab neck skin with betadine where thyroid area is, radiation hits thyroid first. Take extra precautions. Radiation may hit Philippine at around 4 pm today. If it rains today or in the next few days in Hong Kong. Do not go under the rain. If you get caught out, use an umbrella or raincoat, even if it is only a drizzle. Radioactive particles, which may cause burns, alopecia or even cancer, may be in the rain.

END QUOTE

The hoax caused particular panic in the Philippines, with reports of workers and schoolkids being sent home, leading the Philippine government to issue a denial. Disasters are often used as a pretext to send out scam texts to fool users into downloading malware -- or just for the fun of spreading panic. What would the internet be without scams?

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[MON 28 MAR 11] RESPONSIVE SPACE (1)

* RESPONSIVE SPACE (1): The US military is interested in the concept of "responsive space" -- discussed here some years back -- which outlines a vision where low-cost satellites are prepared and launched with short leadtimes to support field operations as needed. As discussed by THE ECONOMIST ("Endangered Birds", 11 December 2010), responsive space is not just being driven by the attractiveness of military space resources on demand, but by the fact that existing military space resources seem increasingly vulnerable to attack.

Work on anti-satellite (ASAT) technologies goes back to the beginning of the space race, with the USA and the USSR engaging in parallel ASAT development programs. Neither side ever put their ASAT weapons into real operational service, however, both realizing that if one side could destroy the spacecraft of the other, it was certain its own space assets would be promptly destroyed as well. The two sides realized that they stood far more to lose than to gain in a space war -- and so their ASAT efforts ended up being basically defensive, conducted just to hint to the other side what would happen if the status quo was broken.

In the post-Cold War world that neat balance of power has become unstable. There are a number of space powers on the planet now, and any of them could develop an ASAT capability if they wanted to, since it's just not that hard to do. In 2007, China destroyed an old Chinese satellite with a prototype ASAT system, leading to international howls of pain -- not just because China had demonstrated a willingness to break through the threshold of ASAT restraint, but because the test spread debris along the satellite's orbital path, threatening everybody's space systems. A year later, the USA shot down a satellite that had gone out of control with a ship-launched missile interceptor. The spacecraft was close to reentry and so the debris fell to Earth, with the US claiming the shot was performed to make sure the satellite didn't crash intact and cause damage. Russia and China accused the US of using the exercise as a warning against deployment of ASAT systems. In reply, one might merely grin and point out that, so far, the Chinese haven't performed a second such ASAT test.

If somebody does deploy an operational ASAT system, it would be difficult to protect spacecraft from it. Even if satellites were fitted with defensive systems, such as an ability to maneuver and avoid interception, counter-countermeasures wouldn't be hard to implement -- for example, an ASAT could just disperse a swarm of pellets that would be very difficult to dodge or to defeat. The pellets could even just be balls full of soot, painting the spacecraft black to ruin solar panels and cameras, as well as causing the satellite to overheat.

A better approach is to fly cheap satellites on demand. Hence "responsive space". Last spring, the US military launched "TacSat 3", a surveillance satellite with a telescopic camera system featuring a "hyperspectral" imager that can sort through the spectral signatures of targets -- coupled to a "smart" analysis system that could autonomously pick out and report targets of interest directly to field commanders. While big surveillance satellites can be the size of a bus, cost billions of dollars, and take years to build and fly, TacSat 3 was the size of two refrigerators, cost $65 million USD, and took less than 15 months to build.

TacSat 3

The idea is to build satellites even more cheaply and quickly. In 2007, the Pentagon set up the "Operationally Responsive Space Office (ORSO)" at Kirtland Air Force Base (AFB) in New Mexico, with the office staffed by workers from the various US armed services, several intelligence agencies, and the US National Aeronautics & Space Administration (NASA). The ORSO's director, Peter Wegner, describes the effort as an "explosion in innovation."

As one part of the exercise, ORSO is standardizing satellite subsystems so they can be quickly and easily plugged together to fulfill specific military requirements. When possible, elements are hooked together with standard USB interfaces, just like those found on a PC. Assemblies are mounted on standardized pegboxes with screwholes 5 centimeters (2 inches) apart. In one trial, ORSO staffers assembled a satellite in four hours.

Software is also being standardized. Traditionally, satellites have been run by custom software, which can be frightfully expensive, but a team led by James Lyke, a satellite engineer at Kirtland AFB, is working with the Swedish ministry of defense is developing a "universal, plug-&-play" operating system so that satellites, again like PCs, can recognize and accommodate different hardware as it's plugged in.

The idea that spacecraft can built in a standardized and relatively low-cost fashion has been boosted by the "Cubesat", a standardized satellite configuration in the shape of a cube 10 centimeters (4 inches) on a side, with "double Cubesats" amounting to two stacked base Cubesats and "triple Cubesats" amounting to three stacked base Cubesats. Over a hundred groups, many of them run by students but also including defense organizations, are working on Cubesats.

Cubesat

Various space-oriented organizations also have developed their own standardized spacecraft configurations, for example the "Myriade" small satellite bus developed by CNES, the French space agency. Orbital Sciences Corporation of the US has a particularly interesting bus configuration the company developed for their "Orbcomm" small communications satellite, in the form of a thick disk that pops out solar panel "lids" on both sides. The Orbcomm configuration allows multiple satellites to be launched in a stack on a single booster.

Satellites designed to be launched as sets are an important factor in the responsive space equation. One of the issues with responsive space launch is "revisit time", or the interval between the times a satellite flies over a specific location. A satellite placed in a low polar orbit can canvass the entire Earth once a day, but warfighters may really need effectively continuous coverage. In terms of responsive space, that can mean launching not a single satellite but an entire constellation of them on a single booster, as with the Orbcomm satellite, possibly along with decoys to make interception more difficult.

Such a constellation is more useful if it's networked, with satellites communicating with each other as well as ground forces. The space network could link up spacecraft with different functions, performing digital "fusion" on their observations, with individual spacecraft designed to perform multiple functions when possible -- combining communications relay with signals intelligence, for instance. [TO BE CONTINUED]

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[FRI 25 MAR 11] THE KILLING OF JFK -- THE BALANCE OF EVIDENCE (11)

* THE KILLING OF JFK -- THE BALANCE OF EVIDENCE (11): Conspiracy theorists keep sniping at the "magic bullet", for example pointing out the fact that Connally kept on clutching his Stetson hat in the Zapruder movie after he had been supposed to have been shot, with his wrist badly injured. Actually, he keeps on holding it through the Zapruder movie, and he was known to have been hit during movie interval -- so though it may be counterintuitive, the facts make it clear that he was still able to hang onto his hat with his wounded wrist. Nellie Connally said he was still hanging on to the hat when he was arrived at Parkland Hospital. Senator Daniel Inouye of Hawaii lost his right arm fighting in Italy in 1945; he was about to throw a grenade when he was hit, with his arm almost severed at the elbow. He had no control over his right hand, but astoundingly the grenade remained "clutched in a fist that didn't belong to me any more." He pried the grenade loose with his left hand and threw it.

Conspiracy theorists also mock the idea that the bullet -- best known as "Warren Commission Exhibit Number 399" or just "CE 399" -- fell out of Connally on the gurney at Parkland, but the shallow wound in the governor's leg, just penetrating the skin, was an entrance wound with no other exit: something went in, the doctors said they didn't find a bullet in the wound, so assuming they were telling the truth it must have come back out. Indeed, the doctors in the emergency room were very puzzled that they couldn't find the bullet. Incidentally, some conspiracy theorists claim that the bullet that went into Connally's thigh had enough velocity to actually hit his femur. This tale arose because the bullet left a tiny speck of a fragment in the leg wound, and X-rays showed the fragment to coincide with the femur. That was just due to the fragment being in the line of sight of the X-ray image with the femur; the fragment was actually nowhere close to the bone. The Warren Commission fumbled this issue; the HSCA set it right.

Conspiracy theorists claim that adding up the weights of the bullet and the fragments it left in its path add up to more than the manufactured weight of the bullet. However, the only fragments believed to be associated with CE 399 were a few tiny flecks associated with the governor's wrist wound and the speck in his thigh; no bullet fragments were found associated with the governor's chest wound and JFK's throat wound. The fragments found in Connally weighed no more than "micrograms", an extremely tiny percentage of the weight of the bullet, with the sum of the weight of the bullet and the fragments still being slightly less than the total weight of an intact bullet.

The most persistent tale told by conspiracy theorists about the "magic bullet" is the notion that CE 399 was fake evidence planted on the gurney to confuse an investigation. This is, however, also one of the weakest of their arguments, since it leads directly to the "foresight" problem that tends to afflict conspiracy theories: the scheme can only be made to sound workable after the fact. Before the fact, it was confronted with unpredictable and potentially fatal pitfalls.

First, tossing a bullet on the gurney would have been a careless way of introducing the fake evidence, there being no certainty as to when or even if it would be found -- and in fact O.P. Wright had trouble getting a government agent to take it. Worse, it was found while Connally was still in surgery; what would have happened had a bullet been pulled out of him? Or what if a bullet had been found in the limousine? The attempt at trickery would have been detected, and the "conspiracy" would have been worse off than they would have been if they had done nothing. Along with all the logical failings of the idea, there's also the significant fact that it's pure speculation, with nobody able to nail down who was supposed to have done the job or provide any other details. [TO BE CONTINUED]

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[THU 24 MAR 11] GIMMICKS & GADGETS

* GIMMICKS & GADGETS: The concept of the "vertical farm" -- in which crops are raised in high-rise greenhouses -- has been discussed here in the past. THE ECONOMIST provided some further discussion of the concept, adding details such as the fact that the Admundsen-Scott South Pole Station has been running an automated hydroponics facility with a floor area of 22 square meters (237 square feet) since 2004 to provide the staff with fresh produce. Of course the facility has to be artificially lighted, using a battery of sodium-vapor lamps, since the Sun doesn't show at the South Pole for about half the year. The indoor vegetable garden also helps alleviate "cabin fever" among the station residents. The project was implemented by the US National Science Foundation.

As the South Pole facility shows, technically indoors farming is perfectly practical, but the sticking point is that multi-storey indoor farms are dependent on artificial lighting. Even single-storey greenhouses need to be augmented by artificial lighting to keep crops growing year-round, and when natural lighting is available, it can be uneven. Valcent, an international indoor-farming firm, has come up with a scheme in which hydroponic trays are moved around on rails to make sure they get their fair share of light, demonstrating good results in pilot projects.

Ted Caplow, an environmental engineer and founder of the nonprofit New York Sun Works, says that the numbers don't work out for vertical farms. The Sun Works performed a practical experiment in the form of the "Science Barge", a floating hydroponic greenhouse that was docked in Manhattan from 2006 into 2009 to investigate urban farming. Caplow says the experiment was very successful, showing that the barge was 20 times more productive than a field of the same size and used a tenth as much water, with no fertilizer runoff and no use of pesticides. The barge was powered by its own solar panels and wind turbines.

Science Barge

The Science Barge, however, was only one storey. Caplow's figurings show that to illuminate a specific area using solar power requires an area of solar panels 20 times greater. Fortunately, while that makes a farm skyscraper problematic, there's no such obstacle to putting a greenhouse on the top floor of another building -- such as a supermarket, a retail outlet, or an office building. Whether the economics work out there is another question, but it certainly seems like an option worth investigating.

* In related news, as reported by POPULAR SCIENCE, the University of Arizona has developed a collapsible hydroponic "Lunar Greenhouse Prototype" for a Moonbase, using a grant from the US National Aeronautics & Space Administration grant. As envisioned, a lander would deploy four of the greenhouses, each a cylinder 2.1 meters wide and 5.5 meters long (7 x 18 feet), with the cylinders buried in the lunar soil to protect them from extremes of temperature and radiation. The greenhouses would be "ready to roll", loaded with seeds and sodium-vapor lamps. The greenhouses would provide fresh fruits and vegetables while helping to recycle air and sewage. The University of Arizona has tested one of the greenhouses and used it to grow sweet potatoes, lettuce, tomatoes, and strawberries. It's an interesting item, but it sounds pretty much like something that might have been done forty years ago -- and with no prospect of or even strong necessity for a lunar base, for now all it amounts to is an amusing toy.

Lunar Greenhouse

* Pneumatic-tube messaging systems have been around since the 19th century and are still in common use at facilities such as banks and hospitals. There was a time when many large cities, particularly in Europe, had sprawling pneumatic tube networks to transport mail and small parcels. According to THE ECONOMIST, an engineering physicist named Franco Cotana of the University of Perugia in Italy wants to revive the technology in a modernized form to deliver goods.

Cotana's "Pipenet", as he calls it, is built around a network of metal pipes about 60 centimeters (2 feet) in diameter, with each capsule capable of hauling up to 50 kilograms (110 pounds) of goods. Instead of pneumatic pressure, which doesn't work well over long connections, the capsules are propelled by linear induction motors, like a "maglev" train. Capsules are fitted with wireless transponders to allow the system to keep track of them and route them to specified destinations; magnets are used at junctions to switch the direction of a capsule. The network would maintain a partial vacuum, but just to reduce air resistance. The capsules could travel at up to 1,500 KPH (930 MPH).

Maglev trains have been around a long time, at least conceptually, but they've never amounted to much because they're so expensive. Cotana's scaled-down system is much cheaper, at about $3.1 million USD per kilometer, about a fifth to a tenth as expensive as a high-speed railway. That may still be too much, but Cotana has conducted a study for implementing Pipenet in Perugia, a medieval city whose narrow and winding streets make parcel delivery difficult. The study suggests the Pipenet could pay itself off there in seven years.

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[WED 23 MAR 11] EVOLUTION OF THE MARSUPIALS

* EVOLUTION OF THE MARSUPIALS: The marsupials -- the "pouched mammals" such at the kangaroo and koala, or the American opossum -- have been relatively neglected by modern genomic science, and so the relationships between the different groups of marsupials have remained somewhat unclear. Now a group of German researchers at the Westphal Wilhelms University in Muenster have performed a genomic analysis that sorts out the relationships between the seven main branches of the marsupials.

The study was based on the arrangements of "retrotransposons", distinctive bits of DNA that have a tendency to rearrange themselves in the genome; they're also called "jumping genes", though there's no connection between them and the kangaroo lifestyle. In any case, at various times in the history of the marsupials a gene jumped around in the genome; it rarely jumped back through the descendants, which accumulated distinctive patterns of jumped genes that, in principle, allow their ancestral relationships to be sorted out. 22 different marsupial species were examined, with the positions of ten retrotransposons distinctive to marsupials used as the basis for evaluating relationships.

The marsupials are believed to have branched off from the placental mammals, like us, about 130 million years ago. The study shows that the oldest branch of marsupials are the New World marsupials, which consist of three groups:


monito del monte

The Australian marsupials branched off from the American marsupials to diversify into four groups:

Anybody familiar with the American opossum would not be surprised at the antiquity of its lineage, since it's an ugly little monster with a mouthful of very sharp teeth, but the statement that the American marsupials represent the "oldest branch" is a bit misleading. It doesn't mean they are necessarily "living fossils"; it just means that particular group split off from the rest before the other six splits occurred. It's not surprising the American marsupials represent the oldest split, since South America and Australia separated a long time ago, and since then the two components of the marsupials have evolved in parallel.

marsupial clade diagram

The new tree of relationships is slightly different from the tree generally assumed by zoologists to this time. To be sure, genomic studies have their potential pitfalls like any other taxonomic method, but properly done they provide good-quality data, and the more genomic detail considered, the more valid the tree. The German researchers intend to pursue their studies down to more detail to sort out individual marsupial species.

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[TUE 22 MAR 11] NOT SO RARE EARTHS

* NOT SO RARE EARTHS: Technology news has been talking a good deal over the last year or so about a looming crisis in "rare earths" materials -- a set of 17 elements that aren't inclined to form concentrated ores, making them troublesome to mine, and have very similar chemical properties, making them difficult to refine. They have a range of uses, a big one being magnetic elements for hard disk read-write heads or for compact electric motors and the like -- but only China really thought it worthwhile to mine them, resulting in a Chinese corner on the market. Now China, requiring most of that country's rare-earth production for its own use, has all but stopped export of the materials, resulting in a near-instant shortage and skyrocketing prices on world markets.

Recycling programs are beginning to pop up, and manufacturers are also looking for alternatives -- there are replacement materials that can do the same jobs, if not necessarily as well -- but the demand is still there. As reported by an article from THE LOS ANGELES TIMES ("US Scrambles To Dig Out of a Rare Earths Hole" by Tiffany Hsu, 24 February 2011), mining companies now see an opportunity for profits.

The fact is that the name "rare earths" is misleading, since some of them are common; cerium, one of the rare earths that's sometimes used as a catalyst for self-cleaning ovens, is more abundant in the Earth's crust than copper or lead. Rare earths can be mined in many places if someone thinks it worth their while to do so. As an example, Molycorp INC of Colorado is now ramping up production at the company's Mountain Pass mine, in California near the Nevada border, off the freeway between Los Angeles and Las Vegas. The mine has one of the world's largest deposits of rare earth elements outside Asia, and at present is the only commercial producer in the Western Hemisphere.

Mountain Pass mine

The mine is not a new facility; it was established in the 1940s as a side-effect of uranium prospecting. At one time it was the world's largest supplier of rare earths when the demand for europium, used for color television screens, surged in the 1960s. Unfortunately, extracting rare earths tends to be an environmentally dirty process. The ores, being low grade, have to be extracted in large quantity, resulting in huge piles of "tailings"; while the troublesome process of refining the rare earths out of the ores requires toxic materials, produces floods of salty wastewater, and demands huge amounts of electricity. In between the costs of producing rare earths and cleaning up the mess, most producers had given up by the 1990s. China, where environmental regulation has been traditionally lax, took over the market by default.

The Mountain Pass mine was one of the casualties, but now it's coming back to life. With rare earth prices high, even with tougher cleanup standards it's profitable to produce rare earths, and Molycorp is pumping a half billion USD into getting the mine back on its feet. Right now its production is only about 3% of world needs, but by 2014 the company expects to control a quarter of the market. The born-again mine will feature a water recycling system, an on-site natural-gas electrical power generation system, and a program to restore the tailings piles back into the landscape.

The US Geological Survey has identified several other sites in America where rare earths could be mined. The US Congress is considering proposals, such as loan guarantees for rare earths suppliers, to encourage more domestic exploration and production. Other countries, including Australia, Canada and Brazil, are also searching for deposits. However, bringing up a mine from nothing demands prospecting, exploration, permits, and construction -- and not many companies have the specialized expertise to process rare earths or turn them into end products. Molycorp recruiters have found it troublesome to find potential hires or even universities that offer courses in rare earths.

There's actually nothing new about materials shortages. Metallurgy experts point to the cobalt crisis of the late 1970s as an example. The element -- used in alloys, batteries, pigments and more -- was in short supply, thanks to political unrest that locked down the primary reserves in Africa, just as demand was starting to boom. Industry adapted, not without pain, but what else was going to happen? According to Alexander King, director of the US Department of Energy's Ames Laboratory in Iowa: "Tomorrow, it'll be something else. The thing we need to learn is how to control the economics, to develop alternative materials on a very short turnaround."

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[MON 21 MAR 11] NUCLEAR INSECURITY (2)

* NUCLEAR INSECURITY (2): While sophisticated detection systems are important in tracking nuclear materials, there are more mundane options. One is of course security cameras, though traditionally they have been limited by the need to keep an eye on them. "Smart" surveillance systems are obviously useful for tracking activities at nuclear plants, and some work is being done on such. At the European Community's Joint Research Center in Ispra, Italy, researchers are developing a laser scanning system that will keep track of an entire room, noticing if anything has been moved even a millimeter. That would make it very difficult to install trickery intended to siphon off fissionable material.

As far as detective work to spot nuclear cheating goes, one useful trick is to scan the physics literature to see if papers discussing techniques are being published by a country's physicists that don't seem to fit with the country's declared nuclear ambitions. The IAEA has investigated both Egypt and Korea over such papers; no evidence of malfeasance was uncovered, but the exercise did show that people were watching. Of course, if people are watching then the natural instinct will be to not publish compromising papers, but that can be a tipoff as well. As one LANL staffer put it: "If there has historically been activity on a research topic, and you see that the publication record of a country's universities in that area has been high or steady -- and then it suddenly drops to nothing -- you wonder about the change. What could those people be doing now?"

Finally, as the Pelindaba attack showed, there is the possibility that thieves or terrorists could raid a plant to obtain fissionable materials, or even just radioactive materials to assemble a "dirty bomb" -- a conventional bomb intended to scatter radioactive isotopes around a target, demanding a huge cleanup effort. What is worrisome is that there are many plants whose security is worse, in cases much worse, than that at Pelindaba. Technology can help somewhat with the security, for example in making it harder to smuggle out a spent fuel container. Researchers at the Joint Research Center at Ispra are working on a passive ID system for spent fuel rods, featuring a seal with unique patterns of holes and cuts that provide specific signatures when stimulated by ultrasonics.

However, radioactive materials are in widespread use, and there's no saying a terrorist group might try to just scour radioactive materials from hospitals and the like, accumulating traces until they had enough for a dirty bomb. For decade, a LANL team has been scouring the globe, tracking down reports of "orphaned" radioactive materials that need to be secured. Says an official with the program: "We just got a big shipment from Chile."

There is the irony, not lost on anyone, that LANL is in the position of trying to clean up a mess the lab did much to help create. It's hardly surprising: once a can of worms has been opened up, the only way to regain containment is to find a bigger can. [END OF SERIES]

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[FRI 18 MAR 11] THE KILLING OF JFK -- THE BALANCE OF EVIDENCE (10)

* THE KILLING OF JFK -- THE BALANCE OF EVIDENCE (10): Governor Connally seemed ambiguous in the various statements he made over his life on whether JFK was hit before he was, simply pointing out that he was certain he wasn't hit by the first shot, and didn't see the president after the shooting began. Connally did say he saw JFK out of the corner of his eye in a hospital interview, but made it clear in all later comments that he didn't.

His wife Nellie thought she saw JFK raising his arms before the governor was hit. The problem with this is that three shots were known to be fired, one was known to be a miss, and two hit JFK. If one of those bullets didn't hit Connally, then there had to be a fourth shot in that interval, since it is clear from the Zapruder movie that Connally had been wounded by the time the last bullet hit JFK's head. There is also the problem of how Nellie knew when her husband was hit -- if she was watching JFK after he was hit and then noticed the governor had been hit, how did she know he was hit later, instead of just noticing it later?

The balance of evidence from the "earwitnesses" strongly tilts toward only three shots. It is of course possible to invoke a silenced weapon of some sort -- but if the "conspiracy" used one silenced weapon, then why didn't they silence the others? If a fourth bullet was fired, then what happened to it? The bullet that hit Connally was accounted for, the bullet that finally hit JFK in the head was accounted for -- but if the bullet that went through JFK's throat was not the one that hit Connally, then where did it go? It would have hit someplace or someone in the limo, but no evidence of any such extra bullet was ever found. In 1992, Connally told Gerald Posner that Nellie "might have been mistaken" and that the notion that the second bullet had hit both JFK and himself would make matters "very, very consistent".

The second question is whether the wounds of the two men were consistent with them both being hit by the same bullet. Conspiracy theorists strongly reject the idea that the throat shot hit both men, asking: "How could one bullet have made seven wounds?" -- and claim that the "magic bullet", as they like to call it, would have had to perform some crazy zigzag trajectory to have done so. However, others see this as fuss over nothing. As Dr. Michael Baden, the chief forensic pathologist of the HSCA, put it: "One of the silliest arguments critics made over the years is that the bullet came out of Kennedy's neck, made a right turn to hit Connally's shoulder, then made another right when it left his chest in order to strike his wrist, and then completely changed directions and a made a left to enter his thigh."

The scenario outlined by the Warren Commission is actually almost obvious. As it was pieced together, the second bullet hit JFK in the back and then exited his throat, leaving a relatively neat hole since it went straight through. Its exit velocity was reduced to about 85% of that of impact. It was a light bullet and so it began to tumble, smashing through the side of Connally's chest while flying sideways, leaving a ragged hole as it flipped over on its trajectory, with its velocity reduced on exit to about 50% of its original impact velocity. Connally was turning around at the time in response to the first shot, with his right arm bent in front of him holding his Stetson hat, the bullet, which had flipped completely over on exiting the governor's body, smashed into his wrist, to exit with its velocity reduced to about 20% of the original impact velocity. It finally slapped into his thigh, hitting just hard enough to lodge in his skin. It fell out into his pants before he reached Parkland and then was found on the gurney in the hospital.

Reenactments and simulations of the assassination show that, from the "sniper's nest" on the sixth floor of the TSBD, the line of fire through JFK went into Connally. If the bullet had enough energy to punch through JFK -- it did, its initial impact velocity was about Mach 1.6 -- then it simply had to hit Connally as well, since there was no place else for it to go. It winged the governor nastily through the side of his chest and on exit smashed into the obstructing parts of his body.

view from the sniper's nest

The flight path of the bullet through Connally's body was established beyond dispute by his wounds; with his right arm curved in front of his body, it would be no surprise that it hit his arm. Since Connally was twisting his body around, his left thigh was the next thing in line, with the shallowness of the wound indicating that the bullet's energy was mostly spent. If the bullet didn't go into his thigh, then where did it go? A bullet clearly went through Connally, but no bullet was found in the front of the limousine.

Working in reverse, everybody admits the bullet hit Connally from the back, and from the size and shape of the highly elliptical entry wound it was also clearly tumbling, flying sideways, when it hit him, implying its flight had already been disrupted by a previous impact -- the Carcano bullet was known by ballistics experts to be very stable in flight at that range unless it had hit something, the bullet being long and slender but lightweight. Assuming the bullet was coming from the "sniper's nest", there were no obstructions for the bullet to hit before it reached the limousine. Anybody looking at the Zapruder movie would be hard-pressed to figure out how the bullet could have hit Connally in the back except by passing through JFK first. Besides, again, if the bullet that hit JFK didn't hit Connally -- then where did it go?

* The "zigzag path" tale seems to have arisen from inaccurate drawings of the assassination scene published in the popular press early on that showed Connally facing forward in a seat directly in front of JFK. In reality, Connally's seat was lower and staggered to the center of the limousine relative to JFK, and once again he was turning around to the right when he was hit. Nothing in the Zapruder movie or in careful reconstructions of the shooting implies any wild maneuvers by the bullet. The idea that a single high-velocity bullet could punch through two men seated in tandem hardly seems preposterous; it seems obvious. Arlen Specter often claimed the "single bullet" theory was his idea, but anybody on the Warren Commission examining the evidence would have come to the same conclusion.

magic bullet

However, the "magic bullet" story remains one of the most persistent mythologies of the JFK assassination, with "zigzag path" diagrams reproduced over and over and the "single bullet" notion dismissed -- the conspiracy community seems to have produced about as many "ballistics experts" as it did "photographic experts". Which is true, "magic bullet" or "single bullet"? Is it just a matter of opinion? Certainly it's dependent on the assumptions made, but if that's the case, it's a choice between the absurd results obtained by those that yield the "magic bullet" scenario versus the straightforward results of the "single bullet" scenario.

Of course, the "magic bullet" scenario is supposed to be absurd, showing that the "single bullet" scenario is unworkable -- but then what is the workable scenario supposed to be? The "magic bullet" scenario is merely a "negative argument", saying that if the "single bullet" case is incorrect, then the "multiple shooter" scenarios must be preferred. However, notice the use of plural in "scenarios", because there's more than one, and they rely on the vaguest of evidence -- dismissing evidence such as the consensus that only three shots were fired, and that there was no trace of an additional bullet. [TO BE CONTINUED]

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[THU 17 MAR 11] SPACE NEWS

* Space launches for February included:

-- 01 FEB 11 / GEO 1K 2 (FAILURE) -- A Rockot booster was launched from Russia's Plesetsk Northern Cosmodrome to put the "Geo 1K 2" geodetic studies spacecraft into orbit. The upper stage failed to relight and the satellite didn't reach operational orbit.

-- 06 FEB 11 / RPP (NROL-66) -- A Minotaur 1 booster was launched from Vandenberg to put a classified payload designated the "Rapid Pathfinder Program (PPP) AKA "NROL-66" into orbit for the US National Reconnaissance Office.

-- 16 FEB 11 / ATV 2 (JOHANNES KEPLER) -- An Ariane 5 ES booster was launched from Kourou to put the second ESA "Automatic Transfer Vehicle (ATV-2)" unmanned cargo spacecraft into space on an International Space Station support mission. ATV-2 was named "Johannes Kepler".

ATV 2

-- 24 FEB 11 / SHUTTLE DISCOVERY (STS-133) -- The NASA space shuttle Discovery was launched from Kennedy Space Center on "STS-133", an International Space Station (ISS) support mission. It was the 133rd shuttle flight, and the 39th and final flight of Discovery. There were six crew, including:

Discovery docked with the ISS Harmony module two days after launch, with the shuttle crew joining the ISS Expedition 26 crew of Scott Kelly, Alexander Kaleri, Oleg Skripochka, Dmitry Kondratyev, Catherine Coleman, and Paolo Nespoli. The shuttle carried the Permanent Multipurpose Module (PMM) -- which was the Leonardo Multipurpose Logistics Module with a micrometeorite shielding layer, allowing it to be left in orbit as a permanent ISS storage assembly -- as well as supplies and parts for the ISS, stowed on the fourth Express Logistics Carrier. One particularly interesting payload was "Robonaut2", a humanoid robot, or at least the upper torso of one, flown to the ISS for experimental evaluation.

Robonaut2

The mission lasted 12 days, 19 hours, and 5 minutes, with Discovery landing at Kennedy Space Center on 9 March 2011. Discovery had flown more missions than any other shuttle, having spent 365 days in space in the course of 27 years.

-- 26 FEB 11 / GLONASS K -- A Russian Soyuz 2-1b booster was launched from Baikonur in Kazakhstan to put a GLONASS K third-generation navigation satellite into orbit. This was the first launch of a GLONASS-K third-generation GLONASS satellite, the GLONASS-K being lighter than its predecessors and with a design lifetime of 10 years, as opposed to the 7 years of the second-generation GLONASS-M satellite; the GLONASS-K also features a new civilian channel. This was the first launch of a GLONASS spacecraft on a Soyuz booster, GLONASS launches having traditionally been performed by Proton boosters carrying three satellites at a time.

* OTHER SPACE NEWS: The twin NASA "Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory (STEREO)" solar science spacecraft were launched from Cape Canaveral on a Delta booster on 26 October 2006, the spacecraft being intended to perform solar observations, particularly solar "coronal mass ejections (CME)". The two spacecraft were sent on a trajectory that tossed them around the Moon, with one, "STEREO Ahead", being inserted into solar orbit ahead of the Earth, and the other, "STEREO Behind", coming back around the Earth for a second Moon flyby that put it in solar orbit behind the Earth.

STEREO spacecraft

Each STEREO spacecraft had a launch mass of 635 kilograms (1,400 pounds) and carried a suite of 18 instruments, including five telescopes to observe CMEs, as well as particle and fields instruments. In February, NASA announced that the STEREO spacecraft had finally reached positions on opposite sides of the Sun, providing a 360-degree simultaneous vision of the Sun. However, the two spacecraft are now approaching each other and are slowly moving out of their opposed position.

* AVIATION WEEK reports that a space test of the VASIMR plasma rocket engine, discussed here last summer, is now in preparation. Ad Astra Rocket Company is working with NASA to develop a 200 kilowatt VASIMR that will be mounted on the International Space Station's (ISS) Z1 truss in 2014. The company is negotiating with commercial space launch vendors to arrange a lift to the ISS. The payload will include a 50 kilowatt-hour battery pack; the ISS can't supply 200 kilowatts to the VASIMR engine, so each of the 300 or so test shots will require building up power in the battery pack, discharging the battery pack in the shot, and then soaking up power again for the next shot.

VASIMR rocket on ISS

Ad Astra already has bench-tested VASIMR engines. NASA staff are helping plan the installation of the engine on the ISS, which will involve one or two spacewalks. According to Franklin Chang-Diaz, boss of Ad Astra: "NASA has come forward with resources -- obviously, it would be very expensive to fund all these NASA people. Other than that, the project is really all privately funded." Once the VASIMR engine is validated, Ad Astra wants to go on to operational missions, for example a probe to scout out an asteroid, and to move on to a 1 megawatt engine.

* The European Space Agency has now committed to the "European Data Relay Satellite System (EDRSS)", a communications network intended to support data transmissions from Earth remote sensing satellites. The EDRSS will be based on two geostationary payloads -- a small, dedicated spacecraft, plus a payload piggybacked on a conventional communications satellites. The EDRSS spacecraft will have laser comlinks to support high-bandwidth data transmissions from Earth remote sensing satellites, most significantly those of the European "Global Monitoring for Environment & Security (GMES)" network.

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[WED 16 MAR 11] BIKING IT

* BIKING IT: As reported by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("Shifting Up A Gear", 17 July 2010), Mexico City may not seem like an ideal place for bicycling, being plagued by heavy traffic, as well as thin and smoggy air. However, early in 2010 a fleet of 1,200 tidy red "Ecobici" rent-to-ride bicycles was introduced, based out of 85 docking stations, for use by the citizens; the city's inhabitants have embraced the system, with thousands signing up to the scheme and taking hundreds of thousands of rides.

The modern rent-to-ride scheme started out in the French town of La Rochelle in 1974. Copenhagen was the first to set up a big automated system in 1995. Germans have experimented with rent-to-ride bikes paid for by mobile phones. However, the best-known rent-to-ride system is the "Velib" of Paris, with 20,000 bikes available with the swipe of a card. In London, the transport authority and Barclays Bank have set up a system with 6,000 bikes, with users paying at one of 400 docking stations, or using a key with a chip.

The big challenge for rent-to-ride bicycling is theft. Early on, Velib lost thousands of bikes, some of them ending up in Eastern Europe and North Africa. Portable locks didn't work; secure docking stations have proven more effective. Typically, the bikes are almost completely painted in a bright color like red or yellow to make them both visible and hard to resell; bigger programs use bikes made largely of nonstandard parts to make sure they can't be usefully broken down for parts. Electronic ID and tracking systems can also help with security. Mexico City, noted for a fairly high crime rate, hasn't suffered, with only one bike lost in the first six months of operation. Says Mayor Marcelo Ebrard: "We were expecting people to steal them, but that hasn't happened."

The economics of rent-to-ride are intertwined with security. The preferred business model is a membership scheme, in which the users identify themselves and provide a charge card number for long-term use of the system. That way, they can be billed if the bike is lost or damaged when in their possession. However, the tighter the security, the greater the overhead, and there's a limit to how much users will pay for memberships. The number of bikes and the number and dispersal of docking stations in a system also affects membership; obviously, people aren't going to sign up for memberships if they can't find a docking station where they can get a bike, or find a docking station to drop off the bike when they're done. Usually a bike system is effectively restricted to core city areas to ensure good coverage where the bikes will get the most use, with the system expanding as usage grows.

rent to ride, Washington DC

Incidentally, the business models can be imaginative: the Shanghai bike system actually awards riders points for very short rides, while Copenhagen's system is partly supported by advertising on the bike frame and the bike's solid wheels. The systems are not necessarily run at a profit, being supported by grants or by civic government, with government seeing the scheme as worth the price to reduce traffic congestion.

Urban cycling is a response to traffic gridlock, but high traffic density also makes it dangerous. Cyclists in Mexico City and London would really like proper bike lanes, as are common in Germany and the USA. Sometimes the authorities take an easy-going attitude towards riding through parks or on sidewalks, as long as cyclists don't make a nuisance of themselves. In any case, as cycling becomes more common in big cities, drivers tend to become more willing to share the road with bikes. Big-city traffic can make people homicidal, but over time most people still want to get along.

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[TUE 15 MAR 11] DAY IN COURT

* DAY IN COURT: The battle over vaccines, which has gone on in fits and starts since they were invented, has a legal component. An article from TIME Online ("BRUESEWITZ V WYETH: What the Supreme Court Decision Means for Vaccines" by Meredith Melnick, 24 February 2011) discussed a recent US Supreme Court decision concerning vaccines that provided interesting legal insights into the issue.

Vaccines suffer from two intimately associated difficulties:

In sum, it's easy to suspect a vaccine of causing trouble, but it's hard to prove that it actually did, and so the Supreme Court was operating in difficult territory when it ruled in February 2011 on a case brought to the court by the parents of Hannah Bruesewitz, 18, who suffered seizures and permanent brain damage after receiving a diptheria-tetanus-pertussis (DTP) vaccine in 1993.

While vaccines are often accused of causing autism these days, that wasn't specifically the basis of the case pressed by Russell and Robalee Bruesewitz. Their daughter Hannah began having seizures within hours of receiving the third of a scheduled five doses of Wyeth's Tri-Immunol DTP vaccine, when she was 6 months old. Within 16 days, she had an additional 125 seizures. Her medical records included speech delays and "autistic-like features" among her symptoms. She continues to suffer from seizures and remains developmentally impaired. The DTP vaccine that Hannah received was suspicious, coming from a batch associated with an unusually high number of adverse events, including one death and eight children who had convulsions. Wyeth seemed like a logical target, but first the couple had to deal with the "National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act (NCVIA)" of 1986.

The NCVIA was passed in recognition of the peculiar characteristics of vaccines: while by all evidence vaccines were overwhelmingly beneficial, as noted they pose a level of risk, with the complication that it was only too easy to blame any affliction of a vaccinated individual on the vaccine. America needed vaccines, but how could they be used without manufacturers being sued out of the vaccine business, with the courts tied up in knots as well? That was the problem the US faced in the mid-1980s.

The NCVIA resolved the dilemma with a certain tidiness. Under the NCVIA, injured parties may file for compensation without having to prove cause; they simply have to demonstrate to a "Vaccine Court" that the injury occurred immediately after vaccination. Furthermore, the claimed injury doesn't have to be among the hazards listed on the vaccine package, but it must be included in a list of side effects called a "Vaccine Table", kept by the Vaccine Court. Pharmaceutical companies can't be held legally liable for adverse effects, and there's a cap on how much claimants may be awarded by the Vaccine Court; the payments come from taxes on immunizations. Of course, the products of pharmaceutical companies remain subject to government regulatory oversight, so they're not being given a free pass.

However, the Bruesewitzes didn't get satisfaction out of the Vaccine Court. They presented their case in 1995, but were denied a settlement because residual seizure disorder wasn't one of the adverse events appearing on the Vaccine Table for DTP; their petition was dismissed in 2003. The couple then sued Wyeth under Pennsylvania tort law, arguing that Wyeth was negligent in continuing to produce its Tri-Immunol DTP vaccine; the vaccine had been developed in the 1940s and, unlike equivalents from other manufacturers, hadn't been updated since that time, resulting in what the Bruesewitzes labeled "avoidable" harm.

The case made its way to the Supreme Court -- which shot it down with a hefty 6 to 2 vote. Writing for the majority, Justice Antonin Scalia said that to allow civil litigation for vaccine injury claims that had failed in Vaccine Court would destroy the NCVIA, restoring the unworkable status quo that had created it in the first place. The NCVIA represented what Scalia called a "societal bargain", with the justice writing that the act "reflects a sensible choice to leave complex epidemiological judgments about vaccine design to the FDA and the National Vaccine Program rather than juries."

* In related news, Bill Gates, who has taken his Microsoft fortune and set up the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to promote world health, threw down the gauntlet to the antivaxers in a CNN interview on 2 February in which Gates attacked British medical researcher Andrew Wakefield, who has energetically promoted the idea that vaccines cause autism:

BEGIN QUOTE:

Well, Dr. Wakefield has been shown to have used absolutely fraudulent data. He had a financial interest in some lawsuits, he created a fake paper, the journal allowed it to run. All the other studies were done, showed no connection whatsoever again and again and again. So it's an absolute lie that has killed thousands of kids. Because the mothers who heard that lie, many of them didn't have their kids take either pertussis or measles vaccine, and their children are dead today. And so the people who go and engage in those anti-vaccine efforts -- you know, they, they kill children. It's a very sad thing, because these vaccines are important.

END QUOTE

Unsurprisingly, antivaxers were not happy about being called "child killers", and so activist groups called a national day of protest on 24 February. Their critics were amused when only 18 people were counted at the protest in New York City, noting that any street performer could get a bigger crowd.

What makes this more interesting is that this is not the first time Gates has gone around with the antivaxers, who recycle a comment he made in a lecture in Long Beach, California, in 2010: "The world today has 6.8 billion people. That's headed up to about 9 billion. Now if we do a really great job on new vaccines, health care, reproductive health services, we could lower that by perhaps 10 or 15 percent." Antivaxers and conspiracy theorists tended to read into the remark an evil conspiracy to sterilize poor people with vaccines -- though if that were the case, it would seem unlikely that Gates would have told the world about it. Gates had actually explained his thinking on the matter in 2008:

BEGIN QUOTE:

If you improve health in a society ... surprisingly, population growth goes down. And that's because a parent needs to have some children survive into adulthood to take care of them when they're old. And so, if they think having six children is what they need to do to have at least two survive, that's what they'll do. And amazingly, across the entire world, as health improves, then the population growth actually is reduced.

END QUOTE

It can be hard to feel too antagonistic to antivaxers who are parents of children that they believe were harmed by vaccines. However, in this case it's even harder to think that Gates isn't on the right side of the vaccine argument.

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[MON 14 MAR 11] NUCLEAR INSECURITY (1)

* NUCLEAR INSECURITY (1): As reported by an article in AAAS SCIENCE ("An Unending Mission To Contain The Stuff Of Nuclear Nightmares" by Yudhijit Bhattacharjee, 4 June 2010), in the dark hours of the morning of 8 November 2007, a gang of bandits broke into the Pelindaba Nuclear Research Center near Pretoria, South Africa. The intruders disabled a high-voltage fence, bypassed multiple layers of security, and got into an emergency control room, where they shot and wounded a staffer, then made off with a personal computer. Another gang also tried to break in, but failed.

Pelindaba Nuclear Research Center

It doesn't appear the thieves were after the weapons-grade uranium stored at Pelindaba, but their ability to penetrate what had been judged a highly secure facility was unnerving. One of the basics of the effort to control nuclear proliferation is tracking nuclear materials, and the prospect of thieves making off with them is enough to give arms-control officials nightmares.

Even without the possibility of theft, the efforts of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to control the distribution of nuclear materials are troublesome enough. The IAEA traditionally sends inspectors to nuclear sites to validate the designs of the sites and perform measurements of materials at various points in the fuel cycle. However, IEAE officials know such spot checks can be evaded, with clandestine activities going on when the inspectors aren't around. In recent years, the IAEA has turned to technologies that permit continuous remote monitoring of nuclear facilities, including laser-based surveillance systems and a number of detectors that track the flow of nuclear materials, with high precision and certainty, as they move through the facility. So far, only a few sites have been "wired" with the new systems, but officials believe they will become more common as more nuclear reactors are built around the world, straining the IAEA's inspection capability.

Systems to monitor nuclear facilities may be an important piece of the solution, but they're not the whole story. Over the past decade, the IAEA has also turned to playing detective to uncover covert programs, scanning satellite photos and the scientific literature for clues. There's also the threat, underlined by the Pelindaba break-in, of terrorists getting their hands on nuclear materials. To deal with that threat, in April 2010 the US government and 46 other countries announced an agreement to secure all their nuclear materials in four years -- though skeptics, noting how lax security is at many sites, wonder if there will be any improvement in places where the will or resources to honestly armor-plate a nuclear materials site are lacking.

* The US Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) traces its history back to the organization that built the first atomic bombs during World War II, and during the Cold War LANL built ever more powerful bombs for the US nuclear arsenal. However, from the 1960s LANL has also been on the forefront of developing tech to provide nuclear safeguards.

Some of the latest of these technologies are being evaluated at uranium-enrichment and fuel reprocessing plant in Rokasho, Japan. This last spring, LANL researchers delivered a new system for measuring the enrichment level and quantity of uranium in 2 meter (6 foot 6 inch) long steel cylinders moving through the enrichment facility there. Previously, inspectors tried to measure the proportion of fissile uranium-235 (U235) in the material, usually uranium hexafluoride AKA "hex", inside a cylinder using portable detectors to measure gamma emission from the container's outer layers -- gamma emission won't make it out of the center of the cylinder. To determine the overall mass, they just measured the cylinder on a scale. It would be easy to cheat, however, one way being to put lead in the core of the cylinder, giving the impression that the radioactive material is less enriched than it really is.

The new system consists of tubes wrapped in cadmium and filled with helium-3. It counts the neutrons that fluorine atoms in the hex emit when they are bombarded by alpha particles -- helium nuclei -- emitted by the natural decay of uranium. Neutrons are hard to shield against and they will leak out of the cylinder even from its center, and so monitoring them will ensure that inspectors aren't being handed a ringer. The system has been installed in a corridor between the facility's storage area and the enrichment plant's entrance, with the readings monitored remotely.

However, that's only one segment of the entire fuel cycle. The cycle begins with the conversion of mined uranium into hex, and ends with the reprocessing of spent fuel to obtain plutonium, one of the byproducts of the use of U235 in fission reactors and a useful fissionable material in itself. Right now, inspectors check up on spent fuel by looking into the cooling pond through special goggles to observe Cerenkov radiation -- blue light given off by water as it is excited by electrons pouring out of the fuel rods. It's not a very exact approach; inspectors would not be able to tell if a few of the spent fuel rods were dummies, with the genuine article diverted to a covert reprocessing plant.

That makes better methods of checking spent fuel a priority. In one approach, researchers count neutrons that the rods emit both spontaneously and through induced fission. The spontaneous emission comes mostly from curium, one of the several radioactive elements found in a spent fuel rod along with plutonium. Researchers first measure the neutron emission of rods as they find them, then they bombard the rods with neutrons to induce fission, producing more emission of neutrons. After subtracting the natural emission of the rods, the neutron emission is proportional to the amount of plutonium present. [TO BE CONTINUED]

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[FRI 11 MAR 11] THE KILLING OF JFK -- THE BALANCE OF EVIDENCE (9)

* THE KILLING OF JFK -- THE BALANCE OF EVIDENCE (9): The Warren Commission concluded that the same bullet that went through JFK's throat went on to hit Connally, but that raises questions. The first is that there is dispute from the Zapruder movie that JFK and Connally were hit at the same time, partly because the film sequence was interrupted when the limousine went out of sight momentarily behind the highway sign. Some claim that the reactions of the two men show that were struck simultaneously; others insist that Connally was hit later, maybe several seconds later.

The Warren Commission and the HSCA differed on when JFK was hit. The Warren Commission decided that Kennedy was hit just around the time the limousine emerged from behind the highway sign in the Zapruder video, when JFK raised his arms, possibly in a spontaneous spasm. The HSCA, in contrast, suggested that JFK was hit earlier, before the limousine went behind the sign, though Kennedy's movements at that time do not necessarily suggest that he was doing much more than looking around for the shooter. The Zapruder video shows that JFK had certainly been hit by the time the limo emerged from behind the sign, but leaves open the possibility that the bullet impact might have been before the limo went behind the sign.

There's also the fact that Connally's response appears to follow well after JFK was hit. There has been considerable argument over when he was hit, with issues raised over the motions of Connally's clothing -- was it the bullet or a gust of wind? -- and over the possibility that there was a delay between the impact of the bullet and the governor's realization that he had been hit, it being nothing unusual for people to suffer an unexpected injury and not be aware of it for a moment.

The Zapruder movie is a significant piece of evidence, but it's easy to overestimate its importance; it is far from the only piece of evidence in the assassination, and if it did not exist, there would still be a very substantial case left. Even today, in a world full of cameras, much more often than not crimes, including major ones that lead to convictions, aren't recorded on video. The Zapruder movie makes some things clear but it is ambiguous in other respects; the quality of the imagery is poor, lending itself to nitpicking over fuzzy details, and more specifically its lack of a soundtrack means that it cannot be used to conclusively determine the timing of the shots. Other evidence needs to be considered to resolve the issue.

* Incidentally, although conspiracy theorists often use the Zapruder movie to justify their case, they often denounce it as a fraud -- the "mastermind" behind the fakery being the US intelligence community's National Photographic Interpretation Center (NPIC) in Washington DC, which had obtained a copy of the Zapruder movie early on since the organization had equipment for making high-quality blowup images. While at the NPIC, so the tale goes, photo experts altered the video.

The "fraud" accusations began early on, when it was noted that some copies of the movie are missing a few frames. There wasn't any reason to think anything important had been lost, the frames taking up the period in the movie where the presidential limousine drove behind the back of the freeway sign, meaning the movie wasn't showing anything useful anyway. George Hunt, managing editor of LIFE magazine, which had the rights to the movie, said that they had damaged six frames by accident. Other copies exist that have the frames intact and, as would be expected, show nothing of interest.

The Warren Commission also reversed two frames, 314 and 315, displayed in the Warren Report. The frames cover the movement of JFK's head after being hit by the head shot; actually, the reversal of the frames ends up providing a suggestion of JFK being shot from the front, which is exactly what the Warren Commission did not conclude, so obviously the frames were scrambled by accident. J. Edgar Hoover acknowledged this in a letter to a researcher in late 1965. Beyond that, there's no particular agreement on what was supposedly faked in the movie and what wasn't, with different conspiracy theorists taking exception to different elements in the movie that contradict their own preconceptions on the JFK assassination -- claiming, for example, that the limousine supposedly almost came to a full stop after the bullet hit JFK in the throat, when the video actually shows it merely slowing down momentarily.

Of course, the Zapruder movie has been declared a complete fabrication, but no examination by qualified analysts gives any weight to charges of fakery. Most significantly, the Zapruder movie wasn't the only movie or photo taken at the scene of the crime in Dealey Plaza on 22 November 1963, and though most of the imagery doesn't provide much in the way of useful information on the assassination itself, it does give details of the layout of the scene on that day, with all the details that can be matched with those in the Zapruder movie lining up neatly. Undeterred, a few conspiracy theorists have claimed that the "conspiracy" has modified all the imagery taken on that day, even that which didn't come to light until long after the assassination. [TO BE CONTINUED]

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[THU 10 MAR 11] SCIENCE NOTES

* SCIENCE NOTES: One of the issues complicated the painful debate over global warming is the difficulty of assessing the mountains of climate data, from past decades and taken all over the world, to see if there really has been a warming trend. Crunching all that data is a huge job, and critics say analyses that show warming are biased by the assumptions made to keep the job manageable. Now advocates report that research teams from four organizations:

-- have each generated a data set tracking global temperatures from 1880 to the present that track each other closely. The four data sets are "noisy", however, and due to some differences in assumptions, they disagree in minor details. The GISS claimed 2005 was the hottest year on record, while the Met Hadley said it was 1998.

global temperature history

However, the temperature deltas between the data sets were tiny, no more than a tenth of a degree Celsius, and claims that such disagreements showed climate science is in chaos are bogus; a moving average of the four data sets would give almost identical results, showing a steady rise in global temperature, except for a temporary dip in midcentury. The dip is generally attributed to particulate pollution, with temperatures beginning to rise again once pollution controls became commonplace, demonstrating that human activities can indeed influence climate.

Says James Hansen of GISS, one of the most prominent global warming advocates: "It's not particularly important whether 2010, 2005, or 1998 was the hottest year on record. It is the underlying trend that is important." The trendline seems obvious from the four data sets, and if they are biased, it is in the same direction -- though no doubt some will see it as evidence of a conspiracy.

* The cuckoo bird is a notorious nest parasite, laying its eggs in the nest of other species of birds, which then raise the cuckoo chick. Cuckoos tend to be species-specific, with one species of cuckoo targeting one or a few species of host birds. Of course there is an "evolutionary arms race" between the cuckoos and the birds they parasitize, with the cuckoo acquiring adaptations to trick the host birds, for example laying eggs that match the coloration of those of the host bird. Researchers at the Australian National University report that the nestlings of each of the three species of the Australian bronze cuckoo also imitate the coloration of the nestlings of the host species: black, yellow, or pink. The coloration only lasts about eight days; after that, the host parents have bonded to the nestling, and its pinfeathers grow out to give it the proper appearance of a cuckoo.

* Researchers at Kyoto University in Japan are now working on an attempt to clone a wooly mammoth, using cells from a frozen carcass stored in a Russian lab. The Japanese researchers plan to insert the nuclei of mammoth cells into an elephant's egg cells from which the nuclei have been removed to create a mammoth embryo. The embryo will then be implanted into an elephant cow to bring it to term.

From the late 1990s, researchers from Kinki University tried to clone a mammoth but failed, due to damage to the frozen cells used in the effort. However, in 2008 Dr. Teruhiko Wakayama of Kobe's Riken Center for Developmental Biology succeeded in cloning a mouse from the cells of mouse that had been kept in deep-freeze for 16 years. The Kyoto researchers are leveraging off Wakayama's techniques to extract the nuclei of mammoth eggs. The Kyoto researchers have also been obtaining elephant egg cells to transplant the nuclei into. On current schedule, a mammoth may be born in 2016 or 2017.

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[WED 09 MAR 11] EXPLORING THE SOLAR SYSTEM IN NAUTILUS-X

* EXPLORING THE SOLAR SYSTEM IN NAUTILUS-X: Although spaceniks will generally concede that space exploration has been to a degree a disappointment following the giddy days of astronauts on the Moon, one thing the spaceflight community has never been short of is imaginative visions of the future. One of the more spectacular recent offerings from the US National Aeronautics & Space Administration's Johnson Space Center (NASA JSC) is the a "Multi-Mission Space Exploration Vehicle (MMSEV)", specifically named the "Non-Atmospheric Universal Transport Intended for Lengthy United States eXploration" -- mercifully contracted to "NAUTILUS-X".

NAUTILUS-X is not any dinky space capsule, instead being a true "space cruiser" that would support a crew of six on deep-space missions of up to two years duration. The vehicle would be assembled in orbit and fitted with different propulsion systems as per mission requirements. The spacecraft would be modular, based primarily around inflatable living modules along the lines of those being developed by Bigelow Aerospace, discussed here a few years back. Since there are worries about the human ability to survive more than six months in zero gravity and exposed to space radiation, the NAUTILUS-X would include a ring centrifuge to provide artificial gravity, with radiation protection using tanks of water or liquid hydrogen slush.

A baseline NAUTILUS-X configuration would feature a central spacecraft structure, mated to the centrifuge; a cluster of three Bigelow-type modules; plus a propulsion module. The spacecraft would be decorated with three large solar arrays, a robotic arm for maintenance and servicing, and communications antennas. A planetary lander system or auxiliary robot vehicles would be optional. It would of course be able to dock with the ISS or any vehicles, such as the NASA Orion capsule, that can dock with the ISS.

NAUTILUS-X

JSC estimates that NAUTILUS-X could be built in five years -- using three heavylift boosters launches along with support launches of crews and supplies on smaller commercial boosters -- at a cost of about $3.7 billion USD. The scheme envisions a demonstrator for the inflatable centrifuge, based on Bigelow technology, launched to the International Space Station (ISS) for testing. Initial operations envisioned include supporting a lunar exploration effort or a trip to a near-Earth asteroid. The NAUTILUS-X could be scaled up by adding more modules, with the JSC presentation including a configuration with 10 or more Bigelow modules and a nuclear propulsion unit.

Could it happen any time soon? Considering that the US manned space program is stalled for the time being thanks to constrained funds, it wouldn't be a good bet, but it's worthwhile to envision where we could be and where we might want to be a few decades down the road. Arthur C. Clarke once observed that space exploration was really a 21st-century endeavor, brought on prematurely in the 1960s by superpower competition. Clarke may be proven right yet.

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[TUE 08 MAR 11] KINECT ON A ROLL

* KINECT ON A ROLL: As reported by BUSINESS WEEK, Microsoft's Kinect gesture-recognition system for the company's XBox 360 game console has proven a big hit. Kinect is an add-on box that tracks the hand and body movements of gamers, allowing them to play without using a remote.

Kinect's primary sensor is a camera that generates a 3D map of objects in its field of view (FOV), and recognizes gestures by humans among those objects. Picking out objects from backgrounds is a tricky task, traditionally done by discriminating between colors and textures, but Kinect actually uses a "light radar (lidar)" to do the job. The camera is coupled to a near-infrared pulse transmitter and times the interval between emission of a pulse and the return of its reflection back to the camera pixel array to determine ranges of objects. The imaging lidar system can gauge the depths of objects to 1 centimeter and their height or width to 3 millimeters. Maximum range is 3.5 meters (11 feet).

Microsoft Kinect

The transmitter operates in the near-infrared because visible light pulses would be distracting, and the infrared pulses are also less confounded by ambient light, resulting in fewer false positives. The lidar system also extracts information on the alteration of the reflected pulses to get data on the texture of the objects in its FOV.

Kinect uses sophisticated firmware, called "middleware", to interpret the scene obtained by the imaging lidar. The middleware maps out scene it observes and tracks the people in it, distinguishing their body parts, joints, and movements, even recognizing different faces -- the camera "knows" who each player is. Kinect can track six people and monitor two of them as "active players", with the gesture recognition system observing 20 joints per player. In any case, Xbox then takes the motions reported by the Kinect and maps them into the game being played.

The system is remarkably "smart", though hardly perfect, capable of recognizing some gestures easily and some not so easily. It can interpret the movements of a standing figure more easily than a sitting figure. The Kinect also has a stereo microphone to permit audio input for gameplay; the microphone system has wide-field conical audio capture to permit it to pick up all sounds in its field of view, with the middleware sorting out the inputs. However, audio input is a "future" at present.

Kinect has proven popular with hardware hackers as well, who have adapted it as a general low-cost input device to control household robots, surf the web, and (somehow) have fun with online porn. One even wired up a Kinect to a 3D printing system to produce little bas-reliefs of someone observed by the box. Those involved in the "Open Kinect" movement believe that the Kinect is a revolutionary innovation and that Microsoft stands fair to dominate the emerging field of gesture recognition.

The problem is that Microsoft has been slow to get on board. The company did nothing to encourage Open Kinect hacking, and early on issued a statement saying that it did not "condone the modification of its product" and wanted to keep Kinect "tamper resistant". After howls of outrage from the hackers, the company clarified, saying the real worry was about people using the Kinect as a spy device, opening the company to litigation, and made it clear that there was no intent to take legal action against the hackers.

That provided some reassurance, but hackers still wondered why Microsoft seemed so frightened of open systems as to pass up the chance to lead a technology revolution. However, the wheels of bureaucracy turned at Microsoft, and in February the company announced that a Kinect software developer's kit (SDK) would be available for free download sometime in the spring, with a more sophisticated commercial SDK to follow. Better late than never.

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[MON 07 MAR 11] THE INFLUENZA MENACE (4)

* THE INFLUENZA MENACE (4): Virologists and other researchers remain interested in the influenza strain that caused the 1918 pandemic. In 1997, researchers at the US Armed Forces Institute of Pathology in Washington, DC, managed to isolate segments of the genes of the 1918 influenza virus from tissue samples preserved from soldiers who were infected. All indications are that the virus was what we would now consider a fairly typical swine-flu virus.

Even decoding fragments was difficult. The 1918 influenza strain has been out of circulation for a long time, and the instability of RNA means that old samples tend to be highly degraded. The researchers spent a year investigating and finally discovered good samples taken from a 21-year-old Army private who died at Fort Jackson, South Carolina. Using the sensitive polymerase chain reaction (PCR) to amplify the RNA from the samples, they found segments of five genes. The fragmentary nature of the segments meant the 1918 flu's virulence was still a mystery, as well as the fact that it was more lethal to the young than the old, exactly the opposite of most flu infections.

Further work by different research groups managed to produce the genome of the 1918 flu, with Canadian researchers finally able to replicate active viral samples and perform studies in a top-security biosafety facility at the National Microbiology Laboratory of Canada. A test group of macaque monkeys verified the ghastly reports of doctors from 1918: within 24 hours, the monkeys' lungs had been destroyed, and they would have drowned in their own fluids quickly had they not been put down. Analysis of the 1918 virus by organizations cooperating in the research effort shows that it was likely a bird flu virus that jumped to humans. It was thought for some time to have been transmitted through pigs, but modern research suggests that the pigs got it from humans, not the other way around. The 1918 virus's lethality was apparently due to its ability to suppress an important immune system component.

* The findings of the Canadian researchers intensified worries about the ongoing threat of another bird flu jump to humans. The "H5N1" virus was first spotted in Hong Kong in 1997, and was controlled by killing about 1.5 million poultry. It popped up again in South Korea in 2003, and since that time about hundreds of millions of birds have been slaughtered in order to control the disease. Scores of people who had worked with the birds came down with the flu and about half of them died. Although an H5N1 infection is very dangerous, so far the virus has not demonstrated an ability to be transferred from human to human.

The fairly mild flu pandemics in 1957 and 1968 seem to have been different avian-human flu hybrids. A human-contagious flu can spread widely and rapidly, meaning that a high percentage of the world's population will be infected. Because of the widespread footprint of the infection, despite the low mortality rates these pandemics killed millions. New antiviral drugs, particularly Tamiflu, block the replication of the influenza virus, reducing the severity of an infection if taken within 48 hours of onset of symptoms. It is, however, expensive, and in limited supply. The first line of defense against flu is vaccination, a somewhat troublesome measure because the flu is such a moving target, made more troublesome by anti-vaccination protesters.

vaccines versus flu

The H5N1 bird flu has gone quiet, though during the winter of 2009:2010, there was a pandemic featuring an H1N1 swine flu virus that killed thousands. How much longer we can dodge a replay of the 1918 flu is anybody's guess. [END OF SERIES]

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[FRI 04 MAR 11] THE KILLING OF JFK -- THE BALANCE OF EVIDENCE (8)

* THE KILLING OF JFK -- THE BALANCE OF EVIDENCE (8): The first of the three shots was by all evidence a miss. That leaves two more shots fired, with both scoring hits on JFK. Where the matter gets complicated is accounting for Connally's wounds as well. The government examinations of the assassination all concluded that JFK was hit twice from behind -- once into the base of the neck and out the throat, the other into the back of the head. The Warren Commission accepted the idea that the "throat shot" also went on to punch through Governor Connally.

Conspiracy theorists continue to insist that the throat shot was from the front, some claiming all the Parkland doctors identified the throat wound as an entrance wound. Of the Parkland staff in the emergency room, five of the doctors observed the wound before their attempt at a tracheotomy obliterated it: Baxter, Carrico, Jenkins, Jones, and Perry. Some conspiracy theorists say that Kemp Clark stated in interviews that the wound in the throat was an entrance wound, but Clark told the Warren Commission: "I do not recall ever specifically stating that this was an entrance wound ... I was not present when the president arrived and did not see this wound."

The tale that the Parkland staff had judged the wound an entrance wound got its origins in the press conference that followed the announcement of JFK's death on 22 November. Perry said he thought it was an entrance wound because it was small and relatively neat. The press picked it up the "entrance wound" remark and ran with it, and it's never died. Perry later commented: "I shouldn't have said anything. I was naive. I didn't know how much trouble I could get into. I shouldn't have surmised." Perry later said that he had qualified the statement in the press conference, clarifying that he wasn't sure where the bullet had come from, but the transcript of the session doesn't bear that out. Carrico described the throat wound as "penetrating" in his notes on 22 November 1963, but he denied later he meant that as a "entry" wound: the wound was associated with penetration into the body, but that didn't imply he meant he had a specific idea of which direction the penetration had taken place.

One of the operating room nurses, Margaret Henchcliffe, did tell the Warren Commission that she thought the throat wound was an exit wound because of its small size; on querying by the staff counsel, she admitted she couldn't rule out the possibility it might have been an exit wound. Baxter, Carrico, and Jones all later shrugged, saying it could have been an entrance or exit wound. Jenkins, who had more experience with bullet wounds than his colleagues, was sure at the time it was an exit wound, observing that though it was small, it was raggedy around the edges; he knew an entry wound was cleaner. Jenkins had seen plenty of small exit wounds, and knew that as long as the bullet didn't hit anything solid or tumble, there was no reason that the exit wound had to be very large.

Of course, none of the doctors saw the wound in the back and so they had no means of comparing the front and back wounds. Jenkins said later that he had felt the back wound while handling JFK's head, but was too busy with other things at the time to pay it much mind; the nurses who swaddled up JFK's body for transport did say they saw the back wound, but they gave it no real inspection.

throat shot

A physician named John Lattimer from New York state later conducted studies that showed the throat wound was right at the president's collar, where its size would also be constrained by JFK's tie. He also showed the angle of the shot to be consistent with it having been fired from the sniper's nest in the TSBD, though any such consideration is dependent on the assumption of the angle of JFK's posture. Lattimer was an excellent practical experimenter and a valuable contributor to the forensic investigation of the assassination. He had also been a combat medic in Europe during World War II and was far more familiar with gunshot wounds than most civilian doctors. [TO BE CONTINUED]

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[THU 03 MAR 11] GIMMICKS & GADGETS

* GIMMICKS & GADGETS: The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) was set up to investigate leading-edge technology for military applications. As reported by WIRED Online, DARPA's latest investigation is focused on giving the troops "super vision". Imagine a soldier wearing a set of cameras to provide full-spherical vision, with the imagery projected in 3D using a wearable eyepiece and with 10x zoom.

The project is named "Soldier Centric Imaging via Computational Cameras (SCENICC)". SCENICC will not simply provide imagery, it would assess it and provide data overlays to provide threat warnings, projectile tracking, object recognition, weapon aiming, and sensor fusion with inputs from other platforms -- for example, integration with video or radar imagery from a drone orbiting overhead. The specs say the system will have to weigh less than 0.7 kilograms (about 1.5 pounds) and have the power to operate for 24 hours under normal usage conditions. The specifications are very ambitious, but DARPA thinks that SCENICC is within reach.

WIRED Online also reports that DARPA is engaged in a more modest imaging effort designated the "Low-Cost Thermal Imager Manufacturing (LCTI-M)" project. The idea is to develop cheap thermal infrared imagers for use in applications such as rifle scopes or "handheld devices" -- cellphones, in effect -- that will be smart enough to pick out targets and alert the user. LCTI-M suggests that cellphones will be "military issue gear" in the near future, if they aren't really there already.

* The blue agave plant is not particularly pretty, a big starburst of spiny, spikelike, fleshy pale bluish-green leaves -- sometimes believed to be a cactus for its lack of charisma, though it isn't really a cactus. It is an important agricultural product in regions of Mexico, being the feedstock for tequila production. When harvest time comes, the leaves are hacked away to obtain a hefty pineapple-like core called a "pina" -- Spanish for "pineapple" of course; the pinas are chopped up into quarters and fed into a heated autoclave chamber to yield a juice that is fermented, processed, then poured into bottles for sale.

blue agave

Since the tequila yielded by the blue agave plant is pretty strong stuff, it's not too surprising that the plant has potential as a biofuel feedstock as well. As reported by an article from PHYSORG.com, a number of studies indicate that blue agave is a more efficient source of biofuel than corn or other mainstream crop plants, with the biofuel refined from parts of the plant that otherwise go to waste. Enthusiasts believe that other agave species might be even better feedstocks, and that abandoned agave plantation lands in Mexico and Africa could be put back into service to support biofuel production, providing both fuel and jobs.

* As reported by a note in BUSINESS WEEK, although most people have no trouble with bifocal eyeglasses, some folks can't adjust to them, suffering from headaches and nausea. A startup named "PixelOptics" of Roanoke, Virginia, has a solution: electronic glasses. The glasses look ordinary on casual inspection, but the frame contains a battery, a microchip controller, and an accelerometer. When the user tilts his head down, the accelerometer tracks the motion and relays the position to the microchip; the microchip adjusts the electric field on a liquid-crystal material in the lens, adjusting its refractive index and in effect changing the "prescription". The glasses are expensive, about a thousand bucks, but the concept is fascinating: could we imagine that a few decades down the road, electronic glasses may be the standard, that we could buy them off the shelf and then adjust their optics ourselves as the need arises? PC software might help perform an "eye test", controlling the configuration of the glasses via a wireless link embedded in the frame.

* I mentioned buying a Vizio "LED TV" a while back and reported being a little embarrassed to find out that my assumption that it was a LED matrix was wrong -- it was just an LCD TV with LED backlighting. However, it turns out that I wasn't quite as wrong as I thought, since SONY has now announced a 25-inch (63.5 centimeter) organic LED (OLED) TV, intended for professional video production facilities. The OLED is bright and handles fast motion better than LCDs, but it doesn't come cheap, with the announced price being $28,840. SONY claims that is only about 10% more expensive than existing professional display systems -- but still, I don't think we're going to be seeing household OLED TVs for a while yet.

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[WED 02 MAR 11] STRAIGHTEN UP & FLY RIGHT

* STRAIGHTEN UP & FLY RIGHT: After seven years of frustration and repeated failures, in late February the US Air Force (USAF) finally managed to select a new inflight refueling tanker, the Boeing "KC-46A". The road to the selection was an exceedingly rocky one.

From the 1960s, the backbone of the USAF tanker fleet was the Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker, a relative of the 707 airliner. Although the KC-135 was kept flying with a series of updates, by the end of the century the need for a replacement was obvious. In 2003, the Air Force announced a deal for the lease of 100 "KC-767" tankers from Boeing, with the aircraft based on the Boeing 767 wide-body airliner. The lease was to run ten years and the Air Force would then buy the aircraft.

However, that was at the time of a set of very public corporate meltdowns, the Enron scandal being the most visible, and Congress was not happy about the deal, with Arizona Senator John McCain leading the charge. McCain charged that the lease arrangement was a ripoff, and though Air Force officials claimed their accounting showed otherwise, Congress was unimpressed. The Air Force then tried to modify the deal -- but it collapsed completely when it was discovered that Darleen Druyun, a senior Pentagon procurement official involved with the tanker program, had been hired into a senior position at Boeing. That in itself was not illegal, but she had negotiated with Boeing for the job while she was still working at the Pentagon, which was, and also passed Boeing details of a proposal by the European Aerospace & Defense Systems (EADS) for a competing Airbus-based tanker. Druyun was convicted and did prison time, as did Boeing's chief financial officer, Michael Sears. Boeing was fined $625 million USD and the company's chief executive officer, Phil Condit, had to resign.

The Air Force ended up starting over on the tanker deal, initiating a competition for the "KC-X", as it was designated. In response, Boeing again submitted a design based on the 767, though there was some thought of a tanker based on the "stretched" 777 derivative of the 767. Boeing had already sold a handful of 767-based tankers to foreign air forces, but the KC-X proposal was a new configuration. EADS teamed with Northrop Grumman to offer a tanker based on the Airbus A330 and very similar to the "Multi-Role Tanker-Transport (MRTT)" that EADS had sold to Australia. The A330-MRTT proposal would be available earlier, and since the Air Force was in a hurry to make up for lost time that meant a lot. The Airbus also provided better range and auxiliary cargo carriage. As a result, the Airbus machine, the "KC-45", was selected in 2008. Boeing promptly challenged the deal, claiming the Air Force "moved the goalposts" after issuing the spec, awarding the contract on different criteria than those given at the outset. The Government Accounting Office (GAO) agreed with Boeing's complaint, and so the award was rendered null and void. The Air Force had to start over again.

That was not only frustrating but also embarrassing, since Northrop Grumman didn't feel they had any chance to win and so dropped out, leaving only Boeing as the "competitor" for the deal. Fortunately for the Air Force, EADS decided to compete on their own, again offering the A330-based MRTT. Boeing revised its design after losing in 2008, dropping plans to come up with a new variant airframe and choosing to base the KC-46A "NewGen" tanker on a 767-200. A third aircraft was offered by the US Aerospace group, offering a variant of the Ukrainian Antonov An-70 turboprop cargolifter, but the submission missed the deadline by the briefest of margins; the company protested, but the GAO dismissed the protest. The KC-46A was selected as the winner, the primary factor being lower price.

* The KC-46A follows the KC-767 tankers Boeing sold to Italy and Japan, who bought four each, these machines being based on the 767-200ER variant of the 767 family. The KC-46A appears much like the KC-767 machines, but under the skin it is somewhat different, being based on the 767-200LRF (Long Range Freighter) configuration. It will be powered by two Pratt & Whitney PW4062 turbofan engines providing about 267 kN (27,200 kgp / 60,000 lbf) thrust each, and will have advanced avionics, leveraged off the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, particularly for the cockpit layout. The KC-46A will have a drogue refueling pod under the centerline and each wing, for a total of three, and a boom refueling unit derived from that of the KC-10. The boom has little wings and fins, with its own flight-control system to ensure a smooth and solid hookup to the aircraft being refueled. The KC-46A also features a refueling socket of its own, on the top of the aircraft just behind the cockpit.

KC-46A

The KC-46A is a "multimission" aircraft, capable of hauling cargo and passengers as well as fuel. There's a large cargo loading door on the left front fuselage -- photos suggest the Japanese and Italian KC-767s don't have the cargo door -- plus an internal cargo handling system. Removeable seats can be fitted in place of cargo, and the aircraft can also be fitted for medical evacuation. The initial contract is for 18 KC-46As to be delivered by 2017; the ultimate buy is expected to be 179 aircraft.

There were worries about EADS challenging the award, but the firm quickly announced it would not do so. The Air Force is now looking over a follow-on program, the "KC-Y", to replace the service's KC-10 tankers, and some believe that EADS may not be inclined to antagonize the Pentagon when there's a prospect of business down the road. In any case, now Boeing has to deliver.

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[TUE 01 MAR 11] ANOTHER MONTH

* ANOTHER MONTH: Japan has been suffering from economic deflation over the past two decades, and everyone knows it's not a good thing: it's a symptom of a economy running down, with commerce and profitability choked by lack of cash flow, and debtors finding their payments ever more burdensome. However, as pointed out by a note in BUSINESS WEEK, it has a silver lining: things are getting cheaper to buy.

The Japanese, with their inclination towards the pragmatic, have been adjusting. "Hyaku-en shoppu" or "100-yen shops" -- a yen being about a US penny, that translates very closely to the US "dollar store" -- have sprung up and are very popular, and McDonald's Japan has been able to reverse a sales decline with a "100-yen menu", just like the US "dollar menu". Manufacturers have been altering their product lines to service the bargain-basement market, and higher-end goods have fallen in price as well. Nobody's all that happy about the trendline towards the bottom, but if people aren't getting raises, they can at least get the gratification of knowing their yen is going farther.

100-yen shop

I was attracted to the note because it featured a photo of a 100-yen shop, and I was able to read the store logo since it was in katakana phonetic characters: "Shiruku 100-Yen Shoppu". "Shiruku"? That sounded like "silk"; guesswork doesn't fly well with Japanese, but a check of my Japanese dictionary does show that yes, "shiruku" does mean "silk". Obviously the use of the work is an attempt to portray a sense of quality -- suggesting humorist Dave Barry's observation that advertising is intended to convince buyers of what is exactly opposite of reality.

Incidentally, 100-yen shops are also called "one-coin shops", the 100-yen coin being a basic unit of currency. The market is apparently competitive, with firms opening "99-yen shops" and "88-yen shops". Somehow I imagine a "444-yen" shop as a gothic joke, "4" being unlucky in Japanese; the word "shi" means both "4" and "death", and so the number 4 is loaded. I suppose it would be similar to having a "$6.66" store here -- "retail chain of the Beast".

* A study performed at Wageningen University in the Netherlands suggested that raising insects -- mealworms, crickets, locusts -- for protein is much more efficient than raising livestock. Insects grow quickly on less feed and produce much less waste. The investigation has not covered the entire production and use cycle, but what it has uncovered so far is encouraging.

Obviously, there's some consumer issues to be considered. It must be admitted that the Western distaste for eating insects is a bit selective, since Westerners eat shrimp, crab, and other crustaceans, and from a food point of view one arthropod shouldn't seem all that different from another. Dutch researchers have actually conducted "food fairs" with volunteers to examine the reaction to eating "bugs", with some cuisine imported from places like Southeast Asia where the prejudice doesn't hold, and innovative cuisine like insect-garnished pizza. The researchers admit it's a hard sell. However, even if nobody wants to eat protein meal made from insects, there would still be a huge market in it for pet food -- if properly flavored, a cat or dog won't know the difference -- and as fish food for aquaculture.

* Back when I was still writing the VECTORS newsletter, I wrote a history of the space race in installments. It went way out of control, being much too cumbersome, and when I decided to put the "production" text on the website as stand-alone documents, I judged it wiser to break it up into installments. I released documents on planetary exploration and the Apollo program, and back in April 2009 I decided to put a document together on the shuttle program. I figured it would take me about six months, there being plenty of material in place from the original VECTORS series.

22 months later, I'm finally done. It was a question of "geek cred". I decided I had to document all 135 shuttle flights; then decided to add illustrations; index them all by mission or shuttle or payload, hyperlinking everything together; and document important payloads and shuttle systems like spacesuits. There was also exactly what to write about concerning the program, which was something I couldn't quite visualize ahead of time; it had to emerge as I went along. The story really isn't just about the shuttle program, it's about NASA in the post-Apollo era as seen through the lens of the shuttle program, and what to include and what to leave out was tricky. It all added up to a lot of time.

The end result is satisfying, however. The problem is that I have no expectation that much of anybody is going to read it. None of the space stuff I've written so far has attracted any attention, I don't know why, and I have no expectations that this document will attract any more. I still retain hopes that if I continue to flesh out the old VECTORS space notes into a comprehensive set of documents, I'll reach a "critical mass" and people will start paying attention. But if so -- I have no idea when it will happen.

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