apr 2011 / last mod mar 2016 / greg goebel

* Entries include: JFK assassination, EMBRAPA & Brazil farm boom, responsive space, tilapia business, high-tech vending machines, bedbug resurgence, renting out cloud-computing resources, possible new resistant staph threat, governmental reform in Mideast, EVOFIT facial recognition system, improved voice recognition tech, voice command system, and tablet PC enthusiasm.

banner of the month



* NEWS COMMENTARY FOR APRIL 2011: While unrest in the Mideast and Japan's effort to recover from disaster have become routine headlines for the time being, at the end of April the news gave Americans a bit of comedy relief, as the burning issue of the day became US President Barack Obama's birth certificate.

The "Birther" controversy actually began during Obama's election campaign, with suggestions that Obama had been born in Kenya, his father's homeland, and not in Hawaii, rendering him constitutionally ineligible for the presidency. Obama's Honolulu birth certificate and a newspaper announcement of his birth were trotted out, and that was, at least in a sense, the end of the matter. The critics of course weren't satisfied, saying the evidence was "faked", but so what? That response could easily be expected and so the best, the only thing for Obama to do was ignore them.

There matters stood as a faint if shrill background noise until recently, when the Arizona state congress tried to pass a bill that would have required presidential candidates to prove their American citizenry to get on the ballot in the state. Arizona Governor Jan Brewer vetoed the bill on 18 April -- to no real surprise, since the idea that individual states could judge on the validity of presidential candidates was very unlikely to fly under Federal law, and it would also certainly be used as a political weapon by factionalists, as the governor pointed out in her veto.

That incident dissipated quickly, but then tycoon Donald Trump, in his campaign for the presidency, started raising the issue, and the White House finally released the "long form" of Obama's birth certificate on 27 April. The long form is by policy not made public by Hawaiian authorities, but a waiver was granted in this case. The president delivered an understandably irritable address in parallel with the release, saying: "We do not have time for this kind of silliness. We've got better things to do, I've got better things to do. We've got big problems to solve ... "

Yes, I really was born here.

Of course, nobody expected the Birthers to accept the long form, and to no surprise career conspiracy theorist Alex Jones used it to unilaterally declare victory:


At the center of the storm is the argument about whether the fact that Obama's father was born in Kenya, which is confirmed on the document released by the White House today, makes Obama ineligible to become president because he is not a "natural born citizen" of the United States.


It is belaboring the obvious that the Constitution only specifies that a president has to be born in the USA, not his parents, and in fact six other presidents had foreign-born parents:

   Thomas Jefferson        English mother
   Andrew Jackson          Irish father & mother
   James Buchanan          Irish father
   Chester Arthur          Irish father
   Woodrow Wilson          English mother
   Herbert Hoover          Canadian mother

Not that anything else would have been expected from Jones, but that leads to the question of why Trump was playing the Birther card. Was he trying to corner the crackpot vote? Is he serious about being president? Of course he isn't, Trump is just engaging in a campaign of self-promotion and has no real concern about being taken seriously. Trump as president? Lex Luthor for president would be more credible, and that can only happen in comic books.

At least the incident produced little gems of humor, one commentator writing: "Now that we've seen his birth certificate, I want to see proof that President Obama is black." Another commentator hit the nail on the head with: "President Obama has released his birth certificate, but apparently Birthers won't be happy until they see his death certificate."

* As reported by TIME magazine, America's participation in the airstrikes against the regime of Muammar Qaddafi, Operation ODYSSEY DAWN, had a particular distinction in that it was the first, or at least one of the first, US combat operations where the senior theater warfighter was a woman: 51-year-old US Air Force Major General Maggie Woodward.

Ever since she was a little girl, Woodward wanted to fly, though she wasn't a military brat -- her father worked for the US Agency for International Development, with the family living in places around the world. In the early 1980s, she signed up with the Air Force and became a KC-135 tanker pilot, moving up in 2007 to command the 89th Airlift Wing at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland. It was a high-visibility assignment since the wing operates the US Presidential Flight, including AIR FORCE ONE, and from there she moved up to command the 17th Air Force, working out of Germany but acting as the air element boss of the recently-established US Africa Command.

When the word came down to get moving on ODYSSEY DAWN, Woodward coordinated operations from Ramstein Air Force Base, ordering 200 cruise missile strikes and 2,100 air strikes to help destroy Qaddafi's heavy weaponry. Whether the results of the action will turn out well remains to be seen -- US leadership, having become suspicious of "regime change", has been content to leave France and Britain in the driver's seat on the matter -- but certainly Woodward's role in the operation suggests she will go on to greater distinctions in the future.



* GIMMICKS & GADGETS: BUSINESS WEEK ran a note on the Hydrowatt company of Italy, which runs an interesting business: generating power from water flow in Italy's aqueducts. Hydrowatt isn't tapping the famed old Roman aqueducts, instead inserting turbine generators in modern pipeline aqueducts. Aqueducts of course need to follow the "hydraulic grade" -- in other words, they obey the law of "water flows downhill" -- and in some stretches the hydraulic grade is steep, with valves installed to keep the flow and the pressure to a manageable level. Hydrowatt simply replaces a valve with a turbine station.

Aqueduct power is no small deal, the company claiming the 40 stations it's installed generate a total of 60 gigawatts of power. Costs per kilowatt are competitive with wind power and better than solar, with the aqueduct-driven turbines having an advantage over both wind and solar in that power is produced all day, every day. The business is profitable, though it is boosted by generous state subsidies for renewable energy. However, Hydrowatt feels confident of being able to compete in global markets, working on projects in other European countries and North America, as well as diversifying into other renewable technologies such as biomass.

* In related news, BUSINESS WEEK reported on Bloom Energy of Sunnyvale, California, which is doing a fair business selling 100 kilowatt fuel-cell units to users such as Wal-Mart, Coca-Cola, eBay, and Stanford University. The Bloom fuel-cell units are based on arrays of individual cells about the size of a playing card, made of a ceramic electrolyte, coated on both sides by a proprietary ink. Unlike most hydrogen fuel cells, the Bloom cells don't use precious metals for catalysts, instead using zirconium oxide powder, commonly found in beach sand.

Bloom fuel cells at eBay headquarters

The cell obtains hydrogen from natural gas, or biogas obtained from a landfill. The gas is passed over one side of the cell, while air heated to 800 degrees Celsius (1,400 degrees Fahrenheit) is drawn by the other side, producing a reaction that generates electricity while converting the inputs to carbon dioxide and steam. The fuel cell system is initially brought up to temperature using some of the input gas, but once it's in sustained operation, it maintains temperature through its own operation, using a thermal regeneration system.

Early on, customers paid up-front for a Bloom fuel cell unit and it took three years to pay off the investment -- but now Bloom is offering ten-year contracts with rates 5% to 20% below those of metered electricity, meaning users sees the benefit immediately. As with Italy, California goes the extra mile in supporting "green" energy technologies, offering substantial subsidies, but Bloom officials point to the high efficiency of their fuel cell systems plus the low cost of the gas feedstocks, and believe they will be able to fly without subsidies in five years.

* UK appliance manufacturer Russell Hobbs of Manchester has come out with a new washing machine that offers a 12-minute wash cycle, using a dual-nozzle system in which detergent-loaded water is sprayed through the laundry, instead of agitating it as it soaks. The short wash cycle is not only a time-saver; Russell Hobbs claims it cuts power consumption by up to 30% and slashes water usage to one-third. The new washing machine seems a good example of 21st-century "smart technology", tailored to make the most efficient use of resources.

* As reported by AVIATION WEEK, Swedish air traffic control system provider LFV is now establishing the first of a series of "virtual" air traffic control (ATC) towers at Sundsvall Airport in Sweden. Instead of a traditional control tower, the airport will have a ten-camera array placed on a pole up to 25 meters (82 feet) tall, placed to give a panoramic view of airport activity. The control center, also at Sundsvall Airport, will feature a 360-degree wraparound display system to give the ATC staff a full view of airport activities. The staff can zoom in on a target if needed, with the display system also providing weather and radar information.

Sundsvall Airport remote ATC center

The Sundsvall Airport center will be gradually expanded to support operations at other airports that have been fitted up with a camera pole. The technology is being implemented by SAAB, with the company saying that inquiries for the system have been received from other countries.



* THE TILAPIA TRADE: Aquaculture or "fish farming", discussed here in 2005, is a boom market: people are eating more fish and ocean fisheries are challenged to supply it all, so raising fish on farms is an attractive business. As discussed by an article from BUSINESS WEEK ("Made In China" by Bruce Einhorn, 25 October 2010), one of the stars of aquaculture is the fish known as "tilapia" -- originally from Africa, but now grown around the world.

Tilapia sales are soaring in the USA, with about 185,000 tonnes (200,000 tons) of the fish sold in America in 2009, an increase of 35% from the amount sold in 2005 -- in 2000, few Americans had even heard of it. Tuna is the most heavily consumed fish in the USA, but tilapia is catching up, with consumption of tilapia running to around half that of tuna. Tilapia is still slightly behind pollack, the prime ingredient in fish sticks and fish sandwiches.

Although tilapia is raised in fish farms in the USA, it does best in tropical climates, with most production in Latin America and Asia -- particularly China, which produces about 80% of the total. Tilapia advocates promote the fish as the "chicken of the sea", fast-growing and easy to raise, with a very mild taste that makes it not much of a treat on its own but also makes it easy to "jazz up" in a wide variety of ways. Popular recipes include lemon pepper tilapia, sesame tilapia, and coconut crusted tilapia.

Tilapia is an excellent product for China, not high quality but cheap and convenient for large-scale production. Work is underway on improving the fish through selective breeding and genetic engineering to make it even easier to produce, as well as more nutritious. The tilapia trade would seem on a casual inspection to be a perfect arrangement: Americans like tilapia, Chinese are happy to provide the need, and farming the fish draws off the pressure on ocean fisheries.

Alas, everyone knows that the Chinese are not always conscientious in how they get things done, horror stories about lethal products popping up every now and then, and so there's the unsettling question of exactly what Americans are eating and how it was produced. Fish farming tends to be dirty, requiring large amounts of fresh water that ends up being polluted by fish droppings. Critics of China's tilapia business claim that Chinese tilapia farmers raise young fish by dumping sewage in their ponds, causing an algal bloom to feed the fish. There's also complaints about the use of carbon monoxide in packaging fish fillets to preserve color, with critics suggesting it covers up for bad product.


In response, tilapia producers point out that the bland taste of tilapia covers up nothing; if raised in foul waters, it tastes foul. In addition, though Chinese environmental and product safety laws are weakly enforced, visitors to Chinese tilapia processing plants report them clean, well organized, and focused on turning out a safe product. There are also independent certification authorities for aquaculture, hired by distributors to make sure China is shipping good product. As far as carbon monoxide is concerned, regulators in Europe and the US don't have a problem with it, and since frozen tilapia keeps well for a long time, fish going bad is only due to inept handling on the distribution end -- which ends up being the retailer's problem, not the producer's, the producer having no control that matter.

China's tilapia industry is very big and it's hard to say that all the players are conscientious. US environmental groups remain suspicious, much to the exasperation of China's tilapia growers and their US allies. It's getting harder to raise tilapia in China as prices for material and labor needed to run the business rise, while big retailers like Wal-Mart squeeze profit margins on the producers, placing them in a multiway bind -- if Chinese producers tend to cut corners, they're not the only ones to blame for the situation. Ultimately, the business is driven by consumer demand; tilapia consumption continues to grow, and China is just filling the need.



* 21ST-CENTURY VENDING: Vending machines have tended to be a traditionalist technology, not quickly affected by innovation, but as reported by an article from THE KANSAS CITY STAR ("Vending Machines Go High-Tech With Web-Based Systems" by Joyce Smith, 13 April 2011), the vending industry is beginning to appreciate the benefits of wireless technology, web-based systems, and smart video. The acceptance of new tech has been driven by economic necessity, vending having been hit hard by the recession. Some operators have reacted by raising prices, but others have embraced improved technology to keep tighter control over inventory, reduce the number of visits to keep vending machines stocked, and discourage theft.

For example, Treat America Foods Services of Merriam, Kansas -- a general food service company that includes vending machines in its portfolio -- is now making use of a product named "Seed" offered by Cantaloupe Systems of California to monitor vending machines. The Seed is a box installed on top of a vending machine; the box keeps track of the product in the machine and the amount of money that the machine has collected, with the data automatically relayed back to the operator over a cellphone link. Thanks to Seed, the operator knows if the machine is running out of product, or if product is past its shelf life. The average cost of a Seed is $150 USD per year, but it pays itself off quickly in better inventory management and fewer service calls.

Better security means more profit as well. Seed can send an email or text message if the door of the machine is opened after hours. Says a Treat America official: "We got it for operational efficiencies. But it's as if we have security in front of the machine 24 hours a day." The security provided by the Seed seems perfectly effective, with one vending machine operator in Phoenix getting a message that a machine had been opened; the operator contacted the police, and two thieves were arrested in the act.

* As was mentioned here recently, vending machines have also been adapting to new times by moving towards healthier foods. Treat America is pursuing the "healthy vending" option with a new licensed vending scheme named "Company Kitchen". Under Company Kitchen, a firm sets up an automated food service area for its employees featuring open coolers loaded with sandwiches, salads, sodas, fruit juices and more, the coolers complemented by a snack bar with bins of granola, fresh baked goods, and fresh fruit. Customers serve themselves, scan the bar codes on items, and then swipe a credit card or a prepaid rewards card to check out. A Company Kitchen installation is unstaffed, but the scheme doesn't depend on the honor system. The installation is monitored by a system that tracks employee activities with smart video cameras, along with inventory and payments, and can determine if a customer is trying to rip off the system to then send an alert to security. Signs warn customers that they are being watched.

Company Kitchen has now been or is being set up in dozens of facilities. Some companies buy into the scheme to cut staff, but others like the healthy food choice angle. Through prepaid loyalty cards, companies also can offer their employees special prices for vending combo meals -- say sandwich, drink and chips. They also can add funds to the card as a birthday present, to reward an employee for meeting a sales or safety goal, or just for making healthy food choices.



* BRAZIL FARM BOOM (2): When EMBRAPA began its work decades ago, the Brazilian cerrado was regarded as useless for farming. Norman Borlaug, an American plant scientist often called the father of the Green Revolution, once commented that "nobody thought these soils were ever going to be productive." They seemed too acidic and too poor in nutrients. EMBRAPA did a set of things to fix that:

Brazilian farming still has its problems. Farmers everywhere gripe all the time, and Brazilian farmers are no exception. Their biggest complaint is transport. The fields of Mato Grosso are 2,000 kilometers (1,240 miles) from the main soybean port at Paranagua, which can't handle the largest, most modern ships. So Brazil transports a relatively low-value commodity using the most expensive means, trucks, which are then forced to wait for extended periods of time because the docks are clogged. Partly for that reason, Brazil isn't the cheapest place in the world to grow soybeans -- Argentina is, followed by the US Midwest. But it is the cheapest place to expand acreage. Once rail lines are extended and port facilities improved, Brazilian soybeans should become a very competitive crop on the international market.

Like almost every large farming country, Brazil is divided between productive giant corporate farms and inefficient family or hobby farms. Half the country's 5 million farms produce 7% of the farm output, while 1.6 million produce 76% of the output. Not all small farms are losers; they produce much of the country's poultry and they reduce rural unemployment -- a big issue in Brazil, where rising wealth is unevenly spread -- but their productivity does not compare to that of the big corporate farms.

Trigo cereals research facility

* Brazil's accomplishments in agriculture are extremely impressive. They lead to an interesting question: can Brazil's agricultural expertise be exported elsewhere -- particularly to Africa, which has proven resistant to attempts to improve its farms? There are good reasons to think the answer is YES:

It should be warned that agritech wizardry is only part of the basis of EMBRAPA's success. Coming up with a new crop strain doesn't do any good if there's no system to exploit it. EMBRAPA does take a systems approach to agritech that has proven effective, but Africans and others who want to emulate Brazil's success will have to build their own systems; they're just not something that can be imported wholesale. However, given the model of what Brazil has accomplished, and some of the solutions that Brazil can provide, feeding the world in 2050 may not be the uphill struggle it appears to be now. [END OF SERIES]



* THE KILLING OF JFK -- THE BALANCE OF EVIDENCE (14): Conspiracy theorists are persistent in claiming the back of JFK's head was blown out. They point to the testimony of Secret Service Agent Clint Hill, who jumped up on the presidential limousine after the shooting, who told the Warren Commission that "the right rear portion of JFK's head was missing." Bill Greer, the limousine driver, agreed in his testimony that the "top and right rear side of the head" had been blown out.

These are admittedly unsettling comments, but again, blood and brain tissue had made a mess of JFK's head in general, and under the chaotic circumstances neither agent was in any position to have performed a real inspection of the wound. Doris Nelson, a supervising nurse at Parkland, was also quoted as saying she clearly saw the back of JFK's head blown out -- but there's a picture by a LIFE magazine photographer in which Nelson is holding her hand on the upper right part of her skull to show where she saw the wound.

None of the Parkland staff ever challenged the results of the Warren Commission -- except for two of the doctors, Charles Crenshaw and Robert McClelland, who said they were entirely certain JFK had been shot from the front. They told stories about a big hole in the back of the president's head and major parts of the brain falling out. The stories the two doctors told not only contradict those of their colleagues, they don't hang together logically by themselves.

* Crenshaw was not in any hurry to come forward with his revelations, saying nothing about the matter until 1992, when he published a book titled JFK: CONSPIRACY OF SILENCE. Crenshaw insisted that the throat wound was an entrance wound, the back of JFK's head was blown out, and that the wounds had been altered significantly later.

In reality, in 1963 Crenshaw was a junior resident whose involvement in the emergency session on 22 November was minor -- so minor that Jones, Jenkins, and Baxter didn't even clearly remember he was there, much less that they had interacted with him on their emergency procedures. Crenshaw arrived late in the session, having grabbed McClelland out of a teaching session, the two doctors arriving in the emergency room together. In 1994, McClelland stated that he, and by implication Crenshaw, had arrived after Perry performed the tracheotomy -- meaning that Crenshaw never saw the throat wound in an intact condition. On being confronted with McClelland's testimony, Crenshaw claimed that McClelland must not have noticed Perry making the incision but that he, Crenshaw, had seen the wound for a "split second" -- which, as far as he was concerned, was adequate basis for absolute certainty. Crenshaw also claimed to have performed a close inspection of the head wound, even shoving his fist into it, an action which it seems nobody else noticed.

On top of that, Crenshaw claimed that he worked on Oswald in the emergency room two days later and got called to the phone -- to find out it was Lyndon Johnson, demanding that Crenshaw get a "deathbed confession" out of Oswald. Baxter commented: "Imagine that, the President of the United States personally calls for Chuck Crenshaw." Of course, Crenshaw made it clear in his book that he had just been the person to answer the phone, but the phone operator's office in Parkland, which conscientiously logged all incoming calls, never logged a call from the president. Similarly, logs of outgoing calls from Johnson never listed a call to Parkland. It might be argued that the failure to log the call is "evidence" of a conspiracy, but that leads to the question of why Johnson would have made a phone call that he knew to be sensitive enough to be kept secret to nobody he knew a thing about.

Incidentally, after Crenshaw's book came out, a woman named Phyllis Bartlett who had been a telephone operator at Parkland in 1963 "came forward" to announce that she really had forwarded a call from LBJ to Crenshaw. A check through the hospital's records showed that while Bartlett kept fairly detailed records of her calls, she didn't bother to record that she had received one from President Johnson, and by all evidence she didn't bother to tell anyone else about it. On being confronted with these awkward facts, Bartlett claimed she had thought the call just a "prank", though she later said in a video interview that she had recognized LBJ's voice.

In any case, Crenshaw accused the other Parkland doctors of a "conspiracy of silence". To no surprise the other doctors were infuriated at Crenshaw. Perry even contemplated pressing a libel suit against him, but then judged him merely "pathetic". Baxter called Crenshaw's story "ridiculous", and Jenkins described it as "dead wrong". Even McClelland said: "Chuck had a lot of problems and fabricated a lot of things." In any case, the Parkland doctors wondered why, if Crenshaw had seen all these outrageous events, he hadn't come forward with them for almost 30 years. After all, the other doctors had been talking to anyone who wanted to talk to them, being extensively cited, but Crenshaw said nothing for decades.

* As far as Robert McClelland went, he stated he clearly saw the wound in the back of JFK's head, and believed JFK had a wound in the forehead. Except for Crenshaw, the other doctors didn't agree with him -- though they didn't get angry with McClelland, since he didn't accuse them of a "conspiracy of silence".

McClelland tried to explain the autopsy photos of JFK's head that do not show the back of it blown out by saying that the examining doctors concealed the wound by pulling a flap of skin over it, suggesting a literal "coverup" in action. What is particularly confusing about McClelland's statements was that, although he was part of the group that surveyed and confirmed the autopsy evidence for PBS in 1988, he never really changed his story about his belief that JFK had been shot from the front. McClelland told Vincent Bugliosi in 2002 that he was certain that JFK had a large hole in the back of his head, explaining that he had been helping with the tracheotomy, simply standing there keeping skin pulled back for Perry and Carrico, giving him nothing much else to do but observe the wound in the back of the president's head.

Bugliosi was puzzled; as he visualized the scenario described, McClelland would have been standing above JFK's face, with no clear view of the back of the head. Besides, if McClelland had observed the back of the president's head blown out, why didn't he say something to the other doctors? That gross of a wound would have almost certainly been fatal, rendering the actions of the doctors futile. Bugliosi pressed him, with McClelland admitting: "I'm not a pathologist and I've never conducted an autopsy." McClelland's testimony remains puzzling, but it was undeniably inconsistent with itself, and the doctor flatly admitted that he hadn't performed any inspection of the supposed wound.

* As a footnote, Robert Groden, conspiracy theorist and "photographic expert", once produced a photograph from the Bethesda autopsy that he claimed showed the back of JFK's head with a massive wound in it. It is indeed a photo of a wound in JFK's head, but it is a closeup and it's hard to determine what part of the head it shows. On investigation, it turned out to be literally an exercise in "spin". What the photo actually shows is the wound on top of JFK's head; Groden rotated the photo and then said it was of the back of JFK's head. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* Space launches for March included:

-- 04 MAR 11 / GLORY (FAILURE) -- An Orbital Sciences Corporation (OSC) Taurus XL booster was launched from Vandenberg AFB to put the NASA "Glory" environmental satellite into orbit. Glory, built by OSC and based on the company's LeoStar bus, was designed to measure atmospheric aerosol effects using two instruments, the "Total Irradiance Monitor (TIM)" and the "Aerosol Polarimetry Sensor (APS)". The payload fairing failed to separate and the spacecraft fell back to Earth along with the upper stage.

-- 05 MAR 11 / OTV 2 -- An Atlas 5 booster was launched from Cape Canaveral to put the Air Force "X-37B" AKA "Orbital Transfer Vehicle (OTV)" unmanned spaceplane testbed into space. This was the second flight of the OTV. The Atlas 5 501 configuration featured a 5 meter (16 foot 5 inch) diameter fairing, no solid rocket boosters, and an upper stage with a single Centaur engine.

-- 11 MAR 11 / NROL-27 -- A Delta 4 booster was launched from Vandenberg to put a secret military payload into space for the US National Reconnaissance Office (NRO). The spacecraft was designated "NROL-27". The booster was in "Medium+ (4,2)" configuration, with twin solid rocket boosters.

* OTHER SPACE NEWS: AVIATION WEEK reports that Elon Musk's SpaceX firm is now pushing forward on development of a crew carrier derivative of the company's Dragon space freighter capsule. As currently envisioned, the crewed Dragon will carry seven astronauts; operation will be automated, though two crew will be trained to fly the capsule in case of an emergency. The crew will wear pressure suits as a precaution in case environmental support is lost.

One of the critical elements of the crewed Dragon is a "launch abort system (LAS)" to rescue the crew on a launch failure. The company is focusing on a "pusher" LAS, in contrast to the more traditional "tractor" LAS scheme used on earlier US space capsules, which used an escape tower. SpaceX engineers feel the pusher scheme is lighter -- one of the problems with a tractor scheme is that it requires a hefty heat shield on the front of the capsule -- and provides the capability to use retrothrust for dry-ground landings after a parachute descent.

SpaceX is also pushing forward on its "Falcon Heavy", a derivative of the current Falcon 9 with twin strap-on boosters attached; the core stage and the strap-on boosters are derived from the Falcon 9, all three each powered by nine Merlin engines. Interestingly, the fuel lines of the liquid-fuel strap-on boosters are coupled into the core stage for fuel transfer during flight, making them somewhat like hybrids of strap-on stages and external tanks, leaving the core stage effectively fully fueled when the strap-ons are discarded. SpaceX says the Falcon Heavy will be able to put 53 tonnes (58 tons) into low Earth orbit, twice as the current US heavylift booster, the Delta IV Heavy, but at a third the cost, very roughly $100 million USD per flight -- or about $1,000 USD per pound, long regarded as benchmark for low-cost access to space.

Falcon Heavy booster

Initial flight of the Falcon Heavy is expected to take place from Vandenberg AFB in late 2012. SpaceX boss Elon Musk says he expects to launch the Falcon Heavy up to ten times a year, but it will be profitable if it only launches four times a year. There is the issue that even at four flights, that's 212 tonnes (233 tons) into orbit a year, which sounds at least as much as is being commercially flown now, but at $1,000 a pound maybe current launch rates are thinking too small -- something Musk has never been accused of.

* The space science community has a generally good relationship with NASA -- though one that's always overshadowed by budget considerations, particularly since space science isn't at the front of the agency's spending queue. Given that reality, the community has been traditionally careful to prioritize what they'd like to see NASA do, and tailor their requests to what seems financially sensible.

A National Research Council (NRC) committee has just released a "decadal survey" to propose the direction of planning for space science missions. The survey recommends that NASA continue with small and medium-class planetary science missions over the next decade under the "Discovery" and "New Frontiers" programs, both of which regularly fly relatively low-cost missions to other planets, the moon, comets and asteroids every few years. The committee recommends that these missions be flown even at the sacrifice of potential "flagship" missions to collect samples from Mars and survey Jupiter's icy moon Europa. The big missions take too long to fly, leaving the space science community high and dry for years.

The NRC survey provided specific recommendations for NASA's planetary science program from 2013 to 2022. The Discovery program should launch new missions about every two years; the larger New Frontiers missions should also continue, with NASA selecting two new probes in the next decade. Discovery missions are cost-capped at about $500 million USD and New Frontiers missions at $1 billion USD, in 2015 dollars. NASA is currently in the process of selecting new Discovery and New Frontiers missions for launch by 2017 and 2018, respectively.

The survey ranked more than two dozen missions and concluded the most promising planetary science experiments over the next 10 years involve research on the surface of Mars and on Jupiter's moon Europa -- but emphasized that neither objective should displace work on smaller NASA missions that launch more often. According to the survey, if there is enough money left over after funding the less ambitious missions, the space agency's top priority should be launching a rover to gather rock samples from the surface of Mars.

The rover, the "Mars Astrobiology Explorer-Cacher (MAX-C)", could launch as soon as 2018. The project's current plan calls for a dual launch of MAX-C with the European Space Agency's "ExoMars" rover. MAX-C is the first of at least three missions aimed at returning Mars surface samples to Earth, with surface sampling systems like the rovers working in conjunction with Mars orbiters and ultimately a sample-return vehicle (SRV). The SRV is seen as the most elaborate and expensive element in the scenario, and given current funding it might not happen for decades. In fact, the survey says that as currently defined, even MAX-C is too expensive and needs to be "descoped".

The decadal survey also recommended NASA continue with its ongoing missions, including the 2016 launch of the Mars Trace Gas Orbiter. A Europa orbiter is another high priority, as are a Venus climate probe and lander, plus a spacecraft to orbit Saturn's icy moon Enceladus. The report, however, conceded that unless these missions are affordable, they're not likely to happen.



* RETURN OF THE BEDBUG: The word "bedbug" tends to inspire disgust even in people who've never see one. Bedbugs are indeed bugs, insects of the order Hempitera AKA "true bugs"; the scientific name of the species being Cimex lectalarius, which actually translates literally as "bedbug". They are little parasites that like to hide out in bedding and furniture, from which they emerge at night to suck the blood of mammalian hosts. People identify them with filth.

As reported by an article from BBC WORLD Online ("Don't Let The Bed-Bugs Bite" by Tom de Castella, 2 September 2010), they're making a big-time comeback. A recent survey of a thousand pest control firms around the world by the University of Kentucky and the US National Pest Management Association showed that reports of bedbug infestations are on the rise around the world. A study released in 2009 by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine showed that the number of reports of bedbug infestations grew by over 25% per year from 2000 into 2006, and appears to be still rising rapidly.


Bedbugs bites result in sores and itching, causing allergic reactions in some victims, and can have a strong negative economic impact on hotels and other establishments infested by them. The bugs are popping up everywhere, in laundries, shops, children's daycare centers, schools, and hospitals. Bedbugs can't fly or jump, but they're good at stowing away in bedding, sofas, and luggage, and are stealthy in their attacks: the bites can't be felt at the time, only becoming obvious when they become inflamed and start to itch. They are very hard to kill; if they get into clothes, the clothes have to be boiled. The only good news about them is that, somewhat surprisingly for parasitic insects, they aren't known to be disease vectors. However, that could change at any time.

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently warned of an "alarming resurgence" of bedbugs. New York City is suffering particularly heavily from the parasites, office buildings, theaters, and shops, including a branch of the VICTORIA'S SECRET lingerie chain, being shut down. In response, the New York State government has passed laws requiring landlords to tell prospective renters of any bedbug infestation within the past year, and ordered schools to inform parents of outbreaks.

The resurgence of the bedbug is not news to people in public health and pest-control work, but according to Mike Potter, a professor of entomology at the University of Kentucky, the rest of society is only now becoming aware of the problem. Potter says that people have been slow to take the issue seriously, but that action is needed: "There's absolutely no reason to think that this bedbug problem is going to subside on its own. When you look at where we'll be in two years' time and the rate of increase, it's going to be very serious. This is the most challenging pest problem for the developed world in a generation."

The development of DDT in the 1940s and public sanitation measures suppressed bedbugs for decades. They began their slow return in the 1990s. There's some suspicion that bedbugs acquired resistance to pesticides, leading to the population boom, but other insects like cockroaches acquired resistance long before; some suspect that the global bedbug infestation is from a localized, unusually hardy population that spread over the world. Since bedbugs haven't been much of a problem until recently, there hasn't been much research on them, and they're poorly well understood. They need to be investigated more thoroughly, to comprehend their lifestyles and develop more effective countermeasures. What to do in the meantime? Public-health officials recommend:

Bedbugs are tiny and can be hard to detect. One way to hunt them down is trained sniffer dogs. An outfit in the UK recently obtained Lola, a one-year-old Jack Russell terrier trained in the USA to sniff out bedbugs, said to be the first dog in Europe on that job. Her owners rent her out to hotels; she can check up to 200 rooms a day, pawing at infestations to target them. That suggests the possibility of designing an electronic "sniffer box" to do the job as well, but so far there doesn't seem to be much interest in doing so. If bedbugs keep ramping up their numbers, however, it could end up being a hot product.



* RENTING OUT THE CLOUD: The rise of huge internet-connected server centers to support online operations such as Google has led to the notion of "cloud computing" -- computation as performed on a distributed networked "cloud" of many computers and not a single computer. While cloud computing became established by the efforts of big players with the deep pockets to build data centers, as discussed by an article from BUSINESS WEEK ("The Power of the Cloud" by Ashlee Vance, 7 March 2011), there's been a quiet revolution in the past few years, in which anyone with a charge card can get a ride on the clouds.

Amazon.com operates a facility in Seattle that doesn't seem to fit the usual notion of a high-tech campus, being more like a warehouse, unadorned, with few comforts for workers. However, it's not a warehouse full of products to be packed up in boxes to be shipped to customers, the site instead being dedicated to "Amazon Web Services (AWS)", which sells cloud computing to business clients, giving them as little or as much as they need for the appropriate price. AWS is nothing that new, it was set up in 2007, but it remains almost pointedly obscure, hidden in fine print on Amazon's website. AWS isn't intended to serve the general public and so Amazon does nothing to encourage the general public to use it -- but the word has been sent out to businesses, and the operation is growing like mad, with revenues estimated to run to about three-quarters of a billion dollars in 2011.

Every day, AWS adds an increment of computing capacity that would have been enough to have run all of Amazon in 2000. The AWS cloud resides in a global network of data centers -- the biggest with a footprint the size of 16 athletic fields -- with a total cost of a half billion dollars. Ironically, despite the scale, the cloud services business is still small beer, accounting for only about 5% of the $1.5 trillion in corporate information technology spent in 2010. However, the cloud-computing pioneers -- Amazon, Google, and Microsoft -- are making the traditional corporate information technology vendors -- AT&T, EMC, HP, IBM, Oracle, and Verizon -- nervous.

The idea of renting out online computing power goes back about a decade, with small players like Salesforce.com taking the first steps into the business -- but it was the arrival of the big players like AWS that got it rolling, by offering convenience though what AWS calls "pay-per-drink pricing". Instead of signing up on monthly or yearly contracts, customers rent out what they need for as long as they need it, and then forget about it when they're done. The appeal of cloud services is freedom from the overhead of infrastructure. Corporate IT departments are notoriously bureaucratic and demand plenty of resources just to keep them afloat, much less get any value out of them. Being able to rent out cloud services means freedom from the tyranny of the IT department.

Andy Betelsheim, once one of the founders of Sun Microsystems and now engaged in a startup named Arista Networks, puts it neatly: "This stuff finally works. If you're a startup, you would never build a data center again." Arista's business is selling network switching systems, most heavily to cloud-computing organizations themselves. Arista focuses on their business and lets somebody else take care of the email, order entry, and website software. Etsy, a marketplace for handmade goods, rents out a piece of Amazon's cloud to analyze customer inputs to determine what customers want in product offerings. Even big corporations like Northrop Grumman, Bechtel, Eli Lilly, Pfizer, Kraft, and Starbucks rent out the cloud to a lesser or greater extent.

However, big corporations are mostly just dabbling with the concept. IT system providers like IBM, HP, and Oracle make a very good living setting up and maintaining corporate IT systems; their big customers realize how important their IT systems are to keeping their businesses going, and so they're willing to pay vendors who provide and support their systems a hefty margin. The traditionalists point out that big corporations do have fair reasons for wanting to control their own IT operations; renting out cloud services might be useful for startups or for organizations in need of additional computing power for specific projects, but isn't necessarily the right answer for keeping a big company in normal operation. In particular, there's the question of liability: can a big company trust a cloud services provider to never lose customer records?

Advocates of cloud services believe that as their clients become more confident in the arrangement and providers more experienced, more businesses are going to shift to cloud services, giving an economy of scale that will make in-house IT organizations ever less competitive. One cloud advocate points out that in the early days of electric power, many organizations generated their own electricity; once centralized utility operations began to build up mass, it was simply much more efficient to buy power from utilities. And the advocates see a day when their powerhouse server centers that make up the cloud are just as irresistible.

* As a footnote to this article, "SpotCloud", created by a software startup named Enomaly, is offering a "spot market" for those interested in cloud services. Under SpotCloud, operators of data centers offer their excess capacity through the service, with potential users bidding for it. Enomaly takes a cut of from 10% to 30% of the payoff, depending on the size of the deal. The scheme is "opaque" in that the buyers deal only with SpotCloud and don't know who is actually providing the services. There was skepticism that SpotCloud was practical, but it turns out that there are organizations, such as businesses that produce computer-animated movies, that have huge server systems that they don't use on a continuous basis, and so it makes sense to have them earn their keep when they would otherwise be idle.



* BRAZIL FARM BOOM (1): As reported by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("The Miracle Of The Cerrado", 26 August 2010), Brazil has become a global powerhouse in agriculture. As an example, at Jatoba, in the poor backlands of Bahia state in northeastern Brazil, a new farm is emerging out of the cerrado, Brazil's savannah, on land where eucalyptus and pine had been raised in an indifferent fashion. Now the fields are being transformed. Some fields have been cut to a litter of tree stumps and scrub; on others, charcoal-makers have moved in to reduce the rootballs to fuel; next, fields have been leveled and prepared with lime and fertilizer; some are already growing rows of cotton plants. Next season, this farm will plant and harvest cotton, soybeans, and corn on 24,000 hectares (59,300 acres), 200 times the size of an average farm in Iowa.

480 kilometers (300 miles) away, in the state of Piaui, the same transformation is already complete. Three years ago the Cremaq farm was a failed experiment in growing cashews, its barns falling apart and the scrub re-invading unused fields. Now the farm -- which, like Jatoba, is owned by BrasilAgro, a company that buys up and modernizes neglected fields -- uses the latest technology and management techniques to extract crops, building networks of roads to haul off corn and soybeans to distant ports. It's something new for Piaui, an impoverished region where medical facilities are scarce and most of the people are dependent on government welfare.

* These are not isolated examples. In less than 30 years, Brazil has turned itself from a food importer into one of the world's great food exporters. It's the first country to have caught up with the traditional "big five" grain exporters -- America, Canada, Australia, Argentina and the European Union. It is also the first tropical country to join the club, the big five all being temperate producers.

amber waves of Brazilian grain

Between 1996 and 2006, a mere ten years, the total value of the country's crops rose from the equivalent of $23 billion USD to $108 billion USD, a jump of 365%. Brazil increased its beef exports tenfold in a decade, overtaking Australia as the world's largest exporter; it has the world's biggest cattle herd after India's. It is also the world's biggest exporter of poultry, sugar cane, and ethanol made from sugar cane. Since 1990 its soybean output has risen by a factor of four, and Brazil now accounts for about a third of world soybean exports, second only to the USA. In 1994 Brazil's soybean exports were one-seventh of America's; now they are six-sevenths. Furthermore, Brazil supplies a quarter of the world's soybean trade on just 6% of the country's arable land.

What is particularly impressive is that Brazil has done all this without much government subsidy. Estimates show that state support accounted for 5.7% of total farm income in Brazil during 2005:2007, compared with 12% in America and 29% in the European Union. And Brazil has done it without deforesting the Amazon, though that is happening for other reasons; expansion of farmland has taken place 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) from the jungle.

* Between now and 2050 the world's population will rise from 7 billion to 9 billion. Income is likely to rise by more than that and the total urban population will roughly double, changing diets as well as overall demand because city dwellers tend to eat more meat. The UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that grain output will have to rise by around half by 2050, but meat output will have to double in that timeframe. This will be hard to do because, over the past decade, the growth in agricultural yields has stalled and water has become a greater constraint. By one estimate, only 40% of the increase in world grain output now comes from improvements in yields, while 60% comes from taking more land under cultivation. In the 1960s, just a quarter came from more land and three-quarters came from higher yields.

In this scenario, what agricultural producer is likely to be the big winner? The bet will be on one that has been growing rapidly and seems likely to keep on doing so; that has land and water in reserve; and that is productive without state subsidies. That fits Brazil neatly.

Brazil has more spare farmland than any other country. The FAO puts its total potential arable land at over 4 million square kilometers (1.5 million square miles), with only an eighth of that in use; Brazilian official figures are more conservative, setting the amount of land at 3 million square kilometers. Brazil has been accused of destroying the rainforest to support crop expansion, but the vast majority of the activity has been in the cerrado, not the Amazon. Since 1996, Brazilian farmers have increased the amount of land under cultivation by a third, mostly in the cerrado. In other countries, the area of land under the plow has been static or, as in Europe, declining. Production has increased even more rapidly, by a factor of ten.

According to the UN's World Water Assessment Report of 2009, Brazil has more than 8,000 cubic kilometers (1,900 cubic miles) of renewable water each year, easily more than any other country. Brazil alone, with a population of 190 million, has as much renewable water as the whole of Asia, with a population of 4 billion. Again, that is not mainly due to the Amazon; Piaui is one of the country's driest areas but still gets a third more water than America's corn belt, with the farm regions getting all the rain they need to be a going operation.

Even given the generous resources provided by nature to Brazil, such growth couldn't have happened without aggressive leadership -- which has been provided by the "Empresa Brasileira de Pesquisa Agropecuaria (EMBRAPA / Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation)". EMBRAPA is a public company, set up in 1973 in one of the more sensible actions of the clique of generals who were then running the country. At that time, the quadrupling of oil prices was making Brazil's high levels of agricultural subsidies unaffordable, and so they were cut, with EMBRAPA established to help Brazilian agribusiness become more competitive. EMBRAPA became the world's leading tropical research institution, working on everything from breeding new seeds and cattle; to creating ultra-thin edible wrapping paper for foodstuffs that changes color when the food goes bad; to running a nanotechnology laboratory creating biodegradable ultra-strong fabrics and wound dressings. EMBRAPA's big achievement, however, has been to turn the cerrado green. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* THE KILLING OF JFK -- THE BALANCE OF EVIDENCE (13): As far as the third shot goes, there is no ambiguity in when it hit JFK or the fact that it hit him in the head. The ambiguity is whether the bullet came from the front or back. From the point of view of the Bethesda autopsy, there is no ambiguity there, either; nobody examining the autopsy data on JFK ever had any doubt the "head shot" was from the rear, since the beveling of the entrance hole and the pattern of bone and bullet debris made the direction of the shot absolutely clear.

head shot

Conspiracy theorists make much of what the Parkland doctors saw, claiming their observations of the head wound contradicted the results of the autopsy. However, the Parkland doctors only worked on JFK for about twenty minutes, and they didn't notice the head wound in any specifics until near the end. That might seem like an unbelievably gross oversight, but there was blood all over the president and he had a full head of hair, which was matted with blood and bits of brain -- his head was a mess and there was no way to sort things out without a careful examination. Dr. Jenkins later claimed that his position up against the head of the table would have made it difficult for anyone else to see the head wound. As noted, the doctors weren't all that aware that JFK had a head wound until Kemp Clark noticed it.

In any case, the Parkland doctors did not perform anything resembling an autopsy on JFK. They never even turned the corpse over to give it a full examination. As Carrico put it: "We never had the opportunity to review his wounds in order to describe them accurately. We were trying to save his life." When it became obvious they couldn't, except for clean-up there was nothing more for them to do in the matter. They had no brief or opportunity to perform a proper post-mortem examination, and they knew that any casual poking around they did would not only be inappropriate, but might well create confusion with the official examination. JFK's corpse was taken off their hands and they were done with the matter.

The comments the Parkland doctors made about the head wound in their reports at the time are indeed bewildering. Some of the reports suggested the wound was toward the back of the head, saying they found "large pieces of cerebellum" -- which would indicate a hole in the back of the head. However, when Vincent Bugliosi asked Carrico if the doctors might have been confused, Carrico answered without hesitation: "Oh, absolutely."

On being asked to clarify, Carrico explained: "Looking at shredded pieces of brain on the gurney, it looked like some of it had the characteristics of cerebellum, which has kind of a wavy surface. But because these brain pieces were shredded, this could easily have led to confusion as to whether it was cerebrum, which has broader bands across the surface, or some cerebellum."

As for the position of the head wound, Michael Baden told Bugliosi that the Parkland doctors "were wrong. That's why we have autopsies, photographs, and X-rays to determine things like this. Since the thick growth of hair on Kennedy's head hadn't been shaved at Parkland, there's no way for the doctors to have seen the margins of the wound in the skin of the scalp. All they saw was blood and brain tissue adhering to the hair. And that may have been mostly in the occipital [rear] area because he was lying on his back and gravity would push his hair, blood, and brain tissue backward, so many of them probably assumed the exit wound was in the back of the head."

In other words, there was a mess on the back of JFK's head, but it didn't correspond with the position of the wound. Incidentally, JFK's head wasn't shaved for the Bethesda autopsy either, and so some of the observers in the theater, also seeing the mess on the back of JFK's head, came to conclusions similar to those of the Parkland doctors. The people who actually performed the autopsy said otherwise -- and again, if they were engaged in a coverup, why would they have had an audience on hand to contradict them?

In 1988, the US Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) was working on a documentary about the assassination, and as part of the exercise, PBS arranged for four of the Parkland doctors -- Jenkins, McClelland, Peters, and a Dr. Richard Dulaney -- to review the Bethesda autopsy data stored in the US National Archives. All four agreed that, as best they could remember, there was nothing they saw in the archives that contradicted what they had seen at midday on 22 November 1963, and to the extent that it contradicted what they claimed at the time to have seen, they chalked it up to the superficiality of their observations and the chaos of the situation.

The Zapruder movie shows the back of JFK's head to be intact after the gruesome head shot -- some conspiracy theorists say it shows otherwise, but nobody else has been able to see it even after having it handwaved at them. One researcher, David Wrone, meticulously described the frames showing the impact effect of the head shot: "The back of President Kennedy's head, neck, shirt collar, and suit coat are seen in surprisingly sharp detail. There is no blowout of the back of the head. No hair is out of place on the back of his head; there is no blood on the back of the head, nor on his collar, neck, or jacket." [TO BE CONTINUED]



* SCIENCE NOTES: As mentioned last month cuckoos -- nest parasites that lay eggs in other birds' nest -- have adapted to their lifestyle by producing chicks that mimic the coloration of the chicks of the birds being parasitized. As reported by THE ECONOMIST, cuckoo mimicry goes farther than that. The European cuckoo has a striking resemblance to a sparrowhawk, both birds being about the same size and having the same general coloration, in particular a set of horizontal bars running down the breast. The idea that the cuckoo's coloration intimidates birds that the cuckoo is trying to parasitize, making it easier for cuckoos to compromise nests, is intriguing, but does it have any basis in fact?

Ornithologists at Cambridge University in the UK decided to test the theory, attempting to provoke warblers, which are targeted by cuckoos, with dummies of cuckoos, sparrowhawks, and pigeons -- the pigeon being used as a control. The warblers were able to tell the difference between the three species, mobbing the cuckoo dummies, avoiding the sparrowhawk dummies, and ignoring the pigeon dummies. However, some of the cuckoo dummies had breast bars while others did not; warblers were clearly more cautious in approaching dummies with breast bars than those without the bars. In other words, cuckoos that look more like sparrowhawks have a slight "selective advantage" over those that do not. If the resemblance improves by a percent over a century, in 10,000 years it may be very hard to tell cuckoos from sparrowhawks.

* It's been known for decades that different species of bacteria can transfer genes between each other; in more recent years, it's been learned that such "horizontal gene transfers" are by no means unknown in other organisms. Now researchers at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, have discovered a particularly interesting example of the phenomenon: it turns out that Neisseria gonorrhoeae, the bacterium that causes gonorrhea, has somehow acquired a chunk of human DNA in its genome. According to Mark Anderson, one of the researchers involved in the effort, nobody's surprised at gene transfers between bacteria or even bacteria and yeast cells, but "human DNA to a bacterium is a very large jump." Another member of the research team, Hank Seifert, added: "But whether this particular event has provided an advantage for the gonorrhea bacterium, we don't know yet."

Anderson also screened the bacterium that causes meningitis, Neisseria meningitidis, which is very closely related to the gonorrhea bacterium. There was no sign of the human fragment; since the two bacteria are so closely related, their genetic divergence was relatively recent, and the gonorrhea bacterium had to have acquired the human DNA after that event. Seifert commented: "The next step is to figure out what this piece of DNA is doing."

* Plants can pollinate each other by tossing pollen to the wind -- as anyone who suffers from hay fever knows only too well -- or acquire flowers to enlist pollinators like bees or butterflies to do the job for them. It's generally been assumed, for good reason, that plants that spread pollen to the winds preceded the evolution of flowering plants, but now researchers at the University of Kansas have demonstrated that in at least one case, it went the other way.

snapdragon versus plantago

The well-known snapdragon plant has flashy flowers that attract bees, while the more obscure plantago has dingy clusters of flowers that toss pollen to the winds. According to the KU researchers, the two flowers are actually closely related -- but though it might be thought that the plantago is more similar to the common ancestor of the two plants than the snapdragon, genetic analysis shows the fact is the reverse: the plantago is actually the descendant of a plant with full flowers, but has reverted to wind pollination, even losing three genes useful for flower construction.

Why the backward step? The answer is that there is nothing really either "forward" or "backward" in evolution. Wind-borne pollination is wasteful, requiring production of large amounts of pollen, with only a small portion of it at the very best fertilizing another plant. Flowering plants, able to recruit bees and other pollinators to do the job, would seem more efficient -- but what if a plant ends up in an environment where pollinators are scarce? Then plants with an ability to perform wind pollination would have the edge. There is no direction in evolution; whatever works, works.



* A NEW MRSA THREAT? It is not news that pathogens have been steadily acquiring resistance to antibiotics, with one of the worst offenders being the bacterium Staphyloccus aureus, popularly called "staph". Mutant staph strains have arisen that can survive attack by the antibiotic methicillin, with such "methicillin-resistant S. aureus (MRSA)" strains presenting a particular threat in hospitals, where invasive medical procedures can spread infections and beds are full of vulnerable patients.

Now it appears matters have taken another menacing turn. In July 2004, Andreas Voss of the Radboud University Nijmegen Medical Center in the Netherlands admitted a six-month-old baby girl with a congenital heart defect for surgery. As a precaution, the doctors screened the girl for staph, which might be a major threat to her in post-op recovery. They found staph, which was not all that surprising since it is a very common bacterium, but they also found MRSA, which was surprising -- from the 1990s, the Netherlands had conducted an intensive and successful program to identify and wipe out MRSA in medical facilities, and it was usually only seen in Dutch patients who had been previously treated in foreign hospitals.

The baby girl, however, hadn't been out of the country. The doctors looked over her case, trying to figure out what was unusual. Her parents were pig farmers -- might that have something to do with it? That vague hint became more striking a few weeks later, when another patient infected with MRSA showed up at the hospital, and turned out to be a pig farmer. Alarm bells started going off when a third case showed up, the patient being the child of a veterinarian who worked only with pigs. Says Voss: "It was dumb luck, I should say. We had within a short time three unexpected cases that all had pig written on them."

Further work confirmed the connection, showing that one out of four workers on the pig farm run by the girls' father asymptomatically carried the distinct MRSA strain, which was designated "ST398". Studies of medical records showed that ST398 is common among Dutch livestock farmers.

Pigs and other livestock often carry staph, and it usually causes no harm. Up to that time, however, there had been very little thought that livestock might be carrying MRSA strains, and certainly no other reports of MRSA jumping from livestock to humans. The prospect that it could do so was very alarming. Says Jan Klutmans, a microbiologist at VU University Medical Center in Amsterdam who was recruited by Voss to help investigate the issue: "Initially, we were very much afraid that this this would be a major problem that could spread to the entire population."

Worldwide news media played up the finding, producing reports suggesting that the emergence of MRSA in livestock was due to the indiscriminate use of antibiotics on livestock farms, a practice that tends to breed antibiotic-resistant strains of pathogens. It isn't just a question of one strain of pathogen acquiring resistance, either: bacteria are remarkably handy at swapping genes with each other, and so if one bacterial strain became resistant, it might well pass its resistance genes onto other strains. Regulatory agencies are starting to take action on the matter.

Fortunately, so far worries about an MRSA plague passed from livestock to humans haven't panned out. People who have worked with or around livestock have indeed fallen seriously ill from ST398 -- though the mutant staph doesn't cause most of the people it infects much trouble, residing harmlessly in the nose. ST398 doesn't seem to be very transmissible between humans at present, meaning there's no immediate threat of a general pandemic. However, the ability of staph to mix and match genes with other bacteria means it could become a major threat in the future.

MRSA wasn't a problem until the 1990s, when resistant strains started to proliferate and become much more troublesome. Today, staph infections account for 20% of all hospital bloodstream infections in the USA, with 65% of these infections resisting methicillin and other antibiotics. According to the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC), in 2005 MRSA killed about 18,650 Americans -- more than the number killed by HIV-AIDS in that year.

Originally, the problem was mostly restricted to hospitals. Some strains did pop up in the outside community, generally among people in tight spaces like prisons, and early on they were mostly seen as a nuisance; unlike hospital patients, most of the people who were infected were healthy and could fight off the infection. However, thanks to its ability to pick up genes, MRSA has become a more substantial threat outside of hospitals, with the CDC reporting that over 1,400 Americans who were not hospitalized were killed by MRSA infections in 2005. MRSA strains once found largely in hospitals are now increasingly being seen in the general population, and the reverse. As a result, it wasn't surprising that the discovery of ST398 made public health authorities very nervous.

Since the discovery of ST398 in the Netherlands, it has been found in livestock farms in Denmark and Germany, and is also increasingly turning up in North America -- though studies of the pathogen found in Canada and US show that it is attenuated, not as dangerous as its European cousin. While ST398 has caused severe problems for some European patients, so far it hasn't been a threat to the general population. Whether it stays that way remains to be seen.



* NOW THE HARD PART: The uprisings that have swept over the Islamic world in the past few months are still ongoing, but in Tunisia and Egypt they have already succeeded in tossing out unpopular authoritarian regimes. As discussed by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("Democracy's Hard Spring", 12 March 2011), that leaves the problem of figuring out how to replace them.

Alas, although the old leadership has been given the boot, any successor state will necessarily be burdened with the institutional and social baggage of the past. In early March, Egyptian protesters stormed into the headquarters of the Egyptian secret police, the dreaded State Security Investigations Directorate (SSI), in a half-dozen cities -- only to find them more or less empty, the SSI men having gone to ground after releasing their prisoners and shredding documents. Some of the documents that survived appeared to have been "plants" left behind to spread misinformation.

Egypt uprising

More significantly, the old regimes failed to provide good governance, leaving would-be reformers with no local examples of an open, democratic society to use as models. "Arab democracy" was mostly a farce, consisting of the trappings of the rule of law but little of the substance. Now that the old order has been thrown off, there's a circus of factions competing to figure out what to do next, with revolutionary cohesion tending to disintegrate. In Egypt, the uprising featured inspirational solidarity between Muslims and minority Coptic Christians, but as of late the Copts have been increasingly attacked. With a vacuum in state authority, businesses are having problems getting things done, while crime has been on the increase.

Egypt does appear to be making some progress. The Egyptian Army, which took over after the exit of strongman President Hosni Mubarak, doesn't appear to want to run things indefinitely, having provided an outline political roadmap early on, the starting point being an expert panel to propose a set of initial constitutional revisions. The revisions were put to the vote at the end of March; the military made it clear that the vote would be fair, warning that vote fraud would not be tolerated. The revisions passed; now parliamentary elections are expected in September, followed by a presidential election in November, with the new government to work towards a definitive new constitution -- the goals for the reformed constitution being seen as dismantling the authoritarian powers granted the president, empowering the legislature, and ensuring the independence of the judiciary.

The army actually wanted to move faster at first, but decided to slow down in response to protests. Senior officers have been in regular consultation with opposition leaders and have been responsive; the army even set up a Facebook page to make sure that people were informed of decisions. The army hasn't gone completely soft by any means, however, indicating that the SSI wouldn't be disbanded and enforcing a tough curfew. Given the widespread disorder accompanying the revolution, even many opposition officials say that a degree of such discipline is necessary.

Encouragingly, Egypt has, for the time being, a free press. Public media organizations had been building up in Egypt over the past decade, but the government let them know they were on a leash, with Mubarak personally calling up TV presenters to reprimand them when they displeased him. Now the media organizations are becoming increasingly outspoken, and in some cases have dismissed officials from their ranks who had been forced on them by the Mubarak regime. The Egyptian judiciary, long under the thumb of the security services, is asserting itself as well, not only making cases against Mubarak and many of his high officials, but overturning bans on political parties. The interim justice minister has even limited his own power to appoint judges, in favor of election by their peers. Egyptian universities were traditionally also dominated by the security services, but now faculty and students are working together to evict stooge administrators.

The effects of the fall of the old order are being felt at lower levels. The detested road checkpoints set up by the security services are gone, while Egyptian cellphone operators, who had been required by law to give the SSI unlimited right to snoop, are asking for the law to be revised. Businesses and even government agencies that felt obligated to hire on personnel from the security services or their fronts are now free to look elsewhere for help. Even the Muslim Brotherhood, heavily repressed by the Mubarak regime, appears to have been at least cosmetically influenced with the new spirit; the Brotherhood has stated as policy that it will act as a responsible and loyal opposition group.

Egypt is a work in progress, but it is seen to an extent by those involved in uprisings elsewhere as a role model. Yemen has long looked to Cairo for guidance and is likely to do so again. However, Arab monarchies are demonstrating greater resistance to change, and in fact the direction of protests in those nations has not generally been to overthrow their governments, but to transform them into something more like proper constitutional monarchies. If one monarchist state achieves that transition, the others will be under pressure to follow suit.

Rebels opposed to Muammar Qaddafi in Libya say they want a pluralistic parliamentary democracy with limited executive powers, but what happens there, as well as in Syria, remains a frightening question. Libya and Syria have long been the two most repressive regimes in the region; whether the leadership can be dislodged, or even if it can the successor states will be any improvement, remains to be seen.



* RESPONSIVE SPACE (3): As a footnote to the topic of military responsive space activities, an article from AVIATION WEEK ("Affordable Space" by Leithen Francis and Michael A. Taverna, 7 March 2011), provided a survey of the growing global use of small satellites.

One of the pioneers of the commercial small satellite business was Surrey Satellite Technology Limited (SSTL), a spinoff of the University of Surrey (UoS) in the UK, STTL now being an arm of the giant European Aerospace & Defense Systems (EADS) Astrium organization. Small amateur radio satellites -- "amsats" or "hamsats" or "oscars" -- have actually been flown since the early days of the space era; a group of UoS engineers began to build amsats in the early 1980s, leading to the formation of SSTL in 1985, and then to their first sale of a satellite, the South Korean KITSAT 1, in 1992. SSTL went on to build more satellites for a number of nations, and even built small experimental satellites for the US military.

By the late 1990s, SSTL felt confident enough to build and successfully sell larger "minisatellites", with a launch weight of a few hundred kilograms. Then, in 1998, a United Nations conference suggested that satellites might be used to help international disaster relief efforts, putting in motion an international effort with SSTL at the hub to create a "Disaster Monitoring Constellation (DMC)", initially to consist of a set of minisatellites into orbit to provide surveillance of natural disasters such as floods, hurricanes, earthquakes, and forest fires.

A demonstrator for the DMC satellites, "UoSSat-12" was launched in 1999, the designation indicating it was the 12th UoS satellite. A group of nations then sponsored individual satellites. The first DMC spacecraft, sponsored by Algeria, was launched in late 2002. Three more, one each sponsored by Turkey, Nigeria, and Britain, were launched in the summer of 2003. The first of a second-generation series of DMC satellites, sponsored by China, was launched in 2005, with two more launched in 2009 -- one sponsored by Spain, the other by Britain -- and two Nigerian-sponsored satellites waiting for launch. The Spanish satellite, DEIMOS-1, was actually obtained by a private Spanish firm, DEIMOS Imaging.

Spanish DEIMOS-1 DMC satellite

* The DMC constellation demonstrated a "coming of age" not only of smallsats, but also of international enthusiasm for space technology: even small countries can now afford satellites, and these countries are increasingly appreciating their usefulness. SSTL is introducing a third generation of DMC satellites, with day-night imaging capability and resolution down to 75 centimeters (30 inches), at an affordable price -- thanks in large part to the availability of commercial "off the shelf" components that are good enough to do the job, without the markup associated with space qualification. SSTL is now working on 25 satellites for launch over the next few years.

A market study performed by the French CNES space agency in collaboration with the Paris-based consulting firm Euroconsult says that about a hundred small satellites, in range of 20 to 500 kilograms (44 to 1,100 pounds) are slated for launch over the next four years, with orders coming in at a rate of about 25 satellites per year. Those figures do not include low-orbit communications satellite constellations, or the tiny and proliferating Cubesats. The survey indicated that enthusiasm is greatest in Asian countries, with China and Japan demonstrating a particular interest in smallsats for science studies, Earth observation, and in-orbit technology demonstration. However, most developing nations are interested in smallsats for remote sensing, and technology development for new applications down the road. Typical examples were Malaysia's "RazakSat" and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) "DubaiSat-1", both launched in 2009.

As an indication of just how well the smallsat market is catching on, RazakSat and DubaiSat-1 were not built by SSTL, but by competitor Satrec Initiative, a private South Korean company; the UAE is now working with Satrec on "DubaiSat-2", to be launched in 2011. Both SSTL and Satrec like to offer a full range of services to potential customers, not merely selling them a satellite, but providing ground systems technology and training so users can make good use of their satellites. China's CAST group is now developing a set of smallsat buses to cash in on the market as well.

ESA Vega booster

Along with priced-to-sell smallsats, buyers also have an increasing range of relatively cheap launch services to choose from. SpaceX's Falcon 1 has already been mentioned, but India has been pushing its reliable, low-cost "Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle" for international launches as well, while the European Space Agency is preparing to put its "Vega" light launcher into service this year. Russia has been energetic in promoting its launch services, using the "Kosmos-3M" variant of its well-proven Kosmos booster series, as well as the "Dnepr", a converted "SS-18 Satan" intercontinental ballistic missile. Given the competitiveness of the market, it seems likely that launch technologies are going to continue to get cheaper, expanding the reach of space business to even more users. [END OF SERIES]



* THE KILLING OF JFK -- THE BALANCE OF EVIDENCE (12): Along with the claims of the supposed "magical" trajectory of the CE 399 bullet, conspiracy theorists are suspicious because photos of CE 399 show it to be what is often described as "pristine" -- that is, it looks like somebody just yanked it out of the case, that it had never been actually fired. That's just due to the camera angle: CE 399 only appears "pristine" if view from the side. When viewed from the base, it is clearly flattened, as if subjected to a substantial squeezing force, presumably by the impact of striking Governor Connally while flying sideways.

Michael Baden commented: "It would be very hard to take a hammer and flatten [CE 399] to the degree that it is flattened." CE 399 was a military full metal jacketed bullet, designed to remain intact after hitting a target, and as Baden put it, there was nothing in the path that the Warren Commission said it took through JFK and Connally where it would have hit anything directly at full velocity. It passed through JFK's body without striking a bone; it only hit one of Connally's ribs a glancing blow; and by the time it hit his wrist bone, it had spent most of its velocity. Baden and his colleagues working with the HSCA found nothing difficult to explain about the condition of CE 399.

CE 399 bullet

However, the Warren Commission arranged for a sequence of experimental shootings by the US Army's Wound Ballistics Branch at the Edgewood Arsenal in April and May 1964, with one of the tests shots involving firing a bullet into the wrist bones of a cadaver, and the bullet ending up well more deformed than CE 399. John Lattimer pointed out the fallacy in the test: the Army test involved firing a bullet directly into the wrist bone at full velocity, when the actual scenario envisioned involved a bullet that had lost most of its velocity passing through the bodies of JFK and Connally. Lattimer said: "Of course you're going to get deformation of the bullet when it strikes a hard object at full speed."

Larry Sturdivan, who had worked in the Army tests and was the physical scientist / wound ballistics expert for the HSCA, was in agreement with Lattimer's assessment of CE 399, pointing out that its relatively good condition was consistent with that bullet having gone through the two victims; had CE 399 been fired directly into Connally's wrist, it would have been more deformed than it was. The bullet had substantially more velocity when it hit Connally's rib, but it was flying sideways when it hit, which is likely why it was so flattened. Not incidentally, in the course of his own experiments Lattimer and his boys fired a 6.5 millimeter Carcano bullet through 64 centimeters (25 inches) of hard elm wood, and the resulting bullet was even more "pristine" than CE 399. That test also made it clear that a Carcano bullet had plenty of penetrating power, more than enough to punch through the bodies of two men.

Forensic evidence, obtained by both the Warren Commission and the HSCA, showed that the CE 399 bullet found at Parkland was fired by Oswald's Carcano rifle to the exclusion of all other weapons. There's another question, of chemical analysis of CE 399 and the various bullet fragments found in the presidential limousine, but that's a complicated story discussed later.

* Conspiracy theorists play up the Warren Commission testimony of FBI Agent Robert Frazier, a firearms specialist who analyzed CE 399, who supposedly stated the bullet was completely free of any blood or tissue or other materials that it should have picked up passing through two bodies. What Frazier actually said was: "The bullet was clean and it was not necessary to change it in any way."

Was it too clean to have actually gone through a human body or two? No. On being asked if there was blood or other material on the bullet, Frazier clarified: "Not any which would interfere with the examination, no, sir. Now there may have been slight traces which could have been removed just in ordinary handling, but it wasn't necessary to actually clean blood or tissue off of the bullet."

CE 399 rode around in the pocket of O.P. Wright for a half hour or so before a Secret Service agent took it off his hands, which would have cleaned off any major deposits of blood or tissue. It should also be noted that in modern studies using genetic analysis to link spent bullets with gunshot victims, the bullets rarely had visible debris on them, and in fact sometimes didn't have enough to be seen through a microscope -- though enough DNA could still be cleaned off their surface to allow verification of who the gunshot victim had been. Metal-jacketed bullets have smooth surfaces, and except to the extent they become damaged, there's little on them that would accumulate debris from a victim. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* GIMMICKS & GADGETS: As of late, interest in airship technology seems to be taking off, with the US Army pushing forward on their LEMV surveillance platform -- discussed here last summer -- and the US Air Force also working on a surveillance airship. As reported by AVIATION WEEK, Lockheed Martin has now signed a contract with Aviation Capital Enterprises of Calgary, Alberta, to develop a series of "SkyTug" airship cargolifters, intended to support oil and gas development or other missions in remote and inaccessible regions. The two firms have formed a joint effort named "Aviation Partners" to develop the SkyTug.

The SkyTug will be derived from the experimental "P-791" hybrid airship, discussed here in 2006. Hybrid airships have negative buoyancy, demanding lift to get off the ground, making them much easier to handle. The initial SkyTug variant will have a load capacity of 18.2 tonnes (20 tons), with plans to follow it with variants with load capacities of 45.5 tonnes (50 tons) and 63.6 tonnes (70 tonnes). Concepts are under consideration for SkyTugs with load capacities of hundreds of tonnes.

Lockheed Martin SkyTug

The SkyTug will have an air-cushion landing system to allow to operate off water or rough terrain. Two versions are envisioned, one with diesel engines that will only be capable of conventional takeoffs and landings, the other with turboshafts that will have, presumably through vectored rotors, vertical takeoff and landing capability. A demonstrator will be flown in 2012, with a second machine to fly in 2013 for certification. Production is expected to begin in 2013. Aviation Capital sees a global market for up to 300 machines.

Of course, that's presuming that a production SkyTug ever flies, and given the past history of airship developments that's an open issue. A survey run here in 2008 covered a number of airship development efforts, one of the more prominent being the "JHL-40" heavylifter from an outfit named SkyHook, teamed up with Boeing. While the JHL-40 was announced to the world with considerable fanfare, the effort is now frozen or dead.

* A note from TIME magazine reports that the city of Copenhagen in Denmark is now building a new trash incineration facility on the outskirts of town to replace a 40-year-old incineration facility. The new structure, with an area of 95,000 square meters (1,022,000 square feet) will be roofed by an artificial ski slope covering 31,000 square meters (334,000 square feet) and featuring three ski runs. Skiers will be shuttled to the top of the slope internally, allowing them to watch the workings of the facility as they ride up.

* As reported by the NEW YORK TIMES, the US Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) has developed a robot to inspect power line systems. Power lines tend to run over inaccessible territory, making their inspection difficult and expensive, but the EPRI robot, known as the "Transmission Inspector (TI)", uses the power line system itself as its "roadway". Power line system have a "shield wire" strung at the top of the power pylons, hooked to ground to drain off lightning strikes; the TI robot hangs from the shield wire, moving a few kilometers a day to give the system a looking-over.

The TI robot is an experimental prototype, about 1.5 meters (5 feet) long, with a weight of about 66 kilograms (145 pounds). It has a sensor to detect electric arcing, indicating damage that can cause power losses; a lidar sensor to determine, say, if trees or other obstructions have fallen against the power lines; an infrared sensor to check for "hot spots" due to, say, a bad splice; and a high-resolution camera to give cables and towers a careful inspection, as well as check for residents encroaching on the utility right-of-way. The robot is actually powered by induction from the power lines themselves, grounding itself at night on a tower to set up a circuit and charge its batteries -- there's no point in running at night, since its camera won't be able to see things very well. During the day, it moves up the line, climbing up cables hanging at angles of up to 45 degrees and negotiating its way around towers.

* In other robotics news, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich has set up a website named "RoboEarth" that will allow robots to "share their experiences". The idea sounds like something out of a kiddie sci-fi show on the face of it, but if robotic routines are thought of as "software", RoboEarth just amounts to a software-sharing site with the software uploads and downloads handled with a degree of autonomy by the hardware systems.

The idea of leveraging "cloud computing" into robotics is not entirely new, but it's becoming a hot topic in robotics, with a number of projects besides RoboEarth now in progress. As advocates envision, suppose a robot encounters an object it's never seen before -- say, a box of cornflakes. It can send the image into the cloud, to be handed back the object's name, a 3-D model, nutritional information, and instructions on how to pour it. By offloading detail computations to the cloud, the robot would be able to get by with less resident computing power, reducing costs and power consumption.

The RoboEarth website will support "cloud robotics" by providing a database containing maps of places where robots work, descriptions of objects they encounter, and instructions for how to complete distinct actions. Of course, RoboEarth will stand or fall on two issues: standardization of the format of the routines so different robots can understand each other, and abstraction of commands so they can be ported from one robot to another with different form-factors. Setting up a website is no big deal; creating the protocols to get the scheme to work is the real challenge.

Even at that, there's limits to how much a robot can offload onto the cloud. A robot that has to operate in real time will need the resident smarts to do so, and carry out tasks that it has "learned",though the cloud connection will be handy is in learning new tasks not in its repertoire. There are also security concerns; a networked robot could potentially be "hacked" to perform crimes. However, in a perfect world, robots interconnected via the computing cloud would be able to not only draw from the connections but also contribute to them, leveraging off each other to improve their capabilities.



* FIND A FAMILIAR FACE: Humans have a remarkable ability to recognize faces that can come in handy in criminal investigations, but as reported by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("Memory Upgrade", 4 September 2010), the traditional police method of building up a "composite" face from elements like eyes and hair is not very effective, producing a face that other witnesses can match to a suspect only a fifth of the time -- less, if the witness is working from memories more than a few days old. The problem is that people remember a face, but not necessarily any of the individual elements that make it up.

Police in the UK, the US, and Romania are now making use of a digital-age scheme that promises to be much more effective. The system, named "EVOFIT", was developed by Charlie Frowd at the University of Central Lancashire in England and Peter Hancock of the University of Stirling in Scotland. They spent a decade developing EVOFIT, with the product now proving very useful in investigations.

EVOFIT begins by offering a witness a display of 18 faces generated at random. The witness selects two that seem the most familiar; EVOFIT then uses the two faces to produce a more targeted set of 18 new faces. The process is repeated, converging with each generation of faces on a better match. In an early trial, test subjects were shown a picture of the face of a footballer; two days later, they recreated the face from EVOFIT and a traditional composite system, named PRO-fit, often used by the police. The images were then shown to members of the footballer's team: 11% recognized the EVOFIT image, while only 5% recognized the PRO-fit image.

EVOFIT was clearly an improvement over PRO-fit, but hardly an impressive one for the effort; more needed to be done. First was to leverage off what we know about how humans recognize faces. Research shows that people recognize familiar and unfamiliar faces in very different ways. With familiar faces, it is the internal features -- such as eyes, nose, eyebrows, and mouth -- that are most important, while for unfamiliar faces it is external features -- hair, ears, face shape, and neck -- that are most important. EVOFIT was accordingly modified to blur out relatively unimportant features to focus on important features; the blurred features were restored after selection. EVOFIT also allowed the image produced to be made older or younger; plumper or thinner; more or less attractive; or even more or less trustworthy -- there being specific sets of facial traits known to be associated with attractiveness, trustworthiness, and so on.

EVOFIT facial reconstruction

Another added feature was the ability to animate a face slightly instead of maintaining it as a static mugshot. With these improvements, a second trial generated images that could be recognized 24.5% of the time. Next, the researchers added the ability to temporarily animate a face, accentuating various facial features as sort of a caricature, instead of just maintaining it as a static mugshot. The recognition rate went up to 42%.

Lancashire police performed the first official evaluation of EVOFIT from 2007 and into 2008. Results were inconclusive: 30 EVOFIT images were produced, leading to six arrests, though it isn't clear the arrests led to convictions; the police also used the traditional PRO-fit system, muddying the results. A 12-month trial by Derbyshire police in 2008 proved more successful, with EVOFIT producing 57 images, leading to 19 arrests and seven people charged. EVOFIT, as mentioned, is now also being evaluated in the US and Romania. Police who use EVOFIT say it has a particular advantage over traditional schemes like PRO-fit: about 70% of witnesses can't clearly remember a face and traditional composite schemes are useless, but witnesses who don't have good recollection can make surprisingly effective use of EVOFIT. Frowd is now working with Boston police to improve EVOFIT's ability to produce Hispanic faces.

* HEAR WHAT I MEAN: In slightly related news, another article in the same issue of THE ECONOMIST ("Correct Me If I'm Wrong", 4 September 2010), described a new approach to improving speech recognition.

Understanding speech requires a lot of processing power; humans don't do it perfectly, and machines can have considerable trouble making out more than simple words and phrases. Current speech recognition systems can get an edge on deciphering phrases from statistical knowledge of how words are put together in practice -- for example, if someone says "bouncing", then if the next word could be interpreted as "doll" or "ball", it's likely to be "ball". The problem with such "continuous speech recognition" schemes is that when they fail, they tend to wildly misunderstand speech.

Per Ola Kristensson and Keith Vertanen of the University of Cambridge's Computer Laboratory have come up with a system named "Parakeet" for phones and other touchscreen-enabled mobile devices to assist such machines in understanding what they're being told. It's simple, really: Parakeet lists top text matches to a spoken phrase in order of fit, allowing the user to pick the one that actually works. If none of them is exactly right, but several have bits and pieces of the answer, the user can pick and choose among the words in the list elements to produce the right interpretation. It is unclear if Parakeet actually then "remembers" the best match for future use, but if not that would be a straightforward future addition to the scheme.

As designed, Parakeet is based on an open-source speech recognition program named "Pocket Sphinx", developed by Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Kristensson believes it will not be difficult to implement Parakeet on commercial speech recognition systems, like Nuance's "Dragon". Parakeet is still in prototype evaluation, but with speech recognition becoming an increasingly important feature for phones and other digital gear, it is likely to find a wide market.



* TABLET PC REVOLUTION? As discussed by an editorial from THE ECONOMIST ("Difference Engine: Send In The Clones", 11 March 2011), the personal computer business has always lived on a degree of hype, and the big push for tablet computers, led by Apple's iPad, is no exception, being promoted as a revolution in PC technology. Analysts see 50 million tablets shipped in 2011, eating into the sales of laptops. Dozens of tablet PCs are on the market or being developed.

Hype, from Apple? Who knew?! PCs have always evolved, it's nothing surprising. PCs started as desktop machines; then hefty luggables; followed by more manageable laptops and notebooks; and most recently petite netbooks. Tablet PCs are just the next evolutionary step, and in fact the idea is hardly new: before the introduction of the iPad, people had been trying to sell them for years, with dismal luck.

Why did they fail before, and why are they succeeding now? Partly, the technology wasn't there before; the old tablets were too expensive, not powerful enough, clunky to use, and with insufficient battery life. In effect, they were attempts to cram a desktop PC into a tablet format, and it was the wrong usage model. It was smartphones, with their low-cost, power-efficient electronics and tidy operating systems (OS) that paved the way. Indeed, the iPad is almost just a scaled-up iPhone, one of the iPad's core features being its wireless connectivity. Desktop applications like word processors, spreadsheets, and drawing packages don't make that much sense on a tablet PC; but tablets work great for email, surfing the internet, operating as an e-reader, and for playing games. Tablets aren't as powerful as desktop PCs, but they are much more interactive, while being easier to use than smartphones.

tablet PC

One of the keys to low-cost, low-power electronics for smartphones and tablet PCs is the "Advanced RISC Machines (ARM)" processor from ARM Holdings in Cambridge, UK. The ARM chip is a "reduced instruction set computer (RISC)", designed for simplicity and efficiency in structure and operation. It traces its origins back to the ancestral "Acorn RISC Machine" developed by Acorn of the UK in the early 1980s. ARM Holdings was spun off of Acorn in 1990, and since that time 15 billion ARM processors have been sold. The ARM is an effective standard for smartphones, and is common in tablet designs -- the iPad uses a dual-core ARM processor, and analysts estimate that about 60% of competitor's tablet designs use them as well.

The ARM chip's first virtue is its cleanliness and efficiency of design. Its second virtue, related to the first, is that it isn't an Intel x86 processor, the chip that dominates the Windows PC world. ARM's licensing terms are much more lenient than Intel's; in addition, the ARM chip isn't saddled with the need to be compatible with the past, which tends to hobble Intel's attempts to reduce the power consumption of their processors. Even with a dual core ARM processor, the iPad can run for ten hours between charges. Along with the ARM chip, tablets have also leveraged off low-cost, high-quality touchscreen displays from smartphones, with 25 centimeter (10 inch) displays costing about $65 USD for the moment; 18 centimeter (7 inch) displays are only $50 USD.

Hardware is of course only half the issue, the other half is software, and tablets leverage off operating systems developed for smartphones. The iPad uses Apple's iOS, the iPhone operating system, while competing tablets have flocked to Google's free Android OS. These operating systems are tailored for small packages, and Apple had a ready-made applications base developed for the iPhone that could be adapted to the iPad; hundreds of thousands of apps were developed for the iPhone, and tens of thousands have already been ported to the iPad. Android lacked an applications base at the outset, but it has been building up rapidly as of late. Android has a particular advantage in that is open-source -- in contrast to Apple's notorious fondness for proprietary systems -- and so, in effect, anyone who wants to put Android on a tablet can do so without adding to the pricetag.

With cheap, efficient tech easily available, the cost of entry into the tablet market is low. Right now, a loaded iPad selling for $729 USD is estimated to cost about $245 USD to make, while Motorola's $799 USD Xoom is thought to cost the maker $278 USD. However, a perfectly functional tablet PC can be built without all the flashy bells and whistles of the iPad or Xoom, and analysts believe that the bulk of the market will be at the $100 USD level in the near future, at least for a 7-inch tablet, the price falling as the competition grows.

Again, the tablet PC can be seen as more evolutionary than revolutionary, a logical progression of past technology. However, a useful, convenient $100 PC could become a common appliance; it could be used, for example, as a desktop clock with music and video capabilities, with apps pulling in materials from the internet as desired. In addition, a big user base of tablet PCs might well provide a basis for undermining the continued if weakening dominance of the x86 / Windows PC. Maybe in time, evolutionary will be revolutionary after all.

* In related news, BUSINESS WEEK reports that Japanese are embracing tablet PCs enthusiastically, one big reason being that infamously small Japanese domiciles just don't have the room for big libraries, and so there's considerable interest in electronic books. There's actually not a big selection of Japanese-language e-books available commercially, but no problem: Japanese are privately doing it themselves, or taking advantage of a cottage industry that's sprung up to service the need, providing digitized books in PDF format.

The giant Fujitsu company reports that sales of its scanners have risen rapidly in pace with the sales of tablet PCs, as individuals decide to copy books on their own. One of the first businesses to digitize books commercially was Bookscan, set up by a young entrepreneur named Yusuke Ohki on a shoestring, digitizing books for 100 yen -- a little over a dollar. Bookscan went viral and now has 140 employees servicing over 12,000 customers. Dozens of competitors have sprung up as well. The legal status of the exercise is a bit unclear, however: Japanese law allows book owners to digitize copyrighted materials for their own use, but trying to police individuals swapping PDF files is clearly problematic.



* RESPONSIVE SPACE (2): As spacecraft size drops, so do launch costs. Launching a payload to low Earth orbit (LEO) can cost $20,000 USD or more per kilogram, but the smallest satellites can hitch a lift as secondary payloads on launches of large satellites. Tiny satellites flown as secondary payloads have been around since the early days of the space race, but the Cubesats have established such exercises as something of a regular practice. Cubesats are usually flown in batches, all of the batch being accommodated and launched by a common dispenser rack.

However, Cubesats are minimalist and getting a ride as a secondary payload, though cheap, can't really be called "responsive". Serious military applications may require larger satellites and they certainly have to be launched when needed, which means they require their own launcher -- though it doesn't have to be a big one. Small satellite launchers are also nothing new, going back to the successful Scout small booster introduced in the 1960s, but the Air Force wants to reduce the cost of the booster itself and in particular simplify launch planning so a mission can be performed at will, with minimal advance preparation, just like a sortie of a military aircraft.

Minotaur 1 launch

Currently, for launching relatively small payloads the military has options such as the Orbital Sciences Pegasus air-launched booster and its Taurus and Minotaur ground-launched derivatives, but these vehicles still leave something to be desired in terms of cost and the ability to "launch on demand". New booster options, such as the SpaceX Falcon 1, are being investigated, with standardized dispenser systems allowing them to carry sets of standardized spacecraft; arguably more importantly, procedures and planning are being streamlined, supported by adaptable software.

Since military launch sites are vulnerable to attack, there's also a push towards alternative basing of boosters. Air launch of satellites is, once again, not a new idea, with experiments going back to the early 1960s and the US Pegasus air-launched booster put into service in the 1990s. The Chinese have released enigmatic photos of their own air-launched booster system, though it doesn't seem to have been fielded yet, and the French are working on a booster, the "Aldebaran", that can be launched by their Rafale heavy jet fighter. Since there's a carrier-based variant of the Rafale, that would give a French fleet at sea the option of launching its own satellites, just as the fleet might launch a cruise missile.


The US Air Force's X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV), an unpiloted spaceplane flown for the first time last year, is also clearly an element in the responsive space equation, though specifics of the program are secret. The OTV does require a large booster for launch, but the reusable spaceplane can clearly be used for a range of possible missions, carrying payloads for surveillance -- and possibly strike. Offensive systems using conventional munitions, such as smart bombs or even space-delivered unmanned aerial vehicles, remain a shadowy feature of the responsive space concept. There are concerns over potential confusion between a space-based conventional strike and a nuclear attack, though advocates have pointed out much the same confusion arises with quick-reaction launches of any payloads.

* The French Aldebaran booster clearly has potential as an ASAT weapon, though the French are reluctant to suggest they want to break through the ASAT barrier. However, since any spacefaring nation could build an ASAT system, obviously nobody can count on restraint forever, and so even quick-response satellites will need some defensive systems.

Already the Chinese have shown an inclination to illuminate foreign satellites with high-power lasers as a disruption tactic. As laser power increases, such attacks will become more destructive, and so there has been work on countermeasures such as shutters to protect satellite camera systems. Since military satellites need to communicate with Earth-based forces, they can also be jammed to prevent them from relaying urgent information; that means communications systems that can penetrate jamming. Satellites need to be made more robust, with redundancy to allow them to survive and adapt to damage. There's been a considerable amount of thinking about flying swarms of cooperative small satellites that would be harder to destroy than a single satellite. There have been proposals for an arms limitation treaty to ban ASAT weapons, but since it would be difficult to monitor compliance, it's hard to see that it would be more effectual than the traditional threat of retaliation in kind. How long that will restrain the space players is unclear, but nobody sensibly banks on it being all that long.

Is responsive space really the practical answer, however? As mentioned repeatedly above, no element in the equation is really a new idea. The US military has been seriously thinking about responsive space since the 1990s, and as has happened so many times with space technology in the past, it's proven tougher than expected. Development of the Air Force TacSat satellites hasn't proven as efficient, fast, and cheap as desired -- indeed, launch of the first in the series, TacSat-1, has been repeatedly delayed and it hasn't happened yet. In the 1990s, NASA pursued a philosophy of "faster better cheaper (FBC)" to accelerate development and reduce cost of space missions, only to end up with a number of embarrassing mission failures.

On the other hand, some of the FBC missions were impressive successes -- and to the extent that FBC failed to work, some believe it was largely due to NASA's organizational culture, often criticized as excessively bureaucratic. The technology for responsive space seems to be within reach, the issue being more one of organizational competence, and in the early stages some fumbling is not surprising in building up a responsive space infrastructure. It remains to be seen if improvements in technology and a convergence of demand for cheaper, faster, more convenient access to space can finally overcome the barriers to a new era in spaceflight. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* ANOTHER MONTH: I reserve a short daily time slot to tinker with low-priority items -- one of which was to figure out how to translate the MIDI music files I collect into MP3 files so I could listen to them on an MP3 player. After a fair amount of frustrating puzzling around, I found a way of doing it, using the freeware WinAmp music player software.

It's simple. WinAmp has a module that allows it to play MIDI files; it also has a module that allows it to dump its output to a WAV music file. Set up WinAmp to work with both modules, select a MIDI file, and it dumps the audio generated to a WAV file -- the music won't play it over the PC speakers in the meantime, by the way, but that's no big deal. A WAV file is uncompressed and a pain, but I found a freebie "FoxTab Audioconverter" that can convert WAV files to MP3 files, cutting them in size to less than a tenth. Incidentally, the MIDI files are a thousand times smaller than their MP3 equivalents, testimony to the marvelous economy of MIDI.

I was a little leery of FoxTab -- freebies sometimes come with malware attached -- but McAfee Site Adviser gave it a clean bill of health, and a virus scan indicated no problems with it. It did set up a Bing toolbar and made Bing my browser homepage, however, which made me none too happy: "Would you like a FREE toolbar?!" "Would I like a poke in the eye with a stick? Does that answer the question?" Actually, as best I can recall, it didn't even ask. Oh well, can't I complain about the price.

I also later found that WinAmp sets up several obnoxious entries in the Windows Explorer right-click popup menus. After some poking around, I was finally able to find the unwanted menu entries in the Windows registry editor at:


-- and blow them away. I keep wondering why Windows doesn't include a menu-entry editor by default; it just shouldn't be that hard to do.

* The second part of this task was to figure out how to record music off my Yamaha keyboard, as well as record tracks of YouTube videos and the like off my PC. It sounded like should have been easy, but it turned out to be a pain.

Windows has a Sound Recorder, but on checking it could only record for a minute -- or so I thought. I found some audio recorder software for download online, but they were either too complicated for what I wanted to do or just wouldn't cooperate with the Windows Sound controls, making them confusing to use. After going in circles for a bit, finally got a breakthrough when I discovered, almost by accident, that the Sound Recorder for Windows 7 has no time limit on recording -- it was the Windows XP version that had the 1-minute limit.

I ran it on my laptop with a patch cable to the keyboard or to my desktop PC, and it worked fine -- though getting the settings right was a little persnickety. It was indeed easy in the end, but it was yet another demonstration of how sorting through the thicket of possibilities to the right track can be far more troublesome than it should have been thought to be in hindsight.

* In further tinkerings ... one of the nuisances in tech documentation is conversions of measurements. I know most of the basic metric:english conversion factors off the top of my head, but punching them through a calculator gets tiresome when I have sets of conversions to perform. I needed something more specific to my own requirements; I finally decided to look around for a conversions calculator, and I found several on Amazon.com for less than ten bucks.

Then I got to thinking: Why not just build my own with a spreadsheet? So after a hour or two of fiddling, I had an effective and personally optimized conversions calculator that could handle any conversions I normally came across, and could be easily extended to handle any I wanted to add. It was simple as dirt, I was pleased with it, but I was also a little embarrassed: I could have done this ten years ago and saved myself a lot of petty hassle.