jun 2011 / last mod apr 2016 / greg goebel

* Entries include: JFK assassination (series), more than voice tech for developing world (series), difficulties with digital census (series), incinerating trash with plasma torch to produce energy, the peculiar gold business, Canadian tar-sands oil, Raytheon AT-6 light attack aircraft, extracting water from fog, reusing graywater, inspecting the human virome, maritime automatic identification system (AIS), and software for electronic discovery and blocking cheats.

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* NEWS COMMENTARY FOR JUNE 2011: On 21 June, US President Barack Obama announced that 33,000 US troops will be pulled out of Afghanistan by the summer of 2013, with the intent being to end the US combat mission there by 2014. Given the economic burden of the war, US casualties, deaths of civilians caught in the crossfire, and the inability to bring the war to a military conclusion, it was time to cut losses.

Army troops on patrol in Afghanistan

An admission of defeat? Yes and no. America did crush al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, a lesson underscored by the recent killing of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. The fact that no military solution appeared to be on the horizon was not really news, US theater commanders having emphasized in the past that there wasn't really a military solution to the problem. America has chosen to pursue the political solution by backing the Afghan government in Kabul, seeking peace talks with the various factions making up the Taliban opposition -- though military pressure against the Taliban will continue in the form of high-tech and low-profile selective assaults on the movement's leadership. There's a general belief that a settlement can be reached; it's just a question of how disagreeable it is likely to be.

Obama has been criticized for a lack of spine in scaling back the war in Afghanistan, but few politicians feel eager to call for pushing on when their constituents are burying their sons killed in action there and the corrupt Afghan government in Kabul denounces the Americans. The ultimate outcome of the struggle for Afghanistan remains unclear; but in seeking an American exit to the war, Obama at the very least has demonstrated the virtue of representative government -- in that a government administration is not constrained against adjusting the decisions of a previous administration as circumstances demand.

* On the Indian "ipaidabribe.com" website mentioned here not long ago: THE ECONOMIST reports that India's laws actually tend to encourage bribery to an extent -- by making it illegal to pay bribes as well as take them. Certainly it can be well argued that citizens who pay off public officials are just as guilty as the officials who take the money, but in many cases the payers are "little people" being extorted by officials who refuse to do their job unless they are paid. In such cases, the victims don't have much choice but to pay, and then cannot complain to the authorities because they've committed a crime. In crude terms, they're screwed coming and going.

Kaushik Basu, a senior adviser in the Indian Finance Ministry, wants to see the law changed for such "harassment bribes" so that the victims won't be penalized for complaining, and in fact will have an opportunity to get their money back. There's been a noisy debate over the idea, some claiming it would be legalizing corruption, but Basu emphasizes that taking bribes would still be illegal; what he wants to do is change the incentive system so that victims have more reason to come forward than to stay silent. Alas, the problem is that India's courts are notoriously inefficient and slow to act, which makes pressing any complaint troublesome -- but that's another issue that needs to be addressed on its own terms.

* It appears that the late, and in the USA generally unlamented, Osama bin Laden had been concerned with the tarnished image of the al-Qaeda terrorist network, perceiving that it had fallen into disrepute for killing Muslims -- of course killing non-Muslims wasn't a big concern, there being no point in a terrorist organization that doesn't kill somebody. In a letter written not long before his recent death, he suggested that the image needed to be changed, and that replacing the nondescript name "al-Qaeda (The Base)" might help. WIRED Online blogs thought the idea had merit and ran a survey to provide helpful suggestions. Not all were clever, but some had merit: "iQaeda", "Yes We Koran", "Turbanators", and the "Bad News Beards".



* PLASMA TORCH VERSUS TRASH: The notion of incinerating trash into gas using a high-temperature plasma torch was mentioned here in 2006. As discussed by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("Turning Garbage Into Gas", 3 February 2011), it appears to be a coming thing.

There's nothing completely new about plasma incineration of wastes: it's long been used for disposing of particularly toxic wastes, such as the sludge from oil refineries. However, it's been too expensive to be used for anything else, with traditional costs of incineration running to up to $2,000 USD a tonne. Now costs are coming down, and people are beginning to appreciate the possibility of using the process to generate power. Appropriately tuned, a plasma torch can convert organic materials, such as paper and plastics, into a mix of carbon monoxide and hydrogen known as "synthesis gas" or "syngas", which can be burned to produce power, generating carbon dioxide and water as output products. It sounds like the perfect solution, at least on paper: instead of accumulating trash in a landfill and paying tipping fees to do it, the trash is used as a fuel source. Energy cost isn't a major consideration, since once the plant is up to speed it provides its own power, and useful recyclables can be sifted out of the waste stream before incineration.

The core of a plasma torch is a set of electrodes, usually made from a temperature-resistant nickel-based alloy. An electric current arcs between the electrodes, ionizing the air and generating an extremely hot plasma. Trash is fed into the arc a little bit at a time, with the heat and electric current vaporizing it; with the proper mix of waste, the result is syngas. Metals and other inorganic materials in the waste stream fall to the bottom of the chamber as molten slag, which in principle can be used to make bricks or pave roads.

Early plasma torches were unreliable, but the nickel alloys used to make them have improved considerably, allowing the torches to be run on a continuous basis. In addition, developments in a field known as "computational fluid dynamics" have led to a precise understanding of combustion processes, allowing the optimum production of syngas.

The Japanese, thanks to scarce land and high tipping costs, were pioneers in plasma incineration, setting up the first plants a decade ago. Now Geoplasma, a firm based in Atlanta, Georgia, is preparing to break ground on a $120 million USD plasma incinerating plant in Saint Lucie County, Florida. It will be fed by local household trash and will generate enough syngas to produce electricity for more than 20,000 homes; the plant is expected to be profitable very quickly. Three dozen other US firms are also proposing plasma incineration plants; demand is so high that Westinghouse Plasma Corporation, an American manufacturer of plasma torches, is able to rent out its test facility in Madison, Pennsylvania, for $150,000 USD a day.

As the name "synthesis gas" suggests, syngas has long been used in the synthesis of other organic materials. Its importance has declined over the past decades, but with syngas from trash available, it may become a significant feedstock again. Proposals have been floated to use syngas from trash to produce ethanol or other vehicle fuels, for example. Even if plasma incineration of trash turns out to be economically impractical, the improvement in plasma torch technology will greatly reduce the cost of its traditional use in destruction of toxic wastes. In places like China, where environmental regulation is lax, refineries often dump their toxic wastes in landfills -- but if were cheaper to incinerate it, there would be every incentive to do so.



* THE GOLD BUSINESS: Mining is a big industry, covering the extraction and processing of a wide variety of metals and minerals. As discussed by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("The Wacky World Of Gold", 4 June 2011), gold has a peculiar status among them all. After all, demand for iron and the like basically follows the business cycle: when people are building more things, they need more iron. Gold doesn't work that way: people buy gold when they've decided the world is doomed.

Of course one does not have to be a nut to buy gold, but it can certainly be said in general that people tend to buy gold when things aren't going well. Such insecurity has pushed the price of gold up about sixfold over the past decade, to over $1,500 USD a troy ounce. The puzzling thing is that the people who are mining the stuff aren't benefiting proportionally, with price of stock in gold mining firms rising more sluggishly than the price of gold. It's just that not that attractive a business.

the safest investment?

The problem is diminishing return. Mining in general tends to follow a common curve: the easy pickings get cleaned out, forcing miners to go after less attractive deposits. Concentrations of gold in ores have been declining, and miners have been forced to go deeper and deeper to get at them. Fuel prices have helped make gold mining more expensive as well, and the global rush for mineral resources hasn't helped either, since it makes it harder to obtain equipment and miners. In 2000, gold could be extracted for $200 USD a troy ounce; now it's over $850 USD a troy ounce. If the price of gold hadn't skyrocketed in the meantime, nobody would be mining it.

Exploration is becoming more troublesome, with big money expended to find ever scarcer gold. Big players have been buying out the smaller ones, but that hasn't really altered the industry's fundamentals. In 2010, miners obtained 2,689 tonnes (2,958 tons) of gold, which was a record, but only a fraction more than was mined a decade earlier. What does mean for the industry? Pain, certainly, but not as much as might be thought, since the Earth contains plenty of other materials to dig out of it, the business of extracting one is not necessarily so different from the business of extracting another, and it's not so hard to switch. The market for copper is booming and prices are high, so if gold isn't a paying proposition, there's better ways to make money.

This mindset is not at all in tune with that of the "gold bugs" who like to buy up the stuff, since they tend to see gold as magically superior to any other investment. Gold, they claim, has an inherent value, and they generally believe that the world would be better off if all nations went back to gold-backed currencies. Economists are dubious of such notions, pointing to the old truism that nothing is worth any more than what people agree it is worth -- and that though it may be harder to cheat with a gold standard of currency, it's a fiscal straightjacket for a growing economy. All the gold standard amounts to in economic practice is a tight money supply policy, an attempt to enhance the value of money by choking its availability. If that were judged necessary, gold wouldn't be needed to implement it.

Possibly, economists hint, gold bugs want a gold standard precisely they want a fiscal straightjacket so they can obtain a chokehold on the economy. That might be argued by those who care, but it is unarguable that the mystique of gold has a heavily emotional component, and those who chase after the metal may be riding a bubble. For mining businesses with a concern for the bottom line, they may instead choose to take it or leave it.



* MORE THAN VOICE (2): Along with basic information and transaction services, emerging cellphone "more than voice" services for the developing world include a third, possibly even more promising category in the form of "crowdvoicing". "Ushahidi", founded by a group of activists in Kenya, is among the pioneers. After the country's violently disputed elections in 2008, Ushahidi -- which means "testimony" in Swahili -- mapped reports about violence, most of them text messages, on a website. Now the organization offers software and even a web-based service to track anything from elections to natural disasters. A similar system, "FrontlineSMS", collects text messages from users and then distributes them to the community.

crowdvoicing with Ushahidi

Such schemes lend themselves to more targeted activities. Another African organization, "Stop Stock-outs", has used Ushahidi to map where essential medicines are sold out. Then there is "txteagle", which provides rewards for users who perform small jobs on a mobile phone. Its founder, Nathan Eagle, discovered that nurses in Kenya were much likelier to text in the stocking levels at their blood banks if they were rewarded with a bit of cellphone airtime, and it got him to thinking about the possibilities. Now firms use txteagle for translating words into a local dialect and checking street signs for a satellite-navigation service; Eagle believes that the txteagle "micro-rewards" concept is likely to catch on elsewhere.

* A fourth category that doesn't really exist yet, but could prove extremely important, is enabling technology that allows the poor to devise their own solutions. One little example in use right now is "beeping": people wants to place a call but are short on airtime, so they simply call, ring once, and then hang up, hoping for a callback. In some countries, street vendors assign different ringtones to preferred customers, with a "beep" effectively establishing an order placed free by a customer.

Those are ad-hoc schemes, but in the same way that smartphone apps have caught on in rich countries, simpler apps for dumber phones have a good chance of catching on in poor countries. For example, "AppZone" in Sri Lanka allows developers to create, test and sell applications, with operators promote them to their customers.

There are barriers to entry for all these emerging phone applications. To really succeed, they have to be sustainable businesses, but they cost money to start up and, given that they can't be priced very high given the target market, may take a long time to reach payback. Governments have often made matters more difficult instead of easier, piling on regulations and taxes that burden down innovation. Still, the future seems to be there: decades ago, nobody would have predicted mobile phones would become so popular in developing nations, and given that technology is continuing to become cheaper and more capable, there's no reason that the revolution should just stop at being able to talk on the phone.

* In somewhat related news, while there's been considerable talk of using smartphones as a medium for "electronic money", as reported by BUSINESS WEEK, one angle on that concept has been unappreciated: using smartphones to process good old plastic. While small businessfolk using smartphones can punch in charge-card data on the keyboard, it's time-consuming and error-prone; now they can plug a magstrip-card reader into an iPhone and just swipe a card through to perform a transaction. With a smartphone and a card reader, even a street vendor can process plastic easily.

Square charge card reader

The card readers are made by a startup named Square, set up by Twitter cofounder Jack Dorsey, and at least two other companies. Typically, a user buys the card reader and gets an app along with it that allows access to a transaction service. A buyer swipes a card through the reader, and then validates the transaction by signing on the smartphone display with a finger or card reader. An email or text message comes back as a receipt, with the money then deposited in the vendor's bank account. The transaction services are not cheap, however, with a fixed cost of 15 to 20 cents per transaction and a cut of 2% to 3% of the sales amount; some services even demand a monthly fee. Still, it's much more convenient than handling transactions otherwise, and the market is competitive enough to help keep the charges down. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* THE KILLING OF JFK -- THE BALANCE OF EVIDENCE (22): The last big question concerning the Carcano rifle is whether Lee Harvey Oswald actually owned the Carcano with serial number C2766. It is known that the weapon was manufactured by the Italian government arsenal in Terni in 1940. Its service history remains obscure; many Italian records were destroyed following Italy's surrender to the Allies in 1943, making the weapon's usage hard to trace. Following the surrender, it ended up stockpiled at a warehouse back in Terni.

In 1960, the Italian Ministry of Defense decided to sell off more than a half million old rifles, which were put up for bid. The low bidder was an American firm named Adam Consolidated Industries (ACI), later Vanderbilt Tire & Rubber (VTR). ACI arranged for a factory owner named Luciano Riva to refurbish the rifles; C2766 was shipped from Riva's plant at Storo on 28 September 1960, being sent in a crate numbered 3376 with nine other rifles. It was logged as being in a warehouse in Jersey City on 24 October 1963, with the owner being Crescent Firearms, which was apparently a distribution arm of ACI.

The next record of C2766 was on 21 February 1963, when crate 3376 was shipped to Klein's Sporting Goods in Chicago as part of a batch of a hundred rifles, sent in a total of ten crates. One of Klein's gunsmiths fitted the rifles with telescopic sights. Klein's placed an ad in RIFLEMAN magazine for the Carcanos that month. On 13 March 1963, the firm got an order in the mail for a Carcano, with a money order for $21.45 USD, to be shipped to "A. Hidell" at a post-office box in Dallas Texas. As noted, of course "Hidell" was an alias of Oswald's, and the handwriting on the order was confirmed to be Oswald's. The order was shipped to Dallas on 20 March. It isn't known when Oswald picked up the rifle, but he would have had no problems doing so; he didn't have to sign for anything, it was just a parcel that he had already paid for, and if he had to show ID for it, he carried forged ID for "Hidell".

It should be noted that Oswald was not a firearms collector; he had no other firearms in his possession when he bought the rifle and the revolver, and he had no history of collecting and trading weapons as a hobby for its own sake. He bought the two weapons at the same time, suggesting that he had a certain need in mind when he bought them, and there's no strong suggestion in the evidence that the need was personal security or hunting -- the pistol would have been of little use in hunting.

* The paper trail of C2766 to Oswald would seem unambiguous. However, conspiracy theorists have claimed that there may have been dozens of Carcanos with the same serial number. Several manufacturers in Italy had built the Carcano and they reused serial numbers, meaning that it might be possible that more than one Carcano might have been made the same serial number, or that the serial number on a Carcano might have been altered after it was produced.

Notice the word "might". As far as manufacture goes, the Warren Commission obtained a report from the Italian Ministry of Defense saying Italian records only showed one weapon with the C2766 serial number. One Carcano was found with serial number 2766 but with no "C" prefix; nobody has ever been able to produce any Carcano other than the one found at the TSBD with the C2766 serial number. That would seem to settle matters, but conspiracy theorists have played up an ambiguous comment by John Lattimer in his 1980 book KENNEDY & LINCOLN:


In 1974 and 1975, my sons and I had conducted a series of experiments using a 6.5 mm Mannlicher-Carcano carbine, model 91/38, serial number C2766, equipped with an Ordinance Optics Company four power telescope exactly like Oswald's.


It certainly appears to say on the face of it that Lattimer owned a Carcano 91/38 with serial number C2766, the same serial number as Oswald's. The sentence is somewhat awkwardly constructed, however, and one might wonder if Lattimer was actually trying to say he had a rifle just like the one with serial number C2766 that was traced to Oswald. Certainly Lattimer was no dummy, and it is hard to believe he would have failed to realize the forensic significance of two Carcanos 91/38s with the same serial number, and said more of the matter. Conspiracy theorists have certainly recognized the importance of the matter; if they could, who would think Lattimer couldn't?

As it turned out, it was just a typo. In 2004, one John Canal -- a retired Air Force NCO turned conspiracy theorist whose 2000 book SILENCING THE LONE ASSASSIN promoted the idea that Oswald and Ruby were involved in a Mob conspiracy -- wrote Lattimer a letter about the issue, and Lattimer considerately wrote back that it was an error that was caught only after his book went to print. It was fortunate that Canal had the presence of mind to ask, since Lattimer died in 2007 and nobody would have ever got to the bottom of the matter after that. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* GIMMICKS & GADGETS: In-flight entertainment (IFE) systems for airliners, discussed here a few years back, are something of a growth market. As reported by AVIATION WEEK, a California startup named Lumexis is trying to penetrate the market, dominated by giants such as Panasonic and Thales, with their "Fiber To The Screen (FTTS)" scheme.

Use of fiber-optics links instead of traditional copper wiring permits bandwidth of 1 gigabit per second to each seat, as opposed to 5 megabits per second for copper. However, the major win is not bandwidth but weight, not merely because the fiber links are lighter but because the support electronics for the network and at each seat station are more compact, with the seat stations using a simplified touchscreen interface. The Lumexis system weighs only about a third as much on the average as traditional copper-based IFE systems, translating into more aircraft payload or range. Company officials also claim that maintenance costs of their scheme should be lower.

Lumexis FTTS IFE system

Lumexis has managed to start winning contracts, the first being from Flydubai of the United Arab Emirates for the airline's Boeing 737 jetliners, using seats provided by Recaro Aircraft Seating of Forth Worth, Texas. The installations on the Flydubai jets have gone smoothly. In the wake of the win, Lumexis officials say inquiries have "skyrocketed".

* As reported by BUSINESS WEEK, a Swedish company named Tobii Technology is now working towards introduction of a mass-market eye-tracking system for personal computers. The Tobii scheme is the brainchild of John Elvesjoe, co-founder of the company, and is based on a module the size of a candy bar that is clipped on the bottom of a display. It shines low-intensity eye-safe infrared light at the user, catching reflections off the user's eyes to pinpoint the gaze on the display to within a few millimeters. The company is also working with manufacturer Lenovo to integrate the technology into laptop PCs.

Eye tracking systems are nothing new, but traditionally they've been bulky, complicated, and expensive. The Tobii product is small, doesn't demand that the user wear goggles or any other such trickery, and is expected to cost less than $200 USD. The eye-tracking system opens the door to applications that scroll in response to user eye movement, or even games in which a user simply looks at a target instead of using a mouse to select it. How well the scheme works is a good question, but we do seem to be entering an era of very smart technology -- and it hardly seems implausible that within a few decades, we'll have PCs and consumer gear that is so perceptive that it almost will seem telepathic.

* In another exercise in smart technology, BUSINESS WEEK reported on of Otavio Good, a software engineer with a background in game development, and his "Word Lens" app for camera smartphones. Word Lens is an "augmented reality" system that performs realtime translations of signs, menus, package labels, and so on. Just take a picture of the sign or whatever and Word Lens will then use optical character recognition to figure out what it says, to then present the user with the same image but with the text changed to the user's language. Word Lens appears to work very well, at least for the limited class of communications represented by signs and the like.

* Toshiba has now come up with a very appealing gimmick, a portable 14 inch (35.5 centimeter) LCD display that obtains both power and video over USB using "DisplayLink" video driver software. Although it seems a bit surprising that even high-speed USB can support video rates, Toshiba says that the "USB Mobile" display can handle HDTV. It comes in a tidy portfolio-style semi-soft case that flips over to become a stand. At $200 USB, it's also competitive with other LCD displays in its class. Although I can't think of exactly what use I might have for something like this, something tells me it could come in really handy.

Toshiba USB Mobile display

* In the category of "everything old is new again", according to BUSINESS WEEK the Polaroid Instamatic camera is enjoying a comeback of sorts. Polaroid itself abandoned the technology in 2008, selling it off to the Impossible Project (IP) of Austria. IP was faced with a considerable challenge in getting the Instamatic film back into production because the Polaroid supply chain disappeared along with Polaroid production, but IP managed to obtain sources of paper, coating, and chemicals. IP was able to hire on redundant Polaroid engineers to develop substitute formulations that were more convenient for production, and has even extended the technology, producing two sepia tone film variants, with a new color variant in the works.

IP forecasts sales of about 2 million eight-frame packages at $22 USD a pop in 2011, with new stores in Vienna, New York, and Tokyo. The company is developing an 8x10 inch photo format, and is working on production of new cameras to begin next year. Who would want Instamatics in an era of digital cameras? Nostalgics for one; artists for another, who see the Instamatic as a unique medium. However, there's a definite practical aspect as well, because there are times when all somebody wants from a camera is a print, with no need to go through the bother of storing an image file and printing it out.

I vaguely recall having an instant camera when I was a kid, and giving up on it because I didn't really know what to do with it -- oddly, what I recall most vividly is the smell of the wet film before a shot dried. In fact, though I would try to get into film cameras every now and then, it just never clicked. It wasn't until digital cameras came along that I finally got on the train. A digital camera turned out to be less like a film camera and more like a "reality scanner" that I could use to support my online efforts. Now I have five cameras and I would hardly know what to do without one.



* STICKY BLACK TAR As reported by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("Tarred With The Same Brush", 5 August 2010), it comes as a bit of a surprise to Americans to find that the USA's biggest oil provider is Canada, supplying 22% of the total oil imported by America. The runners-up -- Mexico, Saudi Arabia and Venezuela -- provide just 11% to 12% each. Canada's not likely to run dry any time soon either, since its reserves of 179 billion barrels of oil and gas rank second in the world.

The problem for all concerned is that Canadian crude is dirty. As discussed here some years back, slightly over half of it is in the form of "tar sands", a nasty mixture of water, sand, clay and bitumen -- bitumen being a tarry form of petroleum that has to be melted before it can be extracted and refined. It takes up to four barrels of water to generate one barrel of tar-sands crude, and it also takes energy, with 20% of Canada's natural gas, a clean fuel, used to produce oil, a dirty one. Mining the sands also strips forest and creates huge ponds of toxic byproducts. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), producing Canadian tar-sands oil generates 82% more greenhouse-gas emissions than does the average barrel refined in the United States.

Syncrude plant, Alberta

In the wake of the Deepwater Horizon spill that dumped huge quantities of crude into the Gulf of Mexico during 2010, as well as of a pipeline rupture that spewed 19,500 barrels of Canadian oil into Michigan's Kalamazoo river during that summer, worries increased in the USA over the environmental impact of oil exploration. Environmentalists have hammered on the industry. US Federal government agencies were banned from buying tar-sands oil in 2007, and American legislators have complained about the failure of the State Department to assess the environmental impact of a proposed pipeline extension -- the department has to approve pipelines that cross America's borders -- that would double imports of tar-sands oil from Canada. The department responded by extending its review of the proposal.

Canada needs to ship oil, and so green concerns have tended to be given the short shrift there. There's a lot of money in the tar sands; the difficulty of extracting oil from it of course makes it expensive to do so, but with oil prices currently high, it's still very profitable. In the not-so-distant past, tar-sands oil was only profitable at prices above $75 USD per barrel, but now process improvements have pushed the threshold down towards $50 USD. Energy -- including natural gas, oil, and coal -- makes up a quarter of the province of Alberta's $211 billion economy, with some labeling Alberta a "petro-state" in its own right. The rest of Canada benefits from service and supply contracts with energy companies, and from the government's redistribution of Alberta's wealth to poorer provinces. At the peak of the commodity boom in 2008, energy was Canada's largest export, and so it's no surprise there hasn't been much pressure to add regulations to the business.

Canada's Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper has political roots in Alberta and shares local attitudes about energy. Harper has made it clear that Canada will not adopt a new emissions policy until America does, and there being little progress on the matter in the USA, that isn't likely to happen any time soon. Environmentalists say that neither Alberta nor the government in Ottawa are taking the environmental impact of tar-sands mining seriously. As far as the Americans go, Canada is seen as a much friendlier and more reliable oil supplier than, Saudi Arabia or Venezuela; that means that though some Americans will protest against dirty Canadian crude, others will have an incentive to look the other way when it comes to tar-sands oil. Some analysts believe that a third of America's oil imports could come from Canadian tar sands by 2030.

Besides, US firms are heavily involved in exploitation of Canadian tar sands, and such companies can be guaranteed to oppose further regulation of the exercise. Finally, even if America reduces imports of Canadian oil, it won't really make a difference to the environment, because the Canadians will just sell it elsewhere. Chinese firms are already heavily involved in Alberta's tar sands.

The fundamental problem is not Canadian tar sands but the reliance of the global economy on petroleum, and the ultimate solution is to find alternative energy sources and develop conservation technologies. As long as the demand for oil is there, Canadian tar-sands oil will remain attractive. Given that it's expensive to extract the stuff, however, if economically sensible alternatives and effective conservation measures were introduced, costs of energy would have a good chance of falling -- and the tar sands would become a less attractive source of energy.



* AT-6 FOR LIGHT ATTACK: As mentioned here last year, the US Air Force has been interested in obtaining a light attack aircraft, possibly derived from a trainer, for fighting the "dirty little wars" now in fashion. Such light attack aircraft would be handy for delivering firepower when and where it is needed, flying out of rough and short forward airstrips to reduce time to target, and would be much cheaper to operate than typical fighter jets. The Air Force's "OA-X" program to obtain a light attack aircraft appears to be on hold for the time being, but as reported by an article from AVIATION WEEK ("Trainer Re-Training" by David A. Fulghum, 16 May 2011), international interest in light attack appears to be very strong.

Raytheon and Lockheed Martin certainly are bullish about the prospects, promoting their "AT-6" light attack aircraft for global sales. The AT-6 is a derivative of the Swiss Pilatus PC-9 series of trainers -- turned substantially more warlike, with six underwing stores pylons, engine and cockpit armor, and a modern combat avionics suite derived from that developed for the A-10C update of the long-serving A-10 Warthog close-support aircraft. The AT-6 features a "glass cockpit" compatible with night vision goggles (NVGs); Scorpion helmet-mounted cueing systems for both the front and back seaters; a sensor turret on the belly under the wings; defensive countermeasures; and a Link-16 datalink system to allow it to work with surveillance platforms such as the Beech King Air 350ER, discussed here last year as well.

Raytheon AT-6

The datalink is critical to the utility of the AT-6, not only allowing it to be directed to targets by other tactical elements, but allowing it to provide intelligence to those other elements as well, using data feeds from the sensor turret and the Scorpion cueing system. The fact that the AT-6 is a two-seater improves its utility in the intelligence-gathering role, with the front-seater flying the plane while the back-seater can take a look around.

However, the AT-6 has teeth as well as eyes. Its effectiveness in a high-threat environment would be debatable, but in conflicts against insurgents it can definitely do the job. The key is new lightweight smart munitions being developed for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs); they have adequate punch to deal with strongpoints and lightly-armored vehicles and provide standoff range to keep the launch aircraft out of reach of defensive fire. While machine-gun pods are an option for external stores, they are seen as old-fashioned, lacking in stand-off capability.

One of the benefits of a light attack aircraft over an armed UAV is the elimination of the ground infrastructure and training overhead required for UAV operations; smaller nations may find having a warm body in the cockpit more attractive. Program officials don't see the utility of the AT-6 as limited to brushfire wars, saying the aircraft is also well-suited to homeland security, disaster relief, and search-and-rescue missions. Raytheon is investigating further improvement of the AT-6. One effort is to include more fuel in the wings; current endurance is up to five hours, which is good, but the additional fuel could give up to an hour's more endurance. More internal fuel also gives the option of flying without wing tanks when a greater warload is required.

There has also been consideration of fitting the AT-6 with Sidewinder air to air missiles to enhance its air-defense capabilities, for example in an antihelicopter role. Over the longer run, future options may include much more capable surveillance kit, signals intelligence packages, and jamming systems. Directed-energy weapons, such as high-power microwave and lasers, remain science-fiction for the time being.



* MORE THAN VOICE (1): As reported by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("Not Just Talk", 27 January 2011), it's no news that the cellphone has had a big impact in the developing world -- not merely by providing poor folks with a way to talk to each other and conduct business, but as a delivery vehicle for digital information systems. For example, the "mPedigree" system, recently introduced in Ghana and Nigeria and discussed here late last year, allows buyers of medicines to scratch off a panel on the package, to reveal a code that they can call in to determine if the medicine is counterfeit. The service is paid for by pharmaceutical companies fighting drug counterfeiters; Hewlett-Packard runs the computer system and developed a cheap scheme for printing the scratch-off labels. The mPedigree system also provides statistics on the prevalence of diseases as demonstrated by the drugs being used to treat them.

"More than voice (MTV)" schemes such as mPedigree are not widespread yet. A recent poll of young folk in Southeast Asia, who are in general enthusiastic cellphone users, found that only 8% had made use of MTV services. However, given how widely used cellphones are in the developing world -- even in very poor countries, about two-thirds of the people own or have access to one -- and the limited access of the poor to information-driven services, there's a huge potential market.

* MTV services for developing countries are a new frontier, and those working on the concept are still trying to sort out their ideas. Richard Heeks, director of the Centre of Development Informatics at the University of Manchester in the UK, categorizes services by their impact on development. One category is services to "connect the excluded" -- in the simplest case, providing information to those who would otherwise be out of the loop. "Farmer's Friend" in Uganda, for example, sends out market prices and other agricultural information in text messages.

Such services are nothing all that new, but as of late they've become more common and varied. Nokia now provides "Ovi Life Tools", a set of information services from weather to sport, to more than 6 million users of its cellphones in China, India, Indonesia and Nigeria. "Esoko", a Ghanaian "communication platform", allows two-way communication: people and businesses in 15 African countries can upload their own market or other data, which then become accessible via the internet and mobile phones.

doing business with Esoko

Mobile trading services are also in this category. Pioneering services focused on agribusiness; for example, "Dialog Tradenet" in Sri Lanka lets farmers check market prices and send in text messages with offers. Such services have diversified: in India, "Babajob.com" lists low-skill jobs; the most popular items on "CellBazaar" in Bangladesh are second-hand cellphones; "KenyaBUZZ" in east Africa sells tickets for cultural and sports events over the phones. The older operations such as Dialog Tradenet have expanded their own portfolios to compete. Researchers at SAP, a South African software giant, are working to connect very small businesses, which make up a large part of Africa's economy. SAP has, for example, developed a system that allows rural stores to order goods, saving time-consuming trips to city markets.

Of course, mobile phones can be used for education. In Bangladesh, the BBC World Service Trust sponsors a service called "BBC Janala" that helps poor folk improve their English. After dialing "3000", users can listen to hundreds of English lessons and quizzes, updated weekly. Mobile operators charge about two cents for each three-minute lesson; since BBC Janala was launched in November 2009, 3.1 million people have used it.

* A second category of services includes those that cut out the middleman -- or at least keep an eye on him, with such services proving particularly useful in dealing with the government. In the Indian state of Karnataka, corrupt officials would often demand a bribe before issuing land ownership certificates, which farmers need, for instance, to get a loan. The "Bhoomi" project allows them to get the certificates directly, using the internet and mobile phones.

Services to transfer cash by text message, known as "mobile money", have been around for some time now. One of the most successful, M-PESA -- discussed here a few years ago -- began in Kenya in 2007, and now has more than 13 million users there. M-PESA is now used for salaries, bills, donations, everything. Comparable services are currently available in over 40 countries. Mobile money is still growing, and appears to be poised for much greater use. In most countries in sub-Saharan Africa, more people have a mobile phone than a bank account, and as discussed here last year, poor folk have plenty of incentive to want "microbanking" services. Several firms and organizations are working to fill the need. Software developed by Tagattitude, a French startup, can perform money transactions with a voice-only phone, with several banks in Africa now getting ready to make use of it. An Indian firm named A Little World has put together a "branchless microbanking system", incorporating a fingerprint reader for validation and a cheap little printer for receipts; the company already has more than three million subscribers in India, with the state of Andhra Pradesh using it to disburse welfare payments and pensions. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* THE KILLING OF JFK -- THE BALANCE OF EVIDENCE (21): Since the evidence strongly suggests that the Carcano was an accurate weapon and that Oswald had the skills to make the shots, conspiracy theorists have raised questions on other issues relative to the weapon.

One of the more puzzling was that the scope was mounted for a "left-handed shooter", based on a comment made by an Army gunsmith from Aberdeen Proving Grounds to the FBI in 1964. This claim persists despite the fact that it doesn't make sense; the scope bracket had to be mounted on the left because there was no sensible way to mount it on top or on the right without interfering with the operation of the bolt. Since the bolt handle of the Carcano was on the right, it would have been clumsy for a left-handed shooter to use, but though Marguerite Oswald said Lee "wrote left-handed and ate right-handed", Robert Oswald said that his mother was wrong, Lee did everything right-handed. As Marguerite admitted, she had never seen Lee shoot a rifle; Robert had gone hunting with Lee and knew how he shot.

Another, more interesting question concerns the alignment of the scope. The Army tests showed the scope to be misaligned, with metal shims produced to bring it back in alignment. How could Oswald have scored hits with a scope so badly out of alignment? In reality, Oswald had performed target practice with the rifle and he would have known perfectly well if the scope was useless; it seems more plausible that the scope got bent when the rifle was thrown behind the boxes on the sixth floor of the TSBD. Robert Frazier of the FBI told the Warren Commission that the scope had a scrape mark on it that could have been caused when the rifle was discarded. Even if the scope was misaligned before that, Oswald could have used the rifle's "iron sights" to target the weapon, considering the relatively short ranges involved in the shots.

Related to the claims about the uselessness of the Carcano rifle are claims that its ammunition was no good, for example saying it was ancient surplus stuff and prone to misfires. Actually, those running tests on the Carcano rifle -- for example the Army and the Lattimers -- with the Western Cartridge Company ammunition never had any significant problem with it. Conspiracy theorists also play up the fact that no other ammunition for the Carcano was found after the assassination. However, since the rifle had to be ditched after the shooting, Oswald had no need to retain any ammunition, and every reason to dispose of unused ammunition lest it be obtained as evidence against him.

Yet another little issue is a claim by conspiracy theorists that the three spent cartridge cases found on the TSBD were discovered lined up neatly in a row. In reality, the police of course photographed the "sniper's nest" before they touched anything, and the photo shows the three cases scattered around on the floor. It is also hard to understand what conceivable reason the conspiracy would have had to go through the trouble of carefully lining up the cases instead of just tossing them on the floor. Along with that item, conspiracy theorists have pointed out that one of the cartridge cases found at the TSBD had a dent the lip, claiming that the dent meant that cartridge wouldn't load. Actually, the dent was likely due to a "short cycling", meaning the shooter trying work the bolt too fast and jamming the empty case back into the breech. It could happen with any manual-action rifle.

Still another concern was raised about the "stripper clip" used to hold the ammunition in the rifle's magazine. A Carcano is loaded with four rounds held together at the base with a piece of metal, a "stripper clip"; when the ammunition is expended, the clip pops out the bottom of the magazine and can be ejected from the magazine by pressing a stud at the forward edge of the trigger guard. Conspiracy theorists claim the stripper clip was never accounted for, and without it Oswald would have had to load each round individually, which would have been very time-consuming. A photo survives of the Carcano being hauled off, with the stripper clip perfectly evident. Carl Day also wrote a report on 22 November 1963 that mentions there being a live round in the Carcano, as well as a stripper clip stamped "SMI 952". A picture of the clip can be found in the Warren Commission exhibits, CE 575. The stripper clip was indeed accounted for. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* Space launches for May included:

-- 04 MAY 11 / MERIDIAN 4 -- A Soyuz Fregat 2.1a booster was launched from the Plesetsk Northern Cosmodrome in Russia to put the fourth Meridian military comsat into space. The spacecraft was placed into a highly eccentric, high-inclination "Molniya"-type orbit.

-- 07 MAY 11 / SBIRS GEO-1 (USA 230) -- An Atlas 5 booster was launched from Cape Canaveral to place the first "Space Based Infrared System / Geostationary (GEO-1)" AKA "USA 230" satellite into orbit. The spacecraft was built by Lockheed Martin and was based on the company's A2100 satellite bus. It had a launch mass of 4,535 kilograms (10,000 pounds), featured a payload with both scanning and staring sensors to detect missile launches, and had a design lifetime of 12 years. The SBIRS constellation will ultimately consist of a mix of four spacecraft in geostationary orbit and four in highly elliptical orbit (HEO). SBIRS HEO payloads were launched in 2006 and 2008, piggybacked on signals eavesdropping satellites. The Atlas 5 was in the "401" configuration, with a 4 meter (13 foot) diameter fairing, no solid rocket boosters, and a single Centaur engine in the upper stage.


-- 16 MAY 11 / ENDEAVOUR (STS-134) / ISS -- The NASA space shuttle Endeavour was launched from Kennedy Space Center on "STS-134", an International Space Station (ISS) support mission. This was the 134th shuttle flight, as well as the 25th and final flight of Endeavour. There were six crew, including:

The shuttle crew joined the "ISS Expedition 27" station crew of Dmitriy Kondrateyev, Andrey Borisenko, Aleksandr Samokutayev, Ronald Garan, Catherine Colman, and Paolo Nespoli. Endeavour carried the "Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS)" experiment for the ISS, as well as supplies and parts for the ISS, stowed on the third Express Logistics Carrier. The AMS, which had a mass of 6,915 kilograms (15,250 pounds) was designed to analyze cosmic rays using a sensor system built around an electromagnet. The AMS almost didn't fly thanks to the decision to end the shuttle program in 2010, but extension of the shuttle to 2011 permitted it to be squeezed into the flight schedule.

The shuttle returned to Earth on 1 June after 15 days 17 hours 39 minutes in space. The orbiter was then given to the California Science Center, though its Canadarm robot arm was sent to a museum in Canada.

-- 20 MAY 11 / ST 2, GSAT 8 -- An Ariane 5 ECA booster was launched from Kourou in French Guiana to put the "ST 2" and "GSAT 8" geostationary comsats into orbit. ST 2 was operated by ST 2 Satellite Ventures, a joint venture between companies in Singapore and Taiwan. The satellite was built by Mitsubishi Electric Corporation of Japan, and was the company's first spacecraft built for export. It had a launch mass of 5,087 kilograms (11,217 pounds), a payload of 41 Ku-band / 10 C-band transponders coupled to six antennas, and a design life of 15 years. ST 2 was placed in the geostationary slot at 88 degrees East longitude to provide fixed and mobile voice and internet services to Asia and the Middle East.

GSAT 8 was built by India's ISRO and had a launch mass of 3,092 kilograms (6,819 pounds), making it one of the biggest satellites ever made by ISRO. It had a payload of 24 Ku-band transponders and was placed in the geostationary slot at 55 degrees East longitude to provide communications services to the Indian subcontinent. It also included a GPS augmentation system named GAGAN to support regional air navigation systems.

-- 20 MAY 11 / TELSTAR 14R -- A Proton Breeze M booster was launched from Baikonur in Kazakhstan to put the Canada Telesat "Telstar 14R" AKA "Estrela do Sul (Southern Star) 2" geostationary comsat into orbit to provide communications services over the Americas. It replaced Telstar 14, which failed to properly deploy one of its two solar arrays after launch in 2004, reducing its channel capacity.

The satellite was based on the Space Systems / Loral SS/L-1300 comsat bus; it had a launch mass of 4,969 kilograms (10,957 pounds), a payload of 46 Ku-band transponders, and a design lifetime of 15 years. It was placed in the geostationary slot at 63 degrees West longitude, with five beams focusing on on Brazil, the Atlantic Ocean, the continental United States, and the southern cone of South America and the Andean region, and Central America.

* OTHER SPACE NEWS: NASA formally announced the startup of a new mission named "OSIRIS-REx" -- for "Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer" -- a robot asteroid sample-return probe that will be launched in 2016 and will return to Earth with a few kilos of asteroid material seven years later. It is the third in NASA's "New Frontiers" series of mid-sized space exploration missions, following the New Horizons Pluto flyby probe and the Juno Jupiter orbiter probe.


The mission is being led by a research team at the University of Arizona in Tucson. Following launch in September 2016, OSIRIS-REx will rendezvous with carbon-rich asteroid 1999 RQ36 in 2020, orbit it to create a detailed map, and collect samples while it floats above the asteroid's surface. The samples will be collected by a robot arm that puffs inert nitrogen gas into the surface, blowing material into a collection system. 1999 RQ36 is an Earth orbit crossing asteroid with a diameter of about 600 meters (1,900 feet).

The spacecraft will be built by Lockheed Martin, with science payloads from the University of Arizona, Arizona State University, the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, and the Canadian Space Agency. OSIRIS-REx will have a launch mass of about 1,530 kilograms (3,370 pounds). The payload will include three cameras, near-infrared and thermal emission spectrometers, and a scanning laser to create a terrain map. Total mission cost is set at $1 billion USD, including the booster.



* MINING THE FOG: As reported by an article from AAAS SCIENCE ("Out Of The Mist" by Gaia Vince, 5 November 2010), the city of Lima, Peru, is situated in a desert that gets only about 1.5 centimeters (a bit more than half an inch) of rain a year, leaving it dependent for water on the Rimac River, which has an unfortunate tendency to dry up. The irony is that during the "winter" season, from May to November, a thermal inversion caused by the chilly Humboldt ocean current cools the humid air coming in from the Pacific, resulting in plenty of moisture in the form of thick fogs -- but alas, no rain.

Despite the lack of precipitation, inhabitants of a shantytown on the outskirts of Lima are trying to grow a forest. That might seem mad given that there's so little water available, but in another irony that's actually the point of the exercise. Back in the early 1600s, there was plenty of forest around Lima until the Spaniards chopped it all down. The forests could grow because the fogs condensed on the trees, providing them with plenty of water. That leads to a chicken-&-egg problem for the locals, since a forest won't grow without water and the water won't be available without a forest -- but they're trying to "kick-start" the process by hanging up plastic nets tall to soak water out of mists. Saplings are already growing, and in four years they should be able to sustain their own growth, without the fog nets.

fog nets

Peru in general and Lima in particular is facing a real problem from climate change. Most of the country's water comes from glaciers; in the last 30 years, Peru's glaciers have shrunk from 2,000 square kilometers to 1,500 square kilometers (770 square miles to 580 square miles). That represents a loss equivalent to ten years of water consumption for Lima. Worse, lakes at the bottom of the glaciers, on which many small communities depend, are drying up as well. Water shortages and drought have driven many Peruvians from the countryside to the cities of Peru's coastal strip, with 80% of the population now living there. More than half, over 9 million people, call Lima home, burdening the city's water resources even more.

Part of the problem is that Sedapal, the state water agency that administers Lima, is inefficient, with the agency itself admitting that it loses 40% of its water to leakage and theft. Even in wealthier parts of downtown Lima, it's nothing unusual for taps to dry up. The 1,800 shantytowns on the outskirts of Lima that house 2 million of the city's inhabitants have it much worse, since most of them aren't connected to the water grid. They have to pay for expensive water from private water trucks, and the water's often contaminated, causing dysentery and other water-borne diseases.

People are taking matters into their own hands. The effort to use nets to catch the mist was funded by a German nongovernmental organization (NGO) named Alimon, and involves a scheme of networks, tanks, and 8 x 4 meter (26 x 13 foot) nets mounted on top of a dune, with the nets hanging from poles strung with steel cables. During the dry season the nets may not catch a drop of water, but during the foggy season they can haul in so much water they sound like fountains. The record catch per net per day is 590 liters (156 US gallons). Says a local working on the project: "We had no idea it would work so well."

The water is captured by the storage system, to be used to irrigate tree saplings and, after being passed through a sand filter, for local consumption. There's enough water to irrigate the saplings, but not enough for the community even on a minimal basis. That goal will have to wait until the cloud forest gets big enough to make the nets redundant.

Fog collecting is not really a new idea; peoples from Europe to Africa have long used trees to collect water. In Spain's Canary Islands, for example, locals used to build funnels at the base of trees to catch fog runoff. During Charles Darwin's voyage on the Royal Navy brig HMS BEAGLE in the early 19th century, he helped plant seedlings on barren Ascension Island in the mid-Atlantic, and 20 years later the forest was providing water for hundreds of troops.

Kai Tiedermann, an Alimon biologist, spent a decade on the Canary Islands, investing the fog-harvesting properties of various trees there. Tiedermann found that some trees would collect fog easily, while others would remain dry. His test showed that trees with needlelike, instead of broad, leaves were better fog harvesters, as were trees with leaves oriented vertically instead of horizontally.

Certain trees are very well adapted to harvesting fog water and in fact some, like the California redwoods, get most of their water needs from fog, creating a local water cycle that supports plants in their vicinity and creates small streams. Having relocated to Peru, he and his colleague Anne Lummerich decided to see if they could find a local tree species that could harvest water, settling on the tree known as "tara", or more formally Caesalpina spinosa. Of the four trees they tested, it was the second-best collector, but it also yields commercially-valuable fruits that produce an organic acid used in the tire, tanning, and herbal medicine industries.

There are several groups now working on fog-harvesting projects around Lima. There is debate over the best net configuration. 20 years ago Robert Schemenauer, head of the Canadian NGO FogQuest based in Vancouver BC, pioneered fog harvesting in the Chilean desert, coming up with the "Standard Fog Collector" -- a simple, two-layer net that, thanks to its two-layer construction, captures about 60% of the water in the air that hits it. It is popular among the communities of Lima and being used in Oman, Namibia, Guatemala, and elsewhere. Tidermann and and Lummerich have come up with a three-dimensional design they call the "Eiffel Tower" for its appearance and claim it vastly outstrips the capability of the Standard Fog Collector, a claim that Schemenauer disputes. The Eiffel Tower isn't the last word in fog collectors, either, with a conference on fog collecting conducted in Muenster, Germany in July 2010 featuring configurations like geodetic domes and a hexagonal "beehive" scheme that can actually be used as a dwelling place.

Even advocates admit that fog harvesting isn't a perfect answer to water problems. It can't support swimming pools or large-scale agriculture, and of course it only works in locales suited to it. There's also the worry that, thanks to climate change, it won't continue to work in those locales indefinitely. However, for poor residents of Lima who don't have access to clean water, it works well enough to be worth their while.

* GRAYWATER GAMBIT: In related news, it seems a little absurd to simply let bathwater run down the drain after taking a bath, and then turn on the sprinklers to spray clean water over the lawn. As reported by an article from TIME Online ("In Tucson, Saving the Bath Water Too" by Amy Feldman, 25 February 2011), the city authorities of Tucson, Arizona, where water is relatively scarce, have decided it's absurd, too, and have taken steps to change matters.

Indeed, the "graywater" that drains out of the shower or bathtub or washing machine -- as opposed to the "black water" that drains out of the toilet -- is getting a lot more attention in Western cities and states worried about water shortages. A decade ago Tucson, with about a million citizens in its metropolitan area and a tradition of environmental consciousness, persuaded Arizona lawmakers to legalize the use of graywater for irrigating lawns and trees, without requiring a permit. Now graywater use is legal in all of Arizona, with its use encouraged, and in some cases mandated. In 2007, the state introduced a tax credit of up to $1,000 USD for homeowners who install graywater systems, and in 2010 a Tucson city ordnance required homebuilders to include a graywater diversion system in new construction.

A number of city and state legislatures are also seeing the light on graywater. Depending on the climate and the size of the yard, graywater reuse can lower a household's total water consumption by as much as 40%. With budgets tight, increased graywater usage could reduce the need for cities to spend money on costly new water supply projects, chasing after water that's getting ever harder to find.



* PROBING THE VIROME REVISITED: The concept of the human "virome" -- the complement of viruses residing in our bodies -- was discussed briefly here early this year. An article from AAAS SCIENCE ("Going Viral: Exploring The Role Of Viruses In Our Bodies" by Elizabeth Pennisi, 25 March 2011) gave the subject a closer inspection.

While studies of the bacterial residents of our body are something of a cottage industry, examination of the virome is just starting. We've long been able to spot specific viruses in our bodies, but examining the entire viral complement is a new frontier. In 2010, a group of researchers under Jeffrey Gordon at the Washington University (WU) School of Medicine in Saint Louis, Missouri, sampled the viromes of identical twins and their mothers, probing their stools three times over the course of a year. According to one team member, the results showed that healthy people are "full of viruses". The number of different sorts of viruses in individual samples ranged from about 50 to almost 2,800. The viromes were different between individuals, and were more diverse than the bacterial communities in their respective hosts -- but the viromes seemed to remain constant in a host over time.

WU microbiologist Kristine Wylie and her colleagues have been investigating the role the virome plays in health, focusing on fevers in infants. For children under the age of 3, fevers are the most common cause of emergency room visits, but 90% of the time nobody can figure out the cause. The researchers took nasal swabs or blood plasma from 151 individuals, about half of them healthy and half of them with fevers, and then sequenced the DNA in the samples. Healthy kids had about 1,000 different viral sequences in the samples; for kids with fevers the count ran to about 10,000. Some of the viruses in the mix were common human pathogens, such as herpes and cold viruses, but there were unusual viruses, such as an astrovirus, as well. There's hardly enough data yet to make any sense of the patterns; more work should help provide better care for infants with fevers.

Frederic Bushman of the University of Pennsylvania and his group are focusing on a different set of viruses in the virome, the "bacteriophages" that attack bacteria. For each bacterium in our body, there's roughly a hundred bacteriophages, with about 10 billion phages packed into each gram of stool. Bushman's group has focused on the interplay of diet, human gut microbes, and an intestinal inflammation known as Crohn's disease by monitoring the viromes of six healthy adults who were sequestered for ten days and fed either high-fat or low-fat diets, with their stool samples examined for bacteria and viruses. There were about 44 different sorts of phages in each sample, but within about 24 hours of a shift in diet, the community of bacteria and phages would begin to shift as well -- but not necessarily in any neatly correlated direction. There was considerable variation between individuals, with the types of viruses in samples ranging by as much as a factor of 40, but the samples tended to become more uniform for people with similar diets.

These studies indicate that much more remains to be learned about the virome. One complication is that most of the viral sequences turned up in these searches are unfamiliar to science. There's also uncertainty about how best to analyze samples. Wylie's team just sequenced everything in the samples and used software to sort out the results into human, bacterial, and viral bins; the problem with that approach is that it yields a lot of mysterious sequences. Bushman's team first filtered out human and bacteria cells, then cleaned out bacterial DNA, and sequenced the remainder; the problem there is that the filtering very likely threw out many sequences of interest. We're still in the Stone Age of virome research, and those engaged in the study have their work cut out for them.



* DIGITAL CENSUS MIRAGE (2): The practical difficulties in implementing a digital census remain formidable. The US Census Bureau actually planned to employ handheld devices for the 2010 census. Stuck with long lead times, they had to buy gear well in advance, obtaining devices that were too new, resulting in slow and buggy operation. What made matters worse was that the Census Bureau then ordered changes in the system after a dry run in 2007. The handhelds were generally abandoned for the 2010 census; switching back to pencil and paper added about $1.4 billion USD to the cost of the exercise. There's also the question of just how much money would be saved by going to an online form. The Census Bureau would still have to mail every household a postcard with instructions and a "key" to make sure that, say, someone from Maine won't pretend to be living in Hawaii.

Yet another problem is declining response rates. As is typical of most censuses, the US census has two components:

The Census Bureau spends hundreds of millions of dollars a year to publicize and encourage participation in the census, and it's mandatory anyway, with a fine of up to a hundred dollars for refusing to answer. However, only 72% of the 2010 census forms were returned, the rate dipping to below 20% in some rural areas. Some observers speculate that people are so bombarded with junk mail and the like these days that a census form is likely to be thrown out with the rest of the trash, particularly since some junk mail camouflages itself as "official government correspondence". There's also been a surge in the US of public paranoia over government intrusion, though ironically people are much more willing to give away personal information than they used to be -- a coupon for a discount on, say, dish soap may ask all the data a census taker would want, such as age, gender, race, and address, and get a good response on it.

Using administrative records would avoid the low response rates, but that approach has problems of its own. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has the most promising database, but it can take a year or more for the IRS to process its data. That's too long for the census, which has to be ready before the end of the year in which it is performed. The IRS also doesn't validate data such as age or race well, and students and the very poor don't show up well on the IRS radar since they effectively don't pay taxes. State and local agencies could in principle provide more accurate personal data, but there are few standards between states or localities, making the accumulation of the data a nightmare.

Some European countries, such as Denmark, Sweden, and the Netherlands, have addressed these difficulties by building up a central registry that collects data from various government agencies into a file on each citizen. Demographers love the idea, but it's hardly surprising that there are many people who don't like the idea of the government keeping a detailed file on each of its citizens. Such concerns led the UK to drop plans for a national ID system, which would be a necessary precursor to a national registry. The Republican National Committee has blasted similar ideas for the USA. Is there a gleaming digital future for the US Census Bureau? Maybe so, but it's not going to arrive any time soon. [END OF SERIES]



* THE KILLING OF JFK -- THE BALANCE OF EVIDENCE (20): Along with the claims of the supposed inaccuracy of the Carcano rifle, conspiracy theorists claim that Oswald was a lousy shot, and that the shots Oswald supposedly made would have been extremely difficult even for an expert shooter. Actually, as mentioned, Oswald's rifle scores in the Marines were at least middling, arguably good, and the Marines had high standards for rifle proficiency.

Conspiracy theorists point to the "poor" scores of his final qualification in the Marines while he was in California -- one Marine who knew him there, Nelson Delgado, telling the Warren Commission that Oswald's score was a "pretty big joke". Oswald's shooting had actually only dropped from 212 to 191, which meant he still qualified. It should be noted that the maximum possible score was 250, which means that at 191 Oswald was still a long way from the bottom. More importantly, Delgado also testified in the 1986 London mock trial; under questioning Delgado admitted he'd only scored a 192, and he considered himself a good shot. Bugliosi suggested that Oswald, knowing he was not long for the Marines, had what military folk call a "short-timer's attitude", in Bugliosi's words "he wasn't trying"; Delgado answered: "Yes". Bugliosi then asked if Oswald "could have done better if he tried." -- and Delgado answered: "Right." Was Oswald a competition-level shooter? No. Was he a competent rifleman? Yes, no real doubt of it on the evidence.

As for the difficulty of the shots, the first issue is one of timing. Assuming, with good cause, that three shots were fired, then from the Zapruder movie the general consensus is that the interval from the first to third shots is a bit over 8 seconds, with about 3 seconds for the first shot and 5 seconds for the second shot. Could a shooter have fired; reloaded, aimed, fired; reloaded, aimed, fired in that timeframe? The majority of demonstrations show that to be plenty of time.

The second issue concerns the difficulty of the shots as performed from the "sniper's nest". The first shot was a miss, which seems odd since the limousine was closest to the "sniper's nest" at that point; but the vehicle was moving across the shooter's line of sight then, giving it a high "angle rate" and making it a difficult target -- a "deflection shot" requiring that the shooter "lead" the target. Compounding the difficulty was the fact that the shooter would have had to be firing downward at a steep angle at that point.

For the second and third shots, in contrast, the limousine was moving away from the "sniper's nest", meaning there was a low angle rate, and it was a "tail chase" shot that only required a slight adjustment in aim to compensate for motion -- the car was moving in the range of 16 to 24 KPH (10 to 15 MPH) at the time, and it was also rolling down a slight slope. The second shot was a hit, but it was "off-target"; obviously the target was JFK's head. The third shot was a direct hit. The range was not extreme, no more than 80 meters (88 yards).

Ron Simmons of the Army said there was nothing particularly difficult about the third shot even though the target was moving: "I think the movement of the target in this case would have practically no effect on the accuracy of fire, because from the map we are led to believe that the movement was primarily away from the firer, so that the back of the President was fully exposed to the rifleman at all times." Simmons was also asked if he thought Oswald would have had the skill to make the shots; Simmons replied: "Well, in order to achieve three hits, it would not be required that a man be an exceptional shot. A proficient man with this weapon, yes. But I think with the opportunity to use the weapon and to get familiar with it, we could probably have the results reproduced by more than one firer."

The Army performed tests with three shooters firing from a 9 meter (30 foot) tower on separated targets at the ranges roughly corresponding to the shots from the "sniper's nest". They had no problem firing on the targets in about five seconds, hitting the third target more often than not in the tests. In hindsight, the tests implemented by the Army were inadequate, with the shots performed from a tower only half the height of the "sniper's nest", and on fixed targets. They could be judged good enough to show that a competent marksman firing the Carcano could have got off three shots in the estimated time and scored hits -- but Army officials failed to recognize just how controversial the Warren Commission investigation would be, and that any limitations in the tests would be used to dismiss the results. Simmons' testimony to the Warren Commission was also confusing, allowing a wide range of interpretation.

In 1967, CBS News broadcast a series on the JFK assassination and performed a test that nobody could reasonably call unrealistic, based on a wooden tower of the same height as the "sniper's nest" in the TSBD, and a target track built at the appropriate angle and slope relative to the tower to duplicate a vehicle moving down Elm Street. A target silhouette was pulled down the track by an electric motor at 18 KPH (11 MPH), the estimated speed of the limousine. Eleven volunteer marksmen were given time to practice with a Carcano rifle and then run through the test. Their average time to take three shots was 5.6 seconds; one hit the target three times, several hit the target twice.

Conspiracy theorists have questioned the CBS News tests, claiming they were highly selective, picking only the best results and discarding the rest -- but even at that, the tests did show the shots were not "impossible", they could be achieved. Even if they were difficult, maybe Oswald was having a particularly good day with regards to marksmanship -- and again, not all believe they were that hard. Marine marksmanship experts testifying to the Warren Commission said that, on the basis of his shooting scores, Oswald had the "full capabilities" to make the hits that were made, with one, Sergeant James Zahm, saying the throat shot was a "very easy shot" and the head shot an "easy shot" for Oswald and the Carcano. Many other shooters don't see the shots as difficult; as one student commented on an online forum: "My wife could do it. Needless to say, I have never cheated on her."

* One last puzzle about Oswald's marksmanship is that it seems he would have had a fair shot at JFK as the presidential limousine was coming up Houston, before it turned onto Elm. Why didn't he take a shot then? There have been suggestions about why; for example, the Secret Service men in the motorcade would have seen Oswald immediately and returned fire. However, the simple fact is that no shots were fired until the presidential limousine turned the corner onto Elm, and any consideration of why a shot wasn't taken amounts to idle speculation.

In sum, there's no reason to believe that the Carcano was inaccurate or that Oswald was a lousy shot. The difficulty of the shots is more arguable, but many qualified experts say the shots were by no means impossible, at most challenging. Of course, simply claiming that Oswald could have made the shots provides in itself not the slightest proof that he actually shot anyone, but nobody has ever claimed it does. It is conspiracy theorists who have claimed the shots were impossible as an alibi for Oswald -- and proof of an alibi rests entirely on the defense.

In other words, conspiracy theorists are stuck, like it or not, with the burden of proving beyond reasonable doubt that the shots were impossible, and given disagreement on the matter that hasn't been resolved in decades of argument, they clearly have no way of doing so. The most one could impartially say about the dispute is that the issue of marksmanship is ambiguous, and so the judgement on Oswald stands or falls on other evidence -- of which there is plenty available. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* SCIENCE NOTES: It is known that the flatulence of cattle and other livestock contains methane that can contribute to global warming, and that the size of the Earth's herds of cattle mean the contribution is not trivial: since methane is about 20 times more effective as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, one cow can cause more warming than the average car, and with 1.5 billion cattle on the planet, along with about 1.8 billion smaller ruminants, that adds up. Overall, the contribution of cattle to global warming is estimated at about 6%.

flatulent cattle

The UK's "Department for Environment, Food, & Rural Affairs (DEFRA)" has now released a study that suggests the solution might just be to stop giving cattle gas by modifying their diet. The major three additions proposed by the new DEFRA diet are maize silage, grasses higher in sugars, and naked oats. Maize silage is produced by fermenting corn shuckings in a silo or in covered heaps; it can reduce cattle emissions by as much as 6%. Higher-sugar grasses can mean a 20% reduction, and naked oats -- that is, oats without husks -- cut methane emissions by 33%. The DEFRA study suggests that the change in diet can be achieved without a substantial increase in the cost of animal feed, at least after the transition to the new scheme is complete.

* Methane is also produced by landfills, though it's easier to collect, allowing it to be simply "flared" to produce CO2 and water, or even used as a fuel to generate power. However, nobody was exactly sure of how the methane is produced, since the low (acidic) pH levels found in landfills are not at all friendly to most methane-producing microorganisms, or "methanogens". Now researchers at North Carolina State University have found the cause, a methanogen named Methanosa barkeri.

M. barkeri, like all known methanogens, is an "archaean", superficially similar to a bacterium, but with very different biochemistry. M. barkeri actually digests the acids in its environment to produce methane, lowering the acidity of the landfill and promoting its own growth, as well as that of other methanogens. Of course, the action of M. barkeri and other microorganisms helps break down landfill material. A better understanding of the action of M. barkeri could help improve landfill management, and use of landfill methane for power generation.

* I've long been told by many people that they normally get by with six hours of sleep or less a night, but from what I knew it was rare to actually be able to do so, and I wondered if anybody actually could. According to TIME magazine, there really are people who can get by comfortably on six hours or less of sleep a night, but they're only about 1% to 3% of the population. "Short sleepers" seem to run in families,, and may be linked to specific genetic markers; researchers are trying to find more short sleepers for investigation, but their scarcity makes that problematic.

What makes it more problematic is the much larger number of people who claim, out of what has been called "sleep machismo", to be short sleepers, but really aren't. Most people can have a short night on an occasional basis and be none the worse for it, or run on reduced sleep for a week or more in an emergency -- but they run themselves down, and end up sleeping long nights for a while when the emergency's over. People who play this game over the long term simply end up being wrecks, and can do themselves physical harm if they keep it up -- lack of sleep corresponds to increased risk of heart trouble and stroke. And no, although it may be possible to adjust habits to help deal with short nights when they're necessary, there doesn't seem to be any way for people who weren't born short sleepers to train themselves to become them.

sleep machismo not spoken here

* In a similar demonstration of how easily fooled we are by our own vanity, researchers from the University of Hertfordshire in the UK performed a "blind test" at a science festival in Edinburgh, giving almost 600 test subjects samples of expensive and cheap wines. On being queried about which class of wine they had drunk, the subjects got it right only 50% of the time, meaning they were doing no better than guesswork.



* AUTOMATIC IDENTIFICATION SYSTEM: The maritime "Automatic Identification System (AIS)" was mentioned here in conjunction with a number of small satellite launches over the past few years, and I got curious enough about it to dig into it.

AIS is not an experimental technology: it is mandated by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) for the bulk of international ship traffic, with tens of thousands of vessels now carrying an AIS; costs of an AIS have been dropping, and it should be all but universal in the near future. An AIS is nothing very sophisticated, consisting of a Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) receiver, possibly complemented by other navigation systems, hooked up to VHF radio transceiver datalink and a display. The vessel transmits its ID code, position, course, and speed to all other vessels in the vicinity, with the vessel obtaining the same data from the other vessels in turn, their relative positions being presented on a radar-like display. Maritime traffic control organizations can add their own specific data to AIS radio communications. A minimal AIS can be obtained as a module with a connector for a radio antenna, and a USB port for hooking up to a laptop running control software.

AIS transponder

Since AIS is based on a VHF radio datalink, its range is limited to line of sight, or roughly 80 kilometers (50 miles). That's fine for collision avoidance, which is the primary rationale of AIS; however, AIS would seem useful for long-range vessel tracking, and that's where the smallsats come in. Since 2008, a number of satellites with AIS relays have been launched:

There have also been tests of AIS relays on other spacecraft. Incidentally, the IMO also mandates a "Long Range Identification & Tracking (LRIT)" system for oceanic traffic, but it's not well-suited to automated tracking, amounting essentially to ships reporting their positions over a satellite link four times a day.


* Airliners are now increasingly using a scheme conceptually similar to AIS named the "Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B)" system. Under ADS-B, an airliner obtains its location from the GPS satellite constellation, then reports the position and other data over a satellite link so everyone knows where the airliner is and where it is heading. As with AIS, ADS-B could benefit from a satellite-based global tracking network.

As discussed here over a year ago, the Iridium organization, which operates a low-orbit communications satellite constellation for mobile communications, has offered to sell auxiliary payload space on their upcoming "Iridium Next" series of comsats. Now Iridium is promoting an effort to make use of part of that payload space to set up a worldwide air-traffic tracking network using ADS-B. Putting an ADS-B receiver on all 66 Iridium Next comsats would permit global coverage -- except, ironically, in locales where airliner traffic is very heavy, for example around major air traffic hubs, since the volume of aircraft would swamp the satellite payload. That doesn't matter, however, since such areas will have ground-based ADS-B receiver systems.

Iridium is working to put together a group to implement the scheme. Company officials say it would be relatively cheap to implement, with costs on the order of a few hundred million dollars, and to operate, with costs on the order of a few tens of millions of dollars a year. The ADS-B payload should only take up about half the available auxiliary payload space on the satellite, with Iridium continuing to offer the remainder to users willing to pay.



* SOFTWARE FOR E-DISCOVERY: An article from THE NEW YORK TIMES ("Smarter Than You Think -- Armies of Expensive Lawyers, Replaced by Cheaper Software" by John Markoff, 4 March 2011) discussed how technology is streamlining the process of "discovery", or providing documents relevant to a lawsuit. Discovery has long tended to the monstrous; discovery in a 1978 case of US Justice Department antitrust suit against CBS TV forced five TV studios involved in the case to examine six million documents, at a cost of more than $2.2 million USD, most of which went into the pockets of a platoon of lawyers and paralegals.

Now, smart "e-discovery" software can do the job in a fraction of the time for a fraction of the cost. Early in 2011, for example, for example, Blackstone Discovery of Palo Alto, California, helped analyze 1.5 million documents for less than $100,000 US. While it's straightforward to scan through documents for set keyphrases, e-discovery software is smarter than that, targeting relevant concepts even without specific keyphrases, and spotting suspicious patterns of behavior in the document stream.

E-discovery technologies generally fall into two broad categories -- "linguistic" and "sociological". The simplest linguistic approach uses specific search words to find and sort relevant documents; more advanced programs filter documents through a large web of word and phrase definitions. For example, a user who types "dog" will also find documents that mention "man's best friend" and even the notion of a "walk."

The sociological approach plays detective, adding an inferential layer of analysis. Engineers and linguists at Cataphora, an information-sifting company based in Silicon Valley, have their software mine documents for the activities and interactions of people over email, instant messages, and phonecalls -- who did what when, and who the parties were. The software seeks out networks of events to find "digital anomalies" that can be flagged for inspection. For example, it finds "call me" incidents, when an employee decides to hide a particular action by having a private conversation. This usually involves switching media, perhaps from an email conversation to instant messaging, telephone, or even a personal meeting.

Says Elizabeth Charnock, Cataphora's founder: "It doesn't use keywords at all. But it's a means of showing who leaked information, who's influential in the organization or when a sensitive document like an SEC filing is being edited an unusual number of times, or an unusual number of ways, by an unusual type or number of people." The network of connections can also identify low-ranking staff trying to "game" an organization -- such folk being sometimes compared to "Ex-PFC Wintergreen", a soldier in Joseph Heller's novel CATCH-22 who wielded enormous power because he ran the mail room, and manipulated the distribution of communications.

The Cataphora software can even recognize the tone of an email message -- whether a person is positive or negative, or what the company calls "loud talking", an unusual emphasis that might give hints that a document is about a stressful situation. The software can also detect subtle changes in the style of an email message, with a shift from breezy to extremely formal hinting that the author of the email has become worried that the email is going to be read by the authorities.

In the end, the e-discovery software is a tool; it can determine nothing in itself, it simply passes on clues to people involved in an investigation. However, the software greatly reduces the overhead of "grunt work" involved in the process -- and for the most tiresome parts of the job, it does it more effectively, because it never gets bored and tired.

The smart software being used to reduce the overhead of lawsuits is by no means unique: 21st-century software is now being used to automate a wide range of tasks once reliant on tiring grunt work. According to Tom Mitchell, chairman of the machine learning department at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. "The economic impact will be huge. We're at the beginning of a 10-year period where we're going to transition from computers that can't understand language to a point where computers can understand quite a bit about language." That sounds innocent and understated in itself -- but on reflection, it represents a potential revolution, one with unsettling implications.

* NO CHEATING: In a related vein, as discussed by an article from THE ECONOMIST Online ("Beating Cheating", 3 March 2011), technology has made it easier to cheat on exams, using smartphones and other gadgetry as tools to find answers. Really determined cheats can go beyond tech, passing out bribes or even hiring substitutes to take the exams.

However, technology is being used to deal with cheats as well. "Data forensics" software, developed by exam-setting firms like Prometric of Baltimore, Maryland, and Caveon of Midvale, Utah, inspects exams for patterns of cheating in way similar to that used by software to hunt credit-card frauds, discussed here some years back. Data forensics software examines the mix of right and wrong answers in exams; if two candidates give the same mix, that's suspicious, if more than two do so, that's more than merely suspicious. In tests where candidates can change their minds about an answer, the pattern of changes also provides clues. Several candidates making the same change is suspicious, as is the case where all the changes are from the wrong answer to the right one. Sudden improvements in scores by a candidate are also suspicious, though it may just mean the candidate has finally gotten serious about studying for the exam. However, traveling to a foreign country to take a standard exam is very suspicious, particularly if the foreign country has a reputation for corruption.

A company called Kryterion, based in Phoenix, Arizona, provides high-security monitoring of tests. Kryterion's inspectors monitor tests all over the world, but they do it at company headquarters using webcams, making it difficult to pass bribes. The company's software recognizes facial features and keystroke rhythms to spot professional exam-takers. The inspectors can disqualify candidates whose eyes or hands wander suspiciously; and the monitoring software that assists the inspectors flags candidates who answer tough questions too quickly, or if the test results of two candidates seem to match too closely.

Monitoring tests themselves isn't all there is to ensuring security of exam results. Caveon and Prometric run "web patrol" software that searches the internet for test information being revealed online. Prometric goes further, seeding exams for different candidates with a question unique to each candidate, identifying a culprit if the question shows up online. The monitoring also involves "watching the watchers": Prometric investigates about 20 of its 5,000 test centers around the world each week, and 5 of them end up being so corrupted that they have to be shut down permanently, with dismissals of corrupt or lax staff at those centers that survive. Technology has proven a benefit to cheaters, but what technology gives, it can also take away.



* DIGITAL CENSUS MIRAGE (1): As reported by an article from AAAS SCIENCE ("Can The Census Go Digital?" by Sam Kean, 15 October 2010), the 2010 census will cost the US taxpayer $13 billion USD -- twice as much as the previous census, which was in turn twice as costly as its predecessor. The obvious remedy for the cost spiral is to automate the process. After all, with data systems completely pervasive in our daily lives, it would seem only sensible to move to a digital census, obtaining data in a digital format from citizens to be directly integrated into the census, and gathering information from existing databases.

Not so fast. Kenneth Prewitt, a professor of public affairs and vice-president for Global Centers at Columbia University in New York City, previously a director of the US Census Bureau, was relieved when he was finally dismissed from jury duty. He thought he wouldn't be faced with jury duty again for four years, but then he got a surprise: New York City uses a set of government databases for jury selection, and he was listed four times. Due to privacy concerns, there's only so much information each database can give out, and no way to know if multiple listings for "Kenneth Prewitt" are actually for the same person or not. That makes the option of obtaining census data from existing government databases troublesome; their coverage and accuracy of data is inadequate anyway.

The USA isn't the only country having difficulties with performing a census. In the UK, the cost-cutting coalition government is thinking about dropping the 2021 census to save money. In Canada, Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced that the long form used in the nation's census would become voluntary, instead of mandatory, though mostly due to privacy concerns. Harper hadn't consulted Statistics Canada, the national statistics agency, before announcing the decision; the country's top statistician resigned in protest, saying that a voluntary scheme would greatly undermine the validity of census results.

Back in the USA, US Census Director Robert Groves has put in motion a study to determine how a hypothetical 2010 digital census would compare to the real thing. The results won't be in until 2012, but Groves is already cautioning that if the US wanted to perform a digital census in the near future, there no guarantee that "we could do as good a job."

* Government bureaucrats aren't the only beneficiaries of census data. Public health officials mine the census to investigate the quality of medical care; economists use it to monitor the economy; epidemiologists use it to determine how common heart disease or breast cancer or other afflictions really are. There are good reasons to perform a census, and even modernize it to improve accuracy and include more detail.

Although the US isn't close to performing a digital census yet, of course there's been considerable thought about how one might be performed. A few months beforehand, workers from the Census Bureau would fan out with handheld electronics devices to update the bureau's master address file of all the domiciles in America. The devices would be GPS-enabled to eliminate clumsy cross-referencing to maps, and in principle data entry into the devices would be less error-prone than scanning it from written documents.

What happens after that is a matter of debate. In one approach, people would be directed to websites to log details such as name, age, and race. Pulling in statistics off the web would be far cheaper and more efficient than handling paper questionnaires. Users could submit data using online forms in a wide range of possible languages, a feature likely to improve the response rate for immigrants, who are traditionally hard to reach. An online system would also be able to check for obvious errors -- somebody born in 2003 is unlikely to have children -- and check on arithmetic.

Such measures would cover most of the population. Instead of sending out workers to pound on the doors of the remainder, the census would mine government databases to fill in gaps, as well as doublecheck on answers that didn't make sense. That would be helpful in places like Alaska, where sending a worker out to a home in the boondocks can be time-consuming and expensive; it would still have to be done in some cases, but much less frequently than before. The handhelds could be updated in real time to tell a worker to cancel a visit to a citizen, say because a late questionnaire came in.

The other approach would be to mine census data out of administrative records as the primary effort. One observer believes that the Census Bureau could get 90% of its data in this way; the internet form and any personal follow-ups would be simply to resolve records with defects or ambiguities. The Census Bureau already uses administrative records for between-census updates, but these updates merely apply a "delta" to official census data as a baseline. As noted above, the flaws in databases as they are now makes the approach of mining them troublesome, and so that would imply improvements to the baseline databases and in the procedures for access to them. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* THE KILLING OF JFK -- THE BALANCE OF EVIDENCE (19): What about the tales that the rifle recovered at the TSBD was really a Mauser, not a Carcano? The origin of the stories traces back to the remarks of Lieutenant Carl Day when he discovered the weapon, commenting that it looked like a Mauser. Two other officers at the scene, Deputy Sheriffs Eugene Boone and Seymour Weitzman, also thought it looked like a Mauser, though they never touched it. That led to the careless comments of District Attorney Henry Wade to the press after the assassination that reinforced the idea in the public mind.

A Carcano does have a general sort of resemblance to a Mauser rifle and they could be confused by someone with no detail interest in firearms. Conspiracy theorists say it is "unbelievable" that the officers could have misidentified the weapon, but Weitzman admitted that he had done so and didn't see it as an extraordinary blunder: "It was strictly a mistaken identity that anyone could make." Weitzman said that once it was properly identified as a Carcano, he had no cause to dispute the fact.

Other than the remarks of Dallas police, there is no evidence of a Mauser at the TSBD, no photographs showing a Mauser, and the CE 399 bullet is clearly traceable to the Carcano. The discovery of the rifle was actually photographed by the press, and all photos and videos show it to be a Carcano. Besides, it's hard to think of a sensible scenario for the rifle "switcheroo" -- all evidence shows the Carcano could do the job, a Mauser wouldn't be needed, and attempting the juggling of evidence would have simply complicated the "plot", making it more vulnerable to detection.

* The "Mauser switcheroo" tale persists despite its lack of substance, partly because of the testimony of Deputy Sheriff Roger Craig. Craig was on the sixth floor of the TSBD when the rifle was recovered and claimed that he could see from a distance that it was marked "7.65 Mauser". Of course, as mentioned the photo evidence contradicts this; in fact, Craig had an extensive list of other observations about the assassination, some of them clearly not supported by the evidence. About 15 minutes after the shooting, for example, Craig claimed he saw a young white man dash out of the TSBD and get into a light green Rambler station wagon being driven by a husky Latin man. Craig identified the man who got into the station wagon as Oswald.

Two other witnesses saw the same incident, identifying the station wagon as a Rambler, though they didn't claim the man who got into the station wagon was Oswald. However, Craig then claimed he told Captain Fritz about the station wagon during Oswald's first interrogation, with Oswald declaring: "That station wagon belongs to Mrs. Ruth Paine. Don't try to tie her into this. She had nothing to do with it. I told you people I did. Everybody will know who I am now."

Oswald's supposed comment as reported by Craig has the sound of a confession, not at all consistent with the confrontational denials produced by Oswald in the record of his interrogation. Later investigation showed Paine owned a Chevrolet station wagon, and that more importantly all other witnesses present at Oswald's interrogations, including Will Fritz, said Craig wasn't involved in them. A picture that was circulated showing Craig inside Fritz's office at the time was actually taken in the outer section of the office; Oswald was being interrogated in the inner section.

Besides, not only did Oswald have the stub for the bus ticket in his pocket, but a witness identified Oswald on the bus, while Oswald himself told the police he had taken a bus and then a taxi to get to his boarding house. Craig admitted that the incident had happened about 15 minutes after the shooting, well after Oswald had made himself scarce. If anyone dashed out of the TSBD and jumped into a Rambler station wagon, it wasn't Oswald. It was unlikely it would have been: why would Oswald have been captured on foot an hour after the assassination if the conspiracy had arranged for a getaway? In fact, why would the conspiracy have not ensured Oswald's disappearance after the assassination, instead of allowing him to be captured and interrogated for almost two days?

Craig claimed that mysterious people were tailing him and occasionally tried to murder him. Craig shot and killed himself in 1975. Suspicious? His own family said he was in chronic pain due to injuries obtained in accidents some time earlier, and had no doubt he had committed suicide. Besides, why would the "conspiracy" have waited over a decade to kill him? If Craig had honestly known anything of importance, what reason would he have had to keep quiet? Once he told the world, the "conspiracy" would realize it was too late to "silence" him and he would no longer be in as much danger. It wasn't like Craig was the sort to keep quiet anyway.

* The Mauser story is augmented by another tale, based on the comments of Dial Ryder, an employee at the Irving Sports Shop in Irving, Texas, owned by one Charles Greener. The week after the assassination, Ryder told the FBI he had a work chit dated from early November signed "Oswald", the work being to mount a scope on the customer's rifle. As noted, Oswald's Carcano was shipped with a scope mounted, and so Ryder's tale suggested that Oswald had a different rifle, not necessarily a Carcano. Unfortunately, the work chit wasn't actually dated, Ryder merely thought it was from early November, and neither Ryder nor Greener recalled ever meeting Oswald -- though Ryder waffled on the matter at first. There was also the fact that at the time in question, Oswald generally operated under aliases such as "Hidell" or "Lee". Ryder's story went nowhere. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* SCIENCE NOTES: It seems that networks for tracking meteorite trails are not news, but the US National Aeronautics & Space Administration (NASA) is moving the concept into the 21st century with a new automated system. The scheme involves upward-staring fisheye cameras hooked into the internet, with the cameras reporting the streaks of meteorites and, via triangulation, estimating the direction of the tracks or, if a meteorite actually impacts, where it hit. Only three cameras have been installed so far, but NASA plans to have 15 in service soon east of the Mississippi, with the agency's Meteoroid Environment Office seeking schools, science centers, and planetariums who would like to host the cameras. Ultimately, NASA hopes to have a camera network that spans the USA.

* The human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), the cause of AIDS, has proven extremely difficult to defeat; drugs to control an HIV infection are available, but there's no way to clean the virus out of a victim, and no way to vaccinate against it. As a result, researchers have turned to innovative ideas in hopes of making progress.

One notion is to leverage off of "viral parasitism". It is known that certain viruses that infect bacteria -- "bacteriophages" -- have relatives that freeload off them. The freeloader viruses don't have enough of a genome to replicate; they exploit bacterial cells that have already been infected by their fully-functional cousins, leveraging off the components set up by the first infection and hijacking the cell a second time.

The same concept can be used to interfere with HIV replication. In 2003, virologist Leonard Weinberg of the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), suggested developing a deliberately crippled derivative of HIV, what he called a "therapeutic interfering particle (TIP)", stripped to a third of the original HIV genome and incapable of replicating on its own. TIPs would only be able to infect cells already infected by HIV -- cells that were already doomed -- and would also carry genomic codes that would inhibit HIV. The concept has been tested in cell-culture studies.

TIPs would not be a cure, but they would slow down the HIV infection and also reduce the likelihood of passing on a new infection. Weinberger's team at UCSD has run computer models to show that, over the long run, TIPS would drastically reduce new HIV infections. One of the challenges of HIV is that it mutates and evolves so fast; TIPs would mutate at the roughly the same rate, and in principle would be able to keep up with the genetic changes in HIV.

Notice the qualification "in principle". While the research community is intrigued, TIPs are a radically new strategy, and the idea of adding a second viral infection on top of an HIV infection sounds like it could dangerously backfire: what if the two adapt to cooperate in some sense, making the HIV infection worse? Weinberger admits there are potential pitfalls with the scheme, saying his current work is just to determine if the idea is worth further effort: "Our conclusion is that it looks like they're worth going after. If optimized, they could have an enormous effect."

* As reported by AAAS SCIENCE, particle physicists are always looking forward to the newest particle accelerators and experimental systems, but on occasion they want to go back and review experiments performed in decades past to see if they can extract more information from the data in light of new revelations. Alas, as is so often the case with trying to retrieve digital data archived for decades, they often find out that the data is hidden away on mass storage media that can't be read by modern equipment -- or even when it can, supporting software needed to handle the data has been lost.

In 2009, an international consortium of physics labs decided to address the problem, setting up the "Data Preservation In High Energy Physics (DPHEP)" program to retrieve old data -- and also make sure contemporary projects include data archiving as part of the effort, with the data archives adhering to common standards and including documentation to allow the data to be accessed later. There's some resistance to the idea among working physicists, who wonder why anyone would be interested in their raw data two or three decades down the road; DPHEP staffers are trying to encourage them to take a longer view, and point out that archiving should only add about a percent of cost to an experiment.



* ANOTHER MONTH: I've been running articles on vending machine tech occasionally here over the past year or so. One of the puzzles of the technology is why vending machines aren't more widespread in the USA, since they would seem to offer a combination of convenience and low overhead.

However, vending machines have conquered Japan, as shown by an article from the MAXIMUM TECH blog by Tom Edwards titled: "How I Thrived for 24 Hours on the Comfort, Sustenance, and Kindness of Machines in the Land of the Rising Sun. Please Insert Coin". As the title suggests, the author, along with his friends Matt and Jeff, experimentally tried to live off Japanese vending machines for a full day.

According to Edwards, there are about 1.8 million vending machines in Japan, giving the world's highest per-capita presence of such machines -- and they feature a much wider range of offerings than found in the USA, presented in a flashy NipponPop style with plenty of gimmicks to attract gadget-happy Japanese. There are a number of reasons why Japanese are so fond of vending machines, one being they simply like robots; another enabling factor is that Japanese crime rates are low, ensuring that robbing and vandalizing vending machines is a tolerable problem.

Japan does vending machines

Although Japan has had vending machines for about as long as they've been around elsewhere, it wasn't until 1967 that they began to take off. In that year, 100-yen coins began to be made with white copper instead of silver, greatly increasing the supply of the coins. Up to that time, Japanese had to stuff vending machines with 10-yen coins -- remember that bill scanners weren't around in 1967 -- which made them inconvenient to use. In addition, in the same year Japan Rail, then known as the Kokutetsu, began to phase out ticket windows, forcing all its customers to use vending machines to buy tickets. Since rail is such a common form of transport in Nippon, everyone got used to dealing with the ticket vending machines.

The author begins his vending machine odyssey in midmorning at a Tokyo train station, buying a train pass from a vending machine for 2,000 yen -- about $24.13 USD. The PASMO card is no mere train ticket; it can be used on any train, subway, or bus in the Tokyo transport system for the day, as well as being legal tender for many retailers and, of course, vending machines.

The trio then scout out vending machines at different locales to sample the wares. They hit many drink machines; they don't try fizzy drinks, preferring instead to sample Japanese "energy drinks" and even a canned latte. Coffee snobs of course would look down on latte in a can, but the author describes his purchase as "delicious". Cost of beverages is in the 120 to 150 yen range. One machine has a smart vision system to size up customers and offer recommendations; they try to spoof it using a hockey mask and a fake Santa beard.

As for snacks, they get chocolate bars, which turn out to be an unimpressive buy, but do better at the cup-of-noodles vending machine, obtaining a cup of miso (soybean paste) soup and a cheese curry, 200 yen each. To prepare a cup, just peel back the lid, stick the cup in a receptacle in the front of the machine, then close the door so scalding hot water can stream down. "I'm pretty sure the same vending machine in the United States would launch a thousand personal injury lawsuits and be responsible for at least three Darwin Awards. We manage, however, to escape unscathed."

They find real treats at the icecream machine, which offers a wide variety of selections; the trio buy "Wild Strawberry Cheesecake", "Choconuts Crunch", and "Tangerine with Pulp" ice cream bars for 120 yen each. "Best ice cream I've had from a vending machine." A local man watches the three gaijin -- foreigners -- making their decision and seems interested in the scene, but backs away when they try to chat with him.

Come evening, Jeff decides to bail, but the other two stay on patrol, deciding to get something resembling a real meal. It's not unusual for customers to order meals at cheap ramen (noodle) restaurants using a vending machine interface, though the meals are still prepared by kitchen staff. The duo buy ramen meals for 950 yen and beers for 500 yen, obtaining a ticket to be handed over once inside, where they are seated and get a decent meal. The author then chases it down with a banana for 130 yen -- a big markup over store-bought, but the banana is fresh.

Matt finally departs, leaving the author looking for a place to stay for the night. Japanese "love hotels" often use a vending machine interface too, not just to reduce waitstaff but to provide discretion for couples looking for a little private quality time. The selection panel has an image of the room; just make the selection and pay up. The author gets a night's rest for 6800 yen. Come the next midmorning, he snacks on a package of donuts for 380 yen -- but, the exercise over, buys real coffee this time.

It's easy to think that vending machines are likely to become more popular in the USA in the future. Increasing use of electronic cash will make them more convenient to use and more secure -- no stash of coinage to bust open. Networking technology will streamline management and, along with smart video systems, also improve security. Vending machines tend to sell at a markup, which is likely to continue to be an issue, but with more use and competition prices may well decline.

* On recent comments here about the prospect of $100 USD tablet PCs: poking around shows that the cheap-and-trashy end of the computer manufacturing business already has 7-inch Android tablets pushing down towards that price point, with a surprising range of features -- HDMI video out, dual SD card slots, built-in camera. Reviews suggest these particular products are schlocky unreliable junk, but I wouldn't be surprised to see $100 tablets as normal across the producer spectrum in a few years. Ultimately, they might be found on the racks in bubble packaging at drugstores along with calculators.

ViewSonic ViewPad 7

* I took the spring edition of my twice-a-year trip to Spokane this last month. Nothing much to it, didn't take any side trips or do anything of interest, though I was pleased that I didn't have the unpleasant problems with snow I had on the same trip a year ago. The one distinction was that I finally decided to stay in better motels -- moving up from the $50:$100 USD range to the $100:$150 USD range. There were two reasons for this, the first being that staying in seedy motels gets discouraging, the second being bedbugs. The article I ran last month on bedbugs suggested that I was taking my chances with a bedbug infestation staying in cheap motels, and the risk of having to fumigate my house made the added expense worth the while.

Actually, since I'm not much into traveling these days -- I go back over the narratives of my trips a few years back and realize that I have no strong interest in doing them again -- the added expense is trivial. It turns out that while a room in the $100:$150 USD range is modest for a good big-city hotel, it's essentially top-of-the-line for typical motels on cross-country trips. The rooms are nicer, but I kind of wish they had bells and whistles like freebie computer games and DVD players. Of course, I can improvise such things well enough with my laptop, and in fact I find that when things get dull on the trips home, it's nice to ring up flash game websites and kill some time with them. Next time I go home, I'll make sure I have a list of favorite games bookmarked on my web browser, so I can get to them without searching around.