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DayVectors

jul 2011 / last mod apr 2016 / greg goebel

* Entries include: JFK assassination (series), disease eradication (series), more than voice phone services for the developing world (series), fake Chinese fossils, the age of the Anthropocene, evolution of shells and skeletons, bottom of the pyramid economics in the USA, NuSTAR X-ray satellite, nuclear zero option, more on machine vision, and taxing Amazon.com.

banner of the month


[FRI 29 JUL 11] NEWS COMMENTARY FOR JULY 2011
[THU 28 JUL 11] SCIENCE NOTES
[WED 27 JUL 11] FOSSIL FAKERY
[TUE 26 JUL 11] NEW AGE OF EARTH
[MON 25 JUL 11] THE EXTERMINATORS (3)
[FRI 22 JUL 11] THE KILLING OF JFK -- THE BALANCE OF EVIDENCE (25)
[THU 21 JUL 11] SPACE NEWS
[WED 20 JUL 11] THE ORIGIN OF SHELLS & SKELETONS
[TUE 19 JUL 11] ROOM AT THE BOTTOM
[MON 18 JUL 11] THE EXTERMINATORS (2)
[FRI 15 JUL 11] THE KILLING OF JFK -- THE BALANCE OF EVIDENCE (24)
[THU 14 JUL 11] GIMMICKS & GADGETS
[WED 13 JUL 11] NUSTAR IN PREPARATION
[TUE 12 JUL 11] ZERO OPTION?
[MON 11 JUL 11] THE EXTERMINATORS (1)
[FRI 08 JUL 11] THE KILLING OF JFK -- THE BALANCE OF EVIDENCE (23)
[THU 07 JUL 11] SCIENCE NOTES
[WED 06 JUL 11] WATCHFUL EYE
[TUE 05 JUL 11] THE TAXMAN COMETH
[MON 04 JUL 11] MORE THAN VOICE (3)
[FRI 01 JUL 11] ANOTHER MONTH

[FRI 29 JUL 11] NEWS COMMENTARY FOR JULY 2011

* NEWS COMMENTARY FOR JULY 2011: As reported by TIME magazine, in the wake of the ouster of authoritarian governments in the Middle East, those looking over the paperwork left by the departing leadership end up finding that the old regime's finances were imaginative to say the least, leaving discrepancies equivalent to billions of dollars.

Authoritarians often claim their rule promotes efficiency, but the reality is that their goal is basically to deny accountability; since the leadership makes the rules they can bend or break them at will, and there's certainly nothing to prevent them from looting the nation to line their own pockets as they do so. People saw it happening and finally got fed up. Says Anthea Lawson of Global Witness, an anticorruption research organization based in London: "These economies operated under a cloak of opacity. Corruption was the entire basis of these uprisings, and people were were sufficiently furious to risk their lives and try to overthrow it."

In Tunisia, the economy was dominated by the relatives of President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, who fled the country in January. His family owned houses in Paris, the Alps and the south of France. Switzerland froze about $69 million USD of the ruling clan's bank deposits, while both the French and Swiss governments impounded private planes belonging to the family. Among the first demands of Libya's rebels when the revolt erupted in Benghazi in February was for Europe and the US to freeze all assets of Muammar Qaddafi and his family members, who are worth billions, according to estimates by Libyan officials who defected. Just a few of those now frozen assets: an office building in London's West End, 3% of the British publisher Pearson, a stake in Italy's Juventus football club, and a huge estate in Spain's Costa del Sol. The revolution against Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak was fueled by the publication of an article in Britain's THE GUARDIAN published on 4 February that estimate Mubarak's personal fortune at $40 billion USD to $70 billion USD, including homes in Beverly Hills, Manhattan, and London's posh Belgravia district.

However, financial experts say it won't be easy to get the money back. Countries where the stolen assets are located will require that people who have deposited those assets there be properly identified and the assets specified. Says Lawson: "You cannot just go on a fishing expedition. You have to know what you are looking for."

Where's the money?

Even finding out what's missing is troublesome because the regimes took measures to cover their tracks, and officials who remain behind have reason to fear coming forward lest they be accused of complicity. Says Pierre Schifferli, a Geneva attorney who helped track down billions stolen by Nigerian President Sani Abacha and Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos: "Marcos' money was so well hidden that not even his family members knew where it was."

Ben Ali, Qaddafi, and Mubarak are believed to have deposited assets in dozens of countries, including the Gulf states and a number of Asian nations, where governments have been not all that helpful in tracing them. Wealth left at home is an easier target. Tunisian investigators have uncovered stashed of jewels and cash in Ben Ali's palaces, while Libya's central-bank governor, Farhat Bengdara, who defected in March, estimates that Qaddafi keeps about $500 million USD in cash in Tripoli, as well as about 140 tonnes (155 tons) of gold bars, worth about $7.5 billion USD.

Once the trail has been established, then plaintiffs have to prove in court, both at home and where the missing assets are, that those assets are illegal. It is perfectly legal for a dictator to have a compliant parliament award him a salary of millions of dollars a year; it's the large-scale under-the-table transactions that are legally recognized as illicit, most significantly the shady deals that accompanied "privatizations" in these nations that heavily enriched the ruling class.

What particularly clouds the battle over the loot at is the fact that in many of these countries, corruption is normal even to the citizens on the bottom, making it troublesome to figure out where legitimate dealings end and corruption begin, and who is more at fault in the corruption than others. Getting the lost money back would be gratifying, but the reality is that it's going to take years of frustrating work to regain even a portion of it, and much of it's going to be lost forever.

* Comments on product counterfeiting have appeared here in the past, pointing out its magnitude and international scope. As reported by BUSINESS WEEK, it turns out that outright gangsters are heavily involved in product counterfeiting. The Mexican Los Zetas drug cartel, for example, also operates a highly profitable CD / DVD piracy operation, with internal power struggles over the trade sometimes leading to murders.

Why the diversification? Because it pays very well, and the gangs already have know-how and contacts for black-market distribution. The authorities also don't worry as much about DVD piracy as they do about the drug trade, and the penalties are lighter; in addition, selling DVDs provides a useful mechanism for money laundering. The Motion Picture Association of America is lobbying internationally to persuade local authorities to crack down on the piracy, which costs Hollywood billions of dollars a year in lost revenue.

* In quirkier news from BUSINESS WEEK, US state governments typically have an "unclaimed property" or "abandoned property" office that tries to get various "abandoned" assets back to their rightful owners. It turns out that in our complicated universe of financial transactions, sometimes things get lost -- store credits, royalty payments, dead bank accounts, and so on. Doesn't sound like it amounts to much, right? Would you believe ... $33 billion USD across the USA?

If funds have been left dangling in such accounts for a year or so, businesses are obliged to turn it over to the state government, which then tries to get the money to its rightful owners. The money remains in the government's own accounts until the owner claims it, with the state drawing interest from it that's used as state revenue; some legislators have shown an inclination to see the funds themselves as a useful source of cutting budget deficits, but so far the system seems to be generally honest. California has over $6 billion USD of unclaimed property in its coffers, with $1,138 owed to bad-boy actor Charlie Sheen and $61 to Governor Jerry Brown. Penny-ante? Not necessarily. The state has been trying to find a Steven Aranoff and give him the $1.6 million USD he is due. The fact that there's been any difficulty in making that connection suggests there's an interesting story behind the matter.

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[THU 28 JUL 11] SCIENCE NOTES

* SCIENCE NOTES: Although I no longer pay much attention to SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, I still occasionally glance through it to see if anything jumps out at me, and in doing so I found an article on the "tentacled snake" of Southeast Asia. Erpeton tentaculatis is a purely aquatic creature -- it bears live young -- and only about 60 centimeters (two feet) long, with coloration that allows it to pass for a floating stick. It gets its name from a pair of protrusions on its nose, unique to it among snakes. It is an ambush predator, living pretty strictly on fish, simply waiting for a fish to get unlucky enough to stumble into the snake's "kill zone".

juvenile tentacled snake

Although the function of the tentacles remained puzzling for a long time, recent studies show that they are very sensitive tactile organs, capable of picking up slight disturbances of water, allowing the snake to catch fish in murky water or in the dark. Fish tend to be quick to escape a threat and the snake would be hard-pressed to catch them, except it uses a very effective trapping tactic. It lies in wait in a "J"-shaped posture, with its head looped back towards itself; when a fish enters into the interior of the "J", the snake constricts in on itself, the fish turns to flee, and runs into the jaws of the snake. The behavior is innate; the snake is born with it.

* Moving right along, while it's obvious that the array of whiskers on a seal's nose is used as a sensing system, it's a bit surprising just how capable a system it is. Researchers at the University of Rostock in Germany performed a study of the whiskers of seals using a cooperative harbor seal named Henry. First, they put a blindfold on him, as well as headphones to play "pink noise", a broad-spectrum variation on white noise; Henry, who had plenty of experience in experiments, was bribed to be cooperative with pieces of herring. Next, he was trained to stick his head in a box full of water.

On each run of the experiment, a paddle was swept around the box by an electric motor. Three seconds after the paddle completed its sweep, Henry was told to stick his head in the box, where he could press one of two buttons with his nose. He was conditioned to press one button if the paddle was a standard "reference" paddle, and another if the paddle was of different configuration. Using his whiskers alone, Henry could not only distinguish between the size of paddles if they differed by 2.8 centimeters (a bit more than an inch), but also between different shapes of paddles, though he had problems distinguishing between certain configurations.

The study demonstrated how seals find their way around in the dark depths of the sea. Dolphins can sense their environment underwater using their well-known sonar system; seals don't have any such kit, but it appears their sensitive whiskers give them considerable ability to figure out what's going on around them.

* Rats also have a capable array of whiskers -- 60 whiskers, each ending in a follicle below the skin. A rat can move each whisker independently; when a whisker touches something, the follicle assesses how much pressure is applied and the angle at which the whisker is bent, reporting that data to the rat's brain, which then integrates the inputs from all the whiskers. Using its whiskers, a rat can navigate in total darkness with fair confidence.

To get a better handle on how a rat's whisker system works, a team under biological and mechanical engineer Mitra Hartmann of Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, created a computer model by performing a precision laser scan of a rat's nose, and then hooked the digitized data to code simulating its operation. The focus of the research is to enhance understanding of how the brain handles tactile inputs, but the Northwestern team is also investigating the use of whiskers in robots intended for exploring pipes or other confined areas.

rat's whiskers

* In other unusual adaptations, plants have a big kit of tricks to entice pollinators, the most familiar being colorful flowers with pleasant aromas and nectar rewards. Sometimes the adaptations are not so charming, for example plants that smell like rotting meat to entice flies. An unusual slipper orchid from southwest China goes one step further, not only giving off a smell as if it's been infected by a fungus, but actually presenting coloration that makes it appear as if it has been infected by a fungus, even when the plant is perfectly healthy.

The pollinator is the "flat-footed fly", which feeds on fungal growths on infected plants. What does the fly get out of the arrangement? Little or nothing, the plant appears to be simply hitching a "free ride" on the flies. Presuming the orchid doesn't die out, it wouldn't be too surprising down the road if it acquired adaptations to help keep the fly fed. The flies are uncommon, and any adaptation of the plant that encouraged the success of the flies would help the plant in turn. Of course, nothing in the improvement in the relationship would be willful, it would just be that more considerate plants would propagate more easily than the less considerate.

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[WED 27 JUL 11] FOSSIL FAKERY

* FOSSIL FAKERY: In the course of China's emergence as a global economic power, the country has become notorious as a source of fake goods. As reported by an article from AAAS SCIENCE ("Altering The Past: China's Faked Fossils Problem" by Richard Stone, 24 December 2010), China has also become a impressive source of new fossil finds, with fakes being just as much a problem.

One of the prominent exhibits at the Geological Museum of China in Beijing is a 5 meter (16 foot 5 inch) long ichthyosaur -- a dolphinlike marine reptile from the Triassic, the middle age of dinosaurs -- embedded in a fractured slab of dark limestone. A close inspection shows that the fossil doesn't look quite right: the lower part of the body is a dorsal view, the upper a ventral view. In other words, the fossil is a composite of two different specimens. Says Lu Liwu, director of prehistoric life research at the museum: "Farmers prepared this specimen. They might have made some mistakes when they put it together, but it is not a [deliberate] fake. You could call it a kind of model." Lu isn't very happy about the matter, however, adding indignantly: "This is a national museum." Several other dodgy exhibits have been found there; Lu says that the plan is to add signage to point out ambiguities.

Unfortunately, many provincial museum staff are not so concerned, with both Chinese and Western paleontologists saying these facilities are loaded with composites, chimeras, and other rubbish. Li Chun, a marine reptile expert at the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology & Paleoanthropology (IVPP), also in Beijing, says that at least 80% of the marine reptile specimens currently on display in Chinese museums have been "altered or artificially combined to varying degrees." Foreign paleontologists are nervous about the matter but are reluctant to make much of an issue of it: they're finding Chinese fossil beds absolute treasure troves, and as one put it, if they raised a fuss, they "would seriously jeopardize our own opportunities to work with our Chinese colleagues on very important material."

Fossil fakery is not a trivial issue. It undermines the credibility of museums, while scholars end up spending too much time trying to sift out the fakes from the real thing. Worse, adding fakery to enhance the value of a legitimate fossil can end up completely devaluing it, rendering it completely untrustworthy. The Chinese government has implemented a law protecting fossils of high scientific value, but it's hard to see the law will be effectively enforced or will put much of a dent in the production of fakes.

IVPP Director Zhou Zhonghe says: "Normally, we know right away if a fossil is fake, although it can take some time to be sure." However, some frauds have made it into peer-reviewed journals, leading to academic feuds over the validity of papers. In 1999, considerable publicity was generated over the fossil of a supposed ancestor of birds named "Archaeoraptor", with the fanfare turning to embarrassment when the fossil was shown to be a chimera of two different species.

Fossil digs being performed by professional paleontologists aren't the problem; Chinese farmers often turn up fossils while digging around, and have taken to jazzing them up to fetch a higher price. Zhou says some dealers are fooled, while others see the fakery but play along with the game. Nontechnical buyers are easy to trick, and not all the new museums popping up in China have real expertise on their staffs. Even scientists may sometimes be seduced by the prize of a significant new discovery and fail to realize just what a disaster it would be for their professional reputations to be implicated in a hoax.

Chinese museums are increasingly realizing they're being taken for a ride, and are gradually working more closely with academics to make sure they're obtaining genuine articles; training programs for museum staff are also being considered. However, as Li Chun admits, it's a despairing battle, the main problem with the fakery not being the confusion it causes but the breakage of specimens it involves: "Our fossils are some of the best in the world, but they are being destroyed, and there is little we can do about it."

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[TUE 26 JUL 11] NEW AGE OF EARTH

* NEW AGE OF EARTH: As discussed here in 2009, the Earth itself has evolved along with its organisms, acquiring oxide minerals in response to atmospheric oxygen, chalk beds from the shells of sea creatures, and so on. As reported by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("A Man-Made World", 28 May 2011), in 2000 an atmospheric chemist named Paul Crutzen suggested that the effect of human activities is having such a marked impact on the geology of the Earth itself that humans could be thought of as having themselves initiated a new geological age of the Earth, the "Anthropocene". To critics of climate-change scenarios, the term sounds like outrageous propaganda; the idea that human activities could reshape the Earth in significant ways seems preposterous. However, within the scientific community the concept is gaining momentum.

What would be the markers of the Anthropocene to a far-future Earth civilization, tens of millions of years from now? The ruins of the structures of our civilization would not be very apparent -- as discussed here in 2007, within a few hundred thousand years, all of it would likely disappear from view -- but objects preserved in sediment or lava flows might be founds, with cities sunk into river deltas and buried leaving peculiar traces of minerals in the stratum formed from them.

More significant would be the pattern of fossils of organisms. In the geological record of the Anthropocene, large predators and free-ranging herbivores would show a decline or disappear; but fossils of cattle and other domesticated animals would become very common. One wonders what future paleontologists might make of fossils of chihuahuas. The changes in animal populations would also be matched by changes in biomes, with forests giving way to (cultivated) plains, or the monocultures of orchards.

The most visible shift, however, would be in the cycles of exchange of materials between earth, sea, and sky. The change in the carbon cycle due to human emissions is an important factor in this equation. To be sure, as climate-change critics are quick to point out, human carbon dioxide emissions are small relative to natural CO2 emissions -- but natural emissions are in rough equilibrium with absorption processes over the long run, they have to be or the atmosphere would have "filled up" with CO2. The human production of CO2 is overloading the absorption mechanisms. That, despite the protests of the critics, is well-established.

The effect of that imbalance is, however, controversial. Critics believe that negative feedback mechanisms in the Earth's planetary operation will ensure that the effect will be nothing particularly significant. Climate-change advocates believe that positive feedback mechanisms will amplify the effect of the imbalance, with very serious results. One effect of global warming would be to raise the depth in the sea below which carbonate minerals will not form, meaning that global warming would be visible in the geological record as a clearly different pattern of carbonate formation.

The whole CO2 emissions question is an ugly, quarrelsome one, but there is no real quarrel over the fact that humans have substantially, and very deliberately, increased the rate of absorption of atmospheric nitrogen back into the earth. Without fertilizers based on the Haber process, which extracts nitrogen from the air to produce ammonia for fertilizers, there would be no way to support the Earth's current population. Since nitrogen is the majority component of the atmosphere, the drain doesn't change its concentration in the air significantly -- but the impact on the earth is very noticeable, and thanks to "runoff" of fertilizers into bodies of water, on the seas as well.

the Anthropocene age

In other words, although the "geoengineering" of the Earth's system is a dirty word in some places, we've already been doing it intentionally for about a century. In response to the threat of climate change, we are, one way or another, stuck with more geoengineering to maintain the health of the planet.

There's no strong reason to object to the idea in concept, since all it might mean is planting more forests with fast-growing trees to soak up atmospheric CO2, along with other "green" measures. More aggressive schemes, such as deliberately injecting aerosols into the atmosphere or even placing shades in orbit, are of course more debatable -- but the bottom line is that the sheer bulk of human population and the activities of those humans are having an effect on the Earth, and short of human extinction the clock is not going to be turned back to the time before our arrival. Although the task is enormous, over the next few centuries we will have to learn how to better manage our presence on the planet.

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[MON 25 JUL 11] THE EXTERMINATORS (3)

* THE EXTERMINATORS (3): Although nitpicking over terms such as "eradication" and "elimination" of diseases can be exasperating, attendees at the Frankfurt meeting were forced to consider such details as they evaluated where to go next. The most attractive target is measles, which kills hundreds of thousands of kids every year, but which can be dealt with by a highly effective vaccine that works even with a single dose. Thanks to stepped-up vaccination efforts, global mortality due to measles has plummeted since 2000, but even in supposedly measles-free countries it tends to pop up again through "re-importations" by hosts returning from foreign countries. It also seems to be resurging in Africa at the present time. To complicate matters, the combination measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine has been heavily attacked by anti-vaccine activists, claiming it causes childhood autism -- even though the evidence shows no perceptible link, and the risks in use of the vaccine are far lower than the risks in not using it.

At the request of WHO, studies have been done for a measles eradication campaign, coming up with a pricetag of $7 billion to $14 billion USD, but saying it would be a bargain at that price. To be sure, the estimates were based on computer models that don't reflect uncertainties such as wars or unrest, but as Cochi puts it, the models are better than nothing -- and the studies did what they could to reflect realities, for example that countries are likely to keep on vaccinating against polio or measles and the like even if they seem to have been wiped out. The studies still demonstrated that a measles eradication program made sense.

A cost-benefit analysis is a good starting place, but to get an eradication campaign rolling requires a business plan, obtained through a consensus with the players in the effort including international agencies, nongovernmental organizations, and governments. The business plan needs to outline the rationale for the campaign and list risks and obstacles to inform policymakers, funders, and drug or vaccine makers. Advocates of eradication programs have also investigated innovative financing schemes -- for example with local governments issuing bonds, just as they do for major capital investments such as roads or railways.

Eradication campaigns also need to be implemented as a constructive element of public health infrastructures. There's a fine balance to be considered: to be effective, an eradication program has to be focused and not be sidetracked by trying to do everything, but at the same time it also shouldn't drain resources from the fight against other public-health problems. That conflict over resources gets tricky as the disease targeted by the eradication program starts to fade out, because then other problems necessarily become more prominent in comparison. If an eradication campaign can help address some of those other problems and at least help strengthen public-health infrastructure in general, it has a much bigger chance of being accepted and successful. For example, polio vaccination has been combined with issuing vitamin A tablets or distributing malaria bednets.

* Another candidate for disease eradication is the rubella virus, which can cause severe malformations in newborn babies. Nobody sees it as worth a campaign in itself, but since a rubella vaccine can be combined with a measles vaccine -- as demonstrated by the unfortunately controversial MMR vaccine -- it could piggyback off a measles eradication effort. As for further candidates, some are pushing for campaigns against onchocerciasis, a roundworm infection better known as "river blindness"; schistosomiasis, a flukeworm infection bred by water snails; yaws; and malaria, though malaria is regarded as a hard target.

Regional programs against these diseases have been implemented, and have had some success -- yaws has been eliminated in India. However, some are reluctant to push for expanding efforts against them as long as current programs remain unfinished. The polio eradication program has proven troublesome enough; the WHO believes it would be counterproductive to try to take on a second program until the polio program is complete. Says one observer of the polio program: "It must succeed. If it didn't, it would be a big setback for the whole concept of eradication." [END OF SERIES]

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[FRI 22 JUL 11] THE KILLING OF JFK -- THE BALANCE OF EVIDENCE (25)

* THE KILLING OF JFK -- THE BALANCE OF EVIDENCE (25): It's true that nobody saw Oswald carrying a rifle into the Texas School Book Depository on the morning of 22 November 1963, but anybody who wouldn't be suspicious of the package of "curtain rods" Oswald took with him to work would have to be very determined to turn a blind eye. Some conspiracy theorists are that determined, insisting there was nothing suspicious about the package of "curtain rods".

The basic problem with such a claim is: why would Oswald have been toting curtain rods around? For the Paine house? The Paines didn't need them. For his tiny boarding room? It was temporary lodging, why would he make improvements? For the depository? Nobody recollected that the TSBD was in such desperate need of curtain rods that a minimum-wage employee would feel the need to buy them and take them to work. If there were curtain rods in the package, then where did they go? None were found lying around at the depository.

Were the Fraziers lying about the package? A package matching their description was found on the sixth floor of the TSBD. The critics make much of the fact that the Fraziers guesstimated the package as being a little over two feet long, but it was hardly as though they had pulled out a tape measure, asked Oswald to hand them the package, and then measured its length. The bag found on the sixth floor of the TSBD was actually 96.5 centimeters (38 inches) long -- too short to fit the assembled rifle, but with plenty of room to fit the rifle when unassembled. Assembling the rifle was a trivial exercise, easily done with a tool as simple as a coin. Conspiracy theorists won't let go of Wesley Buell Frazier's testimony on the issue, even though he repeatedly told the Warren Commission that he "didn't pay much attention to the package or to the way Oswald carried it."

Any protests over the supposed length of the package lead straight back to the awkward question of why Oswald had the package in the first place. Did the conspiracy tell him or con him into taking the package into work, but then gave him a package of the wrong length? Or was it just a remarkably convenient coincidence that Oswald decided to take an unusual package into work on the day of the assassination -- with the conspiracy then fabricating a package during the morning to frame him, and making Oswald's package and its contents disappear without a trace?

Conspiracy theorists have claimed the police actually did find curtain rods at the TSBD, which would suggest Oswald might have been telling the truth about the contents of the package. In reality, two curtain rods were picked up by the authorities as possible evidence from the Paines' garage, not the TSBD, and show up in evidence lists. A photo also made the rounds of Earlene Roberts directing the installation of a curtain rod in Oswald's boarding house -- but the police had simply knocked the rod down during their search of the little room, and it was being reinstalled.

Another item raised by conspiracy theorists is that while the Carcano was described as "well oiled", the bag wasn't stained with oil. Actually, what was meant by "well oiled" was that the bolt and firing mechanism were well oiled; most of the rifle was dry. The materials used to make the bag were traced to the TSBD; the bag also had Oswald's prints on it. [TO BE CONTINUED]

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[THU 21 JUL 11] SPACE NEWS

* Space launches for June included:

-- 07 JUN 11 / SOYUZ TMA-02M (ISS) -- A Soyuz booster was launched from Baikonur to put the "Soyuz TMA-02M" AKA "ISS 27S" manned space capsule into orbit on an International Space Station (ISS) support mission. The capsule carried three crew, including Michael Fossum (third space flight), Sergei Volkov (second space flight), and Satoshi Furukawa (first space flight). It docked with the ISS Rassvet module on 9 June, with the three joining the current ISS "Expedition 38" crew of Andrey Borisenko, Aleksandr Samokutyaev, and Ron Garan. This was the second launch of an upgraded Soyuz with a new digital avionics system.

-- 10 JUN 11 / SAC-D -- A Delta 2 booster was launched from Vandenberg AFB to put the US-Argentine "Satelite de Aplicaciones Cientificas D (SAC-D)" satellite into orbit to map global oceanic salt concentrations. The spacecraft was built by Argentine space agency CONAE and had a launch mass of 1,350 kilograms (2,977 pounds).

SAC-D

The primary payload, the "Aquarius" instrument, was built by the NASA Goddard Spaceflight Center and the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory; it featured three passive radiometers, using a large deployable reflector dish and operating around a center frequency of 1.413 GHz to pick up saline emissions, along with a radar scatterometer to analyze wave action that would confound the radiometer measurements. Aquarius was sensitive to saline concentrations of 1 part in 5,000 and observed a swathe of ocean 390 kilometers (242 miles) wide, obtaining a global saline map on a weekly basis. SAC-D also carried five CONAE payloads:

The Italian Space Agency, ASI, provided a "Radio Occultation Sounder for Atmosphere (ROSA)" instrument that used GPS signal occultation measure the pressure, temperature and humidity of the atmosphere. Finally, SAC-D carried two instruments for the French Space Agency, CNES, a particle detector named "ICARE-NG" and a micrometeorite detector named "SODAD", collectively known as "CARMEN 1". The mission was scheduled to last for three years. SAC-D followed in the path of NASA's SMOS satellite, launched in 2009, which performed the first saline maps of the sea. The Delta booster for SAC-D was in the "7320-10" configuration, with three solid rocket boosters and a 3 meter (10 foot) payload fairing.

-- 15 JUN 11 / RASAD 1 -- A Safir booster was launched from an undisclosed military base in Iran to put the "Rasad 1" microsatellite into orbit. It was Iran's second satellite. Rasad had a launch mass of about 10 kilograms (33 pounds) and carried a low-resolution imaging system.

-- 20 JUN 11 / CHINASAT 10 -- A Chinese Long March 3BE booster was launched from Xichang to put the "ChinaSat 10" geostationary comsat into orbit for the China Satellite Communications Corporation. ChinaSat 10 was based on the DFH-4 comsat bus and had a launch mass of 5,100 kilograms (11,245 pounds), a payload of C / Ku-band transponders, and a 15 year design life. It was placed in the geostationary slot at 110.5 degrees East longitude to provide domestic communications services for China Satcom. The Long March 3BE booster was an enhanced version of the older Long March 3B, featuring a stretched first stage and (four) stretched liquid-fuel strapon boosters.

-- 21 JUN 11 / PROGRESS 43P (ISS) -- A Soyuz booster was launched from Baikonur to put the "Progress 43P" AKA "Progress M-11M" tanker-freighter spacecraft into orbit on an International Space Station (ISS) supply mission. It docked with the ISS Zvezda module two days later.

-- 27 JUN 11 / KOBALT M (COSMOS 2472) -- A Soyuz booster was launched from Russia's Plesetsk Northern Cosmodrome to put a Kobalt film-return imaging reconnaissance satellite into orbit. The satellite was designated "Cosmos 2472".

ORS-1 launch

-- 29 JUN 11 / ORS-1 -- A Minotaur 1 booster was launched from Wallops Island to put the "Operationally Responsive Space 1 (ORS-1)" tactical military surveillance satellite into orbit. It was a lightweight optical reconnaissance satellite, built by ATK, with a launch mass of 434 kilograms (957 pounds) and a primary payload of a Goodrich "Senior Year Electro-Optical Reconnaissance System (SYERS) 2A" camera, similar to the SYERS flown on the U-2 spyplane. ORS-1 was intended to provide intelligence directly to tactical warfighters.

* OTHER SPACE NEWS: As discussed here a number of times in the past, Surrey Satellite Technology Limited (SSTL) of the UK has made a big success of their "Disaster Monitoring Constellation (DMC)" of Earth observing spacecraft, with DMC satellites sponsored by an international group of countries for collaborative observation of natural calamities to assist emergency relief.

Now SSTL, working through its imaging-services subsidiary DMCii, has signed a deal with China for three third-generation DMC satellites. The new DMC-3 spacecraft will be larger, with a launch mass of about 350 kilograms (770 pounds), and will be more capable, with an imaging system capable of providing best resolution of 4 meters (13 feet) in color, 1 meter (3 feet) in grayscale, and a wide-swathe scan mode with a resolution above 20 meters (65 feet).

China is already a member of the DMC group, having launched the "Beijing 1" DMC satellite in 2005. Initial launch of a DMC-3 satellite is currently scheduled for 2014. Although sponsor nations have traditionally owned DMC spacecraft, for DMC-3 the DMCii concern will operate the satellites on behalf of the Chinese.

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[WED 20 JUL 11] THE ORIGIN OF SHELLS & SKELETONS

* THE ORIGIN OF SHELLS & SKELETONS: One of the long-standing puzzles in evolutionary science is the "Cambrian Explosion", a blossoming of a wide range of animal species from about 540 million years ago. As discussed by an article from Astrobio.net ("Skeletons In The Pre-Cambrian Closet" by Michael Schirber, 7 January 2011), there has been considerable debate over the "explosion": some have speculated on reasons why there was a rapid diversification of life; while others have wondered if its apparent suddenness is an artifact, a misreading of a sketchy ancient fossil record.

One significant aspect in the puzzle was the emergence of animals with shells or skeletons, only about 10 million years before the beginning of the Cambrian, late in the preceding Ediacaran Period. Soft-bodied animals like jellyfish don't fossilize well, skeletons fossilize much more easily, and from that point of view the Cambrian Explosion was in the numbers of animals that left fossils.

From our perspective, shells and skeletons seem unremarkable. Vertebrates like ourselves can grow large and agile thanks to bones containing calcium and phosphorous. Mollusks and other animals are protected by shells made of calcium carbonate, while some sponges construct an internal framework of silica to help them filter food. In reality, mineralized body structures are a fairly recent development; the first animal skeletons didn't appear until right before the Cambrian explosion, at the end of the Ediacaran Period. Once a few animals started building with minerals, a "housing boom" erupted across the animal kingdom.

In order to understand the driving factors of this biomineralization event, Shuhai Xiao of Virginia Tech and his colleagues are studying the first skeleton-builders at a unique site in China. They want to find out what kind of organisms these pre-Cambrian organisms were, and whether they left any descendants.

Biomineralization is not the only way organisms can make hard, rigid structures. Trees rely on an organic polymer, lignin, to grow tall and rigid, while some animals, like insects and crustaceans, use sugar-derived chitin polymers to build their exoskeletons. However, biomineral skeletons provide stronger mechanical support and, since the construction materials don't have to be synthesized, they're less expensive than organic materials like lignin and chitin.

The oldest mineral skeletons were discovered in the 1970s. Some look like little sponges or goblets, but the majority of the fossils are tubes that look like they were homes for worms or corals -- though it's unclear what kind of organisms they were. To help determine this, Xiao's group is examining the "Gaojiashan biota" of the Dengying Formation in South China. This site, dated to a span of 541 to 551 million years ago, is similar to other Ediacaran formations in Oman and Siberia, but it's special because the fossils are found in several different types of rock, giving researchers several alternate windows into how the specimens were preserved.

There had been some uncertainty over whether the Pre-Cambrian skeletons were just some sort of geological artifact, but Xiao says they have plenty of evidence that at least some of these organisms employed biomineralization. The tubular fossils in Xiao's samples are a few millimeters long and about one millimeter in diameter. Some of them show evidence of being deformed, implying that the original body part was flexible, not brittle like bone or shell, and so they may have been a matrix of minerals in organic tissue. The minerals have degraded over time, but researchers believe the original skeletons contained calcium carbonate. Xiao hopes their work will determine exactly which crystal form of calcium carbonate -- calcite or aragonite -- was used. This is an important clue in identifying what sort of organism made the skeleton, since distinct groups of animals are often characterized by the type of biomineral they employ.

Whatever these first skeleton-makers were, they didn't stick around for very long, apparently leaving no descendants -- suggesting that biomineralization was "re-invented" later, in fact several times. Says paleontologist Susannah Porter of the University of California at Santa Barbara: "Skeletons evolved more than three dozen times within animals -- and about half of these did so in the early Cambrian."

What's striking about this is how widespread biomineralization became in a relatively short period of time, with different species utilizing entirely different minerals -- mainly calcium carbonate, calcium phosphate and silica. The question is: what drove so many organisms to develop a variety of different skeletons at, at least geologically speaking, roughly the same time, when life had been doing without skeletons for billions of years?

sponge skeletons

What that suggests to some is that biomineralization had its roots in some process common to all the organisms that developed skeletons, but which in itself served a function unrelated to skeletal features. Possibly biomineralization started out as a way to get rid of excess calcium or phosphorous, both of which can be toxic in too high of a concentration. Animals may have learned to sequester these minerals into separate structures, with these "toxic waste dumps" later proving useful as structural elements.

A more popular, if not really mutually exclusive, view is that biomineralization was driven by selection pressures in an "evolutionary arms race". In the struggle between predator and prey, protective body armor became a distinct advantage, demanding more formidable predators that became a greater threat to less well protected prey. One of the "first shots" fired in this arms race was discovered two decades ago in the pre-Cambrian fossils from the same Dengying Formation that Xiao is studying. Many of the tubular skeletons have holes drilled into them, apparently made by some sort of predator. Xiao and his colleagues are searching for more evidence that predation played a central role in the origins of biomineralization.

In any case, biomineralization helped boost diversification of biological forms in the Cambrian, since animals have difficulties in growing big if they don't have skeletons. Not all are convinced that was critical to the Cambrian Explosion, since there's a wide range of animals that don't have shells or skeletons, but all agree that biomineralization changed the evolution of the Earth itself, with animals playing an active role in how calcium, silicon, and other elements cycled through the biosphere, for example laying down chalk beds that eventually became limestone. Much remains to be learned about the origins of shells and skeletons, but though there is disagreement and uncertainty over the details, nobody involved in the search fails to appreciate just what a significant development it was in the history of life.

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[TUE 19 JUL 11] ROOM AT THE BOTTOM

* ROOM AT THE BOTTOM: The late lamented business guru C.K. Prahalad, discussed here some years ago, made his name suggesting that there was a fortune to be made in selling useful, low-margin, high-volume products to the poor in undeveloped countries, a lesson that has been taken to heart by firms such as India's Tata Group. In Prahalad's vision, giving poor people access to products they need would not only be a tremendous benefit to them, companies could make attractive profits doing it. As suggested by an essay from THE ECONOMIST's rotating business columnist Schumpeter ("The Bottom Of The Pyramid", 25 June 2011), the same concept is only now being applied to America's poor.

About a seventh of America's population lives below the poverty line, which is officially set at about $22,000 a year for a family of four. In developing countries that would be generally regarded as prosperous though not rich -- but in the USA it's hard to get along on money like that, and with the economy remaining persistently dismal the ranks of the officially poor are being inflated by the nouveau pauvres, as the black-humor phrase has it. Pay TV subscription rates are falling and broadband internet access has plateaued.

Although the "bottom of the pyramid" of the US economy suggests an image of pawn shops, second-hand stores, loan sharks, and bail bondsmen, some big American businesses have been there for a long time, as demonstrated by retail giant Walmart and fast-food colossus McDonald's. Walmart has persistently expanded its stores and has been trying to diversify into new areas, such as low-cost health care. McDonald's is always introducing as many innovations to its menu as consistent with low-cost operation; the chain has focused heavily on fancy coffee products over the past few years in order to take a bite out of Starbucks. As a result, in spite of -- or to an extent because of -- the poor economic climate, McDonald's is booming, with sales steadily increasing by 4% a year from 2006, while the chain is refurbishing thousands of its outlets, and continuing to hire new hands while most everyone else is laying off.

Walmart and McDonald's are the most visible players in the low-end market, but they're not the end of the story by any means. Although Germany's Aldi is not yet a household word in the USA, its retail outlets are doing very well in America. Aldi manages to avoid being stepped on by monster Walmart by specializing in small stores, the size of a basketball court instead of an athletic field, each stocking maybe about a thousand different products -- in contrast to the tens of thousands at a Walmart -- with about 90% of those products being Aldi's own "store brand". Despite the low-cost pitch, an Aldi's is by no means a discouraging dingy place to shop, being clean and bright-lit.

Aldi outlet USA

Businesses are finding success in offering sales schemes that appeal to cash-strapped customers. While a cellphone is a necessity for many, a contract with a provider can feel like a financial ball-&-chain to those who aren't always sure they'll have the money to pay the bills, so operations like Leap Wireless, MetroPCS, and TracFone Wireless are booming with prepaid schemes. Houston's Direct Energy is now offering a prepaid scheme for electricity.

Internet websites have popped up to provide low-cost services or enable what is known as "collaborative consumption", in which people get together to share. Swap.com provides a sharing forum for DVDs, while ThredUp does the same for kid's clothes; Craigslist, a classified-ads site, allows students to hitch rides, while Couchsurfing lets users hunt for a place to temporarily crash. Even traditional "bottom of the pyramid" operations are getting into the internet: Pawngo offers online services for, ahem, "college-educated working professionals with temporary cashflow problems" to pawn goods via FedEx and get paid via bank transfer.

There's no way to put a happy face on the unpleasant reality of people with empty pockets and out of work, of course; but it is some reassurance to know that low-cost resources are available to them, while firms that supply those resources help keep the economy afloat. There's a big enough market at the bottom in the USA to keep the process rolling, with companies like India's Tata and China's Haier recognizing they have an opportunity in America with their frugal products. C.K. Prahalad, a notably serious person, would have smiled like the cat that ate the canary at the idea that firms offering ultra-low prices are as much in demand in Detroit as they are in Delhi.

* ED: In related news, about a year ago the business press was reporting that American "dollar stores" -- the most prominent among them being Dollar General, Family Dollar Stores, and Dollar Tree -- were doing a boom business, taking business away from Walmart The dollar stores were improving their product offerings, and they tended to be located in poorer sections of towns, making them more accessible than Walmart

However, in an ugly sign of the times, now even the profitability of dollar stores is hurting. It's not a question of losing customer volume; it's just that customers are focusing on necessities and staples, passing up relative luxuries that have higher profit margins. Adding to the unpleasant picture, the US government's food stamp program, which provides assistance to Americans without enough to eat, has been surging, with benefits now being provided to 45 million citizens. Expenditures have risen from $35 billion USD in 2008 to $65 billion USD in 2010 -- a growth rate some small-government advocates call unsustainable.

Tata Nano house

Elsewhere, India's Tata group has announced a new line of prefabricated houses for rural villages. The baseline "Nano House" has a floor area of 20 square meters (215 square feet) and the kit costs 32,000 rupees (about $720 USD). The kit includes not only the building structure, but also doors, windows, and a roof, with coconut fiber or jute used as wall cladding. The house can be set up in a week and has an expected lifetime of 20 years. Tata designers have been consulting with village councils to determine customer needs and plan a range of house designs. A house with a floor area of 30 square meters (322 square feet) will also be offered initially, with this house featuring a veranda and a solar panel.

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[MON 18 JUL 11] THE EXTERMINATORS (2)

* THE EXTERMINATORS (2): The notion of disease eradication is nothing new. Edward Jenner, the British doctor whose smallpox vaccine was the ancestor of modern vaccines, wrote in 1801: "It now becomes too manifest to admit of controversy that the annihilation of Small Pox, the most dreadful scourge of the human species, must be the result of this practice." It took 180 years, but he was proven right.

Unfortunately, the road towards disease eradication has been difficult. In 1955, the WHA endorsed a plan to eradicate malaria through an aggressive mosquito control program that relied on spraying the pesticide DDT inside homes. It was truly a case of "well-meaning but naive", an example of the brute-force thinking of technocrats of the era; in the 1960s the effort foundered as mosquitoes evolved resistance to DDT while worries accumulated about the side-effects of DDT. The effort was generally abandoned when money and political will finally ran out.

A parallel effort conducted from 1952 to 1964 that targeted yaws -- an easily treatable disease caused by the spirochete bacterium Treponema pallidum pertenue that causes disfiguring skin lesions -- went on the rocks as well. The smallpox campaign was the first real success, thanks to a highly effective single-dose vaccine. However, the follow-on efforts against polio and dracunculiasis demonstrated that smallpox eradication had been misleadingly easy.

With polio, part of the problem is that the tools available aren't as good as scientists thought they were -- for example, the oral polio vaccine is just not as effective as the smallpox vaccine. There's also the problem of diagnosis: when smallpox struck in an area, it was quickly obvious, allowing a vaccination campaign to be conducted to limit its effect. In contrast, polio can cause "silent outbreaks", with hundreds of children infected before one develops paralysis or dies. On top of that are what workers in eradication programs call, with a certain understatement, "people problems": wars, civil unrest, and dysfunctional governments. The Republic of Congo, for example, has been wrecked by conflict, and it's no surprise that polio has staged a big comeback there, in an usually nasty variant that targets young men instead of children and kills two-fifths of its victims.

To make matters worse, there's always been a streak of public suspicion over vaccination programs, aggravated by occasional true cases of vaccination programs gone wrong. Not only is there a strident anti-vaccination movement at large in the developed world, it has a counterpart in the undeveloped world. In 2004, worries over vaccine safety in northern Nigeria led to a boycott, which in turn produced a resurgence of polio there that was exported to other countries. To be sure, the anti-polio campaign has produced a drastic fall in the number of victims of the disease, but there's not much confidence that it can be wiped out completely, with some suggesting that it might be better to just be satisfied with keeping the disease in check.

The effort to eradicate dracunculiasis, led by the Carter Center in Atlanta, hasn't proven quite so troublesome, largely because in principle the guinea worm is easier to defeat. The worm infects a victim who drinks contaminated water; when it matures, it migrates to the victim's leg, causing an itching and burning that causes the victim to seek cooling water. The worm emerges out the skin with painful slowness, dumping volumes of eggs into the water as it does so. The victim has to carefully coil the worm onto a stick as it comes out, since trying to pull it out will break it off, resulting in an infection. No vaccine is needed to defeat the worm, it's just a question of getting people to filter their drinking water and not expose an emerging worm and its eggs to sources of drinking water.

The guinea worm campaign got off to a slow start, but it now seems close to its goal: there were only a few thousand reported cases of dracunculiasis in 2010, down from about 3.5 million cases in 20 countries two decades ago. More than 95% of the cases reported in 2010 were from Southern Sudan, which has been troubled by conflict and instability. The region voted strongly for independence in a referendum in January 2011, and there are fears that could lead to civil war -- which would mean new delays.

The difficulties encountered in eradication campaigns have had a sobering effect on those involved, one consequence being an inclination to downplay the term "eradication", lest it lead to unrealistic expectations. That's the case with the global campaign to wipe out "lymphatic filariasis (LF)", a mosquito-borne parasitic infection that afflicts an estimated 120 million people in more than 80 nations.

LF is better known as "elephantiasis" because an infection by the filarial worms that cause the disease results in accumulation of lymph, producing grossly swollen legs or scrotum. Five or six annual rounds of mass drug administration often stop transmission in regions where the disease occurs, with a global partnership currently using that strategy against the disease. However, the effort's stated goal is "global elimination", not eradication, which some dismiss as merely playing word games. The people in charge can only shrug and suggest it makes more sense to use terminology that doesn't cause them trouble instead of terminology that does. [TO BE CONTINUED]

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[FRI 15 JUL 11] THE KILLING OF JFK -- THE BALANCE OF EVIDENCE (24)

* THE KILLING OF JFK -- THE BALANCE OF EVIDENCE (24): The idea that the Carcano rifle found at the TSBD wasn't actually the one Oswald obtained through the mails seems implausible in light of the fact that some of the specific dings on the old rifle were matched by the HSCA's photographic analysts to those of the rifle in Oswald's "Fascist Hunter" photos, as well as imagery taken of the rifle when it was recovered from the TSBD. The Warren Commission's expert, Lyndal Shaneyfelt of the FBI, had confirmed in 1964 that the rifle in the "Fascist Hunter" photos was the same model as the rifle found in the TSBD, but was unable to say for certain the two rifles were one and the same.

The HSCA researchers had better photographic tech, and were able to identify markings on the rifle in the "Fascist Hunter" photos, particularly a prominent gouge on the forestock that was also found on the rifle recovered from the TSBD. That leads to the claim that the photos were faked, though as discussed earlier nobody has ever been able to convincingly show they were. Some conspiracy theorists who accepted that the photos were real have tried to use them to prove that the rifle was clearly different from C2766, the primary argument being that the sling in the photo is under the barrel, while for C2766 it's mounted on the left side of the barrel.

However, the photo flatly shows the sling is not visible under the barrel. What conspiracy theorists point to is a bit of fuzz in the photo under the barrel near the forward sling attachment -- but while the sling is clearly hanging down at the rear of the rifle, it's not visible hanging under the forward part of the weapon. If it's not hidden behind the left side of the barrel, then where is it? Oswald improvised the sling and it appears he did a sloppy job of tying it up. Incidentally, some conspiracy theorists even claim that the way Oswald was standing in the photo is an "impossible" posture, but it's just as hard to see that as it is to see the sling under the barrel.

the sling in the Fascist Hunter photo

* All arguments for duplicate Carcanos run into the same roadblocks. Again, if there are other rifles with serial number C2766 -- either built with that serial number or forged with it -- nobody has ever got their hands on one. If a barrel full of Carcanos with the same serial number, then what happened to them? Where are they now? Were they all destroyed by the "conspiracy"? For all the fuss over the "duplicate Carcanos", nobody seems concerned about tracking them down to unambiguously prove their existence.

In addition, what point would there have been to play "switcheroo" with two Carcanos? If somebody wanted to frame Oswald, why not just steal his rifle? Assuming instead for purposes of argument he didn't even obtain a rifle, how would a duplicate weapon come into the picture? If the "conspiracy" simply faked Oswald's ownership of the nonexistent rifle with false paperwork, cooked-up "Fascist Hunter" photos, and fingerprints, why the discrepancies with the rifle "planted" at the TSBD?

Either way, the fakery would have required some work and nobody's ever specifically identified the persons actually did it, what specifically they did, or when they did it. For all anybody's ever been able to nail down, it could be just as well claimed the "switcheroo" was performed by ghosts. The bottom line of the arguments over Oswald's ownership of C2766 is that there's a paper trail linking him to it; the "Fascist Hunter" photos show the same rifle as recovered from the TSBD; and nobody can produce any other Carcano with serial number C2766, or even an explicit paper trail for one. All credible evidence showed that Oswald owned the rifle found in the TSBD. [TO BE CONTINUED]

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[THU 14 JUL 11] GIMMICKS & GADGETS

* GIMMICKS & GADGETS: According to BUSINESS WEEK, the US Commerce Department is directing an effort to develop a next-generation online security system that will, hopefully, eliminate any need to remember passwords and jump through hoops to log into websites. The vision is for users to authenticate themselves -- via a digital token, a smartcard, or a fingerprint reader -- when they log in using a PC or smartphone, and then all security validation will be taken care of automatically.

The scheme, designated the "National Strategy for Trusted Identities in Cyberspace (NSTIC)", obviously faces enormous challenges, since any such security scheme will be immediately targeted by legions of online scammers who, sooner instead of later, will find and exploit the slightest weakness. However, the goal is worth the effort, since the current password scheme isn't all that secure, and it's inefficient -- people are always losing passwords. NSTIC isn't an entirely radical concept, either; it's nothing unusual for online services to leverage off passwords used by other services such as Google, Facebook, or Twitter, and NSTIC simply takes the same idea to a higher level.

A system that can confidently provide online security will go a long way towards enabling schemes such as online medical histories, which demand a high level of security. The Federal government is developing the standards for NSTIC, but companies will use it voluntarily, and user organizations will manage it. There will be no central database; each member of the association will maintain its own database of users, and validate those users for other members. Too utopian to be real? Maybe, but as one Commerce official puts it: "There's so much that could be done [online] if we could trust transactions more."

* I have a certain fascination with the ongoing tablet-PC revolution, being intrigued by the possibilities of $100 USD tablet computers more capable than a desktop PC of 20 years ago. We're not quite there yet, but as one example of where things are going, LeapFrog Enterprises -- a California firm that has been making popular handheld electronic devices for kids for over a decade, with a focus on education and educational games -- is now introducing a $100 USD "mini-tablet" for kids, the "LeapPad Explorer".

LeapPad Explorer

The LE has a 5 inch (12.5 centimeter) color touch sensitive display with a resolution of 480x272 pixels, a 400 MHz CPU, 2 GB of flash memory, a video camera, a mike, and an accelerometer. It doesn't have built-in connectivity except for a USB connection to allow it to be hooked up to a Windows PC installed with "hosting" software. Kids can play videos, read kiddie books, and play games -- the LE is compatible with cartridges for older LeapFrog handheld gaming devices, as well as with LeapFrog's library of downloadable games. It is targeted at kids from 4 to 9 and is available in green or pink trim. It's just a toy, sure, but again, it blows the doors off of any desktop machine from 20 years past.

* Disposable diapers, as it turns out, aren't all that disposable, making up a significant and particularly noxious component of landfills that doesn't degrade in any hurry. Alethia Vasquez-Morillas of the Autonomous Metropolitan University in Mexico City has a scheme for dealing with the dirty diaper problem: use them to cultivate mushrooms for the grocer's.

That sounds unsanitary, but as discussed here in 2009, it's not really worse than the way mushrooms are normally grown. Vasquez-Morillas grew oyster mushrooms, Pleurotus ostreatus, on beds of dirty diapers, with the result that the material in the diapers was broken down by 90% in two months and almost 100% by four.

Oyster mushrooms are popular in stir-fry and soups; they are also widely used in what is known as "mycoremediation", or using fungi to clean up waste. Oyster mushrooms have been used to clean up diverse wastes such as wheat or barley straw, coffee grounds, and the leftovers from tequila production. Disposable diapers are troublesome because they're made mostly of cellulose, which tends to be a very persistent material -- clean diapers don't break down any faster than dirty ones -- but the oyster mushroom normally grows on dead or dying trees in the wild, and so it is equipped with enzymes to break down cellulose.

Growing mushrooms on dirty diapers promises to be a substantial business; Mexicans throw away 5 billion diapers a year. There's the worry about fecal transmission of disease via the mushrooms, but Vasquez-Morillas has demonstrated how steam treatment can be used to sterilize the dirty-diaper growth bed. Steam treatment will raise the cost, but as far as the end product goes, it's perfectly edible -- Vasquez-Morillas has eaten the mushrooms herself.

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[WED 13 JUL 11] NUSTAR IN PREPARATION

* NUSTAR IN PREPARATION: The US National Aeronautics & Space Administration (NASA) is now preparing to launch a space astronomy mission named "NuSTAR", for "Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array". NuSTAR will perform observations of the cosmos in the hard X-ray wavelengths, ranging from energies of 6 to 79 kilo-electron-volts. NuSTAR -- which will be part of the well-established NASA "SMEX (Small Explorer)" series of low-cost space science missions -- will be the first spacecraft to use an actual telescope system for such observations; previous missions used "coded mask" instruments, which are effectively "pinhole cameras" using a heavy metal disc with a carefully arranged set of holes to obtain hard X-ray images. Coded-mask instruments produce noisy results and have limited resolution.

NuSTAR

The problem with building a true hard X-ray telescope is that the only way to focus X-rays is with a "grazing incidence" mirror, in which an X ray strikes a polished metal-coated surface at a shallow angle and then bounces off, like a flat stone skipping across water; if the X ray strikes at any steeper angle, it is absorbed. That means that an X-ray mirror looks like a set of nested barrels or "shells" with precision inward-curved surfaces.

NuSTAR will use a "Wolter" type X-ray telescope, originally invented by German researcher Hans Wolter in the early 1950s for microscope applications. A Wolter telescope consists of two mirror arrays in series, the forward array having parabolic curvature and the rear array having a hyperbolic curvature. NuSTAR has dual Wolter telescopes feeding an advanced detector system. The two telescopes are boresighted in the same direction and pick up the same image, with the two images added together on the ground. It was simply more straightforward to build two small telescopes than a single large telescope with the same effective aperture. Each array has 130 precision "shells", a maximum diameter of about 19 centimeters (7.5 inches), and a length of 45 centimeters (18 inches), and a weight of 31 kilograms (69 pounds).

While early X-ray telescopes used coatings such as platinum, iridium, and gold for reflecting surfaces, they don't work very well at high X-ray energies, and so NuSTAR uses a "multilayer" scheme -- made up of about 200 layers of thin coatings, alternating between high density and low density materials, the arrangement creating an constructive optical interference effect that enhances reflectivity. The high-density materials include platinum (Pt) and tungsten (W), while the low-density materials include silicon (Si), carbon (C), and silicon carbide (SiC); the multilayers consist of Pt/SiC and W/Si layers.

The substrate is lightweight flexible glass like that used for laptop PC and cellphone displays, with the mirror blanks fabricated at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, from flat sheets molded in an oven over precision quartz forms. The blanks were shipped to the Danish Technical University (DTU) in Copenhagen, where they were given the multilayer coatings at the university's DTU-Space facility. They were then shipped back to the USA, to be assembled from the inside out using a computer-controlled machining system at Columbia University's Nevis Lab outside of New York City. The shells are held together with graphite spacers and epoxy.

NuSTAR mirror

The twin detector arrays are identical, each consisting of four 32 x 32 pixel cadium-zinc-tellurium detector elements; they are not cryogenically cooled. The detector arrays are surrounded by cesium-iodide crystals that operate as "coincidence detectors", identifying when a high-energy particle hits the array from some direction other than from the optical module, allowing "noise" to be identified and filtered out.

Since grazing incidence grows shallower as X-ray energy increases, that means that NuSTAR requires a long focal length, a tricky thing to achieve in a small satellite that can't be more than 2 meters long and 1 meter wide (78 x 39 inches) in launch configuration, to allow it to fit into the booster payload shroud. After reaching orbit, NuSTAR will extend a 10 meter (33 foot) mast to separate the optical module from the detector / systems module. The mast was built by ATK and is derived from a deployable mast developed for the Space Shuttle Radar Tomography Mission flown by NASA in 2000. While the mast will be stiff, it will still flex enough to blur the X-ray imagery, so the optical module has two lasers that will shine on three detectors mounted on the systems module, with movements of the optical module tracked to permit correction of the images.

The systems module has a single solar array to drive control and communications systems. NuSTAR will provide imaging of the hard X-ray sky with one to two orders of magnitude better resolution than existing sky maps, and will provide significant observations of high-energy cosmic phenomena, such as collapsed stellar objects and supernova remnants, as well as observations that could help identify the mysterious "dark energy" that may (or may not) permeate the Universe. NuSTAR is scheduled to be launched in early 2012 by a small booster, the air-launched Orbital Sciences Pegasus XL currently scheduled to do the job.

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[TUE 12 JUL 11] ZERO OPTION?

* ZERO OPTION? Efforts towards nuclear disarmament have been going on for a long time, and since the end of the Cold War there's been considerable progress, with a hefty reduction in global warhead stocks. However, as reported by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("The Growing Appeal Of Zero", 18 June 2011), some involved in the exercise believe that the goal of the effort should be and can be to completely eliminate all nuclear stockpiles.

The effort is known as "Global Zero", and it was initiated in 2006 by Bruce Blair, a fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington DC who had previously set up a think-tank named the World Security Institute -- and who had once been a US Air Force Minuteman missile launch-control officer. Global Zero might have been a nonstarter, just another academic exercise, if the idea hadn't got a massive kickstart in 2007, in the form of an article published in THE WALL STREET JOURNAL that January.

no more nukes?

The article's authors were Henry Kissinger, Bill Perry, George Schulz, and Sam Nunn, all senior veterans of American's political establishment, not folks who anyone would particularly think of as peaceniks. What they claimed in the article was that nuclear weapons were not enhancing global security, they were undermining it. As long as the Bomb was around, there was always the possibility of an accident, or a rash decision in a crisis, or terrorists getting their hands on one. Nukes were useless on a tactical basis, since nobody would dare use one -- and as long as any nations had them, other nations would want to acquire them as well. If nobody had nukes, nobody would be driven to expend the resources to acquire them; and if anyone did try, the threat would ensure strong international action to stop them. If all else failed, the disarmed nuclear powers would have a "virtual deterrent" in that they could re-arm if necessary, using the prospect of doing so as a negotiating lever.

The WSJ article put Global Zero on the map, with a meeting on the subject in December 2008 to set up a plan, as well as write a letter to Russian President Dmitriy Medvedev and US President Barack Obama that asked them to get on board the idea. Obama was enthusiastic, saying in Prague in April 2009: "I state clearly and with conviction America's commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons." The next year, Medvedev and Obama signed the New START treaty to mandate further cuts in nuclear weapons.

Global Zero advocates met again, in Paris, in February 2010. Bolstered by endorsements by world leaders, the group outlined a four-phase plan for complete disarmament:

It must be emphasized that the Global Zero effort would be supported by by a tough verification regime and similarly tough controls on the production and transfer of fissile materials. Without strong enforcement measures, Global Zero is a nonstarter. Even given strong enforcement of Global Zero, not all the leadership of the nuclear powers feels comfortable with the idea of giving up nukes. For example the Russians, with a weak military, are necessarily reliant the Bomb for strategic defense, and to no surprise some are skeptical that a Global Zero regime could control "rogue states" determined to defy it. However, the Global Zero concept has acquired momentum, and backers of the idea believe that it is not a fantasy to think that, sooner or later, it can and will happen.

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[MON 11 JUL 11] THE EXTERMINATORS (1)

* THE EXTERMINATORS (1): As discussed by an article from AAAS SCIENCE ("What's Next For Disease Eradication?" by Martin Enserink, 24 December 2010), this last August scientists and public health officials met in Rio de Janeiro to celebrate the 30th anniversary of one of the landmark accomplishments of the 20th century: the eradication of smallpox, a disease that had once decimated populations. There have been no reported cases of smallpox since 1978.

The spirit of celebration was muted, however, by the realization among those who had eliminated smallpox that hopes for the end of other human diseases have so far led to disappointment. Two more eradication programs were launched following the smallpox effort, and neither is close to achieving its goal. Many are now wondering if such global efforts are realistic and worth the resources being pumped into them. As a result, only a few days after the end of the conference in Rio, another conference began in Frankfurt-am-Main in Germany to think over future plans for disease eradication.

The meeting was the product of several developments. One of the real ironies is that, as discussed here a few years back, there's been a surge of interest in and funding for global health problems, but the two ongoing disease eradication programs seemed to be laggards in the overall effort. In 1986, the World Health Assembly (WHA) -- the governing body of the World Health Organization (WHO) -- chose to target the eradication of the guinea worm parasite, with 1995 eventually chosen as the target date for eradication; in 1988, polio was also targeted for extinction, with 2000 as the target date. However, although cases of dracunculiasis -- guinea worm infections -- and polio have plummeted, they're still around, with polio demonstrating an ugly resurgence in central Africa and in the states of the Caucasus region.

It's not just that the targets themselves have proven tougher than expected; there's also doubts that eradication is a particularly sensible goal. One of the original premises of disease eradication was that developed nations would no longer have to worry about diseases that had been permanently taken off the roster, but thanks to an age of terror, that's not the way things turned out. Smallpox may have been eradicated in the wild, but it remains a frightening weapon for terrorists, all the more frightening because we now have vulnerable populations of people who have never been exposed to it. What makes the prospect of a possible use of smallpox as a weapon was the fact that the Soviet Union, which was a major player in the smallpox eradication effort, simultaneously weaponized it and produced the virus in quantity. As a result, smallpox vaccine continues to be produced and used with high-risk groups, such as military forces.

On the other side of the coin, as far as undeveloped countries were concerned, the rationale for eradication is undermined when the work runs into diminishing returns. With cases of polio down to a few thousand a year, why spend resources worrying about polio instead of the massive threats of AIDS and tuberculosis? Poor countries don't have adequate resources to deal with them, why squander what's available on low-priority targets?

However, the decisiveness of eradication has its appeal: get rid of a disease once and for all, and over the long run the benefits will be substantial. Besides, disease eradication has a something of a "Moon shot" excitement to it, helping to energize public health efforts. For example, the 2007 call by Bill and Melinda Gates to eradicate malaria generated a revitalized focus on the problem -- though the couple were also accused of overstating their case.

The Frankfurt meeting was organized to discussed the ambiguities and difficulties of disease eradication. The participants, many of them having been players in eradication programs, believe such programs should continue -- but need to be much more rigorous in planning and execution. According to Stephen Cochi of the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta, future eradication campaigns "will be put under the microscope in a way that smallpox or polio [campaigns] never were."

Up to the present, eradication campaigns have been poorly thought out, with Cochi saying: "We were well-meaning but totally naive." New eradication programs need to be much more evidence-based, with a rigorous analysis of costs and benefits backing up a methodical funding plan that's set up to avoid the "fits and starts" in funding that have plagued the polio campaign. Eradication campaigns should also have as an integral goal the general reinforcement of public health systems in target countries [TO BE CONTINUED]

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[FRI 08 JUL 11] THE KILLING OF JFK -- THE BALANCE OF EVIDENCE (23)

* THE KILLING OF JFK -- THE BALANCE OF EVIDENCE (23): There have been still other claims for the existence of multiple Carcanos with serial number C2766. One is that an affidavit in the Warren Commission archives provided by Lewis Feldsott, president of Crescent Firearms, says that Crescent shipped the Carcano rifle with serial number C2766 to Klein's Sporting Goods in June 1962, while the FBI claimed it was shipped by Crescent in early 1963. Conspiracy theorists claim that shows Crescent shipped two rifles with serial number C2766 to Klein's. However, Feldsott did not say that two weapons with serial C2766 had been shipped, he only indicated one -- and given that the actual paperwork available on C2766 shows it was shipped to Klein's in early 1963, it hardly seems unreasonable to conclude that Feldsott got his dates mixed up.

Another claim is based on the fact that the ad Oswald responded to specified a 36-inch Carcano, but was shipped a 40.2-inch Carcano -- and, according to conspiracy theorists, Klein's didn't have any 40.2-inch in stock Carcanos when Oswald ordered the rifle from the firm. Obviously that means the 40.2-inch rifle found by the authorities at the TSBD was a ringer, right? In support of this notion, conspiracy theorists lean on the testimony of Mitchell Westra, the buyer for Klein's, who told the HSCA that at the time the weapon was purchased, scopes were only fitted to the 36-inch weapons, not 40.2-inch rifles. Westra's comment was backed up by William Sharp, who performed the scope mounting for Klein's.

30-inch versus 40.2 Carcano

However, there's no documentary proof to support these claims; and to garble matters further, the ad in question actually used a 40.2-inch Carcano as an illustration. The hint is that Klein's didn't pay much attention to the length of the rifle. Westra wasn't mentioned in the HSCA's final report and obviously the committee didn't find his testimony particularly disturbing, since the report unambiguously concluded that Oswald had indeed obtained from Klein's the same rifle found in the TSBD.

Conspiracy theorists also claim that shipping paperwork shows the batch of Carcanos sent to Klein's in early 1963 didn't weigh enough to be of 40.2-inch weapons. This argument is indeed puzzling, but since it tilts against the mass of the evidence for the trail of the Carcano, it's hard to say where the discrepancy actually lies. The argument over shipping weight is indirect and based on a number of assumptions that are hard to validate. What if, for example, the shipment was predominantly 36-inch weapons, with a handful of 40.2 inch weapons added in to fill out the batch? The difference in weight would be unnoticeable. Conspiracy theorists admit that the shipping paperwork in question doesn't mention the length of the weapons, which again suggests Klein's didn't worry about how long the rifles were.

As far as Carcanos with forged serial numbers go, it's possible but a shrug, since nobody's ever produced a duplicate Carcano with serial number C2766, or found anyone who claimed to have performed such a forgery before the assassination. The "forgery" scenario is idle speculation. [TO BE CONTINUED]

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[THU 07 JUL 11] SCIENCE NOTES

* SCIENCE NOTES: As discussed in these pages in the past, cuckoo birds are notorious nest parasites, laying their eggs in the nests of other species of birds that then hatch and raise the cuckoo chicks. Cuckoos aren't the only birds that play this game, one other species that does so being the "cuckoo finch" of the African grasslands -- a bird that, except for its reproductive habits, is by all appearances pretty much an ordinary finch.

The cuckoo finch doesn't have any extraordinary adaptations for its lifestyle; but some of its potential victims do. University of Cambridge researchers investigating the cuckoo finch and its hosts in the wild found that host species had acquired adaptations to defeat the cuckoo finch. Some, like the red-faced cisticola, have become very discriminating in identifying cuckoo finch eggs, which are then disposed of. However, this behavior is likely to lead to an "evolutionary arms race", selecting for cuckoo finches that lay more convincing fakes.

Another target species, the tawny-flanked prinia, has acquired a better trick, one that is harder to defeat. Each prinia female lays eggs with her own coloration pattern, different from that of other females. Given a variable target, there's no way an evolutionary arms race can get started, no way for the cuckoo finch to ultimately defeat the defense by acquiring better fakes. One of the researchers commented that the "variations seem to act like the complicated markings on a banknote: complex colors and patterns act to make host eggs more difficult to forge by the parasite, just as watermarks act to make banknotes more difficult to forge by counterfeiters."

tawny-flanked prinia

The naive question, of course, is why all birds targeted by nest parasites don't use this neat and seemingly unbeatable trick. The answer is evolution doesn't work that way; host birds can't simply hear of a good idea and then implement it, and just because a good trick is possible doesn't mean there's any certainty of it happening. Random genetic variation produced prinias that had more individualistic egg coloration; that giving the prinias a selective advantage, over time selection promoted any tendency towards further egg color diversity.

* A group of American and Canadian biologists have discovered a startling example of an "endosymbiotic" relationship, in which cells of algae were found growing in the eggs of the spotted salamander. Such "intracellular" relationships with a eukaryotic organism such as algae are unusual and unexpected. The specific details of the relationship are not clearly understood.

The intracellular endosymbiotic relationship between salamander and algae is surprising, but the researchers suspect it is by no means unique, having not been noticed before simply because nobody thought of it. It had been known for decades that salamander eggs and the algae both grew better when the two were present than they did when they were apart, but the algae cells were just not easy to see inside the salamander egg cells under a light microscope. The research group that discovered the relationship used the fluorescence of chlorophyll in the algae to spot the algae in the salamander egg cells, using a genetic tagging technique to assist. Now that they know what they're looking for, researchers suspect they may seen similar relationships in other amphibians.

* As reported by TIME magazine, billions of years ago Mars was surprisingly similar to Earth, with a thick atmosphere and oceans. Eventually, most of the Martian atmosphere leaked off into space -- but it turns out that some of the atmosphere went underground instead. A ground-penetrating radar on the US Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter probe has discovered a huge deposit of frozen carbon dioxide, dry ice, about the size of Lake Superior, buried under a layer of water ice near the Martian South Pole. Planetary scientists had expected to find some dry ice, but what they came up with is about 30 times more than expected.

the shifting climate of Mars

The deposit is not permanent, however. Mars has a slight wobble in its rotation, so every hundred thousand years or so the poles tilt more toward the sun in Summer, getting more direct sunlight than they normally would. The incremental heating turns the frozen CO2 back into a gas -- enough gas to double the density of Mars' thin atmosphere. And then, as the planet wobbles back, the CO2 freezes out again and the atmosphere thins.

On Earth, the same sort of wobbles help end ice ages, as warmer polar summers melt glaciers and liberate CO2 stored in the oceans. The CO2 acts as a greenhouse gas, warming the planet even more, which liberates even more CO2 in a feedback loop that brings the planet into a relatively balmy interglacial period. Climate skeptics like to point to such climate cycles as proof that current climate change is natural, but climatologists see the current trend as much too rapid to be explained by any such slow process.

The extra CO2 in Mars' atmosphere wouldn't be enough to do much warming, but it would have noticeable effects. For one thing, the thicker air would be enough to allow water to exist on the surface at lower elevations. The oceans of Mars wouldn't return, and probably not the rivers, but creeks and ponds would be possible. Observations by Mars orbiting probes suggest the dry ice is already starting to evaporate, with patches in the polar icecaps that appear to be slumping and the atmospheric pressure demonstrating a slight increase, even though we've only been observing Mars in close-up detail for a few decades. In a few thousand years, Mars may have liquid surface water again -- though nobody expects more than ponds this time around.

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[WED 06 JUL 11] WATCHFUL EYE

* WATCHFUL EYE: An article from THE NEW YORK TIMES ("Computers That See You and Keep Watch Over You" by Steve Lohr, 1 January 2011) surveyed the topic of machine vision, previously discussed here in 2009.

Smart machine vision is no longer a lab toy. Search-engine giant Google has released an application named "Goggles" that allows users to take a photo with a smartphone and then use it for an online search. Google's Picasa photo-sharing service also has a face recognition capability, in which a user puts a name to an image of a face, and the system finds matches in other images; other photo-sharing services offer much the same capability. Microsoft recently made a splash with its "Kinect" add-on for the company's Xbox 360 gaming console, discussed here a few months long ago, with Kinect providing a sophisticated but low-cost gesture recognition system for gaming.

As for more sober applications go, this last year the Bassett Medical Center in Cooperstown, New York, set up a demonstration system designed by General Electric (GE) engineers a single hospital room to investigate the use of machine vision in health care applications. Three small cameras, mounted inconspicuously on the ceiling, monitor movements in Room 542, in a special care unit -- a level below intensive care -- where patients are treated for conditions like severe pneumonia, heart attacks, and strokes. The cameras track people going in and out of the room, as well as the patient's movements in bed.

Initially, the system provided immediate reminders and alerts. Doctors and nurses are supposed to wash their hands before and after touching a patient, since the failure to do so contributes significantly to hospital-acquired infections. The camera over the bed delivers images to software that is programmed to recognize movements that indicate when a patient is in danger of falling out of bed; when that happens, the system summons a nurse. If the first-phase investigation goes well, the development team hopes to add new features, such as software that analyzes facial expressions for signs of severe pain, the onset of delirium or other evidence of distress.

In the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), researchers are investigating how machine vision can even take a pulse. A grad student simply stands in front of a mirror; after 20 seconds, his heart rate appears at the bottom of the mirror. The heart rate was obtained by a webcam behind the two-way mirror that tracks the blood flow in his face. The software backing up the camera splits the video imagery into three channels -- one each for red, green, and blue -- and then determines the heart rate from minor changes in color from the tiny contractions and expansions of blood vessels in the subject's face. Other vital signs, including breathing rate, blood-oxygen level and blood pressure, provide similar color and movement clues. One of the potential futures behind this work is a household diagnostic system that observes vital signs of users every time they stand in front of a mirror.

Rosalind Picard, one of the professors involved with the effort, and her MIT colleague Rana el-Kaliouby have also been working over the past few years on facial-expression analysis software to help young people with autism better recognize the emotional signals from others that they have such a hard time understanding. The two women have founded Affectiva, a startup company in Waltham, Massachusetts, that is now marketing its facial-expression analysis software to manufacturers of consumer products, retailers, marketers and movie studios. The primary use of the software is to observe the emotional responses of consumers to improve the designs and marketing campaigns of products.

Maria Sonin, a 33-year-old office worker in Waltham, Massachusetts, is playing guinea pig for Affectiva's software, watching a movie trailer on a laptop PC while the PC's webcam watches her back. The software measures her reactions by tracking movements on a couple of dozen points on her face mostly along the eyes, eyebrows, nose and the perimeter of her lips. Most watching would think she was amused, and the software agreed. Currently, audience screenings for movies involve bringing in a few hundred people to watch the movie and then having them fill out a survey after it's over. It's a coarse and inexact approach. Machine vision analysis of the audience not only provides a more accurate assessment of the audience reaction to a movie, it also allows assessment of audience reaction to individual scenes.

Affectiva insists that their software be used on an "opt-in" basis -- that is, nobody is spied upon without consent. However, cameras are everywhere these days, and it's becoming obvious they're going to be a lot smarter very soon. That opens the door to the prospect of living in school or at work with a digital boss that never stops watching, alert to every lapse of attention or fit of anger. It also leads to the question of how people will react to being watched all the time. Certainly, it will provide an edge in security, but it might well lead to frustration as well.

There's also the threat of criminal abuse. Nobody really predicted the emergence of cybercrime, but now we know how quick crooks are to exploit new technologies, and people involved with machine vision are perfectly aware that it could be misused. Google, for example, put face recognition into its Picasa system to help users organize photos of family and friends -- but the company balked at putting face recognition into Goggle, since it would allow a user to take a picture of a stranger and then track down information on that stranger. Said a Google official: "It was just too sensitive, and we didn't want to go there. You want to avoid enabling stalker behavior."

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[TUE 05 JUL 11] THE TAXMAN COMETH

* THE TAXMAN COMETH: Those of us addicted to buying from Amazon.com are perfectly aware that one of the attractions is: NO SALES TAX. Why would I buy a book from a Barnes & Noble store if I can get the same thing from Amazon without a 7% markup? I'd be embarrassed to shell out the extra money.

As reported by BUSINESS WEEK ("Clawing Sales-Tax Revenue Out Of Amazon" by Brad Stone, 6 June 2011), obviously this sort of good deal can't last forever -- since it amounts to a "tacit subsidy" for Amazon, allowing the company to undercut "brick & mortar" competitors who are stuck with paying sales taxes. Bills have been introduced into the US Congress for taxing internet commerce on a regular basis over the past decade and gone nowhere, but in a time of gaping government deficits, things are likely to change. A recent study by the state of Tennessee suggests that collectively, American states will lose about $10 billion USD in sales tax revenues from online sales in 2011. That's not pocket change.

Amazon.com versus the taxman

Internet commerce has traditionally relied on the fact, established by US Supreme Court decisions, that state sales taxes can only be applied to firms that physically perform sales in the state. Amazon doesn't have any walk-in retail outlets, so the company can dodge that bullet. The government was willing to turn a blind eye to the issue in order to nurture the development of online businesses, but since online business has matured and become a major component of commerce, there's a feeling that the "subsidy" has become gratuitous.

Tradition is now crumbling. Seven US states have so far imposed sales taxes on internet commerce, California being the most recent to do so. Amazon has bitterly fought back, threatening to move distribution centers and other facilities to other states. CEO Jeff Bezos has stated that he does prefer that the Federal government act on the tax matter, since it would be much easier for Amazon to deal with a single national law than a patchwork of local laws. A spokesman for the US Retail Industries Association -- which includes retail giants such as Walmart Best Buy, and Target among its members -- suggests that Bezos is merely expressing a preference for which of two devils Amazon would prefer if it came to a choice: "They've always claimed to support a Federal solution, but they've never lifted a finger to get there."

Some are skeptical that a Federal online sales tax is really in the cards, since it could be easily portrayed as the grasping Federal government trying to foist yet another tax on the American people. However, the simple injustice of demanding that Walmart choke up sales tax while giant Amazon doesn't have to is becoming much too obvious, and though Federal action on the matter may seem overbearing -- well, as Bezos admitted, it's either that or an impossible crazy quilt of local measures.

Industry analysts suggest that a sales tax won't slow Amazon down very much. Analysts at Wells Fargo Securities performed a survey that showed Amazon would undercut Walmart prices by at least 5% on the average even when sales taxes were factored in; Amazon beat Target by at least 12%. A national sales tax might actually have some advantages to Amazon, since once the tax is in place the company will have no worries on a tax basis for setting up a presence in every state. Amazon would then be able to extend its hierarchy of distribution centers to all major cities and increase the reach of overnight, or even same-day, delivery. Says an analyst: "Each year that passes, the relevance of sales tax to Amazon's success becomes less and less. If you look five years out, when there's probably a policy in place, it's possible Amazon will be better off for it. That's not something I would have said before."

ED: The day I wrote up this article I was shopping around in a Barnes & Noble, finding books I wanted to buy -- except for the obstacle of paying sales tax. I'm all for a sales tax on internet purchases. Sure, I've been getting a deal so far and appreciate it, but it's a fool's paradise, it's neither equitable nor sustainable. Once I have to pay a sales tax on Amazon purchases, I won't be so reluctant to buy at Barnes & Noble -- and hands-on shopping has its appeal, since I have a better idea of just what I'm going to get. Amazon will still get plenty of business from me, since the company can offer specialized books I can't easily find locally, and it would be all but impossible to find the selection of anime DVDs I can get from Amazon around here.

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[MON 04 JUL 11] MORE THAN VOICE (3)

* MORE THAN VOICE (3): Another related article from THE ECONOMIST ("Digital Revolution", 9 April 2011) took another look at the impact of wireless tech in Africa. Up to about a decade ago, as far as modern communications tech went, Africa was effectively about a century behind the times. Sure, there was some modern gadgetry in the hands of the wealthy, but they're a small minority and the underlying infrastructure was weak. Then the Chinese began to sell $50 USD grayscale TVs and broadcasting took off. Before the Chinese invasion, Kenyan broadcasters predominantly recycled Western offerings; today 80% of the material is of African origin. Africans have embraced broadcast media, with talk radio, music videos, and televangelism becoming big business.

Now the cellphone, as discussed in previous installments in this series, is carrying Africa into the interactive digital age. Africa acquired three submarine cable data connections in 2010 to link the continent more solidly into the global internet; along with improved access, prices have dropped. It is estimated that there are now about 84 million handsets in Africa with at least some sort of internet connectivity. A $90 USD smartphone built by Huawei of China and running Google's Android operating system has been a big seller as of late.

Nokia is the biggest player in the African cellphone market, with about 58% market share. However, Nokia is under pressure at the high end of the market thanks to competition from Huawei, Samsung, and RIM -- the maker of the Blackberry. Nokia still remains the dominant player at the low end, with the company's cheap-&-effective $30 USD Nokia 1100 established as the "Kalashnikov for communications" among Africa's poor, with about 50 million of them in use. Nokia is now preparing to introduce an improved version with a better display and internet connectivity, with fair hopes of regaining ground lost to the competition.

Nokia 1100 cellphone

Tablet PCs are seen as the next wave. Samsung has an early lead with its $500 USD Tab, though with that pricing it's only a toy for the elite; other tablet PCs are even more expensive. Analysts believe the tablet PC market will take off in Africa once prices fall below $200 USD. Nokia is mum about introducing a tablet PC derived from the 1100 series, but one Nokia official expects that tablets will be selling for about $90 USD by 2014, implying a market that Nokia will not be able to pass up. The MIT-based "One Laptop Per Child (OLPC)" group is now pushing an "XO3" tablet PC for the developing world scheduled for 2012 that will come in as low as $75 USD, but OLPC has a reputation for "overpromising and underdelivering" -- as a case in point, they originally announced the XO3 in 2010, but the schedule slipped -- so we shall see.

In any case, Africans are now getting hooked on the internet, and that means a boom for African information service and entertainment providers that can provide digital content tailored to African audiences. Western providers will no doubt worry about piracy, but there's an opportunity there for them if they can grasp it. [END OF SERIES]

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[FRI 01 JUL 11] ANOTHER MONTH

* I found some copies of an aviation magazine on the discard pile over at the library titled "EAA (Experimental Aviation Association) SPORT AVIATION" and took them home to look them over. They weren't more than mildly interesting -- except for an article on "Airdrome Aeroplanes" of Holden, Missouri.

Airdrome Aeroplanes is the brainchild of Robert Baslee, previously a machinist and mechanical engineer for Kodak. In the late 1980s, he got the ambition to build his own copy of a World War I Fokker Triplane fighter; finding no plans available, he built it himself, powering it with a Volkswagen air-cooled flat-four piston engine. Baslee flew it at the EAA fly-in at Oshkosh in 1989, with admirers asking: "Where can we get one?" Baslee decided to get into the kitbuilt aircraft business.

Baslee started out building 75% and 80% subscale replicas powered by two-cylinder two-stroke Rotax engines, with some of these replicas in the ultralight aircraft class. In the mid-1990s, reduction gear systems became available for the flat-four VW engine, permitting the engine to turn a bigger propeller at lower RPM -- which turns out to provide much more efficient conversion of engine power into flight thrust and permitted Baslee to focus on full-scale replicas. Later, Rotec of Australia introduced their line of small 7 and 9 cylinder radials, mostly for the nostalgia market, which proved an excellent fit for Baslee's little aircraft.

Airdrome Aeroplanes Fokker D-VII replica

Baslee is careful to point out that his aircraft are replicas, not reproductions. They are often very convincing replicas, but they are not made of wood as were the originals; they have airframes of aluminum tubing and skinning of modern synthetic cloth. They feature modernized airfoil sections as well, and of course pilots can fit gear such as radios and GPS navigation receivers. The full-sized replicas may closely resemble the originals, but they are sturdier, lighter, and fly better. Despite the wide variety of configurations available, Baslee says that they are all based on a standard kit of parts and that only about 20% of the parts of any one model are unique to it. He can cook up a new model easily enough if there's at least three sales to be made with it. In one deal, Airdrome Aeroplanes brewed up four Nieuport fighters in less than two months for a 2006 World War I movie titled FLYBOYS.

* I've been backing up the workspace on my PC on CD/DVD ROM disk every month for about the last decade, but about a year ago I started backing it up to a USB hard drive as well -- keeping a copy for the previous two months. I finally got to thinking that the ROM disks were really piling up, and I really didn't refer to them much; sometimes I'd have to find something from a few years back, but usually I just was after something from a month or two ago and could find it on my USB drive.

So I decided to simply make a ROM disk backup once at the beginning of each year, and perform monthly copies of my workspace to the USB drive, keeping a year queue of them. The workspace is less than 7 gigabytes right now, and the USB drive is 150 gigabytes, so storing them for a year is easy. I got to wondering what was available in USB drives these days in case I wanted to store more, and on checking Amazon.com I was astounded to find I could get a 2 terabyte drive for well under $100 USD. I don't need anything like that now, but it's nice to know that if I do need more disk space, it's not going to be a problem.

I ended up throwing out a hundred or so old ROM disks, meaning I now have a supply of jewel cases adequate to last multiple lifetimes. When I started tossing the ROM disks I just dropped them in the trash, but after I discarded three or four I remembered what kind of personal data I had on them; obviously, I couldn't risk anyone picking one out of the trash and reading it. But how to destroy them? Spray them with paint? Melt them in a fire? I finally decided the simplest method was just to wrap them in an old raggedy bedsheet and take a hammer to them. It worked well, though I suppose the neighbors were wondering just what the hell I was doing, sitting on the grass in front of my house, bashing away single-mindedly with a hammer.

* I set up a Flickr account some time back, but I didn't get around to uploading any imagery into it until just recently. Flickr is actually very clean and easy to use, intuitive and efficient in operation, making it simple to upload and organize image sets. A free account only provides storage for 200 images, and they can't be more than 1024 pixels on a side. A paid account eliminates these restrictions.

Although a paid account is cheap, I had no particular interest since I only wanted to use Flickr to promote my own site. There's no problem in including a link along with the image captions and so I uploaded sets of samples with links: silhouette drawings, photo archive, and refurbishments of old racy detective paperback covers and the like. There's a very active community of cover collectors on Flickr; I can't touch most of them on quantity, but I can fly on quality since I've become a pretty good retoucher.

So far I haven't got much attention, with views running about half of what I would have thought. I was naive; Flickr is huge and my handful of images are a drop in the (photo) bucket. However, since I never saw Flickr as anything more than a freebie promotional aid, it hardly matters; it costs me nothing and any activity is all for the good. I am still a bit surprised that the other paperback cover collectors don't seem to be interested in my retouch jobs, which generally restore the covers to better than new condition. I'm beginning to wonder if most of the collectors actually like their covers to look beaten-up.

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