* Entries include: JFK assassination (series), bioluminescence (series), history of multicore computing (series), selling products in India, Indians & the taxman, 3D printing for manufacturing, Archaean expansion, bureaucracy of South Sudan statehood, cargo theft, DARPA battlefield medicine initiatives, global vaccine , more intelligent planetary rovers, and threat of fuel leaks from sunken vessels.
* NEWS COMMENTARY FOR AUGUST 2011: The agonizing political feud over the US debt ceiling at the beginning of August left a bad taste in everyone's mouth, but it did have its flashes of humor, with Senator John McCain referring sarcastically to the "Tea Party hobbits" who had made the negotiations so difficult.
The Tea Party, for outsiders, is an American populist movement that includes among its vague conservative platform a dislike of taxes; the Tea Party movement was at a peak in 2010 and managed to get a number of sympathetic Republican politicians into Congress in the mid-term election, where the "hobbits" steadfastly rejected all consideration of new taxes, even over the objections of their own Republican leadership. The amusing part was that McCain was loudly attacked by Tolkien fans for the comparison.
Polls do show that Tea Party popularity is way down from 2010, and though Tea Party advocates also complained about McCain's remark, his rough handling of them may well buy him more than it costs him. Populist movements seem to arise periodically in American history, for example the "Know-Nothings" of the 1850s and the "America Firsters" that were prominent before American entered World War II. While they rapidly gain momentum from public excitement, their lack of coherent ideology, emotionalism, and unrealism results in an equally rapid decline -- indeed, the isolationist America First was formally disbanded on 11 December 1941, four days after harsh reality had intruded in the form of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
The harsh realities of 2011 are not so dramatic, but it is becoming widely understood that America is faced with a calamitous deficit problem and that there's no way to address it without raising taxes, recession or not. The debt deal hammered out this month left recommendations for that task up to a bipartisan committee -- and if it doesn't come up with taxes, it's been made clear that the result will be devastating cuts in entitlements and defense, making the battle cry of "NO NEW TAXES!" somewhat less inspiring.
It may be fortunate that the Tea Party peaked in 2010, hopefully leaving it a spent force in 2012; we may even be able to look forward to a real choice in the presidential race, with the Republicans fielding a moderate and credible candidate. Like who? NO COMMENT. Looking back on comments in these pages from the 2008 election suggests that election politics don't seem all that interesting after the fact. Besides, experience suggests that candidates that fly high at the outset of the primary race are usually the first ones to be shot down. Might as well wait and see.
* As discussed by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("The Revenge Of Malthus", 6 August 2011), the rise in commodity prices over the past decade has revived a old debate. Are we now reaching diminishing returns in exploitation of the Earth's resources? Or will human resourcefulness make more efficient use of existing resources and uncover new resources as well?
The previous big commodity boom took place in the 1970s, coinciding with the rise of the environmental movement and the belief that growth in demand for commodities was reaching the point of unsustainability. That led in 1980 to a famous bet between Paul Ehrlich, author of THE POPULATION BOMB, and Julian Simon, an economist at the Cato Institute, a free-market think tank. Ehrlich was the voice of the "Malthusians" -- named after Thomas Malthus, the 18th-century British scholar who predicted that populations would inevitably outstrip their food supply -- while Simon spoke for the "Cornucopians" -- who of course believed in endless abundance.
Handed a challenge by Simon, Ehrlich chose five metals -- copper, chromium, nickel, tin, and tungsten -- whose prices Ehrlich believed would rise in real terms over the following decade; Simon believed they would fall. Ehrlich lost, his forecast being skewed by the fact that the commodity market has a historical cycle and he was observing a peak. Simon, however, also had history on his side, since real commodity prices fell steadily through the 20th century. The economic boom of the 1980s and 1990s also embarrassed Ehrlich, since he had predicted the world was headed for an imminent crash, with a billion people starving to death and America suffering economic ruin.
Ehrlich did not take up Simon in 1990 on an offer to bet "double or quits" for any future date. Had Ehrlich done so, this time around he would have won, since all five metals have risen in price since 1990. In fact, if Ehrlich had made a longer-term bet to begin with, Simon would have lost, since in real terms those five metals are now more expensive than they were in 1980. Cornucopians can optimistically point out that commodities are being strained primarily by the increase in demand from developing countries -- while Malthusians can pessimistically wonder in return if Simon wasn't observing the last gasp of a system near its threshold of collapse.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* SELLING IN INDIA: As has been discussed here in the past, last in 2010, big companies see India as a very attractive emerging market. As described by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("The Other Asian Giant", 6 August 2011), India is nowhere near as prosperous on a per-capita basis as China, but the expectation is that in a few decades India will have caught up.
It isn't all that easy to do business in India, due to the wildly diverse culture, poor infrastructure, and a government that is still seen as more of a hindrance than a help to business. Nestle of Switzerland, the world's biggest food company, has a good leg up on the Indian market, having been there for almost a century. The company has clearly understood the Indian love of dairy products, which feature strongly in the seven factories the firm operates in the country, turning out everything from daht (yogurt) to chocolate bars.
One of these factories, at Moga in the northern state of Punjab, started out in 1961 as a small collective, with 180 farmers providing milk. The farmers were poor and their ability to supply milk uncertain, their cows being unproductive and a high proportion of calves dying at birth. Nestle brought in veterinarians, agronomists, and other experts to help the farmers improve their operations, with productivity then soaring. Today the Moga plant works with 100,000 farmers who haul their milk twice a day to 2,815 refrigerated collection points. The staff who run the collection points, weighing and testing the milk, are treated with great deference by the farmers delivering their product there.
Still, inadequate Indian infrastructure makes the dairy products business difficult, since it can be hard to deliver product in the first place and hard to keep it chilled while delivering it in the second. The global rise in food prices also makes Nestle managers nervous. Nestle's still pushing ahead in India, planning to double capacity by expanding existing facilities while building a new plant.
Figuring out what to sell can be a challenge in a nation with so many ethnic groups and a painful range between rich and poor, educated and illiterate. Nearly all Indians love spices and carbohydrates, which is likely why Nestle's Maggi two-minute noodles are such a big seller. Initially they were only offered in unimaginative flavors such as "Masala" and "Chicken", but now the menu includes flavors such as "Thrillin Curry" and "Tricky Tomato". Nestle has put considerable effort into determining exactly what Indians enjoy, having conducted "Project Epicure" five years ago to visit 1,500 Indian homes, at all income levels, and observe what people were eating. A new "Project Gastronomy" under the same lines is now underway.
Nestle sells more packaged foods than any other company in India, with sales and profits booming. However, local rivals are in hot pursuit. Dabur, the biggest Indian consumer-goods manufacturer, owns over half the market for fruit juice, while it churns out massive quantities of shampoo, skin cream, and other personal-care / health products. It is one of the few Indian consumer goods firm that has an international presence; Dabur recently bought out Namaste Labs, an American company that makes hair-care products for black folk, with an eye towards expansion in African markets.
Hindustan Unilever, the Indian arm of the Anglo-Dutch consumer goods colossus, has also been booming. Like Nestle, Unilever understands the importance of getting close to customers, setting up "Project Shakti (Sacred Power)", to recruit 45,000 poor rural women as agents, teaching neighbors about nutrition and hygiene. Lessons in hand-washing, to no surprise, stimulate purchases of Unilever soap. Unilever has an advantage over Nestle in that Indians are much more consistent in their preferences for cleanliness products than for food, translating to less marketing research. The company does understand, however, how price-sensitive the bulk of its customers are, and puts considerable effort into determining the optimum package sizes and prices for its customers. Unilever is now focusing on the "bottom of the pyramid", expanding its more commoditized product lines.
Foreign firms trying to penetrate Indian markets sometimes find out that their brand names buy them very little. When Coca-Cola bought Thums Up, the top Indian cola, the plan was to kill the brand and push Coke. However, the company's local managers quickly found out that Thums Up was preferred, much to the shock of the leadership at company headquarters in Atlanta. They got over their shock and now Thums Up shares shelf space with Coke.
Everyone trying to do business in India has their difficulties, not merely with the lousy infrastructure and clumsy government, but also with widespread corruption and illiteracy. However, India is a democracy, more flexible towards change than authoritarian China, and it has a large number of youngsters looking to become more prosperous. Says one academic analyst: "Democracy and demography are India's big assets."
* ED: A note in BUSINESS WEEK points out that one of the reasons the Indian government is weak is because it is inefficient at collecting taxes. India's tax revenues are 18% of gross domestic product, the lowest among the leading developing nations, with an estimated $314 billion USD lost from tax evasion annually. Now the government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is trying to push through a comprehensive new tax law to fix matters.
There was a time when Indian tax rates could be insane, the top individual tax rate in 1971 being 97.5%. Right now it's 30%. With his Direct Taxes Code legislation, Singh hopes to actually keep cutting taxes, cutting the top corporate rate from 33% to 30%. So how would the new legislation bring it more revenue? By closing loopholes, of course. Some Indian states offer businesses "tax holidays" to encourage commerce, with the central government claiming such schemes tend to be abused. Similarly, personal exemptions would be tightened up. Singh also wants to implement a national goods and services tax that would replace the patchwork of equivalent local taxes.
Even ignoring the exemptions, Indians are fond of dodging the taxman, for example often performing large transactions in cash to keep them under the tax radar. Along with the new taxes, there's been consideration of reinforcing the tax collection system. However, tax reform is politically troublesome, voters everywhere being unenthusiastic about taxes, and the government is still reeling from a monster scandal over the sale of mobile-phone licenses. The government is in a difficult position to deal with the corrupt practices of citizens when it is perceived as corrupt itself.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* MAKE IT GLOW (2): Work on bioluminescence didn't advance at any great pace for decades, partly because experimenting with the phenomenon was very labor-intensive. In 1967 Ellis Ridgway and Christopher Ashley, both then at the University of Oregon, were interested in bioluminescence; they collected photoproteins from 10,000 jellyfish and injected them into the muscle fibers of a barnacle. The researchers knew that as muscles contract they release calcium ions, and they suspected this would activate the injected photoproteins to generate blue light. They were rewarded with glowing barnacle muscles.
This work, and other studies that made use of proteins collected from fireflies, showed that because bioluminescent reactions require certain cofactors to be present in order to function, they could be used to detect specific chemicals in an environment. However, given how hard it was to obtain the appropriate materials, there was no hope of making much practical use of the idea at the time.
That changed with the invention of cloning technology. In 1985, Douglas Prasher at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts and his colleagues used cloning to replicate the photoprotein from the Aequorea victoria jellyfish. Cloning was used to replicate luciferase from fireflies in the same year. In 1992, Prasher also cloned GFP. Cloning technology also opened the door to new experimental methods: instead of injecting organisms with bioluminescent materials, genes for such materials could be incorporated into the genome of a target organism so the organism would produce them on its own.
The first organisms to be modified in this way were bacteria such as the handy colon bacterium, Escherichia coli, a popular genomic guinea pig; when bacteria modified with GFP were illuminated by blue light, they glowed green. More elaborate organisms have since been modified in much the same way, one of the most famous being "Ruppy", a dog that was modified with a sea anemone protein similar to GFP, but which fluoresces bright red instead of green. Ruppy appropriately glows red when illuminated by deep blue light.
On the face of it, that might sound like a silly stunt, but insertion of genes for GFP and other fluorescent proteins into other organisms can provide a remarkable tool for probing the biological processes of living organisms. For example, a team of researchers under Elly Tanaka at the Max Planck Institute in Dresden, Germany, is using GFP to study the Mexican axolotl, Ambystoma mexicanum. The axolotl is well-known for its ability to regrow severed parts of its body, such as limbs and jaws, and to investigate that phenomenon the research team brewed up genetically-modified axolotls that generate GFP throughout their bodies.
The researchers took pieces of limb tissue -- such as skin, cartilage, and muscle -- from these transgenic animals and transplanted them into the limbs of ordinary axolotls. Once the tissues were safely in place, the recipients of the transplanted tissue had limbs amputated. The severing of the limb activated the tissues at the point of amputation, including the transplanted fluorescing tissues, and allowed the team to see how the different types of cells behaved during the regeneration process. The researchers found that some tissues, like the skin , could become other tissue types, like cartilage, but that others, such as muscle, were much less flexible and remained muscle throughout the process. That revelation is a long way from figuring how to regenerate lost human limbs, but it's certainly a step in the right direction. [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* THE KILLING OF JFK -- THE BALANCE OF EVIDENCE (29): Following HSCA's determination that the five available candidates for the "Three Tramps" were dead ends, new candidates for the tramps soon came to light.
One was Gerry Patrick Hemming, who was fingered along with Sturgis and Hunt as making up an all-CIA version of the "Three Tramps". Hemming actually comes up in conspiracy theories in a number of ways, supposedly being a Marine buddy of Oswald's after Oswald came back from Japan to California -- though he was also supposedly Oswald's "CIA case officer" when Oswald was at Atsugi. It seems reasonably validated that Hemming was a mercenary who initially fought alongside the Cuban revolution and then, in company with anti-Castro exiles, against it. There's no evidence that he was ever a CIA agent, and though he was fond of telling stories to the media, one journalist said of him: "I never believed a word of what he had to say."
Hemming was busted twice on weapons and drug smuggling charges, once in the 1970s and once in the 1980s -- but though he was convicted both times, both times the verdict was overturned. In response to charges against him, he would threaten to "go public", claiming to have the goods on the FBI, the CIA, the Mob, and so on: "Let's talk about all the people I dirtied up for them over the years."
Those who did actually talk to him found it very hard to pin him down to verifiable details. Hemming's tales were recorded by an author named Noel Twyman in his 1997 book BLOODY TREASON. According to Hemming, J. Edgar Hoover was behind the assassination; Hemming said that not even Hoover's "top aides" were in on the plot, which makes it a bit puzzling as to how Hemming knew so much about it, all the more so because Hemming insisted he wasn't actually involved. Hemming explained, sort of, that it was an "open secret" in the circles he traveled in that the "conspiracy" was "shopping around" for people to perform the hit on JFK -- everybody knew about it, presumably the "conspiracy" made sure none of them talked except for Hemming. He died in 2008, taking his secrets, such as they were, to the grave with him.
Another one was Charles Harrelson, a career criminal believed to be a hit man, convicted of murdering a Federal judge in 1979. When Harrelson was arrested, he claimed to be part of a "hit squad" recruited to kill JFK; Harrelson tried to cut a deal, claiming he would finger the rest of the conspiracy if the authorities let him go. Not too surprisingly they didn't buy the story, and later Harrelson admitted that he was in Houston on 22 November 1963, adding: "I was not in my right mind when I confessed." Conspiracy theorists, unimpressed by his denial, claim he was a CIA agent. Harrelson died in prison in 2007; incidentally, his son Woody became a Hollywood actor and a celebrity conspiracy theorist.
In 1991, one Chauncey Holt came forward and said he had been one of the tramps. He said he had been working as a CIA operative in 1963, but no records demonstrate that he was -- in fact, very few of the details of the colorful past history he related of his involvement with US intelligence and the Mob ever proved verifiable. Holt originally claimed he was in Dallas on 22 November 1963, but had no knowledge of what was going on -- he was just running fake government ID to an unnamed contact, and speculated that he was being set up as an alternate "patsy" to take the fall if Oswald didn't work out.
Holt claimed he met up with Charles Harrelson and a particularly murky figure, Charles Rogers. Rogers was notorious in Texas; he was a geophysicist who had been living with his parents in Houston in 1965 when he disappeared permanently from the face of the Earth, with his parents found dismembered and stuffed into the refrigerator at their house. Many tales grew up around Rogers, in particular that he was a CIA agent, though the facts are very difficult to sort out -- for what it's worth, the CIA has never claimed him as one of their own, and nobody's ever produced any concrete evidence that he was. In 1992, Holt issued an enhanced version of the story he had told in 1991, claiming he did know that an assassination was being planned, and adding new details.
* However, in 1989 a Dallas Police Department document had been released that identified the tramps as Harold Doyle, John Gedney, and Gus William "Bill" Abrams. Doyle and Gedney were tracked down in 1992 and said they had been arrested after the assassination, to be questioned and then immediately released. Either being unaware of the controversy or unwilling to be caught up in it, they never came forward later. Abrams had died in 1987, but his sister was contacted, and when shown the picture she said: "That's my Bill!"
Although some conspiracy theorists claimed the positive identification of the tramps was another "coverup" exercise, the more general conclusion was that Chancey Holt was a teller of tall tales. He died in 1997. Ironically, while conspiracy theorists have persistently demanded the release of documents related to the JFK assassination, the attempt to continue the argument over the "Three Tramps" suggests that documents are only seen as significant when they are useful to the conspiracy case. [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* GIMMICKS & GADGETS Following up on yesterday's posting, researchers at Southampton University in the UK have flown the world's first "printed" unmanned aerial vehicle, the "Southampton University Laser Sintered Aircraft (SULSA)", fabricated by a laser nylon particle sintering machine. The aircraft has a mid-mounted wing with a span of 2 meters (6.5 feet), a vee tail, and an electrically driven pusher prop.
Thanks to the ability of 3D printers to easily construct elaborate structures, the SULSA has no fasteners, with all the pieces snapping together. The airframe is based on "geodetic" construction, the structural elements being arranged as a web instead of a frame, a technique used on the World War II Vickers Wellington bomber and devised by famed engineering wonk Barnes Wallis; geodetic construction is light and strong, but with traditional construction methods it's a pain to build. The SULSA also has an "elliptical" wing planform like that of the classic Supermarine Spitfire fighter, this wing configuration being very efficient but also traditionally a pain to build. Possibly a little national pride played a part in the design as well.
* As reported by WIRED Online, cargolift aircraft generally haul their loads kitted up on standardized pallets that can be moved around conveniently and secured once placed in an aircraft's cargo hold. However, moving a heavily-laden cargo pallet around can be a pain, so the US Air Force has awarded contracts to two companies, HStar Technologies and Stratom, for the development of an "intelligent robopallet" that will drive itself into the aircraft and lock itself into place. The robopallets not only will be self-propelled, but they will also have wireless communications to obtain instructions on how to be loaded -- loads in a cargo aircraft have to be balanced with some care to ensure flight safety -- as well as communicate that their cargoes are on the way to where they're supposed to be going.
* BUSINESS WEEK reports that after a bombing in Mumbai this July, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's office issued an email condemning the attack -- from a Hotmail address. It takes a second to notice "what's wrong with this picture"; the picture begins to seem more wrong when it's realized that most Indian government employees use open services such as Hotmail and Gmail for their email.
The Indian government's National Information Center (NIC) does run a government-controlled email system, but it only covers about 300,000 Indian federal employees, a mere tenth of the total, and its coverage is spotty; one particular problem is that only senior officials have smartphone access, and tech-savvy Indians regard smartphones as the communications tool of choice. Not only do civilian government officials rely heavily on Hotmail and Gmail, but the military does too, with one analyst saying that the use of insecure open services by such organizations is "a recipe for disaster".
Another complication is that since servers for such services don't generally reside in India, Indian law enforcement may not have jurisdiction to get their hands on emails required in investigations. Similarly, Indian courts may not recognize emails recovered from open accounts as valid evidence since they can be so easily faked. An Indian cyber-security expert says: "The use of private email services [for government communications] needs to be stopped, once and for all. It's quite alarming, and sad that this is the situation in a country where the private-sector IT companies are so advanced."COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* 3D PRINTING FOR MANUFACTURING: "3D printers", discussed here last year, can replicate solid objects by laying them down in liquid layers that are solidified, or powders that are sintered, with the use of "sacrificial layers" permitting the construction of objects with hollows or even multiple interconnected parts. 3D printing systems are nothing new, but in the past they've mostly been used for rapid prototyping; however, as mentioned previously, there's been some interest in using them for product manufacturing as well.
As discussed by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("The Printed World", 12 February 2011), there is a growing belief that product manufacturing using 3D printing is an idea whose time has come, and which promises to be revolutionary. One industry observer estimates that at present, 20% of the output of 3D printers is in manufacturing applications, and that the proportion will grow to 50% by 2020.
Using a 3D printer to create parts may seem like a complicated and expensive way to get the job done; for volume manufacturing, stamping parts out using injection molding or other traditional mass-production techniques sounds cheaper on the face of it. However, that implies making a specific mold for that part and setting up a production cell to make it; in contrast, a 3D printer can make different parts on demand, using exactly the same machinery to do it with. Obviously there's a break-even point for production volumes where 3D printing is more cost-effective than molding or the like; right now, those familiar with the tech think that the break-even point is about 1,000 units. They believe that given improvements in the cost-effectiveness of 3D printers, there's no reason the break-even point can't be escalated to tens or hundreds of thousands.
There are also parts that don't lend themselves to being easily produced in a mold or stamp, for example titanium components for aircraft. Such parts are generally made by a computerized milling system, which is hardly less complicated or expensive than a 3D printer system. Researchers of the giant European EADS group working at Filton in the UK are now investigating construction of titanium aircraft parts with 3D printing, based on laser-sintered titanium powders. 3D printing has a major advantage over computerized milling, in that milling is a "subtractive" process, taking a blank piece of metal and trimming it off to reveal the part within; while 3D printing is an "additive" process, building up the part by providing material where it's needed. Titanium is expensive, and milling simply throws away half, even 90% of the material of the blank. The waste for 3D printing is minimal.
3D printing could reduce the need to maintain inventories of spares; as long as the design of the spare part is on file, it could be fabricated as needed. 3D printing also has the advantage that there is less need to compromise the configuration of a part to make it easier to produce, allowing the part to be fabricated as minimally as required for the job, resulting in lighter weight and less waste of material. 3D printing can be used to produce parts that would be completely impossible to mass-produce using traditional techniques. It potentially offers other options; the EADS researchers envision 3D printing machines integrated with aircraft production lines, fabricating parts directly into wings or other aircraft assemblies. One researcher investigating the technology has even speculated that 3D printing could be used to construct buildings, using computer-directed nozzles to put down layers of concrete.
Of course, coupled with smart software, 3D printing offers enormous flexibility in production, with some envisioning systems that turn out unique products designed to customers' requirements. Already, 3D printing machines can churn out dental crowns, each tailored for a particular patient, at a rate and economy completely unattainable by traditional handcrafted techniques. That points to the truth that the revolution in 3D printing is not likely to be painless, helping some -- by lowering the barriers to setting up a manufacturing firm -- and hurting others -- by obsoleting many of the last preserves of the hand craftsperson. Advocates of "open source" are likely to see manufacturing by 3D printing a benefit; defenders of "intellectual property" are not likely to be so enthusiastic. Some may see the ultimate vision of a 3D manufacturing system in every house as a dream, others as a nightmare, but both admit it would be truly revolutionary.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* ARCHAEAN EXPANSION: The history of multicellular plants and animals goes back to around the beginning of the Cambrian Era, beginning about 540 million years ago. However, microscopic life had been around for far longer than that previously, stretching back through the Proterozoic Eon, beginning about 2.5 billion years ago, and into the Archaean Eon, beginning about 3.8 billion years ago. Single-celled organisms became common during the Archaean, but since they don't fossilize in a very informative way, it's hard to learn much about the evolution of life in that timeframe.
Two Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) researchers, Eric Alm and David Lawrence, have taken a necessarily indirect approach to learning about the evolution of life in the Archaean. It is a central dogma of modern biology that all of the Earth's diverse organisms diverged from common ancestors; as a result, genes common to all life can be seen as "primitive", existing at the deep roots of the "tree of life", while genes common to subdivisions of the tree arose later, with those common to lesser subdivisions being more recent than those common to greater subdivisions.
Using an algorithm named the "Analyzer of Gene Species Trees (AnGST)", the researchers traced 3,983 gene families from 100 diverse modern genomes back to their origins to discover a timeline for the origins of those genes. The work suggests that the collective genome of all life underwent an expansion between 3.3 and 2.8 billion years ago, during which time 27% of all modern gene families came into being. Alm and David have called this event the "Archaean Expansion".
Because so many of the genes they identified as coming from that time are related to oxygen, the two researchers first thought that the emergence of oxygen might be responsible for the Archean Expansion. Oxygen did not exist in the Earth's atmosphere until about 2.5 billion years ago when it began to accumulate, likely killing off vast numbers of anaerobic life forms in the Great Oxidation Event.
Closer inspection, however, showed that oxygen-utilizing genes didn't appear until the tail end of the Archean Expansion 2.8 billion years ago. Alm and David now suspect they've detected the birth of "electron transport", the biochemical process responsible for shuttling electrons within cellular membranes, underlying oxygen respiration and some photosynthetic processes. Says David: "Our results can't say if the development of electron transport directly caused the Archean Expansion. Nonetheless, we can speculate that having access to a much larger energy budget enabled the biosphere to host larger and more complex microbial ecosystems."
David and Alm also went on to investigate how microbial genomes evolved after the Archean Expansion by looking at the metals and molecules associated with the genes and how those changed in abundance over time. They found an increasing percentage of genes using oxygen and enzymes associated with copper and molybdenum, which is consistent with the geological record of evolution. The two believe that they can use AnGST to probe much further. Says Alm: "What is really remarkable about these findings is that they prove that the histories of very ancient events are recorded in the shared DNA of living organisms. And now that we are beginning to understand how to decode that history, I have hope that we can reconstruct some of the earliest events in the evolution of life in great detail."COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* MAKE IT GLOW (1): There are a number of organisms that can biochemically produce light -- the best-known of course being the firefly, but others can do so as well. As discussed by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("How Illuminating", 10 March 2011), researchers have figured out how to genetically engineer "bioluminescence" in one form or another into many organisms that never had the capability -- and it turns out to be surprisingly useful.
Scholars have long been fascinated by bioluminescence. Aristotle commented on it in the fourth century BCE, observing that unlike the light from a candle, the light from fireflies and glow-worms was not accompanied by heat. In the first century CE Pliny the Elder, a Roman statesman, naturalist and writer, documented the glowing creatures near his home in the Bay of Naples, including glowing jellyfish and a species of glowing clam that was considered a delicacy in his day. Pliny commented how locals would dip a stick in the slimy body of a glowing jellyfish for use as a torch. The pioneering chemist Robert Boyle performed experiments on luminescent fungi in the 17th century.
In the past few decades, researchers have been able to unravel the mechanisms of bioluminescence. The simplest light-producing reactions require an organic molecule, known as "luciferin", to be oxidized by oxygen, a process aided by an enzyme known as "luciferase". The reaction generates light, carbon dioxide and a compound named "oxyluciferin". Some organisms produce light using just this straightforward chemical reaction, but many others require additional helper molecules known as "cofactors", to make it work. Fireflies, for example, being one of the best-understood bioluminescent organisms, rely on two cofactors: magnesium ions and adenosine triphosphate (ATP), a molecule that provides energy storage inside cells.
Many bioluminescent jellyfish use a somewhat different reaction. Instead of having freely available luciferin, they contain molecules named "photoproteins" which are, in effect, luciferin proteins that already have oxygen bound to them. Like fireflies, they also rely on a cofactor, in this case calcium ions instead of magnesium.
The light-generating reactions used by fireflies and jellyfish occur in many other organisms, and some organisms are also capable of "fluorescence" -- glowing in response to stimulation by ultraviolet or other light. The bioluminescing photoprotein inside the jellyfish species Aequorea victoria, for example, produces a blue light, though the jellyfish itself actually produces a green light. That didn't make sense -- if the protein produced blue light, why was the end result green light? -- until biochemists discovered that the jellyfish has another protein, associated with all the light-producing cells in its body, that glows bright green when driven by blue light from the photoprotein. This second protein was named, of course, "green fluorescent protein (GFP)". At the time, it didn't seem like much more than an interesting phenomenon of nature. [TO BE CONTINUED]NEXT | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* THE KILLING OF JFK -- THE BALANCE OF EVIDENCE (28): The "Three Tramps" -- as mentioned earlier had been photographed after being arrested by the Dallas police on 22 November 1963 after the assassination, to then be quietly released -- proved of particular interest to conspiracy theorists, largely due to the fact that early on, nobody could find any paper trail for them, as if the Dallas police had let them go as part of a "coverup". One of the claims with this story was that the photographs supposedly showed them to be "too well dressed" to be tramps.
The HSCA looked into the matter and reported, with a certain amount of wit:
(675) All three men are shabbily dressed, befitting their apparent status as vagrants. Tramp A [front], however, is the better attired, wearing well-fitting jeans and a tweed-like sports jacket, although this, judged by 1963 styles, was several years out of date. Tramp B [middle] is wearing ill-fitting slacks and a double-breasted suit coat. Tramp C [back], from his battered fedora to his won-out shoes, has managed to achieve a sartorial effect similar to what one would expect had he been fired from a cannon through a Salvation Army thrift shop.
(676) While such clothing might be a disguise, their footwear seems consistent with their classification as vagrants. All three men are shod in worn, low-cut oxfords that appear to be leather-soled. Tramp C's shoes seem to be several sizes too large for him.
Conspiracy theorists came up with a range of suggestions for the identity of the tramps. Some of the candidates are intangible figures, for example:
Two of the more substantial candidates were E. Howard Hunt and Frank Sturgis, notorious as members of President Richard Nixon's "White House Plumbers" team caught up in the Watergate break-in in 1972, resulting in a scandal that drove Nixon's presidency onto the rocks. Hunt was ex-CIA, at the time a White House aide; Sturgis was a "soldier of fortune" type, associated with the Miami Cuban exile community and involved in various "adventures" relating to Cuba, which he claimed were organized and financed by the CIA. Sturgis was one of the burglars arrested at the Watergate building on 17 June 1972. Both Hunt and Sturgis ended up doing prison time over Watergate.
While nobody had said anything about Hunt and Sturgis in connection to the JFK assassination before the Watergate scandal, in its aftermath conspiracy theorists came to the conclusion that they had been involved, linked to the assassination by the "Three Tramps" photos. Investigation showed that Hunt had indeed been a CIA agent in 1963 -- but all witnesses say he was home in Washington DC on 22 November 1963. There was no evidence that Sturgis ever was a CIA agent, though he had been involved with anti-Castro groups from at least 1961, and by all evidence he was in Miami the day of the assassination. There was no substantial evidence the two men met before they became members of the Plumbers. Of course, both always denied having anything to do with the JFK assassination.
The only link between Hunt and Sturgis with the JFK assassination was the claim that they resembled two of the tramps. The Rockefeller Commission, which was investigating the CIA, looked into these allegations in 1975 and came up zeroes, finding no reason to suspect Hunt and Sturgis and demonstrating that the tramps identified as them didn't match them in height or weight. The HSCA analyzed the suspects for the tramps -- Vallee, Carswell, Chrisman, Hunt, and Sturgis -- and the only one of the five to be judged an honest match to the men in the photos was Chrisman. However, the HSCA determined he was teaching at a high school in Oregon on 22 November 1963, with three of the other teachers there saying he was present that day.
* After Watergate, incidentally, E. Howard Hunt went on to a second career as a writer of suspense fiction. He died in 2007, leaving a "deathbed confession" brought forward by his two sons, Howard and David Saint John Hunt, that he had been involved in a conspiracy to assassinate JFK. The story was roughly in the same class as that told by Jimmy Files, featuring nothing of substance in it confirmed by the evidence, with all the principals in it being dead by that time -- indeed, by the time it hit the streets, so was Hunt, ensuring that nobody could ask him for clarification. The story of course exonerated Hunt while incriminating others, stating the assassination was under the direction of Lyndon Johnson.
What was particularly puzzling was that Hunt, as a CIA spook -- for once, a corroborated one -- was conditioned to keep secrets, and he had emphatically denied any association with the assassination all of his life up to that time. Conspiracy theorists claim he wanted to "unburden" himself before he passed away; skeptics have interpreted the tale as, at best, ramblings of an man in his eighties who had spent his life peddling disinformation and had lost connection to reality, spinning out one last suspense story, or at worst was simply being exploited though whatever means by his two sons in order to cook up a conspiracy tale they could peddle. In any case, there was nothing there to follow up, and Hunt's "confession" went onto the pile of unverified and unverifiable conspiracy theories. The media and the law paid the story little attention. [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* July was a very busy month for spaceflight activities:
-- 06 JUL 11 / SHIJIAN 11-03 -- A Long March 2C booster was launched from Jiuquan to put the "Shijian 11-03" scientific / technology test satellite into orbit. The spacecraft was built by the DongFangHong Satellite Company for the China Aerospace & Technology Corporation (CAST). It was suspected to be a demonstrator for a missile launch early warning system.
-- 08 JUL 11 / ATLANTIS (STS-135) -- The NASA space shuttle Atlantis was launched from Kennedy Space Center on "STS-135", the 37th shuttle docking with the International Space Station (ISS). This was the 135th and final shuttle flight, and the 33rd and final flight of Atlantis. There were only four crew on the flight, including:
The last time four crew had flown in the shuttle was on Challenger / STS-6 in 1983. The small crew of STS-135 -- nicknamed the "Final Four" -- was dictated by the fact that no other shuttle was available for rescue service if an emergency occurred, and so the crew would have to make use of the ISS Soyuz capsules to get back home. The small crew also increased the cargo load. Atlantis carried the Raffaello Multi-Purpose Logistics Module and a Lightweight Multi-Purpose Carrier with supplies for the ISS.
The shuttle docked with the ISS PMA-2 port on 10 July, with the shuttle crew joining the ISS "Expedition 28" crew of Andrei Borisenko, Aleksandr Samokutyayev, Ron Garan, Sergey Volkov, Mike Fossum, and Satoshi Furukawa. A failed ISS ammonia pump was returned to Earth by the shuttle. Atlantis landed at Kennedy Space Center (KSC) on 21 July after 12 days 18 hours 29 minutes in space. Atlantis was then placed on permanent display at the KSC Visitor's Center.
-- 11 JUL 11 / TIANLIAN 1-02 -- A Long March 2C booster was launched from Xichang to put the "Tianlian 1-02" geostationary space communications support satellite into orbit. This was the second of the Tianlian series, with three spacecraft required to provide complete coverage. It was built by the Chinese Academy of Space Technology and was based on the DFH-3 comsat bus.
-- 13 JUL 11 / GLOBALSTAR 2 x 6 -- A Soyuz 2-1a Fregat booster was launched from Baikonur to put six second-generation "Globalstar" comsats into orbit to provide mobile communications services. They were designated "M081", "M083", "M085", "M088", "M089", and "M091". The new constellation, when completed, was to support data channel rates of up to 256 kilobits per second. Each satellite had a launch mass of 650 kilograms (1,435 pounds), a payload of 16 C-S band transponders plus 16 L-C band receivers, and a design life of 15 years.
-- 15 JUL 11 / GSAT 12 -- An ISRO Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle was launched from Sriharikota to put the "GSAT 12" geostationary comsat into orbit. GSAT 12 had a launch mass of 1,405 kilograms (3,100 pounds), carried a payload of 12 C-band transponders, and had a design life of eight years. It was placed in the geostationary slot at 83 degrees East longitude to provide domestic communications services to rural communities in India.
-- 15 JUL 11 / SES 3, KAZSAT 2 -- A Proton Breeze M booster was launched from Baikonur to put the SES World Skies "SES 3" and Kazakhstan's "KazSat 2" geostationary comsats into orbit. SES 3 was built by Orbital Sciences, had a launch mass of 3,110 kilograms (6,860 pounds), carried a payload of 24 C-band / 24 Ku-band transponders, and had a design life of 15 years. It was placed in the geostationary slot at 103 degrees West longitude to provide communications services to North America and the Caribbean.
Kazsat 2 was built by Khrunichev of Russia, had a launch mass of 1,270 kilograms (2,800 pounds), carried a Thales-built payload of 20 Ku-band transponders, and had a design life of 12 years. It was placed in the geostationary slot at 86.5 degrees East longitude to provide communications services to Kazakhstan and Central Asia.
-- 16 JUL 11 / GPS 2F-2 (USA 32) -- A Delta 4 booster was launched from Cape Canaveral to the "GPS 2F-2" AKA USA 32 AKA "Navstar 66" navigation satellite into orbit. It was the second Block 2F spacecraft, with the Block 2F series featuring a new "safety of life" signal for civilian air traffic control applications. The Delta 4 was in the "Medium+ (4,2)" configuration, with two solid rocket boosters.
-- 18 JUL 11 / SPEKTR-R -- A Zenit 3F booster was launched from Baikonur to put the "Spektr-R" radio astronomy satellite into orbit. The spacecraft had a launch mass of 3,630 kilograms (8,000 pounds) and featured a deployable antenna with a diameter of 10 meters (33 feet). It was launched into a highly elliptical orbit with an apogee of 338,000 kilometers (210,000 miles), almost all the way to the Moon, with a period of 9 days. Spektr-R acted as the space-based leg of an international radio telescope network named "RadioAstron" acting as an interferometer. The long space baseline gave RadioAstron very fine resolution, down to 7 microarcseconds, thousands of times finer than the best resolution of the Hubble Space Telescope. The spacecraft was built by the NPO Lavochkin organization of Russia.
-- 26 JUL 11 / BEIDOU IGSO 4 -- A Long March 3A booster was launched from Xichang to put the "Beidou IGSO 4" navigation satellite into orbit.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* BIRTH PAINS: The end of the Cold War led to a degree of global instability, manifested in one aspect by the emergence of new nations -- the post-Soviet and Yugoslav states, East Timor, and Eritrea for examples. One of the newest is South Sudan, which opted for independence early in 2011. As discussed by an article in THE ECONOMIST ("Trappings Of State", 12 March 2011), the details involved in setting up a new nation can be elaborate.
One of the minor items, of course, is a national anthem, which South Sudan chose through a competitive sing-off between rival choirs. More importantly, South Sudan has to set up a foreign service; about 100 diplomats who had been working under the Sudanese flag came along with independence, but more are needed, with international assistance being provided to help. The diplomats are going to be busy handling all the nuts and bolts of hooking South Sudan into the international order.
The first item on the diplomatic agenda is international recognition. Obtaining recognition from all 190 nations on the globe is time-consuming; Estonia gained independence in 1991, but there are still 20 nations that haven't granted official recognition. However, once a relatively short list of prominent states has granted recognition, a new country can then become a member of the United Nations (UN), being listed in the "Country Names" pamphlet, prepared UN Editorial, Terminology, & Reference Service.
Big deal? Well it is, since it gives the new nation a place in "ISO 3166-1", a directory maintained by the International Standards Organization. The directory provides a three-letter country designation -- Afghanistan is "AFG", Zimbabwe is "ZWE" -- to help sort out mail to the new nation, mark its citizens on immigration databases, and permit trading of that nation's currency on international markets. The ISO also assigns a two-letter code, which among other things is used as the country's internet identifier -- such as ".fr" for France or ".jp" for Japan. South Sudan's identifier is, logically but a little ominously, ".ss".
International telephone codes are assigned by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), a UN agency in Geneva. The ITU will grant South Sudan a dialing code, replacing the "249" used by Sudan. Eritrea, the most recent new state in Africa behind South Sudan, uses "291", so South Sudan may be given "292". The ITU will also assign radio bands for national use, logged in the Master International Frequency Register.
That hardly completes the list. South Sudan's diplomats will have to knock on the doors of the International Civil Aviation Organization, not just to set up air travel but to obtain help in producing machine-readable passports; the Universal Postal Union, so that South Sudan's postage stamps will be accepted by the international mail network; and possibly the International Maritime Organization (IMO), even though South Sudan is a landlocked state -- about half the world's landlocked states are members. Bureaucracy exists for reasons, and like it or not, to make South Sudan a going concern the nation's diplomats have their work cut out for them.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* STAND & DELIVER: There's a well-known story of a bank robber, who when asked why he robbed banks, replied: "Because that's where the money is." As discussed by an article from BUSINESS WEEK ("The New Highway Robbery" by Daniel Grushkin, 30 May 2011), thieves have found an easier and more profitable target: tractor-trailer rigs.
At midnight on 17 June 2009, truck driver Ricky Gene McNew pulled into a truck stop in Denmark, Tennessee, to take a break. He was hauling a $10 million USD load of pharmaceuticals made by the US division of Tokyo-based Astellas Pharma, with his trip starting in Louisville, Kentucky, the destination being a distributor facility in Memphis, Tennessee. McNew took a shower to freshen up and then returned to his truck to continue his journey -- to find his truck wasn't there.
The value of the haul for the thieves was about 100 times greater than that of the average bank robbery, but the lost product wasn't the biggest headache for Astellas. There had been 18 pallets with 21 different products on board the truck; one, named Prograf, was an immunosuppressant, used to keep patients from rejecting transplanted organs. It had to be refrigerated; if allowed to warm up, it would cease to be effective, with possibly fatal results for patients. Astellas had to call back the entire production lot of Prograf just to make sure no bad drugs ended up being used, with the company suffering a total loss of $47 million USD from the heist.
There are about 2 million trucks on America's highways, hauling 63% of all cargo in America. Thieves are now targeting them, focusing on poorly-guarded warehouses and incautious truckers -- according to the rules McNew had been supposed to leave Louisville with a full tank of diesel so he wouldn't need to make a fuel stop that would present a security risk, but he left with a quarter-tank of fuel.
"Cargo theft" -- including heists against warehouses, shipping containers, even cargo planes, but most significantly against trucks -- is big business these days, and it's getting bigger. It can be very profitable, much more so than bank robberies, and the risk is relatively low. When banks are robbed, the FBI is likely to get involved, but for cargo theft investigation generally left up to local authorities, with the exercise greatly complicated by the fact that the cargo stolen was generally just passing through the jurisdiction where it was lost. If caught, the thieves generally get mild sentences. They rarely resort to violence; it isn't necessary.
Cargo theft is primarily conducted by well-organized gangs, with the biggest hotspot of activity being a syndicate running out of south Florida, dominated by Cubans. Pharmaceuticals are the most attractive target because of the value -- it's almost like stealing a load of gold -- and ease of disposal. One heist against an Eli Lilly warehouse in Connecticut yielded $76 million USD of antidepressants such as Prozac and Cymbalta. The thieves were never caught. They will of course steal other attractive cargoes, such as perfumes or tobacco products.
Tactics are straightforward. A typical truck journey is about 800 kilometers (500 miles); when the truck leaves its point of origin, it is shadowed by a team of four in two rental cars -- they're more anonymous than a privately owned or stolen vehicle -- plus a "bobtail", a truck without a trailer. They wait for the truck to stop and the driver to leave the vehicle unattended, then break in and hotwire it in about a minute or two. They drive off with the truck and go down the road for a half hour, to then switch the trailer to their bobtail, paint over identifying marks on the trailer, and disable its GPS tracking systems. If stopped by the law, they've got the appropriate paperwork and the trailer's identifying marks have disappeared. Ultimately the cargo ends up in a distribution network controlled by the thieves and their partners, with the product "laundered" for sale through legitimate channels in the USA, Latin America, or possibly elsewhere.
Police organizations have been building up task forces to deal with cargo theft. It's hard to catch the thieves in the act, but they do have to warehouse the stolen cargoes before disposing of them, and that presents a vulnerability. The authorities are becoming more aware of the threat, but for the present the burden of security is falling on manufacturers and shippers, who are being driven to improve security. Unfortunately, the general expectation is that the problem is going to get worse before it gets better.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* THE RISE OF MULTICORE COMPUTING (2): The challenges posed by multicore processors to software development are not being ignored. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology is working on a project codenamed "Angstrom", funded by the Pentagon, to investigate multicore computing, developing an optimized multicore chip, and in particular devising a new operating system that takes advantage of multicore capabilities.
A computer with hundreds of cores working on a problem is potentially much more powerful than an ordinary computer -- but it has many more opportunities to disastrously trip itself up. According to Anant Agarwal, who leads the Angstrom project, a multicore operating system needs both to be more self-aware -- to have better information about the computer's performance as a whole -- and to have more control of the operations executed by the hardware. The Angstrom project's "Factored Operating System (FOS)" is being designed with these goals in mind.
Increased self-awareness does require some hardware enhancements: for example, each core in the multicore chip being envisioned for use in the Angstrom project will have a thermometer, allowing FOS to determine if a core is overheating and so needs to be offloaded. However, FOS also operates in a top-down fashion, juggling the loads on the cores to ensure that specified performance is met. FOS can even sacrifice numeric accuracy by skipping iterations on calculations, a scheme known as "loop perforation", when performance is the priority. Another option is to give FOS multiple algorithms to perform a particular function, using one optimized for speed when performance is necessary; another optimized for overall efficiency when speed is not required.
One of the obvious and fundamental challenges in the construction of FOS is how to break up a task into multiple subtasks that can be allocated over multiple cores. The Angstrom project goes further than that; for example, a computer core has a processor and a local cache memory system to provide fast access to immediately needed data, without having to access data in much slower main memory. Under Angstrom, cache is seen as a system resource, with the cache of any core on a chip accessible by any other core on the chip -- for example, with cache contents swapped between two cores when necessary, or specific tasks being assigned to cores known to have relevant data sets. Not surprisingly given the military background of the project, security is also an issue, with researchers attempting to distill the number of system routines that require "privileged" or protected access to a minimum -- the idea being that the simpler the system is, the harder it is to find loopholes to penetrate.
Another aspect of the push to develop software for multicore systems is the need to develop programming languages that can take advantage of the parallelism. MIT has developed a straightforward extension of the traditional C programming language, named "Cilk". Cilk is syntactically almost identical to traditional C, but adds three commands: "spawn," "sync," and a variation of the standard command "for."
Suppose a programmer named Alice has identified a section of a program that can be executed in parallel; she can then make it happen by inserting the command "spawn" in front of it. The program will execute on a "smart" runtime system that will allocate the spawned computation to as many cores as are available to handle it. If the results of the spawned computations need to be collected before the program moves on to the next instruction, the programmer simply inserts the command "sync." The program can still be run on a single-core computer; the appropriate runtime system simply timeslices processing, instead of distributing it to different cores. Standards have yet to emerge for parallel-processing languages, however, with no consensus on tools just yet -- it has been said that if two software developers get together, they'll come up with three programming languages.
Some researchers are looking beyond the current multicore paradigm to a future where processors and memory are tightly coupled together. Parsarathy Ranganathan, a researcher at Hewlett-Packard (HP), has envisioned a 3D-structured chip based on HP's "memristor (memory resistor)" technology, in which a terabyte of data is associated with 128 cores. He calls each element of memory and processor on the chip a "nanostore", and points out that eliminating transfers of data to or from external memory cuts power consumption by orders of magnitude. Such a "distributed intelligence" architecture is somewhat more analogous to the human brain than a traditional processor, and has potential applications in artificial intelligence algorithms. But for the time being, just coming to grips with multicore operation seems like challenge enough. [END OF SERIES]PREV | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* THE KILLING OF JFK -- THE BALANCE OF EVIDENCE (27): Before leaving the scene of the TSBD and Dealey Plaza, it's worth noting some of figures from Dealey Plaza who have entered into conspiracy legend: the "Umbrella Man", the "Babuschka Lady", and most significantly the "Three Tramps".
The Umbrella Man showed up originally in the Zapruder movie, sort of. As the presidential limousine emerges from behind the freeway sign, part of a black umbrella is seen sticking out from the near side of the sign. Since it was a clear sunny day but not particularly hot, why would anyone be standing under an open umbrella at that time? Clearly there was some sinister purpose in the action. Some claimed it was a signal to the "assassins" -- why anyone needed the signal, or would use a signal guaranteed to attract the attention of the rest of the crowd are useful questions -- or even that the umbrella was some sort of James Bond-style weapon.
Photos taken from other angles revealed the man holding the umbrella and the HSCA tracked him down, determining that he was Louis Witt, a manager at a Dallas insurance company. Witt told the HSCA that he was an "extremely conservative Republican" who had no use for Kennedy and that he was using the umbrella to "heckle" the president. Witt gave a muddled explanation of what he thought he was doing, linking it as to British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain returning from Munich in 1938 toting an umbrella and JFK's father Joe Kennedy -- ambassador to Britain at the time and sympathetic to Chamberlain's "appeasement" of the Nazis. Witt believed for some reason that the Kennedys were sensitive about umbrellas.
As the motorcade approached, Witt opened the umbrella to then pump it up and down to attract JFK's attention. Since Witt's demonstration was then shockingly upstaged, he folded the umbrella back up and simply sat down on the grass, to be photographed sitting next to a black man. Conspiracy theorists find that sequence of events extremely suspicious, pointing to discrepancies in his testimony, and it is certainly true Witt's explanation is goofy -- but people do silly things on occasion, and more to the point there's no evidence that there was anything more to the matter. Witt acknowledged that what he had been doing was indeed goofy, telling the HSCA: "I think if the Guinness Book of World Records had a category for people who were at the wrong place at the wrong time, doing the wrong thing, I would be number one in that position, without even a close runner-up."
The Babuschka Lady was originally seen in a movie taken by one of the Dealey Plaza witnesses at the time of the "head shot". The movie doesn't show much about JFK, but shows the backside of a woman in a long brown coat and wearing a triangular headscarf -- reminiscent of a stereotypical Russian granny or "babuschka". What seems significant about the Babuschka Lady is that she is holding her hands up to her face, as though she was taking a movie of the motorcade, which given her position would have provided vivid details of the "head shot". Unfortunately, whoever the Babuschka Lady was, she never came forward and her identity was never known.
A woman named Beverly Oliver claimed in 1970 that she was the Babuschka Lady, but there's a long story behind that, discussed later. To make the story short, it's very unlikely that Oliver was the Babuschka Lady, and in fact it's questionable she was even at Dealey Plaza on 22 November 1963. [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* SCIENCE NOTES: Although anti-retroviral (ARV) drugs have proven very effective in extending the lives of AIDS patients, there's been a controversy over the most effective strategy for using such drugs. Should they be taken only when the patient has become obviously ill? Or should they be taken by anyone who is HIV-positive, whether they seem ill or not? On a "better safe than sorry" basis, it might seem best to have all HIV-positive patients take them -- but ARVs are noted for their nasty side effects, and there are worries that their overuse might breed ARV-resistant strains of HIV.
Now a global study by the HIV Prevention Trials Network -- a research group funded by the US National Institutes of Health -- suggests that having all HIV-positive patients take the drugs is the better path. The study, which began in 2005, focused on 1,763 couples, the bulk of them heterosexual, with one partner HIV-positive and the other not. Half of the HIV-positive partners were given ARVs from the outset; the other half weren't given ARVs unless they were clearly ill. In the meantime, all the couples were given counseling on safe sex and treatment for other sexually-transmitted diseases. The result: 28 of the originally uninfected partners became infected, but only one was from the group where the originally infected partner was on ARVs. AIDS has proven a ghastly challenge, but it seems that it can be beaten, if by one difficult little step at a time.
* As reported by the NEW YORK TIMES, when one thinks of birds and Britain, the image is of species familiar to Shakespeare such as larks, nightingales, and starlings. Shakespeare, if he was to visit modern Britain, might well be startled to find that such traditional birds have been joined by parakeets -- growing hordes of them. In 1995, there were an estimated 1,500 rose-ringed parakeets in the UK; a few years ago the number was thought to be about 30,000, and the population's clearly grown since them.
The rose-ringed parakeet is a colorful and noisy bird, native to the Indian subcontinent and sub-Saharan Africa. These birds are hardy enough to survive in the foothills of the Himalayas and don't have much problem with Britain's less-than-tropical climate. Nobody's quite sure how they got to the UK, the common notion being that they sprang from escaped pets. More puzzling is why they are doing so well for themselves; they'd been seen around Britain on occasions for decades, but the population boom is a recent phenomenon. Are they taking advantage of more exotic ornamental plants, or an increase in suburbanites putting out bird feeders? Some think the boom started during a spell of warm years -- but the last two winters, which were harsh, didn't slow down their rate of increase.
Some just suspect their numbers reached a critical mass, where it became increasingly easy for birds to find mates, with the growing numbers making things even easier for the next generation. British ornithologists are performing a census on the birds to obtain some understanding of what is going on. There are concerns that if the population boom continues, the parakeets will become crop pests -- they're a notorious pest in India -- but so far they don't seem to be inclined to stray outside of the cities. Still, the parakeets remain a worry, ironic because few would see such a pretty bird and think it such a nuisance, at least until flocks of hundreds stake themselves out in a yard and make enough racket to wake the dead.
* Under the category of "unusual plant adaptations", the flowering Margravia evenia vine of Cuban rainforests has peculiar leaves next to its flowers that look like little dish antennas. The vine is pollinated by nectar-feeding bats; investigations by researchers show that the dish-shaped leaves are sonar reflectors, allowing the bats to spot the flowers even under total blackout conditions. Since the vine is relatively scarce, the leaves help announce its presence to its pollinators.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* DARPA DOES BATTLEFIELD MEDICINE: As discussed here last year, the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has been working on advanced medical technologies in hopes of providing better care for troops on the front lines. As discussed by THE ECONOMIST, one aspect of the DARPA effort includes research into new techniques to heal broken bones. Soldiers often suffer injuries that result in amputated limbs that could have been saved if the troops had been promptly hospitalized; DARPA wants to give frontline medics the capability to provide immediate treatment that will eliminate the need for amputations and, optimistically, ultimately result in full recovery.
The research program was actually begun in 2008, with DARPA funding work by a team at the University of Texas in Houston, led by Mauro Ferrari and Ennio Tasciotti, now at the Methodist Hospital Research Institute in the same city. In response to a DARPA request, the researchers came up with a material that could be implanted or injected in a patient to fix a bone quickly and lead to full regeneration, without awkward nails and pins that can lead to infections.
The material was devised in consultation with a multidisciplinary group of experts and is based on a material named "polypropylene fumarate". When applied to a fracture, it solidifies and draws the broken bone together, preventing a gap that would prevent the bone from ever healing. The material also includes small spheres of porous silicon, partly as reinforcement for the bone; the researcher envision patients with a broken leg getting back on their feet in a week. The spheres dissolve in time, and while they're doing it they also release cells, proteins, and drugs to accelerate healing.
The cells are "mesenchymal stem cells", which are precursors of "osteoblasts", the cells that make up bone tissue. To make sure that there are enough cells, the silicon spheres include a cocktail of "growth factors" and "cytokines" to encourage the host to help build bone tissue. The spheres also contain antibiotics to reduce the chance of infection, and pain killers. Simulations have been performed to determine the proper size and mix of ingredients in the spheres; the researchers have demonstrated the material on rats to heal broken legs, and are now working on sheep, who are structurally more equivalent to humans. The team has refined their material so that it has a consistency somewhere between honey and toothpaste, allowing it to be injected with an ordinary syringe. If current animal trials are successful, human trials will follow.
Of course, fixing fractures is a lot easier if a medic knows what they look like, but it's hard to tote an X-ray machine around in frontline combat. DARPA's effort has covered that base as well, with Raffaella Righetti of Texas A&M Engineering University developing a portable ultrasound scanner that can give instant 3D images of a bone. Ultrasonics have traditionally not been able to discriminate bone from tissue very well, but Righetti raised the ultrasonic frequencies and developed smarter software to sort out the measurements. The system is not close to being fielded, however.
* ED: WIRED Online had a brief survey of various other DARPA biomedical research efforts -- for example an effort to allow field medics to stop internal bleeding. Normally that demands invasive surgery, but DARPA wants medics to be able to inject clotting agents into affected areas, allowing an injured soldier to be stabilized before medevac'ed to a care center. Of course, the clotting agents could be used to help staunch external wounds as well. Another scheme, known as "Dialysis-Like Therapeutics", envisions a device like a kidney dialysis machine that will filter the blood of soldiers to remove bacteria and toxins. The machine will collect five liters of blood at a time, identify toxic targets, and eliminate them before returning the blood to the "donor".
Yet another DARPA project, the "Battlefield Medical Situational Awareness Goggles", would provide combat medics with a set of "magic googles" to provide an "augmented reality" view of their work. Using a voice-activated system, a medic would be able to call up medical records and reference information to help a patient in trouble. The googles would also document everything the medic did and transfer text, images, and data to other medics and field hospitals for further treatment of the patient.
For some time from World War II, the military was a source of high technology that benefited civilian applications. Since the 1970s or so, however, military technology has generally followed civilian technology instead. DARPA's work on battlefield medicine sounds like it could once again put the military in the lead: for combat organizations, trauma injuries are nothing unexpected and the military has a strong incentive to develop advanced medical technologies to deal with them.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* GLOBAL VACCINE REVOLUTION: Vaccines, for all their critics, are one of the honest miracles of modern medical science, far more responsible for improving life expectancy than any number of sophisticated gadgets. As reported by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("A Shot In The Arm", 18 June 2011), the most prominent advocate for spreading the reach of vaccination is the Global Alliance for Vaccines & Immunization (GAVI), founded with considerable backing from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF). GAVI officials have made it clear that global access to vaccines won't come cheap, giving a pricetag of $3.7 billion USD for planned vaccination programs to 2015 -- targeted mostly against pneumonia and diarrhea, the biggest killers of young children.
In the course of a conference in London this June, GAVI got what was asked for, in the form of $4.3 billion USD in pledges from international donors. Advocates see a vaccine boom in the making, not merely because of new funding but because a range of new and potent vaccines are becoming available -- complemented by new approaches to financing and delivery.
Vaccines are generally produced by commercial firms, which necessarily need to make a profit if they want to stay in business. That traditionally has led to a bias against developing vaccines for poor people since they don't have much money, even though their need for vaccines is much greater -- they're afflicted by diseases rich people haven't even heard of. However, there's still a market there, and as the vaccine business has become more competitive, there's been more effort put into providing vaccines to the poor. The Serum Institute of India, for example, now proudly claims to vaccinate half the world's children. Ambitious producers in other developing countries, for example China, are also jumping into the fray.
However, vaccine manufacturers wouldn't be so interested in the market if they hadn't been encouraged by GAVI and other players in the global vaccination effort who know how to play the capitalist system. While UNICEF traditionally bought vaccines on a short-term basis as needed, GAVI has focused on high volumes and long-term contracts to attract manufacturers while driving down prices. GAVI proved very successful with hepatitis B vaccination with such an approach, helping drive the immunization of 267 million children. Unfortunately, that model hasn't always been successful. It has not done well with the "pentavalent" vaccine, which immunizes against five diseases -- diptheria, tetanus, whooping cough (pertussis), hepatitis B, and Hib (Haemophilus influenzae type b) -- for the simple reason that it's expensive. Says a GAVI official: "You can't rely on competition alone to bring down price."
That means a drive for innovative financial models. The BGMF has used a "push" model, providing funding up-front to vaccine producers to develop a cheap hepatitis A vaccine. Thanks to Gates money and tech from the US Food & Drug Administration, the Serum Institute is now producing the vaccine for 50 cents a dose. GAVI is employing a "pull" model, promising vaccine-makers Pfizer and GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) $3.50 USD a dose for a pneumonia vaccine, with guaranteed purchases of 30 million doses for ten years. However, neither scheme works perfectly: the hepatitis A vaccine is so cheap that other suppliers don't want to make it, while price and purchase guarantees may lead to producer sloth.
There are many ideas for confronting the profitability conundrum, for example encouraging development of vaccines that can be sold at a good markup in rich countries while being pumped out at cost for poor ones. The producers themselves have ideas for what might help them out -- for an example, a GSK official suggests that donors should back a range of basic research efforts in order to reduce the financial burden of coming up with new vaccines. Of course, backing from rich donor governments and far-sighted policies from governments of poor recipient countries remains another important leg in the global vaccine effort. Despite all the challenges, vaccination advocates are optimistic that the current momentum will be maintained.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* THE RISE OF MULTICORE COMPUTING (1): The January 2011 issue of IEEE SPECTRUM ran a survey on the most significant technological innovations of the last decade -- most of which covered familiar ground, such as smartphones, digital cameras, and unmanned aerial vehicles. However, one installment ("Multicore CPUs: Processor Proliferation" by Samuel K. Moore) gave a pocket history of evolution of the multicore processor.
The story begins in 1994. At the time, computing hardware was continuing to advance at a rapid clip, with programmers expecting to have 50% faster CPUs every year -- with software continuing to be written as it generally always had been, executing on a single processor. A newly minted professor of electrical engineering at Stanford University in California named Kunle Olukotun -- born in the UK of a Nigerian family -- was skeptical, believing that the limits were being approached on making processors ever faster and more powerful.
The solution, as Olukotun saw it, was parallel processing using multicore CPUs. To be sure, at the time single-core CPUs were doing some parallel processing, using the "superscalar" architecture. In the superscalar scheme, the CPU contained replicated components such as arithmetic units, with individual instructions be parceled out to the waiting subsystems. Olukotun felt that the superscalar approach was likely to run out of steam quickly, because any attempt to increase the redundancy of components meant a disproportionate increase in the complexity of the digital logic used to interconnect them and keep track of their operation, with the complexity leading to higher execution delays.
Olukotun's alternative was "Hydra", an experimental quad-core CPU, the first ever made. Instead of extensive superscalar features, Hydra featured four relatively simple processors with a limited amount of interconnection that could perform computations independently in parallel. At the time, however, Hydra hardly made big waves; superscalar architecture appeared to have plenty of steam left in it, and Hydra seemed like another silly academic project. It would take several years for chipmakers like Intel, IBM, and Advanced Micro Devices, and IBM decided to go down the multicore road -- and the reason they did so was one that Olukotun hadn't really banked on: power.
It turned out that the increasing density of transistors on a chip intensified the thermal hot spots in CPUs. In presentations in 1999 and later, Intel engineers showed that if trends in microprocessors were to continue, by 2010 they'd burn as hot as the surface of the sun. It made more sense to get performance increases by running multiple CPUs in parallel at relatively modest clock rates than one CPU at high clock rates. The big three vendors all began to move towards multicore architectures:
Olukotun didn't sit on the sidelines and watch the multicore revolution. He set up a startup company named Afara Websystems in 2000 to pursue multicore system design. The company was acquired by Sun Microsystems in 2002, with Sun then releasing a powerful server CPU, the eight-core UltraSparc T1 AKA Niagara in 2005.
After the uncertain start, multicore technology took on a life of its own. As an AMD official put it: "As soon as we got to two cores, it became obvious we needed to start thinking about going to four. And as soon as we got to four, we started thinking about going to six or eight." Even eight cores isn't all that big a deal anymore. In 2008 Anant Agarwal, a professor from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, leveraged off an academic project involving a set of simple cores linked in a mesh into Tilera, a company whose commercial processor has one of the highest core counts of all. Tilera's selling a 64-core product now, the 100-core Tile-Gx starts sample shipments in mid-2011, and the company plans a 200-core product in 2013.
Could we have a thousand cores on a chip? Olukotun jokes: "Cores are the new transistors." The problem is, of course, that each core still draws some power; obviously four cores draw roughly four times as much power as one, and a thousand cores are going to burn a lot of power. An AMD official thinks that the practical limit for mainstream chips is going to be about 16 CPUs. Memory bandwidth between the CPUs is also a limiting factor.
The big idea for the moment is what AMD calls the "accelerated processing unit (APU)", in which a graphics processing unit (GPU) is integrated onto a chip with CPUs. AMD acquired a prominent GPU maker, ATI Technologies, to pursue APU designs. The vision of the future is that multicore systems will incorporate specialized processors -- not just GPUs, but specialized cores dedicated to encryption / decryption or signal processing or whatever.
Olukotun agrees that a mix of cores is the way forward, but it's not going to be easy. One of the prices to pay for multicore architectures is the complications it imposes on software, with the OS assigning different applications or threads of applications to different CPUs. As Olukotun says, a mix of different types of cores is "going to make the programming problem much worse than it is today. Just as things were getting bad for software developers, they have the potential to get worse." [TO BE CONTINUED]NEXT | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* THE KILLING OF JFK -- THE BALANCE OF EVIDENCE (26): Reenactments and simulations have been performed to examine the events in Dealey Plaza on 22 November 1963. At the request of the Warren Commission, on 24 May 1964 the FBI and the Secret Service performed at Dealey Plaza the first major reenactment of the assassination. The presidential limousine was being refurbished at the time and so a Secret Service Cadillac was substituted. FBI agents with the appropriate builds were assigned to "play" JFK and Governor Connally. Oswald's Carcano rifle was "fired" from the "sniper's nest" in the TSBD, but it was mounted on a tripod, with a camera boresighted to it; the location of the entry wounds on JFK and Connally were marked on the backs of the two FBI men playing them to help register the photographs.
The primary purpose of the exercise was to demonstrate if the scenario of three shots fired from the "sniper's nest" -- the first missing, the second going through JFK and Connally, the third hitting JFK in the head -- was consistent with reality. The results showed that it was; conspiracy theorists pointed out that it did not rule out shots from other locations, but it would have been difficult to test for every possibility.
Incidentally, for that reason the HSCA wasn't satisfied with the 1964 exercise, tasking Thomas Canning, an engineer from NASA, to work backwards from the wound and ballistic evidence to show where the shots had come from. Canning's meticulous examination showed they came from a "cone" of possible directions that just happened to center on the corner window on the sixth floor of the TSBD. Canning also told the HSCA: "The [second] bullet would have had to have been substantially deflected by passing through the president in order to miss the governor. It seems almost inevitable that the governor would have been hit with the alignments that we found."
* Of course, in more recent decades computer simulations have become popular, with an assassination researcher named Dale K. Myers constructing a detailed animation of the assassination -- titled SECRETS OF A HOMICIDE -- that was first publicly shown on an ABC TV documentary -- titled THE KENNEDY ASSASSINATION, BEYOND CONSPIRACY -- in 2003 and which won him an Emmy award in 2004. Myers had no formal background in forensics, his background being in journalism and video graphics, but his work was praised by forensic analysts for its meticulous thoroughness.
The animation used a survey map of Dealey Plaza prepared for the HSCA and blueprints of the TSBD to create the landscape, with the presidential limousine reconstructed from manufacturer's documentation. Hundreds of photographs taken on or around 22 November 1963 were used to validate details such as foliage. A sculptor created busts of JFK and Governor Connally, with the busts then digitized to produce computer models. The Zapruder movie was used to register the movement of the presidential motorcade, with the movements extended and validated by still photos and movies made by other onlookers on 22 November 1963. Myers said the animation was consistent with all the evidence he could find, but was careful to add that it represented what "might have happened" on that day; that is, like any computer simulation, it was no more or less valid than the data on which it was based.
Myers concluded from the video that the second shot went through JFK and Connally; that there was no evidence of a shot from the grassy knoll, though he differed from the HSCA conclusions about the third shot; and that the movements of the police motorcycles in the motorcade did not match the scenario put forward by the HSCA for its "acoustic evidence".
The Discovery Channel displayed SECRETS OF A HOMICIDE in a 2005 program titles UNSOLVED HISTORY: JFK -- BEYOND THE MAGIC BULLET and also did a careful reenactment of the shooting using dummies and a Carcano rifle, the major goal being a test of the idea that the second bullet went through both JFK and Connally. The test not only created very similar wounds in the dummies, it also yielded a bullet in similar condition to CE 399. To no surprise, conspiracy theorists have sniped at the conclusions of the Discovery Channel program and even more so at Myers' animation, possibly because its visual impact gives it such great persuasiveness. Myers had no great difficulty answering the criticisms; certainly he hardly needed to point out that no conspiracy theorist has ever done an analysis that remotely approached his in thoroughness, detail, consistency, and clarity. [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* GIMMICKS & GADGETS: The US military has got into wireless computing in a big way. As reported by WIRED Online, the US Army is even working towards introduction of the service's own online apps store for the troops, named "Army Marketplace (AM)". The seed of AM is a handful of apps soldiers created under the "Apps for the Army" effort in 2010, with the apps running the range from workout guides to digitized manuals. AM will also include a forum where the troops can discuss what apps they'd like to see; if other troops can't home-brew a solution, the Army would open a bidding or contracting process from would-be vendors who've expressed interest. AM will include tools to list and rank proposals.
However, civilians won't be able to browse the apps on AM, since it will be hosted on a secure Department of Defense website. In fact, troops with smartphones won't be able to get into it, since commercial smartphones aren't secure enough to be allowed access either. The Pentagon is working with MITRE Corporation, a prominent defense consultant, to develop a secure variant of the Google Android operating system, as a step in the goal to give all the troops smartphones. For the time being, Army Marketplace remains an idea for the future, contingent on development of an adequate delivery platform and, of course, funding.
* As reported by THE ECONOMIST, the epidemiology of asthma can be hard to trace. In 1985 and 1986, the city of Barcelona in Spain was hit by a wave of asthma attacks; it wasn't until public-health workers managed to obtain a pattern of the attacks that a connection was made to the unloading of shipments of soybeans at the city's port. The port's silos were then equipped with filters to capture the dust generated by the soybeans, and the attacks stopped.
David Van Sickle, an epidemiologist who once worked for the US Centers for Disease Control, came up with an idea to make obtaining statistics on asthma attacks much simpler and more precise: an attachment for an inhaler to give it a wireless connection, the "Spiroscout", built by a startup company established by Van Sickle named Asthmapolis, based in Madison, Wisconsin. The Spiroscout sends a wireless message every time the inhaler is used, allowing both individual use to be logged -- helping to reveal if a patient is having an unusual level of difficulty -- and cumulative stats on all users, suitably anonymized for analysis -- helping to reveal patterns pointing to the cause of a wave of asthma attacks. Preliminary trials have gone well and Van Sickle hopes to introduce the Spiroscout commercially before the end of the year.
* A surprising new 3D printing technology has been developed by a group led by the University of Exeter in Britain and funded by the Research Council UK: 3D printing of chocolates. It sounds absurd at first, but why not? Chocolate's a big and basically benign business, and it certainly sounds like there's a market for elaborate or custom chocolates. It's not that easy a material to work with, incidentally, since laying down layers of chocolate with the printing system requires tightly controlled heating and cooling cycles. The group is also working on rendering software to control the printing system. Those working on the technology believe it has major commercial potential.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* SMARTER ROBOTS FOR PLANETARY EXPLORATION: Modern Mars rovers are marvels of 21st-century technology, but despite all the work that's gone into them, they're still not all that bright: they have to be laboriously programmed to carry out their mission plans, and ground controllers always have to worry that the robots will stumble into a trap that they can't be rescued from. The long time delays between Earth and Mars make matters even more difficult. Even without worrying about hazards, it would be nice if a rover could identify items of interest on its own instead of forcing ground controllers to sift through imagery and observations returned by the robot to see if they can spot something worth investigating.
As reported by an article from AAAS SCIENCE ("Making Smarter, Savvier Robots" by Sam Kean, 30 July 2010), researchers have been looking for ways to build robots that are capable of operating much more autonomously, using their own smarts. For the time being, it's a small-scale effort; the most prominent research team in the field, at the US National Aeronautics & Space Administration's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (NASA JPL) in Pasadena, California, has about a dozen people and a budget of $4 million USD, pocket change for a NASA program. However, interest in autonomous systems appears to be picking up. A rover sent to Saturn's moon Titan will absolutely have to negotiate hazards on its own, since the time-lag of communications will be much longer than those hobbling a Mars rover. NASA's new Space Technology Program lists "machine intelligence" as one of its elements.
As a preliminary exercise, this last December and January NASA uploaded four modules of software to the Opportunity Mars rover. The new software allowed researchers to specify general characteristics of targets of interest -- the biggest rock, the darkest rock, and so on -- and let the rover zero in on them by itself. In March, Opportunity autonomously picked out an angular rock, apparently a fragment ejected from an impact crater, in a field of rounded boulders. It's a limited capability, to be sure, and it requires a day's preparation to put the rover into autonomous mode.
NASA is making more use of smarter machines in the "Earth Observing Sensorweb (EOS)", a networking scheme in which a half-dozen Earth remote sensing satellites relay their observations to ground-based computers, which sift through the inputs and direct spacecraft to zoom in on events of interest -- all without human intervention. The technology has obvious applications for planetary exploration, but it remains limited as well: it has to be preprogrammed with a list of events to search for and won't notice anything off the list. The EOS was not capable of autonomously picking up unpredictable events like the Eyjafjallajoekull volcano eruption in Iceland or the BP oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico.
One of the traits of intelligence that researchers would like to add to machines is perceptiveness of the unusual -- for example, to notice a rough area in a smooth landscape, or a smooth area in a rough landscape. Patrick McGuire, a geologist and computer scientist at the University of Chicago in Illinois, has cooked up a demonstration system based on a netbook computer coupled to a camera cellphone. The computer accepts an image of a landscape provided by the camera phone and compares it to a library of images, examining colors, textures, and shapes. The computer then compresses the new image and checks the compression process to those of previous images; if the new image doesn't compress in much the same way, it's set aside as interesting, otherwise it's thrown out. McGuire has tested his system on rock outcroppings in Utah and Spain, used as analogs for planetary landscapes, and it's proven very effective.
Computer scientist Wolfgang Fink of the University of Arizona and the California Institute of Technology believes that such "rule based" systems suffer from the limitation that they can't deal with entirely new situations. Fink thinks that planetary robots will need adaptive "neural network" systems that they can rewire in light of experience, and adopt "evolutionary" algorithms in which rules are combined or simplified and the result evaluated, with worthwhile results saved and worthless results discarded.
Fink envisions a network of "curious" robots, with rovers on the ground; balloons or airships in the atmosphere; and orbiters in space, all collaborating on planetary exploration. An orbiter would identify an area of interest; the air vehicles would give it a detailed examination; and the rovers would then check the area out, figuring out items of interest and giving them a good looking-over. Fink and his team are setting up a prototype test site in Arizona in which robot blimps, rovers, and boats will collaborate on an "exploration" of the area.
Other researchers see machine intelligence as not just good for rovers, but also good for "smart" assistants to human astronauts. A group of researchers at the University of Maryland in College Park under David Akin is testing a three-wheeled rover named "Raven", about the size of a golf cart, to show how a rover might back up an astronaut -- who might simply tell the rover to follow, and the rover would do so with no further instructions. There has long been a tension between advocates of robot spaceflight and of human spaceflight -- but some believe that it may be possible to combine the two and get the best of both worlds in future explorations of the planets.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* SUNKEN TIME BOMBS: The North Atlantic was one of the most savage battlegrounds of World War II, with thousands of vessels going to the bottom and tens of thousands of sailors killed or injured. As discussed by an article from THE BALTIMORE SUN ("WWII Shipwrecks Could Threaten US Coast" by Frank D. Roylance, 17 July 2011), one of the most intensive parts of the battle took place in the first half of 1942, when the Nazi Reich exploited poor US Navy preparedness to conduct a reign of terror off the US East Coast, sinking hundreds of vessels in coastal waters, with ships often blasted out of the water in clear view of bystanders on shore.
An ugly time, but that's all in the past, isn't it? Not entirely. The vessels were carrying bunker fuel for their engines and so each one with intact fuel tanks represents a potential oil spill. The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is taking an inventory of more than 30,000 coastal shipwrecks -- a good number of them from the desperate months of early 1942 -- and identifying those that pose the most significant threat. Says Lysa Symons, damage assessment and resource protection coordinator for NOAA's National Marine Sanctuaries office in Silver Spring, Maryland: "We're starting to see significant corrosion [in] vessels that ... didn't break apart and may have intact fuel tanks."
It's not just the bunker fuel on these wrecks that represents a threat, either. Many sank with holds filled with crude oil, fuel oil, diesel fuel, explosives, possibly pesticides and other toxic materials -- even chemical munitions. According to Symons, leaks of those products "could devastate coastal communities and coastal environments." There are wrecks off the US West Coast as well, ships that were lost not only to enemy action but also to accidents and storms.
Part of NOAA's effort has been to comb through old files of ship manifests, naval records, reports of sinkings, insurance documents and survivors' accounts to figure out which ships burned and which probably went down with their fuel and cargo. The goal is to identify the top threats and those wrecks that appear to be good prospects for salvage operations. The list of worst threats now covers 233 wrecks, with the complete list to be handed over to the US Coast Guard at the end of 2011. Once priorities are determined, efforts to remove the oil from the wrecks could begin, paid through the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund, which is funded by the oil industry.
Some wrecks are already leaking. The most famous example is the battleship USS ARIZONA at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Sunk by the Japanese attack on 7 December, it went down with 1,177 sailors on board, along with 4.2 million liters (1.1 million US gallons) of fuel. About half of that fuel remains on board and continues to leak into the harbor. Studies by the US National Park Service -- which is responsible for the wreck since it's a national war memorial -- show that previously intact fuel compartments are still corroding, rupturing and releasing their contents. The study concluded that while there was no prospect of an immediate problem, there remains a very long term concern, a Park Service official saying: "360 years from now, in the core part of the USS ARIZONA, the oil bunkers here will still have significant structural integrity."
Another example is the SS JACOB LUCKENBACH. A freighter carrying military supplies, it left San Francisco in July 1953, headed for Korea, when it struck another vessel in fog. It sank only 27 kilometers (17 miles) off the coast, settling in 55 meters (180 feet) of water with 1.73 million liters (457,000 US gallons) of bunker fuel on board. In the early 1990s, Californians began to notice mysterious, intermittent oil spills on their beaches. Over the next decade, more than 51,000 shorebirds were covered with oil and died. Oil and tar balls floated onto the beaches. Investigators sampled the goo and tried to match it to fuel in the bunkers of passing ships, but nobody could figure out where it was coming from.
It wasn't until 2002 that the state's "technical dive" community -- recreational divers who use advanced technologies to reach more challenging sites -- came forward and said they knew a shipwreck in the area that had been leaking oil for years, Symons said. It was the LUCKENBACH. Cleanup and wildlife rehabilitation cost $2 million USD, while salvage of 380,000 liters (100,000 US gallons) of the ship's oil eventually cost another $20 million USD. The rest remains on board.
As costly as cleanups can be, they're cheap compared to the potential damage. Symons points to NOAA studies that estimate the costs of dealing with an oil spill from a shipwreck at $1 million USD to $5 million USD for a small spill at a sheltered location, to $20 million to $100 million for a big, complex spill recovery in a difficult or open-water location. Symons says that there is no shortage of such accidents waiting to happen: "We can wait until one of these vessels breaks apart, or we can try to be proactive."COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* ANOTHER MONTH: In the category of "there's a fine line between a hobby and a mental illness", a retired engineer named Jack Clemens made a bit of media splash by constructing a 6 meter (20 foot) long flying radio-controlled model of the US Navy rigid airship MACON, lost off the California coast in 1935. The model took almost three years and about $6,000 USD to build. Clemens obtained plans for the MACON from the Smithsonian, building the skeleton for the airship from balsa wood and covering it with an envelope of mylar. The model is powered by eight electrically-driven props, with a lithium battery pack in the nose also providing ballast to ensure trim. He flies it with a standard RC model aircraft controller.
Clemens couldn't make the model any smaller because then it wouldn't have enough buoyancy to lift off the ground, but he couldn't make it any bigger because then it wouldn't fit inside his garage. His wife is not happy about it taking up space there, but it won't remain there forever. When he was still working, Clemens often commuted past Moffett Field in the San Francisco Bay Area, noted for its very noticeable huge blimp shed; he intends to give the model to a museum on the site.
* In a lesser exercise in hobbyism, a Lego builder named Tim Goddard has constructed a surprisingly accurate Lego model of NASA's Curiosity Mars rover, now being prepared for launch. Goddard said he found the wheel arrangement very difficult to implement. Lego enthusiasts gave him a particular nod for the artistic Lego "Mars landscape" on which the rover was posed; he could have just made the rover and been done with it, but he felt the need to go the extra Martian mile.
* A few months back, I commented about localities in the US making more use of "graywater" from baths and the like for watering lawns. Recently I've been doing the same -- if by a manual process, using a kitchen bucket to scoop up bathwater to soak my lawn.
We were on voluntary water rationing through July even though reservoir levels are high here, due to the big snowpack in the Rockies from the winter -- there were fears of floods from a rapid melt in the spring, but no problems in Colorado, though up in the Dakotas and elsewhere there was serious trouble with high water. Anyway, while there's plenty of water, the Loveland distribution system gets strained in July, and so the city asked politely to only water every other day. On the basis that it's good sense to comply when the government asks nicely because they might not be so nice if things get worse, I went along with the request.
However, it was definitely hard on my lawn, with some spots dying out. Recycling my bathwater to water the entire lawn would have been nonsensical, but I would have had to selectively water the dry spots in any case, and it turns out watering with the bucket works surprisingly well and isn't all that inconvenient. Some of the dead spots were too far gone to recover; I'll just have to reseed them come spring and do a little selective spot watering to make sure they grow back.
I don't sleep well in July due to the warmth and short nights. As mentioned here in the past, I've never felt I could justify installing air conditioning, and though evaporative coolers work very well in dry northeast Colorado, I've never had one that wasn't junk. I get by with fans and a spray bottle of water. I scavenged a very handy spray bottle, the only problem with it being that it was for a bottle of body musk -- the smell is very persistent and I got entirely sick of it, but every time I refill the bottle it gets fainter.COMMENT ON ARTICLE