sep 2011 / last mod may 2016 / greg goebel

* Entries include: JFK assassination (series), food production for 9 billion (series), bioluminescence (series), genetic analysis for tracking fisheries, CIA as combat force, Microsoft Computational Science Lab, new Boeing 737 MAX jetliners,, electric vehicles for delivery fleets, induction motors for electric vehicles, reusing old drugs for new applications, tablet computer wars in transition, and ESA Vega light booster.

banner of the month

[MON 05 SEP 11] MAKE IT GLOW (3)


* NEWS COMMENTARY FOR SEPTEMBER 2011: As reported by WIRED Online, the US military has "officially" washed its hands of Iraq, with the final troop pullout in December. That hardly means the US has forgotten the place -- and in fact the Iraqi government, with a vicious security problem, still wants American help, mostly for training. However, Iraqi politicians, who don't want to face a backlash from citizens weary of eight years of American occupation, don't dare ask the US to stay. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki announced on TV: "The agreement on the withdrawal of American forces will be implemented on schedule by the end of the year, and there will not be any bases for US forces here."

A forthright statement, but even before that announcement the prime minister's aides had told the Reuters news agency that the Iraqi government wanted a corps of up to 3,000 trainers -- "contractors with military or security backgrounds" -- to staff seven "training centers", do not read as "bases", around Iraq.

It is not unusual for the US to "sheep dip" military personnel, turning them into "civilians" for low-profile duty in foreign lands; it was done in 1941 with the famous "Flying Tigers" fighter squadron sent to China. It is more unusual for the US to be doing it at the foreign country's instigation. What makes it particularly ironic is the bad reputation foreign private security firms obtained in Iraq, most prominently the Blackwater firm after their personnel killed 17 Iraqi civilians at Baghdad's Nisour Square in 2007. Nouri al-Maliki denounced Blackwater at the time and kicked the company out of Iraq -- but in practice Iraq didn't evict the company's personnel, many of them then finding jobs with other security firms in the country.

The mercenaries in the coming order will not be out on patrol, instead training Iraqi pilots, soldiers, and police in advanced miltech and operational procedures. Many trainers are needed and so Iraq will be a profitable client for security contractors, all the more so because the US State Department will also have a force of about 5,500 guards to protect its diplomats. Welcome to the world of military outsourcing.

* Israel and Turkey, after years of growing closer, are now at each others' throats. On 31 May 2010, the six vessels of the "Gaza Freedom Flotilla", partly backed by Turkish humanitarian organizations, attempted to break the Israeli-Egyptian blockade of the Gaza Strip to deliver humanitarian aid and construction materials. The vessels were boarded in international waters by Israeli naval commandos arriving in speedboats and helicopters; on board one of the ships, the ferry MV MAVI MARMARA, there was a violent clash that left nine Turks dead. Israel has refused to apologize for the incident; the Turkish government has recently kicked out the Israeli ambassador and is making noises about Turkish warships challenging Israeli gunboats.

talk like enemies, act like friends

As reported by TIME, there's a widespread perception the spat between the two nations is much more smoke than fire. Israeli diplomats remain in Turkey; they're keeping a low profile, but report their contacts with Turks remain amicable. They should be, since the two countries are expected to run up $4 billion USD in trade with each other this year. That's up from about $700 million USD in 2000. Turkey has a strong manufacturing base, Israel has leading-edge technology companies, and the two countries complement each other very well.

Israelis do have misgivings about the public embrace of Islam by the government of Turkish Prime Minister Recip Tayyip Erdogan of the Justice & Development Party, the current government being a step in a different direction from the traditional insistent secularism of the Turkish state that Ataturk founded. However, Turkey is by no means much like Iran's Islamic Republic, and in fact it shares with Israel the distinction of being a functioning democracy in the region -- in contrast to their authoritarian neighbors -- which gives the two states further common ground. To be sure, there's no reason the falling-out between Israel and Turkey can't get worse, but the odds suggest that as tempers cool off, they have all the incentives to make things better.

* THE ECONOMIST reports that, after decades of fussing, on 6 September India and Bangladesh signed an agreement to resolve their mutual border, eliminating a total of 201 "enclaves" -- bits of Indian territory enclosed in Bangladesh and the reverse. One Bangladeshi enclave was actually nested inside an Indian enclave that was itself inside Bangladesh.

The enclaves had been a nuisance all along, particularly for the people who lived in them since they were effectively orphaned by their nominal parent nations, unable to obtain any useful services. India lost about 80 square kilometers of land and got back 28 square kilometers, which might seem a small price to pay -- but Indian nationalists have made an issue of the "weakness" of the government, claiming that the ruling Indian Congress Party was kowtowing to Muslim Bangladesh.

* TIME reports that the authorities in Tehran have taken action against acts of antigovernment unrest, involving youngsters engaged in shoot-outs with squirt guns and super soakers. While some might think such activities a response to warm Iranian summers, the authorities found the matter much more sinister, believing the water fights were being instigated by foreign subversives -- such as, as was said in another context:


... hooligans, anarchists, roving gangs of kulaks, bands of counter-revolutionaries, mensheviks, capitalist running dogs, imperialist paper tigers, tribalist anti-revolutionary democracy forces, Trotskyites, "those pesky kids" from SCOOBY DOO, El Nino, and Lord Voldemort from the Harry Potter books.


Soreheads here in the USA on both the Right and Left often like to warn against the authoritarianism of our own government. There's some perfectly legitimate cause for that, but they get silly in comparing the USGOV with sincerely authoritarian governments: in such places nobody needs to be told how bad things are, because it's painfully obvious to everyone but the leadership.

* I was inclined to run a "Ten Years After" series from this month to revisit the 911 attacks, but on inspecting the articles that came out in the press for the occasion, few had much of anything new to say about the matter, and I couldn't think of anything useful to add myself.

Of course, the 911 Truther conspiracy theories are continuing without letup. I was tempted to write a series on the Truther conspiracies, but on consideration I couldn't see a good reason to: the 911 conspiracy theories have never really had much to them, and the skeptics have been very energetic in dousing Truther stories with cold water. The Truthers can't release a book or video documentary without a website performing a detailed deconstruction of it. Since the Truthers keep recycling the same debunked claims, it's not that hard to do.


To a degree the debunkery is futile, since the Truthers simply shrug it all off as "disinformation / coverup", and attempts at discussion immediately fall into exchanges of insults. The 911 conspiracy theories will go away only when 911 no longer exists in anyone's living memory. However, it still seems useful to make sure that honest folk confused by Truthers can quickly google the facts, there being no point in letting nonsense run unchallenged. And once 911 does fade from living memory, it will be all for the good that historians of the future will still be able to find the trail.

Alas, for the time being we have to put with the noise. Along with Truthers, I've known about the Birthers -- discussed here this last spring -- -- but I was recently surprised to hear of "Deathers". Wot? Oh dear, it's the theory that we didn't really kill Osama bin Laden ... or we did kill him but it was years ago ... or he died of other causes and we're just pretending we did it ... or, possibly, Osama never really existed. Actually, I made that last item up, but knowing conspiracy theorists I have little doubt there are people who believe it.



* GIMMICKS & GADGETS: BUSINESS WEEK ran a note on "haptics", the technology of providing tactile feedback to input technologies -- generally to give the effect of pushing a button on a flat surface when there's really no button there. Firms working on haptics include:

None of these technologies are quite ready for market yet. Flat-panel keyboards have been around for a long time but they're not useful for much except control inputs on microwave ovens and the like, being worthless for touch typing. Anyone who can come up with a scheme that makes a flat-panel keyboard feel like it has real buttons is likely to clean up, but we shall see.

Logitech K750 solar wireless keyboard

* In the category of "might sound silly but isn't", computer input device giant Logitech has now introduced the K750 solar wireless keyboard, with variants for both the PC and the Mac. It makes perfect sense: scavenging power off of ambient light sources means no need to replace batteries. Think of it as a solar-powered calculator writ large. Fully charged, the keyboard can run for three months. It's a lightweight keyboard with a height of only about a centimeter. It's only about sixty bucks; I'm tempted to buy one on a lark, though I don't have any particular need for a wireless keyboard myself.

* A note in BUSINESS WEEK discussed waterless car washes, in which a small amount of a special solution floats off the grime without needing to wash down the car with volumes of water. A typical car wash uses about 190 liters (50 US gallons) of water to clean one car, and in places where water is scarce that's too much water to waste. The idea is not new, but up to now wash fluid formulations have been expensive and not all that effective. New wash fluids are becoming available, and are finding widespread use in the Middle East.

* The idea of "rooftop farms" has been discussed here in the past, last in 2010. Now a Montreal firm named "Fermes Lufa" or "Lufa Farms", the brainchild of one Mohamed Hage and Kurt Lynn, is working to make the idea a reality. The first Fermes Lufa installation has been built on top of an office building in Montreal, with the greenhouse covering 3,000 square meters (32,000 square feet) and currently producing herbs, cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, lettuce, and other produce.

The greenhouse is climate controlled, with a computer system maintaining the proper environment for each crop. The greenhouse features a rainwater collection system to help irrigate the plants. At present, although local production saves on transport costs, the produce is more expensive than typical supermarket fare -- but it is also fresher, and there has been considerable consumer interest. Hage says that Fermes Lufa won't survive with just a single greenhouse; a new greenhouse five times bigger than the first on the way, and the firm looking for more sites. Hage estimates that about 10% of commercial rooftops could support a greenhouse.



* CSI FOR FISHERIES: DNA analysis has revolutionized criminal forensics, but the technology has a far wider range of applicability than just hunting down thieves and murderers. As reported by an article from AAAS SCIENCE ("To Fight Illegal Fishing, Forensic DNA Gets Local" by Erik Stokstad, 10 December 2010), it's also proving useful for catching violations of fishing regulations.

In 2008, Danish fisheries inspectors contacted Einar Nielsen, a geneticist at the Technical University of Denmark, with a problem. The inspectors believed that a fishing vessel had exceeded its legal take of cod from the North Sea, but the skipper of the vessel replied that he had legally taken the cod from the Baltic. The codfish from each region looked exactly the same -- but Nielsen had been investigating the genetics of the Atlantic cod, and he was able to use genetic markers known as "microsatellites", short repeating sequences of genetic code, to show that the fish in question were from the North Sea. A judge accepted the evidence, fining the captain the equivalent of $8,800 USD and confiscating the $44,000 USD catch.

So far, due to technical obstacles microsatellite analysis for fisheries investigations hasn't really caught on. However, now a 3.9 million Euro European project named "FishPopTrace" is laying the groundwork for a different kind of test that could be useful not only for nabbing fisheries violators, but also catching fraudulent labeling of fish in supermarkets.

The FishPopTrace group, which was set up in 2008, is considering a range of possible approaches, such as protein patterns in fish tissue or the composition and shape of fish ear bones. However, the favored approach is the use "single-nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs)", an SNP being a change in a single "base pair" between two otherwise identical genetic coding sequences. The SNP may not even change the coding of a gene it occurs it, but it still remains distinctive; SNP tests are seen as much more convenient than those based on microsatellites. The expectation is that SNP analysis will be able to quickly, cheaply, and reliably identify the origins of fish down to local populations.

* Although it's obviously hard to get reliable information on illegal fisheries, the business is estimated to amount to $23 billion USD a year. Sometimes violations consist of taking more catch than permitted; in other cases, fishermen take catch from areas that have been set off-limits to allow fish stocks to rebuild. There's also a problem of mislabeling fish, trying to pawn off low-value fish as high-value fish, or claim that fish caught in a low-value region were actually caught in a high-value region -- for example, fish from the Baltic are seen as inferior to those from the North Sea, partly due to higher levels of contamination in the Baltic.

Regulatory agencies use a range of techniques to fight illegal fishing. Some place observers on big fishing vessels to keep an eye on their activities, and the European Union requires that large fishing vessels have GPS units to prevent them from fishing in off-limits waters. However, it's not practical to staff observers on smaller fishing boats, and GPS units can be tricked. That leaves forensic genetics as the backup tool, and it has been used to monitor fisheries for 20 years.

The difficulty is that, as they've stood, DNA tests can only really verify fish species; they can't nail them down to local populations. The microsatellite scheme used by Nielsen can track fish down to local populations, but it's cumbersome, not always practical, and fisheries regulatory agencies don't see it as particularly attractive. In late 2006, the European Commission issued a request for proposals to seek better tools for characterizing fish populations and improve their traceability. FishPopTrace, under the direction of Gary Carvalho of Bangor University in the UK, won the competition.

FishPopTrace is focusing mainly on SNPs, which are specific nucleotides in DNA sequences that can vary, and so can tell apart individuals and species. SNPs are much more common in the genome than are microsatellites, making it much easier to find "fingerprints" of specific populations. SNPs have already been used to distinguish among Pacific salmon, whose populations spawn in specific streams and rivers, and so tend to be more genetically distinct than fish that spend their whole lives in the ocean.

To see whether SNPs could be used to characterize purely oceanic fish, the FishPopTrace team picked four important commercial fish as test cases: Atlantic cod, European hake, common sole, and Atlantic herring. These fish have distinct life habits and geographic ranges, and they are all overfished. The group obtained about 50 fish from each of 20 populations around European waters, with team members at Aarhus University in Denmark then sequencing their DNA to find potentially useful SNPs.

By the summer of 2009, they had developed a DNA chip, or more specifically an "SNP chip", for each of three species: sole, hake, and herring -- Canadian researchers had already cooked up an SNP chip for cod as part of work on aquaculture. The DNA-coated SNP chips could test for the presence of 1,536 possible SNPs. For each sampled population, the FishPopTrace researchers tallied SNP statistics in hopes of generating a fingerprint unique to each. However, there were concerns that the SNP chips couldn't reliably distinguish fish population, an issue that dovetailed with the need to reduce the number of SNPs required for testing to a minimum in order to reduce the expense of testing. The concerns turned out to be baseless:

FishPopTrace is also investigating the rate at which local fish populations evolve, which determines how long specific SNP tests remain useful. Researchers are using computer modeling and archived tissue samples to see how stable the genetics of fish populations really are.

Rob Ogden of TRACE Wildlife Forensics Network, a nonprofit in Edinburgh, is validating FishPopTrace tech, confirming that it works reliably under ordinary operational conditions and setting up procedures for its use. How well accepted the SNP-based forensic tests will be depends on their accuracy, cost, and convenience. Ogden believes that the tests will be effective, and they will do a great deal to cut down on illegal fishing -- just by the fact that fishermen will know they can't get away with cheating and so will have an incentive to comply. That deterrent effect will also greatly reduce expensive and troublesome court cases. Nielsen agrees: "They know we can test, so they are probably less likely to put themselves in situations where testing could reveal fraud."



* THE CIA KILLING MACHINE: As reported by an article from THE NEW YORK POST ("CIA Shifts Focus To Killing Targets", 1 September 2011), the war against Islamic militancy has transformed the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) as one of the deadliest operations in the conflict. The CIA has always had and has used a combat force capability, but not to the same extent as in recent years.

The story goes back to 2004, when CIA Director George Tenet came before the 9/11 Commission, hat in hand, to explain the agency's failings before the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks on the USA. After enduring the grilling, Tenet was then asked by the commission: how long would it take Tenet to get the CIA in a position to hit back against al-Qaeda? Tenet replied: "It's going to take another five years to build the clandestine service the way the human intelligence capability of this country needs to be run." The commission didn't like that answer.

Seven years later, after President George W. Bush eliminated restrictions on CIA activities, the CIA is fearsome. On 911, the CIA had 300 personnel assigned to counterterrorism; now it has over 2,000. The drone strikes it conducts are the most important counterterrorism tool in the Obama Administration arsenal, pounding a small section of Pakistan so intensely that in 2010 they struck an average of once every three days. Osama bin Laden is dead as the result of a military operation under CIA direction, highlighting the unprecedented coordination between CIA and the US Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC). In the words of the head of CIA's Counterterrorism Center, its hub for counterterrorism: "We are killing these sons of bitches faster than they can grow them now." A CIA veteran calls the agency "one hell of a killing machine" -- a remark he quickly amended to "one hell of an operational tool."

The CIA fleet of 30 Predator and more capable Reaper drones get the most attention. The Predator is hardly more than a powered robot sailplane; it was never designed to carry weapons, being intended for surveillance, but it was hastily adapted to haul two Hellfire anti-tank missiles. The Reaper, in contrast, was designed to haul a hefty warload, up to 1,360 kilograms (3,000 pounds), with the Predators acting as "hunters" while the Reapers act as "killers" -- though the Reapers can hunt on their own as well. The Reaper has allowed the CIA to turn up the volume on firepower. New very small smart weapons now coming out of the pipeline will make the Reaper even more lethal. A Hellfire was designed to take out heavy armor, it's overkill for typical strikes on terrorist; the small smart weapons can do the job just as well much more cheaply, and a drone can carry many more of them. If heftier ordnance is required for a job, the Reaper can carry 225-kilogram or even 450- kilogram (500-pound or 1,000-pound) guided bombs, far beyond the capability of the Predator.

However, the drones are only the tip of the spear. Every CIA operation is the result of the agency's cultivation of a network of spies it didn't have back during Tenet's testimony. Drone strikes need spotters; the CIA has them in a group of Pashtun informants who cross the Afghanistan-Pakistan border with news of militant activity.

MQ-9 Reaper armed for war

The CIA says little about the agent network. It clearly took time to build it up. The strikes only killed a total of 100 from 2004 through 2007, but they inflicted almost a thousand kills in 2010, with roughly as many as expected in 2011. This resembles traditional counterterrorism less than it does all-out war. Waziristan tribesmen get payoffs to plant tiny homing beacons for drones in the houses of targeted militants; al-Qaeda and Pakistani Taliban have become paranoid, with very good reason, about infrared devices powered by 9-volt batteries and tattletale chips planted in cellphone SIM cards. Each informant is assigned his or her own special code. The CIA is replicating the scheme in Somalia and Yemen.

Complementing the drone spotters is the agency's close relationship with JSOC. "Omega" or "cross matrix" teams made up of CIA and JSOC personnel travel Afghanistan and Iraq in civilian clothes and cars, usually meeting with their local collaborators, but sometimes sneaking into Pakistan to perform raids on their own. The agency has also backed and worked with elite Afghan commando teams, of which also little has been said.

What is apparent is that CIA teams don't take prisoners much any more. Rendition of prisoners having become troublesome, President Obama shut down most of the "black sites" in 2009 -- with the ugly but obvious consequence of providing an incentive to simply take out the enemy for good and be done with them, inevitably enhancing discomfort with the CIA "killing machine". Certainly, it's a simple statement of fact that war means fighting and fighting means killing; it is also true that the war on terrorism can't be fought in a tidy fashion and necessarily involves secrecy. However, that same secrecy means the CIA is accountable only to itself and the White House -- and the White House only knows what the CIA feels like saying. Nobody has to be Noam Chomsky to be uncomfortable with such an arrangement.

The drone strikes haven't been, cannot be, entirely sanitary, with innocent bystanders killed on occasion. The CIA obviously doesn't want to do that, not just because it's unconscionable, it also leads to troublesome complications. Unfortunately, it's inevitable: throw firepower around and innocents get caught in the crossfire. There are also concerns that the CIA's local collaborators have been using more indiscriminate weapons, such as mines, to strike at terrorist networks.

Some critics have suggested that the military, being relatively more transparent and accountable, needs to get more involved in the program: US Air Force pilots already fly the drones for the agency, and it would not be difficult for the Air Force to take full control of them. Still, in the aftermath of 911, there was a sense that that CIA needed to be a deadlier organization -- and now, for better and for worse, that's exactly what we've got. New CIA Director David Petraeus, who made his mark as a US Army general and theater commander in Iraq, now has the task of balancing the need to keep the agency operationally effective, against the need for accountability that prevents it from dangerously losing its way in dark waters.



* FEEDING THE NINE BILLION (3): The brute-force solution to increasing the food supply is simply to apply more of what we're doing now: more land, more water, more fertilizer. That turns out to be problematic.

The difficulty with putting more land under the plow is finding the land. In many countries, there isn't any land left to convert to agriculture, and in places where there is land, there are environmental concerns over converting it to crop production. There is some spare land available; indeed, as discussed here earlier this year, Brazil has established massive agricultural gains by converting the nation's cerrado grasslands to food production, using huge quantities of lime to reduce the acidity of the soil that had prevented exploitation before. Other regions where land is available include Argentina and the "Guinea Belt", stretching from west Africa to Mozambique. There are eleven countries where only about half the arable land is under cultivation.

The World Bank recently produced a study concluding that there is about a half billion hectares of land with low population density that could be conceivably farmed, on top of the 1.5 billion hectares of land already being cultivated. However, nobody thinks that all that half billion hectares of land could actually be put to use. Much of the soil in Africa is depleted, for example, and there's considerable unease over the destruction of wildlands. Pessimists estimate that only a tenth of the available land can actually be cultivated; optimists put it at over a third.

There is some expansion of farmland in progress, mostly under the "land grabs" performed by some wealthy countries in poor countries, in which land is bought up to produce food for the buyer nations -- as discussed here a few years ago. According to the World Bank, in the three years in which the land grabs have been going on, they have brought a remarkable 65 million hectares of land under cultivation. However, the general belief is that future food production will have to rely on land already under cultivation, but with increases in yields it should be able to do the job.

* There is a nastier chokepoint, however: water. According to one estimate, about 4,200 cubic kilometers of fresh water are available for consumption every year -- but consumption is running at about 4,500 cubic kilometers, with agriculture taking up 70% of that total. That means water tables are falling fast; some rivers snaking through agricultural regions, like the Colorado and the Indus, no longer reach the sea.

farming needs water

By 2030, under current usage patterns, farmers will need 45% more water. They're not going to get it. World population is accumulating in cities, and they have more political clout than farmlands. Not long ago, agriculture was getting 90% of the water, so the ratio's already fallen considerably, and it stands to get worse. Aggravating the problem is the shift towards meat: it takes about 2,000 liters of water to produce a kilogram of wheat, versus about 16,000 for a kilogram of beef.

Technology can help. The Israelis, always strapped for water, developed "micro-sprinklers" and "drip-feed irrigation", the last being a scheme in which a network of tubing distributes water precisely to plants. The Israelis only waste about a tenth of their water, and if the rest of the world was that efficient, the water problem would be much less pressing. Incidentally, drip irrigation also discourages weeds, since the crop plants get water but the weeds don't. However, setting up drip irrigation is capital intensive, with the FAO saying that to 2050 irrigation systems will demand an investment of a trillion dollars.

Another technological advance that can help with the water problem is "no-till farming", in which the land isn't plowed up every year, with the residue of the previous crop left intact. No-till farming helps keep the soil cool, reduces losses by evaporation considerably, and reduces water, soil, and chemical run-off. As a bonus, the residual crop sequesters a considerable amount of carbon, and it also reduces labor. So why isn't it universal? Because plowing traditionally was done to get rid of weeds, and without plowing the weeds tend to accumulate. Genetically modified (GM) plants engineered to resist weedkillers are a big help, but in some places, Europe in particular, there's a lot of distrust of GM. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* THE KILLING OF JFK -- THE BALANCE OF EVIDENCE (33): Was it really Oswald who shot Officer Tippit? With at least half a dozen witnesses, who would doubt it? To no surprise, there have been plenty of doubters.

Conspiracy theorists have made much of the fact that only one witness, Howard Brennan, claimed to have seen Oswald firing on JFK, though at least three -- Brennan, Euins, and Worrell -- saw someone firing from the upper floors of the TSBD, not to mention the three men on the fifth floor who heard the shooting directly above them. As Vincent Bugliosi pointed out, however, had multiple witnesses said they had seen the shooter, conspiracy theorists would not have been any more impressed. Multiple witnesses claimed they saw Oswald kill Tippet, or saw him immediately after the shooting with a pistol in his hand and didn't see anyone else at the scene -- but the conspiracy theorists say that all these witnesses were unreliable.

Helen Markham had the "ringside seat" to the shooting, and so has been most bitterly attacked. Conspiracy theorists persistently claim she described the shooter as "short, heavy, and with bushy hair." This item actually goes back to the energetic Mark Lane, who told the Warren Commission: "I spoke with the ... eyewitness, Helen Louise Markham, and Mrs. Markham ... gave me a more detailed description of the man who she said shot Officer Tippit. She said he was short, a little on the heavy side, and his hair was somewhat bushy. I think it is fair to state that an accurate description of Oswald would be average height, quite slender, with thin and receding hair."

Lane was by all appearances an intelligent sort, and surprisingly it appears that he was caught flat-footed when the commission asked him to back up his claims about Markham's statements. He was very reluctant to do so, but after some persuasion he finally provided a tape he had made of a telephone conversation between him and Markham. She said in her testimony that the caller claimed to be from the police department; that wasn't on the tape, but the rest of it was certainly interesting:


MARK LANE: ... could you just give me one moment and tell me -- I read that you told some of the reporters that he was short, stocky, and had bushy hair.

HELEN MARKHAM: No, no. I did not say this.

ML: You did not say that?

HM: No, sir.

ML: Well, would you say that he was stocky?

HM: Uh, he was short.

ML: He was short.

HM: Yes.

ML: And was he a little bit on the heavy side?

HM: Uh, not too heavy.

ML: Not too heavy, but slightly heavy?

HM: Oh, well, he was, no he wasn't, didn't look too heavy, uh-uh.

ML: He wasn't too heavy, and would you say that he had rather bushy hair, kind of hair?

HM: Yeah, just a little bit bushy, uh huh.

ML: It was a little bit bushy.

HM: Yes.

[Lane then queried Markham about the police lineup in which she had identified Oswald, asking her if the police had told her Oswald's name:]

HM: They didn't tell me one thing.

[Lane went back to the Tippit shooting:]

ML: Did you say that he was short and a little bit on the heavy side and had slightly bushy hair?

HM: Uh, no, I did not. They didn't ask me that.


ML: And when you were there, did they ever ask you anything else about Oswald? About whether he was tall or short?

HM: Uh, yes, sir. They asked me that.

ML: And you said he was short, eh?

HM: Yes, sir, he is short. He was short.

ML: He was short. And they asked if he was thin or heavy, and you said he was a little on the heavy side?

HM: And he was, uh, uh, well not too heavy. Uh, say around 160, maybe 150.

ML: Well, did you say he wasn't too heavy, but he was a little heavy?

HM: Uh-huh.

ML: You did say that?

HM: I did identify him in the lineup.

ML: Yes, and did you say that the man who shot, did you tell the officers that the man who shot Tippit had bushy hair?

HM: Uh, no, I did not.

ML: But, but he did have bushy hair you said, just a little bushy?

HM: Well, you wouldn't say it hadn't been combed you know or anything.

ML: Yes.

HM: Of course, he probably had been through a lot, and was kind of tore up a little.


ML: Have you told any reporters about anything?

HM: Well, one. They worried me to death.

ML: I'm sure they are after you because you're a very important witness.

HM: Uh-huh.

ML: Did any of the reporters, did you tell any reporter that the person that shot Oswald, shot Tippit was short, stocky, and had bushy hair?

HM: I did not.

ML: You don't remember telling it because one of the reporters reported that in the newspaper.

HM: Yes, I read that.


ML: Yes, and they had you quoted as saying that he was short, stocky, and had bushy hair.

HM: Well, they are just not right.

ML: But that's what they said, though.

HM: I know it -- they can put anything in papers.


Markham was actually consistent in her story. She wasn't highly educated, some calling her a "plain Texas country girl", and some describing her unkindly as "not too bright", but as far as the tape went she seemed sensible, standing up well enough to Lane's hoax. When the tape was played back to her during her testimony to the Warren Commission, it clearly disoriented her a bit, but after some confused exchanges with the counsel, finally she unambiguously said that she had never told anyone the "short, stocky, and bushy hair" story.

Despite that, not only do conspiracy theorists continue to insist she did, but some actually cite parts of her taped conversation with Lane to support it. They do not, however, cite Markham concluding firmly: "Well, they are just not right." Vincent Bugliosi debated Lane a number of times and sometimes recited the transcription of Lane's conversation with Markham to the audience; in one session, Lane threatened to sue him for defamation if he did so. Bugliosi wondered how Lane thought citing his own words could be grounds for a defamation suit, but Lane was so enraged that Bugliosi decided not to recite the transcription. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* As for space launches in August, although the month started off well enough, by the time it was over the space industry discovered they might want to forget about it:

-- 05 AUG 11 / JUNO -- An Atlas 5 booster was launched from Cape Canaveral to send the "Juno" Jupiter orbiter into space. Juno, discussed here a few months ago, was a solar-powered probe, intended to be put into a polar orbit around Jupiter to make close-up observations of the planet, and was built by Lockheed Martin. The Atlas 5 was in the "551" configuration, with a 5 meter (16.4 foot) payload fairing, five solid rocket boosters, and a single Centaur engine in the upper stage.

Juno Jupiter orbiter

-- 06 AUG 11 / ASTRA 1N, BSAT 3C -- An Ariane 5 ECA booster was launched from Kourou in French Guiana to put the SES ASTRA "ASTRA 1N" and Sky Perfect JSAT / BSAT of Japan "BSAT 3C" geostationary comsats into orbit. ASTRA 1N was built by EADS Astrium and was based on the Eurostar 3000 comsat bus; it had a launch mass of 5,330 kilograms (11,750 pounds), a payload of 52 Ku-band transponders, and a design life of 15 years. It was originally placed in the geostationary slot at 28.2 degrees East longitude to provide communications services to the UK and Ireland, but was then relocated to its permanent location at 19.2 degrees East longitude to provide direct-to-home services for Germany, France, and Spain.

BSAT 3C was built by Lockheed Martin and was based on the A2011A comsat platform; it had a launch mass of 2,910 kilograms (6,415 pounds), a payload of 24 Ku-band transponders split evenly between its two operators, and a design lifetime of 15 years. It was placed in the geostationary slot at 110 degrees East longitude to provide communications services to Japan.

-- 11 AUG 11 / PAKSAT 1R -- A Chinese Long March 3B booster was launched from Xichang to put the Pakistani "PakSat 1R" geostationary comsat into orbit. It was built by the China Academy of Space Technology and was based on the DFH-4 comsat bus; it had a launch mass of about 4,990 kilograms (11,000 pounds), a payload of 18 Ku-band / 12 C-band transponders, and a design life of 15 years. It was placed in the geostationary slot at 38 degrees East longitude to provide communications services to Pakistan.

-- 15 AUG 11 / HAIYANG 2A -- A Long March 2A booster was launched from Taiyuan to put the "Haiyang 2A" oceanic remote sensing satellite into Sun synchronous orbit. Previous spacecraft in the series were launched in 2002 and 2007. Haiyang 2A was more sophisticated than its predecessors; the spacecraft payloads included a microwave radiometer, a scatterometer, and a dual-band radar altimeter to obtain data on sea surface winds, wave height, and water temperature.


-- 17 AUG 11 / SMALLSATS -- After many delays, a Dnepr booster was launched from Yasny in Russia to put a set of smallsats in orbit, including:

The upper stage of the booster also carried a Ukrainian experimental payload designated "BPA 2" to investigate space navigation technologies.

-- 18 AUG 11 / SHIJIAN (FAILURE) -- A Long March 3F booster was launched from Jiuquan to put a Shijian experimental satellite into space. The payload failed to make orbit.

-- 18 AUG 11 / EXPRESS AM4 (FAILURE) -- A Proton Breeze-M booster was launched from Baikonur in Kazakhstan to put the Russian Satellite Communications Company "Express AM4" civil geostationary comsat into orbit. Express AM4 was built by EADS Astrium and was based on the Eurostar 3000 satellite platform. It had a launch mass of 5,775 kilograms (12,730 pounds), a payload of 63 C / Ku / Ka / L-band transponders, and a design life of 15 years; it was to be placed in the geostationary slot at 80 degrees East longitude to provide communications services for Russia and other states in the region. Contact with the spacecraft was lost after it reached orbit.

-- 24 AUG 11 / PROGRESS 44P (ISS/FAILURE) -- A Soyuz-U booster was launched from Baikonur to put a Progress tanker-freighter spacecraft into orbit on an International Space Station (ISS) supply mission. The booster failed five minutes after launch and the payload didn't make orbit. There were worries that the ISS might have to be temporarily abandoned.



* MICROSOFT DOES SCIENCE: As reported by an article from AAAS SCIENCE ("Coming Soon To A Lab Near You: Drag-&-Drop Virtual Worlds" by Robert F. Service, 11 February 2011), in 2003 Stephen Emmott, a neuroscientist then at University College London who had previously done stints in industry at Bell Labs and NCR, was approached by representatives of giant Microsoft Corporation with a proposal: what should the company be doing in science? With Microsoft's widespread reputation as an "evil empire", Emmott might have been inclined to turn down the offer, but he took it at face value, signing up with the company to develop a "computational science lab" at Microsoft Research.

Now the lab has a staff of 40 and is still growing. A few staffers are software engineers, of course, but most are professional scientists from fields as diverse as ecology, neuroscience, mathematics, and developmental biology. They want to change the way researchers study complex dynamic systems, such as the global carbon cycle or the interactions of cell components, by providing them with an innovative set of software tools that will be easy for scientists without a professional programming background to use.

It may not be entirely obvious why a commercial software company like Microsoft would want to invest big money in developing scientific research tools, but Emmott points to the obvious importance of scientific computing in modern society, adding that the leading-edge research done by his lab hones talent and may provide innovative ideas that Microsoft will be able to leverage into its mainstream product offerings.

One major focus in the lab is to make computer modeling easier to handle and understand. Computer models attempt to simulate real-world situations in cyberspace, which is not so hard when the system under consideration is relatively simple -- for example, determining how a bridge tolerates hurricane winds. Other subjects are less well-defined, the most notorious being climate models, which are complicated and troublesome to maintain, requiring months or years to create a substantial revision to take into account new factors. Worse, each research team tends to come up with its own modeling system that's incompatible and incomprehensible to other teams performing climate research.

Reinventing the wheel is a long-standing academic tradition, but when pressed most will admit there are better ways of doing things. Emmott feels that Microsoft can provide tools that everyone can understand and use. "It was never really someone's job to do it. The need was always to get your own research done rather than providing a service to the community ... In essence, we want to do for modeling software what Microsoft programs such as Word or Excel did for business software."

That's where the Microsoft "Computational Science Studio" comes in. One of its core elements is the "Scientific Data Set (SDS)", which is a translation system that can recognize and interpret a wide range of common data types, such as time series, satellite and medical images, and multidimensional numeric arrays. Users can add their own data types as well. With SDS, users can easily create a model that draws in multiple data sets and then examines their interactions.

Users evaluating the CSS for climate studies and other problems have found its "drag & drop" convenience and its computational efficiency impressive, and they are particularly enthusiastic about the possibility of being able to alter their models quickly to evaluate different scenarios. The CSS also makes it easy to inspect the assumptions built into the models, and even to specify the range of uncertainties in different components of the model.

The CSS is not the full story of Microsoft's scientific software effort by any means. The lab has developed a programming language that can model biological systems at the molecular level, and even help researchers design and simulate DNA circuits for biocomputing. To be sure, not all researchers are going to like the idea of Microsoft setting standards for tools in their research fields -- but if the tools work, and work better than what was available before, they'll hardly be in a good position to complain.



* UPDATING THE 737: Airliner giant Boeing is doing well for itself these days, with its new 787 proving a hit, and the company's 787-flavored 747-8 update of the classic 747 jumbo jet also making sales -- both were discussed in detail here last year. The company had been considering development of an all-new replacement for its even more classic 737 midsize jetliner, but given customer satisfaction with the 737 and a short-term demand for something better, Boeing has decided to give the 737 a 787-flavored facelift as well.

Rival Airbus had been similarly considering a new-design replacement for its competing A320, but decided to introduce an updated version, the "A320 New Engine Option (NEO)", instead, with delivery scheduled for 2015. Boeing couldn't afford to leave the field to Airbus over the longer period it would have taken to develop a new machine that could only be an incremental improvement over an updated one, and so plans to have the next-generation "737 MAX" in the hands of airlines by 2017.

The 737 went into service in 1968, the aircraft being derived from the earlier trijet Boeing 727. The first model was the "737-100", with a maximum passenger capacity of 103 seats, with this variant quickly being replaced in production with the stretched "737-200", with 130 seats. The first generation of machines featured Pratt & Whitney JT8D turbofans, which were "low-bypass" engines with small fans and slender engine nacelles; by contemporary standards they were state of the art, but by modern standards they were noisy, dirty, and not all that efficient.

Boeing 737-300

In the early 1980s, the 737 was updated with the new CFM56 high-bypass turbofan from CFM International, a collaboration between engine-makers General Electric of the US and SNECMA of France, the CFM56 being recognizable by it bigger engine nacelles that had to be "flattened" on the bottom for ground clearance. The CFM56 was much quieter, cleaner, and fuel-efficient than the JT8D, giving the 737 a new lease on life. The initial variant with CFM56 powerplants was the "737-300", which also had a fuselage stretch to provide 146 seats. It was followed by the "737-400", which had a further stretch to carry 169 passengers; and then the "737-500", which had about the same length as the original 737-200, but technical improvements introduced on the 737-400.

A third generation of 737 was introduced in the 1990s, featuring substantially improved CFM56 engines, a new wing design, a new flexible interior scheme, and a "glass cockpit". In later production the third-generation 737s were produced with "winglets" that reduced turbulence around the wingtips to cut down on drag, with winglets also often refitted to older 737s. There were four baseline third-generation 737s -- the "737-600" with 132 seats, the "737-700" with 149 seats, the "737-800" with 189 seats, and the "737-900" with 215 seats. The third-generation 737s were also the basis for the Australian "Wedgtail" airborne early warning & control aircraft, carrying an advanced radar on its back, and the US Navy P-8 Poseidon armed ocean patrol aircraft. Thanks to continuous improvement, Boeing has sold over 6,800 737s and has about 2,000 on order.

Boeing plans three models of the fourth-generation 737 MAX: the "737 MAX-7", "737 MAX-8", and "737 MAX-9" -- updates of the 737-700, 737-800, and 737-900 respectively. The company says the new machines will be 10% to 12% more fuel-efficient than the previous generation of 737s. Of course it's fuel efficiency that's pushing the upgrade; jetliners burn a lot of fuel and as expensive as it is to buy a new jetliner, it's damned expensive to fly an old one that guzzles fuel. The core of the upgrade will be a new engine, the CFM International "LEAP-1B". The LEAP-1B will have a diameter of 168 centimeters (66 inches) as opposed to the 157 centimeters (62 inches) of the CFM56 -- there had been consideration of an even bigger and more fuel-efficient engine, but it would have required longer landing gear for ground clearance, and the increased drag would have negated the fuel economy advantage. The engines will have the distinctive serrated cowlings introduced on the 787 to reduce noise.

Boeing 737 MAX

Airframe changes will be minimal -- no major updates of airframe elements to composite materials, no new wing, though a modified tailcone and tailfin are under consideration. Since third-generation 737s already have a glass cockpit, there's no need to do much more there than update to current technology; Boeing also plans to leverage off the "Boeing Sky" interior developed for the 787, with space-efficient overhead bins and slick LED lighting. Boeing is very leery of "feature creep", the unpleasant tendency of "modest updates" to become comprehensive redesigns. Indeed, the 737 MAX will noticeably retain a feature distinctive to all 737s from the beginning of its service: there's no main landing gear doors, when the main gear retracts the tires are still visible tucked up into the belly.

Boeing envisions a total market of 23,000 mid-sized airliners over the next 20 years, and claims to already have hundreds of orders for the 737 MAX in hand. It isn't hard to believe that the 737 may still be flying passenger service in 2040 or even beyond, a testimony to the staying power of a good design.



* FEEDING THE NINE BILLION (2): The issue of growing food is of course not all there is to the challenge of feeding the world's population. There was an infamous famine in Bengal in 1943 that resulted in the deaths of millions by starvation. In 1981, the Indian economist Amartya Sen published an analysis of the calamity titled "Poverty & Famines" that pointed out the calamity had nothing really to do with food production; there was plenty of food for all, indeed the Bengal region continued to export food. The problem was that, due to the dislocations and confusions of war, the food didn't get to starving people.

In 1996, the United Nations Food & Agricultural Organization (FAO) estimated that global food production was adequate to provide every person on the planet with 2,700 calories a day, well above the average minimum requirement for an adult, which is about 2,100 calories. By some measures, at present global food production is twice as much as needed to keep everyone fed. The problem, again, is getting food to people who need it: in undeveloped regions, distribution is troublesome, and poor people just don't always have the money to buy the food they need.

Food production is capitalistic: its basic imperative is not to keep everyone fed, but to maximize profit, and though on the whole that works out more benignly than it might be expected to, it can lead to mismatches between need and production. Societies often set up programs to enhance the fairness of the system -- but it can be very difficult to tweak, and political fiddling can in some cases make matters worse. Add to that the dislocations of droughts or regional political instabilities, and it's not too surprising that the system sometimes operates in fits and starts.

Now project the system into the future to 2050. About a billion people aren't well-fed right now, and population will swell by two billion in that timeframe, meaning food production will have to feed three billion more mouths. Sounds like an impossible task? On the face of it, not necessarily. From 1970 to 2010, the world's population exploded and food production did keep pace; the growth to 2050 will be less than half that. Since production of cereals roughly tracks population growth, that implies that cereal production will have to rise by about 50%. From 1970 to 2010, it rose by 250%.

There is the complication that people are becoming more prosperous and urbanized. That means a shift from cereals toward vegetable, dairy, and particularly meat production. In 2000, according to the FAO, 56% of all calories consumed in developing countries were from cereals, with about 20% from vegetable oils, dairy products, and meat. By 2050, the FAO estimates the proportions will shift to 46% and 29% respectively. Meat production will have to almost double -- as will soybean production, since it's mostly devoted to livestock feed.

Even that doesn't sound unreasonable on the face of it, in light of the agricultural boom of the 1970s. However, there's that big catch, diminishing returns. In the 1960s, growth in crop yields was at about 3% per year, but now it's about 1%. The Green Revolution of an earlier era was heavily based on new crop strains that could double yields, but now gains aren't so easily obtained. Constraints on water and fertilizer are beginning to become painful. Climate change promises to make matters even more painful.

* As a footnote to the question of food production, there's the issue of biofuels. Governments, in their pursuit of "energy independence" and "renewable energy", have been pushing biofuels heavily, imposing targets that, according to the FAO, would soak up a tenth of the world's cereal production. Already, ethanol accounts for 40% of America's huge corn crop, though ethanol only supplies about 8% of the USA's demand for vehicle fuel. Throwing this factor into the global agritech production machine can only result in aggravating pressures on food prices.

The irony is that biofuels are less "green" than they are promoted as being. Corn ethanol is regarded as the worst case, criticized by some as gobbling up more energy they it produces. That's an extreme view, but even advocates say the surplus of energy-in to energy-out is maybe about 50% -- and from a distance, the impossibility of achieving "energy independence" with corn ethanol hints to the cynical that it's just a farm subsidy program in disguise, a notion heavily reinforced by the high tariffs the USA has used to protect domestic ethanol production.

Brazilian sugar cane ethanol plant

Are biofuels absurd? That may be an overstatement. Brazil is a powerhouse in ethanol production, using sugar cane as a feedstock, which is a far more efficient feedstock than corn, able to produce up to eight times as much energy as pumped into the manufacturing process; and Brazilian sugar production seems able to keep up with the demand. Brazil actually has achieved a fair proportion of energy independence with sugar cane ethanol, and not at an unacceptable price. There's also the promise of "cellulosic" ethanol, that could be produced from non-crop plants on land unsuited for growing crops, or from plant waste, stalks and the like, from food production -- though so far, nobody's come up with a cellulosic ethanol process that's cost-competitive.

So maybe biofuels aren't a dead end; after all, there are other crops, like cotton and jute, that aren't grown for food, and they aren't seen as a troublesome issue in the food equation. However, to many observers the tariffs and particularly government biofuels targets are unhelpful, skewing the incentives in agritech production. Get rid of the tariffs and the targets, and biofuel production will then seek a more natural level alongside food production. Under such circumstances, the rational contribution of biofuels to the global energy equation, and the appropriate allocation of resources, will be easier to assess. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* THE KILLING OF JFK -- THE BALANCE OF EVIDENCE (32): The Warren Commission determined that Oswald left the Texas School Book Depository at 12:33 PM, three minutes after the assassination, and got on a bus, where Mary Bledsoe recognized him. The bus getting stuck in traffic, he left to pick up a cab driven by William Whaley, who took him to the vicinity of his boardinghouse -- where he was observed entering and leaving, having picked up and put on a jacket, by Earlene Roberts. The only witnesses to Oswald's movements were Bledsoe and Whaley, but the bus transfer stub was found in Oswald's pocket after he was arrested, and as noted he told the police he had taken a bus and then a cab to his boardinghouse. As discussed below, although that might seem to give no reason to doubt the scenario, some conspiracy theorists have disputed it.

There are also questions of timing. Whaley's trip log said that he'd picked up Oswald at 12:30 and dropped him off at 12:45. The 12:30 time doesn't make any sense, since that was when the assassination took place; Officer Baker and Roy Truly both saw Oswald in the TSBD after that time, and more importantly Oswald told the police he'd left after the shootings. Whaley said that he didn't really keep close track of time on his trip logs and rounded off to quarter hours, making the 12:30 time a non-issue.

A bigger issue is that Roberts said Oswald came into the boardinghouse at about 1:00 PM, spent "no more than three or four minutes" there, and left. The killing of Officer Tippit was estimated to have taken place at about 1:12. Given that the FBI judged it would have taken Oswald 12 minutes to walk to the location of the killing, it would seem impossible for Oswald to have made it there. However, the Warren Commission, after running reenactments and performing some calculations, figured Oswald arrived at 12:56; the HSCA went through their own figurings and came up with 12:55. Roberts described Oswald as "in a hurry ... walking unusually fast ... all but running." Given that Roberts didn't precisely time Oswald's movements nor make a record of them, there's no reason to think that Oswald couldn't have got to the boardinghouse a few minutes before 1:00. It would not be unreasonable to think it took him any more than, say, two minutes, to go to his tiny room, grab his pistol and jacket, then dash back out the door, zipping up his jacket as he left.

That would have given him plenty of time to cross paths with Tippit. From the boardinghouse to the corner of Tenth and Patton, where the killing took place, was 0.8 miles (1.3 kilometers); walking at 4 MPH (6.4 KPH), once again a reasonably fast walking pace for a healthy adult male, it would have indeed taken no more than 12 minutes to get there. The route from the boardinghouse was south, then east; Oswald could have gone from here to there along various paths, but taking one plausible path, Vincent Bugliosi timed himself walking it to the scene of the Tippit killing in less than 12 minutes.

As far as the timing of the Tippit killing goes, various witnesses gave different times, ranging from about 1:05 to 1:30. It is known that Tippit called in on his radio at 1:08, which puts a lower bound on the time. Helen Markham, who was waiting for a bus across the street, said she always got on the bus at 1:15, and since it hadn't arrived that puts an upper bound on the time -- the bus company told the FBI that it actually was supposed to arrive at 1:12, but that was likely an optimistic schedule: Markham was used to taking that bus and if her timing was that far off, she would have missed it a lot.

One oddity is some believe Oswald was walking west, not east, when he came on the scene, which doesn't make much sense -- he'd walked southeast, why turn back west? Dale Myers suggested that maybe Oswald had seen Tippit's cop car and reversed direction, which attracted Tippit's attention. However, the only reason to believe Oswald was headed west was because of the testimony of a witness named Jimmy Burt, who didn't see the shooting or its immediate aftermath, but said he thought he saw Oswald walking west beforehand. Helen Markham said Oswald was walking east. Juggling all the incidental details on the matter makes it hard to sort out Oswald's actual direction of movement, but it would simply make more sense that he was going east, and it doesn't matter anyway: the bottom line is that Oswald is known to have gone to his boardinghouse, and there is no reason to think he couldn't have made it to the location of the Tippit shooting by the time it occurred. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* SCIENCE NOTES: The plesiosaur is one of the most readily identifiable citizens of the great age of reptiles, its "Loch Ness monster" appearance being known to any geeky schoolboy. However, we're still learning more about this marine reptile, a significant case in point being a fossil plesiosaur found in Kentucky that was carrying a large fetus -- indicating that the beast gave live birth. It would either have had to do that or crawl onto the shore to lay eggs, and its size and structure suggesting it would have been hard-pressed to emerge onto land.

The mama plesiosaur, of the species Polycotylus latippinus, was about 4.7 meters (15 feet 5 inches) long and was carrying a single 1.5 meter (5 foot) baby. It wasn't fully formed; it would have been about 2 meters (6 feet 6 inches) long if it had lived to be born. Given a single baby that gestated for a long time, it seems likely that the mother gave extended care to its offspring after birth.

* The science press reported on a surprising new discovery, a roundworm named Halicephalobus mephisto that lives deep underground. It has been known for decades that "extremophile" bacteria can live in the hot, high-pressure environment hundreds or thousand of meters below the surface of the Earth, but the idea that a multicellular organism could survive there as well came as a surprise.

The discovery was due to the work of Gaetan Borgonie of Ghent University in Belgium, an expert on the extremely common roundworms. About five years ago he got to suspecting that roundworms, which have a wide range of adaptations including the ability to survive in extreme environments, might be able to survive deep underground. The idea didn't get an enthusiastic reception among the science community and Borgonie couldn't get research funding, but he finally got in touch with Tullis Onstott, a Princeton biologist who was thinking along the same lines.

A team under Onstott had announced in 2006 that they had found colonies of anaerobic bacteria almost three kilometers down in a South African gold mine that obtain their energy from deep-underground heat; these microbes were also the first known to depend exclusively on geologically produced hydrogen and sulfur compounds for nourishment. The two researchers went to South Africa to poke around in deep mines on their own money as a follow-up and found a number of roundworms, with H. mephisto being unknown to science.

Tests showed it ate deep-underground bacteria, confirming that it actually lived underground and wasn't just an intruder from the surface world; samples were also taken from water deposits not exposed to the air and revealed the nematodes. The researchers are still investigating their results, which include other roundworms and a DNA sample from well below the bottom of the mine that suggests still deeper multicellular life. When asked what else might be down there, Borgonie said: "My guess is more than we think. If nematodes are there, then some other small invertebrates might be there, too."

* An article from about two years back that I ran across discussed how environmental researchers are using clams to track water pollution. Clams are filter-feeders, and as they filter the water for nourishment, they also accumulate pollutants. For use in environmental studies, clams are "seeded" into waterways downstream of industrial parks and other facilities, to be later harvested and run through a lab analysis for assessment of their pollution levels. Using clams, researchers discovered in Maryland a buried dump of banned pesticides that was leaking into a watercourse. The article hinted that clams could in principle be used for water pollution remediation, but it doesn't appear that's seen as a particularly practical idea at the present time.



* EVS FOR DELIVERY FLEETS (AGAIN): The notion of using electric vehicles (EVs) for fleets of delivery trucks has been discussed here in the past. EVs are attractive for such applications because the trucks don't have to drive cross-country, making range less of an issue, and are maintained at a centralized facility, making recharging and servicing less of an issue.

According to an article in BUSINESS WEEK ("Battery-Powered Trucks: Toys No More" by Christoper Martin, 30 January 2011), Frito-Lay North America has seen the virtues of EV delivery vehicles and had obtained 176 of them by late 2010. That's only 1% of the total fleet, but the number is expected to grow, with the goal of the company to cut fuel use in half by 2020. The model of the truck obtained by Frito-Lay is the "Newton" from Smith Electric Vehicles of Kansas City, Missouri. Bob Simpson, the company's fleet manager for the New York region, is enthusiastic about the EVs and would replace all his diesel-powered vehicles immediately if he could, saying that they really save on fuel costs and that they are also very easy to maintain and repair.

Newton electric truck

EV delivery vehicles are still a small minority in delivery fleets, with forecasts saying that only about 1% of the vehicles bought by delivery fleets in 2011 are likely to be EVs. However, batteries are about a third of the cost of an EV, and with battery costs expected to fall by 75% to 2020, EVs are going to keep looking better and better to fleet operators. Right now, US companies buying EVs are being boosted by a generous tax credit, which some states such as California back up with a generous tax credit of their own.

Ford Motor Company and a Canadian company named Azure Dynamics have recently introduced an electric Transit Connect van. Projected sales of the EV for 2011 are only 750 vehicles, compared to 30,000 of its gas-powered sibling. The EV Transit Connect has a range of 130 kilometers (80 miles) and costs $57,400 USD, almost three times as much as the gasoline-powered version. Navistar has built 78 of the company's $150,000 eStar EVs, about twice the price of the company's diesel equivalent. FedEx has bought 19 eStars on an experimental basis, to see if operating economies justify a larger order.

The big guys are still just wading in the shallows on EVs, but Smith Electric Vehicles is doing a boom business, with expectations of selling 1,000 Newtons in 2011, up from 200 in 2010. The company buys the chassis from a Czech manufacturer and installs a US-made electric drive system; a Newton has a range of 160 kilometers (100 miles) and costs $100,000 USD, 50% more more than a gasoline-powered equivalent. Smith officials sells the machine on its low operating costs and -- to be honest about it -- its publicity value.

Along with Frito-Lay, Newton buyers include Coca-Cola, AT&T, and Pacific Gas & Electric; the US Marine Corps is a new user, having ordered two for the USMC base at Camp Pendelton near San Diego. Office supplies company Staples is another Newton user, having obtained 41 by the of 2010, 3% of its total delivery vehicle fleet. Staples officials are enthusiastic, saying the EVs have demonstrated a substantial advantage in fuel costs and have attracted favorable public attention.

Those who drive the EVs say the limited range can be a problem at times; one Frito-Lay driver found the going too tough during one of the heavy snowstorms that hit the place this last winter, and had to go back to the garage to get a diesel before he ran out of juice. However, Simpson said he couldn't take the EVs away from his people, with that driver replying to any such suggestion with: "No way!"

* WHO NEEDS RARE EARTHS? As mentioned here a few months back, there's been considerable worry about a looming shortage of "rare earth" minerals since China, the world's primary producer, decided to throttle back exports. As reported by Babbage, THE ECONOMIST's technology blogger, one of the biggest rare-earths bugaboos is neodymium, which is useful for building lightweight but powerful permanent magnets. Over the past year, the price of neodymium has quadrupled, not only due to difficulties in supply but in increase in demand of the material for permanent-magnet electrical generators and motors.

The rising sales of electric vehicles (EVs) have created a particular demand for lightweight but powerful electric motors. Fortunately, there's no absolute need for using permanent magnets in electric motors; they can be built using electromagnets instead. A number of EVs, such as the Tesla Roadster and the new BMW "Mini-E", an EV descendant of the classic Austin Mini, use "AC induction motors" instead of permanent-magnet motors -- no rare earths required. Giant Toyota is now developing their own AC induction motors for the company's line of hybrid cars.

The AC induction motor is nothing new, having been patented by the Serbian-American genius Nicola Tesla in 1888. All electric motors have two components, a spinning interior "rotor" and a fixed external "stator" for the rotor to magnetically act against. In an AC induction motor, both the rotor and the stator use coils of electrical windings. An alternating current (AC) applied to the stator's windings creates a cyclically changing magnetic field, with that magnetic field inducing a current in the rotor windings; this current sets up a magnetic field from the rotor in turn, but one that's out of phase with the stator field, forcing the rotor to spin. Modern induction motors usually have three or more sets of stator windings, each using a different "phase" of the AC being applied. Multiple phases mean smoother operation and more torque, in a way very roughly analogous to having more cylinders in a piston engine.

AC induction motor

Since the magnetic fields generated by the stator and rotor are never in phase, such machines are known as "asynchronous" motors -- as opposed to "synchronous" motors that use permanent magnets in the rotor, with the permanent magnets featuring fixed fields driven by the stator's varying fields. The traditional problem with asynchronous induction motors is that they aren't easy to control, but modern electronic smarts has done much to tame that problem. The advantages of an asynchronous induction motor are that it is simple, rugged, and in particular much more tolerant of high temperatures than synchronous motors; permanent magnets tend to lose their magnetism when they get hot. That not only means that EVs fitted with asynchronous induction motors can dispense with weighty and expensive cooling gear, they can also provide higher burst power and "redlining".

The current electric motor used in the Toyota Prius is a hybrid, with a rotor featuring both windings and permanent magnets. At low loads, the motor works more like a permanent-magnet motor, while for heavier loads, the induction features predominate. A pure induction design hardly sounds like it would be a step backward: the Tesla Roadster's three-phase induction motor is only the size of a watermelon and weighs 52 kilograms (115 pounds), but it can provide 215 kW (288 HP), with uniform torque from rest to almost 6,000 RPM, meaning that the transmission doesn't require a second or third gear -- and the motor is 88% efficient in converting battery power to motive force. As far as EVs are concerned, it doesn't appear that rare earths are going to be a very big deal over the long run.



* OLD WINE NEW BOTTLES: Pharmaceuticals have a way of going in and out of fashion, being introduced with a splash to then be supplanted by something better and disappear from the market. However, as pointed out in an article from AAAS SCIENCE ("NIH's Secondhand Shop For Tried-&-Tested Drugs" by Jocelyn Kaiser, 24 June 2011), all drugs have a range of effects -- "no effects without side effects", as the saying goes -- and there's the intriguing possibly that "has-been" drugs might find a second life in some application for which they were not originally produced.

This spring, the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) decided that investigate the alternate uses of old drugs would be worth investigating. with NIH Director Francis Collins asking drug companies to work with academics investigating new uses for old drugs. The effort would be conducted under the umbrella of the new "National Center For Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS)", with Collins saying that the exercise would involve a "comprehensive effort to identify appropriate abandoned compounds", "match partners", and "make data and resources available".

This isn't actually a new idea. Talidomide, a drug for morning sickness that was yanked swiftly from the market when it turned out to cause horrendous birth defects, was later resurrected as a treatment for leprosy and multiple myeloma. Some companies also have drug repurposing efforts in operation, with researchers at Washington University in Saint Louis working through a library of 500 drugs provided by big pharma company Pfizer, investigating alternate uses through animal studies.

treasures in the discard pile

However, NIH officials believe that there would be a big payoff in a more systematic effort. Amy Patterson, an associate director at NIH, has pointed out that while only a very small fraction of drugs are ever approved, the rejects usually fall out because of a lack of efficacy, not because they're toxic. The drugs were by all evidence safe; they just didn't actually do what they were supposed to do. But what if they could do something else? Patterson believes the success rate of appropriately selected drugs could be "30%" -- which may sound optimistic, but she adds that NIH genomics research has uncovered a quantity of new disease targets.

Of course, it's not as simple as NIH saying "let's do it" and charging forward. Companies may have to digitize paper records, and the expertise that produced an old drug may have moved on. There's the possibility that a drug that appeared to be safe in its initial testing may not prove to be so safe on further investigation, and of course there are intellectual property issues. NIH is now working on "master agreement" to iron out the relationship between companies and academic researchers, with the agreement to be issued by late this year or early next year.

There's a general perception in the research community that the scheme will fly, since it potentially benefits both companies and researchers -- not to mention patients. Says one researcher: "Provided all the details can be worked out, I think it's a win for all sides."



* FEEDING THE NINE BILLION (1): While world population growth is slowing down and expected to start going into the negatives in the second half of the 21st century, it will peak at about 9 billion souls in 2050, from almost 7 billion now. As discussed by a survey in THE ECONOMIST ("The 9 Billion-People Question" by John Parker, 24 February 2011), the prospect of feeding all these people remains a massive challenge.

The survey starts at Rothamsted Research Station, about 40 kilometers north of London. It is the oldest agricultural research station in the world, the first experimental crop of winter wheat having been raised there in 1843. In 1847, the farm's founder, Sir John Lawes, estimated that its yields would be good if the fields were properly fertilized. The Broadbalk field, a 1.6 hectare (4 acre) patch of the farm, produced a yield in 2010 of 10 tonnes (11 tons) per hectare -- but only in one section, with others yielding less than half that, in places even a tenth.

BroadBalk wheatfield

The difference was by design, various sections of the field being cultivated according to different agricultural practices, making Broadbalk a microcosm of the condition of world farming. The crop in the center of the field was produced by the latest and best practices, as good as it gets for modern farms. The half-yield crop was produced by practices adopted in the "Green Revolution" of the 1970s, with the improved crop varieties introduced at that time, along with some herbicides and fertilizers; it reflected current practices in India and Argentina. And the tenth-yield crop? No fertilizer, no herbicides, nothing but planting and hoping the plants will grow, as is the status quo over most of Africa. African farmers are sometimes dismissed as inept, but nobody could raise much more food with such dismal resources.

Threadbare African farming gives little confidence for meeting the challenge of feeding a hungry world -- but what about the impressive yields of the latest agritech? Unfortunately, there is a dark lining in them as well, since over the past few decades yield improvements seem to have run out of steam. Things are not well even now, with world food prices now having shot above the peak they reached in early 2008, when food riots were common around the world. This time around things are not looking any better, with new food riots, panic buying, bans on food exports, and price controls. The food crisis has clearly been a contributor to the instability in the Middle East. In the meantime, cooking shows remain a staple for TV in prosperous and well-fed Western nations, where the problem is for the most part not hunger but obesity.

At a meeting of the "Group of Eight (G8)" industrial countries in 2009, the leaders in attendance put food alongside the global financial crisis on their list of top priorities, pledging to find $20 billion USD for agriculture over three years. This year the current president of the "Group of 20 (G20)", French President Nicolas Sarkozy, wants to make food the top priority. The well-funded Gates Foundation, which had previously focused on health and development generally, is now starting to target food production, while companies involved in global agritech are pushing initiatives to address the growing shortfall in production.

The era of cheap food has ended, thanks to a combination of factors: rising demand in developing countries like India and China, with an associated dietary shift from cereals to meat and vegetables; the use of cropland to produce biofuels; and outside factors, such as the current economic slowdown, have reversed the trend of the past decades toward cheaper food. Nobody was expecting it to happen and it's come as a shock.

That there's a crisis is accepted, and resources are being applied to address it. There are fundamental disagreements as to how to proceed. Development agencies, plant researchers, and particularly agritech companies believe that a "Second Green Revolution" of improved technology is required. However, there is a contrarian "natural foods" mindset, influential among non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and some consumers, that despises the agritech companies, claiming that they have foisted tasteless and nutritionally deficient foods on consumers at unacceptable levels of environmental damage.

Alas, even conceding some of the complaints of the natural foods movement, it is hobbled by the fact that traditional and organic food production cannot possibly feed a global population of 9 billion people. Like it or not, mainstream agritech will have to do the job, with the people in charge sorting through a maze of challenges: nutritional and particularly yield improvements of primary crops, constraints on land and water, use or misuse of fertilizer and pesticide, biofuel production, and the tyranny of the underlying economics of the business. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* THE KILLING OF JFK -- THE BALANCE OF EVIDENCE (31): Having discussed the events at Dealey Plaza, the next set of considerations of the evidence cover Oswald's movements following the assassination. It should be noted again as a starting point that the testimony of the TSBD staff failed to give Oswald an alibi for where he was at when JFK was killed. Incidentally, the testimony of the TSBD employees also undermines the idea that people planted evidence on the TSBD to incriminate him, since nobody at the TSBD recalled seeing strange faces around on the upper floors on 22 November. While some conspiracy theorists have wondered about the men reflooring the sixth floor of the TSBD, as mentioned they were full-time employees there.

Lack of an alibi is merely lack of proof of Oswald's innocence, not proof of his guilt, but the whole question of an alibi poses awkward questions for the "patsy" story -- it's the foresight problem again. If such elaborate preparations were made to frame Oswald for JFK's shooting, then how could the conspirators have known Oswald wouldn't have an alibi? If Oswald had no idea that people were trying to frame him, then the conspirators would have had no way to rule out that he might be standing around with other TSBD employees watching the motorcade, or even be caught in a photo as was Billy Lovelady. If such had happened, it would have blown the conspiracy's cover immediately, and all the elaborate efforts of the conspirators would have simply helped expose them.

* In any case, the first people to see Oswald following Charlie Givens' encounter with him before noon and then the shootings were Officer Marrion Baker and Oswald's boss, Roy Truly, with Baker momentarily holding Oswald at gunpoint on the second floor. The Warren Commission ran tests on location with Baker and Truly, reenacting Baker's movements from the time Baker heard the first shot to the moment he ran into Oswald on the second floor of the TSBD; in one test, it took 75 seconds, in the other it took 90 seconds.

Conspiracy theorists claim Oswald would have had to be a "championship sprinter" to have made it to the second floor in 75 seconds -- but as Baker reported, Oswald was calm, not breathing hard, when the two men met up. However, a few simple calculations shows Oswald wouldn't have had to run. The time interval of the three shots was under 9 seconds, leaving a minimum of 66 seconds for Oswald to make it to the second floor. The floor of the TSBD was less than 30 meters (100 feet) on a side, which would make Oswald's maximum possible path across the floor from the sniper's nest no more than 60 meters (200 feet), and that would be skirting up against the walls from corner to corner. Going diagonally, it would be about 42.5 meters (140 feet), but there were piles of books on the sixth floor, so going perfectly diagonally wasn't possible. Splitting the difference gives an estimate of about 52 meters (170 feet).

A healthy adult male n a brisk walk can do 6.4 KPH (4 MPH) for an extended period of time -- that's about 1.75 meters (5.8 feet) per second. That would get Oswald across the floor in no more than 30 seconds. Tests show that it would have taken no more than about five seconds to hide the rifle behind the boxes, that leaves 30 seconds for Oswald to get down four flights of stairs, or just over 7 seconds per flight. Impossible? Multiple experiments were performed at the TSBD with people being timed moving from the sniper's nest to the second floor, and none of them had any problem getting to the second floor in the time limit. None were noticeably winded, and those running the tests included Chief Justice Warren, who was in his seventies.

Of course, 75 seconds was the minimum time, the worst case. Baker's other trial was 90 seconds, and there's zero problem with the timing on that. There is no basis for insisting that the interval couldn't have been longer than 75 seconds, and in fact not that much basis for saying it couldn't have been longer than 90 seconds. During the reenactments, Baker knew exactly where he was going, but in the original event he had to think about what he was going to do next, trying to make his way through a building he wasn't familiar with and connecting with Roy Truly. As Baker said himself, it probably took him longer than it did in the reenactments.

* However, conspiracy theorists point out that Oswald had a bottle of Coke in his hand -- how could he have got it from the Coke machine on the second floor in that timeframe? Actually, that's what Oswald told the Dallas police, that he had gone to the second floor to get a Coke and had the Coke in his hand when Baker stopped him. Baker told the Warren Commission in his testimony that Oswald was empty-handed. Conspiracy theorists say Baker was lying -- the reason being that Baker gave the FBI a handwritten statement saying that Oswald had a Coke in his hands, and then crossed out that remark. Obviously, so the conspiracy theorists have concluded, Baker must have forgotten his "coverup" story and tried to patch over the fumble.

Then again, maybe Baker got confused by all the stories going around. Of course, if Baker was trying to "frame" Oswald, why would he have said Oswald was calm, not winded, and didn't seem suspicious? And, on the flip side of the coin, if we can't believe Baker's testimony to the Warren Commission, why would we place any weight on any other part of his testimony? In any case, Roy Truly also testified that Oswald didn't have anything in his hands. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* GIMMICKS & GADGETS: Lifeline Energy -- a UK-based nongovernmental organization focused on developing-world tech -- has now released the biggest, clunkiest MP3 player ever built, the "LifePlayer", which resembles something like a beefy old-fashion portable cassette player made of high-impact plastic.

Of course, the LifePlayer is not trying to sell on sexiness and not trying to compete with the iPod. It's a solution for poor folk, featuring an MP3 player-recorder with 64 GB of flash storage and an AM-FM-SW radio receiver. It's self-powered, using a plug-in solar module or a built-in hand crank -- it can also be used to recharge a cellphone or the like via a USB connection -- and has a micro-SD card slot for additional storage. It's primarily intended for educational purposes. What the thing costs to make and distribute is an interesting question, but alas no such details were mentioned.


* As reported by a note from AAAS SCIENCE, researchers are now working on technology to detect counterfeit whiskey. It's not actually all that hard to tell a sample of good whiskey from a sample of fake whiskey; the problem is doing it without opening the bottle. The trick is is "transmission spectroscopy": passing white light through the bottle and then observing with a spectrometer the spectral pattern of light wavelengths absorbed by the whiskey. Different brands of whiskey have their own spectral "signatures" and they can be differentiated using this approach. The researchers also want to test the reflectivity of the label, which also tends to be specific to brands.

* The US military wants to develop a networked battlefield and is interested in concepts such as cloud computing, but troops in the field are hobbled in access to a military cloud by simple lack of bandwidth. New communications satellites are being introduced to increase the bandwidth to the tactical warfighter, but there's no immediate prospect of providing a high-bandwidth pipeline to all the grunts on patrol in backwoods parts of the world.

A company named Infonics is proposing a partial solution in the form of distributed intelligent data buffering, the company's product being named the "Geo-Replicator". A cloud system consists of a vast number of nodes, each handling a particular data stream; each node could retain the data and, when possible, simply obtaining "deltas" to the current resident data image. Infonics gives as an example a NATO commander in Germany who provided updates to subordinates on a regular basis using a PowerPoint file running to tens of megabytes. Once Geo-Replicator was installed, it simply scanned through the current PowerPoint file to determine its differences from the previous one, and sent the deltas, running to a few tens of kilobytes, to all the nodes. "Work smart not hard."

* In a similar "work smart" effort, the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is now working on a project to develop a wireless electrical power transmission system. Troops are burdened down with gadgets and end up hauling around a weight of batteries; the idea is that one soldier in a field unit would carry a power unit that would wirelessly charge the electronics kit of everyone within a few meters. The DARPA requirement specifies that the power unit not give away the unit's position or cause health problems, which might be tough to accomplish.



* TABLET WARS IN TRANSITION: When Apple's iPad was introduced, it caused a major splash in the personal computing business. Although tablets weren't a new idea by any means, as discussed here some months back nobody had figured out the right recipe until Apple came along. Competitors jumped into the market enthusiastically, with predictions of small tablets for under $100 USD within a few years.

As reported by Babbage, the technology columnist for THE ECONOMIST, the tablet business proved a bust for the competition, most notably signaled by the announcement by Hewlett-Packard (HP) that the company was getting out of the personal computer business. The tablet hasn't been a market failure by any means, it's just that the competition ended up offering tablets that were as expensive as the iPad but didn't give the user as much. Apple's share of the market for tablets is over 60% and growing, while the market for tablets based on Google's competing Android operating system (OS) is 30% and declining. HP's WebOS-based tablets registered a share in the few percent.

Apple simply outsold the competition, offering a nice turnkey solution and ensuring that tens of thousands of apps developed for the company's iPhone were properly ported to the iPad. Contrast that with the porting of hundreds of apps ported to Honeycomb, the Android OS variant for tablets, from the inventory of apps developed for Android phones. Although much was made of Android as an "open system", that so far hasn't turned out to amount to much in terms of competitive advantage.

So iPad dominance forever? By no means. HP's departure from the PC business, while an embarrassment to the company, was not the disastrous defeat it was made out to be by some in the blogosphere. The PC marketplace tends toward low profit margins, and even if HP had done better with the company' WebOS tablets, that wouldn't have done much for the bottom line. HP had long been under pressure to give up the PC business to the low-cost producers and focus on the profitable corporate systems business.

The edge in this logic is that Apple is no fonder of a low-margin business than HP, but thanks to a shrewd business strategy, it has obtained a cash cow with the iPad. That means that anyone who wants to sell a less sophisticated but well cheaper product has an opportunity, most significantly because Apple has misgivings about want that business. The future is this domain is widely seen in the "Nook Color", an e-book reader sold by bookstore chain Barnes & Noble that, under the skin, just happens to be an Android tablet PC with an ARM CPU, a half gigabyte of RAM, and 8 gigabytes of flash. It's much less capable than the iPad -- 18-centimeter (7-inch) display versus a 25-centimeter (10-inch) display, no camera, no GPS, no cellphone link (wi-fi only), though it does have a USB connection and can accommodate a MicroSD flash card to increase memory. What it does have going for it is that it only costs half as much as an iPad.

Nook Color

It's not just a question of offering a simpler and cheaper product, however: Barnes & Noble has a particular business model for selling the Nook Color, using the device to push e-books and electronic magazines. It's worked well enough so far, with Barnes & Noble obtaining 20% of the e-book market. The company has been restrained about the use of Nook Color as a general-purpose tablet, but provides a limited set of apps; hackers have been "rooting" into the system to make more use of it as a general-purpose tablet, and Barnes & Noble is clearly moving in that direction. Trying to compete head-on with Apple is a loser's game, but selling a cheap e-book reader that also happens to be a general-purpose tablet has potential.

Amazon.com, which set off the e-book reader market with its Kindle reader, apparently understands this perfectly well, with the rumor mills roaring at high volume about the imminent release of a next-generation Kindle that sounds a lot like a "Nook Plus". Amazon not only has an edge in its ability to deliver e-books and other e-media for its new Kindle, but also has a huge cloud-computing network to provide users with more capability.

How much should Apple worry? In terms of direct competition, not much, since cheap tablets along the lines of Nook Color don't go head-to-head with the high-end iPad. However, the new cheap tablets may well be the entering wedge of a rush towards simple $100 USD tablets that will, effectively, take over the world. They won't be at all the equal of the iPad, and Apple would have little interest in such a low-margin business; but over time the cheap tablets will become gradually more capable, with a range of accessories becoming available for enhancements as desired, and more of a threat. How Apple responds remains to be seen.

ED: I fiddled with a Nook Color at Barnes & Noble some time back and fell in love with it. The display unit I picked up was running the ANGRY BIRDS game, which I'd never played before; it took me a bit of fiddling to get the idea, and after I did I wasn't sure if I felt amused or just plain silly.



* VEGA ON THE PAD: The European Space Agency (ESA) is now preparing for the first launch of the Vega small booster, intended to compete with other small boosters such as the Orbital Sciences Pegasus and Taurus. Vega consists of three solid fuel stages and a liquid-fueled kick stage; its baseline design is oriented towards placing a 1,500-kilogram (3,300-pound) payload into a polar low Earth orbit (LEO).

The Italian Space Agency (ASI) is the lead development organization, working within the context of the ESA to build the booster -- by the way, the name is an acronym meaning "Vettore Europeo di Generazione Avanzata (European Advanced Generation Carrier)". Italy owns a 65% share of the program, while France has 15% and Spain, Belgium, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and Sweden. Prime contractor is the Italian Avio firm.

Vega booster

Assembled for launch, Vega has a height of 30 meters (98 feet), a diameter of 3 meters (10 feet), and a mass of 137,000 kilograms (302,100 pounds). The four stages include:

Vega has been designed for simplicity and reliability of operation. Consideration is being given to specialized variants -- the "Vega E1", optimized to place six payloads into different orbits, and the "Vega E2", optimized to put Galileo navigation satellites into orbit. Longer-range ideas include:


[MON 05 SEP 11] MAKE IT GLOW (3)

* MAKE IT GLOW (3): One popular current application of bioluminescence is tagging viruses, a technique that is proving extremely valuable for studying diseases. Traditionally, to track the progress of an infection, researchers had to infect a batch of lab animals, then kill and examine a sample of them on a daily basis in order to provide a series of "snapshots" of the progress of the disease, and how it responds to a treatment. Unfortunately, not only is this an expensive and laborious approach, it is very coarse. Sampling once a day doesn't give a very detailed understanding of what's happening to the lab animals, and besides, the disease doesn't necessarily progress at the same rate in two different animals. It's not very useful to sample an animal where the disease has progressed rapidly on one day and then sample an animal where the disease has progressed slowly on the next, the end result being the suggestion that the disease is in remission.

David Leib of Dartmouth Medical School decided to try something new, adding the gene to produce luciferase to the genome of herpes simplex virus type 1, and then injected the modified virus into mice. The mice were also regularly injected with luciferin, so that the luciferase would have the fuel it needed to glow. Since the light produced was very faint, Leib worked with researchers from Washington University in Saint Louis to develop a dark box where the mice could be placed and photographed with a special camera. The technique permitted detailed tracking the progress of the herpes infection in individual mice.

Part of the reason luciferase can be seen by the camera, even through the tissues of the bodies of the mice, is that luciferase produces some red light along with the characteristic yellow-green light associated with fireflies. The yellows and greens cannot penetrate the mouse tissue, but long-wavelength red light can. Norman Maitland of the Yorkshire Cancer Research Laboratory at the University of York, working with a team of colleagues based at 14 labs within the European Union, used this idea to develop a series of viruses that carry a gene for GFP which has been modified to glow red, and are specially designed to find and grow inside prostate-cancer cells.

When these viruses are exposed in the lab to tissue cultures containing cancer cells, they infect those cells and splice the gene for the red glowing protein into them, making them glow. The gene for the glowing protein is passed on by the cancer cells as they replicate, so their descendants glow as well. Maitland has uses specialized camera equipment to see the glowing red cancer cells inside the human body; using this approach, he has already demonstrated the technique can help reveal prostate tumors. Over the longer run, it should be able to provide a much better ability to track cancer cells as they proliferate and spread through the body.

Bioluminescence also has applications in surgery. A team led by Quyen Nguyen, a surgeon at the University of California in San Diego, has devised a method to illuminate nerves so that they are less likely to be cut accidentally, causing lasting damage. The researchers created a molecule that binds preferentially to nerve cells, and labeled it with a fluorescent tag. When injected into a mouse, it spreads around the animal's body, so that all its nerves -- though not its brain or spinal cord -- become fluorescent within two hours. The effect wears off a few hours later. The trick has also been shown to work in human tissue, though it has yet to enter formal trials.

Bioluminescence is being investigated for environmental applications. A naturally bioluminescent bacterium named Vibrio fischeri is very sensitive to pollutants, becoming dimmer as the environment grows more toxic and making it a fair indicator. Jan van der Meer at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland is tinkering with bacteria that glow brighter in the presence of pollutants, and even produce different colors for different pollutants.

"Green" use of bioluminescence doesn't stop at pollution monitoring. In late 2010, researchers at Cambridge University in the UK took initial steps towards engineering bioluminescent trees that could be used for urban lighting. They took genes from fireflies and bioluminescent marine bacteria and modified them to produce a genetic package that can be easily added to other organisms to make them glow. To demonstrate their approach they added the genes to a bacterium, and found that a flask of the bacterial culture produced enough light to read a book by.

Another potential use for glowing plants is to indicate the health of crops. For example, luciferase could be engineered into plants, being tied to stress genes so that plants would glow if they needed water, allowing the water to be applied where it does the most good; or if they are attacked by insect pests, pointing out where insecticides need to be applied. Researchers at the University of Edinburgh, in Scotland, have already developed potatoes that glow when they need water.

Bioluminescence even has military applications. For reasons not completely understood, many marine organisms bioluminesce only when disturbed. Scuba divers swimming at night sometimes just wave their arms to produce a dazzling green light show, while large marine animals or boats can leave a glowing trail in their wake. The US Navy has long been interested in bioluminescence for sub-hunting. Right now, the emphasis in military research is to simply characterize marine environments where bioluminescence might be expected to occur so it can be exploited.

Although it seems the sky's the limit for bioluminescence, not all or even most of these clever ideas are going to work out. BioLume, a biotech startup out of North Carolina, is developing glowing food products such as cake icing, candies, and chewing gum. It doesn't sound like much more than a niche market, but even discounting such novelties, bioluminescence is becoming ever more important in practical applications. [END OF SERIES]



* THE KILLING OF JFTHE KILLING OF JFK THE BALANCE OF EVIDENCE (30): As a footnote to the characters in Dealey Plaza on 22 November 1963, conspiracy theorists have played up yet another suspicious figure, though he was literally the "little man who wasn't there" -- Joseph Milteer, a wealthy white supremacist from Quitman, Georgia. On 9 November, an FBI informant named William Somersett was talking with him, using a bug to record Milteer spinning out a plot to kill JFK with a high-powered rifle. It was clear that Milteer was talking in speculative terms, with the hit possibly to take place in Washington DC: "[JFK] comes out on the [White House] veranda and somebody could be in a hotel room across the way and pick him off just like that." Milteer was, however, concerned about taking out one of Kennedy's doubles by mistake: "He has about 15."

Milteer also thought that JFK could be hit when he visited Miami, which the president did on 18 November. Conspiracy theorists claimed that a planned motorcade was canceled due to Somersett's report, that JFK took a helicopter from the airport instead, but that's a half-truth. JFK did take a helicopter from the airport to a heliport in downtown Miami, though he then went by a short motorcade from the heliport to his hotel. The trip details had been planned in advance, before 9 November, and hadn't been changed; the brief motorcade was not consistent with worries about an assassination plot.

In the 1970s, Somersett enhanced his story, claiming that Milteer called him from Dallas on 22 November 1963, and also added more details about Milteer's "involvement" in the "conspiracy". However, the new details contradicted what Somersett had told investigators on 26 November 1963, when he flatly said he didn't know Milteer's whereabouts on the day of the assassination. The Secret Service, which had been keeping an eye on Milteer, reported he was in Quitman on that day.

So how did Milteer magically end up in Dealey Plaza? A photo turned up that showed someone who looked like him watching the motorcade. The HSCA looked into it and concluded that the person in the photo was 15 centimeters (6 inches) taller than Milteer. The Secret Service actually stopped keeping tabs on Milteer in 1967, having concluded that he was, in effect, a loudmouthed cracker redneck with violent ideas who like to talk big trash, but he was in practice a law-abiding if unwashed citizen.

Incidentally, a large number of people's faces were caught in the photos taken at Dealey Plaza on 22 November 1963, and a conspiracy community "cottage industry" has arisen in which fuzzy little images of faces picked out of the crowd are matched to those of "conspiracy" suspects. It would be amusing to take a modern ultrahigh resolution "GigaPan" image of an big crowd and obtain a fresh set of "matches" to the "suspects" or various famous faces. Milteer remains the archetype of this game; none of the other "matches" have ever led to anything more substantial. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* ANOTHER MONTH: In news of the bizarre, I was poking around on YouTube and found a video for "UFOs disguised as jetliners". Huh? I went through a video of such a vehicle to watch a Boeing 747 cruising across the sky, leaving contrails in its wake, to the sound of ominous music.

Did I miss something? "Why is this aircraft supposed to be a UFO?" It appears that various explanations have been offered, such as the contrails look glowing or colored or otherwise "funny", or that the landing lights "don't look right", or that there's "no passenger windows" -- uh, maybe it's an air freighter? Extrapolating from this, one could imagine a wide range of familiar objects that are actually alien technology in disguise, for example UPS trucks, the weather stations set up alongside freeways, or ATMs. THE TRUTH IS OUT THERE.

* I heard the sound of helicopters one day and looked out to see a formation of four of them -- in descending order of size, a Chinook, a Blackhawk, a new Lakota, and a Kiowa. It looked like an airshow display of some sort and it went over town several times, so I was puzzled as to what it was all about. My neighbor came out too, and she told me that there was a funeral up the road in Fort Collins for a National Guard soldier who'd been killed in Afghanistan when his Chinook was shot down. The National Guard was flying a tribute for their own. A sad story, but it made for an interesting photoshoot.

memorial flight, August 2011

* Two years ago I replaced the flooring in my house, but not long after I did so the vinyl flooring in my bathroom started to go south, slowly acquiring a mottled appearance. I finally decided to replace it with ceramic tile and got everything lined up.

I ran into a number of snags, too tiresome to detail here, that kept me going for three days before it was all in place. Once, about a decade ago I recall, I decided I would perform a set of such errands all at once -- and found out that was a blunder, since any nontrivial exercise that's only done once in a great while is very likely to include a number of unpleasant surprises that demand immediate response. Still, after going through a series of fire drills the new flooring was in place.

The grout was still drying the evening that everything was done, so I couldn't use the bathroom until after midnight. I decided to go to the city pool for a swim and a shower before going to bed. I've got into the habit of going to the pool a few times a week, mostly for the steam bath. I'm not absolutely sure how much good steam baths do me -- online articles that say they "clean out toxins" immediately shout out "crackpot complementary & alternative medicine" to me -- but I enjoy them and I do suspect they're good for my skin, helping to heal up persistent sores.

I can get a bit woozy if I stay in the steam heat too long, so I take in a bottle of water these days to cool off a bit. Sometimes I don't feel woozy but then I realize I "have the dumb" and sit down for a moment to take some deep breaths. Interestingly, on occasions I hear other occupants of the steam bath chatting away in Russian or possibly some other Slavic language; I wasn't aware there was a Russian expatriate community in town.

Since the Loveland city recreation center was expanded, they added a water slide, and to cool off I'll go down it a few times. One of the kids standing behind me in line asked why the warning sign said that people over 300 pounds (145 kilos) couldn't use the slide -- I said: "Because they'll get STUCK!" They also set up a fake stream, a pool in the form of a loop with a strong circulation and water sprays; I like to paddle down in backwards on my back.

Anyway, I went out after drying off and redressing and found it to be a remarkably pleasant mid-August evening, with the Moon coming up and the sounds of night. I went back home to survey the new flooring, which was all that I had hoped for; the old flooring had been depressing. I get a few more household updates done and all will be satisfactory as far as that goes.

* I did the second of my twice-yearly trips to Spokane this month. This time I ran into a snag with hotel bookings, with two lessons:

The only particularly eventful matter in the trip was that the Spokane streets were really torn up for maintenance, making it troublesome to get around town. My brother Steve commented: "There's four seasons: Fall, Winter, Spring, and Roadwork."

I was fascinated by how I navigated around obstacles and got from here to there along routes that I couldn't have imagined had I not been familiar with the city. It's not surprising that it's so easy to get turned around driving in a strange town; navigation really is a complicated process. What is interesting is that almost everyone can deal with it. If we look over, say, online comment sections for websites we might get the impression that, on the average, people are idiots -- claiming airliners are UFOs, for example. However, it's unusual to see people who are incompetent at ordinary but difficult procedures like driving. I think the lesson is that while everyone doesn't do so well at abstract reasoning, people are typically very intelligent at practical reasoning. I find that encouraging.