dec 2011 / last mod may 2016 / greg goebel

* Entries include: JFK assassination (series), antibiotic resistance (series), plant genomes (series), LED lighting, e-cigarette controversy, new GP medical services models, low-cost glasses, quasicrystals, artificial leaf plus polymer and paper solar cells, drug shortages in USA, shrinking icecaps, and loyalty cards as a global phenomenon.

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* NEWS COMMENTARY FOR DECEMBER 2011: Russia conducted parliamentary elections on 4 December that were widely seen as rigged to ensure the continued dominance of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and his United Russia Party. Even with cheating, United Russia's majority was far from overwhelming, suggesting considerable disgust with the current regime. Public agitation followed, leading to a large peaceful demonstration by Muscovites on 10 December. Police and security forces observing the demonstration appeared sympathetic.

Moscow demonstrations, 10 December 2011

A sign of change? Hopefully, but it's too early to place any confidence in such, all the more so because there's no organized opposition of any stature. Some of the signs carried in the demonstration did express humor along with the disgust, one saying:


-- and another complaining:


Further demonstrations have taken place. Putin has announced there will be no recount.

* While illegal immigration tends to be a political hot button in American politics, as discussed by THE ECONOMIST, underneath the rhetoric is the reality that illegal immigration isn't that big of a problem these days. Arrests of illegal immigrants sneaking across the US-Mexico border have dropped to a fifth of what they were in 2000, and in those days a higher proportion were getting through.

Why the decline? Primarily because the US Border Patrol has built up the muscle to do the job, with 17,000 agents on the border. They've got the people and they've got the tools: all-terrain vehicles, helicopters, night vision devices, sensor networks, and even unmanned aerial vehicles. A third of the border is fenced, sometimes formidably, and many of the places where it's not fenced are too inhospitable to make crossing over attractive. The Obama Administration has been no softy on illegal immigration, generously funding the Border Patrol -- which now is inclined to let illegal immigrants stew in jail for a few weeks instead of repatriating them immediately.

It's not all sticks, however; the Obama Administration has been quietly generous in handing out temporary work permits to Mexican citizens. Other factors have also contributed to the decline, including a scarcity of jobs north of the border and a falling Mexican birth rate. For all the reduction in flow of illegal immigrants, however, it still remains an issue, and there's no likelihood it will disappear from the political debate running up to the 2012 elections.

* The US states are strapped for revenue these days, and the unusually strident voter mindset of NO NEW TAXES has not helped matters much. As reported by BUSINESS WEEK, many of the states are ramping up their lotteries to help deal with budget shortfalls -- increasing advertising budgets, improving point-of-sale presentation of lottery tickets, and increasing the number of games along with bigger payoffs. Some states are now trying to sell lottery tickets through Wal-Mart, which has resisted so far, and to even sell lottery tickets online.

California lottery

The lottery business is booming, but there have been protests. Citizens playing lotteries are getting a wretched return on investment; should state governments be encouraging them to gamble? However, anybody with sense knows that lotteries are silly as an investment, they really amount to a form of entertainment, and there's something to be said for not assuming people are too dumb to realize it. Besides, if everyone's being such sticklers about raising taxes, it seems unfair to step on state governments for seeking alternate ways to make money.



* SCIENCE NOTES: As discussed here in 2008, the eruption of the Laki volcano in Iceland in 1783:84 was a staggering disaster, killing off a good percentage of the island's population and spreading misery across Europe with its toxic ventings. It spewed out volumes of volcanic ash, but more importantly dumped about 120 million tonnes of sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere.

Anja Schmidt, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Leeds in the UK, got to wondering what would happen if a Laki-class eruption took place in Iceland today, so Schmidt and her colleagues constructed a computer simulation to investigate. They used weather models to estimate where sulfur dioxide emissions from an 8-month-long eruption beginning in June would end up. They also estimated the resulting increases in the concentrations of airborne particles smaller than 2.5 micrometers across, the size of aerosols most easily drawn into human lungs and that cause cardiopulmonary distress. Then they estimated how many people those aerosols would kill.

In the first three months after the hypothetical eruption began, the average aerosol concentration over Europe would increase by 120%. The number of days during the eruption in which aerosol concentrations exceed air-quality standards would rise to 74, almost twice as long as normal periods of bad air quality. Not surprisingly, the worst-hit areas would be Iceland and northwestern Europe, directly downwind of the eruption, where aerosol concentrations would more than triple. However, aerosol concentrations in southern Europe would also increase dramatically, rising by 60%. Total casualties would be over 140,000 people.

At least four Laki-sized eruptions have occurred in Iceland in the past 1,150 years. Icelandic volcanoes shut down European air traffic for more than a week in April 2010 -- as discussed here at the time -- and for several days in May 2011. Those recent eruptions are tiny compared with a Laki-sized eruption, which would not only be an air pollution disaster but could also ground airplanes for six months or more, according to Alan Robock, an atmospheric scientist at Rutgers University in New Jersey. Such an event would have a huge impact on crop yields and, by affecting shipping and air traffic, would also affect Europe's ability to import food to deal with the crisis.

* As discussed here occasionally in the past, parasites are capable of influencing the behavior of their hosts, sometimes in surprising ways. A paper published by entomologist Fadio Manfredini of Pennsylvania State University and colleagues has now raised the surprise to new levels, with the case of the European paper wasp, Polistes dominulus, and the parasitic fly Xenos vesparum.

In the springtime, a wasp may encounter an X. vesparum fly larva, which will hop onto the wasp, to burrow into the wasp's abdomen and feed on its blood. As the fly larva feeds, it grows at the expense of the wasp, stunting it. The wasp also becomes withdrawn, gradually dropping out of the collective activity of the wasp nest, though the other wasps do not eject it from the hive. The rate of parasitism of wasps is low and so the parasite flies don't have much chance to mate if they stay in the hive, and so early in the summer, the infected wasp leaves the nest, to join in a collective of other infected wasps. How the wasp finds the collective is a puzzling question.

Once the wasps have assembled, mating begins. Not for the wasps, which have been generally rendered sexually nonfunctional, but for the parasitic flies. Mature male X. vesparum flies emerge from the abdomen of a host wasp and seek out wasps with immature females still in their wasp hosts, only poking one end out of the wasp abdomen. The male flies quickly die; the wasps that had been parasitized by male flies die from their injuries some time later, but the wasps parasitized by female flies live on to fatten themselves. The inseminated female flies, still living in their wasp hosts, raise a brood to create a next generation.

In late fall, the surviving wasps fly to congregate with healthy queen wasps. They winter with the queens, living as mock queens and being treated like royalty by the hive. Come spring, the true queens depart, but the parasitized mock queens remain behind for the time being to support growth of the fly brood. Finally, the gestation of the next generation of fly larva reaches a critical threshold and the mock queens depart. Some go to wasp foraging areas, with larva emerging to take up station in ambushes, for example under leaves; others may go to other wasp nests, where the larva emerge to plague the nest. The female fly larva of the previous generation never mature into adult insects; it seems that once the brood has been distributed, the mother fly larva and its host then die, though the paper was not clear on this issue.

The European paper wasp seems to be able to cope with the parasitic fly, though how it does so is unknown. The alterations of behavior are unusually elaborate in this case, suggesting a long-term co-evolution of the two species, with the wasps acquiring countermeasures and the flies acquiring counter-countermeasures in return, with the current scheme the result of an extended evolutionary "arms race".



* LED LIGHTING ON A ROLL: IEEE SPECTRUM ran a series on "top tech of the decade" early in 2011, with one article ("LED Lighting: Blue + Yellow = White" by Richard Stevenson) focusing on the rapidly emerging use of LEDs for lighting. LEDs were long familiar as indicator lights, but it wasn't until the turn of the century that their reach began to spread, for example as illumination for the displays of mobile phones. Now they're backlighting TV and computer display screens and are poised to take over household lighting.

Since the 1970s, when red LEDs became common, with every decade LEDs have become 20 times brighter and 90% cheaper per watt, a rule known as "Haitz's Law". Red LEDs were followed by yellow and blue LEDs, and now the white LEDs driving the emerging lighting boom. The white LEDs first appeared about a decade ago, initially being use for backlighting phone handsets. They could only handle tens of milliamps at most, and produced only 10 lumens of light for each watt of power they burned; they were also tiny, bare specks only 300 micrometers on a side. Since then, maximum current levels have shot up to an ampere or more while efficiencies have increased by a factor of 10, to 100 lumens per watt; chip sizes have reached a millimeter square or more.

LED lighting fixture

They're everything that's wanted for household lighting except for price, but prices are coming down. Even today, LED lamps are commercially practical for use in lighting fixtures that are difficult to access, for example on very high ceilings, since LEDs last 25 times as long as classic lightbulbs, and 50% longer than a compact fluorescent lights (CFL). In addition, LEDs don't contain the toxic mercury found in CFLs, and so are not as troublesome to dispose of.

Increasing the current limits and size of white-light LEDs was straightforward; increasing the efficiency was the challenge. The first generation of white LEDs featured a stack of carefully laid-out gallium nitride (GaN) and indium gallium nitride (InGaN) layers on a semitransparent substrate to yield blue-emitting devices, with a yellow-emitting phosphor laid over the stack to turn the output white. However, this design trapped much of the light inside the chip and sent another fraction in the wrong direction, down through the substrate.

To address these weaknesses, engineers coated the GaN / InGan stack with a metal layer that acted as a mirror, preventing light from leaking out. They then flipped the assembly over and stripped off the substrate to allow light to escape from that surface, with the surface roughed up to prevent light from being reflected back inside. Europe's leading LED manufacturer, Osram Opto Semiconductors of Germany, and the two US LED giants Cree and Philips Lumileds use variations on this scheme. Japan's Nichia, the world's biggest LED manufacturer, has a different way of doing things: instead of removing the substrate, they etch a hexagonal pattern into it to allow light to escape.

Such second-generation white LEDs hit the streets about four years ago and have since gone from commercial strength to strength. White LEDs now illuminate parking lots, streets, and civic buildings. Penetration into the home depends on price; the sticker shock is painful at present, LEDs running about an order of magnitude more expensive than CFLs, but costs are expected to fall as manufacturers climb the learning curve. One key is bigger substrates; 5 centimeter (2 inch) wafers are the norm at present, but they should double or triple in size soon.

Work continues on making LEDs even more efficient. Once LEDs get cheap enough, their cool operation, ruggedness, and compact size should allow them to be used for lighting applications nobody's even thought of yet. Given all the advantages and the rapidly declining cost of LED lighting, it's only a matter of time before it becomes the norm. It may not be too long before asking: "How many lawyers does it take to screw in a lightbulb?" -- will get the reply: "What's a lightbulb?"



* THE WAR OVER E-CIGS: The "electronic cigarette" or "e-cig", mentioned here in 2008, looks like a cigarette -- but it's made of plastic and metal, and uses battery power to vaporize a flavored liquid to be inhaled. The fad started out overseas, but now at least 3 million Americans are using e-cigs. As discussed by an article from THE NEW YORK TIMES ("A Tool to Quit Smoking Has Some Unlikely Critics" by John Tierney, 7 November 2011), the e-cig is turning out to be surprisingly controversial.

E-cigs seem to have clear advantages. It's notoriously hard to get smokers to kick the habit, but a group of Italian researchers led by Riccardo Polosa of the University of Catania gave e-cigs to 40 smokers who were trying to quit. In six months, half the group had cut their smoking in half, and a quarter had stopped smoking completely. It was just a small pilot study to see if a bigger investigation was sensible, but it was very encouraging.


However, there's a lot of resistance to e-cigs. Part of it is that, though e-cigs seem obviously a lot healthier than cigarettes, their health effects haven't been thoroughly characterized yet. That concern will be resolved, but there's a bigger issue -- puritanism, a fear that e-cigs, if proven healthy, could make smoking, or more properly "vaping" in the case of e-cigs, respectable.

The US Food & Drug Administration (FDA) resisted the sale of e-cigarettes by treating them as a "drug delivery device" that could not be marketed until safety and efficacy could be demonstrated in clinical trials. The agency was backed by the American Cancer Society, the American Heart Association, Action on Smoking and Health, and the Center for Tobacco-Free Kids. The FDA was overruled in court -- but continues to push a "slippery slope" argument that e-cigs could help people become nicotine addicts. The FDA has also suggested that e-cig vapors pose significant hazards, a claim contested by Polosa and other e-cig advocates.

One advocate, Dr. Brad Rodu, a professor of medicine at the University of Louisville in Kentucky, recently wrote in HARM REDUCTION JOURNAL that the supposed toxins in e-cig vapors "are highly unlikely to have any possible significance to users" because the chemicals are at "about one million times lower concentrations than are conceivably related to human health." Even advocates admit that more research is required to established the risks of e-cig use, but they point out in frustration that e-cigs might help large numbers of smokers get off the tobacco habit, which all recognize as a hazard far above the noise threshold.

The American Association of Public Health Physicians and the American Council on Science and Health see no reason to object to adults using e-cigarettes. In Britain, the Royal College of Physicians has complained about "irrational and immoral" regulations inhibiting the introduction of safer nicotine-delivery devices, with the organization concluding: "Nicotine itself is not especially hazardous. If nicotine could be provided in a form that is acceptable and effective as a cigarette substitute, millions of lives could be saved."

Some US anti-smoking groups are all for e-cigs, saying they could replace "much or most" cigarette consumption in the USA within a decade. About 50 million Americans continue to smoke, even though effectively all of them know it's hazardous, and antismoking rules make them feel more and more like pariahs. They have a conflicted mindset about tobacco, partly enjoying it while partly seeing it a curse. If they have the option of enjoying it without the curse, or at least a much smaller curse, who can complain? Yes, smokers might be better off if they gave up the habit, but there's also no doubt that they'd be better off vaping instead of lighting up another coffin nail.



* THE ANTIBIOTIC RESISTANCE CHALLENGE (2): The idea that antibiotic-resistant pathogens are not necessarily "superbugs" may be, at least in part, wishful thinking. Even if they aren't really "superbugs", the indisputable fact remains that antibiotic resistance really is a problem. That leads to the second approach to dealing with the problem, which is attempting to restrain overuse of antibiotics.

Studies suggest that up to half of antibiotic use is unnecessary or inappropriate. In the absence of strict controls and effective monitoring, doctors with a sick patient have less incentive to restrain antibiotic use than they do to throw everything they have at the problem: when in doubt, do whatever might work. Doctors may not always diagnose ailments correctly and may not always give the right prescriptions; the medicines themselves may be substandard or diluted; and patients may not follow the drug regimen correctly.

Governments, companies, health-care providers, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) need to push more responsible use of antibiotics. Technology should help, providing accurate diagnostic systems to provide better diagnoses; better knowledge systems to ensure the proper drugs are prescribed; and tracking schemes to make sure patients are taking their drugs as recommended. However, ultimately the primary responsibility falls on the medical profession, with doctors becoming more diligent in prescribing antibiotics, and their professional associations setting standards for and implementing the appropriate training.

And all this barely addresses the problem with overuse of antibiotics in agriculture. Dealing with that problem will involve coordination between agricultural industries, government regulators, and agritech researchers. Do meat producers really need to use antibiotics so heavily, or could they do just as well with less by being more selective? If they can't, could substitute materials be found that will do the job just as well?

* That leads indirectly to the third approach to dealing with antibiotic resistance: produce new drugs. Alas, that turns out to be particularly problematic, since most of the drugs now available have been around a long time, and the pipeline for new drugs seems to be slowly running dry. Between 1983 and 1987, 16 new antibiotics won approval from America's Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Since 2003, only seven have been approved; and of the new drugs, few are a great advance over their predecessors.

Why? One issue is that the pioneers of antibiotic development were fortunate to develop extremely powerful drugs early on; after that, researchers ran into diminishing returns. It has been hoped that 21st-century genomic and proteomic research might rev up drug development, but so far they've proven sinks for research funds with no payoff.

What makes new drug development so painful is the fact that drug companies have a financial disincentive to pursue research into new antibiotics. Drug development is expensive enough; lengthy government qualification necessarily compounds the expense. Drug companies have to make a profit or go out of business, and when existing drugs do the job fairly well, they necessarily dampen the market for improved drugs. The market just isn't there; the number of resistant patients is a small proportion of the potential customer base, and drug-resistant patients tend to be concentrated in poor countries that can't afford to buy expensive new drugs anyway. Some research still persists, but it's generally being done by small startups seeking an edge to get into the drug market, not the big drug companies.

It is hard to blame the drug companies for obeying the tyranny of perverse financial incentives. The trick is to change the incentives, and there have been partnerships between industry, government, and NGOs set up to nudge drug development along the road to rationality. Tricks such as prizes, guaranteed markets, and improved patent protection for drugs needed to treat particularly troublesome diseases are being floated.

In any case, dealing with the problem of antibiotic resistance is not going to be easy, but it does need to be solved. Consider, for an important example, modern surgery, which can be made counterproductive by post-operative infections. Right now the rate of infections is at the noise level, but if resistant pathogens raise it to even 5%, most discretionary surgery -- orthopedic surgery, cataract replacements, and so on -- would come to an abrupt halt. That wouldn't be the end of the world by any means, but maybe, just maybe, it's a backwards step we don't really want to take. [END OF SERIES]



* THE KILLING OF JFK -- JACK RUBY (5): Jack Ruby looms large in conspiracy theories -- in fact, if there was any one single element in the story that gave the conspiracy theories momentum, it seems as a good bet it was Ruby's murder of Oswald. How could the police have been so appallingly incompetent as to simply allow Oswald to be killed? It seemed much too convenient, as if people wanted to make sure Oswald was silenced before he could talk.

On the other side of the coin, it wasn't as though there was anything all that surprising about somebody wanting to shoot Oswald; the threatening phone calls received by the authorities and the widespread outrage against Oswald made it clear that any hothead who wanted to kill him would have had to get in line. It was vicious and stupid to do so, of course: Ruby had taken justice into his own hands as judge, jury, and executioner when he had absolutely no way of knowing, given how confused matters were that weekend, that Oswald hadn't been arrested by mistake.

By preventing a trial from taking place, Ruby also denied the world the opportunity to see Oswald in the witness stand, which would have likely done Oswald no good, and even prevented conspiracy theories from ever taking off. Nothing in Oswald's testimony during police interrogation suggests he would have confessed to the bitter end, but his comments were blatantly evasive, often easily contradicted by demonstrable facts. The same sort of tap-dancing under cross-examination in a court of law would have placed his evasions and lies in the spotlight; to cover up his lies, he would simply have told more lies, digging himself in deeper. His habitual arrogance would have made him the most hated man in America.

The "Ruby silenced Oswald for the Mob" scenario tends to fall down when the details of Ruby's assault on Oswald are considered. The timing of Ruby's entry to the garage is particularly revealing. The moneygram Ruby obtained from Western Union was stamped 11:17 AM, as was the receipt he had on him for the moneygram; the call for an ambulance for Oswald was logged at 11:21 AM. The clerk who sold him the moneygram said that Ruby left the building walking casually, as if in no hurry. It had been publicly announced that the transfer of Oswald would take place at 10:00 AM. If Ruby had honestly been planning to get in for a shot at Oswald, he would have been around City Hall earlier. The transfer was delayed by unforeseen circumstances, in the form of the presence of postal inspector Harry Holmes in the interrogation -- Holmes had simply gone down to City Hall to see if he could do anything useful, Will Fritz saw him and asked him to sit in -- and, possibly, Oswald's request to change his clothes, though that only took about a minute.

A minute might have been all that was needed. Ruby had a very narrow time window of opportunity; if Oswald had been brought out a minute earlier or Ruby had been a minute later, Oswald would not have died that day. It hardly seems likely that if Ruby had a plan to kill Oswald, he would have been standing in line at Western Union right up to the last moment. Had the line there been longer, he would have missed the window. Indeed, if Ruby hadn't needed to get the moneygram, it's unlikely he would have been anywhere near City Hall. As far as the Dallas police went, their negligence was apparent, but nobody has ever been able to provide any credible evidence, any corroborated testimony, that willful malfeasance was involved.

The biggest problem with the idea that Ruby was a hit man for the Mob is one of simple logic. If the Mob wanted to shut up a loose cannon before he could talk, why hand the law another loose cannon in his place? Had Oswald been killed in a slick professional hit job where the assassins disappeared into the shadows and evaded capture, that would have been far more suspicious than sending in an unstable loudmouth to do the job. In fact, simply exchanging one loose cannon for another would have made matters more difficult for the conspiracy by multiplying the connections back to it.

It is very implausible that Ruby was working for the Mob. A high-ranking Mob boss named Jimmy "The Weasel" Fratiano who became a government informant recollected a chat he had in 1976 with fellow gangster Johnny Roselli, previously noted as Jimmy Files' supposed employer in an "assassination plot". Roselli had just testified to the HSCA; according to Fratiano, Roselli said he would have liked to have told the committee that "the Mob did it, just to see the expression on their stoopid faces. Y'know, we're supposed to be idiots? Right? We hire a psycho like Oswald to kill the President, and then we get a blabbermouth, two-bit punk like Ruby to shut him up. We wouldn't trust those jerks to hit a fucking dog." [TO BE CONTINUED]



* SPACE NEWS: Space launches for November included:

-- 03 NOV 11 / GLONASS M x 3 -- A Proton M Breeze M booster was launched from Baikonur in Kazakhstan to put three Russian GLONASS M modernized navigation satellites into orbit. They were designated "Cosmos 2475" through "Cosmos 2477".

-- 08 NOV 11 / PHOBOS-GRUNT, YINGHUO-1 (FAILURE) -- A Zenit 2FG booster was launched from Baikonur to send the "Phobos-Grunt" sample return probe to the Martian moon Phobos. The mission also included a small Chinese Mars orbiter named "Yinghuo 1". The spacecraft made orbit, but the upper stage wouldn't relight and the mission was lost.

-- 09 NOV 11 / YAOGAN 12, TIANXUN 1 -- A Long March 4B booster was launched from Taiyuan in China to put the "Yaogan 12" observation satellite and "Tianxun 1" experimental satellite into orbit. Yaogan 12 appears to have been a dual-use civil-military surveillance satellite. Tianxun 1 was built by the Nanjing University of Astronautics & Aeronautics for technology tests.

-- 14 NOV 11 / SOYUZ TMA-22 (ISS 28S) -- A Soyuz booster was launched from Baikonur to put the "Soyuz TMA-22 (ISS 28S)" manned space capsule into orbit on an International Space Station (ISS) support mission. The launch was performed in a snowstorm. The crew consisted of Anton Shkaplerov and Anatoly Ivanishin of the Russian Space Agency (both rookies), and Dan Burbank of NASA (third space flight). They docked with the ISS Poisk module two days after launch, joining the "Expedition 29" crew of Michael Fossum, Sergei Volkov, and Satoshi Furukawa.

-- 20 NOV 11 / SHIYAN 4, CHUANGZIN 1-03 -- A Long March 3D booster was launched from Jiuquan in China to put the "Shiyan 4" experimental satellite and the "Chuangzin 1-03" smallsat into Sun-synchronous orbit.

Mars Science Laboratory launch

-- 26 NOV 11 / MARS SCIENCE LABORATORY -- An Atlas 5 booster was launched from Cape Canaveral to send the "Mars Science Laboratory" rover to the Red Planet. The Atlas was in the "541" configuration, with a 5 meter (16 foot 5 inch) fairing, four solid rocket boosters, and a single-engine upper stage.

-- 28 NOV 11 / GLONASS M -- A Soyuz 2-1b booster was launched from Baikonur to put a Russian GLONASS M navigation satellite into orbit. It was designated "Cosmos 2478".

-- 29 NOV 11 / YAOGAN 13, TIANXUN 1 -- A Long March 2C booster was launched from Taiyuan to put the "Yaogan 13" observation satellite into space. Yaogan 13 appears to have been a dual-use civil-military radar surveillance satellite.

* OTHER SPACE NEWS: The European Space Agency has now committed to two new space science missions, named "Solar Orbiter" and "Euclid". Solar Orbiter is scheduled for launch in 2017 and will study the Sun's interactions with its space environment, with the probe approaching the Sun more closely than any probe to date -- 42 million kilometers (26 million kilometers). Euclid is scheduled for launch in 2019 and will map out large-scale structures in the Universe.

ESA Euclid

* The US Air Force's interest in obtaining a "reusable launch vehicle (RLV)" to replace current expendable boosters was mentioned briefly here over a year ago. Now the other shoe has dropped, with the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) in Dayton awarding research contracts to Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and Andrews Space for the "Reusable Booster System Flight & Ground Experiments (RBS-FGE)" program. The RBS, as envisioned, will not be fully reusable. It will consist of a vertically launched, winged reusable "first stage" with an expendable upper stage. The winged first stage will be powered by a combined-cycle (airbreathing / rocket) engine and will land on a runway. The current contracts are modest, only about $250 million USD each, enough for development of "RBS Pathfinder" demonstrators, with test flights to begin in 2015. A follow-on phase will then develop an operational vehicle.

The frustrating thing about this story that a two-stage RLV doesn't seem that technically challenging, it could have been done decades ago. The problem, it seems, is that it gets more difficult by a steep factor as desired payload mass increases, and there's an ugly bind between building an RLV that's affordable but has limited payload capability, and an RLV that can handle heavy payloads but is astronomically expensive.

Partial reusability has also been a stumbling block because it doesn't reduce operational costs as much, but full reusability means gold plate, and complexity that can demand so much babying that operational cost benefits evaporate. Those knowledgeable of the true history of the NASA space shuttle program and how it failed to meet expectations see it as a long shadow over RLV development, demonstrating just how badly things can go wrong. Maybe this time we'll get it right.



* A TRIP TO THE DOCTOR: The American medical system sometimes seems like capitalism gone very wrong. In consumer technology, we're used to getting better tech at lower prices; in medicine, we seem to end up paying more all the time and not getting much more for it. Somehow the business model for medicine just doesn't seem to work right.

There are some encouraging signs, however. As reported by an article from BUSINESS WEEK ("The Doctor Will See You Whenever You Want" by John Tozzi, 4 July 2011), a Seattle-area operation named Qliance Medical Group provides clients with primary health care on demand for a fixed monthly rate, varying from $50 USD to $130 USD. Patients can come in as often as they see the need and they don't pay any more.

The notion of "concierge" care is not new, but as more generally practiced it involves a clinic that caters to a small set of wealthy customers who are willing to pay hundreds or thousands of dollars a month. In the 1990s, a doctor named Garrison Bliss became interested in the concept, but had his own ideas about how to implement it: "I had no interest in a $1,000 a month practice with 50 clients." Instead, he charged $65 USD a month, building up 800 clients. In 2007 he set up the first Qliance Clinic; now there's three, with a total of eight doctors and two nurses.

Qliance doesn't accept insurance; dealing with insurance bureaucracy can soak up a quarter of a clinic's revenue. Since the clients pay fixed rate, Qliance doctors have no incentive to overtreat them to rack up costs. Clients can get advice over the phone or even, staggering as it seems by the standards of normal medical practice, by email. Bliss says the operation has been in the black since day one, and he's been acquiring venture capital to set up clinics across the USA.

The monthly service provides preventive care, basic tests, advice, treatment for chronic conditions, and simple emergency services such as stitches and X-rays. It doesn't cover prescriptions, specialists, and hospital expenses, the idea being that clients will still need insurance to deal with those contingencies. According to Qliance, however, the fact that clients are getting consistent preventive care and have access to expert advice means that the clients don't have to turn to such services as often. The company intends to collaborate with insurers, with Qliance offering primary care while the insurers offer high-deductible contracts for other services.

While industry observers admire what Qliance is doing, there's skepticism that their business model is broadly applicable. The relatively modest monthly fees for a Qliance clinic are still too much for poorer customers, and even for those who find it affordable, a primary care service coupled with high-deductible insurance has too many holes to be regarded as a comprehensive health service. However, Qliance is clearly a step in the right direction. The US medical system has worked its way into a state of crisis, but a crisis can lead to remarkable innovations; given new ideas, one might dream that a few decades from now people will wonder what the fuss was all about.

* CHEAP GLASSES: A related article from the same issue of BUSINESS WEEK ("A Startup's New Prescription For Eyewear" by Susan Berfield, 4 July 2011) focused on Warby Parker, an internet startup that sells prescription eyeglasses. Warby Parker is the brainchild of Dave Gilboa and Neil Blumenthal. In 2008 they were both at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania. They got to wondering why eyeglasses were so expensive; sure, glasses needed custom lenses, but the frames themselves cost as much as an iPod. Blumenthal had worked on a program to provide eyeglasses in undeveloped countries and knew the answer: "The optical industry is an oligopoly. A few companies are making outrageous margins and screwing you and me."

Blumenthal was not exaggerating. Milan-based Luxottica is one of the oligarchs: it owns LensCrafters, Pearle Vision, Sunglass Hut, Ray-Ban, Oakley, and Oliver Peoples; it runs the optical shops at Wal-Mart and Sears; and it manufactures under license eyewear for dozens of other brands. Gilboa comments: "They've created the illusion of choice."

They also have unintentionally created an opportunity. In 2009 Gilboa, Blumenthal, and two other colleagues from the Wharton School set up Warby Parker, the name being derived from the writings of Jack Kerouac. The firm started out with 27 different models but now has 60, though they tend towards a "retro" look that doesn't fly everywhere. The firm offers a "try before buy" mail order program and its website allows customers to "try on" glasses virtually. Their business has been booming and competitors have been moving in; the days of the eyeglass oligarchy may well be numbered.

Warby Parker glasses

ED: This article hit home because some time back I broke my glass frames. No problem, just get new frames, right? They should be cheap. I was staggered to find that frames cost almost as much as new glasses, and worse the frame I had was "obsolete" -- I finally managed to find frames that would accommodate the lenses after a bit of torture, but otherwise I would have had to get completely new glasses.

Manufacturers don't always like standards, since they can reduce control over the customer, and I was getting a very strong dose of that mindset at work. Since I don't wear glasses when I go out of the house, I have no particular reason to worry about how fashionable they look -- not that I'm at the age where fashion is a real concern anyway -- and the next time I buy glasses I'll do it online and make sure I have standard frames. Warby Parker appears to shooting for a more fashion-conscious market, but it seems likely that other vendors will target the bottom end, for people who don't much care how their glasses look, as long as they're cheap, sturdy, and standardized.



* QUASICRYSTALS VINDICATED: As discussed by an article in AAAS SCIENCE ("Once-Ridiculed Discovery Redefined The Term Crystal" by Daniel Clery, 14 October 2011), in 1982 Daniel Schechtman, a professor of materials at the Technion-Israel, stumbled across something that didn't seem to make sense: an alloy of aluminum and manganese that had fivefold symmetry, meaning the crystal looked the same if rotated by a fifth of a circle, 72 degrees. That wasn't supposed to happen and Schechtman's discovery was greeted with a considerable amount of disbelief. However, the scientific community finally accepted that atoms in a solid can have a "quasicrystal" arrangement that almost, but never quite repeats. Schechtman's discovery of quasicrystals won him the 2011 Nobel Prize in chemistry.

Traditionally, crystals were seen as materials in which the atomic structure repeats itself on a periodic basis. That definition puts constraints on the possible structures for a crystal. Suppose we want to cover a tabletop with polygonal tiles; we can do it with triangles, no problem, and by the same coin crystals can have threefold symmetry. We can also carpet the tabletop with rectangles or hexagons, and so we can have crystals with fourfold and sixfold symmetry. However, we can't carpet the tabletop with pentagons, we'll always end up with gaps, and so a regular crystal can't have fivefold symmetry.

aluminum-palladium-manganese quasicrystal model

Schechtman wasn't expecting to find fivefold symmetry when he was tinkering with samples of an aluminum-manganese (AlMn) alloy while on sabbatical in 1982 at the US National Institute of Standards & Technology (NIST) in Gaithersburg, Maryland. He cooled down the alloy rapidly to keep it from crystallizing normally, and then examined the result with X-ray diffraction -- firing an x-ray beam into the sample and then examining the pattern caused by the crystal's diffraction of the beam. He might have expected an amorphous solid, with no particular order, but what he got was concentric rings, each made up of ten bright dots.

Tenfold symmetry? Was something wrong with his experiment? Schechtman went over it repeatedly until he was convinced nothing was wrong. Few believed him at the time, but after he published a paper on the phenomenon in PHYSICAL REVIEW LETTERS in 1984, as he put it "all hell broke loose". The experiment wasn't that hard to do, and when others did it, they found they could bet on getting the same results. What was going on?

Mathematicians came to the rescue. From the 1960s some of them had been fascinated by the tilings creating by 13th-century Arabic artisans in structures such as the Alhambra Palace in Grenada, Spain. Such tilings used simple elements to create patterns that never repeated. The mathematicians analyzed the patterns, in particular determining the smallest number of tiles that could support such non-repeating patterns. In the 1970s, Roger Penrose of the University of Oxford in the UK came up with a pattern based on just two rhombic elements that could do the job. The resulting "Penrose tilings" were littered with pentagons and decagons.

Penrose tilings

Maybe something similar was happening in the AlMn samples? Theoretical models of materials with arrangements along the lines of Penrose tilings showed they would produce a diffraction pattern like that observed by Schechtman. Theoreticians soon nailed down the properties of such materials, dubbing them "quasicrystals". X-ray crystallographers were still doubtful, since the AlMn samples available early on weren't big enough to support X-ray crystallography for a definitive analysis. Bigger samples were finally obtained, and they did indeed validate the concept. In 1992, the International Union of Crystallography changed the formal definition of a crystal from a regularly repeating arrangement of atoms to "any solid having an essentially discrete diffraction pattern."

Quasicrystals had come of age. They're still not very well understood, one problem being that nobody can quite figure out how they form. According to Penrose: "They can't be produced simply from local rules; there has to be some subtle kind of production." That is, quasicrystals can't spontaneously come together in their type of order, they have to be produced by some exterior process that sets up the order. Their nonrepeating structure, to no surprise, also makes them very hard to mathematically analyze.

Quasicrystals might seem to be just a scientific curiosity, but samples of natural quasicrystals have been found, and they have been observed in high-strength steels. They may have a range of applications in materials technology, from nonstick coatings to thermoelectric materials. However, even if nobody ever makes any money off them, those who appreciate the marvels unearthed by science would be no less impressed by quasicrystals. They are, as has been said, yet another demonstration of the reality that we dare not underestimate the stunning elaboration of the natural world.



* THE ANTIBIOTIC RESISTANCE CHALLENGE (1): The unfortunate fact that bacterial pathogens are gradually acquiring resistance to the antibiotic drugs used to kill them has been discussed here in the past. As reported by a survey in THE ECONOMIST ("The Spread Of Superbugs", 31 March 2011), efforts to deal with the problem are not going well.

The emergence of antibiotic resistance was anticipated from the outset. Alexander Fleming -- who shared the 1945 Nobel Prize for medicine with colleagues Howard Florey and Ernst Chain for the discovery of penicillin -- warned the world in his acceptance speech: "There is the danger that the ignorant man may easily underdose himself and by exposing his microbes to non-lethal quantities of the drug make them resistant."

Fleming's warning was no idle joke, since antibiotic resistance has become a real problem, one that could become much worse. Unfortunately, work to come up with solutions has been sluggish, with convenience, laziness, perverse financial incentives, and simple bad luck conspiring to frustrate progress. There are good reasons to think that we aren't faced with a massive global disaster from a resistant pathogen -- one being that decades of antibiotic use hasn't produced any such thing -- but the fact is that antibiotic resistance is slowly grinding away at public health.

* Simple laziness and ignorance are the biggest troublemakers. Patients with a cold or flu will nag doctors for antibiotics, even though antibiotics won't do a thing against such viral infections; and some doctors will prescribe a cheap antibiotic, just to get patients to stop fussing. Even when a drug is properly prescribed, patients may not stick to proper usage; worse, in some parts of the world, antibiotics are sold over-the-counter, meaning there's no control over usage at all. The end result of such misuse is that the antibiotics are much more likely to breed resistant pathogens than help anyone. Greatly compounding the trouble is the fact that livestock are heavily dosed with antibiotics as a matter of course, even when the beasts are healthy, to help them grow faster. Some estimate that 80% of all antibiotic use in America is for livestock, with huge herds of animals busily screening for resistant pathogens.

Antibiotic resistance means longer and more serious illnesses, lengthening hospital stays and complicating their treatment. It of course means more fatalities. For the time being, the worst affected are children, the old, cancer patients, and the chronically ill -- most significantly, patients suffering from AIDS. Things stand to get worse. Nearly 450,000 new cases of multidrug-resistant tuberculosis are recorded each year; one-third of the patients die. More than a quarter of new cases of TB identified recently in parts of Russia were of this troublesome kind.

The simple financial cost is troublesome as well, with antibiotic resistance costing America tens of billions of dollars a year, partly because it leads to increased demands on hospital care and partly because patients infected with resistant bacteria need to buy more expensive drugs. For the cost of treating one person with strongly drug-resistant TB, for example, a hospital can treat 200 with weaker strains. The financial burden is very painful for poor countries.

* There are three philosophies for dealing with the antibiotic resistance problem. The first is simple: do nothing. That's not as irresponsible as it sounds. Before penicillin was introduced in the mid-1940s, it was possible for a perfectly healthy individual to die of septicaemia from a casual, everyday cut. Many other bacterial infections, most notably TB, were similarly routine killers. However, antibiotics and vaccines have generally made that nightmare scenario a thing of the past; compared to the millions, tens of millions who died of tuberculosis every year in the old days, 150,000 deaths a year now doesn't sound so bad. It doesn't sound good, of course, but attempts to throttle the use of antibiotics to head off the emergence of resistance might well just make matters worse.

There is a related line of thinking that suggests resistant bacteria, despite appearances to the contrary, may not be as robust overall as their non-resistant cousins; that is, the mutations that provide antibiotic resistance hobble the bacteria in other ways. Some species of pathogens don't seem to be able to come up with antibiotic resistance, possibly because any mutation that provides resistance cripples the pathogen. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* THE KILLING OF JFK -- JACK RUBY (4): Police found Ruby muddled under questioning, unable to give a coherent reason for why he killed Oswald. He was charged with murder. Jack's brother Earl, hoping to get the best possible deal for Jack in his trial, decided to forego using local lawyers and managed to get superstar lawyer Melvin Belli to take the case. Belli did it for nothing, thinking the publicity would pay the way. It actually wasn't that challenging a case, since many Texans didn't have a big problem with Ruby killing Oswald -- in fact, Ruby had received a pile of telegrams from all over congratulating him on killing Oswald -- and the general expectation was that Ruby would get a five-year sentence.

Hiring on Belli, however, turned out to be a big mistake. In the first place, Belli was a pro in torts -- civil suits -- but he had little background in criminal cases; he certainly knew little about the idiosyncrasies of Texas law. In the second place, Belli was arrogant, saying publicly that he regarded the Dallas folk as "yokels". Belli did an overblown job on the defense that simply annoyed the jury and humiliated his client; on 14 March 1964, the jury found Jack Ruby guilty of premeditated murder, and with Ruby then sentenced to death.

Ruby's mental stability, not very good when he was arrested, continued to deteriorate during the trial and afterward. He had fantasies of Jews being slaughtered, with the guards reporting that he would put his ear to the wall and say: "Shh! Do you hear the screams? They're torturing the Jews again down in the basement!" He smashed his head into the wall on at least one occasion, tried to hang himself another, and on still another occasion tried to electrocute himself.

Since Ruby was behind bars, the Warren Commission decided to visit him in Dallas instead of bringing him to Washington DC; Oswald had been killed while trying to move him around, taking Ruby across country would be just asking for trouble. Warren was part of the team, in fact he was there at Ruby's insistence. In 1971, Warren was interviewed by a researcher named Joe Frantz, with Warren telling him: "I went down and took Jack Ruby's testimony myself -- he wouldn't talk to anybody but me, wouldn't talk to anybody but me."

They talked to Ruby on 7 June 1964. Conspiracy theorists make much of Ruby's declaration of a conspiracy to kill JFK during the interview; they particularly play up the fact that Ruby asked to go to Washington DC to tell his story, saying that the conspiracy would otherwise kill him to keep him from talking. Anyone who would say such things has made a willfully selective reading of the transcript of the interview. The first conclusion of anyone giving a serious reading to the 7 June interview is that Ruby was unbalanced, often rambling and making bizarre comments. As far as Ruby's statements that a conspiracy had killed JFK went, Ruby made it insistently clear he had no involvement with it, simply saying the John Birch Society was behind it, that the conspiracy was torturing and murdering Jews, trying to pin JFK's assassination on Jews. How did Ruby know this? "It's just a feeling of it." He had no more specific information on the conspiracy than anyone else did.

Ruby was explicit in saying that he couldn't tell his story unless he went to Washington DC, but his comments show that what he meant was that he didn't believe his testimony would be accurately passed on by the interviewers, that he needed to tell LBJ the truth in person, and believed the "John Birch conspiracy" would kill him to prevent that from happening: "It may not be too late, whatever happens, if our president, Lyndon Johnson, knew the truth from me. But if I am eliminated, there won't be any way of knowing."

Ruby's testimony was vague enough to permit the interpretation that there were things he couldn't say out of fear of his life -- but he also answered all the questions put to him, if not always in very clearly, and in fact obsessively insisted that he be asked every question that could prove he wasn't part of the conspiracy to kill JFK. It actually doesn't make sense to think that Ruby would have refused to tell all to the Warren Commission: he would have been safer to tell everything he knew right up front, since the conspiracy would know he had nothing more to reveal and that it was too late to "shut him up for good". If he was worried about reprisals against him and his family for talking, he would have run exactly the same risk in going to Washington DC.

* Ruby's death sentence was appealed, with his defense arguing that he couldn't get a fair trial in Dallas and should have a retrial in some other locale. The Texas Court of Appeals judged for a retrial on 5 October 1966. Wichita Falls, Texas, was selected for the new trial, but when the Wichita Falls sheriff showed up in December 1966, Ruby was too ill to be moved. The Dallas jail medics had been treating him for what they thought was simply stomach distress, but on examination at Parkland Hospital, Ruby turned out to have an advanced cancer, which the jail doctors hadn't noticed for over a year.

Ruby, in his broken-down state, claimed that he had been injected with cancer cells, a claim that some conspiracy theorists cling to -- though medical authorities point out there is no known way to give someone cancer by such means. In any case, if the conspiracy needed to "silence" him, they took their time doing it, letting him stew in jail for over three years when he could have sung to the authorities at any moment. In a taped interview on 16 December 1966, not long before his death, when he was momentarily lucid, he once again insisted that he had acted alone, that he was not part of a conspiracy, telling pretty much the same story he always had, one interesting comment being:


The ironic part of this [is that if I hadn't] made an illegal turn behind the bus to the parking lot, had I gone the way I was supposed to go straight down Main Street, I would have never met this fate because the difference in meeting this fate was thirty seconds one way or the other.


Obviously he could not have feared being "silenced" at that point, because he knew he was going to die soon. Ruby finally died on 3 January 1967. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* GIMMICKS & GADGETS: While there's been considerable talk of a "network of things" -- in which everything we buy has its own memory chip for ID and history -- it turns out that the basic idea has been at work for about two decades, as the "contact memory button (CMB)". A CMB is just that, a ruggedized package in the form of a button containing a nonvolatile memory and interface circuitry, with the button mounted directly to the assembly it provides information on. It's not powered and cannot be accessed wirelessly; an interface probe, typically linked to a mobile computing device like a tablet over USB, is pressed against the CMB for readout and update. CMBs are typically password-protected. They can be thought of as something like flash drives integrated onto machine hardware.

There are "micro", "mini", and "mega" CMBs, with micros being about the size of a pencil eraser and with capacities of a few kilobytes; minis about the size of a quarter and with capacities of up to a few hundred kilobytes; and macros about the size of a silver dollar and with capacities of up to a few gigabytes. Gigabytes may seem like overkill, but for some assemblies they will store all relevant records, as well as technical manuals and even training videos. CMBs can withstand environmental extremes that would completely destroy flash drives; they're designed to outlast the assemblies they're attached to.

CMB on pipeline

The CMB was primarily driven by the US military from back in the 1990s, as part of what is now known as the "Joint Automatic Identification Technology (J-AIT)" program, which also covers several flavors of RFID and traditional barcodes. The military uses CMBs for a wide range of assemblies -- for example, each rotor blade of an Apache helicopter gunship incorporates a CMB. They are also seeing some use in the commercial-industrial market. American Airlines has recently become the first airline to adopt CMBs to track replaceable aircraft structural components, such as doors, stabilizers, rudders, and elevators.

* While the public generally perceives balloons as frivolities, they were used in military observation as far back as the US Civil War, and were widely employed in that role in World War I. The practice faded after that, only to come back strongly in recent years as military forces began to appreciate the utility of tethered balloons -- "aerostats" -- fitted with cameras and other sensors for surveillance. The balloons can stay up for long periods of time and watch over a wide footprint of ground.

The US military has deployed dozens of aerostats over Afghanistan and has ambitious plans for fielding airships in the near future, but the enthusiasm for the technology has run into a snag: inadequate supplies of helium to fill the gasbags. Part of the problem is scheduling, nobody having forecast a growing need for the high-pressure containers needed to store and handle helium. Such containers have to be built strong and they're not trivial to fabricate.

tactical aerostat

Helium producers say the military makes up only a small part of the market for helium and the gas is available at present -- although it can be extracted from the air, it's much more commonly obtained as a side business to oil production. However, rising demand for helium has been growing rapidly, with costs of the gas rising painfully over the last decade. The increase in demand is also approaching the ceiling imposed by current production facilities, and to get more helium will require infrastructure investment.

* Following up the report on the difficulties of the US Postal Service here last month, BUSINESS WEEK reports that the USPS is being further undermined by the drive to digitize the nearly 48 billion bills, statements, account notices, and offers that companies send to US households every year. Such technology is already in place in Finland and Denmark.

The first company to exploit the opportunity in the USA was Zumbox of Los Angeles, the service being launched in December 2009. The key to sending out bills and the like electronically is of course security; conventional email is far too insecure, being easily exploited by spammers and other frauds. Zumbox is creating a digital mailbox for every home in America, ironically using the public USPS database to do so. When customers sign up, Zumbox physically mails them a personal ID number (PIN) to register their account and make sure it's associated with the person at that postal address. Once registered, users can, free of charge, receive and pay bills, and even send and receive emails -- the system is "gated" to keep out non-members. Zumbox makes its money from companies that send out bills with the service, and so has an incentive to bring in as many end-users as possible.

Customers tend to find electronic billing convenient, but businesses are potentially even bigger winners. US businesses spend about $30 billion USD a year handling bills, and sending out a paper bill can cost about a dollar. Zumbox charges 20 cents. Other outfits are jumping into the fray, such as Volley, backed by Pitney Bowes; Manilla, backed by the Hearst group; and Doxo, partly backed by Amazon.com's Jeff Bezos. The digital mailbox services are forming partnerships with companies to handle billings and other communications.



* ARTIFICIAL LEAF The concept of using solar power to directly synthesize fuels was discussed here in the past. Work continues on such schemes; as discussed by an article from AAAS SCIENCE ("Artificial Leaf Turns Sunlight Into Cheap Energy Source" by Robert F. Service, 1 April 2011), a team of researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) led by chemist Daniel Nocera has developed a prototype "artificial leaf" that can "photosynthesize" fuel from water.

The "a-leaf" is mounted on a partition in a water-filled chamber. It absorbs sunlight and uses the energy to split water into gaseous hydrogen and oxygen (H2 & O2). The a-leaf is a commercially-available three-junction solar cell about the size and shape of a playing card, coated with different catalysts -- cobalt-borate on one side to split water, and nickel-molybdenum-zinc on the other to generate the hydrogen gas. As Nocera puts it: "On one side of the silicon, hydrogen starts bubbling up, and oxygen bubbles up on the other side."

The hydrogen can be burned directly, used in a fuel cell, or used as a feedstock to synthesize more convenient liquid fuels. Nocera and his group reported they had developed an artificial leaf three years ago, but it used expensive catalysts; the new leaf uses cheaper catalysts. Nocera also claims that his system does not require highly purified water.

Energy conversion efficiency of the a-leaf is about 5%. Of course, the current device is a lab prototype, unsuitable for production, but the technology is seen as producible, easily scaled up, and likely to be improved in time. Nocera is working towards commercialization of the a-leaf through a startup he founded named Sun Catalytics. One project the company is working on is a collaboration with the Tata Group of India to produce a refrigerator-sized solar power unit, to be used in villages with no access to the power grid. The US Department of Energy is also interested in a-leaf technology, having provided funding of $122 million USD for investigation. Some of the other researchers involved in a-leaf studies are considering plastic substrates, which coupled to low-cost catalysts would result in extremely cheap tech.

* In other solar news, AAAS SCIENCE reports that while the cost of photovoltaic (PV) cells has been dropping rapidly over the past few decades as efficiency has risen. Traditional silicon solar cells are now much cheaper than they were and have solar-to-electric conversion efficiencies of 15% to 20%; however, there are fears that the technology is running into diminishing returns and isn't going to get much cheaper. Thin films of copper, indium, gallium, and selenium are cheap and have efficiencies of about 15%, but indium is scarce. Cadmium-telluride thin films are more or less in the same boat, since they rely on scarce tellurium.

Polymer-based PV cells have always promised to be cheap, but until recently their conversion efficiencies have been low, no more than 5%. This last spring, however, Mitsubishi Chemical of Japan reported development of a polymer PV cell with an efficiency of 9.2%. Other firms have similarly reported developing cells with efficiencies greater than 8%. Researchers in the field see no obstacle for polymer PV cells to reach 10% efficiency soon and feel that 15% may be within reach.

One of the issues in developing polymer PV cells has been finding polymers that can absorb a wide enough range of sunlight. Traditionally, work has focused on red absorbers, but now violet-to-yellow absorbers have been synthesized. That opens the door to two-layer polymer cells that absorb a wide spectrum of sunlight -- but that's tricky to do with polymers, since laying down a second layer tends to corrupt the first. Research has focused on a barrier material that allows the two layers to coexist. Another issue is that polymers tend to fade and crack in sunlight over long periods of time, and so there's a need for materials that can endure sunlight. Despite the obstacles, there is considerable optimism among polymer PV cell researchers that a commercially-practical product may not be that far down the road.

paper solar cell

* Researchers at MIT have used polymers to produce a prototype PV cell that can be printed onto a sheet of paper. The printing scheme uses vapor deposition of five layers of material in a vacuum at a temperature of 120 degrees Celsius (250 degrees Fahrenheit), with possible substrates including not just paper, but also cloth or plastic. The solar cells can even be folded up. Efficiency is only about 1%, but the MIT researchers believe it can be improved, and the potential cost is very low.



* WHERE'S MY DRUGS? There's a running controversy over selling vital new drugs for high prices. It seems cynical to force patients that desperately need them to pay so much, but it was expensive for pharmaceutical companies to develop them, and if the companies don't make a profit they go out of business. As reported by an article from THE NEW YORK TIMES ("US Scrambling to Ease Shortage of Vital Medicine" by Annie Tritt, 19 August 2011), as of late there's been a more fundamental problem: some drugs aren't available, period.

So far this year, a record number of at least 180 drugs crucial for treating childhood leukemia, breast and colon cancer, infections and other diseases have been declared in short supply. Prices for some drugs have risen as much as twentyfold, and clinical trials for some experimental cures have been delayed because the studies must also use older medicines as controls, and those medicines aren't available.

running on empty

Government officials have been working overtime to deal with the drug crisis. The Obama Administration is considering the creation of a government stockpile of crucial cancer medicines. The US Centers for Disease Control & Prevention already stockpile antibiotics, antidotes and other drugs needed in the in case of a terrorist attack or natural disaster. Under one plan, the government would store dry ingredients for cancer drugs and, when confronted with a shortage, distribute them to hospitals, where pharmacists could mix them into injectable compounds.

Some call the shortfall inexcusable: for the most part there hasn't been a sudden surge in the incidence of the relevant ailments, and so the production shortfall looks like nothing more than incompetent planning. Legislation being proposed in Congress would give US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) the authority to demand that drug makers give early warnings of possible supply disruptions. Democratic Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota said the bipartisan bill had emerged after she found the FDA had headed off 38 shortages in 2010 after getting early alerts of problems at drug makers.

There's no reason to think the shortages are due to any malign conspiracy to drive up prices. More than half the recent shortages have resulted because government or company inspectors found problems such as microbial contamination that could present a threat to patients. Other issues include capacity problems at drug plants and low production priority due to low profits, according to the FDA. Manufacturers are inclined to stop making unprofitable drugs, with the result that production becomes concentrated in a few manufacturers. If there's only one or two manufacturers of a drug and a problem occurs at one of the manufacturers, it chokes off production of the drug.

Pharmaceutical companies say they are not trying to exploit the situation -- but there does appear to be some price gouging going on, due to "scalpers", not the drug companies. Executives at Premier, a hospital buying cooperative, said that its members have received hundreds of offers from obscure drug wholesalers for drugs in short supply, being sold at vastly inflated prices, typically marked up by a factor of ten, sometimes by twenty or more. As long as the drugs were obtained legally, selling them at a huge markup is legal as well -- but some wholesalers will buy large quantities of drugs in expectation of a shortage, with the big buy then creating the shortage.

The number of drugs in short supply is declining, but the problem remains. A patient named Joyce from North Carolina has breast cancer and needs the drug Taxol, which is in short supply. A drug that could be substituted for Taxol has a side effect: some patients lose their fingernails. Joyce said: "I was not looking forward to losing my fingernails." She did get her first dose of Taxol, and her doctor said he had obtained enough of the drug for her second dose. Joyce will need four doses to complete the treatment. She asked the doctor: "What happens if you can't find the rest?"



* TRACING THE PLANT GENOME (2): Comparisons of plant genomes have done more than trace the emergence of genes through time; they have demonstrated how plant genomes change. It turns out that plant genomes are much more dynamic than animal genomes, with more variation between closely related species and even within a species. Chimeric DNA -- bits of two different genes that have merged -- arises relatively frequently, and transposable elements -- mobile DNA elements in a cell -- actively remodel genomes, creating new regulatory elements. One researcher claims that plants practice "genomic anarchy".

Why the anarchy? It appears that plants have such different lifestyles from those of animals -- one big one being that plants are immobile, they can't move elsewhere when conditions are bad -- that they can't survive without flexible genomes. The different features of plant genomes reflect their different evolutionary histories, and these can be correlated with their different survival strategies.

It was the pioneering A. thaliana genome that tipped off researchers to this anarchy. It was selected as the first plant genome to be sequenced because it seemed like a relatively easy target, with only 125 million bases, instead of the 1.5 billion bases of commercially more significant maize. Besides, Arabidopsis appeared to be diploid -- like us humans, two more or less duplicate sets of chromosomes -- while maize features a cluttered genome that appeared to be "polyploid", with multiple sets of chromosomes.

However, inspection of the Arabidopsis genome showed that it had duplicated its entire genome at least once and survived. Other plant genomes have shown this to be a common theme in plant evolution, with different species experiencing one or more occurrences of whole genome duplications at various times in their histories. Furthermore, it's becoming clear that many plant genomes go through cycles in which their genomes double in size; most extra genes then disintegrate over the next few million years, returning genomes to near preduplication gene numbers; and then a doubling happens again. Poplar's duplication was much more recent than A. thaliana's, for example, and so its genome has many more active genes.

It appears that A. thaliana is undergoing a winnowing phase. A group at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles sequenced a close relative, A. lyrata, and found that it has more than 500 additional genes. Furthermore, lining up the two Arabidopsis genomes shows that A. thaliana has undergone hundreds of thousands of small deletions in the 10 million years since the two plants diverged.

These cycles of deletions significantly alter a plant's genetic landscape. In A. thaliana, many of the observed deletions occurred in DNA regions that don't encode proteins and seem to be sites for gene regulation. It suggests that the regulatory programs of these plants were dramatically reset with each new round of polyploidization and subsequent diploidization.

Plant genomes generate novelty in other ways as well. For one, their transposable elements are much more active than those in animal chromosomes, hopping in and out of chromosomes, dragging bits of DNA along with them and in doing so placing the DNA where it helps regulate genes in new ways. At the same time, researchers scanning plant genomes have discovered thousands of examples of gene shuffling, in which fragments of two or more genes have been brought together to form an apparently functional new gene. Nobody's sure what most of them do, but in maize about 8% of these chimeras have been preserved by selection, meaning they are likely important to the plant.

The University of Georgia's Bennetzen comments: "What's also been surprising is how rapidly plant genomes change" compared with animal genomes. Comparing fish and primate genomes reveals noncoding DNA sequences that have been conserved between the two, even though they diverged 400 million years ago -- noncoding DNA, not apparently being subject to selection, tends to diverge much more rapidly than coding DNA. Such conservation isn't seen in plants: researchers have compared Arabdopsis with rice, maize with sorghum, and rice with sorghum, finding very little conservation of noncoding DNA between them. Even between two different corn varieties, noncoding DNA can vary by 20%, a greater variation than between chimps and humans.

Because DNA bases found between genes instead of in them are often sites that control gene activity, gene regulation in plants is likely to evolve much faster than it does in animals. Says Bennetzen: "If we don't have changes in gene regulation 100-fold faster than in mammals, I would be shocked."

plant genomes 2011

Such dramatic revelations have made plant biologists hungry for more genomes. They're going to get them, with large-scale efforts such as the 1001 Genomes Project including a substantial number of sequencings of plants. More focused investigations are in the works, including one to sequence four conifers -- the loblolly pine, sugar pine, Douglas fir, and Norway spruce -- making them the first gymnosperms, the other major group of seed plants, to be decoded. Another research team is trying to get backing to sequence a fern, which promises to be a chore since ferns can have up to a thousand chromosomes. Whatever the challenges, there's immense excitement in the field of plant genomics and it's not likely to run out of steam any time soon. [END OF SERIES]



* THE KILLING OF JFK -- JACK RUBY (3): Jack Ruby's movements from Thursday, 21 November 1963, up to the moment he shot Oswald are fairly well established. Since Ruby ran a strip club, he worked late and got up late, leaving his apartment on his Thursday workday at about 10:30 AM. His day consisted of running around, talking to lawyers about various problems, dropping by a bank to pay the rent on the Carousel Club, talking to women who he wanted to work for him. He was around and about; many people saw him and talked to him.

That evening, Ruby had dinner with an associate at the Egyptian Lounge, a restaurant and nightclub. Ruby was on good terms with the owner of the lounge, Joseph Campisi, who was rumored to be a ranking official in the local Mob -- a notion that conspiracy theorists have long presented as an undisputed fact. However, the HSCA checked out Campisi and found that the only thing they could nail down was that he had some prominent mobsters, most notably New Orleans Mob boss Carlos Marcello, for friends. Campisi was never seriously investigated, much less arrested and prosecuted, for gangster activities. Campisi was gregarious and had lots of friends in Dallas, including many cops and city authorities. Some who knew Campisi speculated that Campisi himself had encouraged the rumor that he was tight with the Mob as a means of publicizing the Egyptian Lounge.

After eating, Ruby ran more errands, finally crashing out at his apartment, sometime between 3:00 and 4:00 AM. There is no way to know exactly all the people who dealt with Ruby that day, but enough people saw him around to make it clear he was in town and about all of 21 November -- contradicting conspiracy stories that he was elsewhere, or spent all the day working with the conspiracy.

* Ruby got up at 9:30 AM on Friday, 22 November. At 11:00 AM that morning, he went to the offices of THE DALLAS MORNING NEWS to place ads for the nightclubs. Workers there saw Ruby around; when the news came that JFK had been shot, one of the newspaper staffers who was dealing with Ruby described his reaction as one of "stunned disbelief" and that he became "emotionally upset". He left the offices of THE DALLAS MORNING NEWS about 1:30 PM, clearly in a distraught frame of mind.

Ruby's movements that afternoon are not clearly known and there is some contention over them. It is known he ended up at the Carousel Club early that afternoon, where all there found him an emotional wreck, weeping freely -- something not at all normal for a tough guy like Ruby, even though he was otherwise notably erratic in his behavior. He left in mid-afternoon, going to Eva's apartment, staying there until the evening. When he finally left, Eva said: "He looked pretty bad ... a broken man ..." He told her: "Someone tore my heart out."

Ruby went to a memorial service for the president at his synagogue, and then to City Hall, where he sat in on the late-night press conference with Oswald, and schmoozed with the reporters there -- actually making himself useful, identifying police officials to the out-of-towners. After the press conference, he drifted around. Late that night, he ran into one of his strippers, out on a date with a Dallas cop. The couple described Ruby as "kind of wild-eyed", expressing his contempt for Oswald, a "little rat, sneaky looking".

Ruby spent the rest of the night running around, not getting to bed until sometime around sunup on Saturday. He stayed in the apartment until noon, to then spend much of the day in incoherent drifting around town to no particular effect. That evening, when he was back in his apartment, he got a call from one of his strippers, Karen Carlin, who needed a little cash -- but he didn't feel agreeable, getting snappish with her. After further drifting around, he went to be about 1:40 AM, early by his standards.

* Ruby got up at midmorning on Sunday, 24 November, to get another call from Karen Carlin, hitting him up for money again. He agreed to go to Western Union and send her a "moneygram" for $25 USD. Ruby left the apartment at about 11:00 AM and drove downtown. He went past City Hall, noticing a crowd there and thinking that Oswald was being transferred to the county jail at that time. He went on to Western Union, where he arranged for the moneygram to Carlin, being given a receipt timestamped 11:17 AM. The Western Union office was only a short distance from City Hall; Ruby walked over there and at 11:20 slipped into the Main Street ramp as a police vehicle was leaving, with the vehicle providing concealment for Ruby as he went inside. Apparently someone shouted: "HEY YOU!" -- at him, but he just walked faster.

At 11:21, Ruby was walking up to the crowd of reporters inside as Oswald was brought out. Ruby drew his pistol and charged in, shouting: "You killed my president, you rat!" -- putting a slug through Oswald. Oswald fell, the police tackled Ruby and dragged him off as others called an ambulance for Oswald. Oswald was declared dead early that afternoon. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* SCIENCE NOTES: In October, another volley was fired in the war over climate change by a group from the University of California at Berkeley, with a study from the "Berkeley Earth Project (BEP)" using new methods and some new data corroborating other studies that revealed the Earth is warming. The project was started by Berkeley physics professor Richard Muller, who was concerned about accusations, mostly focused around the 2009 "ClimateGate" scandal concerning researchers at the University of East Anglia's Climate Research Unit (UEA CRU) in the UK. Said Muller: "I was deeply concerned that the group [at UEA] had concealed discordant data. Science is best done when the problems with the analysis are candidly shared."

Muller was also concerned about claims by climate-skeptic bloggers that temperature data from weather stations did not show a true global warming trend, who believed that many stations have registered warming because they are located in or near cities, and those cities have been growing -- the "urban heat island effect". Muller assembled a team of 10 researchers, mostly physicists, including such luminaries as Saul Perlmutter, winner of 2011 Nobel Prize in physics. The BEP group tracked down about 40,000 weather stations around the world whose output has been recorded and stored in digital form, and came up with a new way of analyzing the data to plot the global temperature trend over land since 1800.

The result of the BEP study was a graph of climate warming very similar to those produced by UK Meteorological in collaboration with the UEA CRU, the US National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Said Muller: "Our biggest surprise was that the new results agreed so closely with the warming values published previously by other teams in the US and the UK. This confirms that these studies were done carefully and that potential biases identified by climate change skeptics did not seriously affect their conclusions."

The BEP report said that since the 1950s, the average temperature over land has increased by 1 degree Celsius. It also said the urban heat island is real, as has been generally acknowledged all along by climate researchers, but that it is not skewing the data, weather stations being rated as "low quality" relative to urban heating giving effectively the same trend as those rated as "high quality".

So will the BEP study alter the climate-change debate? No. The climate community keeps on producing studies saying climate change is real, while the skeptics say they don't buy it. Business as usual -- a reality emphasized by the recent release of a new batch of the "Climategate" emails hacked in 2009. This second release effectively just rehashes the first and says nothing new, but it has proven annoying enough to lead to some outcry that the authorities should start going after the digital hooligans responsible for the break-ins.

* Most people have never heard of the genus of bacteria named Wolbachia, but its different variants are extremely common, infecting roughly half of all insect species. It has a range of effects, mostly related to insect sexuality -- for example, selectively killing off male insects, converting males to females, or driving rapid speciation through sexual incompatibility of insects carrying diverging Wolbachia strains.

It turns out that the Aedes aegyptii mosquito, which spreads the viral disease dengue, can be made resistant to dengue by infecting it with Wolbachia. The resistant mosquitoes can still bite humans, but they won't infect them with dengue. Wolbachia's specific effect on mosquito sexuality should help it spread through mosquito populations like wildfire. The bacterium is passed on from an infected female to her offspring -- but any uninfected female who mates with an infected male can't produce offspring. In other words, Wolbachia blocks off the germlines of insects that aren't infected with it, promoting the germlines that are.

Two towns in Queensland, Australia, where dengue occasionally pops up, are being used for trials of the Wolbachia-infected mosquitoes to see if they can blunt dengue. If all goes well, the team wants to conduct a study in Vietnam, where dengue is a bigger problem; Thailand could be next after that.

Wolbachia also protects mosquitoes from other diseases -- most significantly lymphatic filiariasis, a mosquito-transmitted worm disease that produces "elephantiasis" in humans, with its grotesquely swollen limbs. Nobody's quite sure how Wolbachia protects mosquitoes; some suspect that it primes the host immune system, others that it competes for cellular resources used by rival pathogens. Some researchers think Wolbachia could also be used against other diseases, for example malaria. Wolbachia won't persistently infect the Anopheles gambiae mosquito, the most significant vector, but work is underway to come up with a strain that can.



* SHRINKING ICECAPS: As reported by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("Beating A Retreat", 24 Sep 2011), the US National Snow & Ice Data Center (NSIDC) reported that on 9 September, at the peak of summertime shrinkage, ice covered 4.33 million square kilometers (1.67 million square miles) of the Arctic Ocean. That may sound like a lot, but it's a low, if not quite a record low. However, the actual record low, 4.17 million square kilometers in 2007, was the result of an unusual combination of sunny days, cloudless skies and warm currents flowing up from mid-latitudes. There's been no such combination of circumstances this year, but the 2011 summer sea-ice minimum is only 4% bigger than that record low. Add in the fact that the thickness of the ice, which is much harder to measure, is estimated to have fallen by half since 1979, when satellite records began, and there is probably less ice floating on the Arctic Ocean now than at any time since a particularly warm period 8,000 years ago, just after the last Ice Age.

shrinking icecaps

* This is not theory, this is not a computer model, it's being observed in real time. That Arctic sea ice is vanishing has been known for decades. The underlying cause is believed by the bulk of the climate science community to be global warming brought about by greenhouse-gas emissions. There is of course a lot of public skepticism about global warming, and in this case the predictions of climatologists are turning out wrong -- but not because the predictions were too radical, instead because the predictions were not radical enough. Climate models predict that ice should vanish in the summers from the Arctic Sea by the end of the century, but observations now suggest they'll be gone no later than 2050.

The reason is that Arctic air is warming twice as fast as the atmosphere as a whole. Some of the reasons for this are understood; some are not. The darkness of land and water compared with the reflectiveness of snow and ice means that when snow and ice melt to reveal land and water, the area exposed absorbs more heat from the sun and reflects less of it back into space. The feedback loop accelerates local warming; but the models don't suggest that the feedback should cause such rapid change. Other factors are clearly involved.

One is the fact that the ice is thinner and more fractured, meaning it melts more easily. However, that should only be a marginal effect. Current thinking suggests the rapid change is due to "short-term climate forcing" caused by pollutants, particularly ozone and soot, that don't persist in the atmosphere, but can be troublesome if they are continually replenished. For the time being, the attention is on soot, or "black carbon" as it's formally known, presumably to distinguish it from colorless carbon dioxide emissions.

In the Arctic, soot is particularly troublesome. First, when released into the air -- as a result of incomplete combustion from sources ranging from forest fires to out-of-tune diesel engines -- soot particles absorb sunlight, and so warm up the atmosphere. Then, when snow or rain wash them onto an ice floe, they darken its surface and so cause it to melt faster. Reducing soot, as well as ozone, won't stop the melting process, but it could slow it down considerably.

According to a recent report by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), reducing black carbon and ozone in the lower part of the atmosphere, particularly in the Arctic countries of America, Canada, Russia and Scandinavia, could cut warming in the Arctic by two-thirds over the next three decades. Indeed, the report suggests, if measures such as preventing crop burning and forest fires, cleaning up diesel engines and wood stoves, and so on were adopted everywhere they could halve the general rate of warming by 2050. Without other measures to cut greenhouse-gas emissions that would only be a temporary fix, but it's still an attractive idea, particularly because soot isn't good for anyone's health anyway, and it would be relatively cheap to accomplish.

Some climatologists are skeptical that black carbon is actually accelerating the melting and believe that we are simply underestimating the effect of greenhouse gases. Critics of course see such differences in opinion as evidence of the shaky nature of climate science, but that's ignoring the fact that the community is in agreement that things are looking bad -- they're just debating over how bad it will be and what the precise causes are.

* What will be the consequences of an ice-free Arctic? It shouldn't cause much rise in sea level by itself, since floating ice displaces its own mass of water. However, an ice-free Arctic will absorb more heat and so is likely help accelerate global warming and cause troubles elsewhere. Certainly the loss of the ice will be a disaster for inhabitants such as polar bears that need it to live on.

the thawing Arctic

There are some silver linings to the dismal picture. The Arctic is estimated to hold around 15% of the world's undiscovered oil reserves and 30% of those of natural gas. Energy companies are excited at the prospect of exploiting those reserves, as demonstrated by a recent agreement to that end between America's Exxon Mobil and Rosneft, Russia's state-controlled oil giant. Recent plankton blooms suggest a warmer Arctic will provide a boost to fisheries there as well.

The vanishing ice has also opened up the long-south "Northwest Passage", providing a direct route between the North Pacific and North Atlantic. In August a Russian supertanker, the VLADIMIR TOKOHONOV, escorted by two nuclear icebreakers, became the first supertanker to make the passage, skirting the Siberian coast. There are some worries that the race to exploit the Arctic will lead to conflict, but other than some posturing by Russia and Canada nobody's raised any serious fuss -- and the Arctic Council, the club of Arctic nations, seems to be working effectively. An ice-free Arctic is certainly going to be a benefit to some; it is much less certain that it will be a benefit to everyone else.



* LOYALTY CARDS EVERYWHERE: Almost everybody who goes to the same supermarket on a steady basis goes armed with a "rewards card" AKA "loyalty card", usually but not always associated with a particular store chain, with the card presented at checkout to obtain a small discount on the purchase or other perks. As discussed by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("Spies In Your Wallet", 5 November 2011), loyalty cards are a global business.

loyalty cards

Why do businesses push loyalty cards? Simple -- they yield a ton of data on the specific buying habits of each customer. Customers are glad to use them if they get a percent or two discount, while they're still a bargain to businesses, since even a slight improvement in margin through targeted sales more than makes up for the loss of revenue from discounts. Few customers complain about having their purchases recorded; there's no great worry over someone monitoring, say, a preference for chocolate over vanilla ice cream, or peanuts over pretzels.

Nectar is the biggest loyalty program in Britain, with 18 million subscribers. It was set up in 2002 and now covers hundreds of businesses, ranging from online travel portal Expedia to high-end UK supermarket chain Sainsbury's. Nectar has tried to avoid overlap but it's hard to accomplish, so customers who buy from one firm tied into Nectar might get discounts from another firm in the network. That's why Tesco, Britain's biggest supermarket chain, and Boots, the country's biggest chemist (pharmacy), have their own loyalty cards. Tesco's Clubcard was launched in 1995 and now has 15 million members. US supermarket, pharmacy, and retail chains also have loyalty cards, usually on a proprietary basis.

At first only big players had the funds to set up and administer loyalty card schemes, but now information technology costs have fallen, and everyone can play. The Canada-based Aimia firm, owner of Nectar, now implements loyalty card programs all over the world, bringing in billions of dollars of revenue a year. Aimia recently inked a joint venture with India's giant Tata Group to bring the blessings of loyalty cards to the subcontinent. That promises to be a challenge since India's retail environment is old-fashioned. Retailing is dominated by small shops, not chain stores; the loyalty card scheme, while orbiting around Tata, will have to cover a wide range of Indian firms to be workable.

Indians are also unfamiliar with gimmicks such as loyalty cards and are leery of them, suspecting they're trickery to pry money out of them. Getting customer's money is certainly what the cards are all about, but the suspicion is overblown: people don't mind advertising so much when it's for things they actually need or want to have, and that's how loyalty cards bring in the cash. The "solid gold" reputation of the Tata brand name should help, but Indian consumers will also be offered several options to encourage buy-in: a straightforward loyalty card, a cellphone app, or a credit card, serviced by a finance firm, that will also serve as a loyalty card.

The diversity of the approach for India suggests that retailers have only scratched the surface of the utility of the loyalty card, with the technology wide open for further exploitation. Tesco of the UK is finding loyalty cards handy as the company diversifies into car insurance. Insurers give variable rates to customers depending on the risk associated with a customer: someone who likes to booze it up, for example, is obviously a worse risk than someone who never touches a drop. That kind of information is hard for ordinary car insurers to get, but thanks to its Clubcard, Tesco knows if an applicant for car insurance likes to buy a lot of booze, or never does at all.

Tesco refuses to comment on how it mines Clubcards for data, but students at the London School of Economics performed an experiment in which they asked for car insurance quotes, using either brand-new Clubcards with no real history, or well-used Clubcards with plenty of history. With the new Clubcards, the discount on insurance ran to only about 1%; for well-used Clubcards, it varied widely, up to 18%. User complacency over the data collected by loyalty cards may not be entirely justified.



* TRACING THE PLANT GENOME (1): As reported by an article from AAAS SCIENCE ("Green Genomes" by Elizabeth Pennisi, 17 June 2011), the first plant genome, for a little weed named Arabidopsis thaliana, was decoded over a decade ago. Although there's been less interest in deciphering plant genomes than animal genomes, almost 30 plants have been sequenced and have proved a gold mine for biologists.

So far, the work has been biased towards angiosperms, the flowering plants that produce seeds and make up the majority of plant species found today. Along with A. thaliana, scientists have deciphered DNA from poplar, maize, rice, and about 20 other angiosperms. However, the remainder are of species -- algae, a moss, a spikemoss (not a real moss) -- representing key stages in the evolution of plants. Their DNA sequences are helping reveal how plants moved onto land, grew tall, then developed seeds and flowers. For example, many of the genes underlying the colorful flowers have unexpectedly deep evolutionary roots. Says geneticist Jeffrey Bennetzen of the University of Georgia in Athens: "Very few genes seem to be without precedent."

The genomes are also showing that plant evolution is highly dynamic. Plants apparently often undergo entire genome duplications, with their DNA complement swelling in size to then shrink through generations, gaining and losing genes much more quickly than animal genomes, leaving a narrative of the events that led to the evolution of plant genomes.

* The sequenced genomes span a billion years of evolution. At the base is the "green algae" Chlamydomonas reinhardtii, which though a modern species can be modeled as representative of early plants, being a single-celled plant that lives in water but still is capable of photosynthesis. Surprises in the Chlamydomonas genome include a gene used for sensing the presence of copper, which turns out to be the core of a flowering gene first found in snapdragons -- an example of how genes can be "repurposed" during evolution. Just as surprisingly, when researchers compared the genome of Chlamydomonas to its colonial relative, Volvox carteri, the genomes were surprisingly similar, both organisms having about 14,600 genes. It appears the transition from single-celled to multicelled organisms is not as big as it might seem.

The "bryophytes" include mosses, liverworts, and hornworts; they arose 480 million years ago and were among the first land plants. The moss Physcomitrella patens was the first bryophyte to be sequenced, back in 2008, revealing that surviving on land required new families of genes to deal with dry spells and temperature extremes. Mosses are spore-forming plants, they don't produce seeds -- but it turns out P. patens includes genes that are used in seed plants to help seeds survive dessication, these genes originally being used to protect the entire plant. Japanese researchers have found that P. patens also has 80% of the several hundred genes responsible for development in Aradopsis, indicating that the toolkit found in more complex plant architectures was already in place before the emergence of angiosperms.

Having come onto land, plants could not grow tall until they acquired a vascular system to transport water and nutrients through the plant. One plant group that developed a vascular system early on was the "lycophytes", which represent a "transitional form" in plant evolution because they have a vascular system, but still produce spores instead of seeds. Some 300 million years ago, lycophytes became the first giants of the plant world, dominating the carboniferous forests whose remains later became coal beds. Modern lycophytes include spikemosses and clubmosses, small plants with scalelike leaves on branching stems, found in forests and gardens.

green algae, bryophyte, lycophyte

Like the moss genome, the spikemoss genome revealed genes only expected in more complex plants, suggesting those genes have deep roots. The spikemoss gives a window into the evolution and origin of genes and gene families that are very important in woody plant development, even though lycophytes are not woody plants.

The emergence of the lycophytes also signaled a transition in plant reproductive strategies. Plants have sexual and asexual life stages. In moss and algae, the sexual stage is the dominant phase; in lycophytes, ferns, and seed plants, we are most familiar with the asexual stage. Researchers thought this change of lifestyle would demand considerable genetic alteration, but comparison of the spikemoss genome with other plant genomes showed that other transitions were much more elaborate.

A team under Purdue University geneticist Jo Ann Banks inspected all available plant genomes and organized their genes into families. They found 3,814 gene families common to all, suggesting these genes were available in their distant common ancestor. A comparison of algae and mosses to other plants indicated that transition to vascular plants and the shift in reproductive strategy only involved 516 gene families. The evolution of angiosperms required another 1,350 families, while the jump to land required the most evolutionary innovation -- 3,006 gene families. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* THE KILLING OF JFK -- JACK RUBY (2): Jack Ruby's Carousel Club wasn't the most prosperous operation, with Ruby always having troubles staying afloat. He was a Yankee in Texas, also Jewish, and he didn't fit in with the local community. People who worked for him found him volatile, capable of wild mood swings, from fun-loving to violent. He was still inclined to get into fights -- sometimes with good reason, sometimes not. A Dallas cop named Harry Olsen who knew Ruby said: "He was erratic and hotheaded. He would just fly off the handle about anything."

Ruby was friendly with the local cops, Dallas police saying he was known to about half the force. It wasn't just toadyism, he honestly seemed to be what might be called a "cop groupie" -- he thought the world of policemen. Ruby was actually friendly to just about everyone who he thought it would be useful to be friendly to. He was something of a "gate crasher" and liked to draw attention to himself, putting on displays of self-importance that most found annoying; he liked to use big words that he didn't understand. He chummed up with almost everybody, but many didn't think much of him, generally describing him as insecure.

In any case, one of the other groups of people he was friendly with were local gangsters, who sometimes came in and threw money around in his club. Ruby also had a few friends that conspiracy theorists have found suspicious. One, Lewis McWillie, was described in a Dallas police document as a "gambler and murderer", but the Warren Commission looked into McWillie and found that while he had crossed with the law on various gambling issues over the years, he had never been investigated for any serious crime. McWillie was, however, on at least casually friendly terms with a number of prominent mobsters.

Ruby's ties with such characters would later lead to rumors that he was involved in drug dealing and prostitution; in fact, he was never investigated by the law of any such things, much less arrested for them, and there's no evidence to support such charges. He would have lost his license had he been caught in any shady business. None of the people who worked for or with Ruby, including those who didn't like his style, said he ever did anything seriously illegal.

However, Ruby did drift over the line on occasion, being arrested several times by the Dallas police. Most of the arrests were for minor violations of liquor rules, such as serving a beer after legal hours -- Dallas was very strict on that score. Only twice was he fined, and he never served jail time. Busted on drugs and prostitution? No. Busted on local liquor ordinances? Guilty. He also had his strip club shut down for a few days every now and then when one of his strippers went out of bounds.

Somewhat surprisingly given his inclination towards violence, he was only arrested on assault charges once, the judgement being "not guilty", and on concealed-weapon charges twice, the result being "no charges filed". He did have a very long list of traffic infractions; not surprisingly given his personality, Ruby had problems understanding the rules of the road, and was always being cited for running stop signs and the like. By 1963 he was also about $40,000 USD in arrears to the taxman, another problem that he juggled in his continuous efforts to stay afloat.

Incidentally, as far as the concealed-weapons busts went, Ruby sometimes packed a pistol, a 0.38 caliber Colt Cobra revolver, because he often carried around large sums of money to pay off his employees and the bills. Ruby had primitive notions of finance; he liked being his own little walking bank. The cops who knew him knew he carried a pistol and seemed very tolerant of him on that score. In fact, in some of his arrests, the police took the revolver away from him and then gave it back to him when he left.

Gangsters might have occasionally come to Ruby's club, but they had no reason to let him inside their circles. He was too friendly with the cops, and he was a blabbermouth, he talked too much. Occasionally Ruby liked to hint that he had connections to prominent mobsters, that he "knew all the Boys", but nobody thought there was anything to it other than Ruby trying to inflate his importance. To the extent that anyone in the Dallas underworld community knew Ruby, all said that he had nothing to do with them, and didn't think anyone believed Ruby could be trusted to do anything that had to be kept a secret.

Investigations by Texas authorities into Dallas gangs never gave a hint that Ruby was connected with them. A Dallas police detective named Jack Revill told the HSCA that there was "nothing to indicate" being an active member of any criminal gang, and also described Ruby as follows: "Jack Ruby was a buffoon. He liked the limelight. He was highly volatile. He like to be recognized with people, and I would say this to the committee: if Jack Ruby was a member of organized crime, then the personnel director of organized crime should be replaced."

Those who knew Ruby also found him generally apolitical. He rarely said much about political issues, some claiming he didn't the intellectual capability to understand politics. He did like JFK and Jackie, however; they had "star quality", they had "class" -- something Ruby desperately wanted, but never could really have. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* ANOTHER MONTH: Another item salvaged from the now-defunct message board was an entry by Chris Jordan, a Seattle-based photographer with a bent towards environmental themes, who came up with a duplicate of Georges Seurat's painting "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte" as a mosaic of discarded aluminum beverage cans.

A SUNDAY AFTERNOON in aluminum cans

I was a bit puzzled by how he laid all that out and got an evenly-lit shot of it, but duh -- he had to have just shot the individual cans each in a range of orientations and then tiled together the bitmaps. There seems to be repetitions of the same can image in the detail view. It would be much easier than fiddling with all the cans; in fact, I suspect he just used some sort of photo mosaic software to do the job.


* I go to McDonald's to pick up a burger sometime. Lately they've been asking for a name to identify an order, which I find mildly annoying: "I'm just here for fast food, let's not get personal." I don't know why they don't just use the traditional "take a number" scheme. It wasn't enough to complain about, but finally decided to make a game of it, ensuring that I never give the same name twice. So far I've been "Wilbur", "Dmitriy", "Ivan", "Fritz", and most recently "Guido".

"Guido? How do you spell that?"

"G-U-I-D-O." Geez, people who live back East where Italians are more common wouldn't have noticed anything wrong, except for the fact that nobody would peg me as Italian by looking at me. Guido Goebel, has kind of a ring to it, doesn't it?