may 2012 / last update jul 2016 / greg goebel

* 23 entries including: airlines pursue improvements, genomics sleuthing, animal robots, slime molds, store labels on a roll, ObamaCare already having results, a little dirt helps the immune system, North Korea's prison camp system, hybrid vehicles using flywheels, dying words and changing usages, using paper to make biomedical tests, using cheap phones to support data services, Africa plagued by e-waste, and World Cleanup Day.

banner of the month



* An article from THE NEW YORK TIMES ("Secret 'Kill List' Proves A Test Of Obama's Principles & Will" by Jo Becker and Scott Shane, 29 May 2012), took a view of the Obama Administration's war on terror from the top.

The article began with a White House meeting in which Obama was briefed on a set of top al-Qaeda terrorists. After discussion, the president then passed judgement on what should be done with them, the president having reserved for himself the decision on whether they should be killed or captured. Capture doesn't appear to be seen as an attractive option these days, due to the difficulties of handling terrorists in custody -- though the administration denies it has a "take no prisoners" policy.

Still, as discussed here last year, drone strikes on terrorists make headlines weekly, and those strikes are personally authorized from top. Thomas E. Donilon, the president's national security adviser, says that Obama "is determined that he will make these decisions about how far and wide these operations will go. His view is that he's responsible for the position of the United States in the world. He's determined to keep the tether pretty short."

Obama's conservative critics like to paint him as naive and spineless, but as senior administration officials told the TIMES, the president rarely hesitates to give the order for lethal action, Obama saying the decision to take out a senior al-Qaeda official in Yemen was "an easy one". Obama's liberal supporters find his ruthlessness as a war leader hard to swallow, and even some involved with the exercise have had their misgivings, comparing the methodology as the strategic equivalent of "whack-a-mole". The military remains embarrassed over the reliance on "body counts" in the Vietnam War, and there is some concern that's all that Obama is up to now, with rules established by the administration to minimize the reported number of innocent civilians caught in the crossfire. However, others say that the attacks are keeping al-Qaeda disorganized and jumpy, and that it's not really in the cards to wipe the movement out anyway.

At the outset of Obama's presidency, he took a firm stand on banning rough handling of terrorist prisoners and vowed to shut down the prison at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. Shutting down Gitmo didn't quite work out as planned; more significantly, even at the outset the plan wasn't quite as tough as it seemed to be. Obama's background is as a lawyer, and the rules he laid down had subtle loopholes. Administration insiders say the president often hands them a simple rule: "Maintain my options."

Obama has certainly been careful to balance his options in the war on terror, giving the matter very personal attention. William Daley, up to early 2012 the White House chief of staff, said that Obama "realizes this isn't science, this is judgments made off of, most of the time, human intelligence. The president accepts as a fact that a certain amount of screw-ups are going to happen, and to him, that calls for a more judicious process."

Obama, commander in chief

Obama is a believer in process; he is also, however, a believer in himself and his own capabilities, and he believes he should be the one to make the ultimate decision of life and death. Arrogant? It could be seen that way -- but it could also be seen that Obama realizes that, like it or not, he has the ultimate responsibility, and he is unwilling to delegate the burden of that responsibility on those who take his orders. War means fighting, and fighting means killing; the blood is on his hands, and though Obama has kept a tight lid of secrecy on his war on terror, he knows that he will eventually stand the judgement of history for his actions.

* The series on the natural gas boom run here not long ago suggested the rest of the world was likely to enjoy the same success in extracting gas using "fracking" -- prying loose gas from shale deposits via injection of a mix of water, chemicals, and sand -- as the USA. As discussed by an article in BUSINESS WEEK ("Fracking Is Flopping Overseas" by Matthew Brown, 7 May 2012), that's not how things are turning out. Gas exploration in China hasn't been paying off; Polish enthusiasm for fracking gas has diminished due to estimates that it would cost three times as much in Poland as it does in the USA; and worries about tremors caused by fracking and other difficulties with the process have put shale gas projects on hold in a number of countries, with France banning fracking last July. As a result, Europe is becoming more enthusiastic over coal.

A red-white-&-blue flag-waver might claim that demonstrates the superiority of Yankee know-how, but it's not that simple. It turns out that geology has blessed the USA as far as shale gas goes; European deposits are smaller and not as convenient to access. As far as the Chinese go, they are hobbled by shortages of water and a weak oil / gas industry. However, flag-wavers can take comfort in the fact that difficulties elsewhere give American gas producers an edge in the energy export market.

The International Energy Agency has just announced that, thanks to the shale gas boom, the USA has cut its carbon-dioxide emissions by almost a half-billion tonnes over the last five years, a greater proportional drop than any other country. Environmentalists are still not overjoyed, being suspicious of fracking, but at least the drop makes it harder for Europe to point fingers at the USA for being an emissions spoilsport.

* As further evidence of the somewhat confused authoritarianism of the Chinese state, discussed relative to artist Ai Weiwei at the start of this month, BBC WORLD Online reports that Weibo -- the Chinese answer to Twitter, with about 300 million users -- has set up a "code of conduct" for its users, the action being taken in response to complaints by authorities of "unfounded" rumors being passed around via the service. The forbidden list includes:

There's a black comedy to the list; it has such blanket coverage as to ensure that anyone could be singled out on the least pretext. The service is awarding users a set of points, which users can increase by participating in promotional activities, or lose by breaking the rules. When users drop under a threshold, they get a warning; they go to zero points, they get the boot. Weibo's competitors of course are also being held to the rules.

obey the rules at Sina Weibo

Such black comedy is not lost on those used to dealing with it. Dr. Kerry Brown, head of the Asia Programme at the Chatham House think tank in London, told the BBC: "This is a sign of the authorities trying to restrain the internet in China, but a hardcore group of people will still find ways to get round the restraints. There is a tradition of indirect criticism in which people make points using coded references. I very much doubt these rules will change anything."

Chinese commenting online have sometimes abbreviated names or used code words to stay under the radar, and so the new rules also forbid users to employ "oblique expressions or other methods." In other words: "Please don't fly under the radar, it makes you hard to spot when you do."



* STORE LABELS ON A ROLL: A few casual comments on "store brand" products were run here in 2010. An article from BUSINESS WEEK ("Even Better Than The Real Thing" by Matthew Boyle, 28 November 2011) showed how store brands are growing in influence by leaps and bounds. There was a time when store brands were pointedly low profile, for example tins of beans with a white label just saying BEANS, and of uncertain quality. Stores were ambivalent about selling their own brands, since the volume of sale was in major-label brands as produced by giants like Kraft and PepsiCo.

Not any more. Due to the economic slowdown, consumers have increasingly embraced store brands, encouraging the stores to push them more earnestly -- with consumers then, in a benign cycle, buying more store brands. Stores have a very strong incentive to push their own brands, since they keep all the profit themselves instead of having to split it with a vendor. That also means the stores can almost always beat the big brand names on price, all the more so because stores don't need to spend money on national advertising like the big brands. Customers end up paying less even while the store is making more profit.

Nationally, a shift of a single percentage point from major labels to store brands means a corresponding shift of $5.5 billion USD in sales. In 2009, less than 10% of new food and beverage products introduced had a store label; in 2011, the proportion was almost a third of the total. Major US grocery chains such as Safeway, Kroger, and Supervalu -- which control 40% of the American market -- have investing heavily in their store brands. Safeway has over a half-dozen store brands, with names such as "Open Nature" and "O Organics", with each line directed by its own brand manager, many of them having been recruited from the big food firms. Safeway recently opened the company's own culinary center in California, staffed by professional chefs, where product tastings take place every Thursday. Safeway executives like to drop in to try out the food.

Kroger Private Selection

Kroger's similarly recruited from the big guys to revamp their store brands. The chain's new "Private Selection" label actually attempts to meet the name brands head-on, selling product such as frozen pizzas of equivalent quality for equivalent prices, though Kroger's can also offer better discounts to customers armed with a loyalty card -- a subject discussed here late last year. Stores are now even trying to move their brands into categories that have traditionally been seen as unassailable, such as pet food, beer, and salty snacks. Taking on Frito-Lay's potato chips seemed impossible not long ago, but now the stores are selling their own product at half the price.

The major labels are trying to fight back, introducing new products and promoting more heavily, but the economics that boost store brands works against them. Worst of all, once people find out that a store brand is just as tasty as the major label product, they have no incentive to ever come back.

ED: I'll try out a store-brand product every now and then to see if it measures up to my usual preference. Sometimes it does -- there are some sort of products that if they're made well enough to sell, they're just as good as any other that can sell, dish soap being a fair example -- and I change to the store brand. Sometimes it doesn't, and I don't.

Just out of curiosity, being addicted to potato chips I had to try the Kroger store-brand potato chips to see if they were comparable to Lay's Ruffles, my usual preference. As it turned out, no; the Kroger's chips were perfectly edible, but not in the same league. Needs work.



* ONE HAND CLAPPING: As reported by THE ECONOMIST ("Heal Thyself: ObamaCare At Two", 24 March 2012), at the start of this spring Barack Obama's unprecedented "ObamaCare" health-care act had its second anniversary. Many Republicans are hoping it won't live to be three, believing it needs to be put down before 2014, when its main provisions will kick in.

The issue has now gone to the US Supreme Court and the Obama Administration is holding its collective breath on the judgement. The main target of the court's considerations is the "individual mandate", which requires everyone to have a health care plan. Scrapping the mandate would undermine Obama's goal of universal coverage. ObamaCare requires insurers to cover those with pre-existing conditions without increasing rates. The mandate ensures that healthy patients will balance the sick ones. Without it, the provisions for pre-existing conditions would probably be ruinous for insurers.

The justices have more to consider than just the individual mandate, since the act features a range of provisions. The court may just decide to rule that the case should be postponed to when the individual mandate goes into effect in 2014. However, after two years the ObamaCare Act, even in its incomplete state, is already changing the ground rules for America's health-care system.

That's not because the ObamaCare scheme is firing on all cylinders. This last fall Obama scrapped an impractical insurance plan to pay for nursing homes and other long-term care -- and there's been a ongoing, emotional, and shrill dispute over provision of contraception. The ObamaCare Act also requires that the US states set up exchanges where citizens can buy health-care plans by 2014; not surprisingly, some governors have refused to do anything about the exchanges as a matter of principle, while others are trying to get more information on what needs to be done.

Things are still happening thanks to ObamaCare. Children up to the age of 26 can stay on their parents' insurance. Discounts and drug rebates have saved the elderly $3.2 billion USD on prescription drugs. Insurers must devote at least 80% of their fees to medical care, instead of to administrative costs or margins. From September, they will have to describe their products in a clear, comparable manner. More significant are the reforms to change the structure of America's health-care system.

As it stands now, the US health-care system is set up to provide as much care as possible, not to keep patients well at the least cost. The result, not surprisingly, is not cost-effective. The ObamaCare Act's provisions are attempting to restructure the ground rules. The US Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) has launched a program to reward groups of hospitals and doctors -- called "accountable care organizations (ACOs)" -- for providing good, cheap care to patients on Medicare, America's public insurance plan for the elderly. A variety of measures encourage clinics to co-ordinate services from different doctors and specialists. In October, Medicare will begin to reward with higher payments hospitals that score well on, say, care for heart-attack patients.

Even before the ObamaCare Act was passed, the private sector was working on similar measures, and has gone further than the government. Some insurers and hospitals are creating their own ACOs, separate from the Medicare experiment. Others are testing new types of payments. Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts, an insurer, rewards doctors and hospitals for managing patients' chronic ailments. UnitedHealth, America's biggest insurer, is introducing pay-for-performance contracts at hospitals, and UnitedHealth has also bought a number of medical providers to provide service on its own.

Such measures reflect a broader drive to deal with health-care costs. From 2007, US health-care costs grew more slowly than they had for half a century. That low growth in costs was heavily influenced by the economic downturn, but the Great Recession isn't the whole story. More services are moving from hospitals to cheaper health clinics; as companies make their health plans less generous, patients make less use of medical services; while insurers are creating tools to help patients shop more wisely before buying a service.

All that is being done now has an experimental flavor to it, a sound of one hand clapping. It will have to become comprehensive to deal with America's health-care crisis. If the individual mandate is struck down by the Supreme Court, it will be a severe blow to ObamaCare; but ObamaCare has acquired a certain Zen momentum, both reflecting and inspiring change in the US medical system that is certain to continue. Says one doctor: "The ship has left port or whatever metaphor you want to use. We cannot go back."



* SLIME MOLDS EXAMINED (2): Dictyostelium belongs to one of the two great branches of slime molds; its branch is known as the "cellular slime molds", because its spore and stalk are made out of many cells. In contrast, the "acellular slime molds" do not form slugs and in fact are always single-celled organisms -- if really big single-celled organisms. Acellular slime mold amoebas congregate and merge into each other, creating a single pulsing blob that throws out tentacles that can extend meters. The blob can also crawl off if its current surroundings are uncomfortable. Acellular slime molds also make spores; they produce tens of thousands of stalks, and the spores that cap them blow away in the breeze.

Physarum polycephalum slime mold

Acellular slime molds such as Physarum, like Dictyostelium, make convenient lab test subjects, with Physarum having a surprisingly "smart" ability to throw out efficient networks of tendrils -- surprising because slime molds don't have a nervous system and are unlikely to be any more aware than a chunk of firewood. At the University of New South Wales in Australia, Madeleine Beekman and her colleagues documented the decision-making of slime molds by presenting Physarum with two different kinds of food: either rich in protein, or rich in carbohydrates. The slime molds grew tendrils to both foods, but adjusted their sizes to get the best balance of protein and carbohydrates that allowed them to grow fastest.

In another experiment, Beekman and her colleagues made the choice harder by putting food under bright lights, which Physarum doesn't like. In the first trial, the researchers offered the slime mold food chunks that contained 3% oat flakes in the dark, and 5% oat flakes in bright light. The mold was just as likely to seek out either kind of food. But when the scientists added a 1% increment in to the dark area, 80% of the tendrils went towards the dark area, even though there was substantially less food there. The slime mold simply preferred the dark.

Physarum networking

* Researchers know a lot about Dictyostelium and Physarum because they do so well in the lab, but much less is known about the many wild species of slime molds. From 2003, biologists interested in slime molds have conducted the "Global Eumycetozoan Project", based at the University of Arkansas, which has doubled the known species of slime molds. Biologists have found slime molds in Antarctica, in barren deserts, high in the canopies of jungles and even on the leaves of household plants. Slime molds also exist in huge numbers, with thousands of individual slime molds in a bit of soil. They are a major player in soil ecosystems. When plants and animals die, microbes break them down; slime molds then devour many of the bacteria, releasing their nutrients for other organisms to feed on.

As more slime mold species are found, genetic analysis has been illuminating their relationships and evolutionary history. One concern was that the two major groups of slime molds actually weren't closely related, their resemblances being mostly coincidental. To everyone's relief, it turned out that the two groups are indeed more closely related to each other than to any other organisms. Genetic studies also confirm that, as noted earlier, slime molds are very ancient, at least 600 million years old, with a common ancestor maybe a billion years old. Sandra Baldauf, an evolutionary biologist at Uppsala University in Sweden who is performing genetic analyses of slime molds as part of the Global Eumycetozoan Project, commented: "They may be as old as the terrestrial ecosystem."

The traits that slime molds share in common, such as making spores, may have first evolved as they came ashore. In acquiring the ability to form slugs, the ancestors of Dictyostelium lifted their spores out of the ground, giving them a better chance to spread. The giant acellular slime molds acquired a different method, spreading their bodies across huge areas, and making spores across their entire surface.

We've learned an enormous amount about slime molds in recent decades, but what we've found out is still only a small part of what is probably left to learn. Says Baldauf: "I think it's the tip of the iceberg. They go to some incredible place like a mountain in Patagonia, and they take a tiny soil sample and bring it back. But who knows what's a foot away?"

* ED: When I was reviewing this item for release, I was startled when I realized what I'd lifted straight from Carl Zimmer: "The ancestors of Dictyostelium may have evolved the ability to form slugs and stalks to get those spores out of the ground, so that they'd have a better chance to spread."

I did a hasty rewrite of that text. The reality is that ancestors of slime molds did not, could not, decide to do anything. Variations in their genetic makeup provided them with new features that just improved their lifestyles in various ways, and so encouraged their propagation. One of the interesting aspects of learning evo science is the reality of just how persistently we tend to read human notions such as intent into evolutionary processes. I'm sensitized to that pitfall, but it can be very difficult to avoid. [END OF SERIES]



* AIRLINER FACELIFT (2): It's not just the big carriers that are interested in updating airliner interiors -- as discussed by another article in the series from AVIATION WEEK ("Retrofitting Regional Cabins" by Paul Seidenman and David Spanovich), regional airlines are also getting into updating airliner interiors. It wasn't a big priority for them until recently, partly because the flights were relatively short and customers didn't care as much about comforts.

The push to upgrade is biased towards larger regional aircraft, with 50 to 100 seats. Traditionally, regionals have focused on all-coach configurations, but as they have embraced larger machines it's become more practical to offer first-class accommodations that yield higher profit margins. Associations with the big carriers are helping to push the drive towards first-class accommodations on regionals, with passengers who flew first-class on a long-haul jetliner inclined to want the same comforts on a connection via a regional aircraft. Says an official of Pemco World Air Services of Tampa, Florida: "The majors want to provide a seamless service between their operations and those of their regional partners."

New-build regional aircraft are now being delivered with first-class facilities, while updates of existing single-class machines are ramping up. Pemco is now updating 63 Bombardier CRJ700 jetliners with first-class accommodations for Delta Connection, while performing similar work on 110 aircraft -- Bombardier CRJ700s and CRJ900s, EMBRAER 170s and 175s -- to a similar configuration. An update takes less than a week; although the focus is on providing first-class seating, modest improvements are also being made to coach facilities.

Even turboprops are getting into the upgrade act. European turboprop manufacturer ATR is offering the "Armonia" cabin for its ATR 42 and ATR 72 twin-turboprop airliners for either new-build aircraft or retrofit to existing machines. The Armonia, created with consultation from Italdesign Guigaro of Italy, features slender seats to reduce weight, larger overhead bins, and more passenger amenities.

Along with the new interiors, the regionals are installing wi-fi connections in their machines as well. As discussed later in this series, wi-fi services have become common on aircraft of the big carriers; passengers have to pay for the service, but it's still proving popular, and handing the airlines an increment of profit. There is some skepticism, however, that regionals will obtain much benefit from wi-fi since the flights are usually short, and only the most addicted online junkies are likely to want to pay for not getting much done.

Indeed, some skeptics suspect the push to update older regional aircraft is likely to be a bust, in large part because increasing fuel costs have substantially reduced the operational lifetime of older airliners. If the latest airliner is much more fuel-efficient than an older one then operating the older one, even if it's in very good condition, becomes unprofitable. There's no great sense in updating older regional aircraft if they're going to be dumped in a few years, with their fuel-efficient replacements being obtained with modern two-class interior configurations.

* As a footnote, a third article in the AVIATION WEEK series ("Visualizing Modifications" by Kristin Macher) discussed how computer-aided design (CAD) tools are being used to help update airliner interiors. The Hamburg-based "VIP Completion Center" of German carrier Lufthansa's Technik arm has updated hundreds of interiors, having learned in the process that it is difficult to reduce the procedure to a straightforward routine. No two jetliners, it turns out, are exactly alike; two Airbus A320s that would seem identical will have minor variations that will cause screaming chaos when it comes time to install an interior that looked fine on paper in the aircraft.

To help deal with the challenge, Lufthansa Technik engineers have developed software that takes the kit of elements for an update, and asks for detailed information about the specific target aircraft. The engineers can then perform a "virtual fitcheck" using a "Cave Automatic Virtual Environment (CAVE)", a glass cube with walls of video displays in which setting up the new interior can be performed using 3D goggles. The system is not cheap, but it's cheaper than spending a few weeks painfully tweaking an interior design to get it to fit.

Pacelab Cabin software

CAD software for airline interior design is actually nothing all that new, Pace Aerospace Engineering having introduced "Pacelab Cabin" software in 2000. At the outset, Pacelab Cabin wasn't in any league with Lufthansa Technik's proprietary system, being only useful for general preliminary layout, but the current version 7 is much improved on the original, including 3D rendering features to allow visualization of interior design. Pacelab Cabin 7 will accept design parameters as specified by a customer, put together the cabin design using a standardized catalog of elements, and then perform a rule check to see if it all fits together. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* GIMMICKS & GADGETS: Urban bicycle-sharing networks were discussed here in 2011. As discussed by an article from WIRED Online "Scoot Bringing Zipcar-like Electric Scooters to San Francisco" by Damon Lavrinc, 16 March 2012), a California outfit named "Scoot Networks" is now setting up a similar electric scooter network in San Francisco.

Scoot Networks is starting out small, with only ten scooters and only one charging garage, but hopes to expand rapidly to hundreds of scooters, along with more garages and sites at bus and the city BART municipal train stations. The scooters are built in China and typically have a range of about 32 kilometers (20 miles); their top speed is only about 48 KPH (30 MPH) and so no users do not need a motorcycle license.

A scooter can be reserved with a cellphone app, with the cellphone then docked to the scooter to read out speed, state of charge and GPS data. Right now Scott is charging $5 USD an hour, but the company is also working on a subscription service, expected to run to about $100 USD a month. Although the scooters are easy to ride, Scott Networks offers a short orientation and a training session to those who feel they need them.

* The tech blogosphere recently reported that airlines have been acquiring hundreds of iPads and other tablet-type devices, but not by choice. Tablet computers are very conveniently stashed in backseat pockets, where they can be overlooked by hurried, travel-weary passengers as they deplane. The airlines generally try to get them back to passengers, but are successful only about half the time -- in fact, often passengers don't bother to ask the airlines about the missing tablets, apparently being unsure of where the tablets were lost during their travels.

Recommendations to travelers include taping a business card to the back of a tablet, and to set up "lockscreen" that displays personal contact information even while keeping strangers from logging in. Apple and some other vendors also have tracking schemes to hunt down lost tablets, though the tracking systems can be a bit tricky to configure.

* As reported by BUSINESS WEEK ("Let There Be Light, Sometimes" by Karen Weise, 27 February 2012), in the 1990s architects began to seriously consider how to make office buildings more energy-efficient. One facet of that effort was to automate use of blinds; building occupants were often inefficient in handling blinds, in particular lowering them and then not bothering to raise them again and turning on the lights instead. Automated blinds had the potential of considerably cutting lighting and heating costs.

However, it's proven much trickier than it would seem. Initially, the blinds were simply raised and lowered on fixed schedules, which exasperated occupants since they had no control; the blinds would be lowered when overcast was prevalent, for example. More sophisticated control models were introduced, determining the exposure of given windows at given times of the day; and then sensors were added to track sunlight conditions. Some of the latest big structures have blind-control sensors both inside and outside the building.

The ultimate solution seems to be electrochromically dimming windows, not blinds, at least if purchase cost can be brought down; they'd save enough energy to make the power to run them no issue. Still, everyone who has investigated automated blind systems has found out that no matter what technology is employed, users have to be given control over their lighting environment. Any future adaptive system, then, will not only have to factor in the current sunlight conditions, but also the behavior of the people who have to use it.



* DOWN & DIRTY: Most of us have been raised to like being squeaky-clean, with an aversion to "germs" and an instinct to wipe them out. Actually, we live at all times with huge numbers of bacteria and other microorganisms; they generally do us no harm, and in fact if we were to lose them all we'd be in big trouble.

Few enjoy being dirty, but as discussed by an article published in the THE NEW YORK TIMES some time back ("Babies Know: A Little Dirt Is Good For You" by Jane E. Brody, 6 January 2009), we can take a good thing too far. Cleanliness is a virtue, but the realization is growing that our clean society has puzzlingly high rates of allergies, asthma, and more serious immune system disorders such as multiple sclerosis and Type 1 diabetes.

We tend to react with disgust at the notorious fascination of small children for eating nasty things they pick up off the ground, but it may be an instinctive behavior. Babies are grown with an "unprogrammed" immune system, and this inclination to eat things that would revolt them later in life may be simply exposing their immune system to the outside world. Dr. Mary Ruebrush, a professor of microbiology and immunology -- who wrote a book titled WHY DIRT IS GOOD -- suggests: "What a child is doing when he puts things in his mouth is allowing his immune response to explore his environment. Not only does this allow for 'practice' of immune responses, which will be necessary for protection, but it also plays a critical role in teaching the immature immune response what is best ignored."

We have generally eliminated worm infections from our environment, but some research suggests worm infections are extremely important in "priming" our immune system. Some worm infections are very troublesome, but for the most part they're temporary and harmless -- it's only the worms that are tuned to infect humans that are a hazard, since our immune system tends to suppress the others. Studies have shown that sufferers from multiple sclerosis appear to have milder cases and fewer flareups after being infected with whipworms. Pig whipworms, which don't survive long in the human intestinal tract, have shown some effectiveness in dealing with inflammatory bowel diseases.

None of the advocates for "dirt is good" are saying that the clock should be turned back to the 19th century. What they are saying is that the pursuit of pristine sanitation is futile. Ruebush points out that microbes are everywhere, most of them are harmless, and some are essentially to our health. She says: "The typical human probably harbors some 90 trillion microbes. The very fact that you have so many microbes of so many different kinds is what keeps you healthy most of the time."

Ruebush criticizes the current fad for the hundreds of antibacterial products that create a false sense of security and may actually promote the emergence of antibiotic-resistant pathogens. Good old soap and water are usually as effective as needed. Ruebrush recommends washing the hands after a toilet call, before eating, after changing a diaper, before or after handling food, and when the hands are visibly soiled. Where running water is scarce, alcohol-based handwipes will do the job.

Dr. Joel Weinstock, the director of gastroenterology and hepatology at Tufts Medical Center in Boston, goes a bit farther: "Children should be allowed to go barefoot in the dirt, play in the dirt, and not have to wash their hands when they come in to eat." Weinstock also suggest that kids have dogs and cats, to get exposure to parasites that will promote a healthy immune system. That may be a tactless way of putting it, and some researchers believe that it might be more sensible, certainly more publicly acceptable, to create a vaccine that mimics hazards that children would be exposed to in a less sanitized environment. That of course will raise protests from antivaxer activists, but the simple truth is that we live in an environment that offers both hazards and benefits, and we cannot always eliminate the hazards without losing the benefits as well.



* NORTH KOREAN HELL: There is an inclination to downplay reports of the cruelties of foreign regimes, partly because propaganda and overexposure have diminished the impact -- and partly because the stories can seem so hard to believe. As a case in point, an article from THE ECONOMIST ("The Gulag Behind The Goose-Steps", 21 April 2012) inspected the nightmare that is North Korea's prison camp system.

According to North Korean state authorities, there is no repression: the regime does not keep political prisoners. Thousands of North Koreans who escaped south say otherwise, with ghastly tales of brutalities. They report there are several grades of forced-labor camps:

All the camps involve mistreatment, and deaths of prisoners are nothing unusual. In the camps holding North Koreans repatriated from China, women made pregnant by Han Chinese are given forced abortions, the North Korean state having no tolerance for "miscegenation" with foreign races -- not even the Chinese, traditionally Korea's patrons. Escapees include prison-camp guards who could take no more.

Estimates of the number of political prisoners in North Korea range from 150,000 to 200,000. That number is hard to verify, but a number of sites that look like prison camps can be spotted in satellite imagery of isolated areas -- North Koreans say of those who disappear that they were "sent up to the mountains" -- and the sites have been growing. Prisoners work all day, every day, with threadbare clothing and so little food that they eat rats and snakes.

Under a 1972 edict from Kim Il-Sung, the regime's iron-willed founder, up to three generations must be punished for "thoughtcrimes" in order to wipe out the "seed" of class enemies. Whole families, including children, are sent to the camps. There are no trials for political prisoners, they can be locked up on mere suspicion of wrong thinking; wrong knowledge; wrong association; wrong background. Crimes include a failure to dust off a picture of Kim the patriarch; having been a diplomat or student in Eastern Europe in the late 1980s, to witness the collapse of Socialism there; having contacts, usually in China, with South Koreans; or being a Christian.

The story of one recent escapee, Shin Dong-hyuk (a new name), is narrated in a new book, ESCAPE FROM CAMP 14 by Blaine Hardin. Shin was actually born in a prison camp and grew up in it. At age 6, he watched a girl his age beaten to death by a teacher for trying to steal a few grains of corn. Conditioned by state indoctrination, Shin later told a guard that his mother and brother were planning to escape. They were executed, with Shin and his father being forced to watch, after being tortured on suspicion of complicity. In 2005, at age 22, Shin managed to get out of the camp by crawling over the body of a friend who had died on the electrified wire. Some suspect that Shin's father was executed in reprisal for the escape; human rights activists have been badgering North Korean authorities for information about him and getting nowhere. Shin had hated his father for bringing him into such a monstrous world, but now he has repented and hopes for his father's survival.

Diplomats, having their hands full with North Korea's nuclear program and other provocations, don't say much about the reports of human-rights abuses, since the North Koreans simply storm out of meetings if challenged on the subject. The North Koreans are being particularly provocative right now, with the recent failed rocket launch and rumors of an upcoming nuclear test. Human rights activists still find the failure to help those in prison camps unsatisfactory, one saying: "It is not just nuclear weapons that have to be dismantled in North Korea, but an entire system of political repression."

How that could be done remains a question very difficult to answer. The North Korean regime is a zombie, effectively dead but still shuffling around, devouring those in its path. How long it continues to shuffle around is anyone's guess.



* SLIME MOLDS EXAMINED (1): Few people are familiar with the organisms known as "slime molds", but as discussed by an article from THE NEW YORK TIMES ("Can Answers to Evolution Be Found in Slime?" by Carl Zimmer, THE NEW YORK TIMES, 3 October 2011), biologists find them a source of fascination. Slime molds are a lineage of amoebas that live in soil. While they spend part of their life as ordinary single-celled organisms, they sometimes grow into strangely alien forms. Some species gather by the thousands to form multicellular bodies that can crawl, while others develop into gigantic, pulsing networks of protoplasm.

Slime molds have been known to science for centuries, but only now are we starting to understand what makes them tick. We are also learning that, for literally brainless organisms, they are capable of surprisingly sophisticated behaviors. In 2000, Japanese researchers placed Physarum polycephalum -- the name means "many-headed slime mold" -- in a maze, along with two blocks of food. The slime mold extended its tendrils through the maze, bending around curves, reaching dead ends and then backing out of them. After four hours, the slime mold was feeding on both blocks of food.

Andrew Adamatzky, a researcher at the University of West England, has been watching slime molds since 2006, finding inspirations in their growth for designing computer software. In 2010 he and his colleagues placed a slime mold in the middle of a map of Spain and Portugal, with pieces of food on the largest cities. The slime mold grew a network of tentacles that was nearly identical to the actual highway system on the Iberian Peninsula. Adamatzky said: "If some countries started to build highways from scratch, I would recommend to them to follow the slime mold routes."

Despite their name, slime molds are not related to bread mold or the black mold that grows on the walls of in damp houses; they are instead derived from ordinary soil amoebas. Researchers have compared slime mold DNAs to unravel their evolutionary history, which goes back about a billion years. Since all known slime mold species live on land, they may have been early arrivals on the land, setting up shop long before plants and animals.

Researchers began to acquire a particular interest in slime molds about half a century ago, thanks to the work of a Princeton biologist named John Tyler Bonner. Bonner became interested in the slug-forming slime mold named Dictyostelium discoides and began to raise them in his lab, examining them for insights into the formation of animal embryos. Today, Dictyostelium is more generally seen as an intriguing case straddling the boundary between single-celled and multicellular organisms.

Dictyostelium discoides fruiting bodies

Normally, Dictyostelium exists as a group of independent single-celled amoebas in the soil. When things get tough, however, they come together in thousands to form a single blob; they tell the difference between their own kind and similar soil microorganisms via surface proteins that allow them to link up. The blob stretches into a slug about a millimeter long, which then crawls up toward the light. Once it emerges into the light, the slug transforms in its turn: some of the cells turn into a stiff stalk, while the others crawl to the top and form a sticky ball of spores that attaches itself to a passing animal that carries it to a hopefully more attractive environment.

Although the amoebas that make up the slime mold are all the same, they specialize when they form up a group. About 1% turn into guards, patrolling the slug to find bacterial intruders. When they find bacteria, they devour them, then fall away from the slug to die, taking the bacteria with them. When the slug is ready to make a stalk, more amoebas sacrifice themselves, climbing on top of one another and then transforming their interiors into bundles of cellulose. 20% of Dictyostelium cells die this way, with the survivors climbing up their lifeless bodies to become spores.

From an evolutionary point of view, the willingness of some of the amoebas to sacrifice themselves for the collective traditionally doesn't seem to make sense, since in killing themselves off, the self-sacrificing amoebas would not produce a next generation, making them evolutionary dead ends. The trick is that all the amoebas are genetically similar, with any one of them potentially able to commit suicide for the greater good in the right circumstances. The sacrifice of the amoebas still helps carry on their genetic line.

However, mutant amoebas can always arise that will "cheat", allowing other amoebas to sacrifice themselves while the mutants survive. David Queller and Joan Strassmann, a husband-and-wife team of Dictyostelium experts at Washington University in Saint Louis, have found that some strains of the slime mold do have cheats: if mixed with other strains, they are more likely to end up as spores than as dead stalk cells.

So why haven't the cheats put all the other amoebas out of business? It's because the cheats advance themselves at the expense of the complete slime mold community, and if it causes the community to break down, all die out. We have our own cells that cheat, cancer cells, and though they do well as propagating at the expense of the rest of the organism, ultimately their effect is suicidal. The only way the cheats are going to be carried on is if they don't have any detrimental effect on the whole, or have some compensating advantage. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* AIRLINER FACELIFT (1): While airlines are often busily obtaining the latest high-tech fuel-efficient jetliners, such firms also pay considerable attention at providing comforts to passengers -- yes, even to lowly coach passengers, though in that case it's a question of what best can be done for the least cost possible. For business and first class there's more willingness to be generous, such customers paying for the privileges.

That push equates to rethinking aircraft interiors. As reported by an article from AVIATION WEEK ("Evolved Engineering" by Kristin Macher, 27 February 2012), one interesting example is Southwest Airline's drive for a "Green Plane", announced in 2009. Now the airline has finished thorough tests of lighter, recyclable aircraft interior components and tallied surveys from customers on the new amenities. The result is the "Evolve" interior, with re-engineered seats, carpets, and bulkheads. Southwest is now moving forward on refitting 372 Boeing 737-700 jetliners with the Evolve interior, and then move on to install appropriately modified interiors on the 737-700 and 717 jetliners of Southwest's low-cost subsidiary, AirTran Airways of Orlando.

Southwest Airline's Evolve Interior

The "Green Plane" moniker may sound like tree-hugger posturing, and certainly Southwest officials weren't unaware of its usefulness as publicity, but it in practice it has been a highly practical exercise, and the fact that it is consistent with environmental propriety is an additional benefit. The biggest payoff for Southwest is in weight, the new interior slimming down enough to allow cramming another row, six more seats, into a 737-700. That hardly sounds welcome to any coach passenger, and in fact the seat space shrank by 3%. However, Southwest engineers say that simple seat "pitch" is not all there is to passenger comfort, and in fact the volumetric space given each passenger increased slightly, by about half a percent, even as the pitch shrank.

With the new seats, passengers also end up having more legroom. They're not actually "new" seats in that they retain the frames of the old, simply acquiring slimmed-down seat bottom cushions, dress covers, and headrests. Given that a passenger sits lower in the seat, there's more ability to stick one's feet under the seat in front, all the more so because of the introduction of a optimized, slim life-vest stow under the seat. Although the new seat cushions are substantially thinner, they are designed to provide as much comfort as before.

The new modular nylon carpeting system involves squares that can be easily replaced, often without pulling the seats, allowing easy and low-cost repairs to carpet damage. The squares are designed so that the seams between them are not readily visible. The carpet vendor, InterFlor, is working to reduce the need for adhesives and sealants that are not only a nuisance to deal with, but are also environmentally troublesome.

In fact, Southwest was sincere in seeking out sustainable technologies for the Evolve interior, as long as they could do the job at the right cost; for example, plastic armrest elements were replaced with light, durable, recyclable aluminum. The leather seat covers, produced by Irwin Automotive, are actually made of "E-Leather", which is recycled leather put through a mix process with Kevlar or other strong synthetic polymer, resulting in a product that is stronger and substantially lighter than true leather. Since E-Leather is more or less a fabricated product while true leather comes from animals, E-Leather can be produced easily in desired configurations with little wastage. Being "green" may not amount to much in a business sense by itself; but if it buys the least wasteful and -- with all factors considered -- the most cost-effective solution, it's a no-brainer to use it. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* Space launches for April included:

-- 04 APR 12 / NROL-25 (USA 234)5 -- A Delta 4 Heavy booster was launched from Cape Canaveral to put a secret military payload into space for the US National Reconnaissance Office (NRO). The spacecraft was designated "NROL-25" AKA "USA 234". Observers suggested it was the second in a new series of radar imaging satellites, the first having been launched in 2010.

-- 12 APR 12 / KWANGMYONGSONG 3 (FAILURE) -- North Korea attempted to launch a three-stage Unha (Galaxy) booster to put the "Kwangmyongsong (Bright Star) 3" observation satellite into orbit. The booster reached an altitude of 120 kilometers (75 miles) and then broke into four pieces, to fall into the Yellow Sea. The US government had made clear its disapproval of the launch, the flight being seen as primarily a test of a weapons system. The Americans warned of serious consequences if the North Koreans did so, including the suspension of planned shipments of food aid.

-- 20 APR 12 / PROGRESS 47P (ISS) -- A Soyuz U booster was launched from Baikonur to put the "Progress 47P / M-15M" tanker-freighter spacecraft into orbit on an International Space Station (ISS) supply mission, docking with the station's Pirs module two days after launch. It was the 47th Progress mission to the ISS.

Yahsat 1B

-- 23 APR 12 / YAHSAT 1B -- A Proton M Breeze M booster was launched from Baikonur to put the "Yahsat 1B" geostationary comsat into orbit for the Al Yah Satcom Company of Abu Dhabi. Yahsat 1B was built by EADS Astrium, being based on the firm's Eurostar E3000 comsat bus. The spacecraft had a launch mass of about 6,000 kilograms (13,230 pounds), a payload of 46 C-band transponders -- 25 for civil use and 21 for secure military and government communications -- and a design life of 15 years. It was placed in the geostationary slot at 50.5 degrees East longitude to provide communications services over the Middle East and South Asia.

-- 25 APR 12 / RISAT 1 -- An ISRO Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle was launched from Sriharikota to put the "Radar Imaging Satellite (RISAT) 1" Earth observation satellite into orbit. The spacecraft carried a C-band synthetic aperture radar (SAR); RISAT 1 was actually preceded by RISAT 2, launched in 2009 and which carried an Israeli-built X-band radar. RISAT 1 had a launch mass of 1,860 kilograms (4,100 pounds), making it the largest payload ever lofted by a PSLV; the booster was accordingly in the "PSLV XL" configuration, with six lengthened solid-rocket boosters. The satellite was placed in a near-polar orbit that gave it a revisit time of about 25 days; it had a design life of five years.

RISAT 1 launch

* OTHER SPACE NEWS: The failure of the attempted North Korean satellite launch this last month was no big surprise; the North Koreans blew their previous launch attempts, and nobody expects the decrepit North Korean regime to be very competent at anything except terrorizing its citizens. The days are long gone when people saw tyrannies as efficient. The launch at least was almost perfectly timed to make a reasonable tribute for the centennial of the sinking of the TITANIC.

WIRED Online had interesting comments that pointed out the challenges North Korea faced in putting a spacecraft in orbit, incidentally shedding light on why spaceflight is so painfully expensive. Jeffrey Lewis, the director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Monterrey Institute, pointed out that a launch vehicle is .....


..... a really complex system using volatile chemicals and subject to extreme shock and vibration. The environment is so unforgiving that even small details are critical. As a result, tacit knowledge is important, even for low-level employees like welders and so forth. As a result, repetition and practice is essential.


Brian Weeden, a former officer with the US Air Force Space Command, says the North Koreans are simply out of their depth:


Not only are they short on money, but also expertise. Developing this technology requires expertise across a range of fields, from fluid dynamics to metallurgy to materials science to flight dynamics. Countries that have been successful in this area all have extensive science, technology, engineering and mathematics programs to develop people with expertise in those fields. It seems North Korea is trying to shortcut this process by buying parts and technology from abroad and slapping them together instead of taking the time and investing the resources to develop the proper foundations.


North Korea has indeed been trying to get a leg up by clustering together short-range missiles based on Soviet weapons technology, but though that's a classic approach to building a long-range rocket, it's still difficult. Victoria A. Samson, a rocket expert with the Secure World Foundation, said:


What they've tried to do is get a bigger rocket by strapping a bunch of Scuds and their variants together. It's not as easy as you'd think. They're clearly having trouble building multiple-stage rockets, which is what you need either to put a satellite up in space, or to build an [intercontinental ballistic missile] that can range, oh, say, the United States.


Multistage rockets are troublesome because it's like trying to launch a rocket off of another rocket while the assembly is in flight at high speed. Samson adds:


Then you run into the problem of actually being able to aim the rocket, once you've launched it. I've always said that if North Korea ever got a rocket built that could technically reach the United States, they'd be lucky to hit any part of the continental Unites States, because they certainly wouldn't be able to guide it to its final destination.


The North Koreans may actually get a payload into orbit if they keep on trying, but their technology is obviously junk. North Korea seems to be pursuing long-range rocket development primarily for its nuisance value. However, there's a silver lining in that North Korea likes to export their rocket technology -- and Washington DC can obtain a little reassurance from the fact that the Iranians are among the recipients.

* Although the Space Launch System (SLS) heavylift booster being developed by NASA is expected to use twin five-segment solid rocket boosters (SRBs) developed from those used on the retired space shuttle, Dynetics and Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne have come up with an alternate proposal: liquid-fuel boosters powered by the F1 engines used on the Saturn V booster that put astronauts on the Moon.

As envisioned, each booster would be fitted with twin F1 engines, fueled by liquid oxygen and kerosene, with each engine able to produce a whopping 8,010 kN (816,300 kgp / 1,800,000 lbf) thrust. The boosters would be 5.5 meters (18 feet) in diameter and of course would have mounting hardware compatible with the SLS SRBs. The liquid boosters would provide about 20 tonnes (22 tons) more lift capacity to low Earth orbit than the SRBs. It must be noted that liquid boosters were repeatedly proposed for the shuttle program, but they never came close to happening; however, given that the SLS is a new-start effort, it may be more possible now.

* The European Space Agency (ESA) has now signed a $400 million USD contract with the Astrium component of the European Aerospace & Defense Systems (EADS) group to build the "Solar Orbiter" spacecraft, scheduled for launch in early 2017. The spacecraft will be built by Astrium's British operation. Award of the contract was celebrated as part of the 50th anniversary of the launch of the UK's first satellite, the "Ariel 1", lofted on a US booster from Cape Canaveral in April 1962.

Solar Orbiter will also be launched on a US booster, with the spacecraft to be sent into space on an Atlas 5 supplied by NASA. The probe will have a launch mass of 1,800 kilograms (3,968 pounds); it will carry science payloads to sample the solar wind, as well as instruments to observe the Sun's corona and atmosphere. After gravity assist flybys of Earth and Venus, in 2020 Solar Orbiter will be inserted into an orbit at about 42 million kilometers (26 million miles) from the Sun, less than a third the average distance of Earth, and inside the orbit of the planet Mercury. No other spacecraft has ever gone that close to the Sun before. The mission will last at least seven years.

ESA is providing the spacecraft and ground system, and the bulk of the science payload comes from ESA member states. NASA's primary contribution to the European-led Solar Orbiter is the launch vehicle and components for two of the instruments. Total mission cost is estimated at a billion USD, with the ESA covering 60% of the cost and NASA 40%. NASA is working on a follow-on mission, the "Solar Probe Plus", to be launched in 2018, and then put into an orbit in 2024 only 6 million kilometers (3.7 million miles) from the Sun.



* FLYWHEELS FOR TRANSPORTATION: Flywheels have long been considered as a potentially useful element in transportation systems, but they have always suffered from certain problems, particularly bulk and limited energy storage. As reported by THE ECONOMIST ("Reinventing the wheel", 3 December 2011), things are now starting to look up for flywheels as a means of improving vehicular gas mileage.

The idea is simple, the concept being based on "regenerative braking": use the energy of braking a vehicle to rev up a spinning wheel, then use the stored energy to get the vehicle going again. The flywheel won't store energy over a long period, gradually losing it to friction, but in stop and go traffic that's not a big concern. It's much the same principle used in energy-efficient cars these days, except at present they store braking energy as electrical power in batteries.

If we visualize a flywheel as a ring with the mass predominantly at the rim, then the energy stored in a flywheel is directly proportional to the mass and the diameter of the flywheel -- plus the square of the rate of rotation. Obviously, raising the rate of rotation provides the most benefit from the point of view of energy storage, but traditionally spinning up a flywheel beyond a few thousand RPM tore it apart. That meant flywheels had to be big and bulky to store much energy. The only transportation technology that's used them so far is the locomotive, which can handle "big and bulky".

Now things are looking up for flywheels, thanks to improved materials. Flywheels wound from carbon fiber can, astoundingly, be spun up to 60,000 RPM without flying apart. The higher rate of rotation more than makes up for the lighter weight of carbon fiber compared to, say, steel. Road tests have shown that a flywheel as small as a hockey puck can cut fuel consumption by more than one-fifth. Flywheels have a number of advantages as an energy storage system for regenerative braking over batteries:

Flywheels have already appeared in Formula 1 race cars. In 2009 the Federation Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA), allowed teams to put "kinetic energy recovery systems (KERS)" in cars. It was partially done for the "green" angle, but it was also seen as a way to give cars an increment of "boost power". Some teams opted for battery-based KERS, but others went for flywheels. They worked out well, and now automobile manufacturers are interested in using them in ordinary cars. Flywheel-based regenerative braking is not only more efficient than its battery-backed counterpart, it's less expensive, costing only about a quarter as much to implement. Jaguar has road-tested a prototype of its XF saloon with a "Flybrid" energy-storage system, and Volvo says it hopes to have a prototype rolling soon.

flywheel KERS diagram

Flywheel-based regenerative braking is not, of course, a trivial engineering problem. At 60,000 RPM the outer rim of a flywheel is moving at about Mach 2, over 2,000 KPH (1,200 MPH). That means that the flywheel has to be housed in a vacuum chamber, which makes storing energy in it and getting it back out again a bit tricky. Jaguar's solution is to use a rotating seal, with a vacuum pump turning on periodically to scavenge up any leakage of gas into the interior. A UK firm named Ricardo, which is also working on flywheel regenerative braking, has taken a more conceptually elegant approach, with its "Kinergy" system using permanent magnets to transfer energy in and out of the sealed flywheel chamber. There's also the problem of coupling between a car's drive system and a flywheels rapid / rapidly changing rate of spin, but that can be handled by a hydraulic coupling system.

Flywheels have their limitations, of course. Plug-in flywheel hybrids? No way, the flywheel can't store power for long, and its energy density is low. However, in potential they're even more efficient in saving gas in stop-and-go traffic than electric hybrid vehicles, as well as lighter and cheaper, and they should be good for handing out that additional boost of power when it's needed. Ricardo officials are optimistic that the technology has a big future, with company engineers now testing a flywheel that can spin at 145,000 RPM.



* SAY WHAT?: As reported by an article from BBC WORLD Online ("Are Language Cops Losing War Against 'Wrongly' Used Words?", 19 April 2012), the editors of the Associated Press (AP) Stylebook announced that, after giving the matter considerable thought, they changed the usage rules for the word "hopefully". The AP Stylebook is one of the most influential guides for American writers and copy-editors, providing recommendations on the use of words, phrases, grammar and punctuation. Before the change, "hopefully" could only be used to mean "with hope":

Now, it can also take the more modern meaning, "it is hoped":

Squabbling over the proper usage of words is an ancient pastime, and there remains no shortage of words to argue over. Several words that once meant one thing are now commonly accepted to mean another. "Anxious" used to mean "fearful", but now it means "excited and impatient", as in "anxious to see that new movie." "Decimate" is a Latin term for a disciplinary action in which a tenth of a regiment was executed, but now it means "almost completely destroyed" -- effectively, only a tenth left.

"Begs the question" is a phrase guaranteed to cause a fight. Formally, it means "circular reasoning", or "argument of prejudice", or most accurately a flat assertion impersonating an argument -- for example, the classic creationist claim that:

-- or its mirror:

However, "to beg the question" is often used to mean "to raise the question", and that usage increasingly dominates. Mignon Fogarty, an author focused on grammatical issues, set out to defend the traditional usage in her upcoming book, 101 TROUBLESOME WORDS, only to find out: "After scouring articles and blog posts, and being unable to find it used in the traditional way, I became convinced it was a lost cause."

"Bemused" means puzzled or confused, but is often used to mean slightly amused or entertained. It's one of a class of words that the linguist Bryan Garner calls "skunked": those who know the word's proper meaning are upset when they see it misused, but those who don't know the proper meaning are confused when it's used correctly. Editors tend to avoid skunked words and so they disappear from mainstream publications, but such words live on in tweets and the blogosphere, ensuring that the new meaning becomes entrenched.

"Whom" is on the way to becoming as archaic as "thou" or "thee", according to John McIntyre, an editor at the BALTIMORE SUN newspaper. It was his letter to the AP that prompted the change to "hopefully". McIntyre says: "It's pretty much gone in spoken English and is increasingly abandoned in written English. You can see how precarious it is because when people use it, they often misuse it. Increasingly it makes sense not to bother."

George Lakoff, a professor of linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley, takes a relaxed view of the "word wars", commenting: "These ideas of rules came about in the 19th Century, when there were rich people who wanted to know how to talk better and other people who decided they wanted to make money teaching them."

It's certainly useful to have commonly accepted definitions for clarity's sake, and we shouldn't misuse words in a way that leads to miscommunications and misunderstandings. However, linguistics is a descriptive and not a proscriptive science: if the public decides to use a word in a new way and everyone understands the meaning, that's what the word means, and the rule book is rewritten to reflect that reality. At least that's the case in the USA and the UK; France has an academy dedicated to enforcing the rules.

ED: Since I write a good deal, this item was close to home. I got to the point where I simply refused to use the phrase "beg the question" in any context because of the carping that inevitably followed. I don't see a problem with either usage of the phrase, semantically it could be interpreted either way, but now I find it irritating and I just use "evade the question" or "raise the question" or some other more precise phrasing.

As far as "who" versus "whom" goes, somebody else hit the mark on exactly what's wrong with it: "'Whom' is a word invented to make everyone sound like a butler. Nobody who is not a butler has ever said it out loud without feeling just a little bit weird."

Exactly; using it just feels stuffy. "Whom" is now a zombie word, dead but still walking around, a linguistic wart, a nuisance serving no useful function. I'm looking forward to the day when the AP Stylebook tosses "whom" onto the dustheap of linguistic history along with "thou". In fact, I'm now doing what little bit I can to help push it along into oblivion; as I review my old documents, I'm searching through them for references to "whom" and, except for citations, eliminating them. In some cases "who" is glaringly wrong, but no worries, it turns out it's easy to cook up acceptable alternative phrasings.

When confronted with fussing over word usage, I'm always tempted to comment that, having an electrical-electronics background, I am amused when people talk about putting "batteries" in a flashlight. I think: "Batteries? Those are cells, they're not 'batteries' of anything. Your car battery is exactly that, a battery of six cells, but the thing you put in a flashlight is just a cell."

I never say it, of course; part of the amusement is the silliness of the objection, since everyone, including their manufacturers, calls them "batteries", period, and everybody knows the word means. If I called them them "cells", few would know what I meant, the term has become "skunked". Incidentally, the classic rectangular 9-volt "transistor radio" battery, with the two fingernail-cracking tight snap contacts on top, really is a battery -- cut it open and it has six little cylindrical cells inside.



* INVASION OF THE ANIMAL ROBOTS (3): A related article from AAAS SCIENCE ("Manta Machines" by Elizabeth Pennisi, 27 May 2011) discussed efforts to build a robot analog to the manta ray. The giant manta ray seems hypnotically elegant in the way it "soars" like a butterfly underwater. It also turns out that its approach to swimming is, if not noted for speed, very smooth and energy efficient but also agile, allowing it to turn around on a dime. Those working on autonomous underwater vehicles (AUV) see the manta as a perfect model for roving underwater instrument platforms, and are working to imitate it.

manta ray

To date, much of the research on developing a mechanical manta has been conducted at Princeton University and the University of Virginia (UVa). This last spring, they finally held a competition to see how their lab prototypes stacked up. The contest between the two teams, conducted at the US Naval Surface Warfare Center in Bethesda, Maryland, didn't yield a clear winner, but everyone was impressed by the two prototypes.

The effort had its seeds in a trip physicist Alexander Smits of Princeton took to Australia a decade ago. Smits, an expert in fluid mechanics, was snorkeling in the ocean and was inspired by the gracefulness of the mantas he encountered underwater. When he got back to Princeton he got together with Hilary Bart-Smith, a graduate researcher then working on flexible aircraft wings, to explore the concept. They couldn't get funding at first, but then Bart-Smith went to UVa, where she managed to get fellowships to investigate the idea. Finally, in 2007, the US Navy Office of Naval Research issued a request for proposals for "bio-inspired" sea vehicles. Bart-Smith jumped at it, contacting Smits as well as Frank Fish, a biologist at West Chester University in Pennsylvania, to come up with a detailed imagining of a robot manta. In 2008, the group got an award of $6.5 million USD to develop prototype robot mantas over a five-year period.

Fish kicked off the development project by going to Yap Island in Micronesia, where he and his colleagues took 36 hours of video of mantas. Back in the States, the researchers digitized the video to develop dynamic 3D models of how mantas swim, complemented by computerized tomography scans of manta fins to reveal their complicated internal structure of cartilage -- mantas don't have bones, incidentally, just girdles of cartilage. Researchers at UVa worked on computer modeling of how mantas swim, while their opposite numbers at Princeton built plastic models of manta fins and tested them in a water tank. What the studies revealed is that the up-and-down motion of a manta's fins is somewhat misleading; there's also an undulation, a wave passing from the front to the back of the fin, that is more important.

Having got a handle on how a manta ray gets around underwater, the research group decided it was time to try to imitate it, establishing a competition between Princeton and UVa to turn out prototypes. The UVa prototype, as it emerged, was built around a cable-rod matrix -- what's called a "tension integrity" or "tensegrity" structure, with stiff elements held together by cable tension instead of mechanical connections -- encased in soft silicone material. Actuators pulled on cables to move a fin. The body was made with a 3D printer, and then coated with epoxy to waterproof it. The UVa researchers figured out how to control their robot manta from the videos Fish brought back from Yap, for example using differential flapping of fins to perform turns. The Princeton robot manta was substantially different, with a rigid core and the fins controlled by cables extending from the core.

The two robot mantas were put through a prearranged set of swimming tests. The results were generally positive, though neither robot passed all its tests and both had various technical problems. No worries, it was good for a start, and the competitors hope to do better in the next round. Other groups are jumping into the race for the robot manta as well. It may not be an idea whose time has come, but its time does seem to be coming. [END OF SERIES]



* GENOMIC SLEUTHING (7): As a final installment in this series, an article from AAAS SCIENCE NOW ("Dangers Of Chinese Medicine Brought To Light By DNA Studies" by Kai Kupferschmidt, 12 April 2012), genomic analysis has been used to analyze the contents of Chinese remedies, with unsettling results.

Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) is increasingly popular all over the world, making up a business worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Western researchers are interested in determining the efficacy of Chinese remedies, partly because of the success of Tu Youyou, the Chinese scientist who isolated artemisinin, now the world's most important malaria drug, from an ancient Chinese medicine. However, they also want to know if some of the ingredients pose hazards. Critics have long warned that TCMs can also contain naturally occurring toxins, contaminants like heavy metals, added substances such as steroids that make them appear more effective, and traces of animals that are endangered and trade-restricted.

What's in traditional Chinese medicine?

Researchers at Murdoch University in Perth, Australia, used genomic sequencing technology to analyze 15 samples of traditional Chinese medicines seized by Australian border officials. The researchers took the preparations, pulverized them, and extracted the DNA. They then zeroed in on copies of two specific genes -- trnL, a chloroplast gene common to all plants, and 16srRNA, conserved among both plants and animals -- to see if they could track down what species were found in the mix. They amplified their samples using the polymerase chain reaction and then sequenced them, tracking down matches in genetic databases.

Genetic databases remain far from comprehensive and the Australian researchers sometimes found it a struggle to identify the different species represented in the DNA, but they were finally able to get a fair map of the constituents of the remedies. Some products contained material from animals classified as vulnerable or critically endangered, such as the Asiatic black bear and the Saiga antelope -- which the producers did actually claim on the labeling. However, such medicines also often included ingredients not mentioned on the packaging. One of the Australian researchers, molecular geneticist Michael Bunce, commented in the group's report: "For example, a product labeled 100% Saiga antelope contained considerable quantities of goat and sheep DNA."

That sounds dodgy enough; it gets worse. In the herbal preparations, Bunce and his colleagues found members of 68 different plant families, among them plants of the genera Ephedra and Asarum. Both can contain toxic chemicals such as aristolochic acid, a compound banned in many countries because it causes kidney disease and cancer of the upper urinary tract (UUC). Chemical analysis of one of the four samples containing Asarum DNA did turn up aristolochic acid.

Another study, led by pharmacologist Arthur Grollman of Stony Brook University in New York State, focused on Taiwan, the country with the highest rate of UUC in the world. An earlier study showed that a third of Taiwanese consumed herbs likely to contain aristolochic acid. The new study examined the tumors of 151 patients with UUC, finding molecular signatures of aristolochic acid in many of the patients' tumors. Bunce and his colleagues also found DNA from plant families known to contain medicinally important species that could pose risks when used in combination with other drugs, as well as DNA from soybean and plants of the cashew family, which can contain allergens.

Alternative medicine, including TCM, is heavily driven by suspicion of mainstream medicine due to its commercialization and clinical nature. However, while mainstream medicines are often criticized for containing unlabeled ingredients with uncertain effects, we not only don't have a very accurate idea of what Chinese remedies contain, we have no clear idea of what their effects are. Skepticism of mainstream medicine has some justification, but if skepticism is needed, it also needs to be applied to the alternatives. [END OF SERIES]



* SCIENCE NOTES: As reported in a note on AAAS SCIENCE NOW Online, there are a number of animals -- the great apes, some monkeys and parrots -- that can roughly match toddler human children on IQ tests. A group of British researchers found out that human tykes blow the doors off the animal competition in one significant respect: socialization.

The researchers performed a study involving eight groups of 3 and 4-year old children, eight groups of chimps, and one group of capuchin monkeys, in which the test subjects were given puzzle boxes that had to be opened in three stages to obtain rewards. After up to 53 hours with the box, few chimpanzees or monkeys had doped out all three steps, but about half the children solved the complete box after only two-and-a-half hours.

Most significantly, one child in a group solved a stage of the puzzle, he or she often told the others how to solve it or let them watch the steps and imitate the solution. Chimps and monkeys, in contrast, never thought to collaborate in working out the problem; such collaboration appears to be distinctly human. One wonders if that's not linked with human language capabilities.

* As reported by an article from BBC WORLD Online ("Ancient Virus DNA Thrives In Us" by David Shukman, 24 April 2012), it is well known that the human genome has sequences left in it by viral infections, though fortunately all the viral codes seem to be broken; indeed, a small fraction of them are actually doing useful things for us.

An international team of researchers from Oxford University in the UK, the Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center in New York, and the Rega Institute in Belgium examined the genomes of 38 mammals -- including humans, mice, rats, elephants and dolphins -- and found that some of the viral codes are very common between the species, indicating very ancient infections. One of the viruses invaded the genome of a common mammalian ancestor around 100 million years ago, with fragments of its code found in every genome in the study. Another infected an early primate and is now found in humans, apes, and other primates as well.

The senior author of the study, Dr. Robert Belshaw from Oxford University's Zoology Department, said: "This is the story of an epidemic within every animal's genome, a story which has been going on for 100 million years and which continues today."

* Invasive species can be a nuisance; as reported by an article from BUSINESS WEEK ("The Carp Must Die" by Ben Paynter, 20 February 2012), one invasive species, the Asian carp, actually poses a physical threat to humans. There are two species, the "bighead", which likes to lie low in the waters and can get as big as 45 kilograms (100 pounds); and the "silver", which gets to about half that size, though more typically running to a tenth. They both are filter feeders, easily living on plankton, algae, and the like. They were originally imported to the USA in the 1970s by Southern fish farmers to keep their ponds clean, with some of them escaping during floods.

The carp have infested the Mississippi, the Missouri, the Ohio, and other rivers in the Midwestern USA. While not posing much of a direct threat to other species, they tend to dominate the aquatic ecosystem since they have a plentiful food supply, breed rapidly, and get bigger than most of the predators they encounter. They haven't penetrated the Great Lakes yet; Federal authorities have been doing all they can to suppress them, using poison and electrocution to kill them in mass.

frantic dance of the Asian carp

What makes the Asian carp a physical threat is that the silver is very skittish; when a motorboat approaches it tends to leap out of the water to head height or more, resulting in collisions that can damage boats and, on occasion, their occupants, even knocking people out or breaking jaws -- they're not little fish. Once they become common on a body of water, they tend to immediately shut down motorboat traffic.

Local authorities have orchestrated derbies to catch the carp, with bow-hunting of the leaping fish being a favored tactic and something of a redneck entertainment; they haul the fish in by the hundreds of tons. Most Americans don't care to eat the Asian carp, regarding it as bony and funky, but apparently it can be rendered into a satisfactory fish meal product. Oddly, given river pollution in its native China, it's scarce there now -- and since Chinese like it, there's a profitable export trade from the USA to China in Asian carp. It's an ill wind that blows nobody good.

Incidentally, I was a bit skeptical of the tales of the kamikaze fish leaping out of the water, but I knew anything that weird was certain to be recorded on YouTube. Yes, there are plenty of videos showing the carp leaping out of the water in substantial numbers, and people getting solidly knocked for a loop when they get smacked in the head: "Oh man, that's GOTTA hurt!"



* HIGH TECH ON PAPER: A note run here in 2009 mentioned the work of Harvard chemist George Whitesides, who has been developing sophisticated chemical analysis tools fabricated on paper. As discussed by an article from THE NEW YORK TIMES ("Paper Diagnostics" by Donald G. McNeil JR, 26 September 2011), Whitesides has big ambitions for his paper gadgetry.

Whitesides' particular focus has been on medical tests. While modern medical analysis tools tend to be high-tech marvels, Whitesides became interested in a simpler approach, reasoning that a drop of blood or urine could wick its way through a square of filter paper -- the paper being printed with tiny channels to guide the drop along various paths, each path loaded with chemically activated dyes to test for a particular condition. From a chemical point of view, it's very sophisticated; but producing the postage-stamp-sized analytical testers requires nothing much more than a printing system.

paper test sensor patterning

Whitesides founded a private company named "Diagnostics for All (DfA)" in Boston in 2007 to commercialize his ideas. DfA has already developed a test for liver damage. It requires a single drop of blood, takes 15 minutes and can be easily interpreted: if a round dot the size of a sesame seed on the paper changes to pink from purple, the patient is probably at hazard.

Using paper for diagnostic tests is not completely new, with home diagnostic tests for pregnancy and diabetes using paper testers that are soaked in urine. However, Whitesides' tests are much more sophisticated due to their ability to channel flows along multiple paths. According to biologist Una S. Ryan, chief executive of DfA, the liver damage test has proven over 90% effective in preliminary trials. Field tests are scheduled to take place in India soon, the initial target audience being AIDS patients with tuberculosis. These unfortunates have to take cocktails of seven or more drugs, and the drugs can kill from liver damage on occasion, requiring that their use be monitored. A lack of analysis tools in the developing world makes that task difficult.

The paper test was developed with a $10 million USD grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF). The foundation and the British government has more recently donated $3 million USD for the development of three more paper tests to help small farmers:

DfA's company digs are nothing fancy, a rental space in an office park. Their production system is nothing fancy, either:

Whitesides says he got the idea for his paper tests in the 1990s when he was working on "lab on a chip" technology for the Pentagon, mainly intended to detect biowar agents like anthrax -- it was a big concern at the time of the first Gulf War. The military wasn't too sensitive about cost, but Whitesides got to wondering what could be done along similar lines to develop cheap biotesting systems for the developing world. He thought: "What's the minimum-cost way of making patterns, of putting things into test zones? And what came to mind was newspapers and comic books. And that led to these paper diagnostics."

Whitesides believes he's only scratching the surface of paper technology. The liver-function test uses relatively simple chemistry. The next generation will use immunology -- for example, one design has dried antibodies attached to bits of paint that drift over a surface to which other antibodies are fixed; the paint that makes it through provides the color indication. He envisions going on to printed systems with batteries and solid-state devices for checking glucose levels, or for counting the number of cells in a drop of blood that contain malaria parasites. For now, Whitesides says he's mostly concerned about refining the technology he has now, saying he'll be relieved when someone tells him: "We've used up the first 10,000 in our clinic, and we think they're absolutely terrific. Send us another 50,000."



* ROOM AT THE BOTTOM: There's a certain puzzle in the race to sell ever more capable smartphones, in that their computing power vastly outstrips desktop computers of 20 years past. Those old desktops, antique as they seem now, were in their day capable and useful tools -- leading to the question of whether we really need supercharged smartphones with multi-core CPUs and gigabytes of memory to get things done. As reported by an article from BBC WORLD Online ("Turning Dumbphones To Smartphones" by Clark Boyd, 6 April 2012), there are some people who don't think we do. One is Guy Kamgaing, an African entrepreneur from Cameroon who has developed a software product named "Mobile-XL".

Kamgaing is upfront about his lack of interest in whizzy smartphones: "I'm not a mobile phone guy." He doesn't pay much attention to news of the release of the latest iPhone, instead focusing on basic cellphones -- capable of voice and short messaging service (SMS), and that's it. Observing people lining up at cyber-cafes, Kamgaing realized that Africans really wanted to get onto the internet, but they didn't own computers or have access to them at their workplaces. What they had was basic cellphones. "The only way demand for internet access could be met was through these basic phones. And I asked myself: What if we could create something that would enable a low-end device to access digital content?"

Nokia 1112 cellphone

The result was Mobile-XL. The scheme is based on the XLBrowser, in effect a lightweight web browser that can run on low-end handsets running the Java programming language and provide, at a basic level, a range of services much like those accessible through a web browser such as Firefox on a PC -- games, music, weather reports, news, email (via gmail or hotmail or some other free email service) and so on. The trick is that, instead of using the Internet Protocol on which normal web browsers depend, Mobile-XL relies on SMS.

XLBrowser basically offers a user a list of categories to browse. Suppose we want to find out the scores of yesterday's sports match; we navigate through the menu to find the appropriate event, and select it. The query for the event is sent to a server via SMS; the response to the query is sent back to the phone as an SMS message. The cost to the user is no more than the normal overhead of sending and receiving an SMS message.

Mobile-XL doesn't provide direct access to the global internet, instead hooking into a server system that queries the internet for the relevant data and then packages the reply into an SMS message. Of course, the server can also access its own local databases as well; Kamgaing says that "we're trying to offer very local content. We aggregate job listings, local sports, classifieds, even stuff that's not really on the internet yet. In Kenya, we realized that agricultural prices were important, so we created that category for that market."

Mobile-XL has set up pilot projects in Cameroon and Ghana as well, and is about to launch in India. The company is also looking to go into Brazil and Mexico in the near future. For now, Mobile-XL makes its money from a cut of SMS revenue brought in by operators, but Kamgaing is looking forward to ad revenue "when we have more eyeballs".

* Mobile-XL isn't the only company after low-end connectivity; there's also "biNu" of Sydney, Australia, founded by Dave Turner and Zimbabwe-born Gour Lentell -- the name "biNu" doesn't mean much of anything, by the way, it just sounds snappy. Says Lentell: "The market is huge. There are around five billion mobile users in the world today, and more than four billion of them are non smart-phone users. And yet, the mobile forms their only and primary means of accessing the internet. Many of those people will go to extraordinary lengths to have internet access from their mobile devices."

Turner and Lentell set up biNu after discovering prototype software that could optimize the delivery of data over wireless networks to mobile devices. They launched the service in 2010, offering mobile-phone users a web service that uses less bandwidth and loads much faster than alternatives. How does it work? By farming out most of the processing to a cloud computing system and simply using a handset to display the results. Says Lentell: "We virtualize the smartphone experience on our cloud-based platform. We do all the processing, right down to fonts and graphics, in the cloud and then transfer that efficiently to the phone to be displayed."

Like Mobile-XL, biNu is based on a stand-alone app that that can be downloaded for free, providing links to popular sites such as gmail, Facebook, Google, Google Translate, and so on. The firm is also offering "biNu Books", a service being developed in cooperation with a nonprofit named Worldreader, which has been providing preloaded e-book readers to kids in developing countries. Worldreader then realized that low-cost phones would provide even greater penetration, and got together with biNu to develop an e-book reader for low-end mobile phones -- creating a "library in your pocket on a device you already have", as a Worldreader official put it.

But what happens to Mobile-XL and biNu as the world becomes more dominated by high-speed wireless networks? Neither Kamgaing nor Lentell see that as happening any time soon, there being a big market for low-priced phones and associated services for the foreseeable future. Says Kamgaing: "I think that's why you have to decide to give people some basic tools, instead of expecting them to buy smartphones and iPhones."

That being the case, one could imagine considerable growth in low-end services, as well as such additions of bells and whistles to baseline phones as could be squeezed in without raising the pricetag. Such devices will never be the equal of smartphones, but we might be surprised at just how much capability we can provide at the bottom of the pyramid.

ED: When I read about Mobile-XL here, for some reason it brought back a vague and oblique memory of the early days of the internet, before the invention of web browser. It took a little poking to draw the memory out of the fog, nailing it down as "Gopher", a scheme for retrieving data texts from online archives. I don't think Gopher actually had much resemblance to Mobile-XL -- but then I never did use Gopher, though I did use anonymous FTP a fair amount. There was also "Archie", a system for searching through anonymous FTP servers, and "Veronica", a comparable system for searching through Gopher servers. The web put paid to all of that, though FTP does persist as a means of uploading and downloading files.



* INVASION OF THE ANIMAL ROBOTS (2): Although researchers working on schemes such as robot lampreys and clams are mainly interested in zoological research, others working on zoobots are looking at practical applications first. One example is "StickyBotIII", a robot gecko developed by a Stanford University team led by Mark Cutkowsky. Geckos are well-known for their ability to climb walls and crawl across ceilings, and of course it would be handy if a robot could do the same sorts of things.

Geckos can stick to surfaces because their toes are covered with fine structures something like the ridges of fingerprints, but with much deeper valleys between the ridges. When pressed against a surface, the molecules of the ridges attract those of the surface through an electrostatic attraction called the Van der Waals force. It's weak, but for a small creature like the gecko, enough to make it stick. StickyBotIII has four legs, with "toes" covered with ridges like that of a gecko, giving it a vertical mobility like that of a gecko. Not only can StickyBotIII climb walls, it can even get up and over overhangs.

Stanford StickyBotIII

Instead of the toes of a gecko, a team under Tony Prescott at the University of Sheffield in the UK is emulating the sensitive whiskers of a shrew. Shrews spend most of their time underground and find their way around with their whiskers. By observing videos of shrews, Prescott's team noticed that shrews are always shifting their heads back and forth to sweep their environment with their whiskers, making repeated probes on things that seem interesting. Armed with this insight, they have created "Shrewbot" -- a robot shrew, or at least the head of one. The Shrewbot has 18 whiskers of different lengths, each individually controlled by software that aggregates what each whisker finds to see what the whole suggests. Right now the Shrewbot can only tell smooth surfaces from rough ones, but soon it should be able to make out basic shapes such as spheres, cubes, and cylinders. The ultimate goal is a robot that could find its way by touch in a complete blackout environment, though that's a ways off.

There's been interest in flying robots for a long time because navigation is generally easier -- there's less to run into in the air. Robots emulating the flapping-wing flight of birds and insects are nothing new; the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) conducted studies into such "ornithopters" from a decade ago, with such work recently leading to an agile robot hummingbird developed by the Aerovironment Corporation. It's still experimental technology, the robot hummingbird being too limited in range and payload for operational use just yet.

Academic researchers are also investigating ornithopters. A team under Rick Ruijsink at the University of Delft in the Netherlands has built the "DelFly", a robot dragonfly with two sets of flapping wings. It is capable of both controlled forward flight and hovering, though for now it is under remote control. The goal is to develop miniaturized smart systems for autonomous flight.

DelFly ornithopter

A team under Jean Christophe Zufferey at the Ecole Polytechnique Federale of Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland is also using insects for inspiration, though the EPFL robot isn't an ornithopter, instead being a fixed-wing machine; it was built to emulate insect behavior, not flapping-wing flight. Taking a hint from Rodney Brooks' insectlike robots, which would do dumb things and learn from them, the EPFL robot doesn't worry too much about navigation; like a bug, if it runs into something, it simply falls down and takes off again. It's protected by a set of carbon composite rods and is designed to fall so that its little props are pointed upward, allowing it take right off again.

Researchers working on zoobots for practical applications believe there will be synergy between their efforts. Once could imagine snakelike robots that use whiskers to find their way around in tight spaces, with sets of tentacles for getting work done. They might be truly alien in appearance -- a big leap of imagination from robot dogs with a nose laser. As weapons, such chimeric robots would certainly be a hell of a lot more frightening. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* GENOMIC SLEUTHING (6): In yet another related article on genomic sleuthing from AAAS SCIENCE ("Outbreak Detectives Embrace The Genome Era" by Kai Kupfterschmidt, 30 September 2011), some researchers believe that while it is all well and good to be able to decode the genomes of pathogens as part of various investigations, that's thinking small. What these visionaries would like to see is a global effort to genetically track pathogens, with as many as a billion sequencings performed each year to help pinpoint the origins of new outbreaks, determine if pathogens are becoming resistant to the drugs used to treat them, and observe how pathogens adapt in response to public health policies and treatment programs.

In the summer of 2011 advocates of the concept met in Brussels to discuss options, with the resulting consensus being that a global network to obtain and share genomic data on microorganisms could be available in ten years -- but that there are major challenges in building such a network.

Bacterial genome sequencing has been until recently accomplished by "pulsed gel electrophoresis", which involves chopping up a genome with restriction enzymes, sequencing the pieces, and then splicing the results together. Gel electrophoresis works well, and has been useful in determining the evolutionary history and migrations of antibiotic-resistant pathogens. However, it's not much help to doctors with an immediate medical crisis on their hands.

The latest genomic technology can quickly sequence an entire bacterial genome at once. Early in 2011, a hospital at Rotterdam in the Netherlands ran into an outbreak of a strain of Klebsiella pneumoniae that was resistant to all drugs except coliston, an antique not often used today because it's too rough on the kidneys. Two isolates of the "Oxa48" strain, as it was designated, were sent to a lab at the Muenster University Clinic in Germany and sequenced in less than two days. The Sanger Institute at Hinxton in the UK had just released a library of Klebsiella sequences that the Muenster researchers were able to use to identify a DNA sequence unique to Oxa48 and immediately develop an assay that was then distributed to hospitals, allowing them to screen for the resistant pathogen strain.

* That was impressive, but it was only a hint of what could be accomplished if connectivity was improved. In the course of a recent cholera epidemic in Haiti, several US labs were able to quickly sequence samples of Vibrio cholerae pathogens from Haitian patients. Some data suggested that Nepalese peacekeepers had brought the disease with them, but it took months to get samples from Nepal to confirm that idea. Worse, the raw data produced by different sequencing systems wasn't necessarily compatible, complicating comparisons.

In a better world, there would be a hierarchy of genomic databases, with doctors sequencing pathogens locally, to then reference to regional or national servers, with a number of international servers at the top. The network would have standardized data formats and protocols, with genomic data available to any doctor with access to the network. That implies doctors willing to work with the system, contributing sequences they've obtained themselves to the network; advocates believe that they can get doctors to play along by ensuring that the system provides the doctors with timely and user-friendly reports on data the doctors want -- as one advocate calls it, "bio-informatics for dummies".

The Danish government has already provided a 6 million Euro grant to perform preliminary research, but the resources required to establish the global network are much more demanding. Such a system, as mentioned, might have to handle a billion bacterial genomes a year, corresponding to billions of gigabytes of data -- an issue discussed here from a slightly different angle a year ago. Advocates are studying global multiplayer online gaming systems, WORLD OF WARCRAFT and the like, for inspiration. Ultimately, the host should be a neutral group like the World Health Organization. Advocates say that the network would be particularly useful in developing countries, partly because they are at greater threat from infectious diseases than wealthy countries are. The network would also help bring together scientists in a range of fields with working medical personnel and public-health organizations.

Just getting genomic data on a pathogen won't be enough, however; associated comprehensive patient profiles will be needed to show what the pathogen is up to. Unfortunately, that could greatly complicate the effort, because then the network begins to look like a global health system -- an interesting idea in itself, but not one that seems like a realistic goal at the present time. There are also privacy issues, as well as national agendas, since some countries don't like to publicize disease outbreaks. All the obstacles considered, however, advocates of a global pathogen genome data system believe they have a good chance of making it happen. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* GIMMICKS & GADGETS: As reported by BUSINESS WEEK, since last July Facebook has been paying hackers to break into Facebook systems. Hackers will always be able to find holes the security of a system; very well, maybe it would be wise to encourage hackers to report them. On getting bug reports from hackers, Facebook sends them a stylish shiny-black VISA-branded "White Hat" debit card worth from about $500 USD to $5,000 USD, the payoff being proportional to the seriousness of the bug. The card in itself is seen as a trophy even after it's been depleted. Facebook has handed out hundreds of thousands of dollars so far and regards it as money well spent, "a drop in the bucket" as a cost, well cheaper than finding the bugs on their own.

Not all businesses encourage hackers to report bugs. Apple and Microsoft don't, and in fact some of the more obtuse businesses have threatened hackers who report bugs with legal action. Google, however, is well ahead of Facebook in paying for validated bug reports, with payments almost running to a cool million now. For Google, of course, that barely even comes up to the level of a drop in the bucket.

* Modern traffic lights are generally activated by induction coils under the roadway, but that doesn't work for bicyclists, who are often stuck with using the pedestrian crossings or running red lights. Pleasonton, California, on the far eastern fringe of the San Francisco Bay Area, has implemented a better idea, a radar system known as an "intersector" that can observe oncoming traffic and is "smart" enough to pick out bicyclists, handing them green lights as necessary. Pleasonton started with intersectors at eight intersections, but they're cheap, only about $5,000 USD, and easy to install, so we may be seeing more of them in the near future.

* As reported by an article from FLIGHT GLOBAL Online ("Structural Batteries Could Revolutionise Electric Design" by Dan Thisdell, 1 March 2012), British Aerospace (BAE) Systems of the UK is now performing advanced development of "structural batteries", or electrical storage systems that are part of the structures of the machines they power, promising significant weight reductions. BAE Systems has demonstrated the technology in a lamp and in a microdrone. However, the company's most high-profile effort is to use the technology in what is intended to be the world's fastest electric race car. The Lola-Drayson "B12/69EV" Le Mans prototype is being designed to generate 630 kN (850 HP) with zero emissions; structural batteries won't be able to provide all the power the car needs, but will complement stand-alone batteries.

Lola-Drayson B12/69EV Le Mans racer

Structural batteries merge battery chemistries into composite materials that can be molded into complex 3D shapes, to be plugged in to recharge or mated up with solar cells. So far, BAE researchers have achieved energy densities of 25 watts per kilogram, just less than a standard lead-acid car battery -- but since the structural batteries double as part of the machine structure, they result in a much more substantial improvement in weight. BAE is using nickel battery chemistry right now, but is interested in lithium-ion and lithium-polymer technology over the long run.

BAE says that a structural battery has the same tolerance to damage as carbon composite, so it can take a hit and still work. The batteries can also be cellular, so if one or two cells are damaged, others will pick up the slack. The company adds that the technology is benign and no threat in case of a crash; battery structures can be designed to break safely in the same way as car crumple zones.



* E-WASTE IN AFRICA: The problem of electronic waste, or "e-waste", in China was reported here in 2006. As reported by an article from TIME Online ("The E-Waste Blight Grows More Dangerous Than Ever" by Jeffrey Kluger, 1 November 2011), it's a big problem in Africa as well.

Soil, air and other environmental samplings conducted by Ghanaian researcher Atiemo Sampson at a school, church, soccer field and produce market near an open-air e-waste scavenging site in his country found that levels of eight metals -- iron, magnesium, copper, zinc, cadmium, chromium, nickel and lead -- were up to 50 times higher than in uncontaminated areas. Iron and zinc aren't normally a problem, but can become one in high concentrations; heavy metals like cadmium and lead are a problem even in fairly low concentrations. Some of the contaminants seep through the soil; more still pour into the air when waste is burned. Sampson commented in a recent presentation to a UN group named "Stop The E-Waste Problem (StEP): "Until now, Ghana has not regulated the importation of e-waste. Rules are only now being incorporated into our national legal framework."

e-waste in Africa

The e-waste flood is being driven by intense competition in electronics technology, with cellphones and smartphones being particularly troublesome because their life-cycles are so short. Poor countries accept e-waste because there's money in it. A heap of 100,000 cell phones contains an estimated $130,000 USD worth of scrap gold, along with $100,000 USD worth of copper and $27,000 USD worth of silver, coming to a total of a quarter million dollars in all. Impoverished communities rely on the trash as a source of income, and central governments that are just as poor are inclined to look the other way at the loads of e-waste being dumped across their borders. In 2009, Ghana imported 137,000 tonnes (150,000 tons) of e-waste. Sampson told StEP: "The sheer number of people engaged in informal recycling ... makes it increasingly unthinkable politically to [put a stop to their work]. Any solution must recognize their role and focus on improving health, safety and environmental standards."

Sampson found a receptive audience with StEP. The group understands that electronic gadgets are still going to be produced in huge volumes and eventually disposed of, but wants to rationalize the process. Regulation isn't all that practical in poor countries, since they can't afford to set up recycling facilities that meet proper health and safety standards. The better solution is to encourage design of gadgets so they contain fewer toxic metals, and build the gadgets so their constituents are easier and safer to recycle. StEP has praised electronics giant Philips for being an early leader in such "life cycle thinking."

It is also useful to set up proper recycling programs at the user disposal end, providing a network of drop boxes where troublesome items such as rechargeable batteries can be disposed of. That implies consumer cooperation of course, but experience shows that most citizens in wealthy countries don't have a problem with rationally-organized recycling programs. Meeting the e-waste challenge may not prove easy; but then again, as the crunch on resources continues to bite, simple demand for heavy metals may help recycling pay for itself.

* WORLD CLEANUP: In somewhat related news, as reported by THE ECONOMIST ("Effluence Of Affluence", 7 January 2012), on 13 January volunteers from dozens of countries converged on Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, to launch "World Cleanup 2012", with a goal of mobilizing 300 million people to pick up 100 million tonnes of trash in six months, clocking from 24 March.

World Cleanup 2012

The exercise is being organized by Rainer Nolvak, one of the founders of the well-known "Skype" voice-IP internet telephony system. Such public-spirited cleanup efforts have become something of a tradition in the Baltics; there was a widespread sense of post-Soviet malaise, and cleaning up trash made people feel a bit better about things. It wasn't like it usually required any major effort on any one citizen's part, but with so many people lending a hand, the results were gratifyingly visible.

The idea was not entirely new; the United Nations has been conducting an annual campaign named "Clean Up The World" for two decades. However, Nolvak pushed a "crowdsourced" approach to the issue, simply giving the outlines of a scheme and suggesting that local groups give it a shot. The core group has provided support tools, such as a smartphone system that allows players to classify and log the location of trashheaps, as well as distribute images of them to embarrass indifferent authorities.

It's been working, with cleanup groups springing up all over the world, even in notoriously rubbish-strewn India. A Guatemalan group is considering what can be done to turn trash into building materials; a Russian group named "Musora Bolshe Nyet (No More Garbage)" is going in 90 Russian cities. It doesn't work all that well everywhere, however; Dutch backers of the scheme find it a hard sell, there not being much trash lying around in the Netherlands in the first place.



* ANOTHER MONTH: Back in 2007, a tale was run here of one Hasan Elahi, an American professor of arts of Bangladeshi origins who found himself on the radarscope of the Feds as a terror suspect. Just to make sure the government didn't jump to any conclusions, he started tracking his life in intimate detail and displaying it online.

Change scene to Beijing, China, in 2011. As reported by THE ECONOMIST, in April of that year Ai Weiwei, an internationally recognized Chinese artist who was prone to speak his mind about things he thought weren't working well in China, was picked up by the security services and held for 81 days, being interrogated dozens of times. He was released in June, to be told not to leave the city and to ask the police for permission any time he wanted to go out of his home. Ai assumed with good cause that his phone and PC were bugged; he didn't need to guess if he was being watched, because the cameras surrounding his quarters were in plain sight, indeed marked by lanterns.

Ai Weiwei

Just to be cooperative, this April Ai decided to perform surveillance on himself, installing four videocams in his domicile and feeding the video online. Says Ai: "I wanted to give this gift not only to the public, but also to the Public Security Bureau, because they are so eager to know about me. I wanted them to know what I'm doing in the office, who I meet in this garden, and how I've been sleeping."

The authorities, however, were unappreciative. The police called him up and asked him, apparently not quite believing what they were seeing, if he was streaming videos of himself online. He said, of course, yes. They suggested he might think of stopping doing so. He replied that he actually thought it was a good idea, but if was told to stop he would do so. They told him to stop, and he did.

Few who go to China these days see it as any nasty police state; the police are not particularly obtrusive or overbearing, and Chinese don't seem particularly fearful of arbitrary arrest. However, those who step out of line in a publicly noticeable fashion are quickly reminded that they are living under an authoritarian government, that there still is an iron fist in the velvet glove. Ai says: "It's there, but it's not there. It's not there, but it's there."

Publicly, Ai's problems with the law were announced as due to irregularities in his payment of taxes, but privately the authorities told him it wasn't. Ai says that the police have always been extremely polite to him, and that he has no idea who in the government is so interested in him: "Nobody even knows. That's so beautiful!"

Authoritarianism seems to rise from social collapse, as occurred in China in the early 20th century. When a society becomes peaceful and increasingly prosperous, authoritarianism starts to weaken from its own absurdities -- the people, including many of those in charge, beginning to wonder what the sense of it is. THE ECONOMIST's reporter asked Ai if his misadventures over self-surveillance reminded him of Orwell; Ai thought it over and agreed, but then added: "Or maybe Kafka."