* Entries include: AIDS at 25, North & South Korea, dealing with IEDs, alternate Bibles, Greenland glacier slowdown, evolutionary computing, feral hogs, DARPA walking robots, interfacing the brain to machines, ASDE-X runway monitoring system, electric airplane, nuclear reactor for the Moon, presidential superphone, and George W. Bush's presidency reviewed.
* NEWS COMMENTARY FOR FEBRUARY 2009: February was relatively quiet month for the news. Elections in Iraq early in the month went off surprisingly peacefully; turnout was not as heavy as had been hoped, but there were few problems -- Iraq's police and national guard were very much in evidence and were able to discourage potential troublemakers. The Americans generally stayed out of sight.
Stateside, Barack Obama took his first big measure as president, pushing through a stimulus package. The effort did not go all that well, with partisan bickering and the final result criticized for being larded with pork. Plans being floated to deal with the banking crisis also did not go over well, being seen as timid and inadequate.
At the end of the month, the president unveiled his budget for FY 2010, which ran to $3.6 trillion USD; he also announced that the deficit for the current year will be $1.6 trillion USD, the biggest since World War II. There was to no surprise unhappiness at this news, though the Office of Management & Budget did point out that the budget was honest, not attempting to conceal outlays by hiding them as off-budget items. It still looks like a long slog to get out of the deficit, and for the moment the most that can be hoped is that the trendline will start going positive in a few years.
* I've long taken notice of Rachida Dati, the French justice minister in Nicholas Sarkozy's government. She's elfin in appearance, somewhat along the lines of actress Winona Ryder, and dresses like a fashion model. Her appointment was something of a departure, not because of her gender, but because she of Algerian-Moroccan Muslim extraction; Sarkozy wanted to present his government as more inclusive than its predecessors.
I was startled a bit to see a photo of Dati in THE ECONOMIST obviously in the advanced stages of a pregnancy; it seemed a bit unusual to have a member of a government's cabinet in the family way. I was much more surprised to read in the text that she had, at age 43, given birth to a baby girl -- and refused to publicly identify the father, citing a "complicated personal life". It took a second for that to soak in, and then I had to stare off in space as I visualized the flaming fury that would break loose if something comparable happened to an American cabinet secretary.
Of course, the French are, for better or arguably worse, much more urbane about such matters than Americans. When French President Francois Mitterand died in 1996, his wife and long-time mistress stood side by side at the gravesite. The French public and media made no fuss about Dati's baby, regarding the matter as none of their business. There has been, however, considerable fuss over her posing as a fashion plate celebrity, which suggests a lack of focus on getting the real job done, and the imperious way she runs her ministry. Judges and magistrates feel she has treated them with less respect than their positions entitled them to, and there has been high turnover with her own staff. Photoshopped pictures of Dati on the web display her in dominatrix gear with a whip.
Sarkozy has had to step in and smooth matters over; no doubt he also quietly suggested to his justice minister that she tone down the bling and read a primer on tact. Of course, after his marriage to model Carla Bruni, Sarkozy had to work on toning down the bling himself -- though he has settled down in his marriage and his stylish wife is going over well with the French public. British tabloids were hinting that Dati's little girl might be Sarkozy's "love child", but for all the evidence backing up that idea, they could have suggested the father was the Pope, too.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* REDEFINING THE BIBLE: Back in January 2008, an article in these pages discussed the rivalry between the Bible and the Koran, mentioning that a wide range of vernacular interpretations of the Bible had been published. As reported in an article on BBC WORLD Online ("The Bible, But Not As You Know It" by Stephen Tomins), the diversity of these interpretations is startling.
Consider THE BIBLE ILLUMINATED, which is in the form of a 300-page coffee-table book full of glossy photos: urban floods, a girl eating noodles, a dog in a limo. The imagery is by turns beautiful, violent, obscure, and certainly provocative. The author is a Swedish businessman named Dag Soederberg -- and surprisingly, he is not a Christian. Soederberg says: "I'm not on a mission from God. I'm not particularly religious. I'm not telling anyone they should believe."
So why sell a Biblical coffee-table book? It's essentially an exercise in commercial art that recognizes the influence of the Bible on Western civilization. Says Soederberg: "We are all affected by [the Bible]. Morals are based on it, rightly or wrongly, government, laws. I'm saying to people: this is your history, read it. It's the most sold book in the world, but the least known. I want to take it off the shelves and put it on the coffee table."
Not everyone is going to be happy with THE BIBLE ILLUMINATED. David Ashford of the Bible Society, an organization whose charter is to "make the Bible heard", says that "some people will feel it's dumbing down. How can it be the Bible when it's got Angelina Jolie in it?" That isn't what Ashford himself believes. "You have to understand that what we think of as the traditional serious-looking leather-bound Bible is actually a relatively new format. In the Middle Ages, picture books -- with people in contemporary dress -- were the way most people read the Bible. At first the Bible was a collection of scrolls, then illustrated handwritten volumes. When printing was invented they were produced in Latin with pictures. Later they were published in plain closely printed text, in the common language, to get them into as many people's hands as cheaply as possible."
For those not into coffee-table books, there's other options available. THE JESUS LOVES PORN STARS BIBLE is targeted at porn addicts and does a brisk trade in handouts at porn conventions. THE MANGA BIBLE, written by a British Christian named Ajinbayo Akinsiku AKA Siku, takes the graphic-novel format. And anyone who can get online can check out THE BRICK TESTAMENT, an ongoing illumination of the Bible with Lego figures and scenes.
THE BRICK TESTAMENT tends toward the flippant, but it is very approachable, often used by churches and Sunday schools. The overly serious may find such attempts at popularization as watering down or debasement of the Bible's message -- but they certainly also demonstrated how the Good Book has thrived and evolved into the new millennia.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* FULL STOP: I tend to cut global-warming denialists a bit of slack. Any climatologist will admit that climate is a monstrously complicated phenomenon that we don't understand well, and that predictions of the future of the Earth's climate are loaded with uncertainties. To be sure, the case for global warming has continuously more difficult to shrug away while the objections have become ever more contrived -- but as reported in AAAS SCIENCE ("Galloping Glaciers Of Greenland Have Reined Themselves In", 23 January 2009), the denialists can still legitimately identify ambiguities in the evidence.
The particular case in point was the acceleration of the movement of glaciers in southeast Greenland from the late 1990s, leading in 2003 to a runaway (by glacial standards) of two of the biggest glaciers that doubled the rate at which ice was dumped into the oceans. There were fears that the Greenland icecap would be gone much faster than even the pessimists had anticipated. Now a team of British glaciologists has released the latest measurements of the rate of glacial flow, and report that from 2005 the speed has gone back to that recorded in 2000. The glacial runaway? As one of the researchers put it: "It has come to an end."
The reason for the short-lived runaway is obscure. Warmer air and seawater in the outlet coastal regions may have eroded away the glaciers at that end, with the loss permitting a rapid acceleration of ice flow. Once the glaciers regained their footing on the rocky ground underneath, however, their rate of movement went back to normal. Computer modeling suggests precisely this scenario.
The researchers are relieved that the abrupt disappearance of the Greenland icecap is not likely to happen, but they warn that global-warming deniers shouldn't regard that as a cause for declaring victory after all. Greenland's icecap is still clearly at risk, with one of the researchers saying: "If you turn up the thermostat too high, it will melt." And at the other end of the world, the rate of motion of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) has been accelerating as well, and the geology of the land underneath it does not lend itself to a braking effect. So far the WAIS has shown no sign of slowing down.
* Another article in AAAS SCIENCE ("Study Fingers Soot As A Major Player In Global Warming" by Robert F. Service, 28 March 2008) suggests that carbon particulates -- soot -- may have a stronger impact on global warming than previously believed. The assumption until recently was that soot was a local phenomenon that had little impact, but new data obtained by researchers at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography in San Diego, California, shows that soot will absorb solar heating at a level that makes it the second most important greenhouse gas emission, after carbon dioxide.
The reason that soot wasn't considered important, say the researchers, was because modelers didn't factor in the way soot tends to associate itself with other atmospheric pollutants, such as sulfate particles, and those associations make soot a much better absorber of solar heat. Trying to control soot emissions is difficult, since soot is the product of field, forest, and cooking fires all over the planet. However, one bit of good news is that soot tends to fall back to Earth in about a week, so any reductions will have an immediate effect. Since cooking fires tend to be both inefficient and unhealthy, the discovery of the importance of soot in global warming only adds another reason to try to tackle the problem.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* EVOLVING TECHNOLOGY: Trial and error is nothing new in design engineering, the great American inventor Thomas Edison being famous for his willingness to try hundreds of things that didn't work to find one that did. An article in THE ECONOMIST ("Don't Invent, Evolve", 8 December 2007), described new design software that uses an "evolutionary" approach to trial and error design to come up with original inventions.
In modern evolutionary theory, the genomes of organisms undergo mutations effectively at random from generation to generation, and those organisms with mutations that allow them to survive and reproduce more effectively than their brethren gradually predominate. In "evolutionary design", computer programs are written that use "evolutionary algorithms" to come up with new designs using a similar cumulative trial-and-error approach.
The evolutionary algorithm uses a "genome" of the device to be designed, loaded up design parameters such as length, area, volume, current, voltage, and so on. The genome is altered at random and then the modified parameters are used to simulate operation of the device. The simulation is "graded" according to its effectiveness. Not only is the improved design then cycled through further evolutionary generations, the design is evolved through different evolutionary paths in parallel, with two promising lines "crossbred" to see if they can obtain even greater effect.
Evolutionary design isn't a particularly new idea, but until recently it's only been used in difficult applications where brute-force computing doesn't work very well -- for example, improving the aerodynamics of cars and aircraft. It's still computation-intensive: modifying a digital genome is trivial, but simulating the results requires heavy lifting, and it may take millions or tens of millions of iterations to converge to the optimum solution. With so much computing power available these days, however, the threshold of applicability for evolutionary design has been going lower and lower, for example:
One particularly interesting application was a wi-fi antenna designed by researchers at Stanford University in California for a client who didn't want to pay a royalty to Cisco Systems. The evolutionary algorithm not only graded the effectiveness of the design, it also graded it on its avoidance of Cisco patent features, resulting in a royalty-free design that was actually more effective.
The term "evolutionary design" is a bit misleading, since in nature evolution doesn't progress towards specified goals: it just produces organisms that survive better in one fashion or another. Evolutionary design, in contrast, works toward a desired goal, and so it's much more like selective breeding than natural evolution. However, in one sense evolutionary design still parallels natural evolution: it can produce designs that nobody was able to foresee, and it even can be surprising that they work and work well.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* TWO KOREAS (1): After World War II and the end of Japanese colonialism, the Korean peninsula was divided in two by outsiders, with North Korea allied with the Communist Bloc and South Korea allied with the West. In 1950, North Korea attempted to reunify the two Koreas by force, leading to a bloody but quickly stalemated war that dragged on into 1953. As reported in a survey in THE ECONOMIST ("The Odd Couple" by Dominic Ziegler, 27 September 2008), at the end of the conflict the two Koreas were more similar than different: both shattered by violence and destruction, the North under a Communist dictatorship and the South under a military dictatorship, with both regimes marked by a contempt for human rights.
From the vantage point of half a century, few could fail to be thankful that North Korea failed in its attempt to conquer the South. Thanks to a lot of hard work and enlightened economic policies, South Korea is prosperous, with thriving high-tech industries and a strong export drive; instead of being threatened by Chinese economic growth, South Koreans are making profits in China. The South Koreans also have a modern democracy with real civil rights, a state of grace that was not achieved without considerable determination on the part of its people. A South Korean, the genial UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, is now one of the most recognized and respected faces on Earth.
Contrast thriving South Korea with its rust-bucket sibling. The North Korean people are impoverished while the state maintains an armed force consisting of 5% its citizens; one in 40 citizens has spent time in state prison camps. Mobile phones are outlawed and TV is state-controlled; the people have no right of free movement even within North Korea's borders. A decade ago, the government's incompetence led to a famine that killed off from half a million to a million of its people; food supplies remain scanty and there are fears of a new famine. North Korea's population is less than half of South Korea's, with the ratio of gross domestic product between the two nations being far more appalling, a mere 2.7%. North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il is rumored to be ailing, an idea that sets off a faint rumbling of what could happen if, when, his ugly and creaky regime finally falls over and dies.
Both sides proclaim reunification as a holy goal, but few expect it's going to be on the North's terms. However, South Korea is not all that prepared for the chaos that will follow the collapse of the North Korean state. The two nations have long been isolated, living in different worlds with different mindsets, while the massive disparity in living standards means that the reunification of the two Koreas is going to be far nastier than was the reunification of the two Germanies.
Most South Koreans simply prefer not to think about the nightmare that is reunification. South Korea is prosperous but not that prosperous, with the average income of South Koreans only half that of Japanese. South Korean birth rates are also among the world's lowest, meaning that the population is graying and faced with shrinkage. For the moment the economy is stagnant, with the young unable to find jobs, despite the promises of new President Lee Myung-bak -- known as "The Bulldozer" because of his personal style and construction industry background -- to re-energize the country.
Lee Myung-bak's first months in office have been politically rocky; South Korea is still fairly new to democratic rule and getting things to work continues to be difficult. The barons who run the chaebol, the big business conglomerates like Daewoo and Hyundai, have a reputation for corruption and being above the law -- to the point where fictitious chaebol families provide colorfully amusing fodder for South Korean TV soap operas. [TO BE CONTINUED]NEXT | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* AIDS AT 25 (6): HAART has proven effective at controlling an HIV infection. Given that it's effective, the question immediately arises: why doesn't it completely wipe out an HIV infection and return a victim to health?
Researchers have been wondering that themselves. They know in practice that it doesn't -- when a victim drops HAART, the viruses quickly reestablish themselves. The reason is obvious: HIV is an unusually sneaky pathogen. If researchers can figure out how to target its hiding places, or "reservoirs", they may actually be able to come up with a true AIDS cure.
As noted earlier in this series, HIV is a retrovirus, inserting its genome directly into the genome of an infected T cell to churn out new viruses. The trick is that sometimes a T cell with a genome containing an HIV genome spliced in doesn't actually produce viruses; it may live on as if nothing's wrong. Since the cell is operating normally, the immune system doesn't attack it, and drugs have no viral replication process to jam. The infected cells act like time bombs, going off at some unpredictable later date. HIV is not unique in this sense: herpes viruses will hide for decades, sometimes reviving themselves late in a host's life as the affliction known as "shingles". Estimates suggest that it would take about 50 years of HAART to kill off all HIV-infected T cells.
Worse, it seems that some infected T cells have an unusual HIV replication process, producing viruses at a very low level even in the face of therapy. In addition, while T cells are the prime target of HIV, as noted the virus is mutable and flexible, and it can also infect immune system cells, known as "macrophages" and "dendritic cells", which are found in tissues instead of the bloodstream. Such cellular hosts are not as vulnerable to HAART as the T cells, both because of their particular cellular features and because some "compartments" of the body, such as the nervous system, tend to set up barriers to drug therapies. Studies also show that macrophages producing HIV have the nasty tendency not to die doing it, meaning they can keep on producing viruses indefinitely.
* The first thing to do to develop a true AIDS cure is to kill off effectively all infected T cells, even those that are latent. One approach is to provide a stimulant that forces latent cells to go active so they can be dealt with. Limited trials using drugs previously approved to treat other conditions have been performed, but have had mixed results. The most ideal agent would encourage latent cells to go active at a low level, adequate to produce viral proteins that could mark the cell for destruction by the immune system, but not generate floods of new viruses. Researchers are currently investigating drugs that alter the operation of "chromatin", the complex of proteins and DNA that make up a cell's chromosomes, to induce production of HIV at a tailored level. However, such "chromatin remodelers" would still be of limited use if they only worked with T cells and not with other HIV reservoirs, such as macrophages. Researchers really want a therapy that will destroy HIV in all its reservoirs.
As noted earlier in this series, the first anti-HIV drugs targeted reverse transcriptase and then protease, and these two approaches remain the norm for anti-HIV drugs. HAART based on such drugs is predictably effective, with the drop in HIV count falling at roughly the same rate in different patients. However, recent studies have shown that adding a new drug to the cocktail named "raltgravir" clearly accelerates the rate of decline. Raltegravir targets an enzyme named "integrase", which stitches the HIV genome into the host cell genome. These results suggest that it may be possible to develop a combination drug therapy that hits HIV in a wide range of very different ways, and might even be able to wipe it out of a patient's body for good.
Raltegravir isn't the only new anti-HIV drug that acts on previously untargeted steps in HIV replication. Another drug blocks infection by interfering with the ability of the virus to attach to a molecular receptor known as "CCR5" that sits on the cell surface. Research also suggests that certain cellular proteins may be good targets. In addition, there are cellular proteins, known as "cellular restriction", that naturally antagonize HIV replication. One named "A3G" was discovered a few years back and is common in lymphocytes and macrophages. HIV, in its mindlessly clever way, knows all about A3G, having come up with a protein named "Vif" that breaks it down -- but that makes Vif a good target for drug therapy. Another cellular restriction named "tetherin" was found more recently; HIV also attacks it with a protein, known as "Vpu", which suggests another target for therapy.
As with work on an HIV vaccine, nobody's close to an AIDS cure yet, but there's no lack of interesting and potentially useful leads to follow up. The war continues -- and if we can't say when we'll win, there's no reason to believe for an instant that the cause is lost. [END OF SERIES]START | PREV | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* GIMMICKS & GADGETS: POPULAR SCIENCE magazine had its "100 Best Innovations Of the Year" awards in the December 2008 issue, with the entries featuring some very interesting gimmicks.
One was the "Storm-A-Rest" curtain designed by the JHRG Company for hurricane-prone regions. This is effectively a sturdy canvas sheet that clips on over a window frame through eyeholes at the top and bottom. It is made of high-strength polymer, covered with a waterproof coating, and can withstand impacts that would punch through a plywood sheet. It is translucent, eliminating the blackout conditions of a house with the windows boarded up.
Another gimmick was something I took a fair interest in myself, seeing its utility: the PermaFlow self-cleaning sink drain trap. The PermaFlow's design generates turbulence to prevent sludge from accumulating -- and also includes a knob that turns a rubber paddle to get rid of sludge that does accumulate. The knob is heavily gasketed to prevent leakage. The illustration with the article showed the PermaFlow to be made of transparent plastic -- that might have been a demonstration article and I'm not sure the production item is transparent as well. It might be nice to observe sludge buildup, but there's some things you might not want to see all that often, and after a while it would probably be stained beyond usefulness anyway.
A particularly fascinating gimmick was a new building demolition scheme developed by Kajima Construction Company of Japan. Demolishing large buildings in crowded urban areas like Tokyo is troublesome, there being little room for a wrecking ball, and people object to the dust and dirt thrown out by a controlled demolition. Kajima starts at the bottom floor, cuts out all the support columns one by one, replacing them with hydraulic jacks. The floor above is then removed and the jacks are lowered, with the cycle repeated floor by floor. The scheme is cleaner and the recycling rate of materials is high. It even cuts demolition time by a fifth, though it is unclear if the capital costs for the jacks outweigh the time saved.
Finally, in a flatly beautiful gimmick, the twin World Trade Center towers in Bahrain have been finished. They are pretty enough as they are, elegant structures reminiscent of triangular lateen sails 240 meters (787 feet) tall, but they also incorporate wind power. There are three bridges between the two towers, and each mounts a 1.2 gigawatt wind turbine. The design of the twin towers funnels wind to the turbines, and they provide 10% to 15% of the building's power needs. There are videos here and there online -- they buildings have a sci-fi look to them in the first place, and the hypnotically spinning wind turbines lend to their surrealistic appearance.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* HOG WILD: As discussed by an article in THE ECONOMIST, it's an interesting observation that some animals have suffered badly due to the spread of human society, while others have found it beneficial, and wild hogs have been doing very well for themselves. There are from four to five million feral hogs in the USA, spread across 38 states; the biggest population is in Texas, but states from Florida to Oregon have a problem as well.
Spanish conquistadors introduced the hogs, taking herds of pigs along with them on their journeys into the North American continent. Later, sportsmen released hogs for commercial hunting. Hogs produce large litters, and they will eat almost anything -- which means they not only have access to a generous food supply, they are also extremely destructive. They grow into huge hairy monsters with fearsome tusks, and they can be aggressive. One gunned down in Georgia in 2004 was called "Hogzilla" and supposedly weighed in at 450 kilograms (1,000 pounds). Some think that was an exaggeration, but they can get big and nasty enough.
In 2000, Missouri gave hunters a year-round open season on hogs, allowing them to be shot on sight. In other places, traps, poison, and snares are set, and "hog dogs" have been trained to hunt them down. However, the hogs keep breeding fast enough to maintain their population. They are canny beasts to begin with, and the offensive against them seems to have done little but to select for smarter hogs. Not only have some beasts adapted to humans, they have done it well enough to give us a run for our money.
* Having discussed "domesticated animals gone wild" it's only fair to discuss "wild animals gone domesticated". A little note I saw in a recent NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC magazine discussed how a Belgian product designer named Bart Weetjens trained rats to hunt for landmines.
Weetjens picked the oversized African pouched rat, which has a sensitive nose, and gave them treats when they sniffed out buried high explosives. The rats are at work in Mozambique; they are easy to train, easily raised and kept, well adapted to the climate, and are usually too light to trip the mines. Weetjens is also considering using rats to hunt for earthquake victims. Domestication is something of an interesting subject; I'll have to dig into it one of these days.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* WALKING ROBOTS: SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN Online reported some time back on efforts by the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to develop robots that walk for the troops in the field. Wheeled vehicles are all very well and good, but they are stymied by rough terrain. During the fighting in the rugged regions of Italy and Burma in World War II, the mule ended up being preferred method of transport for supplies and ammunition.
Mules are temperamental beasts and have to be maintained even when they're not doing any work. A mechanical mule wouldn't balk and could be warehoused when not needed, but it turns out that building a machine that can walk over rough terrain is a tricky job. The Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, built two of the first robots to be able to negotiate rough terrain, the "Dante 1" and "Dante 2" machines. They could get around, but not with any real agility -- they picked up a subset of legs, moved them forward, and set them down in a sequence that ensured they would always have firm footing. Their locomotion was along the lines of a person putting one foot down carefully on unsure ground before lifting the other. Normal human walking, in contrast, is "dynamically unstable" -- if we walk, much less run, we would fall over immediately if we lost track of what we were doing.
DARPA wanted a robot that could walk more like we do. In 2002, the agency contracted Boston Dynamics, a robot development firm, to develop the "BigDog" robot, a four-legged walking robot with a weight of 75 kilograms (165 pounds). It can keep up with a walking human, climb slopes of up to 35 degrees, and carry a payload of 155 kilograms (340 pounds).
Boston Dynamics was founded by Marc Raibert, a graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) with roots in the CMU Robotics Institute. Raibert had ideas for how to built a robot that could walk more like humans. According to Sanjiv Singh, a CMU professor from the Robotics Institute who has worked with Boston Dynamics: "You know where your body parts are even when you can't see them. When you run, you don't watch your feet the whole time, but you can tell when you're slipping, or when the ground is softer than what you expect. There is a way to encode in robots different gaits that are not based on decision making, you just sort of step [and deal with the consequences]. This is basically the genius of what they've done with BigDog."
This is not quite as simple as it sounds. Robert Mandelbaum, a DARPA official who oversees the agency's biorobotics program, points out: "You don't have one joint per leg -- you've got four of them. You've got to navigate a 16-dimensional space and make sure they're all working together to keep its center of gravity."
In addition, the robot has to be able to figure out how to deal with varied and unpredictable terrain -- if it sees a strand of barbed wire in its way, it shouldn't just walk into it and trip. The traditional approach is to use machine vision to inspect the landscape and then use artificial intelligence algorithms to sort out the world. This is very computation intensive, and BigDog uses a simpler approach: it takes a step and sees what happens. That implies that it is very quick to react if it takes a misstep, and in fact it is updating its state a thousand times a second.
BigDog senses the positions of its joints. As it moves, the robot bends one of its knee joints and then straightens it. If the knee joint fails to straighten, the robot determines that it cannot put weight on that leg without falling over. Using onboard sensors that indicate whether it is tilting left or right or is otherwise unbalanced, BigDog's software checks its weight distribution and relies on its other legs to regain its balance. The scheme works well enough, with videos showing the robot taking a firm kick to the side, to stagger and then move on.
Other challenges are those more representative of military hardware in general: it needs to be sturdy, reliable, easily maintained, fuel-efficient. It also needs to be quieter, since it runs off a two-stroke engine and sounds like a walking chainsaw. Improvements to the walking scheme are expected to make a big difference, reducing power requirements and resulting in a smaller engine.
In 2005, DARPA also contracted for the development of a small legged robot, the 2.2 kilogram (4.9 pound) "LittleDog". LittleDog is about the size of a Scots terrier; it was a challenge to cram "smarts" along the lines of those possessed by BigDog into a smaller package. In fact, LittleDog is smarter than BigDog, having been designed with vision capability as a demonstrator for a walker that can look and plan ahead. Both BigDog and LittleDog are pure research projects at the present time. A military field evaluation will be conducted on BigDog to determine whether the system is potentially ready for operational use. If it is, a production version could follow.
* ED: IEEE SPECTRUM had a blog article on a robot named "Strider" from Virginia Tech's Robotics & Mechanisms Lab. It's a tripod, standing on three legs, and walks by throwing the leg in the rear up through the two legs in front while the body flips under with it. It has to be seen to be grasped, there's videos available. I found it a bit creepy, maybe it's because it reminded me of alien tripod machines. Certainly the way it gets around is entirely alien.
Incidentally, not only is there a video demonstration of BigDog, but some video hackers put together a parody -- two guys in black leotards, leaning over head-to-head with a box over them so only their legs are showing. It was amusing but it seemed like a lot of work for a fairly small return on the investment. Eh, nobody ever said amusements had to make sense.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* THE IED TERROR (5): Improved high-tech tools to deal with the IED threat are now in development. One concept is a "hyperspectral sensor" system that takes a image of a scene in a wide range of spectral bands. The sensor could be carried by aircraft, particularly UAVs, and detect the "signature" of soil that's been disturbed, presumably to bury an IED and its command wires. Another approach is a radio transmitter, capable of being carried by a soldier, to generate a radio signal that sweeps across a range of frequencies; the signal will be loaded down when it hits the resonant frequency of a pair of buried wires.
Still other gimmicks being tested include ground-penetrating radar and an explosives sniffer. Early models of the sniffer, named "Fido", are already in use in Iraq and Afghanistan, with both handheld and robot-mounted versions. Fido is based on polymers that are normally fluorescent but lose fluorescence when they bind to specific explosives molecules. Fido works well, but only for a certain range of explosives types, limiting its usefulness.
Finding an IED is a tricky job; neutralizing it isn't trivial, either. The simplest approach is to simply blow the thing up, but if it's planted in a built-up area it is preferable to disarm it. Unusual IEDs also need to be recovered intact so they can be given a careful looking-over. US military explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) teams handle the neutralization job, traveling to sites in heavy, high-tech armored 6x6 trucks known as "Buffalos" or "Joint EOD Rapid Response Vehicles (JERRVs)", developed by JIEDDO. The Buffalo, discussed briefly here in these pages last year, has interesting features such as a remotely-operated hydraulic claw with a video camera attached to pick up IEDs. There are apparently several other types of JERRVs.
At each site the teams, usually consisting of two to three personnel, assess the situation and take appropriate action. If the IED isn't in a built-up area and isn't anything unusual, or if it seems too dangerous to try to disarm it, the EOD team use teleoperated robots to plant an explosive charge on the IED and then set it off. If they disarm the IED instead, they take it to a lab set up near Baghdad airport for close study, with forensic evidence gathered from the IED site provided for additional intelligence. The IED lab has acquired considerable experience, and can often figure out who built the IED or even where it was built.
In some cases, IEDs can be disabled using "predetonators". One scheme uses an "electromagnetic pulse (EMP)" produced by dumping a capacitor charge through a coil. The EMP fries the ICs in the triggering device; the trigger may "fail open", disabling the IED, or "fail closed", detonating it. Another scheme scans at very high speed through the digital codes used in some wireless "keyless entry" type devices used for IED triggers -- though the more sophisticated devices take too long to crack this way.
As noted earlier of course, more armor has helped reduce the impact of IEDs, with US troops in "hot" areas now generally equipped with MRAPS and JERRVS instead of vulnerable Hummers. The military is now working on development of a replacement for the Hummer, the "Joint Light Tactical Vehicle (JLTV)"; some design submissions feature seats suspended from the roof of the vehicle instead of bolted to the floor to reduce the blast shock from an IED set off under the vehicle.
* After expenditure of billions of dollars over the last five years, IED effectiveness has in fact declined. But how much of that money really made a difference? Armored vehicles are clearly helpful. In the early days, almost every IED attack on a Hummer truck caused a casualty; these days it requires six IED attacks to produce a casualty. About half of IEDs are found and disarmed, and of those that do go off, about half the time they cause no injuries. One interesting indicator of progress is the amount of money being paid out to plant IEDs. Insurgent groups usually hire out emplacement of IEDs, and just a few years ago the fee was $50 USD per IED. Now it's $200 USD outside of Baghdad and up to $500 USD within Baghdad, suggesting that tighter security is making people nervous.
Still, the question lingers about the usefulness of the high-tech gadgetry being developed by JIEDDO, and JIEDDO's own reports indicate that cooperation of local citizens and improved military security are more important than any high tech the organization can provide. Even beyond those concerns, some defensive measures are hardly high-tech, for example making sure that patrols don't follow the same routes every day on the same schedule. However, while the people on the firing line accept such realities as well, they are extremely appreciative of any useful tech they can get their hands on -- jammers, Gyrocams, EOD robots, sensors, and so on. Some of JIEDDO's projects have been duds, and some that worked well at the outset were quickly neutralized, but everyone knows that's just the breaks of the game.
JIEDDO believes that substantial improvements are possible. There's no way IEDs can be completely neutralized, but that isn't really the goal, the goal is just to make IEDs too ineffective to be worthwhile weapons for the insurgents. As one observer puts it: "You want to get to a rate that's tolerable for you but unacceptable to him. I suspect that's exactly how it will end. And don't dismiss what's been achieved so far ... the American military has invented, in about three or four years, a way of warfare that didn't exist before. That's lightning speed. Could they be less bureaucratic? Probably not. That's the way the system works." [END OF SERIES]START | PREV | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* AIDS AT 25 (5): In the absence of an effective vaccine against HIV, the only effective tactics available are policies that promote disease prevention, and treatment of those who have been infected.
In prosperous countries, though AIDS remains a threat, it is no longer a major social crisis. Assays to detect the virus have reduced transmission through tainted blood to the noise level, while "safe sex" campaigns have done a great deal to reduce levels of infection among vulnerable groups, such as gays, who had originally suffered terribly from the disease. Programs to hand out clean needles to intravenous drug users, though controversial, have also proven effective in reducing the damage.
In poor countries, primitive sanitation and weak government action has led to a crisis in many regions, particularly much of sub-Saharan Africa. In some cases, government action has not merely been weak but counterproductive. While the "HIV denialist" movement -- which claims HIV isn't the cause of AIDS and rejects the scientific consensus that it is as a "conspiracy" -- has been a nuisance in the West, it has been disastrous elsewhere. South African President Thabo Mbeki accepted the denialist story, refusing to take responsible measures to deal with the AIDS pandemic in South Africa and pushing alternative therapies as effective treatments for the disease. Given the failure to take effective action, tens of thousands of South Africans died when they could have saved, and AIDS remains a major problem in South Africa.
At least effective treatments for the disease are now available. From the mid-1990s, antviral drugs have been available that interfere with HIV's assembly process while leaving the body's normal processes undisturbed. Early attempts at anti-HIV drugs, such as "azidothymidine (AZT)", attempted to block the "reverse transcription" of HIV RNA when it is inserted by the virus into the target cell. In this process, an enzyme called "reverse transcriptase" also inserted by the virus copies its the HIV RNA programming sequence into the cell's DNA, taking over the cell. AZT was far from perfect; it could only delay illness and death, and had nasty side effects.
The next generation of drugs focused on a later stage in the HIV life cycle. They attacked the operation of a "protease" enzyme, which breaks up protein structures generated by the cell under the control of the infiltrated HIV program, creating pieces that can be finally assembled into a virus. These "protease inhibitors" -- saquinavir, ritonavir, and indinavir -- jammed the protease, in much the same way that a lock can be jammed by breaking off a key in it, interrupting the HIV life cycle. They proved far more effective than AZT, and have been followed by new drugs.
Reverse transcriptase and protease inhibitors have been refined, and drugs that or inhibit other parts of the HIV replication cycle have been developed as well. Currently, more than 25 effective anti-HIV drugs are available. The drugs have to be administered as a "cocktail" of three or four drugs because of HIV's rapid mutation rate. Given any one drug, HIV will eventually circumvent the drug's effect; however, hitting it with three drugs, two of which work in radically different ways, requires that the virus acquire several lucky mutations at the same time. Even with an enormous replication rate this is unlikely, and once the drugs reduce the population of HIV, becomes even more unlikely.
Thanks to "combination drug therapy", AIDS is no longer a miserable death sentence -- but it still remains miserable. The drugs are expensive and have nasty side effects, though cost has been declining due to production maturity and intense political pressure, while experience has led to trimming back on the side effects as well. The drug regimen, known as "highly active anti-retroviral therapy (HAART)", also has to be strictly maintained, and a some patients don't have the discipline to stay on it even though their lives are on the line.
However, combination therapy is vastly better than nothing, and there has been work to use anti-HIV drugs in a preventive fashion. The idea is to give people at high risk from the disease a one-a-day pill containing a select set of anti-HIV drugs that will kill off the virus before it ever takes root. Unfortunately, early trials of "pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP)" in Cameroon and Cambodia in 2004 and 2005 were cut short because of concerns over program management. The trials fell over because researchers failed to involve local activists from the start. As mentioned, anti-HIV drugs tend to have nasty side effects, and some on the fringe have claimed they are worse than the disease.
As unpleasant as they are that's far from true, but local activists, along with their international supporters, believed the trials were being run by profit-hungry pharmaceutical companies who were coming to poor countries to do dangerous research, just to use the locals as guinea pigs. Advocates regrouped and are now going forward with better-planned trials, supported by the US NIH and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Results will not start coming in before 2010, however. [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* Space launches for January included:
* 18 JAN 09 / NROL-26 (USA 202 / ADVANCED ORION: A Delta 4 Heavy booster was launched from Cape Canaveral to put the secret National Reconnaissance Office "NROL-26 / USA 202" payload into orbit. It was thought to be the first "Advanced Orion / Mentor" AKA "Prowler" geostationary eavesdropping satellite, with enhanced capabilities for monitoring terrorist communications. It was believed to have a deployable antenna with a diameter of 107 meters (350 feet).
* 22 JAN 09 / GOSAT (IBUKI), SMALLSATS x 7: A JAXA H-2A booster was launched from Tanegashima to put the JAXA "Global Greenhouse Observation by Satellite (GOSAT)" into orbit. GOSAT, also known as "Ibuki (Breath)", had a launch mass of 2 tonnes (2.2 tons) and was intended to monitor atmospheric greenhouse gas cycles for five years. Its payload consisted of a "Fourier Transform Spectrometer (FTS)" and a "Cloud and Aerosol Imager (CAI)" to map methane and CO2 emissions. The launch also included seven smallsats:
All payloads were successfully deployed in orbit.
* 30 JAN 09 / CORONAS PHOTON: A Tsyklon 3 booster was launch from the Russian Plesetsk Northern Cosmodrome to put the "Coronas Photon" scientific satellite into orbit. The two tonne (4,200 pound) spacecraft was designed to measure energetic particles produced by solar flares, the solar atmosphere, and solar activity's relationship with magnetic storms around Earth. It was the largest space science mission performed by the Russians in four years. It was the third in the Coronas series, following "Coronas-1" in 1994 and "Coronas-F" in 2001.
* OTHER SPACE NEWS: AVIATION WEEK reports that the Turkish government is acquiring a surveillance satellite. The "Gokturk" spacecraft will be launched in 2011. It will have a launch mass of about 2 tonnes (2.2 tons), and will carry an electro-optical surveillance payload. The payload will include a day-only panchromatic (grayscale) imager with a resolution of 80 centimeters (2 feet 8 inches) and a multispectral imager with a resolution of 3.2 meters (10 feet 6 inches). It is being built by Telespazio, a joint venture of Finmeccanica of Italy and Thales of France.
* AVIATION WEEK reports that the NASA Ames Research Center is working on a low-cost "Common Spacecraft Bus (CSB)" for small satellites and planetary landers. Standardized spacecraft designs are not all that new, having been around since almost the beginning of the space race, but the CSB envisions modular system that could be used for an unusually wide range of missions.
The core of the CSB is a "bus module", resembling a bottle cap with eight sloping sides and a flat top; it provides control and maneuvering systems. It can be stacked on top of a "payload module", like a flat octagonal hatbox, with can be stacked in turn on top of an "extension module" of similar configuration. A main propulsion system can be tacked onto the bottom, with four landing legs attached for planetary lander missions. Depending on configuration, a CSB spacecraft would weigh from about 50 kilograms (110 pounds) to about 200 kilograms (440 pounds), permitting launch with low-cost light boosters like the Orbital Sciences Minotaur. The first mission being considered for a CSB spacecraft is the "Lunar Atmosphere & Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE)" mission, set for launch in 2011.
* AVIATION WEEK reports that a shuttle flight is now in planning to carry a "Mini Research Module (MRM1)" to the International Space Station (ISS). The MRM1, being built by Russian aerospace giant RSC Energia, will have a mass of 8 tonnes (8.8 tons) and a length of 7 meters (28 feet). It will be launched storing a cargo of 1.4 tonnes (1.54 tons) and will be docked with the Russian Zarya module.
The MRM1 will provide a docking port after fit of the Russian Multipurpose Laboratory Module blocks clearance to the existing port. The plan is to have four docking ports on the ISS to ensure that enough Soyuz space capsules can be docked to ensure safety for a six-person ISS crew. Two ports will always have a Soyuz docked for emergency escape; the other two ports are required for handling an incoming Soyuz and a Progress unmanned tanker-freighter. The MRM1 also has an experiment airlock and a "European Robot Arm (ERA)" build by the European Space Agency to handle the experiments.
The MRM1 will join another research module, the "MRM2", which will be launched by a Proton booster as early as August 2009. It will dock with the Russian Zvezda module to provide another docking port. For the present, NASA is preparing the next shuttle mission, STS-119, which will deliver the last ISS solar panel.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* MAN-MACHINE INTERFACE: Modern cyberpunk science fiction likes to play with the notion of linking the human brain with computer hardware via "neural implants", allowing direct access to networking via "jacking in". In cyberpunk stories, characters even download their minds into computing hardware, giving them effective immortality.
As reported by an article in SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN ("Jacking Into The Brain" by Gary Stix, November 2008), in the past decade researchers have made some progress towards a direct "man-machine interface (MMI)". A subject with electrodes implanted in his brain has been able to control a prosthetic arm, and work is also being done to allow subjects to sense touch from a robot arm. However, this is a far cry from the notion of downloading a person's mind into hardware. It's not just a question of not having the means to do it -- we simply don't know how it could be done in principle, it's as much magic as it would have been three centuries ago. Still, researchers are keeping an open mind on where the border between the entirely practical and the practically impossible may lie in this domain.
Primitive MMI is a practical reality, embodied in the "cochlear implants" provided to the hearing-impaired. These implants stimulate the auditory nerve with sounds picked up by a microphone, with the subjects gradually learning to interpret the signals. Researchers are currently working on visual arrays that the sight-impaired could use to see to a degree. More advanced tasks, for example surfing to Amazon.com and directly downloading books into the brain, remain somewhat dodgier.
There are a number of issues in the challenge of directly downloading information into the brain. If it requires plugging electrodes into the scalp, it wouldn't be practical for anyone but the seriously disabled, and it would be uncomfortable and unhealthy for them. Noninvasive techniques are preferable and they can be used to pick up brain signals, with paralyzed patients using something resembling a swim cap to surf the Web. The swim cap's capability to "read the mind" is imprecise and limited, though work is underway to improve the processing of the signals that it picks up. Invasive implants, with their admitted limitations, can be much more precisely targeted. Subjects with implants linked to neurons have been able to figure out how to send specific command through the MMI. Nanoscale fibers are now being considered to provide even more precise connections.
The next problem, however, is what to link into. We have a broad understanding of the organization of the brain; we have a general understanding of the operation of neurons. This is light-years away from being able to construct a specific model of how the neurons collaborate to keep the brain in motion. Downloading a book directly into the brain requires that we know the brain's language. The reality is that we have only the weakest idea of even the sounds that it makes.
Figuring out more is a challenge. A group at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL in its French acronym) is working on the "Blue Brain Project", an attempt to digitally model the brain at molecular and cellular levels. Right now the EPFL group is working on the relatively simple rat brain. It is an indication of the complexity of the tasks that modeling the human brain will require a supercomputer a thousand times faster than any available right now.
Although nobody could say for certain what might happen a year or a century down the road, some researchers are skeptical that downloading a book into the brain will ever happen. According to neuroscientist John P. Donoghue of Brown University: "Complex information like the contents of a book would require the interactions of a very large number of brain cells over a very large area of the nervous system ... you couldn't address all of them, getting them to store in their connections the correct kind of information. So I would say based on current knowledge, it's not possible."
Donoghue is, however, very optimistic about the potential for MMI in the outside direction. He has been a leader in work on brain implants that can hook up a subject to a prosthetic arm or a wheelchair. He believes that within five years, MMI will have advanced to the level where a paralyzed subject will be able to use a prosthetic arm to pick up a cup and take a drink of water -- and sees no obvious obstacle to a future over the horizon where a quadriplegic could play a game of basketball, though he has no idea when that might happen.
In sum, even if we may never download books directly into the brain, MMI is an idea whose time is coming and which promises enormous benefits. The payoff will include not only advanced prosthetic control, it will also provide insights into the operation of the brain itself. A better understanding of the mysteries of the brain may open doors that we don't even know exist at the present time.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* ASDE-X AGAINST RUNWAY ACCIDENTS: Flying has its potential hazards; it can be unsafe even before an aircraft leaves the ground, since at a busy airport it can be troublesome to ensure that a ground vehicle or jetliner doesn't roam out onto a runway in the path of an oncoming flight. As reported in AVIATION WEEK ("Runway Risks" by Adrian Schofield, 13 October 2008), the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is engaged in a program to reduce the risks of "runway incursions". The FAA's new system, the "Airport Surface Detection Equipment Model X (ASDE-X)", is being implemented at 35 major airports for a total pricetag of $550 million USD. It is replacing the older "Airport Movement Area Safety System (AMASS)".
ASDE-X is build by Sensis Corporation and uses a combination of systems to monitor airport runway traffic. A surface movement radar mounted on the airport control tower or other tower scans the airport area, while aircraft report their location with their "Automatic Dependent Surveillance -- Broadcast (ADS-B)" systems, which use GPS and satellite communications to provide continuous position updates. A network of "multilateration" or "secondary radar" stations also helps monitor traffic by "pinging" the identification transponders of aircraft and ground vehicles, using the timing of the signal returns to locate the aircraft while using the ID codes to obtain their specific identity. The sensor inputs are assimilated and the results presented on a color map display, with the system also providing alerts and audio alarms.
Deployment of ADSE-X began in 2003. As of late 2008, 14 airports have been fitted with the system, with three more in progress. The target date for completion is 2010, but there have been some delays and the system probably won't be complete until 2011 at earliest. ADSE-X will support a follow-on runway status light system -- which is something like a traffic light network for airports, telling pilots if it is safe to proceed onto a runway. Tests of the runway status light system at the Dallas / Fort Worth and San Diego International Airports have demonstrated that it is highly effective in reducing runway incursions.
The FAA believes that a total of 44 airports may ultimately be equipped with ADSE-X. ADSE-X is expensive overkill for smaller airports that do not have the same level of traffic or complicated layouts. The FAA is evaluating off-the-shelf solutions and will perform an evaluation at six airports. Trials of two such systems, one made by Northrop Grumman / Park Air Systems and the other by a collaboration of Lockheed Martin and Transtech Corporation, have been test evaluated at Spokane International Airport in Washington State. The FAA is also investigating cockpit map systems to help with the runway incursion problem, and set up training programs to increase pilot and air traffic controller awareness.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* THE IED TERROR (4): As mentioned in the previous installment in this series, the only way to get rid of the IED threat for good is to get rid of the terrorist groups that plant the devices. This being a long-term goal, over the short term the technological fix remains important, and JIEDDO has at least been a facilitator in development of a wide range of systems.
Tougher armor is a big help. The MRAPs are heavy and so relatively slow, but they not only feature sturdy armor protection, they have angled underbodies and high suspensions that help protect them from blasts. Since initial delivery at the beginning of 2007, the military has put 3,200 MRAPs into combat service, and wants to buy 4,000 more -- at a cost of $5.4 billion USD. Numbers of the RG-31 "light MRAP" are also in service. Vehicles are often fitted with a "Gyrocam" gyrostabilized imaging system that allows the crews to check out suspicious objects and situations from hundreds of meters away. The Gyrocam can operate in the visible, shortwave infrared, or longwave (thermal) infrared bands; the thermal infrared band can pick up insurgents hiding at night, just from their body heat. The Gyrocam is expensive, about a half million dollars per item, but it is very useful.
The "Husky" is a particularly bizarre-looking vehicle, with a heavily-armored chassis perched high above its four wheels on a pivoted suspension. There is a powerful magnetometer on the bottom of its angled hull that can detect buried metallic objects. Of course, the Husky has to be directly overhead of such objects to detect them, which is why it is so heavily armored. The driver's seating system was derived from that used to allow helicopter aircrew to survive low-altitude crashes, and Husky drivers have walked away from explosions that threw the vehicle high enough to send it easily over a two-story house.
Drone aircraft maintain widespread surveillance, with Hunter, Shadow, and Predator / Sky Warrior unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) quietly cruising the skies and keeping an eye on activities. The Army has a small air fleet -- including both piloted aircraft and UAVs -- to keep an eye on the main supply routes in Iraq. The group, designated "Observe Detect Identify Neutralize (ODIN)" is known to have about 300 personnel and 25 aircraft. The team is hooked up with quick-reaction combat teams that pounce on insurgents once they have been fingered.
The biggest problem with ODIN is simple tedium: most of the time nothing's happening, and so something significant might go past glazed eyes. It seems plausible that the technology for "smart" surveillance camera systems used by stores to catch shoplifters is being leveraged by JIEDDO to create systems that highlight unusual activities -- but if so, nobody's talking. [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* AIDS AT 25 (4): The failure of the Merck vaccine trial has led to a thorough rethinking of current candidates for HIV vaccines. There are no major vaccine trials in progress at the present time; one was scheduled to begin in the fall of 2008, but Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, canceled the trial, since on the face of existing evidence it did not justify the expenditure of resources. At the same time, Fauci announced that his agency would redirect its funding for HIV vaccine research efforts toward basic science to address fundamental questions about HIV and its behavior in the body that could point to new ways to deal with the virus.
To develop the next generation of vaccine candidates, researchers will have to tackle a list of major issues. HIV diversity remains the major challenge to a vaccine; those who are vaccinated are all but certain to confront viruses that are at least 10% different from those used to make the vaccine. The Envelope protein, having proven useless as a basis for a T cell based HIV vaccine, has been generally abandoned by researchers in favor of more conserved regions, such as the "Pol" and "Gag" proteins. However, these proteins are still variable enough to make troublesome targets for a vaccine.
Another issue is the fact that killer T cells have a number of different possible options for dealing with HIV; the cells can target various parts of the virus to respond to. Should researcher be trying to boost all the responses or just a subset of them? It would seem preferable to focus on some of them, because some of the responses are more easily provoked and some, not necessarily the same ones, are more effective. New laboratory assays should help determine which of the many T cell responses actually control HIV replication. Clearly, if some rare responses are more effective, it might well be worthwhile to boost the pattern of HIV-specific T cell responses.
It is particularly important to learn about how the rare "long-term non-progressors" manage to live with an HIV infection, since the idiosyncrasies of their immune response would reveal a great deal about how to design a useful vaccine. A large group of human elite controllers is now being assembled for study, and extensive genetic, immunological and virological analyses will likely yield important insights into their unusual immune responses.
More studies of monkey responses to attenuated, live SIV vaccines will also be valuable since these potent vaccines enable the monkeys to fend off highly pathogenic viruses, even those that differ significantly from the vaccine strain, for considerable lengths of time. Although safety concerns mean the attenuated virus approach will never be used in humans, understanding exactly why it works so well could yield new insights.
Underlying all the specific research goals is a new level of organization underlying the effort. Scientists are forming up large-scale groups to perform further research, backed up by substantial funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative and the NIH. The hunt for an HIV vaccine has proven vastly frustrating, but the hunters are persistent. [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* FLY ELECTRIC: POPULAR SCIENCE for December 2008 reports that the day of the electric airplane has finally arrived, or at least the technology has established a toehold. Last August, visitors to the Oshkosh AirVenture air show in Wisconsin were treated to flights of the single-seat "ElectraFlyer-C", developed by Randall Fishman, a retired jeweler from New Jersey who is an active aircraft and glider pilot.
In the mid-1990s, Fishman assembled a Moni Motorglider from a kit, but he found the thing just too noisy and unreliable. He put the machine in storage for about a decade, and then decided to see if he could modify it with an electric motor. He added a battery pack with twin 75-volt lithium batteries as a power source, to come up with a machine that can cruise at 110 KPH (70 MPH) for 90 minutes.
The ElectraFlyer was originally fitted with a small propeller that made an obnoxious racket, so Fishman refitted it with a 1.14 meter (45 inch) prop that turns at 3,100 RPM and is much quieter. The landing gear had to be raised to accommodate the prop. The batteries are stowed inside a case made of stainless steel and lined with ceramic to guard against fire. The motor has a controller system that only eats up about 2% of the energy passed through it, resulting in overall energy use efficiency of 88%. The motor can also be used as a generator, with the prop spinning in soaring flight to recharge the batteries. The fuel gauge is replaced by an ammeter and a voltmeter; Fishman says that when the batteries decay to 60 volts, it's time to come down. The ammeter registers a minus sign when the batteries are being recharged.
Fishman is now selling kits and hopes to sell finished machines by next year. The ElectraFlyer-C is really just a toy, with neither the payload nor range to do anything really useful, but it's such a nice toy -- and seems like a pretty good place to start.
* NUCLEAR MOON: The same issue of POPULAR SCIENCE had an article on the US National Aeronautics & Space Administration's (NASA) "Fission Surface Power" program, intended to provide power for a Moon base. Solar power is not very practical since lunar nights last two Earth weeks, making nuclear power an attractive alternative.
The FSP, as envisioned, is about the size of a trashcan, and fueled by uranium oxide pellets encased in rods. It is buried under the soil to provide additional radiation shielding and then activated, with the heat from the core transferred by molten sodium-potassium coolant to a power conversion system on the surface. Two configurations are being considered for the power conversion system: a Stirling-cycle engine, which is more efficient, and a Rankine-cycle (closed-loop turbine) system, which is more reliable. The waste heat passed through the converters is dissipated into space by a set of liquid-cooled radiators, arranged like a fence on the surface.
The reactor is sited about 100 meters (330 feet) from the Moon habitat. It provides about 40 kilowatts of power, enough to provide power for four astronauts, as well as mine oxygen from the lunar surface and run Moon buggies. Operational lifetime is estimated at eight years, with little maintenance required.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* SUPERPHONE: An article in THE ECONOMIST ("The Barackberry", 31 January 2009) reports that Barack Obama, having taken up residence in the White House, has been forced to give up his Blackberry -- it's just not secure enough for the president of the United States.
A Blackberry can be kitted up with encryption, of course, the most formidable option being the US government Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) cipher with a 256-bit encryption key. That's plenty strong enough for almost any commercial user, and it's even good enough for agents of the US Federal Bureau of Investigation. The Department of Defense and many investment banks also use Blackberries with 256-bit AES.
However, a Blackberry is not secure enough for access to the US government's internal "SIPRnet" -- a high-security internet with access limited to about 300,000 government personnel. The problem with the Blackberry is not actually that 256-bit AES is too weak, it's that the Blackberry itself can be hacked. The Department of Homeland Security is aware of about 16 security holes in the Blackberry, and everyone knows that hackers are usually the first ones to find new holes. Since most smartphones also have GPS navigation, they could be used to track the person carrying one. Secret Service agents protecting the president aren't even allowed to carry pagers.
Only two smartphones have been cleared by the National Security Agency (NSA) to TOP SECRET security, both developed by defense contractors. One -- a heavily modified Palm Treo 750 that uses the Windows CE operating system -- is called the "Sectera Edge", developed by General Dynamics. The Edge has all the normal capabilities of a Windows-based smartphone; it has been in use with both the US and some friendly governments for some time. The other is the new "Guardian" smartphone, developed by L-3 Communications, which is still in testing.
Both smartphones are intended primarily for use on SIPRnet, but they can also access NIPRnet, the government's "sensitive but unclassified" network, and even the public internet (via wi-fi) as well as any of the commercial cellular networks (GSM or CDMA) used around the world. Users can easily switch between classified and unclassified networks, though exactly how they do so is unsurprisingly a secret.
With either smartphone, voice calls are made in the usual way over any of the commercial cellular networks. The difference is that the conversations are scrambled from end to end, using a form of encryption known as the "Secure Communications Interoperability Protocol (SCIP)". Only another SCIP phone can unscramble the conversation, and SCIP phones are handled out only to the most trusted of people. SCIP is not in itself the strongest of security systems, but the number of SCIP phones is very small and the disposition of each phone is tightly tracked. The two smartphones use another encryption method to send email and other forms of digital data. The scheme is the NSA's "Type 1 Suite B" algorithm and its details have not been made public. The general public is banned from using it.
The president pays a slight price for all this security in that his Edge smartphone weighs three times as much as a Blackberry. Of course, only people who have been cleared and who have access to the proper gear can receive the secure emails, and they can't be forwarded. In addition, if the president doesn't have to worry about anyone eavesdropping in the here and now, history is paying attention -- by law all his emails have to be preserved and they can subpoenaed. Calls don't have to be recorded, but they have to be logged. Along with extraordinary power, Barack Obama has also acquired extraordinary accountability.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* GEORGE W. BUSH IN THE WHITE HOUSE: THE ECONOMIST ran a retrospective on the presidency of George W. Bush ("The Frat Boy Ships Out", 17 January 2009) worth outlining here. Being dispassionate and objective concerning George W. Bush's eight years in the White House is difficult, but it is an indisputable fact that he left the job as one of the most unpopular presidents in American history. Right now, the political stock of the Bush family is so low that one relative describes family gatherings as "funeral wakes".
Few could have predicted the difficult course Bush's presidency would take eight years ago, when he took the oath of office for the first time. True, the 2000 election was divisive because the outcome was so close, resulting in a stressed-out and antagonized exercise in recounts that did not get the administration off on the best foot. However, Bush seemed likeable enough to many, in fact he had something of a "frat boy" reputation for his inclination to party in his younger days. He had campaigned as a centrist -- a "compassionate conservative", a "uniter rather than a divider", an advocate of humility and restraint. That wasn't how things turned out. What happened?
To a certain extent, as Bush's defenders point out, there were events that threw the Bush II Administration off track. The terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 were a shock that led the administration to adopt a war mindset, resulting in a strong sense of executive authority and commitments to military adventures. The financial crisis that plagues us now was not created in the White House, being the result of an elaborate matrix of forces and failures that spanned borders.
However, there were still many problems that could be unambiguously traced back to the Oval Office. Bush had a grand concept of his presidency: he wanted to establish the Republicans as the law of the land for the indefinite future, and after 9-11 he not only wanted to destroy Islamic terrorism, he wanted to use US power and influence to eliminate the sources of terrorism by remodeling the Middle East. In this second ambition, he emulated his hero Ronald Reagan, who had faced down the Red Menace and watched it fall over. If Ronald Reagan could oversee a transformation of the world, then why not George W. Bush?
There were difficulties with other aspects of Bush's personality as well. He was what the British call an "inverted snob": he was an instinctive populist, who happened to be the son of one of America's most powerful families, and though a graduate of Yale and Harvard, he distrusted and disliked intellectuals. He had given up his partying ways to become an evangelical Christian, a group that focuses on emotional uplift and is disinclined to cool calculation and analysis. He wanted to make the big decisions and leave the details to others, and many of those who dealt with him suspected he did not always have a strong grasp of the details. Not all of that was bad, but it led him to disregard the usefulness of advisers with specialized knowledge and expertise, isolated him from the professional Washington establishment, and led him to make decisions more on the basis of gut feel than lengthy consideration -- even in circumstances where he had the luxury of time to think things out.
Bush relied heavily on a small core set of advisers, the most important being Dick Cheney, said to have been the most powerful vice-president in American history. Given the traditionally marginal nature of the job that's not a big claim, but Cheney was able to seed officials of his own choosing throughout the administration, and had the president's ear to the extent that critics wondered if the vice-president wasn't really the man in charge. Cheney took a sharp right turn on almost every subject, and fought ferociously to protect and expand executive power. Bush's other core advisers included Karl Rove, his longtime political guru, whose goal was indefinite Republican dominance; and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who was not so concerned about his boss's interest in rearranging the Mideast political landscape as he was changing the Pentagon's ways of fighting wars.
* A major consequence of these factors was that George W. Bush governed from partisanship. One of his early acts was a tax cut -- not such a bad idea in itself, the budget was in surplus and plenty of people in Washington were in favor of it -- but he went as far as he dared in his tax cuts in order to bolster Republican strength, sending his administration down the road towards staggering budget deficits.
Bush took up sides in the "culture wars" and stuck to them uncompromisingly, taking a hard line on stem-cell research; bringing two very conservative judges, John Roberts and Samuel Alito, into the Supreme Court; and dismissing a large number of international treaties. His energy policy was written up by Dick Cheney, whose advisers in the task were friends from the energy industry. In some cases, there were justifications for the hard line from the White House; but sometimes the president seemed to be swimming against the tide of public sensibility.
When the White House braced to invade Iraq, the partisanship went beyond the bounds. Presidents fighting foreign wars have traditionally sought bipartisan backing; Bush, in contrast, browbeat Democrats, calling them "Defeaticrats" when they questioned his policy. Although Saddam Hussein's provocations through the 1990s did offer a basis for intervention, the administration took a selective and exaggerated view of intelligence to justify the war, with the credibility of the White House badly undermined when it became apparent just how selective and exaggerated it was.
Bush's lack of feel for details became painfully evident with the invasion of Iraq. The war plan for the invasion proved competent enough at overwhelming Saddam Hussein's military, but it did not realistically consider what would happen after the conquest, with the subsequent insurgency and violent civil war catching the White House flat-footed. Rumsfeld's determination to create a military that was lighter on its feet ended up committing forces to the battle that were too small to maintain order. The White House was caught short again in 2005, with Hurricane Katrina not only proving a disaster for New Orleans, but for Bush as well, with the Federal response seeming slow, indifferent, and inept.
* From the perspective of history, George W. Bush may be seen in a better light than he is now. He supported sensible immigration reform and proposed better regulation of the Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac mortgage industries; Congress shot him down on both. He was as or more enthusiastic in bringing minorities into his administration as any occupant of the White House before him. He maintained good relations with India, Japan, and Africa, where he launched a $15 billion USD campaign to stop AIDS.
Bush was progressive on trade. To be sure, early on he supported protectionist measures like farm subsidies, but he quickly became an advocate of free trade; the fact that his efforts were often frustrated was generally due to the uncooperativeness of other players. The administration's handling of the 2008 financial crisis, while not far-sighted, did manage to bring at least temporary stability, and given that Bush was a lame-duck president by that time he had little choice but to defer the long-term solution to his successor.
Although his critics don't like to acknowledge it, Bush also demonstrated a significant ability to learn from mistakes. His second four years in office were very different from the first four, with the overbearing attitude towards international relations changed to tactful and determined efforts at collaboration with allies; administration hard-liners left or were sidelined. In addition, Bush's tough-mindedness sometimes paid off: his determination to go ahead with the "troop surge" in Iraq when all seemed about lost was vindicated when it actually seemed to work. In fact, if a stable and democratic Iraq emerges out of the chaos, Bush will have achieved a major vindication -- though nobody is placing big bets on that score just yet.
Where the failings of the Bush II Administration seem most undeniable, however, is in the lack of fiscal responsibility. It wasn't just the tax cut -- again, that wasn't an unpopular idea -- but the deepness of the cut and the willingness of the administration to trample over traditional rules and conventions intended to restrain deficits. What made matters much worse was the White House's willingness to accept or even accelerate the expansion of entitlements like Social Security and Medicare, without having the discipline to take the painful but ultimately inescapable measures needed to keep them solvent. In his willingness to rack up deficits to help keep Republicans in power, Bush even antagonized many conservatives who were appalled at the way the administration, through a generous application of the law of unintended consequences, turned the Democrats into the party of fiscal responsibility.
* In the end, Bush sought to establish Republican rule for a generation, but he left the White House and both houses of Congress to the Democrats. He believed that American power could make the rules, and found out that the USA needed allies and persuasion after all, with the supposedly overwhelming military strength of America strained to keep up with commitments. A pro-business president, he went home with the economy in disarray, business discredited, the government budget process broken.
Not all of this was entirely his fault. But the fact remains that the ambitions that George W. Bush took with him into the White House came to little. Barack Obama, coming into power on a tsunami of high ideals, might well consider that ugly lesson, and understand that half a loaf is better than none. Obama certainly has no choice but to consider the wreckage that he now has to try to clean up.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* ANOTHER MONTH: I finally broke down and decided to include illustrations with the blog -- as it turns out, it's not all that difficult for me to add them. In fact, I think I'll retroactively start adding illustrations to the blog archives just to make them a bit more interesting to read.
I also acquired a message board system, courtesy of Proboards. I'd tried to add a message board to the website some years back, but it was a bust, nobody paid any attention to it. I didn't have the blog then, so I figured I could link it to blog articles and get some traffic this time around. It turned out to be easy to implement, too. Proboards offers a free (supported by banner ads) message board system, and it's pretty well refined -- they claim to operate over 2.8 million (?!) free message boards. The boards are very easy to administer and surprisingly capable. I was pleased to find out that there was a code to allow linking in YouTube videos and I've been exploiting it, prowling around on YouTube for interesting materials.
In fact, having acquired the message board I realized that worrying about people posting was the wrong approach. The message board turns out to be an ideal platform for presentation of interesting but not particularly important materials, and I've been adding thread after thread. It would be nice if folks posted -- well, nice as long as I can keep out nutcases -- but there's nothing I can to do get anyone to post other than make it interesting. It's a Zen thing, encouraging posting by not worrying about it.
* I mentioned last month the Philips DC185 iPod docking station I had bought to play music off a USB flash drive. It seemed like a nice enough item and did what I wanted, until I ran into a sneaky bug: it would refuse to play all of certain tunes, simply cutting them off in midstream and jumping to the next tune. This was obnoxious and I wondered if I had made a big mistake in buying the box.
I noticed that it seemed to cut off the longer tunes, so I cleaned up the file system on the USB drive, thinking the box couldn't keep up with buffering. No joy. I finally got to wondering if the box simply didn't like the audio file format. I was using low-sample-rate WMA files, so I got a format conversion utility -- the nice freeware "Switch" utility is a good choice -- and converted them to MP3s. Problem solved.
I suspect the WMA decoder in the box was hitting some bits in the files that it misinterpreted as an END OF FILE command. The reason the longer files seemed to have a problem was because the likelihood of hitting that bit pattern in the longer files was greater -- in fact I started to get suspicious about my original hypothesis when I noticed that one of the files seemed to cut out after a few moments. Now I find the DC185 very satisfactory for my purposes. One limitation is that it doesn't seem to be able to distinguish between audio files in different directories as different sequences -- hit "shuffle" play, it picks the files in different directories indiscriminately. Or at least I haven't figured out a way to get it to work. (The instruction sheet is clumsy and nearly useless.) It's kind of a shrug for my usage.COMMENT ON ARTICLE