* Entries include: JFK assassination, the fight over global warming, Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty verification schemes, CDMS dark matter search, India versus China as market for Western goods, McDonald's in India, periodic dimming of Epsilon Aurigae, rogue brown dwarf star discovered, product counterfeiting on the increase, microbanking & microinsurance, printing replacement organs, aging in place at home, Microsoft medical house-call scheme, and bias against girl babies & its effects.
* NEWS COMMENTARY FOR APRIL 2010: While the news tends to be preoccupied with economics and politics and wars, every now and then we get a reminder of just how easily nature can trump all such concerns. In March, a fissure opened under the Eyjafjallajoekull glacier in Iceland, spewing out volcanic ash in energetic eruptions. By mid-April, the ash clouds had grounded air traffic in Iceland -- volcanic ash can easily wreck aircraft engines -- leaving travelers stranded, and were raising havoc over much of Northern Europe as well. Military flight operations were similarly affected.
The last time an eruption occurred at that locale was in the 1820s. The current eruption was not that big, but its ashfall happened to cover heavily-traveled airlanes and so it had a major effect on air traffic. There were worries that the nearby larger Katla volcano could brew up, aggravating matters. Underlying the current emergency is the unsettling historical memory of the eruption of Laki in Iceland in 1783:1784, which dumped out a toxic cloud that ended up killing a quarter of the island's population, as well as spreading misery and death over much of Western Europe. Whatever problems the volcano gave us now, they are only a shadow of the nightmares they could be.
* The ongoing tensions between the US and Iran over that country's nuclear program have clearly been a concern for Obama Administration staffers. Following a NEW YORK TIMES report that the US government has no coherent policy on Iran, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen acknowledged that "this is as complex a problem as there is in our country" and that "if there was an easy answer, we would have picked it off the shelf."
In so many words, don't ask for the easy answer since there isn't one -- and to the extent there are answers, it would be counterproductive to tell the public, and the Iranians, what they are. However, the admiral did make American priorities clear: "Iran getting a nuclear weapon would be incredibly destabilizing. Attacking them would also create the same kind of outcome. In an area that's so unstable right now, we don't need more of that ... From my perspective, the last option is to strike."
* I ran across a debunker's blog titled "Skeptico" recently. As is typical of debunkery, it tends to carry on, but one article was interesting, citing a story run in that source of absolutely reliable news, THE ONION, back in August, in which Neil Armstrong, the first man to set foot on the Moon, admitted his trip to the Moon was a hoax. He hadn't realized that at the time, but after watching YouTube videos and reading websites created by conspiracy theorists, he had to admit he was mistaken: "It has become painfully clear to me that on July 20, 1969, the Lunar Module under the control of my crew did not in fact travel 250,000 miles over eight days, touch down on the Moon, and perform experiments, ushering in a new era for humanity. Instead, the entire thing was filmed on a soundstage, most likely in New Mexico."
A week later it was revealed that two newspapers in Bangladesh, the DAILY MANAB ZAMIN and the NEW NATION, had picked up the story and run it as news. After a flurry of excitement with readers, the editors realized they'd made a mistake. Said an editor: "We thought it was true, so we printed it without checking. We didn't know THE ONION was not a real news site."COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* GIMMICKS & GADGETS: THE ECONOMIST reported on the work of Dutch inventor Rene Giesberg, who thinks he has a better idea than the traditional shipping container -- which revolutionized cargo transport and is now over a half-century old, with over 26 million in service. While the traditional shipping container is a big steel box, Giesberg wants to replace it with a big fiberglass composite box that collapses into a quarter of its volume after being emptied.
Giesberg's fiberglass shipping container is not only less troubled by corrosion than a traditional metal shipping container, it only weighs about 75% as much, reducing energy demands for transport. Since container ships often end up having to haul empty containers as part of their loads on some legs of their routes, being able to collapse and stack up empty containers would allow a container ship to carry more loaded containers. The idea isn't entirely new; other people have tried to sell collapsible shipping containers before, but foundered on the difficulty of collapsing and restoring the container, as well as poor durability. Giesberg designed his container to be easy to collapse and restore, and is currently running it through durability tests. There remains the question of whether the collapsible container can be made cheaply enough to compete with the well-established traditional metal container.
* WIRED Online reports that NREL and consulting firm AWS Truewind have come up with a new estimate of the wind power potential of the USA, with a staggering total of 37 petawatt-hours (PWh). That contrasts to about 3 PWh consumed in America in 2010. This is over three times greater than the estimate of 10.8 PWh calculated by the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in 1993. Incidentally, the study excluded siting of turbines from environmentally protected areas.
The big jump in the power estimate was mostly due to the fact that wind turbine tech has advanced so much since the early 1990s, with taller and more efficient turbines now available. Of course, the estimate is really nothing more than a maximum theoretical limit, not a realistic projection of wind power futures, the real purpose of the survey being to establish a detailed national wind map to help wind developers find the best sites for turbines.
* An article from DISCOVERY CHANNEL Online discussed a hydropower scheme being promoted by a company named HydroVolts out of Seattle, Washington. It's definitely a "micro-hydro" approach, the idea being to extract power from aqueducts and irrigation canals. The core technology is a completely submerged paddle wheel, like that on the old stern-wheel steamboats, but with a clever scheme where the paddle segments hinge flat for half the rotation and snap to vertical for the other.
HydroVolts is developing three turbine models of different sizes, the smallest being about as big as a two-drawer filing cabinet. Company officials say that up to four kilowatts can be produced in the right location, and that payback should be no more than four years. To be sure, this is a very interesting concept that deserves a fair hearing, but the problem with chasing after "micro" resources is that the margin of return on investment of infrastructure installation and maintenance can be "micro" as well -- and can disappear into red ink rapidly if things get troublesome.
In another "micro-hydro" scheme, WIRED Online reports that Bourne Energy of Malibu, California, is promoting a "Backpack Power Plant (BPP)" with a weight of about 13.6 kilograms (30 pounds). Packed up, it looks like a large metal capsule; it can be placed in a stream to produce, under fair conditions, about 500 watts of power. It is apparently being promoted for tactical military use but Bourne also sells a civilian version.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* CHASING DARK MATTER: Observations of the rate of expansion of the Universe suggest that about a quarter of the estimated mass of the cosmos is in the form of "dark matter" -- last discussed here a few months back -- which is some sort of unobserved matter not associated with the atomic matter we are familiar with. There are suspicions that dark matter is an artifact of some basic misunderstanding of physics, but in the absence of any knowledge of what that misunderstanding might be, dark matter remains a useful working assumption.
Dark matter, by definition, is supposed to be hard to detect, but physicists have been performing experiments to see if they can nail it down. As reported by an article from SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN Online ("Dark Matter Researchers Still In The Dark" by John Matson), results have been recently announced for one such search effort, the "Cryogenic Dark Matter Search 2 (CDMS-2)", which used a set of detectors placed deep underground in an abandoned iron mine in the state of Minnesota. CDMS-2 seems to have been successful to a degree, having detected two events that match the parameters of a dark matter particle interaction. The problem is that other explanations cannot be ruled out.
Many models of dark matter envision that it consists of "weakly interacting massive particles (WIMPs)", which only interact via the subtle "weak nuclear force" -- a short-distance force responsible for radioactive decay and some other subtle phenomena -- and the gravitational force. The gravitational force is the weakest of all the forces, by the way, but it's the only one that builds up over long distances, which is why it's so noticeable.
Since 2003, the CDMS detector array has been taking measurements from the University of Minnesota's Soudan Underground Laboratory at a depth of 780 meters (2,560 feet) below the surface of the Earth. The array consists of 30 modules built around germanium and silicon detector elements, cooled to within a few degrees of absolute zero by a liquid helium cryogenic system. A WIMP interaction will produce a subtle heating effect along with an electric charge due to ionization; the detectors are set up to try to spot this combination of phenomena.
The detectors were placed underground to shield them from interactions with particles from cosmic-ray showers and other sources. The detectors were further shielded in lead, which blocks most known particles but wouldn't be much obstacle to a WIMP. Some of the lead was even scavenged from ballast in an ancient French shipwreck, on the basis that radioactive contaminants would have decayed out of the lead while it was sitting at the bottom of the sea.
CDMS-2 ran through 2007 and 2008. The two events detected by the array were characteristic of a WIMP interaction, but there was a 25% chance that they were coincidences of background noise events that occurred simultaneously. The research team says that five events will have to be detected to provide a high degree of confidence that they are really due to WIMP interactions. The team is now working on a follow-on experimental sequence named, of course, "SuperCDMS", which may be up to full operation by the summer of 2010. Confirmed detection of a WIMP would mean the Nobel prize for physics; but everyone involved knows there's a chance they're just chasing shadows and could end up with the booby prize instead. Even a negative result, however, might help provide the clue that really does solve the dark matter puzzle.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* THE INDIA GAMBIT: Western businessmen tend to cast a keen eye on China, seeing its economic expansion and huge population as translating to an enormous market for products. As discussed by an editorial in BUSINESS WEEK ("Don't Underestimate India's Consumers" by John Lee, 1 February 2010), they may be missing a bet, since in many ways India is much more promising.
The problem with China is that its economy remains heavily state-controlled, with funds being funneled to state-owned enterprises and the economy heavily driven by national infrastructure projects. The result is that the private sector and consumers get the short end of the deal. Over the past 15 years, the incomes of urban Chinese have only risen at about half the rate of GDP -- and the city folk are well off, with countryside dominated by poverty. A quarter of a century ago, the ratio of urban to rural income in China was 1.8. Now it's 3.5, and some estimates claim that rural poverty and illiteracy has doubled in the last decade.
India has plenty of poverty as well, along with poor infrastructure and stodgy state bureaucracy: while optimists compare India to a tiger, pessimists say it's more like an elephant. However, the Indian economy is dominated by private business, and so most of the money goes into the pockets of Indians instead of government coffers. The result is that India has a middle class about 300 million strong, about two to three times the size of China's in absolute numbers even though China has more people. That translates into a lot of consumers who will buy the right products.
It's not just a question of selling to the urban middle class of India, either. Although dire poverty is common in the Indian countryside, the gap between urban and rural incomes has been declining; while China's rural areas have been decaying, over the last decade poverty and illiteracy among the 700 million rural Indians has fallen by half. Economic growth in the countryside has actually outpaced growth in the cities, with rural India providing almost half of GDP. In China, the proportion is only about a third, even though the rural population is bigger in both relative and absolute terms.
Indian companies like the giant Tata Group are very aware of the rural market and have focused on cheap, no-frills, basic-value product offerings to sell to customers who don't have much money; there's not much profit in any one sale, but the volume is enormous. Rural India now features a well-developed consumer marketplace to support sales, with an emerging financial system following behind. China stands large in the minds of Western businessmen, but they might do well to realize that India, a democratic and capitalist nation, is much less alien than authoritarian and statist China -- and if that's not regarded as a big deal, India has a lot more people who can and will buy Western products.
* MCD'S IN INDIA: THE ECONOMIST had a loosely related article on doing business in India ("Green Shoots", 13 March 2010) that focused on the efforts of the McDonald's burger chain to set up a modern agribusiness infrastructure to produce french fries for the McD's restaurants in the country.
India remains a heavily agrarian country, but despite the efforts of federal and state governments, agricultural practices tend towards the backward. Indian farmers generally operate small plots using old-fashioned procedures, still reliant on bullocks even though India exports a hefty number of high-quality farm tractors. In 1996, it was with this rickety farm industry that McD's decided to build an indigenous supply chain for french fries. It took six years of work and $100 million USD to put it together. The entire scheme had to be built almost from scratch -- at the outset, India's food-processing industry made little but ice cream and ketchup.
Now, working through Canada-based french-fry giant McCain Foods, McDonald's has a smoothly-working system. 400 farmers in the state of Gujarat grow potatoes under contract to McCain, with McCain giving them a very agreeable price of 6.5 rupees per kilogram of potatoes. There was a problem early on in that potatoes traditionally grown in India are poorly suited to production of french fries, which need large potatoes that fry to a nice crisp golden condition. It took several years of tinkering by agronomists, but now getting the right kind of potatoes is no problem. Not only is McDonald's a happy customer, but McCain Foods finds the potatoes useful for products of their own, like Masala fries.
The company's agronomists didn't just provide farmers with the proper potato varieties, they also assisted in modernizing farming techniques. Indian farmers have proven enthusiastic about up-to-date technology, particularly "drip irrigation" -- a scheme pioneered by the Israelis in which a network of pipes is laid out to precisely deposit water on the crop plants. Not only is drip irrigation economical of water, it also leaves the areas between the plants dry, discouraging insect and plant pests.
Pepsi had originally begun contract farming -- for tomatoes -- in the 1980s, but ran into problems with India's notorious thicket of regulations, which dictated endless and sometimes arbitrary rules on how a business could be run. Now Indian states are streamlining their rules in hopes that contract farming, currently a small component of Indian agriculture, will take off and help pull up the sector. Indeed, the farmers are being given new market opportunities that should help them prosper: as India becomes wealthier, citizens are eating fewer cereals and more fruits, vegetables, milk, eggs, and poultry.
McDonald's is trying to service the demand, with the Chicken McNugget being a popular item on the menu there. As with french fries, it wasn't easy to set up a supply chain for that item: it took considerable effort to find poultry suppliers who could debone meat. Indeed, even getting the right sort of potatoes was only part of the job of obtaining french fries: frozen french fries have to be transported like eggs because the icy potato strips are brittle, but the only refrigerated trucks available in India at the outset were for hauling ice cream, which has little problem with a rough ride. The company also brought stateside suppliers into India to work with local firms and set up supply chains for buns and sliced cheese.
Not everybody is happy with the idea of ramping up Western-style industrialized farming and food processing in India, and no doubt it has its downsides. However, the Gujrati farmers making a good profit from McCain Foods aren't complaining -- they're buying new cars.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* THE FIGHT OVER GLOBAL WARMING (2): The foundation of global climate theory is the simple fact, established by thermodynamics, that for a planet to maintain its temperature at a constant, the amount of energy absorbed from sunlight must be matched by the amount of energy the planet loses to space in the form of infrared thermal radiation, with the intensity of this radiation increasing with temperature. The Earth receives an average of 239 watts of sunshine per square meter; a simple body reradiating the energy back into space would have an average temperature of -18 degrees Celsius -- about zero Fahrenheit.
Clearly, on the average the Earth is warmer than that, and the reason that is so is because the "greenhouse gases" in the Earth's atmosphere block the escape of infrared thermal radiation back into space by absorbing it and reemitting it -- incidentally, in the tenuous upper atmosphere where greenhouse gases are too diffuse to have much of an effect, the average planetary temperature really is about 18 degrees Celsius. Increasing the concentration of greenhouse gases makes it harder for the heat to leak out, with the surface of the Earth and the lower atmosphere heating up. The rise in temperature alters the way the atmosphere transports energy from the warm equator to the cold poles, changing weather patterns.
There are four principal greenhouse gases:
Water vapor occupies an ambiguous position in the global warming debate. While everyone acknowledges it is the most important greenhouse gas and is a significant component of the atmosphere, amounting to a percent or two, as concentrations rise it also produces more cloud cover -- and, in wintry conditions, more snowfields -- reflecting more sunlight back into space. Its concentrations tend to be variable in time and space, making its effects difficult to determine. It is generally assumed that the atmospheric concentration of water vapor is not, at least directly, strongly affected by human activities -- given its normal high concentrations, we'd have to be producing a lot of additional water vapor to significantly increase the atmospheric load.
The global warming debate has focused on CO2 as a greenhouse gas. There is no serious debate over whether carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas. While skeptics have proclaimed it "insignificant" as a factor in comparison to water vapor, an effect ranging in possible value from about a tenth to a quarter of the whole is to be reckoned with, and there are other factors discussed later that emphasize its importance. There is also no serious debate over the fact that human activities are increasing its concentration at a rate more rapid than can be absorbed by natural processes. Measurements made from the 1950s show the level of CO2 rising from 316 parts per million (PPM) in 1959 to 387 PPM in 2009. Indirect measurements suggest the rise began about 1750, starting from the 280 PPM that appears to have been the long-term average for the 10,000 years before that -- though as everyone acknowledges, natural CO2 concentrations did tend to vary around that average.
The timing of the rise in CO2 concentrations from 1750 tracks the rise in human population and industrialization. Skeptics point out that the relative proportion of human emissions of CO2 to natural emissions is small, and in fact that's true -- but while natural processes have been producing CO2 for a lot longer than humans have been around, they also provide "sinks" that soak up the CO2, keeping the levels roughly constant. Human activity has provided a persistent increment of CO2 emissions that natural processes can't quite keep up with, a trickle that is gradually causing an overflow. Estimates suggest that humans produce CO2 in the range of 25 to 30 gigatonnes a year; the rate of growth needed to account for the parts-per-million changes observed is about 15 gigatonnes per year, which is roughly only half the human contribution. [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* THE KILLING OF JFK -- LEE HARVEY OSWALD (11): One of bogus pieces of paperwork that Lee Harvey Oswald produced while he was in New Orleans caused a fuss later. He had leaflets printed up for his Fair Play For Cuba chapter -- he was the only member, incidentally -- and one set was addressed back to "544 Camp Street" in New Orleans. There was in fact an office building at 544 Camp Street. This was the address for the west side of the building; the tenant on the south side of the building was Guy Banister, a private detective who had once been an FBI agent, leaving the bureau in 1954 to become a deputy police chief of New Orleans. By that time, he had acquired a drinking problem if he hadn't had one before, and he was demoted, then finally fired. He opened up his own detective agency, though it wasn't very successful. Some who knew him described him as a violent alcoholic.
Banister remains a prominent figure in conspiracy theories. What is known is that he was very Right-wing, anti-Communist, a racist -- not exactly a natural friend of Lee Harvey Oswald. Banister was occasionally employed by New Orleans Mob boss Carlos Marcello, and in the minds of conspiracy theorists, Banister was the perfect connecting point between Oswald and a conspiracy involving the FBI, or the CIA, or the Mob, or maybe some combination of them. Conspiracy theorists claim Banister had been in US Navy intelligence during World War II, was employed by the CIA, and was involved in gun-running as well as attempts to overthrow Castro. In reality, he was in the FBI during the war, and no evidence was ever uncovered to support any spook connection. The CIA apparently considered making use of Banister as a possible front operation in 1960, but on investigation decided he was too unreliable for the job.
In late 1963, the FBI and the Secret Service followed up the 544 Camp Street lead and found nothing. There was no record of Oswald ever having rented an office there, and neither the owner of the building nor the live-in janitor who kept the place up could recall a trace of Oswald or Fair Play for Cuba there. To erode the "link" between Oswald and Banister still further, as mentioned Banister's office was around the corner on the south side of the building, and his actual address was 531 Lafayette Street. Conspiracy theorists say that it was possible to access Banister's office from 544 Camp Street -- but in fact it was not, there was no direct access from the building face on one street to the face on the other street.
* However, later the HSCA encountered several witnesses who claimed they had seen Oswald at Banister's office. One was Delphine Roberts, Banister's secretary. She had said nothing in the original investigation but later claimed to the HSCA that Oswald was often there, talking to Banister. Delphine Roberts' daughter -- also named Delphine -- worked there as well, and added some further information, claiming Oswald actually lived at that location for several months, and that she met Marguerite Oswald. It is definitely known that Oswald lived the rented apartment mentioned early during the timeframe in question, and there is no record of Marguerite visiting New Orleans at the time, though she had relatives there who might be expected to have remembered such a visit.
The Roberts were both regarded as ranting anti-Communists and white supremacists who liked to talk wild trash, and they had refused to tell their story to one conspiracy theorist unless he paid them. The HSCA spoke to six other people who worked in Banister's office at the time, and none of them reported ever seeing Oswald there. The HSCA judged the Roberts women to be unreliable witnesses.
Banister had no comment on the story, since he had died abruptly of a heart attack in 1964. There were stories that a stack of Fair Play For Cuba pamphlets was found in his office after his death. It seems there were a few such pamphlets lying around the office, but since Banister was a hardcore Red-basher and an investigator, he had a perfectly logical reason to be interested in them. There were tales that Federal agents made off with his files after his death; the fact is that his widow passed them off to various Louisiana state organizations that might have had an interest in them. They probably otherwise would have simply been trashed, which of course also would have been proclaimed as suspicious.
So why did Oswald use the 544 Camp Street address? One reason might have been that it was only about a block from the Reily company where Oswald worked and it was handy, and it also appears that he did express some interest in renting an office there for Fair Play For Cuba. Another reason might have been that a Cuban anti-Castro group had rented the place the year before, and Oswald might have thought it a joke to needle the Cubans.
Banister, incidentally, was clearly linked to that group, which is not all that surprising -- they were basically next door and they were anti-Communist, which would have given him a reason to be interested in them. Besides, although conspiracy theorists play up contacts between "suspicious" characters like Banister and the Cubans in New Orleans, in fact New Orleans had one of the biggest communities of expatriate Cubans in the US outside of Miami, and so contacts between them and other citizens of New Orleans were nothing strange. [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* Space launches for March included:
* 01 MAR 10 / GLONASS M x 3 -- A Proton M Breeze M booster was launched from Baikonur in Kazakhstan to put three Russian GLONASS M modernized navigation satellites into orbit. The satellites were designated "Cosmos 2459 / GLONASS 731", "Cosmos 2460 / GLONASS 732", and "Cosmos 2461 / GLONASS 735".
* 04 MAR 10 / GOES-P -- A Delta 4 booster was launched from Cape Canaveral to put the NASA / NOAA "Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite P (GOES-P)" AKA "GOES-15" weather satellite into orbit. GOES-P had a launch mass of 3,175 kilograms (7,000 pounds) and was the third in the latest series of GOES spacecraft, carrying a payload including:
The SEM subsystem included:
GOES-P was originally placed in orbit as a spare and had an expected mission life of 10 years, include 2 years on-orbit storage and 8 years in operation. The Delta booster was in the "Medium+ (4,2) configuration, with two solid rocket boosters.
* 05 MAR 10 / YAOGAN 9 -- A Chinese Long March 4C booster was launched from Jiuquan to put the "Yaogan 9" Earth observation satellite into orbit. While Chinese sources claimed it was a civil remote sensing satellite, it was believed to be a military reconnaissance satellite. Some sources claimed that it was a triple payload, including "Yaogan 9A", "Yaogan 9B", and "Yaogan 9C".
* 20 MAR 10 / ECHOSTAR 14 -- A Proton M Breeze M booster was launched from Baikonur to put the "EchoStar 14" geostationary comsat into orbit for EchoStar Communications. The spacecraft was built by Space Systems / Loral and was based on the SS/L LS-1300 comsat platform. It had a launch mass of 6,383 kilograms (14,074 pounds), a payload of 103 Ku-band transponders, and a design life of 15 years. It was placed in the geostationary slot at 119 degrees West longitude to provide direct to home broadcast services for customers in the USA.
* OTHER SPACE NEWS: The Obama Administration's radical space plan, last discussed here in February, has drawn a fair amount of fire. Partly the complaints were clearly griping, a refusal to accept that the shuttle couldn't keep on being flown safely beyond 2010, that the Constellation program was unaffordable, and that the budget as was would have led to deorbiting the International Space Station (ISS) in 2015. Obama planned to give NASA more money following a number of years of budget cuts -- what more could anyone sensibly ask for?
The critics did have a point that simply discarding the work invested on Constellation seemed rash, and also had legitimate reason to be upset over the failure of the plan as stated to articulate a vision for a new heavylift launch vehicle, on which ambitious new manned space initiatives would be predicated. The Obama space plan was of course presented as a work in progress from the outset; after consideration, it was announced that development of the Orion crew capsule being developed for Constellation would continue, with the focus on use as a "lifeboat" for the ISS. One hopes that this focus does nothing to preclude the use of Orion for more ambitious missions later.
As far as the heavylift booster went, Obama did what he could and announced that he had made a decision -- to make a decision on development of the vehicle in 2015. OK, that's not likely to make the critics very happy, but even before the cancellation of the Constellation program, there was no real schedule for when serious work was going to begin on a heavylift booster. It hadn't been funded and there was no way of knowing when it would be. At least now there's a commitment to a date. Even those who feel patient with the administration's space policies can agree with the skeptics that when 2015 rolls around, Obama will have to keep his word and get moving.
Over the longer run, Obama envisions manned missions to near-Earth asteroids in the post-2020 timeframe, with Mars orbiting missions and then landings in the post-2030 timeframe. Of course, such long-range objectives, lacking any serious specifics or funding, are little more than general goals to guide current efforts.
* During the 1990s, Lockheed Martin developed the "Athena" three-stage solid-fuel small space launch vehicle, which performed seven flights from 1995 into 2001. However, the market for small satellites didn't take off as it was expected to, and so the Athena was put on ice.
Now smallsats are heating up again. Lockheed Martin has teamed up with solid rocket maker ATK to re-introduce the Athena, with some modernizations. As with the original Athena, the new "Athena 1C" uses a first stage with an ATK Castor 120 solid-fuel motor, but uses Castor 30 second and third stages, the Castor 30 having been developed for the Orbital Sciences Minotaur booster. The more powerful "Athena 2c" will feature Castor 120 first and second stages, plus a Castor 30 upper stage. The Athena 2c will be able to put 1,710 kilograms (3,775 pounds) into low Earth orbit. After a decade on the shelf, avionics are being updated to provide more capability and phase out discontinued components.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* DIMMING STAR: As reported by DISCOVERY CHANNEL Online, for almost two centuries astronomers have been puzzled by the fact that the star Epsilon Aurigae, about 2,040 light-years from Earth, goes dim for about 18 months every 27 years. A possible explanation was that it was being orbited by a smaller sibling star that was cloaked in a cloud of dust, with the plane of the orbit edge-on to the Earth. However, that amounted to little more than one speculation among several -- until recently. Now astronomers, using an "infrared interferometer" system, have demonstrated that is exactly what is happening.
Interferometry is a scheme in which widely separated telescopes combine their observations of a single target. Using phase comparison techniques, the interferometer array can produce an image with resolution equivalent to a single telescope featuring an aperture the size of the separation between the telescopes in the interferometer network -- of course, the light-collecting power of the array is still no greater than the actual sum of the apertures of the individual telescopes. Interferometry has been used for decades in radio astronomy, but it wasn't until recently that interferometry in the infrared and visible-light regions of the electromagnetic spectrum became practical. It gets more difficult as wavelengths get shorter; it is nothing unusual for radio interferometer systems to have nodes on different continents, while infrared and optical interferometers have nodes with "baselines" on the order of a few hundred meters.
The observations of Epsilon Aurigae were performed during the star's darkening during 2008 and 2009 by the "Center for High Angular Resolution (CHARA)" array at the Mount Wilson Observatory in California, operated by Georgia State University. CHARA includes six 1-meter telescopes capable of being shuttled along a Y-shaped track -- two telescopes per track -- with baselines of up to 331 meters (1,085 feet). The images of Epsilon Aurigae were obtained using the "Michigan Infrared Beam Combiner (MIBC)" analysis subsystem.
Astronomers are not sure of the origins of the system. Epsilon Aurigae is clearly the larger star, and larger stars evolve faster; one theory is that it is a few times bigger than our Sun, and as it grew into a red giant star, it threw out material that collected around the smaller companion, forming a dust disk around it. Another theory is that Epsilon Aurigae is a massive supergiant star, far bigger than our Sun, that is very young, and the companion is a smaller young star that hasn't emerged from its birthcloud yet. Incidentally, if the orbit of the companion star can be determined, it can be used to determine the mass of the two stars.
* ROGUE BROWN DWARF: Another note from DISCOVERY CHANNEL Online reported that British astronomers using the UK Infrared Telescope (UKIRT) -- a hefty 3.8 meter (150 inch) instrument on top of Mauna Kea in Hawaii -- have discovered a "brown dwarf" substar less than 10 light-years away from Earth. Brown dwarves are objects too big to be regarded as planets but too small to become true stars. The brown dwarf, designated "UGPSJO722-05" is a "rogue", not part of any star system.
There's nothing particular surprising about finding a rogue brown dwarf that close, by cosmic standards at least, to our star system. Since stars become more common as they get smaller, then it's logical that brown dwarves should be even more common than the numerous little red dwarf stars that litter up our Galaxy, and no big surprise to find brown dwarves drifting through the galactic arms by themselves. Brown dwarves are hard to detect, however, because they are relatively small, dark, and cool. In fact, UGPSJO722-05 is unusually cool, measured at about 400 degrees Kelvin, only somewhat warmer than needed to boil water. The spectrum of the object reveals water vapor and methane in its atmosphere.
The notion that a brown dwarf might pass through or nearby our Solar System might make a good plot for a sci-fi novel, but if there were one nearby, infrared surveys would have likely picked it up by now. Fortunately, fans of catastrophe stories can be reassured by the fact that there's no ruling out such a potential disaster in the distant future.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* COUNTERFEITS ON A ROLL: Product counterfeiting is not a new problem, and as reported by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("Knock-Offs Catch On", 6 March 2010), it seems to be getting worse instead of better. There's nothing counterfeiters won't touch: they sell everything from phony name-label smokes to fake Ferraris, and some banks have even found themselves stuck with gold ingots made of tungsten and gold plate. Military forces have found faked electronic chips in their gear.
Estimates of the volume of trade in counterfeit goods run to hundreds of billions of dollars a year, accounting for at least 5% of international trade. Counterfeiting is rising thanks to two factors: emerging economies, where manufacturing is growing by leaps and bounds and oversight is spotty; and the internet, which provides a convenient, low-overhead sales channel with global reach. The current economic downturn has aggravated the problem, since consumers are more inclined to buy cheap, meaning they're more likely to buy counterfeit. Similarly, organizational cost-cutting has made businesses more vulnerable to infiltration of counterfeit parts in their supply train.
On the other hand, the slow economy has pushed companies to take stronger action, with legal actions against counterfeiters as well as their accomplices -- who are not always aware that they are dealing in counterfeits -- at an all-time high. Companies are also turning to better tech for protection. Holograms are popular, though counterfeiters are getting better at faking them. "Covert" schemes that aren't easy to see -- watermarks, special inks, and so on -- are becoming more common as well. One of the most new powerful techniques is "DNA identification" with elaborate DNA molecule sequences used to distinctively mark products and their packaging. DNA identification is expensive, but makers of high-priced luxury goods are eagerly adopting it.
Companies have emerged to provide "brand protection" services for manufacturers, tracking product shipments via RFID technology. Since the internet is such a useful conduit for selling counterfeits, online brand-protection services have also sprung up to patrol for websites selling fake products. Business may be slow over the world, but brand protection is a growth industry. Governments are throwing their weight in on the battle against counterfeiters as well, and they have a strong incentive to do so, since counterfeits rob them of tax revenue: the US Chamber of Commerce estimates that every dollar invested in fighting counterfeits returns five dollars in tax revenue.
The US, the European Union, Japan, and a number of other countries are working on an "Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA)" to help control the flow of counterfeits. Unfortunately for ACTA, China is cool to the exercise -- not at all surprising since 80% of the world's counterfeits come from China. Even if China could be pressured into signing up, it might not do too much good: there's a lot of money in product counterfeiting, and Chinese officials supposedly responsible for enforcing the rules might find it profitable to look the other way.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* THE FIGHT OVER GLOBAL WARMING (1): While worries over the possibility that human activity could result in a disastrously hotter climate have become a high-priority topic, a skeptic might have had fair reason from the start to have been put off by the "sky is falling" tone of advocates of the "anthropocentric global warming (AGW)" scenario, and wonder if the prophecies of doom were anything more than a hysterical intellectual fad, a noisy correctness exercise. As discussed by a survey from THE ECONOMIST ("The Clouds Of Unknowing", 20 March 2010), the skeptics seem to be gaining ground these days.
Part of the trouble for advocates of AGW was a high-profile fuss over emails looted from the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) of the University of East Anglia in the UK last year that didn't show the advocates in a very good light, suggesting intolerance for the skeptics, a disinclination to play fair, and what looked like a willingness to cook the data to support the case for AGW. An impartial observer could have judged that particular flap to be more smoke than fire -- it's not news to anyone who went through college that professors are not necessarily sensible or polite; the skeptics were obviously "quote mining" from a vast body of emails to find things to throw at the advocates; and in the end, it was hard to see that it was much more than the usual sniping between the two sides.
However, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the group set up by governments to consider the AGW issue, was embarrassed after their judgement that the glaciers of the Himalayas were disappearing was contradicted by reputable research. Worse, the last winter was a severe one for many regions around the globe, leading many citizens to wonder what the global warming fuss was supposed to be about. To compound headaches for the advocates, the climate-change summit in Copenhagen last year ended up being a highly visible and embarrassing bust.
Is AGW a zombie, a dead issue that is only remains on its feet because its advocates blindly refuse to give up? Or does the case for the threat of disastrous climate change still stand up? Critics say it's a zombie, that the case for AGW is a flimsy house of cards, that the problems that have cropped up over the last year have brought the cards down in a heap. Climate researchers, however, don't see it that way; they find the case for AGW more like a pattern seen in the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Some pieces may have been thrown out, but the overall picture remains largely unchanged.
Advocates often stress the way the elements of their case reinforce each other, pointing out that theory, modeling, and data point overall in the same direction -- the pieces of the puzzle show a generally consistent picture. The skeptics reply that this is evidence only of "confirmation bias", the tendency of people to see what they want to see. The skeptics, however, seem focused on the "negative argument", trying to undermine various elements of brief for AGW; that's easy to do, the problem with such an approach being that the skeptics fail to make a case for a more benign climate scenario on its own merits. The skeptics hammer at the uncertainties in the case for AGW and gloss over the fact that such uncertainties equally undermine their own inflexible conviction that climate change is irrelevant.
One of the ironies in the battle over climate science is that it has reversed the popular view of "data" versus "theory". The typical view of "data" is as cold hard indisputable facts -- while "theory" is just arguable speculation that may or may not have anything to do with the real world. In reality, as far as the science of climate change goes, the theory is relatively straightforward: keep dumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere above the natural background of emissions, and the planet's going to heat up to some greater or lesser degree. However, trying to assemble data from the recent and the distant history of the entire Earth to show it might be heating up ends up being a troublesome task. [TO BE CONTINUED]NEXT | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* THE KILLING OF JFK -- LEE HARVEY OSWALD (10): Unemployed, Lee Harvey Oswald had decisions to make on what to do next. One item was to cover the tracks of his assault on General Walker. Marina had suggested he get rid of his incriminating file on Walker after he'd told her about his attempt to kill the general, but he had felt some attachment to it. On 14 April 1963, Easter Sunday, he realized that Marina was right and burned the materials in the folder. That same day, he retrieved his rifle, which he had buried after the assault.
Oswald decided to move back to New Orleans -- Marina later said she encouraged the move, thinking that if he stayed he might try to kill Walker again. Oswald left Dallas on Wednesday, 24 April 1963, with Marina and baby June staying behind with the Paines for the moment. He took the bus, staying with his aunt, Lillian Murret, while he looked for work. He found a job on 9 May with the Reily Coffee Company, maintaining the machinery. He got himself an apartment and had his family join him, with Ruth Paine driving his wife and child to New Orleans. Some time later, FBI Agent Hosty decided he wanted to talk with Oswald, but soon found out Oswald and his family were gone. Oswald hadn't left any forwarding address, so Hosty dropped the matter again for the moment. Hosty had other things on his mind for the time being -- ironically, he was investigating General Walker's Right-wing activities.
In New Orleans, Oswald became increasingly obsessed with Fidel Castro and the Communist Cuban state. Oswald got in touch with a national organization named "Fair Play For Cuba", and decided to open up a New Orleans chapter. He was so focused on the issue that he neglected his work, which did not impress his employers. They were also not impressed with his ability to get along with his fellow employees. As usual, he was solitary, but on top of that he would do things like point a finger at somebody like it was a gun and say: "Pow!" It was not a good way to make friends. What made it all the more obnoxious was that Oswald didn't crack a smile when he did it.
Sometimes when Oswald was slacking, he would go next door to the Crescent City Garage, run by a fellow named Adrian Alba, who was a gun enthusiast. Oswald liked to read the gun magazines lying around the garage. Conspiracy theorists have made a government connection through the garage, since it occasionally serviced vehicles from the FBI and other government agencies. The FBI later grilled Alba and he testified to the Warren Commission, saying he knew of no actual contacts between the FBI and Oswald while Oswald was at the garage.
However, in 1978, Alba claimed he suddenly remembered that he had seen Oswald talking to an FBI agent in a car twice in the garage. Alba told the story to the HSCA. The committee checked out the story carefully and found that no FBI agent had a car in that garage during 1963. Alba also compromised his assertion by claiming that Bobby Kennedy -- JFK's brother and the US attorney general -- had signed up Oswald to murder Castro. Exactly what inside information Alba had to demonstrate the validity of this claim was unclear. This is a common pattern in the "revelations" in the Oswald saga: people who had nothing to say early on would come up with new stories much later, and the stories could never be corroborated by independent evidence or other witnesses.
* In the meantime, Oswald was making noises about going back to the USSR. Since neither he nor the Soviet authorities had found his stay there very satisfactory it was a puzzling notion, but he did have Marina help him write up inquiries to the Soviet embassy for an entry visa, and he renewed his passport, which had lapsed a year earlier. Conspiracy theorists play up the fact that he got the passport within 24 hours of the request; in fact, the New Orleans passport office was noted for its efficiency and that was normal. Oswald didn't have a criminal record and the State Department didn't regard residence in a Communist country as a reason to deny issue of a passport -- others who had been residents of Communist countries were issued passports.
There's no reason to think that Oswald had any real interest in going back to the USSR. To him, the Soviet Union had failed to become a truly egalitarian society; Oswald believed that Castro's Cuba was where the true spirit of the Communist revolution had taken hold, and so his actual target was Cuba. The US government placed very strong restrictions on American citizens traveling to Cuba, but obtaining a Soviet visa would provide a tool that could help Oswald get there.
Things seemed stable enough for Oswald for a while, but his supervisors at Reily finally got fed up with his slack ways and his bad attitude, and he was fired on 19 July. He had real problems finding work. To collect unemployment benefits he had to report to the Louisiana Employment Commission the job applications he had made, and he mostly just fabricated them. That was characteristic of his behavior by that time: he routinely fabricated answers on even the most casual paperwork, giving aliases and false addresses. [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* SCIENCE NOTES: BBC WORLD Online had a note on a species of Australian stingless hive bee that has evolved an interesting means of defense against hive raiders. The "small hive beetle", which was unintentionally introduced from Africa into Australia about a decade ago, can devastate unhealthy stingless bee hives, but researchers noticed that it posed no visible threat to healthy hives.
Investigation showed that when a small hive beetle enters a stingless bee hive, it is set upon by worker bees, who grapple at its legs. The beetle reacts by going into a "turtle posture", tucking its legs underneath it. The bees then plaster the beetle with a "concrete" made of wax, resin, and mud, mummifying and eventually killing it. While bees can have sophisticated behaviors, their ability to learn is limited, and the response to the small hive beetle is likely instinctive -- acquired to deal with native hive raiders, though nobody's quite sure which ones. Whatever the case, the tactic is highly effective: the bees can stop an invasion of beetles literally dead in its tracks in about ten minutes.
* A report from China described what must be one of the world's most unique public attractions, the "Foraminifera Sculpture Park" in Guangzhou province. The park is laid out around 114 giant sculptures of "foraminifera", single-celled aquatic organisms that feature elaborate shells, with the sculptures carved from marble, granite, and sandstone. The park was the brainchild of marine geologist Bilal Haq of the Chinese National Science Foundation.
* DISCOVERY CHANNEL Online reports that an effort has been started to decode the genome of the sunflower plant and its relatives, with the work to be done by an international team of researchers and funded by the Canadian, American, and French governments. The sunflower is a surprisingly important crop plant, with about 32 million tonnes of crop produced in the US alone each year -- primarily in the Dakotas, Kansas, Minnesota, and Colorado. The sunflower genome is slightly larger than the human genome; practical goals of the project include identifying genes for disease and pest resistance, better seed productivity, and even potentially stalks that could be easily converted into biofuels instead of thrown away as plant waste.
* There was a buzz going around on the science blogosphere concerning recent -- well, sort of recent -- discoveries concerning an extinct genus of giant filter-feeding fish, the "pachychormids". Modern filter-feeders include the giant whale sharks and baleen whales, but there are no surviving filter-feeding bony fish -- sharks don't have bones as such, their structure being maintained by girdles of cartilage.
Bony-fish filter feeders did exist at one time, with fossils of a single species of pachychormid filter-feeders being known from western Europe for some time. Like modern filter-feeders, they were large, easily reaching lengths of 9 meters (30 feet) and possibly 15 meters (50 feet), making them the biggest bony fish ever. However, the fossils originally suggested they were, geologically speaking, just a flash in the pan, since the fossils only spanned an age range of from 160 to 145 million years old.
Now a group of paleontologists has found several other species of pachycormids with ages ranging from 172 to 66 million years old. The particularly interesting part was that the fossils didn't turn up in digs -- the researchers scoured museums for obscure fossil specimens in storage or mislabeled, with at least one example having been in the hands of a museum for over a century. It appears that the pachychormids were a very successful group, surviving through the Age of the Dinosaurs, only to die out in the cataclysmic known as the "Cretaceous-Tertiary event" 65 million years ago. Sharks and rays -- the big modern manta ray is also a filter-feeder -- moved into the niche about 10 million years later, with whales following well after that.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* MICROBANKING: The poor of the developing world have been increasingly taking advantage of "microlending" schemes, in which modern information technology allows them to obtain small loans that would have been ridiculously uneconomical in the era of manual paperwork. Obviously the "micro-finance institutions (MFIs) that support microlending, like the Graneen Bank in Bangladesh, should be able to support other financial services, such as "microbanking" -- but so far the MFIs have been heavily biased towards lending, with only about a quarter of them offering savings schemes.
There is actually a demand among the poor for savings products because it is often the case that they make money in bursts, and then have to survive on it until the next little windfall. This makes a safe means of storing money attractive to them. The MFIs are starting to warm to the idea more as well, since the focus on lending can leave them holding on to a long list of debts; in contrast, bringing in savings gives them a buffer of liquidity to cover their operations. The prominent Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) has handed out grants worth tens of millions of dollars to MFIs to encourage expanded microbanking programs. The MFIs pay serious attention to the BMGF and other donors; the grant money talks.
However, microfinance means microprofits, and unless transaction costs are reduced to the inconsequential, there's no way to get a microbanking scheme off the ground. A large number of small transactions can add up to a good deal of money, but if the cost of handling each transaction is a significant fraction of the transaction, it's going to be an economic non-starter.
The widespread use of cellphones by the poor in developing countries has been an enabling platform for microfinance, allowing digital automation to cut costs to their necessary minimum. Kenyans, for example, are already using a text-message-based service named M-PESA to perform electronic funds transfers, discussed here a few years back. Cellphone-based microfinance schemes work well enough in places like Bangladesh, where MFIs are also cellphone service providers -- but it can be clumsy if the MFI has to work through a separate cellphone provider.
Another angle being pursued by the MFIs is to bring the poor into their organizational structure, obtaining "branches" in the form of local agents -- shopkeepers or the like -- to collect payments and hand out withdrawals, with transparent transaction systems preventing the agents from skimming off the accounts. Using locals to handle the services gives the agents a profit, gives borrowers a face they can deal with, and cuts costs for the MFIs. The big obstacle with this approach is government regulation, the authorities not always being comfortable with a notion as informal as local agents. Regulations in India used to be restrictive, but in 2009 the government liberalized the rules considerably. Indian MFIs have been partnering with established banks to take advantage of the liberalized rules and set up wide-ranging microbanking networks.
Technology and organization are important aspects for a practical microbanking system, but appropriate product offerings are important as well. The poor have savings needs different from those of the better-off. Several MFIs are tinkering with savings programs in which customers get a better deal if they stick to deposits on a regular schedule. The MFIs get a better deal, too, because such schemes mean more money stays in the MFI's coffers. MFIs are also playing with accounts tailored to specific purposes, like children's school tuition.
One unconventional idea being investigated is the "savings card", in which a deposit is made by buying a card in a shop. It's purely a psychological gimmick -- functionally, it's just like making a deposit, but it feels more like buying something. Making a deposit in a bank is a dry act of discipline, but buying can be fun, and if the cards are varied and flashy enough to make them a small but attractive acquisition, they would add to the incentive to save. That might seem like a childlike idea to people who are used to saving money -- but for poor people, saving can be a new experience, and it makes sense to make it easier for them.
* A sidebar to this article illustrated how microlending and microbanking is now being augmented in Kenya by "microinsurance" to protect farmers from crop failures. The scheme -- named "Kilimo Salama", Kiswahili for "Safe Farming" -- is based on cellphones and a network of 30 solar-powered weather stations. It's been set up by UAP Insurance of Kenya in collaboration with Safaricom, Kenya's biggest cellphone provider, and the Syngenta Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture, a branch of a Swiss agribusiness group. A pilot program was conducted with 200 farmers last year, with scheme now expanding to a target of 5,000 farmers this year.
Farmers participating in Kilimo Salama pay an increment of 5% as crop insurance when they buy a bag of seed or fertilizer or whatever from the Syngenta parent company or MEA Fertilizers, another agribusiness group. The vendors then pony up another 5% to pay the complete 10% insurance premium.
Here's where the tech comes in. Local agents register the payments into the program by using a camera phone to scan the barcode on each product sold, with the data sent to UAP's servers, which bounce back an acknowledgement to the cellphone of the purchaser. The purchaser registers into the system at the nearest weather station. The weather stations communicate over a network, with software determining if a particular area is suffering from drought conditions that will damage crops. A review board looks over the data and, if appropriate, authorizes a payout, which is sent by M-PESA to all the insured farmers in the area.
Kilimo Salama is highly automated, with minimal transaction costs, and is set up to be self-financing. Kenyan farmers tend to be suspicious of insurance schemes because they've been ripped off by them in the past -- but the trial program coincided with a drought, with appropriate compensations automatically paid out to the afflicted farmers. Interest in Kilimo Salama has risen accordingly.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* BODY PARTS ON DEMAND: The notion of using 3D printing systems to fabricate products was discussed here some weeks back. As futuristic as that concept seems, an article from THE ECONOMIST ("Making A Bit Of Me", 20 February 2010) took it one big step further: printing out body transplants.
This is not just a sci-fi fantasy, either, since such a machine has been commercially introduced, the product of Organovo -- a biomedical company from San Diego, California -- and Invetech -- an engineering and automation company from Melbourne, Australia. The $200,000 USD machine is a descendant of a prototype developed by Gabor Forgacs of the University of Missouri, one of the founders of Organovo. At the outset, the machine is only intended for research groups, and it will only be able fabricate skin, muscle, and short stretches of blood vessels. Over the longer run, however, Organovo believes the machine will be able to produce blood vessels that can be used in heart bypass surgery -- and farther down the road, it should be able to fabricate more elaborate networks of blood vessels for reviving damaged hearts, kidneys, and livers. Not only will printing out such parts eliminate the wait for a donor, it will also yield transplants that won't be rejected by a patient's immune system, since they will be fabricated from the patient's own cells to begin with.
A typical conventional 3D printing system lays down flat patterns of plastic using inkjet printheads, building up a 3D object a layer at a time, inserting sacrificial materials that can be easily removed later to create voids in the part. Research has shown that very similar technology can be used with biological material as well, with the printing system laying down small clusters of cells that spontaneously merge and organize themselves. The trick is to coax the cell clusters into the desired organ structure.
Organs have already been grown using manual techniques; in 2006, Anthony Atala and his colleagues at the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine in North Carolina built and implanted new bladders in seven patients. Ayala's group began fabricating a bladder by taking a sample of tissue from the bladder of a target patient. The tissue sample was processed to obtain precursor cells that could grow into the muscle cells required on the outside of the bladder and the specialized cells inside of it. The precursor cells were cultured and painted onto a biodegradable bladder-shaped scaffold kept at body temperature. The cells multiplied on the scaffold, and six to eight weeks later the bladder was ready for implanting. At last notice, the implanted bladders were still working fine.
3D printing of body parts takes the procedure a big step further, eliminating the bulk of the hand labor. The Organovo machine uses stem cells extracted from a patient's bone marrow and fat as precursors, with the stem cells grown into clusters of different types of cells as needed under stimulation of "growth factor" molecules. The clusters range from about 10,000 to 30,000 cells, a convenient size for use with an inkjet printhead. A second printhead deposits scaffolding material, a sugar-and water-based gel that neither interferes with the cell clusters nor sticks to them. Once printed, the organ is left to sit for a few days while the cell clusters grow together. Once the organ is ready, the gel is peeled off the surface and pulled out of the interior. The printer system includes a laser-based calibration system to ensure that the organ is laid down accurately; it is also sold with software for designing the organ and programming the printer to do the job.
Organovo officials believe that, eventually, different precursor cells could be used to fabricate a wide range of organs -- a bladder, a liver, even teeth. Printing machines may eventually be able to work directly on a patient, for example laying down skin on burn victims to eliminate the need for transplanting. Forgacs says that while complex organs are a challenge, they may not be as big a challenge as they seem. Nature and humans take different approaches to constructing things, with nature guided by evolutionary processes to produce solutions that work, but may be far more elaborate than a "clean sheet of paper" human design to do much the same job. We may not have to build something nearly as elaborate as the human kidney to do much the same job -- and patients whose lives are dependent on getting a new kidney aren't likely to fuss too much if it doesn't look much like the old one.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* NOWHERE TO HIDE (2): Along with seismic stations, the CTBT's International Monitoring System has a smaller network of stations to listen for undersea nuclear detonations. The network doesn't have to be as big as the seismic network since sound carries so well in water: Japanese researchers once picked up the detonation of 20 kilograms (44 pounds) of TNT from 16,000 kilometers (10,000 miles) away.
The IMS includes a mere 11 hydroacoustic stations positioned around the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans in the Southern Hemisphere. Sound propagates particularly well in deep water at a depth of about a kilometer (3,280 feet) in what is known as the "sound fixing and ranging (SOFAR)" layer. Six of the 11 hydroacoustic stations consist of SOFAR hydrophone arrays in deep water, up to 100 kilometers (60 miles) offshore of remote islands. Each array has three hydrophones anchored to the seafloor, linked to shore stations by cable.
Along with the hydrophones, IMS has five stations to detect "T-phase" waves, which are the third-phase waves of a seismic tremor following the P and S waves, caused by hydroacoustic waves from the original event passing back into the seafloor. Researchers have been very enthusiastic about the T-phase network since, modest as it is, it's much more capable than any measurement system previously put together to track T-phase waves.
To monitor atmospheric tests, the IMS has revived the almost forgotten science of "infrasound", or very low frequency acoustic waves. The first infrasound waves to be observed were from the eruption of the Indonesian volcano Krakatoa in 1883, which shattered windows hundreds of kilometers away and circled the world seven times. There was considerable interest in infrasound detection in the early days of the Cold War -- a balloon system used in infrasound experiments performed under the US MOGUL program that fell to earth near Roswell, New Mexico in 1947 became the source of UFO rumors. However, once atmospheric testing was generally given up, infrasound fell into neglect. In the quest for credibility, the IMS has put infrasound research back on its feet.
An infrasound detector consists of two dozen pipes, each about 3 meters (10 feet) long, arranged radially around a central chamber. Infrasound waves travel down the pipes, with the tiny changes in pressure they cause in the central chamber picked up by a microbarometer array. The pipe arrangement helps reduce the confounding effects of wind, and at windy sites multiple detectors are combined to further improve the signal to noise ratio.
39 of a planned 60 infrasound stations are now online, and by all evidence they work very well. In 2004, the eruption of Manam in Papua New Guinea was detected by 13 IMS stations, some more than 1,000 kilometers (600 miles) away. The next year, 2005, five IMS stations picked up the Bruncefield oil depot explosion north of London, some of the stations being more than 1,500 kilometers (930 miles) away. In 2008, the explosion of a meteor over the US state of Oregon and the explosion of an ammunition dump in Albania were both detected by the infrasound network.
* Still, although events can be observed by seismic and acoustic systems, there's no absolute proof that an event was a nuclear explosion unless radionuclides are detected. That's where the fourth and final leg of the IMS, a network of radionuclide monitoring stations, comes into play. 56 out of an ultimate total of 80 radionuclide monitoring stations are already online. These stations are equipped with air filters, with the filters scanned daily by a gamma-ray detector to pick up radioactive fallout. Half the stations will also be able to detect radioactive noble gases such as xenon. Noble gases, being uncreative by definition, are more likely to escape and give away an underground test. Some radioactive xenon isotopes have half-lives measured in hours or days, and picking them up can provide a strong clue of a recent nuclear test.
The major problem is the time lag, days or weeks, between a detonation and detection of radionuclides, which makes it difficult to determine where the radionuclides came from. The Vienna IDC uses sophisticated atmospheric transport models to trace back the likely paths the radionuclides took from the site where they were created, with the computers continuously fed weather data from the World Meteorological Organization (WMO). The radionuclide network worked perfectly after the 2006 test in North Korea, with a station at Yellowknife in northern Canada picking up the isotopes twelve days after the seismic signal. The transport models showed they could have come from North Korea.
However, no radionuclides were detected after the 2009 North Korean test, which raised concerns over the possibility of measures that could allow nuclear tests to evade detection. There is a trick known as "decoupling", in which the test is performed in a large underground cavity, that can reduce the seismic signal, particularly if the rock walls of the cavity are soft. The US pulled off a successful decoupled blast in 1966, detonating a downrated "peewee" tactical nuclear warhead in a salt cavity 34 meters (110 feet) wide. However, the size of a cavity needed to decouple the detonation of a modest atomic bomb like the Little Boy would be so huge as to be a major engineering project -- technically possible but not practical.
Similarly, it is possible to smother release of radionuclides by detonating a bomb in rock that forms a glassy surface, sealing in the residues of the blast. This trick is by no means easy to pull off, and the general suspicion is that the North Koreans simply got lucky and did it by pure luck. There was no doubt they set off a nuclear weapon, however, with the explosion described as "huge".
CTBT advocates say the uncertainty involved in the observation of the 2009 North Korean nuclear test is not reason to hold back from ratifying the treaty. It is a reason to move ahead to ratification, since once the treaty is in force, the CTBT will have the ultimate verification measure: on-site inspections. Within days of a suspected test, a team of dozens of inspectors will be scouring the suspect site with overflights, mobile radionuclide detectors, microseismic arrays to pick up aftershocks, gamma-ray detectors, ground-penetrating radar, magnetic and gravitational field mapping, and electrical conductivity measurements. A full-scale dress rehearsal was held in Kazakhstan in 2008.
Overall, CTBT backers believe that there is no longer any reason to object to the treaty on the basis of verification. The technology is there, it's been given a thorough workout, and all evidence shows it works marvelously well. Ultimately, however, the ratification of the CTBT is a political issue, and technology is only one of the many factors that influence that decision. [END OF SERIES]PREV | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* THE KILLING OF JFK -- LEE HARVEY OSWALD (9): While Oswald was arming himself, the FBI was becoming interested in him again. Agent John Fain of the Fort Worth office had retired in the interval, with his caseload being taken over by Agent James Hosty of the Dallas FBI office. Hosty was actually more interested in Marina at first, suspecting that she might be a "deep cover" or "sleeper" agent, and wanted to check up on her. The movements of the Oswalds made the couple difficult to track down, and so Hosty decided to put matters off for a while. However, the New York FBI office then passed him a tip that Oswald had recently subscribed to an American Communist periodical, THE WORKER; intrigued, on 31 March Hosty asked for permission to reopen Oswald's case file.
The next day was Monday, 1 April; Lee Harvey Oswald went into work at Jaggars, only to be told he was out of a job. He wasn't focused on his work and nobody liked working with him, finding him surly and rude. The fact that he wasn't entirely careful in concealing his Leftist ideas didn't help either. He was allowed to work to Saturday.
* Conspiracy theorists like to poke holes in the idea that Oswald bought the Carcano rifle by pointing out that time cards showed he was working at Jaggars the day he got the money order for the weapon, but his attitude toward his job was slack enough to get him fired, and it's reasonable to think he had no problem playing hooky to run errands when he felt he had better things to do; it might not have even taken him much time to get the money order if he had bummed a ride from a co-worker, or for that matter taken a bus. There isn't enough information available on what Oswald did during his days and how he got around to determine any definite facts on the matter one way or another.
Incidentally, conspiracy theorists are also suspicious of how quickly the money order arrived at Klein's Sporting Goods -- no mystery, it was sent airmail -- and even claim the money order was never cashed, saying the paperwork isn't right and so the money order must have been faked. The fact that Klein's wouldn't have shipped Oswald the rifle without a valid money order is explained away by invoking Klein's and the US Postal Service parties to the conspiracy, and so it doesn't appear anyone's ever discussed the matter over with the Postal Inspection Service.
In any case, when Oswald went back home, he didn't tell Marina he'd lost his job. On Friday, 5 April, Marina was walking up to the apartment pushing her baby carriage when she saw Lee run in ahead of her and come back out with his rifle, concealed under his Marine raincoat. She asked him what he was doing; he replied: "Target practice." He got into a bus marked LOVE FIELD. The route of the bus was later determined to pass a secluded levee. He returned to the apartment about 9:00 PM.
On Wednesday, 10 April, Lee told Marina he had been fired. He went out after dinner and didn't return until late. In the meantime, Marina found a list of instructions written by Lee in Russian for her, telling her the bills had been paid up, he'd left her a bit of money, and concluding by telling her that "if I am alive and taken prisoner" where she could find the jail. Marina started shaking; by the time Lee came back, she was frantic.
While he was out, somebody had taken a shot at General Walker while he was working on his income taxes in his dining room. Walker just missed getting a bullet through his brain; the bullet hit the wood framing in the middle of the the window, which would have been invisible through the rifle scope. The bullet zipped by Walker's head and punched a hole in the wall. Walker got a pistol and went out to check, but the shooter was long gone. The police dug out a badly-mangled bullet out of the wall. The papers told of Walker's brush with death the next morning. Lee had come home in a state of excitement and told Marina that he'd tried to kill Walker, saying: "I missed." He explained the exercise in detail; Marina concluded that he was deranged, but though she threatened to turn the incriminating letter Lee had written her over to the law if he ever tried any stunt like that again, she was fearful of going to the authorities lest she be accused of collusion. She found him convulsing in anxiety in his sleep the next two nights.
On Friday, Oswald applied for unemployment compensation. On Saturday, in the evening de Mohrenschildt showed up, asking as he came in the door: "Lee, how is it possible you could have missed?!" De Mohrenschildt was joking, but Oswald visibly shriveled and de Mohrenschildt knew he'd hit a nerve.
That was last times de Mohrenschildt saw Oswald; de Mohrenschildt was on the road for a few weeks, and when he returned he and his wife moved to Haiti, where they remained for four years. Much later, on 29 March 1977, de Mohrenschildt claimed in an interview that he had been asked by the CIA to keep tabs on Oswald; on the evening of that same day, he blew his brains out with a shotgun. Not surprisingly, conspiracy theorists make much of de Mohrenschildt's confession. What they do not add is that de Mohrenschildt had clearly gone far off the deep end. He had tried to kill himself several times previously, had been diagnosed as a psychotic, had been institutionalized and put through shock therapy, insisted the "FBI and the Jewish Mafia" were out to get him, and claimed he was with Oswald on the day of the assassination -- when he was provably in Haiti at the time. [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* GIMMICKS & GADGETS: As reported by the WIRED Online science blog, although the notion of extracting biofuels from algae is a hot topic these days, it's not all that new an idea. In the late 1970s, during the first "energy crisis", the Carter Administration funded a program at the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in Boulder, Colorado, to investigate algae-derived biofuels. Researchers working on the NREL's "Aquatic Species Program (ASP)" scoured the USA, finding various strains of algae in marshes, construction ditches, and seasonal desert ponds. 51 species of algae were identified as potentially valuable for biofuel production, with NREL setting up large experimental ponds near Roswell, New Mexico, to see if the algae could be used to produce biofuels on an industrial scale. However, during the Reagan Administration oil prices fell back down dramatically, undercutting interest in biofuels, and the ASP languished for lack of funds, being finally axed in 1996 after about 18 years in operation. A mere $25 million USD had been spent on the program through its life.
NREL's algae strains were passed on to the University of Hawaii, but it was tricky and expensive to keep the samples alive, and funding eventually ran short. Only 23 of the promising algae strains survived. Now that energy prices are high again, NREL is getting back in the algae biofuels business, once again collecting wild strains; techniques have been developed to deep-freeze algae and revive them with about a 90% survival rate, reducing the difficulty of maintaining the samples. NREL old-timers feel a sense of remorse at the extinction of ASP -- one saying that if the program had been pursued more energetically, we'd have algae biofuels now.
* While I'm an enthusiast for USB devices, they do have the limitation that it can be troublesome to find free USB sockets on a PC to plug them all into, and using a USB hub only adds to desktop clutter. WIRED Online's Gadget Lab blog, which often discusses interesting socket and connector technology, discussed a tidy gimmick by industrial designer Gonglue Jiang to help address the problem: "hermaphrodite" USB cables with both male and female connectors on a common head that can be stacked up together.
The "Infinite USB" scheme is not a miracle cure, since the connector stack could obviously become unwieldy in a hurry -- the right-angle connector is not necessarily a good fit for all socket arrangements, either -- and as with unpowered hubs, adding too many USB devices overloads a USB port's power drive capability. Still, the idea has plenty of merit: hook up a USB device that's in continuous use to a port with an Infinite USB cable, and then just plug any device that needs a temporary hookup into the hermaphrodite.
* THE ECONOMIST reports that a team of researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute in Chenmitz, Germany, has developed a scheme to punch holes in sheet metal using an electromagnetic pulse (EMP). The pulse generator is a coil through which an electric charge stored in capacitors is dumped, creating an intense magnetic field that produces about 3,500 bars of pressure on a sheet metal target -- punching out a hole up to about 30 millimeters in diameter through steel sheets up to a millimeter thick.
Traditionally, industrial processes have used stamping machines to cut holes in sheet metal, but they leave raggedy edges that have to be smoothed out, and the tools have to be replaced after they get dull. An EMP punch unit creates a nice neat hole and never gets dull; to be sure, coils have to be specifically built to match the size of the hole, but of course stamping machines have to be built to match the size of the holes as well. Lasers have been used to cut holes in sheet metal, but they can take up to 1.4 seconds to do it, while the EMP punch can do the job in 0.2 seconds.
* THE ECONOMIST reports that Swiss pharmaceuticals giant Novartis recently obtained licenses from a California startup company named Proteus Biomedical for "smart pill" technology. It sounds like science fiction: pills are manufactured with a wireless ID chip inside, with the chip activated by stomach acid after the pill has been swallowed. The chip relays a signal to a receiver worn as a patch on the skin or inserted under the skin, with the receiver reporting to a server system that the pill has been taken. The idea is to validate that patients have actually taken their drugs, it being surprisingly common for patients to forget to take their drugs even when their life is on the line.
Big Pharma is becoming very interested in smart pills: many important drug patents are about to wear out and companies need new products to sell. More advanced smart pill concepts are being investigated, for example pills that dole out packets of drugs in a carefully controlled fashion over a period of days. Fascinating, but I had to think: Pills with chips in them -- oh, the crackpot fringe is just going to LOVE this one!COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* GROWING OLD AT HOME: The health care crisis being faced by the USA stands to become more acute as the "baby boom" generation gets elderly and requires more medical attention. As discussed by an article in BUSINESS WEEK ("Elder Care By Remote" by Arlene Weintraub, 16 November 2009), 21st century technology may be able to help to address this problem through an approach known as "aging in place (AIP)". The idea is to provide remote-diagnosis systems and networking to a senior's home instead of placing them in an intensive care facility.
Giants such as Intel, General Electric, Philips, Honeywell, and Bosch are all working on hard on AIP. A typical AIP environment would feature diagnostic tools such as a weighing scale and a blood-pressure strap that could relay data to a central monitoring facility; a set of sensors distributed around the house to keep an eye on the patient; a software system to make sure the patient takes drugs and provides measurements when needed; and a video communications link to keep the patient and staff at the monitoring facility in touch. Patients would only go to a clinic when they clearly need to.
The technology is effectively already available, though the integration is a challenge. Future prospects include sensor-laden "smart toilets" and even beds that can monitor vital signs; blue-sky ideas include mobile robots that can keep tabs on a patient and call for help if it's needed. All this tech won't come cheap, and players in the market are working to lobby governments and insurers to give AIP a fair chance. Proponents say that, given the high costs of an intensive-care facility, AIP is a fantastic bargain, the bill amounting to a few hundred dollars a month compared to a few thousand -- and allows patients to remain at home instead of being placed in an institution.
* MOBILE MEDICINE: A related article in the same issue ("The Return Of The House Call" by Michelle Conlin) described how Microsoft Corporation actually provides its employees with a medical house-call service. Microsoft has a gold-plated medical benefits program, giving its employees a wide range of medical services at little or no direct cost. However, the effort does have an underlying concept of economy, in that it emphasizes preventive medicine -- which has been shown to be far more effective, both in terms of cost and maintaining health, than reactive medicine.
The Microsoft house-call program, known as "Mobile Medicine", got started in 2006, after company officials realized that employees were making emergency room (ER) visits for medical conditions that weren't emergencies -- ear infections, nasty bruises, and so on. The average cost of an ER visit was about $1,500 USD. A Seattle-area health-care firm named Carena was already working on alternative methods of delivering health care, and was conducting house calls for employees of clients such as Costco. Microsoft got in touch with Carena, and now Carena doctors make about 350 house calls on Microsoft employees a month.
Carena doctors even make emergency calls in the middle of the night. While the doctors may carry a classic little black bag, they are backed up by a portable medical lab in their vehicle. The house calls typically take about an hour, with the patients being much more comfortable and the doctor being able to include the patient environment in the diagnosis. Luxurious? It certainly seems like it, but the average cost to Microsoft is only a tenth that of an ER visit.
To be sure, Mobile Medicine is clearly more practical for Microsoft -- with its deep pockets and its distinct company culture -- than it might be for other businesses, and house calls might not be so workable in locales that don't have the same high population density as the Seattle area. However, if technology like AIP seems like one useful option for helping solve the US health care crisis, Mobile Medicine suggests that rethinking medical service models may well prove another useful option.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* WHERE ARE THE GIRLS? It is not news that in countries such as China and India where girl babies are less welcome than boy babies, the result of the availability of prenatal gender testing and abortion is a distinct excess of boys over girls. An article from THE ECONOMIST ("The Worldwide War On Baby Girls", 6 March 2010) cast a wider light on the issue, showing that it's actually being seen all over the globe to a lesser or greater degree, and where the degree is greater it poses a real problem.
According to Chinese statistics, by 2020 there will be from 30 to 40 million more young Chinese men than young Chinese women, with one in five men unable to find a wife. For comparison, at present there are about 40 million young men in the United States. Parts of India also have strongly skewed sex ratios; an excess of male births is seen in some other Asian countries, the former Soviet states, and in the Balkans. Such a bias is even seen in some segments of America's population, mostly of Asian origin, though not in the US population as a whole.
China has the worst problem, with the gender imbalance running to 1.3 in favor of males in some places. In poor villages, prenatal testing and abortions don't factor in: girl babies are simply discarded. Infanticide, as shocking as it is to modern sensibilities, is nothing new -- it was an open and accepted practice in many ancient cultures, and persists more furtively today. There is a general suspicion that China's repressive "one child only" policy has helped push the excess of boys, but though it is clearly a factor in the equation, it is a somewhat ambiguous one. One of the issues is that as per locale and circumstance, there are relaxations of the "one child" rule and it can be perfectly legal to have two kids. The twist of the matter is that when parents can have more than one child, they're not too fussy about whether the first is a boy or a girl -- but if they don't get a boy the first time around, they become insistent on getting one the second time around, and the gender ratio of the second child can zoom to 1.5 in some places. In circumstances where a third child is allowable, the ratio can go above 2.
Parts of India rival Chinese levels, in good part because of dowry issues. When cheap prenatal testing by ultrasound scan became available in India, some doctors began to advertise the procedure with: "Pay 5,000 rupees today and save 50,000 rupees tomorrow!" -- 50,000 rupees being a typical dowry. Abortions became common; as ugly as they were, they were far preferable to infanticide. Selective-sex abortion has actually been illegal in both China and India since the mid-1990s, but there's hardly any way to police the matter.
One of the peculiarities of the gender imbalance problem is that the conventional wisdom labels it as a symptom of ignorance and backwardness, associated with traditionalist cultures where women are regarded as second-rate citizens. This is certainly true to an extent, since in developing countries women generally indicate a preference for sons. However, it's not the whole truth, since in both China and India the sexual imbalance tends to get worse for families that are prosperous and educated. They have fewer kids than the poor, are under correspondingly more pressure from kinfolk to produce a male heir, and have more resources to make sure they get one.
A skewed gender ratio means trouble. Single young men are, hands down, more inclined to crime and violence than any other group of the citizenry. Crime in China has been steadily increasing along with the number of excess young men -- with tales told of bride abductions, the trafficking of women, and sexual assault. There seems to be a similar correlation between sex imbalance and crime in some locales of India. It should be noted that in many societies, an unmarried male is regarded as almost a criminal and is treated as a social outcast, encouraging antisocial behavior.
Not all the consequences of imbalanced sex ratios are so malign. In India, where dowries are wired by economic considerations into the culture, in regions where there are many more young men than women, dowries have gone on the fade. It's a simple case of low supply and high demand. There's also a tendency to "import" brides from locales where the supply problem is not so painful -- sometimes cutting across social barriers that would have been a major obstacle in other days.
Importing has also occurred in South Korea -- where the gender ratio was strongly imbalanced a few decades ago -- with South Korean men bringing in foreign wives since they weren't available at home. South Korea is an interesting case, since it's the only country so far that's reversed the tendency towards gender skew. The reasons why South Korea is exceptional are obscure. The government didn't take any action to change matters, it happened on its own -- it appears that greater prosperity, improved education, and a more cosmopolitan mindset gradually reduced the pressure to want sons at the expense of daughters. It would be nice if the South Korean example were replicated elsewhere, but the governments of China and India are not banking that it will happen spontaneously: they are now passing laws and conducting media campaigns to try to get the gender ratios back to level. Given the potential for trouble, they don't dare wait to see if things will sort themselves by themselves.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* NOWHERE TO HIDE (1): As reported by an article in AAAS SCIENCE ("Test Ban Monitoring: No Place To Hide" by Daniel Clery, 24 July 2009), on 9 October 2006, North Korea detonated its first nuclear weapon. The test was something of a dud, with the yield of the bomb only amounting to about a thousand tonnes (a kilotonne / kT) of TNT, but it was a worrisome event for global officials concerned with nuclear nonproliferation.
Controlling the spread of nuclear weapons implies being able to discover if they're been tested, and even as the North Koreans were setting off their bomb, a network of sensors was partly in place to make sure nobody could get away with detonating a nuclear weapon in secret. The network was the offspring of the "Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT)", which was conceived during the Cold War and codified in the 1990s. One of the provisions of the CTBT is that the signatories are obligated to fund a global verification system, consisting of an array of 337 sensor stations and labs scattered over 89 countries. The stations pick up seismic tremors, listen for acoustic signatures in the atmosphere and oceans, and sniff out radioactive isotopes carried on the wind.
Although the network was only 60% complete in 2006, despite the low yield of the North Korean test shot more than twenty of the stations picked up its seismic signature, including one station as far away as South America. Two hours after the blast, all the signatories of the treaty knew the general time, location, and yield of the test. In May 2009, the North Koreans performed another test, with its signature picked up by 61 stations -- the greater number being linked to the greater magnitude of the blast, plus growth of the network. Within 48 hours, the location of the blast had been pinned down to an area in North Korea only ten kilometers across.
The CTBT remains an unfinished and controversial work in progress. A total of 181 nations have signed the CTBT, with only 14 failing to do so, and 148 have ratified it. Unfortunately, the treaty does not ban tests, nor will all verification measures be available until all 44 nuclear-capable signatories -- those with bombs or reactors -- have ratified it. Nine of them have failed to do so, most prominent among them the USA. In 1999, the US Senate rejected the CTBT, arguing that its verification measures were too weak and would permit cheating. US President Barack Obama has promised to work towards US ratification of the CTBT, and the odds are good it will happen.
It's a good bet because few could now claim that the CTBT verification system is too weak. It was certainly mostly a fiction in 1999, but now it is 75% complete. CTBT managers have been very open about providing data and details of the verification system -- there's no reason to keep any of it secret, in fact there's good reason to avoid any hint of secrecy -- and it has been given a thorough technical "wire brushing" by outsiders under the "International Scientific Studies (ISS)" program. An ISS conference met in Vienna, Austria, in June 2009 and generally praised the CTBT's "International Monitoring System (IMS)" for the quality and global coverage of its data, saying that in many parts of the world the IMS is more sensitive than the treaty requires.
Since the best way to hide a nuclear test is to perform it underground, the backbone of the IMS is an array of 170 seismic stations, including 50 primary stations that are online at all times and 120 auxiliary stations that are activated when needed. The CTBT bans tests of any size, but IMS was designed to detect explosions with a yield of 1 kT or more -- for contrast, the Little Boy bomb that destroyed Hiroshima had a yield of about 15 kilotonnes, by modern standards making it a fairly small weapon. The perception was that a device that had a yield of less than 1 kT would not be very useful to a new nuclear power and besides, under that yield, earthquakes and mining explosions would swamp the detection system with false alarms, overwhelming the CTBT's International Data Center (IDC) in Vienna.
In principle, if there was a need to do so, a small nuclear test could be sorted out from the false alarms. Seismic events produce a set of several kinds of waves. "Body waves", which propagate through the Earth, include "P-waves" that oscillate in their direction of travel, like ordinary sound waves, and "S-waves", which vibrate from side to side. "Surface waves" are slower than the body waves and so follow them -- incidentally, surface waves are mostly responsible for the damage caused by earthquakes. In any case, the signature of these three types of waves gives information on the event that caused them, with the signatures being different for different kinds of events.
It is not necessarily trivial to sort them out, however. A mine collapse in Germany in 1989, as well as a mine collapse in Russia in 1995 and another in the USA in the same year, originally looked disturbingly like nuclear bomb tests. It took some time, but it turned out that a nuclear blast signature always starts with a spike, while a mine collapse always starts with a trough. After that analysis, seismologists became more confident that they could reliably spot a nuclear test. In 1997, when the IMS network was still very sketchy, an event was picked up from the old Soviet nuclear test site at Novaya Zemlya. Were the Russians trying to probe the capabilities of the IMS? Careful analysis showed that the event was actually an offshore earthquake.
Despite the general confidence in the IMS, many suggest that improvements could and should be added, for example more stations around the southern oceans, as well as in India and Pakistan, neither of which has signed the CTBT. Another proposal to improve sensitivity is to sample IMS auxiliary stations more often, and to link into the thousands of civilian seismic stations scattered all over the planet. Further basic research into understanding the signatures of natural events is also required. [TO BE CONTINUED]NEXT | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* THE KILLING OF JFK -- LEE HARVEY OSWALD (8): Lee Harvey Oswald moved his family to another apartment in Dallas in early March 1963. On 11 March, he went to General Walker's house and scoped it out, taking snapshots of the back of the house and of the local area. The next day, 12 March, he sent a money order for $21.45 USD to Klein's Sporting Goods, a Chicago-based mail-order house, for a surplus Italian military 6.5 millimeter bolt-action Mannlicher-Carcano rifle, sometimes referred to just as a "Carcano" rifle -- there's an argument over which is correct, "Carcano" is used here if just for simplicity. Oswald purchased it with his "A. Hidell" alias.
By coincidence, both the rifle and the revolver were shipped the same day, 20 March 1963. The rifle went to Oswald's post office box -- the post office had instructions on file to accept shipments for Lee, Marina, and the mysterious "Hidell". The revolver was shipped Railway Express; it couldn't be shipped COD to a post-office box. Confusingly, the Seaport Traders paperwork identified "Hidell's" post office box as the customer address, though it wasn't shipped to the PO box. In any case, Oswald paid the charges on it to take delivery -- the handwriting on the paperwork signed at the Railway Express office was confirmed to be Oswald's, though the paperwork didn't give dates. The rifle came pre-fitted with a cheap four-magnification telescopic sight made by Ordnance Optics of Japan. Marina saw the rifle in the apartment, but Lee was evasive about it, and she knew better than to press him on the matter.
Conspiracy theorists wonder why Oswald bought the weapons via mail order instead of shopping around at pawnshops, which would have been less traceable. One can do little but speculate on the matter; since Oswald didn't have a car, shopping around town would have been relatively troublesome. It was certainly not all that clever on Oswald's part to have used the "Hidell" alias to buy the weapons, and then establish a paper trail between himself and "Hidell" through the post office box authorization -- but little else in Oswald's life was well thought out, either.
Conspiracy theorists also play up the fact that nobody at the post office remembered "Hidell" picking up the package containing the rifle. Why would they be expected to remember handing out any one of the multitudes of parcels handled every day to the multitudes of strangers who came in every day? They even raise a fuss because nobody knows specifically where he got the ammunition for the weapons. In fact, he could have bought it at any number of sporting goods stores or even pawnshops, no questions asked.
The particular brand of ammunition obtained for the Carcano, made by the Western Cartridge Company, was only sold at two locations in the Dallas area; when the stores were queried later by the authorities as to whether they could recall selling Carcano ammunition to Oswald, nobody could remember doing so, but as with the post office staff, it would have been a bit surprising if they had. Some stranger walked up to the sales counter, paid for a few boxes of ammunition, then walked out the door with the ammunition in a bag -- it was something that might happen several times a day, what reason would any sales clerk have to remember a particular customer months later?
Conspiracy theorists insist that the failure to determine exactly how Oswald got the ammunition for his weapons makes any case against him fall apart, but this a red herring. It's documented that Oswald obtained the weapons, the weapons were useless without ammunition, so it would hardly be a stretch to think he might have gone out and bought ammunition -- and he could have obtained the ammunition easily without drawing attention to himself or leaving a trail. The lack of information on how Oswald obtained the ammunition is a non-issue; it would be very difficult to find any precedent of a criminal case involving firearms that was dismissed because nobody could confirm where the accused bought the ammunition for the weapon.
* There's another red herring involved in the Carcano ammunition. Frank Ellsworth, an agent for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, & Firearms working in Dallas at the time of the assassination, told conspiracy theorist Dick Russell in 1976 that he, Ellsworth, knew of a "dead ringer", an "identical twin" to Oswald associated with Rightist groups in Dallas in the early 1960s; Ellsworth didn't give the name of the man, but Russell managed to identify him as one John Thomas Masen, who ran Masen's Gun Shop in Dallas.
What does this have to do with the Carcano ammunition? The fact that Masen's Gun Shop sold the stuff. The FBI had talked to Masen after the assassination and showed him a picture of Oswald, asking if Masen had sold him ammunition; Masen couldn't recall that he had. The stinger, according to conspiracy theorists, is that Masen should have remembered a customer who looked exactly like him. However, Oswald might well have bought the ammunition at the other place that sold it, and it also appears Ellsworth was exaggerating how much Masen looked like Oswald. The FBI agents who talked to Masen made no comment on that issue; Russell looked Masen up to talk to him, and only acknowledged that there was a "resemblance". Given the number of reports of "Oswald doubles" roaming Dallas before the assassination, if Masen had actually been a "dead ringer" for Oswald, it would seem that Masen would have been identified as such a "double" more than once -- but no reports of "doubles" were ever traced back to him.
* Oswald was building up a file on General Walker and his house at the time, detailing plans for an attack, with Marina eventually discovering the file. He was also trying to write down his Leftist ideas -- some of his notes have survived but they aren't particularly interesting reading, basically just semiliterate jottings that look like a political shopping lists, though significantly none of his writings suggest any involvement with others in his plans. Oswald didn't tell Marina about his schemes; he did start talking to her about her going back to the USSR. She found the idea baffling, since he made it clear he didn't want a divorce, but he would continue to pressure her on the matter. What was going on in his mind nobody can know for sure, but he had obtained weapons, that implied an interest in putting them to use, and a motive to get his wife and child out of the line of fire.
On 31 March, he had Marina take pictures of him in the back yard wielding the Carcano rifle, with the revolver stuck into his belt. She thought it was ridiculous and laughed, which made him angry; his seriousness made her apprehensive. He developed them himself and work and wrote "For Junie from Papa" on the back of one. Marina was baffled as to why Junie would want such a photo, and he told her: "To remember Papa by sometime."
One also ended up in the hands of de Mohrenschildt, signed by Oswald and inscribed: "Hunter of Fascists, ha, ha, ha" -- though it doesn't appear to have been in Oswald's handwriting and may have been a sarcastic comment by Marina or de Mohrenschildt. Oswald sent one to the Leftist publication THE MILITANT. After Oswald became national news, the staff claimed they'd never got any such picture -- but decades later, some who had worked there admitted they did and had hastily disposed of it after it had become a dangerous liability. Government organizations weren't the only ones to play the game of "cover your ass".
The "Fascist Hunter" photos would eventually become a major piece of conspiracy lore. Conspiracy theorists have insisted they are bogus and that Marina was lying, with the photos fabricated by the CIA or FBI or whoever. However, all professional analysis has shown them to be legitimate. Robert Groden, who was generally regarded by the conspiracy theory community as a credible photo analyst, declared the photos were "beyond question fakes" -- but his career as an "expert witness" in courtroom cases finally ground to a halt when he testified in the 1990s in the lurid O.J. Simpson celebrity murder trial, where he testified that incriminating photos of Simpson were fakes.
During the Simpson trial, Groden's expertise was challenged on the basis that he was a high-school dropout with no formal professional qualifications. Under testimony, he could not identify any association of professionals in his claimed field of expertise. None of the other supposed "experts" in photo analysis among the conspiracy theory have ever been able to produce better credentials; one, Jack White, has not only "proven" the "Fascist Hunter" photos are fakes, he has also "proven" that photos taken by US Apollo astronauts on the Moon are fakes and that the Apollo landings never really happened.
Some conspiracy theorists have admitted the photos are real, but express bafflement as to why Oswald would have left such incriminating evidence. Maybe, one line of thinking went, it was deviously clever plan to fool investigators into thinking that he was simply an unbalanced "lone nut" and draw attention away from the conspiracy. [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* ANOTHER MONTH: We had a mild winter here in northeast Colorado, ending up with some typical March snowfalls -- snow falling up to the boottops one day, melting away in the nice warm sun the next. However, we did have one really cold snap early in the winter, which gave me a new experience: frostbite.
I shoveled away the snow in the depths of cold one morning, wearing relatively light shoes. I didn't feel particularly uncomfortable, my feet were a bit chilly, but I didn't think anything of it. Then a few weeks later I noticed two toes on each foot -- the toes next to the big toe -- turning odd dark colors. They took on an appearance that suggested somebody had given them a fair pounding with a stick. I was mystified for a while, particularly given that I had roughly the same injury on both feet, until I made the frostbite connection.
It was obviously superficial damage, otherwise I could have lost some toes. I did end up trimming back the toenail on each middle toe considerably, and the skin on my right big toe cracked open in front. The toes got really sore for a while, I'd bump my right big toe and about go through the ceiling, but that passed. The lesson was learned: don't mess with frostbite.
* I made up my Federal tax return this last month, which turned out to be a troublesome exercise. The problem, as it turned out, was this: for various reasons, I didn't owe any taxes. Zero. Nada. Nothing.
Now most people would think that a good problem to have, but it does turn out to be a problem. I've got the Internal Revenue Service on my case a few times before, but though everything always ended up being straightened out pretty quickly and neatly -- well, in the first place, thanks to those encounters I know I'm on their radar, and in the second I tend to see the IRS as a snoozing dragon with a mouth full of sharp teeth that I would prefer to walk softly past holding my breath and not wake up.
So I started looking over the tax form to see if I could find loopholes I could close: Ah! If I take the standard deduction instead of itemize that increases my tax liability, and it simplifies my paperwork anyway. After a number of such exercises, I owed the Feds ... fifty dollars. That seemed like a cheap price for not having to answer the door one day and find the dragon there, and besides, within limits I don't have a problem with taxes. OK, the tax return ended up being a fairy tale of sorts, but it was the kind of fairy tale I felt comfortable with, since if they wanted to audit me I have no doubt they'd end up owing me money. Go ahead. Make my day.
* With my taxes done, I decided to take a day off and go down to Denver. I like to read the GEEK DAD blog from WIRED Online, and one entry praised the IMAX movie on the Hubble Space Telescope. I checked around online and found it was playing in the natural history museum in Denver. I decided to take off for the day on the last Monday in March; I had been thinking of putting it off to the end of the week, after I got my end-of-month errands done, but the weather predictions for Thursday-Friday were unpromising for an outing.
The showing was at 1:00 PM; I gave myself plenty of time, thinking I might get caught up in Denver midday traffic, but my timing was good enough to avoid the gridlock. It was, however, surprisingly crowded for a weekday in the Denver central park area where the museum is, I found it hard to find a parking spot -- duh, it was spring break and a lot of folks were having some quality time with their kids. I was still well early for the showing of the movie, so I decided to kill the time by going to the zoo, next door to the museum. I wasn't that keen on visiting the zoo, I've been there plenty of times before and I didn't think I would see much new, but I spent a rushed half hour and got a few dozen fair shots of animals with my zoom camera.
I made it to the museum on time and took my place in the IMAX theater. I was a bit disappointed after I arrived to find out it wasn't a 3D presentation -- the Denver museum IMAX theater doesn't have the capability. The disappointment wore off after the movie began. I can't recall when I last saw an IMAX video, but the the ultra-wide-screen presentation and powerful sound system were impressive in themselves. The movie interspersed spaceflight activities with COSMOS-style galactic trips, computer graphics based on Hubble imagery, with one sequence flying into the heart of the Orion nebula and another cruising through the Galaxy to the distant frontiers of the Universe. I was certainly impressed.
After the movie, I took a dogleg on the way back home up to Westminster, a suburb in the northwest Denver metro area. I had heard there was a butterfly pavilion there and out of curiosity I wanted to check it out. The pavilion was easy to find, but it wasn't much of anything -- it was an unimpressive operation, I've seen as good or better butterfly exhibits at various zoos. Oh well, having seen it I had crossed it off my list for seeing again. I returned to Loveland, having had a satisfactory if generally unspectacular break from routine for a day.
The Hubble movie was certainly worth the trip, I didn't regret following up the hint from the GEEK DAD blog. I tend to find GEEK DAD a pleasant hangout -- I'm not a dad but I am a geek, and much of it's right up my alley. I am somewhat mystified by why GEEK DAD is so enthusiastic about the STARS WARS CG animated TV series, posting on every episode. On their recommendation I picked the first season on DVD and found it close to unwatchable, with wooden scripts, wooden dialogue, and characters that looked ... well, wooden, sort of like CG puppettoons. I guess I can easily forgive GEEK DAD that much.COMMENT ON ARTICLE