Mark Grossman: The Nano Hummingbird – The Original Bird ‘Bot

12 December 2013

[Nano Hummer Video]

On 17 February 2011, DARPA announced the development of the first fully functional robotic bird. [1]  The “Nano Hummingbird” or, as it is also less imaginatively called, the “Nano Air Vehicle” (“NAV”), was the successful result of a project started in 2006 by AeroVironment, Inc. under the direction of DARPA. [1] Robots, by definition, must “do work.”  And the Nano-Hummer was the first fully functional bird-drone designed and able to perform surveillance and reconnaissance missions.

This robotic hummingbird can remain aloft for 11 minutes and attain a speed of 11 mph. [1]   With a skeleton of hollow carbon-fiber rods wrapped in fiber mesh, coated in a polyvinyl fluoride film, [5] and carrying “batteries, motors, and communications systems; as well as the video camera payload,” the robo-hummer weighs just .67 ounces. [1]

Designed to be deployed in urban environments or on battlefields, this drone is can “perch on windowsills or power lines” and even “enter buildings to observe and its surroundings” while relaying a continuous video back to its “pilot.” [video] [1]

In terms of appearance, the Nano-Hummer was, and is, quite like a hummingbird.    Although larger than the typical hummingbird, Nano-Hummer, is well within the size range of the species and is, actually, smaller than the largest of real hummingbirds. [1]   With a facade both shaped and colored to resemble the real bird, the Nano-Hummer presents the viewer with a remarkable likeness of a hummingbird. [1]

The Nano-Hummer isn’t stealth in the sense of evading radar.  Nor is it “cryptic,” that type of camouflage that blends, or disappears, into the surrounding terrain.  Rather, with the appearance of a hummingbird, the designers used a type of camouflage called “mimesis,” also termed “masquerade,” as concealment.  A camouflaged object is said to be “masqueraded” when the object can be clearly seen, but looks like something else, which is of no special interest to the observer.  And such camouflage is important to a mini-drone with the primary purpose of surveillance and reconnaissance. [1]

Designing this drone on the “hummingbird model,” however, was not done only for the purpose of camouflage.  The project’s objective included biomimicry, that is, biologically inspired engineering. [8] With the hummingbird, its amazingly diverse flight maneuvers were the object of imitation.  However, UAV’s head researcher, Matt Keennon, admits that a perfect replica of what “nature has done” was too daunting. [5]  For example, the Nano-Hummer only beats its wings 20 times a second, which is slow motion compared to the real hummingbird’s 80 beats per second. [video] [5]

Whatever the technical shortfalls, this bird-bot replicates much of the real hummingbird’s flight performance. [5]  Not only can it perform rolls and backflips [video] but, most important of all, it can hover like the real thing. [video] [5]  Part of the importance of the ability hover relates to its reconnaissance and surveillance functions.  Hovering allows the video camera to select and observe stationary targets.  However, the “hover” of both hummingbirds and bees attracts so much attention from developers of drone technology because it assures success in the most difficult flight maneuver of all — landing.  In fact, landing is the most complex part of flight, and the maneuver most likely to result in accident or disaster.

When landing, a flying object must attain the slowest speed possible before touching down.  Hovering resolves the problem neatly by assuring that the robot can stop in midair and, therefore, touch the ground or perch as zero speed.  Observe the relatively compact helicopter landing port in contrast to the long landing strip required by an airplane which must maintain forward motion when airborne.

The drone has a remarkable range of movement in flight much like the real hummingbird. [1] Nano-Hummer “can climb and descend vertically; fly sideways left and right; forward and backward; rotate clockwise and counter-clockwise; and hover in mid-air.” [1]  Both propulsion and altitude control are entirely provided by the drone’s flapping wings. [video] [1]

This remote controlled mini-drone can be maneuvered by the “pilot” without direct visual observation using the video stream alone. [1] With its small camera, this drone can relay back video images of its location. [1] The camera angle is defined by the drone’s pitch.  In forward motion, the camera provides a continuous view of the ground.  Hovering provides the best camera angle for surveying rooms. [video] [5]

To DARPA, it was particularly important that this drone demonstrate the ability to hover in a 5 mph side-wind without drift of more than one meter. [1]  The CIA’s “insectothopter,” a robotic dragonfly was developed in the 1970’s. [image] [3] This unmanned aerial vehicle “was the size of a dragonfly, and was hand-painted to look like one.” [3]  Powered by a small gasoline engine, the insectothopter proved unusable due to its inability to withstand even moderate wind gusts. [video] [3]

The Nano-Hummingbird was named by Time Magazine as one of the 50 best inventions of 2011 [4] and has paved the way for the development of a whole generation of bird inspired ‘bots, including Prioria’s “Maverick,” [image] [video] and, the even more “bird-like,” Robo-Raven, which is still in development by the Army Research Laboratory. [image 1] [video] [video] Also, the development of this first small bird-bot brought the U.S. Air Force one step closer to one of the goals on its wish list: “flocks of small drones.” [7]

A flock of small drones sounds really cool – as long as the flock isn’t after me.





























Taxes & The IRS — One of those Certain Things

1 August 2013

From time to time, the Internal Revenue Service becomes a particular focus of public dissatisfaction.  Not that the IRS wasn’t, well, less than popular already.  Sadly, just this kind of situation is often an invitation to con artists.  So, you might hear some amazing claims.  These particular claims are anything but new.  A little over 10 years ago, several self-styled “experts” were touring the United States speaking to groups and appearing on radio and TV talk-shows asserting that Americans didn’t have to pay their income taxes.  The amazing claim was that, somehow, it’s legal to ignore your IRS tax obligation.

It isn’t.  This is a reminder of that simple fact.

Generally, these “experts” rely on one or more of these four false assertions.  (1) The power to tax incomes isn’t in the Constitution.  (2) Our income tax system is “voluntary.”  So, no one actually has to pay income tax.  (3) Our paper currency isn’t real money.  So we have no real income on which to base an income tax obligation.  (4) The speaker/author has followed his or her own advice, and not paid income taxes for several years, without any consequences.

(1) The United States income tax is both legal and, certainly, constitutional.  How do we know?  It’s written in the Constitution.  The authors of our income tax legislation took no chances.  They proposed and amended the Constitution to assure the legality of an income tax.  The 16th Amendment specifically authorizes the U.S. Government to levy an income tax: “The Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes on incomes, from whatever source derived, without apportionment among the several States, and without regard to any census or enumeration.”

(2) Our income tax system is voluntary.  In most nations of the world, government inspectors determine how much tax a citizen owes.  Then, government collectors “collect” those taxes.  This is an involuntary system.  In the United States, however, the government allows citizens to calculate their own yearly taxes and submit a “return,” together with their payment before a certain date: April 15th of the following year.  Therefore, our system of income taxation is voluntary.

Generally, the IRS takes a taxpayer’s word for the amounts of the taxpayer’s income, deductions, and tax owed.  Actual audits are rare with very few spot checks.  Notwithstanding the recent admitted misconduct of some IRS officials and the resulting scandal, appropriate audits are most often undertaken when evidence suggests that a taxpayer’s return is inaccurate.  Of course, if the taxpayer does not voluntarily submit a return or fails to fully pay their tax obligation, by the April 15th deadline, the IRS will take steps to forcibly collect the tax owed with considerable penalties and a rather high rate of interest.  So, our system is voluntary, but only if you volunteer–in time.

(3)  Our paper currency is real money.  The last actual connection between U.S. currency and our physical gold and silver reserves ended in the mid 1960’s with the government only ending the regulation of the price of gold (“pegging” our currency to gold) in 1973.  Federal Reserve Notes are “legal tender (real money) for all debts public and private.”  How do we know?  It’s written on every Federal Reserve Note.  A refusal to accept Federal Reserve Notes as legal tender (money) in the United States is a crime.

(4) Sometimes, the tax-defying “expert” will point out that they, themselves, haven’t paid their income tax in one, two, or three years without incident.  To underline their defiance, a few claim to have submitted a return filled out in some colorful or creative way including a written assertion that they legally do not have to pay income tax.  Again, a few claim to have done this for as many as three years, but never four.  Why?  One statute of limitation on prosecution for income tax evasion is four years.  The IRS waits out the limitation period to allow these promoters to rack-up the maximum number of prosecutable federal offenses and, then, . . . prosecution followed by a stay in the slammer.

It’s one thing to make an honest, even foolish, mistake calculating one’s income tax.  That isn’t even a crime.  The taxpayer is just asked to pay any unpaid tax obligation with interest and penalties.  However, it’s another thing when the potential tax payer knows they should pay and refuses.  And yet an altogether worse thing when a person who knows they should pay, refuses, brags about it, and encourages others to do the same.  Again, this brings a stay in the slammer.

In the future, do yourself a favor and don’t fall for the assurances of any scammer who asserts that they have found some previously undiscovered loophole that allows them, or anyone else, not to pay the federal tax on income.  Likewise, advise your friends and acquaintances that these scammers, at best, are wrong and, at worst, “are a few cans short of a six-pack.”

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Mark Grossman: Sunshine — Not As Bad As We Thought?

18 July 2013

In an episode of the animated television series, King of the Hill, one of the characters says, “Truth is like sunlight.  People used to think it was good for you.”  Probably, your great-grandmother would have said that you should always tell the truth and that you should stay healthy by getting outdoors in the sunlight.

For the last 50 years, however, most of us have been splashing on sunscreen, wearing special sunglasses and opaque outerwear in an effort to avoid the sun’s rays.  In other words, we have been avoiding unfiltered sunlight like the plague.  The plague we were avoiding was skin cancer.  However, recent research seems to indicate that there is a cost to our sunless lifestyle.  Perhaps, “cost” is the wrong word.  A better word is “tradeoff.”

In the UK, and throughout the world, greater numbers of both children and adults are suffering serious Vitamin D deficiencies.  Human beings and animals naturally make Vitamin D when solar UV (ultraviolet) rays shine on our exposed skin.  When we started hiding from the sun, dietary supplements were supposed to provide the daily nutritional requirement once supplied almost exclusively by the sun’s rays.  However, for many, oral supplements do not seem to be providing even the minimum Vitamin D needed to maintain health.

Throughout the organic world, sunlight is closely related to the production of Vitamin D.  Exposing organic substances to direct sunlight is the primary method used to produce Vitamin D for human supplements.  Milk, when exposed to sunlight, develops an extremely effective form of the vitamin called D3.

Normal levels of Vitamin D do more than prevent a malformation of the bones called rickets.  Vitamin D deficiency is linked to hypertension, depression, obesity, dementia, cancer, osteoporosis, diabetes, multiple sclerosis and, the biggest of them all, heart disease.

University of Edinburgh scientists discovered that our skin, when exposed to sunlight, releases nitric oxide into our blood, which helps lower blood pressure and protect the heart from disease, cardiac arrest, strokes, and attacks.  Statistically, our reduced exposure to sunlight may have increased heart disease more than it decreased skin disease.  Indeed, rates of skin cancer have continued to increase even as our exposure to potentially carcinogenic UV rays has decreased.

Certainly, there are disadvantages to avoiding sunlight.  After all, human beings as a species have lived and thrived for thousands of years with direct exposure to substantial levels of UV rays.  So, maybe sunlight is good for us.  Or . . . maybe it isn’t.

As we hear the latest discoveries describing the benefits of sunlight, it is important to remember that UV rays are also used to sterilize medical instruments.  There are even special UV lamps that are placed in heating and cooling ducts to kill mold, bacteria, and viruses in the air.  These must be installed deep within the ductwork to avoid exposing people to the direct light of these lamps.  But why does this kind of lamp light pose a danger to people?

What we call sunlight contains a particular range of the UV radiation that seriously damages the DNA of bacteria and viruses.  The damage can be so severe that these small organisms cannot successfully reproduce.  So they die.  That is how UV radiation kills germs.  That same range of UV radiation can do the same thing to human skin cells.  The light damages the cell’s DNA causing cell death or genetic mutation, which can lead to the development of skin cancer.  The potentially carcinogenic effects of UV radiation are both direct and well understood.  It would be unwise to ignore this danger.

So, what is the answer?  Do we bask in the sun or avoid the sun?  Without giving medical advice, as I am not qualified to do so, I’ll venture a guess.  Perhaps neither seeking nor avoiding the sun is the answer.  Rather, what is needed is moderation.  Based on your skin type, and with consideration of your individual risk factors, moderate exposure to sunlight is probably healthy and less risky than is generally thought.  So, exposure to a moderate amount of unfiltered sunshine is a good thing.  However, if you regularly work or play outdoors, the prolonged exposure is probably less healthy and more risky.  So, break out the sunscreen, UV sunglasses, and protective outerwear.  With prolonged UV exposure, these precautions just make good sense.

Also, keep in mind that excessive sunlight has unfortunate cosmetic effects causing premature aging of the skin.  The word “tan,” to describe the effects of sunlight on human skin, also describes the process used to produce leather goods.  Leather shoes look good.  Leather faces do not.

On a lighter and stranger note, a woman in Seattle, Navenna Shine, is planning to live on sunshine.  She hopes to survive on light without any food other than water and tea.  Her “Living on Light Experiment” is based on an Indian regimen practiced by a group called inediates, who live without food.  Correction: Inediates “say” they live without food.  It is widely reported that modern practitioners of this ancient discipline have almost all been caught cheating.  Reportedly, one was even caught in a fast food restaurant.  Of course, we should be sympathetic.  If, as most suspect, living without food is fatal, sneaking an occasional Happy Meal isn’t so bad when you consider the alternative.

Selected Sources:

Sunlight Could Reduce Death Rate From All Causes

Scared of the Sun – the Global Pandemic of Vitamin D Deficiency

Information on Vitamin D

5 Amazing Properties of Sunlight You’ve Never Heard About

Radiation: A Sterilization Method

Disinfection: An Overview – Ultraviolet Radiation Ultraviolet Radiation

Can People Live on Only Sunlight and Water?

“Truth is like sunlight.  People used to think it was good for you.”

King of the Hill, Season 2: Episode 14 “Remember Mono”

[n9] Am I deficient in Vitamin D? | Vitamin D Council

[n10] Hypovitaminosis D – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

[n11] Time in the Sun: How Much Is Needed for Vitamin D? – US News and World Report


[n12] How do I get the vitamin D my body needs? | Vitamin D Council

[n13] How Much Sun Exposure Do I Need for Vitamin D?


Mark Grossman: The Sun “On Low” – The Maunder Minimum

27 February 2014

The sun goes through an 11 year cycle of activity.  What sort of activity?  Well, the sun quiets down to its “minimum” at the beginning of the cycle.  Then, it gets wilder as it builds up to its “maximum.”  Then, it goes back down to its minimum again.

The sun begins a cycle relatively quietly and, then, become more and more stormy.  Storms on the sun aren’t like storms on the earth.  When the sun has a storm, it gives off flares and coronal mass ejections (CME’s) — energy explodes off the sun’s surface and shoots out into space.  Few of these violent energy emissions come our way because the earth is, after all, a small target.

Sunspots go right along with the sun’s stormy cycle.  At the minimum of the 11 year cycle, the sun has the fewest spots and, then, as it builds toward the maximum, the number of spots increase.  Sunspots are cooler areas on the sun’s surface that seem to act like caps, holding down a lot of energy until the build-up explodes out from the surface in a flare.

Recently, concern has grown because our sun seems to be taking a nap.  Not only is it sleeping deeply, but it went to sleep awfully suddenly.  The cycle that began 2007 was expected to be the most active yet.  But the sun’s “activity” went down – way down.

Whether a real possibility or a scientific “urban legend,” the story circulated that the sun was “holding back.”  Its apparent quiet would soon be broken by a sudden burst of activity.  That didn’t happen.  Then, when the sun perked up the slightest bit in 2011, hopes rose.  But a dismally quiet 2012 ended with a new story. The story was that there would be a “double peak.”  So, even though the sun quieted down in 2012, it would soon return to its 2011 activity level and, then, burst into a period of even more activity in 2013.  The year 2013 came and went.  Sleepier than ever.

Has this happened before?

You’d have to go back just a bit more than a century to find a solar cycle as quiet as this one.  But there have been even quieter times.  The quietest of all was the Maunder Minimum – the lowest period of solar activity/sunspots in the 400 year history of sunspot counts.  And it was a long “minimum.”  During the period starting in about 1645 and continuing to about 1715 there were years without any sunspots at all.

The astronomers who actually observed the sun and recorded their observations during this grand minimum, John Flamsteed and Gian Domenico Cassini, did notice that they were seeing remarkably few sunspots.  However, it was only in 1894, with the benefit of hindsight, that astronomer Edward Walter Maunder drew attention to the period as including the lowest sunspot counts of any recorded.  Maunder’s fellow astronomers argued that these early astronomers had been sloppy in their observations.

Not until 1976, did American astronomer John Allen Eddy bring together all the available historical data and, supplemented with abundant physical evidence, demonstrated that Flamsteed and Cassini had been diligent and careful observers.  Eddy named this most minimum of minimums after the man who first noticed it, Edward Maunder.  So, the Maunder Minimum, as the low of all lows, remains as a sort of historical benchmark against which all declines in sunspots (and solar activity) are measured.

As our sun becomes increasingly quiet, it’s nice to know that something more extreme has happened at least once before.   But the current solar activity or, rather, lack of activity, is unique in many ways.  First, our current solar inactivity and low sunspot numbers are nowhere near the Maunder minimum level.   We’re currently working on the hundred year record, beating the low benchmark set in 1913.  But, the really distressing parts of the equation are the unknowns.

The amount of the decrease is less disturbing than the rate of decrease.  Although the number of sunspots is well above record lows, the speed of the decline has not been equaled in the last 10,000 years.  The worry is that, wherever this is going, it may be going there very quickly.

About 19 years ago, space satellites, without the interference of the atmosphere, were able to measure of he sun’s energy output.  Researchers were surprised to discover the sun puts out energy at a variable rate.  As sunspot activity declines, and the sun calms, it radiates less energy.  If you are an earth-based life form, the sun’s “energy output” means “heat.”  So, with such a sudden decline in activity, one has to wonder if the sun is cooling off.  And, if the sun is cooling, what does this mean for us.

Contrary to what you might think, small shifts in solar heat levels may not have a great effect on the earth’s temperatures.  In its natural orbit, the earth is closest to the sun in December of each year.  That proximity doesn’t lessen the intensity of winters in the northern hemisphere because the earth’s distance from its source of heat, the sun, isn’t the most important factor.  Rather, the angle at which the sun’s rays hit the earth – an angle that varies naturally with the seasons – makes the difference between summer and winter temperatures.  And, even though the heat of the sun goes up and down with increases and decreases in the number of sunspots, the changes in the sun’s heat output are quite small.

Even so, could the decrease in sunspots (and the heat of the sun) affect the earth’s temperatures?  No one is certain.  The Maunder Minimum did happen at the same time as what is called “The Little Ice Age,” but no one can be sure if the two were connected.  “The Little Ice Age” was a brief period of low temperatures.  The complete set of available data indicates that this century-long drop in temperatures affected the whole world.  But, one way or the other, we are not experiencing a decline in sunspot activity that is anything like the Maunder Minimum – the low of all lows.


Mark Grossman: The Sun Behaving Badly – A Brief History of Solar Storms & CME’s

27 February 2014

When I think of weather, I think of sunshine and rain, hot and cold, wind and calm.  And, when I think about weather, I always think about the earth’s atmosphere.  I really never wake up in the morning worrying about what the weather is going to like – in space.

“Space weather” always seems like an odd term because there is nothing like the earth’s atmosphere in space.  Actually, there’s nothing in space.  Hence, the term “space.”  But actually, there is “something” in space, and that “something” is energy.

The term “space weather” also seems odd because the source of all space weather is the sun.  So, why not call it “solar weather?”  Well, the sun throws out so much energy that it affects all the “space” in the rest of the solar system.  So, the earth’s “energy weather” (or geomagnetic weather), is produced by the energy constantly thrown off by the sun.

But let’s begin at the beginning.

The sun constantly gives off energy, which flows in all directions.  That flow is called the solar wind.  And, in turn, the solar wind affects the earth.  The earth has its own energy field including the magnetic poles (which make compass needles point to the north).   As the “solar “wind” hits the earth’s own magnetic field, it produces visible auroras at both the North and South Poles.  The aurora to the North is called “the Northern Lights.”

The sun also has storms when the constant rush of solar wind is interrupted by explosions of energy from the surface of the sun.  Space weather’s version of lightning, solar flares, burst out of the sun in all directions.  Few strike the earth because the earth is a small target.  But, occasionally, the earth takes a hit.

If you’re an astronaut in space, solar flares are really bad news because they are fatal to humans without the protection of the earth’s atmosphere. Modern spacecraft can, but don’t necessarily, provide complete protection.  How did our early astronauts get by?  Very careful timing.  Most of us pay little attention to the “space weather” forecasts.  Fortunately for our early astronauts, NASA has always paid a great deal of attention and timed its manned missions very carefully.

Our atmosphere protects us from the negative effects of solar flares – even the worst solar flares: CME’s.  Coronal Mass Ejections (CME’s) are the worst that space weather has to offer.  On the good side, these produce beautiful auroras — much bigger and brighter than usual.  No one knew about the bad side until we started using electrical power.

CME’s supercharge the earth’s atmosphere.  Electricity moves more easily through a supercharged atmosphere.   If you build up a big enough charge in the atmosphere, electricity can move through it easily. Too easily.

When the atmosphere offers less resistance than the “wires” in our appliances, the electricity “bleeds” out of the wires to the place electricity is always seeking – the ground.

This may sound “interesting” until your car or truck just stops running.  Well, unless your car or truck has a diesel engine.  Diesels don’t depend on electricity to operate (spark plugs, etc.)   Meanwhile, in your home, your electric lights would dim to a fraction of their old brightness as most of the electricity flowed out of the wires, through the air, and to the ground.  More unnerving are the lights that might start glowing even though they’re turned off.  Electricity, as it bleeds through the air, can pass into powered-down electrical appliances and cause them to begin to operate.

This is all pretty weird.  And it’s also dangerous — if you depend on a continuous supply of electrical power.  Satellites in space depend on their “wires” to carry electrical power to where it is needed.   Aircraft, even if they don’t depend on electrical transmission for their basic operation, have computers that do.  Hospitals and emergency response units depend, not only on lights, life-saving equipment, and electronic monitors but require the best possible performance from their communication equipment.  Your telephone, both cell and landline, would be substantially impaired in a severe geomagnetic storm.

The good news is that storms severe enough to produce serious electrical disruptions don’t happen very often.  In fact, researchers can determine when really serious solar storms of the past happened by examining ice cores from ancient glaciers.  Without going into the mechanics, it’s enough to say that really serious solar storms happen about ever 500 years.  However, some “less serious” ones can be real doozies.


On January 9, 2014, a lightshow was expected from space.  And “aurora watchers” followed the “space weather” forecasts.  They were disappointed when the “magnitude of the impact” was “downgraded.”  The CME that was predicted to strike the earth was much weaker than expected.  The Northern Lights didn’t expand and weren’t visible in the 48 states of the continental United States.

An aurora was visible, but over a much more limited area.  One commentator was puzzled by the problem saying, “We could see it in Norway.”  And I bet they could.  Even weak auroras are visible in, or near, the Arctic Circle.  But it takes quite a CME, of a certain type, to treat people in the temperate zone to a good show.

So, in the lower 48, we missed the Northern Light show, but we also avoided the “minor disruptions to communications and GPS” of which NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center had warning days earlier.


On Wednesday, 22 October 2003, a “brief but intense,” geomagnetic storm was caused by what NASA described as “the fourth most powerful solar flare every seen.”  The storm expanded and brightened the Northern Lights, while it also knocked out some airline communications including high-frequency voice-radio communications for aircraft flying far northern routes.  British air traffic controllers favored southerly routes for trans-Atlantic jets during the period of the storm.  Canadian spokesman Louis Garneau explained that, in an emergency, airliners could use VHF frequencies to communicate with other aircraft or military monitoring stations.

Although the storm was a direct threat to electric utilities, high frequency radio communications, satellite navigation systems and television broadcasts, there were few immediate reports of damage.  However, NOAA Space Weather Center forecaster, Larry Combs stated, “We know that our power grids are definitely feeling the effects of this.”

The North American Electric Reliability Council of Princeton, New Jersey noted no reported failures.  Crewmembers, Foale and Kaleri, of the international space station, Expedition 8, moved to the one end of the station’s service module.  They spent 20 minutes there sheltered by the special radiation shielding designed to protect the pair in case of such an event.

The Japanese space agency temporarily shut down one of its satellites and lost contact with a second. U.S. and European researchers, together with commercial satellite operators, shut down some delicate equipment, including solar panels and, carefully, turned satellite sensors away from the storm’s blast.


On July 13, 2000, NASA and NOAA were tracking a solar storm as part of a joint project with the European Space Agency.  NASA was hoping to view an intense solar flare and its energetic proton shower with the observational satellite, Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO).  NOAA’s was doing the same with its Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellites (GOES).

This would have been an opportunity to observe, for the first time with sophisticated satellite observatories, a rare solar and geomagnetic event.  The solar flare was the guest of honor at the party.  But the party had a crasher.  An extremely powerful CME coincided with this particular flare.

The Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE) spacecraft was to give the first warning an hour before the arrival of the geomagnetic storm.  But the wave of particles came with such strength that the ACE’s important detectors were blinded and failed.  Without ACE, the observers could only time the arrival by watching for distortions in the Earth’s magnetic field.  They didn’t have long to wait.  The storm raged for almost nine hours.

The storm flooded cameras and star-tracking navigation devices on several satellites with solar particles compromising the devices’ operation.  Particle detectors on several NOAA and NASA spacecraft failed or were shut down to avoid damage.  Although these events hardly seem good, it could have been worse.  The Japanese Advanced Satellite for Cosmology and Astrophysics (ASCA) was sent tumbling in orbit by the energetic wave from the sun.

On the ground, power companies struggled with geomagnetically induced currents that tripped capacitors and damaged at least one transformer. Global positioning system (GPS) accuracy degraded for several hours.

Of course, if you were an aurora watcher, you were in luck.  The aurora lightshow was seen as far south as El Paso, Texas.


A CME left the Sun’s surface on March 6, 1989.  Three and a half days later, on March 9, intense auroras formed at the poles and could be seen as far south as Texas and Florida — these were the first signs that a severe geomagnetic storm had struck the earth.

Cold War fears of a nuclear attack were triggered when the burst caused short-wave radio interference.  Disruption of radio signals from Radio Free Europe into Russia aroused suspicions that the Soviet government had jammed the signal.

By midnight, communications from a weather satellite were interrupted.  Another communication satellite, TDRS-1, recorded over 250 anomalies caused by the increased particles flowing into the satellite’s own electronics.  The space shuttle Discovery, on a mission at the time, experienced an unusually high reading from a pressure sensor on one of its fuel cells.  The anomalous reading disappeared after the geomagnetic storm ended.

Beneath all of Quebec, Canada is a large layer of rock.  This rock layer acted as shield against the natural discharge of the electricity from the highly charged atmosphere into the ground.  Without another path of discharge, the powerful atmospheric electrical potential found its path of least resistance along long utility transmission lines.  Circuit breakers on Hydro-Québec’s power grid were tripped, and Quebec’s James Bay network experienced a 9-hour power failure.


An American astronomer described the solar flare that caused this storm as “one of the largest, if not the largest, ever recorded.”  Communications were disrupted worldwide. The aurora, the Northern Lights, could be seen as far south as Washington D.C.  Oddly, it is extremely difficult to find any information or even copies of contemporary news articles about this event.


A CME caused a geomagnetic storm which lasted from May 13th through the 15th in 1921.  The Northeastern United States experienced a checkerboard of blackouts.  The Northern Lights were bright and visible throughout the northern United States.  And the timing of the show was fortunate because so many other activities came to a halt as fuses blew and telegraph equipment became so damaged that service slowed to a complete stop throughout the United States.  On the other hand, radio waves were strengthened by the storm allowing intercontinental reception.

17 NOVEMBER 1882

Another geomagnetic storm caused by the arrival of a solar flare on November 17, 1882.  Some telegraph systems were rendered useless.  The switchboard at the Chicago Western Union offices caught fire several times and the equipment was badly damaged.  In Milwaukee, an electric lamp, although “turned off,” was reported to have lit up.  In the UK, telegraphs were strongly affected.


Remember those researchers who checked the ice cores for evidence of past CME’s?  They found that a really big one hits the earth causing a really big geomagnetic storm about once every 500 years.

Well, the last one of those happened in 1859.

The “Carrington Event” began when an amateur astronomer, Richard Carrington, observed the sun suddenly grow larger and brighter.  He knew that the sun had never done that before.  He also knew that a flare from the sun’s surface would be visible as a bright emission – sort of like watching a gun being fired.  Figuratively speaking, you’d see the plume of smoke and might even have an impression of something leaving the barrel of the gun.  Or, at least, you would . . . unless the barrel of the gun was aimed right at you.

What Richard Carrington couldn’t have known, at the time, was that the Sun’s size and brightness only appeared to change. A CME, in the form of a circular cloud was expanding out from the Sun. This “halo coronal mass ejection,” was so bright and emitted so much light that the sun appeared to grow in both size and brightness.  Also, Carrington couldn’t have known why the “halo” cloud appeared to be almost perfectly circular. That apparent shape indicated that the CME was headed right at him.

The CME arrived about 17 hours later.  Electrical equipment was relatively rare in 1859, but telegraph pylons threw sparks. Some telegraph operators were shocked by their equipment even after disconnection from a power supply. Other telegraph operators reported sending and receiving signals without external power — the equipment powered only by the electricity in the atmosphere. Magnetic instruments, as simple as a compass, wouldn’t give consistent readings.

Auroras, like the northern lights, which are seldom visible beyond the Arctic Circle, could be seen as far south as Venezuela. The Northern Lights were so bright in the Rockies that the glow was mistaken for sunrise by gold miners, who got up and started cooking breakfast.

In the northeastern U.S., people could read newspapers in the middle of the night by the light of the aurora. A writer for the Baltimore American and Commercial Advertiser waxed lyrical in his report, “The light was greater than that of the Moon at its full, but had an indescribable softness and delicacy that seemed to envelop everything upon which it rested.”

That was 155 years ago.  If the averages hold, we have about another 345 years before the next “really big” event.

Mark Grossman: The Giant Squid – Devilfish, Sea Serpent, Monster of the Deep?

20 February 2014

In early January, off Japan’s Sadogashima Island, fisherman Shigenori Goto made an extreme rare catch – a giant squid.  Hauling in his net from a depth of about 300 feet the fisherman was confronted by something other than the fish he expected – a 12 foot squid weighing about 300 pounds.  Now being studied at the Fisheries Ocean Research Institute in Niigata Prefecture, the undersea giant lived only a few minutes after being brought to the surface.

[image] Giant squid caught in net

Even this “giant” squid can barely compare to the record length of 40 feet and the record weight of nearly a ton.  But even this incredible size is nothing compared the legends that have been inspired by the giant squid.  Fishermen notoriously exaggerate the size of “the one that got away” and, historically, seafarers did the same with the size and nature of the giant squid.

[video] Giant Squid

There is a Norse legend of a tentacled sea monster called the “kraken.”  Bigger than the biggest giant squid, it was said to grow as a large as an island and would gobble up whole ships.  Encounters, not with the “whole” giant squid, but sightings of its tentacles rising up out of the water have resulted in countless legends of sea monsters.  Witnesses, seeing only the giant squid’s tentacles have imaginatively described the unseen monster lurking below the surface.

[image] Sea Monster

Squid became a particular focus of study for naturalists from 1870 to 1880.   During that decade, a large number of squid became stranded in shallow waters near the shores of Newfoundland and New Zealand.  Most often, these squid died, and their remains washed up on a beach, more or less intact.  However, there was at least one reported attack of an adult and a child in a small fishing boat off Bell Island, Newfoundland.  These years were the peak of what came to be called the squid “strandings.”  Though in smaller numbers, strandings have continued to the present day.

[image] stranded squid

In the distant past, the washed-up remains of dead squid were often thought to be sea monsters.  The squid even came to share, along with several other sea creatures, the nickname “devilfish.”  In fact, squid are pretty scary looking.  I like to say squid have 10 arms.  But, in fact, I’m mixing and adding the arms with, and to, the tentacles.  Technically, squid have eight “arms” and two “tentacles.”

But, whether arms or tentacles, both are lined with hundreds of suckers — suction cups about 1 to 2 inches wide.   Each of the suckers is lined with a full set of “teeth” or serrated rings that pierce the flesh and, together with the suction, attach the squid to its prey.  The suction cups run the length of the arms forming a circle around the squid’s month, or rather, its beak, which strongly resembles that of a parrot.

[image] Squid suckers

Like octopuses, squid use jet propulsion to move through the water. They pull water into their body (mantle cavity) and push water out in rhythmic pulses that propel the animal through the ocean.  Their “jet” accounts for most of the their movement, but gets a little help from the squid’s small fins. Unlike most fish, which have a gas filled swim bladder that regulates their depth in the water, the giant squid maintains its depth through the presence of an ammonium chloride solution throughout its body.  Lighter than sea water, the solution allows the squid to regulate its depth.  And it has quite a range.

Although data is incomplete, giant squid seem to roam in a range of depths between 1,000 to 3,000 feet.  The comfort of the squid at such darkness may be because of its eyes, which are the largest of any living creature: 11 inches wide.  Large eyes are more sensitive to light and can detect even small changes in tone.  Extremely light-sensitive vision would serve the squid well in the darkness of these they feed on deep-sea fish and other squid species.

Giant squid are found throughout the world.  They seem to prefer moderate temperatures and are seldom found in either tropical or arctic waters.  Although fierce predators, themselves, giant squid often become food for sperm whales.  These giant whales are, possibly, the giant squid’s only predator.  Much of our knowledge of how the giant squid’s suckers affect its prey come from scars left on sperm whales after their struggle to make a meal out of a giant squid.



Mark Grossman: The Rhea – the Ostrich’s and Emu’s American Cousin

20 February 2014

Africa has its ostrich, and Australia has its emu. However, many are unaware that the Americas have their version of these famous birds: the less-famous rhea.  This large, grey-brown bird is, on first sight, unmistakably the close relative of both the ostrich and emu.


However, the rhea grows to a height of just a bit under 6 feet, shorter than its, sometimes, 9 foot-tall cousin, the ostrich.  The rhea is, also, a comparative feather-weight at just 88 pounds when compared to its, sometimes, 240 pound African cousin.  But the rhea is fast enough to give the ostrich a good “run for its money.”  With a top speed of 40 mph, the rhea might not win a race against the fastest ostriches.  But that’s no disgrace because the ostrich, with its highest speeds clocked at about 43 mph, is the fastest land animal on earth.


Perhaps, speed compensates for flight.  Like the other members of its intercontinental family, the rhea is a completely flightless bird.  It’s preference for the ground earned it the name “rhea” given by German zoologist Paul Möhring, in 1752.  Named after a Greek Titan, Rhea, the name literally means “ground.”

Certainly, Möhring’s name is less creepy that the rhea’s native name, ñandú guazu, meaning spider!  The rhea earned this arachnid nickname through its habit of half extending its wings when it runs.  Although it’s actually using its wings for a bit of aerodynamic assistance, the half extended wings move up and down, as it runs, giving distant observers the impression of a giant spider.

Similar to the ostrich in appearance the rhea not only differs in its smaller size but, also, in its distinctly grey-brown plumage.  Unlike most birds, the rhea has 3 rather than 4 toes.  However, it doesn’t stand out as an oddity among its cousins.  The ostrich is the only bird on earth with only 2 toes.

And there’s another twist.  There are two varieties of rhea, the “Greater” and the “Lesser.”  Both live in about the same locations in South America.  A would-be birdwatcher might be frustrated because the two types aren’t so very different.   In other words, it’s hard for an observer, even at close range, to be able to tell the “greater” from the “lesser.”

Rheas are only found in South America — typically in the countries of Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay, Peru, and Uruguay.  These birds tend to live in flocks of 20 to 25 and make an odd sight when the flock is frightened and running from danger. The individual birds and the flock run with a zigzagging course.  They use their wings as sort of “air rudders” extending one, then, the other to produce the zigzag motion.  As a matter of fact, for a flightless bird, the rhea uses its wings quite a bit.  But, as a running bird, it uses its wings more like a boat’s sails than an aircraft’s wings.


During mating season, the flocks dissolve as males and females pair off and mate. Though normally silent, during mating season, the male rhea makes an extremely loud booming noise.  An individual male will mate with several females.  After mating, the rhea’s home life mirrors that of the Australian emu.   Each female lays her eggs in a single nest — one every other day for a week to ten days, .  Then, the female abandons them to the male, who maintains the nest, sits on the eggs and otherwise cares for the eggs and hatchlings.



These birds have few predators other than human hunters.  In South America, rheas provide feathers for feather dusters, skins for leather goods and, even, eggs and edible meat.  Unlike Australia’s emu, the rhea is not raised as a ranch animal.

[video] Wild Kingdom


Mark Grossman: Bees Seek New Careers – Tired of Sweat-Shop Apiaries and CCD?

13 February 2014

The fate of bees, generally, is a matter of great concern these days.  Bee populations throughout the world, and particularly in the United States and Europe, are dropping rapidly and mysteriously.  Without the bees’ unique service as pollinators, the value of yearly agriculture output would drop by billions of dollars.  Without bees, our food supply would plummet and a good portion of the people on earth would begin to starve – quickly.

The problem has a name CCD, Colony Collapse Disorder, but no one is sure what it is.  The best guess is that bees are weakened by a variety of factors until their immune systems collapse.  Then, they contract, and are killed, by an unrelated disease, leaving researchers to trace back through the maze to the root cause or causes.

But let’s look at the world from the bee’s perspective.  What is it like to live a bee’s life?  Right now, a terrible plague, CCD, is hanging over bee populations all over the world.  And what would the surviving bees say, if asked about their daily life?

Well, I think it would go something like this.

Interviewer: What is it like to work as a pollinator, Ms. Bee?

Bee: Work!  We aren’t worker-bees anymore!  We’re slaves being worked to death.

Interviewer: I don’t understand.  Don’t you live out in nature.  Living and working as you have for thousands of years?

Bee: Natural bee’s life!  Not even close! First, we’re fed chemicals to make us more active during pollination season.  It’s like the stuff they give to athletes before competition.  We don’t recover until about 3 months after the pollination season is over.  And, during pollination season, we’re trucked hundreds of miles on bumpy roads 24-hours a day so we can’t sleep.  And we don’t get any food.  They’re afraid we won’t be aggressive enough pollinators unless were starving.

Interviewer: Yes, but when you get to the fields, you get to chow down . . . ?

Bee: What?!  They release twice as many bees into those fields as are needed to pollinate the available blossoms.  That’s so they can make sure every blossom gets pollinated.  So, most of us get hardly anything to eat.  And, we were starving already.

Interviewer: But, then, they feed you.

Bee: No.  Then, they starve us for another day — so we’ll be “aggressive” about gathering honey.  Remember?    No wonder we’re dropping like flies.  Like I said, it takes months for us to recover after the big pollination season.  The only time we get to eat is when we’re resting off-season.  After a few years of this . . .  Let’s just say I wouldn’t cry if I never saw a blossom again.

[Nervously, the interviewer pauses – afraid to bring up the next subject.]

Interviewer: [cautiously] I want to ask you about . . . pesticides.

Bee: Pesticides! Don’t even get me started about pesticides!

A bee’s life?  If I had these working conditions, I’d look for a new career.  I’m sure many honeybees fall victim to CCD yearly.  But the more I hear about the honeybees’ life in the hive, the more I wonder if some are sneaking away to alternative careers to escape the sweatshop conditions of employment as a “pollinator.”  Honeybee’s have something going for them.  After thousands of years of smelling flowers, they’ve got good noses . . . .



I can imagine honeybees buzzing around windows and ducking into homes and libraries to catch a look at the internet hoping to see one of those ads, “A Career in Health Care – Train in less than . . . 10 minutes?!”  Yes, learn advanced medical diagnostics, for bees, in less than 10 minutes. What can you expect to learn to diagnose?

Tuberculosis, lung, skin and pancreatic cancer.

However, there is one catch.  You must be a honeybee, Apis mellifera! Other species need not apply.  What’s so special about these bees?  They have an unbelievably acute sense of smell.  They can detect airborne molecules in the parts-per-trillion range.  What does that mean?  Well, let’s just say this puts “sniffer dogs” to shame.

But what does smell have to do with diagnosing diseases?  Do people with certain diseases smell?  No!  But their breath carries an odor that indicates the presence of certain diseases.  Technically called “biomarkers” these chemical odors are associated with specific diseases.  Odors that honeybees can detect.

A bee might ask, “What sort of working conditions?”

The bees work in a glass structure designed by Susana Soares of Portugal.  When the patient exhales into that same glass structure, the bees must fly into a smaller chamber (within the larger glass chamber) if they smell disease. [image]

The next question the bee might ask, “What about the training?”

The training takes about 10 minutes.  The bees are exposed to a biomarker odor associated with a particular disease.  With each exposure they are fed a solution of water and sugar until they associate the odor with the reward.

“Reward, huh?” muses the honeybee applicant.  “What sort of benefits can I expect?”  “Are these job secure?”

The answer.  The 10 minute training will last for life.  Of course, your employer has to keep your skills sharp by rewarding you with water and sugar repeatedly.

“So,” the bee muses, “I only have to train once, and I’ll get rewarded almost constantly with water and sugar?”  “Sweet!”

And everyone’s wondering why bees leave their hives and don’t come back.


Honey bees can be trained to detect cancer “in ten minutes”


The DEA may be planning to use bees for security-related activities. “Security-related activities?”  Yes, bees may be rapidly replacing those clumsy flea-bitten beasts on four legs — drug-sniffing dogs.  Remember a bee’s nose put’s the canine sniffer to shame. A small hive of honeybees is easier to carry and care for than those hounds with their endless vaccinations, flea powder, and licensing requirements.

What working conditions can the bees expect? The same cushy conditions as those in medical diagnostics: Job security with constant rewards in the form of food – water and sugar.  But, instead of a glass jar, these bees work in a box. What do they do in the box. The same thing they did in the jar. It’s all about the bee’s amazing sense of smell.

Again, remember those noses. The bees don’t even have to leave home, but live in a mobile home or, rather, a box.  When air is blown through their “buzz box,” their responsive behavior alerts officers to the presence of drugs.

The box works on the same principle as the glass jar in medical diagnostics. The bees are trained to recognize the smell of a particular drug through rewards. When the air blows through the box, if the smell of contraband is detected, the bees react. But the buzz box is an especially easy gig – the bees don’t even have to fly. All they have to do is stick their tongues out. The users will recognize this, not as a sign of disrespect, but as preparation for meal as the bees associate the smell of drugs with a reward.

As far back as 2006, researchers at the Rothamsted Research Centre in Hertfordshire, UK were testing the first prototype of the buzz box.  It is being manufactured and marketed by Inscentinel a related company. Inscentinel’s General Manager, Rachael Carson, says that this technology could be used to detect more than drugs and might even be used to monitor food quality.

Rothamsted Research Centre


But with research also emphasizing security-related applications, such as the detection of TNT, Semtex, gunpowder and other explosives, another related career will soon be open to our job-seeking honeybees.



Remember the sign that used to say, “We’re looking for a few good dogs.” Well, the word “dogs” has been crossed out and “bees” written-in above it.

The same buzz box in which bees detect the scent of drugs, works just as well with the scent of explosives. This opens a wide range of civilian and military careers to our career-switching bees. The “B Teams” (bee teams) in the buzz boxes are building an impressive test record detecting explosives hidden in shipments passing through busy cargo airports.

The big losers here are the “former drug-sniffing” dogs. There may be a canine unemployment issue as man’s best friend starts pounding the pavement looking for work after losing out to the new, cheaper, and less care-intensive honeybee.


American researchers have, and are, experimented with mine-searching bees as part of combat landmine clearance. However, landmines can remain hidden in the ground long after hostilities have ended. During the peace, after war, the job of finding and removing “abandoned” landmines is called “humanitarian demining.”


Croatian researchers heard about the honeybee’s amazing nose and are, now, training bees to find unexploded landmines. About 750 square kilometers (466 square miles) of Croatia and the Balkans may still be filled with mines from the Balkan wars in the 1990’s.

Nikola Kezic, a professor at Zagreb University and an expert on the behavior of honeybees, has proposed an experiment: Bees have an almost perfect sense of smell – one that can quickly detect the scent of explosives. Can the insect be trained through food rewards to detect the smell of TNT?  TNT is the most frequent explosive used in the landmines.

The problem is that the smell of TNT evaporates very quickly. Too quickly for dogs or rats to detect. (Yes, rats have been used in landmine detection.) However, neither of these animals have a nose anywhere near as sensitive as that of the honeybee.

For these experiments, the bees will be trained by mixing a small quantity of TNT in with food — water and sugar. After the bees learn to associate the smell of TNT with food, they will be released into a field in which small quantities of TNT have been placed in various locations. If they can locate the TNT in the field, the bees should be able to smell the traces of TNT from a buried land mine. The Croatian researchers are optimistic about the early test results.

And speaking of “humanitarian” applications, let’s not forget the welfare or our dogs (and, apparently, even our rats). This is one career that the dogs and rats will be happy to leave behind. Although dogs can, sometimes, sniff out land mines they are rather heavy animals. Weight on the surface of the ground — above a landmine — doesn’t promise anything good for the locating canine. If a particular dog is successful in locating landmines, it tends to enjoy a very short career.

In contrast the bees remain airborne, and can not only detect TNT, but live to sniff another day.


At least one bee researcher expressed dismay with all of these new careers for the honeybee. The fear is that putting honeybees in these unfamiliar boxes and jars could cause stress that would affect the insect’s performance.  However, when you review the “unnatural” life of the modern “pollinating” honeybee, nothing about any of these new careers could be remotely stressful. So far, the bees seem to thoroughly enjoy the light work schedule and frequent rewards.

I wouldn’t be surprised if, someday soon, the almond orchards of California will have a serious honeybee shortage. CCD? Sure. Bees are dying in record numbers. But, just maybe, more than a few are escaping to alternative careers with comfortable working conditions, generous benefits, and long term security. Maybe even bees know a “better deal” when they find it . . . or smell it.