dec 2013 / last mod nov 2016 / greg goebel

* 22 entries including: Cold War (series), mass smallsat launches (series), Albuquerque road trip (series), tracking housecats & cougar comeback, a world full of cameras, viruses co-opted for body defenses, Chinese DF-21S antiship ballistic missile, schistosomiasis vaccines, robotic assistants, Israel Defense Forces (IDF) in 21st century, & Bluetooth LE for micro-location.

banner of the month

[FRI 27 DEC 13] THE COLD WAR (5)
[FRI 20 DEC 13] THE COLD WAR (4)
[FRI 13 DEC 13] THE COLD WAR (3)
[FRI 06 DEC 13] THE COLD WAR (2)


* NEWS COMMENTARY FOR DECEMBER 2013: As an encouraging sign for the coming year, on 26 December US President Barack Obama signed into law a bipartisan budget deal that eased spending cuts and put off the chance of another government shutdown for at least two years. The deal restored about $63 billion USD over two years to the Pentagon and other domestic agencies, that being about a third of the cuts from the painful budget sequester. The bill also established about $85 billion USD in savings.

The fact that the administration could get a budget deal through Congress at all is a relief, but one that has to be taken in perspective -- fights looming over extension of the borrowing limit, the threshold likely to be reached by early March. 2014 is also a mid-term election year; one might hope it will result in the retirement of extremists in Congress, but there's no guarantee of that, and the election process itself will take up a good deal of the Obama Administration's time and energy.

* The flap over the US National Security Agency's (NSA) PRISM intelligence-gathering system continues to sputter on. On 16 December, Judge Richard Leon of the Federal district court in Washington DC judicially condemned PRISM, calling it "indiscriminate", "likely unconstitutional", and "Orwellian". His 68-page decision was in favor of a legal challenge by a conservative activist on the basis that PRISM violated the Fourth Amendment of the US Constitution, which forbids unreasonable search and seizure. Judge Leon suspended his ruling pending an appeal by the US Department of Justice.

On 27 December, Judge William Pauley of the Federal district court in New York, shot back with a 53-page ruling in favor of the NSA, Pauley writing: "The right to be free from searches and seizures is fundamental, but not absolute." -- and elaborating:


Every day, people voluntarily surrender personal and seemingly-private information to trans-national corporations, which exploit that data for profit. Few think twice about it, even though it is far more intrusive than bulk telephony metadata collection. There is no evidence that the Government has used any of the bulk telephony metadata it collected for any purpose other than investigating and disrupting terrorist attacks.


The challenge had been made by the American Civil Liberties Union, which expressed "disappointment" at the ruling and promised to appeal. The Obama Administration, in contrast, made its pleasure known, though Obama has been floating notions of a review of NSA procedures.

The matter continues to bounce up to the US Supreme Court. Given that the high court seems to be balanced to the center-Right, it is a fair if not certain bet that the final decision will be in favor of the NSA. After all, the government could legally monitor highway traffic in an anonymous fashion; what difference is there from a legal point of view for similarly monitoring network traffic in an anonymous fashion? Of course, that question is for the justices to decide, and second-guessing their decision is no more than an amusement.

* As reported by THE ECONOMIST, people have the ability to see humor in exasperations. Bribery, for example, is a persistent problem in India, but Indians have acquired the perfect response to funny business: pay off in funny money.

That's the idea behind the "zero-rupee" note, an altered 50-rupee note, 50 rupees being equivalent to 80 cents in US currency. The bogus note is clearly marked "ZERO RUPEES", along with "ELIMINATE CORRUPTION AT ALL LEVELS" and "I PROMISE TO NEITHER ACCEPT NOR GIVE BRIBES". Vijay Anand, founder of 5th Pillar, an anti-bribery campaign that started issuing the bills in 2007, calls them a "non-violent weapon of non co-operation".

zero-rupee note

More than 2.5 million zero-rupee notes have been distributed, and activists from Argentina, Nepal, Mexico, and Benin have contacted 5th Pillar with inquiries. In Yemen, which ranks near the bottom of corruption indexes, a group is printing "honest riyal" notes, to be handed out in schools and universities.

In places where bribes are extorted by threat of force, handing back a bogus note might be bad for one's health -- but in places where bribery is simply a damned nuisance, mockery and shaming has its place. The very fact that the notes are being produced by a wide-scale campaign lends weight to them. Shaazka Beyerle, an expert on civil resistance campaigns, says that using the zero-rupee note offers protection, since it shows the person is part of a larger movement. It sends a message, that the first time an official gets such a snub in response to asking for a bribe is likely not going to be the last: "Get used to it."



* SMALLSAT FRENZY (3): Besides the satellites piggybacking on UniSat-5, the Dnepr launch included two other groups of smallsats, mostly CubeSats. Three satellites were launched as part of the University of Toronto Institute for Aerospace Studies (UTIAS) Nanosatellite Launch Services program, the set being designated "NLS 9".

The first in the NLS-9 set was "Lem" AKA "BRITE-PL1" AKA "CanX-3C" from Poland's Copernicus Astronomical Center and Space Research Center. It was the third in the BRITE series of satellites to be launched to perform photometric analyses of the most luminous stars in the sky. It was named after Polish sci-fi writer Stanislaus Lem. BRITE is a joint program between Canadian, Polish, and Austrian institutions. The University of Toronto is leading the program, with the Universities of Graz and Vienna in Austria and Poland's Copernicus Astronomical Center participating. Funding has been provided by the Canadian Space Agency as well as the Polish and Austrian governments. The complete constellation will consist of six satellites: two Austrian, two Canadian, and two Polish.

The first two BRITE satellites launched were the Austrian spacecraft, UniBRITE and TUGSAT-1, sent into orbit on an Indian PSLV booster in February 2013, the primary payload being the SARAL oceanography satellite. A second Polish BRITE satellite, named "Heweliusz" after a Polish astronomer, is to be lofted on a Chinese booster in 2014.

BRITE satellite

All the BRITE satellites are based on the Canadian Generic Nanosatellite Bus -- which looks like a 1U CubeSat, but with dimensions doubled to 20 centimeters (8 inches) on a side, being described as about the size of a toaster or car battery. Each BRITE satellite carries a three-centimeter (1.2 inch) CCD-based telescope and weighs about 10 kilograms (22 pounds).

The second payload in NLS-9 was "GOMX-1", a 2U CubeSat from GOMSpace of Denmark. It was a technology demonstrator, the primary goal being to evaluate the use of CubeSats to handle aircraft Automatic Dependent Surveillance Broadcast (ADS-B) tracking signals. GOMX-1 also carried a camera, and helped validate the "CubeSat Space Protocol" -- an open-source communications software package that was previously tested by the AAUSat-3 spacecraft, carried on the PSLV booster that put SARAL into orbit.

The third payload in NLS-9 was "WNISAT-1" from Japan's Weather News Incorporated. It also resembled a scaled-up 1U CubeSat, being 27 centimeters (10.6 inches) on a side and with a launch mass of about 10 kilograms (22 pounds). It was effectively a mini weather satellite, carrying a payload of a visible-light imager, an infrared imager, and a laser-based atmospheric sounder to obtain atmospheric profiles of carbon. It was powered by body-mounted solar cells and had three-axis stabilization, using a gravity boom, magnetic actuators, and reaction wheels.

Dnepr launch, 21 November 2013

The remaining fourteen payloads on the Dnepr launch were placed by the Dutch commercial provider "Innovative Solutions in Space (ISIS / ISISpace)". ISIS also provided all the CubeSat deployment systems ("ISIPods"), except for the CubeSats indirectly deployed by UniSat-5. These nanosatellites included:

The Dnepr launch, with its 32 satellites, did top the Minotaur 1 launch of 29 satellites the previous day, but the Dnepr itself only released 23 satellites, the rest of the satellites then being released from their host satellites in turn. To handle the large number of satellites, the Dnepr used a modified fairing which had been split into two platforms. DubaiSat-2 and STSAT-3 were mounted on the upper platform, with the remaining satellites and the CubeSat dispensers mounted to the lower platform.


[FRI 27 DEC 13] THE COLD WAR (5)

* THE COLD WAR (5): Winston Churchill had long been an enemy of Bolshevism, having helped support White forces working against the Reds during the Russian Civil War two decades earlier, and never having had much good to say about Stalin and his ugly regime. However, on the evening of 21 June 1941, Churchill announced to dinner guests that the USSR was going to attacked, and declared that Britain and the United States should do everything to help the Soviets. It was an abrupt turnaround, but Churchill could only say: "If Hitler invaded Hell, I would make at least a favorable reference to the Devil in the House of Commons."

On 22 June 1941, German forces invaded the USSR, smashing through Soviet defenses along a broad front. Churchill knew there were those who thought letting the Red and Nazi predators bleed each other dry was to Britain's benefit. He disagreed, pointing out that once Hitler swallowed up the USSR, there would be nothing to prevent his absolute domination of Europe.

US President Franklin Roosevelt was more cautious in speaking out, but Roosevelt felt that the United States should go to the aid of the Soviet Union. As Oscar Cox, one of the administration's staffers, put it in a memo to the president: "Our practical choice is clear: whether or not we like Russia's internal and other policies, we will aid Russia, in our national interest, to eliminate the far more immediate danger to our security from Hitler's already partially executed plans to rule the world."

The USA was already providing military assistance to the British under the "Lend-Lease" program, passed in March, in which the USA financially underwrote and shipped war material to the UK. Now the president wanted to provide similar assistance to the Soviets, though at the outset they would have to pay for what they got. On 23 June, the US government added an American declaration of support for the USSR's struggle; the Soviets would be formally granted Lend-Lease aid in September.

Roosevelt was aware that Stalin's rule was a tyranny, but the president's perception was that the Soviets were not particularly interested in far-flung conquests. As FDR put it, a week after the invasion: "Now comes this Russian diversion. If it is more than just that, it will mean the liberation of Europe from Nazi domination -- and at the same time I do not think we need to worry about any possibility of Russian domination."

The citizens of the Baltic States might have disagreed with that assessment, and Roosevelt has long been criticized for what has been often judged his naivete about America's Soviet ally. In reality, he had few sticks to use against the USSR, and so he had little alternative but to rely on carrots. Certainly, no matter how troublesome the Soviets were, they were still killing Germans, and every German they killed was one less that Americans would eventually have to fight. If American weapons helped the Soviets kill even more Germans, or helped them kill so many Germans that Americans wouldn't have to fight at all, all the better -- and there was no sense in using hard bargaining against the Kremlin.

Besides, Roosevelt saw the forced alliance between the USSR and the West as an opportunity to bring the Soviet Union out of its isolation, to work as a partner in shaping the post-imperialist, post-colonialist world that he saw as following the war. In hindsight, Roosevelt was reaching too far in his inclination to the optimistic, being insufficiently aware that Stalin was more thug than statesman. Still, on the basis of FDR's knowledge, his assumptions were perfectly reasonable, and for the time being, America had every reason to take a soft line with the USSR.

However, all that Britain and America could provide for the moment was moral encouragement. Britain was slowly rebuilding strength after the disasters in the West during the spring of 1940, and America's mobilization for war was only then ramping up. There was also the problem of getting war material to the USSR, since shipping was in short supply and suffering from German U-boat attacks in the Atlantic. Churchill judged that it would be impossible to deliver any serious quantity of supplies before mid-1942.

Given the staggering disasters being inflicted on the Red Army by German forces in the early months of the war in the East, few in London or Washington were confident that the Soviet Union would survive no matter what was done. That made no difference. Even if the Hitler won, his victory would have to be made as expensive as possible. Altruistic or cynical, either way the logic behind military aid to the USSR was hard to argue with. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* WINGS & WEAPONS: Iranian news outlets announced the introduction of a new surface to air missile (SAM), the "Sayyad-2 (Hunter-2)", leading to the customary game of trying to figure out what the thing really is. Iran has long been under arms embargoes, but despite the severe problems of the Iranian economy, Iran has been able to do a fair job of producing their own weapons -- typically derivatives of foreign-made weapons.

The earlier "Sayyad-1" SAM was introduced in the late 1990s. It turned out to be a derivative of the Chinese HQ-2, itself a copy of the Soviet S-75 Dvina AKA NATO "SA-2 Guideline", a first-generation SAM. While the Sayyad-1's airframe remained much like that of the SA-2, a long-obsolete weapons system, it apparently had a much improved guidance and fire-control system.

Sayyad-1 & Sayyad-2

Although the Sayyad-2 was originally announced as a refinement of the Sayyad-1, which its name certainly suggested, photos have shown that it's clearly a derivative of the US-made SM-1 / RIM-66 naval SAM. The SM-1, although its design roots went back as far as those of the SA-2, was a second-generation SAM, which Iran had obtained during the reign of the Shah.

Iran has developed their own version of the SM-1, the "Mehrab", having announced test launches in 2012. The Sayyad-2 appears to be a surface-launched variant of the Mehrab, being fired from a quadruple-canister launcher mounted on the back of a truck. It is a shorter-range weapon than the Sayyad-1, a complement to it and not a replacement. Just how effective the Sayyad-2 is, who knows? Iranian sources claim it has an advanced guidance system, including a "home on jamming" capability to deal with countermeasures, but until the missile is used in combat, there's no telling how lethal it is.

* As reported by AVIATION WEEK, Dassault Aviation of France is now preparing to introduce the latest in its long-standing series of business jets, the "Falcon 5X" -- the top of the Falcon line, with seating for up to 16 passengers, and a maximum range of 9,630 kilometers (5,985 miles / 5,200 NMI) with a half passenger load. It is a clean-sheet design, not a derivative of any earlier Falcon variant.

Falcon 5X

The configuration of the Falcon 5X is typical of modern business jets: a low-wing aircraft with all-swept flight surfaces, featuring winglets and a mid-mounted tailplane, plus a turbofan engine on each side of the tail and tricycle landing gear. However, compared to competitors such as the Gulfstream G280 and Bombardier Challenger 300, it has a substantially lower empty weight -- being made of aluminum alloy and composites -- plus engines with at least 10% greater fuel efficiency -- Safran Snecma Silvercrest 1-D turbofans. Cruise speed is Mach 0.8, with competitors flying at 0.85 to 0.9 Mach, but Dassault's market research indicated that the edge in speed wasn't as important as range, comfort, and lower cost.

The Falcon 5X features a glass cockpit based on the Honeywell Primus, the overall avionics system being named "EASyIII"; an Elbit head-up display is standard, as is an Elbit wide-angle infrared camera in the nose for night / foul weather vision. Passengers get wraparound seats, large windows, and plug-in ports / wi-fi for entertainment gear. The aircraft is designed for easy maintenance. Initial flight of the Falcon 5X prototype is expected in 2015, with certification in 2016.

* As reported by BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK, Singapore Airlines (SAL) was noted for operating the longest commercial airline route, from Singapore to Newark, New Jersey, a flight of about 16,580 kilometers (10,300 miles), taking 19 hours. Not any more: SAL, bleeding red ink on the service -- even though a round-trip ticket cost almost $11,000 USD -- halted it on 25 November. Now travelers making that trip have to lay over in Frankfurt, adding five hours to the journey. On 22 October, SAL had already killed off the second-longest route, from Singapore to Los Angeles, a distance of about 14,000 kilometers (8,700 miles).

SAL started both services in 2004, using the four-engine Airbus A340 jetliner, configured for 181 seats in a business / super economy configuration. That was a relatively modest passenger load for a wide-body jetliner, but the long-range configuration of the A340 necessarily traded off payload for fuel load. The service was popular at first, but then the economic crisis hit in 2007, with firms cutting back on business travel, increasingly relying more on teleconferencing when they could. In 2008, SAL reconfigured the A340s to pure business class, with 100 seats; what the plan was in doing so is unclear, what is clear is that it didn't work. In between cutbacks on long-distance travel and the quadrupling of jet fuel prices from 2004 to present, the long-range routes simply were not practical.

Airbus A340

Ultra-long-range jetliners have to carry a high ratio of fuel to passenger payload, meaning that it has to expend energy just to haul fuel; the A340 is uncompetitive, and so its manufacture was halted in 2011 after 20 years of production, with 377 machines built. That doesn't sound so bad and certainly Airbus made a profit off of it, but it was the shortest-lived of all Airbus jetliner classes, with less than half the sales of the twin-engine A330. SAL is now trading A340s back in to Airbus as part of a purchase deal for more A380 super-jumbo jetliners; the trade-in doesn't seem like such a good deal for Airbus, since there's not a strong market for used A340s. In any case, for now the longest commercial airline route is run by Quantas, from Dallas, Texas, to Sydney, Australia -- a distance of 13,800 kilometers (8,575 miles), flying the Boeing 747-400ER jetliner.



* ON THE PROWL: The notion of tracking the lives of big cats in the wild by tagging them with electronic collars is nothing unfamiliar. As reported by BBC WORLD Online, researchers at the Structure & Motion Laboratory of the Royal Veterinary College (RVC) in the UK, having tracked the movements of cheetahs in Botswana, got to thinking it might be interesting to see how domestic cats got on with their lives.

Working with assistance from the BBC, the RVC researchers set up a study program to monitor 50 cats in the village of Shamley Green, near London, on a round-the-clock basis. The first thing to do was to miniaturize the lab's tracking technology to be light enough for a housecat to haul around on its collar. The tagging modules had a camera, a GPS receiver, and a radio transmitter; to conserve battery life, the tags also had a motion sensor so they would go into "sleep" mode if kitty decided to take a catnap.

The researchers set up a command center lined with computer displays to monitor the cats -- Ginger, Oscar, Obi, Toby, Coco, Claude, and so on -- and wrote software to map out each cat's movements overlaid on a map of Shamley Green. The owners of the cats had access to the maps so they could track where their cats went. The researchers were a bit surprised to find that the cats generally didn't range too far, and were careful about crossing into each other's territory. In some cases where there was overlap between territories, they took care not to venture into the "disputed area" at the same time.

While it was no surprise that a cat will go through the "cat flap" in some other cat's house to steal food -- playing "cat burglar", so to speak -- or just check the place out, the researchers were surprised to find out how often they did so. The researchers speculate that cats are inclined to check out other places to live in case they decide they don't like where they're living. Another surprise was that the cats did much less hunting than expected; the 50 cats only scored 20 "kills" in a week's observations. It appears, to no surprise, that housecats like the easy life and don't feel like unnecessarily exerting themselves.

* As reported by an article from THE NEW YORK TIMES ("A Glamorous Killer Returns" by Guy Gugliotta, 10 June 2013), American wildlife researchers are increasingly interested in the roamings of a bigger cat, the American cougar. That's the name it's most widely known by, other labels being "mountain lion", "puma", "panther", "painter", and "catamount" -- for "cat of the mountain", so named by early settlers because of the beast's inclination to stake out a mountain as its territory. Officially, it's named Puma concolor.

Cougars were generally extinct east of the Rockies by 1900, and out West they were "varmints" into the late 1960s, shot on sight. Now the cougar is staging a comeback, recolonizing the Black Hills of South Dakota, the North Dakota Badlands and the Pine Ridge country of northwestern Nebraska. There have been sightings in Missouri, Minnesota, Arkansas, and Louisiana. Total population of the cougar in the USA is estimated loosely at about 30,000. The public seems to be welcoming the return of the cougar -- but that might not last long once the big cats start killing domestic animals or pets. They rarely attack humans, but it's not unheard of.

cat of the mountain

The cougar is most closely related to the cheetah among the felines. A population of the common ancestral feline arrived in the Americas about 300,000 years ago. Hunting was good, and the cougar eventually made its way all through the Americas. An adult cougar weighs about 72 kilograms (160 pounds), but it is an efficient killer and can take down larger prey, such as elk. With the booming population of deer in America, cougars still have plenty to eat. They're not all that particular about where they live, as long as it gives them places to keep out of sight: mountains, forests, prairie, swamp, desert. Cougars are solitary predators; kits will stay with momma for about two years, and then will go off to find their own territory.

Ranchers do not seem overly worried about cougars, even though the big cats can be bloodthirsty in their attacks on sheep. The reason is that cougars are not so hard to control: if they make nuisances of themselves, they can be hunted down by dogs and chased into the trees, where they are easily killed. Stealthy by nature, the survivors learn to avoid humans and their livestock. Given the return of the cougar to its old hunting grounds, it's likely that cougars will on occasion be troublesome, then being culled back to get rid of the troublemakers, the survivors becoming more cautious. In any case, the cougar does appear to be back to stay.



* A BILLION DIGITAL EYES: As discussed by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("The People's Panopticon", 16 November 2013), at least a billion phones with digital cameras built into them were shipped in 2012; digital cameras remain popular and cheap as well, with a high-resolution pocket camera with video capability now going for a hundred bucks. Put simply, a large proportion of the people on this planet, maybe even the majority, have a digital camera.

That turns out to be something of a creeping revolution. Consider a citizen of fifty years ago trying to imagine a world where most people carried film cameras; it would be logistically impractical of course, making film development one of the world's biggest industries, but more significantly, it would seem more or less pointless. Why clutter up the world with mountains of snapshots?

In an age when we can take as many pictures as we like just for the cost of batteries, with the photos easily downloaded and viewed on a PC, sent over email and put in online archives, the mountains of snapshots make a lot more sense. Want to copy a page of a book? Take a picture of it. See a sign with information worth remembering? Don't write it down, take a snap. See something distant that can't be made out? Shoot it and then blow it up at home to get a better look. Somebody's being a public nuisance? Get it on video.

Taken this principle to an extreme, there are a few people who are "life loggers", continually tracking their every move with a camera -- clip-on life logging cameras are now available -- and archiving them in the digital cloud. Some of them are looking forward to the new Google Glass headset camera as an improved tool for life logging.

Life loggers are unusual, but there are professional reasons to adopt similar practices. Police are increasingly adopting wearable cameras, early results of tests showing, to no real surprise, that police are more conscientious when they know they are being recorded, and the public is less likely to pointlessly hassle cops in return. The same principle applies to any professional exposed to legal liability: doctors, repairmen, couriers, and so on. On the other side of that coin, citizens accosted by the law or others may obtain security by making a video of the event. Life logging stands to be extremely important to patients, particularly the elderly, with impaired memories.

The ubiquitous digital camera gets even more useful when the camera can assess imagery and provide a user interface to digital functions. Google sees Glass as a pathfinder in such technology, Glass being used to access a range of services -- becoming something like a head-mounted smartphone, for example giving us driving directions. Over the long run, it could get ever smarter: we might be able to look at a bird, for example, with Glass telling us what species it is.

That's asking a bit much for the technology at present. Some skeptics who have evaluated Glass find it klunky and overhyped, more a toy for geeks than a truly practical tool. Still, Google is pumping a lot of money into Glass and sees it as having revolutionary potential over the long run.

If we do accept such a revolutionary future, it comes with a price: potential intrusiveness. It would be a very nice thing for people to be able to record and then easily access the stream of their lives; however, it means other people might get their hands on that information. In addition, in recording our own lives, we end up recording the people around us as well. Camera stalking is already a fact of life, and Google Glass promises to make it a lot worse. Add to that the emergence of face-recognition software, and we get the threat of stalkers being able to identify their targets. Governments are also now using face-recognition software in investigations, leading to the prospect of a time when we can't show our faces in public without being tagged and tracked.

The benefits of a camera-enabled world are so obvious that there's no stopping it; it's just that we need to consider the implications. Governments are already wrestling with the issues. However, given a creeping revolution that nobody really foresaw, we may not be able to figure out just what we've got ourselves into until we're in it over the boot-tops.



* SMALLSAT FRENZY (2): As for the Dnepr booster payloads launched on 21 November, they ranged in size from hundreds of kilograms down to pocket items. At the top of the scale, "DubaiSat 2" was jointly developed by Satrec Initiative (SI) of South Korea and the Emirates Institution for Advanced Science & Technology (EIAST), an arm of the Dubai government. DubaiSat 2 had a launch mass of 300 kilograms (660 pounds) and was based on the SI-300 standard satellite bus, with a Hall-effect ion thruster for station-keeping. The payload was a "High Resolution Advanced Imaging System (HiRAS)" multispectral imager, with a resolution down to a meter. The Dubai government planned to use the imagery for environmental projects, urban planning, infrastructure, telecommunications, and electrical power projects.

DubaiSat 2

The second primary payload, the South Korean "STSAT 3", was a multi-function satellite, also built by SI, with a launch mass of 170 kilograms (375 pounds). It carried a payload of two instruments: The "Multipurpose Infrared Imaging System (MIRIS)", and the "Compact Imaging Spectrometer (COMIS)". MIRIS had two infrared imagers, one to scan the cosmic infrared background, the other to perform infrared imaging of the Earth. COMIS was an imaging spectrometer to perform hyperspectral Earth observations.

The third primary payload, "SkySat 1", was built by a group of Stanford University graduates who had flown CubeSats, applying similar minimalist principles to a larger spacecraft. SkySat 1 had a launch mass of 100 kilograms (220 pounds), and carried an imager with a resolution of 1 meter. It was the first of 24 satellites planned Skybox Imaging, the firm planning to offer high-resolution imagery with rapid refresh to provide customers with up-to-date views of cities, farms and industrial sites.

* Moving down the size scale, the "AprizeSat-7" and "AprizeSat-8" microsatellites, with a mass of 12 kilograms (26 pounds) each and built by SpaceQuest of Canada, were the ninth and tenth of a growing network of satellites operated by AprizeSat INC to provide store-dump messaging communications, with some of the satellites also carrying an Automatic Identification System (AIS) payload to track maritime shipping -- AIS having been discussed here in 2011.

The "UniSat-5" satellite, operated by the "Group of Astrodynamics for the Use of Space Systems (GAUSS)" at Rome's La Sapienza University, was the fifth and largest of the UniSat series, with a launch mass of 28 kilograms (62 pounds). The previous satellite in the series, UniSat-4, was lost in a Dnepr launch failure in 2006. UniSat-5 was a technology demonstrator, carrying a biology experiment and an Earth imager.

UniSat-5 also deployed four CubeSats and the first four "PocketQube" picosats. The four CubeSats included:

The PocketQube standard was developed by Professor Bob Twiggs, a professor at Morehead State University in Kentucky University -- one of the inventors of the CubeSat standard, in partnership with CalPoly's Jordi Puig-Suari. A PocketQube is basically an eighth-size CubeSat, with a single-unit PocketQube being 5 centimeters (2 inches) on a side. The PocketQubes can be multiples of the "1p" base size. The four PocketQubes deployed included:


[FRI 20 DEC 13] THE COLD WAR (4)

* THE COLD WAR (4): Although the sniping between the Nazis and the Communists continued at full bore after the end of the Spanish Civil War, there was less to it than met the ear. Hitler engaged in a campaign of aggression, occupying Austria in the spring of 1938, and similarly occupied Czechoslovakia in early 1939. The British and the French had been spineless in the face of Hitler's seizure of Czechoslovakia, a fact that did not go unnoticed in Moscow.

Stalin went through the motions of discussions with the British and French over collective security, while in the meantime he conducted secret diplomacy with Nazi Germany, seeking a deal. In August 1939, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union signed a non-aggression pact, with secret clauses giving the USSR a free hand in the occupation of the Baltic states -- Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia -- and agreement on the partition of Poland. Some Communists in other nations finally saw Stalin for what he was, a cynical tyrant, though most Reds went into denial and simply toed the party line, even when it meant they had to perform handflips to do it. Intelligent observers knew the pact meant war.

Germany invaded Poland on 1 September 1939, with Britain and France declaring war on Germany in turn. It did the Poles little good; the Red Army then invaded from the east on 17 September. Within six weeks, Poland had ceased to exist. The NKVD moved in behind Soviet soldiers, and arrests, deportations, and executions began. Roughly 15,000 Polish officers were trucked off to Katyn Forest near Smolensk and were not seen alive again.

Neither Hitler nor Stalin believed the rapprochement between their two countries was anything but temporary, both knowing war was inevitable. Stalin was alarmed by the efficiency of Germany forces in crushing the Poles, and sought to improve his defensive position. He had attempted to negotiate with the Finns to obtain strategically important Finnish territory that would help defend Leningrad, in the north on the Baltic. After two months of negotiations that went nowhere, on 30 November 1939 Stalin invaded Finland.

The Soviet offensive was badly planned and executed, the results being disastrous for the Red Army, the Finns all but annihilating several Soviet divisions. The fighting continued through a harsh winter, with the Soviets finally regrouping and overwhelming Finnish resistance. An armistice went into effect on 9 March 1940, with Finland ceding important territories to the USSR. The Soviet Union was seen over the world as a villain; worse, an inept villain, suggesting to Hitler that defeating the Soviets might not be all that difficult.

For the moment, however, Hitler had to protect his flank in the West. On 8 April 1940, Germany invaded Denmark and Norway, soon conquering them. On 10 May 1940, Germany invaded France; much to everyone's surprise, France was quickly defeated. Stalin closed down Soviet embassies as the nations of the West fell to the German juggernaut, in recognition that these nations no longer had an independent existence. The rapid success of Germany military power in the west made an unpleasant impression on Stalin. The German preoccupation in the West still presented an opportunity, and of course Stalin made use of it. In June 1940, Stalin swallowed up the Baltic states, within a few months annexing Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.

Hitler had expected Britain to quit the war, but British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was determined to fight on. That lulled Stalin into a false sense of security; he did not believe that Hitler would attack the USSR while he was still preoccupied in the west. Actually, Hitler was already planning to invade the USSR. British intelligence got wind of such plans and informed the Soviets, but to no surprise the reports were dismissed; the British had too much obvious reason to lie.

Hitler was also talking to the Japanese, in principle his allies in the "Berlin-Rome-Tokyo Axis", to seek assistance in an attack on the Soviet Union. The Japanese, however, had got the worst of border clashes with the Red Army in the Far East in 1938 and 1939, and were not interested in having a fight with the Soviets, their sights being increasingly set on the capture of the colonial possessions of the Western powers in the Far East. Japan would sign a non-aggression treaty with the USSR in April 1941, reducing if not eliminating the threat to the Soviet Union from that quarter. In the meantime, relations between the Germans and the Soviets were going from bad to worse. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* November was an unusually active month for space activities, partly because of the open Mars launch window:

-- 05 NOV 13 / MANGALYANN -- An ISRO Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) was launched from Sriharikota at 0908 GMT (local time - 5:30) to put the "Mangalyann" (Sanskrit for "Mars Craft") Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) into space on India's first deep-space mission. The MOM had a launch mass of 1,335 kilograms (2,950 pounds) and carried a suite of five instruments, including a medium-resolution color imager; a thermal infrared spectrometer to analyze Mars surface composition; a particle analyzer to examine particle fluxes in Mars orbit; a photometer to observe hydrogen and deuterium in the atmosphere; and a methane sensor.

PSLV MOM launch from Sriharikota

The MOM was placed in an elliptical Earth orbit, the spacecraft's propulsion system gradually bringing it up to escape velocity over a month's time, departing on 1 December 2013; it was to arrive in Mars orbit on 24 September 2014, 299 days after launch. The unusual flight profile was due to launch on the PSLV booster instead of the more powerful GSLV booster, the GSLV not being mature enough risk the mission on.

-- 06 NOV 13 / SOYUZ ISS 37S (ISS) -- A Soyuz booster was launched from Baikonur in Kazakhstan at 0414 GMT (local time - 6) to put the "Soyuz ISS 37S" AKA "Soyuz TMA-11M" manned space capsule into orbit on an International Space Station (ISS) support mission. The capsule crew included commander Mikhail Tyurin (3rd space flight); NASA flight engineer Rick Mastracchio (4th space flight); and Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata (4th space flight).

They docked with the ISS Rassvet module at 1027 GMT, six hours after launch, joining the six-member "ISS Expedition 38" crew of Oleg Kotov, Michael Hopkins, Sergey Ryazanskiy, Fyodor Yurchikhin, Luca Parmitano, and Karen Nyberg. The unusual total of nine crew and three Soyuz capsules at the ISS was due to the Soyuz launch being adapted from usual practice to permit carriage of the Olympic torch for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. The torch was returned with Soyuz TMA-09M, with Yurchikin, Parmitano, and Nyberg, on 10 November.

-- 11 NOV 13] RU BK / RADUGA 1M -- An International Launch Services Proton M Briz M booster was launched from Baikonur at 2346 GMT (next day local time - 6) to put a Raduga 1M military geostationary communications satellite into orbit.

-- 18 NOV 13 / MAVEN -- An Atlas 5 booster was launched from Cape Canaveral at 1828 GMT (local time + 5) to put the NASA "Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN)" probe into space. The MAVEN orbiter was designed to study the upper atmosphere of Mars and determine the role the loss of atmospheric gas to space has played in changing the Martian climate through time.

MAVEN Mars orbiter

MAVEN had a launch mass of 900 kilograms (1,990 pounds) and was derived from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter probe, launched in 2005. MAVEN's instrument suite included:

MAVEN was capable of aerobraking, both for orbital insertion and for a series of shallow dips into the upper Martian atmosphere for samplings. The Atlas 5 was in the "401" configuration, with a 4 meter (13.1 foot) payload fairing, no solid rocket boosters, and a single-engine Centaur upper stage.

-- 20 NOV 13 / STPSAT 3, CUBESATS x 28 -- A US Air Force Minotaur 1 booster was launched from Wallops Island on the Virginia coast at 0115 GMT (previous day local time + 5) to put the "STPSat 3" satellite into orbit, along with 28 CubeSats. STPSat 3 was made by Ball Aerospace for the US Air Force Space & Missile Systems Center, Space Development & Test Directorate (SMC/SD). The satellite was based on a standardized smallsat bus, and had a launch mass of about 180 kilograms (395 pounds), being described as about the size of mini-refrigerator. The number of payloads launched was a record, though it was broken a day later.

-- 21 NOV 13 / SMALLSATS x 32 -- A Russian Dnepr booster, a converted SS-18 SATAN missile, was launched from Dombarovsky at 0710 GMT (local time - 4) to put a set of smallsats into orbit, including the "DubaiSat 2" Earth observation satellite for the United Arab Emirates, the "STSAT 3" remote sensing and astronomy satellite for South Korea, the "SkySat 1" Earth observation satellite for Skybox Imaging of California, and a set of CubeSats, payloads being provided by 18 nations.

-- 22 NOV 13 / SWARM x 3 -- A Rockot booster was launched from Plesetsk at 1202 GMT (local time - 4) to put the ESA "Swarm" satellite constellation into orbit, consisting of three satellites placed in different orbits to monitor the Earth's geomagnetic field.

SWARM triplet in launch prep

The three satellites were built by EADS Astrium and had a launch mass of 470 kilograms (1,040 pounds) each. They were carefully characterized for their own magnetic signatures so that subtle observations of the Earth's geomagnetic field could be sorted out. All were put into low Earth orbit, with one placed above the other two, and the two sharing the lower orbit flying in formation.

-- 25 NOV 13 / PROGRESS 53P (ISS) -- A Soyuz booster was launched from Baikonur at 2053 GMT (next day local time - 6) to put the "Progress 53P" AKA "Progress M-21M" tanker-freighter spacecraft into orbit on an International Space Station (ISS) supply mission. It was the 53rd Progress mission to the ISS. It docked with the ISS Zvezda module four days after launch.

-- 25 NOV 13 / SHIYUAN 5 -- A Long March 2D booster was launched from Jiuquan in China at 0212 GMT (local time - 8) to put the "Shiyuan 5" experimental satellite into Sun-synchronous orbit.

* OTHER SPACE NEWS: The European Space Agency has now selected its next two major space science missions, each expected to cost more than $1.3 billion USD, including an X-ray telescope and gravitational wave observatory. The missions will not launch until 2028 and 2034 respectively, when most of the scientists now involved in the projects will be retired. Neither mission is a new concept, having been investigated since the 1990s, but delayed due to technical and funding issues. The X-ray telescope will be a successor to NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory and Europe's XMM-Newton telescope; the gravity mission will be unprecedented. Although the two missions will be ESA-led, it is likely that NASA and other space agencies will provide payloads and assistance.

Specifics have not yet been determined. The X-ray telescope is a follow-up to the International X-ray Observatory, a joint project concept developed by NASA, ESA and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, shelved when NASA's funding dried up in 2011. One concept being considered is "Athena+", an X-ray telescope that would be stationed at the gravity-stable L2 Lagrange point, beyond the Moon's orbit, to study the formation and growth of supermassive black holes, the gravitational powerhouses at the centers of galaxies like the Milky Way, and observe how galaxies and galactic clusters assembled a few billion years after the Big Bang.

The current concept for the gravity mission is named "eLISA", for "extended Laser Interferometer Space Array", a follow-up to a long-considered mission known as "LISA". The mission would include three spacecraft, each hosting test masses, flying in an Earth-trailing solar orbit in a nearly equilateral triangle about a million kilometers (600,000 miles), apart. They would maintain a precision formation using laser links, and observe gravity waves from disturbances in their formation configuration. A "LISA Pathfinder" will be launched in 2015 to test technologies for eLISA.



* VIRAL DEFENDERS: The human virome, the viruses that coexist with us, was last discussed here in 2011. As reported by an article from AAAS SCIENCE NOW Online ("Friendly Viruses Protect Us Against Bacteria", Beth Skwarecki, 20 May 2013), viruses living in our mucus secretions have now been shown to be working with our body's defenses.

"Mucus is actually a really cool and complex substance," according to Jeremy Barr, a microbiologist at San Diego State University in California and lead author of the new study. The slimy substance coats the inside of our mouth, nose, eyelids, and digestive tract, as well as many other places, creating a barrier to the outside world. Its gel-like consistency is due to "mucins" -- large, bottlebrush-shaped molecules featuring a protein backbone surrounded by strings of sugars. Around the mucins is a soup of nutrients and chemicals adapted to keep germs close, but not too close. Microbes such as bacteria live near the surface of the layer, while the mucus at the bottom, near the cells that produced it, is almost sterile.

Mucus is also home to bacteriophages or "phages" -- viruses that infect and kill bacteria. Wherever there are bacteria, phages are likely to be there as well, but Barr and his colleagues noticed that there were heavier concentrations of phages in mucus than in mucus-free areas just millimeters away. The saliva surrounding human gums, for example, had about five phages to every bacterial cell, while the ratio at the mucosal surface of the gum itself was closer to 40 to 1.

Barr and his colleagues wondered what the phages were doing in the mucus. They began an investigation by growing human lung tissue in the lab. Lungs are one of the body surfaces protected by mucus; the researchers also had a lung cell variant where the ability to make mucus had been knocked out, making it useful as a control. When the two types of lung cells were incubated overnight with the human colon bacterium Escherichia coli, about half the cells in each culture died; the mucus made no difference to their survival. However, when the researchers added a phage that targets E. coli to the cultures, survival rates skyrocketed for the mucus-producing cells.

In a related series of experiments, the team found that the phages are studded with antibody-like molecules that grab onto the sugar chains in mucins, suggesting the viruses and the mucus-producing tissue have adapted to each other. Mucus can be found throughout the animal kingdom, protecting the whole bodies of fish, worms, and corals, for example. Protective phages seem to be there along with them; Barr and his colleagues found dense populations of phages in every species they sampled.

The experiments are intriguing, but they only suggest a general capability, with much more research required to determine what mucosal phages do in the real world. Some wonder if the animal host can "sic" phages onto specific types of bacteria, for example by kitting mucins with particular sugars associated with target bacteria, handing off targeting information to the phages. That leads to the question of how mucosal phages influence our bacterial microbiome, and whether there are therapeutic possibilities for mucosal phages -- but if so, that's a long ways off.



* CARRIER KILLER? While China and the USA are not on unfriendly terms, the two nations are still rivals, one of the significant aspects of that rivalry being the confrontation of Chinese extra-territorial ambitions in East Asia with American military power in the region -- the most notable manifestation of American strength there being US Navy carrier task groups. The Chinese know they can't match American military power on an equal basis, so they are acquiring weapons for "asymmetric warfare".

As discussed by an article from AIR FORCE MAGAZINE ("China's Carrier Killer: Threat & Theatrics" by Otto Kreisher, December 2013), one of the most seemingly formidable of these weapons is the "DF-21D" anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM), also known by the NATO codename of "CSS 5 Mod 4" and nicknamed the "Carrier Killer". Some analysts claim it has reduced US Navy aircraft carriers to obsolete "sitting ducks". In theory, maybe, but the skeptics reply: "We've heard that one before."

Full details of the DF-21D are not known in the West -- or if they are, nobody who knows is talking about it. The DF-21D is a member of the "Dong Feng (East Wind)" family of ballistic missiles; China has hundreds of DF-21s in a series of variants. The DF-21D is a two-stage solid-fuel missile, with a range estimated at from 1,665 to 2,780 kilometers (1,035 to 1,725 miles) and a conventional warhead. It differs most significantly from other members of the DF-21 family in that it has a maneuvering re-entry vehicle with synthetic aperture radar (SAR) and optical sensors that allow it to spot and hit a moving target. A US Navy fleet carrier is a very big vessel and a single hit from a DF-21D would not sink it, but it would disable it and leave it vulnerable to follow-on hits.

DF-21 launch

The long range of the DF-21D would in principle allow Chinese forces to exclude US Navy carrier task forces from an operational area, keeping them too far away to conduct air operations without inflight refueling. Other Dong Feng variants would be able to hammer American forward installations in the region, for example in Okinawa. This strategy seems to have emerged from an incident in 1996, when China brandished missile tests to intimidate Taiwan, and was forced to back down when US President Bill Clinton sent two carrier task groups into the Taiwan Straits. The lesson the Chinese learned, it seems, was: "Never again."

However, is the "Carrier Killer" such a dire threat? There's the question of whether it is honestly in full operational service -- and if it is, the follow-on question of, in the absence of any combat record, just how dangerous it really is.

The biggest problem for the DF-21D is that, while an aircraft carrier task force would seem hard to miss, the oceans are vast, and given signals security, finding such a task force well out to sea is like looking for a needle in a haystack. For a precision-guided weapon like the DF-21D, the location has to be nailed down tightly and in real time, since the task force is in movement at about 55 KPH (34 MPH). To spot a carrier task force initially, China could use its "over the horizon (OTH)" radars -- which have adequate range, but not enough precision for targeting. China has at least three optical or SAR reconnaissance satellites in orbit, but more will be needed to provide an update rate that could provide real-time tracking of a US Navy task force. Long-range Chinese reconnaissance aircraft and attack submarines could provide the necessary precision targeting, but only if the task force would allow them to approach unmolested, which is unlikely.

Assuming the task force is properly targeted, the targeting data would have to be processed, downloaded into the missile while it's being prepped for firing, and then launched -- to fly downrange, acquire the target, and hit it. This loop of "find, fix, target, & hit" is called the "kill chain", and it's not only complicated in itself, it assumes that all the elements in the chain are working within required spec. If any one element isn't, the chain breaks. Getting something like that to work requires substantial validation. Jan van Tol, a defense analyst and retired US Navy captain, commented: "I have seen no stories of any kind that China has successfully tested the system, first, against any mobile targets; ... secondly, mobile targets at sea; and thirdly, mobile targets at sea amid clutter [support ships in the task force]."

One of the difficulties of testing weapon systems is that it is very troublesome and expensive to perform realistic tests; it is particularly difficult for a weapon so ambitious as the DF-21D. The only indication that the DF-21D has been tested at all was a report in the Taiwan-based WANT CHINA TIMES, which said that a carrier-sized form spotted in the Gobi Desert from satellite images featured two impact craters. That's far from hitting a carrier far out at sea.

What makes tests of complex weapon systems even more troublesome is that an adversary can be expected to take countermeasures against them. The US has long-range strike weapons of its own, such as air- or sea-launched cruise missiles that could hit DF-21D missile launchers; the launchers are mobile, but the US has better orbital surveillance capabilities than China, and is well farther along in work on a rapid-cycle "kill chain". If the launchers can get off their missiles, radio jamming could blind Chinese radars and the DF-21D's SAR seeker, while lasers could similarly blind the DF-21D's optical seekers. Modern warships also carry "rubber ducks", fast-inflating decoys that can confuse an attack, and can generate smokescreens that would confuse the DF-21D's terminal attack.

Evolved SeaSparrow SAM

Even if a DF-21D does manage to zero in on a carrier, the carrier task force is hardly defenseless, able to shoot down the incoming warhead with the latest generation of SM-3 long-range air-defense missiles or, in the last line of defense, the Evolved SeaSparrow air-defense missile. Yes, the DF-21D threat does need to taken seriously, all the more so because the Chinese are certain to refine their technology over time. However, in the same interval, the Americans will be refining their countermeasures. If the Americans can never be certain they can defeat the DF-21D -- can the Chinese be any more certain it will actually work? Could they feel so confident as to risk so much on a throw of the dice? The problem with asymmetric warfare is that it's not always so easy to know which way the asymmetry tilts.



* SMALLSAT FRENZY (1): On 20 November 2013 a Minotaur 1 booster, a modification of a surplus Minuteman missile, was launched from Wallops Island off the Virginia coast. The booster carried the US Air Force (USAF) "STPSat 3" satellite, plus 28 CubeSat nanosatellites. That was a record for the number of satellites placed in orbit in a single launch -- but it was broken the next day, when a Russian Dnepr booster, a converted SS-18 Satan missile, was launched from Dombarovsky to put the "DubaiSat 2" Earth observation satellite and 31 smallsats, mostly CubeSats, into orbit. The 61 spacecraft launched in those two days provide an interesting survey of current smallspace activities.

Minotaur 1 launch from Wallops Island, 20 nov 13

STPSat 3 was made by Ball Aerospace for the USAF Space & Missile Systems Center (SMSC). The satellite was based on a standardized smallsat bus, and had a launch mass of about 180 kilograms (395 pounds), being described as about the size of mini-refrigerator. It carried five payloads, four of them being technology tests -- but one, the NASA/NOAA "TSI Calibration Transfer Experiment (TCTE)" instrument, was an operational payload. TCTE was to monitor changes in solar irradiance on the Earth's upper atmosphere. TCTE was a stopgap to continue a 35-year data record on the Sun's total energy output. NASA's existing solar irradiance instruments were on aging satellites, and the next opportunity to fly a comparable sensor would not be until 2016. The TCTE solar energy monitor was rushed onto the STPSat 3 mission after NASA's Glory climate satellite and its solar irradiance payload were lost in a 2011 launch failure.

After releasing STPSat 3, the Minotaur upper stage maneuvered away and began releasing CubeSat payloads, including:

The Minotaur 1 launch also carried two "ORS 3" payloads, part of the upper stage, one being a test of autonomous booster self-destruction avionics, the other being a deployable "aerodrag" membrane to de-orbit the upper state. [TO BE CONTINUED]


[FRI 13 DEC 13] THE COLD WAR (3)

* THE COLD WAR (3): One of the more prominent of Lenin's lieutenants was a Georgian revolutionary named Josef Dzugashvili, who went by the name of "Stalin". Stalin proved an effective leader in the civil war; Stalin got things done, and if his methods were inclined to the brutal and crude, that was not a problem as far as Lenin was concerned; in fact, it even seemed admirable.

The civil war led to social breakdown and a massive famine in 1921, in which millions of people starved to death. Many more would have died had it not been for the American Relief Administration, managed with great effectiveness by Herbert Hoover, later a US president. Stalin was tasked with working on famine relief on the Soviet side, but much of his activity along that line focused on doing what he could to frustrate the relief effort. The Americans were counter-revolutionaries, after all, and could be up to no good. When the relief effort ended, Stalin arrested Soviet officials who had worked with the Americans and would have had them shot, but was forced to bend to loud objections from Hoover and others.

In 1922, Stalin became chairman of the powerful Soviet Central Committee. When Lenin finally died in 1924, there was a struggle for power, with Stalin coming out on top by 1928. His consolidation of power led to ever-growing ruthlessness, starting out in 1929 with an effort of forced collectivization of the peasant farmers, resulting in the starvation of millions and the imprisonment of millions more.

The Soviet propaganda machine managed to maintain the USSR's image in the West as a progressive country. Western intellectuals in particular would be taken in and proclaim the USSR the wave of the future. The reality was a land of almost whimsical terror, where arbitrary arrest and execution being normal practice, and those who were not executed often being worked to death in slave labor camps.

Although reports of the atrocities performed by Stalin's regime were slow to leak out and weren't always believed when they did, outsiders still remained fearful of the Bolshevik regime. Playing on fears of the Reds, Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany in 1933. Hitler, and in his reflection his Nazi Party, was rabidly anti-Bolshevik, anti-Jew, and anti-Slav. Anyone who cared to read through the turgid prose of Hitler's autobiography, MEIN KAMPF, would see it flatly stated that Hitler believed that the German people should obtain "lebensraum (living space)" in the East, displacing the inferior Slavic peoples.

The Soviets were perfectly aware of Hitler's goals, often denouncing his ambitions in state propaganda. Stalin remained more preoccupied with internal enemies, however, from 1934 pursuing an expanding and increasingly indiscriminate purge to eliminate all rivals for power. Leftist visitors from the West still believed that the Soviet Union represented progressive revolutionary ideals and the way of the future, and Stalin proved shrewd at manipulating them so that they went home completely ignorant of the true nature of Stalin's regime. Stalin would succeed in building a mighty industrial machine, but almost unarguably much more in spite of the brutality than because of it. In addition, many of the grand show projects of the Soviet State were frauds, a misallocation of resources at the very best, at worst imposing but worthless.

In 1936, the Spanish Civil War broke out, with General Franco and his Nationalist forces moving against the Leftist Republican regime. The conflict gave Fascism and Communism a worldwide stage on which to trade blows. Hitler found the war convenient, since it distracted world attention from German rearmament; Stalin similarly found the war convenient, since it distracted world attention from his purges -- which soon reached the ranks of the Red Army, and effectively decapitated it.

Franco's Nationalists would crush the Republicans completely in the spring of 1939. Franco was aided by the fact that the Republicans spent an excessive amount of effort fighting among themselves, conducting lunatic purges that dissipated energy and spread demoralization. Stalin sent agents of the NKVD, his security organization, along with the fighters and tanks, and the NKVD men hunted down Stalin's opponents ruthlessly. However, although the Republicans lost the civil war, the conflict proved a significant propaganda victory for Stalin. The Soviets seemed to Westerners to be making a valiant stand against Hitler and Fascism, while Stalin kept his own brutalities hidden. Many Westerners became Communists, and some were recruited by the NKVD to become spies. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* SCIENCE NOTES: In July 2013, agritech giant Monsanto finally threw in the towel in the company's efforts to sell genetically modified (GM) crop seeds in Europe. The hostility to GM in Europe was just too great, and it wasn't worth the cost to keep on fighting. Monsanto sold about $14.9 billion USD worth of product in 2013, most of it GM crop seed; having withdrawn from the European market, competitors such as BASF and DuPont are moving into the vacuum with their own improved crop seeds.

BASF and DuPont get around the GM barrier by using traditional crop breeding instead of genome alteration. The irony is that traditional crop breeding is a brute-force form of GM, in which mutations are produced by radiation or chemicals, and the mutant offspring selected for their advantages. A US National Academy of Science (NAS) report suggested that mutation alteration is the most drastic form of crop modification, because it introduces a wide and indiscriminate range of changes that could easily be overlooked while the mutant plants are selected for desireable trait -- the overlooked features possibly causing allergic reactions in susceptible consumers.

The NAS report then stated that the risks from mutation alteration were very small compared to those posed by food-borne illnesses such as salmonella bacteria, and BASF says the procedure is safe, having been used for many decades without difficulty. It's also cheaper than GM, partly because the regulatory barriers are so much lower. The question, then, is why is there so much fear of GM foods? Unfortunately the fear is a fact, but thankfully it's not like the clock has been halted, since probing mutant genomes with modern genetic analysis tools is a big help to traditional plant breeding techniques.

That raises the interesting prospect of identifying useful genes in mutant plants, and selectively splicing those genes into mainstream plants. Since they wouldn't be foreign genes, would that be judged GM? Whether it's practical or not, it certainly highlights the absurdity of the hysteria over GM. Crop plants have been nothing that resembles natural for a long time, some of them being mutant hybrid monstrosities; reasonable caution over GM is warranted, but thinking some dire line has been crossed and demanding zero tolerance is unrealistic.

* Monsanto may have been defeated in selling GM crops in Europe, but the news from the GM front has not been all bad for the company. In September 2012, a paper by Gilles-Eric Seralini of the University of Caen in France and his colleagues, published in the journal FOOD & CHEMICAL TOXICOLOGY, claimed that Monsanto GM corn caused cancers in rats. The paper concluded the rats fed the corn were three times as likely to develop cancers as a control group.

The paper alarmed governments all around the world and made life very difficult for Monsanto -- the frustration of company officials being all the greater because the paper contradicted other studies on the safety of GM foods. For example, research published in 2007 by Japan's Department of Environmental Health and Toxicology on comparable GM soybeans reported "no apparent adverse effect in rats", with consolidated reviews of studies suggesting that if there were hazards in GM foods, they were down in the noise.

What was infuriating, however, was that advance copies of the paper were sent to journalists under a non-disclosure agreement that stipulated they could not seek independent comment on the paper when writing up articles about it, or they would face stiff financial penalties. That gave the paper a window of time to propagate before anyone could respond. Critics found it revealing that Seralini released the paper and then took measures to evade feedback on it.

However delayed, the criticisms piled up, and on 28 November 2013 the journal retracted the paper. It turned out that the rats used in the experiment were prone to cancer anyway; that the experimental protocol used could not distinguish tumors that might have been caused by GM food from those that were due to other causes; and the authors suggested no plausible mechanism by which GM foods could cause cancer. Gratifying, yes, but a big win for Monsanto? Not really. Anti-GM activists have lined up behind Seralini and are pushing on regardless: the band plays on, out of tune.

* As reported by WIRED Online, researchers have set a record by obtaining the genome of a horse that roamed the Yukon more than 700,000 years ago, using bones of the creature found at Thistle Creek, Canada. The previous record for oldest genome was an 80,000-year-old ancient cousin of humans whose genome was sequenced from a single finger bone found in Siberia.

Ancient DNA has a "half life" of a little over 500 years, with half of a sample breaking down in that time. Worse, ancient samples also contain bacteria that not only help degrade the samples, but also confound them with their own bacterial genomes. A multinational team of scientists under Ludovic Orlando and Eske Willerslev at the University of Copenhagen leaned heavily on computer power to perform the sequencing, using the genome of the modern horse to give the software clues on how to reconstruct the ancient horse genome. With the polymerase chain reaction, it is possible to amplify small samples of DNA into ones big enough to deal with; computing power then can splice together a genome from tiny fragments, while sifting out genomes known to belong to bacteria.

To place the Thistle Creek horse in the horse evolutionary tree, the researchers compared its genome to those of a younger extinct species, several modern domestic horses, a donkey, and a wild Asian horse. The results of this comparison, reported today in the journal NATURE, push back the origin of the Equus lineage -- which includes all living horses, zebras and donkeys -- to a common ancestor living 4 million years ago.

Przewalski's horse at Denver zoo

As part of their analysis, the team sequenced the genome of the Przewalski's horse, an endangered species native to the Mongolian steppes; it actually went extinct in the wild, but has been restored to an extent from zoo stocks. Their results confirm that the Przewalski's horse is Earth's last remaining truly wild horse population. The researchers also assembled the first complete genome of the donkey. The primary interest of the exercise, however, is the method by which an ancient genome was reconstructed, and the expectation is that there will be a race to decode older and older genomes.



* SCHISTOSOMIASIS VACCINE? While large sums are being invested in the fight against diseases such as AIDS and malaria in the developing world, other afflictions -- notably worm or "helminth" infections -- have been a second priority. As reported by an article from AAAS SCIENCE ("A Worm Vaccine, Coming At A Snail's Pace" by Kai Kupferschmidt, 1 February 2013), progress is being made towards a vaccine against the Schistosomas flatworm, which causes the affliction known appropriately as "schistosomiasis", or sometimes "bilharzia".

There are six species of Schistosomas flatworms that infect humans, each with its own idiosyncrasies, but all can survive for decades in blood vessels, producing eggs that cause pain, severe blood loss, and malnutrition; they can damage the liver, kidneys, and spleen. Like many parasites -- in the technical sense of the term, parasitic organisms besides viruses and bacteria -- they have a two-stage life cycle, spending part of it in freshwater snails and part of it in humans.

According to the United Nations World Health Organization (UN WHO), schistosomiasis is the second most troublesome parasitic disease in the world, after malaria. Some 200 million people are estimated to be infected with Schistosomas flatworms, most of them being children, and another 600 million are at risk. Mortality estimates are inexact, but the WHO's Schistosomas Control Program in Geneva, Switzerland, figures the flatworms cause 300,000 deaths a year in sub-Saharan Africa alone. Vaccines could help, but as noted helminth disease research is underfunded, and vaccine development has also been hampered by the fact that a cheap, effective drug is available. However, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is now reaching into its deep pockets to push research to deal with schistosomiasis and other "neglected tropical diseases (NTDs)", and so things seem to be looking up.

There has been some progress, with two vaccines in clinical trials. The "Bilhvax" vaccine, developed by the Pasteur Institute in Lille, France, targets the flatworm S. haematobium, which causes urogenital schistosomiasis and is common in the Middle East and Africa. The other vaccine is being developed by Miriam Tendler of the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation in Rio de Janiero, Brazil, with funds contributed by the Brazilian government, and targets the S. mansoni flatworm, which is common in Brazil. Unfortunately, neither of these vaccines is close to being fielded, and neither has any potential effectiveness against other Schistosomas species.

All Schistosomas flatworms have the same general life-cycle. The worms grow from eggs into larva, called "cercariae", in freshwater snails, to be released into water. When a larva finds a human wading in water, the head bores through the skin, leaving the tail behind. Once inside, the larva then migrates through the bloodstream to the liver, where it matures. On maturation, the male flatworm acquires a groove into which the smaller female fits neatly, the two effectively forming a dual organism.

Having mated, the flatworms then migrate to their final destination. The S. mansoni and S. japonicum flatworms set up residence in the bowel and rectum, while the S. haematobium flatworm goes to the bladder. In any case, the flatworms then start churning out hundreds of eggs a day, many of which are excreted in urine and feces, to possibly end up infecting snails and start the cycle over again. Some eggs get trapped in the liver or other organs, to cause an immune response, resulting in symptoms and, in some cases, death. Worse, female genital infections by the flatworms raise the likelihood of contracting HIV by a factor of three or four.

The most traditional approach to dealing with schistosomiasis is to kill off snails, but though this has worked in some cases, it's not practical when the snails inhabit large bodies of water. Since the 1980s, the preferred tactic has been to use the drug praziquantel, which kills the worms in a person's body. In endemic areas, schoolkids get the drug annually; Merck has provided praziquantel to WHO for free since 2007, and recently promised to increase its annual donation to 250 million tablets. However, there are worries that widespread use of the drug will simply promote drug-resistant flatworms, and it's not unusual for victims to become reinfected a few months after treatment. A vaccine is seen as a more effective treatment, though nobody is thinking in terms of a vaccine that stops the flatworms cold. The idea is to reduce egg production, making the host healthier and gradually choking off the flatworm reproductive cycle.

There are hopes that more funding for a vaccine will be available in the near future, but even if the money's there, obstacles remain to the development of an effective vaccine. One is side effects: experimental vaccines against other helminth infections have led to severe rashes in some test subjects, and any schistosomiasis vaccine will need to be carefully evaluated.

Another issue is uncertainty over current vaccine efforts. The Pasteur Institute has been careful about announcing results of trials lest false claims discredit the effort, but the downside has been a blackout of news on the status of the effort. The research team intends to improve public communications. As for Tendler's vaccine, although she's reported good results in mouse studies, not everyone has been able to replicate them, and there are doubts that mice are good models. The S. mansoni flatworm doesn't have any problems infecting them, but mice are so small that there's doubts results obtained with mice are all that meaningful for humans. Trials with large primates like baboons are much more expensive and troublesome.

On the positive side, the genomes of S. mansoni and S. haematobium have been sequenced, and researchers are now sorting through them for new vaccine targets. Researchers are optimistic that an effective vaccine is possible, if the will is there to fund it. Tendler says "this is not magic. It is just work."



* ROBOT HELPERS: As a follow-up to the short series on manufacturing robotics run here during the summer, an article in THE ECONOMIST ("Our Friends Electric", 7 September 2013) pointed out an implication not clearly spelled out in that series: the new robots tend to be designed to work alongside humans.

That's essentially something new. Traditionally, industrial robots were heavy-metal and stupid, so they had to be roped off to make sure nobody wandering around came to a nasty end; if anybody wandered inside a barrier, sensors immediately shut the robot down. This stand-offishness greatly limits the utility of robots, since there are some tasks humans do better than robots, some that robots do better than humans, and there are synergies in the two working together.

In late 2012, German automaker BMW introduced a pioneering collaborative system in its factory at Spartanburg, South Carolina, to insulate and water-seal vehicle doors. The robot spreads out and glues down material held in place by a human worker's more agile fingers. When done entirely by humans, workers had to be relieved every hour or two in order to prevent repetitive-motion injuries from excessive strain. Now four collaborative robot systems work at Spartanburg, with more coming there and elsewhere. BMW is planning to greatly ramp up collaborative robot systems in its German plants, even though German regulations on worker-machine interactions are much tougher than they are in the States.

Designing collaborative robots requires some rethinking of robot technology. Dr. Elizabeth Croft -- head of the Collaborative Advanced Robotics & Intelligent Systems Laboratory at the University of British Columbia in Canada -- is working with funding from American carmaker General Motors to develop robots that can handle the necessarily "unscripted" handovers of items to human workers. That requires the robot know whether the person is authorized to be given that item; present the item in the orientation most convenient to the person; adjust the grip as the item is taken; and know when grip can be safely released. These are all things that humans do easily, so it comes as a bit of a surprise just how difficult it is to teach a machine to do them.

More intuitively, a machine has to have "situational awareness", a military-aerospace term that means "knowing what the hell is going on" in the machine's surroundings. Pilz, a German engineering firm, has developed a multi-camera computer system named "SafetyEYE", which monitors a robot's surroundings and adjusts its behavior accordingly. For example, a robot riveting an aircraft wing could move up and down the wing, slowing down when a worker approached, stopping when the worker got close. That allows robots to range more freely, instead of being curtained off in fixed work sites. Other safety features are being developed for robots, such as microphones that allow them to be halted by shouting at them.

Traditional laborious means of programming robots are not very compatible with collaborative robots because the programs are inflexible. A flexible robot is not only safer, but smart enough to taught jobs by workers it will collaborate with. A one-armed robot built by Universal Robots (UR) of Denmark is simply guided through a task, with a touchscreen button pressed to record task waypoints, with the task list then named and stored. The training takes about ten minutes; this simplicity allows a robot to perform multiple tasks, with the robot shifted around to, say, take up the slack for a worker who's out with an injury. UR sold 700 robots in 2012 and expects sales to total 1,500 for 2013; many users say they recover the 20,000 euro ($27,000 USD) pricetag in as little as six months.

Danes do robots

The robots are continuing to get smarter. Some lab robots can already understand spoken commands, and the day when robots can be verbally instructed in tasks doesn't seem too far off. The Rethink Robotics Baxter robot, discussed in the earlier series, has a degree of "common sense" that allows it to adapt to instruction and events on its own.

Workers still have the traditional fear of being replaced by robots, but experience with the UR robots suggest that's overblown. With lowered production costs, production can be ramped up, meaning more hires for additional work shifts, making the maximum use of the automation and paying it off more quickly. Workers become more enthusiastic about robots when they find out they offload the "boring, repetitive stuff", becoming more like robot helpers than robot overlords.

Human psychology does play a big role in collaborative robot design. Takayuki Kanda, a Japanese robot researcher, says humanoid robots shouldn't be any bigger than a six-year-old human, since those working with the robot then perceive it as easily overpowered if need be. Researchers working on home robots for elder care have found out other details, such as making robots appear empathically humanlike -- but not too humanlike, not only because they then appear a bit creepy, as discussed here in 2010, but because people will tend to expect too much of them.

"Social intelligence" is a very big deal; robots shouldn't stare too long or then be skittish of eye contact, shouldn't pause too long in making responses or be too quick and snappish to answer, and should pause to acknowledge the presence of people when they come into a room. One researcher found that programming a robot to make small harmless errors every now and then did much to make people more comfortable with it. Other researchers have studied the use of forensic robots in interrogations of children, the children proving comfortable with them, and the robots much less inclined to mislead the interrogation.

The notion of humanlike robots common in human society was a popular theme of classic science fiction, such as Isaac Asimov's robot stories, but in recent decades it faded away, having failed to materialize. Maybe we're closer to it than we have come to think, and the future will end up being a tribute to Asimov.



* ALBUQUERQUE ROAD TRIP (5): The trip back home to Loveland north through Colorado was uneventful. I was hoping to make Pueblo before refueling, which would split the trip neatly; it was about 540 kilometers / 335 miles from Albuquerque, which would be comfortably within my Toyota's range -- but then I'd been idling in a traffic jam that morning for over an hour, and I had no idea of how much fuel I'd burned. I figured I'd decide if I wanted to chance it once I passed the 480 kilometer / 300 mile range; when I did, I judged I shouldn't push my luck and refueled at the first opportunity. Checking my mileage at the pump indicated I would have made Pueblo handily, but again there was no reason to take the chance.

Since I didn't feel crowded for time, I decided to stop in Pueblo for a snack. One of the things I like to do on trips is stop in a Denny's restaurant for a hot fudge sundae, a cheap thrill, but I'd got out of the habit for some reason in recent years. I looked around for a Denny's as I was going through town; on the north side I spotted one and took the freeway exit. The Denny's was a bit gone to seed, but they often are; I had to take some shots of the retro late-50s / early-60s light fixtures, which I found attractively tacky in an odd sort of way.

While I was waiting for my order -- sitting back relaxed on the bench seat of the stall, with my legs on the seat and leaning back against the wall -- I was enjoying the canned music. Usually a Denny's would have stale old pop tunes, and thinking Pueblo was a cowtown, I figured they might be running country-pop. Much to my surprise, the tracks leaned towards Euro-pop. That's my kind of dumb music, I like the snappy machine rhythms and soaring melodies. Later I looked up details about Pueblo online, and found it was no cowtown. It's about twice as big as I thought, with over 100,000 citizens, and it's a center of steel production. More significantly, there are a lot of Federal government service organizations there. Oh yeah, that's right! A lot of paperwork we send in to the Feds goes to Pueblo.

Anyway, I ate and got back on the road. Cruising north I felt very mellow -- they talk about "comfort food" and that hot fudge sundae did the trick, melting away the lingering irritability from the morning. I took in the sights heading up through Denver, got back to Loveland about 6:30 PM, unpacked, went to bed at a reasonable hour. I wanted to go to the gym the next morning, but at the last moment I decided to check Sunday hours online, and confirmed it didn't open until mid-day. I did my laundry and got things organized to get back on track with my work.

* I had to assess the trip as very successful -- everything done as planned, everything meeting or exceeding expectation. I had budgeted $750 USD, I came in under $600 USD, which surprised me. However, I think the trip was successful for the reason that it was done on limited expectations. If it had involved more time, effort, and money, it wouldn't have been worth it. I can't think of any reason for why I would ever go back to Albuquerque.

I had over 300 photos of the Balloon Fiesta after discarding the obvious junk. I figured that would render down to about 50 to 100 "keepers", but I ended up with uploading 125 to Flickr. Given good lighting, balloons are an easy photo subject; it was the best single photo shoot I've ever had in my life.

Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta, 2013

As far as my dead Canon Powershot camera went, I didn't bother to get it repaired, that usually being impractical for a consumer electronics item. Although it was only about a year and a half old, it had seen a fair amount of hard use, including being dropped a few times. I was thinking about replacing it right away, but after poking around online, I decided to wait.

40 megapixels appears to be the "next big thing" in cameras, and rumor has it that Canon is working on the technology. 40 megapixels is absurd in itself except for research-type applications -- 12 megapixel images are awkward enough to handle -- but 40 megapixels means a 10 megapixel low-light mode, which would be a very nice thing to have. There was a time when high zoom levels seemed like a big deal, but experience has taught me they aren't; much above 20x, images suffer from the middling optics of a cheap camera, and on hot or hazy days zoom doesn't work well even on high-class cameras due to poor "seeing". 40 megapixels would give me double effective zoom anyway.

As mentioned in the report on the earlier San Diego road trip, I'm thinking about a major road trip in 2016. What about a short road trip for 2014? Wait and see. [END OF SERIES]


[FRI 06 DEC 13] THE COLD WAR (2)

* THE COLD WAR (2): The Cold War actually had its seed in the work of a scholar named Karl Marx. He was born in 1818 in Trier in Germany, growing up a radical, being often hounded by the authorities as a result. In 1847, in collaboration with Friedrich Engels, a businessman who liked to play radical after work hours. In 1847, they published a pamphlet titled THE COMMUNIST MANIFESTO outlining a radical socialist platform, which led to the publication in 1867 of his masterwork, DAS KAPITAL.

Marx's work attempted to synthesize an activist philosophy that, he hoped, would overturn the economic system as he saw it in his lifetime. That was an era of capitalism under little control, focused on the exploitation of workers. The ruling class, the "bourgeoisie", controlled the wealth, while the "proletariat", the working class, provided the labor. The bourgeoisie maximized their wealth by the exploitation of the proletariat, though since the proletariat actually created the wealth, that was where the power actually resided. Once the proletariat became aware of their power, then the inverted arrangement would be overturned, with the "class struggle" leading in the end to a "dictatorship of the proletariat" and a more egalitarian society. Marx saw this process as the inevitable endpoint of history.

Marx's analysis of the problems facing capitalism at the time continues to be regarded as astute; his notion of solutions, however, was a combination of stiflingly pedantic and vague, raising many uncomfortable questions and failing to give useful answers to them, and when he died in 1883, he had no cause to think that the endpoint of history would be reached any time soon. He was nonetheless influential on radical thought -- one of those who appreciated his message being a Russian revolutionary named Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, better known by his "nom de guerre" of Vladimir Lenin. Lenin was devoted to Marx's vision of a classless society, but did not see that the workers were likely to spontaneously overturn the old order. They would have to be guided by a party that could instruct them in the cause, with Lenin's faction, the "Bolsheviks", becoming predominant in the Russian radical movement. This modification of the Marxist view became known as "Marxist-Leninism".

That was hardly an achievement as long as the radicals remained marginal, but the tottering Romanov dynasty that ruled Russia was profoundly undermined by the breakout of World War I in August 1914. Lenin was in exile in Switzerland when, in March 1917 (February by the old Russian calendar), the government of Tsar Nicholas II was overthrown. Russia was still technically in the war against Germany, so the German authorities allowed Lenin to return home to Russia in a "sealed train" to sow disruption. The Germans would live to regret that action.

In November 1917 (October in the old calendar), Lenin's Bolsheviks seized control. Lenin knew that his new Bolshevik state would not survive if the Central Powers continued their war in the East, so he pushed for a peace agreement at almost any price, signing the treaty of Brest-Litovsk in March 1918, which ceded control of vast areas of what had been eastern Imperial Russia, from Finland to the Ukraine, to the Central Powers. The Central Powers were forced to sue for peace in the fall of that year and the treaty would then be repudiated, though the rearrangement of the map of Eastern Europe meant that lands such as Poland and Finland achieved independence.

The end of World War I did not mean peace in Russia. A full-blown civil war broke out in the summer of 1918, with Bolshevik "Red" forces grappling with larger but more poorly organized reactionary "White" forces. It was a particularly dirty sort of war, with each side striving to outmatch the other in ruthlessness and brutality. Despite the fact that the Whites were supported by Britain and, to a lesser extent, by the United States and Japan, and time after time the Reds found themselves hanging by a thread, the thread held, the Reds proving skilled at shuttling forces around as needed by train, and by November 1920 they had overcome the Whites.

The new Red nation became established as the "Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR)", including not only Russia but also the non-Russian entities that had been retained from the old Tsarist regime. Lenin's regime still remained paranoid of the outside world, identifying with good reason the hostility of the "reactionary" powers against the Red cause. The leadership saw the class struggle as a law of nature, in which the Reds were certain to ultimately prevail. The Soviet regime supported the "Comintern", the Communist International movement, which engaged in the class struggle around the world, using "agitprop" -- agitation-propaganda -- in the struggle against reactionary forces.

The Soviet revolutionary mindset helped support a doctrine of unrestrained state control, in which the people were granted every right in principle, but in practice rights were entirely at the discretion of the state. The Red cause, enshrined in the new Soviet government, would permit no real challenge to its rule. The people would be mobilized to serve the state's will; since the state existed for the people, individual rights could not stand in the way of its directives. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* GIMMICKS & GADGETS: BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK ran a note on a clever bridge construction technology, developed by a US startup named Advanced Infrastructure Technologies. AIT's bridges are arch structures, the arches defined by tubes made of fiber-reinforced plastic. Footings are placed on each side of the span, a set of tubes is connected from one footing to the next, and the tubes are inflated to form the arches. They are treated with resin to become rigid, and covered with fiber-reinforced panels bolted to the arches; the arches are filled with concrete, with the rest of the bridge completed as desired.

The tubes protect the concrete from damage. Such a bridge can be up to 27 meters (90 feet) long, and can be built in as little as ten days. The concrete-filled tubes are more expensive than precast concrete elements, but the quick construction reduces cost overall. AIT has built over a dozen such bridges in northern US states.

* Another new way to build bridges, known as "accelerated bridge construction (ABC)", was discussed by WIRED Online blogs, the article focusing on a replacement bridge built on Interstate 84, which links New York and Connecticut states. The original bridge was a two-lane structure, 41 meters (135 feet) long, that carried about 100,000 vehicles a day; it was the westbound half of a set of bridges, one carrying traffic each way.

The idea behind ABC is to build support structures around the existing bridge, construct a new span in parallel with the old bridge, then rip out the old span and slide the new one into place. Construction of the I-84 bridge began late in 2012, with prefabricated components shipped in to get the new span started. While the new span was being put together, bridge crews set up support structures under the old span.

At 5 PM on 21 September 2013, the bridge was closed to traffic, with the old span knocked out in four hours. The new span was then moved into place, using four heavy jacks, sliding on teflon pads across polished stainless steel plates. The jacks could only move the bridge about an arm's length at a time, with work crews shifting the jacks forward at the end of each extension, and it took about eight hours to get the new span in place. It could have been done in half that time, but it was pouring rain that night.

Once in place, the approaches on each side were adjusted and paved, one issue in this task being that the new span was wider than the old, having three lanes plus shoulders. That didn't take very long, with the refurbished bridge being opened to traffic at 12:55 PM on 22 September. Work then continued on the replacement of the eastbound bridge, which was completed a month later. ABC is cheaper and much quicker than tearing down and rebuilding a bridge, with much less disruption to traffic. It's only really suited to bridges with relatively short spans, but they're common on America's highways, and so that's not a big limitation.

Incidentally, there is a time-lapse video of this incident on YouTube, which is fun to watch; if it was pouring rain, it didn't seem that obvious from the video. Confusingly, it turns out there's another I-84, linking Utah to Oregon, and an ABC bridge was set up on that route as well. The video for that is a bit more fun if frantic, since it covers the entire construction cycle.

* As a follow-up to the article on the tablet computer market run here last month, BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK reports that competition in the low-end tablet computer market is about to get more savage. From the outset of the tablet wars, there were predictions that by 2014 seven-inch tablets would be going for less than $100 USD, which gradually seemed over-optimistic. Yes, small tablets have been selling for that price point or less for some time, but they were junk.

Now chipsets are available to provide most of the guts of a tablet computer for less than $10 USD; touch displays have dropped dramatically in price, to the extent that the cost of the components of a tablet is now only about $60 USD, as compared to $110 in 2011. Lenovo of China and ASUS of Taiwan are preparing to jump into the new low-end market in a big way this holiday season. Tablets seem poised to become a drugstore commodity, with one industry observer commenting: "If you spend $75, are you looking for a high-precision piece of technology? Or will you just go buy a new one when the battery dies in a year and a half?"

Lenovo ups the ante

I keep thinking that as little tablets get more widespread, there's an obvious need for a wireless keyboard that also functions as a USB hub and peripheral server, supporting USB devices such as hard disk drives and printers. I'm sure some of the functionality is available now, but it would be attractive to simply prop a tablet on a frame in the back of the keyboard and then get notebook-like functionality, with power provided to the tablet via wireless charger in the keyboard, and communications via wireless. The tablet could be left to charge after being used, then simply picked up and taken out the door.

Reports from the computer blogosphere indicate that, with tablets booming, desktops are in decline, with shipments 10% lower than in 2012. That seemed a bit puzzling to me, since a tablet computer is hardly a replacement for a desktop or notebook PC -- but the answer's simple, tablets are the new toy people want to buy, and there's less perceived need to buy a new desktop. Shipments of desktops and notebooks are expected to remain steady at about 300 million units a year for the foreseeable future.



* 21ST-CENTURY IDF: The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) have a formidable military reputation. Though based on conscription, the IDF has an excellent combat record in a long series of wars. However, as discussed by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("Taking Wing", 10 August 2013), the IDF is now evolving away from its roots.

Israeli soldiers are gradually vacating their bases in the big cities; by 2020, they will mostly have migrated to four huge bases in the desert. Entrepreneurs are eager to develop the old bases into civilian housing and other facilities. That's part of general trend away from a society dominated by men in uniform. As Israel has become more prosperous, military spending has fallen from 17.7% of GDP in 1991 to around 6% today. While young Israelis still do up to three years in uniform, there's a push to move away from conscription and towards a professional army.

In the emerging new IDF, heavyweight combat gear such as tanks and artillery are gradually being de-emphasized, in favor of smart weapons and cyber-warfare. As Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon put it on his Facebook page: "The current and future battlefields are totally different from what we knew in the past."

Along with the evolution of military technology, the change in complexion of the IDF is due to changing threats, one big factor being the Arab Spring. Egypt is tied up by internal turmoil, Syria has all but broken down, and their forces no longer represent anything like a peer adversary to the IDF. As a government minister put it: "We're surrounded by failed states."

The chaos in the Arab world does mean more threats from terrorist and paramilitary groups, but such are nothing new; the most dangerous of the lot, the Lebanese Hizbullah group, has long been a thorn in Israel's side, being backed by Iran and a large armory of missiles. Other extremist groups in Sinai, Gaza, and Syria, are also looking for opportunities to take shots at the Israelis. However, as Israel's occupation of southern Lebanon from the mid-1980s to 2000 demonstrated, sending in IDF troops to deal with such threats is counterproductive.

Now the approach is quick-reaction precision strike with smart weapons, targeted by energetic intelligence gathering via cyber warfare, drone observation, and satellite imagery: the strategy is to minimize the use of force, not maximize it, holding down the spiral of violence and conflict escalation. A series of Israeli strikes in Syria and Sudan on missiles apparently bound for Hizbullah and Hamas have had no noticeable repercussions so far. Such selective use of force also reduces international criticism, thanks to the low profile and the fact that the targets generally appear entirely legitimate. Smart defensive technology, such as the Iron Dome anti-missile system, discussed here early this year, causes Israel no problems at all.

The IDF's biggest unit, 8200, is a cyber-warfare operation; the IDF Air Force is increasingly the weapon of choice when it comes time to shoot. According to a senior IDF-AF officer: "In 2000, only 1% of Gaza's terrorists were killed from the air. Today it's 98%."

changing of the guard

The IDF still needs infantry: in another fight with Hizbullah, somebody would have to go in and root out Hizbullah missile stores. However, the days of military street parades are over, as are the days when military officers were a national leadership class. Today's party leaders are more likely to be journalists than generals. Shlomo Swirsky, who runs Adva, an Israeli think-tank, commented: "We no longer have charismatic military figures. It's not the vehicle for upward mobility it once was."

Voters seem to want a less militarized state as well. The number of days conscripts spend on reserve duty has been dropping steadily; were it not for the occupation of the West Bank, it would fall even lower. Nobody sees any breakthrough with the Palestinians in the near future, but Israels are tiring of a culture of war -- and that may present opportunities for those who want them.



* BLUETOOTH LE FOR MICRO-LOCATION: While smartphones with GPS capability have made location-tracking commonplace, GPS doesn't provide the precision location ability to, say, lead a user to a particular aisle in a store. Notions of technology that can were mentioned here in 2012; as reported by an article from BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK ("Apple's Got You!" by Sam Grobart, 28 October 2013), the other shoe is now being dropped -- with the recent release of the Apple IOS 7 mobile operating system.

IOS 7 provided a new set of goodies for iPhone and iPad users, one of the more obscure being a micro-location feature named "iBeacon". The basic technology actually goes back a decade, when researchers at Finnish technology giant Nokia began investigating a new wireless communications standard, which was originally released as "Wibree" in 2006. In 2010, it became part of the Bluetooth specification as "Bluetooth Low Energy (LE)".

Bluetooth LE shares the same 2.4 gigahertz band with "Classic" Bluetooth, but the two are not otherwise compatible; systems capable of supporting both are named "Bluetooth Smart Ready". Bluetooth LE, as its name suggests, was designed for very low power operation, being capable of operating for "months or years" on a single button cell; good data rates, of up to 1 megabit per second; and to be cheap to implement. It was also designed with micro-location in mind.

With IOS 7, iPhones and iPads made from about two years ago are now iBeacon enabled, with retailers and other commercial operations beginning to recognize the potential of micro-location to provide customer service and sell more product. Retailers will have to install their own Bluetooth LE nodes, or "beacons" in Apple nomenclature, but two or three could cover a large store, and a three-pack of nodes only costs about a hundred bucks.

Apple sees that as only the start. Since Bluetooth LE is a communications technology first and a location technology second, it can also be used to communicate with smart product tags, as well as for monetary transactions. There's been a lot of talk in the past few years of using near-field communications (NFC) to allow smartphones to be used as "electronic wallets", but so far NFC hasn't caught on in a big way. Bluetooth LE can do the same job as NFC and a lot more besides, meaning it has a lot more potential.

Apple is keeping a low profile on iBeacon for the time being; it seems the company is testing the waters with the technology. Certainly, there are security and privacy issues to be considered -- but it is still notable that for once Apple is jumping on a public standard. Sometimes even Apple can see the virtues of going with the crowd, instead of insisting on going it alone. Android apps are already appearing to make use of Bluetooth LE; it could well be an effectively universal technology by the end of the decade.



* ANOTHER MONTH: There was a bit of talk in the media over the fact that this year the US Thanksgiving holiday -- last Thursday in November -- coincided with the Jewish Hannukah celebration. Hannukah's based on the old Jewish lunar calendars; lunar calendars are nightmarish, adding "leap months" every now and then to clumsily keep in step with the years, enough to say that the next time this will happen won't be until 77,094 CE.

What will the Earth look like 75,000 years from now? For the most part, nobody has a clue, but there are some things that we do know will happen. The Earth precesses, wobbles like a top, on a cycle of 26,000 years, which means its polar axis changes its direction to the sky. By that time, the bright star Vega will be the North Star with Polaris, the current title-holder, well away from the pole. Movements of stars will also have distorted or erased current star constellation patterns. Some stars may have disappeared, becoming supernovas to light up the night, and then fading away.

During the precession, the angle of the Earth's axis remains the same relative to the Earth's orbital plane, except for a variation in orbital eccentricity and matching change in the angle of Earth's axis on a 97,000 year cycle. This variation seems to be matched to ice ages, and so by 77,094 CE, the Earth should be in or entering another ice age. Some large meteor impacts should have taken place in that time, as well as similarly calamitous massive volcanic eruptions, though their effects would be, on the planetary timescale, short-lived. Other changes will be a day that's a second longer, a Moon slightly farther away, and -- thanks to continental drift -- an Atlantic Ocean that's about two kilometers wider. Similarly, the Hawaiian Islands will have shifted about seven kilometers north.

What else can we say about the Earth in 77,094 CE? Not much; in good part to human activity, the Earth's biosphere has changed considerably in the last 75,000 years, we can expect as much change in the next 75,000. Few of our present constructions will last that long, except for a handful that people see the need to preserve. As for people themselves, assuming our descendants are still thriving, it seems unlikely they will be humans as we know them, instead being "post-human intelligences" altered by genetic modification and interactive machinery. In what ways? We can no more sensibly guess than our ancestors of the Old Stone Age could imagine what humans are like now.

* The 50th anniversary of the JFK assassination took place this last month. After half a century of fuss over the matter, there's only one thing to say: BFD, big fat deal. Another 50 years on, the fuss will be forgotten. If I never think about the assassination again for the rest of my life, it will be no loss.


My JFK ASSASSINATION document gets little attention. Part of me wishes it would get more -- but another part of me is relieved, since that gives me proof, if any were really needed, of the irrelevance of the issue. The exercise of writing it left me at a loss in the end, as if I had blurted out something and then wondered: Why did I say that? Arguing with cranks is like shooting fish in a barrel with a squirt pistol -- far too easy, totally futile. The conclusion is, as it so often is, to accept detachment; to choose nothing, over less than nothing.

* On a more positive note, as of last month I now have a hundred monthly archives for the blog. To be sure, the first three or so were actually assembled after the fact from old newsletter articles, but even taking that into consideration, at 20 to 23 postings a month, there's still over 2,000 daily postings. That's hard to comprehend. It's also hard to comprehend what exactly it buys me, other than the information itself -- but I end up concluding that's plenty good enough.