jan 2014 / last mod dec 2016 / greg goebel

* 23 entries including: Cold War (series), Hanford nuclear site cleanup (series), drug legalization measures (series), planets of double suns, historical survey of vaccine effectiveness in the US, mag tape still going strong, Obama announces changes at NSA, insects as a food source, joint military projects more expensive, civilian drones, and six-year high schools.

banner of the month

[FRI 24 JAN 14] THE COLD WAR (9)
[FRI 17 JAN 14] THE COLD WAR (8)
[FRI 10 JAN 14] THE COLD WAR (7)
[FRI 03 JAN 14] THE COLD WAR (6)


* NEWS COMMENTARY FOR JANUARY 2014: As reported by TIME magazine, Iraq has hardly been peaceful since the US finally pulled out, and as of late things have been getting very hot. A jihadi group, the "Islamic State of Iraq & al-Sham (ISIS)", having gathered strength in western Iraq, conducting a campaign of terror elsewhere, has risen up and seized the cities of Fallujah and Ramadi. So what is the Obama Administration likely to do about this? Well, not that much, but nobody can sensibly say what else the US should do.

When Obama was campaigning for the presidency in 2007, he promised to extricate America from the war, but was also careful to hedge his bets, saying that the US should still be in a position to intervene if circumstances demanded it: "We will need to retain some forces in Iraq and the region. We'll continue to strike at al-Qaeda in Iraq." So what is the Obama Administration saying now? Secretary of State John Kerry was direct: "This is a fight that belongs to the Iraqis."

One reason for the hands-off attitude was the fact that, in the course of withdrawal of US forces from Iraq, the Iraqi government wasn't inclined to compromise on keeping any residual US forces there, and so there was no deal on the matter. Conservatives like John McCain and Lindsey Graham claimed the administration should have worked harder, to which of course administration personnel replied that the Iraqis were being unreasonable. However, neither McCain nor Graham are calling for US involvement in the current crisis, since they know American voters hate the idea.

Daniel Benjamin, formerly the Obama State Department's top counter-terrorism official and now in academia, commented: "It would take nothing short of a catastrophic attack on the United States at home to get US forces back into Iraq. The American public has zero appetite for engagement in Iraq."

It may not be necessary anyway. Many analysts believe that ISIS has been too ambitious. The group, which had been one of the dominant factions in the Syrian civil war, antagonized other rebel groups with its extremism until the other groups banded together to push them back. The support of ISIS by Iraqi Sunnis is uneven, and in rising up the group has forced a direct confrontation with the Iraqi government that the insurgents may well lose badly. The Obama Administration has been trying to supply more advanced weapons to the Iraqi government; there has been Congressional resistance to the idea, but the current crisis has helped override objections.

If things don't go well for the Iraqi government in the battle, then the Obama Administration also has the option of using Special Operations Command teams to assist, for example with drone strikes. However, as for a major US intervention in the fight goes -- not a chance. As Benjamin put it: "You don't need to be sitting in the West Wing to know that the administration views disentangling from Iraq to be a major achievement and is going to be extremely loath to get us back involved. I think we're a long way from there."

* Americans have an international stereotype of being extreme, but even though things do feel polarized on this side of the Pond, as discussed by an article from TIME magazine, that has to be taken with a grain of salt. Polls have found a surprising level of consensus on social issues of concern to American citizens:

And then there's the big question of how much Americans trust the government. Only 19% "trust the government in Washington to do what's right" all or most of the time, down from 60% in 2002. Of course, polls are tricky and such a question is very sensitive as to how it's phrased -- for example, do Americans really think they could get any better? However, it is still significant that Americans seem to be becoming more socially liberal and fiscally conservative each year.


As far as polarization goes, that seems to be an artifact of the excessive control of minority factions on the political process. Stanford political scientist Morris Fiorina commented that the "bulk of the American citizenry is somewhat in the position of the unfortunate citizens of some third-world countries who try to stay out of the crossfire, while Maoist guerrillas and Right-wing death squads shoot at each other."



* GIMMICKS & GADGETS: THE ECONOMIST ran a note on the worldwide acceptance of traffic roundabouts, pointing out that some cultures have problems with them. In Baghdad, somehow not surprisingly drivers will try to drive both ways around them; hey, why go all the way around instead of taking the short cut? In parts of Italy, sometimes those entering a roundabout insist they have right of way over those in the circle, not the other way around. Roundabouts can also swallow pedestrians: in the UK, a man collapsed after reaching the center of a roundabout, and his body wasn't discovered for 11 days.

The worst problem with roundabouts is that bicycles don't mesh very well with the flow of a traffic circle, Belgian researchers showing that bicyclists are substantially more likely to be killed in a roundabout than at a crossroads. Dutch researchers have developed a modified roundabout scheme that segregates cars and bikes. London is expecting to get the UK's first such "Dutch" roundabout in 2014. The roundabout is a characteristically British invention; now the British are buying from abroad.

* There's quite a bit of activity these days in augmented reality helmets for motorcyclists, though for the moment they're generally lab toys. WIRED Online described one offering in the works at Silicon Valley startup Skully, the "P1" helmet. The helmet has a voice-in / voice-out interface, plus a head-up display that shows a little window in the lower right-hand corner of the field of view, the window appearing to float about 9 meters (20 feet) ahead. The P1 also has a built-in smartphone system to permit chat while spinning down the road -- as well as smartphone capabilities such as a music player and GPS locator. A particularly interesting feature is a wide-view camera on the rear of the helmet to provide full-width rear-view vision.

smart helmet

A promotional video shows the helmet providing directions, reporting incoming calls, and playing music on request. The helmet has its own battery pack, giving it up to nine hours of operation. Skully has developed their own Skully Operating System for the helmet, and is working on a kit for software developers. This item is purely in the gimmick domain for now, but in a few decades it is likely to be very normal.

* As reported by BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK, there are about 5 million vending machines in the USA, most of them little different from those sold decades ago. However, people have been buying less from vending machines, and so vendors are now increasingly turning to "smart" machines -- able to accept plastic or mobile payments, with digital screens, videocams, wireless, and smartphone charging stations. Studies show that acceptance of non-cash payment boosts sales, as does a machine suggesting products to complement a purchase.

Over a tenth of US vending machines have gone smart; tricks include games, and tracking customer purchases to offer perks. Smart vending machines don't come cheap, running about $10,000 USD, twice as much as an old-fashioned vending machine, but they reduce logistic overhead -- there's no need to tend to them until they send a message saying they're running low on stock or have a problem. Sadly for consumers, while it used to take months to raise prices on a vending machine, with a smart machine it can be done just by sending the appropriate commands. With more expensive machines, consumers are likely to find themselves paying more, which seems a little ironic: by automating the sales process, one might think the result would be lower prices, but for whatever reasons that's not how it works.



* PLANETS OF THE DOUBLE SUN: Planets orbiting double suns are a staple in sci-fi stories, the best-known example being the planet Tatooine in the STAR WARS mythology. As discussed by an article from SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN ("World With Two Suns" by William F. Welsh & Laurance R. Doyle, November 2013), astronomers had long wondered how realistic such a notion was. To be sure, some binary stars have very wide separations, and so each could have its own planetary system, just as certainly as the gas giant planets of our own Solar System have their own moon systems. However, if a system had two stars in a close common orbit, could planets be orbiting the pair? Wouldn't the variable gravitational interactions tend to whipsaw planetary bodies out of the system?

world under the double sun

The question was speculative until astronomical technology arrived to find extrasolar planets. One approach to doing so is to observe a star and see if it dims ever so slightly on a periodic basis, demonstrating there is some object orbiting it -- though this only works if the orbital plane of the object is along our line of sight. The US Kepler satellite, launched in 2009, performed such observations, and discovered large numbers of extrasolar planets.

Hunting for planets orbiting binary stars has a small advantage, since we can observe the orbital plane of binary stars, those being on a plane along our line of sight eclipsing each other periodically. We can also assume that planets orbiting any such binaries are generally in the same plane as well. Once binaries with orbital planes along our line of sight are identified, they then become preferred targets for observation. Kepler of course targeted such star systems along with the multitude of others kept under watch, but for about two years there was no hint of a planet orbiting a binary star in Kepler data.

However, in 2011 a candidate appeared in a star system designated KIC 126447679, an eclipsing binary with a period of 41 days, when an additional periodic eclipsing event was observed. Was it really a planet, or some dim class of dwarf star? Analysis showed that the inferred object, formally known as "Kepler 16b", wasn't big enough to be star of any sort, being about the size of Saturn. It was of course informally named "Tatooine".

Since that time, the number of planets observed to be orbiting binary stars has grown to seven, and the perception from that sample is that they are common on the galactic scale. What are conditions on such planets like? Science-fiction stories have occasionally toyed with the idea that a planet of a binary star system might have a figure-eight orbit, alternating in loops around one and the other parent star, but the idea is very implausible, requiring far too tidy and unstable a balance. However, a planet in a relatively close orbit around twin suns might well have seasons that change rapidly on a pattern very difficult to predict. As one astronomer put it, for inhabitants of any such world: "It would be a wild ride."



* VACCINES WORK: As discussed by an article from THE NEW YORK TIMES ("The Vaccination Effect: 100 Million Cases of Contagious Disease Prevented" by Steve Lohr, 27 November 2013), a study that has been published by THE NEW ENGLAND JOURNAL OF MEDICINE (NEJM) shows that vaccination programs for children have prevented more than 100 million cases of serious contagious disease in the USA since 1924.

The study, named Project Tycho, was led by scientists at the University of Pittsburgh's graduate school of public health. Researchers examined public health reports going back to the 19th century, surveying records of 56 diseases, though the paper focused on seven: polio, measles, rubella, mumps, hepatitis A, diphtheria, and pertussis AKA whooping cough. For each of the seven diseases, a comparison was made of the number of reports before and after the introduction of a vaccine against the disease. The number of cases of diseases prevented was determined by extrapolating the incidence of each disease assuming a vaccine hadn't been introduced, and then subtracting the actual incidence.

The paper is the product of a huge effort, a good example of the kind of "big data" efforts popular in science these days. The project began in 2009 and canvassed a staggering 88 million reports of individual disease cases, many obtained from the weekly morbidity reports in the library of the US Centers for Disease Control & Prevention. The reports had to be converted to digital format for the study -- with most of the data entry, some 200 million keystrokes, being performed by Digital Divide Data, a social enterprise that provides jobs and technology training to young people in Cambodia, Laos, and Kenya. After data entry, the information was put into tables in spreadsheets, being standardized in format so it could be searched, manipulated, and queried on the project's website.

The University of Pittsburgh researchers also looked at death rates, but decided against including an estimate of such in the NEJM journal article, since the data wasn't reliable and consistent until the 1960s. However, Dr. Donald S. Burke, the dean of Pittsburgh's graduate school of public health and one of the authors of the NEJM article, said that a reasonable projection based on known mortality rates in the disease categories would be about three million to four million deaths.

Of course, the authors held up their results as a reproach to anti-vaccine activists. The NEJM paper noted the recent resurgence of some diseases as some parents have refused to vaccinate their children. The worst whooping cough epidemic since 1959 occurred in 2012, with more than 38,000 reported cases nationwide. Burke said: "If you're anti-vaccine, that's the price you pay."

The effort was funded by the US National Institutes of Health, along with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The project was named after the 16th century Danish scholar Tycho Brahe, whose careful and detailed astronomical observations were the foundation on which Johannes Kepler based his heliocentric laws of planetary motion. Project leaders see their data as providing similar deep insights. The Project Tycho data is openly available on the project website.

The open-access model for the Tycho study is increasingly the pattern for government data, the US government having released up thousands of data sets to the public. Last month, the McKinsey Global Institute, has projected the total economic benefit to companies and consumers of open government data could come to $3 trillion USD worldwide.



* ATOMIC CLEANUP (2): The dismantling of the Hanford nuclear site is the biggest nuclear cleanup effort in the USA, and CH2M Hill is deeply involved with the project. The firm has about 1,200 personnel on the job at Hanford, being paid $6.4 billion USD for work there in 2012. That's actually only about 4% of the company's revenues, demonstrating how big an operation the firm is, but Hanford's the firm's biggest single money-maker.

In part, the effort leverages off CH2M Hill's water-management expertise. Vast quantities of radioactively and chemically contaminated liquid were spilled on Hanford's grounds during its decades of operation; there are also 167 underground tanks that either are leaking contaminated liquids, or may soon do so. One of the first projects the company took on was a groundwater treatment plant to prevent the site's contaminants from leaking into the Columbia River. The $335 million USD facility has recently been completed, consisting of a plant at the center of a network of wells, pipes, and pumping stations.

The DOE has divided the cleanup effort into three sectors: the leaking tank farm; the river corridor, where the decommissioned nuclear reactors reside; and the central plateau, home of the Plutonium Finishing Plant (PFP). The PFP was where the liquid plutonium nitrate solution was converted into pure plutonium metal "buttons" the size of hockey pucks, the buttons being then shipped out to weapons production facilities. The PFP demolition involves 480 CH2M Hill personnel; the structure is the worst-contaminated at Hanford. The company's Jerry Long, working at the PFP, described it tidily: "This is a no-kidding, hazardous category 2 nuclear facility."

The "category 2" is DOE-speak for a possible "criticality event" on the site, meaning radioactive materials going into an uncontrolled chain reaction. Plutonium-239 isn't all that radioactive; it just easily supports chain reactions, and it doesn't take much quantity of the material to get a chain reaction going. Just to be reassuring, Long elaborated: "Every hazard that you can reasonably think of is present in this facility. Electrical hazards. Chemical hazards. Radioactive hazards ... We've got industrial hazards."

The PFP is old and decrepit, meaning that it's loaded with nasty surprises; the people working there are prepared for them, clearing out of the building immediately when anything happens that's not in the prepared script. Long commented: "It's not like a Coca-Cola bottling company that's been pumping out cases of Coke, and everything works pretty much okay. You can't know everything, so we plan for the unexpected."

Everyone working in the facility wears a "clean suit" and a respirator; get a particle of plutonium in the lungs, it means lung cancer. Everyone wears two cards around their necks, one which measures gamma radiation, the other being known as the "personal nuclear accident dosimeter (PNAD)". The PNAD measures bursts of neutrons, the effects of which can be determined from the fact that people who wear a PNAD call it the "death chip". The most contaminated areas are sealed off through portable airlocks, with those going in obtaining air supply through hoses. A component of the work crew is dedicated to management of protective gear, with tens of thousands of dollars of such kit used up every day.

The biggest bugbear for the CH2M Hill workers in the PFP are the gloveboxes. Gloveboxes are sealed chambers, with ports for gloves allowing workers to get into the interior to work on hazardous materials. They're not all that unusual an item, but the Hanford gloveboxes are special, built with thick radiation shielding, including heavy leaded glass. They weigh tonnes, and Hanford had hundreds of them; the PFP used them extensively, the fabrication of plutonium buttons being done mostly by hand, the joke among those who worked at the facility being that the acronym stood for "People Fondling Plutonium".

Breaking the gloveboxes down safely is a chore. To avoid contamination, they are dismantled to the maximum extent possible through the glove ports, a procedure compared to pulling an engine out of a car through the headlight sockets. A fixative is sprayed onto contaminated surfaces and then stripped off to get rid of radioactive particles. The contaminated material will ultimately end up in a waste disposal facility, which involves issues of its own; bundling it up for hauling off has to be handled with great care. Technicians monitor the radiation levels as waste is stuff into containers -- put too much waste in and the result will be a "criticality event", a sudden blue glow of light that will, in a few days, kill everyone who sees it.

CH2M Hill versus deadly gloveboxes

After the gloveboxes, the workers will dismantle the PFP's extensive plumbing, its ventilation system, and then the structure itself. By 2016, the PFP will be no more than a slab sitting in the Washington desert. Jerry Long appreciated that, as dirty as the PFP is, it is a piece of history that played an important part in World War II and the Cold War, a sense of history that residents of Hanford feel strongly. Long said: "When we take the excavators to this facility to tear it down, you will have a lot of people watching that with tears in their eyes. There is no other place like this in the world." [END OF SERIES]


[FRI 24 JAN 14] THE COLD WAR (9)

* THE COLD WAR (9): Come fair weather in 1942, the Germans began a renewed offensive against the USSR, driving southwest towards the oilfields of the Caucasus. The Red Army was forced back, finally making a stand in midsummer at the city of Stalingrad on the Volga. The fight there settled down in a grinding war of attrition.

In November, the Red Army launched an encirclement operation that trapped the German Sixth Army in Stalingrad. Hitler refused to authorize a breakout, and by early 1943 the pocket had been wiped out. In the meantime, the Western Allies had landed in North Africa, occupying French possessions there, presenting Hitler with a painful distraction, and the Japanese had suffered severe and ultimately irreversible defeats in the Pacific.

In January 1943, Churchill and Roosevelt met in Casablanca, Morocco. On 24 January, in the aftermath of the meeting, the two leaders reaffirmed their commitment to ensure that Lend-Lease supplies were being delivered as promised to the Soviets; they also committed to a "Combined Bomber Offensive" to pound the Reich day and night. They also committed to a policy of "unconditional surrender" -- a total-war policy, one aspect being to reassure the ever-suspicious Stalin that they wouldn't sell out the USSR by making a deal with Hitler.

Stalin was not greatly reassured, still insisting on a second front. He'd been given assurances that it would happen in 1943, but American and British forces remained bogged down in North Africa -- fighting German reinforcements sent by Hitler -- for the time being. The longer they stayed bogged down, the less likely it was that a true second front would be opened in 1943.

In the early spring of 1943, a crisis arose that threatened to undermine the alliance against Hitler. Britain had gone to war with Germany over Hitler's invasion of Poland, and the independence of Poland and the other states in Eastern Europe was a matter of great importance to the British. The Polish government-in-exile in London had good reasons to distrust Stalin, since the USSR had helped carve up their country in the first place. This distrust was greatly magnified when the Germans announced on 13 April 1943 the discovery of the mass graves of Polish officers at Katyn near Smolensk.

On 15 April, General Wladislaw Sikorski, the prime minister of the Polish government in exile in London, and the Polish ambassador to Britain met with Churchill. Churchill admitted he had little doubt that the Soviets were responsible for the mass executions, but pointed out that the bargaining position of the London Poles was very weak and that they should be circumspect how they handled the issue. They weren't, going public the next day to protest.

Stalin hardly seemed embarrassed by the matter at all, and in fact it played into his hands. On 21 April, he send identical letters to Churchill and Roosevelt, denouncing the "anti-Soviet slander campaign" being orchestrated by the Germans and preposterously accused the London Poles of collusion with the Nazis. The USSR now formally backed a group of Communist Poles living in the USSR, the "Union of Polish Patriots".

The Katyn revelations put the British and Americans in an impossible position. They could not get into a serious fight with their Soviet ally, however vicious Stalin might be; any action taken against the Soviets would undermine the war effort, and would accomplish nothing useful. The issue was papered over, though the result was hardly a relaxation of tensions, particularly between Britain and the USSR.

The British had few doubts that Stalin intended to keep the Polish territory he had seized; the greater worry was that he intended to subjugate everything else the Red Army captured as well. Sikorski was later killed in an air crash. There were suspicions of foul play, but no evidence to that effect was ever discovered; there can still be little doubt the Kremlin took satisfaction in the matter. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* WINGS & WEAPONS: The Lockheed S-3 Viking carrier-based antisubmarine warfare (ASW) aircraft first flew in 1972, and served the US Navy with distinction well past the turn of the century. It was an unglamorous aircraft, more like a tubby little cargo plane than a fighter, with a turbofan engine under each wing and a boxy fuselage for carrying a suite of ASW systems. However, the Viking was an almost ideal "flying truck", with a good load capacity and cheap to operate; it was not only used for ASW, but as a tanker, carrier on-board delivery (COD) aircraft to deliver cargo to carrier task forces at sea, a signals-intelligence / special mission platform, and even as a bomber.

The S-3 was so perfect for what it could do that it felt a shame the Viking fleet was retired in 2009. The retirement was for cost reasons; most of the aircraft had thousands of hours of airframe life left on them. However, according to AVIATION WEEK, there may be life in the S-3 after all. There are 150 Vikings in storage at the "boneyard", Davis-Monthan AFB in Arizona, with 90 of them suitable for refurbishment. South Korea has made inquiries about picking up 20 or more of them for maritime patrol, to keep an eye on North Korean submarines. If the deal goes through, the Vikings would be flying in South Korean colors in the 2018:2020 timeframe. The South Koreans are considering other options, but the Viking is particularly attractive from a cost point of view.

New lease on life?

More ambitiously, Lockheed Martin is proposing using the old S-3 airframes as the basis for a new US Navy COD aircraft, the proposal being designated the "KC-3" -- the "K" indicating a secondary tanker mission using underwing tanker pods. The KC-3 would replace the fuselage aft of the cockpit with a new lightweight aluminum fuselage, featuring more internal volume and a rear loading ramp. Wings, tail, and other assemblies would be refurbished, no doubt with the Viking's twin TF34 turbofans updated to the latest spec. The KC-3 would be able to carry up to 4,500 kilograms (10,000 pounds) of cargo.

There's competition for this requirement as well, Northrop Grumman proposing to refurbish the Navy's current C-2 Greyhound turboprop COD transports, while Bell-Boeing is offering the V-22 Osprey tiltrotor for the job. The KC-3 would have the edge on the competition in terms of range and speed. The Navy requirement hasn't actually been finalized yet, so schedule for an award remains uncertain.

* In 2007, the US Army decided to obtain a tactical airlifter fleet, choosing the C-27J Spartan twin-turboprop cargo plane -- built by Alenia Aermacchi of Italy with Lockheed Martin as the US partner, the machine being a modernized derivative of the G222 cargolifter. The Army ended up at odds with the US Air Force over the matter, with the Air Force taking over the program in 2009. Although the Army wanted 54 aircraft, the Air Force only acquired 21, then mothballed the fleet even before they had all been delivered.

People involved in government procurement fiascos are usually not eager to talk about what went wrong, and so the matter remains murky. The Air Force claimed the C-27Js were less capable than their C-130 tactical cargolifters but just as expensive to operate, though that seems a little hard to buy. It may just have been that the Air Force operational procedures and usage rates were not a good fit for a smaller aircraft, and so the overhead ended up being similar for both types.

Whatever the details, in another twist on this long-running story, AVIATION WEEK reports that the mothballed C-27Js became a hot property. Seven, including the last four that hadn't been delivered, were snapped up by the US Special Operations Command (SOCOM), to be used for parachute training, replacing CASA C212 transports. The remaining 14 are now to be transferred to the US Coast Guard (USCG) for ocean patrol / search and rescue. The USCG has been acquiring the EADS HC-221 / CN-295 Ocean Sentry for those roles; acquisition of the discarded C-27Js would mean the service wouldn't have to buy more HC-221s to fill out its air fleet.

The C-27Js have similar avionics and engines to the C-103J Hercules operated by the USCG, simplifying support. The Coast Guard does not see the C-27Js as being as expensive to operate as the Hercules, saying the Spartan provides three-quarters of the capability of the C-130J at half the operating cost. There had been competition for the 14 Spartans from the US Forest Service (USFS), now suffering a painful shortfall of air tankers; as part of the deal for the C-27Js, the USCG will hand seven old Coast Guard HC-130H machines over to the Air Force for refurbishment, these aircraft to then be passed on to the USFS.

In any case, it will be pleasing to see the Spartans in orange-&-white USCG "creamsicle" colors. Presumably they will be fitted with rescue kit, a sensor turret under the nose, and possibly bulged side observation windows.

* There's been a buzz in the aviation media about a German firm named E-volo that's working on a electric-powered two-seat helicopter, the "VC-200". It's not much like a conventional helicopter, the main rotor being replaced by an array of six Y-shaped struts extending from a central hub on top of the fuselage, with a ring running around the tips of the struts. There are electric motors, driving two-bladed props, mounted vertically at the vertex and the tips of each strut, giving twelve motors along the outer ring and six motors inside the ring.

E-volo VC-200

On first sight, the VC-200 seems like a ridiculous contraption -- eighteen motors? -- and a testimony to the German bent towards exotic engineering, but on consideration, it makes much more sense. Electric motors are, as a rule, simple and reliable. In addition, the rotor system of a standard helicopter is complex, to permit flight control; the VC-200, in contrast, can perform flight control by selective digital control of the set of motors. It may well be cheaper and more reliable to use the array of motors than a single normal rotor system; and if a motor is lost, the VC-200 can get down to ground safely.

It's also relatively quiet, sounding in videos more like a set of large fans than a helicopter. Think of it less as a conventional helicopter than as an ambitious scaling-up of a toy quadcopter. Endurance, the VC-200 being battery-operated, is on the low side, and the payload capacity is small -- it's a sport vehicle, not really a working machine. If the VC-200 does sell, maybe there will be a hybrid or scaled-up version down the road.



* MAG TAPE REVIVAL: As discussed by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("Magnetic Tape To The Rescue", November 30 2013), computer old-timers tend to find the notion of using magnetic tape for data storage archaic, obsolete, reminiscent of the computer technology of the 1980s. Mag tape data storage goes back to the dawn of the computer age in the 1950s, being used on the pioneering UNIVAC I computer of 1951. There was a time when mag tape was used for personal computer backup, but those days are long gone. Only a few years ago, it seemed on a slow decline to oblivion.

Now sales of mag tape systems are picking up again. Why? The answer's simple: Big Data. Consider the Large Hadron Collector (LHC), the giant particle accelerator near Geneva run by CERN, the European nuclear research organization. An LHC run churns out three to six gigabytes of data every second, and it takes an enormous amount of mass storage to soak up all that data. Enter mag tape. Yes, hard disk drive capacity has been getting ever greater and cheaper, but hard disks still can't keep up with mag tape for storing huge amounts of data at low cost, mag tape being about 2.5 times cheaper per bit of storage. More Big Data projects, as well as sprawling cloud-computing networks, are popping up all the time; that means more sales for mag tape systems.

There are other advantages to mag tape. It's actually faster than hard disks for streaming data storage; yes, it takes about 40 seconds for the "juke box" system that handles the tapes to load a tape up, but once the tape drive gets rolling, it soaks up data about four times faster than a hard disk drive. Tape is also more generally more reliable. Modern tape materials are sturdy and can last a long time, and once placed in controlled storage, tape is protected from fire and extremes of humidity. A hard disk drive is mechanical contraption that operates at high RPM with tight tolerances, meaning something is likely to go wrong sooner or later. A hard disk drive in heavy use lasts about five years or so; tapes in storage can last three decades.

Even when tape snaps, it's not hard to splice it back together, with only a tiny fraction of the data lost. If a hard disk crashes, everything is effectively gone. In addition, although tape is the least convenient medium for random access to data, that has certain advantages for archival storage. Malicious hackers could get into hard-disk archival system and wipe it out before anyone was the wiser; the only way they could quickly destroy a tape-based archive system is with explosives.

Modern tape systems can store up to six terabytes of data on a single tape. Evangelos Eleftheriou, manager of storage technologies at the IBM research laboratory in Zurich, has worked with Fujifilm to develop a prototype of a tape drive that stores 35 terabytes on a 1,000-meter tape. That, however, was only a stepping stone, Eleftheriou's target being to triple that density, giving more than 100 terabytes of data on a tape. That involves a read-write head that can be positioned to within 10 nanometers on a tape reeling under it at five meters per second. He hopes to have a prototype ready before the end of 2014.



* REDECORATING THE NSA: The furor over intelligence-gathering on American citizens by the US National Security Agency (NSA) was discussed repeatedly here over the past year. As reported by TIME Online, on 17 January US President Barack Obama announced, in a speech at the Justice Department, a series of reforms in NSA practices for handling "metadata" produced by phone calls. Obama did not judge there had been any wrongdoing:


The United States only uses signals intelligence for legitimate national security purposes, and not for the purpose of indiscriminately reviewing the emails or phone calls of ordinary people. Now let me be clear: our intelligence agencies will continue to gather information about the intentions of governments -- as opposed to ordinary citizens -- around the world, in the same way that the intelligence services of every other nation does. We will not apologize simply because our services may be more effective.


Obama said he had no reason to believe that the NSA gone beyond the bounds, and heads were not going to roll. However, he admitted the "potential for abuse", and said he had ordered changes, as well as further studying of the issues. The president was not at any loss when asked probing questions, though skeptics found the answers lacking in substance:

Q: Will your metadata still be collected and kept for years?

A: Yes, though the objective is to make sure the government won't have direct access to the data.

Q: Will the US keep spying abroad?

A: Of course, but there will be exceptions for some friendly heads of state.

Q: Will the US still keep incidental information collected on Americans?

A: Yes, but means will be investigated on how to keep it more confidential.

The US government will continue to gather information about millions of telephone calls -- the numbers called, the duration of the calls, but not the content. Listening in on phone calls will require, as it did in the past, a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance (FISA) court warrant, the FISA court having been discussed here last summer. The biggest change is that US government will not store the data, it will instead be held by a "trusted third party (TTP)". Phone companies don't want to hold that bag, so the government is still trying to find a TTP. Any NSA queries into the metadatabase will require a FISA court warrant. Up to now, metadata queries could track up to three "hops" from one caller to another via intermediaries; now the limit will be two hops.

Gag rules on firms sent National Security Letters requiring cooperation in surveillance activities will eventually be eased, allowing the companies to disclose government surveillance requests that aren't extraordinarily sensitive. In addition, incidental data about Americans picked up in the course of foreign intelligence activities will be handled more carefully with respect to privacy, and information about foreigners who aren't terrorist suspects will be given the same respect.

The Obama Administration has reviewed surveillance activities on foreign heads of state and declared dozens of them off limits -- though nobody was saying which ones, and there was no review of surveillance of lower-ranking foreign officials. Obama wryly remarked on how other governments had feigned surprise about US intelligence gathering, when they were often consumers of that intelligence, and engaged in similar practices themselves. As for metadata collection activities relative to emails, instant chats, and other online communications, they're still under study. In response to calls for amnesty for Edward Snowden, the NSA contractor who blew the whistle and ran off to Russia, the president said he had no comment on an ongoing investigation, except that "our nation's defense depends in part on the fidelity of those entrusted with our nation's secrets."

Finally, the president asked Congress to consider appointing a committee of independent privacy, civil liberties, and technology experts who could consult with the FISA court on delicate cases. Members of Congress ranged from lukewarm to hostile on Obama's proposals, but there was a certain sly irony in his suggestion of a such a committee, in that the fractious Congress is unlikely to be able to implement any such thing. The administration may find congressional gridlock exasperating, but it does have its advantages.

Indeed, the controversy is laden with ironies. It doesn't appear Snowden had access to any big secrets, his revelations being painted in loud colors but with a very broad brush. Nothing that was revealed was much surprise to those knowledgeable of US intelligence activities; public reaction has been overheated and exaggerated. Noisy critics of NSA activities would not be placated by anything less than a total halt to NSA intelligence-gathering on US public communications, and that is just not going to happen; if a major terrorist attack took place on US soil, the government would be pilloried for not having taken every reasonable step to prevent it. Indeed, the government would be angrily denounced by hotheads for not taking steps that are illegal and unreasonable under current surveillance laws.

The biggest irony is that the Obama Administration is responding exactly as could have been expected: clarifying the rules for NSA operations, enhancing (secret) oversight, and setting up committees to investigate the matter further while making bland public pronouncements. The studies and statements will continue until the controversy is displaced in the headlines by a new controversy. However, even though the end result will be be pretty much business as usual, the debate has still been worthwhile, allowing public concerns to be aired and addressed. It is also a good first step in the debate over privacy versus instant global communications: we're just starting to get our feet wet in that ocean.



* ATOMIC CLEANUP (1): The massive and expensive cleanup job for the contaminated US nuclear production facility at Hanford in Washington State was mentioned here briefly in 2011. An article from BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK ("The Plutonium Gang" by Steve Featherstone, 5 August 2013) took a closeup inspection of the job.

Plutonium was first synthesized by Glenn Seaborg and Edwin McMillan in 1940 at the University of California, Berkeley. Traces of the long-lived plutonium-244 isotope, with a half-life of about 80 million years, were eventually found in nature, but as work progressed on the development of the atomic bomb, the plutonium-239 isotope, with a half-life of 24,100 years, seemed very promising. It wasn't until 1944 that it was produced in enough quantity to analyze in detail, the analysis confirming its promise. That left the issue of producing plutonium-239 in bulk.

A plant was established at Hanford, near the southern border of Washington State along the Columbia River. The Columbia provided the large quantities of water needed for the production process; the site also had the virtue of isolation. While Washington State is stereotyped as green and rainy, that's only really the coastal regions; going east over the mountains leads to sagebrush desert that even today remains thinly populated. If there was going to be a nuclear accident, that was one of the preferable places for it to happen.

Production began at Hanford in the spring of 1945, with the first atomic bomb using Hanford plutonium detonated in July, and a plutonium bomb dropped on the Japanese city of Nagasaki in August, placing an exclamation point on the end of World War II. Hanford's production of plutonium-239 accelerated during the Cold War, the site producing tens of thousands of tonnes of weapons-grade material using a total of nine breeder reactors, supplying about two-thirds of the plutonium for America's nuclear arsenal.

Hanford in the Cold War

The reactors gradually came to an end of their useful lives, being shut down one by one from the mid-1960s to 1987. The end of plutonium production at Hanford of course meant the beginning of a monstrous cleanup job. At the outset, nobody understood in detail just how dirty a process plutonium production really was, and to the extent that anyone suspected what a problem it might turn out to be, such concerns were necessarily deferred by the urgent need to turn out bombs -- first to end World War II, then to match the Soviets in an out-of-control arms race. A big nasty problem can present an opportunity, and it certainly did to CH2M Hill, the engineering firm now working to clean up the Hanford Nuclear Reservation.

* CH2M Hill was founded in 1946 by three Oregon State University civil engineering students named Cornell, Howland, and Hayes, along with a professor named Merryfield. The "Hill" was tacked onto the company name following a 1971 merger with another engineering firm. CH2M Hill started out in the water management business, building water treatment plants, desalination plants, and pipelines. Lee McIntire, the company's current boss, said that water is still the company's bread and butter, and is likely to stay that way as resource availability squeezes "the big three -- water, food, and energy ... You can't really make more water."

CH2M Hill is now headquartered out of Denver, Colorado, and has about 30,000 employees working all over the world. The company first got into the nuclear cleanup business in 1995, when the firm began to demolish the weapons production facility at Rocky Flats outside Denver, where fissionable material was used to build bombs. The Rocky Flats complex was frighteningly dirty; a paint chip falling off the wall could set off airborne radiation alarms. Working along with the Kaiser Group, in ten years of work the contractors removed tonnes of nuclear material and removed all visible trace of the 800 structures on the site, turning it into a National Wildlife Refuge.

There's still some residual radioactivity in pockets on the Rocky Flats site, but it's well within safe limits. The cleanup job cost the taxpayer $7 billion USD, but that was dirt cheap compared to an initial estimate by the US Department of Energy, in charge of the US nuclear complex, which said it would take 70 years to do the job and would cost $70 billion USD. The work at Rocky Flats left CH2M Hill in a position to take on tougher nuclear cleanup jobs. [TO BE CONTINUED]


[FRI 17 JAN 14] THE COLD WAR (8)

* THE COLD WAR (8): Allied assistance to the USSR slowly ramped up through 1942. Weapons and supplies were brought in through Iran, Siberia, and Murmansk in northern Russia. Vessels carrying material across the Pacific were either Soviet or had been flagged by convenience as Soviet, allowing them to steam with impunity in Japanese-controlled waters. The Germans leaned on the Japanese to take action against the shipment of war materiel to the Soviets for use against the Reich, but the Japanese did nothing serious to interfere: they had no more wish to start a fight with the Soviets than, for the time being, the Soviets had to start a fight with them.

The Allied Murmansk convoys were a major effort and were conducted under great hazards. They had to skirt around German-occupied Norway to reach Murmansk, and often suffered badly from Luftwaffe bombers, as well as German Navy U-boats and surface warships. Sailors falling into the frigid waters froze to death in minutes. Stalin displayed little appreciation, with Soviet officials harassing captains and crews who were simply trying to deliver the goods. Churchill put his foot down, telling Stalin bluntly that either the harassment stopped or the shipments did. The harassment stopped.

By the end of 1942, Allied assistance to the USSR was becoming a flood, though it would never be the majority of the vast quantities of material needed to support the Soviet war machine. Still, despite the fact that the Soviets downplayed the assistance, then and later, as inconsequential, the aid was far from trivial. The Soviet Union would not have recovered so quickly from the devastation of the first year of the war in the East had help not been so forthcoming.

Stalin's appreciation was always limited. He always wanted more, and in particular he demanded a second front. In a sense he had got a second front almost at the outset, when the Japanese attacked the Americans, ensuring that Japan could not seriously threaten the USSR from the east for the time being. It did not escape the notice of his allies that while Stalin was demanding a second front, he was pointedly doing nothing to help them in their war against the Japanese. Hints by the Americans to allow them to set up air bases in the Soviet Far East to bomb the Japanese home islands were emphatically rejected. The Americans were not inclined to press the matter: for the time being, the Soviets obviously had their hands full, and they had obviously valid reasons to avoid a fight in the Far East.

The British, partly for a lack of anything better to do to support the USSR by offensive action, were conducting a bomber war against the Reich, to which the Americans would soon begin to add their weight. The bombing was inaccurate, absurdly so at first, and no more than an inconvenience to German war production at the time, but it did help relieve the pressure on the USSR by forcing the Reich to dedicate fighter aircraft and other resources to home defense. The British lost many bombers and aircrew, but Stalin had little gratitude. Bombing the Fascists was all well and good, but it wasn't a second front, and Stalin wanted a second front now.

In the spring of 1942, Foreign Minister Molotov went to London and Washington DC to confirm existing agreements and argue for a second front. The British thought the idea wildly impractical; the Americans were more passionate about the idea, believing that even if a landing was a complete failure, it would keep the faith with the Soviets. Lack of resources, particularly landing craft, doomed the notion -- and Roosevelt also told Molotov that mounting such an operation would necessarily mean reducing Lend-Lease shipments to the USSR.

Molotov went back to Moscow in early June. The discussions were seen as constructive, with many details hammered out on Lend-Lease -- though the British and Americans had been careful to avoid any commitments on postwar boundaries in the East, while Molotov had been careful not to press them very hard on such matters. However, Molotov knew it was unlikely there would be a second front in France in 1942, and in fact Molotov said in the course of a set of interviews conducted late in his life that Stalin realized it was impractical. Shipping Soviet troops and materiel across the USSR in trains was one thing, hauling American forces across the Atlantic while fighting German U-boats was another, and Stalin knew it.

Molotov's comments in the interviews were mostly regurgitations of antique Stalinist propaganda, but the cynicism in Molotov's remarks about the Soviet attitude toward the USSR's Western allies had a ring of truth, saying that he simply wished to pressure and embarrass them: "What scoundrels you are! You say one thing and do another!"

It truly did seem unjust, even cynical, for the Western Allies to leave Hitler be while Germany assailed the USSR, but it was the simple reality: they were doing all they could, and they couldn't do everything. However, Churchill was aggressive by nature, and was determined to find some way to take action given the limits of resources. For the moment, the British were pushing for an Anglo-American invasion of French North Africa. For the moment, unfortunately, there weren't any other real options. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* Space launches for December included:

-- 01 DEC 13 / CHANG'E 3 -- A Long March 3B booster was launched from Xichang in China at 1730 GMT (next day local time - 8) to put the third "Chang'e" lunar probe into space. The spacecraft carried a soft lander and a mobile rover named "Yutu (Jade Rabbit)", China's first in both cases. The six-wheel rover had a mass of 140 kilograms (308 pounds); it was powered by solar panels, but had radioisotope heaters to keep it from freezing up during the lunar night. The Yutu rover carried advanced radars to study the structure of the lunar crust at shallow depths, along with spectrometers for lunar soil analysis. Four navigation and panoramic cameras were mounted on the rover to return high-resolution images from the moon; the lander had an optical telescope for astronomical observations. The lander set down successfully on the Moon on 14 December at 1311 GMT.

-- 03 DEC 13 / SES 8 -- A SpaceX Falcon 9 booster was launched from Cape Canaveral in Florida at 2241 GMT (local time + 5) to put the "SES 8" geostationary comsat into orbit. SES 8 was built by Orbital Sciences and was based on the Orbital Enhanced Star 2.4 bus. The satellite had a launch mass of 3,137 kilograms (6,918 pounds), a payload of 24 Ku / 1 Ka band transponders, and a design life of 15 years. SES 8 was placed in the geostationary slot at 95 degrees east longitude, alongside the existing SES NSS 5 comsat, to broadcast direct-to-home television to customers across India, Vietnam, Thailand and neighboring countries. This was the first launch of the stretched "Falcon v1.1" variant of the booster, mentioned here in 2012.

-- 06 DEC 13 / NROL-39 (USA 247) -- An Atlas 5 booster was launched from Vandenberg AFB in California at 0713 GMT (previous day local time + 8) to put a secret military payload into space for the US National Reconnaissance Office (NRO). The payload was designated "NROL-39" AKA "USA 247". It was suspected to be a radar reconnaissance satellite of the "Topaz" class, following the NROL-41 (USA-215) mission launched in September 2010, and NROL-25 (USA-234), launched in April 2012.

The launch also carried twelve CubeSats into orbit, seven from the US military and five from educational institutions. The educational satellites were flown as part of NASA's "Educational Launch of Nanosatellites (ELaNa)" program, being collectively designated "ELaNa II". The twelve CubeSats included:

The Atlas booster was in the "501" configuration, with a 5 meter (16.4 foot) fairing, no solid rocket boosters, and an upper stage with a single Centaur engine.

-- 08 DEC 13 / INMARSAT 5 F1 -- A International Launch Services Proton M Briz M booster was launched from Baikonur in Kazakhstan at 1212 GMT (local time - 6) to put the "Inmarsat 5 F1" geostationary communications satellite into orbit. Inmarsat 5 F1 was built by Boeing Satellite Systems and was based on the BSS-702HP comsat platform. It had a launch mass of 6,100 kilograms (13,448 pounds), a payload of 89 Ka-band transponders, and a design life of 15 years. It was placed in the geostationary slot at 63 degrees east longitude, over the Indian Ocean, to provide mobile communications services for ships and aircraft. User downlink speeds were up to 50 megabits per second, while uplink speeds were up to 5 megabits per second, with the fast downlink speeds supporting passenger entertainment systems on aircraft. Inmarsat 5-F1 was the first in a constellation of "Global Xpress" satellites, operating on a different band than previous Inmarsat comsats, which operated in the L-band. Two more Global Xpress satellites were in the pipeline.

-- 09 DEC 13 / CBERS 3 (FAILURE) -- A Long March 4B booster was launched from Taiyuan in China at 0326 GMT (local time - 8) to put the third "China-Brazil Environmental Satellite (CBERS 3)" into Sun-synchronous orbit. CBERS 3, with a launch mass of 2,100 kilograms (4,630 pounds), was built by the China Academy of Space Technology, with two of its imaging instruments provided by China and two by Brazil. The payload did not make orbit.

-- 19 DEC 13 / GAIA -- A Soyuz 2-1b booster was launched from Kourou in French Guiana at 0912 GMT (local time + 3) to put the ESA "Gaia" stellar astrometry satellite into space, discussed here a few months back.

ignition:  GAIA launch from Kourou

-- 20 DEC 13 / TUPAC KATARI -- A Long March 3B booster was launched from Xichang in China at 1642 GMT (next day local time - 8) to put the "Tupac Katari" geostationary comsat into orbit for the government of Bolivia. The satellite was built by CAST of China, being based on the DFH-4 satellite bus; it had a launch mass of 5,200 kilograms (11,465 pounds) and a design life of 15 years. It was placed in the geostationary slot at 87.2 degrees West longitude to provide domestic communications services.

-- 26 DEC 13 / COSMOS 2488, 2489, & 2490 -- A Rockot booster was launched from the Plesetsk Northern Cosmodrome in Russia at 0031 GMT (local time - 4) to put three secret military payloads into high-inclination orbit. The payloads were designated "Cosmos 2488", "Cosmos 2489", and "Cosmos 2490"; they were suspected to be "Rodnik" class low-orbit military relay comsats, similar to the Gonets-M series.

-- 26 DEC 13 / EXPRESS AM5 -- A Proton M Briz M booster was launched from Baikonur at 2012 GMT (next day local time - 6) to put the "Express AM5" geostationary civil communications satellite into orbit for the Russian Satellite Communications Company. Express AM5 had a launch mass of about 3,400 kilograms (7,500 pounds), carried a payload of 40 Ku-band / 30 C-band / 12 Ka-band / 1 L-band transponders, and a design life of 15 years. It was placed in the geostationary slot at 140 degrees East longitude, to provide coverage to the Russian Far East and other locales in the hemisphere.

* As reported by FLIGHTGLOBAL Online, the growing enthusiasm for CubeSats and other very small, cheap satellite platforms has led to a populist revolution in spaceflight. Now everybody can fly a satellite, or at least rent time on one for experiments. Alas, CubeSats are somewhat victims of their own success, more CubeSats being made than there are opportunities to fly them as secondary payloads on boosters lofting large satellites as primary payloads. The Cubesats complicate launch planning, which is troublesome in the first place; both CubeSat makers and the owners of primary payloads end up being at odds over launch delays.

In August 2013, the US National Aeronautics & Space Administration began a competition to encourage development of a low-cost "very small launch vehicles (VSLV)" under the "NASA Launch Services Enabling eXploration & Technology (NEXT)" program. Ironically, the VSLV is almost going full circle, since in the early years of the Space Age boosters and satellites tended toward the small as well. NEXT builds on an earlier NASA program, the "Nano-Satellite Launch Challenge (NSLC)", a contest with an award of $3 million USD to the first company to launch two single-unit (1U) CubeSats in two weeks. That was thinking too small; there was little interest, so the NSLC was replaced by NEXT. The NEXT challenge is to develop a VSLV that can put three triple-unit (EU) CubeSats into near-polar Sun-synchronous orbit, with a demonstration launch to be made in 2016. NASA will award $300,000 USD for each 3U CubeSat placed in orbit.

GOLancher on Gulfstream III

A number of companies are participating in the NEXT contest, one of the more visible being Generation Orbit Launch Services of Atlanta, Georgia. Their "GOLaunch" flight system consists of a Gulfstream III business jet carrying a two-stage rocket booster on a centerline pylon. The booster has a solid-fuel first stage, it seems derived from a military missile, and a liquid-fuel second stage, apparently using storable fuels. The little booster will be able to put 45 kilograms (100 pounds) into low Earth orbit, which sounds like the "sweet spot" for a smallsat launcher -- enough to carry anything from a load of CubeSats up to a relatively sophisticated minisat.

The notion of a cheap smallsat launcher has been around a long time, but so far it hasn't really happened. The technology actually seems to be there, so one can hope NEXT will finally break the losing streak. It just doesn't seem that it should be so hard.



* INSECTS AS A FOOD SOURCE: The notion of using insects as a source of food protein was mentioned briefly here in 2011. As discussed by an article from BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK ("I'll Have The Fly-Fed Beef, Please" by Bernhard Warner, 17 June 2013), a startup named EnviroFlight -- out of Yellow Springs, Ohio -- is asking the US Food & Drug Administration (FDA) for permission to sell livestock feed made from insects.

The FDA does not at present allow companies to sell insect-based animal feeds across state lines. It's banned in other parts of the developed world as well, partly because of the "mad cow disease" scare of the late 1990s -- the disease was contracted by cattle that had eaten feed made from other cattle, and so use of animal feedstocks was prohibited. That ended up including insects, though there wasn't the slightest evidence that insects had a thing to do with mad cow disease.

At present, the protein in most livestock feeds comes from fish or soybean additives. EnviroFlight thinks that bugs would be cheaper, with the company focused on the black soldier fly, found in temperate zones around the world, which lays its eggs in compost. Flies that breed in manure, incidentally, would not be acceptable since they could pose a disease transmission hazard. Glen Courtright, boss of EnviroFlight, commented on his appreciation of the black soldier fly: "As adults, they just drink and screw. These guys are little miracles."

It's the fly larvae, not the adults, that are the payoff, however. Courtright said: "We can produce 225 pounds [102 kilograms] of clean, safe feed ingredients for aquaculture, crustacea, and poultry -- that's the holy trinity of fish, shrimp, and chickens -- in a 3 x 5 foot [90 x 150 centimeter] space."

The production process starts in a mating chamber named the "love shack", leading to production of offspring. The young larvae are raised on a diet of plant-based feed with vitamins and minerals, to bulk up for about two weeks on scraps from potato chip factories and tortilla processing plants, as well as residue of grains used in the Yellow Springs Brewery across the street. When the larvae get to about two centimeters (almost an inch) long, they are harvested, to be cooked in industrial-sized kettles and then ground into a protein powder, nutrients being added before shipping the product out the door.

In the summer of 2012, food scientists at Ohio State and Kentucky State Universities ran a test of bug-based feed for cultivated shrimp, comparing it with conventional feed based on catfish. Prawns fed on the bug feed did as well as they did with conventional feed, but the bug feed was 20% cheaper. Given that feed accounts for 65% to 70% of the cost of production, farmers should find the EnviroFlight feed attractive.

Two other firms -- Entologies in Belgium and AgriProtein technologies of South Africa -- are also developing bug-based feeds for livestock. The United Nations is pushing for countries to drop their bans on bug-based feeds; the European Union is expected to issue new rules soon. The US FDA said no decision should be expected quickly, given the need to run strict tests. There's also the concern that consumers might be put off from eating shrimp or whatever raised on bug-based feed. To be sure, fish and chickens eat bugs all the time and nobody worries, but some people are easily excited and can make noise all out of proportion to their numbers.

* As mentioned in AAAS SCIENCE, the UN Food & Agriculture Organization has issued a report on insects as a food source, not only endorsing the use of insect protein in animal feeds, but also the production of insects for direct consumption. The report said that about 2 billion of the world's 7 billion people regularly consume more than 1,900 species of insects and other small arthropods, mostly as part of traditional diets in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

Small, flightless grasshoppers named "chapulines" and manguey worms are popular in Mexico, while fried Thai zebra tarantulas are such a delicacy in Cambodia that they are threatened with extinction. The FAO report suggests that commercial production of insects for food will not only help support a growing world population, it will give farmers more income and help preserve endangered insect species.



* DISJOINTED? The US military and the armed forces of many American allies are looking forward to the acquisition of America's advanced technology F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), now being introduced to service. The F-35 is a marvel and will likely prove an excellent aircraft -- once the bugs are worked out.

That qualification is significant, since getting the thing to work right has not been painless, the program having suffered from delays and cost escalation, unit price of aircraft climbing dramatically in the process. Part of the problem was the unfortunate tendency to do too much at once -- attempting to acquire an aircraft featuring a new airframe, new avionics, and new engine, piling up complexity and the likelihood of things going wrong. As reported by TIME magazine, that complexity was also driven by the use of the word "Joint" in the JSF's name. As conceived, there would be three versions of the F-35 -- one a conventional fighter, the second a carrier-based fighter, the third a vertical-takeoff fighter -- to serve in the US Air Force, the US Navy, the US Marines, and Britain's Royal Navy.

Lockheed Martin F-35 JSF

According to a recent RAND study cited in the TIME article, joint programs have traditionally been seen as a way to eliminate duplication and ensure large production buys for weapon systems -- but in reality such programs end up being excessively costly. That's not really too much of a surprise, since programs tend to bog down when they have to serve multiple clients, who are likely to each want their own features. Adding functionality tends to have a disproportionate effect on program complexity: as a simple model, the number of interactions between elements of a system rises with the square of the number of elements.

In studies of several joint programs, Rand reports that the cost of buying a joint aircraft grew by 65%, compared to 24% for single-service aircraft, in the nine years following the beginning of full-scale development. The F-35 program, Rand estimates, will have cost about $800 billion USD by that point; three separate aircraft would have cost less than $600 billion USD, a savings of roughly 25%. Observers have noted that the three different F-35 variants are sufficiently different from each other that there has been no strong leverage between them in terms of simplifying the development program. In addition, a lack of diversity among combat aircraft means that we won't have alternative solutions if the one we focused on proves inadequate in service. Such are the hazards of design by committee.

Incidentally, the TIME article cited the General Dynamics F-111 strike fighter, developed in the 1960s, as one of the major joint-development boondoggles, and it certainly was, but also casually mentioned the F-4 Phantom and A-7 strike fighter as joint programs. That's a bit misleading; the F-4 and A-7 were both designed under Navy requirements and then adopted by the US Air Force, so they weren't really joint programs, and neither were boondoggles. It turns out to be much less troublesome to design an aircraft for the requirements of one armed service, get it flying, and then modify it as per the requirements of another armed service.

* As discussed in parallel by AVIATION WEEK, repairing the US military procurement system isn't as easy as it might seem. There's been attempts to fix it for decades, but in the last decade weapon systems costs still escalated by 3% per year above inflation. There are factors that work against streamlining defense procurement:

As one official put it: "The system is set up ... to lie to itself." Ultimately, the only way to get things to work is to devise a culture that makes them work. As Representative Adam Smith of Washington State, the ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, put it: "It really comes down to people, you know. We can pass all the legislation we want, [but the challenge really] is getting the incentives right so that the men and women who work on this have the proper incentives to be innovative, to find the way to do the thing that's most cost-effective."

But who will bell the cat, Congress being part of the problem in the first place?



* MAKE DRUG WAR NO MORE (2): Americans seem to be coming around to the idea of drug legalization -- just as they've increasingly come around to the idea of same-sex marriage, an idea that was also once completely out of the question to the great majority of Americans. Campaigners for drug legalization are seeking further wins, mainly in the relatively liberal states of the West and Northeast. Some dare to dream of challenging Federal law, but they're up against an entrenched obstacle in the form of the long-standing prohibition industry. Law enforcement officers and officials of the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) often speak up against legalization, claiming it will simply lead to expansion of drug abuse.

However, legalization is also the trend in Europe. The Netherlands has long been known for its liberal drug laws; now Spain is catching up. Restrictions on commerce in drugs do remain in force there, but Spanish potheads can legally form up "social clubs" in which members can swap drugs. Similar experiments are under way in France, Belgium, Italy and Germany. Portugal has been particularly energetic. In 1997, opinion polls rated drug use the country's biggest social problem; now, in the wake of decriminalization in 2001, Portuguese rank it only 13th. All political parties support the policy of treating drug use as a health issue, not a crime. Portugal uses "dissuasion boards", made up of doctors, psychologists and other specialists. They aim to get addicts into treatment and to prevent recreational users from falling into addiction.

If necessary, the boards can impose fines and community work -- but the idea is to provide encouragement and help, not punishment, which would just drive drug use underground. Brendan Hughes, of the Lisbon-based European Monitoring Center for Drugs & Drug Addiction (EMCDDA), a European Union agency, says Portugal stands out for its "consistency and comprehensiveness". Other countries wanting to focus on health have only "tweaked" their criminal laws, he says.

In 2009, the Czech Republic decriminalized possession of most drugs along Portuguese lines; in December 2012, the Czechs went further, fully legalizing medicinal cannabis. The plan is for imports, probably Dutch or Israeli, to be sold in pharmacies. If that works, then a number of competing companies will be licensed to produce supplies locally.

The other big policy innovation in Europe has been to drop punitive policies in dealing with heroin and cocaine addiction, in favor of harm reduction. Governments remain very uneasy about cocaine, since it's notoriously addictive -- but in fact, it's the effectively legal synthetics that are more frightening. Some of them pack a mighty wallop, and as illegal drugs their side effects and long-term effects are completely unknown.

For all the growing enthusiasm for more liberal recreational drug laws and the obvious failure of the "war on drugs", it's still not easy to show that liberalization is really the answer. Relaxing the laws against cannabis use is unlikely to affect drug-related crime, particularly violent crime, since that's mostly derived from the market for hard drugs. Shifting from punishment to harm reduction may keep the jails from filling up and ease the burden on the legal system, but it still leaves gangsters in control of supplies and revenues. Many countries remain committed to prohibition, despite its obvious defects. All we can really do is observe the places that are experimenting in new approaches and see if they work any better.

* As discussed by another article from THE ECONOMIST ("A New Prescription", 10 August 2013), New Zealand is not greatly afflicted by the international drug trade -- the land is out of the way, and there are only about four million New Zealanders. Some New Zealanders like to get high of course, and so the inclination has been to "grow your own", with a particular focus on synthetic drug production. The government shuts down more crystal methamphetamine labs than anyplace except the US and the Ukraine, but there's more activity in the production of synthetic cannabinoids.

Synthetics not only can pack a hell of a punch, they can also be endlessly tweaked as per their chemical structure, meaning the authorities have to cope with endless streams of new drugs that haven't been criminalized -- but can't be counted as safe either. The government has effectively given up trying to fight the tide, having now established a "Psychoactive Substances Regulatory Authority" that will, on request, test a synthetic for safety. If a drug passes testing, it will be licensed for sale by authorized shops; the shops are not allowed to advertise, and of course cannot sell to kids.

A trial is expected to take no more than 18 months on the average, since it will not be tested for efficacy -- that's an issue between the dealers and the users, hopefully settled nonviolently. Advocates claim the measure should improve public safety and raise tax revenues. Skeptics aren't so sure, but everyone agrees that the pre-existing state of things was unworkable, and so, again, there is an inclination to experiment and see if something better can be devised. [END OF SERIES]


[FRI 10 JAN 14] THE COLD WAR (7)

* THE COLD WAR (7): While the Germans were falling back from the gates of Moscow, the United States came into the war in full force. On 7 December, Japan attacked the US Navy base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, inflicting massive damage; America immediately declared war. There was the difficulty that the Japanese attack did not give Roosevelt an option for declaring war on Germany, but Hitler declared war on the USA on 11 December.

America was now a combatant in the conflict. The full entry of the US into the war was of enormous significance, but it was not entirely good news for the Kremlin in the short term, since it meant diversion of American military aid for the USSR. On the other side of the coin, the Japanese had committed themselves to a fight with the Americans and there was no way they could present a threat to the Soviet Union in the meantime. Indeed, given the massive imbalance of power between Japan and the USA, over the long run Japan was likely to be permanently eliminated as a threat.

On 22 December, Churchill arrived in Washington DC along with British government and military staff to discuss war planning. It seemed appropriate at the time to produce a statement of common purpose for those at war with the Axis. The result was the "Declaration By United Nations", signed on 1 January 1942, the primary signatories being the "Big Four", including China, the UK, the USA, and the USSR, with 22 other Allied countries signing as well. The list of signatories would expand during the war as more countries signed up to fight the Axis.

Roosevelt used the term "United Nations" because he was cautious about calling it an "alliance", which had legal implications that might have caused problems with the US Congress, but the concept of the "United Nations" had been born and would take on greater importance in the future. In any case, the document stated:


Being convinced that complete victory over their enemies is essential to defend life, liberty, independence and religious freedom, and to preserve human rights and justice in their own lands as well as in other lands, and that they are now engaged in a common struggle against savage and brutal forces seeking to subjugate the world, DECLARE:

1: Each Government pledges itself to employ its full resources, military or economic, against those members of the Tripartite Pact and its adherents with which such government is at war.

2: Each Government pledges itself to cooperate with the Governments signatory hereto and not to make a separate armistice or peace with the enemies.


In hindsight, though it was an obvious declaration under the circumstances, it seemed more than slightly ironic that the Soviet Union would sign a document proclaiming its commitment to "human rights and justice". The Soviet Ambassador to the USA, Maxim Litvinov, had balked at the reference to "religious freedom" and only caved in after Roosevelt gave him a heavy sales job -- the president knew that Soviet militant atheism didn't go over well with American voters and wanted at least a symbolic gesture to reassure the electorate.

It was actually no great issue to Stalin; he was perfectly comfortable with declarations of vague grand principles. Implementation, of course, was another matter, and Roosevelt didn't particularly concern himself with it. People who didn't know Roosevelt well could find him high-flown and fuzzy-minded; those who knew him better realized that there was a continuous flow of political calculation under the surface. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* SCIENCE NOTES: There's been growing fuss over the widespread use of "antibacterial" soaps and cleaners, with critics suggesting they may be linked to hormone imbalances and pathogen resistance, but don't really do a better job of sanitizing than ordinary soaps. The US Food & Drug Administration has now weighed in, informing manufacturers they have a year to demonstrate the safety and efficacy of their products. The new rule does not affect alcohol-based hand sanitizers or antibacterial products in health care settings.

* An article in AVIATION WEEK, of all places, discussed a study on the behavior of the albatrosses that live on Kerguelen Island, well south in the Indian Ocean -- the study focused on their flight behavior, which is how it ended up being described in an aviation magazine. A group of German and French researchers went to the island and fitted 20 of the birds with lightweight GPS tracking devices, using special post-processing of data to get the tracking resolution down to 10 centimeters (4 inches). The data showed the birds flew at speeds from 32 to a startling 110 KPH (20 to 70 MPH), and could range very far in their excursions, thousands of kilometers. No matter how far they went, the birds had little trouble finding their way back home again to join their mates; males and females alternated on forages and nest incubation.

The interesting part was the flight behavior of the birds. They never flew in straight lines, instead soaring in repeated curves: climbing windward from the wavetops to a height of about 10 meters (33 feet) to build up energy, then sliding leeward back down to the wavetops to skim along, until they repeated the cycle to build up energy again. This routine provided them with highly efficient flight to allow them to cover long distances with as little exertion as possible.

* As reported by a note in THE ECONOMIST, the giant panda is a unique sort of beast, a bear that took up eating grasses -- specifically bamboo -- for a living. As those working on cellulosic biofuels have found out to their frustration, it is very difficult to digest plants like bamboo loaded with cellulose, as well as the similarly indigestible lignin.

Animals that eat grasses and other cellulosic materials have a digestive microbiome that does much of the work. A researcher at Mississippi State University named Ashli Brown figured that pandas had a set of symbiotic micro-organisms to help digest bamboo and decided to figure out what they were. Brown and her colleagues performed a genomic samples of panda dung, cataloging the micro-organisms found therein and identifying those with traits associated with digestion of cellulosic materials. They found 17 candidates for cellulose digestion and six candidates for lignin digestion, to then perform lab tests on them. They turned out to be able to convert almost two-thirds of the cellulose and lignin in samples, suggesting their utility for biofuel production.



* DRONES ALL OVER: The US military has been very enthusiastic about unmanned aerial vehicles, less stuffily known as "drones". As reported by a Reuters article ("From Hollywood To Kansas, Drones Are Flying Under The Radar" by Chris Francescani, 3 Mar 2013), drones are becoming increasingly useful for civilian activities -- and, not surprisingly, are opening up a Pandora's box of issues.

Tens of thousands of domestic drones are now flying through US skies, carrying video cameras and other sensors. They are often being flown in defiance of Federal restrictions on drone use that require even the police and the military to get special permits. Civilian drone use is poised to explode in late 2015, when the Federal government starts issuing commercial drone permits.

Ben Miller is a sheriff's deputy in Mesa County, Colorado; he's been flying drones with special authorization from the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) since 2009. Miller commented: "Commercially, the culture already exists. Turn on your TV and pay close attention to major sports events. You'll see that in many cases they are getting aerial shots using a UAS [unmanned aerial system]. I would venture to say that if you've seen an action movie in the last five years, chances are that a UAS was used."

fly your own drone

One application has already made a splash. A group of drone operators using "first person view (FPV)" technology, has flown drones around famous landmarks to obtain breathtaking videos. The group, known as Team Blacksheep, has sent its drones around the torch on New York City's Statue of Liberty and London's Big Ben clock tower; through the arches of the Golden Gate Bridge; and dancing over the peak of the Matterhorn.

The range of applications for civilian drones is wide: agriculture, shipping, oil exploration, commercial fishing, major league sports, film and television production, environmental monitoring, meteorological studies, law enforcement, and the news media. The potential is only fractionally being tapped at present, but it's already proving a challenge to regulators.

Strictly speaking, there's nothing new about civilians flying drones, hobbyists have been flying radio-controlled (RC) aircraft for over half a century. However, their penetration into US airspace is minimal: they have a ceiling limit of 120 meters (400 feet) and cannot operate with 800 meters (a half mile) of an airport. As far as wide-ranging modern drones go, the FAA has issued 1,428 drone permits to universities, law enforcement and other public agencies since 2007, when the agency formally banned commercial drone use.

Many commercial operators are simply ignoring the ban, flying fixed-wing and helicopter drones for photo and video observations, on the assumption that they're under the FAA's radar. Some claim they only fly over private land; others that they're selling data, not flight services; and others just don't care. One industry observer suggests they really don't have much to worry about, commenting: "How do you possibly enforce these regulations?"

The FAA has given warnings a few times, but has done little more than that. In the meantime, activists have been raising concerns over privacy issues, worrying about the abuse of drones by law enforcement, not to mention private individuals. There was a frantic buzz around Hollywood in 2012 when the rumor went around that a tabloid newsite was seeking permission to fly a drone. It was false, but it hinted that in the near future paparazzi would be flying swarms of drones over the Hollywood hills. At least 15 US states have drafted legislation to restrict drone use.

And then there are security concerns -- put an explosive charge on a drone, and it might make a dandy little precision-guided weapon. Team Blacksheep's dazzling aerial videos of national landmarks have only emphasized this concern. It's not an entirely theoretical issue, either: in 2012, a Massachusetts man was sentenced to 17 years in prison for plotting to attack Washington DC with three RC airplanes carrying plastic explosive charges. Like it or not, drones are coming, and we'll have to figure out what to do with them.



* SIX-YEAR HIGH SCHOOLS? I ran an item here in 2012 on America's community colleges, in which I wondered why they're not taken more seriously. As a suggestion of possibilities for the future, an essay from TIME magazine ("To Compete, America Needs 6-Year High Schools" by Rana Foroohar, 25 October 2013), presented the modest proposal of, in effect, merging junior colleges with high schools.

The pioneer in this concept is the "Pathways in Technology Early College High School" in Brooklyn, blessedly abbreviated as "P-Tech", a collaborative effort between New York public schools, City University of New York, and IBM -- which donates time, expertise and mentors, but no money. Students at P-tech, many of them the first in their families to graduate from high school, will go on to obtain an associate's degree in a high-tech field like computer science or engineering.

It is unfortunate that kids don't always graduate from high school; what is even more unfortunate is that, if all they have is a high school diploma, they're not that much more employable in a high-tech society than if they didn't, stuck with jobs that don't pay much more than minimum wage. Community colleges haven't been able to plug the gap, due to lack of enrollments, unrealistic job training, and low graduation rates -- only about a quarter of those that enroll finish their coursework.

A few years ago Stan Litow, the former vice chancellor of the New York City Schools, joined IBM and began working on a solution for what the company believed was its biggest long-term economic challenge: finding skilled workers. IBM didn't have big problems finding those with doctorates or engineering degrees; the shortfall was at the technician level, and finding people fill the slots was troublesome. The result was P-Tech.

IBM staffers helped tailor the curriculum at the school. P-Tech provides a stronger science and technical curriculum in its first four years, with the last two focusing on specialist education. The students also receive instruction on how to function in an organization, for example how to conduct and make presentations to meetings. Graduates from the Brooklyn school leave with an associate's degree and placement with IBM. Kids who get an associate's degree are much more likely to move on to a four-year college degree.

The P-Tech model is starting to catch on elsewhere in the USA, with big companies such as Microsoft and Cisco warming to the idea. If the 6-year high school becomes the norm, it will be the biggest change for education since the US made high school itself mandatory after WWII, when the realization sank in that in a technical world, a primary-school education was simply not enough. With 21st-century technology, even a high-school degree can't do the job any more.

ED: P-Tech can only work if high schools, community colleges, universities, and industry pull together, or maybe better put, pull together more strongly than they pull apart. How community colleges fit into this scheme is ambiguous; it would seem simple enough for community colleges to act as extensions of high schools for training, but is that realistic? Universities have an inclination to an ivory-tower mindset that poses difficulties for helping high schools amp up their capabilities, while industries have a strong tendency to ignore everything but the bottom line.

It would also make sense for students at a six-year high school who do plan to get an advanced degree to take their college freshman and sophomore courses in high school, instead of taking them at a gold-plated university. As I commented in the earlier article on community colleges, that level of coursework could be performed anywhere, particularly given the increasing availability of "distance learning" tools. There's a certain irony that we have such a worry over education when it's becoming ever easier to obtain educational materials. Sadly, that's balanced against the fact that, in a networked world, peddlers of misinformation have never had it so good.



* MAKE DRUG WAR NO MORE (1): The referendums passed in the last US election season by the states of Colorado and Washington for decriminalization of recreational drugs were widely seen as groundbreaking. As discussed by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("Towards A Ceasefire", 23 February 2013), these referendums were only part of a global push towards drug decriminalization.

That anyone would have even proposed such measures, let alone approved them, would have been unimaginable in New York in 1961, when diplomats hammered out the "Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs", which established a drug prohibition regime formally adopted by 184 countries, becoming the effective law for half a century. The growing consensus now is that it failed, just as Prohibition of alcohol did during the Roaring Twenties in America -- a ban widely violated that did little more than push the problem underground and fuel powerful criminal cartels.

Since 1998, when the United Nations held an event grandly titled: "A Drug-Free World: We Can Do It", consumption of cannabis (marijuana) and cocaine has risen by about 50%; for opiates, it has more than tripled. Worse, as discussed here in 2012, an ever-expanding menu of synthetic drugs has hit the streets, creating massive headaches for regulators. The UN estimates that 230 million people, about 3% of global population, used illegal drugs in 2010. They and their suppliers, usually those of lowest rank, fill prisons in rich and poor countries alike. In the USA, drug convictions have swelled the ranks of prison populations to absurd levels.

Trying to deal with users has been bad enough; trying to cope with suppliers has been far tougher. The UN vaguely estimates the revenues of the illegal-drug industry at $300 billion USD a year, providing a massive flow of revenue to criminals, who end up destabilizing countries where they operate in force. Of the world's eight most murderous countries, seven lie on the cocaine-trafficking route from the Andes to the United States and Europe. Only war zones are more violent than Honduras; more than 7,000 of its 8 million citizens are murdered each year. Contrast that with the European Union, with a total population of half a billion, where the yearly murder rate is under 6,000.

Latin American leaders, who have enough problems on their hands to begin with, are sick of the drug wars. In recent years, Guatemala's government has cleared its San Marcos region of opium crops, only to see it replanted five times. Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina wants to see global legal regulation of all drugs, from hashish to heroin, if with strict controls. Last year Felipe Calderon, the outgoing president of Mexico, declared it "impossible" to stop the drugs business and called for "market alternatives".

The states of Washington and Colorado are leading the way in the USA. Although 15 American states, have decriminalized cannabis possession, in many cases treating it as no worse than a traffic infraction, Washington and Colorado are entering into new territory by legalizing it completely. The details of implementation are still being worked out, but licensed outlets will appear on the streets, with the state governments obtaining tax revenues from drug sales. The states will also save on law enforcement, one estimate suggesting that it will save Colorado $60 million USD a year.

There remains the question of what the Federal government is going to do. Marijuana remains illegal under America's Controlled Substances Act, the 1970 law that implemented the Single Convention in the United States, and became the foundation of Federal narcotics policy. The CSA classifies pot as a "Schedule I" substance, meaning it can easily be abused and has no recognized medical value. A Federal appeals court recently rejected an attempt to have it reclassified. Washington DC has waffled on the matter, official announcements saying not much more than that it is being "reviewed".

There is some history to hint at futures, in the form of Federal actions relative to the 18 states -- and, ironically, Washington DC -- where medical marijuana has been legal for some time. The Feds have stepped hard on some growers and distributors, but only in states such as California where the laws were poorly drafted. The Feds have made little fuss about medical marijuana in Colorado, though they do worry about Colorado becoming a source of pot for other states once full legalization is in effect.

Advocates of legalization say in response that it will do much to cripple the actions of violent drug gangs in the USA, though there is argument over how much. There's also confusion over how to proceed to full implementation, and how loose a leash should be kept on the dope industry. Colorado's medical marijuana law requires that a dispensary grow at least 70% of the weed they sell, a restriction that legalization advocates call "absurd". However, it's not too much of a burden for small operations, and some involved in the medical marijuana trade see their business as smoothing the way to greater legalization -- one saying: "We've shown that we can make the industry work here." [TO BE CONTINUED]


[FRI 03 JAN 14] THE COLD WAR (6)

* THE COLD WAR (6): While the USSR struggled for survival, Churchill and Roosevelt engaged in their first face-to-face meeting of the war, meeting at Placentia Bay in Newfoundland to devise the "Atlantic Charter", which was signed on 14 August. The Atlantic Charter stated that the US and Britain had no territorial ambitions in the conflict with Hitler, and outlined the principles on which the postwar world would hopefully be run.

The Soviets publicly endorsed the charter, though Stalin was privately disgusted. The whole exercise seemed abstract, even flippant, while the USSR was fighting for its life, and the US and Britain had announced war aims and policies without consulting him. The British and Americans were aware that Stalin might not be happy about a two-way conversation in which he wasn't involved, and to reassure him steps were taken at the Atlantic Charter meeting towards three-way talks.

The British were demonstrating that they could provide direct assistance as well. On learning that the Shah of Iran was cozying up to German agents, on 25 August, citing threats to Iranian security from German agents, the British and the Soviets informed the Iranian government that Iran was to be occupied. British and Soviet forces joined hands after three days of movement from south and north against ineffective resistance, and Iranian forces surrendered.

The Iranian connection to the USSR was now secure. Churchill was not a remorseless monster like Stalin, but he was perfectly capable of ruthlessness and had demonstrated it. Stalin no doubt admired this. That did not mean Stalin was softening his demands for more help from the British and the Americans, presenting them with endless requirements, and in particular for a "second front" in Western Europe to divert German pressure from the USSR. In response, Churchill pointed out, with perfect accuracy, that half-baked British military actions certain to end in defeat, if they could be performed at all, would help Hitler more than they would Stalin. The most Churchill's senior military advisers could recommend were deception operations, sham invasion plans to make the Germans keep forces in the West.

By the fall, the German advance was slowing, to become increasingly bogged down by the arrival of the rainy season, which turned rude Russian roads into muck; when the snows came, the roads solidified, but German forces were not kitted for winter fighting and were reduced to frigid misery. The Soviets had also become more skilled at destroying everything as they withdrew, further hindering German operations.

As the Germans pushed through the snow towards Moscow in early December, the Soviets were preparing a counterstroke. Red agent Richard Sorge at the German embassy in Tokyo provided intelligence that the Japanese were not preparing to attack Siberia. Stalin accordingly pulled Red Army forces from Siberia, and from 5 December conducted a massive counteroffensive that threw the Germans back in disarray. The counteroffensive would gradually fizzle out early in the next year, but the Soviet Union had ended the immediate crisis.

The Soviets proudly displayed abandoned German equipment to British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden when he arrived on a diplomatic visit on the evening of 15 December. Eden was properly impressed, in fact seeming to become somewhat overly taken with Stalin, though when Stalin proposed to Eden that the British recognize the Soviet seizure of the Baltics and eastern Poland -- even suggesting that after the war the British could balance these appropriations by taking over bits of France and the Low Countries with Soviet acceptance -- Stalin found the British distinctly cool to the idea.

Eden wired Churchill from the British embassy to report on Stalin's proposals, with the prime minister replying that "we are bound to the United States not to enter into secret and special pacts." Churchill saw no sense in a pointed rejection of Soviet territorial ambitions, however, telling Eden that such questions would have to wait on "the peace conference when we had won the war." Stalin did not like that answer at all and pressed Eden on the matter, but Eden could give him no more satisfactory reply. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* GIMMICKS & GADGETS: As a follow-up concerning the series on African development run here last year, BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK reports that Nigeria is having an online retailing boom, thanks to local firms such as Jumia and Konga.com. It might seem puzzling that online retailing would work well in a generally undeveloped country, but on consideration it makes sense. Traditional brick-&-mortar retailing is in a relatively primitive state in Nigeria, and so online retailing has a big opportunity.

Jumia of Lagos can offer a wide selection of goods at competitive prices, and provides delivery -- which is a big deal, since it's so hard to get around in Lagos. That does make hauling product to a customer's door troublesome as well, but except for the larger items, delivery is performed by motorbikes, which can weave through traffic jams. They don't deliver after 7 PM, however, to keep robberies to a minimum.

Payment is another issue; Nigerian scammers have a global reputation but do a lot of their scamming at home, so Nigerians naturally tend towards the suspicious. Customers typically pay cash on delivery, after verifying they got what they paid for, and Jumia is conscientious about returns. However, payments by mobile phone and over the internet are on the rise. Jumia now sells in a half-dozen African countries and has 600 employees. 200 of them are "direct sales" people, going to local meetings while wearing clothes with the Jumia logo to show customers how to order and what safeguards they should observe.

* In loosely related news, WIRED Online blogs reports that Africa tends to be problematic as far as maps are concerned. In backwoodsy areas, the road networks are undeveloped and map data inexact, while in urban slum areas, nobody but a resident knows how to navigate the warren. Spatial Collective and Map Kibera -- a company and a nonprofit, both of Kenya -- are now collaborating to provide a digital map of a Nigerian mega-slum named "Kibera", with 200,000 inhabitants, the name incidentally being derived from word for "jungle". The maps started out with crowdsourced landmarks significant to locals: water taps, schools, pharmacies. Residents with internet access were invited to help build the map, with others providing inputs via SMS phone messages, or scribbling on maps set up in community workshops. These community-generated maps are overlaid with official data, such as sewer-line data from Nairobi City Water, to find the most valuable locations for new public toilets. Crime maps help determine where to place public safety facilities such as streetlamps. To get things to work, we have to start with the data.

* A Dutch industrial designer named Dave Hakkens came up with an idea that made a splash in the tech media, envisioning what he called "Phonebloks". Hakkens was annoyed at the planned obsolescence of electronic gadgets; they break, we throw them away, and they become troublesome e-waste. He came with a scheme, Phonebloks, in which a phone was built as a backplane, with a display plugged in on front and various modules plugged in on back. A part breaks? Get a new Phoneblok. Want a better camera, more storage, more battery life? Buy the appropriate Phoneblok.

I found it a very sexy idea. Personally, having little use for a mobile phone, I would use Phonebloks to simply configure a handheld computer featuring a camera and wi-fi capability. One might think that Phonebloks could be used to build up tablet or other small computers as well; buy a base unit at low cost, add features as desired, update as new blocks come along.

Ara modular cellphone

Yeah, really cute, but would it be cost-effective? It couldn't be more than a gimmick except as an open standard, supported by a large number of competing vendors. However, it turns out that Motorola, now an arm of Google, has been tinkering with a similar concept, which they have codenamed "Ara". They're collaborating with Hakken now, so the Phoneblox concept may become more than a fantasy.



* ANOTHER MONTH: On the morning of 26 December, I got a delayed Christmas present, in the form of a phone call from my charge-card security organization concerning dubious debits on my bank charge account. I looked up my account on the web and said: "Holy crap!" There were two entirely dubious drafts on the account, one from New Zealand, for about $145 USD total. I was told there were five in all, the rest had been suspended after the screening system noticed something dodgy going on. The person from the security organization killed my charge card and told me to go to my credit union to get a new one.

After tying up what I was working on and eating breakfast, I went right over and got a replacement. I had them cancel the two bogus debits as well, though I was told it would take a week or two to get my money back. No rush. I was impressed at the efficiency by which the matter was handled: the security organization spotted the bogus debits right away, contacted me promptly, and the credit union gave me a new card on the spot. I was then a bit exasperated to find the other three bogus debits show up after I cancelled the card -- but no worries, I got my money back.

I wondered how my charge-card number had been compromised; I had made a purchase earlier in the month using a system that in hindsight seemed a bit dubious, but I had no way of knowing if that was the problem. I do a full malware scan on my desktop every Tuesday, and I had found malware on it in the previous check; could it have passed on the charge-card number? Possibly from keystroke intercept, but not from checking the hard disk, because I made sure I didn't have the charge-card number in a file on my disk.

On realizing that, I had a flash of insight that I had been doing something dumb. I'd implemented an encryption system for my file of passwords back in June 2012, as mentioned here at the time, but for some reason I'd never made a hookup between it and my charge card, so I'd always have to go fish out my charge card when I made an online purchase -- simply running on inertia, not thinking that I could now store the number safely on my PC and get to it easily. It's fascinating to find an obvious insight that simply was not made because one compartment of the mind didn't connect with another.

* Ever since I finished my website illustrations update, I've been catching up on various little tasks I had in the queue. One is to start stocking up on MP3 music files -- one angle being collecting MIDIs online and converting them to MP3s, and also getting music from YouTube videos as MP3s. I had started out downloading YouTube videos just to listen to audio, having found a freeware YouTube downloader utility that works pretty well, and didn't pollute my PC with a lot of junk, forcing me to delete it and restore my system. I think I was just lucky on that, however; Google treats YouTube downloader tools as a sort of piracy, and so by a certain sort of dark Zen they tend towards the shady.

Ah, but that was only part of the job; then I had to figure out how to get MP3s out of the downloaded videos. I looked around online and found a freeware utility to do the job, but on downloading it I wasn't so lucky -- it made a real mess of my PC, so I had to get rid of it and do a restore. I got to thinking I would be safer just to find an online utility to do the job, and on searching came across "http://audio.online-convert.com", part of a unified group of converter sites. I hadn't seen it before, but it can do all kinds of handy conversions. I could just have it grab a video I had on my PC, and it would promptly convert the audio track into MP3.

On further investigation, I found it could just as easily convert MIDI to MP3 -- which I had figured how to do earlier, but nowhere near as conveniently. It appears the audio conversion scheme simply takes an audio stream, with no great concern for where it comes from, and stuffs it into an MP3. Good deal for free, so I had to donate a little bit of money to them .... well, at least I did after I replaced my charge card.

* I was over at the library and noticed an item on the "New Books" shelf titled:

   William Shakespeare's STAR WARS

Huh? On inspection, it turned out to be the script of the original STAR WARS movie, as written by Shakespeare for the stage. In reality, it was turned out by one Ian Doescher of Portland, Oregon, who is clearly a STAR WARS geek, and even more clearly a Shakespeare geek. I took it home and, though I'm no Shakespeare fan myself, found it entertaining, being impressed by the craftsmanship by which the literary translation was performed. For a sample, early in the story, as we all know, Darth Vader captures Princess Leia's ship:

   LEIA:   Darth Vader, only thou couldst be so bold.   
           When first my ship was under siege, I knew
           'Twas thee who had this peaceful vessel sack'd.
           Th'Imperi'l Senate shall not stand for this.
           For when they hear thou hast attack'd a ship
           On diplomatic mission --

   VADER:                        -- Highness, peace!
           Be thou not so surpris'd.  For well thou knowest
           A mercy mission this was not, this time.
           Thine innocent appearance doth disguise
           A heart with revolution at its core.
           Aye, several transmissions were there beam'd
           Unto this ship by rebel spies.  I want
           to know what happen'd to the plans they sent!
           And prithee, speak thou well, or speak thy last,
           For fairer necks than thine my hand hath crush'd.

And later in the tale, Luke Skywalker considers the helmet of the Imperial Storm Trooper he'd shot in order to use his armor as a disguise: "Alas, poor Storm Trooper ..."

It appears that this play has been performed. One thing that I found interesting in reading it was that I knew the play followed the script closely, finding all the scenes and dialogue perfectly familiar. The puzzle is that I don't have remotely as good a memory of important real-world events in my life. To be sure, I have gone through the same story a number of times -- the movie (multiple times), the radio play, a manga version I still have on my shelves, and various parodies -- but it is still surprising that I have retained it so strongly. Then again, maybe not so surprising, since colorful fiction by design commands our detailed attention, in a way that our workmanlike day-to-day lives typically do not.