feb 2014 / last mod dec 2016 / greg goebel

* 20 entries including: Cold War (series), genomic analysis of ancient pathogens (series), fungal & bacterial communications, terrible traffic safety in developing world, ripping off tax rebates, Monsanto breeds improved vegetables, advances in 3D printing in manufacturing, things looking up in Iran, more on bikeshare schemes, and the global meat production business.

banner of the month

[FRI 21 FEB 14] THE COLD WAR (12)
[FRI 14 FEB 14] THE COLD WAR (11)
[FRI 07 FEB 14] THE COLD WAR (10)


* NEWS COMMENTARY FOR FEBRUARY 2014: As reported by BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK, in 2012 more than 100,000 US businesses were threatened by "patent assertion entities", a category generally stereotyped as "patent trolls" -- companies that don't actually produce anything, they just snap up patents and use them to shake down other companies for royalties. Tech giants Apple and Google have been sued more than 125 times over the last five years by such "entities", and get an order of magnitude more letters demanding for royalties.

Now the US Supreme Court is considering two cases that may help tilt the balance against patent trolls by making it easier for victims to recover legal costs in defense against frivolous patent-infringement claims. One involves Octane Fitness, a maker of exercise gear, which was sued in 2009 by Icon Health & Fitness, a competitor who claimed the Octane elliptical machine had a component that infringed on Icon patents. Octane defeated the Icon claim, but now wants to obtain up to $1.8 million USD in legal costs from Icon.

The case rests on a decision made in 2005 by the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, which handles patent cases. The 2005 decision sounds fine on the face of it, since it says a company can recover legal fees if a suit is "objectively baseless" and was filed in bad faith. However, in practice that means a court will award fees only as an exception. Octane wants a different criteria, saying a court should award fees when the plaintiff "unreasonably pursues a case having an objectively low likelihood of success." In effect, Octane is suggesting not awarding fees should be the exception.

The other case involves Highmark, an insurer, that was sued by Allcare Health Management Systems over software that allows a doctor to enter symptom data into a computer and get a list of suggested diagnoses and treatments. Highmark originally won the case, pointing out that Allcare had conducted a survey on false pretenses to identify targets for patent complaints, and won an award of $3 million USD for legal costs. A Federal court then ordered the award to be reduced; the Supreme Court will judge on the legal propriety of that notion.

The Octane case has the higher profile, Octane being backed by Apple and Google, along with a dozen other firms -- of course these tech firms have no personal interest in the case, but they have a general concern over the issue involved and have filed briefs with the court. Google has pointed out that "patent assertion entities" have an unfair advantage: they don't produce anything and so can't be countersued. Icon has replied they aren't patent trolls, they actually do produce exercise gear, and argues that the Octane countersuit is inappropriate as a protest against patent trolling. However, Icon has absolutely no backers on their side. The high court should come to a decision on the two cases this summer.

* The practice of patent law shines an unflattering light on the notions of libertarians, who are strongly inclined to object to government regulation and bureaucracy. Only the most extreme libertarians would deny that someone has a right to protection of their intellectual property, and the only source of such protection is the government. They would also be hard-pressed to deny that people have a right to protection against being shaken down by people gaming the system, and the government is again the only entity that can provide such protection.

A simple examination of the situation shows that it is unavoidably bureaucratic, that the issue will never be resolved permanently by passing simplistic laws, instead evolving to a hopefully more harmonious future state by setting up a series of court precedents that guide later court decisions. However much "glibertarians" complain about government interference, they can't change realities, and they might on consideration wonder how useful an ideology is that has such a mismatch between theory and the way things work -- the way they almost have to work.

* As reported by BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK, it is not all that surprising that when convicted criminals are released from lockup, they have real trouble finding work. Employers don't want to take a chance on somebody has committed crimes, worrying that they may be ripped off or made liable for crimes by an employee. However, sentencing someone to jail is not just punitive, it is also in principle supposed to be a rehabilitation exercise. If people have done their time, they've paid their debt to society as far as the law is concerned, and should then become productive citizens. If ex-cons can't find work, they're more likely to go back to a life of crime.

As a result, there's been a push to downplay asking prospective employees in job interviews if they've ever been arrested; a total of ten US states have banned asking the question in job application forms, while 56 local governments have also instituted the ban. Some companies, such as Target and Walmart, don't ask the question up-front, but once a person is selected as a possible hire, will be given a background check. A Walmart official said that such a policy gives "those who've been previously incarcerated a chance to get their foot in the door."

Federal labor laws do not prohibit firms from discriminating against ex-cons in hiring, but the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has generated guidelines on the subject; it's clearly a matter of importance to the EEOC, since ethnic minorities tend to be disproportionately represented in prison populations, and discrimination against ex-cons comes down most heavily on minorities. The EEOC's recommendations are moderate, simply saying that employers give prospective hires an assessment first and then check on their background, as is the practice at Target and Walmart. The EEOC has no objection to refusing to hire, say, convicted pedophiles for a job at a daycare center, or those convicted of violent crimes for a job in airport security.

Employers tend to see EEOC guidelines as having much the force of law, and the EEOC may act against employers who discriminate against minorities on the basis of criminal records. It's a sticky issue; Elizabeth Torphy-Donzella, a labor and employment lawyer in Baltimore, Maryland, commented: "There really is a sense that we need to find ways for people to make a living." -- but adds that regulation "creates a risky environment for employers." Again, like it or not, we're stuck with legal ambiguities, we're stuck with government to address them, and we're stuck with bureaucracy in how it's done. We can only haggle about the specifics.

* As criminal justice evolves, so do criminals. As discussed by THE ECONOMIST, the Earth is interconnected by trade and commerce -- and a good component of it is illegal, under the control of international criminal organizations. The usual concept of such illicit traffic is in drugs, guns, and human bodies, but that's not all of it any more. The rest is trade in endangered species, wood from unlicensed logging, hazardous waste, product counterfeiting, and online fraud. Such criminal activities tend toward the nonviolent and don't have a high profile, so busts usually mean mild sentences -- but there's a lot of money to be made, rhino horn being worth more than gold or cocaine per ounce. Attempts by governments to crack down on such trades have the perverse result of making them far more profitable. Criminals have good cause to diversify their activities.

Traditionally, criminal gangs have been stereotyped as ethnically-tight mafias, but the new gangsters are much more diverse and internationalized. Europol, the European Union's (EU) law-enforcement coordination agency, estimates that only about a quarter of Europe's 3,600 organized-crime groups are centered around a single ethnicity, and that many operate in dozens of countries. A third are involved in more than one criminal activity, with a strong linkage to the drug trade.

They're not thinking small, either. The United Nations Office on Drugs & Crime (UNODC) estimates that international traffic in counterfeit goods amounts to about $250 billion USD a year. Gangs in the UK are estimated to make about $14.8 billion USD a year from tax, benefit, excise-duty, and other fraud, not much less than the $18.1 billion USD they make from drugs. In the USA, cigarette smuggling deprives Federal, state, and local government of about $5 billion USD a year. In the EU, cigarette smuggling, tax fraud, and false claims by gangs cost member states a total of about $46.5 billion USD in lost revenue a year -- but the number of crime busts is small and the punishments generally light.

Old-style mafias are either dwindling or changing with the times, Italian mobsters being very active in illegal waste disposal. The new-style gangsters tend to be sophisticated businessmen, with supply chains, marketing, finance, and human resources to move illicit goods around the world. Many have legitimate business interests. Their operations across borders makes them tough to track down and prosecute: if a network of Nigerian scammers based in Amsterdam rips off French, Australian, and US charge-card holders, where does the crime occur? Who has the motivation or jurisdiction to go after the scammers? Similarly, international transport of illegal goods will be on a ship under a flag of convenience, registered in a tax haven nation to a dummy company. Trying to legally trace such activities back to their source is a nightmare.

Governments are trying to respond by greater cooperation between law-enforcement groups. In the US, the government is trying to improve communications between different arms of the law; Britain's new National Crime Agency now has the power to order local police to make arrests, which wasn't the case with its predecessor organization; while Europol analyzes and distributes information from EU member states. Unfortunately, at present the authorities are only sweeping up a small fraction of illicit trade -- at a rate that gangsters merely regard as a light tax on their activities.



* WINGS & WEAPONS: The UK is now working on a weapons program titled "Selective Precision Effects At Range (SPEAR)" to enhance the precision strike capability of British Typhoon and, once they get into service, F-35 fighters. It's an incremental program, with "SPEAR Capability 1" being a set of modest upgrades to the Raytheon Paveway IV guided bomb, and "SPEAR Capability 2" being upgrades to the Matra BAE Dynamics Aerospace (MBDA) Dual-Mode Brimstone (DMB) missile -- Brimstone being a British derivative of the US Hellfire missile, same form-factor but heavily re-engineered.

The really interesting part of the program, "SPEAR Capability 3", is still in the works. SPEAR 3 is envisioned as a turbojet-powered precision-guided weapon with a launch weight of 80 kilograms (175 pounds) and a range of about 100 kilometers (62 miles). It will be able to hit stationary or moving targets, at night and in all weathers.

Initially, SPEAR 3 was seen as a derivative of Brimstone, but as the concept evolved, commonality with Brimstone declined. As currently envisioned, SPEAR 3 still does have a form-factor reminiscent of the Brimstone, but it has triple pop-out tailfins and "switchblade" pop-out wings, with an intake on each side of the tail for a Hamilton Sundstrand TJ-150 mini-turbojet. Aircrews will be able to select a mission for a SPEAR 3 before launch and provide updates in flight. SPEAR 3 will use a terminal seeker derived from the DMB, with millimeter wave and laser radar sensors.


Eight SPEAR 3 missiles will be carried internally in an F-35, four per weapons bay, while a Typhoon could carry 16 such weapons externally. There is also work on use of the SPEAR 3 as a ship-launched weapon, fired by booster rocket from a vertical-launch array, with four missiles per cell, and there's no reason a ground-launched system couldn't follow. MBDA believes, it seems with good cause, that SPEAR 3 has export potential, there being a clear niche for a mini cruise missile. Being more or less tailored for the F-35, it will be interesting to see if the US military takes a liking to it.

* Early in World War II German forces used gliders carrying troops as a successful element of their "blitz" tactics, with the major powers all adopting combat gliders as well, and on occasion employing them in large numbers. The war glider quickly disappeared after the war; they were notoriously dangerous contraptions, and the perception was that helicopters, short-takeoff / rough field airlifters, and in particular improved paradropping techniques were the better options. As reported AVIATION WEEK, a US firm named Logistics Gliders (LG) of Dixon, California, is working to revive the combat glider.

In the era of dirty little wars, US forces often operate in field locations that can only be reasonably supported by air, with tens of thousands of tonnes of supplies being dropped every year to field units in Afghanistan. However, airdrops have a difficulty: parachutes may be blown off the drop zone by winds, either falling into adversary hands or putting troops at risk when they venture out to retrieve the supplies. In addition, as adversaries get their hands on advanced infantry-portable surface-to-air missiles, they can put transports performing airdrops ever more at risk of being shot down.

The military did develop a GPS-guided parafoil system, the "Joint Precision Airdrop System (JPADS), fielded in 2008 and discussed here at the time. The initial "JPADS 2K" variant could handle 900 kilograms (2,000 pounds) and had a range of at least 8 kilometers (5 miles) from a drop at 7,500 meters (24,500 feet), with a targeting accuracy of 100 meters (330 feet). A "JPADS 10K" variant with a maximum load of up to 4,500 kilograms (10,000 pounds) and over twice the range is now being fielded. Improvements are in the works, including lighter avionics, terrain avoidance, and navigation in the face of GPS jamming.

JPADS was developed by the US Army's Natick Soldier Research, Development, & Engineering Center in Massachusetts. The Natick Center encouraged Logistics Gliders to think beyond JPADS, with LG developing subscale and full scale prototypes of a cargo glider, a "flying delivery box", and has performed drop tests of the full-scale version from a helicopter to validate flight performance.

The problem with parafoils is that they have a poor glide ratio, only about 3:1 -- that is, for each three meters of flight, they fall one meter. The LG cargo glider has a glide ratio of 13:1, meaning it has much greater range. Dropped from 7,500 meters (24,500 feet), it can glide up to 90 kilometers (56 miles), with range of course increasing with drop altitude.

The initial "LG-1000" variant of the cargo glider can handle up to 450 kilograms (1,000 pounds) of cargo. It looks like a rectangular box with a blunt nose and a tapered rear leading back to a twin-fin tail, plus switchblade wings on top. When dropped out the rear of a cargo aircraft, a static line extends the wings, with the LG-1000 gliding under GPS guidance to the target area at speeds of up to 260 KPH (160 MPH). At an altitude of 150 meters (500 feet) over the target area, it deploys a brake chute and falls nose down, impacting on its crushable nose, made of cardboard.

LG-1000 cargo glider

The LG-1000's airframe is made of low-cost materials and is expendable; the flight control system, which is derived from commercial model airplane technology, is modular and can be reused. The boxy configuration of the LG-1000 makes it very space-efficient, with a C-17 cargolifter able to carry 70 gliders; a C-130 Hercules, 28 gliders; and an MV-22 Osprey, 4 gliders. Due to tight budgets the military isn't in a position to buy off on the LG-1000 yet, but the company's staff have hopes things will turn around soon enough.

* As discussed by AVIATION WEEK, one of the problems with jumbo jetliners is that it's not always easy to notice what such a big aircraft might run into while taxiing. On 22 December 2013, the wingtip of a British Airways Boeing 747-400 tore into the second storey of a building at South Africa's Tambo airport. One particularly embarrassing incident took place at the Paris Air Show in 2011, when an Airbus A380 clipped a building.

After a regional airliner was struck by a 747 at Chicago's O'Hare Airport in May 2012, the US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) advised the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to require that airlines install an anticollision aid in the wingtips of large aircraft. The NTSB reported having investigated a dozen such clipping incidents since 1993, and suggested a camera system might do the job. The FAA did not feel that cameras would be adequate for the job, and was dubious that the problem justified the expense.

Honeywell is now proposing the use of automotive radar technologies as the solution. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) prohibits the use of auto radars in the unlicensed 76:77 GHz band at airports, but Honeywell has asked the FCC to reconsider, noting that the tech can be used for stationary foreign-object detectors at runways. Patents recently established by Honeywell engineers suggest a radar unit placed in the navigation light housings on aircraft wingtips, plus on the top of the tailfin, communicating with the cockpit via wireless. Alarms would be generated on displays, by audio, and by tactile warning. Honeywell is waiting on action from the Feds before going further.



* FUNGAL & BACTERIAL COMMUNICATIONS: Symbiotic associations of different organisms are common in nature; fungi, for example, are often associated with plant root systems, obtaining nourishment from a plant host, while giving the plant greater access to water and minerals through the underground network of fungal tendrils or "hyphae". As reported by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("Beans' Talk", 6 July 2013), a team of researchers under David Johnson at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland has shown through an elegant set of experiments that plants also use the hyphae network to communicate with each other.

The Aberdeen researchers were tipped off to the idea by the discovery, made in 2010 by a Chinese team, that when a tomato plant is infected with leaf blight, neighboring plants start activating genes that provide a defense against the infection -- even when airflow between the plants had been blocked off, eliminating the transfer of airborne chemical signals. Johnson and his team wondered if such signals could be transferred via the hyphae network instead. He knew from his own past work that when broad-bean plants are attacked by aphids, they generate volatile chemicals that both irritate the parasites and attract aphid-hunting wasps. Could similar signals be transferred underground from plant to plant?

To investigate, the Aberdeen researchers set up eight "mesocosms", each containing five beanstalks. The plants were grown for four months, and during this time all the plants could interact with symbiotic fungi in the soil. The interactions were selectively controlled, however. In each mesocosm, one plant was surrounded by a mesh penetrated by holes half a micron across -- big enough to pass water and dissolved chemicals, too small for roots and hyphae. Two other plants were surrounded by a 40-micron mesh, which could admit hyphae. The two remaining plants, one of which was at the center of the array, were left to grow without constraint.

Five weeks after the experiment began, all the plants were covered by bags that passed carbon dioxide, oxygen and water vapor, but blocked the passage of larger molecules that might be used for signaling. Four days from the end of the trial, one of the 40-micron meshes in each mesocosm was rotated to sever any hyphae that had penetrated it; the central plant was then infested with aphids.

At the end of the experiment, the researchers collected the air inside the bags, extracted any volatile chemicals in it by absorbing them into a special porous polymer, and tested those chemicals on wasps and winged aphids. Each insect was placed for five minutes in an apparatus that had two chambers, one of which contained a sample of the volatiles and the other an odorless control. When the volatiles came from an infested plant, as expected wasps spent over twice as much time in the chamber with the volatiles sample as the control sample, which for aphids the proportion was exactly the reverse -- the volatiles attracted wasps and repelled aphids. The researchers got the same results from the plant that had hyphae but no root contact. As far as the other three plants went, they actually attracted aphids but not wasps.

The scenario, on analysis, is straightforward: a broad-bean plant infested by aphids sends out a chemical signal that reaches other broad-bean plants on the common hyphae network, which then generate volatiles to attract wasps and repel aphids. The Aberdeen researchers suspect that there are a lot more tricks to be discovered in plant-fungi symbiosis.

* In closely related science news, as discussed by an article from WIRED Online ("These Bacteria Are Wired to Hunt Like a Tiny Wolf Pack" by Joe Hanson, 24 July 2013), a team of scientists led by Manfred Auer at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory have used microscopy to identify a new mechanism for bacterial networking, observing elaborate webs of a common soil bacterium, Myxococcus xanthus, connected by thread-like membranes.

The idea of bacterial communications is not new; the concept of microbes operating independently has been replaced in recent decades by complex networks of chemical signaling, allowing swarms of cells to self-organize, coordinating behaviors ranging from group feeding to electrical conduction. The "wiring" observed by Auer's team is the latest discovery in that process.

Researchers had noticed hints of thread-like structures between bacteria, but skeptics suggested they were just due to the way samples were prepared. Auer used a set of imaging techniques, including a new type of 3-D scanning electron microscopy, to show that these cell-to-cell "wires" were real, saying: "People have been mistaken. These are not a sample preparation artifact."

Myxococcus is very common in the soil around us. It is a model organism for studying biofilms -- physical networks of bacteria made from webs of cells and sticky secretions. It's not unusual for bacteria to communicate by releasing chemical signals released into their environment, but this has a disadvantage of tipping off predator or prey organisms. The threads between Myxococcus bacteria, in contrast, allow them to send chemical messages between each other in privacy. Auer has suggested these flexible links and tubes could allow bacterial cells to move as a web, communicating and hunting as a superorganism. Auer likens it to a microbial wolf pack. Skeptics suggest caution, however, since the function of the threads has not been completely determined, and much more research is required to make definitive statements.



* SAFETY LAST: As reported by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("Driving To An Early Grave", 25 January 2014), in the developed world great strides have been made for traffic safety in the last decades. Thanks to gimmicks such as pedestrian countdown lights, bicycle lanes, speed bumps, and slow zones around schools, traffic fatalities have been on a steady downward trend since a peak in 1998. Sweden has halved road deaths since 2000, cut them by three-quarters since 1970.

In the developing world, as more people obtain cars, the trend is calamitously in the other direction. Every 30 seconds a person is killed somewhere on Earth in a car accident, while 10 are injured. The United Nations World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that the number of traffic deaths a year will rise from about 1.3 million now to 2 million in 2030. The rise in mayhem is taking place in the developing world; in Kenya, road accidents account for half the admissions to surgical wards. Global levels of yearly traffic casualties match or exceed those of major wars, in some countries the local carnage rivaling the devastation from HIV-AIDS.

Africa's deadly roads

In the poorest countries, pedestrians suffer the worst. In countries at a higher stage of development, motorbikes are at the biggest risk, often being loaded dangerously with entire families; in Thailand, motorcyclists account for two-thirds of traffic fatalities. In Argentina, Russia, and Turkey the most common victims are in cars, trucks, and buses. The most badly-hit group on a global basis are young men and boys, who use roads more and tend to take more risks. The death of males in their prime or coming to it means the loss of primary breadwinners, not only resulting in a financial hit to families but to GDP.

The International Road Assessment Program (IRAP), a road-safety nongovernmental organization, estimates that road accidents result in a loss of 2% of GDP in rich countries, 5% in poor ones. The financial hit not only includes lost worker output, but medical expenses and vehicle or infrastructure damage, the total bill currently coming to $1.9 trillion USD a year.

Each year, about a half trillion dollars is spent building roads. Roads are, on the balance, a great benefit, connecting communities to schools, hospitals, markets, and labor; IRAP estimates that spending no more than 3% more on a road will make it much safer, with the higher investment very quickly paying itself off in reduced losses from accidents. IRAP has helped install barriers to protect pedestrians from traffic in Bangladesh, and installed rumble strips on road shoulders in Mexico.

Road technology refinements are no more than half the answer; there's also the question of cultural attitudes, of how seriously both the authorities and citizens take traffic safety. In Ivanovo, Russia, for example, thanks to a police crackdown and a social-media campaign partly paid for by Western donors, the number of people using seat belts rose from less than half in 2011 to almost three-quarters in 2012. WHO estimates that stricter enforcement of speed limits and drunk-driving laws in Southeast Asia would be trivially cheap, compared to the butcher's bill from accidents.

At the Nesco school in Kibera, Kenya's biggest slum, kids benefit from government-funded vaccinations, while great sums are being to control HIV-AIDS and build roads. However, the expansion of Kenya's road network is not being accompanied by the inclusion of much in the way of safety features. A quarter of the pupils at the school have been in a crash, and a third have seen close relatives injured or killed. A modest amount of effort could make a big difference.



* GENOMIC WHODUNITS (3): Although bubonic plague hasn't been a serious threat for a long time, tuberculosis still remains a major killer, second only to HIV; in 2011, TB killed 1.4 million people worldwide. Not so long ago, the medical community had only the crudest notion of the evolution of TB, not being able to perceive much difference in strains of the Mycobacterium tuberculosis bacterium that causes it. Thanks to genomic analysis of modern samples, now seven distinct groups of strains are recognized, two found only in Africans or recent immigrants from Africa, suggesting that TB originally came from there.

If so, it was a long time ago, TB having been associated with humans from the New Stone Age. The oldest evidence was provided by a 7,800-year-old skeleton from Italy that features tubercular damage to the spine. The oldest written records are from China, dating back to the second millennium BCE. There are groups of strains distinct to the Old World and New World; researchers want to understand the relationships between the two groups, along with their linkages to animal strains of TB, and trace the history of TB strains relative to human movements. They also want to detail the history the emergence of drug resistance.

There was a long-standing belief that humans picked up TB from cattle; research work by Anne Stone and grad student Luz-Andrea Pfister has shown we gave it to them instead. Recent work suggests that TB was infecting hominids in Africa up to 3 million years ago. Nobody has sequenced ancient TB DNA yet, but work is proceeding towards that end.

In 2012, a team of researchers under molecular archaeologist Terence Brown of the University of Manchester in the UK and his postdoc Abigail Bouwman analyzed TB samples taken from lesions on a rib of a teenage girl who had been interred in a crypt in Leeds sometime between 1840 and 1911. Working in a clean room, they used state-of-the-art sequencers and targeted enrichment, employing 500 baits to nail down 218 single-nucleotide polymorphisms (SNP) known to vary in modern TB strains. By such means, they compiled the first set of TB markers for a historic TB strain.

The strain was very different from TB strains common now, but it was close to one from a sample obtained in 1905 in New York City, hinting at a trans-Atlantic connection, and demonstrating the mobility of pathogens before the invention of air travel. The difference between the historic strain and modern strains also suggested that TB strains have been mutating rapidly; the fact that the girl had been interred in a crypt, along with a twin sister, reinforced the notion that TB afflicted the middle class in expanding cities, poorer parents not being able to afford a crypt.

Molecular epidemiologist Sebastien Gagneux of the Swiss Tropical & Public Health Institute in Basel has a particular interest in the past history of TB; he believes the co-evolution of humans and TB has resulted in regionalized strains of TB that could more easily infect people from those regions. In a 2006 paper, he reported that US-born patients of Chinese and Filipino ethnicity tend to be infected by the same TB strains as their parents born in the old country, and are not easily infected by TB strains local to America.

Gagneux wants to obtain a comprehensive global map of such patterns, suggesting that it should aid TB prevention strategies by optimizing vaccines for populations. In the meantime, Anne Stone is investigating whether the first Indian populations arriving in the New World brought TB with them, or whether it came to the Americas later. [TO BE CONTINUED]


[FRI 21 FEB 14] THE COLD WAR (12)

* THE COLD WAR (12): On 6 June 1944, the Western Allies landed at Normandy under Operation OVERLORD. Stalin now had his second front, and any lingering concerns he had about Anglo-American double-dealing on that matter evaporated. The Red Army continued their hammer blows against the Germans in the East; Allied armies advancing from west and east would soon exert crushing pressure, and strain the faltering German war machine past its limits.

To complete the blow against German forces in France, on 15 August 1944, Allied forces landed in Southern France under Operation DRAGOON. The British and Americans had argued over DRAGOON up to the last minute, Churchill having preferred a landing in the Balkans -- one of the objectives of course being to curtail Soviet ambitions in that region. That was precisely one of the major reasons why the Americans didn't like the idea, Roosevelt understanding that the he had no mandate from the electorate to get into a fight with the USSR. Germany was the real enemy. The American view prevailed.

The Americans, however, were finding out that the Soviets were strange sorts of friends. In late 1943, discussions were begun on the possibility of US Army Air Forces (USAAF) bombers performing "shuttle" missions, flying from airfields in Italy or Britain, dropping their bombs on German-controlled territory, then landing in bases set up in Soviet-controlled territory to then repeat the same game in the reverse direction. After the Tehran conference, Stalin passed down orders that six airfields should be prepared to support the effort, which was codenamed FRANTIC.

In early 1944, the USAAF got the bases, but only three of them, and they were in bad condition. That could be chalked up to the pressures of war, but the American officers trying to direct the effort found themselves dealing with an unfriendly, suspicious, and not very cooperative Soviet bureaucracy. Allies or not, the Americans were foreigners, and the Stalin did not like having foreigners around at all. Winston Churchill had not been very enthusiastic about FRANTIC, believing that it reflected far more confidence in Stalin than was wise, and events were bearing that belief out.

FRANTIC went forward anyway, and the first shuttle bombing raid took place on 2 June 1944, with USAAF B-17 Flying Fortress bombers and their P-51 Mustang fighter escorts flying from Italy, raiding the railroad marshaling yards in Hungary, and then flying on to the Ukraine. Despite the tensions over FRANTIC, the American airmen were made to feel very welcome by the Soviet personnel assigned to support them. Things went well enough until the fourth shuttle bombing mission, on 21 June, when American planes landed at Poltava, not realizing they had been shadowed by a German bomber.

German aircraft hit the FRANTIC bases in the region that night, destroying dozens of aircraft and large stockpiles of supplies. American crews reported that the Soviets failed to put up any effective resistance to the raid, and in fact the impression was that the passivity was deliberate. In hindsight, given that the Red Army tended towards the bureaucratic, and the fact that in the Soviet military few dared take initiative without approval from the higher-ups, that impression might have been wrong. The shuttle bombing missions were suspended for the moment, until the destruction on the ground could be cleaned up and the defenses of the airbases improved. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* Space launches for January included:

-- 05 JAN 14 / GSAT 14 -- An ISRO Geostationary Satellite Launch Vehicle was launched from Sriharikota at 1048 GMT (local time - 5:30) to put the Indian "GSAT 14" geostationary comsat into orbit. GSAT 14 had a launch mass of 1,980 kilograms (4,370 pounds); a payload of 6 Ku / 6 C band transponders, plus two Ka-band beacons for atmospheric attenuation studies and a number of technology trials; and a design lifetime of 12 years. It was placed in the geostationary slot at 74 degrees East longitude to provide communications to the Indian subcontinent. The mission was primarily seen as a test of the GSLV, which had suffered a number of earlier launch failures; including this flight, the GSLV had flown eight times, with four failures. The booster was in the "Mark 2" configuration, with an Indian-built LOX-LH2 upper stage. This was the second flight of the Mark 2, the first shot having been a failure.

-- 06 JAN 14 / THAICOM 6 -- A SpaceX Falcon 9 v1.1 booster was launched from Cape Canaveral at 2206 GMT (local time + 5) to put the "Thaicom 6" geostationary comsat into orbit. It was built by Orbital Sciences for Thaicom of Thailand and was based on the Orbital Star 2 comsat platform. The satellite had a launch mass of 3,325 kilograms (7,330 pounds), had a payload of 8 Ku-band / 18 C-band transponders, and a design life of 15 years. It was placed in the geostationary slot at 78.5 degrees East longitude to provide communications services to Southeast Asia and Africa.

Orb-1 at ISS

-- 10 JAN 14 / CYGNUS 2 (ORB-1) -- An Orbital Sciences Antares booster was launched from Wallops Island at 1807 GMT (local time + 5) to put the second "Cygnus" supply capsule, named "Orb-1", into space on an International Space Station support mission. The spacecraft carried a payload of 1,465 kilograms (3,230 pounds) to the ISS. It docked with the ISS Harmony module three days after launch. The payload included 33 CubeSat nanosats:

The CubeSats were hauled up to the ISS in "NanoRacks CubeSat Deployers (NRCSD)", which were used to deploy the nanosats in early 2014 from the station's Japanese Kibo module.

TDRS-L launch

-- 24 JAN 14 / TDRS L -- An Atlas 5 booster was launched from Cape Canaveral at 0233 GMT (next day local time + 5) to put the NASA "TDRS L" space communications and delay relay satellite into geostationary orbit. Seven first-generation TDRS satellites were launched by the US space shuttle from 1983 into 1995, one being lost with shuttle Challenger in 1986; a second generation of three satellites was launched from 2000 into 2002. TDRS L was the second in a third generation of three satellites, the first being being TDRS K, launched in 2013. TDRS L had a launch mass of 3,445 kilograms (7,600 pounds) and featured a payload of Ku / Ka / S band transponders; the third generation spacecraft featured higher throughput than its predecessors. The booster was in the "401" configuration, with a 4 meter (13.1 foot) fairing, no solid rocket boosters, and a single-engine Centaur upper stage.



* CHEATING THE TAXMAN BIG-TIME: BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK likes to run articles on scams and other shady business. An article from the 13 January 2014 issue ("Miami Tax Vice" by David Wolman) discussed one of the latest crime fads -- ripping off the US Internal Revenue Service (IRS). Cheating the taxman is of course an ancient activity, but now getting refunds on bogus tax returns, filed under stolen identities, has become a lucrative big business for organized crime, as profitable or more than dealing drugs. Detective Craig Catlin of the North Miami Beach Police Department sees a lot of it, and doesn't think he's even seeing the ones who are good at it: "We're getting the idiots, and some are doing one million to two million in fraud."

South Florida is ID theft heaven. The problem has become so nasty that the Feds have assembled a task force there, made up of personnel from the Secret Service; the IRS's criminal investigation unit; the FBI; postal inspectors; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, & Firearms; and local law enforcement, including Catlin. In 2012 the South Florida Identity Theft Tax Force handed down 79 indictments, covering about $40 million USD in fraud; by the fall of 2013, the Strike Force had handed down 269 indictments for that year, covering about $449 million USD in fraud.

Ironically, the scam works so well because the IRS is efficient, having set up procedures that turn around tax refunds in days. All crooks need to allow them to submit fake returns are stolen Social Security numbers and dates of birth, along with bank account information and an internet connection. Black-market personal data can be purchased online, often in batches of thousands; it's often stolen from health-care providers, typically as inside jobs by crooked employees with access to company systems. However, some of the information is easily available on the internet for free -- for example, dates of birth can be found on DOBsearch.com. The identities of prisoners are particularly valued by the thieves; being out of circulation, they won't notice anything wrong for some time. Even people outside out lockup may not get wise for months.

Having cooked up multiple tax returns, the thieves submit them, specifying that refunds be placed directly in a bank account, typically opened under a fake name, or into a prepaid card. TurboTax has been a real treasure for refund thieves, allowing them to churn out tax returns in bulk. In 2013, police responding to a report of a home invasion near Miami found a stack of more than 500 prepaid Visa cards, obtained via TurboTax-generated tax returns. One cheeky Miami strip club where gangsters hang out actually advertised "Turbo Thursday" specials for their clientele.

Crooks empty out the bank accounts or cash in the prepaid cards as fast as they can. The IRS loads prepaid cards on a Friday; that conveniently gives the thieves a weekend before any action can be taken to block the funds. Catlin said the thieves try to ditch the cards immediately, since they don't want to be arrested carrying bogus prepaid cards: "These guys leave the house with cards hidden in their shoes, wire the money to themselves until the account is empty, then throw the card in the trash."

The government doesn't exactly know how much money is being stolen via refund fraud. One estimate gave a total of $4 billion USD in 2011, with the trendline heading for $21 billion USD in 2017. People who've had their identities stolen can still get their refunds, but they have to jump through hoops to fix their broken records. Anybody can get nailed; Catlin said that in 2013, six cops in Catlin's unit were hit, apparently at random.

Catlin said that about five years ago, he began noticing such things as ledgers, tax forms, and prepaid cards when he stopped pimped-up gangster rides on various pretexts for a check. Now Miami cops can hardly perform a stop without making a fraud bust. Not all cops feel the matter is a big deal, having other things to worry about, but Catlin pragmatically tells them: "These are street-level gang guys selling dope, stolen guns, doing robberies. If you don't want to do the fraud cases, use the fraud evidence to turn informants, because they know all the players."

The funds obtained from tax refund scams of course support other gang activities, and the tax refund scams can get vicious: in 2010, a South Florida mail carrier was murdered just to get the master key for apartment building mailboxes, allowing thieves to case them for ID information. A few years ago, Catlin got threats against him and his family and had to leave town for a few weeks, until the man who made the threat was arrested. Catlin still takes care when he goes home to check on who's around in the neighborhood.

The solution to the rebate fraud game, it seems, is for the IRS to do more screening, checking for discrepancies between new and older returns, and also not be so punctual in sending out refunds, instead waiting until they've got a fuller picture from employer W-2 form submissions and the like that would indicate anomalies. Prepaid cards are also too easy to loot. However, a lot people need a refund quickly, and prepaid cards are extremely convenient for both the IRS and taxpayers. The IRS is enhancing its screening system -- without discussing specifics, of course -- and beefing up its criminal investigation unit.

The IRS is also trying to improve coordination with local law enforcement. The IRS is extremely scrupulous in keeping taxpayer information secret, which can be a hindrance to the cops. Now the cops can get victims of identity theft to sign a waiver releasing that information. However, the ultimate fix is devising a more secure ID system than one based on Social Security numbers. The IRS has taken to handing out "personal identification numbers (PIN)" to people who've had their identities stolen, the PINs only being used for tax submission and changing every year. Almost a million Americans now have PINs.

The real solution is predicated on the thorny issue of robust personal identification in the digital age. It's taking time to get to that promised land, one difficulty being that the paranoid think robust ID is, in some cases literally, the work of the devil. In the meantime, crooks are churning out ever more bogus tax returns. As Catlin noted: "The money's just too good."



* MONSANTO DOES VEGGIES: The trials of agritech giant Monsanto in promoting genetically modified (GM) foods have been discussed here in the past, most recently in 2013. As explained by an article from WIRED Online ("Monsanto Is Going Organic in a Quest for the Perfect Veggie" by Ben Paynter, 21 January 2014), GM is by no means all of what Monsanto is about.

As mentioned here in 2010, Monsanto was founded in 1901, primarily to manufacture the artificial sweetener saccharin, by one John Francis Queeny, who named the firm after the family name of his wife Olga. By the 1920s, the company was also producing sulfuric acid, a widely-used industrial chemical, and polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB), used as a coolant in early transformers and electric motors, to later become an infamous persistent environmental contaminant. The company later moved on to plastics and synthetic fabrics, and by the 1960s had set up a division to produce herbicides. In the 1970s, Monsanto invented Roundup, a glyphosate-based weed killer that became popular with farmers.

Roundup led Monsanto into crop science, at the outset primarily to develop crop plants that weren't affected by Roundup. Traditionally, new crop plants were developed by selective breeding of different strains of plants. Plants hybridize much more readily than animals, but hybridization is very time-consuming and laborious, requiring mix-&-matching over many generations. It's tricky, one problem being that combining two strains of plants with desireable traits may end up producing a new plant that's inferior in desired traits to either of its parents. Monsanto chose to go the GM route to obtain Roundup-ready crop plants, becoming a pioneer in commercial GM.

Monsanto was also interested in improved vegetables. Some GM work had been done on them; a biotech startup named Calgene had come up with a "Flavr Savr" tomato that could be picked when it was ripe and shipped to supermarkets. To that time, tomatoes had to be picked green, when they were tough enough to tolerate being shipped without bruising, and then ripened with ethylene at a distributor. In the mid-1990s, Monsanto bought out Calgene, establishing it as a company division. The division worked on GM improvements on tomatoes and potatoes -- but then, around the turn of the century, the GM backlash hit.

Large-scale farms growing soy or cotton, or corn intended for cattle feed or corn syrup, didn't have a critical problem with GM -- but for vegetables, GM was a nonstarter, and it was proving extremely expensive as well, regulation being burdensome. There was also the problem that traits of organisms aren't usually dependent on just one gene, instead being due to the mixed action of several genes that could be tough to sort out. It was back to selective breeding for veggies.

However, it was not at all back to square one, Monsanto having learned a great deal about genetic analysis of plants. Company researchers had a good grasp of genetic marking, having learned how to map out the elements of a plant genome that matched desireable traits. Instead of blindly hybridizing plant strains, researchers could find the markers in parent and child strains to know exactly how the genome was being manipulated. Monsanto also developed a machine called a "seed chipper" to help nail down the genomes of seeds, and also came up with computer software that could simulate the genetic results of hybridization of strains.

In nature, it can take a millennium for a plant to acquire, say, 20 specific genes. Now Monsanto can do it in just a few years, with no genetic engineering involved -- yes, company researchers will generate "prototypes" using GM, but they're just for comparison and will never go on the market. Leveraging off such techniques, Monsanto developed a new strain of broccoli named "Beneforte", able to produce high levels of fashionably healthy antioxidants, introducing the new product in 2010. Also in that year, Monsanto began selling the "EverMild" onion, which wasn't as sharp in flavor as traditional onions. In 2011, the product line was enhanced by the the "BellaFina" bell pepper, a third the size of traditional bell peppers, making it more convenient for cooking; as well as the "Melorange" cantaloupe, easier to handle without spoilage and tastier. "Frescada" lettuce, a cross between romaine and iceberg lettuce, combining sweetness with crunchiness, was introduced in 2012.

BellaFina peppers

Now the company's working on a sweeter watermelon. Monsanto's critics, to no surprise, remain suspicious. The company still enforces strict contracts with farmers who buy Monsanto seed, making sure they don't raise the crops for seed themselves, and checks on the quality of their produce. However, the company has no real worries about their veggies being denounced as "Frankenfoods", since hybridization is very old hat and entirely uncontroversial, the US Food & Drug Administration having no problem with it. If the hybridization is guided by genetic analysis instead of left to trial and error, so what?

The critics can still raise concerns about the healthiness of Monsanto's new products, but since they are as "natural" as any food crop, whatever that's supposed to mean, the critics can't get much leverage. If Monsanto can sell a sweeter watermelon -- people are going to buy it.



* GENOMIC WHODUNITS (2): Only ten years ago, few were optimistic about tracking down the genomes of historical pathogens. It's now possible thanks to the latest generation of genome sequencers, coupled with new trickery to extract fragments of a target genome from a sample containing a mongrel mixture of DNA. Johannes Krause's team got lucky in having rich samples, but other teams have been doing well with much poorer ones. There's a sense of mission among the researchers; to modify the saying, those who do not know the past may be condemned to repeat it, and the epidemics of the past are nothing we want to repeat.

The research community is working down a list of the most notorious pathogens of history: plague, tuberculosis (TB), cholera, Leishmania, leprosy, potato blight, and AIDS. They gather traces from ancient teeth, bones, hair, feces, and -- in the case of potato blight -- from skin and leaves, then feed them into the sequencers. The work began in earnest in 2010, with researchers seeking to obtain new depth into ancient epidemics, in some cases trying to figure out what caused them. According to molecular anthropologist Anne Stone of the University of Arizona in Tempe: "There are a lot of diseases described in the historical record that we don't even know what the pathogen is."

Even if the pathogen is known, it would be useful to know when it first infected humans, and if it has become more virulent or less so since that time. From an understanding the past history of epidemics, we should be able to more reasonably assess threats, and better understand how to deal with them.

* In the early 1990s, nobody had much confidence in deciphering the genomes of ancient pathogens. At the time, Anne Stone was working in the lab of Svante Paabo at the Max Planck Institute -- then in Munich, now in Leipzig -- where she was tracking down markers for ancient smallpox and TB. It was a little like trying to find a needle in a haystack that had been buried for decades in a garbage dump, since bacterial genomes are only a fraction of the size of the genome of the humans they infect, and it's hard to avoid contamination or confusion with related and common soil microbes.

In those days, researchers were using the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) to sequence fragments of genomes from fossils, in hopes of finding a handful of markers. Stone had no luck with it; she tried to get markers from a sample of the Variola major virus, which causes smallpox, from a 400-year-old mummy recovered from Naples, Italy, and got nowhere. She gave up, instead focusing on ancient DNA from skeletal remains of apes and humans. Nobody else had any more luck for years. Attempts to sequence ancient samples of TB using PCR could confirm the presence of TB, but that was only confirming what was already known; nobody could obtain enough of a genome to permit comparison of an ancient TB strain with modern ones, which is what people really wanted to know.

About a decade ago, the introduction of high-throughput genomic sequencing machines changed the ground rules. The problem with PCR was that it could only handle genetic sequences at least 80 bases long, and ancient DNA was often fragmented into much smaller pieces. The new sequencers could deal with the short sequences. Progress on ancient DNA finally began to pick up, with reports gradually accumulating of DNA recovered from Ice Age mammoths, bears, and extinct humans. Such work drove the development of "targeted enhancement" techniques to mine ancient DNA from fossils. Working with Paabo, Krause had used one such targeted enhancement technique to sequence the Neanderthal genome. Having done that, he believed ancient pathogens could be dealt with as well.

* On the top of the list of ancient pathogens targeted for examination was the Black Death, or bubonic plague -- which almost halved Europe's population between 1347 and 1351, as discussed here in 2005. Descriptions of victims from the time describe them as afflicted by "buboes", swellings in the groin and armpits, these symptoms matching those caused by infection from the bacterium Yersinia pestis. Although Y. pestis is generally held responsible for the ghastly medieval pandemic, that poses a puzzle, since Y. pestis doesn't seem like much of a threat in modern times, common among some species of rodents but only infecting a few thousand humans a year.

Some historians wondered if Y. pestis was really the culprit; the general consensus was that it was, but then why was it so nasty? Early attempts to investigate samples taken from medieval plague victims using PCR went nowhere. In 2011, Hendrik Poinar of McMaster University in Hamilton, Canada, working with Sharon DeWitte of the University of South Carolina and McMaster grad student Kirsten Bos, used targeted enrichment to extract DNA from teeth and bones dug up from the East Smithfield burial ground in London, where plague victims were interred in the 14th century.

They worked with Krause's lab, using "baits" -- DNA fragments from modern Y. Pestis samples -- to tag up with longer fragments from the medieval samples, then rinsing away anything that wasn't tagged. The researchers were able to get 30 copies on average of each nucleotide in the ancient bacterial genome, to confirm that it was indeed Y. pestis, no big surprise there, but more surprisingly that the old strain was very similar to modern strains.

As a result, there's still no explanation of why the 14th-century pandemic was so devastating. Maybe it was a strain that the human population hadn't encountered before, meaning the human population was unusually vulnerable? Krause and his colleagues have been researching plague samples obtained from collections all over the world, using them to identify 11 strains circulating in Europe at the time of the Justinian Plague, from the 6th to the 8th century CE. One of these strains matched the medieval strain, so it was nothing new.

However, it appears from other analyses that the plague was mutating rapidly from the time of the Justinian Plague, only to die down in the 14th century -- the loss of population ensuring the population of Y. pestis declined as well, meaning it was less inclined to acquire virulence from then on. From the 14th century, humans generally stayed ahead of the bacterial learning curve. Studies of historical epidemiology are shining light on the long-term evolution of pathogens and their effects on human hosts, with interest in archaeological genomics and targeted enrichment growing in consequence. [TO BE CONTINUED]


[FRI 14 FEB 14] THE COLD WAR (11)

* THE COLD WAR (11): Stalin was happy with the Tehran conference, having got a firm commitment on the second front. Roosevelt was happy as well, having got all he wanted. The issue of Poland clearly remained troublesome, but the president did not feel that American interests were strongly affected by the affairs of Eastern Europe, and to the extent that he felt it was important, his motivation was mostly to reassure Polish-American voters. There was little Roosevelt could do about it in any case. Churchill was less happy about the outcome. Britain had gone to war over Polish independence, and was the primary backer of the Polish government-in-exile in London. The prime minister could only feel uneasy about making deals over Poland behind the backs of the Free Polish leadership.

There was time for socializing and amusement at the conference, though not all the play was innocent. When the discussion got around about what to do about Germany once the country was defeated, Stalin suggested shooting 50,000 to 100,000 German officers. Churchill went red-faced with fury and protested loudly. Roosevelt saw that Stalin was toying with Churchill and went along with the gag, suggesting that 49,000 would be sufficient. Churchill stomped out of the room, though Stalin and Molotov followed and managed to calm him down, assuring them that it was just a joke.

Of course it was, since Stalin would have never discussed any of his crimes in such an environment. What Churchill understood was that Stalin regarded the murder of tens of thousands of people as something of a joke in the first place. In hindsight, however, Roosevelt's comment about only shooting 49,000 officers remains ambiguous. He had showing signs of increasing disgust as revelations continued to appear of Nazi atrocities in occupied territories; was he really joking?

In any case, Stalin had got his second front, or would in the near future. The Western Allies had every reason to keep their word to him, however dimly they might have been aware of it at the time. If they did not advance on Germany from the west, the Red Army juggernaut would continue until, sooner or later, it reached the Atlantic. In the long run, the second front was as much or more an operation to frustrate Stalin as it was to defeat Hitler.

Churchill still went home dissatisfied, his suspicions of the Soviets remaining at full steam. In early 1944, PRAVDA ran an article that the British were engaged in secret negotiations with the Germans -- and there was no way such an article would have been published without the knowledge and consent of Stalin. Churchill wrote him an irritable letter denying the report. Churchill grumbled privately: "Trying to maintain good relations with a Communist is like wooing a crocodile. You do not know whether to tickle it under the chin or beat it over the head. When it opens its mouth, you do not know if it is trying to smile, or preparing to eat you up."

Underlying that ambiguity was the fact that Stalin seemed perfectly accommodating to Roosevelt's United Nations concept. Preliminary work was underway to the establishment of that organization, the most notable being Soviet participation in a conference at Bretton Woods, New Hampshire, in the summer, which would lay the groundwork for what would later become the World Bank Group -- not part of the United Nations organization in itself, but closely associated with it. In hindsight, it seems somewhat odd that a Communist regime would take much stock in a scheme to support international capitalist finance. The Bretton Woods conference was followed up by a second conference at a manor named Dunbarton Oaks in Washington DC, these talks being focused on the structure of the United Nations organization itself. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* SCIENCE NOTES: As discussed by a note from AAAS SCIENCE NOW, in some species of ants, the pupae spin silk cocoons around themselves, in others they do not. The first question is: what's the function of the cocoons? It turns out that when worker ants see a pupa that's diseased from fungal or other infections, they simply evict it from the nest to let it die alone. The cocoon protects the pupa from such infections, allowing it to mature.

The second question is: why don't all ant pupae spin cocoons? It would seem so advantageous that ants with that behavior would eventually displace ants without it. It may be historical: some ant lineages have acquired with the trick, possibly independently from a similar genetic basis, while others simply haven't got lucky in the evolutionary lottery. However, to complicate matters, there are some ants whose pupae may spin a cocoon, or may not -- hinting that cocoons are situational, advantageous in an environment heavy on fungus and other pathogens, not worth the additional effort otherwise.

* As discussed by AAAS SCIENCE NOW, a team of researchers has now decoded the genome for the hot pepper plant. The genome of the pepper's close relative the tomato was decoded some time earlier -- leading to the question of what genetic difference there was between the plants that would account for the pepper's spicy capsaicin chemical. They found that both plants had the capsaicin gene, but the tomato had four nonfunctioning variants, while the pepper had seven nonfunctioning variants and one functioning variant.

pepper plant

That was intriguing from an evolutionary point of view, since it highlighted the presence of nonfunctioning genes in the genome, while showing that nonfunctioning genes still could play a role in evolution -- the researchers suggesting that the functional capsaicin gene was derived from sequential mutations of five nonfunctioning variants. Once the plant was able to generate capsaicins, they provided a selective advantage by discouraging grazing animals from feeding on the plant's peppery seeds.

The identification of the capsaicin genes not only hints at tweaking the pepper genome to produce blazing hot peppers, but also activating tomato capsaicin genes to obtain hot tomatoes. Would simply turning on an existing but broken tomato gene be counted as genetic modification? I would guess so, but that only highlights the whimsical nature of the outrage against GM crop plants.

* As reported by THE ECONOMIST, chestnut trees once carpeted the forests of the eastern regions of America -- but that was before the arrival of the fungus Cryphonectria parasitica, which causes chestnut blight. Now the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) has planted experimental plots of chestnuts genetically modified to resist the blight in Georgia, New York, and Virginia in hopes of restoring the chestnut's fortunes.

The project is being coordinated by the Forest Health Initiative (FHI), a QUANGO -- "quasi-autonomous non-governmental organization", in effect an NGO operating with government blessing and cooperation -- set up to deal with threats to America's trees by use of genetic modification. The FHI worked with William Powell of the State University of New York and his colleagues to develop the GM chestnut trees, which incorporate a number of genes from other plant species. The C. parasitica fungus damages chestnut trees by producing a chemical named oxalic acid; wheat produces an enzyme named oxalate oxidase, which neutralizes it. The GM chestnuts incorporate this wheat gene, along with two genes from resistant chinese chestnuts and six genes from other tree species.

The trial will last three years, with the USDA, the US Environmental Protection Agency, and the US Food & Drug Administration then judging whether the modified chestnut trees should be introduced into the wild. If this effort proves a success, it should pave the way to efforts to save other tree species:

Environmentalists instinctively oppose genetic modification, arguing that the unforeseen effects make it too risky. However, if it's a choice between extinction of a tree species and anxieties over unknown effects, there's not going to be much of an argument in the end.



* 3D PRINTING SUPERCHARGED: The fabrication of items using 3D printing systems has become an established technology, but only to the extent of being used for prototyping, craft items, toys, and gadgets. It does have potential for more substantial use, as reported by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("3D Printing Scales Up", 7 September 2013).

Printed parts are now being used to fabricate low-volume items, such as pharmaceutical or paper-making equipment. They are also being used to support mass production by providing parts for setting up production lines, or providing temporary spares to keep a production line going. Similarly, 3D printing can be used to fabricate parts for systems out of production where spares are hard to come by. For example, a US airline was having to ground its McDonnell Douglas MD-80 jetliners because of leaking toilets; finding spare parts was a nightmare. Now the toilet plumbing is being 3D printed, using an aerospace-grade plastic, which does not burn or produce noxious fumes in a fire.

Traditionally, 3D printers only made small parts, but now they are turning out ever larger assemblies. For example, 3D printers are being used to fabricate body panels for specialist cars. These panels can have complex shapes, consolidating individual components that previously had to be assembled.

The aerospace industry, with relatively low volumes, is also embracing 3D printing. Production parts tend to be non-critical items, but that's changing. A typical F-18 fighter jet is now likely to contain some 90 3D-printed parts, replacements for original production elements such as parts of the cockpit and cooling ducts. The new F-35 fighter, now going into service, has about 900 parts that could be fabricated by 3D printing. European aerospace giant Airbus Group similarly fabricated a steel hinge bracket for a jetliner engine nacelle, saying it reduced raw material consumption by 75%, while reducing part weight, as well as energy use in production. In the UK, BAE Systems has used 3D printing to turn out parts for Royal Air Force Tornado fighters, reporting major cost savings.

General Electric, the world's biggest manufacturer, is keenly interested in 3D printing, seeing it as applicable across its many product lines, from energy to health care., In November 2012 GE bought Morris Technologies, a Cincinnati-based firm, one of the leaders in providing additive manufacturing services to industry. What GE likes about the technology is its potential to make complex, lightweight components, not easily manufactured by traditional means, out of exotic materials. By 2020, GE is expected to be printing tens of thousands of parts for its jet engines alone.

The Chinese are interested in 3D printing as well; some of the world's biggest 3D printers can be found in China. Chinese spacefarers, or "taikonauts", sit in 3D-printed seats shaped specifically to their bodies. Engineers working on a new Chinese short-haul jetliner are using giant 3D-printing machines, one of them 12 meters (39.4 feet) long, to print parts, including wing spares and fuselage frames, in titanium.

Another attractive aspect of 3D printing is the inclusion of electrical circuitry into the process. 3D printing firms are developing schemes by which wires, resistors, capacitors, and even some semiconductor devices can be laid down using the appropriate layers of materials. While 3D printing might be used to lay down arrays of LED lighting, it can't produce complex high-density electronics such as microprocessors -- but there's no real obstacle for a 3D printer to have a stock of chips to incorporate into the finished item.

3D printing has the problem of being slow, much slower than banging out parts with injection molding. However, the low rate of production is not a problem for items being produced in onesies or twosies, and not a problem for complicated assemblies that would require a lot of machining and fiddling to be built by conventional fabrication methods. Traditionally, large plastic parts also tend to be weak, and inclined to warp in fabrication; the US Oak Ridge National Laboratory has synthesized very fine carbon nanofibers that can be mixed in with the plastic, providing strength and resisting warpage.

Material costs remain an issue. Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS), better known as ABS, is the most common 3D-printing material. Purchased in bulk for mass injection molding, it costs about $2 USD a kilo -- but as a powder or filament for 3D printing, it costs as much as $80 USD a kilo. Part of the cost difference is due to the higher standards of purity and composition needed for 3D printing, but mostly it's due to the fact that users of 3D printers end up buying the material from their printer vendor, who charges through the nose for them. That problem should gradually go away as third-party suppliers get into the business.

The 3D printing industry is consolidating as its scales up, the smaller vendors being snapped up by the bigger ones. Activity is expected to ramp up from 2014, when some of the patents on laser-sintering 3D printing lapse. Because laser sintering can print things in plastic, metal and ceramics to high levels of detail, it is often used to make finished products and not just prototypes. How soon 3D printing becomes a major element in manufacturing is anyone's guess, but there's no doubt that business is booming in the field.



* HOPEFUL IN TEHRAN: The recent preliminary nuclear deal with Iran, discussed here late last year, seemed like a promising sign after decades of hostility between Iran and the West. However, things have seemed promising before, only to go back to nasty again. In an article in TIME magazine ("A New Beginning In Iran", 27 January 2014), reporter Robin Wright described her recent visit to Tehran, adding weight to the optimistic point of view.

Iranian dislike of America, the "Great Satan", remains well in evidence in Tehran, but the grounds have been shifting ever since the upset victory of President Hassan Rouhani in elections last summer, change being reflected by the nuclear deal. Iran's people are sick of government mismanagement, sick of repression, sick of crushing international sanctions. They want a change and see it coming, one of them telling Wright: "The Sun is shining again in Iran. There are smart people at the helm. The world is treating us differently and speaking with us differently, and we're speaking differently now, too."

Popular attitudes are not the only factor: the Iranian government is also considering the shifting regional balance of power, and rightly wondering if going nuclear is really in the country's best strategic interests. The American invasions of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003 alarmed Tehran as demonstrations of American military assertiveness, but they also suppressed the biggest threats to Iran: Sunni-oriented Islamic militancy and Saddam Hussein. As the US became bogged down in those interventions, Iran became more confident in its position; the situation was a win-win for Iran. Now that the US is pulling out, the Iranian government doesn't feel so cocky, worrying about a resurgence of militancy, fearful of the wave of national uprisings across the Middle East and of al-Qaeda.

Enter Hassan Rouhani. In the election, his supporters promoted him as "Hassan Kilidsaz" -- "Hassan the Locksmith", the man who could "unlock the doors" that had been shut tight under eight years of misrule by the crankish Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Having attained power, Rouhani has installed smart technocrats in his administration to replace hidebound ideologues and has been honest with the people, admitting on TV that Iran was close to bankrupt. His government has been able to halt the precipitous collapse of the Iranian riyal, with inflation falling as a result.

Socially, Rouhani is moderate, tweeting that he is not overly concerned with how women dress, going for hikes in the mountains wearing a parka and baseball cap, instead of clerical garb. When Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey tweeted Rouhani last October: "Are citizens of Iran able to read your tweets?" -- Rouhani replied: "my efforts geared 2 ensure my pp'll comfortably b able 2 access all info globally as is their #right."

That sounds encouraging, but Rouhani is shrewd, working to deal with all sides in Iran. He remains on the good side of Supreme Leader Ayatullah Ali Khameni, in contrast to Hashemi Rafsanjani, the previous hope of reformers, who was ultimately marginalized. Expectations of Rouhani are much more modest; the reformers are not striving for revolutionary change, instead working towards shifting the existing governmental order to a more representative form.

Hardliners don't like that idea, and they are dominant in Parliament, the judiciary, and the powerful Revolutionary Guards. Rouhani's use of Twitter and other social media is clearly intended as a challenge to the hardliners, but he is limited on what he can dare do against them. Much could happen, in both Iran and America, to derail rapprochement, with the Iranian Parliament pushing for greater enrichment of uranium, while hardliners in Congress want tougher sanctions on Iran, not a relaxation of them. It mostly hangs on Rouhani: he gave up nothing irreversible in the preliminary nuclear deal, hasn't suggested giving up anything vital to nuclear weapons development, and may well just be stringing Iran's adversaries along with a series of modest deals as a means of eroding unity on sanctions among the "P5+1" -- the five permanent UN Security Council members plus Germany, those six being the core supporters of sanctions.

However, if Rouhani doesn't fix Iran's problems with the outside world, it's an obvious tautology that the problems are not going to go away. On her last day in Tehran, Wright met with Zahra Eshragi, a woman's-rights activist. Eshragi is prominent in the movement, not only having Hashemi Rafsanjani as her brother-in-law, but also being a granddaughter of Ayatullah Khomeni, the spiritual father of the Islamic Republic of Iran. It is significant that of the 15 grandchildren of Khomeni, seven are reformers; Eshragi has been outspoken, and the hardliners have moved against her on occasion.

For the moment, Eshragi sees foreign policy as the primary issue, concerns over public liberties will have to wait: if the nuclear deal falls apart, the hardliners will regain control and things will inevitably go back to the ugly way they were under Ahmadinejad. On the other hand, "if the nuclear issue is resolved and relations are restored with the West, tourists can come back, businesses can grow, and a lot of changes can happen."

Including an end to unrelenting hostility between Tehran and Washington DC? Absolutely: "It's time for us to get along."



* GENOMIC WHODUNITS (1): Just as the last decades of the 20th century were a time of rapid advance in computing technology, the first decades of the 21st century are demonstrating a comparable rapid advance in genomics technology. As discussed by an article from AAAS SCIENCE ("On The Trail Of Ancient Killers" by Ann Gibbons, 14 June 2013), researchers are now leveraging off genomics technology to probe the past history of deadly pathogens.

It's basically a new enterprise, few having seen it as a profitable avenue of investigation back in the 1990s, partly because of the lack of tools. Now the tools are available, and researchers are enjoying more success than they expected. Johannes Krause, a paleogeneticist at the University of Tuebingen in Germany, was inspecting DNA from a tooth of a young woman who had died in a leper colony in Denmark in the 1300s, trying to find clues to the strain of the leprosy bacterium, Mycobacterium leprae, with which she had been infected. He was expecting to only find traces of the bacterial genome, mixed in with the host human genome, maybe of 2% the sample at most. On matching the genomic patterns from the sample with the human and M. leprae genomes, he was astonished to find that only 9% was human, while 40% was from the bacterium. Thinking he had done something wrong, he tried again -- and got the same results.

It turns out that M. leprae has a tough cell wall that helps protect its genome, which is why the sample was so biased against human DNA. Encouraged, Krause and his colleagues decided to shoot for the Moon and chase down the entire ancient M. leprae genome, a groundbreaking feat for the field. Using a technique known as "direct shotgun sequencing", they were able to get 100 copies of each of the 3.3 million bases in the bacterial genome, far better than the 20 copies usually available for sequencing modern bacterial genomes. According to Krause: "We could just reconstruct the genome from scratch."

Now the history of leprosy has become clearer. It's a bacterial infection that concentrates in the extremities; it's not actually very harmful in itself, but the immune response to the bacteria ends up rotting away at the host. In medieval times, it was widespread; about 25% of skeletons from Scandinavia dating from about 1300 CE show signs of leprosy. It's not such a problem today, the disease being treatable with antibiotics, but it's still troublesome, with several million lepers worldwide and an estimated 225,000 new infections a year.

Once the ancient M.leprae genome was available, it was compared to 11 different modern strains, the result of the analysis being that the bacterium has evolved steadily but slowly. The pathogen from the medieval girl was almost the same as that now found in India, Thailand, Brazil, and the USA. The origins of the ancient strain appear to be traceable back to the Middle East, suggesting that the Crusaders may have brought it back with them to Europe. It seems to have declined after 1600, possibly because the population became more resistant; the disease is not very infectious in the first place.

Other studies have focused on armadillos, one of the few animals besides humans that can contract leprosy. There's been a question of whether humans got leprosy from armadillos or the reverse; the analysis of the M. leprae genome has resolved that issue. While humans who handle armadillos can contract leprosy from them, the strain that infects armadillos is very similar to the medieval girl's strain; Europeans never having come into contact with armadillos until after Columbus, there's no doubt that armadillos got the disease from humans. [TO BE CONTINUED]


[FRI 07 FEB 14] THE COLD WAR (10)

* THE COLD WAR (10): As 1943 approached its end, Allied leadership decided to meet to determine the next steps in prosecuting the war against the Axis. Roosevelt had never met Stalin personally and had been pushing to arrange a meeting with him, with the president believing that his own personal diplomacy, in which he had great faith and with a fair amount of good reason, could carry the day with the Soviet dictator.

There was meeting of Allied foreign ministers -- Britain's Anthony Eden, America's Cordell Hull, and the USSR's Vyacheslav Molotov -- in Moscow in October 1943 to pave the way for the meeting of the top leadership. At the meeting, Molotov pressed Hull and Eden on the unceasing Soviet demand for a second front and was assured, much to his satisfaction, that there would be an invasion of France come the spring of 1944.

Part of Hull's agenda was to push a "Four-Power Declaration", what became known as the "Moscow Declaration", in which the US, Britain, the USSR, and China publicly committed to the creation of an organization that would help keep the peace in the postwar world. Molotov was skeptical, in particular criticizing the American notion that China was a "great power" -- the Soviets not only regarded China as a negligible military power, they also did not want to provoke trouble with Japan and risk a fight on two fronts -- but agreed in the end. A significant step had been taken towards the formation of a formal United Nations organization.

The preliminaries done, the "Big Three" -- Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin -- arrived in Tehran, Iran, for their conference on 18 November 1943. Tehran had been chosen at Stalin's insistence. He did not like to travel far, probably less because of the inconvenience of travel itself than because he feared being out of control even for a short period of time.

There was tension between Roosevelt, who was determined to proceed with OVERLORD, the invasion of France, and Churchill, who had misgivings. In the end, the result was that OVERLORD would proceed on 1 May 1944. When the decision was made, Stalin gave Churchill a glance that everyone present read as: There! So what do you think about that?! The discussion then moved on to other items:

Stalin saw a war with Japan as settling scores with Japan for Russia's defeat in the 1904:1905 Russo-Japanese War. The Soviet Union would regain the southern half of Sakhalin Island, off the southern coast of Siberia, and the Kurile Islands, stretching from the Kamchatka Peninsula to the northern major Japanese island of Hokkaidou. The Soviets would also obtain a sphere of influence in Manchuria, including access to the twin ports of Darien (Dalian) and Port Arthur (Lashun Port) on the Yellow Sea. No specifics on a Soviet war with Japan were established, that matter to be dealt with later. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* GIMMICKS & GADGETS: As discussed by WIRED Online, a startup named Home Automation has now introduced the "Doorbot", the doorbell for the 21st century. It seems like a silly gimmick at first glance, but on second glance it makes more sense. It's effectively a video intercom that, when installed with a Home Automation Lockitron door lock, can be used to remotely lock or unlock a door.

The Doorbot includes a fisheye camera with night-vision capability, plus a speaker and a microphone, and communicates over a home wi-fi network. Somebody rings the doorbell, an alert is sent to the home owner's smartphone, with the home owner then viewing the visitor on the doorstep and communicating as required. The home owner can then let the visitor in -- say, to drop off a package -- and lock the door again after the visitor leaves.


The Doorbot has a rechargeable lithium-ion battery with nominal battery life of about a year, and can also be wired up like a normal doorbell. It has a theft-resistant mount. Cost is given as $200 USD, with a Lockitron adding another $150 USD.

* Advanced technology car designs come and go, most never entering production, but often proving inspirational. As discussed by WIRED Online blogs, one of the latest such exercises is the "Urbee", being developed by a team out of Winnipeg, in Manitoba, Canada. The design effort is being driven by Jim Kor, an experienced industrial design engineer; they've already got a prototype Urbee rolling down the test track.

The production Urbee is envisioned as a highly efficient, lozenge-shaped hybrid-power vehicle that seats two and has three wheels -- two in the front, one in back. It's about 3 meters (10 feet) long and has a mass of about 545 kilograms (1,200 pounds), being more in the category of a motorcycle than a car. It obtains much of its efficiency from its streamlined shape and its light weight -- the light weight in turn being obtained by extensive use of optimally-shaped 3D printing assemblies.

Urbee three-wheeler

The printer implements an assembly using rugged ABS plastic, through a technique known as "Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM)", with the printer spraying layer on thin layer of polymer to build up the assembly. With traditional fabrication, assemblies need to be designed with an eye towards ease of manufacture; with 3D printing, they can be be better optimized in form, making them lighter but stronger. In addition, instead of fabricating sets of components and then piecing them together, assemblies can be built as units. For example, the Urbee's dashboard is printed with the ducts already attached, without the need for joints and connecting parts. What would be dozens of pieces of plastic and metal end up being a single piece of 3D printed plastic. Kors says the vehicle consists of only about 50 assemblies.

Not all of the Urbee is printed plastic -- of course, the engine and base chassis are metal. The production propulsion system is still being worked out, but it appears it will have electric drive, with a multifuel engine driving a generator to keep the batteries charged up. Kors says they are designing the Urbee to "Le Mans" standards of safety, with the occupants protected by a roll cage. The engineers are also investigating concerns about the repairability of large assemblies. Once the group has a production prototype, they plan to drive it from San Francisco to New York City on 38 liters (10 gallons) of gas.

The Urbee is all very sexy and one wishes them the best of luck -- but again, such concepts come and go, and the press releases for the Urbee are noticeably lacking in many specifics. Even when such machines get onto the market they often end up being limited-production, expensive toys for tech geeks. It seems perverse that it's proven so hard to break through the low-cost mass market with such vehicles. However, anything that we've got today that works well usually emerged out of a field of competitors, and the more things people try, the more likely they will find something that works.

* As reported by BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK, on 8 April 2014, Microsoft will end support for the venerable Windows XP operating system, and will no longer ship security patches. That hardly seems like much of a problem for most computer users, XP use on personal computers having been in steady decline -- but it poses a serious problem for banks. Why? Because the majority of the hundreds of thousands of automated teller machines (ATMs) run on WinXP -- and once it goes away, those ATMs will be officially insecure.

Industry observers estimate that only about 15% of bank ATMs will be prepared for the transition. It's not just a question of updating to a more modern version of Windows; many of the ATMs are antiques, by digital standards, and can't support a new operating system. A subset of them run Windows XP Embedded, and support for that will be continued until early 2016. Microsoft will also continue to support WinXP for users who want to pay for a support contract, but that's going to get more expensive over time.

The banks have to upgrade anyway, since in 2015 ATMs will have to support chip-based smart cards. Going to more secure transaction schemes will help pay for the upgrade of ATMs over the long run by reducing theft. As long as the upgrade is going to happen, banks will add new bells and whistles; modern versions of Windows are tuned to handle touchscreen interfaces, which will be a big step forward.



* BIKESHARE REVISITED: Bikeshare schemes have been discussed here the past, the last mention being a year ago. As reported by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("Taking Off The Stabilisers", 12 October 2013), bikesharing has taken off in a big way, with bikeshare networks in more than 500 cities in 50 countries -- a tenfold increase since 2004. Typically, a bikeshare network is built around a set of bike docking stations at various locales in a city. While bikes can generally be rented for a set fee, the schemes are usually based on subscriptions, ranging from $35 USD to $145 a year, with members typically getting a half hour on a bike free, with charges rising the longer a user hangs on to the bike. The shared bikes are not necessarily no-frills items; Copenhagen is introducing bikes with GPS and smart tablets.

Experiments with bikesharing go back to the 1960s at least, but the early efforts were busts, wrecked by theft and vandalism. A second-generation effort of coin-operated bikes did no better; it wasn't until electronic docking stations and payment by plastic became available that bikesharing took flight. Technical improvements continue, such as solar-powered docking stations, smartphone-based interaction, and integration with public transport. Vending machines for helmets are proving a particularly appreciated innovation, bikesharers usually not being inclined to carry helmets around with them.

According to a study by the Earth Policy Institute (EPI) in Washington DC, in terms of number of programs Europe is the leader, but Asia has the largest number of bikes, with over 350,000 in China alone and the number continuing to grow. Even in the USA, not noted for friendliness to bikes, EPI estimates that more than 37,000 shared bikes will be in service in 2014, a quadrupling from 2012. The well-known Parisian Velib bike-sharing scheme, begun in 2007, is now approaching 200 million rides.

USA does bikeshare

Many of the larger bike-sharing schemes are public-private partnerships that rely on a combination of user fees, advertising revenue, sponsorship and government money. New York's service is relatively expensive, intended to make a profit; bikesharing is a lot cheaper in Paris because it's supported by advertising. In London, the "Boris bike" system, named after Mayor Boris Johnson who introduced it, gets about half its funding from the taxpayer. Transport for London, which is in charge of the effort, says that all public transport in the city is subsidized. For most cities the point of bikesharing is not to make a direct profit, but to reduce congestion and pressure on parking, and to encourage citizens to get a bit more exercise.

* As reported by another article from THE ECONOMIST titled "Two (Motorised) Wheels Better" and dated 21 September 2013, electric bikes are now becoming much more popular in Europe and Asia. In the Netherlands, one bicycle in six sold is an e-bike, while sales are also growing in Germany and France. One industry observer sees sales of 34 million e-bikes in 2013, with projections of 40 million in 2015, China being the major producer and consumer.

So what about e-bike sharing? Few doubt it will come, but for the time being it's being done on a trial basis. Monaco began testing an electric-bike-rental scheme in 2010, which is now up to ten stations and 55 cycles. It works, says Roland de Rechniewski, head Clean Energy Planet, the French firm that helps Monaco run the scheme, is working towards a similar system for Luxembourg. The breakthrough would be an e-bike network for Paris, but there's no plan for it yet.

* Although electric bikes aren't being shared in a big way just yet, a Chinese named Kandi Technologies is implementing an electric car sharing scheme in the city of Hangzhou, near Shanghai. The little four-seaters, built in China, have a top speed of 80 KPH (50 MPH) and a range on a charge of about 120 kilometers (75 miles). The cars are stored in automated multilevel garages, being checked out by pushing a few buttons. The scheme has been compared to a "giant vending machine for cars".

cute little Kandi car

Cost is about $3 USD an hour. Kandi has set up two such "auto vendomats" in Hangzhou and plans ten more. While electric vehicles have been generally a nonstarter in the West, circumstances in China may make them more attractive there. Only a small proportion of Chinese own cars, meaning a better market for vehicle sharing, while the limited range and performance of EVs isn't such an issue in high-density Chinese cities. The fact that those cities tend to be blanketed by ghastly smog makes EVs a preferred solution.



* MEAT ON THE TABLE: As suggested by a posting on TIME Online ("The Triple Whopper Environmental Impact of Global Meat Production" by Bryan Walsh, 16 December 2013), when we think of the Earth, we fail to realize that it's effectively a giant farm. About 40% of the Earth's surface is dedicated to farming, much more than human living and other spaces. And of that land, only about a quarter of it is used to grow grains, fruits, and vegetables for human consumption. The rest of it supports cattle, pigs, and chickens for our tables.

Livestock production, including meat, milk and eggs, contributes 40% of global agricultural gross domestic product, employs more than 1.3 billion people, and uses a third of the fresh water consumed all over the world. Livestock production is in the top rank of industries in terms of its "footprint" on the planet. The specifics have now been nailed down in a survey published in the journal PROCEEDINGS OF THE NATIONAL ACADEMY OF SCIENCES (PNAS), put together by researchers from the International Livestock Research Institute in Kenya, the Commonwealth Scientific & Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) in Australia and the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) in Austria.

the meat business

According to the paper, the global livestock industry produces 586 million tonnes (645 million tons) of milk each year, and 285 million tonnes (313 million tons) of meat, in the proportions:

   poultry:            43%
   pork:               32%
   cattle & buffalo:   21%
   sheep & goats:       4%

That averages out to about 36 kilograms (80 pounds) of meat per person on Earth per year. Of course, meat consumption is not evenly distributed, Americans consuming over three times that average, Bangladeshis only about a twentieth.

The overwhelming majority of beef production is in Latin America, Europe and North America; sub-Saharan Africa only turns out a few percent. Livestock production in developed countries is driven by grain, a total of 1.3 billion tonnes (1.4 billion tons) being used to support meat production. Livestock in sub-Saharan Africa eats very little grain, otherwise subsisting on grasses and crop residue. In North America or Europe, a cow consumes about 75 to 300 kilograms (165 to 660 pounds) of dry matter, grass or grain, to produce a kilogram of protein. The poor fodder in sub-Saharan Africa means about eight times as much dry matter is required; free-ranging cattle also produce up to two orders of magnitude more greenhouse-gas emissions per head from flatulence than do factory-farm cattle.

Pig and poultry production have, overall, only a tenth of the carbon footprint of cattle production, while producing three times as much meat globally. One of the reasons for the efficiency is that pork and poultry need only a fifth as much feed as a cow, sheep, or goat to produce a kilogram of meat -- though it should be noted that a kilogram of milk from a cow only requires a fifth of the amount of feed as a kilogram of meat. While factory farming of pigs and poultry gets a lot of bad press, "death camps for animals", it is far more efficient in all respects than any other major form of meat production. Of course, considering what happens to all livestock in the end, it's not necessarily any more inhumane given reasonable guidelines for factory operations.

Efficiency of meat production is an important consideration as the world population rises towards a peak of 9 billion souls in 2050, while people in developing countries acquire a greater taste for meat. According to the authors of the PNAS study, there's a lot of room for improvement in global meat production. However, the paper also pointed out that there are obstacles to implementing Western-style factory farming in undeveloped countries. In sub-Saharan Africa, the low productivity of livestock production actually represents an efficiency of sorts, in that the livestock lives on vegetation not consumable by humans, grown on land that can't support growing crops for human consumption.

There are other factors in that equation. According to Mario Herrero, an agricultural-systems scientist at CSIRO and one of the co-authors of the PNAS paper, meat production simply works differently in the developing world: "Cattle and poultry can be walking banks in the developing world. They provide manure to small-holder farmers. There's a tremendous social role for livestock that can't be ignored." The PNAS paper also points out that there's no way the rest of the world will ever be able to eat as much meat as Americans. As Herrero put it: "Demand management has to be part of the solution as well."



* ANOTHER MONTH: As reported by AAAS SCIENCE Online, one Dan Lunt of the University of Bristol in the UK has constructed a climate simulation of Middle Earth, the fictional land in JRR Tolkien's books THE HOBBIT and THE LORD OF THE RINGS. In Lunt's model, the Shire, the home of the hobbits, has a temperate and damp climate like that of modern Britain, while the sinister land of Mordor has a dry and hot Texas-like climate.

A report on the model is available from the university's website in English, Elvish, and Dwarvish. Of course, Lunt did it on his own time -- playing games on company time would be asking for big trouble. The exercise was for fun, but Lunt said says there's educational value in the exercise, showing how any climate, even an imaginary one, can be simulated, to show how climate models work, demonstrating their strengths and limitations.

* In loosely associated news, WIRED Online reported on a New York City subway map poster, generated by one Robert Bacon, designed on a SUPER MARIO BROTHERS theme. Think of it as a way to gamify the daily commute. It seems the concept of game-based subway maps was originally devised by one Dave Delisle, who has been churning them out for a number of years. Delisle has produced such maps for the transit systems of Atlanta, Calgary, Montreal, Portland, San Francisco, Toronto, and Washington DC. The map for San Francisco's Bay Area Rapid Transit system is, of course, named "MarioBART".

Mario does Washington DC Metro

* I wrote a lengthy series for the blog on my purchase of and adventures with a Microsoft XBOX 360 / Kinect game box, and adventures with video downloads, but I realized it was too much verbiage with too little interesting content, and filed the text in my private notes. However, the video download exercise was fun enough to describe in brief here.

I hadn't been interested in video downloads because I didn't think I had the bandwidth to support them, watching YouTube videos being thoroughly dodgy, but I finally tried a video download in flash format from Amazon.com and watched it on my desktop PC. It worked fine, no hiccups or problems. I had been comparing apples and oranges in thinking YouTube videos compared to Amazon video downloads.

Having done that, I then did video downloads with one of my Acer netbooks and my Acer laptop, so I could watch in bed. That worked, but I thought it would be better to watch downloads on my TV. I hooked up my other netbook to the TV through a VGA cable, using external speakers on the PC for audio. That worked too, the only trick being switching from the netbook to the TV display. That turned out to be easy; CTL-ALT-F1 gives the external display, CTL-ALT-F3 goes back to the internal display. However, I couldn't get full-screen TV video, and the PC audio system was feebler than the TV sound system; the real-time flash downloads also left much to be desired in terms of video quality.

There things sat for a few months, and then I decided to take another shot at watching downloaded videos on my TV. Maybe get a video box of some sort? Naw, on consideration a laptop seemed like a better idea, more flexible, usable for other things as desired; I tend to prefer the grow-my-own approach anyway. Sigh, another PC around my house, that would be seven in all. I didn't need much of one, just a cheap Windows PC with an HDMI video port -- which could drive audio through the TV's sound system -- and preferably better video resolution.

I found an Acer Aspire One netbook with an HDMI port at Office Depot; it was a display unit, but they gave me 10% off and so the price was right. I hooked up HDMI from the Aspire One to the TV, and not only did I get audio over the TV sound system, but much to my pleasure I also had, without further tinkering, full-screen video on the display. It seems the netbook display driver was smart enough to interrogate the TV via HDMI and automatically generate video of appropriate resolution.

There was still the problem of the low-quality flash video. I had wondered at the outset if it were possible to download videos and then run them off disk, but hadn't figured it out in the initial session. A little more poking around online showed Amazon had an "UnBox Video Player" for that purpose. I downloaded it and it worked fine, providing much improved video; a download can take hours, but I can download a video in the morning and play it in the evening. I only watch a TV program three times a week, so that's no real bother. The only thing that remains a problem is subtitles -- when I'm watching DOCTOR WHO on DVD, sometimes the UK dialogue is hard to make out, so I turn on subtitles. From what I hear, download videos are now increasingly featuring subtitling. Something to dope out in the future.

* I wasn't quite as done getting things to work as I thought, however. The Aspire One is a nice machine, but on trying to get things tidied up, I found out I had to re-install Windows 8. The first difficulty was: where was the OS serial number? That's traditionally on the PC itself, but Microsoft dropped placing the label on a PC since it was insecure, with the key read out of the BIOS instead. After a struggle, I found a utility that could grab it from the BIOS, and managed to do the download, carefully making sure I wrote down the ID number.

Things then seemed okay for a few months, until I tried to get security updates for Windows Defender and ran into a more sinister difficulty. It would get up to a certain load level and just hang up. Finally I got to thinking: what is the first thing malware does after being installed on a PC?

Cripples PC defenses. Suddenly I realized I'd done something dumb, or equivalently failed to do something sensible. The Aspire One had been sitting out as a display unit, and there was no telling what might have been done to it in the interim. After tinkering, I found out how to reset the Aspire One to factory default, and then configured it again. That was a lot of work and wasted motion, but all smooth sailing now. I was a bit puzzled by Windows 8; it looks something like Windows 7 with an Android-style user interface. The free Windows 8.1 update was welcome, making it easier to use. One of these days I'll have to dope out Windows 8.1 in detail.

* TIME Magazine Online had a quiz to measure one's liberal to conservative ratio. Somewhat to my surprise, I came out as 60% conservative. I was actually a bit reassured, since even though I like being a social neutral -- I generally don't consider ideology worth stressing myself over -- I thought in practice I leaned the other way, towards liberal. They had a feedback input on the results, which I used to suggest I was only about 50% conservative: Why did I cross the road? To get to the middle.

Polls are very inexact instruments, shoe-horning attitudes into simple, sometimes simple-minded, questions: "Am I proud of America's history?" Wot? The question made no sense to me. I couldn't say I either felt pride or disgrace; I'm keenly interested in American history, but parts of it are inspiring, some are ghastly, most are things that just happened. The pollsters seemed to be aware of the limitations of what they were doing, saying each question was only "a weak predictor of ideology".