* 21 entries including: Cold War (series), US foreign policy (series), genomic analysis of ancient pathogens (series), discreet Japanese building demolition, the role of manufacturing in the 21st century, expanding role of freeports, wi-fi for mobile communications, Missouri earthquakes, Siri & talking personal assistants, threat of sepsis, and DARPA XS-1 RLV program.
* ANOTHER MONTH: Russia's occupation and annexation of the Crimea this last month stole headlines. As reported by JANE'S Online, one of the factors that didn't attract too much attention was the skill in which the three-week operation was conducted -- much in contrast to the Russian operation against Georgia in 2008, discussed here at the time. According to JANE'S:
This whirlwind campaign seems to herald a new sophistication in how Russian commanders conduct military operations. The most distinctive feature of the Russian operation was its emphasis on economy of effort. Unlike previous interventions in Afghanistan in the Soviet era, or Chechnya and Georgia more recently, where Russian commanders relied on mass employment of tanks and artillery, the Crimea intervention featured fewer than 10,000 assault troops lined up against 16,000 Ukrainian military personnel. The heaviest fighting vehicle employed by the Russians against the Ukrainians was the wheeled BTR-80 armored personnel carrier (APC).
Once Russian troops had moved to blockade Ukrainian military personnel in their bases, psychological warfare, internet/media propaganda, intimidation, and bribery were their main weapons to undermine their opponents' will to resist, rather than overwhelming firepower. Russian troops also displayed considerable discipline and patience during this phase. In addition, they appeared well equipped, boasting new personnel equipment, body armor, and light wheeled armored vehicles.
This "work smart not hard" approach was in part necessitated by the need to move quickly in the wake of the fall of the pro-Russian Ukrainian government on 27 February. Although no doubt the Russian Army had contingency plans in place -- military forces always have plans for possible actions -- there simply wasn't time to organize a massive invasion. The result was a largely bloodless operation, since most of the Ukrainian forces in the Crimea were naval and not in any position to put up a fight on the ground.
The political context remains bewildering. Russia feels a strong interest in its "near abroad", the Ukraine being one of the top considerations, with the Kremlin not liking an unfriendly government in charge. The large proportion of ethnic Russians in the Crimea and the eastern Ukraine is also a factor in Russian considerations. Such considerations dovetail with the Russian resentment over what is perceived as Western "meddling" in Russia's backyard, leading to an inclination to respond to foreign criticisms with a suggestion to "find short pier and take long hike".
There isn't really much the West can do but protest and impose sanctions, and the Kremlin knows it. Standing up for the Ukrainian government is problematic, since it has been neither very democratic nor very efficient. Russia also has some confidence that Europe will not push its luck, being dependent on Russian natural gas supplies. Chinese reaction to the matter has been been mixed, Beijing taking some pleasure in seeing the preachy Americans being told to shove off, but not happy about the implications of the action relative to some of China's own restless peripheral territories -- and can't be too glad to see aggressive behavior on the part of a neighbor that China has had border squabbles with in the past.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has declared Russia has no plans for further military adventures against its neighbors, but obviously new plans can be created if the need arises. Moldova is seen as the next most threatened country in Russia's near abroad, the breakaway region of Trans-Dniester presenting an opportunity for Russian interference; but what really causes unease in the West are the Baltic states -- Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia -- which have large Russian minorities that make them vulnerable. They became members of NATO in 1994, but on the understanding with Russia that they would not be "militarized" as forward bases for potential operations against Russia.
Russian propaganda likes to hint that the Baltics only continue to be independent on Russian sufferance, and they have also been the targets of cyber-attacks and other "deniable" subversive pranks. The West sold the Baltics out to Stalin in World War II, and selling them out a second time to Putin would be very hard to swallow. There's a push to ramp up the foreign NATO presence in the Baltics -- if not to the scale of representing any major military impediment to a Russian invasion, at least to the scale of making sure Putin understands that an attempt to retake the Baltic states would mean a wider war.
* As mentioned by a note from THE ECONOMIST, US Ambassador to China Gary Locke gave up his post there in late February after two and a half years in the job, being replaced by Max Baucus, previously a senator from Montana. Although Locke is a Chinese American, Chinese authorities were not at all unhappy to see the back of him, since he had politely but firmly spoken out against Chinese abuses of human rights, and also given asylum to blind Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng.
Imitating an essay written by Mao Zedong in 1949 titled "Farewell, Leighton Stuart!" to say good riddance to the departing American ambassador of that day, on 27 February the official China News Service ran an essay by one Wang Peng that sneered at Locke as a "banana" -- yellow outside, white inside" -- who had "lighted evil fires" with his activities. Wang concluded: "After a while, a banana will inevitably start to rot."
While it's silly to pay much attention to the sniping of editorials, in this case there was a vivid context of the clash of mindsets between China and America, China not coming out well in the comparison. Calling Locke a "banana" was rich, considering that his ultimate boss was not a white man; Americans have generally realized, if in some cases grudgingly, that the USA is no longer truly a "whites-first" country, something China still hasn't quite grasped. More importantly, Locke represented the best the USA had to offer, having been governor of the state of Washington -- the first Chinese-American governor in US history -- and then Obama's secretary of commerce.
What really impressed ordinary Chinese, however, were pictures circulating on the Chinese internet of Locke carrying around a knapsack in an airport, buying coffee at a counter; casual activities for an American even of public stature, unthinkable to Chinese bigwigs with their entourages of lackeys. What seems to have prompted Wang's outburst was Locke's farewell speech only shortly before, in which Locke said he was proud of his Chinese ancestry, but also proud of the "great values that America stands for". He asked that China reinforce the rule of impartial law and guard human rights, saying that China "should have the national self-confidence to withstand the media scrutiny that most of the world takes for granted."
In the perspective from this side of the Pacific, such rhetoric seems harmless at best, corny at worst. However, if such assertions of values seem a walk over uncertain ground, they seem much less uncertain when there is such a difference in values between two cultures. It is always difficult to balance fair dealings with a major trading partner against differences of opinion over values, but it seems a good case can be made for making those differences politely known, without threats or explicit condemnation: the moral discussion does not stop at the water's edge. Nobody can deny the right of America to say what it pleases; those on the receiving end have as much right to ignore the matter or shoot back, as they are so inclined. On this end, soaking up hits is pretty much business as usual.
* BBC WORLD took a look a set of popular beliefs, one of the more interesting being the supposed statistic that the 85 richest people in the world have as much wealth as the poorest half of the world's population. The figure comes from a report by British aid charity Oxfam. Ricardo Fuentes-Nieva, head of research at Oxfam GB, looked at data from the Global Wealth Report 2013 produced by bank Credit Suisse; he summed up the total wealth attributed to the poorer half of the world's population, coming to about 1% of the whole, or about $1.7 trillion USD. He then inspected the the FORBES rich list, adding up the scores from the top down until he reached a sum of $1.7 trillion USD, at rank 85.
Fuentes-Nieva admitted the exercise was simplistic, but said it was "as good as it gets." Some skeptics were dubious of his use of the word "good". Dr. Anthony Shorrocks, former director of the United Nations University World Institute for Development Economics Research, and one of a number of respected economists behind the Credit Suisse report: "There is a problem with Oxfam's comparison because counter-intuitively, low wealth does not mean you are poor."
Some people in Western countries who fall into the bottom 50% for wealth may not be poor in the true sense. They might be a graduate in the UK laden with debt and no assets, or young professionals who spend all their income. According to Deirdre McCloskey, professor of economic history at Gothenburg University in Sweden, there is also the implied misconception in this statistic that the super-rich are hogging the world's wealth and making half the world poor. However, it is a simple calculation to take $1,700 billion USD and divide it up among over 3.5 billion people, resulting in only about $500 USD per head. The world's poor would no doubt welcome being handed even such a modest lump sum, but it would be a one-shot deal -- and though it would thin the ranks of the rich, it would do little to adjust the ranks of the poor.
In addition, not only does the acquisition of wealth often promote economic development that helps the collective, some of the wealthy punch at their weight in working towards a better world -- most notably Bill Gates, whose Gates Foundation is one of most formidable developmental organizations in the planet. After all, if a person has billions of dollars, that's far more than needed to support all but the most absurdly extravagant lifestyle, so there's an impulse to put the money to good use. Of course, that observation must be counterbalanced by the wealthy such as the late Steve Jobs, more noted for ruthlessness than philanthropy. In short, while disproportionate inequalities in wealth in the world are a concern, it's hard to get much moral leverage out of it: tearing down the rich is not at all equivalent to elevating the poor.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* THE COLD WAR (16): The UN having been created, the Truman Administration focused on clarifying the new order for Europe, and finishing off the war with Japan. The Big Three leadership of Churchill, Stalin, and Truman met in Potsdam, a suburb of Berlin, from 17 July to 2 August 1945, to hash matters out.
At Potsdam, Stalin was at the peak of his powers. The conference ran from 17 July to 2 August 1945; Truman, not being thoroughly briefed on matters, left most of the work to his secretary of state, James Byrnes. The meeting was effectively a follow-up to the Yalta Conference, with specifics of the postwar order of Europe nailed down -- though as it turned out, somewhat more by default than by agreement.
The processes of demilitarization and "democratization" of Germany were clarified, as were the four occupation zones of the victorious Allies, and the westward adjustment of the Polish and German borders. The matter of resettling six million ethnic Germans who had been evicted from Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia, in general in an abrupt and harsh manner, was addressed.
The Western Allies handed Stalin a plum by recognizing the Communist Lublin government as the legitimate government of Poland. Churchill and Truman were not happy about the effective exclusion of the London Poles from the Polish government, but there was little they could do about it; Churchill was tired of fighting Stalin over the issue -- all the more so because the London Poles complained incessantly, without suggesting any realistic options for what Churchill could do. There really weren't any. Soviet control over the rest of Eastern Europe was not challenged.
Stalin also pushed for a Soviet military presence in the Turkish straits, in order to guarantee Red Navy access from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean. The Americans, after all, had control over the Panama Canal, the British over their Suez Canal; why wasn't the USSR similarly entitled to guaranteed access to the Mediterranean? Molotov had warned him that wouldn't fly, and it didn't. It was a shrug. Stalin was holding as good a hand of cards as he could ever expect to have, and he wanted to see what he could get away with.
More significantly, the Western Allies were not agreeable on the question of German reparations to the USSR. Roosevelt had agreed to reparations in principle at Yalta, with the Soviets to obtain compensation from Germany as a whole, but now the idea seemed much more problematic. Although Stalin could take satisfaction in Allied leaders making the pilgrimage to a land he had conquered, the visitors also saw and were dismayed by the massive looting of Germany by the Soviets then in progress.
The Soviet demand for reparations, though understandable, was a fantasy. The Germans were in a destitute condition themselves, the worst-off being the ethnic Germans who had been evicted from their homes in the East. What sense did it make to exact reparations if America then had to pump billions of dollars of emergency aid into Germany to keep the people from dying of starvation? It made much more sense to get the German economy back on its feet so the Germans could feed themselves. Indeed, an impoverished Germany would hold down the rest of the economy of Europe.
Soviet officials did not care for the moralistic lectures of their Western counterparts on reparations, countering with lists of advanced German weapons hauled off by the British and Americans. There was a certain amount of justice in that accusation; the Americans had scrambled into parts of Germany to be occupied by the Soviets, carting off materiel before the Red Army arrived, and had even, on 15 March, bombed an evacuated German nuclear processing plant at Oranienburg to level it before the Soviets could seize it. The value of the captured technology was far from trivial -- but then again, the plan was to demilitarize Germany, meaning the weapons would have otherwise been disposed of, and the Western Allies did not run off with materiel the Germans needed to support themselves.
As far as Western officials were concerned, they could do nothing if the Soviets looted the section of Germany under their control, but they were not agreeable to giving Stalin loot from the rest of Germany. Although Allied plans envisioned that the German state would in principle remain intact, given that each side restricted the other from its zone of control in Germany, the reality was that Germany would remain divided for decades. The principle of the complete demilitarization of Germany, of all the Axis powers, would fall by the wayside as well. [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* WINGS & WEAPONS: Aircraft design concepts discussed in the "Future Flight" series run here in 2012 continue to evolve. One evolution has been further work by NASA and Boeing on the "truss-braced wing", in which long slender wings, braced by struts, provide high flight efficiency. A traditional jetliner wing has an aspect ratio, or ratio of width to length, of about 9; the wing for the new Boeing 787 has an aspect ratio of about 11. NASA believes that truss-braced wings with aspect ratios of 15 or more are possible, using dynamic aerodynamic controls to prevent "flutter" -- oscillations that could tear the wings off an aircraft.
The truss allows the wing to be lighter, if at the expense of drag. Boeing and NASA have worked on digital models of such truss-braced wings, as well as tests of a 15% scale model in a NASA wind tunnel. Further refinement of the design of a 737-class airliner with the truss-braced wing resulted in a wing 1.53 times the span of a 737, with an aspect ratio of 19. Although early truss concepts envisioned a single main truss, the current design adds a light vertical brace at mid-span of the truss. There's no plan to go on to a flight demonstrator just yet. A practical design will need folding wingtips to allow the jetliner to park at standard airport gates, but Boeing already has this feature in the new 777X design, discussed here last fall.
* The Airbus Group, previously EADS, has been pushing a more ambitious future flight concept, the "E-Thrust" hybrid airliner -- a vision of the airliner of 2050, as embodied in a model displayed at the last Paris Air Show. The E-Thrust project is part of the Airbus "Innovation Works" program, a partnership with British engine maker Rolls-Royce. Their "Distributed Electrical Aerospace Propulsion (DEAP)" project uses a serial electric hybrid system, the model featuring six fans driven by electric motors, all powered by a single gas turbine engine.
A contemporary airliner turbofan has a "bypass ratio" -- the ratio of thrust from the fan to the thrust from the engine turbine core -- of about 12; the DEAP scheme promises an effective bypass ratio of about 20. The gas turbine engine provides some thrust, but it really doesn't provide enough electrical power to do much more than sustain the airliner in cruise. For takeoff, boost, and emergency power, the E-Thrust also has an "energy storage system" -- a big battery pack, presumably -- that's recharged in cruise flight.
The electrically-driven fans are more compact than conventional turbofans, and so they can be buried in the wing roots of the airliner, improving aerodynamics. The fans will also act as generators during descent, helping recharge the energy storage system. Alas, they have to be built using superconducting materials to ensure efficiency and reduce heat, so they're not around the corner. Performance of the sleek, streamlined E-Thrust wasn't mentioned, but one might expect it to be a reasonable 800 KPH (500 MPH); of course, with such an efficient engine system, range shouldn't be an issue.
As a footnote to the E-Thrust concept, engine giant GE is now working on an "hFan (hybrid fanjet)" engine, which looks at first glance exactly like a conventional high-bypass turbofan -- but has an electric motor crammed inside the end of the engine spindle, with the motor providing cruise drive to the fan. The challenge is to get a motor of sufficient power with minimum size and weight. It doesn't appear that superconducting motors are being considered; GE clearly sees that as too much to chew on over the near term.
* In a more conservative vision of the future of aircraft, AVIATION WEEK discussed the notion of using a single pilot instead of two on airliners -- a notion floated by Ryanair's chief executive Michael O'Leary in 2012. O'Leary's comment got a lot of mockery, particularly for his added suggestion that a trained flight attendant might be able to take over in an emergency. However, the European Commission is looking into the idea under the "Advanced Cockpit for the Reduction Of StresS & workload (ACROSS)" research program.
ACROSS is being led by Thales Avionics, with contributors including national research agencies and major industry players, such as Airbus, Dassault, BAE Systems, and Boeing. Although ACROSS is a general investigation of cockpit automation, it does include as a specific goal doing away with a second pilot. Airline pilot unions are holding off comment until they know more, but it is unlikely they will like the idea. Of course, pilots being expensive, airlines are likely to be friendly to it. There is still the issue of whether passengers will be in favor of a single pilot -- but if it's not demonstrably dangerous, they'll get use to the idea. It seems like a reasonable enough step to the ultimate goal of an airliner with no human pilot at all.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* GOING DOWN SILENTLY: As reported by an article from THE NEW YORK TIMES ("Tricky Ways to Pull Down a Skyscraper" by Henry Fountain, 17 June 2013), we tend to visualize the dismantling of skyscrapers as involving wrecking balls or controlled demolitions -- but in Tokyo, thanks to tough environmental laws, building demolitions are a subtler affair. Japanese companies have become adept at what might be called "stealth demolition"; some tall buildings are dismantled from the top down, the work hidden by a moving scaffold, others from the bottom, the entire structure slowly disappearing into the ground. It's all very low-key: the buildings being demolished seem to remain intact, but keep getting shorter. There is interest in adopting the same techniques elsewhere.
One of the latest Tokyo high-rises to be stealthily demolished was the Akasaka Prince Hotel, a 40-storey tower overlooking one of the city's bustling commercial districts. From the fall of 2012, its steel and concrete guts were ripped out, floor by floor, starting near the top, by heavy machinery, the building shrinking by about two floors every ten days. It's gone now, with work underway to erect two new tall buildings on the site.
Officials of Taisei Corporation, which developed the system used to tear down the hotel, say the scheme has environmental benefits and allowed for more efficient separation of metal, concrete, and other recyclable materials. Another advantage is aesthetics, the demolition process being unnoticeable except on close inspection, the top four floors being hidden in a scaffold suspended by the hotel's intact roof that conceals the demolition from casual view. After each pair of floors are removed, the roof and scaffold cap slowly descends on computer-controlled jacks supporting 15 temporary columns. The columns are then lowered into new positions, and the workers start ripping out the next two floors. There's little noise and dust.
Another Japanese company, Kajima Corporation, works from the bottom, cutting a building's steel columns at ground level and jacking the entire structure down as each floor is removed. The advantage is that all the demolition work is done on or near the ground, eliminating the need to haul heavy equipment or workers to the top of the structure. Kajima Corporation has recently used the technique to demolish a 24-storey office tower, the Resona Maruha building, near Tokyo's Imperial Gardens.
The Akasaka Prince tower was completed in 1982, the Resona Maruha building in 1978. It may seem strange to demolish big buildings so relatively young -- the Empire State Building, for example, is over 80 years old and doing just fine after major renovation work -- but Tokyo is undergoing a wave of rebuilding, driven by high property values and changing building standards. The boom in Japan's economy in the 1970s led to the construction of scores of unimaginative office towers in Tokyo; these older buildings have low ceilings, height standards having been increased in 1990, and are not well designed to handle 21st-century information technology. The high property values in Tokyo make it difficult for a building to pay off; if a building isn't competitive, it makes economic sense to tear it down and replace it with one that is.
New York City is faced with a similar problem in the form of many structures built from the late 1950s to the early 1970s that have low ceilings, cramped floor layouts, and poor energy efficiency. Replacing such buildings might be cheaper than renovating them. Nobody's expecting a major purge, but a score or so may be demolished. That is still a lot more turnover than the city's skyline has seen for a long time.
It is not clear if American contractors will adopt Japanese skyscraper demolition methods. They're expensive, though they do work more rapidly after initial setup, and New York's buildings tend to be heavier than Tokyo's, ruling out the "from the bottom" approach. More significantly, American environmental standards are not as strict as Japan's, there's no need to be so tidy. To be sure, nobody is going to use controlled explosive demolition or wrecking balls in NYC, both being generally banned because of safety and environmental concerns.
Indeed, controlled explosive demolition is only useful in special cases, about 2% of the total number of large-structure demolitions. It's obviously not practical in densely-populated Tokyo, where public opinion makes the stealth approach the only game in town. Stealthy demolition is also driven by strict recycling codes; along with valuable metals such as steel, aluminum, and copper, the law requires that wood and concrete waste be recycled, even if the contractors have to pay to do so. For greater efficiency, recyclable materials need to be separated at the site, with the stealth approach making the sorting of materials relatively straightforward. Kajima officials say working from the ground level is particularly efficient, one major benefit being that hazardous materials can be removed on an ongoing basis, instead of torn out before structural demolition begins.
The Kajima method does have one big potential disadvantage: in earthquake-prone Japan, a building cut loose from its foundation might well topple when the ground shakes. The company's solution is to build temporary concrete structures, about three storeys high, within parts of the building's steel frame. Locking devices that activate quickly in an earthquake would tie the frame to the concrete structures, hopefully keeping the building stable. Nobody wants to test just how well the fail-safe system honestly works.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* MANUFACTURING RECONSIDERED: It's something of a political ritual for American leadership to promote manufacturing as a source of jobs for voters. As discussed by an article from BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK ("Factory Jobs Are Gone, Get Over It" by Charles Kenney, 27 January), such exercises may reflect good intentions, but are they realistic? As economist Justin Wolfers of the Brookings Institute recently asked: "What's with the political fetish for manufacturing? Are factories really so awesome?"
Yes they are, but 21st-century factories are not those of our grandfathers' time. Back in the 1950s, large numbers of workers with no more than a high-school education could find good-paying jobs at factories, but now advances in factory automation -- improving continually at a rate that could hardly be called "creeping" -- mean the assembly-line worker is on a path to extinction, with factories staffed by ranks of machines under the direction of highly-trained technical specialists. From 1980 to 2012, US productivity per hour of operation has almost tripled, while the proportion of manufacturing workers with some college education has increased from a fifth to almost a half since 1969.
This is the future, like it or not; it's how commerce works. There is no legal, much less sensible, basis for preventing business owners from automating. Nobody goes into business to provide jobs; they go into business to provide goods and services and bring in profits, they don't hire any more people than they need to. American businesses that don't automate won't survive in a global marketplace anyway; the US can either automate, or watch its manufacturing disappear.
In a "smarter" world, American manufacturing is also a smaller component of the US economy -- though ironically, it's bigger in absolute terms than it ever was. In 1953, manufacturing accounted for 28% of the US gross domestic product; by 1980, it had dropped to 20%, falling to 12% in 2012. Adjusted for inflation, GDP rose in that period from $2.6 trillion USD to $15.5 trillion USD. The component of GDP provided by manufacturing grew from $730 billion USD to $1.86 trillion in that timeframe, meaning it grew by 2.5 times.
In 1953, 16 million employees were hired in manufacturing, about a third of non-farm employment; grew to 19 million in 1980, though that was only a fifth of non-farm employment; and fell to 12 million in 2012, a tenth of non farm employment. Service jobs in the medical care industry, hotels, media, and accounting, have been taking up the slack. Even in the manufacturing industry, a third of the workforce is in service roles such as management, technical support, and sales.
The same trend has been observed in other industrialized countries. Nations such as France where manufacturing has been declining relatively slowly also have low growth rates and similarly low growth in wages. Yes, developing countries have taken over low-paying manufacturing jobs, but is that a trend that should be discouraged through trade protectionism? Do we really want those dismal, low-paying jobs? Does trade protectionism even save jobs? When the Obama Administration slapped tariffs on Chinese tires in 2009, about 1,200 jobs in the tire industry were saved -- but economic analysis suggests the measure cost American consumers more than a billion dollars, with the knock-on effect of that drain being the estimated loss of three times that many jobs.
The fading of the factory job is a real problem, and it is one that demands government intervention of one sort or another. An analysis by David Autor of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology suggests that for every dollar the US government spends on retraining workers for new jobs, the US spends about $400 US on Social Security and disability for those who can't get work. It is true that government retraining programs have a mixed history, but the German government has had some success in this area. Similarly, Germany has embraced strong union rights and collective bargaining, giving workers the ability to seek higher wages and benefits.
The US government could, as a simple measure, also raise the minimum wage. More pay for service workers does mean more expensive services, but with GDP growing through improvements in factory automation and low prices for manufactured goods, that may be an acceptable tradeoff. Such ideas can be discussed; we cannot, however, pretend that manufacturing jobs, at least as they were once perceived, have a future.
A later generation may wonder what the fuss was all about. After all, there was once a time when the majority of labor was on the farm, but farm automation has changed agribusiness from manpower-intensive to machine-intensive, and few see that as a calamity. The moving finger, having writ, moves on. We just have to adjust.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* AMERICA & THE WORLD (1): As discussed by an extended survey from THE ECONOMIST ("Time To Cheer Up", by Edward Carr, 23 November 2013), in the spring of 2003, America seemed a giant astride the world, an "hyper-puissance" as a French politician snidely put it, having routed Saddam Hussein's army at a loss of only 138 American lives. Speaking on the deck of the aircraft carrier USS AMERICA, in front of a banner declaring "MISSION ACCOMPLISHED", US President George W. Bush announced that "major combat operations in Iraq have ended. In the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed."
That was George Bush's proudest moment. It was quickly tarnished. Almost nine years later, America left Iraq, having lost 4,270 more American lives, with vastly more Iraqis killed as well. In the present day, Syria remains in violent chaos while America simply watches on, US leadership seeing no sensible action to be taken -- and most American citizens approve of the hands-off approach, having no more stomach for major military interventions in unstable parts of the world. Add to that the after-effects of an economic crisis; a US Congress willing to sabotage the workings of government rather than compromise; a burdensome national debt, partly in consequence of the political gridlock; a lethargic Europe; and emerging economies, most of all China, challenging US power, the result of it all is a depressing sense of decline.
Such a national bad mood is really nothing new; it comes as goes with the shifts in the winds of fortune. The failures of the Bush II Administration on the world stage were a consequence of the end of the Cold War; having outlasted the Soviet Union, its only major rival, America had become the undisputed power of the world, leading to a certain overconfidence. Bush and his people decided they could ignore reality, that the almighty USA could do anything, hang the inconvenient details. They were wrong.
Chastened, American leadership is now much more realistic, arguably to the point of timidity. US President Barack Obama tends to come on as a thoughtful intellectual, more pragmatic and humble than George W. Bush -- but also more aloof, more cautious. Obama has admittedly been bogged down by the economy and disengaging from two dirty little wars -- but the economy is getting back on its feet and the wars are effectively over, presenting opportunities, if they can be grasped.
As far as China goes, although its significance in the world is undeniable, it has a long way to go before it can look America in the eye as an equal in global influence. The other major emerging nations -- India, Brazil, and South Africa -- aren't close to challenging America and don't generally want to. They have little to gain from a confrontation with the US, while America backs a peaceful and prosperous world order they find beneficial.
It is not arrogant, merely a simple statement of fact, that America still dominates the world in every significant measure of power. This is not an entirely comfortable position for American leadership, since it poses a problem: having the power to direct global events, the USA has only the choice of trying to do so, and being pilloried for failures, or be blamed for letting things go to hell through inaction. As problems go, this is one of the best ones to have, but it is still a real problem, implying certain uncomfortable realities: that action requires coalitions and working with allies; discussion and negotiation before resorting to force; and has no guarantees of success. [TO BE CONTINUED]NEXT | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* THE COLD WAR (15): The United Nations conference in San Francisco ended with the signing of the UN Charter on 26 June 1945, with the organization to come into existence in fall. The Ukrainian and Belorussian Soviet Socialist Republics were admitted as members, even though they were clearly not independent countries. The Soviets had actually insisted that all 16 republics of the USSR be given membership; they were willing to compromise and accept two.
Molotov had stubbornly refused to make concessions, but had been overruled by Stalin, who was perfectly happy to make concessions that didn't cost him anything of value. Reflecting irritation over the Polish Lublin government, seen very correctly in the West as a Soviet puppet, Poland was not admitted; more surprisingly, Stalin swallowed that as well -- knowing that sooner or later reality would prevail. It did, Poland being admitted and recognized as a founding member of the UN, bringing the total number of "original" members to 51.
As it was set up, the UN consisted of six major components:
Only the General Assembly, the Security Council, and the Secretariat are of much interest in this context. The General Assembly could vote on resolutions of common interest, with voting by a simple majority, except for extraordinary questions that required a two-thirds vote. However, General Assembly resolutions were nonbinding; UN members would go along with them if they felt like it.
The Security Council was where power actually resided. Security Council decisions were binding on UN members; decisions on procedural matters could be established by a majority of three-fifths of the Security Council members, or seven out of the eleven at the outset. The same voting ratio held for substantive matters, with one important qualification: the seven members voting for a decision had to include all five of the P5 members. In blunter terms, any one of the P5 members could effectively veto a decision. In addition, the charter did not clearly define the difference between procedural and substantive matters. There is a tale that when one ambassador not from a P5 country asked the Soviet representative what the difference was, the reply was: "We shall tell you."
The UN Charter proclaimed that member nations renounce war as the first option in resolving disputes, which were preferably settled by peaceful means. The UN did have the right to use force to resolve conflicts, as per Security Council directives; a "Military Staff Committee (MSC)" was set up to direct UN military operations. There had been an expectation in the creation of the UN that it would have permanent control over military forces and bases all over the world that would permit quick intervention in crisis spots. That notion would prove entirely unrealistic, and the MSC would amount to nothing.
The UN would never have any more military power than the P5 allowed it to have, and when the Great Powers felt the need to resort to force, they would be invariably inclined to exert it themselves, with the UN only providing endorsement and allies. The UN was never able to do more on the military front than throw together ad-hoc, lightly-armed peacekeeping forces to deal with crises that the Great Powers had no real interest in. There was no way the UN could ever have more power than that; it could never do any more than its member states allowed it to do. It did serve a valuable role as a bureaucracy for international coordination and relief efforts, and also in allowing member states to make their complaints and initiatives known to the world. By that same coin, it would also provide a public theater for playing out the game of postwar superpower competition.
The UN Secretariat was to be administered by a secretary general, with Trygve Lie (pronounced "Lee"), previously Norway's foreign minister, becoming the first in early 1946. The secretary general, along with his administrative functions, could also elevate issues to the Security Council. That gave the job more significance; the secretary general, more than any one person in the UN, could give directions for the organization's actions.
The secretary general had high status, but only possessed soft power, the hard power residing in the Security Council. It would take a remarkable Zen sensibility for a secretary general to make the most of the soft power of the office. Given the growing hostility between East and West, UN Secretary-General Trygve Lie had an ugly situation on his hands from the outset, and there were doubts that he was up to the job. It must be recognized that anyone who became secretary general of the UN under the circumstances of growing superpower tension was going to find himself in over his head. However, the bottom line remains that Lie's term in charge of the UN would not make people particularly happy. [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* Space launches for February included:
-- 05 FEB 14 / PROGRESS 54P (ISS) -- A Soyuz-U booster was launched from Baikonur in Kazakhstan at 1623 GMT (local time - 6) to put the "Progress 54P" AKA "Progress M-22M" tanker-freighter spacecraft into orbit on an International Space Station (ISS) supply mission. It docked with the ISS Pirs module six hours after launch. It was the 54th Progress mission to the ISS.
-- 06 FEB 14 / ABS 2, ATHENA-FIDUS -- An Ariane 5 ECA booster was launched from Kourou in French Guiana at 2130 GMT (local time + 3) to put the "Asia Broadcast Satellite (ABS 2)" and "Athena-Fidus" geostationary comsats into orbit. ABS 2 was built by Space Systems / Loral and was based on the SSL 1300 comsat platform. It had a design life of 15 years, a launch mass of 6,329 kilograms (13,955 pounds), and a payload of 89 C-band / Ku-band / Ka-band transponders, including six dedicated Ku-band spot beams for direct-to-home TV services. It was placed in the geostationary slot at 75 degrees east longitude to provide direct-to-home, cable TV, VSAT, and data services over the Middle East, Africa, Russia and the Asia-Pacific for Asia Broadcast Satellite of Bermuda and Hong Kong.
Athena-Fidus was a joint French-Italian dual-use communications satellite for French and Italian military and civil authorities, featuring secure military communications links. It was built by Thales Alenia Space and was based on the Spacebus 4000B2 comsat bus. It had a design lifetime of 15 years and a launch mass of 3,079 kilograms (6,790 pounds).
-- 15 FEB 14 / TURKSAT 4A -- A Proton M Breeze M booster was launched from Baikonur at 2109 GMT (previous day local time - 6) to put the "Turksat 4A" geostationary civil communications satellite into orbit. The spacecraft was built by Mitsubishi Electric Corporation of Japan for Turksat of Turkey and was based on the company's DS2000 satellite bus. It had a launch mass of 5.3 tonnes (5.8 tons) and a payload of 36 Ku / Ka / C band transponders. It was ultimately placed in the geostationary slot at 42 degrees East longitude to provide communications services from Western Europe to East Asia.
-- 21 FEB 14 / GPS 2F-5 (USA 248) -- A Delta 4 booster was launched from Cape Canaveral in Florida at 0159 GMT (previous day local time + 5) to put the "GPS 2F-5" AKA USA 248 AKA "Navstar 69" navigation satellite into orbit. It was the fifth of a dozen Block 2F spacecraft, with the Block 2F series featuring a new "safety of life" signal for civilian air traffic control applications. The Delta 4 was in the "Medium+ (4,2)" configuration, with a 4 meter (13.1 foot) diameter payload fairing and two solid rocket boosters.
-- 27 FEB 14 / GPM CORE -- A Japanese H-2A booster was launched from Tanegashima at 1837 GMT (next day local time - 9) to put the "Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) Mission Core" satellite, a joint project between NASA and Japan's JAXA. GPM Core was a follow-up to the Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission (TRMM), launched in 1997 and still in operation in 2014. TRMM was placed into an orbit at 35 degree inclination; GPM Core was launched into an orbit at 65 degree inclination to survey Earth's precipitation over higher latitudes. The "core" in the name reflected that the spacecraft was to become the centerpiece of a constellation of 11 satellites.
GPM Core had a launch mass of 3,855 kilograms (8,500 pounds). It carried a payload of two instruments, one built by NASA and one by JAXA:
Both instruments were much-improved follow-ons to TRMM instruments. Mission lifetime was estimated as at least two years. The launch also included a set of seven smallsats, all from Japan -- the largest being "Ginrei" or "ShindaiSat" from Shinshu University (SHINshu DAIgaku), with a launch mass of 35 kilograms (77 pounds). Ginrei was to test a bidirectional optical communications link with a ground station, using high-powered LEDs. There was substantial student participation in the program.
The next largest smallsat was "TeikyoSat 3" from Teikyou University, with a launch mass of 20 kilograms (44 pounds). It was a bioscience experiment, carrying the slime mold Dictyostelium discoideum, described here in 2012, with its brief life cycle observed in space.
The third smallsat down the scale was actually two smallsats combined in the "Space Tethered Autonomous Robot Satellite (STARS) II" experiment from Kagawa University. It had twin elements connected by a tether, with a launch configuration of the assembly being slightly larger than a triple-unit (3U) CubeSat and a total launch mass of 9 kilograms (19.8 pounds). The bigger "Mother" satellite, "Ku", deployed the tether, with the passive "Daughter" satellite, "Kai", hooked to the tether by a moveable arm that allowed Kai to control tether tension and orientation, with Kai also taking imagery of the deployment. The two satellites communicated via a Bluetooth link. STARS II followed "STARS I", launched in 2009.
The other smallsats were all CubeSats:
* OTHER SPACE NEWS: AVIATION WEEK reports, somewhat surprisingly, that the International Space Station (ISS) is becoming a hot property for Earth observations. Come June, a SpaceX Dragon freighter spacecraft will carry the "RapidScat" scatterometer radar to the ISS, from which it will observe wave height and motion on the Earth's oceans. In September, another Dragon will haul up the "Cloud Aerosol Transport System (CATS)", a technology evaluation system to test the use of lasers to observe atmospheric aerosols.
Although one thinks of the ISS, with good reason, as gold-plated, it's much cheaper to fly an instrument on the station than as a primary payload on a satellite -- tens of millions of dollars as opposed to hundreds of millions of dollars. Flying an instrument on a stand-alone satellite means providing and integrating support system, plus a lot more mission overhead; an instrument mounted on the ISS has the station doing the bulk of that job. The ISS has the capacity to handle up to 22 instruments, and a crew to tend them. Yes, the ISS was expensive to build and remains expensive to operate, but researchers wanting to fly their toys don't see so much of those costs.
Most Earth observation satellites are put into Sun-synchronous near-polar orbits; the ISS is at an inclination of 51.6 degrees, that's not such a disadvantage, because the station covers 80% of the Earth's surface and over 90% of the Earth's population, completing 16 orbits a day, with revisits to locations every three days, if not at the same time of day at each location. That's not perfect, but it does have advantages, one being that flying an instrument on both the ISS and a stand-alone satellite provides a calibration crosscheck. The ISS also orbits at only half the altitude of a typical Sun-synchronous spacecraft, meaning a smaller swath width, but proportionally higher resolution.
There's possibilities for collaboration with other instruments on the ISS, such as the existing Hyperspectral Imager for the Coastal Ocean, developed with US Navy funding. The station can also be used to fly test payloads to validate their operation before they are flown on a satellite. The Florida-based Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS), which commercially peddles use of the ISS on behalf of NASA, is now promoting the station as an attractive option for groups wanting to fly Earth observation payloads.
* The US Air Force (USAF) is now planning to launch two space surveillance spacecraft into high-altitude orbits later in 2014 to monitor satellite traffic in the geosynchronous belt. The "Geosynchronous Space Situational Awareness Program (GSSAP)" was described by General William Shelton, head of the USAF Space Command, as a "neighborhood watch" for satellites. According to Shelton:
GSSAP will produce a significant improvement in space object surveillance, not only for better collision avoidance but also for detecting threats. GSSAP will bolster our ability to discern when adversaries attempt to avoid detection and to discover capabilities they may have which might be harmful to our critical assets at these higher altitudes."
The effort has been ongoing in secrecy for some time, the prime contractor being Orbital Sciences Corporation. A demonstrator spacecraft, the "Space Based Space Surveillance (SBSS) satellite, was launched into low Earth orbit in 2010, carrying a telescope to inspect spacecraft in geostationary space. The two GSSAP spacecraft, described loosely as maneuvering smallsats, will be placed by a single Delta 4 launch into vaguely-specified "near-geosynchronous" orbits, where they will be able to perform much more details examinations. Two more GSSAP satellites are scheduled for launch in 2016.
The 2014 shot will also carry a technology demonstration satellite named ANGELS, built by Orbital, to "detect, track, and identify other spacecraft in orbit." It appears ANGELS is a rendezvous technology satellite, possibly related to the mysterious dual MiTEx mission launched in 2006, with the satellites maneuvering relative to each other a paying a visit to a disable satellite; and the XSS-11 mission, launched in 2005 to inspect various satellites in low Earth orbit. The Air Force says ANGELS will use the Delta 4 upper stage as a target.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* FREEPORTS GO UPSCALE: As discussed by an article from THE ECONMIST ("Uber-Warehouses For The Ultra-Rich", 23 November 2013), the notion of a "freeport" is an old one, being a section of a shipping center -- in the old days seaports and the like, in modern days airports as well -- where goods could be temporarily stored without concern for customs rules, while waiting to be shipped to a final destination.
The scheme leaves a useful opening for the very rich. The number of such folk has been increasing, and they have found collectables to be a good investment. Collecting rare coins or art does lead to the problem of storing it securely, and hopefully without governments paying too much attention. Enter freeports. They're a convenient way to securely store valuables, outside of close government scrutiny.
It's not just the very rich who use 21st-century freeports; other clients include museums, galleries, and art investment funds. Switzerland and Singapore use them to store gold stockpiles. Storage fees are typically about $1,000 USD a year for a painting, maybe $12,000 USD for enough treasure to fill up a small room. Think of it as high-end rental storage.
The Swiss were pioneers in upscaling the freeport, setting up about half a dozen at sites in Chiasso, Geneva, Zurich, and elsewhere. Singapore, Monaco, and Luxembourg have them as well. Early on, such freeports were effectively warehouses -- but, given a high-rolling clientele, they have become more stylish, with elegant sculptures and other artwork, more resembling a trendy museum or hotel. They may have showrooms where owners can display artworks to prospective buyers; indeed, they are becoming exclusive places for the very rich to hang out, performing trades of, say, a painting for a sculpture and fine wines. Since the transactions are performed in the freeport, it is difficult for governments to pick them up on their radar for taxation.
Along with the elegant fixturings, freeports tend to be strongly built, with high-class climate-control and fire-protection schemes -- for example, they may put out fires by creating a vacuum in order not to damage artworks. Security may be like something out of James Bond movie, with the most valuable items stored in underground vaults. Insurers are still nervous about freeports, worrying that some accident or a terrorist attack could leave them holding the bag on bank-breaking claims. The fact that the freeports have traditionally been tight-lipped about activities in their facilities -- clients are of course appreciate such discretion -- doesn't make them less nervous.
Freeport operators are becoming more open about their activities, since they've become a bigger business and it's harder to avoid government radars. The US government has been particularly insistent in pressuring freeport operators to be more communicative, and not without fair reason. Freeports present a great opportunity for handling stolen precious items and for money-laundering -- and though operators insist, no doubt truthfully, that most of their business is above-board, they have still set up safeguards to guard against crooked operators. However, freeports continue to grow, appearing in more and more countries, and trying to police them all is going to be troublesome.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* TALK WI-FI: As discussed by an article from BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK ("The Biggest, Cheapest Network Of Them All" by Brendan Greeley, 6 January 2014) Republic Wireless, a US phone and mobile carrier out of Raleigh NC, offers a steal of a deal for their customers: $5 USD a month for unlimited calls and texts, $40 USD a month for unlimited data. How Republic do it? Easy -- the company doesn't operate a cellphone network, instead relying on wi-fi connections.
Of course, wi-fi doesn't help much with a phone on the road, so Republic rents out time on the Sprint network in that case. Republic officials say that about half the calls and 90% of the data transfers of their users go over wi-fi. Scratch Wireless of Cambridge MA has a similar business model, also relying on Sprint for mobile service. Both require that a customer buy an Android phone modified to make use of wi-fi connections.
Wi-fi has been accounting for an increasing share of mobile gadget traffic, Cisco Systems saying that a third of such data traffic went through wi-fi in 2012, projecting that half will by 2017. The trend is more visible with tablets, with about two-thirds of them connecting to the internet solely via wi-fi. That poses a threat to mobile carriers, who have invested huge sums in their 4G networks. One industry observer commented that a smartphone usually burns through 4 gigabytes of online data a month, with one gigabyte over the cellular network and three gigabytes over wi-fi.
The wi-fi traffic means lost revenue for cellphone carriers, but most US carriers are so focused on their 4G networks that they don't worry about wi-fi. One exception is AT&T, the only US carrier that currently offers "seamless offloading", the company having agreements covering about 32,000 wi-fi hotspots at businesses and other public places. A customer walks into a hotspot and is automatically logged on; it's cheaper for the customer, it brings in business for AT&T, and it offloads traffic from the company's 4G network -- particularly in crowded locations such as shopping malls or stadiums, where a cell station can be easily overloaded. Overseas, China Mobile, TIM Participacoes of Brazil, and O2 of the UK have similar business models.
The new world of mobile communications via wi-fi is being boosted by the Wi-Fi Alliance, the industry group behind wi-fi standards, through a new wi-fi standard: "Hotspot 2.0" AKA "Passpoint". When we're on the road, we have to figure out what wi-fi network to log into and get login permissions; under Passpoint, we will deal with unified wi-fi networks, our gadgets automatically logging in to their assigned Passpoint account wherever we take them. Instead of a confusion of separate connections, all the connections everywhere will be virtually the same connection. Passpoint seems like a revolutionary idea while simultaneously appearing obvious. Once we have universal seamless wi-fi, we'll marvel that we ever did things any differently.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* GENOMIC WHODUNITS (5): In related news of genomic sleuthing of pathogens, as reported by an article from AAAS SCIENCE NOW ("Cholera Is Altering The Human Genome" by Mitch Leslie, 3 July 2013), the bacterial infection known as cholera originated in South Asia, to become a global scourge in the 19th century. Improved civic sanitation helped get it under control, but it lingers, particularly in regions where civil order has broken down.
In cholera's heartland, the Ganges River Delta of India and Bangladesh, it has been killing people for at least a millennium, and still kills today. By the time Bangladeshi children are 15 years old, half of them have been infected with the cholera-causing bacterium, which spreads in contaminated water and food. The microbe can cause ghastly diarrhea, and without aggressive rehydration therapy, can drain a victim to death in a matter of hours.
Since cholera has been around a long time in that region and tends to hit children hard, biologists suspected that it was exerting evolutionary selection pressures on the human population, as malaria has been shown to do in Africa. Indeed, many of the people there can shrug off a cholera infection with little or no difficulty, so it seems they have acquired adaptations against the disease.
A study published by Elinor Karlsson, a computational geneticist at Harvard University, and Regina LaRocque, and infectious disease specialist at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, has confirmed that's the case. The two researchers and their colleagues, including scientists from the International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research in Bangladesh, used a new statistical technique to zero in on sections of the genome that are being affected by selection. The researchers analyzed DNA from 36 Bangladeshi families and compared it to the genomes of people from northwestern Europe, West Africa, and eastern Asia -- to find 305 regions in the genome of interest.
While nailing down the effects of these genes is tricky, studies showed a correlation between gene variants of the set and Bangladeshis who remained healthy even when exposed to cholera. One category of genes controlled the structure of cellular "potassium channels" that release chloride ions into the intestines; cholera kills by releasing a toxin that causes major discharges of chloride, resulting in the severe diarrhea characteristic of the disease, and so a potassium channel that could resist the toxin would alleviate the symptoms. Other genes in the set identified in the report were involved in the body's inflammation response, which also tends to be overwhelmed by cholera.
The study was interesting from an evolutionary biology standpoint, though from a medical standpoint it was not very significant. Cholera is a controllable disease; good sanitation will prevent it from breaking out, and when it does rehydration therapy is highly effective in dealing with it. Still, understanding the mechanisms of the disease and of resistance to it may help in the development of appropriate vaccines. [END OF SERIES]START | PREV | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* THE COLD WAR (14): As already discussed, in February 1945 the Big Three met at Yalta to determine the endgame of the war and what would come after. By that time, it was increasingly obvious that the Soviets would do what they liked in Eastern Europe. The Western Allies have been accused ever since of "selling out" Eastern Europe at Yalta, with parallels drawn to the 1939 Nazi-Soviet pact. There was really no comparison: the Nazi-Soviet pact was an agreement between the Reich and the USSR to collaborate on aggression, while Yalta simply amounted to Stalin saying, in a lightly veiled fashion, that he would do as he pleased, and there was nothing anyone could do about it.
As the Allies closed in on Germany from two fronts and German resistance weakened, the British began to lobby for a drive on Berlin. US General Dwight Eisenhower, the military supreme commander in the West, had other ideas. He felt that his primary responsibility was to minimize the losses among his troops, and didn't believe that Berlin would be worth the casualties required to capture it. Besides, according to the occupation plan agreed on at Yalta, much of the territory the Western Allies would capture in northern Germany would simply be handed over to the Soviets after the war anyway. Eisenhower wanted to press on into central and southern Germany. Stalin was shocked at the very idea the Western Allies wanted to take Berlin, and badgered his generals to drive forward on the city.
On 12 April, President Roosevelt died of a brain hemorrhage, Vice-President Harry Truman taking his place. Truman hadn't been in the job for three months, and Roosevelt had not bothered to inform him of anything of substance. As far as the war against Germany went, that meant little, since it was in its final days. On 25 April, American and Soviet units finally joined hands on the Elbe, cutting Germany in half. There was considerable fraternization among the troops up to the generals, but it had an undercurrent of tension: American brass saw Red Army troops as ragtag rabble, while Soviet brass thought their Western counterparts were almost novices at war.
The tensions were more evident at the top. In late March, Stalin had informed the Americans that Foreign Minister Molotov would not attend the United Nations foundation conference in San Francisco, saying Molotov was too busy. In reality, it was an evident snub in response to American complaints about Soviet actions in Poland.
With the death of Roosevelt, Averell Harriman had prevailed on Stalin to send Molotov to San Francisco after all, as a gracious homage to the fallen president and to get a new start with the new US president. It wasn't a very inspiring start. Molotov flew to Washington DC first, arriving on 22 April, talking with senior American officials and Truman the next day. The talks at the White House did not go well. Molotov was notably impassive and immovable in negotiations, being nicknamed "Stone Ass" for that reason, and Truman was a person of firm convictions. The two talked past each other until Truman tired of the pointless exercise, breaking off the discussion curtly -- an incident embellished to a snappish exchange in Truman's memoirs. The farce led to an irritable volley of messages with Stalin, but Molotov still continued on to San Francisco.
In the meantime, the war in Europe finally came to an end. With Soviet troops grinding their way into Berlin, Adolf Hitler committed suicide in his bunker on 30 April; Germany surrendered on 8 May. Churchill believed that one war for Europe had ended, only for another to begin. A few days later, he ordered his military chiefs to come up with a plan for taking on the Red Army. The operation, codenamed UNTHINKABLE, was in principle to jump off on 1 July, the primary objective being to ensure proper Soviet treatment of Poland.
The reply was that UNTHINKABLE was just that, the Red Army outnumbering the Western Allies by 2.5 times or more, and was also a very thoroughly blooded combat organization that did not give up easily. The Americans of course would have reacted to the idea with shock, having little vested interest in what Stalin did in Poland. Given the name of the operation, it seems unlikely that Churchill was at all surprised at the reply; apparently he was just considering options. More realistically, following the report on UNTHINKABLE, Churchill's military chiefs investigated what might be done if the Red Army decided to keep on driving west. The options there weren't particularly inspiring either, but that study was still a landmark of sorts -- being the first of many that the West would devise over the following decades to deal with menacing Bear in the East. [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* SCIENCE NOTES: The US military has been interested in finding alternatives to lead for making bullets, since lead is a heavy-metal pollutant, turning firing ranges into toxic sites that have to be cleaned up at considerable expense. The search for alternative bullets hasn't gone far, but as reported by AAAS SCIENCE NOW, Korean researchers have figured out a way of reducing the cost of the cleanups, using pulverized oyster shells and fly ash, the sooty particles emitted by combustion.
Korean landfills accumulate hundreds of thousands of tonnes of oyster shells each year, while coal-fired power plants churn out just as much fly ash. The mixture of the two is rich in minerals that shackle metal ions within tight molecular bonds. By mixing different ratios of the two ingredients with grossly contaminated firing-range soil -- loaded down with almost seven times the amount of lead judged dangerous by the US Environmental Protection Agency -- the Korean researchers were able to bind up up 98% of leachable lead contamination and 96% of the copper. There are other ways of performing the same task, but this approach promises to be cheaper.
* The NASA Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, launched in 2005, is continuing its surveys of the Red Planet. An image of a region taken in May 2012 showed that there had been a change since the last time the region had been imaged, in July 2010. Examination showed that it featured a fresh impact crater, about 30 meters (100 feet) in diameter, with debris tossed out as far as 15 kilometers (over 9 miles) away. Mars has a very thin atmosphere, so meteors tend to hit ground; when they fall on the Earth, they usually break up with a bang in the upper atmosphere.
* As discussed by AAAS SCIENCE NOW Online, one of the most common organisms in the Earth's oceans is the cyanobacterium, a photosynthesizing single-celled organism. One type of cyanobacteria, Prochlorococcus, is the most abundant photosynthetic organism on the planet, performing about 10% of all photosynthesis on Earth and making up much of the base of the oceanic food pyramid. Now a team of researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) under biological oceanographer Sallie Chisholm have discovered that cyanobacteria may play an even bigger role in the ecosystem than previously thought.
In a recent paper, the MIT researchers reported that Prochlorococcus cyanobacteria secrete vesicles -- small, membrane-enclosed sacs -- into the surrounding ocean. They were first observed in 2008, being nicknamed "blebs" and analyzed under an electron microscope. Having been characterized, they were cultured in the lab, then collected in field studies. Analysis of the blebs' contents turned up a variety of biological molecules: proteins, DNA, and RNA.
Sequencing the DNA showed that the blebs came from a variety of microbes, not just Prochlorococcus, suggesting they're a common feature of marine microorganisms. Being abundant, the vesicles provide a significant source of organic carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus for feeding other marine organisms. Lab work by the MIT researchers showed that nonphotosynthetic bacteria can grow using the cyanobacterial vesicles as their only source of carbon.
There's much to be learned about the vesicles, a big question being why the cyanobacteria produce them. One notion is that they promote the growth of nonphotosynthetic bacteria in the company of the cyanobacteria; although it's not well understood, bacteria tend to form symbiotic associations with each other. A second notion is that they're something like viruses, transferring genetic information between cyanobacteria by horizontal gene transfer. A third idea is that they provide decoys to protect the cyanobacteria from attack by viruses. Of course, they may serve multiple functions. Research on the blebs continues.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* TECUMSEH'S WRATH: In the winter of 1811:1812, a series of monster earthquakes -- possibly the strongest to ever take place in the history of the United States -- struck what is now the American Midwest. In less than two months, four quakes of at least magnitude 7 hit along a zigzag set of of faults centered near the river town of New Madrid, Missouri, the closest settlement to the center of the destruction. There have been quakes of greater magnitude in the USA, but none over such a wide area.
The strong quakes were devastating to settlements in the area, but it was thinly populated at the time and there was no great loss of life. The route of the Mississippi River shifted in places; tales went around among the Indian tribes that the quakes were the wrath of the Indian warrior chief Tecumseh, much feared by the settlers, stamping his foot as a warning to his adversaries. Tecumseh never told that tale himself -- but he never denied it, either.
Tecumseh is now generally forgotten and so is the episode of quakes, other than for occasional small tremblors in the region. The more recent quakes generally been dismissed as echoes of the 1811:1812 event -- but now geophysicists Morgan Page and Susan Hough of the US Geological Survey (USGS) have published a papers suggesting that modern-day rumblings in the "New Madrid Seismic Zone (NMSZ)" show that the seismic zone is still active and a potential threat, the region being far more populous now than it was two centuries ago.
The two geophysicists compared well-established models of the patterns of aftershocks of recorded quakes with the data for tremblors in the NMSZ, and concluded they don't fit the pattern. The modern quakes have been around magnitude 4, and the model suggests quakes that big should have faded out by now. If they were really aftershocks of the 1811 to 1812 quakes, then about 135 magnitude 6 or larger temblors should have been observed between 1812 and 2012. In reality, there have only been two such quakes. The conclusion is that the faults in the NMSZ are still accumulating stress, and sometimes releasing it as new rumblings of the Earth.
Not everyone in the geophysics community agrees with that conclusion, pointing to peculiarities of the NMSZ not seen in other earthquake zones. More significantly, GPS-based monitoring systems installed throughout the NMSZ have failed to detect strain building up in Earth's crust that might lead to new quakes. What complicates the case is that geophysicists don't quite understand why there should be any stresses in the region in the first place. It's obvious why stresses build up in places where tectonic plates are sliding past each other, such as the infamous San Andreas fault that runs under the San Francisco Bay Area, but Missouri is far from any plate boundary.
One theory of why there have been quakes in the New Madrid region is that the earth there was suppressed by glaciers during the last Ice Age and has been slowly rebounding, with tremors as the result. That notion suggests that the NMSZ is quieting down over time. However, available data doesn't reveal any slowing trend: geologic evidence shows that other clusters of big quakes shook the region around 900 CE and around 1450 CE. Does that mean the NMSZ is likely to brew up again? If so, when? Page shrugged: "These things don't go off on a regular basis." USGS researchers have made educated guesses, suggesting that the likelihood of a repeat of the 1811:1812 event in the next 50 years is no more than 10%.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* MACHINES WHO TALK: As reported by an article from BBC WORLD Online ("Artificial Intelligence: How to turn Siri into Samantha" by Leo Kelion, 12 February 2014), smartphone voice interfaces like Apple's Siri are in principle models of leading-edge technology -- but in practice, they're not quite so slick.
They're something like language translators: they work well as long as we understand they're stupid and don't stress them. If we want the latest sports scores, to add meetings to a calendar or launch an app, today's virtual assistants are fairly good at understanding their user's voice and doing what's asked. Step outside the simple and predictable, they're dumb as a bag of hammers. Steve Young, professor of information engineering at the University of Cambridge, commented:
Google and Apple are painfully aware that their systems are not getting better fast enough, because right now Siri and Google Now and the other personal assistant type applications are all programmed by hand. If you speak to Siri about baseball, it seems relatively intelligent -- but if you ask it something much less common, it doesn't really do anything except for a web search. That's an indication that the programmers have been busy trying to anticipate what people want to ask about baseball, but haven't thought about people who ask about, for example, GPU chips, because you don't get many queries about that.
Microsoft doesn't have a virtual assistant like Siri yet for its Windows Phone platform, but the company is tinkering with artificial intelligence (AI) in elevators and reception desks at its headquarters. A video showed visitors coming off an elevator, to be greeted by a little toy robot that politely asked them who they were trying to meet and gave directions to the appropriate office. At the office, a display produced a virtual receptionist who said the occupant was out, but would be back soon. In both cases, a Kinect camera system provided the AIs with a view of the visitors.
Eric Horvitz, managing director of Microsoft's research unit, thinks part of the way towards improvement is to give computers a bigger picture:
The ability of a system to understand more broadly what the overall context of a communication is turns out to be very important. There are some critical signals in context. These include location, time of day, day of week, user patterns of behavior, current modality -- are you driving, are you walking, are you sitting, are you in your office? Are you in a place you are familiar with versus one you are not? A person's calendar can be a very rich source of context, as is their email.
He adds that for more natural interactions, software also needs to factor in how humans actually talk to each other, working on a response even before the human party has stopped talking. Human conversations are not a simple alternation between two parties speaking, but "a very complicated, fluid operation where people are breaking in and starting over again and reflecting and listening, all at the same time sometimes."
Rumors have it that Microsoft is working on a virtual assistant product named Cortana, named after a virtual interface character in its HALO videogame series, but the company is quiet on the matter. Similarly Apple, notoriously secretive, says little to the public about how Siri works -- but Nuance, a voice-technology firm that provides some of Siri's smarts, is more forthcoming. John West, a senior solutions engineer at Nuance, said the firm is currently focused on "paralinguistics", or how users speak, instead of what they are saying. He commented: "We're looking at the acoustic elements to be able to detect emotions in speech. The intonation, what's termed the prosody -- the tune you use to speak -- if you are happy, it rolls along quite nicely. If you are sad, it's more abrupt ..."
It's tricky, and Nuance is still trying to get a handle on it: "Although I've yet to see it deployed, we do have the capability to put hesitations and other non-verbal audio into an output engine. However, they need to be very carefully programmed because you need to understand where to put the pauses, tuts, breathes and possibly a cough."
Steve Young of Cambridge is shooting for a more ambitious enhancement, to give an AI the ability to learn via trial and error, his experimental system being named "Parlance". Here's a sample conversation:
HUMAN: I want to eat a pizza. AI: Sorry, I don't know what a pizza is. HUMAN: OK, well do you know where there's a nice Italian restaurant? AI: Yes, there's one 20 meters down the road to your right. HUMAN: Thanks.
If the user indicates that's a satisfactory answer, the AI adds the association between "pizza" and "Italian restaurant" to its knowledge base. According to Young: "It stores this away, not as a rule, but it changes the probabilities in its statistical maps. So, the next time someone asks for a pizza, it knows that you get them from an Italian restaurant. And it's not been told that, except through the users themselves."
However, nobody in the field thinks a really convincing AI is right around the corner. Microsoft's Eric Horwitz said:
When I come in the morning, my [AI] assistant on my door recognizes me, and in a very nice British voice says: "Good morning Eric" -- and I enjoy it even though I know it's artificial. So, I do think that we will be able to come up with very compelling personalities. However, unlike the kinds of things we see in the movies, for many years to come there probably won't be anybody home, in the way people would expect or desire.
ED: The notion of an AI learning by experience suggests that there could be a central knowledge base where AIs could wire in their experiences and take out the experiences of other AIs. Any single AI could carry a system optimized for its user, obtaining knowledge from and offloading heavyweight analysis to the online knowledge base. The communications network could have servers at local nodes in the cloud to "cache" knowledge for fast access, or for knowledge useful for a particular area. Taking the thought into the sci-fi realm, if we do ever develop fully sentient AIs, they will be able to share memories and experiences with each other, forming a group consciousness of sorts. Indeed, if an AI backed up its state in the cloud, it would be effectively immortal.
Another interesting consideration is multicore processors. Multiple cores of standard CPUs seem like they would become increasingly overkill as the number of cores increased -- but what if a smartphone had a set of dozens of specialized processors, for example incorporating neural network hardware, dedicated to a single AI task or a class of tasks? That would complicate the hardware design task and also pose the problem of how to partition and assign functions, but it would still seem more efficient than trying to do everything in software.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* GENOMIC WHODUNITS (4): Studies of ancient pathogens have not exclusively focused on those that infect humans; those that infect human crops also had historical impact. Between 1845 and 1852, Ireland suffered an infestation of a blight that destroyed the potato crop, the staple food of the Irish. Roughly a million Irish died in the Great Famine, with at least as many leaving the country to find better fortunes elsewhere. The blight was judged to have been caused by a fungus, but it was actually due to a fungus-like single-celled organism named Phytophthora infestans, an "oomycete".
Using DNA from dried leaves of the "lumper potato" preferred by the Irish that were archived in herbariums, an international team of molecular biologists sequenced the genome of the P. infestans strain that cause the blight. It turns out it's an extinct strain, one researcher involved in the project commenting: "We found it in all these leaves from Ireland, from England, from France, from Germany. One strain. Then it just disappeared."
The research team had been trying to unravel the history of P. infestans, which of course parallels the history of its potato host. The potato was first domesticated in what is now Peru between 7,000 and 10,000 years ago, with the crop plant introduced into Europe by Spanish conquistadors in the 16th century. It became an important food staple that played a major role in the 19th century population boom in Europe. However, Europeans propagated the potato by planting cuttings of potatoes, resulting in huge clone monocultures that were highly vulnerable to pathogens -- and led to staggering disaster in Ireland.
Since the potato still remains an important staple crop, what specific strain caused the Great Famine is a matter of significant current interest. The researchers obtained the genomes of 11 ancient strains of P. infestans found in dried leaves of potatoes -- and tomatoes, closely related to potatoes and similarly vulnerable to the oomycete -- collected from Europe, Great Britain, Ireland, and North America between 1845 and 1896, to be stored at the herbaria of the Botanical State Collection, Munich, and the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. The researchers found analysis of the genomes much easier than expected; having obtained them, they compared them to the genomes of 15 modern strains of the pathogen.
While the conventional wisdom had been that the blight was caused by an existing strain named US-1, noted for its international distribution, that wasn't what the researchers found. They found that the strain actually responsible for the famine, which they named HERB-1, emerged in the early 19th century, probably in the US or Mexico. It spread around the globe for another half a century after the famine began, but had vanished by the early 20th century, probably because farmers stopped planting lumpers and began to breed resistant potatoes.
HERB-1 was actually a close relative of US-1, both derived from the same common ancestor, but the split between the two strains apparently took place in the Americas before the first major outbreak in Europe. The research project has been praised for its insight and significance -- as well as its demonstration of how much genomic information is lurking in the world's herbariums. With more tricks being found on a steady basis, the hunt for ancient pathogens is clearly picking up steam. [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* THE COLD WAR (13): By the summer of 1944, the Red Army was driving into Poland, liberating Lublin in late July. On 22 July, the Soviets announced the formation of the "Polish Committee of National Liberation", which became known as the "Lublin Committee". The committee was played up in propaganda broadcasts as a representative selection of free Polish leadership, but it was just a tool of the Kremlin, for example endorsing a new border that would cede large amounts of Polish territory to the USSR. The fact that the prewar Polish government was still operating in exile in London was not much of an inconvenience; Moscow simply ignored them.
On 29 July, as the Red Army approached Warsaw, Soviet radio broadcasts issued appeals for the Poles to rise up, that the moment of liberation was at hand. Communism, the creed of the Soviet state that most Poles regarded as a menace to their national existence, had never been popular in Poland, and the Communist underground there was weak. The main resistance group was the Polish Home Army, the resistance arm of the Polish government in exile in London. The Home Army wasn't really strong enough to beat the heavily-armed Germans in a stand-up fight, but if the Poles could clear the enemy out of the city and then let the Red Army move in, the Germans would not have time to send in reinforcements. On 1 August, the Home Army rose up against the Germans.
Things went well enough at first, but then the Germans reacted and threw in reinforcements. The Red Army did nothing. The Home Army was screaming for supplies and weapons, and so on the night of 4 August the British Royal Air Force (RAF) sent 14 bombers, half of them piloted by Poles, from southern Italy to drop weapons and supplies by parachute. The USAAF also came up with a scheme to perform supply drops and land at the bases in the Ukraine, but when Averell Harriman, the US ambassador to the USSR, asked Foreign Minister Molotov for permission, Molotov replied that Moscow didn't want anything to do with the Warsaw "adventure". Harriman, who had no illusions about the Soviets, shot back that Soviet radio broadcasts had encouraged the uprising. Molotov replied blandly that he hadn't heard about any such broadcasts.
The Germans intensified their assault on the Home Army in Warsaw. On 20 August Roosevelt and Churchill sent a joint appeal to Stalin to either allow the Allies to perform supply drops to the Home Army, or to provide direct assistance to the uprising. Stalin flatly refused to do anything, calling the London Poles a gang of "power-seeking criminals" who had foolishly led their people into a hopeless undertaking.
On 9 September, Home Army leaders began to talk with the Germans about surrendering. Now Stalin returned to his habit of playing cat-and-mouse games. On 11 September he gave the Americans authorization to use the Ukraine bases for the shuttle supply flights, and provided entirely minimal assistance to the Home Army. The American airdrop took place on 18 September, with 110 B-17s dropping over a thousand supply containers, The Americans would not perform another drop on Warsaw. There would be a shuttle bombing raid on the railroad marshaling yards in Hungary the next day, 19 September, but that would be the end of FRANTIC.
Stalin refused to authorize further use of the bases, and the shrinking of the battle fronts around the Reich rendered them pointless anyway. Operation FRANTIC had not been a good use of Allied resources. The Germans judged it to be a propaganda exercise to impress the Soviets, but all it really accomplished was to make the strains in the alliance more obvious.
The Home Army surrendered on 3 October 1944. About 200,000 Poles had died in the uprising, about a tenth of them Home Army fighters. It had not been a walkover for the Germans, who had lost about the same number of troops as the Home Army. To Stalin, it was neatly done. He had let the Germans eliminate potential opposition to his own rule over Poland, while the Poles helped exhaust the Germans in turn. The only flaw was that the veil of lies he presented to the outside world was now badly tattered.
The Red Army simply sat across the Vistula for the rest of the year while the Germans demolished Warsaw. When the Soviets finally entered the city in mid-January 1945, they found nothing but rubble and cinders. [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* GIMMICKS & GADGETS: BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK had an article on robot sailboats, focusing on the "SD1" from a US startup named Saildrone, out of Alameda, California. The SD1 has a hull like a spindle, 5.8 meters (19 feet) long, with stabilizing outrigger floats to each side and a rectangular "wing", 6 meters (20 feet) tall, sticking up from the back. The craft is made mostly of carbon composites and can be fully submerged. It features solar panels and a battery to supply power for electronics and a motor for steering the rudder. In the fall of 2013, the SD1 made a trip from San Francisco to Hawaii, 3,760 kilometers (2,336 miles) in 34 days. Average speed was no faster than a brisk walk, though it could get up to sprints for short intervals when winds permitted.
Saildrone was founded by one Richard Jenkins, who decided to build a robot sailboat to circumnavigate the globe in 2012. He sees the SD craft as floating research platforms, carrying instruments and communicating via satellite, with users monitoring them via a Saildrone app. Another firm, Harbor Wing Technologies of Seattle, Washington, has developed the "X-2" drone sailboat, which is being evaluated by the US Navy for ocean surveillance applications, and is working on a 9 meter (30 foot) follow-on that could carry 900 kilograms (2,000 pounds) of cargo. It wouldn't be able to deliver freight very quickly, but operational costs would in principle be very low.
* TIME magazine reports that a startup named OpenTable is now taking another baby step towards a cashless society by allowing diners in restaurants to pay for their meals via smartphone, bypassing the annoying wait for the check. Users log their credit card with OpenTable beforehand; the bill includes tax and (presumably optional) tip, with the receipt emailed to the user. OpenTable is now conducting a pilot program in San Francisco.
As reported by BBC WORLD Online another smartphone app, far more serious in intent, has been developed by a Lebanese student named Sandra Hassan. Violence has been rising in Lebanon as of late; her app allows smartphone users to send the message I AM ALIVE to a predefined list of recipients with the push of a single button. After a bombing or comparable incident, phone traffic gets into a pile-up; the short message can get through much more easily.
* As reported by an article from BBC WORLD Online, one Anirudha Surabhi, a London design student, was zipping down the street when a driver opened up a car door. Anirudha hit the car door, went heels over teakettle, and landed on his head -- which was fortunately protected by a helmet. Though it wasn't fun and the helmet was a loss, he suffered no serious injury, and came up with a brainstorm as a result: why not a paper helmet?
The idea behind a cycle helmet is to provide a "crumple zone" to soften the abrupt deceleration of impact; as the saying goes, it's not the fall that's the problem, it's the sudden stop at the end. Cycle helmets are typically made of plastics, but Anirudha got thinking that paper would do a better job of crumpling. He came up with a multilayer honeycomb sheet that could be cut up and fabricated into a helmet. He said: "What you end up with is with tiny little airbags throughout the helmet. So when you have a crash, what these airbags do is they go pop, pop, pop, pop, pop -- and they go all the way to the bottom, without the helmet cracking. That's what absorbs the energy."
Tests demonstrated that the paper helmet reduced the gee forces of an impact to a third of what they were for a plastic helmet. His design is on the market now. He hopes it will catch on: "I think the public will accept it because if you think about it, stuntmen have been jumping onto cardboard boxes for decades, which are all made out of paper. They risk their lives from five-storey buildings purely because they know that paper actually works."COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* THE SEPSIS CHALLENGE: As reported by an article from SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN Online ("Researchers Struggle To Develop New Treatments For Sepsis" by Maryn McKenna, 27 March 2013), everybody knows what a heart attack or cancer is, but we're mostly oblivious to the notion of "sepsis". A 2011 survey showed only 1 in 5 Americans recognized the word, and the majority of those who did recognize it had no clear idea of what it meant.
Sepsis, which begins with an aggressive immune system response to an infection, kills 18 million people around the world every year, over a quarter of a million of them in the USA. Sepsis -- and its most severe form, septic shock -- has been estimated to be the leading cause of death for intensive care patients in America, and the 10th most common cause of death for everyone else in the country.
Physicians don't have a good handle on it either, often failing to spot the early warning signs because they mimic other problems, and the condition progresses very rapidly from trivial to deadly, meaning it may not be recognized until it's far too late. If sepsis isn't identified quickly, it may be too late to launch the needed interventions -- antibiotics to stop an infection, drugs to deal with a perilous drop in blood pressure, and a mechanical ventilator to raise dangerously low oxygen levels. Progress on better treatment of sepsis has been painfully slow.
Sepsis begins quietly when the immune system targets invading pathogens. Immune cells release signaling proteins known as "cytokines" to stimulate one another and deal with the intruders -- but for reasons not well understood, the response can go off the rails, with the immune cells releasing far more cytokines and other inflammatory molecules than is typical. The overload of immune molecules surging through the bloodstream has the inadvertent effect of making blood vessels slack and permeable, reducing blood pressure and allowing the fluid component of the blood to seep into surrounding tissues. The blood components left behind clot in the smallest vessels, blocking oxygen from major organs.
At this point, someone with sepsis has transitioned from the earliest stage of the condition, known as "systemic inflammatory response syndrome", to the later stages of "severe sepsis" and "septic shock". The patient becomes confused; the heart's activity becomes erratic; the kidneys and other organs fail; blood pressure cannot be raised even with large amounts of intravenous fluids and drugs. It's not the pathogen that the killer: it's the body's own immune system.
Medical researchers have worked on drugs to interrupt the chemical cascade that triggers inflammation and clotting, but so far none of them have proven effective, clinical trials going nowhere. Sepsis, it turns out, is peculiarly difficult to nail down: mice don't seem to be very good models for humans as far as sepsis goes, and its rapid progress makes controlled trials very difficult. Worse, there's a strong suspicion that "sepsis" isn't a single condition, but a range of them, making treatment difficult. Work continues on treatments, but some researchers believe that matters have to be completely rethought -- lest they continue down blind alleys while patients continue to die.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* TRY TRY AGAIN: The notion of a reusable launch vehicle (RLV) has been around since the beginning of the Space Age. After all, what sense did it make to build a big expensive booster that could only be used once, and then simply discarded? Why not fly it repeatedly like a jetliner? That turned out to be far easier said than done. The only RLV to ever go into service, the US Space Shuttle, was only partly reusable, and it ended being more costly to fly payloads with it than with a one-shot expendable booster.
As reported by an article from AVIATION WEEK ("Reusable Redux" by Graham Warwick, 2 December 2013), the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the military's "blue sky" program office, wants to try to fly an RLV again, having initiated the "Experimental Spaceplane One (XS-1)" program. The XS-1 is envisioned as a reusable "first stage" vehicle that will carry an upper stage with a payload to the edge of space for launch. Payload is to be from 1,360 to 2,265 kilograms (3,000 to 5,000 pounds) into low Earth orbit (LEO), with a launch cost of $5 million USD per flight, on a launch rate of at least ten flights a year. That's compared with about $55 million USD to launch a similar payload on an Orbital Sciences Minotaur IV booster, which is flown only about once a year.
The XS-1 program complements the DARPA "Airborne Launch Assist Space Access (ALASA)" program, mentioned here in 2012. ALASA envisions a small booster launched from an aircraft, notionally a business jet, on short notice to put a 45 kilogram (100 pound) payload into space on short notice. Boeing, Northrop Grumman, and Lockheed Martin were awarded preliminary design contracts for ALASA in 2012, with demonstration flights expected in 2015. NASA is working on a similar, and possibly connected, scheme to fly in 2016.
XS-1 is a more ambitious project. DARPA officials admit that the past history of RLV efforts is discouraging, consisting of little but failure:
DARPA officials believe that they can succeed now because the technology is available to do the job:
The US has now flown a reusable space vehicle, if not an RLV, in the form of the USAF X-37B spaceplane, which has been put into orbit three times to date. Boeing, which builds the X-37B, intends to leverage off it in the company's XS-1 proposal. DARPA still regards SSTO as unrealistic, DARPA official Pamela Melroy -- previously a NASA space shuttle commander -- saying: "I banned the word single-stage-to-orbit from any discussion, instantly. We are not going there. We are not talking about it."
DARPA plans to award up to four contracts of up to $4 million USD each in early 2014 for preliminary design concepts, with a single contract of up to $140 million USD awarded a year later to build and fly the XS-1 demonstrator. First flight will be in late 2017, leading to an orbital flight test in 2018. The test program will involve:
DARPA has generated a straw configuration, with a winged RLV first stage about the size of an F-15 Eagle fighter, powered by twin SpaceX Merlin 1D rocket motors. Total take-off weight is 102 tonnes (112 tons), including a upper stage weighing 6.8 tonnes (7.5 tons) with payload. The upper stage is expected to cost no more than $2 million USD. DARPA officials believe that it would be straightforward to scale up the XS-1 design to handle greater payload weights.
One difficulty is that the US now flies no more than five missions a year in the size range envisioned as supported by XS-1. However, DARPA managers believe, with fair cause, that interest in "smallspace" is growing, and that a relatively low-cost launch option would do much to boost it. With that kind of payload capability, it would be possible to put an entire constellation of 100 kilogram (220 pound) tactical support satellites into orbit in a single launch, making it very attractive for military use, while civil users could fly highly capable constellations of satellites as well. However, although DARPA should be wished the best of luck, the sad past history of RLV efforts is hard to ignore.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* ANOTHER MONTH: As a follow-up to my comments last month on setting up a video download system based on an Acer Aspire One netbook, I've been busy downloading YouTube videos -- for example, the entire COLD WAR series from 1998. They're low resolution, but the price is right and they work fine, being at least comparable to normal video reception from the days of analog broadcast TV. Imagine, in no long period of time the younger generation will respond to tales of multipath "ghosting" in TV transmissions with an incredulous stare. After all, they'll only know about video breaking up into fragments, which though obnoxious isn't as distinctly spooky as ghosting.
I've been stowing the downloads on one of my old USB hard disk drives; it's easier than shuttling them around on wi-fi, and when I go on the road I can take the drive along with for entertainment if I have some dead time. Having got comfortable with downloads from YouTube, I got to thinking about downloading videos from anime sites. I had an app for downloading flash videos from YouTube, but it had difficulties on other video sites. After considerable number of dead ends, I finally found an anime site named "kumby.com", which to my surprise gave me a control for downloading their low-resolution anime videos directly, no tool required.
The "kumby.com" site seems to be supported by online ads to wretched excess; I was a bit startled to find them running two, possibly more, video ads in parallel on a page. It was a shrug, downloading was straightforward, and the downloads contained no clutter. I downloaded all 17 episodes, two gigabytes total, of a series named KILL LA KILL, or KIRU RA KIRU as it's rendered in Japanese. It involves a post-apocalyptic town centered on a high school run by an Orwellian student council, the psychotic council members murderously enforcing their rule by wearing magic uniforms that give them super powers, the uniforms drawing some blood from wearer for sustenance.
They're challenged by Ryuuko, an exchange student, who wields a weapon like one blade of oversized scissors that can defeat the uniforms, and acquires a magic uniform of her own. The series might be appropriately given the alternate title of HIGH SCHOOL DEATH MATCH 2100. Ryuuko's uniform, incidentally, looks more or less like a traditional Japanese schoolgirl sailor suit ("seiraa fuku" or "seifuku") -- except in combat mode, when it alters itself up to the razor-edge threshold of wardrobe malfunction. It's sentient and somewhat perverse, taking a real pleasure in being ironed.
Anyway, enough already, KILL LA KILL isn't something I'd dare recommend. I found it entertaining, but it's wildly over the top, weapons-grade Nipponkitsch on recreational drugs: "This is REALLY, REALLY Japanese!" I was, however, unambiguously pleased to get the entire series conveniently for free, all the more so because I'd be reluctant to pay much money for it. I copied the episodes over to the Aspire One and have been watching them using Windows Media Player -- works perfectly. TV is dead; long live TV.
* In my other cruisings of anime sites, I kept running across images of "Vocaloids", most of them of a "Hatsune Miku", apparently an anime NipponPop idol, with a lip mike and long green hair tied into twintails. I didn't pay the matter much mind, until I got curious, wondering from the name "Vocaloid" -- rendered in Japanese phonetics as "Bokaroido", by the way -- and the fact that Hatsune Miku had a number on the skin of her right shoulder if she was a singing android.
It turned out, only an android to the extent of being able to sing. Vocaloid is not an anime series as such; it's a series of Sony voice synthesis systems, and Hatsune Miku is a mascot of one such Vocaloid product, the voice samples obtained from actress Fujita Saki. Some CG animations have been put together -- "Hatsune Miku Live in Sapporo" for example -- turning Vocaloid tunes into music videos, and she's made appearances in other media, in a few cases from the edge inappropriate for public discussion: "The internet is DIRTY!"
I have to characterize the Vocaloids as really Japanese, too, if not so nearly over the top. It has been commented that the Japanese, coming from an animist Shinto culture, have a stronger inclination to read personalities into machines than do Westerners -- Hatsune Miku makes a pleasant and appealing kami, a Shinto concept translating as something between "spirit" and "petty deity". By the way, the name very roughly renders into "Leading Sound from the Future"; it has a pretty sound in Japanese, "hah-t'soo-neh mee-ku" -- pronounced more or less without emphasis on syllables as per Japanese style.
* I got nicked on a copyright complaint for posting a wallpaper, as has been my custom every month. I had been thinking they were okay because they were in general circulation and my use was casual, but on being given a warning I realized I was on thin ice. I went through the back archives to delete all the wallpapers, and I won't be posting them any more. The top banner is about as legally dodgy, but not only is the top banner unobtrusive, it also only has a lifetime of a month, so the likelihood of a complaint is small -- and it can be immediately changed if I do get a complaint.
I don't recall ever having been nailed on a copyright violation before. I was grateful I got a warning. Legal staffs sometimes shoot first and ask questions later. Other than some logistics, it was no problem to kill off the wallpapers; they were inconsequential to my purposes. I'm hanging on to them, however, since I have a little jigsaw puzzle game program and they make nice jigsaws.COMMENT ON ARTICLE