apr 2014 / last mod dec 2016 / greg goebel

* 22 entries including: Cold War (series), US foreign policy (series), Ara modular smartphone, flavors and scents synthesized by yeast, US East Coast slowly sinking into the Atlantic, microbiome versus organism development, UK and genetically modified foods, danger Florida sinkholes, ARES modular VTOL cargo drone, micro-ecologies of oceanic plastic particles, and biosphere under the seafloor.

banner of the month

[FRI 25 APR 14] THE COLD WAR (20)
[FRI 18 APR 14] THE COLD WAR (19)
[FRI 11 APR 14] THE COLD WAR (18)
[FRI 04 APR 14] THE COLD WAR (17)


* NEWS COMMENTARY FOR APRIL 2014: As discussed by THE ECONOMIST, Russia's seizure and annexation of the Crimea has led to international protest. In response, Russian President Vladimir Putin has given glib reassurances that sound something like "no more territorial demands", but unrest by Russian separatists continues in the eastern provinces of Ukraine. It is reported, plausibly, the insurgents are armed by Russia, with tales of Russian SPETSNATZ special-operations troops providing training and direction. When Ukrainian forces attempt to respond, menacing troop movements by Russian forces across the border send a message that taking action against the insurgents might be unwise.

It's all very shrewd, Stalin would have smiled and stroked his mustache, but this game has had unintended consequences -- one of them being to drive the Americans and Europeans closer together. The trans-Atlantic relationship had frayed since the turn of the century, first due to the Bush II Administration's heavy-handed military adventurism and treatment of prisoners; with ground regained by the Obama Administration lost again due to European economic problems and a related timidity on defense issues, plus as of late agitation over NSA spying. Now the Sun is shining again, one senior European politician saying: "I have not felt this good about trans-Atlantic relations in a long time."

US President Obama, distracted by his Asian diplomatic initiatives, has tended to give Europe the short shrift. No more: in a trip to Europe in mid-April, Obama first stopped in Belgium to lay a wreath at the graves of American soldiers who had fallen in World War I, using the occasion to send an unambiguous message of reassurance to Europeans and of warning to Putin. To turn a blind eye to the redrawing of borders by force, Obama proclaimed, would be to "ignore the lessons that are written in the cemeteries of this continent."

Obama will return to Belgium in a few months to attend the G7 summit in Brussels; it was originally to be a G8 summit in Sochi, Russia, but the ground has shifted. In the meantime, the American mission to the European Union is one of the few US embassies that has been expanding, with the Americans demonstrating more enthusiasm for European integration than most European federalists. Okay, that's certainly due in large part to the fact that America prefers to deal with the EU over dealing with every European state. However, who is to complain, other than the adversaries of America and Europe? Confronted with problems such as Iran's nuclear program, the US can form a cohesive front with a united Europe.

Similarly, while a decade ago Europeans were fussing about American military hegemonism, today they worry more about a failure of the US to carry its military weight in the defense of Europe. The Americans on their part are concerned about Europeans being soft on their own defense. Thanks to Putin, the US and Europe are seeing much more eye-to-eye on defense issues.

Economic cooperation is proving trickier. Supporters of the ambitious Trans-Atlantic Trade & Investment Partnership (TTIP) believe it will add economic weight to the relationship across the Pond, but there's been fussing about the details in some European countries, and to no surprise a lack of enthusiasm for TTIP among the troglodytes in the US Congress. However, TTIP would make it easier for the US to ship shale gas to Europe, bringing in profits for American producers while reducing European dependence on Russian gas.

That dependence has made European countries cautious about imposing sanctions on Russia -- but as Americans point out, the EU does have levers of its own against Russia, indeed more levers than the USA does. Europe is a bigger trading partner with Russia than is America, while the Russian elite has well more assets in Europe than in the US. Finally, the post-Soviet states being intimidated by the Russian Bear are neighbors of European states to the west, who can provide them with much more direct political and other assistance than can America. America and Europe had fallen into bickering; Putin has reminded them how much they need each other.

* In a related article in THE ECONOMIST, Russian military aggressiveness has in particular revived the trans-Atlantic NATO military alliance. Since 2009, Russian forces have conducted large and pointedly intimidating military exercises that had frayed nerves in Poland and the Baltic states -- one of the exercises ending with an exclamation point, a simulated nuclear strike on Warsaw. NATO was not amused by such black humor, with a major exercise named STEADFAST JAZZ 2013 conducted last November to repel a fictitious assault on Estonia by a country named Bothnia.

Estonian troops on STEADFAST JAZZ 2013

NATO, having generally extricated itself from Afghanistan and, confronted with Russian saber-rattling, has been reinvigorated. From the 1990s, NATO had attempted to enlist Russia as a security partner, a notion that now seems absurd. Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the outgoing NATO secretary general, commented: "We see Russia speaking and behaving more as an adversary than as a partner -- Transdniestra, South Ossetia, Abkhazia, and now Crimea. What connects those crises is one big country unilaterally deciding to rewrite international rules."

Similarly, as discussed here last fall, Barack Obama hoped to get a new start with Russia when he entered office; things have gone further south instead. Nobody believes the tension will be over soon, either. Francois Heisbourg, chair of the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, commented: "We have learned to read Putin's speeches. He says what he does and he does what he says. His proposed Eurasian Union of post-Soviet states is a new empire ... We have entered a long-lasting, deeply antagonistic relationship with Russia."

NATO is now working towards a stronger front against the Russians. The US has sent a dozen F-16 fighters to Poland and ten F-15 fighters to the Baltics to conduct air patrols, with Britain subsequently sending four of the latest Typhoon fighters, while NATO E-3A AWACS platforms keep a radar eye on Eastern European airspace; the French have more recently decided to send Rafale fighters to the region. Baltic leaders have asked for a permanent NATO presence, such as bases or rotating force deployments. The 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act had stated that NATO had "no intention, no plan and no reason" to place significant military assets in states that had joined the alliance after the collapse of the USSR. That was then, this is now, and Russia has given NATO a reason to take a stand.

NATO is drawing the line at forward deployment of tactical nuclear weapons, however. Nobody sees current tensions as a replay of the Cold War, and brandishing nukes would be needlessly provocative, Putin hardly being crazy enough to want a nuclear exchange. Nukes were always worthless as anything but a deterrent, and NATO has better tools for making an impression on the Kremlin.

Exactly what tools still has to be calibrated, as do actions to assist countries, such as Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova, that Russia does not want to see as members of the alliance. Retired US Navy Admiral James Stavridis, earlier the Supreme Allied Commander for Europe, suggested that Ukraine could be given training and easy access to advanced weapons, with NATO also offering intelligence and logistical support. Considering the wild and blatantly self-serving Russian accusations against the West over Ukraine, Stavridis could only dryly remark: "Would that be inflammatory? Compared to what?"

Admiral James Stavridis

There isn't a lot of room left for tact, and no need for it. Vladimir Putin has been building up Russia's military machine, but even though NATO has become comparatively weaker, Russia has no hope of winning a head-to-head confrontation. For all Putin's enthusiasm for bullying Europe, he can only do so until NATO demonstrates that bullying is not going to be humored any more, that restraint should not be misperceived as weakness. Putin's real game is just to see what he can get away with in Russia's perceived sphere of influence; the NATO game is to make the game expensive for Russia.

* As for the means of making it expensive, BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK reports that American sanctions against Russia have been carefully focused, with particular attention being paid to the holdings of Gennady Timchenko, a multi-billionaire who lives in Switzerland and is close to Vladimir Putin. Using the latest financial-tracking software, developed to assist the war on terror, the US has been able to follow the money and perform precision attacks, notably hammering Timchenko's sprawling Luxembourg-based Volga Group.

Such a "smart munition" approach minimizes damage to the Russian economy overall while maximizing pain on the leadership. However, the fact that there are sanctions at all makes trouble for all of Russia, which is currently in an economic slump that is getting worse. The central bank just raised interest rates from 7% to 7.5%, supposedly to deal with inflation that's currently running about 7%. However, outside observers believe the primary motive is to halt capital flight, which at current rates is predicted to amount to $200 billion USD for 2014.

The ruble's performance on international markets is near the bottom for developing countries, running at about 36 rubles to the dollar, while Standard & Poor has downgraded Russia's debt rating to one notch above junk. The interest rate hike will tighten money for an economy that's already in trouble, while the menace of international sanctions will stifle foreign investment. One analyst commented: "What we're seeing now is a pretty permanent exodus from Russia."

How much pressure a lousy economy can put on Russian leadership is unclear. Iran, after all, has long suffered from sanctions and a badly faltering economy, but so far has been able to maintain a defiant front to the world. It does seem, as discussed here early this year, that the economic pressure on Iran is starting to have an effect. Russia is not in as dire a situation as Iran has been, but drawing a comparison between Iran and Russia does pose an interesting question for Vladimir Putin: Is Iran really Russia's best role model?



* ARA REVEALED: As discussed here early this year Motorola, at the time an arm of Google, was working on a modular smartphone, the "Ara", that would allow users to mix and match modules to create their own custom smartphone. Since that time Google has sold off Motorola to Lenovo of China -- but Google decided to hang on to Ara, and in mid-April gave a public presentation on the scheme for the first time.

OK, Ara sounds like a gimmick, but those attending the presentation found it well thought out. The prototype was slightly bulkier than a normal smartphone, with the modules plugged into a frame AKA "endoskeleton", solidly interconnected by magnets so that everything wouldn't fly apart when dropped, with the endoskeleton providing a central control element to coordinate the operation of the modules. The only part of the phone necessarily made by Google will be the endoskeleton.

Modules can be "hot-swapped", they can be changed without turning the phone off. The module sizes are of course defined, being based on multiples of a basic "cell" size -- modules being 1, 2, or 2x2 cells -- so they can be plugged in without mechanical interference. Three sizes of endoskeleton have been defined as well -- one about the size of a large pack of chewing gum with a capacity of 2x5 cells; one of smartphone size, providing 3x6 cells; and a future option like an oversized smartphone or mini-tablet, providing 4x7 cells.

The module spec will be open source, with no license fees demanded. Some structural elements will be made by 3D printing, allowing vendors to sell such elements to specialized markets. Google will operate a "module store", equivalent to the Google Play store for Android apps, as a marketplace for module developers. By default, Ara will not recognize modules obtained elsewhere, but users will be able to override the lockout if they want to take their chances.

Ara model

What was more interesting than the technical details, however, was Google's strategy behind Ara, the premise being that its flexibility could well challenge the existing smartphone market. By providing a platform for small players who can get modules to market quickly, an Ara smartphone would always be ahead of the learning curve of conventional smartphones. Google thinks of Ara as a sort of "Android for hardware", with entrepreneurs building modules instead of apps.

By reducing the smartphone to a toolkit of modules, the end result is not necessarily a smartphone, applications being instead effectively open-ended. Ara will not only provide opportunities to vendors, it will also provide a "maker" environment for end users who are interested in constructing their own applications via the selection of the appropriate module, no doubt with the assistance of convenient software apps to integrate the modules.

Another surprising angle is that the initial target market is not gadget-happy technogeeks, instead being customers in developing countries. The first product offering, scheduled for release in early 2015, will be a bare-bones "dumbphone" or "grayphone" that will go for about $50 USD, with a frame, battery, display, processor, and wi-fi capability. Working from that, a user can then add functionality as desired and money can be found. Google even has notions of shipping prepackaged shops to developing countries to sell Ara gear. Of course, working from that base, Ara could then penetrate markets in the developed world.

There is a complication in that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is only used to qualifying monolithic smartphones, but Ara project officials say the FCC appears relaxed on the issue. More importantly, Ara is not going to work unless it gets critical mass, but Google thinks that will happen. It will only take a few years to find out if Ara is the way of the future, or just a flash in the pan.



* AMERICA & THE WORLD (5): Along with building up a force projection capability, China can play the Russia card against America, but that has limits as well. Russia is not remotely an ace card, or stands to even look like one in the foreseeable future. Russia likes to be a pest to the USA, but the Kremlin has no interest in confronting the Americans in any major way; the Soviet Union got into a contest with the USA and ultimately lost everything.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is a believer in the United Nations, the brainchild of the Americans and one of the linchpins of the American-driven postwar system -- for the simple reason that the permanent Russian seat on the UN Security Council gives Russia much more clout in the world than would it otherwise would have. The Russians don't really want to rock that boat, they just like to complain, bluster, and bark, and biting to the extent they think they can get away with it.

Besides, China and Russia are hardly natural friends, having often been at odds thanks to a long shared border that tends to generate tensions. The irony is that Russia is by far China's most useful ally. The others -- Cambodia, Laos, North Korea, and Pakistan -- are pygmies in terms of global clout. In contrast, America's friends include, except for China and Russia, the world's most powerful states. America has about 60 of the 150 largest countries by population as allies, along with 40 more that tend to lean towards the USA; only 20 or so clearly lean against. Throw in the military spending of America's closest and most powerful allies to its own, and the military gap presented to China seems even nastier. Japan, South Korea and Australia are tied to America, and India is now its partner.

China could work diplomatically to persuade some of America's allies to change sides, but at present there's no sign China is really trying to do so. Indeed, although China tried to establish Myanmar as an ally, in the end Myanmar's leadership recognized that China was the wrong road, the Chinese taking much and offering not so much in return. The right road was to join the global, American-dominated, system: establish democratic and economic reforms, become a player in the global market along with other developing countries.

China likes to present its semi-authoritarian political system as an alternative to America's, proclaiming it more efficient and effective, but it's hard to see that many buy that, beyond the level it is expedient to do so. China may proclaim it is a meritocracy, run for the interests of the people, not as beholden to wealthy interests as the US government -- but ultimately the Chinese Communist Party runs China as the Party sees fit, and the Party is only beholden to itself, its prime goal being its own benefit. The Party is not heavily influenced by wealthy interests because it effectively controls the wealth. The 50 richest members of the US Congress are worth a total of $1.6 billion USD, less than 2% of the roughly $95 billion USD held by their counterparts in China's National People's Congress.

China also has a long list of internal challenges: painful inequality of wealth, public unrest, sullen ethnic minorities, environmental pollution, a scarcity of natural resources. The country is hardly in chaos, but chaos was the norm in China within living memory, and Chinese leadership certainly hasn't forgotten it.

Although the Chinese and Americans snipe and bicker, in the end Chinese leadership still wants to keep relations on the level -- for example, recognizing that North Korea is an accident certain to happen sooner or later, and quietly working with the US to consider what might be done when it does happen. The Chinese do not seriously want to directly challenge American global primacy; the example of the Cold War suggests that would be an expensive game with an uncertain payoff that China is not favored to win. Party leadership is too shrewd and pragmatic to take on a losing game for no good reason. China has specific axes to grind: Taiwan, the South China Sea, and in particular how much say China has in the workings of the global system. Even in these lesser games, the Americans remain a force to be reckoned with. [TO BE CONTINUED]


[FRI 25 APR 14] THE COLD WAR (20)

* THE COLD WAR (20): The complaints of the Iranians over Soviet troops in Iran were heard loud and clear in Washington DC. At the time, Kennan's Long Telegram was making the rounds, and so when reports came in that the USSR was actually reinforcing their forces in Iran, they were believed.

The Soviets demonstrating no evident flexibility on the withdrawal of their troops, the Iranians asked the Security Council to take up their complaint in a formal session to start on 25 March 1946. Andrei Gromyko, the current Soviet UN ambassador, , asked for a postponement, not unreasonably saying the matter would only need to be taken up if current negotiations between the USSR and Iran went nowhere -- but the Truman Administration wasn't buying very much of what the Soviets said any more, and insisted that the issue be considered.

On 25 March, the Soviet news agency TASS reported that the negotiations between the USSR and Iran were converging on a solution, and that Red Army forces would be gone in six weeks. Gromyko accordingly asked the Security Council to delay discussion of the matter until 10 April, but again the response was negative. On 27 March, the Security Council voted on whether to postpone the discussion as requested, the vote going strongly NO. Gromyko got up and stiffly walked out -- a gesture of defiance somewhat ruined when, as he walked out the building, he was discreetly told his fly was open. He repaired the problem with as much dignity as possible under the circumstances, and then departed.

The walkout raised a storm; the storm might have passed, since the Soviet troops did leave Iran as promised, and Gromyko, having returned to the UN, asked that the issue be dropped from the Security Council agenda. It was hardly an unreasonable request, though Gromyko decided to push his luck by saying that consideration of the matter had been "incorrect and illegal" in the first place. Lie more moderately passed around a memo agreeing that there was no further need for concern over the issue.

The Americans and their allies were not feeling moderate, and continued to make a fuss; even less moderately, they were furious at Lie for siding with Gromyko, murmurs going around in Washington DC that Lie was a tool of the Soviets, Secretary of State Byrnes saying that the secretary general had "exceeded his powers". A petulant round of bureaucratic silliness followed, the upshot of which was the issue, though never discussed, wouldn't be formally dropped from the Security Council agenda for three decades. More positively, discussion of the propriety of Lie's actions yielded the conclusion, consistent with the rights granted in the UN Charter, that the secretary general was free to speak his mind. However, to no surprise Lie was circumspect about how he did so from then on.

The following month, the Truman Administration presented the UN with a proposal for the control of nuclear power. On 14 June 1946, the US representative to the UNAEC, Bernard Baruch -- a wealthy financier with long experience in government service -- proposed that the US would give up its nuclear arsenal if everyone else pledged to not develop nuclear weapons themselves, with a strong inspection regime to ensure there was no cheating.

It remains ambiguous just how sincere the "Baruch plan", as it was known, really was. No doubt the proposal emerged from an honest desire for nuclear disarmament, but since the prospect of the USSR agreeing to give up nuclear weapons development and to permit intrusive inspections was obviously nil, all it amounted to in practice was a propaganda exercise. The plan was debated at length, but it was a nonstarter; eventually it died of boredom and was forgotten. The UNAEC, with nothing much to do, faded away, being formally disbanded early in the next decade. Propaganda effort or not, the Truman Administration still can be praised for proposing nuclear disarmament, setting a precedent for later efforts. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* WINGS & WEAPONS: The US military's interest in using airships for battlefield surveillance was last mentioned here in 2010. Unfortunately, between then and now all such efforts got the axe, victims of budget cuts and shifting requirements. However, as reported by BBC WORLD Online, Hybrid Air Vehicles (HAV) of Cardington in the UK -- which developed a 91 meter (300 foot) long hybrid airship, the "HAV 304", for the US Army -- is undiscouraged. The company broke the airship down into 14 oversized shipping crates and shipped them back to Cardington, where the airship is being reassembled in the airship hangers there, for test flights to begin in late 2014.

Hybrid Air Vehicles HAV 304 / LEMV

HAV is pitching the airship to commercial users and the UK Ministry of Defense (MOD), with the MOD providing partial funding for trials, military applications being envisioned as antipirate patrol and the like. HAV officials have a 121 meter (400 foot) derivative in design, should customer demand finally emerge. One hopes so -- advanced airship programs have been in a cycle of "one step forward one step back" for decades, and it would be nice to break out of the loop.

* The US Global Positioning System (GPS) satellite navigation constellation has been a treasure, far more valuable than its designers could have conceived, but it has limitations. The worst is the faintness of GPS signals: the received power levels are equivalent to those from a light bulb thousands of kilometers away, and so interference is a problem. GPS is easily jammed, and even private citizens have been able to obtain GPS jammers.

The US military, which established the GPS constellation, realizes just how vulnerable it is to jamming, and has been investigating fixes. As reported by AVIATION WEEK, the US Air Force (USAF) has been working with a small Australian firm named Locata to set up a ground-based radio location network over 6,500 square kilometers (2,500 square miles) of desert at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. The "LocataNet" will be used to provide locations with better than a meter accuracy in a trial conducted by the USAF 746th Test Squadron.

LocataNet is based on a set of "LocataLite" transmitters that immediately synchronize themselves when the network is brought up. LocataNet uses a signaling system much like that of GPS, but on a different band and at much higher power, making it much more difficult to jam. The signal can drive through buildings, and with amplification can reach out 160 kilometers (100 miles). GPS not only provides location services; its signals, precisely timed by atomic clocks, are used for synchronization in a range of industries, from banking to power and telecommunications. LocataNet can also be used for synchronization, and it does not require costly atomic clocks to pull off that trick.

LocataLite transmitter

Locata's boss, Nunzio Gambale, says that a LocataNet receiver is easy to incorporate into a GPS chipset. Leica Geosystems is already producing "GPS+L" receivers for the mining industry, to provide precise locations where GPS can't go, and is working on miniaturizing the technology for use in surveying. Locata is now developing a new antenna that will filter out indoor multipath radio transmission effects, allowing LocataNet to be used for navigating robot fork lifts in warehouses with centimeter accuracy. Gambale adds that LocataNet can be encrypted if the need is there.

* In related news, THE ECONOMIST had an article on GPS jamming that mentioned LocataNet, as well as other technologies to get around jamming. Military GPS guidance units have always had an "inertial navigation system (INS)" to back up GPS, the INS using gyros or accelerometers to track changes in position. INS resolution is about an order of magnitude worse than GPS, but that is usually close enough for a big enough bomb, and the INS effectively can't be jammed. Now the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Pentagon's "blue sky" technology development office, has developed an experimental one-chip "timing & inertial measurement unit", presumably using arrays of micro-accelerometers, to provide a low-cost INS capability.

The article also mentioned LORAN, developed during World War II and the best known of the pre-GPS long-range radio navigation systems. LORAN is based on sets of radio stations, with the receiver "triangulating" its position by matching up timed signals from different stations. LORAN went into steep decline with the introduction of GPS, but an "enhanced LORAN" or "eLORAN" was developed that is undergoing a bit of a revival, being seen as useful in specific regions where GPS jamming could raise hell. The UK is implementing an eLORAN network to support maritime navigation; South Korea is building a larger one, possibly with auxiliary stations on Chinese and Russian soil.



* ACCENTS FROM YEAST: As reported by an article from THE NEW YORK TIMES ("What's That Smell? Exotic Scents Made From Re-engineered Yeast" by Andrew Pollack, 20 October 2013), spices and flavorings such as vanilla, saffron, and patchouli have traditionally been obtained from specialized plants, grown in out-of-the-way places such as Madagascar or the southern Mexico. They were one of the foundations of the origins of international trade.

Now genetic modification (GM) could change the ground rules of the flavorings and scents business. Instead of being extracted from plants, such accents are now being generated by GM yeast or other micro-organisms, cultured in oversized industrial vats. Jay Keasling, a co-founder of Amyris, a company working on this technology, commented: "It's just like brewing beer, but rather than spit out alcohol, the yeast spits out these products."

Chemically synthesized substitutes for vanillin and other extracts already exist, and fermentation has long been used to make some vitamins and citric acid. However, advocates of such "synthetic biology" see it as much more powerful, allowing the production of a wide range of substances -- not just accents, but also drugs and rubber -- that couldn't be synthesized before, but can now be churned out in bulk and at low cost.

In April 2013 the pharmaceutical company Sanofi began commercial production of an important anti-malaria drug, artemisinin, using baker's yeast genetically modified by Amyris. Artemisinin is usually extracted from a shrub that grows wild or is cultivated in China, Vietnam and various African countries. Other researchers are investigating the production of morphine via synthetic biology, while Amyris is making a moisturizer for cosmetics that has been traditionally extracted from either olives or shark livers. Evolva, a Swiss company, is introducing yeast-made vanillin to the market. The firm is also working on saffron, currently obtained mainly from crocuses grown in Iran. Two other companies, Isobionics and Allylix, are separately producing valencene, a flavoring usually extracted from oranges, and nootkatone, a grapefruit flavor that also has potential application as an insect repellent.

Amyris shuffles the genome of yeasts, partly by design and partly at random, to come up with a wide range of candidates, which are sorted and tested by robotic systems. The yeasts are engineered not only to produce an accent or other substance, they are tweaked to do so as efficiently as possible. According to Joel Cherry, president of R&D at Amyris: "We are trying to maximize the flow in that pipe and pinch off all the side pipes without killing the organism."

Amyris is working on a rubber product with tire manufacturer Michelin, and is thought to be working on patchouli with Firmenich, a Swiss flavor and fragrance company. Evolva is working with Cargill on stevia, a sweetener extracted from plants grown in China and elsewhere. The small start-ups are attracting bigger partners. BASF, the German chemical company, is investing in Allylix, the San Diego company that is using yeast to make orange and grapefruit extracts.

Critics say that the production of flavorings and other substances using yeasts threatens the livelihoods of farmers growing specialty crops in developing countries. There are also skeptics who doubt that synthetic biology can turn out an acceptable product at lower cost than traditional agricultural production -- but if can be, consumers are not obligated to buy from a traditional producers if a competitor can sell the same product more cheaply. Attempting to artificially prop up obsolete industries is doomed to failure, and all that can be done is to assist traditional producers into new lines of work.

The more ambiguous difficulty is the use of genetic modification to produce the accents, which leads straight into the tangle of confusion surrounding GM. Some advocates of production of flavorings and fragrances by synthetic biology want to call their product "natural", which has drawn snorts of contempt from environmental groups. How can vanillin produced by GM yeast be called "natural"? Then again, the vanillin looks no different from that obtained from a vanillin plant, and the yeasts don't otherwise function differently than they did before modification; the vanillin is certainly not a truly synthetic product, turned out by chemical engineering. If this is a word game, which side of the dispute is playing it?

That leads to the question of whether foods containing such ingredients will need to be labeled as made from GM organisms in countries that require such labeling. The flavor companies say NO, since the flavorings look exactly the same no matter how they're produced; the yeast is a processing agent, not food in itself. The USA does not require labeling in that case, though there are legislative efforts in various states to implement it.



* GOING DOWN SLOW: While the, ahem, heated argument about climate change continues without a letup, as reported by an article from THE NEW YORK TIMES ("The Flood Next Time" by Justin Gillis, 13 January 2014), waterfront communities on the US East Coast are confronted with the very inconvenient and unarguable truth of a relentless rise of the sea against their shorelines.

At the water's edge in Manhattan's Battery Park, there's an unobtrusive little white shed, oddly decorated with antennas and mysterious gear. It's keeping track of the tides in New York Harbor, relaying its data to a central server by satellite on six-minute intervals. Although the technology is new, the mission is not, some type of tidal gauge having been in operation at Battery Park since the 1850s. The data has helped determine how much the ocean has risen, and by extrapolation how much further it threatens to rise.

Best estimates suggest that from 1880 to 2009, the global average sea level rose a little over 20 centimeters (8 inches). That may not sound like much, but scientists say even the smallest increase causes the seawater to eat away more aggressively at the shoreline in calm weather, and results in higher tidal surges during storms. Coastal towns everywhere are spending vast sums to deal with the growing damage to their waterfronts.

At present, sea level is rising about 30 centimeters (a foot) a century, as land ice melts and warmer seas expand. The official position of the world's climate scientists is that the global sea level could rise as much as 90 centimeters (three feet) by the end of this century, if emissions continue at their current levels; some estimate the sea level will be well higher than that. The data suggests big trouble for the US East Coast, where a good proportion of America's population is concentrated. What makes for a particular problem there is that the land in this part of the world is sinking.

That goes back to the last ice age, which peaked about 20,000 years ago. As a massive ice sheet, more than 1,600 meters (a mile) thick, grew over what are now Canada and the northern reaches of the United States, the weight of it depressed the crust of the earth. Areas not covered by the ice sheet bulged upward in response; now that the ice is gone, the ground that was underneath it is rising, while the peripheral bulge is sinking.

There is some sinking is going on all the way from southern Maine to northern Florida, revealing itself as an effective rise of the sea. The sinking is fastest in the Chesapeake Bay region, where whole island communities that consisted of hundreds of residents in the 19th century have disappeared. Holland Island, where the population peaked at nearly 400 people around 1910, had stores, a school, a baseball team, and scores of homes; as the water rose, the island had to be abandoned, until only a single sturdy Victorian house, built in 1888, remained on an isolated spit of land. A few years ago, that house collapsed as well.

the last of Holland Island

In addition, there are some places sitting on soft sediments that compress over time; much of the New Jersey coast is like that. The sea-level record from the Battery has been particularly valuable in sorting out this factor, since the tide gauge there is attached to bedrock, and so the record is immune to sediment compression.

Possibly the strangest factor in the equation pertains to Norfolk, Virginia, and its surroundings. What is now the Tidewater region of Virginia was hit by a meteor about 35 million years ago, an impact so violent it may have killed nearly everything on the East Coast and sent tsunami waves crashing against the Blue Ridge Mountains. The meteor impact disturbed and weakened the sediments across an 80 kilometer (50 mile) zone, with Norfolk at the edge of that zone. Some scientists think the ancient cataclysm may be one reason it's sinking especially fast, though others doubt it is much of a factor. Coastal flooding has already become such a problem that Norfolk is spending millions to raise streets and improve drainage. Truly protecting the city could cost as much as $1 billion USD, money the city doesn't have, with public officials saying some areas might have to be abandoned.

Up and down the Eastern Seaboard, municipal planners want to know: how bad are things going to get, and how soon? A study summarizing one of the most ambitious attempts to assess the problem was recently published by Kenneth G. Miller and Robert E. Kopp of Rutgers University, and their colleagues. Their calculations, centered on New Jersey, suggest the problem is coming on fast. People considering whether to buy or rebuild at the storm-damaged Jersey Shore, for instance, could be looking at nearly 30 centimeters (a foot) of sea-level rise by the time they would pay off a 30-year mortgage.

Even if the global sea level rises only 20 centimeters (8 inches) by 2050, a moderate forecast, the Rutgers group foresees effective increases of 36 centimeters (14 inches) at bedrock locations like the Battery, and 38 centimeters (15 inches) along the New Jersey coastal plain, where the sediments are compressing. By 2100, a global ocean rise of 71 centimeters (28 inches) would produce increases of 91 centimeters (36 inches) at the Battery and 99 centimeters (39 inches) on the coastal plain.

Antagonism to any suggestion of climate change remains strong -- but in places like Norfolk, people are becoming less skeptical. William A. Stiles JR, head of Wetlands Watch, a Norfolk environmental group, commented: "In the last couple or three years, there's really been a change. What you get now is people saying: I'm tired of driving through salt water on my way to work, and I need some solutions."



* AMERICA & THE WORLD (4): How does the emergence of China on the world stage affect American primacy? In 1980, China's share of global economic output was a feeble 2.2%; within a decade, it will be the world's biggest economy, with a share of roughly 20%. In 1980, China lived in isolation; today, the Chinese search the world for access to raw materials and markets for its manufactures. China is the biggest trade partner of most Asian nations.

There's a popular perception that China is going to be the world's top dog before too long. In 23 of 39 countries surveyed by the Pew Research in 2013, most people thought that China has or will take over from America as the dominant superpower. China, so the story goes, will take all the jobs, steal all the secrets, control the world economy, buy up Africa, conquer Taiwan. What seems lost in such polls is consideration of how Chinese economic growth actually translates into global power. As Chinese leadership seems to understand, there isn't a simple connection between the two.

Certainly as China becomes stronger, Chinese leadership is necessarily becoming more assertive, more willing to push Chinese interests elsewhere, more insistent on being treated with respect. That's entirely natural -- though underlying this mindset is a persistent memory of a century of humiliations and insults by foreigners walking roughshod over the land, leaving Chinese touchy and quick to take offense. The leadership promotes nationalism, but has a grasp of foreign-policy issues that Mao Zedong, with his crude revolutionism, would have not been able to fathom.

As discussed here in 2012, China is building a 21st-century military machine, focused on applying pressure on Taiwan and discouraging the US from coming to Taiwan's aid. With a combination of submarines, missiles, space and cyber-weapons, China hopes to frustrate America's arsenal of aircraft carriers and overseas bases. China and Russia, long having had a roller-coaster relationship, are now politically close, both wishing to blunt American power.

However, Chinese economic, military, and diplomatic power have their own limits, substantially sharper than those suffered by the Americans. By useful measures of wealth, China remains much poorer than America and will remain poorer for a long time. That's partly because there are so many more Chinese than Americans, with China's wealth spread over a larger population base, but the other side of that coin shows the US can handily outmatch China economically with far fewer people. America's current economic weaknesses have to be seen against a strong foundation of technological and financial power.

Besides, China has achieved much of its growth by tapping into the world economic system, and taking on the USA directly would upset that applecart; it would be self-defeating. China, for example, is dependent on oil imports flowing through the straits of Hormuz and Malacca, both under the effective protection of the US Navy. China does have a range of motives for directly challenging America, but also has very much to lose by doing so.

China could build up a blue-water navy to overthrow American sea control; the reality is that China is nowhere near being able to do so now, the US Navy remaining overwhelmingly dominant on the high seas -- all the more so because the US military has far more combat experience than China's People's Liberation Army (PLA). Yes, China is ramping up its military spending while America is cutting defense, but the PLA Navy still remains a coastal-defense force; the naval gap is vast. If China tried to close it, the Americans would start spending money to stay ahead, presenting China with the prospect of exhaustion without gain. [TO BE CONTINUED]


[FRI 18 APR 14] THE COLD WAR (19)

* THE COLD WAR (19): The first big trouble for the UN was Iran. As mentioned, the British and the Soviets had occupied Iran in 1941 when the Shah of Iran seemed to be tilting towards the Axis powers, the occupation being primarily intended to ensure that southern supply line to the USSR was kept open. Assurances were given to the Iranian government that the occupation was only for the duration of the war, and that foreign troops would be withdrawn after the shooting was over.

All foreign troops were supposed to be gone by 2 March 1946; the British -- and the Americans, who had sent troops later during the war -- were out by January, but the Red Army was showing no inclination to budge. Furthermore, the Soviets were stirring up trouble with Azeri insurgents in the north of Iran, the ultimate goal obviously being to extend the USSR's southern border at Iran's expense. The insurgents had been supplied with tens of thousands of small arms, the Soviets making sure they were obtained from Axis weapons stockpiles they had captured and that none of the weapons were of Soviet origin.

On 19 January 1946, not long after the beginning of the first UN session in London, Hussein Ala, the UN ambassador from Iran, protested Soviet interference in Iranian affairs. Soviet UN Ambassador Andrei Vyshinsky replied that the Soviet Union was negotiating in good faith with the Iranian government on the withdrawal and there was no cause for worry. The Americans remained concerned, however, and refused to drop the matter in the Security Council. Vyshinsky, known from his days as prosecutor in the prewar Soviet purge trials for his combative style, complained about the continued presence of British troops in Indonesia, and of British and French troops in Syria.

Very well, then; on 16 February, American US Ambassador Edward Stettinius presented a resolution to the Security Council calling for negotiations for the withdrawal of foreign troops from Syria. It was not unexpected behavior from the Americans, who had no liking for British and French colonialism. What was unexpected was that Vyshinsky vetoed it without hesitation, saying that the measure wasn't tough enough -- though it seemed more likely the Soviets wanted to obstruct any measure that might be a stepping stone towards taking aim at their own activities. To Lie it was frivolous, a bad sign for the future, suggesting that the Soviets would employ their Security Council veto as casually and as often as they liked.

That's exactly what would happen. At a cocktail party that May, Soviet Foreign Minister Molotov was asked if he knew how to say "yes" in any language. Molotov laughed out loud and shook his head: Nyet. [TO BE CONTINUED]



-- 15 MAR 14 / EXPRESS AT1 & AT2 -- An International Launch Services Proton M Breeze M booster was launched from Baikonur in Kazakhstan at 2308 GMT (next day local time - 6) to put the "Express AT1" and "Express AT2" geostationary communications satellites into orbit for the Russian Satellite Communications Company. Both were manufactured by ISS Reshetnev of Russia and based on the Reshetnev Express 1000 comsat bus, with communications payloads provided by Thales Alenia Space of France & Italy.

Express AT1 had a launch mass of 1,800 kilograms (3,970 pounds), a payload of 32 Ku-band transponders, and a design lifetime of 15 years; it was placed in the geostationary slot at 56 degrees east longitude to provide television and data services across Eastern Europe and Russia. Express AT2 had a launch mass of 1,150 kilograms (2,755 pounds), a payload of 16 Ku-band transponders, and a design lifetime of 15 years; it was placed in the geostationary slot at 140 degrees east longitude to cover the Russian Far East.

Express AT1 & AT2 in launch prep

-- 22 MAR 14 / ASTRA 5B, AMAZONAS 4A -- An Ariane 5 ECA booster was launched from Kourou in French Guiana at 2204 GMT (local time + 3) to put the "ASTRA 5B" and "Amazonas 4A" geostationary comsats into orbit. ASTRA 5B, owned and operated by SES of Luxembourg, was built by Airbus Defense & Space and was based on the Eurostar E3000 comsat bus. It had a launch mass of 5,800 kilograms (12,800 pounds), a payload of 40 Ku / 6 Ka band transponders, and a design lifetime of 15 years. The satellite was placed in the geostationary slot at 31.5 degrees East longitude to provide direct TV broadcast services to Eastern Europe, Russia, and neighboring markets. It also carried a secondary payload -- an L-band navigation subsystem for the European Commission's European Geostationary Navigation Overlay Service (EGNOS).

Amazonas 4A, owned and operated by Hispasat of Madrid, was built by Orbital Sciences and was based on the Orbital GEOStar-2 bus. It had a launch mass of 3,000 kilograms (6,600 pounds), a payload of 24 Ku-band transponders, and a design life of 15 years. It was placed in the geostationary slot at 61 degrees west longitude to provide direct TV communications services to South America.

-- 23 MAR 14 / COSMOS 2491 (GLONASS M) -- A Soyuz 2-1b booster was launched from Plesetsk Northern Cosmodrome in Russia at 2254 GMT (next day local time - 4) to put the "Cosmos 2491" GLONASS M third-generation navigation satellite into orbit. It was the 54th GLONASS satellite; it brought the GLONASS constellation up to a total of 28 operational satellites in orbit, including three spares.

-- 25 MAR 14 / SOYUZ ISS 38S (ISS) -- A Soyuz-Fregat booster was launched from Baikonur at 2117 GMT (next day local time - 6) to put the "Soyuz ISS 38S" AKA "Soyuz TMA-12" manned space capsule into orbit on an International Space Station (ISS) support mission. Its crew consisted of Soyuz commander Aleksandr Skvortsov (second space flight), flight engineer Oleg Artemyev (first space flight), both of the Russian RKA, and NASA astronaut Steven Swanson (third space flight). The launch was supposed to be on a "direct ascent" trajectory that would get the Soyuz to the ISS in six hours, but there was a rendezvous system malfunction, and the docking was two days later, at 2358 GMT. The spacecraft mated with the ISS Poisk module, with the Soyuz crew joining Expedition 39 commander Koichi Wakata, cosmonaut Mikhail Tyurin and NASA astronaut Rick Mastracchio, bringing the station's crew back to six.

-- 31 MAR 14 / SHIJIAN 11-06 -- A Chinese Long March 4C booster was launched from Jiuquan at 0246 GMT (local time - 8) to put the "Shijian 11-06" experimental satellite into space; "shijian" is Chinese for "practice". The function of the Shijian 11 satellite series is unknown; they are suspected to be missile launch early warning satellites.

* OTHER SPACE NEWS: The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) is now seeking commercial partners to work on development of a new booster, the "H-3", to replace the workhorse JAXA H-2 booster in the early 2020s. Mitsubishi Heavy Industries LTD, the prime contractor for Japan's current H-2A and H-2B rockets, is likely to be in charge of the industrial consortium to develop, manufacture, and fly the H-3.

The two-stage H-3 will feature a new liquid oxygen / liquid hydrogen engine, the "LE-X", with two powering the booster's first stage; each will produce 1,334 kN (136,000 kgp / 300,000 lbf) thrust. The H-3 rocket will able to be fitted with zero, two, four, or six strap-on solid rocket boosters (SRB) to increase lift capability. The basic configuration with no SRBs could put up to 3 tonnes (3.3 tons) into a near-polar Sun-synchronous orbit, generally used for Earth observation satellites. With six SRBs, the H-3 could put 6.5 tonnes (7.15 tons) into geostationary orbit, generally used for comsats.

JAXA H-3 booster configurations

The current H-2 booster is reliable but too expensive, and so JAXA hopes the H-3 will cut the H-2A rocket's $100 million USD launch cost to between $50 to $65 million USD. The agency believes savings can be achieved by exploiting commonalities in avionics and solid rocket motors with Japan's Epsilon rocket, which performed its first flight in 2013 and is tailored for launch of small spacecraft.



* DEVELOPMENT & THE MICROBIOME: A number of articles run here in the past have discussed the interactions of multicellular organisms with their resident micro-organisms -- for one example, the Hawaiian bobtail squid, Euprymna scolopes, which as discussed here in 2010, incorporates the bioluminescent bacterium Vibrio fischeri a as a sort of "camouflage", illuminating the little squid's underside so it won't be so easily seen as a shadow from below. One facet of such interactions is that the embryonic development of a multicellular organism from a single cell may take place in the context of a parental environment populated by symbiotic micro-organisms.

As pointed out by an article from AAAS SCIENCE ("How Do Microbes Shape Animal Development?" by Elizabeth Pennisi, 7 June 2013), that leads to the question of how the "microbiome" may affect development of the organism. Margaret McFall-Ngai, a developmental biologist at the University of Wisconsin, has been investigating this question relative to the Hawaiian bobtail squid, and has found that them squid's embryonic development is tuned to its bacterial residents.

Squid embryos temporarily develop a mucus-laden patch inside the body cavity, where the bacteria accumulate and then eventually migrate to nodes that will become the squid's light organ. The presence of the bacteria stimulates gene activity in the squid that eventually eliminates the patch and brings the light organ to maturity. No bacteria, the light organ doesn't develop properly.

McFall-Ngai believes that the influence of microbiomes in the development of a host organism is the "elephant in the room", a significant reality long hidden in ignorance. That's changing, the biological research community increasingly appreciating the importance of the elephant. For example, marine biologists traditionally believed that the drifting larvae of coral, snails, and other marine invertebrates simply settled down at random to become adults -- but now it is becoming clear that many respond to cues from their bacterial biofilms to pick new homes. In addition, while many animals seem to develop in wombs or eggs free of microbes, they still rely on microbes to set in motion or complete certain aspects of postnatal development.

Experiments with "germfree" mice, lacking a gut microbiome, have demonstrated the significance of resident microbes in development -- components of the mouse gut and immune system failing to develop normally. More speculatively, germfree mice seem to be hyperactive and have low levels of anxiety compared to normal mice. Colonizing young germfree mice with the appropriate microbiome shifted their behavior to normal, but had no effect in older mice.

Exactly how this works is of course unclear, but some researchers suggest that bacterial products in the bloodstream may be the significant factor. That may prove an important insight in mammal development; traditionally, since a mammalian fetus develops in an environment free of micro-organisms, the assumption was that the microbiome played no part in development. However, the fetus is not isolated from microbial products in the blood, and such may well play a role. Nobody knows what, for now; the field of development versus the microbiome remains a largely uncharted territory.

ED: This article was part of a set on development. One of the other articles discussed that we are born with about 100 billion neurons and, with a few exceptions, they're not replaced during our lives. However, during embryonic development, neurons of course grow -- and also die off in considerable numbers, as if serving some function and then, having outlived their usefulness, being discarded.

Some of the biochemical signals in this process have been identified, as has been the fact that there are at least two, maybe three, waves of neuron death. If the first wave is cancelled via biochemical interference the result is, as one researcher put it, "really ugly, big brains", and a dead embryo. However, a researcher named Ronald Oppenheim of the Wake-Forest School of Medicine in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, cancelled the second wave in lab mice via a genetic tweak -- to find out to his surprise that the mice "seemed really quite normal".

The additional neurons are apparently functional, except they aren't really wired to anything in particular. Oppenheim said: "They just hang around. You might call them undead." This shines light into my occasional musings on the "Intelligent Design" of organisms -- the suggestion being that if there is some Higher Power making the plan, it does it in ways that are alien to the way humans do things.



* THE UK DOES GM, FITFULLY: As reported by BBC WORLD Online ("Genetically-Modified Purple Tomatoes Heading For Shops" by David Shukman, 24 January 2014), British researchers at the John Innes Centre (JIC) -- a research operation in Norwich, focusing on plant and microbial studies -- have developed a genetically modified (GM) tomato featuring a pigment named "anthocyanin", obtained from snapdragons, that give the tomatoes a dark purple color, much like blueberries.

Of course, the splice was not performed as an agricultural fashion statement. Studies show that anthocyanin may provide benefits, such as acting as an anti-inflammatory and in slowing cancers in mice. Professor Cathie Martin of the JIC commented: "With these purple tomatoes, you can get the same compounds that are present in blueberries and cranberries that give them their health benefits -- but you can apply them to foods that people actually eat in significant amounts and are reasonably affordable."

Although the tomatoes were developed in the UK, Martin said that European Union (EU) restrictions on GM persuaded her to look to Canada, which she describes as "more enlightened", to bring the tomatoes to market. The JIC struck a deal with an Ontario company, New Energy Farms, which is now producing enough purple tomatoes in a 465 square meter (5,000 square foot) greenhouse to turn out 2,000 liters (440 gallons) of juice. The first batch was shipped to the JIC to test its safety and efficacy, the juice having been carefully screened to avoid complications from GM seeds going astray.

Martin has hopes that purple tomato juice will be on the market in North America in two years, and that it will pave the way towards a less hysterical attitude towards GM: "It is frustrating that we've had to go to Canada to do a lot of the growing and the processing, and I hope this will serve as a vanguard product where people can have access to something that is GM but has benefits for them."

Other UK researchers are working on GM camelina plants -- raised for seed oil -- that generate fish oils; a GM wheat plant that produces a pheromone that drives off aphids; and potatoes resistant to potato blight, which caused a disastrous famine in Ireland in the mid-18th century. Unfortunately, public hostility to GM remains strong. A survey across the EU in 2010 found opponents outnumbered supporters by roughly three to one. The last approval for a GM food crop by the EU was in 1998.

Professor Nick Pidgeon, an environmental psychologist at Cardiff University, has run opinion polls and focus groups on GM and other technologies. He believes that there is a deep legacy of distrust, one of the big factors in the UK being the troubles over mad cow disease. To be sure, the actual risk level of mad cow disease was very small, and it had nothing in particular to do with GM -- but it was such a ghastly affliction, rotting out the brains of its doomed victims, and it came almost completely out of nowhere, having a mechanism like no common disease. GM, to the public, suggests too many dangerous unknowns. Pidgeon commented:


Highlighting benefits will make a difference, but it's only one part of the story, which is quite complex. People will still be concerned that this is a technology that potentially interferes with natural systems. They'll be concerned about big corporations having control over the technology and, at the end of the day, you feed it to yourself and your children and that will be a particular concern for families across the UK.

To change that quite negative view that people had 10, 15 years ago will take quite a long time, It'll take a demonstration of safety, a demonstration of good regulation and of the ability to manage the technology in a safe way. And that doesn't happen overnight.


The UK government is in a difficult position on the GM issue, being aware of public hostility to the idea, but finding the position of "zero tolerance" unreasonable and unsupportable. Britain's Council of Science & Technology (CST) has, at the request of Prime Minister David Cameron, investigated the issue, concluding that all verifiable research shows GM crops to be safe, that they offer potentially great benefits for improving crop productivity and food value, and that Britain risks falling behind in the global agriculture industry if GM crops are suppressed. The CST recommended that Britain set up a regulatory agency to evaluate GM crops, instead of adhering to restrictive EU rules.

The CST report suggested, following the Canadian example, that crop plants be evaluated for their safety and efficacy, without major concern for whether they were developed by GM or by conventional hybridization. The report was highly critical of the EU's attitude towards GM, denouncing a "dysfunctional approval process", saying it had been "influenced by political considerations that do not have a scientific basis." Mark Walport, the UK government's chief science adviser and an author on the report, did not say that GM crop plants should be given an automatic free pass -- he simply pleaded for rationality: "We're asking for the regulation to be fit for purpose."



* AMERICA & THE WORLD (3): The normal turmoil in American policy tends to give a continuous sense that everything is going to hell; there's nothing new about declarations of America's decline. However, a consideration of the historical record shows that things have gone pretty well since the end of World War II. At that time, there was a lurking worry of the resurgence of the Axis powers. Through a degree of direction as well as benign neglect by the US, both German and Japan rose from the rubble to become prosperous, democratic, and notably pacifistic states -- though, unlike Germany, Japan has yet to achieve real reconciliation with its neighbors. America acquired trading partners in the revitalized Germany and Japan, and also aid in the defense against a menacing Soviet bloc.

America faced down the Communist threat so completely that, in hindsight, it seems like less of a feat than it was. Revisionist historians like to portray both sides in the Cold War as equally responsible for the exhausting decades-long standoff, or even claim that the USA provoked it. They seem willfully ignorant of Josef Stalin, a brutal tyrant with no concept of ethics who at the very least wanted a weak, easily bullied, Europe that could not present a threat to the USSR. Stalin expected that there would be a final, inevitable confrontation between the capitalist and socialist worlds in a generation's time; the Bomb and American vigilance ensured that never happened, with the socialist world falling over of its own dead weight in the end. There was no Third World War.

As far as economic and political values went, in the wake of the collapse of the USSR the American agenda became all but undisputed, so taken for granted as to no longer be seen as an ideology, established as a sort of "liberal determinism". Americans in their own way were always every bit as ideological as the Soviet Union was; it's just that the world has found the much more realistic and flexible American ideology far more attractive than the socialist alternative, noted for overpromising and underdelivering. The idea was that capitalism raised living standards, which paid for education, leading to gains in productivity and, eventually, popular demand for democracy. If the world does not have universal peace, prosperity, and liberty, that is seen as the endpoint.

However, there was nothing all that inevitable about that endpoint. In 1941, there were only a dozen democracies in the world, the global fashion then being towards strongarm dictatorships. Authoritarianism was dealt a blow by its defeat in World War II, and later by the collapse of the Soviet Union, with states still clinging to the iron fist now seen as backward, decrepit, even mad. Although the Americans did have authoritarian allies in the Cold War, Americans never liked the smell of them, and when the Americans resorted to dirty tricks, they ended up regretting it more often than not. America used its influence to help democracy take root in countries such as Taiwan and Poland, and to protect young democracies in countries like Bolivia, South Korea and the Philippines.

Liberal determinism did not so much arise spontaneously as it was cultivated by American policy. The corollary is that the reluctance of Americans to continue on that course of influence will mean the current order will start to fray. In a recent book, long-standing US foreign policy wonk Zbigniew Brzezinski pointed out the lurking threats that would emerge if the US returned to isolationism. Regional powers would compete for primacy and assert historic claims; states such as Georgia, Taiwan, and Ukraine, which all live in the shadow of a much bigger neighbor, would be especially vulnerable. Nuclear-threshold powers such as Japan and South Korea that rely on the American nuclear umbrella would be strongly inclined to obtain the Bomb if they thought the umbrella might be withdrawn. Emerging powers would be more willing to reject the existing order, instead of trying to improve their position in it via discussion.

The end result would be, by default of the decline in American influence, a corresponding rise in the influence of autocratic states such as China and Russia. There would be less pressure against coups, and there would be more inclination to resolve territorial disputes by force. If India's and China's navies thought that the US Navy could no longer guarantee freedom of the seas -- from the founding of the republic, at the top of the list of America's foreign-policy concerns -- they would take on the job themselves, leading to an out-of-control arms race and risk of a shoot-out between two states that have the Bomb.

Charles Kupchan, an American academic, commented: "Democracy and open markets have spread so widely in part because they have been defended by US aircraft carriers." American primacy is expensive, but the return on investment makes it worthwhile in almost all regards and, occasional excesses aside, gives no fundamental cause for complaint to others. If they do have complaints, they have mechanisms for making them heard, and American leadership has learned the hard way to give them a fair hearing. [TO BE CONTINUED]


[FRI 11 APR 14] THE COLD WAR (18)

* THE COLD WAR (18): In hindsight, postwar superpower tensions should not have been a surprise. From the founding days of the USSR, the Soviet Union and America represented opposite ideological poles, representing different concepts of economics and society. The USSR was also a not-very-apologetic tyranny in which such human rights as existed were entirely at the discretion of the leadership, and law was a tool adaptable to their whims; the Americans sincerely believed in human rights and the rule of law, however inconsistent they might be in applying such doctrines.

Although unsympathetic with Soviet actions, the Americans still did not see an armed confrontation with the USSR as in their interests. Stalin, in contrast, was certain there would be another war; Marxist-Leninist doctrine said capitalists were going to cut their own throats sooner or later, they'd already demonstrated the inclination in two world wars, and the USSR needed to prepare to withstand the final conflict, and then pick up the pieces. The Soviet Union had to recuperate and Stalin didn't want a major war in the short term, but he still regarded it as inevitable, even unavoidable.

The two sides hadn't stopped talking, however. A "Council of Foreign Ministers" had been set up as a conclusion of the Potsdam Conference. The first meeting, in London from 11 September to 2 October 1945, had proven quarrelsome and accomplished little. A second meeting, in Moscow of December of that year, was more positive, with work towards peace treaties with the defeated Axis powers, and also discussions of the establishment of a government for Korea. At the end of the war in the Far East, the Red Army had occupied the northern half of the Korean Peninsula, with the Americans occupying the southern half, the demarcation line being more or less arbitrarily declared at the 38th Parallel.

The intent was that Korea would be reunified under a single independent government, but that wasn't how it would turn out. An iron-fisted Communist regime emerged in the north, backed by the Soviets and led by a tough Red named Kim Il-Sung; while an authoritarian regime, the "Republic of Korea (ROK)", emerged in the south, backed by the Americans and led by a Korean nationalist named Syngman Rhee. Both regimes aspired to a single Korea, to be achieved by force, but for the moment their backers had no intent of allowing them to carry out their ambitions. In the fall of 1948, Communist insurgents began attacks on the South Korean government, with North Korea conducting border incursions to keep South Korean security forces off balance. The uprising was crushed, after tens of thousands of Koreans were killed -- many simply because one side or the other doubted their loyalty to the respective causes. Matters then went quiet for the time being, foreign forces having been withdrawn.

There was also discussion of control of atomic energy, with agreement on the establishment of a UN arm to address the issue; the "United Nations Atomic Energy Commission (UNAEC)" was appropriately set up a month later. However, tensions continued their steady rise. On 9 February 1946, Stalin announced the USSR's latest five-year plan, which explicitly placed military buildup as the Soviet Union's top priority, Stalin publicly stating that "no peaceful international order was possible." Chief Justice William O. Douglas of the US Supreme Court, appalled, called Stalin's pronouncement "the declaration of World War III."

That was overstating matters; Stalin was not preparing to take on the USA, instead believing the USA had become a determined adversary. Fortunately, World War III wouldn't be the result -- although it seems to have been only partly realized in 1946, the atomic bomb would ensure that didn't happen, humanity having finally, after centuries of effort, developed a weapon literally too terrible to be used. However, hostilities between East and West were the rule from that time on, remaining under the threshold of total war, but not going away for a generation.

Two weeks after Stalin's speech, George F. Kennan of the State Department, then charge d'affaires in the US embassy in Moscow and only too familiar with Stalin's regime, wrote what became known as the "Long Telegram", describing the USSR as a paranoid state, committed to hostility and aggressive assertion of Soviet interests, but inclined to back off when firmly confronted. Navy Secretary James Forrestal copied the Long Telegram and circulated it widely; its doctrine of firm confrontation became the American Cold War policy of "containment" of Soviet ambitions -- necessarily leading to the more nerve-grating concept of "brinkmanship", of actions taken right up to the brink of war.

On 5 March 1946, at Harry Truman's invitation Winston Churchill delivered a speech at Fulton College in Missouri, declaring: "From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the continent." The Soviet Union, Churchill elaborated, now dominated the countries of Eastern Europe and demanded their obedience. Churchill was not asking for war, however, sounding the same note as Kennan in saying the USSR would back down from aggressive actions in the face of resolve.

The "iron curtain" speech wasn't received happily in the Kremlin, of course, but many American commentators denounced it as well, particularly those who disliked the British more than the Soviets. The outcry was loud enough to cause Truman to distance himself from the speech, though in practice its message became an underlying principle of the Truman Administration's foreign policy at the outset of the Cold War. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* SCIENCE NOTES: As discussed by an article from THE ECONOMIST tree sloths, as their name implies, are notably lethargic beasts -- but the three-toed sloth is even more lethargic than the two-toed sloth. The two-toed sloth may forage widely across the treetops; the three-toed sloth, in contrast, may live out its entire life in the equivalent footprint of a large house lot. The slow motion is a consequence of an herbivorous lifestyle; leaves aren't all that nutritious, so the sloth gets by with a slow metabolism. The three-toed sloth is extreme in that regard, with the slowest digestive rate of any mammal, and about half the metabolic rate of any other mammal of its size.

three-toed sloth

The puzzle is that, while the two-toed sloth remains in the treetops continuously, defecating to allow its droppings to fall to the forest floor below, about once a week the three-toed sloth comes to ground to dig a hole in which to defecate. Not only is it dangerously vulnerable to predators while on the ground, the trip consumes almost a tenth of its daily energy budget. Why would it go through such bother if it didn't have a good reason to do it?

A study by Jonathan Pauli of the University of Wisconsin and colleagues found out why, unlocking an elaborate symbiotic network. Sloths have fur adapted as a home for algae, which gives them a green mottled coloration. The algae not only provide camouflage -- apparently it is very hard to spot a sloth in a tree -- but, being much richer in fats than leaves, provide an important, possibly critical, component of the sloth's diet, the sloth grooming itself and then eating the algae.

Okay, now it gets complicated. The sloth's fur is also home to fungi and moths. When the moths die, the fungi decompose them, providing nitrogen-rich compounds to support the growth of the algae. The only problem is how the three-toed sloth supports a large population of moths; the population is not nearly so dense on the two-toed sloths, and although the moths may mate in a sloth's fur, they do not lay eggs and mature there.

That's where the trips to the ground come in. Once the sloth defecates into a hole, female moths flock to the dung and lay eggs in it. The eggs hatch into pupae, which then become moths -- and then fly upward into the canopy to find a sloth host. Since the three-toed sloth doesn't get around much, the moths typically find the sloth who produced the dung they were born in. In a sense, the sloth farms the moths for its own use.

* In other tales of the complexities of animal cooperation, researchers discovered that Philippine jumping spiders often spin their nests directly above weaver ant nests. The puzzle in this is that weaver ants are highly effective predators of the jumping spider. On examination, it turned out the trick was that the weaver ants also preyed on spitting spiders, which are even more dangerous predators of jumping spiders.

Were the jumping spiders using the weaver ants for protection? In carefully-controlled lab setups, when spitting spiders were given cues of the presence of ants, the spitting spiders showed no inclination to hang around, while the jumping spiders quickly built nests. It turns out that spitting spider nests are loose and easily raided by weaver ants, while jumping spider nests are tight, even featuring doors, proof against weaver ants. Clearly the jumping spiders had acquired hunting habits that kept them out of the way of the ants, while allowing the ants to provide security for the jumping spiders at home. The enemy of my enemy might not really be my friend, but he still may have his uses.

* As discussed in a note from THE ECONOMIST, the tobacco hornworm, a caterpillar, eats tobacco leaves. Tobacco is of course full of nicotine, which serves as a natural insecticide. It doesn't bother the hornworm at all, which led a team of biologists under Ian Baldwin at the Max Planck Institute in Germany to wonder if the hornworm weaponized the nicotine to ward off predators. There was a precedent, in that the eastern tent caterpillar is known to spit hydrogen cyanides, concentrated from the plants the insect eats, at predators. Maybe the tobacco hornworm was "blowing smoke" in some sense at predators? That seemed like a straightforward conclusion, but determining if it was the case was tricky.

tobacco hornworm

First, the researchers put tobacco hornworms in two plots of tobacco plants, one plot full of plants that had been genetically modified to not produce nicotine. The plots were also inhabited by wolf spiders that hunted the caterpillars. Analysis of hornworm populations in the plots from day to day showed that a quarter of them didn't survive the night in the plot of normal tobacco plants, while half of them didn't survive the night in the plot of GM tobacco plants.

Clearly, the nicotine provided a defense for the hornworms, but how? The researchers then genetically modified the hornworm to suppress a gene that moves nicotine from their gut into the blood. The effect of this change was to eliminate the exhalation of nicotine from the spiracules on the body of the hornworm and concentrate in its feces. When a trial was run of normal hornworms and GM hornworms versus spiders, the loss rate of the GM hornworms to spiders was three times that of normal hornworms. As an additional test, the researchers took air from a container with normal hornworms and then filled a container with GM hornworms with that air, with the spiders becoming much less enthusiastic in their hunting. The hornworms were indeed blowing smoke at the spiders -- or at least had nicotine halitosis.



* SWALLOWED UP: As discussed by an article from BBC WORLD Online ("Sinkholes: A Deadly Threat From Florida's Underworld" by Iain Stewart), the US state of Florida is generally seen as a semi-tropical paradise. It also has its share of problems, such as hurricanes, invasive species such as pythons -- and sinkholes.

On 28 February 2013, in the Tampa suburb of Seffner the ground opened up underneath the bedroom of 37-year-old Jeff Bush, swallowing him into the earth. His brother Jeremy dashed in to try to save him, but was almost dragged in himself -- to be rescued by Deputy Sheriff Douglas Duvall, who had come out to the house on an emergency call. Duvall said later of the sinkhole: "It's like this thing was alive .... It was churning, moving around .... making noises, you know, like a growl."

Jeff Bush's body was never recovered. Florida is not the only place where sinkholes are a problem, the earth having similarly opened up in places as far-flung as Guatemala and China, but Florida has a particular problem. In August 2013, a resort complex in Clermont, near Disney World, fell into a 20 meter (65 foot) wide sinkhole.

Although Jeff Bush was the first Floridian to be killed by a sinkhole in years, they're nothing unusual across Florida. As of late, over 6,500 sinkhole insurance claims are being reported each year. Most of the state is a limestone platform flushed with groundwater below, washed by plentiful rain from above. It's not a secure foundation, with water tending to eat away the limestone and create underground caverns. Sometimes the roof of a cavern close to the surface falls in, resulting in a "cover collapse" sinkhole.

That was exactly what happened to the unfortunate Jeff Bush. Seffner lies in a sinkhole "sweetspot", a cluster of collapses centered on the west central part of the state around Tampa. Although lawyers and geologists have an interest in sinkholes, the rest of Floridians regard them with dread, particularly inhabitants of retirement communities. What makes them even more frightening is that the rate of sinkhole incidents appears to be picking up.

sinkhole in Ocala, Florida

Sinkholes are only partly understood. Exactly what sets one off is unclear, though there does appear to be a "sinkhole season" where they occur well more often than the rest of the year. In the summer months, the Gulf Coast's hurricanes deluge the state, dumping torrents of water on the land in a matter of hours, weighing down the soil and collapsing the roofs of caves below. In the dry season, drought conditions can lower the water table, emptying out water-filled voids and causing the voids to cave in.

The water table can be affected by human activities as well. Florida is noted for its fruit crops, the warm weather, rain, and fertile soil making it a great place to grow oranges, strawberries, and other fruits. Its citrus groves and fruit fields are irrigated in part by water drawn from Florida's underground aquifer. Florida does get occasional cold snaps, which can be disastrous to fruit crops, particularly strawberries; farmers react by spraying warm groundwater onto strawberry fields. This may have the unintended effect of drastically lowering the underground water table overnight, resulting in a burst of sinkholes.

There's no evidence that such groundwater pumping created the sinkhole that killed Jeff Bush. However, the occurrence of sinkholes, and their relationship to human activities, are a reminder that Mother Nature is not necessarily benign -- and when we poke a finger in her eye, we may find hers poked back in ours.



* MODULAR CARGO DRONE: The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the Pentagon's "blue sky" technology development office, had been working on a "Transformer" project to build a "flying car" -- a tactical vehicle that could drive down the road but take to the skies when need be. It appears Transformer foundered on the classic problem of flying cars: instead of achieving the best of cars and flying machines, they end up being klunky cars and klunky flying machines, more complicated and expensive than it would be to obtain both items separately. As reported by AVIATION WEEK ("Duct Work" by Graham Warwick, 24 February 2014), recognizing the failure of the idea, DARPA has refocused Transformer into a new program named "Aerial Reconfigurable Embedded Systems (ARES)".

Transformer:  So who needs a flying car?

ARES follows directly from a Transformer effort, for which a team of Lockheed Martin and Piasecki had been selected to build a Transformer demonstrator. On consulting with the armed services, DARPA officials decided it would be much better to partition the effort, creating a drone vertical takeoff / landing (VTOL) aircraft that could straddle-carry a more or less standard light combat vehicle. The military has already been experimenting with using drone helicopters for supplying remote outposts, as discussed here in 2012, and proved receptive to the idea of a VTOL drone for supply operations.

The ARES demonstrator will effectively be the flight system of the original Transformer, without the ground vehicle component, essentially a tailless tilt-duct flying wing with:

The payload is carried between tall landing skids. The ducted fan configuration permits operations into tighter landing areas than could be accessed with a helicopter, while improving safety to ground personnel in the landing area. The ducts are also flight surfaces that contribute significantly to lift. Flight control is performed by variable-pitch constant-speed rotors, vanes in the duct exhausts, and a trim surface at the rear of the central engine module. In hover, the duct vanes provide yaw control, while in forward flight yaw is provided by varying duct thrust, with the vanes used for pitch and roll control.

Twin small turboshafts were selected instead of one large one for flight reliability, the two engines driving a common gearbox whose output will be provided to both fans -- meaning one engine, redlined, will be able to keep the drone flying. ARES will also to feature redundant hydraulics and a triple-redundant flight control system. Maximum speed will be 370 KPH (230 MPH / 200 KT) and overall weight will be about 3,175 kilograms (7,000 pounds), about half of that being payload.

ARES:  we pick up and deliver

Piasecki is building the flight module, with Lockheed Martin handling the software and overall program direction. Flight demonstrations are expected to start in mid-2015. In its "graduation exercise", the drone will lift off with a payload module, fly to a remote location, drop off the payload module, and then fly back to home base. The ultimate expectation is that warfighters in the field will be able to request drone services with a tablet computer or smartphone. Payloads could include a light scout vehicle; a cargo pod; a medevac pod; or a helicopter-like fuselage, semi-permanently fitted in place of the landing skids, for reconnaissance or even light armed missions.

The past history of "modular" flying machines is not encouraging, and a Lockheed Martin official cautioned: "None of the services have invested yet; they want to see the demo. But everyone understands the modular idea. We are talking to the Marine Corps, Army, and Special Operations forces. The next big step for DARPA and industry is to identify a transition partner."



* AMERICA & THE WORLD (2): Before World War II, Americans tended strongly towards isolationism. Who cared about what the Europeans did? They were an ocean away, to hell with them, let them stand or fall as they might. The First World War did not erode this attitude; it instead reinforced it, with many Americans coming to believe that they had been suckered by Britain and a malign collaboration of arms manufacturers into a wasteful fight that America should have never have had anything to do with. Pearl Harbor destroyed isolationism overnight -- but with the end of the Cold War, the notion has been resurfacing. Why, as people ask, should America exert itself elsewhere instead of tending to its own garden? What does our meddling do but cause us no end of trouble and make us no friends?

The reality is that the international system that emerged in the wake of World War II, the Americans being the primary architects, still benefits the USA in many ways. It also benefits many other people, even some who claim they hate everything the US stands for.

Political scholars have identified four categories of international power:

Primacy provides a core to a system that other states want to join. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union attempted to challenge American primacy, but in the end failed completely. The successor Russian state merely sulks, frustrated at its lack of clout, unwilling to agreeably become a member of a system it cannot dominate. It's a self-defeating mindset, Russia remaining an underachiever on the world stage as long as the leadership refuses to grasp opportunities, beyond exploiting the weaknesses of states within its sphere of influence.

Where did American primacy come from? One factor is geography, America not having neighbors that present a threat, or have any desire to. Europe, Russia, China -- all have borders they worry about, with good historical cause. A second factor was that the USA was the only major power to emerge from World War II stronger than it was when it began, the others having been wrecked to a lesser or greater degree. In the aftermath, the US set up an international system that was much more benign than not, encouraging economic development even in the defeated Axis nations, promoting democracy when it could, setting up alliances, guaranteeing the security of allies, and working for open trade systems. Yes, the Pax Americana was not a golden age, most notably thanks to the Cold War, a massive waste of resources that often corrupted American ideals -- but even at that, the contrast with the sclerotic and ultimately doomed Soviet state shows that the alternative would have been much worse.

American traditions of democracy also proved a benefit, ironically because they ensured a certain turmoil in policy; changes in presidential administrations meant unworkable policies established by one administration could be reversed by another. Americans did meddle in other states in pursuit of American interests -- of course they would, of course they did -- but there little urge to conquest, and in places where Americans weren't welcome, they usually ended up leaving sooner or later.

The USA also very deliberately set up institutions such as the UN, the IMF, and the WTO to distribute power. The Americans did stack the rules of such organizations in their own favor, but on consideration of the alternative -- of America doing whatever it damn well pleased without discussion -- the UN and other international organizations look much better. Everyone complains about the UN, but to the extent it can work, it does. [TO BE CONTINUED]


[FRI 04 APR 14] THE COLD WAR (17)

* THE COLD WAR (17): At the Potsdam Conference, Truman pressed Stalin to help deal with the Japanese, and he was agreeable, saying planning was already in motion. The Soviet Union would move against Japan in mid-August. That was satisfying to Truman, but he was puzzled when he dropped hints on 24 July to Stalin that the US had developed a powerful new weapon -- the first atomic bomb had been tested on 16 July, the starting day of the conference -- and Stalin seemed completely disinterested.

Actually, the American nuclear development organization had been thoroughly infiltrated by Red spies; Truman hadn't been briefed on the program until after Roosevelt's death, while Stalin had known about the Bomb in detail long before Truman even knew it existed. Stalin complained in private over the failure of the Western Allies to inform him of the atomic bomb program -- indifferent to the fact that he had never told them anything but what he felt they needed to know, and lied to them when expedient.

On 26 July, the Americans, British, and Chinese issued the "Potsdam Declaration", calling for the unconditional surrender of Japan, providing assurances that the Japan would remain a sovereign if demilitarized state in the aftermath, and the Japanese people would not be enslaved or exterminated. Failure to comply would result in "prompt and utter destruction", a threat that Truman was now able to back up. The Japanese ignored the declaration. The Soviets were unhappy that they were not consulted on the matter -- but as they were told in reply, the USSR was not at war with Japan at the time and had previously avoided public declarations on the matter. The response was hard to argue with, but they still felt snubbed, resulting in a chilly conversation between Byrnes and Molotov.

Late in the meeting, Churchill returned home to Britain to see out the result of a general election. The result was that he was replaced by Labour's Clement Atlee, who took Churchill's place at Potsdam for the final days of the conference, though Atlee had neither the knowledge or the stature to contribute much to the proceedings. Revealingly, Stalin was astounded that Churchill had been evicted from office, demonstrating Stalin's complete inability to comprehend the notion of representative government. He had long been contemptuous of the way his Western counterparts worried about the electorate, judging it a ploy; how could a power politician like Churchill be simply thrown out of office so unceremoniously? How could Churchill have allowed anyone do such a thing to him? Heads would have all but literally rolled if anyone attempted to remove him from his position.

Stalin left Potsdam with causes for satisfaction, though he didn't get everything he wanted, the lack of agreement on reparations being a particularly sore point. However, it was all but the last act between the two sides where they resembled allies. Indeed, in the face of the fact that the Americans didn't press their objections objections to Soviet actions in Eastern Europe, Stalin went after more, demanding a border adjustment with Turkey and again pressing for Soviet military installations in the Turkish straits. He also arranged for an uprising of Iranian Azeris in an attempt to adjust the USSR's border with Iran. Stalin was merely probing; if he got what he wanted, fine, if he didn't, nothing lost.

None of the three efforts would pan out. Stalin's power was not unlimited, particularly in the new atomic era, and making demands he couldn't back up was self-defeating over the long run. Stalin did so anyway, that being all he knew how to do: having a hammer, he could only see nails. That Soviet aggressiveness beyond that implicit in the war with Hitler was likely to foster a militant anti-Soviet attitude in the West was either not a concern, or regarded as inevitable in any case.

* The Japanese had been very careful not to provoke Stalin while he fought Hitler, but with Hitler taken care of, Stalin could send the mighty Red Army east to the Manchurian border to take advantage of the weakness of the Japanese, who were clinging on desperately under terrible blows from the Americans. The Japanese were seeking an exit from the war, but only on their own terms, vainly attempting to broker a peace via the USSR. The Soviets told the Japanese that the Russo-Japanese neutrality treaty would not be renewed, but gave bland assurances to the Japanese that there was no cause for concern.

Stalin had planned to move in mid-August, but on 6 August 1945 the Americans dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Fearing that the war against Japan would be over before the USSR could claim spoils in the Far East, Stalin ordered the offensive to jump off immediately; it began on 9 August, the same day the Americans dropped a second atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Japan surrendered on 15 August.

Stalin had wanted to participate in the occupation of Japan, but the Americans were very cold to the proposal, and indeed only granted their other allies trivial participation in the exercise. Stalin also believed that the primary reason for dropping the two atomic bombs on Japan was to intimidate the Soviet Union -- which was a factor, but they would have been dropped even if it hadn't been. Stalin accelerated work on the Soviet atomic bomb program, codenamed ENORMOZ, with researchers leveraging off stolen American secrets. The postwar environment, generally expected to reflect a global desire for peace, was looking ever more confrontational even before the last shots of World War II were fired. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* GIMMICKS & GADGETS: Diabetes sufferers have to draw blood from themselves every day to check their blood glucose levels, the procedure being an ongoing nuisance. Now Google is working on a contact lens with a glucose sensor and a wireless chip that will be able to check glucose levels on a continuous basis without drawing blood. How it's powered was not mentioned; Google researchers did say their next-generation design will have embedded LEDs to give wearers an alert that their glucose levels are out of safe bounds. No date was given for availability.

* Growing crops in the Arabian Peninsula is somewhat troublesome. There's plenty of Sun power, but the heat tends to wither plants, and the only water that's plentiful is salty. As reported by AAAS SCIENCE NOW, a pilot project conducted by the Sahara Forest Project (SFP) in the Persian Gulf state of Qatar has figured out how to make these two factors work together to produce food, as well as biofuel, clean water, energy, and salt.

The core of the SFP plant is an innovative greenhouse. At one end, salt water is trickled over a gridlike curtain, with the prevailing wind blowing the resulting cool, moist air over the plants inside. At the other end of the greenhouse is a network of pipes with cold seawater running through them. Some of the moisture in the air condenses on the pipes and is collected, providing a source of fresh water for the plants. Using this scheme, three crops could be grown a year in the greenhouse, with yields comparable to those of commercial farms in Europe.

To the surprise of those working on the seawater greenhouse, the cool moist air leaking outside led to growth of plants around it. Taking the hint, crops were planted around the greenhouse, including barley, salad rocket, and useful desert plants. "Evaporative hedges" were also planted to help keep the external environment cool. Along with the greenhouse, the facility had a thermal solar electric power turbine system using a parabolic reflector to provide electricity for its operation. Other experiments conducted at the facility have included culturing heat-tolerant algae, growing salt-tolerant grasses for fodder or biofuel, and evaporating the concentrated saline the plant emits to produce salt.

The experimental facility is supported by Qatari fertilizer companies Yara International and Qafco. It has has a footprint of 1 hectare (2.5 acres), with the greenhouse having a growing area of 600 square meters (720 square yards). A facility with a footprint of 60 hectares could provide all the the cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants now imported into Qatar. For now, the SFP is focused on building a 20-hectare facility in Jordan, to demonstrate commercial feasibility.

* As discussed by an article from BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK, Craig Fugate -- as mentioned here in 2012, the current boss of the US Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) -- was, in his previous job in charge of emergency management for hurricane-prone Florida. It was not always easy to sort out where the damage was worst after a storm, but Fugate noticed that Waffle House restaurants, a popular chain in US East, Southeast, and Midwest, provided a useful indicator of how bad things were: they were GREEN (fully operational), YELLOW (limited menu), or RED (shut down).

Waffle House does disaster management

FEMA now makes good use of the "Waffle House Index" to get an immediate idea of patterns of destruction. It's not perfect, but it's a lot better than nothing, all the more so because the Waffle House chain is very tuned to disaster management. The company maintains a disaster management command center, has a fleet of portable generators, and trains its people do deal with disasters -- including making sure they report data to FEMA over email. In the aftermath, the Waffle House also supplies coffee and hot meals to victims and emergency responders. Think of it as a sort of catastrophe crowdsourcing.



* TINY WORLDS OF PLASTIC: A note run here in 2012 discussed how a species of oceanic insect is using the little shards of plastic that litter the North Pacific as breeding sites. An article from THE ECONOMIST ("Welcome To The Plastisphere", 20 July 2013), expanded on this theme, describing the discovery of "micro-ecologies" on such oceanic shards.

Tracy Mincer of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, in Massachusetts, and Linda Amaral-Zettler of the Marine Biological Laboratory, also in Woods Hole, collected pieces of plastic from various sites in the North Atlantic. They then examined each using DNA analysis, along with an electron microscope, to see what was living on it. Each little bit of debris turned out to be a micro-ecosystem, in total supporting about about 50 species of single-celled plant, animal, and bacterial life.

The bottom of the food chain in these micro-ecosystems was occupied by photosynthesizers, including single-celled diatoms and dinoflagellates, along with photosynthetic bacteria known as cyanobacteria. They're usually free-floating, but having a bit of plastic to ride allows them to stay near the surface, where they have the best access to sunlight. Plants of course are consumed by herbivores, with some dinoflagellates supplementing their photosynthesis with a bit of "grazing". Next up on the food chain were predators, including ciliates -- a type of protozoan -- and bacteria that consume other bacteria.

There were also residents that seemed to feed on the plastic itself. Plastics are energy-rich materials, which is why they often can burn so readily. Terrestrial bacteria and fungi are known that can feed off plastics, and the researchers found evidence of such feeders on the oceanic plastic shards as well. They noticed many of their pieces of debris featured surface pits around two microns across, about the size of a bacterial cell; closer analysis showed the pits did contain bacteria that were dividing and so presumably thriving. However, the researchers haven't confirmed these bacteria actually digest plastic.

The prospect of bacteria that digest oceanic plastics suggests that, over the long term, the problem of oceanic litter may solve itself, at least to a degree. However, to balance this optimistic note, the researchers also found cholera-like bacteria, that might possibly be transmitted to humans by birds or fish. Studies of the tiny micro-ecosystems continue and will keep on generating more surprises.

* WORLD UNDER THE SEAFLOOR: As reported by AAAS SCIENCE NOW Online, samples drilled from 3.5-million-year-old seafloor rocks have yielded strong evidence that a variety of microorganisms live deeply buried within the ocean's crust. These microbes survive by consuming methane and sulfate compounds, dissolved in the mineral-rich waters flowing through the immense networks of fractures in the crust. The new find confirms that the ancient lavas formed at mid-ocean ridges and found throughout deep ocean basins are, by volume, the largest ecosystem on Earth.

Other probes of the ocean floor have hinted at microbes under the ocean floor, but such investigations have been confounded by worries of contamination from microbes in the sea floor mud, or by mishandling. Mark Lever, a geomicrobiologist at Aarhus University in Denmark, and his colleagues performed the new study with great care. The samples of ancient lava, about 3.5 million years old, they analyzed came from a heavily fractured zone of crust between 351 and 583 meters (1,150 and 1,910 feet) below the sea floor a few hundred kilometers off the shore of Washington state.

After taking the samples back to the lab, the team sterilized the outside of the rocks, peeled away their outer layers, then incubated the exposed samples in 65 degree Celsius (150 degree Fahrenheit) waters similar to those infiltrating the sea floor at the site -- poor in oxygen but rich in chemicals such as dissolved hydrogen, sulfates, acetates, methanol, and dimethyl sulfide. After two years, enough time for some of the typically slow-growing rock-dwelling microbes to reproduce, samples of the fluid were transferred into another container of simulated seafloor waters, along with sterilized samples of rock that microbes could grow upon, and then incubated for another 5 years.

Analyses revealed that the long-incubated fluids contained low concentrations of methane, with a lower-than-normal concentration of the carbon-13 isotope -- a clear sign that methane-producing microorganisms were living in the fluid. Additional tests indicated that a separate group of microbes, ones that make their living by consuming sulfates, was also inhabiting the samples. The study has been praised for the care with which it was made, though much more needs to be learned about the populations of microbes deep below the ocean floor.



* ANOTHER MONTH: As reported by THE ECONOMIST, a maker of homeopathic nostrums named Terra-Medica got into trouble with the US Food & Drug Administration (FDA). Although homeopathics effectively contain nothing but water or sugar, it wasn't ineffectiveness that drew fire from the FDA, homeopathics being legal as long as they carefully qualify their claims. The problem with Terra-Medico's "Pleo" product was that it actually contained penicillin or some variation on it -- meaning that it was then subject to regulation.

According to a 2007 survey, in a year Americans spent $2.9 billion USD on homeopathics and $170 million USD on visits to homeopathic practitioners. Along the same lines, a recent study conducted by J. Eric Oliver of the University of Chicago and colleagues polled Americans on six popular medical conspiracy theories, and found that at least half believed one or more of them, for example:

To no surprise, respondents who scored high on conspiracy belief were also more likely to buy into alternative medicine. Oliver commented: "Science in general, medicine in particular, is complicated and cognitively challenging because you have to carry around a lot of uncertainty. To talk about epidemiology and probability theories is difficult to understand as opposed to: IF YOU PUT THIS SUBSTANCE IN YOUR BODY, IT'S GOING TO BE BAD."

* My Canon Powershot zoom camera having failed during my Albuquerque trip last fall, I considered buying a replacement, but decided to wait until 40 megapixel cameras came out. However, as will be discussed in detail later, in February I decided to make a trip to Arizona. There was no sign that 40 megapixel cameras were about to hit the streets in numbers any time soon; my older Canon SX10IS camera, with 20x zoom, would likely do well enough, but I figured as long as I was going on a trip, I might as well see if I could do better at a reasonable price point. Since I effectively travel to take pictures, it didn't make sense to go without having a camera I felt good about.

I got onto Amazon.com and looked around, getting nowhere at first, not finding anything that much better than the SX10IS -- but then I found the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ70, with 60x zoom and 16 megapixels. I've learned that high zoom is not necessarily such a benefit, but 60x was a really big jump, and it was tempting. Certainly it was clearly more capable than the SX10IS; I quickly caved in and ordered it.

In early March, I took the Lumix down to the Denver zoo for a test spin. My Canon Powershot zoom camera having failed at a relatively young age, I was babying the Lumix, transporting it in a padded case, and using my Canon Powershot pocket camera unless I needed the bigger gun. The day trip was a bust as far as photos went, but it was very successful in giving me practice with the cameras, particularly the Lumix's burst mode, valuable for airshow shots.

trip to the zoo, March 2014

I'd had cameras with multishot burst capability before, but the Lumix has a button on top to allow quick setting of the burst mode capability, and I found it very easy to use. Another trick was a panoramic mode, which I didn't dope out until later. I've owned cameras before with panoramic modes before, it's not a new thing, but for whatever reasons I never looked into the matter. The Lumix has that mode as part of the top dial settings, so it was easy try out: just hold down the shutter button, sweep from left to right, let off the shutter button, and it soaks up the full panoramic scene.

I was very impressed, though panning is a bit tricky to use. The problem is lighting can be uneven over the pan, so it's important to sweep in a steady motion -- first face the center of the scene to be recorded, then twist to the left, start panning and pivot steadily to the right. It's good to start and stop beyond the edges of the scene, so they can be trimmed off later, and it's also good to try multiple pans of the same scene at different rates, from fast to slow. I suspect that a change in lighting conditions, Sun going behind a cloud or the like, during the pan can cause trouble.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ70

One difficulty with the Lumix is that it has a fixed instead of flip-out LCD display, making it harder to take shots from over my head. That's not too much of a problem, since it's clearly an active-matrix LCD, the viewing angle being wide. The camera does have some noteworthy special features:

* The trip to the zoo was also to evaluate how much wear I could take on my feet. I had suffered serious foot pain from my fall 2012 trip to San Diego; I wanted to see if I could manage things to minimize such discomfort on the Arizona trip. I wore a new pair of athletic shoes to the zoo, with insole inserts, and carried bandaids along with a bottle of roll-on menthol solution so I could attend to problems as they arose.

Unfortunately, results were very poor, the toes on my left foot quickly becoming blistered. Since I wore my older shoes after I got back, I didn't realize for two weeks that I'd done something dumb: I'd pulled out the wadded-up paper that the new shoes had been packed with for shipment, but I'd missed a wad that was more or less conformal to the toe of the left shoe. It wasn't big enough to notice when I put on the shoe, but it was enough to raise hell after walking around for a while.

I got to wondering what was going on when I noticed the toe of the left shoe seemed more solid than the toe of the right. Having fixed that, I've been trying out both gel and foam insole inserts to see which works better, and also rubbing my feet down with lotion twice a day. It seems part of the problem is that the skin condition on my feet is poor, and the lotion helps -- somewhat. I was still worried the Arizona trip would beat the hell out of my feet.