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DayVectors

may 2014 / last mod jan 2017 / greg goebel

* 22 entries including: Cold War (series), US foreign policy (series), invention of 3M Post-it, ARM processors, smart pills, thorium reactors, motor rickshaws, urban hunting in the USA, providing assistance to bees, and taking a balanced view on climate.

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[FRI 30 MAY 14] NEWS COMMENTARY FOR MAY 2014
[THU 29 MAY 14] WINGS & WEAPONS
[WED 28 MAY 14] THE INVENTION OF THE POST-IT
[TUE 27 MAY 14] ARM CONQUERS THE WORLD, QUIETLY
[MON 26 MAY 14] AMERICA & THE WORLD (9)
[FRI 23 MAY 14] THE COLD WAR (24)
[THU 22 MAY 14] SPACE NEWS
[WED 21 MAY 14] SMART PILLS
[TUE 20 MAY 14] THORIUM REACTORS?
[MON 19 MAY 14] AMERICA & THE WORLD (8)
[FRI 16 MAY 14] THE COLD WAR (23)
[THU 15 MAY 14] SCIENCE NOTES
[WED 14 MAY 14] A PLAGUE OF TUKTUKS
[TUE 13 MAY 14] THE HUNT IS ON
[MON 12 MAY 14] AMERICA & THE WORLD (7)
[FRI 09 MAY 14] THE COLD WAR (22)
[THU 08 MAY 14] GIMMICKS & GADGETS
[WED 07 MAY 14] GIVING BEES A BREAK
[TUE 06 MAY 14] TAKING A BALANCED VIEW
[MON 05 MAY 14] AMERICA & THE WORLD (6)
[FRI 02 MAY 14] THE COLD WAR (21)
[THU 01 MAY 14] ANOTHER MONTH

[FRI 30 MAY 14] NEWS COMMENTARY FOR MAY 2014

* NEWS COMMENTARY FOR MAY 2014: BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK took a snapshot of the restless east Ukraine, where ethnic-Russian separatists have set up a "Donetsk People's Republic" -- having performed a referendum whose results, they claim, show the people want to become part of Russian Federation. That sounds uncomfortably like the game that was played that ended with Russia's annexation of Crimea a few months previously; the Kremlin, however, treated the matter with evident disinterest.

Had Russian President Vladimir Putin wanted to annex eastern Ukraine, he would have done it by now, outside observers estimating that Russian forces could overrun the region in days. According to Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, Putin has "no appetite or readiness to absorb eastern Ukraine." There's nothing of strategic value for Russia to grab there, and the Kremlin has no interest in getting directly involved in the region's civil war; a fight with Ukrainian forces, as admittedly weak as they are, would be a useless bother. In addition, annexation would mean further sanctions against a Russia whose economy is too dependent on trade with the outside world and is not doing well at the moment.

Putin's intent, according to Trenin, is to use Ukrainian instability to keep the country in chaos, or to impose a "federalization" that would grant substantial autonomy to eastern Ukraine -- the bottom line in either case being to keep Ukraine under Russian domination, out of the orbit of the European Union and NATO. For the moment, Russian propaganda is keeping the pot boiling in Ukraine, fomenting unrest while blaming all the problems on Western interference.

The unrest in the Ukraine and the Kremlin's bullying continues to worry Russia's neighbors. In April, Polish Defense Minister Tomasz Siemoniak visited Washington DC, to thank America for stationing a dozen F-16 fighters in Poland and to lobby for more US military co-operation with and involvement in that country. Poland is now involved in an energetic defense buildup. According to Siemoniak: "The history of several hundred years ... makes us focus in particular on what is happening now. We want to watch our interests. There is no other way for us to guarantee our security."

* In the latest news from the class-action lawsuit front, BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK reports that on 7 March, a California appellate court upheld a lower court's decision to overturn a liability verdict against Dole Food on damages from pesticide use in Nicaragua. Three days earlier, a Federal judge in New York had thrown out a judgement against Chevron on pollution complaints, determining that the case against Chevron had been built on a mountain of fabrications.

The Dole case, TELLEZ V. DOLE, involved a series of suits against the company that claimed its use of pesticides in the 1970s rendered a number of workers sterile. The case went to trial in 2008, resulting in a multi-million award to the plaintiffs; but Dole challenged the judgement, the company's lawyers demonstrating that witnesses and investigators had been intimidated or coached, while many of the plaintiffs had never worked for Dole and weren't sterile.

Similarly, Chevron's challenge against a 2011 ruling against that firm in an Ecuadorian court nailed those pushing the case on racketeering, documenting that they had engaged in extortion, bribery of judges, and fabrication of evidence. The primary law firm involved in the case dropped out, saying their involvement had been a "mistake" -- much to the satisfaction of Chevron, and the dismay of their clients.

That provides more evidence that the wave of class-action suits has passed its peak, but class-action suits are not close to dying out yet. Neither Congress nor the White House has demonstrated much interest in passing reform legislation -- lawyers having been generous in political donations, particularly to Democrats. That effectively tosses the problem into the laps of the states and the courts; for the time being, there's still money to be made by dodgy law firms in pursing class-action lawsuits.

* Another item from BUSINESSWEEK discussed how the state of Mississippi recently passed a law claiming the state could not "substantially burden" the religious freedom of citizens without "compelling justification". The rule was vague and unobjectionable on the surface, but it was obviously a lever to allow discrimination against gays under the guise of, as one advocate of the law put it, "protect[ing] Christians in the state against discrimination."

The measure traces back to the somewhat obscure Federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) of 1993, which provided enhanced guarantees of religious freedom. The RFRA wasn't a particularly big deal until the gay marriage issue arose. States agreeable to gay marriage began telling businesses that provided wedding services -- bakeries that sell wedding cakes, for example -- that they couldn't discriminate against same-sex couples. That wasn't such a big deal either, since most businesses are perfectly happy to make more money from gay couples. However, conservatives then started to lobby for laws to give businesses an out from serving same-sex couples, using the curious reasoning that denying the right of a group to discriminate was a form of discrimination.

Bills that specifically targeted gays, to no surprise, went nowhere, but a measure in Arizona using more general language was debated, though Arizona Governor Jan Brewer finally vetoed it. Although Arizona is conservative, the state takes its cue from their favorite son Barry Goldwater, who firmly believed that conservatism rested on the protection of the liberties of citizens. Mississippi was the first state to enact such an, ahem, "religious freedom" law.

That might not seem too surprising, a 2013 poll showing 69% of Mississippians were against gay marriage -- but that same poll revealed 66% were against allowing businesses to discriminate against people on the basis of their sexual orientation. Distaste for the gay lifestyle, it seems, does not necessarily outweigh distaste for injustice; Americans generally don't think that's what being an American is all about. Even more surprisingly, the measure has led to gay rights activism of a sort among Mississippi businesses, with thousands of them now displaying "If You're Buying, We're Selling" stickers in their windows. The movement is catching on in other states as well.

If You're Buying, We're Selling

ED: The gay rights movement is an irrelevance to myself, having no direct effect on my life one way or another. However, it's been fascinating to observe the progress of such a rapid wave of social change, and there's a certain mischievous pleasure in watching the world being turned upside down. I'm also amused because when I was in the US Army in Germany in 1974:1975, I speculated to a squadmate that the next phase in the cultural revolution of the era would be the acceptance of same-sex relationships. Then came the Reagan era and counter-revolution, and I forgot the matter for decades. I recall it now because it's one of the few expectations I had of the future that actually came true.

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[THU 29 MAY 14] WINGS & WEAPONS

* WINGS & WEAPONS: On 8 March 2014 Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, made an abrupt turn off its flight path and then disappeared with all its passengers and crew. Intensive searching for MH370 since that time has not turned up a trace of it.

The obvious question is how a jetliner could simply vanish in an era of global wireless communications; it would hardly seem difficult to keep track of an aircraft's position on an ongoing basis. CEO Rupert Pearce of London-based satellite operator Inmarsat PLC thinks it's an idea whose time is overdue, saying the missing flight "is a wake-up call to the industry to improve safety."

Inmarsat was founded in 1979 by the International Maritime Organization to help ships maintain an emergency communications link regardless of their location. Inmarsat is now offering a free tracking service for roughly 11,000 commercial airplanes fitted with its equipment. The company says its ten satellites will gather location, speed, heading, and altitude data four times per hour. If there is a flight issue, the company would be able quickly to determine a flight's location.

Some called the Inmarsat offer opportunism, it being obvious that Inmarsat's control of tracking services would give the organization dominance in its market segment, providing an entering wedge for selling a wide range of other services. That something is going to be done is not in doubt, but the matter will be talked out at length first. Robert Mann, an airline industry analyst, commented: "Since -- so far, at least -- no passengers are refusing to fly due to lack of real-time tracking, I anticipate the industry's reaction will be to wait and see what is mandated and over what time horizon, which is what they usually do."

* The US military's interest in battlefield lasers was discussed here last in 2009, one of the technologies in the list being the "fiber optic laser (FOL)", which is essentially a fiber optic threat jazzed up to provide laser action. According to AVIATION WEEK, Lockheed Martin is bullish on the FOL, having demonstrated a 30 kilowatt (kW) FOL, now working on a 60 kW FOL for a US Army demonstration in 2017, and a 100 kW FOL to be tested in 2017.

Rob Afzal, a Lockheed Martin researcher working on FOLs, said that FOLs are efficient, over 30%; relatively cheap; and have excellent beam quality. The 30 KW / 30% efficiency figures were cited in the 2009 article and are not news; what is news is that Lockheed Martin has developed a scheme named "spectral beam combining" that is highly effective, much simpler than phase manipulation used in other work on ganging lasers. According to Afzal: "It's like a prism in reverse. [Instead of breaking up a beam,] we take a number of beams, each with a slightly different wavelength, and bounce them off a grating. Off comes a single beam with all the beams sitting on top of each other."

Afzal said the laser system is "fundamentally scalable" by adding lasers, with no real obstacle to scaling to more than 100 kW. All lasers or a subset of them in an array could be operated at one time, with individual lasers capable of being operated at different power levels, giving a fully controllable range of output power. The array could be used for communications and sensing, to blind threat sensors, or to destroy incoming threats. FOL array technology sounds promising, though it should be remembered that battlefield lasers have been just around the corner for a long time.

* In related news, The Israeli "Iron Dome" rocket / artillery defense system was discussed here early last year. Now Rafael, the builder of the system, has presented another card in their hand, a high-power solid-state laser system named "Iron Beam" to complement the little interceptor rockets of Iron Hand. The collaborative system is to be named "Iron Shield", and will be fielded by 2017. It appears that Iron Beam has a relatively limited power output, being positioned as a "back-up" defense for Iron Dome, taking out incoming rounds coming in under Iron Dome's engagement envelope. Limited power is also suggested by the fact that Iron Beam will be able to operate continuously using its own generator system.

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[WED 28 MAY 14] THE INVENTION OF THE POST-IT

* THE INVENTION OF THE POST-IT: The "Post-it" note scheme has become a universal office technology and has made a fortune for its manufacturer, the Minnesota Mining & Manufacturing (3M) Corporation. The tale of its origin -- in an experimental glue that turned out to be too weak, this flaw ending up being a Zen virtue -- is popularly known, but the details are not. They were provided by an article from INVENTION & TECHNOLOGY magazine ("Post-it Notes" by Alexander Rose, Winter 2011).

The story is perfectly true, but it wasn't like there was a "Eureka!" moment that led to the Post-it; it was much more of a trial-&-error process, as is the norm in the real world. In 1968, 3M chemist Spencer Silver developed a new adhesive based on "inherently tacky elastomeric copolymer microspheres". Objects could be attached to a surface carrying the glue over and over again, with no residue left on the object. The difficulty was that the glue wasn't all that sticky; 3M management wanted stronger glues, not weaker ones, and Silver's glue got a thumb's down. Silver was persistent and came up with the idea of a bulletin board coated with the glue; people could then stick notes and notices on the board. Unfortunately, the board was a bust, since it also drew dust and got dirty in a hurry.

Silver was still certain his glue had potential and he kept on showing it off every chance he had. In 1974 another 3M chemist, Art Fry, heard Silver's pitch and had an idea. Fry was a church-goer and had a well-used hymnal; he would use pieces of paper to bookmark the hymns for a service, but the bookmarks tended to fall off. Fry thought Silver's glue would keep the bookmarks in place, and not leave any sticky residue when the bookmarks were removed.

The bookmark idea was workable, but since the bookmarks were reusable, 3M management didn't see a lot of volume in their sales. However, colleagues playing with the sticky bookmarks found they were great for posting notes. The management liked that idea, though they thought the sticky notes should be distributed on rolls -- after all, 3M made Scotch tape, it was the way the company thought. Fry suggested it would be better to sell them in stacks, with the notes glued across the back top edge; it would be easier to write on them that way. In 1977 a trial of what was called "Press 'n Peel" was run in four US cities. Customer response was unencouraging, but further trials were conducted and went better, with the "Post-it" product formally introduced in the USA in 1980. The product taking off, it was introduced in Canada and Europe the next year.

The initial Post-it product offering was in two sizes -- 7.6 x 12.7 centimeters (3 x 5 inches) and 3.8 x 5 centimeters (1.5 x 2 inches), the only color being canary yellow. The tale is that initial work was done on pads of yellow paper that just happened to be handy; the notes stood out when posted, so yellow was adopted as standard. Soon Post-its had conquered the world, with 3M diversifying the product line into more colors, more sizes, and numerous variations on the theme.

Post-its forever!

3M has made shiploads of money off the Post-it; since the company owned rights to the technology, neither Fry nor Silver made a royalty off of it, though the invention was healthy for their careers. Fry retired in 1992, Silver following in 1996 -- with both no doubt registering great satisfaction as the wave of "Post-it" art wars that, as discussed here in 2012, swept the globe, with bored office workers competing to create the biggest and gaudiest Post-it artworks.

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[TUE 27 MAY 14] ARM CONQUERS THE WORLD, QUIETLY

* ARM CONQUERS THE WORLD, QUIETLY: As discussed by an article from BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK ("99% Of The World's Mobile Devices Contain an ARM Chip" by Ashlee Vance, 10 February 2014), while most of the public is familiar with Intel, the giant chipmaker whose processors drive hundreds of millions of PCs and servers shipped every year, relatively few have heard of Advanced RISC Machines (ARM) -- even though the number of products containing an ARM processor is about 25 times greater than those with an Intel processor.

ARM processors are found in 99% of the world's smartphones and tablets; they can be found in every iPhone and iPad, as well as most Kindle e-readers and Android devices. They are found embedded in a wide range of machines, including cars, TVs, medical devices, and smart thermostats. About 4.3 billion people, 60% of the Earth's population, directly interact with an ARM device each day. According to ARM CEO Simon Segars, the 50 billionth product containing an ARM processor was shipped in late 2013, and he expects the number to double in a few years. ARM, based in Cambridge, England, reported sales in 2013 to be over a billion USD for the first time, up 22% from 2012, and its stock price has been soaring.

However, even though ARM processors handily outsell Intel processors by a big factor, Intel currently makes about fifty times as much revenue. That's because ARM runs on a much more austere business strategy. The firm started out in the 1980s, focusing on low-power cheap processors for the mobile market; Nokia was the first to make use of the ARM processor in smartphones, with other vendors following to turn it into an effective standard for mobile computing. The ARM firm, however, never had or wanted to have a chokehold on this market. While Intel has its own fabrication facilities and can bring in dollars for each of its CPUs, ARM simply licenses their designs to others to fabricate, and only brings in pennies.

ARM has never made money commensurate to its footprint in the processor market, even though some vendors using ARM chips have raked in the dough. Segars commented that while Intel established a brand presence. ARM never "really bothered with that. We've bothered on making it small, making it low-power, and building a big ecosystem that thrives on choice."

In short, ARM can only compete with giant Intel using an asymmetric, guerrilla strategy. Segars believes that this asymmetry still gives ARM and its business strategy leverage, and is now working to eat into Intel's home turf. Google has teamed with a number of technology giants to offer low-cost Chromebook laptops running ARM chips, while chipmakers such as Samsung and Nvidia are peddling ARM-based chips for the server market.

Intel retains control in the high end of the market and is fighting back, having developed the low-power Atom processor line to compete with ARM, peddling them to mobile-device manufacturers in the Far East. Industry analysts doubt that ARM can beat Intel at its own game; Segars apparently agrees, being willing to take whatever he can get without giving up the firm's guerrilla strategy: "Our customers have got choice. And if we ultimately are too arrogant, too greedy, then it might not be tomorrow, but at some point people will start to exercise that choice."

Snapdragon 801

* ED: Poking around on the latest generation of "superchips" based on ARM cores, such as Qualcomm's Snapdragon 801, show them to be extremely impressive one-chip solutions: quad 64-bit ARM cores; a graphics processing unit that can provide shiny fast game-console-class video; camera support, with video encoding (plus decoding); and every interface that might be desired, including audio, USB, wi-fi & bluetooth, HDMI, and so on. Although it's unclear how much the Snapdragon 801 costs -- some online comments suggest about $25 USD -- it is clear that the cost of such "systems on chip" is continuing to fall, and so will items such as smartphones and tablets.

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[MON 26 MAY 14] AMERICA & THE WORLD (9)

* AMERICA & THE WORLD (9): What about America's economic power? The global financial crisis of 2008, the worst since 1929, was a major blow to the US economy. The banks wrote off bad loans to the tune of $885 billion USD; American government debt climbed from 66% of GDP to over 100%; 5.4 million Americans lost their jobs; and the average GDP per person fell by 5%, or over $2,200 USD.

The silver lining was that it could have been much worse. 2008 was not 1929; there were no shantytown "Hoovervilles", and there was no government intervention on the scale of the New Deal. Now the worst is over: unemployment is falling, as is the government deficit, and the stock market has recouped its losses. In 2009, only three of the world's ten largest companies by value were American; today, eight are, if less from growth than by the diminishment, hopefully temporary, of overseas competitors.

A return to prosperity reinforces American primacy. Supporting a big military machine is expensive; it's hard to do it with a weak economy. Just as importantly, maybe more so, American influence is directly supported by economic power: one of the reasons America outlasted the Soviet Union in the Cold War was simply because the USA was so much richer than the USSR, the American superstore running the shabby Soviet shop out of business. The superstore still commands attention today.

Grumblings from the Left aside, America has always been proud of its capitalistic energy, and as the recession slowly fades away, American capitalism is resurging. The USA remains a powerhouse in advanced technology industries, in the entertainment industry, in business services, and in finance. Manufacturing, where it has declined, seems poised for at least a gradual comeback, thanks to advanced manufacturing automation that reduces the economic requirement to offshore production.

However, America has lost ground relative to the rest of the world. Partly that was inevitable; the USA was so overwhelmingly dominant in the decades after World War II just because it was the only major power that hadn't been beaten to a pulp in the global cataclysm -- and of course, competitors were certain to re-emerge in time. Unfortunately, in the present era, there's a component that wasn't inevitable, in the form of the Federal government's failure to put its own economic house in order, with political gridlock tangling up rational policy to deal with the US government budget and deficit.

The USA is not close to a crisis over the matter yet, but the continued stalemate and appearance of paralysis does much to undermine America's self-confidence and international authority. Allies no longer feel certain of obtaining American assistance; adversaries no longer feel as reluctant to challenge the USA. These are not issues of concern to hyper-partisan members of Congress, who only really care about their fringe ideologies and their own constituency, in that order. There have been hopeful signs that the era of fratricidal political warfare is ending, but it's too early yet to feel very optimistic. [TO BE CONTINUED]

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[FRI 23 MAY 14] THE COLD WAR (24)

* THE COLD WAR (24): Kim Il-Sung had been asking Stalin for support in a military offensive to unify Korea for several years, but Stalin had seen no advantage in doing so. Now that the USSR had the Bomb, while the Soviets and Chinese had a friendship treaty, a perceived advantage had appeared. The Americans had demonstrated a clear reluctance to become involved on the Asian mainland, having done nothing of significance to frustrate Mao Zedong's eviction of the Nationalist Chinese regime. The US had also refused to back Syngman Rhee in his ambitions to strike north, even withdrawing troops from Korea lest Rhee drag America into an unwanted war. The perception in Washington DC was that Rhee's forces would be strong enough to withstand an assault from the north.

That perception was mistaken, Rhee's Republic of Korea Army (ROKA) troops disintegrating in front of the onslaught of Kim's Korean People's Army (KPA) forces. Seoul fell on 28 June, but the KPA failed to annihilate the ROKA, giving time for the Americans to respond. President Truman initially ordered General Douglas MacArthur, the US commander in charge of Japan, to supply materiel to the ROKA, and provide air cover to support the extraction of American citizens from Korea.

Korea wasn't a place the Americans would have chosen to fight for, but a Korea unified under a Communist government was a threat to nearby Japan, which was for the moment effectively an American protectorate, and more significantly the Reds were challenging American power in a highly assertive way. Given the strident anti-Communist rhetoric gripping America at the time, there was no way Truman could have refused to pick up the gauntlet.

Truman didn't want to declare war, partly because he didn't want to overplay the matter, and partly because it would be time-consuming, instead seeking authority for intervention under the United Nations. UN Secretary General Trygve Lie was enthusiastic, the invasion having unpleasantly reminded him of the Nazi assault on Norway in 1940. The day of the invasion, the UN called for North Korean forces to withdraw; on 27 June, the UN called for member states to provide aid to the ROK.

The resolutions were passed because the current Soviet ambassador to the UN, Jacob Malik, had been boycotting Security Council meetings in protest against the continued occupation of China's P5 seat by the Nationalists on Taiwan instead of mainland Communist government. The Soviets would greatly regret their boycott and wouldn't ever sit it out again; whatever the limitations of the UN, the superpowers couldn't simply ignore its existence. The Soviets would also not forgive Lie for his partisanship against the Red cause. Neither the US Congress nor the public raised any serious objection to Truman's initiatives at the outset, though that wouldn't last.

On 7 July, a resolution set up a "United Nations Command (UNC)" under MacArthur. The war was really an American show, with the calls being made by the White House and the US military chain of command, with the UN having no real authority in decision-making. Although 15 UN member states also contributed forces, they were collectively a minority in the UNC, and outside of British Commonwealth forces -- Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand -- they amounted to little more than token commitments. However, UN backing did establish international legitimacy for the American war effort in Korea.

The UN involvement in the conflict cast an uncertain light on FDR's expectation that the organization would keep the peace in the postwar world; the reality was that when a great power chose to intervene in a conflict, the UN could do little more than grant or withhold endorsement. The UN itself would intervene to keep the peace only in conflicts where the great powers didn't feel like becoming directly involved and did not object to UN intervention. The endorsement was valuable to the Americans -- but it created a significant liability to the UN in that the US would be inclined to value the United Nations to the extent that the organization supported American policy. In hindsight, it is difficult to see how it could have been otherwise.

Such forces as America could send into Korea over the short run were weak and poorly prepared for action, and by July they had fallen back, along with ROK troops, into a perimeter around Pusan in the southeast corner of the country. The lines held; the North Korean push had run out of steam. The ROKA and the US Eighth Army, under Lieutenant General Walton H. Walker, built up strength from supplies shipped in through Pusan. Lacking control of the sea and the air, the North Koreans were unable to isolate the Pusan corridor. US Air Force fighters and fighter-bombers, along with US Navy and Marine air assets, ramped up their hammerings of KPA forces beyond the perimeter; US Navy warships performed bombardments in coastal regions.

In mid-August 1950, the KPA conducted an offensive to break the Pusan perimeter, failing and being badly bloodied in the attempt. Then, on 14 September, MacArthur landed 70,000 troops at Inchon, the port outlet of Seoul on the west coast of Korea. The Americans entered Seoul on 25 September; the KPA now found itself threatened with being cut off and destroyed, with survivors of the force marching north to escape the trap. They conscripted civilians for labor as they withdrew, executing other civilians they judged class enemies; as ROK forces moved back into the areas evacuated by the KPA, they performed executions of their own. The last few weeks of September were hell on earth for the Korean people.

By 1 October, the prewar status quo had been effectively restored. The crushing of North Korea's forces proved exhilarating; there was a strong temptation to drive north and eliminate North Korea for good. The difficulty was that implied a drastic turn in war goals: no longer was the objective to halt aggression, it was to destroy the aggressor. That meant escalation, a new sort of war. [TO BE CONTINUED]

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[THU 22 MAY 14] SPACE NEWS

* Space launches for April included:

-- 02 APR 14 / SENTINEL 1A -- A Soyuz 2-1b booster was launched from Kourou in French Guiana at 2106 GMT (local time + 3) to put the ESA "Sentinel 1A" radar Earth observation satellite into Sun-synchronous near-polar orbit. Sentinel 1A was built by Thales Alenia Space of France / Italy; it had a launch mass of 2,155 kilograms (4,755 pounds), a design life of seven years, and carried a C-band synthetic aperture radar system, with electronic steering, built by Airbus Defense & Space. The multi-mode radar had a best resolution of 5 meters (16 feet) over an 80 kilometer (50 mile) swath width, but it could image a swath up to 450 kilometers (280 miles) wide, with correspondingly worse resolution. It could image the entire Earth every twelve days.

Sentinel 1A

Sentinel 1A kicked off the European "Copernicus" program, an effort to provide Earth surveillance for a wide range of uses, particularly disaster relief. Copernicus leveraged off older satellites already in orbit; Sentinel 1A was to be followed by a series of other satellites, the first being "Sentinel 1B", another similar radarsat; then two "Sentinel 2" satellites, with multi-spectral imagers and primarily for land imaging; two "Sentinel 3", with the same bus as Sentinel 2 but optimized for ocean observations. Sentinel 2 and 3 will be smaller, able to be launched on Vega or Rockot light boosters. Later efforts will perform atmospheric studies as well.

-- 03 APR 14 / DMSP F19 -- An Atlas 5 booster was launched from Vandenberg AFB at 1446 GMT (local time + 7) to put the "Defense Meteorological Satellite Program 19" spacecraft into space for the US Air Force. Built by Lockheed Martin, DMSP 19 was a polar-orbiting military weather satellite; it had a launch mass of 1,225 kilograms (2,700 pounds), and carried an observation payload including a visible-infrared linescan sensor and a microwave sounder. The booster was in the "401" configuration, with a 4 meter (13.1 foot) fairing, no solid rocket boosters, and a single-engine Centaur upper stage.

-- 09 APR 14 / SOYUZ / PROGRESS 55P (ISS) -- A Soyuz booster was launched from Baikonur at 1526 GMT (local time - 6) to put the "Progress 55P / M-23M" tanker-freighter spacecraft into orbit on an International Space Station (ISS) supply mission. It performed a fast ascent trajectory, docking with the ISS Pirs module six hours after launch. It was the 55th Progress mission to the ISS.

-- 09 APR 14 / OFEQ 10 -- An Israeli Shavit-2 solid-fuel booster was launched at 1915 GMT (local time - 3) from Palmachim Air Base, near Tel Aviv, to put the "Ofeq (Horizon) 10" spy satellite into orbit. While details of the spacecraft were classified, it was known to be a radar surveillance satellite -- the second flown by Israel, the first being "Ofeq 8", launched in 2008 by an Indian booster. Israel Aerospace Industries was the prime contractor for the Shavit-2 booster and the satellite.

-- 10 APR 14 / NROL-67 -- An Atlas 5 booster was launched from Cape Canaveral at 1745 GMT (local time + 4) to put a secret military payload into space for the US National Reconnaissance Office (NRO). The payload was designated "NROL-67"; it was placed in geostationary orbit, suggesting it was a data relay or signals intelligence satellite. The booster was in the "541" configuration, with a 5 meter (16.4 foot) fairing, four solid-rocket boosters, and an upper stage with a single engine.

-- 16 APR 14 / EGYPTSAT 2 -- A Russian Soyuz-U booster was launched from Baikonur in Kazakhstan at 1620 GMT (local time - 6) to put the "EgyptSat 2" remote sensing satellite into orbit, for Egypt's National Authority for Remote Sensing and Space Sciences. The spacecraft was built by RSC Energia of Moscow, had a launch mass of 1,050 kilograms (2,315 pounds), carried an imager with a best resolution of a meter, and had a design life of 11 years. The imager operated in the visible and infrared; it could take single-scene or stereo imagery in a swath width up to 1,400 kilometers (870 miles) wide.

-- 18 APR 14 / SPACEX DRAGON CRS3 -- A SpaceX Falcon 9 booster was launched from Cape Canaveral at 1925 GMT (local time + 4), carrying the third operational "Dragon" cargo capsule to the International Space Station (ISS). It hooked up with the ISS Harmony module 40 hours later, at 1114 GMT on 20 April. The cargo included a habitat to grow red romaine lettuce, it seems more as science experiment than to provide food, and legs for Robonaut 2, a partial android currently on the station. The capsule returned to Earth on 18 May, splashing down in the Pacific with a return load of more than 450 kilograms (1,000 pounds).

The Falcon 9 also released a triple-length CubeSat named "KickSat", which carried 104 "Sprite" femtosatellites, essentially little circuit boards about 3 centimeters (a bit over an inch) on each side. It was given its name because it was funded by crowdsourcing via the Kickstarter website. Unfortunately, the KickSat failed to eject the Sprites and finally burned up on re-entry. The first stage of the Falcon 9 had landing legs, and the stage performed controlled burns on descent to experiment with soft landing procedures.

-- 18 APR 14 / LUCH 5V, KAZSAT 3 -- A Proton M Breeze M booster was launched from Baikonur at 0425 GMT (local time - 6) to put the "Luch 5V" geostationary spacecraft data relay comsat and the "Kazsat 3" civil geostationary communications satellite into orbit. Both spacecraft were built by the Reshetnev organization of Russia. Luch 5V was operated by the Russian government to support data transmission from Russian spacecraft, along the lines of the US TDRSS relay satellites; it was the third in the Luch 5 fleet, satellites having previously been launched in 2011 and 2012. Luch 5V had a launch mass of 1,140 kilograms (2,515 pounds) and carried a payload of Ku-band and S-band transponders. It was placed in the geostationary slot at 167 degrees east longitude.

Kazsat 3 was owned and operated by the government of Kazakhstan. It was the third in the Kazsat series, earlier spacecraft having been launched in 2006 and 2011. It carried a payload of 28 Ku-band transponders, provided by Thales Alenia Space, and had a design life of 15 years. It was placed in the geostationary slot at 58.5 degrees east longitude to provide TV and fast internet data services to Kazakhstan.

-- 30 APR 14 / KAZEOSAT 1 (DZZ-HR) -- A Vega booster was launched from Kourou in French Guiana at 0135 GMT (previous day local time + 3) to put the "DZZ-HR" AKA "KazEOSat 1" Earth observation satellite into Sun-synchronous orbit for the Republic of Kazakhstan. The spacecraft was built by Airbus Defense & Space; it carried an imaging payload with a best resolution of a meter, providing multi-spectral and panchromatic imagery; had a launch mass of 830 kilograms (1,830 pounds); and featured a design life of 7.5 years.

KazEOSat 1

* OTHER SPACE NEWS: The Russian government, in response to American economic sanctions against Russia for the annexation of Crimea, has now made threats relative to US-Russian co-operation in space, saying that Russia will no longer export the rocket engines that power the US Atlas V booster, and hinting that Russia will not participate in the ISS after 2020. Since at present, astronauts of all other participants can only get to the ISS via Russian Soyuz space capsules, that would in principle cut off access to the station.

Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin rubbed in the sanctions with snark: "I propose the United States deliver its astronauts to the ISS with help of a trampoline." The threats were judged mostly noise; the Russians make good money off rocket engine sales to the US, and nothing was written in stone about Russian policy to the ISS. The US has been funding work on commercially-made space vehicles for access to the ISS, such as a crew-rated derivative of the SpaceX Dragon cargo capsule; with the Russians making a fuss, it seems more likely a replacement for the Soyuz will be available by 2020.

* NASA has other concerns, a big one being the slow rise of sea levels. Five of seven major NASA facilities are on the coasts, with the Kennedy Space Center in Florida and the Wallops Island launch facility in Virginia being particularly threatened. A NASA official at the Langley Research Center, also in Virginia, said: "Retreat is the way to go here, because you just can't, like, get up and move. The infrastructure is too great here. They are tearing down buildings that are at the water's edge and building new structures as far back as we can against the fence of the property line."

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[WED 21 MAY 14] SMART PILLS

* SMART PILLS: The notion of a "smart pill", a pill that can report when it's been consumed, was mentioned briefly here in 2010. An article from BBC WORLD Online ("The Pill That Texts The Doctor" by Fiona Graham, 8 August 2013), took a more detailed look at the concept.

According to the UN World Health Organization, around 50% of patients fail to take medicines correctly, and over 50% of drugs are prescribed, dispensed or sold inappropriately. This is is not just bad for patients; it costs healthcare providers millions every year. Technology is seen as at least part of the answer. There are already drug-reference apps such as Micromedex to provide information on what drugs are available and what they can do, which is useful for preventing misdiagnoses, but they're of little use for reminding people to take their pills -- a different challenge, as described by Andrew Thomson, boss of Proteus Digital Health, a California technology start-up:

BEGIN QUOTE:

Human beings aren't robots, and if they're asked to take medicines or do anything that requires very high levels of routine repetition, they are going to find that really tough. The biggest burdens in our health system are about chronic disease, and people typically who have some type of chronic disease need to take medicines every day. And they need to take them appropriately. And what we know is that most people don't actually do that very well.

END QUOTE

Proteus is working on smart pills that can text or tweet to announce they've been taken. It's not blue-sky science fiction, though the firm takes its name with the PROTEUS, the miniaturized submarine sent through the human body in the cult 1960s movie FANTASTIC VOYAGE. The key is a tiny, cheap ingestible sensor that is more or less powered by the body. As Thomson described it:

BEGIN QUOTE:

If you stick a bit of copper and a bit of magnesium in a potato and you wire it up, you can power a lightbulb. It's a simple bit of chemistry that says two dissimilar metals in an ionic solution create an electrical charge. What we have done is to take two absolutely required dietary minerals, one is copper and one is magnesium, and put them on a grain of sand that's less than a millimeter square in a way that means that when we combine it with a drug, when you swallow it you become a potato.

END QUOTE

The ionic fluid is stomach acid. Enough voltage is generated to power the sensor, which communicates with a small bandaid-like patch worn by the patient, the patch also tracking vital signs, movement and sleep. The patch in turn sends all of the data it acquires to an application residing in the digital cloud. The app can be accessed from a smartphone, tablet, or PC, and programmed to send an alert to family, caregivers, or healthcare professionals to say the pills have been taken. This is extremely important when timing or missing a dose derails the treatment. As Thomson said: "Effectively when you swallow one of our digital drugs, it will say: Hello, I'm here, I'm Novartis, I'm Diovan, 1.2 mg, I'm from plant number 76, I'm batch number 12, and I'm pill number 2."

The application can also track the drug's effects -- whether it's been prescribed at the right dosage, or if it simply isn't working. The smart pill is being piloted by the Lloyds pharmacy chain.

Dr. Patrick Hymel and Dr. Stephen Brossette are taking a different, essentially complementary approach with their "MedSnap" app, which performs drug identifications. A doctor or pharmacist takes a photo using a smartphone of all the different tablets a patient is taking, and the app then identifies them. It also flags up any potentially harmful interactions. Hymel said: "We measure pills to within a tenth of a millimeter. We can interpret over 240,000 shades of color, and then we read the imprints with some very sophisticated custom-built character recognition technology."

The images of pills are matched to a knowledge base. Each pill requires a minimum of 60 images (capsules over 100) drawn from the collections of academic medical centers, hospitals, and drug distributors. The app also learns as more images are taken in the field. Recognition rate is well over 99%. A version of the app aimed at patients, MedSnap PT, is due to be launched in early 2014, and there are plans to use the technology to detect supply chain errors and counterfeit medications. There's no way that we can ever completely eliminate errors, error is a fact of life, but at least we can drive the error rate down.

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[TUE 20 MAY 14] THORIUM REACTORS?

* THORIUM REACTORS? As discussed by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("Asgard's Fire", 12 April 2014), everyone is familiar with uranium, element 92, and plutonium, element 94, both being used as fuels in nuclear reactors. However, most have not heard of thorium, element 90. This is ironic in that thorium is about three or four times more common than uranium -- and vastly more common than plutonium, which is a synthetic element that undergoes radioactive decay so rapidly as to ensure it is effectively not found in nature.

There's no practical uses of thorium of any significance at the present time, but if it were possible to use it as a nuclear fuel for reactors, its abundance would make it very attractive. It was realized from early in the nuclear age that it can be used as a fuel, but so far nobody has built an operational thorium reactor. Now India and China are in a race of sorts to make use of long-underappreciated thorium.

India has plenty of thorium in the ground; the Indira Gandhi Center for Atomic Research in Kalpakkam, Tamil Nadu, is already running a small experimental thorium reactor, while Bhabha Atomic Research Center in Mumbai is designing a full-scale thorium reactor that, hopefully, will be operational in the next decade. China appears to have a bigger program, with 430 researchers in the employ of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, with hundreds more staff being hired. They hope to have a prototype thorium reactor operational in 2015.

Another irony of thorium is that, in itself, it is not a fission fuel. However, if a thorium reactor is "seeded" with enriched uranium or plutonium to generate neutrons, the neutrons will convert thorium-232, the most common isotope, into the uranium-233 isotope, which is fissionable. Once seeded, the thorium reactor will be self-sustaining, with the fission breakdown of uranium-233 converting more thorium-232 into fuel.

Thorium can be "burned" in a conventional reactor, but the preferred configuration is the "liquid fluoride thorium reactor (LFTR)". The idea is to convert thorium into a fluoride; mix it with fluorides of beryllium and lithium to bring the melting point down from 1,110 degrees Celsius (2,030 degrees Fahrenheit) to 360 C / 680 F; and melt the mixture. The liquefied fuel mix is then pumped into a specially-designed reactor core, where fission raises the temperature to 700 C / 1,290 F; the hot fuel mix is driven to a heat exchanger, where it warms a working fluid, such as carbon dioxide or helium, which drives a turbogenerator to produce electricity. The LFTR still needs to be seeded by uranium or plutonium, but again the process is self-sustaining after being initiated, and the seed material can be sifted out of the fuel flow stream.

The LFTR has a number of advantages:

In a third irony, one of the biggest benefits was why work on thorium was given up for so long: it's hard to turn it into a Bomb. The US set off one or two uranium-233 weapons in the 1950s and India tested one in the 1990s, but nobody wanted to follow up those tests. Uranium-233 weapons are touchy and susceptible to "predetonation", one issue being that the decay of uranium-233 tends to produce a lot of gamma radiation, which tends to fry the circuitry controlling the bomb, and makes such weapons a continuous hazard to handle.

So what's not to like about thorium? Atomic power still remains, for valid reasons, a troublesome issue -- but if it's going to be done, thorium seems like one of the better options.

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[MON 19 MAY 14] AMERICA & THE WORLD (8)

* AMERICA & THE WORLD (8): For now, America's military forces face a future of more counter-insurgency conflicts -- but there's a worry that with the end of the present struggles, the military will simply forget about COIN all over again, all the more so as the drawdown takes experienced officers and troops out of the ranks, while leaving the brass more worried about funding cutbacks than in preparing for the next fight. Funding has to be set appropriately for the mission, and without consideration of the mission, there's no way to set rational funding levels. As Admiral Mullen said: "I am tired of interventionists picking up a stick without a strategy, without knowing the political and diplomatic outcome."

The US military machine certainly remains formidable, not merely in scale but in its impressive miltech -- not just powerful weapons, but also a presence from undersea into near space, space being a particular growth market. The military services of any nation have a tendency to bicker among themselves, but American forces have largely overcome their differences to become masters of "combined arms" operations, fighting in a coordinated fashion in all environments simultaneously. That is partly enabled by digital revolution in warfare, in which combat forces communicate in real time with each other over an entire battle zone. That digital revolution feeds into growing automation in warfare, helping smaller numbers of troops fight more efficiently. Surely, the leadership should be able to put such capabilities to the best use, as long as we understand when force has to be put to use.

In the background of the era of dirty little wars, the US retains its nuclear forces. What value does the Bomb have for fighting a COIN conflict? In itself, none at all. Nuclear forces simply help ensure that we still have dirty little wars, in preference to big catastrophic ones that nobody expects to fight.

Alas, underlying the logic of nuclear deterrence in preserving the peace are the tendencies of the system towards instability. Rogue states desperately want the Bomb, while being the last nations anyone would want to see have them. The USA works with its allies to restrain the nuclear ambitions of North Korea and Iran through diplomacy, a process that is inevitably lengthy, wearying, and uncertain. Use of force, again, seems tempting to hotheads, but the realization has soaked in, the hard way, among the leadership that force is at least as uncertain a solution, possibly more so, and more expensive in all regards.

* For now, in the nuclear arena the USA is reliant on diplomacy. Long-range nuclear policy tends to be shunted to the background by more pressing issues, but it never really goes away. If we have such devastating weapons, then we have no choice but to "think about the unthinkable", to articulate policy for their potential use, and on the other side of that coin consider whether nukes are more of a liability than an asset. They're weapons that cannot be used in America's wars, while the USA is inevitably hobbled in its attempts to restrain the nuclear ambitions of smaller powers by the glaring double standard of the big American nuclear arsenal. To be sure, if anyone is going to be a heavily-armed nuclear power, most of the world can see America as the least worst of options, but in the best of worlds nobody would have nukes at all.

Total disarmament is a long-range objective, with little concept of when or even really if it's achievable. It's only realistic given a very tough and intrusive inspection regime, an idea that many find disagreeable, not least many members of the US Congress. For now, all that America can really do is try to scale back its nuclear arsenal -- if it can't be reduced to zero, it is all for the good to be able to show the world it's headed in the right direction -- and to keep the idea of the "zero option" alive and healthy.

The zero option indeed keeps looking better and better, no longer seeming so naive -- the goal being the Bomb reduced to a "virtual deterrent", in the form of the capacity to build nuclear weapons if necessary. As long as cheating can be reliably detected, the cheaters couldn't feel assured of obtaining nuclear weapons faster than the USA could re-acquire them, rebuilding proven designs while the cheaters have to get theirs working from scratch. [TO BE CONTINUED]

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[FRI 16 MAY 14] THE COLD WAR (23)

* THE COLD WAR (23): On 29 August 1949, the Soviet Union detonated its first atomic bomb -- effectively a copy of the American "Fat Man" weapon that had destroyed Nagasaki. The test, performed in the isolation of Kazakhstan, was supposed to have been secret lest it alarm the West into accelerating their nuclear weapons programs. Stalin was surprised when President Truman announced the news of the test, codenamed JOE-1 by the Americans, on 23 September. The US, anticipating that the USSR would have the Bomb sooner or later, had been from 1947 developing a network of systems to detect weapons tests, with the fallout from JOE-1 picked up a sampling container carried by a US Air Force Boeing Superfortress bomber.

JOE-1 was a shock to the Americans, who hadn't expected a Soviet weapons test for several more years -- indeed, when Truman was asked when he thought the Soviets would have the bomb, he had complacently answered: "Never." The Soviets, caught Red-handed, announced that they had in fact tested the Bomb. Truman did accelerate Bomb production -- starting off what would become an hysterical race to obtain more and bigger Bombs.

There was also a parallel race to develop delivery systems, including long-range bombers and missiles, missile work at the time focusing on cruise missiles -- robot jet aircraft. The Soviets were at a serious disadvantage when it came to delivery systems, since targets in America were far away from the USSR's borders, while the Americans were setting up bases in allied nations around the USSR to enclose the Red Menace in a "ring of steel". The Soviets had reverse-engineered American Superfortresses forced down in Siberia after raids on Japan, producing clones as the Tupolev Tu-4, but though that gave them a delivery system to threaten all of Europe, it didn't have the range to be a real threat to the United States.

In the wake of JOE-1, the Chinese civil war then came to an effective conclusion, Mao Zedong announcing from Beijing the establishment of the People's Republic of China on 1 October 1949. The Chinese Nationalists fled to Taiwan. The success of the Chinese Communists was a surprise to Stalin -- he'd never given them much help -- and a shock to the Americans. US government analysts, knowing the relationship between Soviet and Chinese Communists had never been very good, did not initially see the victory of Mao's Communists as a victory for Stalin. However, given the apparent threat posed by the Americans and their allies to the Red cause, Mao and Stalin had an incentive to work together. In December 1949, Mao went to Moscow, with a Sino-Soviet Treaty signed early in 1950.

On 31 January 1950, Truman announced that United States intended to build a "super bomb", a hydrogen fusion weapon that would be well more powerful than the existing fission weapons. The H-bomb was, to a considerable degree, wretched excess, since fission bombs could be made that were several times more powerful than those that had destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki; the practical need for a "bigger hammer" was debatable. The intent behind the H-bomb development program was primarily psychological -- the Soviets were certain to develop it, and the US could not afford to yield the initiative in the arms race to the USSR.

In the meantime, anti-Communist sentiment in the US was going into hyperventilation. It had been brewing for several years; Truman had initiated a program of "loyalty checks" for government employees in 1947, mostly in response to political pressure, and he would later feel embarrassment over the action. However, that January of 1950, a prominent State Department official named Alger Hiss was convicted of perjury while being grilled over allegations that he was a Red Spy -- an aggressive junior Republican congressman from California named Richard Milhous Nixon made his public name in pursuit of Hiss -- and the British government also announced that Klaus Fuchs, a German expatriate that the British had placed in the Manhattan Project, had confessed to passing on atomic-bomb secrets to the Soviet Union.

Fuchs was in the center of the bomb development program, and his data had given a considerable boost to the Soviet Bomb program. In the consequence of these revelations, the Red spy ring in the US and Britain began to unravel. Two of those arrested, the husband and wife team of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, would be executed in 1953, though the rest ended up with stiff prison sentences.

Demagoguery began to raise its ugly head. In early 1950 Senator Joseph McCarthy, a Wisconsin Republican, began to speak out publicly against the massive Communist infiltration of government. McCarthy was very loud and persistent in his accusations, though he was never able to back them up with much in the way of proof, and he made life very difficult for the Truman Administration. In time, McCarthy's hysteria was likely to wear thin on the public as he overreached himself, but for the moment hysteria was the fashion. It became more so on 25 June 1950, when North Korea invaded South Korea. [TO BE CONTINUED]

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[THU 15 MAY 14] SCIENCE NOTES

* SCIENCE NOTES: As reported by an article from AAAS SCIENCE NOW, northeastern China is rich with immaculately preserved fossils unearthed from ancient lake sediments, with the remains of fish, birds, small dinosaurs, and mammals still featuring outlines of muscles, skin, and feathers -- thanks to the fine-grained volcanic ash that covered them and hardened into rock.

The "Jehol" fossils, named after a mythical land of Chinese folklore, date to between 120 million and 130 million years ago, are noteworthy not only because of their extreme detail, but because they feature associations of various creatures -- small dinosaurs, birds, and fish -- in the same deposits. According to Jiang Baoyu, a sedimentologist at China's Nanjing University, the Jehol fossils were obviously produced by some mass catastrophe, but nobody was sure what happened. One particularly puzzling feature of the fossil deposits was that relatively undamaged carcasses of land animals ended up at the bottom of a lake along with fish. Birds, for example, are light and tend to float; how did they end up on the bottom?

Jiang and his colleagues noted that the fossils of land animals show signs of being exposed to extreme heat, but fish fossils don't. The researchers believe the land animals entombed in the ancient Chinese lakes were killed by a hot cloud of volcanic ash that then swept them into the lake, the region being very volcanically active at the time.

Previously, researchers had believed the ash had simply fallen onto creatures already embedded into lakebed sentiments, but the damage found in the land animals resembles that of the victims of eruption of Pompeii in Italy in 79 CE. According to Janet Monge an anthropologist at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archeology and Anthropology who has inspected human remains unearthed at Pompeii, the Chinese fossils "have a very particular type of fracture pattern, a classic example of bone failure associated with extreme heat. I've never seen anything like it outside of Pompeii."

The damage to the Jehol fossils was not as severe, suggesting the volcanic ash cloud was cooler than it was at Pompeii. Indeed, the event was almost optimum for preservation of fossils; most organisms are not fossilized, and most fossils aren't very good, so however unlucky the event was for its victims, paleontologists can regard themselves fortunate.

* In related news, in 2010 workers widening a remote stretch of highway near the northwestern coast of Chile found a superlative trove of fossils, including the skeletons of at least 30 large baleen whales. The fossils apparently date from about 6.5 to 9 million years ago, when the area was a coastal tidal flat. Along with baleen whales of various levels of maturity, the cache included an extinct species of seal, a walrus-like toothed whale, and a sperm whale.

The fossils were laid down in four distinct layers. Various clues, such as the fact that the whales were buried belly-up, as if they had died at sea and been washed into the sediments, hinted that the whales and other sea creatures had been killed in groups by a toxic algal bloom, to be driven ashore by currents. All the fossils unearthed have been moved to museums in Santiago and in the nearby city of Caldera. The fossil bed has now been paved over, but a careful map of the site was made with a laser scanner before it was covered up.

* In other news of fossil whales, as discussed by AAAS SCIENCE NOW, analysis of a 28-million-year-old fossil "odontocete", or toothed whale, named Cotylocara macei, hints at the origins of whale echolocation. It wasn't a new find; it was picked up by a private collector about a decade ago. Recently, that private collection was inspected by Jonathan Geisler, a paleontologist at the New York Institute of Technology College of Osteopathic Medicine in Old Westbury, who saw it as something different.

It's one of the oldest known specimen of early odontocetes; it includes a nearly complete skull and jaw, three neck vertebrae, and fragments of seven ribs. It's the skull that makes Cotylocara so remarkable, showing several several features, such as a downturned snout and a slight asymmetry of the skull, that suggest it was one of the earliest whales to use echolocation. According to Geisler, what is most significant are cavities cavities at the base of the snout and on top of the skull that probably held air sinuses; he commented: "These air sinuses are thought to have important roles in the production of high-frequency vocalizations that living odontocetes use for echolocation."

Unfortunately, the skull doesn't have well-preserved ear bones, so it's unclear just how well Cotylocara could hear echoes. However, what it does show is clearly suggestive that whale echolocation has been around a long time.

* A more recent find of a fossil ondocete named Semirostrum cerutti, found in rock deposits along the California coast and estimated to be from 1.6 to 5 million years old, is less significant, but certainly something unexpected. Semirostrum looked pretty much like a modern porpoise, except for a ridiculously long forward extension of its lower jawbone. The fossil hints at poor eyesight and sand wear on teeth, suggesting Semirostrum used its extended lower jaw, backed up by sonar, to snatch up prey from just above the ocean floor.

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[WED 14 MAY 14] A PLAGUE OF TUKTUKS

* A PLAGUE OF TUKTUKS: As discussed by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("Tuk-Tuking The World By Storm", 22 February 2014), one of the most significant examples of personal motor transport is also one of the most overlooked: the little three-wheeled motor rickshaw, more casually known as the "tuktuk" for its putting-along noise. They are generally identified with the cities of developing Asia, but their origins were in Italy and Japan in the early postwar period.

Tuktuks are now a common means of transport in Bangladesh, Egypt, India, Nigeria, Peru, Sri Lanka and Thailand; they are increasingly seen in east Africa, the Middle East, and China. Their primary attraction is their low cost, but they also can get into places in old cities like Cairo where the streets are too narrow to accommodate cars. Cost is in the range of a few thousand dollars. Two or three drivers may pool funds to buy a tuktuk to go into the taxi business. Since buyers are typically poor, sellers of tuktuks have developed imaginative financing plans.

tuktuk infestation, Sri Lanka

The cheapest have two-stroke piston engines, more expensive machines run four-cycle engines, and electrics are starting to make their presence known. The most common configuration is as a three-seater with a canvas top and open sides, but they will generally haul as many people as can be crammed into or sometimes on top of them, while a few have hardtops and doors -- the doors limiting cram potential. Mini-flatbeds and micro-van freight haulers are not unknown. Depending on culture, they can be very decorative. They are not, however, very fast, with performance about that of a motor scooter, meaning they're don't get along well with full-sized autos. They are also very agile but not all that stable, an unfortunate combination.

India is the biggest producer, making more than 530,000 tuk-tuks a year for the domestic market, and 300,000 more for export. Bajaj is the market leader in India, the prime Indian competitors being TVS and Mahindra & Mahindra; Piaggio of Italy, one of the fathers of the tuktuk, also plays big in India, producing the machines from a factory in Pune. Other Asian nations, such as Thailand, are starting to produce and export more tuktuks as well.

Passengers often find a ride in a tuktuk entertaining, if maybe a bit frightening given an aggressive driver, but governments tend to find them a dirty and noisy nuisance, a three-wheeled insect infestation of the streets. Thailand tried to ban them for a short time in the 1980s while Mumbai, India's biggest city, and Mombasa, Kenya's second-biggest, restrict them from the central business districts. In India, buyers cannot simply pick one up from a dealer as they would a car or motorbike; they have to get a permit from the authorities.

Can the tuktuk clean up its act? Along with electrics, there's also work on natural gas and even solar auto rickshaws. Automated driving aids seem over the horizon, but given the popularity of smartphones in the developing world, it seems likely some clever person will figure out a way to give tuktuks a bit of intelligence and communications to improve their utility and safety. In the meantime, tuktuk manufacturers are also moving upscale, with some machines being introduced that have proper seating for six people, and some that even have four wheels.

* In somewhat related news, WIRED Online reported on one of the cutest little personal transport systems ever, an electric unicycle from Ryno Motors. It is built around a 64 centimeter (25 inch) fat rubber wheel, with a maximum speed of 16 KPH (10 MPH), a range of 16 kilometers (10 miles), and the ability to climb a 20-degree grade. It has a rock-solid sense of balance. To accelerate, turn, or decelerate, just lean in the desired direction; there's a hand brake for emergency stops. To park it, just tip it forward on its front rest structure.

Ryno uniscooter

Given its low speed and compact size, it should be able to go anywhere a bicycle can, though Ryno has hired a legal counsel to sound out various cities for their attitudes. I doubt I would ever own one, but I sure would like to rent one for an hour or two, just for fun.

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[TUE 13 MAY 14] THE HUNT IS ON

* THE HUNT IS ON: The settlement of America by Europeans was a disaster for some species of animals, but as reported by an article from TIME magazine ("Time To Cull The Herd" by David Von Drehle, 9 December 2013), in the 21st century American wildlife is, on the whole, thriving -- to the point where it's becoming a victim of its own success.

There are an estimated 30 million white-tailed deer in America today, more than were around when Columbus arrived, a tenth of the country's human population, and they're becoming a nuisance to humans -- chewing up gardens, causing traffic accidents, and spreading tick-borne diseases. Feral swine, as last mentioned here in 2013, are going "hog wild" as well, with an estimated 5 million rooting through parks and lawns. Beavers are clogging drain culverts with dams in Seattle, not far from Microsoft headquarters; raccoons are increasingly common even in big cities, as are coyotes, with foxes scoring a comeback as well. The small size and notorious cleverness of the fox would seem to make it a particularly good fit for the urban environment; a fox was even spotted on the lawn of the White House.

wildlife invasion

The sight of the resurgence of American wildlife is gratifying, but people are now learning the downside. Take the bears of New Jersey, for a vivid example. In 1970, the bear population in the state was only about 50 individuals; now it's about 3,500. Bears are something of an extreme case for resurgent wildlife, because they're big, potentially dangerous, and have a taste for human food. They're inclined to raid trash cans, or even break into houses in search of a meal, and have mauled pets, leaving parents worried about their kids. In 2010, the state of New Jersey began a controlled hunt to cull the numbers of bears, with 1,350 "harvested" -- as wildlife management types quaintly put it -- since that time.

That's dropped the bear population by about 20%, the cull also helping to instill a healthy fear of humans in the survivors; wildlife managers judge the population needs to be cut some more. Not everyone is happy about the hunts, with William Crain, a professor of child psychology at the City College of New York, protesting loudly each hunting season, being assertive enough to get himself arrested on occasion.

Crain believes that the problem between bears and people lies with people, not bears. Certainly, the rise in human population in New Jersey gradually pushed the bears into a corner to the extent that bears seemed likely to become extinct in the state. However, even though human population continues to increase in New Jersey, conditions for bears have become much more favorable. People don't heat much with wood any more and the era of large numbers of small farm plots is over, the result being that forests are thriving in the Northeast -- estimates suggesting that about 75% of the region is now forested.

That's good for bears, but forests can only support a limited population of bears per unit area. Thanks to trash cans, dumpsters, greasy outdoor grills, bird feeders, and other human food sources that bears can get their paws on, bear populations in urban fringe areas can be several times the level that is naturally sustainable. Activists like Crain insist that that wouldn't be a problem if bear-proof trashcans and the like were mandated -- but given the excess population of bears, the result of widespread implementation of such fixes would be that bears then starve. A starving bear means a desperate bear, the result being home intrusions by bears who are not easily intimidated. The case for, ahem, harvesting is a pretty good one.

As for deer, while damaging to human cultivation, they're not as intimidating as bears, but their population along the urban fringe is, in general, several times that which is sustainable. Worse, they often cause traffic accidents, over a million a year in the USA, with drivers on a few occasions injured or killed. Sterilization campaigns have so far proven ineffectual. In response to out-of-control deer, the city council of Durham, North Carolina, recently authorized hunting of deer within city limits. It's carefully controlled:

The venison ends up stockpiled for poor households. Locales where deer hunting has been set up usually report that there are still plenty of deer, but very few collisions, and injuries to humans by hunter blunders hasn't been an issue. Hunts are being authorized to cull populations of wild turkeys, and of course feral hogs -- the hogs still proving particularly difficult to keep under control, thanks to their big litters and flexible diet.

Objections to the cruelty of the exercise tend to gloss over the fact that wild animals, particularly when their populations are far beyond sustainable, are going to be hunted anyway. A population boom of prey means a population boom of predators, such as wolves and cougars -- the resurgence of the cougar being discussed here last year -- and big predators do not mix at all well with human habitation. In other words, humans can play the role of predator, in a controlled and reasonably sporting fashion, or we can end up with an even nastier wildlife control problem on our hands. Hunters were long allies of conservationists; maybe that alliance needs to be revived for the 21st century.

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[MON 12 MAY 14] AMERICA & THE WORLD (7)

* AMERICA & THE WORLD (7): The US military was conditioned by World War II to focus on a total war conflict, in which heavily-armed uniformed forces engaged in a trial of strength, with the battle going to the biggest, best-led, and best-equipped force, the loser suffering unconditional defeat. The Cold War perpetuated this vision, East and West both building up for a confrontation in Europe. Of course, it never happened; in the nuclear era, it couldn't have happened, or at least not with any result other than cataclysm.

Limited conflicts in the Cold War era -- Korea, Vietnam -- were distractions from the US military's strategic focus, and so were only limited learning experiences. In the post-Cold War era, that strategic focus has been slow to change. The First Gulf War of 1990 was a triumph of the set-piece battle, Saddam Hussein's forces being handed a fearsome thrashing by American / Coalition forces, but that conflict still didn't fit the traditional scenario, with Saddam Hussein left in power to go on slaughtering his own people and make a supreme annoyance of himself.

American conservatives, admittedly with provocation, wanted to finish the job, and decided to do so in 2003. The Second Gulf War was a battlefield sequel to the first, with the Iraqi army being effectively destroyed -- but the Americans immediately found themselves in an interminable and wasting insurgency, suffering parallel difficulties with the earlier, but then still ongoing, intervention in Afghanistan. Circumstances were painfully reminiscent to those that had proven ruinous to America in Vietnam; it seemed the US military had learned little from that previous lesson, being forced to figure out the art of counter-insurgency (COIN) warfare all over again.

The first lesson was the primacy of politics over warfighting. Wars always have a strong political component, but the military prefers, with fair cause, a battleground where they can focus on the tactical situation without worrying about the political issues. Nice work if you can get it: the war in Afghanistan turned out to involve much more than just a battlefield confrontation with an adversary force, the Taliban; it involved the Afghan people, the Muslim world, NATO, China, and voters back home.

A drone strike that targets leadership might help defeat the insurgents, but undermine the coalition among other groups. In an insurgency, any conquest of terrain tends to be temporary; insurgent forces can only be suppressed by undermining their credibility. Just as winning an election doesn't mean destroying the other party, winning an insurgency doesn't mean destroying an enemy, except through a war of extermination that simply isn't in the cards. The ancient means of dealing with an insurgency -- laying waste to everything indiscriminately -- is not remotely ethical, even by the rough standards of warfare, and more to the point serves no rational goal. As was once famously said in Vietnam: "We had to destroy the village in order to save it."

The second lesson is the sheer difficulty of COIN. One study surveying the past few decades concluded that only a quarter of COIN campaigns have succeeded -- though obviously, at least in some cases the failures were due to an inability to understand the conflict and fight it appropriately. The campaigns tend to last at least 14 years, which means they have to be sustained during at least four American presidential terms. COIN also tends to be manpower-intensive, all the more so because insurgents are generally willing to shed much more blood than an occupying force. A rule of thumb is about one soldier per 50 citizens of the target country, working out to about 650,000 troops for Iraq and 600,000 for Afghanistan. The probability of success of a COIN operation decreases as the size of the country or region where the fighting takes place increases.

Interventions in peacekeeping operations -- where outsiders collectively decide to perform a humanitarian intervention in an internal conflict or clash between neighbors -- tend to be successful in small countries, with the British intervention in Sierra Leone in 2000 quickly restoring order. In larger countries, such as the Sudan, it's been tougher. Peacekeeping forces tend to be political contraptions, assembled from lightly-armed units provided by a jumble of states, and so generally cannot take on big jobs. The participants also may not have a strong interest in resolution of the conflict, meaning domestic support for the intervention is weak.

America has demonstrated little enthusiasm for such operations beyond performing back-up support, preferring to apply force in a more decisive fashion when US interests are directly threatened. Unfortunately, in the post-Cold War world, it is tricky to draw up strict rules for when an intervention seems necessary, even required, by a consensus of opinion. It would make sense for the Americans to be more directly supportive of the UN peacekeeping mission -- at the outset, America's architects of the United Nations envisioned the organization having its own military forces -- but past experience suggests that's not going to happen any time soon. [TO BE CONTINUED]

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[FRI 09 MAY 14] THE COLD WAR (22)

* THE COLD WAR (22): Western fears of the Soviets continued to increase as Stalin continued consolidation of his hold over Eastern Europe; although Czechoslovakia had been able to retain some semblance of democracy in the early postwar period, in February 1948 Czech Communists, with the backing of Moscow, performed a coup that toppled the government. Foreign Minister Jan Masaryk -- son of Thomas Masaryk, the founder of the Czechoslovak state after World War I -- was killed by a fall from a window of the foreign ministry. It is still argued whether he jumped or was pushed; in the bigger scheme of things, it hardly made a difference.

Churchill's iron curtain had indeed settled across the face of Europe. The only hole in the curtain was Berlin, embedded in the eastern component of divided Germany, problematic to both sides. Stalin wanted to solve the problem, and in mid-June Soviet authorities began to tighten up access to the city, with a land blockade becoming absolute on 24 June. It is not clear what Stalin was thinking; it appears he simply wanted to intimidate the Western powers into making concessions, knowing they wouldn't want to go to war with the Red Army.

However, that reluctance for outright war cut both ways. On 25 June General Lucius Clay, the US commander in Germany, ordered emergency supplies flown into Berlin by air; on 26 June, President Truman confirmed the measure, with planning for the supply operation going into high gear. At the outset, the Americans, British, and French didn't have nearly enough cargolift capacity on hand to do the job -- but the US government put top priority on the effort, and soon the "sky bridge" to Berlin was keeping the city alive.

C-47s at Tempelhof Airport, Berlin, 1945

The Berlin Airlift was an impressive exercise in logistics that the USSR couldn't have possibly matched had positions been reversed, with America and her allies shining brightly in the spotlight of the world's attention -- and demonstrating to the defeated Germans that their Western conquerors were benign, or at the very least appeared so in comparison to the Soviets. Stalin had again been outwitted. Although the Red Army greatly outclassed the forces of the Western Allies at the time, for the moment the USSR didn't have the Bomb, and Stalin had no intention of trying to stop the airlift. In a clumsy effort to look strong, Stalin ended up appearing weak instead.

However, Western fears of the Bear, amplified by Stalin's provocative action against Berlin. overwhelmed consideration of Soviet weakness. The apparent solidity of Red tyranny, its crudity and practical failings not being so apparent, and the continued sense of European dilapidation made for despairing visions of the future. The most strongly captured of those visions was put into words in George Orwell's novel 1984, published in 1949, painting an image of a world in 1984 controlled by brutal tyrannies, the face of the tyrant Big Brother appearing on every wall, the future of history being reduced to "a boot grinding in the human face -- forever."

In response to those fears, the US pushed through an agreement with European allies on the formation of the "North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)", formally established on 4 April 1949. NATO was effectively an anti-Soviet military alliance, with the US ramping up military assistance to and cooperation with NATO nations. By mid-month, the Soviets were talking about ending the blockade on Berlin, and formally did so on 4 May. However, Stalin did not make that concession in the face of the establishment of NATO; the Berlin blockade had simply outlived its perceived usefulness. Stalin saw NATO as a threat and provocation in turn -- the fact that it had arisen from his own bullying and provocations meant little to him -- and continued his efforts to build up Soviet armed strength.

On 23 May, the state of West Germany -- "Bundesrepublik Deutschland (Federal Republic of Germany)" -- was formally established, with Bonn as its capital. The West had now formally recognized the partition of Germany as, if not necessarily permanent, at least the reality for the foreseeable future. The idea of a revitalized German state, worse a German state that was part of NATO, did not make Stalin happy. There being nothing he could do about it, the Soviet-occupied portion of the country was formally established as "East Germany" -- "Deutsche Demokratische Republik (German Democratic Republic)" -- that fall. [TO BE CONTINUED]

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[THU 08 MAY 14] GIMMICKS & GADGETS

* GIMMICKS & GADGETS: There's still plenty of innovation in shipbuilding, as demonstrated by the "NB 508" icebreaker from Finnish shipbuilder Arctech, discussed by WIRED Online blogs. It doesn't look too unconventional on first sight, except for the helipad perched above the bow. The fact that it can drive through 90 centimeters (three feet) of ice going either forward or backward -- propulsion being provided by three rotating azimuth thruster pods that can push the vessel in any direction -- is also not so unusual.

What is unusual is that, seen from above, the NB 508 has an asymmetric hull shape, curved on the ends and straight on one side, but with wedge corners fore and aft on the other. That configuration is intended to allow it to drive through up to 60 centimeters (two feet) of ice sideways. Arctech officials say there's never been any other icebreaker quite like it. It was designed primarily for use in the Gulf of Finland, which is fed by many rivers, has low salinity, and so freezes more readily than the open ocean, being iced over for five months out of the year.

The Russian Ministry of Transport is the launch customer, the Gulf of Finland being the only path from Saint Petersburg to the Atlantic. Arctech officials see more sales, even factoring in global warming. The high latitudes will still ice over part of the year; the seas being more open for the rest of it will increase traffic, and icebreakers will be needed for the parts of the year when the ice returns.

* As reported by an Associated Press article, American farmers are now entering the age of "big data", with highly automated farm equipment such as tractors and combines logging their activities, their movements being tracked by GPS, while using sensors to measure soil conditions and the size of the crop harvested. Agritech companies want to use that data to help farmers grow more food with the same amount of land, giant Monsanto already providing farmers with "prescriptions" concocted from data collected by the company. Companies are also pushing an "Open Ag Data Alliance", which would set uniform data standards and allow systems built by different manufacturers to talk to one another.

Recognizing the privacy implications, the industry's big players have provided assurances that all data will remain confidential. Farmers are not entirely reassured, for example worrying that a hedge fund or big company with access to "real-time" yield data from hundreds of combines at harvest time might be able to use that information to speculate in commodities markets, well before the government issues crop-production estimates. Others fret that the data might be used to support environmental regulation, or even that American intelligence services would make some shady use of it.

The notion that the CIA might be misusing the data is far-fetched, and few farmers are that paranoid. However, there is a widespread perception of the opportunities for misuse, and that a public discussion over the matter is necessary. The US Farm Bureau Federation put together a "privacy expectation guide" to educate its members and recently drafted a policy asserting that data should remain the farmer's property. There's no push for any specific legislation just yet; the idea is that things need to be talked out a bit first.

* As reported by IEEE SPECTRUM, Dutch electronics giant Philips and Swedish communications giant Ericsson are now teaming up to offer LED streetlights that also include "small cell" base stations. The LED lights require much less power and rarely need to be replaced; a municipality can also rent out the small cell network to commercial cellphone operators. This synergy suggests that the municipal lighting network of today will lead to networks that provide lighting, wireless communications, and sensors -- including surveillance cameras.

It is inevitable that surveillance cameras will be as universal as streetlights, though that does raise sticky questions about regulation and supervision of the surveillance network. Anybody who objects to public surveillance in principle then has to be asked if they have objections to public street lights.

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[WED 07 MAY 14] GIVING BEES A BREAK

* GIVING BEES A BREAK: As reported by an article from THE NEW YORK TIMES ("Program Looks to Give Bees a Leg, or Six, Up" by John Schwartz, 2 ApriL 2014), America's commercial and wild bees have been in severe decline. That's not just bad news for bees, it's bad news for consumers; the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimates that two-thirds of our food is dependent, directly or indirectly, on bees, their impact amounting to $15 billion USD in agricultural crop value each year.

The causes of "colony collapse disorder" are perplexing, but it seems to be due to a combination of factors, including parasites, pathogens, insecticides -- and loss of the loss of uncultivated fields with their broad assortment of pollen-rich plants that sustain bees, such land having been developed commercially or converted to farming corn, soybeans and other crops.

The US Federal government has announced a new $3 million USD program to ramp up support for honeybees in five states in the Upper Midwest, including Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin and North and South Dakota. They're host to up to 65% of American honeybee colonies, which are trucked around the country to pollinate commercial crops. The new program will encourage farmers and ranchers to grow alfalfa, clover and other crops favored by bees, and which can be used as livestock forage. Other proposed changes in practices include rotating grazing pastures so they can replenish, generating plants for bees.

Jeffery S. Pettis, in charge of bee research at the Federal Agricultural Research Service in Beltsville, Maryland, believes the effort to get farmers to plant more crops with pollinators like bees and butterflies in mind would help bees survive the other threats plaguing them: "If they have a good nutritional foundation, they can survive some of the things they are faced with."

One of the primary Federal agencies involved in the bee rescue effort, the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), began in the 1930s to help farmers hold on to soil and prevent dust bowls. A 2008 farm bill called for the NRCS to include fostering pollinator health in its work in all 50 states. The result has been to alter about 174,000 square kilometers (43 million acres) of US land to incorporate conservation features supporting pollinator health. Even in an era of budget cuts and suspicion of environmental science, the bill's environmental quality incentive program has provided $630 million USD from 2009 to 2012 to support the exercise.

The specific measures are on display at the USDA plant materials center at Lockeford in California's Central Valley, one of America's most productive agricultural regions. Researchers there have planted long rows of hedges and fields of a blend of plants. In the spring, the fields can be colorful, loaded with bright orange California poppy flowers and purple lupines. In 2013, an entomologist performed a survey to find about 50 species of bees and 1,500 other beneficial insects, birds, and creatures of all sorts in the hedgerows. The plants have been selected with drought resistance in mind, water being a growing concern to farmers.

The message seems to be getting through. Nearby Vino Farms, whose grapes are bought by 180 wineries, has adopted such measures, with the farm's vines sharing the land with peas and beans, aromatic sage, golden currant, wild rose, and daikon radish. Chris Storm, an official for the company working on sustainability, commented that even though grapes are self-fertilizing and not as dependent on bees as the neighboring almond orchards are, Vino Farms sees it as enlightened self interest to support the agricultural community: "We're doing it for everybody else."

Storm has removed rows of vines for some hedgerows, and has flowering plants growing at the base of vines. It's not such a hardship, however, since Vino Farms is not at all hesitant to take the money offered by government programs, and obtaining a certificate for sustainable production can raise prices for the farm's output by 10%. There are also specific benefits from the plantings, such as reducing the use of pesticides by providing a habitat for lacewings that eat pest insects.

The same approach will not work in the Midwest: hedgerows are not compatible with the big machines farmers there use to work their lands. Laurie Davies Adams, executive director of the Pollinator Partnership, which promotes the health of bees, butterflies and other plant helpers, said: "When I talk about hedgerows to guys in Iowa, they just kind of glaze over."

The trick there is to persuade Midwestern farmers to set aside small plots of land for pollen-rich plants. Farmers typically want to be good citizens, and if they can help the bees without spending a lot of time and money they don't have to spare, they'll be receptive to persuasion on the matter.

* In an earlier, related article from THE NEW YORK TIMES, farmers in America's Corn Belt are increasingly setting aside a section of their cornfields to raise fruits and vegetables instead. The reason is simple: they can get an order of magnitude more money per acre than they can with corn.

Okay, if fruits and vegetables are such a good deal, why is this effort still on a small scale? Part of the reason is that fruits and vegetables require much more work to raise than corn, whose production has become highly mechanized. There's a more important question of distribution: California has long had the market locked up, and corn farmers didn't really have a means of selling fruits and vegetables. Now a network of distributors has emerged to hook farmers up with buyers in same region who want fresh produce.

Not only can corn farmers now make money by growing produce, they get an emotional boost from turning out a healthy product that the people around them like to eat. There's a satisfaction in growing things. Farming is hard and endless work; if it were only about the money, farmers could probably find a more profitable line of business to be in.

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[TUE 06 MAY 14] TAKING A BALANCED VIEW

* TAKING A BALANCED VIEW: As reported by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("In The Balance", 5 April 2014), the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) releases a study on climate change about once every six years. The study consists of three separate reports, the first report in the latest set having been released in September 2013, as discussed here at the time. It concluded that climate change is accelerating, the general belief in the climate community being that the current pause in global temperature increase is temporary.

The second report in the set was released on 31 March; it discusses how the climate is affecting ecosystems, the economy, and people's livelihoods. The report argues that the effects of climate change will be profound, having an impact all over the planet, and that though there will be some benefits, they will be overshadowed by the drawbacks. It talks of "extreme weather events leading to breakdown of ... critical services such as electricity, water supply and health and emergency services" and warns of "the breakdown of food systems, linked to warming".

Nobody could fault the report for failing to cast as wide a net as possible over climate research, with the report digesting 73,000 published works, a quarter of them in Chinese -- a hundred-fold increase over about 30 years. However, the conclusions of the report were clearly fought over tooth and nail; there was no dispute over whether climate change is for real or not, there being no substantial argument in the climate science community over that, but between "moderates", who favor the clinical approach, and "radicals", who believe that assertiveness is demanded.

Richard Tol of Sussex University in the UK, a moderate, was not pleased at the tone of the conclusions, describing them as painting a picture of "the four horsemen of the apocalypse". The real story seems less dramatic if much more complicated, a picture in which climate change is just one risk factor among many in the world's immediate future, being intertwined with others, such as health systems and rural development. The report describes three different sorts of problems:

Rising sea levels are an example of the first sort of problem. Thermal expansion of the water in the oceans means that, at current rates, the average sea level could go up half a meter (20 inches) by 2100. That would be very bad news for coastal cities. At present, about 271 million people live in such places, with the population projected to rise to 345 million by 2050. Another example of a problem of the first sort is ocean acidification, caused by the absorption of carbon dioxide into seawater. The report calls this "a fundamental challenge to marine organisms and ecosystems".

The second sort of problem, in which the climate's influence is more modest and manageable, includes its effects on health. In a warmer world some diseases, such as malaria, are expected to spread, and heatwaves will cause more deaths in themselves. However, fewer people will die from severe cold snaps. Overall, the report concludes, the bad will outweigh the good, but the problem is not so much climate, instead being public health and nutrition. We have means of controlling malaria, if the will and money is there.

The third category, the ways in which a changing climate alters species' ranges, is in some ways the most intriguing. To the surprise of many conservationists, for example, global warming does not seem to be causing many extinctions. The only ones laid at its door so far are of frogs in Central America. To be sure, ecosystems are changing rapidly. In the oceans, both animals and plants are migrating from the tropics to temperate latitudes, in search of cooler waters. Benthic algae -- seaweeds, in the vernacular -- are shifting their ranges polewards at 10 kilometers (6 miles) a decade. Their single-celled planktonic cousins are moving much faster, 400 kilometers a decade. Since algae and photoplankton are the base of marine food chains, everything else changes with them. The result, according to the report, is that by 2055 fish yields in temperate latitudes could be 30% to 70% higher than they were in 2005. Tropical yields, by contrast, could fall by 40% to 60%. Of course, marine fisheries are already under pressures, most significantly overfishing, but that issue is beyond the IPCC's scope.

Though changes in marine ecosystems are significant, humans are necessarily more concerned about changes on land, the biggest worry being the effect of climate change on crop yields. The Earth's population is expected to peak at 9 billion in 2050, and even without climate change, growing enough food to feed all the mouths is problematic. A warmer climate will lengthen growing seasons, and more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere should stimulate photosynthesis. The previous IPCC assessment, in 2007, concluded that the yields of the world's main crops -- wheat, rice, maize, and soybeans -- would improve in temperate and cold climates, offsetting declines elsewhere. Some argued that might mean an overall increase in crop productivity.

The new report is not optimistic that will be so. It agrees with the previous that tropical yields will decline, but disagrees that yields in temperate climates will compensate. The effect of more CO2 on plant growth is spotty, while many crop plants, particularly maize, are intolerant of heat waves, even brief ones. At the moment, the report concludes, wheat yields are being pushed down by 2% a decade compared with what would have happened without climate change; maize is down by 1% a decade; rice and soybeans are unaffected. Studies on what will happen in the future to cereal yields are mixed, but they get more negative in the longer view.

Partitioning the effects of climate change into these three categories leads to different ideas about how to respond:

This comprehensive way of looking at climate change is new for both scientists and policymakers. Until now, many of them have thought of climate change as a problem unto itself, being considered primarily in terms of interactions between clouds, winds, and oceans, the bottom line merely being ineffectual calls for a brake on greenhouse-gas emissions. The new report sees climate change as one problem among many, the severity of which is often determined by its interaction with those other problems; and effectively acknowledges that there is no stopping climate change, with the only practical measures being to slow it down if possible, and working to adapt.

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[MON 05 MAY 14] AMERICA & THE WORLD (6)

* AMERICA & THE WORLD (6): China is the biggest single consideration in American strategic calculations, but of course it isn't the only one. Along with Russia, there are many countries that would like more of a say in the international system and, if not trying to undermine it as such, are at least interested in adjusting it more to their own convenience. At the same, the Cold War is over, the American military umbrella is not as big a deal as it was, while American leadership is confronted with a much more complicated international environment where determining workable policy is correspondingly more difficult.

The consequence is that the USA has to take a good look at what it can do, assessing and balancing its powers. The first in the list of powers, military power, is currently in decline, at least financially. Budget pressures demand cuts, though with wars drawing down, there would have been cuts anyway; the government's "budgeting by crisis" has only made matters worse. The US Army is losing over 100,000 troops out of almost half a million, the Navy may lose two aircraft carriers out of ten, while other cuts take place across the board.

Few except the most extreme in Congress are happy with this prospect, but to an extent the budget has been inflated by steep rises in military pay and numbers of support personnel. It was appropriate to reward military folk for their service, but in a time of tight budgets the line will be held on pay, and as far as a bloated support apparatus goes, it should do no harm to put it on a diet. Besides, even after the cuts, the US military remains fearsome. Large-scale invasions may be out, at least without assistance from allies, but America will still have quick-reaction forces, along with sophisticated wartech such as drones, space surveillance, and combat networking. The US continues to energetically pursue cyber-warfare, and of course retains a formidable nuclear arsenal.

the US Navy rules the waves

In other words, American military power is not going to be anywhere resembling crippled for the foreseeable future. The real question is what the mission is going to be. That judgement is influenced by past experience. Since the end of the Cold War, that experience has been frantic, the US military having been in combat half the time. Of course that statistic was heavily biased by the war in Iraq, which lasted from 2003 to 2011, and the parallel war in Afghanistan, which began in 2001 and is now just winding down. However, between 1989 and 2001, on the average the US intervened abroad every 16 months.

It is something of a peacenik truism that military brass love war, but the reality is that generals and admirals more commonly have their ambivalences about it: their job is to keep the peace and protect America, breaking things and hurting people being just an unfortunate but necessary means to that end. They don't always like fighting any more than most cops like shootouts, and the persistent interventions of the last two decades tend to dismay them. Admiral Mike Mullen, once chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, calls it excess: "It's too easy to use force. It's almost the first choice."

As the saying goes: "If you have a hammer, you see nails." General Brent Scowcroft, national-security adviser to Gerald Ford and the elder George Bush, agrees. Scowcroft believes that US leadership has been inclined to use force because it looks like the shortest path between two points, and that's the way Americans are inclined to think. Discussion, persuasion, negotiation are too slow and tiresome; it's simpler to kick in the door than to figure out how to unlock it and open it. It may be simpler, but the result is breakage and corresponding big trouble from the iron law of unintended consequences, Scowcroft perceptively observing: "The fallacy is that often the use of force changes the circumstances of the question. By the time you have finished, the question is different, and we frequently find ourselves in an unanticipated situation."

The consensus now is that was what happened in Afghanistan and Iraq. The consensus is that the first war has been unhappy, and the second was a blunder -- a "fiasco", a "catastrophe", a "detour" that "sullied America's moral leadership". American leadership has to understand why things went so wrong in these wars to understand what wars to fight in the future. [TO BE CONTINUED]

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[FRI 02 MAY 14] THE COLD WAR (21)

* THE COLD WAR (21): The issue of Soviet forces in Iran hadn't been consequential, except to the extent of establishing a strong undercurrent of acrimony at the United Nations, and demonstrating the rising tension between East and West. The Truman Administration was concerned about Communist encroachment in Europe, as well as the civil war between the Nationalist Chinese and Communist Chinese factions that had rekindled after the end of World War II. Truman knew China was a mess and had no intention of intervening militarily in the conflict; in late 1945, the president had asked General George C. Marshall, previously Army chief of staff, to go to China and try to straighten things out by diplomatic means.

It was a completely impossible task: the Nationalist government had been effectively wrecked in the war with Japan, and Mao Zedong's Chinese Communists were increasingly confident of winning. In early 1947, Marshall returned home empty-handed, as anyone familiar with the scenario could have predicted. Truman did not fault Marshall for the failure in China, though Rightist extremists did; Secretary of State Byrnes having resigned -- Byrnes had a high opinion of his own abilities, a lower opinion of Truman's, and did not conceal it at all well -- Truman asked Marshall to take the place of Byrnes, and Marshall accepted, to become a target for the extremists.

China was not so important to US interests as Western Europe, which remained generally in a state of dilapidation, impoverishment, and insecurity, the harsh winter of 1946:1947 highlighting the misery. Although the USSR didn't seem poised to invade Western Europe -- that was forever unthinkable given the Bomb -- between the menacing Bear to the East the unstable social environment, Communist revolutions overthrowing weak democratic governments seemed only too likely. Roosevelt had assumed that the US would withdraw from Europe after the war, but that was increasingly becoming unrealistic.

In March and April 1947 Secretary of State Marshall met in Moscow with the foreign ministers of Britain, France, and the USSR to discuss cleaning up the mess in Europe -- to perceive Stalin as indifferent, shrugging off all concerns over the matter. As far as Stalin was concerned, the misery of Western Europe was what was going to happen with capitalism in any case, it meant a fertile breeding ground for socialism. On the trip back home, Marshall spoke of cooking up with some scheme to reverse the downward slide of Western Europe.

A precedent had just been established. In early March, the British had informed the Truman Administration that the UK was no longer in a position to provide financial assistance to Greece and Turkey; on 12 March, Truman announced that the US would provide assistance to those two nations, with the president significantly phrasing the exercise in terms of the broad principle of support of "free peoples". Working from there, Marshall asked George Kennan to come up with a more general plan to help rescue Europe. The result, the "European Recovery Program", was publicly unveiled in June.

The "Marshall Plan", as it was popularly known, committed the United States to the reconstruction of Europe. As stated, it made no distinction between Western and Eastern Europe, aid being offered to all. The offer of aid to Eastern Europe was sly; aid to the Reds would obviously be hard for the US Congress to swallow, but just as obviously it would be at least as hard for Stalin to swallow, since it would undermine Soviet authority in the East. Stalin, who prided himself as a shrewd political realist, had been caught flat-footed; as expected by the Americans, he told the leaders of East Bloc countries to reject the Marshall Plan. Doing so was an effective admission of weakness, and more importantly guaranteed that the Marshall Plan would sail through Congress.

Thrown on the political defensive, Stalin responded by establishing the Cominform -- a revival of the old Comintern -- which had been officially shut down during the war to improve harmony with the Western Allies, but of course its functions had never been completely or even largely abandoned. The Cominform was to ensure that Communist groups elsewhere maintained their ideological purity, as it was defined in Moscow.

Not all Communist states were receptive to Stalin's leash. Yugoslavia had been resurrected from its dismemberment by the German Reich under Josip Broz Tito, very tough and Red in color, but not at all beholden to Stalin, who tried and failed to have him assassinated. Tito had no problem accepting American aid under the Marshall Plan, the US seeing that the program paid particular benefits in that case. Tito wasn't particularly beholden to the US, either, being willing to play both sides against the middle.

While the US stepped up efforts on the economic front in the emerging Cold War, the Truman Administration also acquired what would ultimately be a tool for covert action against America's adversaries. The "National Security Act of 1947", passed that summer, established the office of the secretary of defense, who in principle would be the boss of all the secretaries of the different armed services. It also established the "Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)", in effect a revival of the wartime Office of Strategic Services (OSS). The primary rationale of the CIA at the outset was to give the president and his administration intelligence at a higher level than could be obtained by the intelligence components of the US armed services, and hopefully independent of the agendas shaping their intelligence assessments.

The agency's scope would soon expand. In his "Long Telegram", George Kennan had suggested that, in the face of Communist subversion, the US and its allies would be forced to engage in a degree of "dirty tricks" of their own. Kennan's logic was hard to argue with, international relations has necessarily had a covert component -- but as he commented later, he believed the dirty tricks should be a last resort, lest America end up being just as vicious as its adversaries. There wouldn't be such restraint in practice, and the results would be decidedly mixed. [TO BE CONTINUED]

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[THU 01 MAY 14] ANOTHER MONTH

* ANOTHER MONTH: On 20 March, planespotters outside of the airport in Amarillo, Texas, noticed three contrails high in the sky, to then take zoom photographs of three large aircraft in formation. A blowup of one of the shots revealed a tiny, grainy image of a flying-wing type aircraft -- but it lacked the zigzag rear edge of a B-2 bomber.

Cue theme music for THE X-FILES. Okay, tales of mystery aircraft come and go, they usually can't be taken very seriously, but the image was tantalizing. Even more tantalizing, when queried on the matter, the US Department of Defense gave a curt NO COMMENT; had the story been rooted in some misperception, they would have explained it or denied it. Given that the aircraft was flying in formation, it was unlikely to be a drone, and assuming that all three machines were the same type, it was likely operational or near to operation. It was also an interesting question of why the government chose to fly three black aircraft in daytime over a public area.

THE TRUTH IS OUT THERE.

* While I was on my road trip to Arizona in April, I spent a lot of time playing with my Samsung Galaxy Tab tablet, sometimes using my little bluetooth keyboard with it. The keyboard worked very well, at least after I figured out the trick of configuring it -- once paired with the tablet, it has to be unpaired and then paired again if the connection is broken. However, I wished it had a touchpad so I wouldn't have to reach over and tap the tablet display with a stylus.

After I got back, I did a search on "bluetooth keyboard" on Amazon.com, and found a nice wireless Logitech keyboard with a touchpad. I promptly ordered it, failing to think that there might be a disconnect between the search term I used and the product, that "wireless" might or might not mean "bluetooth".

I finally got the keyboard and, on inspecting it, realized it wasn't a bluetooth keyboard. I felt dense, all the more so because I had been fumbling other things at the time -- but it wasn't expensive, and I figured it might be a useful gadget for some other application. I wasn't sure what: the entry for the product in Amazon suggested it was often used to control smart TV sets, which didn't seem useful to me, while the documentation I got with the product suggested it could be used with a Windows PC, which didn't seem useful to me either.

Then I made the connection: I'm using an Acer Windows netbook to drive downloads to my TV. The setup works well enough, but one inconvenience was that I didn't have a remote to run the netbook: I had to get a video running by fiddling on the netbook, and once the video was running, I had no control over it while I was watching it.

Logitech K400 wireless keyboard

Okay, so maybe now I've got a remote. First issue was to get the keyboard running with the netbook. The Logitech documentation was not explicit on how, but that was because it was a no-brainer: the keyboard came with a miniature USB dongle to plug into the host, and once that was done, the keyboard just plain worked. I could then log into the netbook and get a video running without much difficulty; the fact that the keyboard had predefined function keys for BACK / PLAY-STOP / NEXT was entirely convenient. Having got running, I then figured out other details:

Okay, so now I have a rather large but certainly capable remote for my video download system. On doping it all out, I couldn't think of anything more I needed, having brought my homegrown video download system up to as much functionality as I could hope for. I couldn't have got it to work better had I planned it out -- more proof that we'd be in a lot of trouble if things never worked out by accident.

Incidentally, I did some more poking around on bluetooth keyboards with a touchpad. There's a number out there, but they're all tiny and look junky. One of the side-effects of the tablet computer revolution is that a lot of vendors have moved in to offer accessories, for the most part trash. I'm sure there's good stuff out there, but finding it in the sea of shoddy is problematic.

* Regarding the report here last fall on the Friday the 13th (of September) flood of the Big Thompson river that cut my home town of Loveland, Colorado, in half, the city facilities newsletter that comes with my utility bill suggests there may be a repeat performance in about a month. The snowpack up the Rockies is unusually deep; that means no water restrictions this summer since the reservoirs will be full, but if the thaw in the high country, usually taking place in late May or early June, is driven by an unseasonable heat wave, then we're very likely to get flooded again.

Advance warning does help the city facilities people, but the Friday the 13th flood was very destructive, the bill for the city being about $10 million USD, with the flood causing considerable disruption to the normal flow channel of the Big Thompson. That means the effects of a new flood are likely to be unpleasantly unpredictable. I'll see what happens.

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