* 21 entries including: Cold War (series), US foreign policy (series), smart cities, actual utility of robot cars, limited prospects for electric vehicles, Triple-E super container ships, human brain has been shrinking, humans may not have killed off Pleistocene great beasts, gene evolution, international push towards English, and worries about Russian deliveries of gas.
* NEWS COMMENTARY FOR JUNE 2014: The big news for June was the resurgence of jihadist power in Iraq -- a Sunni Islam group named the "Islamic State of Iraq & Greater Syria (ISIS)" now having seized much of Western Iraq, with Iraqi Army units disintegrating in the confrontation and leaving behind stockpiles of arms. ISIS is notably militant, imposing strict Islamic rules on those under its control, quick to step on Shiites, Christians, and other religious minorities. Even senior al-Qaeda leaders have criticized ISIS for being too harsh.
So why doesn't the populace resist such an extremist group? Iraqis have enough experience with such to be wary of them. The problem is that the Iraqi central government, under Shiite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, has done everything to antagonize Iraqi Sunnis and drive a sense of victimization into them; as bad as ISIS may be, the central government seems worse. Iraq is now on the cusp of civil war renewed with a vengeance, Kurdish Peshmurga fighters being prepared to confront ISIS, and Shiites in the east mobilizing for the struggle. Events hint at the partition of Iraq into three fractious states.
Nuri al-Maliki has been screaming for help from outsiders, but they don't like his style and have not been eager to intervene. US President Barack Obama has been cautious in offering assistance, knowing there's no public support for large-scale intervention, but also realizing that US interests are not served by the creation of a jihadist state. Obama did dispatch 300 Special Operations Command troops to Iraq on a training mission; no doubt they were also sent to observe and report on the situation.
For now airstrikes, including drone strikes, are not in the cards, for the simple reason that it is unclear exactly what they would accomplish given the power vacuum in Iraq. The central government's injuries being largely self-inflicted, bombings will not change the basic equations. The US is pushing Nuri al-Maliki to form an honestly inclusive central government, but he's balking, and it may be too late anyway. Intriguingly, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has indicated an interest in resolution of the crisis in Iraq -- hinting at the possibility of US-Iranian cooperation, and further motion towards detente between Tehran and Washington DC.
* As discussed by THE ECONOMIST, while most of Europe feels uneasy about directly confronting Vladmir Putin's Russia over its bullying of Ukraine, the Poles have no such ambiguity, and indeed would like the US to get tougher with Putin.
Twenty-five years ago, the Polish Communist government began talks with Solidarity, the banned trade union, an event that is often given in the history books as marking the beginning of the end of Communist control of Eastern Europe. On 3 June, US President Barack Obama arrived in Warsaw to commemorate the event, in the company of other Western leaders. Obama went straight to an aircraft hangar to announce to a group of American and Polish he was asking Congress for $1 billion USD to finance troop rotations, bigger training programs, and joint exercises aimed at increasing America's military presence in Europe.
In reply, Polish president Bronislaw Komorowski promised to increase his country's spending on defense to 2% of GDP -- but the Poles also made it clear they wished the USA would do more. As Eugeniusz Smolar, a Polish socio-political analyst, put it: "Something very dramatic has happened: for the first time since the war, a European border has been changed by force. Poland wants NATO troops here. They don't have to be American, but they do have to be from NATO."
The leadership of Poland, as well as the Baltic States, feels that Vladimir Putin will try to take as much as he thinks he can get, and so a clear line has to be drawn. This mindset has unsettled the "Weimar Triangle", the loose alliance of Germany, France and Poland. German leadership wants to take a more careful approach, while the French are moving ahead to sell two MISTRAL-class amphibious assault carriers to Russia -- much to the annoyance of Poland and the US.
There has been a cooling between Warsaw and Washington DC in recent years, the Poles having found their involvement in the US-led interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan regrettable, and also being unhappy about US backtracking on setting up an anti-missile defense system in Poland in the face of the Kremlin's complaints. That's turned around; given the threatening acts of the Russian Bear, the Poles have reached out to the USA for reassurance. They haven't got everything they want, but at least America is taking steps in the direction they like.
* Also as discussed by THE ECONOMIST, on 15 May a panel set up by the Japanese government recommended to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, of Japan's Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), that the country's "Self-Defense Forces (SDF)" be allowed to operate more like an ordinary army. At the present time, Article Nine of the postwar Japanese constitution renounces the use of military force except in self-defense. The panel recommended that the limit should be expanded to include "collective self-defense", giving the Japanese government the right to come to the aid of its allies, prominently including the USA, if they come under attack.
The panel conditioned this recommendation by focusing it on collective defense that enhances the protection of Japan, effectively limiting it to the Japan's near-abroad. To Abe, this is still a big step in the right direction towards a more interventionist Japan, but it makes most Japanese uneasy, the defeat of Japan in World War II having instilled a deep and lasting distrust of militarism. Abe's assertiveness does not make New Komeito, the LDP's coalition partner, very happy -- the party being backed by Soka Gakkai, the country's biggest, and of course solidly pacifistic, Buddhist organization.
Abe's tendency to endorse Japanese nationalism -- notably by a visit late in 2013 to Tokyo's Yasukuni shrine, which glorifies Japan's past aggressions -- haven't reassured New Komeito or Japan's neighbors, and the US government has quietly suggested such theatrics are counter-productive. At the same time, in a recent visit to Tokyo, Barack Obama has endorsed efforts to revise the Japanese constitution. That endorsement comes in the context of a re-appraisal of defense guidelines between the US and Japan, the first such re-appraisal in 17 years.
In the new guidelines, for the first time Japan could provide logistical support to American forces in the event of a crisis in Korea, and also deliver intelligence support. Japan would have a green light to shoot down North Korean long-range missile launches, even if they weren't targeted at Japan. Separately, Japan would be able to provide armed forces for international peace-keeping missions instead of strictly humanitarian support.
Enacting the proposed changes to the constitution in law will require passage of about a dozen bills; although the LDP-New Komeito alliance controls both houses of the Diet, the Japanese parliament, that will likely take years. The Americans fear that drawn-out political dickering will defer or defeat the intent of the revised defense guidelines. Washington DC would like to see greater co-operation with Tokyo over a crisis in Korea, or aggressive moves by China against its neighbors, and wants more collaboration in cyber-warfare. Abe himself would like to obtain a proper revision of the constitution -- but he may find himself hard-pressed to even take baby steps towards that goal.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* THE COLD WAR (28): President Truman's statements about the nuclear option made the British profoundly apprehensive. America was out of range of Stalin's bombers -- Europe wasn't. The British government had its reservations about the fight for Korea from the outset, and uncertainties had been growing as the political debate in the US turned ever more angrily to the Right. That very same day, 30 November 1950, Truman's comments were debated in the House of Commons, Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin saying that he had little clear understanding of American intentions in the Far East. MPs added their own concerns over the matter, with Winston Churchill, an adversary of Communism from way back, saying in his resonant and eloquent fashion:
... [it would be to the advantage of the USSR] to get the United States and the United Nations, so far as they contribute, involved as deeply as possible in China, and thus prevent the reinforcement of Europe and the building up of our defensive strength there to a point where it would be an effectual deterrent. It is one of the most well-known, almost hackneyed, strategical and tactical methods, to draw your opponent's resources to one part of the field and then, at the right moment, to strike in another ... Surely, however, the United Nations should avoid by every means in their power becoming entangled inextricably in a war with China.
I am sure, however, that the whole House feels that the sooner the Far Eastern diversion -- because, vast as it is, it is but a diversion -- can be brought into something like a static condition and stabilized, the better it will be for all those hopes which the United Nations have in hand. For it is in Europe that the world cause will be decided. As my [colleague in Parliament] said yesterday, it is there that the mortal danger lies. I am sure that we all agree with that. Perhaps we are biased by the fact that we live there or thereabouts. But none the less, one cannot conceive that our natural bias has in any way distorted the actual facts.
Prime Minister Clement Atlee announced in the consequence of the debate in commons that he would fly to Washington DC with other officials of his government -- including the Chief of Imperial General Staff, the remarkable Field Marshal Sir William Slim -- to talk with President Truman and his people. The talks began on 5 December, the Truman Administration being under siege at that time, with fears that the UNC would soon be driven out of Korea completely inflamed by the howls of the Right. Even the presence of the British delegation in Washington DC was wildly interpreted as evidence that administration was taking its lead from a foreign government. The British kept a low public profile.
Truman rejected the option of pulling out of Korea entirely, with Atlee confirming in response that Britain would stand "shoulder to shoulder" with the USA in the fight. However, Atlee rightly disagreed with the American belief that the Soviets were the ultimate authors of the war in Korea, and suggested Western efforts should be focused on driving a wedge between China and Russia. A direct assault on China would have the opposite result: Field Marshal Slim asked Defense Secretary George Marshall if a limited war with China would force Soviet intervention as per the Sino-Soviet Friendship Treaty, and Marshall unambiguously said it would, with Truman backing Marshall up. Slim said, in his usual direct fashion, that if the USSR jumped in, "we should have to say goodbye."
The British also expressed misgivings about the bellicose statements of General MacArthur, wondering if he was actually under control of the US government, with Truman admitting that such remarks had been "unfortunate" -- but the president said little more about what he thought might be done about it. The only thing of significance was that the war goal of reuniting the two Koreas was no longer practical, if it ever had been. America would now settle for the status quo, division of the Korean Peninsula at the 38th Parallel.
The British obtained little else that was specific, but the meeting did establish that Truman would consult with Britain and other allies before taking any steps to escalate the conflict. The nuclear option was not ruled out, though Truman did backpedal on it. However, as the dismal news from Korea continued, the pressure on Truman to exercise the nuclear option ramped up accordingly -- not just from the Right, but from American public opinion in general. [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* WINGS & WEAPONS: Back in the 1980s, following the first era of energy insecurity, there was considerable work on more fuel-efficient engines, most prominently "propfans" AKA "unducted turbofans" AKA "open rotor turbofans", which were effective turbofans with the duct removed and turboprops. Improved turbofans bypassed open rotor turbofans, but in the renewed era of energy insecurity, interest in them has revived.
As discussed by AVIATION WEEK, under Europe's "Clean Skies" initiative, Airbus and SNECMA researchers have concluded that a short / medium haul jetliner powered by contra-rotating open rotor engines will be feasible by the 2030s, and will offer the best fuel economy of any aircraft powerplant that could be available by that time. One of the problems with conventional turbofans is that as the fan gets wider, the nacelle gets bigger and heavier, and so above a certain size, the open rotor has the edge. The problems with the open rotor have traditionally been noise and safety -- there being no nacelle to protect the aircraft if the engine disintegrates and throws off its fan blades at high velocity.
Under Clean Skies, SNECMA is developing a geared open rotor demonstrator engine, scheduled for ground demonstration in 2015, with Airbus working on engine-airframe integration. If all goes well, a flight demonstration is planned for 2023. As envisioned, an airliner with open rotor engines would have the engines mounted on the tail, with armor in the tail to protect against engine disintegration. The tail mounting would also reduce cabin noise.
SNECMA has conducted wind tunnel tests to determine the most efficient and least noisy blade configurations for an open rotor engine. Other challenges including reducing the weight of the engine, and also minimizing the armor needed to protect the tail, the weight of which tends to negate the advantages of the open rotor design. SNECMA engineers feel confident that the problems can be addressed.
* As reported by AVIATION WEEK, the US Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) has been working with US aerospace companies on the "Revolutionary Configurations for Energy Efficiency (RCEE)". The primary focus of the exercise is to obtain improved flight efficiencies for Air Force tankers and transports, which use up two-thirds of the USAF fuel budget. Along with investigations of advanced propulsion systems, RCEE has considered advanced airframe designs, one of the most interesting being a "hybrid wing body (HWB)" cargolifter from Lockheed Martin, as a functionally compatible replacement for the company's C-5 heavy cargolifter.
The HWB concept look like a "blended wing body" aircraft with a C-17 cargolifter aft fuselage, with tee tail, grafted onto the end, with a fan-type engine mounted above each inboard wing. The reason for the aft fuselage is to support loading and airdrop operations, which are troublesome with pure flying wing designs. There's a cylindrical pressurized cargo hold running through the fuselage, with unpressurized side cargo bays in the wings -- presumably the aircraft would be to a degree self-loading, with cargoes shuttled automatically to their assigned locations.
A number of engine options have been considered, staring with the existing General Electric GENc turbofan, as well as future engines. The HWB would have good short-takeoff capability and flight efficiencies 30% better than the C-5. While it's just a concept right now, a Lockheed Martin official pointed out that it took about two decades to field the Boeing C-17 cargolifter, adding: "We need to start today to avoid a future gap."
* An editorial in AVIATION WEEK focused on Robert Blair, who runs a farm in Kendrick, Idaho, that raises "wheat, peas, garbanzo beans, alfalfa, and cows." What does Blair have to do with aerospace? His interest in using drones to improve farm productivity.
Blair got the idea of checking out his fields from the air, and so he obtained a large RC aircraft, the "Skywalker", that could carry a camera. Since he flies it manually at low altitude and within line of sight, the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) classifies what he's doing as a hobby activity and has no beef with it. Blair uses the drone to check for insect or other pest infestation, and assessing the general health of his crops. It's far easier and much more informative than walking through the fields to inspect them.
Blair is an enthusiast, having gone to Washington DC to lobby the FAA to accelerate commercial use of drones, and to promote the use of drones in agriculture. He has been frustrated by the slow progress on commercial use of drones, but feels they have a big future in farmer. At first, they'll be used in surveillance, but he sees an era where crop dusting will be performed by drones. Japanese farmers already dust crops with drone helicopters, but their plots are generally tiny by American standards. In a few decades, crop-duster drones will be able to perform precision dusting of fields, guiding by GPS maps to place exactly the right amount of chemicals in the right place. When will it happen? Who knows?COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* SMART CITY: As discussed by an article from THE NEW YORK TIMES ("SimCity, For Real: Measuring An Untidy Metropolis" by Steve Lohr, 23 February 2013), cities are rarely neatly planned out, instead evolving over time in a cluttered fashion. However, there is still method to the madness, with analysis of the method being the target of New York University's (NYU) Center for Urban Science and Progress, founded in 2012. The center is under the direction of physicist Steven E. Koonin, a Brooklyn native who came to NYU, following a stint in the Obama administration as the undersecretary for science in the Department of Energy.
The NYU initiative reflects a global trend towards "smart cities", in which sensor, computing, and data-sorting technologies are applied to urban environments. The goal is to improve efficiency and quality of life -- for examples, to better manage traffic, to reduce the consumption of water and electricity. Some estimate that water and electricity use might be cut by a third or half. Cities are enlisting technology companies in the effort, with the NYU center's partners including firms such as IBM, Cisco Systems and Xerox, along with universities and of course the New York City government.
Big cities have long collected data to become more efficient, and have had some successes along that line -- such as CompStat, the New York Police Department's system for identifying crime patterns, introduced in the mid-1990s and eventually widely adopted elsewhere. However, Koonin sees the synergism of sensors, wireless communications, cloud computing, and improved software as greatly extending the concept. Koonin said: "We can build an observatory to be able to see the pulse of the city in detail and as a whole."
There are of course privacy concerns over the effort. Koonin is very aware of the issue, saying that the center's data will by anonymized, with no records directly traceable to individuals. The data will be used to create models to, for example, reduce power consumption in a district, with the models then used to inform policy makers and the public. Koonin calls the exercise "SimCity for real".
It's such a huge job that there's no way it will be implemented all at once, and so the center is focusing on specific projects, with complexity increasing with experience. The first effort is a program to monitor and analyze noise. The largest single cause of complaints to New York's 311 phone and online service is noise; it's a quality-of-life issue, one that can affect health, particularly when noise disrupts sleep. The ten-member project team includes music professors, computer scientists and graduate students. The group will use the city's 311 data, but also plans to set up a network of wireless sensors -- tiny ones outside windows, noise meters on traffic lights and street corners, possibly a smartphone app for crowdsourced data gathering.
The data will be used to create a software model in which factors contributing to noise can be considered. For example, the model could evaluate the effects of vehicle mufflers, predicting the likely effect of enforcement steps, charges or incentives to buy properly working mufflers for vehicles without them. The project might also pull in data on traffic flows, garbage pickup times and building classifications.
The NYU center follows in the steps of the City of New York. In 2010, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg set up a team of data scientists for special projects. One problem the team tackled was illegal conversions, landlords packing far more people into an apartment building or house than its zoning permits. Such places locations are fire hazards. Data from 19 agencies -- including late tax payments, repair permits, foreclosure records and ages of the buildings -- was mined to predict where to send the city's 200 building inspectors, who field more than 20,000 complaints a year. Inspectors responding to complaints traditionally found high-risk conditions 13% of the time. Thanks to data predictions, inspectors greatly improved their effectiveness when pursuing complaint reports, finding risky conditions 70% of the time. The city government is providing all its public data to the NYU center.
The data, however, is really only part of the equation, with "behavior modification" of citizens, as directed by the data, being at least as important. For example, a water-management study in Dubuque, Iowa, kitted up 150 households with sensors to measure and analyze their water use -- with households also grouped into teams for an informal competition, and water use dropping by 7% in two months. As Koonin put it: "This has got to be science with a social dimension."COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* DO WE NEED ROBOT CARS? "Free Exchange", the rotating economics blogger from THE ECONOMIST, recently zeroed in on the comments of Robert Gordon, a professor of economics at Northwestern University in Illinois. Gordon, who has long doubted there is any significant coupling between information technology and productivity, has now suggested that the robot car of the near future will not be a game-changer in any significant sense.
Free Exchange was clearly ruffled over what amounted to Gordon playing devil's advocate, but the response to Gordon's pessimism was informative, starting out with a citation from a POPULAR SCIENCE magazine article:
Self-driving car boosters talk about a virtuous circle that starts when human hands leave the wheel. It's not just safety that improves. Computer control enables cars to drive behind one another, so they travel as a virtual unit. Volvo has perfected a simple auto-drive system called platooning, in which its cars autonomously follow a professional driver. It uses technology that's already built into every high-end Volvo sold today, plus a communications system. The vehicle-to-vehicle communications standard soon to be announced by [the US National Traffic Highway Safety Administration] would, at least in theory, enable all makes and models to platoon. And lidar could eliminate even the need for a lead driver.
According to a 2012 study by the Institute of Electrical & Electronic Engineers, a fully robotic highway system would increase capacity by a factor of five -- that may be an exaggeration, but even a doubling would be impressive. Peter Stone, an artificial-intelligence researcher at the University of Texas at Austin, thinks that robot cars and digital supervision of roadways will mean that "all kinds of things become possible: dynamic lane reversals, micro-tolling to reduce congestion, autonomous software agents negotiating the travel route with other agents on a moment-to-moment basis in order to optimize the entire network."
There would not only be, barring accidents and malfunctions, an end to traffic jams on the robotic roadways of the future, one might go all the way across a big city and never hit a red light once. That means not merely more efficient roadways but more efficient cars, never wasting fuel in stop-and-start traffic. Volvo's experiments in platooning show significant improvements in efficiency; Volvo engineers also believe that robotic cars will be much safer, and so will not have to be designed with the same level of safety-oriented heavy hardware, reducing weight and further increasing efficiency.
That's only getting started. What happens when cars can communicate via wireless and instantly tip off emergency services that there's a problem? What happens when drivers aren't needed any more and deliveries can be made by vehicles themselves? What happens when the disabled and the elderly don't need to be driven around by others any more? In one of his classic sci-fi novels, author Robert Heinlein had one of the citizens of the future marveling that people could have ever done anything so mad and dangerous as drive themselves around without any assistance from smart machinery. Science fiction writers rarely get the future right, but Heinlein seemed very much on the money with that one -- though he still failed to grasp the implications.
* WHO NEEDS ELECTRIC VEHICLES? In loosely related automotive news, it doesn't seem likely that when we do get robot cars, they will run on batteries. Electric vehicles (EVs) have long had their advocates, but they have also been held in suspicion, due to their expense and limited range. Now the US Energy Information Administration (EIA) has released a report that throws cold water on the advocates. According to the report, by 2040, almost eight in 10 cars sold will run on gasoline, a slight decline from the present. The number of diesels will double to 4%, while hybrids will almost double, to 5%.
However, only 1% of vehicle sales will be of plug-in hybrids, with about the same number of fully electric vehicles. That means sales of about 300,000 EVs and plug-in hybrids. The Obama Administration had a target goal of a million such vehicles by 2015; that target has been quietly abandoned. The problem, if it can be said to be a problem, is that improvements in internal combustion engine technology have made them much more efficient, with further gains to be obtained by rethinking overall automobile construction.
Unless there's some radical breakthrough in battery technology, EVs have no prospect of being competitive for the mass vehicle market. Hydrogen fuel-cell cars appear to be even more of a nonstarter. There does seem to be a niche for EVs as urban fleet vehicles, such as buses; they also seem a good fit for China's crowded and monstrously polluted cities. Even accepting the limited role of EVs in the future, the good news is that the average fuel economy of US vehicles will increase by almost 75% to 2030, while gas prices are expected to be on the order of $3.90 a US gallon.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* AMERICA & THE WORLD (12): Barack Obama inherited a ghastly mess from his predecessor. Obama spent much of his first term dealing with it, rebuilding foreign relations, winding down the war in Iraq, planning the withdrawal from Afghanistan, and hunting down Osama bin Laden. He has had to convince American allies that America intends to be helpful, instead of a menace.
To do so, Obama needs to articulate and establish the role of American values. Advocates of "realpolitik" tend to find talk of "values" naive, not seeing that "values" amount to much in practice. However, although foreign policy is necessarily practical, there's nothing in practicalities to define what American objectives are -- and without a vision that we can take to heart, what is it that our actions are supposed to achieve? To be sure, the values have to be realistic, but the values remain a fundamental basis for action.
Before America led NATO to rescue Bosnia, the country was a literal disaster area; today, its peoples are estranged but at peace. One of Secretary of State Henry Kissinger's most successful acts, during the Ford years, was to sign the Helsinki accords, which Soviet leadership saw as just another scrap of paper loaded down airy-fairy sentiments, but became a charter for dissidents in Warsaw Pact countries. In contrast, the failure to prevent genocide in Rwanda, though it was not a strategic priority for America, haunted the presidency of Bill Clinton, making him a bit too quick to intervene later.
In his speeches, Obama has tried to set a new balance. He starts by affirming democracy, human rights and open markets, proclaiming with some credibility that they are not Western exports, but fundamental human values. He accepts that these ideas cannot be imposed by force, which means that America will sometimes have to get its hands dirty working with undemocratic governments -- but at the same time, warns that some bad actors are beyond the pale and have to be treated accordingly by the USA, working with America's many friends around the world. If the collective of the willing fails, they will be undermining the very norms and institutions that they claim to honor.
For this approach to succeed, Obama must also keeping working on turning the clock back beyond Bush II era's unilateralism. Between 1945 and 1950, when the US was also the dominant power of the world, America constructed a set of international bodies such as the UN; the IMF; and the General Agreement on Tariffs & Trade, the ancestor of the WTO. In doing so, America established international standards and indicated that the US wanted to live by them.
Obama, too, wants to become a joiner and coalition-builder. According to Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser: "We want to galvanize collective action to underpin global norms. We don't want to do these things alone; we welcome others to be involved." He singles out emerging powers, such as Brazil, Turkey and Indonesia, and regional groups such as ECOWAS, the Economic Community of West African States.
Pushing collective action is a mighty big challenge, one that cannot always be met. Again, Obama can seem too cool, too withdrawn, too ineffectual; but given the difficulty of the job, the public needs to exercise a degree, not unlimited, of patience. The Obama Administration has had plenty of encouraging successes. In 2012, China suggested a quiet dialogue with America over the chronic instability in Pakistan. Middling countries, such as Denmark and Norway, have helped broker agreements on the use of the Arctic. In Yemen, Somalia, Mali, and Uganda, America or one of its closest allies have dispatched forces with the unanimous backing of the UN Security Council. Progress seems to be taking place with Iran's nuclear program. Emerging nations don't want to be backwards rogue states, they see that making use of the international system is much more to their benefit, and the US benefits as the godfather of that system.
The Obama Administration does seem to want to accept the challenge. All that can be done is to encourage that desire, as well as revitalize a Congress that, if not dominated by a retrograde chauvinism and isolationism, is at least hobbled by it, hobbling the rest of the government in the process. There is a recognition by the sensible that America can't just let the rest of the world go its own way -- it's not good for America to let it do so, and not demonstrably good for the rest of the world either -- and that military force, if by no means useless, can't do everything.
That brings diplomacy to the front. It's not as expensive as war, but it demands more patience and thoughtfulness. High policy -- on Iran, on China, everywhere America has legitimate concerns of how things are done -- will ultimately depend on the White House and Congress seeing the world in much the same way from the water's edge. [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* THE COLD WAR (27): UNC aircraft did what they could to hit the Chinese advance into Korea, but it was like trying to smash ants with a hammer, Chinese forces being dispersed and given good cover by the terrain; there weren't that many visible targets to bomb. Attacks by medium bombers and fighter-bombers did inflict serious pain on Chinese soldiers -- and on Korean civilians, there being an inclination to strafe columns of refugees, obviously on the assumption they were enemy troops -- but could not halt the drive.
In addition, the Soviet Mikoyan MiG-15 fighter, a leading-edge design, had made its appearance over North Korean skies from early November. The MiGs were being flown by Soviet pilots, Stalin having decided to add some weight to the fight. He had never particularly wanted a confrontation with the US, but now that it had happened, he saw it as a way of diverting American strength from Europe, though that would prove another one of his miscalculations. His enthusiasm remained limited, the Red Chinese being required to pay for the help in hard currency.
Red Air Force fighters operated from bases in Manchuria, where they were effectively immune from attack, with Chinese and North Korean pilots trained to fly the MiG-15 in parallel. The MiG-15 was superior in performance to all UNC aircraft being flown in the theatre at the time. The US Air Force immediately shipped a wing of North American F-86 Sabrejets, very comparable to the MiG-15, to Korea, setting off an extended struggle for air superiority, focused on "MiG Alley" -- the area south of the Yalu River and north of Pyongyang in western Korea.
The USAF Far Eastern Air Force (FEAF) would maintain air superiority, claiming high kill ratios against the enemy, though it was rarely unchallenged, and raids by B-29 Superfortress bombers often suffered badly. The Americans were perfectly aware that Soviet pilots were flying the MiG-15s, but made little or no public comment about it; acknowledging there was direct combat between the US and the USSR would have been an effective escalation of the conflict.
* The agitation and hysteria in the front lines in Korea was echoed in the halls of power. On 28 November 1950, President Truman told his office staff: "The Chinese have come in with both feet." He wrote later that the bad news during the day quickly changed from "rumors of resistance to certainty of defeat."
In Tokyo, proclamations to the media by General MacArthur drifted ever farther from reality as the Chinese offensive and rout of UNC troops continued. Visitors to his headquarters found him strained, appearing aged beyond his years, inclined to grasp at delusions. To the extent he acknowledged things weren't going well, he blamed it all on the politicians -- in effect, Truman -- for tying his hands. He made broad hints of employing the nuclear option.
He wasn't alone in considering use of the Bomb, and not everyone stopped at hints. At a news conference on 30 November 1950, Truman said the US would take "whatever steps were necessary" to halt the Communists; when asked if "steps" might include the atomic bomb, the president replied: "That includes everything we have."
" ... Does that mean that there has been active consideration of the use of the atomic bomb?"
"There has always been active consideration of its use." Truman was under pressure to go nuclear, the Right screaming that the Reds should be hit with everything the US had. Defeat on the battlefield had, to no surprise, greatly undermined the standing of the administration, and many at the highest levels of power favored, or at least seriously considered, the nuclear option. Cooler heads realized the unpleasant possibility that such an escalation of the crisis would bring the Soviets directly into the fight; if that didn't mean a Third World War, it would be something hard to distinguish from it. [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* Space launches for May included:
-- 06 MAY 14 / COSMOS 2492 (KOBALT M) -- A Soyuz 2-1a booster was launched from Plesetsk Northern Cosmodrome at 1349 GMT (local time - 4) to put a "Kobalt M / Yantar 4K2M" class optical film-return reconnaissance satellite into orbit. The spacecraft was designated "Cosmos 2492".
-- 15 MAY 14 / EXPRESS AM4R (FAILURE) -- A International Launch Services Proton M Breeze M booster was launched from Baikonur in Kazakhstan at 2142 GMT (next day local time - 6) to put the "Express AM4R" geostationary communications satellite into orbit for the Russian Satellite Communications Company. Express AM4R was built by Airbus Defense & Space, being based on the Eurostar E3000 comsat platform; it had a launch mass of 5,770 kilograms (12,720 pounds), a payload of 63 C / Ku / Ka / L band transponders, and a design life of 15 years. It was to be placed in the geostationary slot at 80 degrees east longitude to provide TV, data, multimedia, and mobile communications services to Russia and other nations in the region. Unfortunately, nine minutes after liftoff there was a third-stage failure, and the payload never made orbit.
-- 18 MAY 14 / GPS 2F-6 (USA 251) -- A Delta 4 booster was launched from Cape Canaveral at 1203 GMT (local time + 4) to put the "GPS 2F-6" AKA USA 251 AKA "Navstar 70" navigation satellite into orbit. It was the sixth Block 2F spacecraft, the Block 2F series featuring a new "safety of life" signal for civilian air traffic control applications. The Delta 4 was in the "Medium+ (4,2)" configuration, with a 4 meter (13.1 foot) diameter fairing and two solid rocket boosters.
The Delta 4 booster carried an avionics package that allowed it to be tracked by ongoing reports of its GPS location, a scheme that is expected to eventually replace ground radar tracking, along with its expensive infrastructure. Although the GPS unit had flown before experimentally, this was the first launch in which it was used operationally.
[22 MAY 14] USA CC / ATLAS 5 / NROL-33 (USA 252) -- An Atlas 5 booster was launched from Cape Canaveral at 1309 GMT (local time + 4) to put a secret military payload into space for the US National Reconnaissance Office (NRO). The payload was designated "NROL-33" AKA "USA 252" and may have been a Satellite Data System (SDS) geostationary data relay satellite. The booster was in the "401" configuration, with a 4 meter (13.1 foot) fairing, no solid-rocket boosters, and an upper stage with a single engine.
-- 24 MAY 14 / ALOS 2 -- An H-2A booster was launched from Tanegashima at 0305 GMT (local time - 9) to put the second "Advanced Land Observing Satellite (ALOS-2)" AKA "Daichi 2" into orbit. It carried a high-resolution synthetic aperture radar with a resolution of 1 to 3 meters to map the Earth once every two weeks, imagery being used in fields such as natural disaster response, farm production, and monitoring shipping lanes. The data returned may have had secondary military applications.
The launch also included four smallsats from organizations in Japan:
ALOS 2 followed ALOS 1, launched in 2006 to operate into 2011, which carried both optical and radar payloads.
-- 26 MAY 14 / EUTELSAT 3B -- A Sea Launch Zenit 3SL booster was launched from Sea Launch Odyssey platform in the equatorial Pacific at 2110 GMT to put the "Eutelsat 3B" geostationary comsat into orbit. The satellite was built by Airbus Defense & Space and had a launch mass of 5,967 kilograms (13,155 pounds), a payload of 30 Ku / 12 C / 9 Ka-band transponders with ten antennas, and a design life of 15 years. It was placed in the geostationary slot at 3 degrees east longitude to provide communications services for the Europe, Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia and South America.
-- 28 MAY 14 / SOYUZ ISS 39S (ISS) -- A Soyuz booster was launched from Baikonur at 1957 GMT (next day local time - 6) to put the "Soyuz ISS 39S" AKA "TMA-13M" manned space capsule into orbit on an International Space Station (ISS) support mission. The crew included commander Maxim Suryaev of the RKA (second space flight), Alexander Gerst of the ESA (first space flight), and Reid Weisman of NASA (first space flight). They docked with the ISS Rassvet module almost six hours after launch, the Soyuz crew joining the "ISS Expedition 40" crew of commander Steven Swanson, Alexander Skvortsov, and Oleg Artemyev.
-- 24 MAY 14 / RODNIK x 3 (COSMOS 2496,2497,2498) -- A Rockot Briz-KM booster was launched from the Russian Plesetsk northern cosmodrome at 0527 GMT (local time - 4) to put three classified military payloads into orbit. They were designated "Cosmos 2496", "Cosmos 2497", and "Cosmos 2498", and were announced to be Rodnik / Strela-3M store-forward comsats. Some sources suggested a fourth, undesignated payload was also included in the launch.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* CONTAINER SUPERSHIP: The container ship ELEONORA MAERSK was described here in 2012; an article from BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK ("The World's Biggest Boat" by Drake Bennett, 9 September 2013) discussed the construction of the "Triple-E" container ships for the Maersk line that outsize even the giant ELEONORA.
Welcome to Okpo, on the South Korean island of Geoje, the shipbuilding capital of the world. The Triple-E class are being built in the Daewoo Shipbuilding & Marine Engineering (DSME) yard there; other locales on the island support yards by Samsung Heavy Industries and Hyundai Heavy Industries. Hyundai, incidentally, is the biggest ship-maker in the world, Daewoo coming in second. In any case, the yards on Geoje build supertankers, natural gas carriers, drilling ships, automobile carriers, bulk carriers for grain and minerals -- and container ships.
The Triple-E ships are 400 meters long, 59 meters wide, and weigh 50,000 tons empty (1,312 feet by 194 feet and 55,000 tons); the A.P. Moller-Maersk company of Denmark, the world's biggest shipping firm, has ordered 20 of them, at $185 million USD each, with the first of the series, the MAERSK MCKINNEY-MOLLER, now in service.
Container transport was invented by Texas trucking magnate Malcolm McLean in 1956, McLean envisioning a scheme in which cargoes would be packed into metal boxes that could be loaded on a ship or train or truck with minimal handling; the scheme cut cargo-handling costs by an order of magnitude. The first container-ship voyage, fifty years ago, hauled 58 containers; a little over a decade later, one ship could carry up to 1,200, and by 1996 the REGINA MAERSK was carrying 6,000 "twenty-foot equivalent units (TEU)" -- incidentally, although the TEU measure is still normal usage, containers are now usually double length, and so the actual number of containers that can be carried is half that.
6,000 TEUs seemed staggering at the time, but container ships went to 13,000 and then, with the Triple-E class, 18,000 TEUs. In principle, a Triple-E could make the trip of 25 days from Shanghai to Rotterdam, carrying 182 million iPads or 111 million pairs of shoes, burning about two million liters (over half a million US gallons) of fuel -- amounting to a fraction of a thimble of fuel for each item carried, though overall Maersk's ships are responsible for a thousandth of humanity's carbon emissions.
Maersk has a 35-person department to plan its shipping. In 2010, as the world economic crisis began to ease, opportunities appeared for new shipping opportunities -- though only if shipping costs could be reduced by 30%, environmental issues also factoring into that target. The simple scale of the Triple-E series helped, but it was designed with enhanced efficiency in mind:
The spec for the Triple-E was 500 pages long by the time the contract with DSME was signed in early 2011, the spec detailing the general design, performance, capability, payment schedule, warranty, and so on. It did not define the detail design, with a team of Maersk engineers traveling to Korea to work with DSME counterparts on that issue. It took a year to hammer out the final details before shipbuilding could begin.
The Danish royal couple attended the starting ceremony for construction of the first Triple-E in May 2012. The ship began as 425 building blocks, which were then lifted by cranes and welded into 21 megablocks or "rings", consisting of cross-sections of the ship or elements like the bridge. Many of the megablocks were built at other yards in Korea or China, to be ported to Okpo by "heavy-lift" transporter ships. Finally, the megablocks were assembled in a floating dock featuring huge gantry cranes on rails. Once painted, the ship was floated, with workers then adding interior fittings and details. After shakedown, the ship is ready for service; the process takes a bit over a year.
The shipping market is fickle; competition is tough, volume is still low, and so Maersk decided to leave the fleet of Triple-E ships at 20, instead of following up an option for 30. For the time being, the first Triple-Es are not running at capacity. Maersk officials feel they can remain the game, though they are not expecting business to be booming any time in the near future.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* LESS IS MORE? As discussed by an article from BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK Online ("Your Brain Is Smaller Than A Caveman's, Here's Why" by Drake Bennett, 22 May 2014), about 20,000 years ago, in the late Stone Age, the size of the average human male brain was 1,500 cubic centimeters -- but today, it's 1,350. In short, we've lost a volume of brain about the size of a tennis ball.
Why did this happen? There are a number of theories, one being that our average stature decreased over that time, and a smaller body means a smaller brain. Another idea is that our brains have simply become more efficient. Psychologist Bruce Hood, of the University of Bristol in the UK, has recently published a book titled THE DOMESTICATED BRAIN, in which he promotes a third theory: our brains have shrunk because we've become more social.
Hood did not come up with the idea himself; he got it from Brian Hare of Duke University in North Carolina, who suggested that as we acquired the ability to live and work together, we didn't need as big a brain. Hare got the basic insight from the observation that the brains of bonobos, the species of chimpanzee noted for their tight-knit promiscuous social order, were also smaller than mainstream chimps.
Hare also took a cue from the well-known research of Russian geneticist Dmitri Belyaev in the 1950s. Belyaev was curious about the genetic changes of animals as they became domesticated, and conducted breeding experiments on a Siberian silver fox farm to investigate. It took only a dozen generations of choosing the least aggressive foxes from a population and crossbreeding them to get foxes that were fascinatingly suggestive of domestic dogs: not only tamer than wild foxes, but also featuring irregular coloration, floppy ears, and a smaller brain.
It turns out that both size and aggression are controlled by testosterone, animals becoming smaller, with smaller brains, and more docile as their testosterone levels are dialed down. Humans, of course, are not domesticated animals, but civilization has imposed a certain self-domestication on us. Aggression is valuable for hunter-gatherers; it is much less so for workers in a corporate environment. As Hood has pointed out: "My suggestion is if you select against aggressive behavior, it selects against a whole bunch of traits." Such as, for example, a large brain.
Okay, does that mean we're stupider than cavemen? That's ambiguous, one factor being that the connection between intelligence and brain size is coarse -- another being that the shrinkage in brain size has reversed in the past few hundred years, it seems due to better nutrition. There's also a contradictory suggestion that primate intelligence emerged to deal with social life, and intelligence is proportional to the size of the group.
Hare's work with dogs and wolves throws some cold water on that idea. Wolves tend to rely on their native smarts; dogs tend to rely much more on their human owners for help. How related that is to the smaller brain of dogs is difficult to say, but it's not difficult to say that, if dogs have become less intelligent than wolves, they have merely lost smarts that they don't really need any more. The same might be said of humans.
ED: This discussion links into the notion of the "extended mind" currently being circulated by philosopher David Chalmers of the Australian National University, rooted in a paper titled "The Extended Mind" he published in 1998 in collaboration with philosopher Andy Clark, now of the University of Edinburgh. Chalmers suggest that modern information technology, such as a smartphone, can be regarded as an extension of, part of, the human mind.
To an extent, that's an argument over semantics, but to an extent it's not. My writings are an extension my memory, and when I imagine living in, say, the 1940s, when there was no internet access, I feel dread at the idea of being cut off from instant access to any information I need. I like to think that we are smarter than our ancestors because of our technology; given a practical problem, our ancestors had to work it out on their own, but we can track down "how-to" videos and the like to get the solution immediately. Alas, what the internet gives, it also takes away, at least to an extent: flooding us with too much poorly-organized information that we have to sort out, an issue compounded by the fact that the internet has proven a great treasure to those who like to spread hysteria and misinformation.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* AMERICA & THE WORLD (11): At the end of the list of American powers there's soft power, the power of values. It may sound like a fuzzy, airy-fairy notion -- but since the birth of the Republic, America was determined to assert its democratic free-market doctrines abroad. As with any ideological posture, it was always inconsistent, sometimes perverse, but in over two centuries it has paid off, the world embracing popular democracy and free enterprise. Concessions to such may be cosmetic, but the very fact that such concessions are seen as necessary is a tribute to the power of those values.
The Bush II Administration became badly confused in its assertion of American values. Following the devastating attacks of 11 September 2001, the US rightfully mobilized for war, taking on the al-Qaeda terror network and rogue states trying to obtain weapons of mass destruction. Few could sensibly complain about these goals, but the end result of the war drums seemed an America determined to force change by the unrestricted application of violence, any reservations voiced about the methods being dismissed. To be sure, as noted earlier, the USA is always going to get complaints, no matter what it does, and that's as true now as it was then. In a speech to the US General Assembly on the Middle East in September 2013, Barack Obama commented that America is "chastised for meddling in the region .... at the same time, the United States is blamed for failing to do enough to solve the region's problems."
Similarly, the Russians complain that American assistance in the effort to remove Libyan strongman Moammar Qaddafi from power helped reduce Libya to the chaos it is plagued with today. However, Obama would have been even more loudly criticized, and by America's closest allies, had the US refused to help in the Libyan intervention. Britain and France called in favors on him; though conservatives blasted Obama for kowtowing to Europeans, they had often backed the US up, and America had an obligation to help out.
The more recent flotch over American spying on friends has had a similarly mixed aspect. Some of the outrage over the matter was heartfelt, but more of it sounded like theatrics, talk of being "shocked, deeply shocked" and calls for the arrest of "the usual suspects". The issue, having become a public controversy, was obviously exaggerated and obscured in rumors; foreign governments generally accept that America needs to and will collect necessary intelligence -- they usually do, too -- concerns being more about where the limits lie on such activities. While much remains murky in the controversy, there's not much doubt that it will blow over and be more or less forgotten.
George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq in 2003 was an entirely different matter, since the action turned out to be all downsides, and there was little ambiguity about it in the end. The Bush II Administration proclaimed grand principles in justifying the invasion, citing the need to destroy weapons of mass destruction; to promote democracy in the Middle East; to let rogue states know who the boss was. The fears over weapons of mass destruction turned out to be overblown, the Americans having read too much into Saddam Hussein's fondness for bluster; if the invasion fostered democracy in the Middle East, it was in a wildly chaotic fashion; and rogue states remained as troublesome as ever, if not more so.
Decades earlier, French President Charles de Gaulle perceptively told the American ambassador to France that all countries with overwhelming power mistakenly come to believe that force will solve everything. De Gaulle was a pain, liked being a pain, but he wasn't remotely stupid, and he would have not been surprised at how the war in Iraq proved a drain on America and harmed its moral standing in the world:
The indifference of the Bush II administration to complaints from friends only deepened suspicion. In his second term, George W. Bush did rediscover diplomacy and tried to make amends for other mistakes, but by then the damage had been done. [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* THE COLD WAR (26): ROKA forces reached the Yalu River on 25 October 1950. Fighting with hostiles broke out immediately, the ROKA troops being hit with powerful effect. Prisoners taken in the fighting turned out to be Chinese; ROKA officers reported the matter to their American counterparts, who paid little mind -- if partly for the reason that it didn't appear to make sense for the Chinese to intervene when the game seemed almost over. On 1 November, Chinese forces hit elements of the US Army 1st Cavalry Division, with fighting into 3 November. The Americans were badly mauled, but on 6 November the fighting then went quiet, the Chinese withdrawing from contact.
Exactly why they did so remains uncertain. They may have been regrouping, or may have simply probing, wanting to see how the UNC reacted to their attacks. According to Chinese histories, hardly an unbiased source, they were hoping to lure MacArthur into staging a counterattack, which would then be cut to pieces. If the Chinese did set a trap, as could be expected MacArthur charged right into it. He assumed the Chinese had been thoroughly cut up in the fighting and had shot their bolt; he ordered the offensive to be resumed. MacArthur announced: "I hope we can get the boys home before Christmas."
Christmas was not going to come early in 1950. On 25 November, MacArthur's forces went forward again, to immediately run into strong Chinese resistance. The UNC offensive was broken at the outset, with forward units disintegrating in the face of Chinese attacks. The Chinese had taken the measure of UNC forces, realizing their supply lines were overextended; their training and discipline was often poor; they were too tied to the roads and their heavy weapons; they were timid in night fighting.
Moving in concealment and in darkness, Chinese forces learned to bypass UNC units, isolate them, and destroy them. Most of the Chinese troops had spent years in the fight against the Japanese and the Nationalists, having become tough and proficient in the process, used to the worst hardships; compared to the Japanese, US Army and ROKA troops were pathetic. Chinese soldiers moved on foot, giving them mobility in the mountainous and rugged terrain south of the Yalu that their road-bound adversaries lacked; they had a modest logistical tail, supplied by porters.
The reliance on foot movement did mean they couldn't move very rapidly, and the light weight of their logistical tail meant they were not well-equipped -- lacking heavy weapons and in particular radios, making tactical coordination difficult -- but in the last days of November and into December, all the advantages in the battle were theirs. American media reported that American forces couldn't withstand the "vast hordes" of Chinese troops, but though the UNC was outnumbered, Chinese troops were lightly armed and equipped, not remotely a match for UNC firepower; when that firepower was brought to bear on them, they suffered terribly. The UNC was simply outfought on a basic tactical level.
ROKA and US Army forces crumbled, with a mad scramble to the south that would be called the "Big Bug-Out", conducted in extremely harsh winter weather. They abandoned their weapons and gear, often not even bothering to render it unusable, with Chinese troops picking it up and making good use of it, finding the lightweight American M-1 carbine a real prize. One US Army colonel told his executive officer: "Look around here -- this is a sight that hasn't been seen for hundreds of years -- the men of the United States Army fleeing from a battlefield, abandoning their wounded, running for their lives."
Most US Army troops were poor boys who had signed up for the pay and benefits, with no particular interest in warfighting, and were in a fight that few of them felt much stake in. Training had been inadequate; in fact many of the officers lacked elementary combat skills, in particular having little notion of how to conduct an effective defense, their military instruction having emphasized mechanized offense. The staff work at the top often left much to be desired. Hysteria fed on itself; a bizarre tale lingers of a rumor circulating that Chinese forces included trained monkeys, this story apparently even being taken seriously by some UNC intelligence officers.
The only good thing about the race south was that the Chinese were not at all able to keep up. They had set UNC forces to flight, but had no capability to properly destroy them, leaving UNC troops to fight another day -- if they could be persuaded to make a stand. At least UNC troops were too fearful of the Chinese to usually want to surrender, having the option of running and finding it preferable. US troops who were captured by the Chinese were startled to find themselves treated with a bizarre level of civility and consideration, often being given a bit of a lecture and then released. It was an obvious but highly effective propaganda measure to promote the legitimacy of the Red cause.
Some US Army troops did stand their ground as best they could, a notable demonstration of nerve when others were running. The US Marines proved entirely willing to fight, conducting a stubborn withdrawal around the Chosin Reservoir that proved one of the few relatively bright spots in a dismal picture. The struggle around the reservoir was often intensive and hand-to-hand, with Marine fighter-bomber pilots working professionally with good direction to break Chinese assaults. Major General Oliver P. Smith, in command of the 1st Marine Division, told reporters on 4 December: "Gentlemen, we are not retreating. We are merely attacking in a different direction."
That was interpreted as cocky bravado, but it was actually the truth: the Marines could not run away when they were surrounded, and so they had to fight their way out. The Chinese could not prevent their breakout, the Marines finally being evacuated by sea after withdrawing in good order. [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* SCIENCE NOTES: Although the idea that plants can transmit chemical signals to their parts is not controversial, as reported by QUANTA magazine, botanist Ted Farmer and his colleagues at the University of Lausanne have published a paper that reveals they send electrical signals -- a surprising trick for organisms that don't have nerve cells.
Farmer's team placed microelectrodes on the leaves and leaf stalks of Arabidopsis thaliana -- a little flowering plant with a small genome, often used as a botanical "lab rat" -- and let Egyptian cotton leafworms feed on it. Within seconds, voltage changes in the tissue radiated out from the site of damage toward the stem and beyond. As the waves surged outward, the defensive compound jasmonic acid accumulated, even far from the site of infestation.
Plant cells have "ion channels" like those of nerve cells that allow the plant cell to adjust its electrical potential. One cell changes its polarity, triggering the next to do so, creating a cascade that propagates through the plant. Farmer sees in this behavior of plant cells reflections of the foundations of the basic components of nerve cells: "They obviously come from a common ancestor, and are deeply rooted. There are lots of interesting parallels; there are far more parallels than differences."
* As discussed by WIRED Online blogs, fluorescent stains have long been used in microscopy to highlight details of cell structure. However, they're limited in their ability to achieve detail, the best resolution being about 200 nanometers. By attaching fluorescent tags to short stretches of DNA, researchers at Harvard University's Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering have developed an imaging system that can do an order of magnitude better, resolving structures less than 10 nanometers apart with an optical microscope system.
First, they fabricated antibodies -- proteins associated with the immune system that can match up to highly specific molecular structures -- that had a short sequence of DNA attached. Once inserted into a cell, the antibodies matched up with the targets in the cell. Next, they introduced fluorescent molecules that had a "complementary" DNA sequence, matching the DNA sequence on the antibodies like lock and key. Once introduced into the cell, the fluorescent molecules matched up with the antibodies via their complementary DNA sequences, with the fluorescent molecules blinking on and off after the binding. The tiny blinking pattern of lights can be picked up by an optical microscope system. By synthesizing several different types of antibodies, each with a different target, several different structures can be imaged at the same time.
* In the latest news of genomic sequencing, researchers have now decoded the genome of the loblolly pine, Pinus taeda. It might seem like an obscure target, but it is commonly lumbered in the US Southeast, and it turns out on sequencing its genome has a distinction: it's the biggest genome decoded to date, with 22.18 billion base pairs, making it more than seven times bigger than the human genome.
The tree's genome was so big that it wasn't amenable to conventional whole-genome "shotgun sequencing", in which short fragments of a genome are decoded and then computationally stitched into a whole. The researchers chose a modified approach, preprocessing the fragments with genetic cloning, and then running them through shotgun sequencing. They turned up genes for disease resistance, wood formation, and stress response; they also found that 82% of its genome was made up of duplicated segments, compared with just 25% in humans. That throws another piece into the puzzle of the question of just how much function there is in the genome -- which, despite a flurry of excitement over claims of the "death of junk DNA", remains as much an open question as ever.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* THE LAST OF THE GREAT BEASTS: Until about 11,000 years ago, the fauna of the Americas looked distinctly different from the way it does now, including "great beasts" such as mammoths, giant sloths, giant armadillos, and sabrecats. As discussed by an article from AAAS SCIENCE NOW Online ("What Killed The Great Beasts Of North America?", 28 January 2014), there's long been a debate over why the great beasts died out. Since they went extinct at roughly the same time humans -- Paleo-indians -- arrived in the New World, there's long been a suspicion that human hunting did them all in, this being called the "overkill hypothesis", promoted by geoscientist Paul Martin from the 1970s. However, a new study hints the real culprit was environmental change.
For all the circumstantial attractions of the overkill hypothesis, it's never been universally accepted. For example, some some researchers have argued that out of 36 animals that went extinct, only two -- the mammoth and the mastodon -- show obvious signs of having been hunted, such as cuts on their bones made by stone tools. Others have pointed to correlations between the timing of the extinctions and wild fluctuations in temperatures as the last ice age came to an end.
To get more data, archaeologists Matthew Boulanger and R. Lee Lyman of the University of Missouri, Columbia, decided to investigate a region that hasn't been inspected very well the past: the northeast of North America, including the states of New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Maine, and the Canadian province of Ontario. Boulanger commented that most examinations of the remains of the great beasts have been been in the Great Plains and the US Southwest, the northeast remaining "virtually absent from discussions" about the extinction -- but it is a region with "an incredibly rich record" of ancient animal remains. For example, the bones of at least 140 mastodons and 18 mammoths have been found in New York state alone.
Boulanger and Lyman built databases of radiocarbon dates from both megafaunal finds and Paleo-indian sites for the northeast, throwing out any dates whose reliability seemed uncertain. They came up with a final sample of 57 megafauna dates from 47 different sites, and 25 Paleo-indian dates from 22 sites. Matching up the two data sets showed that most of the megafauna had already disappeared before humans came on the scene.
The radiocarbon dates also suggested that northeastern megafauna underwent two major declines before finally going extinct. The first was 14,100 years ago, before any humans were in the region, but the number of animals then recovered after about 500 years; the second and final population crash began 12,700 years ago, when Paleo-indians had just arrived in the region. Even though humans and megafauna continued to coexist for about 1,000 years before the animals finally went extinct, the animals were already on their way out; at least three-quarters of the Great Beasts were gone before humans came. The record during the period of coexistence shows little evidence of human hunting of megafauna, none of the northeast sites containing containing animal bones that suggested butchering or other human action.
The authors were careful to stress that the data, of course, only shows what it shows, giving a window into events in the northeast, but not anywhere else. However, that window hints that the extinction of the Great Beasts was not entirely, or necessarily even heavily, due to human hunting, climate and environmental change playing significant roles. The timing of the megafaunal crash 12,700 years ago corresponds with the beginning of a major, 1,300-year-long, cold snap called the "Younger Dryas", which was followed by the warming trend, the Holocene, we exist in today.
The study tends to throw cold water on the notion of "rewilding" North America, in which conservationists have proposed the "re-introduction" of species such as elephants, camels, and lions. It's a fascinating idea, but is it realistic? Is the modern environment of North America really as good a fit for these creatures as was the environment of their ancient equivalents? These beasts could end up being nothing more than nuisances, as camels have proven to be in Australia. Rewilding advocates argue that since humans killed off the Great Beasts, there would be justice in restoring them; but the scenario may be unrealistic.
Once again, the data only shows what it shows. We have limited sample sets of remains of the Great Beasts, giving nothing like a detailed picture of ancient events. For now, the argument over North American megafauna extinction remains open.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* GENE EVOLUTION: As discussed in an article by Carl Zimmer from THE NEW YORK TIMES ("The Continuing Evolution of Genes", 28 April 2014), humans have a bit over 20,000 genes that encode the construction of the materials in our bodies. We know where we got our own genes: from our parents. But where did those genes come from? According to Diethard Tautz of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology in Ploen, Germany: "It's a basic question of life: how evolution generates novelty."
The answer to that question is now becoming clearer. Some of our genes are extremely old, possibly dating all the way back to the earliest eras of life on Earth. However, a surprising number of "novel" genes emerged more recently, many in just the past few million years.
* Researchers first speculated about the origin of genes in the early 20th century. Some suspected that when cells duplicate their DNA, they accidentally copy some genes twice; at first the two genes are identical, but later, they evolve into different sequences. By the early 21st century, genomic analysis had demonstrated that hunch was correct. As Tautz put it: "It became clear that gene duplication played a role in evolution."
As genes duplicate over millions of years, they can evolve into "gene families", each containing hundreds of similar genes. One family, for example, is essential for our sense of smell. These genes encode 390 different kinds of proteins, "olfactory receptors", that populate our nose. Each olfactory receptor has a slightly different structure, allowing it to capture a different set of molecules.
Over long periods of evolutionary time, some copied genes change drastically, taking on entirely new tasks. Consider hemoglobin, the molecule that stores oxygen in red blood cells for delivery throughout the body. Researchers have found it belongs to a family of genes that do many different things with oxygen; recent studies suggest it evolved from proteins that grabbed extra oxygen molecules inside cells to prevent them from causing damage.
* There was a general belief for a time that gene duplication could account for the origins of all genes. However, as genomes of multiple species of organisms were decoded, researchers began to find genes unique to particular species. Anne-Ruxandra Carvunis, an evolutionary biologist at the University of California, San Diego, commented: "They looked like perfectly normal genes, except they were only found in one species. There was no explanation for how a gene could be in one species and not in other ones."
These genes came to be known as "orphan genes". As researchers sequenced more genomes, they tried to return these orphans to their gene families. Sometimes they succeeded, but often the orphans remained orphans. The suspicion began to grow that they were truly new, "de novo" genes. Not everyone bought the idea, finding it "kind of nutty" because it wasn't clear just where the de novo genes came from.
That was a fair question, so advocates of de novo genes began to dig into their origins. Their research led to the conclusion that they emerged from the "noncoding DNA" that predominates in the genomes of many species.
Early in genomics research, it was realized that not all the genome actually codes for proteins; in humans, only a few percent does. The noncoding part of the genome got the popular name of "junk DNA", but that was misleading. Some of our genome really is junk -- broken genes, including those inserted in our genomes by viruses and eventually rendered inactive -- but some functions have been found in it as well. Most of the noncoding DNA still remains mysterious, being properly described as the "dark genome".
It is now known that de novo genes can emerge from the dark genome, when a random mutation creates a "start sequence" for a gene someplace therein. The start sequence is a short DNA sequence that says THE GENE STARTS HERE. Since the start sequence is short, it's not at all implausible that, on occasion, it spontaneously arises. Once it has, a cell can then transcribe the following gene sequence into a protein. The new protein may turn out to be toxic, or it may serve no purpose, but mutations to the new gene may then make it useful.
David Begun -- an evolutionary scientist at the University of California, Davis -- and his colleagues have been studying the early stages in the evolution of de novo genes, searching for them in the genome of the little fruitfly Drosophila melanogaster, a popular "lab rat" for genomics studies for almost a century. They have found 142 de novo genes present in some populations of flies but not in others, meaning that they must have evolved recently, not having time to spread through the entire population. Begun's group was very strict in its criteria for identifying de novo genes, and so he suspects that the true number of de novo genes in the flies is higher: "I think we have a lower bound here."
Research by a team under Christian Schloetterer of the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna has reinforced the notion that de novo genes are nothing unusual. They inspected five closely related species of Drosophila flies that share a common ancestor that lived about 10 million years ago. They found that as the species split off from each other, hundreds of new genes evolved along each lineage.
In fact, the emergence of de novo genes is so rapid that it would seem they would ultimately flood genomes, but Schloetterer and his colleagues found out that what mutations give, they also take away. A mutation may disable a gene, or delete an entire component of the genome on which the de novo gene sits. If a gene wasn't doing anything very useful, the reversion will be propagated through the population, and the gene will be lost. If de novo genes do have a useful function, selection will ensure that the gene is propagated, and the reversion eventually eliminated from the gene pool. Tautz believes that de novo gene processes might be as important a factor in evolution as gene duplication.
Experimental studies of the genomes of humans are obviously far more difficult than they are for fruitflies, but studies suggest that there are at least 40 de novo genes in our genome, possibly many more. What is their significance, if any? Carvunis says the answers may still be far in the future: "The true impact of de novo genes in what makes us humans remains to be fully investigated."START | PREV | NEXT | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* AMERICA & THE WORLD (10): While the US government remains in a holding pattern on budgeting, barriers limiting international trade are growing. It's not like the train-wreck trade environment of the 1930s, but the brakes are being applied. Global capital flows have fallen from $11 trillion USD in 2007 to around one-third of that figure, though some of that decline is cyclical. At the same time, "stealthy" trade-protection measures such as bogus health-&-safety rules, which pass under the radar of the World Trade Organization, are spreading. Global Trade Alert, a monitoring group, sees at least 400 new such measures a year.
America is not particularly to blame in the matter, there being blame enough to spread around. Emerging markets want special privileges in, say, agriculture, while the rich world protects its high-tech industries by trying to keep out exports, for example, of solar panels, from middle-income countries such as China. There is also the fact that, thanks to improved factory automation, the pressure to source production overseas where labor is cheaper is diminishing. That's an inevitable trend that has to be accepted -- producers have every incentive and right to obtain the cheapest and most effective means of production within the limits of the law, and if that also means they won't be accused of exploiting poor workers elsewhere any more, what's not for manufacturers to like? It nonetheless means a tendency for businesses to consolidate their operations at home and a reduction in movement of goods and money across borders, leading to a degree of economic isolationism.
There's a general agreement in principle that open trade is a good thing. The US economy is doing better than Europe's at the present time, but that's not a good thing for America, Europe's drift being a dead weight on the global economy. Promoting international commerce benefits all; unfortunately, everyone wants a few exceptions to the rules. National leadership in the West is inclined to take the liberal view on trade, but with ongoing global economic difficulties, it's hard to resist the pressure of factions and special interests. In China and Russia, where state control over the economy is effectively the rule, the attitude towards open trade is ambivalent at best.
Obama's reply to this difficult situation has been to work on two regional trade agreements, one a huge expansion of the "Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP)", and the other the new "Transatlantic Trade & Investment Partnership (TTIP)". The first is with eleven other countries on the shores of the Pacific, and the other with the European Union; together, they cover about 70% of global trade.
On paper, these initiatives sound like exactly what the doctor prescribed. As well as freeing trade in services, they set out to deal with exactly the sorts of barriers that have been proliferating in recent years. Because of the range of countries that have joined the talks -- including, for example, Vietnam and Australia in the TPP -- they would effectively establish new norms on the basis of economic openness. If China were to join later, which American officials believe possible, the Chinese would end up endorsing those norms. Countries that have blocked progress in the long-running and frustrating Doha round of trade talks would lose their veto against liberalization.
In practice, the path towards these two trade deals is uncertain. Some countries, such as Vietnam, appear enthusiastic, while others such as Japan, addicted to protectionist measures, are dragging their feet. Obama is particularly undermined by the reluctance of the USA to make specific offers. The deals may never be signed -- and worse, if they are, Congress may spite Obama and trash them.
Robert Zoellick, a former head of the World Bank and United States Trade Representative, believes that the USA needs to see beyond its economic parochialism and realize just how important economic policy is to foreign policy. In 1801, Thomas Jefferson, then president, sent US Navy warships to fight the Barbary pirates who threatened to raid American merchant shipping unless the government in Washington paid a tribute. Ever since that time, foreign policy has been largely about economic interests abroad. Unfortunately, according to Zoellick, during the Cold War the bankers and lawyers were sidelined by players on the global military chessboard.
With the end of a continuous threshold-of-war condition, economics has become more visibly important. Consider Mexico: there was a time when the Mexican government was inclined to define its foreign policy as like America's, but with a NOT tacked on up front. However, since Mexico joined Canada and America in the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) during the Clinton Administration, the Mexican government now seems more inclined to agree with Washington DC -- much to the annoyance of countries not so friendly to the USA, in Latin America and elsewhere.
Zoellick successfully argued that the president's foreign-policy machinery, which falls under the National Security Council, should incorporate the National Economic Council. He adds that Congress should become more aware of how trade ties into national security, reasoning that if conservatives became more aware of that fact, they would be less willing to turn their backs on the world. To many members of Congress, "internationalism" is a dirty word, implying an America sacrificing its interests to losers and ingrates; in reality, it's more a case of America seeking a world more co-operative with American interests, obtained by leadership, persuasion, and discussion instead of contemptuous disregard or blunt dictates. The real irony is that, though conservatives tend to distrust change, Zoellick is not proposing anything new -- simply suggesting a reconsideration of the sensible policies of the past. [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* THE COLD WAR (25): In hindsight, the right course of action for the US in South Korea after chasing out the KPA would have been to halt at the 38th parallel and set up a defensive line. Again, America didn't have vital interests in Korea, so there was no great sense in expending more treasure and blood in an escalation of the conflict. However, the KPA had been all but crushed, and there was an inclination to finish the job; in addition, Soviet statements indicated the USSR was distancing itself from the conflict, and the Red Chinese were not perceived as able to interfere in any significant way. At the time, going north seemed like a good idea.
There were still ambivalences in Washington DC over the matter, with directives issued that only ROKA troops should be allowed to approach the Yalu River, which established the border between North Korea and Red China. America's allies were even more cautious -- but on 7 October, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution to take "all appropriate steps ... to assure conditions of stability throughout Korea." The resolution was deliberately vague as to what the "appropriate steps" might be; directives passed down from the top military to General MacArthur were similarly flexible.
There was no doubt in General MacArthur's mind that he was going to conquer North Korea, any hedging by people in the rear be hanged, and he ignored, in some cases publicly denounced, any directives that stood in the way of that goal. ROKA troops had already gone north on 28 September; the US Eighth Army followed in force on 9 October. There was hard fighting for a week, and then resistance crumbled. Pyongyang fell on 19 October, with Kim Il-sung's government fleeing into the hills.
Although MacArthur was the driver behind the push north, the ultimate responsibility was President Truman's. In the anti-Communist spirit of the times, the idea of rolling back the Reds was popular. Certainly, after a global war fought for total victory, settling for maintaining the status quo would have seemed spineless. Consideration of the practical factors, to the extent they were comprehended, showed little to stop America from re-unifying Korea by force of arms. Indeed, Mao Zedong had not been enthusiastic about nor very helpful with the North Korean invasion in the spring. Beijing's concern was with Formosa, the People's Liberation Army (PLA) attempting to set up an invasion fleet that would then deal with the Nationalists once and for all. Mao had no other military ambitions, since the PLA was still very much a peasant guerrilla army, lacking in modern weapons and other kit. In addition, China was in disorder in the wake of the civil war, with large numbers of PLA troops being released from service so they could go to work putting things back together.
However, President Truman's decision following the outbreak of war in Korea to send the US Navy to guard the Formosa Straits, while seeming a prudent measure in Washington DC, was a shock to Beijing. The Americans had apparently written the Nationalists off, and so it was a surprise that America then came to their defense. Not only had Formosa faded out of reach, but it seemed the US was building up a "wall" to blockade China, with an American military presence from South Korea, through Japan and Formosa, into the Philippines. A Korea under effective American control was a menace: the Japanese had used Korea as a springboard for seizing Manchuria, and the US was far more powerful than Japan.
On 2 October, Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai had told the Indian ambassador in Beijing that if the US went north, China would intervene in the conflict. When the statement was relayed to Truman, he denounced it as "blackmail". The Americans knew little about what was going on in Beijing, and didn't seem particularly interested in learning more.
On 8 October, Mao called for "volunteers" to resist "US imperialism". Under the command of General Peng Dehuai, a force of 130,000 PLA troops, relabled as "Chinese People's Volunteers", went across the Yalu from 13 to 25 October to build up in staging areas. The movement was done with great stealth, and US intelligence had no clue about it. Not that it mattered: had MacArthur been given warnings of Chinese activities, he would have contemptuously dismissed them. [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* GIMMICKS & GADGETS: As discussed by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("Joining The Dots", 1 February 2014), the Braille embossed alphabetic font for the blind was invented by Louis Braille, a blind Frenchman, in 1824, with letters encoded as variations of a 3x2 grid of dots. It became a standard, but its use has greatly declined in the 21st century. In the 1950s, half of blind American kids learned Braille; now only 10% do.
Braille books have always been oversized and cumbersome; written material is hard to get in braille; and braille isn't all that common in public places. The rising prevalence of audio books and digital text-to-speech translators has provided an alternative; the latest generation of audio computer interfaces, like the Apple Siri, has allowed the sightless to have a high level of control over digital gear. In addition, the number of blind has been falling, one factor being that in the middle of the last century it was discovered that using pure oxygen in incubators for premature babies was damaging their eyesight.
However, the blind who can't read braille are lacking a significant capability, particularly because a lack of braille makes it difficult for them to learn how to write. Now several research groups have developed programmable braille interfaces for smartphones and the like, using a temperature-sensitive alloy that can be "reprogrammed" at will. For the longer run, Disney researchers are working on "haptic" technology that uses electrical stimulations of a flat surface to trick the fingers into feeling bumps that aren't really there. Advocates feel that haptic technology, in full development, should be easily integrated into smartphones and tablets, providing a significant extra dimension to digital technology for the blind.
* WIRED Online blogs reported on a new packaging technology known as "ExpandOS" from a company of the same name -- a paper replacement for styrofoam packing peanuts and the like, amounting to a flat pattern of light cardboard that tabs together into what look like little pup tent. The little tents have holes in the sides and serrated edges that cause them to wedge against each other, preventing settling in shipping.
Tests show they are very effective in protecting shipments of goods, cheaper than alternatives, conveniently stockpiled, readily automated, and easily recycled. They certainly look like a much better deal than obnoxious styrofoam peanuts -- which are not only a nuisance to dispose of, but also a nuisance because their inclination to pick up a "sticky" electrical charge makes them a pain to handle.
* Rolls-Royce of the UK is now promoting the idea of uncrewed cargo vessels. Crews amount to almost half the operating cost for a large container ship; such ships would be 5% lighter when empty and burn up to 15% less fuel if the bridge, where the crew lives, were replaced with cargo space and the electricity, air conditioning, water, and sewage systems for the crew area were eliminated. That would reduce construction cost as well, likely more than offsetting the addition of automation systems, including redundancy to eliminate the need for human attendance of critical systems.
Not everyone is enthusiastic about the idea. An official of the International Association of Classification Societies, a ship safety group, commented: "Can you imagine what it would be like with an unmanned vessel with cargo on board trading on the open seas? You get in enough trouble with crew on board."COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* SPEAK ENGLISH REVISITED: The global dominance of the English language was discussed here in 2009. An editorial from THE ECONOMIST ("The English Empire", 15 February 2014), followed up that thought by showing how multinational firms are also adopting English as their first language. For example Yang Yuanging, boss of Chinese personal computer giant Lenovo, recently attended a company board meeting in Brazil, with all business conducted in English.
It's been a practice for some time for European multinationals. Goran Lindahl, a former boss of the Swedish-Swiss engineering firm ABB, once described the company's official language as "poor English". Rising through Audi's managerial ranks is impossible without fluency in English. When Christophe Franz became boss of the Lufthansa airline in 2011, he made English the official language, even though almost all the company's senior management were German.
The Far East is more a newcomer. Rakuten, a Japanese online retailer, and Uniqlo, a Japanese fashion chain, have jumped on the English bandwagon; they are now being joined by traditional Japanese firms like Honda and Bridgestone Tires. Chinese firms are not as eager, since they have a big domestic market to crack and are having problems obtaining good managers in the first place, much less managers fluent in English. However, English is coming along, with about 300 million Chinese taking English lessons.
English dominates in part because it has no real competition. In the 19th century French and English were still competing as an international tongue, but much to the frustration of the French, English won out hands down. The only alternative that anyone can think of is Mandarin Chinese -- but as ugly as English can be to learn, Chinese is far worse, and it's not at all computer friendly. Besides, at least 400 million Chinese don't speak Mandarin either.
English also dominates in part simply because it is dominant: it's where all the linguistic resources have gone, it's the club everyone wants to join. It has subtler advantages as well. One is its flexibility, English having effectively looted all the other significant languages on the planet for its vocabulary, with English-derived vocabulary steadily sneaking into other languages in return. Hiroshi Mikitani, boss of Rakuten, also claims that English breaks down the class distinctions ingrained in the Japanese tongue -- a believable assertion to anyone familiar with the language, since it's characterized by courtesy levels and an elaborate set of personal titles reflecting social rank. In mergers between, say, French and German companies, using a third language as the official tongue bypasses a snub to the language of either partner.
Going English can have problems, of course: slow learners can become stressed out and resentful, leading to a hidden company war over language. Leadership has to make it clear to personnel why going English is a good idea, do everything within reason to help employees get over the barrier, and encourage those fluent in English to help their colleagues instead of bully them linguistically.
The predominance of English is of course handy to native English speakers, but it inevitably discourages them from learning another tongue in turn -- if they can get by in English, what sense does it make to acquire poor French they won't get much use out of? That may be inevitable, but native speakers need to remind themselves their advantage is limited and has downsides. At the very least, Americans need to be civil enough to talk in meters instead of feet, which nobody else uses.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* GAS ANXIETY: As discussed by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("European Energy Security: Conscious Uncoupling", 5 April 2014), Vladimir Putin has been confident in his aggressive actions against Ukraine because of Russia's predominant position as a natural gas supplier to Europe. Europe gets almost a quarter of its gas from Russia, and that gas is largely piped through Ukraine. GAZPROM, the Russian energy company, has sharply raised prices on gas for Ukraine, and Ukraine is not able to pay; that could lead, in the worst case, to a complete shutdown of the gas flow to Ukraine and Europe.
A spat between Russia and Ukraine led to the pipelines shutting down for two weeks in January 2009, to great consternation downstream. Europe now has bigger stockpiles of gas to weather out a short crisis -- it was a mild winter, meaning there's plenty of gas left, and as summer approaches there's much less demand anyway -- but is still much too vulnerable over the longer run. Putin has good cause to think he has Europe by the throat; but over the still longer run, Europe can decrease its vulnerability, and Russian bullying provides an incentive to do so.
Estimates suggest that Europe has about 36 billion cubic meters (BCM) of gas in store at present, and could store over twice that, 75 BCM. Some countries are in better shape than others: Latvia has a year's supply, Moldova and Macedonia have no padding at all. Europe could handle a Russian shutdown better if it were interconnected with gas lines, allowing countries with a surplus to sell to countries in need -- but traditionally European energy firms have not been interested in interconnects, since a freer flow of gas would mean more competition and lower prices, meaning the effort wouldn't pay.
However, pressure from the European Union (EU), along with a growing concern, since 2009, about the risks of relying on Russian gas mean that more interconnectors have been built, along with pumps that can reverse the flow in transit pipelines. There's also a push to end European dependence on the gas lines through Ukraine and get Europe out of the line of fire. The relatively new Nord Stream pipeline on the Baltic seabed was in part build with this objective in mind, providing a direct gas connection between Russia and Germany. With more interconnectors being built out of Germany, the Nord Stream could handle much, if not all, of Europe's gas supply -- all the more so because at present, it's only handling 30 BCM of gas a year, while it has a design capacity of 55 BCM.
It would be best of all to completely eliminate dependence on Russian gas, but that's problematic. European gas fields are fading out, with environmental concerns making extraction more difficult. Supplies from North Africa have been falling due to the political unrest there. Europe does have the ability to import large quantities of LNG, having shipped in 86.5 BCM in 2011. However, importing more is not immediately in the cards, since global production capacity has peaked and there's more competition for gas -- Japan is burning more after shutting down its nuclear power plants, and so is China due to public pressure over air pollution from coal-fired power plants. Europe might be able to bring in 10 BCM more gas a year, but it would cost twice as much as Russian gas.
Burning more coal is also not an option. The US, burning less coal at home due to the shale-gas revolution, is shipping more at low cost to Europe, with the result that European coal-fired power plants are now operating at near full capacity. European wind power capacity has been growing rapidly, with about 117 gigawatts available at present, reducing the draw on gas-fired power plants -- but that still wouldn't make much difference, and biogas supplies are negligible. In sum, in the best case Europe would still be 30 BCM short on gas supplies, about half of German consumption, if the Ukraine connection were shut down, and achieving the best case would demand tens of billions of euros. Worse, European demand for gas continues to increase.
Over the short run, the only thing European leaders can do is help Ukraine pay its gas bill, and lean very hard on Ukraine to get the dilapidated house of its energy sector in order. What about the longer term? The EU is investigating options, including more interconnects and stronger requirements for member states to maintain strategic gas reserves. There's also been consideration of new pipelines from sources. Russia is building a South Stream that will bypass Ukraine, but the EU is increasingly cool on the idea, being more interested in schemes such as the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline, due for completion by 2018, which will bring Europe 10 to 20 BCM a year from the Caucasus via Turkey. A thaw with Iran could bring more gas from there by the same route.
What about shale gas? That's not such a good option. In the first place, Europe's reserves are only about a quarter those of America's; there's also a lot more public resistance, and a lack of kit to do the job. Estimates suggest that by 2020, European shale-gas production will only be about 6% of America's. What about LNG exports from America? That doesn't work all that well either, since US export facilities are modest at present, and though they are being strengthened, there's already a big global LNG market, and the US will not make it appreciably bigger; American gas producers will not force down prices, and of course they will ship anywhere that pays the best, not just Europe. US gas production can't rescue Europe.
Can renewables rescue Europe either? The inclination is to see them as marginal, which they are now, but obviously more can be made of them. Doing so will not only require much more investment in production capability, but also on a pan-European "smart grid" that could transfer power from Germany when the wind is high, or from Spain and North Africa when the Sun is shining brightly. That not only means money, but political will.
The very exertion of that political will necessarily make an impression on Vladimir Putin. He knows that Europe needs Russian gas, but he also knows that the Russian economy is dependent on energy and materials exports; the only technical industry it makes money on is weapons exports. Even if renewables can only take up part of the load, any ability of Europe to cut dependence on Russian gas is a threat to Russia. Worse, Russia's gas sales are dependent on the international financial system, which is largely controlled by Europe and America.
The Soviet regime, with its contempt for capitalism, never had much of a handle on international finance, and it seems Putin doesn't either. Russian companies need to borrow on the bond market, and want their shares traded on international exchanges. They also need to handle payments in US dollars -- the currency in which almost all international energy transactions are priced. Rosneft, Russia's biggest oil company, would be badly damaged if it were to be de-listed on the London and New York stock exchanges. Financial sanctions could also make it hard for Russia to sell its oil to third parties: sanctions have hurt Iran not by stopping it getting oil to customers, but by stopping it from receiving payment. Admittedly, Russia would be harder to isolate.
Putin has, in a sense, done Europe a favor. As long as Russia seemed like a generally reliable supplier, European leaders could live dumb and happy. The annexation of the Crimea, with its following implied threat to Europe's gas supply, has been a wake-up call. It might take a generation or more, but it presents an opportunity for European leadership to demonstrate strength and resourcefulness that could put the growling Bear in the East in his place. This Europe's show, America can do no more than lend support, and Europe needs to make the most of it.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* ANOTHER MONTH: Concerning the report here last month of a mystery aircraft over Amarillo, Texas: a shutterbug in Wichita, Kansas, had spotted and taken a shot of the same sort of aircraft back in February. The online commentaries associated with the news report were amusing, some claiming it was a B-2 stealth bomber -- no way, a B-2 looks like a boomerang, this was a neat delta -- or the shockwave of a high-speed aircraft -- silliness; more evidence, if any were needed, that the popular rumor mill can only be relied upon to generate misinformation. Multiple sightings do enhance the impression that something's up, but when will the military drop the other shoe and say what? "Nosy minds want to know."
* Some months ago, I decided I'd try banner advertising on my websites again. After having been kicked off Google Adsense -- and I mean kicked, Google was far nastier about it than there was any sense in being -- I had tried Adbrite. That was a fiasco from day one, the firm ultimately going out of business, and I swore off banner advertising. After a while, I thought maybe I should give it another shot; maybe there was something better out there? I poked around a bit for "Adsense alternatives" and decided to try Qadabra.
Qadabara's ads seemed to move along slowly at the outset, but I thought it wise to be patient. However, some of the ads were obnoxious, it didn't show any signs of paying off, and they never answered my support emails. The more I dealt with them, the more they looked like the late unlamented Adbrite. When I started getting "banner ads" that hijacked my web pages, I decided it was time to get off the Qadabra hamster wheel immediately.
But what could I do? Poking around on other Adsense alternative advertisers suggested they were all pretty the same sort of marginal operations. Alternatives? They seem to be all bottom-feeders. Still, I had banner space on the top of my pages; I thought I needed to put it to some use.
How about a banner exchange? It wouldn't really buy me much, but I'd get a little traffic off of it, hopefully, and it would be gratifying to help other folks with their traffic. Unfortunately, examination of banner exchanges showed they were even more marginal. Banner exchanges are an idea whose time has long passed to the extent they were anything to begin with, a relic from the days of Geocities websites. The ads would be junk, embarrassing to display, and the amount of traffic I would get would be minuscule.
How about Amazon.com ads through Amazon Associates? I did that once years ago, maybe it was worth another look? I didn't have to investigate for long to find out the associates program was not offered in a handful of states, including Colorado. Fair enough, no complaints; obviously Amazon had their reasons, and that made it clear I shouldn't waste any more time investigating their associates program.
However, the bottom line was that I had to admit complete defeat and beat a hasty retreat: "I give! I'll be good!" On considering options, I decided that the only thing that made any sense to do was to ask for donations with a top banner. On deciding that, I realized that when I went to Qadabra and stopped asking for donations in the top banner, the donation rate had fallen by half -- which meant that I had actually been losing money. Besides, it seemed far more civilized to politely ask for donations instead of running annoying banner ads. Banner ads? To hell with them.
In any case, I updated my websites to ask for donations as fast as I could, then cut myself loose from Qadabra immediately -- and ran an anti-virus scan on my PC, just in case my stint with Qadabra left any nasty souvenirs behind. I didn't even ask for the payout I had built up; it was a pittance, and Qadabra had been such a pain that I wanted to put distance between them and me as quickly as possible: "Keep the money. Just go away."COMMENT ON ARTICLE