nov 2014 / last mod feb 2017 / greg goebel

* 20 entries including: Cold War (series), Arizona road trip (series), stellar synthesis of heavy elements & mysterious cosmic radio bursts, NNT & NNH to characterize medical treatments, ocean sunfish, Sikorsky S-97 Raider rollout, questions about electrical brain stimulation, distributed electrical aircraft propulsion, DARPA works on tech to fix brain damage, and satellite gravity maps reveal ocean floor.

banner of the month

[FRI 21 NOV 14] THE COLD WAR (46)
[TUE 18 NOV 14] S-97 RAIDER IS GO!
[FRI 14 NOV 14] THE COLD WAR (45)
[FRI 07 NOV 14] THE COLD WAR (44)


* NEWS COMMENTARY FOR NOVEMBER 2014: US President Barack Obama arrived in Beijing on 9 November for the Asia Pacific Economic Conference (APEC) summit, being genially hosted by Chinese President Xi Jinping. Although the US and China have their big differences, the APEC summit was marked by an extraordinary agreement, announced on 12 November, that America and China would work together to stop growth of greenhouse-gas emissions by 2030.

The accord was something of a surprise, but possibly shouldn't have been. Chinese leadership is under very strong public pressure to deal with air pollution and other environmental problems; the environment is a more obviously pressing issue for Xi than it is for Obama. The agreement focuses on long-term efforts, but at least it gives a roadmap; and isn't binding, but then few international agreements actually are. It raises hopes for a useful global climate deal in Paris at the end of 2015. It certainly gives a bit of hope when the political prospects for action on climate change seem to be on the fade, even as those who deny there's a problem are increasingly exiled to the hysterical fringe.

In a press conference, Obama called the accord an "historic agreement" and a "major milestone in the US-China relationship." The emphasis at the summit was for the US and China to focus on what they could work together on, with the summit also resulting in an accord on tariffs, and a military arrangement to reduce the chance for clashes in the South China Sea. There was, of course, no sign that problem was close to being resolved. Beijing is also touchy about foreign approval of pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong, with a tendency to believe the Americans are covertly aiding or even instigating them.

According to Yun Sun, a senior fellow at the Stimson Center, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington DC: "Counter to the heated rhetoric over the last few years, US-China relations show more signs of cooperation than confrontation right now. The key question is: does this adjustment reflect a change in foreign policy in the longer run?"

* As discussed by TIME magazine online, while Russia continues to hold the upper hand in Ukraine, its economy continues to deteriorate -- and not just because of sanctions, though they have had their effects. The ruble has fallen to new lows on international currency markets, while economic growth is slowing to a halt. Falling oil prices have inflicted great pain on both Russia's economy and the government, while Putin's attempts to strike back at sanctions have, to a degree, backfired; blocks on the import of foreign foodstuffs have made food scarcer and more expensive for Russian citizens.

The plundering of the Russian economy to enrich the political leadership has also taken its toll. Russia's economy is becoming ever more hollow, with no prospect of the trend being reversed. Putin believes he can stay the course, and is reaching out to China and other Asian economies to restore growth without having to kowtow to the West. He also knows that a collapse of Russia's economy will cause pain in Europe and elsewhere; he tries to exploit such fears to take the edge off sanctions.

However, Putin has no way of evading the hostility of Western governments over Russian imperialism; the G20 summit took place in Brisbane in November, with Putin leaving early in the face of criticisms. Denunciations by Obama could have been easily expected, but German Chancellor Angela Merkel, to a degree reluctant to take a hard line against Russia in the past, made it clear that German positivism about Russia was at an end. At a speech in Sydney following the summit, Merkel commented: "After the horror of the two World Wars and the end of the Cold War, [Russian misconduct] calls into question the peaceful order in Europe."

Putin must have been particularly taken back when Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper told him: "I guess I'll shake your hand, but I have only one thing to say to you: you need to get out of Ukraine."

That, at least, grants some relief from the realization that Putin is no Stalin -- who would have gone back home and conducted a purge in response. Indeed, so far Putin remains popular among Russians, in part because he's been skillful in shifting the blame for Russia's problems from himself onto sanctions and other foreign meddling. How long that will last is unclear.

* THE ECONOMIST ran a survey on gay rights, focusing on gay marriage, beginning with a bit of deserved pride in the magazine's cover story in January 1996, titled: "Let Them Wed" -- with two men on the wedding cake holding hands. The letters department was flooded with hate mail.

Now gay marriage is legal in 19 countries, and increasingly tolerated in others. On 6 October, the US Supreme Court refused to hear appeals against lower court rulings overriding state laws blocking gay marriage; if that wasn't a blanket declaration of the legality of the notion for the entire USA, it had aspects of one. The only question about the fall of such obstacles as persist in the states is not IF, but WHEN.

Here's the puzzling part: why such a rapid flipflop? The state of Massachusetts pioneered the legalization of gay marriage in 2004, the immediate result being dozens of US states passing laws to block it. Barack Obama opposed gay marriage during his 2008 presidential campaign. He renounced his opposition in 2012, with three states approving gay marriage in that year; when the Supreme Court ordered the Federal government to approve such marriages in 2013, it opened the floodgates.

By that time, polls showed about 60% of Americans had no problem with same-sex relationships. Gay rights followed in the tracks of racial equality and feminism. A new generation arose that was comfortable with the idea, while the old generation began to fade away. However, the change in attitude was so rapid that generational change couldn't be the full answer; it simply became obvious to more and more people of the injustice of their position, its inconsistency with principles of tolerance and the rights of citizens. Indeed, on reflection the bigotry now increasingly seems black comedy. Gay marriage granted a public stamp of respectability on gay relationships, not merely removing the stigma on gays, but also giving reassurance to the straights. This is not to say the war is over; merely to say that it is now obvious which side is going to prevail.

At least, likely to prevail in developed countries. Gay sex is illegal in 37 out of Africa's 54 countries. Gambian President Yahya Jammeh has called gays "vermin", and has promised to stamp them out like malaria-bearing mosquitoes. The hatred of gays is obviously sincere and resonates with the general public; but bashing gays certainly works well for political grandstanding, to distract the public from corruption or other problems.

Uganda has now passed a severe anti-gay law. As it was originally introduced in the country's parliament, it was much more severe, incorporating the death penalty. It was toned down in the face of international outrage, Obama taking diplomatic measures against Uganda in protest. Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni expressed resentment at the pressure, accusing outsiders of 21st-century colonialism, imposing their values on Uganda. Ironically, such modern laws have similarities to those passed by 19th-century colonial imperialists.

Vladimir Putin -- like Museveni, effectively president for life -- sees gay rights as Western subversion of traditional Russian values, and has pushed through tough laws against gays. However, there are signs of thaws in China and India, though nothing that resembles the wild rush that has taken place in the West. The global winds do seem to be blowing against repression and it appears on retreat, but is it headed for extinction? Certainly, it seems hard to believe that bigotry will return in places where it has been put down, and it is obvious that countries where it continues to prevail will feel as much or more pressure over time. The instinct, correct or not, is to believe that in the 22nd century, bigotry against gays will seem as bizarre as the era of American racial segregation does today. We will have other things to fuss about.



* WINGS & WEAPONS: An essay in AVIATION WEEK reported on a chat with Sir George Zambellas, Britain's First Sea Lord and so boss of the Royal Navy (RN), during the course of a visit by Zambellas to Washington DC late in July. While American brass are disgusted with budget cutbacks, Zambellas was upbeat, saying the RN "is seeing signs of expansion, which is a really weird place to be." He pointed to:

Zambellas said that while the RN has suffered deep cuts, by the 2020s it will be allocated over half of Britain's defense budget. Zambellas was careful not to crow to the Americans, however, emphasizing cooperation over competition. The UK is collaborating with the US on the "Common Missile Compartment" for the next generation of SSBNs, and one of the new Type 45 anti-air warfare destroyers has been operating as an integral part of a US Navy carrier task force. In addition, a type 45 has been involved in collaborative exercises with the US Navy on ballistic missile defense.


Zambellas did have worries, however, over the 18 September referendum on Scots independence, since the RN has critical assets in Scotland:

While Zambellas was satisfied with current RN funding levels, he acknowledged the service doesn't have much margin, and the loss of the Scots bases would be painful. Fortunately, the result of the referendum was a clear NO, and the Royal Navy could give a sigh of relief.

* The Chinese DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM) was discussed here in 2013. As reported by JANE'S Online, a recent Pentagon report says that the Iranians are now quietly fielding their own ASBM, the "Khalij Fars". It's a version of the solid fuel, single stage Fateh-110 tactical ballistic missile with an electro-optical (EO) seeker that enables it to home in on a ship's infrared signature in its terminal attack phase.

Since Iran leverages heavily off Chinese weapon systems, it is plausible that the EO seeker is derived from DF-21D technology. Iranian media has reported that the missile has the same 300 kilometer (185 mile) range and 650 kilogram (1,435 pound) warhead as the latest versions of the Fateh-110. That range allows the missile to cover all maritime activity in the Persian Gulf and Strait of Hormuz. According to the report: "Tehran is quietly fielding increasingly lethal symmetric and asymmetric weapon systems, including more advanced naval mines, small but capable submarines, coastal defense cruise missile batteries, attack craft, and anti-ship ballistic missiles."

Fateh-110 tactical ballistic missile

Although the Iranians lack over-the-horizon targeting capabilities needed to make effective use of an ASBM, the report added: "Iran potentially could alter the regional naval balance if it ever did reach such a level of sophistication in guidance, range, reliability, and operational accuracy."

* The "Bluetooth Low Energy" short-range communications / location scheme for smartphones, known as "iBeacon" in its Apple implementation, was discussed here late last year. AVIATION WEEK magazine reports that American Airlines is now performing a trial at Dallas-Fort Worth Airport in Texas on what Bluetooth LE can do for airline passengers. The system will be able to locate passengers and give them alerts that they need to get to their boarding gate, providing directions and an estimate of how long it will take to get there. The system can also report if a passenger has boarded or is near the gate, allowing service staff to hold the gate open if possible. Other airlines are similarly interested in BlueTooth LE.



* COSMIC GOLD: As reported by an article from TIME Online ("Gold In Space" by Michael D. Lemonick, 18 July 2013), once upon a time, following the creation of the Universe in the Big Bang, there was nothing but hydrogen and traces of helium. The gases then condensed into stars, with the stars then accumulating heavier elements in their cores -- layers of successively heavier elements, in fact, the number of layers depending on the size of the star. The biggest stars will build up a core of iron, but once the fusion reactions that produce the iron can no longer be sustained, that's the end of the matter.

Up to iron, the synthesis of elements releases energy, it's an "exothermic" process; above iron, it absorbs it, it's an "endothermic" process. The result is that the fusion engine in the stellar core goes out. With no fusion reactions to push back against the tendency of the star to collapse in on itself, the star does so, and brews up as a supernova. All the heavy elements that compose the Earth and our bodies were cooked in the cores of stars -- except those heavier than iron, such as lead, platinum, or gold.

There was long a vague notion that heavy elements would be synthesized in the shockwave of the violent supernova explosion, but the idea had never been nailed down very well, and so the result was dueling theories, none of them well-based on solid data. Now a team of Harvard astronomers believes there is evidence the heavy elements were produced in the collisions of neutron stars -- superdense stellar remnants composed mostly, of course, of neutrons.

They took their cue from US National Aeronautics & Space Administration's Swift satellite, launched in 2004 to help clear up the mystery of the "gamma ray bursts (GRB)" that occur briefly in the distant cosmos. The problem with figuring out GRBs is their brevity, none lasting more than a few minutes, meaning that it was hard to spot and inspect them. Swift was built to "swiftly" locate a GRB and then alert a network of astronomical observatories to zero in on it.

In June 2012, Swift spotted a GRB, with astronomers quickly examining the event with the twin Chile-based Magellan telescopes. They caught a glow of visible light, which allowed them to estimate the distance of the event at 3.9 billion light-years. NASA's Hubble Space Telescope checked the location of the event a week later; it was no longer visible, but there was still infrared emission.

Edo Berger, lead of the Harvard research team, said the observations could be explained by the collision of two neutron stars, and the creation of heavy elements in the event: "It's catastrophic and it happens very fast. Plus theorists think neutrons are crucial to the formation of these heavy elements, and neutron stars have plenty of neutrons."

One particular point in favor of the neutron-star production model is that the event takes place in a very small volume of space, which would help promote the endothermic fusion reactions needed to generate the heavier elements. The supernova model doesn't provide the same level of localization. In any case, the afterglow of the GRB could be could be explained by the production of atoms totaling more than 3,000 times the mass of the Earth -- some being radioactive and causing the glow -- including the heavier elements, with enough gold to form several bodies as big as the Earth's moon. Berger also thinks statistics argue in favor of the neutron-star model: "The rate of collisions in the Milky Way is one every 100,000 years, on average, and that's just enough to explain the abundance of gold in our galaxy."

The word "abundance" in this context is misleading, of course; even several Moons worth of gold doesn't amount to much on the galactic scale. It is the 73rd most common element on Earth; all the gold humans have ever dug up would only amount to a cube about 20 meters (65 feet) on a side.

* In somewhat related science news, as also reported by TIME Online, back in 2007 astronomers detected a burst of cosmic radio noise, lasting maybe a second or so. Was it a local event? The burst showed evidence that it had been spread out by the thin vapor of electrons in deep space, hinting that it came from outside the Milky Way -- which meant it had to be extremely energetic to be detected at all. However, given a single event, there wasn't much more to be said about it. A second, similar blast detected in 2011 didn't help clear things up, since its dispersal was less suggestive than that of the first.

Things are looking up a bit. As per a recent paper in AAAS SCIENCE, using the giant Parkes radio telescope in Australia, astronomers have observed four more of these mysterious bursts. Given that they only observed a small part of the sky, they estimate that about 10,000 such bursts should be occurring across the cosmos every day. All four bursts demonstrated dispersal, suggesting an extragalactic origin; indeed, they appear to be originating from five to ten billion light-years away, far across the known Universe.

The next trick is to cue infrared, optical, and high-energy telescopes to inspect a burst when it happens. According to lead author Dan Thornton of the University of Manchester in the UK: "It's still a mystery what [the bursts] are. But at least it's not a mystery that they exist."



* CUI BONO? An article from WIRED Online "This Man's Simple System Could Transform American Medicine" by Sarah Fallon, 14 October 2014) discussed an exercise in probabilistic reasoning -- revealing, as might be expected, how commonly we misunderstand probability, most visibly when it comes to health matters.

The item in question is the "number needed to treat (NNT)". It's simple: the NNT is just the average number of people given a treatment for one of them to benefit from it. For example, if a child is throwing up, she might be given a drug named Zofran, which has an NNT of 5, meaning that it works for one in five patients. The NNT has a complement, the "number needed to harm (NNH)", which gives the average number of people given a treatment for one to suffer bad side effects. Zofran doesn't even have an NNH, since it has no known bad side effects.

Now, for an alternate example, suppose a doctor recommends that a healthy older person take an aspirin a day to ward off a heart attack. In that case the NNT is 2,000 -- down in the statistical noise. The NNH is over 3,300, so at least the aspirin is well more likely to do good than harm, if one wants to bother.

The NNT was first described in a 1988 paper published in the NEW ENGLAND JOURNAL OF MEDICINE by epidemiologists Andreas Laupacis, David Sackett, and Robin Roberts titled "An Assessment of Clinically Useful Measures of the Consequences of Treatment". Their starting point was what is known as "relative risk reduction", or the percentage improvement in patient health due to a treatment. If, for example, patient fatality rate for an affliction is halved by a particular treatment, then its relative risk reduction is an impressive 50%.

The difficulty is that if the improvement is from one fatality out of twenty patients (5%), to one fatality out of forty patients (2.5%) -- well, that's definitely all for good, but not as impressive as 50%. The authors suggested that "absolute risk reduction" -- in this example the 2.5% reduction in fatalities -- would be more accurate. It would, however, not be so easy to interpret, so they suggested that the reciprocal of the absolute risk reduction -- in this example, 1 / 0.025 = 40 -- would be easier to understand.

This value was what they called the NNT. Would 40 be a "good" NNT? If there were no evident side effects and the treatment inexpensive, YES; if there were nasty side effects and the treatment expensive, NO. When the anti-HIV drug AZT was introduced in the early days of the AIDS pandemic, it had nasty side effects and was expensive, but it had an NNT of 6, which was very good even considering the drawbacks. Improved anti-HIV drugs have been introduced since then that have an even better NNT and aren't as bad in their side-effects, though they remain spendy.

Few patients have heard of the NNT; more surprisingly, doctors aren't all that aware of it either. To spread the word and make better use of the NNT David Newman -- director of clinical research at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai hospital, who practiced medicine in military service in Iraq -- set up a website named "TheNNT.com" -- with dozens of contributors inspecting available studies to crunch the numbers and post the results. Given that there's a trade-off between the NNT and the NNH, the site places its evaluations in four categories:


   GREEN:     does more good than harm
   YELLOW:    uncertain if it does good or harm
   RED:       does no good
   BLACK:     warning, does more harm than good 

Newman is a proponent of evidence-based medicine, believing along with others of the same mindset that medicine has yet to become truly scientific, saying: "People tend to think that if it's a medical intervention, there's science behind it." This isn't always true, Newman adding: "It is a lie to tell patients to do something without telling them: You should know we've done lots of research on this, and we can't find any benefit to it."

The difficulty is that doctors have an inclination to prescribe treatments even when it's not certain they do any good -- because such treatments might do some good and they feel compelled to do something, in particular because patients demand that they do something. The doctors also don't want to be seen as negligent. According to a survey, more than 90% of doctors say such "defensive medicine" is common in their community. A study shows that in 2011, Americans spent $210 billion USD, 8.4% of health care spending, on useless treatments. Useless treatments can not only be ineffective, they can degrade the quality of life of patients.

Vikas Saini, president of the Lown Institute, which focuses on overtreatment in US health care, is enthusiastic about the NNT and Newman's website, saying Newman is "tackling something fundamental about how we think about health care and behavior and risk. All of us have trouble clearly distinguishing degrees of risk, and that is compounded by the enormous noise that accompanies health information."

It will take a change in mindset, both of patients and doctors, to accept such risk estimates; many patients are outraged at the prospect of any risk, even though they can't avoid some risk, with doctors pressured to humor them. The patients end up paying, so why not? How much the NNT can help with the problem is uncertain -- but it certainly can't hurt.



* ARIZONA ROAD TRIP (18): Family business sent me on a return trip to Spokane in early June, and I conducted my usual summer trip there in August. There wasn't too much to say about either trip, though a few interesting things came up.

On the June trip, other than that instead of staying at a Hilton Garden Inn or Hampton Inn as is my usual custom, I tried the "C'Mon Inn" motels in Missoula, Montana, on the way out, and in Casper, Wyoming, on the way back. They looked a little like ski resort hotels and the rates were good, so I figured I should give them a try. As it turned out, they were clean and comfortable and the price was fair -- but they weren't my style. They had stuffed animal displays in dioramas ringed by hot-tubs, giving me the impression of staying in a giant sporting-goods chain store. It just seemed a bit quirky, even depressing. I tend to find stuffed animals grotesque; a good or even mediocre statue works much better for me.

hotel, Western style

I did have fun talking with the desk clerk at the C'Mon Inn in Casper, a young fellow who had just come in from Seattle. He was surprised to find out I was familiar with Seattle, and knew what a nightmare it was to drive around in that city. This trip I also had my car digital music player -- discussed elsewhere, enough to say it worked very well -- and was more careful about checking tire pressures. The little ASUS notebook worked very well, much more useful to me than the tablet. I'm thinking of getting an Acer Switch to try tablets again on more satisfactory terms, but no hurry.

* Having learned my lesson, on the August trip I stayed in the Hampton Inn in Missoula and Hilton Garden Inn in Casper, as was my usual custom. I did take my brother Terry's family out to dinner at a popular semi-fancy pizzeria in Spokane, the Flying Goat, converted from an old service station, which went well -- the food was innovative and good, the prices were not that far above Pizza Hut. It seemed big on fancy brews; beer is of no interest to me, but it seems like Spokane is noted for its micro-breweries.

I also had a little adventure on the way back that enlivened a trip that, having been taken about fifty times, tends to the dull. While driving east across southern Montana, I saw a train idled, possibly waiting for the track to clear. It had unfinished Boeing 737 fuselages on it, something I often see on that trip, being transported to the Boeing plant in the Seattle area for final assembly. This seemed like a great opportunity to get some pictures of them, so I pulled over and stopped.

737 fuselages en route through Montana

It turned out to be even more interesting than I thought, since the train was also loaded up with military four-wheel MRAPs -- armored cars. They weren't marked with the name of the service they were going to and they didn't have the hard-to-hide grunge of gear that's seen field use; I presume they were being sent from the manufacturer, Oshkosh, to a military base, or possibly for shipment to a foreign customer.

I noticed somebody in a Suzuki SUV had pulled off the road in front of me, presumably to take pictures as well. Having got my shots, I got back on the freeway; some time later I pulled over again to get shots of some spectacular lavender-colored fields. The Suzuki then pulled over again in front of me. The driver got out and accosted me; I was suspicious at first, but then he identified himself as a storm chaser and a pilot, and wondered if I had got shots of the 737 fuselages. The train had taken off before he could get them himself.

Storm Chaser

A fellow geek! I was pleased to talk to him. I asked him if he had a flash drive, and then I took my little ASUS notebook, copied the shots into it, and then copied them back out to his flash drive. We then went our separate ways. Anyway, between April and August I drove the equivalent of a trip to Australia. I'm not going to be so enthusiastic about trips in 2015; which is just as well, because due to cash-flow issues, I won't have the money for them for a few more years anyway. [END OF SERIES]


[FRI 21 NOV 14] THE COLD WAR (46)

* THE COLD WAR (46): President Eisenhower's attitude to the Bomb was profoundly ambivalent. He rejected the notion of a limited nuclear war; it wasn't that he failed to appreciate the attractiveness of the nuclear option for the battlefield, he was just knowledgeable enough of history and strategy to realize that there was no reason to think it a workable option. If one side went nuclear, the other would have an irresistible inclination to retaliate in kind, indeed escalate rather than be trumped by the other side. The fact that the end result would obviously be disaster wouldn't stop the escalation.

The ironic consequence of this vision was that Eisenhower focused on the nuclear option. Eisenhower coupled a slowdown in buildup of conventional forces with acceleration of acquisition of nuclear weapons, a policy named "New Look". The nuclear buildup was focused on fighting a total, apocalyptic nuclear war. Since such a war could not be rationally fought, American policy would walk the fine line between deterring the Soviets and threatening them. That would be very difficult to do, since the Soviets were inclined to feel threatened, desperate to prevent the Americans from getting the decisive nuclear edge. Both sides built up their arsenals of nuclear weapons and delivery systems.

Eisenhower's cuts to conventional forces raised loud protests from the joint chiefs of staff, who lobbied friends in Congress to push their agendas. Eisenhower tried to explain the economic necessity of defense cuts to the chiefs and told them they needed to toe the line, but they continued their lobbying efforts. Eisenhower was not at all surprised, no one having better knowledge of the games the military brass like to play; he was particular exasperated at the way each of the chiefs would agree with him that cuts to other services were perfectly sensible -- but that the funding for the chief's own service was completely inadequate.

Democrats in Congress were sniping at the administration for its perceived weakness on defense and failure to stand up to the Reds. The Republicans having used the "soft on Communism" card against the Truman Administration and Democrats in general, inevitably the result was a contest between the two parties for which would be seen as tougher -- both quick to pounce on any perceived sign of weakness in Eisenhower's defense policy. The Cold War was driven at least as much by domestic politics as it was by international tensions.

The one-upmanship was ironical, given that the rapid buildup of the American nuclear arsenal was headed into the absurd. In fact, Eisenhower wanted to spend less on nuclear weapons, and was interested in diplomatic means of slowing down the nuclear arms race. In July 1953, Robert Oppenheimer had published an article in the FOREIGN AFFAIRS journal titled "Atomic Weapons And American Policy" that made a strong impression on the president. In the article, the physicist pointed out the folly of an unrestrained nuclear arms race, noting that America's "twenty-thousandth bomb ... will not offset their two-thousandth." A few hundred nuclear weapons would be enough to inflict a crippling level of damage on the combatants. Oppenheimer called for "candor" by the government relative to America's nuclear arsenal and defense posture.

While Eisenhower was receptive to Oppenheimer's call for candor and disarmament, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and Admiral Lewis Strauss, the new chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, were not. Dulles believed that the Soviets only understood overwhelming force, and would interpret American restraint as a sign of weakness. Eisenhower had appointed Strauss to the top job at the AEC in July, telling him privately to pursue disarmament options; Strauss did nothing of the sort. He had already crossed swords with Oppenheimer, who was an advisor to the AEC, over the development of the hydrogen bomb, which Oppenheimer had strongly resisted.

Unfortunately, Oppenheimer's influence was then being undercut by a scandal, the physicist having been accused of being a Red spy. There had been such accusations against Oppenheimer for years, but McCarthy had got wind of the issue, and the administration had to act before McCarthy did. On 3 December, Eisenhower ordered an investigation to get the facts behind the accusations, with Oppenheimer's security clearance frozen. The investigation blocked McCarthy from taking action himself, since he would be an interference in due process. Oppenheimer, under pressure to resign, refused and demanded a hearing. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* Space launches for October included:

-- 07 OCT 14 / HIMAWARI 8 -- A Japanese H-2A booster was launched from Tanegashima at 0516 GMT (local time - 9) to put the "Himawari 8" geostationary weather satellite into orbit. The satellite was built by Mitsubishi Electric, with assistance from Boeing. It had a launch mass of 3,490 kilograms (7,700 pounds), a design life of 15 years, and three payloads:

Himawari 8 was placed in the geostationary slot at 140 degrees east longitude. This was the 25th flight of the H-2A.

Himwari 8

-- 15 OCT 14 / IRNSS 1C -- An Indian ISRO Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle was launched from Sriharikota in the Bay of Bengal at 2002 GMT (local time - 5:30) to put the third "Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System (IRNSS)" spacecraft into orbit. The space platform had a launch mass of 1,425 kilograms (3,140 pounds) and a design lifetime of ten years; it was placed in the geostationary orbit at 83 degrees east longitude.

-- 16 OCT 14 / INTELSAT DLA 1, ARSAT 1 -- An Ariane 5 ECA booster was launched from Kourou in French Guiana at 2144 GMT (local time + 3) to put the Intelsat "DirecTV Latin America (DLA) 1" AKA "Intelsat 30" and "Arsat 1" geostationary comsats into orbit. Intelsat DLA 1 was built by Space Systems Loral; it had a launch mass of 6,320 kilograms (13,935 pounds), 72 Ku-band / 10 C-band transponders, and a design life of 15 years. It was placed in the geostationary slot at 95 degrees west longitude to broadcast direct-to-home television services to Latin America, in a partnership between Intelsat and DirecTV.

Arsat 1 was first large communications satellite to be built in Argentina. It had a launch mass of 2,980 kilograms (6,576 pounds), a payload of 24 Ku-band transponders, and a design life of 15 years. It was placed in the geostationary slot at 72 degrees west longitude to provide communications services to services across Argentina, Chile, Uruguay and Paraguay.

-- 20 OCT 14 / YAOGAN 22 -- A Chinese Long March 4C booster was launched from Taiyuan at 0631 GMT (local time - 8) to put the "Yaogan 22" satellite into orbit. It was described as an Earth observation satellite, but was apparently an optical surveillance satellite.

-- 21 OCT 14 / EXPRESS AM6 -- A International Launch Services Proton M Breeze M booster was launched from Baikonur in Kazakhstan at 1509 GMT (local time - 6) to put the "Express AM6" geostationary communications satellite into orbit for the Russian Satellite Communications Company. The spacecraft was built ISS Reshetnev of Russia, and was based on the firm's Express 2000 satellite bus. Express AM6 had a launch mass of 3,400 kilograms (7,600 pounds), a payload of 72 Ku / Ka / C / L band transponders, electric thrusters, and a design lifetime of 15 years.

Express AM6 was to be placed in the geostationary slot at 53 degrees east longitude to communications services to government and commercial users across Russia, Europe, Africa and the Middle East. However, there was an upper stage fault, and it was placed in a lower than planned orbit; it used its electric thrusters to slowly bring itself up to its operational orbit.

-- 23 OCT 14] CN XC / CHANG'E 5 T1 -- A Chinese Long March 3C booster was launched from Xichang at 1800 GMT (next day local time - 8) to put the "Chang'e 5 T1" lunar probe into space. The probe performed a loop around the Moon, with a re-entry capsule being returned to Earth on 31 October as a test for the Chang'e 5 lunar sample return mission, planned for 2017. The capsule did a "skip" re-entry to null out its high return velocity, and parachuted to ground in Inner Mongolia.

The upper stage of the Long March booster, which also looped around the Moon, carried a 14 kilogram (31 pound) amateur radio payload from Luxembourg Space named "4M-LXS" -- "4M" meaning the "Manfred Memorial Moon Mission", dedicated to LuxSpace founder, Professor Manfred Fuchs, who died early in 2014. It was a technology demonstrator, transmitting back to Earth its status and measurements from a space radiation sensor.

-- 28 OCT 14 / CYGNUS 3 (ORB-3) (FAILURE) -- An Orbital Sciences Antares booster was launched from Wallops Island at 2222 GMT (local time + 4) to put the fourth "Cygnus" supply capsule, named "Orb-3", into space on an International Space Station support mission. The booster cleared the launch tower, but suffered an anomaly and was commanded to self-destruct.

Antares launch failure, 28 October 2014

-- 29 OCT 14 / PROGRESS 57P (ISS) -- A Soyuz 2-1a booster was launched from Baikonur at 0709 GMT (local time - 6) to put the "Progress 57P / M-25M" tanker-freighter spacecraft into orbit on an International Space Station (ISS) supply mission. The Progress performed a direct ascent trajectory and docked with the ISS Pirs module six hours after launch. It was the 57th Progress mission to the ISS.

-- 29 OCT 14 / GPS 2F-8 (USA 258) -- An Atlas 5 booster was launched from Cape Canaveral at 1721 GMT (local time + 4) to put the "GPS 2F-8" AKA "USA 258" AKA "Navstar 72" navigation satellite into orbit. It was the eighth Block 2F spacecraft, with the Block 2F series featuring a new "safety of life" signal for civilian air traffic control applications. The Atlas 5 was in the "401" configuration, with a 4 meter (13.1 foot) diameter fairing, no solid rocket boosters, and an upper stage with a single Centaur engine.

GPS 2F-8

-- 30 OCT 14 / MERIDIAN 7 -- A Soyuz 2-1a booster was launched from Plesetsk Northern Cosmodrome in Russia at 0143 GMT (local time - 4) to put the seventh "Meridian" dual-use communications satellite into a high-inclination "Molniya" orbit.



* MOLA MOLA: The science component of WIRED Online blogs likes to run an item on absurd-looking organisms every now and then, and chose in one installment to focus on the giant ocean sunfish. To be sure, nature cares nothing for aesthetics and saying a certain fish looks silly is being parochial -- possibly we look just as silly to them -- but it is certainly a true statement that there aren't other animals that look much like the ocean sunfish.

Reefs tend to be oases of marine life, an environment that provides shelter and supports a diverse ecology. The open oceans are a harsher environment, more barren, less spectacular in their diversity, and with no place to hide from predators. One option for defense is just to be well bigger than predators; the ocean sunfish is the biggest living bony fish, growing to over 3 meters (10 feet) long and weighing over 2,270 kilograms (5,000 pounds).

ocean sunfish / Mola mola

Size is not its only distinction, the ocean sunfish having a very different configuration from that we normally associate with fish. Instead of a streamlined shape, it is in the form of a vertical oval, with a tall fin top and bottom, and a tailfin that amounts to a fringe alongside the rear of the oval. Because of its configuration, it has been nicknamed the "headfish" or the "swimming head", because it suggests a fish that's lost everything but its head. The scientific name is Mola mola, which has a vaguely Polynesian sound to it -- but "mola" is actually Latin for "millstone", a reflection of the fish's shape.

The ocean sunfish looks like an awkward swimmer, but though it's hardly a speed demon, it's very efficient. While most fish swish their tails back and forth for propulsion, the ocean sunfish uses its lengthened dorsal and anal / ventral fins for drive, the flattened body slicing through the water, the tailfin acting as a rudder, with additional control from the pectoral fins on the sides.

Their closest relatives among other fish are pufferfish and porcupine fish, the ocean sunfish being described as a "pufferfish on steroids". Indeed, ocean sunfish larva have spines, like pufferfish, to help them survive predation until they get to be too big a mouthful for most predators. Given the lack of cover in the open ocean, most will not survive to that size, and so an ocean sunfish is wildly generous with eggs, one female releasing literally hundreds of millions of them.

Getting big is problematic not merely because of predation, but because, again, the open oceans are relatively barren. The primary food of the ocean sunfish is the jellyfish, which is fairly common, but also doesn't have much food value, meaning that an ocean sunfish has to eat a lot of jellyfish. Since jellyfish tend to have nasty stingers, ocean sunfish have a very thick skin, made up of tiny plates with spines -- as another indication of its relation to pufferfish -- and covered by mucus. They've got thick, tough lips and a similarly tough digestive tract.

The low quality of its diet is a big reason why the ocean sunfish is so efficient in its energy use. It of course will complement its diet with other creatures, such as small fish, squid, and various crustaceans. It can dive deep in search of food, over 900 meters (3,000 feet), with large eyes to help it see in the dark depths of the ocean. It will also come up to the surface, where it turns on its side and floats in the sun -- which is why it's called a "sunfish". The posture is an invitation to seagulls to come down and feast on parasites; the shadow also attracts small fish that clean the other side. Of course, sunning helps the sunfish maintain thermal balance as well.

The only significant enemies of Mola mola, at least once it reaches full scale, are humans. The ocean sunfish is eaten in some places in the Far East, but its big problem is that it is very vulnerable to being caught in drift nets -- which, fortunately, are gradually being banned. The ocean sunfish is no real threat to humans, being very docile, though running into one in a boat is big trouble, not merely because of the size but because of the really tough, prickly skin. They are not often kept in aquariums because they demand a large tank; being creatures of the open ocean, they don't have much comprehension of obstacles, and lacking agility they tend to injure themselves by banging on the walls of a tank. They have to be more or less hand-fed using a pole, because they move so slowly that other fish in the tank will gobble the food up first.


[TUE 18 NOV 14] S-97 RAIDER IS GO!

* S-97 RAIDER IS GO! As discussed by an article from AVIATION WEEK ("Rotary Redefined" by Graham Warwick, 6 October 2014), the Sikorsky company has now rolled out its "S-97 Raider" compound helicopter demonstrator for the US Army's Joint Multi-Role (JMR) rotorcraft program.

The S-97 follows in the tracks of earlier Sikorsky efforts, beginning with the "XH-59A" experimental rotorcraft of the 1970s, which featured coaxial rigid rotors driven by dual turboshaft engines through a common gearbox, with twin small turbojets for forward propulsion. The coaxial rotor configuration has a number of advantages, including being compact and also eliminating the need for a tail rotor to cancel torque. It is particularly well-suited to high-speed rotorcraft flight, since helicopter rotors suffer from an asymmetric lift problem: the rotor is moving forward on one side of the machine and backwards on the other, with the result that at high speeds the machine tends to flip over. Using dual contra-rotating coaxial propellers gets the problem under control.

The XH-59A achieved high performance, but it was noisy, shaky, a gas guzzler, and hard to fly -- managing four engines being a particular trial. In 2008, Sikorsky began test flights of the "X2" demonstrator, a coaxial-rotor compound helicopter with a pusher prop, all powered by single LHTEC T800 turboshaft. It was a company-funded effort, with a pricetag of $50 million USD. The X2, which had a gross weight of about 2,720 kilograms (6,000 pounds), incorporated "lessons learned" since the XH-59A program, such as composite materials, active vibration control, and a fly-by-wire flight control system. It had vibration levels comparable to a Sikorsky Black Hawk helicopter, but was twice as fast -- reaching 460 KPH (290 MPH / 250 KT) in flight tests in 2010.

The X2 was retired in 2011, having served its purpose, with Sikorsky then focusing on the S-97. Two are to be built, one for trials, the other for customer demonstrations, at a total cost to Sikorsky and suppliers of $200 million USD.

Sikorsky S-97

The S-97 is a sharklike machine, with coaxial rotors, a pusher prop, and an inverted triple-fin tail; it is about twice as heavy as the X2. It is powered by a General Electric YT706 turboshaft with 1,940 kW (2,600 SHP), driving dual four-bladed rigid, hingeless rotors. The rotor assemblies are of composite construction, with swept tips, and have a diameter of 10.4 meters (34 feet). The pusher tail prop has six blades, in three-blade contraprop configuration, with a diameter of 2.1 meters (7 feet). The pusher prop is reversible, and disabled via a clutch for hover or low-speed flight. Cruise speed will be 405 KPH (250 MPH / 220 KT) with external stores, faster without; the S-97 will also have a higher ceiling and better maneuverability than a conventional rotorcraft. There is a fixed tailwheel on the center tailfin, with single-wheel main gear retracting directly into the fuselage behind the cockpit.

Design of the S-97 was greatly assisted by extensive use of simulation. Sikorsky is also being aided by a tight-knit network of 53 suppliers. While the Raider is a demonstrator and not intended for operational service, its configuration is close to that of an operational machine, and is regarded as the basis for one. Sikorsky imagery of an operational machine shows it to have an undernose imaging / targeting turret, with stub wings for weapons stores.

The S-97 is seen as a contender for the US Army Armed Aerial Scout program -- now on hold due to budget cuts, but which is expected to be revived in one form or another. Sikorsky has estimated that an operational machine based on the Raider will have a unit cost of $15 million USD, about 25% more than the price of a comparable conventional rotorcraft, based on a 428-machine buy to replace the Army's Bell OH-58D Kiowa Warrior helicopters. A Raider derivative, with about three times the gross weight, is also seen as a contender for the US military's Future Vertical Lift Medium rotorcraft, to replace thousands of Black Hawks from 2035.



* ARIZONA ROAD TRIP (17): The next morning, Mother's Day, I went for a short trip to Couer d'Alene, Idaho, to take a brief hike over a hilly park on the lakefront -- trying to keep up with my sister-in-law Janet, who was charging relentlessly forward. Next time, prepared, I give her a better run for her money.

We then walked into downtown Couer d'Alene right next door. I could only contrast the somewhat backwoodsy place it has been when were kids with the tourist attraction it had become in the present day, full of trendy cafes and artsy shops. The city had kitted up a park near the waterfront with a truly impressive playground complex, one of the most elaborate I'd ever seen.

Couer d'Alene playground complex

Back in Spokane, we got Mom over to Terry's house for an early dinner. They got to talking about local issues, one that I took notice of was a trial of a local plumber for homicide. He'd fired up his truck, then went into the house to get something he'd forgotten; when he came back out, some local kid had got in, and was driving off with the pickup. The plumber shot and killed him. The plumber was acquitted.

Although I didn't know the specifics, I had to agree with the acquittal. The plumber shouldn't have killed the kid, but the kid had done something unbelievably reckless; he had created the situation without consideration of the consequences, and if the plumber had taken the most drastic action, he had been put in a situation where he was going to react. I less faulted him for opening fire than for leaving his pickup running. I suspect I'm much more paranoid of thieves than most folks. When I was a soldier, I got it hammered into me that anything not nailed down disappears quickly; I would never think to leave my car running unattended, even in my own driveway when nobody seemed to be around.

In any case, I ate and had to run, making it to Missoula that evening, going the rest of the way home on Monday. There was snow on the ground in southern Wyoming, which made me nervous about a freeze in Loveland -- though I found I could gauge my altitude by the amount of melting. I got back into Loveland after nightfall. I doublechecked the weather and found that temperatures were to go down to -5 C / 23 F, which would surely freeze up and crack my vacuum breaker. I wrapped an old comforter around it and covered it with a plastic trash bag; for insurance, I took an old desk lamp with an incandescent bulb and shoved it inside; it wasn't very hot, but warm enough to prevent a freeze-up.

That done, I unpacked the car. I was in an acid, dissatisfied mood; the trip had met all expectations and had not been that difficult, but it didn't feel like rewarding effort. I was so disgusted that I stayed up a bit when I was really tired to order a cheap little ASUS touchscreen laptop -- 11.6-inch display, $300 USD -- from Amazon.com. It was just something gratifying to do; besides, there was a chance I'd have to go back to Spokane on family business in the near future, and I wanted to make sure I was properly equipped the next time.

Sigh, now I have eight computers around the house. I don't mind having bought the tablet, it was interesting to play with. Now I'm using it as a BOINC crowdsourced distributed computing node. I'd set up one of my netbooks as a BOINC server, but running a computer full time is not good on a hard disk, and I started getting intermittent failures. The tablet doesn't have a hard disk, so it can operate indefinitely; I dust the house every Wednesday, and check the tablet to see what it's been doing. As for the new laptop, it arrived promptly; I loaded it up with the software and configurations I need, and doped out Windows 8.1 better.

In any case, I went to bed and got a short night's sleep. When I went for a walk in the morning I found puddles hadn't frozen over, so it hadn't got down below freezing during the night. Coming home was still the right call, since all the data I had told me I would be in trouble if I didn't, and besides there was no reason spend any more time in apprehension on the road than I had to. I was puzzled that the weather reports were so off, though later I found on some weather sites asking for Loveland, Colorado, gave Loveland Pass, up in the mountains. Oh well.

The feeling of dissatisfaction lingered while I tried to get everything tidy at home. I realized I hadn't checked the tire pressures as I had planned, and found to my distress that the front left tire was down to half-pressure. Oh dear, I could have been in real trouble. I promptly went over to Walmart and had it patched. Walmart's a good place for tire service; I've had tire shops try to tell me a tire's totaled so they can sell me a new one, but Walmart won't play such games. [TO BE CONTINUED]


[FRI 14 NOV 14] THE COLD WAR (45)

* THE COLD WAR (45): President Eisenhower was very interested in covert action, since it seemed to promise results on the cheap; the CIA -- under Allen Dulles, John Foster Dulles' brother -- grew significantly as a result. In June 1953, Eisenhower approved NSC 158, which called for propaganda and covert action to "nourish resistance to communist oppression throughout satellite Europe, short of mass rebellion." In reality, the CIA and other US agencies involved in that effort would never have much to show for it, other than antagonizing the Soviets. The CIA did have its successes, however.

In 1951, Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mosaddegh pushed through the nationalization of Iran's oil fields, which had been under the effective control of Britain. The British embargoed Iran; the Americans were unsympathetic to Britain at first, but political activity by Iranian Communists, and increasingly dictatorial actions by Mosaddegh, allowed the British to argue to the US that Iran was in danger of falling under Red control. The CIA cooperated with Britain's MI6 intelligence service under Operation AJAX to orchestrate, mostly by bribes to Iranian officers, a coup d'etat in August 1953 that toppled Mosaddegh, with Iran's king -- Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi -- returning from exile to become the effectively absolute monarch of Iran. Mosaddegh ended up in house arrest to his death in 1967.

Eisenhower was kept briefed on AJAX by Allen Dulles, but made sure that no paper trail was left to show his involvement, also being careful not to discuss the matter with his cabinet or the NSC. The Shah would be a staunch American ally from then on, though the Iranians would never forget the coup against Mossadegh, and it would come back to haunt the US.

There was an extreme ambiguity to US covert actions during the Cold War. Before World War II, other than meddling in small nations in the Caribbean region, America had little inclination to use "black operations" to interfere in the affairs of other states. The war meant, if not the end of traditional American isolation, at least an end to its predominance. Given a more interventionist mindset, if things were being done in some foreign state that were contrary to perceived American interests, then actions taken to deal with the problem could be overt, covert, or both.

There was no reason on the face of it to see any moral difference between overt and covert actions; if America chose to intervene, international support, or the lack thereof, for such actions, would be effectively the same either way. Covert action was likely to be less expensive and less drastic than overt actions; why use a sledgehammer when a more precise tool would do the job, and possibly less painfully for all? The big problem was lack of transparency. There was an inclination to hide such actions from Congress, in particular from members of Congress of the opposition party. To be sure, secret information had to be released to Congress with great care and there was no need to get too specific, but something was wrong if Congress wasn't told at all.

The dilemma over covert action would remain as long as America rejected isolationism. It was impossible to credibly deny that the US government had a right to covert action, and there were very strong pressures to make use of it -- even, maybe particularly so, in cases where overt action couldn't be justified. The only guideline the leadership could have in doing so was what would be called the "daylight test": that is, whether the action could be justified once it was made public. Public officials were certainly drifting over the line when they made major decisions while covering their tracks in the records. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* SCIENCE NOTES: According to a study released by the US Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC), a child born in the USA today will live longer than at any other time in American history, with average life expectancy for the US population being slightly under 79 years.

Life expectancy for people born in 2012 was a tenth of a year longer than in 2011; women can expect to live to a bit over 81 years, while men can expect to live to over 76 years. The infant mortality rate decreased 1.5% in 2012 to a historic low of less than 600 infant deaths per 100,000 live births. Mortality rates of eight of the ten leading causes of death in the USA fell in 2012 from 2011, including death rates for heart disease, cancer, chronic lower respiratory diseases, stroke, Alzheimer's disease, diabetes, influenza and kidney disease. Suicide rates did see an increase.

* As reported by a note from TIME magazine ("Very Good & Very Bad News In The Vaccine Wars" by Jeffrey Kluger, 16 October 2014), the CDC has also produced a survey of vaccination coverage for more than 4.25 million kindergartners and the opt-out rates for more than 3.9 million in the 2013:2014 school year.

The survey covered three major vaccines, finding the national vaccination compliance rates to be 93.3% for the chicken pox vaccine; 94.7% for the measles, mumps, & rubella / MMR vaccine; and 95% for the diphtheria, tetanus, & pertussis vaccines. These sound like good scores, but vaccination rates need to reach or exceed 95%, depending on the disease, to maintain herd immunity -- the protection afforded by vaccinated people to those who can't be vaccinated, such as immunocompromised children, or those whose vaccines didn't "take" well enough. Below such rates, infectious diseases can still propagate through the "holes" in the population to strike the vulnerable.

Vaccination refusal tends to be associated with wealthier, better educated, Left-of-center parts of the USA, such as the Northeast, the Pacific coast, and pockets around major universities. That's part of the reason New York City's elite private schools have vaccination rates far lower than the city's public schools, and why some schools in the wealthier neighborhoods of Los Angeles have a lower vaccination rate than South Sudan.

According to the CDC survey, there are the 26 states plus the District of Columbia that don't meet the US Department of Health and Human Services' guidelines of 95% coverage for the MMR vaccine. There are the 37 states that don't even meet the CDC's standards for gathering data on vaccination rates in the first place; and there are the 11 states with opt-out rates of 4% or higher.

In California, 17,253 sets of parents have obtained waivers on vaccinating their children, while 3,097 have done so in Colorado. This gives Colorado the highest proportion of "refuseniks" relative to population of all the 50 states. In contrast, Mississippi had an overall kindergartner vaccination rate 99.7% -- with Louisiana, Texas, and Utah not far behind.

ED: Politically challenging the right to waiver vaccines is very troublesome, but now there's increasing thought to the idea of pressing liability lawsuits on parents who waiver vaccines for their kids -- and those kids then infect other kids with a disease. There's a precedent, with people who knowingly passed on sexually-transmitted diseases now doing time in lockup. Resorting to lawsuits is a drastic measure, but in this case it sounds like such an effective one, it's surprising it hasn't been done yet.

* As discussed by a note from WIRED Online, there's nothing new about tracking animals by radio collars -- but traditionally, the size of the radio gear meant the animals had to be large, such as wolves or moose. Now lightweight tracking tags, weighing a fraction of a gram, are being developed that will allow tracking animals down into the size range of butterflies.

Such tags are necessarily limited on power, however, and so suffer from short range. United Airlines is stepping up to get the scheme to work, by putting receiver systems on their airliners to pick up the tag signals. With 5,000 flights a day, United will be able to provide almost global tracking on a real-time basis. There being no reason that the lightweight tags can't be used on bigger animals, tagging will become more widespread in general -- and since the system will be automated, researchers will not have to do any more than log onto their computers to get tracking data.



* SPARKED: As discussed by an article from BBC WORLD Online ("Warning Over Electrical Brain Stimulation" by Melissa Hogenboom, 23 August 2014), although electric shock machines are now seen as part of the kit of quack doctors of a previous generation, it does seem that electric shocks can have beneficial effects. Take, for example, "transcranial direct current stimulation (TDCS)" in which electrodes connected to the scalp provide gentle currents that stimulate the nerve cells in the brain. Advocates say it allows users to think faster and focuses their attention. It's non-invasive, and very mild; it has been shown to improve math aptitude, with the effects lingering for months. The US military uses TDCS to try to improve the performance of its drone pilots.

Dr. Roy Cohen Kadosh of the University of Oxford in the UK is investigating TDCS, trying to see how it affects cognitive functions. He says: "Research has shown that by delivering electricity to the right part of the brain, we can change the threshold of neurons that transmit information in our brain, and by doing that we can improve cognitive abilities in different types of psychological functions."

TDCS has attracted the attention of firms selling gadgets such as headsets for gamers, telling buyers they will be able to "overclock their brain!" Those who are performing valid research on TDCS find such claims overblown and disturbing. In Cohen Kadosh's lab, electrical stimulation is used in a controlled environment for no more than 20 minutes at a time, and only on subjects who have passed thorough medical checks.

TDCS headsets

The problem is that indiscriminate stimulation may actually be harmful. Different brain regions than those intended might be affected and, if the stimulation is not carefully applied, it could actually impair brain function instead of improve it. Cohen Kadosh says: "You can use stimulation that might not be beneficial for you; you need to know how long to stimulate; at what time to stimulate; and what intensity to use."

Hobbyist users of TDCS discussing the technology in online forums have reported difficulties such as scalp burns, or increased levels of anger. Nick Davis of Swansea University in the UK has pleaded for "calm and caution" for the use of TDCS devices with developing brains, known hazards being seizures and mood changes. Davis says that the human brain continues to develop until the age of 20, and that electrical stimulation of a youngster's brain has a more powerful effect than it does on an adult.

As Davis observes, online sales of "do-it-yourself" TDCS gadgets easily "puts the technology in the realms of clever teenagers ... These are the people who are probably going to do it at a higher dosage than a scientist or clinician would give to a patient and are less aware of the potential risks."

A research team from the Oxford Martin School at Oxford has published a paper that calls for regulation of commercially available TDCS devices. The paper references a gamer's TDCS headset, with the manual providing a list of unsettling warnings: those under 18 shouldn't use the device, nor should those with epilepsy or other health conditions, and users should watch out for for side-effects such as white flashes, nausea, headache, fatigue, tingling, and redness.

Hannah Maslen, lead author of the paper, says that since the headset is only marketed to gamers and makes no treatment claims, it evades the need for regulation: "If you were to make a treatment claim, that the device would alleviate symptoms or treat a recognized disease or illness, the device would automatically fall under the medical devices directive and the legislation associated with that."

The Oxford Martin team wants vendors to make sure they provide all the information users need to assess the risks of the technology. Steven Novella, a neurologist at Yale University in the US, believes that may be too permissive, seeing TDCS as over-hyped, with the marketing being "a couple of steps ahead of the science." Suggestions of increased attention and the alleviation of certain medical conditions means interest in electrical stimulation is bound to increase -- but as more attention is given to TDCS, more work will need to be done to characterize the risks.



* APPLY MORE MOTORS: The E-volo VC-200 helicopter, an electric rotorcraft flown by a total of 18 motors, was discussed here at the beginning of 2014. While the notion of a flying machine powered by a swarm of electric motors may seem strange, as reported by an article from AVIATION WEEK ("Electrifying Aviation" by Graham Warwick, 7 July 2014), the US National Aeronautics & Space Administration (NASA) is taking it very seriously, exploring the concept in the agency's "Transformative Aeronautics Concepts (TAC)" program.

Over the next five years, NASA plans to develop technology for compact, high power density electric motors operating at power levels of one to two megawatts. These motors could power an all-electric general aviation aircraft or helicopter; a hybrid turbine-electric regional airliner; or a large cargolifter, all with many small engines distributed around the airframe so as to make flight safer and more energy-efficient.

Mark Moore, an advanced concepts engineer at NASA's Langley Research Center in Virginia, asks: "What problems are we trying to solve in general aviation?" He ticks them off: low efficiency; poor safety, emissions, and ride quality; and high operating costs. He sees distributed electric propulsion (DEP) as offering improvements in efficiency, as well as noise and energy costs, in a wide range of flight applications.

Purely electric propulsion is, and will continue to be for the foreseeable future, constrained by cost and weight of battery packs, weight being a particular problem for flying machines. Hybrid propulsion, however, is attractive, since it is possible to build an efficient generation system, and the efficiency of good electric motors is high. They also have excellent power-to-weight ratios; they are quiet, reliable, and in themselves have no emissions; they scale up or down easily. According to Alex Stoll, chief designer of Joby Aviation, which is working on air vehicles with DEP:


You can have multiple small electric motors with the same output as a large one without much penalty. You can put them anywhere around the aircraft, versus heavy piston engines that can only go in one or two places. You can use them to make a personal air vehicle practical, versus an expensive, noisy, unsafe helicopter.


To test out DEP concepts, NASA is teaming with Joby and Empirical Systems Aerospace (ESAero) to investigate a "Leading Edge Asynchronous Propeller Technology (LEAPTech)" flight demonstrator. While a traditional light aircraft requires a large wing to ensure a low stall and landing speed, that big wing is inefficient in cruise, and tends to provide a bumpy ride at low altitude, being sensitive to gusts. The LEAPTech demonstrator will have a wing with a third that area, cutting cruise drag almost in half and resulting in a much smoother ride.

LEAPTech demonstrator

The LEAPTech demonstrator will still need a stall limit of 113 KPH (70 MPH / 61 KT); it will achieve it by having little propellers along the full span of the wing. The propellers will ensure good airflow over the wing even at low flight speeds. All of the propellers, except for those at the wingtips, will operate at relatively low RPM to reduce noise; each will turn at a slightly different speed to distribute the noise spectrum. At cruise speed, the low-speed propellers will fold back, with cruise maintained by the wingtip high-speed propellers.

The LEAPTech demonstrator is based on an Italian Technam P2006T light twin. The DEP wing will first be "flown" on the "Hybrid-Electric Integrated Systems Testbed (HEIST)", which is rig mounted on a truck that will ground-test a full-scale wing at stall speeds and above, that approach being cheaper than wind tunnel tests. The rig will be mounted on an airbag system to isolate it from vibrations that could interfere with the tests, with other sources of noise to be eliminated in post-processing.

HEIST will operate at 100 to 120 volts, though a production flight system is envisioned as operating at 600 volts. The wing will have 18 motors that will operate at a total power of 225 kW (300 HP). Other studies will examine power distribution schemes, use of variable motor power for flight control, and potential flight hazards. It is not clear if the Technam LEAPTech aircraft will actually be flown, or if it's just a straw configuration used as a test target.

NASA Langley is also investigating a DEP "tilt-wing" vertical takeoff & landing (VTOL) drone, this machine being designated the "Greased Lightning GL-10"; Joby is also investigating a VTOL machine, named the "Lotus". Both are being implemented as hybrid flight models with a weight of about 25 kilograms (55 pounds). Both investigations are being performed for an undisclosed government organization.

The GL-10 has a slightly swept tilting wing with eight motors, along with a twin-fin tilting tail with two motors. The large number of motors will ensure controllability no matter what the angle of the flight surfaces is. The Joby Lotus, in contrast, looks a bit like a sailplane, with a motor on the tail and motors on each wingtip. The tail rotor is tilted to the vertical for takeoff and landing, to be set to the horizontal to provide thrust in forward flight. The wingtip rotors fold in forward flight, to provide wingtip extensions.

According to NASA, these demonstrators will be faster and more efficient than existing helicopter drones, providing more endurance without demanding more efficient power sources. If the demonstrators prove all that's expected of them, they may lead to operational drones -- and provide a basis for use of the same technology in piloted flying machines.



* ARIZONA ROAD TRIP (16): I hit the road from Ellensburg on Saturday, 10 May, going over Snoqualmie Pass into Seattle. Since I had time to kill, I decided to perform planespotting at Seattle-Tacoma Airport, online comments saying there was a little park with a water tower off the runway where the spotting was good. I got a little mixed up and didn't find the water tower, ending up in a semi-secluded spot surrounded by a tangle of blackberry bushes that I'd used before.

It was something of a bust, air traffic being light and uninteresting; the only thing I spotted really worth shooting was a towhee, a little bird found on the Northwest coast, which hopped around in the gravel, paying little attention to me even when I walked up close to it to take pictures. I finally called it quits and left, to find out the water tower was right around the corner. It was actually a good place to take pictures, being right next to the end of the runway -- or would have been good, if there had been any interesting activity.

Okay, that was disappointing; planespotting increasingly feels like diminished returns to me. I made my way to Tacoma and the Point Defiance Zoo to see if I could do better. Indeed, even as I walked up to the zoo gate, things seemed much more promising, since there was a peacock engaging in a full display. I've often seen peacocks at zoos -- they make a loud, pealing cry that can be a bit unsettling if one doesn't know where it's coming from -- but never saw one put on a show like this. I took shot after shot, with the peacock indeed putting on a show, doing slow 360-degree turns like a model in front of an audience: Look at me! Look at me!


Having got plenty of shots, I then went into the zoo -- to then think that the peacock was displaying, even though there were no peahens around. Apparently having a human audience was good enough. I quickly canvassed the zoo -- getting photos of a tiger, walrus, arctic fox, wolves, and in particular sea otters -- and left, finding the peacock still exhibiting himself to visitors.

sea otter

I hit the road again, got a snack at a Denney's to fuel up, and then went to the Seattle Museum of Flight. It was another quick trip, the main rationale being to test my Panasonic Lumix camera for indoor shots of aircraft in poor lighting conditions, in preparation for my 2016 trip back East. A later inspection showed I got very good results from the camera's low-light mode.

good shots in low light

And so ended my whirlwind trip to the coast. I drove north on Interstate 5, traffic becoming congested towards central Seattle, but I didn't have too much problem getting to the Interstate 90 turnoff, to then cruise east over the mountains. On the far side of the mountains, I was rolling through the flatlands of Central Washington, and thinking about the threatening freeze in Loveland. I was supposed to get home at midday on Tuesday, but that would be clearly too late; I finally decided that I would cut my stay in Spokane short, leave on Sunday afternoon, stay in Missoula that night, and get back to Loveland on Monday evening. It was supposed to be wintry in Loveland on Sunday night / Monday morning as well, but not as frigid as the following night, so I had a chance to rescue my sprinkler system. In any case, I didn't want to spend an extra day worrying about it.

I was keeping myself amused by listening to the jazz tunes I had burned on a CD-ROM. I had been a lot more into jazz when I was a youngster. I realized with a bit of surprise that experimentation in jazz had largely come to a halt in the early 1980s. Jazz musicians had been pushing the boundaries for over thirty years to that time -- sometimes going off the deep end in doing so -- but had run into diminishing returns, and in the end had to fall back on tradition. To be sure, jazz has a very rich tradition to mine, but the days of wild exploration are long gone. To the extent experimental jazz survives, it is just another part of the tradition.

Leading from that, I realized that in my early sixties, I am now closing the book on things in my life. I had been exploring jazz when I was a lad, one of the books I was opening up in my life; now I was finishing them up. That sounds like a forlorn notion, but it isn't; one accumulates a lot of resources of various types over a lifetime, and refocusing on them turns out to be rewarding. It also still leads to new discoveries -- but my age of seeking out new worlds has passed.

I got to my brother Terry's house that evening, and talked about my worries over getting back home quickly with my sister-in-law Janet -- who replied that it would be easy to rearrange things on Sunday so I could get out in time to make Missoula before too late. I got onto my tablet and changed motel reservations, the experience proving painful. I finally realized what had been gradually dawning on me since the trip to Arizona, that tablets are fine for viewing videos or reading ebooks or using apps, but doing real work on them is like assembling a ship in a bottle. I had obtained a BlueTooth keyboard in hopes of easing the experience, but it didn't help much. I needed to get something better suited to my purposes. [TO BE CONTINUED]


[FRI 07 NOV 14] THE COLD WAR (44)

* THE COLD WAR (44): By the end of the Korean War, new leadership had taken charge in both the East and the West. Following Stalin's death, Lavrenti Beria -- the much-feared head of the state security service, previously the "NKVD", then the "MGB", soon to become the "KGB" -- rose to the top. Although Beria was notoriously brutal, his direction of foreign intelligence gave him an excellent grasp of Western capabilities and intent; he advocated liberalization of Soviet control over Eastern Europe, and better relations with the West to obtain resources for development.

Other members of the Soviet leadership were favorably inclined to that idea, but it wouldn't happen. In June, 1953, the East German government implemented economic changes that were widely unpopular, leading to demonstrations, which turned violent, and finally a general strike. The Red Army intervened and restored order. Beria's enemies among the Soviet leadership used the incident to move against him; he had made too many enemies, and his fall was rapid. He was arrested in June and shot on 23 December 1953. A Red Army general pulled the trigger to end his sordid career.

Leadership fell to a "troika" of three senior Party officials, including Foreign Minister Molotov, Nikita Khrushchev, and Georgiy Malenkov. Khrushchev was the most dynamic of the three, and within a few years would sideline the other two members of the troika -- though they were spared the indignity of arrest and execution. In any case, in the aftermath of Stalin's passing, the most brutal features of his rule were quickly dismantled, with prisoners released and arbitrary arrest becoming much less common. The USSR remained an authoritarian security state, but the whimsical excesses were over. The drive for security still meant that defense came first, with the Soviet Union in particular driving for nuclear parity with the Americans, struggling to keep up with Western technological advances. More guns meant less butter, and Soviet citizens continued to lead a threadbare existence.

* Dwight Eisenhower had been elected to the US presidency in 1952 partly by taking a tough line against Communism -- underlined by his secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, an outspoken and single-minded hardliner, who talked about "rolling back" the Reds. Eisenhower had also accepted Richard Nixon, a hardcore anti-Communist, as his vice-presidential running mate.

Eisenhower, in reality, was flexible, being conservative in terms of domestic policy, but an internationalist in terms of foreign affairs. He found the extreme Right bizarre, recognizing the absurdity of Rightists who, falling back on prewar isolationism, wanted to undercut US backing of NATO, while simultaneously calling for the "liberation" of Eastern Europe. Eisenhower boosted NATO, seeing it as a way that Europe would take more ownership of its own defense, as well as provide support and forward bases for US forces; money pumped into NATO was not a "giveaway", it enhanced American power. As far the notion of "liberating" Eastern Europe went, when Dulles prepared a speech calling for an effort to that end, Eisenhower told him to make it clear that it would only be done by peaceful means.

Eisenhower had been reluctant to abandon the US alliance with the USSR, but after the war he had concluded, writing in his diary, that "Russia is definitely out to Communize the world." However, although Eisenhower had attacked the Yalta agreements in his campaign speeches, he shrugged off calls from the Right to repudiate them -- however poorly they had turned out, simply scrapping them would gain nothing while causing endless trouble -- and rejected the charge that FDR's agreement to them was treasonous, pointing it was the best that could have been got under the circumstances. Indeed, Eisenhower had implemented FDR's policies in occupied Germany and raised no protest over them.

Eisenhower talked about normalizing relations between the US and the USSR. He was dubious of the sincerity of Soviet calls for peaceful relations following the change of leadership in the USSR, but they did prompt him to respond. In an address to the American Society of Newspaper Editors, in Washington DC, on 16 April 1953, only weeks after the death of Stalin, Eisenhower denounced the arms race:


Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. ... This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.


In terms of concrete proposals, Eisenhower challenged the Kremlin to permit a free and unified Germany, and liberate the countries of Eastern Europe under Soviet domination. He envisioned a new order, in which the USA and USSR would conclude an arms limitation agreement, leading to a ban on atomic weapons, supervised by the United Nations.

The "Chance for Peace" speech, as it became known, went nowhere. Eisenhower knew that Moscow wasn't going to budge on Eastern Europe, and was not going to accept international inspection to verify a nuclear weapons ban. At best, Eisenhower was just trying to set an agenda for what should happen over the long run; in practice, the speech amounted to propaganda. He was determined to scale back defense spending, which had skyrocketed during the Korean War, but his focus was on cutting conventional forces -- and then only to a degree, conventional weapons development proceeding at a near-war pace during the 1950s. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* GIMMICKS & GADGETS: In solar power news, an Idaho couple has a notion that brings up the question: brilliant or nuts? Their big idea is to produce solar panels that are, in effect, paving stones, and carpet roads with them.

Scott & Julie Brusaw originally went public with the concept in 2010, though their latest effort has a number of refinements -- most significantly, hexagonal instead of square panels, the hexagonal configuration providing better coverage for areas with curved edges. They're also heated to get rid of snow and ice, and include LED indicators to generate road markings, or even display messages.

The Brusaws claim their panels are impact-resistant, and that a panel can handle a 113 tonne (125 ton) load. They've installed the panels in a parking lot next to their lab. Overall life-cycle costs have yet to be determined, but the Brusaws believe that a road solar installation will easily pay for itself during its lifetime. Small solar parking lots or crosswalks could power signs or street lamps; an entire town with streets made of solar panels would have a decentralized electric grid, providing electricity to homes and businesses.

* The multiple CRIME SCENE INVESTIGATION TV series did much to glorify forensic investigation, with police investigators tracking down the Black Hats with whizzy technology. In reality, forensic science isn't quite that whizzy, and it also doesn't always work as advertised. As discussed by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("The Two Towers", 6 September 2014), as a case in point, consider the notion of pinpointing a suspect's whereabouts at the time of a crime using a call the suspect made on a cellphone.

Lisa Roberts was convicted of a 2002 murder in Portland, Oregon, park of a prostitute, her ex-lover. Roberts faced 25 years in prison; on being told that a cellphone call she had made pinpointed her location in the park at the time of the killing, she pleaded guilty to get a 15 year sentence. In reality, unless special measures are taken to use three cellphone towers to get a location, a cellphone call cannot nail down a caller's location with any accuracy. Roberts was released after almost 12 years in lockup.

According to officials of Cherry Biometrics, a Virginia forensics firm that testifies in cases where cellphone data is used as evidence, prosecutors will often claim that a cellphone will inevitably connect to the nearest tower -- but two calls from the same location may be picked up by different towers, maybe one close by, maybe one distant. The propagation of radio waves through the atmosphere can be very hard to predict; in addition, radio signals may be blocked by buildings or other instructions, as well as "bounced" by them in different directions.

Cellphone data can be used to establish that a caller is in a particular city and not another one some distance away, but that's about it. Roberts was jailed because her legal counsel, now deceased, failed to challenge the cellphone data -- which could have been done, since a second call Roberts made at the time of the killing placed her farther away, in a location where she had been seen by witnesses.

* However, as reported by an article from BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK ("Cops Use Military Gear To Track Cell Phones" by Peter Robison, 20 October 2014), it does appear the police have the ability to nail down locations of cellphones -- but aren't saying much about it. In early 2014, an activist named Freddy Martinez was at a protest at Chicago's Daley Plaza when he notice the plates of an unmarked cop car parked nearby. On checking his smartphone, Martinez found there was a new cellular transmitter nearby, and wondered if the copy car was the source.

Martinez filed a request under freedom of information laws to find out if the Chicago police had special cellphone surveillance gear. He got back an invoice for military-type gear that can spot and track cellphone activity. The police refused to say more, citing exemptions under the Homeland Security Act and Arms Control Export Act.

Police departments have been able to afford fancy surveillance gear due to grants of tens of billions of dollars over the last decade from the US Department of Homeland Security, as well Federal drug enforcement programs. The police do not need a warrant to locate and track calls, though they do need one to listen in on them.

Harris Corporation of Melbourne, Florida, has been doing a good business, selling a suitcase-size phone tracking system named "StingRay". According to the documents obtained by Martinez, the Chicago police spent at least $150,000 USD on StingRay gear. At least 44 police forces in 18 US states have cellphone-tracking gear; it exists in a legal gray area, with some civic officials saying they don't see a problem with it, but a court in Florida throwing out a conviction based on unwarranted cellphone tracking. Police forces using such technologies unsurprisingly tend to be secretive about it. Harris refuses to discuss it at all, one company official saying: "We refer everything back to the law enforcement agencies that are reportedly using them."



* DARPA DOES BRAIN CHIPS: As discussed by a note from IEEE SPECTRUM, nobody ever accused the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the Pentagon's "mad science" arm, of lacking ambition. The agency is now embarking on a "Restoring Active Memory (RAM)" program to develop and test prosthetic memory devices that can be implanted in the human brain. The plan is that the implants will be able to help veterans with traumatic brain injuries, and other people whose natural memory function is impaired.

Two DARPA-funded research teams, led by researchers Itzhak Fried at UCLA and Mike Kahana at the University of Pennsylvania, will focus on essential basic science -- looking for neural signals associated with the formation and recall of memories; working on computational models to describe how neurons carry out such processes; and figuring out how an artificial device can replicate them. They'll also collaborate with partners to develop practical hardware capable of recording the electrical activity of neurons, processing the information, and then stimulating other neurons as needed.

The underlying basis for the RAM program is the theory that the brain is a collection of circuits, a memory being formed by the sequential actions of many neurons. If a person has a brain injury that knocks out some of those neurons, the whole circuit may malfunction, and the person will experience memory problems. If electrodes can pick up the signal in the neurons upstream from the problem spot, and then convey that signal around the damage to intact neurons downstream, then the memory should function as normal.

Initial human experiments will be conducted with hospitalized epilepsy patients who have had electrodes implanted in their brains as they await surgery -- this being done so their doctors can pinpoint the origin of their seizures. Since epilepsy patients often experience memory loss as well, they're a good fit for the research, being often recruited for studies. Eventually trials would include military servicemembers suffering from traumatic brain injuries, and finally civilians with similar injuries.

Some researchers are skeptical that the work will accomplish much. According to Roger Redondo, a neuroscientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the viability of the DARPA effort will depend greatly on what kind of memory loss people with traumatic brain injury actually have. Memory loss can result from problems with either storage or retrieval; in the case of a storage problem, the connections that form a memory were either never formed to begin with, or were destroyed. In such cases, "no implantable device is going to help."

He added that if a traumatic injury produces a retrieval problem, in which most of a memory is there but simply hard to access, stimulation could potentially be useful. The trouble is that it will be extremely difficult to determine which cells contain the memory and precisely tune electrical stimulation to drive its retrieval: "The complexity of the brain, and the hippocampus, is such that any change in voltage that a micro-electrode or chip can apply, even in a tiny area, will affect multitudes of neurons in uncontrolled ways."

Redondo is not, however, opposed to the exercise, seeing as the kind of "blue-sky, high-risk" project that DARPA is uniquely chartered to take on. As DARPA officials point out, given the 270,000 veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars who have been diagnosed with traumatic brain injury, nothing less than a major scientific leap is required, the options for injured service members now being "very few."



* FROM THE SKIES TO THE DEPTHS: As discussed by an article from AAAS SCIENCE Online ("Satellites Reveal Hidden Features At The Bottom Of Earth's Seas" by Carolyn Gramling, 2 October 2014), only about 10% of the landscape at the bottoms of the Earth's oceans has been mapped in any detail; we know more about the surface of Mars. Sonar soundings from research vessels simply don't have enough coverage to provide wide-area maps.

Now, using precision observations of the Earth's gravitational field obtained by satellites, researchers have been able to greatly improve their maps of the seafloor. They have been able to spot previously unknown features -- including thousands of extinct volcanoes more than a kilometer in height -- as well as obtain insights into lingering uncertainties in the Earth's history.

The satellites measured variations in the Earth's gravity indirectly, using precision radar altimeters -- radars that can provide highly accurate distances, allowing the variations in the height of the seas to be picked out. When corrected for wave heights and tides, the radar probes of the ocean surface build up a picture of its overall topography, its bumps and valleys, which reflect the features of the ocean bottom below. According to David Sandwell, a geophysicist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego: "A seamount, for example, exerts a gravitational pull, and warps the sea surface outward. So we can map the bottom of the ocean indirectly, using sea-surface topography."

Four satellites have generated high-resolution radar altimeter data sets available to scientists:

Until recently, seafloor gravity maps relied on declassified data from the Geosat missions and on ERS-1 data, but their instruments were unable to resolve some features of tectonic plate boundaries, particularly if they were covered by sediment layers. According to Sandwell: "We could see ridges and transform [faults] that weren't buried by sediment" -- but anything buried under sediments was usually blurry.

Better data from Jason-1 and CryoSat-2 are sharpening the focus. Sandwell claims the difference is like that between ordinary and high-definition television. CryoSat-2 has been a particular star, not merely because of the high accuracy of its radar altimetry system, but because it has amassed data for four years; the other missions only collected data for a couple of years each.

Using that data, as well as significantly improved analysis techniques, Sandwell and his colleagues built a new marine gravity model that is at least twice as accurate as earlier models. They've been able to identify thousands of previously unknown seamounts from one to two kilometers tall dotting the ocean floor, as well as extinct ridges that once contributed to seafloor spreading and plate tectonics, but which are no longer active.

Oil companies -- and, Sandwell adds, the Chinese government, which is exploring the South China Sea -- are very interested in the new gravity maps. Oil and gas exploration focuses along continental margins where the sea floor is relatively flat under thick layers of accumulated sediment, and the new gravity maps make it possible to spot sediment basins that are possible reservoirs. Sandwell believes there's plenty in the new seafloor data to keep the marine science community busy, saying: "It's a lot of new information, and it's all very detailed."

* In related news, as reported by an article from BBC WORLD NEWS Online ("Greenland Ice Loss Doubles From Late 2000s" by Jonathan Amos, 20 August 2014), the ESA's Cryosat-2 spacecraft has been monitoring the depletion of Earth's ice sheets with its precision radar altimetry system. Cryosat-2 has determined that the Greenland ice sheet is losing about 375 cubic kilometers of ice a year, plus or minus about 24 cubic kilometers a year.

Cryosat-2 to orbit

Along with the discharges from Antarctica, running to about 128 cubic kilometers a year, it means Earth's two big ice sheets are now dumping roughly 500 cubic kilometers of ice in the oceans annually. Angelika Humbert from Germany's Alfred Wegener Institute (AWI) comments: "The contribution of both ice sheets together to sea level rise has doubled since 2009. To us, that's an incredible number."

The AWI group, led by senior researcher Veit Helm, has crunched about two years' worth of data centered on 2012:2013 to construct what are called "digital elevation models (DEMs)". These models are derived from a total of 14 million individual height measurements for Greenland, and another 200 million for Antarctica. The Cryosat-2 models take off from similar datasets created by the US space agency's IceSat mission between 2003 and 2009, permitting analysis of ice sheet changes over a decade's time.

The data does show local increases in ice pack in Antarctica, but they are overwhelmed by ice losses. A British-led group recently reported its own Antarctica DEM, using a different algorithm to process the numbers in the CryoSat-2 data, and came to similar results as the AWI team. Preliminary analysis of data from the US GRACE satellite -- which uses direct gravity mapping, not radar altimetry, to map ice pack -- suggests GRACE data is in accord with CryoSat-2 data. In its paper, the AWI team did not calculate the sea level rise for that volume of melting; but if the volume is considered to be all ice, the rise is likely to be a bit over a millimeter a year.



* ANOTHER MONTH: US national elections are imminent; they come around every two years, this current round being the "mid-terms" between presidential elections. There's a notably high-profile fight in Colorado between the Republicans and the Democrats over a Senate seat, the Republican contender being a Representative, the Democrat being the Senate incumbent. On examining the voting record of both, to me it was a question of counting bricks: for the Republican, it was easier to count the bricks present, for the Democrat, easier to count the bricks missing. I'll take the missing bricks any day. Voter turnout tends to be low for mid-terms, but the Colorado race has been heated enough to make it likely more people will exercise their privilege.

Still, I found the contest tiresome. I got an early ballot in the mail, promptly filled it out, and went downtown to deposit it. That way, I could put the matter out of my mind, even though the election still has a few days to go. I'm sure that I'm still getting dunned on the telephone -- but no worries, I finally got so sick of telephone spam that I turned off the ringer and always let calls go to voicemail. I don't like the phone, I prefer email any day since I have more control over it. I don't know why I didn't turn the phone off a long time ago; I get very few legit calls, and it's so much more peaceful with the ringer off. It's been bugging me for years, now the problem's solved. I occasionally see the phone light up with an incoming call, but messages are rarely left.

As is something of a truism, state / local ballot measures seemed more interesting than candidates. A state amendment was floated to define the unborn as human beings; this is the third time it's been pushed on the Colorado ballot in six years, I don't think it will fly better this time around. Along with its evident unpopularity, the amendment struck me as politically ridiculous, an absurd way to attempt to establish a fundamental legal principle -- and even if it were to pass (fat chance), I have little doubt that the amendment's constitutionality would challenged, directly or indirectly. I'm also not keen on the fact that Colorado allows public referendums on amendments to the state constitution.

More appropriately, there was a state referendum to demand special labeling of GM foods. Taking no stock in anti-GM hysteria, I knew unambiguously where I stood with that proposition, but it appears public sentiment is for it. One local poll was for a new animal shelter; sounds good to me, and I was happy to have something to vote on that didn't feel like a battle, and in which sensibility was likely to prevail.

It is an open question which way the entire election is going to go. President Obama is not doing well in popularity polls, primarily because of the sluggish economy, but then Congress seems to be rated even lower: a falling tide strands all boats. Respect for politics and politicians seems to be falling on a generational basis, which is strange, since it's hard to say they're any better or worse than they ever were. Indeed, given the introduction of transparency laws, a case might be made they're better. In any case, I'm certainly glad I have the vote, I wouldn't let anyone take it from me -- but I won't lose any sleep no matter how the election comes out, and I'll be happy when it's over.

* Every month I skim through four monthly blog archives -- to an extent to make sure there aren't gross errors in them; a bit more to make minor changes as dictated by later experience; but mostly just to refresh my memory on what I've written. Once I get up to current blog postings, I start the cycle over from the beginning in late 2005. It's worthwhile to remember relevant old articles that I can link back to from new ones, and also I can get insights from the old articles. For example, I was reading archives from early 2006, and found I had written about newfangled flash memory sticks. The startling thing was that, at that time, a 2 GB flash stick cost over a hundred bucks!

Another interesting revelation is that LED light bulbs, having been emerging for the better part of a decade, have finally come down in price enough to make them worth the investment, maybe about ten bucks for a 60-watt equivalent. I've bought a few for high duty cycle lights around the house, the rest I'm leaving with the fluorescents until they wear out. Somewhat oddly, the smaller bulbs, for candelabra sockets, are more expensive than the bigger bulbs, but that's obviously due to lower sales volumes.

I did quickly notice that, when I turn on the lights in the morning, instead of the gradual flickering up of the fluorescents, the LED bulbs are "instant on", meaning I put my head under the covers so I don't get a blast of light in my dark-adapted eyes. Of course, being a new technology, how long they will really last is an open question, but I am amused at the idea of taking the LED lamps with me if I move to another residence.

* Thanks to two readers for their donations to support the websites last month. It is very much appreciated.