* 23 entries including: Cold War (series), developing world economic boom over (series), fecal transplants (series), hopes for telemedicine, analyzing medical records, big business accepts carbon tax, money giveaways for development, Apple Pay, Mercedes robo-truck, dark net, surface tension in biosystems, and Pentagon embraces climate change.
* NEWS COMMENTARY FOR DECEMBER 2014: As reported by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("Cheese-Eating Warriors", 29 November 2013), a decade ago France took a dim view of US assertiveness overseas, leading to a chilly climate between the two countries -- as unfortunately memorialized by the American sneer at "cheese-eating surrender monkeys."
Now France is enthusiastic about asserting power abroad. French strike aircraft operate alongside American in hammering Islamic State insurgents in Iraq and Syria; France has been actively fighting Islamists in Africa, with assistance from US drones and intelligence sources; and is hawkish on Iran and Syria. According to a White House senior official: "France has emerged as one of America's most activist and steady European partners on security issues outside Europe."
Britain and France are the only two European countries with a serious capability for external power projection. Britain has become more withdrawn in the wake of painful interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan; the French, in contrast, are assertive, the French president having and exercising wide discretion to employ military force as he sees fit.
Although the French have a long tradition of twitting the overbearing Americans, French President Nicholas Sarkozy saw that measured cooperation with the US was in France's interests; in 2009, he returned France to NATO's military command structure, reversing a decision to get out made by Charles de Gaulle decades ago. Even more surprisingly, although the replacement of Sarkozy by Francois Hollande in 2012 meant a shift from Right to Left, Hollande has emphatically stayed the assertive and cooperative course set by Sarkozy. According to one observer: "In the security domain, French anti-Americanism has disappeared."
The French have been much more reluctant to act in Europe. Hollande, his public support being weak, has been unassertive on the euro crisis, leaving German Chancellor Angela Merkel shouldering the load -- with the result that the Franco-German partnership that has driven the European Union is strained. The Americans, as well as many other European nations, were very annoyed that France insisted on going ahead with the sale of two MISTRAL-class amphibious assault ships to Russia, though Hollande has now put the sale on ice. If there was a time that a blind eye could be turned on Russian misconduct, that time has passed.
* As reported by TIME Online, Russian President Vladimir Putin's "state of the nation" address on 4 December was not greeted with roaring applause. Talk of Russian military strength fell a bit flat, in the face of parallel news headlines of a blood-soaked confrontation with Chechen insurgents in Grozny, the capital of Chechnya. While Russian assertiveness in the former Soviet bloc has gone over well among Russians, that tune is starting to get old, and criticisms from other states more than a little weary. Carl Bildt -- Sweden's ex-foreign minister and a loud critic of the Kremlin -- tweeted on the same day as Putin's address: "Moscow should have more pressing priorities than destabilizing Ukraine."
The real issue for Russian citizens, of course, is the pocketbook. The ruble has lost about 40% of its value against the dollar since Putin's annexation of Crimea, making it much harder for Russians to afford foreign holidays and Western goods. Putin told the audience that problem was due to mysterious "currency speculators" -- the Illuminati? -- and said he has ordered the Russian central bank to track them down. Most Russians realize the problem is falling oil prices and foreign sanctions.
Putin's big plan, such as it is, for reviving the economy is autarky -- self-reliance, what he calls "import replacement": "We have to break our critical dependence on foreign technology and industrial products." How? Russia is not remotely self-sufficient in 21st-century technologies, and isolation from the world economic system is the road to poverty. Few Russians are expecting a better Christmas season next year.
* In contrast, also as reported by TIME Online ("Americans Get Sunnier About The Economy" by Sam Frizell, 12 December 2014), after years of economic gloom, this Christmas season Americans were feeling holiday cheer. The Thomson Reuters / University of Michigan index of consumer sentiment rose to a near eight-year high in December, similar to levels seen in boom years like 1996 and 2004, and the best since January 2007. More consumers reported feeling upbeat instead of discouraged.
The first quarter of 2014 still saw a deep contraction in the economy of 2.6%, partially due to an unusually severe winter in many parts of the country. However, the US economy grew at an annual rate of 3.9% in the third quarter of 2014; in the second quarter, GDP grew 4.6%. 321,000 jobs were added to payrolls in November, the biggest monthly increase in three years, leaving the unemployment rate at 5.8%. Fuel prices are also low, though currently that's partly due to less travel in the wintertime. Consumer spending was projected to be up for the holidays.
However, the low fuel prices have weakened oil producers and caused nerves in the stock market. There are also long-term issues, such as a growing income gap between the top and the bottom of the US population, along with sluggish wage growth and an underclass of people persistently out of work. The sluggish economies of Europe are also a worry; their loss is not our gain, prosperity is not a zero-sum game.
In any case, although Barack Obama rates poorly in public approval polls, if the current trend continues, he may well leave office in 2017 with the economy roaring. While his critics snipe at his administration for its blunders, both real and imagined, none of the real blunders demonstrate honestly disastrous mistakes, and he hasn't been tainted by personal scandals, as was the previous Democratic president. Harry Truman left the White House in 1953 under a cloud, but in hindsight he looks much better; and if Obama exits on a high note, history is likely to judge him much more kindly than he is judged now.
Even now, contrasted with Vladimir Putin, Obama doesn't look that bad, though that may be an excessively low standard of comparison. Democracy, as Winston Churchill said, "is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time."COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* TELEMEDICINE REVOLUTION? As discussed by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("Stuck In The Waiting Room", 11 October 2014), the concept of telemedicine -- using telecommunications to support health care services -- is not new, with imaginative descriptions of future telemedicine going back to the dawn of television. However, although the information technology to make a go of telemedicine seems to have arrived, so far it hasn't taken off. Now advocates think telemedicine's time has arrived, primarily due to the ever growing pressure on health care systems. Telemedicine seems to offer better health care at lower cost.
Technology is only part of the challenge; bureaucracy counts for as much or more. In the USA, the world's biggest healthcare market, the states license doctors; jurisdiction depends on the location of the patient, not the doctor, and so telemedicine implies doctors performing medicine in states where they are not legally permitted to do so. The standards imposed by the states are often complicated to the point of contradictory -- not only between the standards of different states, but within a state as well.
The European Union is clearly ahead in that regard, the law allowing telemedicine to be practiced across borders; a doctor licensed in one country is authorized to work via telemedicine in another. There remains, however, the problem of compensation, with states such as Germany inclined to categorize it as unpaid consulting. Compensation is an issue in the US as well, with well less than half of the US states mandating that telemedicine be compensated at the same rate as face-to-face care.
At the Federal level the Veterans Administration, which has been progressive in the current era, is enthusiastic about telemedicine -- while Medicare, the public-health care program for the aged, generally ignores it. Fortunately, private employers and insurers are very interested in telemedicine; they are increasingly oriented to paying doctors for packages of care, having recognized that the classic "pay for service" model is ruinously expensive, and want to make sure they get the most value for their health dollars.
Telemedicine is not as simple as videoconferencing; the technology is similar, but there's a greater need for security, with hackers eager to crack patient databases. Electronic versions of sensitive documents, such as X-rays or doctor's notes, have to be as secure as paper copies, which is tricky when the data is flowing around the internet.
Israel, where the health-care system is fully digitized, is embracing telemedicine, and considering guidelines. China is spending billions on health-care reform, with a focus on telemedicine. Unfortunately, simply throwing a telemedicine effort into a chaotic health-care system is not likely to automatically cut costs. Indeed, it might be well used as a gimmick to extract more money from patients. Since telemedicine hasn't arrived yet, there's no solid data on its cost-effectiveness, nor guidelines on how it should best be used.
Some doctors fear telemedicine will weaken their authority, while patients may feel they are being fobbed off with low-quality care, and governments worry about the potential for gaming the system. That suggests telemedicine may become more quickly established in developing countries that don't have much of a health-care system to begin with. In effect, telemedicine may go through its shakedown and validation in poor countries, before it ends up being adopted in rich ones. How long that will take is anyone's guess.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* DMINISHING RETURNS (1): As discussed by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("The Headwinds Return", 13 September 2014), after adjustment for living costs, economic output per person in the emerging world almost doubled between 2000 and 2009, with an annual average rate of growth of 7.6% -- in contrast to the 3.1% annual average growth rate of developed countries. It was an unprecedented explosion of wealth, with the share of the developing world's population living on less than $1.25 a day, the global poverty line, falling from 30% to under 10%, according to the Center for Global Development. At that rate of change, the developing world would catch up with American standards of wealth by 30 years, a mere generation.
Don't bet on it. An analysis of data on GDP per person that takes account of new estimates of living costs, released in April by the World Bank's International Comparison Program (ICP), suggests that convergence has decelerated rapidly. Since 2008, growth rates across the emerging world have been losing their lead over those in advanced economies. In the new ICP estimates, the average GDP per head in the emerging world, measured on a purchasing-power-parity (PPP) basis, grew just 2.6 percentage points faster than American GDP in 2013. If China is factored out of the calculations, the difference is just 1.1 percentage points.
At that pace, it will take emerging economies a bit over 50 years, on the average, to reach rich-nation levels of prosperity; if China is left out, that increases to 115 years. More recent growth projections by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) put the time of full convergence of emerging economies, other than China, at over 300 years. Given the uncertainties of economic predictions, that's much the same as saying "never". We would all certainly like a wealthier world, but the conditions for regaining rapid economic growth in the developing world are not going to be easy to create. That would imply reforms that seem ever less likely to happen; the end of inequality is no longer in sight.
In 1997, just before the big boom started to pick up steam, the World Bank's senior economist, Lant Pritchett, described a widening income gap between rich and poor countries as "the dominant feature of modern economic history". Economists found the gap baffling, since theories of economic growth, such as one published by Nobel Prize winner Robert Solow in 1956, predicted that eventually poor economies would catch up with rich ones.
In the Solow model, economies were poor because their workers had access to less capital. This capital shortfall implied the return on investment should be high, so capital should flow from rich countries to poor ones, leading the two worlds to converge on similar levels of productivity and income. The fact that the richer countries would themselves grow while this was going on complicated matters, but not too much. New technologies that aided growth in rich countries would flow back to emerging economies, allowing them to make "great leaps forward" through bypassing the learning curve encountered by the rich countries.
History seemed to justify the Solow model. Thanks to Britain's pioneering industrial revolution, British GDP per person soared above that in other countries in the 19th century; by 1870, Britons were 30% more productive than Americans, 70% more productive than Germans. It didn't take rivals long to learn from Britain and catch up. By the early 20th century, the USA had already passed Britain; not long after the Second World War, most of Western Europe had caught up.
That model does not seem to apply so well to developing world economies. From the mid-1940s to the mid-1990s, less than a third of developing economies were growing faster than the rich world at any one time. In any given economy, a decade's gains were often reversed in the next. There were exceptions, of course: Japan, which had already industrialized early in the 20th century, grew to become the world's second-largest economy, while South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore prospered as well.
Promising bursts of growth in Africa and the Middle East in the 1960s and 1970s fizzled out, while crises repeatedly punctured bubbles of enthusiasm in Latin America. Economists wondered what the problem with their models could be. Too low a level of investment and worker skill? Inept governments, still under the shadow of exploitative colonial regimes? Geographic isolation and high levels of disease?
The economists were then confounded again with the rapid economic growth of the developing world from the late 1990s. That phenomenon was heavily affected by the economic rise of China, but the growth was broad-based. In 2006, before the effects of the financial crisis slowed rich-country growth, emerging economies were achieving catch-up rates of more than five percentage points, even if China were factored out.
The boom was still not evenly distributed. In Eastern Europe and East Asia, economies grew at a remarkable rate -- though for many Eastern European countries, much of that growth was from a depressed level, due to the economic contraction that followed the fall of the Soviet Union. In 1998, GDP per person in Poland was only 28% of that of the USA, while China's was only 7%. By 2013, those figures had risen to 44% and 22%, respectively. Other countries made less progress. Brazil's GDP per head was 25% of America's in 1998 and only scraped forward three percentage points over the next 15 years. For very poor countries, even very high growth provided little catch-up; in Ethiopia, GDP per head rose from 1.3% of that in the USA to 2.5%. Venezuela and Zimbabwe, burdened with retrograde governments, fell further behind. [TO BE CONTINUED]NEXT | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* THE COLD WAR (50): Although the fighting had ended in Korea, East Asia remained troubled. Following World War II, European powers had attempted to restore their colonial empires there; the Americans had mixed feelings about the matter, letting the Dutch hang in Indonesia, giving the French limited support in Indochina. There, the conflict between French forces and the Communist Viet Minh insurgency, under nationalist leader Ho Chi Minh, had been sputtering along from 1946, becoming ever more unpopular with the French public.
By early 1954, the Viet Minh had the major French outpost at Dien Bien Phu under siege, and French prospects didn't look good. The Eisenhower Administration was under strong pressure to intervene, even employ the nuclear option. Eisenhower refused to save the French, saying that direct American involvement in the war could only happen with Congressional approval -- which he knew wasn't going to happen. Indochina had become a quagmire for the French; Eisenhower didn't want it to become a quagmire for the USA as well.
Still, Eisenhower was reluctant to simply wash his hands of Indochina. The Democrats had been pilloried for "losing China", and he didn't want the Republicans similarly pilloried for "losing Indochina". Eisenhower also felt the line had to be drawn against the Reds, invoking in a 7 April 1954 news conference what would become known as the "domino theory":
... you have broader considerations that might follow what you would call the "falling domino" principle. You have a row of dominoes set up, you knock over the first one, and what will happen to the last one is the certainty that it will go over very quickly. So you could have a beginning of a disintegration that would have the most profound influences.
Eisenhower then wrote a letter to Army General Alfred Gruenther, NATO supreme commander, with proposals to pass along to the French. The president made it clear that the USA would not intervene directly, and that the French could not retrieve the situation except by installing better leadership -- making it clear he didn't have the Charles de Gaulle in mind, Eisenhower having had extensive personal experience with the imperious de Gaulle during the war:
The only hope is to produce a new and inspirational leader -- and I do not mean one that is 6 feet 5 and who considers himself to be, by some miraculous biological and transmigrative process, the offspring of Clemenceau and Jeanne d'Arc.
Eisenhower envisioned that a multinational force, not including American troops but bankrolled by the USA, would carry on the war in Indochina; however, France would have to grant independence to their former colony. He also suggested that a "concert of nations" on the NATO model -- what would be soon labeled the "Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO)" -- be formed of Southeast Asian nations to keep the peace in that corner of the world.
As the situation grew worse at Dien Bien Phu, Eisenhower's NSC generated a paper suggesting the use of nuclear weapons. The paper was handed to the president on 1 May, who was incredulous: "You boys must be crazy. We can't use those awful things against Asians for the second time in less than ten years. My God!"
Dien Bien Phu fell on 7 May 1954. The belief lingered for a time that the war hadn't been lost, with continued pressure on Eisenhower to intervene -- which he ignored. Politically, he made the right decision, since he had no public mandate for military intervention, and no possibility of getting one so soon after America's exit from the Korean stalemate. American citizens had no interest in going in; the decision not to cost Eisenhower little with the voters, the headlines at the time focusing on McCarthy, not Southeast Asia. He still had to do something, but his only option left was diplomacy, with obfuscation and delaying tactics as guiding principles. [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* WINGS & WEAPONS: In 2001, South Korea began investigation of a "Korean Fighter, Experimental (KF-X)", a next-generation multi-role jet fighter to replace South Korean F-4 Phantom and F-5 Tiger II fighters. In 2010, Indonesia signed up as a minority partner in the effort, its variant of course to be known as the "IF-X"; South Korea has an 80% share in the program, while Indonesia has a 20% share. Now the two countries have signed final agreements to proceed, and have chosen from a menu of design proposals the "C103" single-seat, twin-engine fighter.
The C103 is somewhat larger than an F-16, with the engines providing 160.2 kN (16,325 kgp / 36,000 lbf) thrust. It has ten stores hardpoints, allowing carriage of 7,250 kilograms (16,000 pounds) of external stores, and stealth design features. Korean Aerospace Industries is the prime contractor, with Indonesian Aerospace as a partner, and Lockheed Martin providing assistance on the program. Introduction to service will be around 2025. Korea wants to obtain at least 120 C103s; Indonesia wants to obtain at least 80. Export sales are likely.
* As a follow-up to the article run recently here on helicopter carriers, the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) is now preparing to accept the CANBERRA, first of two new helicopter carriers -- more formally, "landing helicopter docks (LHD)". It will be followed by the ADELAIDE.
The CANBERRA-class LHDs are 231 meters (758 feet) long; they are about 90% of the size of the Japanese IZUMO-class helicopter carriers, and 60% of the size of the US Navy's AMERICA-class helicopter carriers. They have shallow draft, allowing them to operate in coastal waters. They were derived from the Spanish JUAN CARLOS class helicopter carrier design, and are being built by BAE Systems. Standard complement is 358, but they can also carry over 1,100 troops, along with over a hundred ground vehicles and a dozen rotorcraft. The vessels have a well deck for landing craft.
The CANBERRA-class LHDs are powered by a hybrid diesel-electric system, driving twin electric pivoting azimuth thrusters. They have SAAB Sea Giraffe radar plus an infrared search & track system. Defenses consist of four 25 millimeter cannon, six 12.7 millimeter machine guns, and countermeasures; escorts are expected to provide more formidable defensive firepower. They have a ski-jump ramp for short takeoff / vertical landing (STOVL) aircraft, but it's a carry-over from the JUAN CARLOS class: The RAN has no plans to obtain STOVL aircraft, though the CANBERRA and ADELAIDE may support STOVL machines of other nations in the course of combined operations.
* The Iranians have been ingenious in copying and updating foreign weapon systems. As discussed by a note from JANE'S IHS Online, the latest example is the "Asefeh" three-barrel gatling cannon, meant as a "close-in defense system" for naval vessels.
The Asefeh, which was mentioned briefly by the Iranians a year ago but only recently revealed in any detail, is clearly derived from the M197 20 millimeter Gatling cannon used on the Bell AH-1J SeaCobra helicopter gunships acquired by Iran during the Shah's reign. However, instead of firing the 20x102 millimeter ammunition of the M197, it fires Russian-style 23x152 rounds. The heavier, more powerful round would demand beefing up the weapon, as well as modifying the feed system. There is some suspicion that it actually still uses 20x102 millimeter ammunition, the Iranians not having been above inflating their capabilities in the past.
Observers with Iraqi militias fighting Islamic State insurgents have noticed such militias are armed with Iranian-weapons, notably the AM-50 12.7 millimeter anti-material rifle -- a modified Iranian copy of the Austrian Steyr HS.50 rifle. The militias also drive Iranian-made Safir jeeps, carrying barrage rocket launchers, or copies of the venerable US-made 106 millimeter recoilless rifle.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* ELECTRONIC MEDICAL RECORDS AS AN ANALYTIC TOOL: As discussed in an article by Carl Zimmer for THE NEW YORK TIMES ("Linking Genes to Diseases by Sifting Through Electronic Medical Records" 28 November 2013), it's been a long tough slog to computerize the medical industry, but it's slowly catching on. In the USA, 93% of hospitals are now using at least some electronic medical records, while 2.2% have completely given up on paper.
The overall system is disjointed, incomplete, and loaded with bugs; some have accused hospitals of going electronic simply to squeeze more money from patients. However, a new study shows that, even in its current imperfect state, the electronic medical records system is proving useful in establishing links between diseases and the genome.
The complete human genome was released in 2004. It was a remarkable achievement, but simply having a listing of the genome didn't tell us that much about what it did, with a lot of work remaining, still remaining, to figure that out. Tracing down cause and effect in biomedicine is a statistical game, in which a particular condition or conditions in a sample population is correlated to factors, such as particular genes, in that population.
One way to do this is though "genome-wide association studies". To run such a study, researchers take a set of patients with the same medical condition -- diabetes or Alzheimer's, for examples -- and sample their genomes to find "markers" that distinguish them from the genomes of a control population. Since 2005, researchers have carried out more than 1,500 genome-wide association studies, discovering thousands of links between gene variants and various conditions. However, many of the gene variants have only a weak correlation to a condition, and in some cases the connection faded away under examination.
Now a study published by a consortium of medical research institutions and published in NATURE BIOTECHNOLOGY has taken a reversed approach, known as "phenome-wide association studies", in which researchers take a gene variant, and then sort through electronic medical records to see what conditions it correlates to. The consortium, the "Electronic Medical Records & Genomics Network (eMERGE)", was founded in 2007; it includes institutions such as the Mayo Clinic and Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. Under eMERGE, researchers have developed software to scan electronic medical records and analyze data between hem. Although such records, at present, rarely include genetic information, there are also datasets of patients whose genomes have been analyzed from blood samples. The eMERGE system hooks up those two datasets to permit analysis.
To validate the eMERGE system, researchers went through existing genome-wide association studies, to find 77 gene variants strongly linked to diseases. They then ran the eMERGE system, confirming 51 out of the 77 links. That was impressive, given that such an analysis had never been a major consideration in the design of electronic medical record systems. The eMERGE team then surveyed 3,144 gene variants identified in past genome-wide association studies to see if they also influenced any other diseases, discovering 63 new links to diseases, ranging from skin cancer to anemia.
The eMERGE database now has information on about 51,000 patients, and the researchers are currently expanding their phenome-wide association studies accordingly. Larger studies are on the horizon. The US Department of Veterans Affairs, for example, has set up the "Million Veteran Program", which will combine electronic medical records and a DNA database from volunteers, with hundreds of thousands of veterans enrolled. However, the use of electronic medical records for far-reaching analysis will not reach its full potential until the records system becomes better standardized and more comprehensive, with genome data included as a normal practice.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* BIG BUSINESS ACCEPTS CARBON TAX: As discussed by an essay from BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK ("If It's Good Enough for Big Oil" by Mark Hertsgaard, 13 November 2014), although the idea of pricing carbon emissions raises a frenzy among the ultra-conservative, it seems that big business is increasingly seeing the writing on the wall. While oil giant ExxonMobil is accused by Greens of funding climate-change denial, the firm denies it; that denial becomes more believable when internal company documents show company management believes a carbon tax is inevitable, and is preparing for it.
The warnings are there. The World Bank reports that 22% of global emissions are already covered by some form of carbon pricing. California, the world's eighth-largest economy, has a de facto carbon price, thanks to its "cap-&-trade" law, which ratchets down the level of allowable emissions over time; the same is true of the European Union. China is also moving towards cap-&-trade.
Advocates of taxing carbon admit that it will raise energy costs, but point out that the increased cost will be much less than the damage caused by rapid climate change -- the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recently stating that the world will suffer "severe, pervasive, and irreversible impacts" if emissions aren't curbed. There is a strong consensus among economists that taxing carbon would be the most efficient way to cut emissions.
ExxonMobil's thinking about carbon pricing was revealed by a report in the online magazine YALE ENVIRONMENT 360 in September 2014, the report having been written by Mark Schapiro, author of the book CARBON SHOCK. Alan Jeffers, ExxonMobil's media officer, told Schapiro the company has been applying a proxy price to carbon since 2007. The price is different for different countries, varying by how likely ExxonMobil judges a given country's government is to regulate carbon. ExxonMobil executives use the carbon price estimates to help evaluate long-term investments. Company projections are that governments will impose a price on carbon that reaches $60 USD a ton in countries that are part of the Organization for Economic Co-operation & Development by 2030, and $80 USD a ton by 2040. Management needs to know such overheads to determine if a new refinery or pipeline will still be profitable when such taxes are imposed.
ExxonMobil analysts adjust their carbon price estimates in response to significant events. In 2009, the firm raised its in-house US carbon price when Congress considered a bill to limit greenhouse gas emissions. Republican gains on Capitol Hill in November are likely to push the price downward, even as the emissions limits President Obama agreed to with Chinese President Xi Jinping in November push it back up. Incidentally, while the Obama Administration is not in any position to impose a national carbon tax for the time being, the White House also assumes a carbon tax, of $35 USD a ton, in its calculations of energy policy.
ExxonMobil isn't the only oil company that expects carbon taxing; at least four others -- BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, and Royal Dutch Shell -- also assign an internal price to carbon. So does American Electric Power, one of the largest and most coal-reliant utilities in the US. Outside the energy sector, business giants including Microsoft, Google, DuPont, Deutsche Bank, Delta Air Lines, Dow Chemical, and BMW, factor carbon taxing into their planning. A complete list of firms that do has been compiled by the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP), a nonprofit in London that is supported by hundreds of banks and pension funds.
ExxonMobil's approach to carbon taxing is essentially defensive. In contrast, software giant Microsoft believes carbon sensibility improves the bottom line, as well as the company's public image. According to Tamara DiCaprio, Microsoft's senior director for environmental sustainability, the profit & loss statement of each Microsoft division has a "Carbon Neutral Fee" line item. For every ton of carbon a given division consumes, $5 to $7 USD is paid quarterly into a central carbon fund that in turn finances investments in low-carbon energy, energy efficiency, and what DiCaprio calls "high-quality carbon offsets" in poor countries. She says: "Our data center guys are signing 20-year purchase agreements to buy electricity from wind farms in Texas and Illinois."
She adds that Microsoft's carbon pricing scheme is central to the firm's goal of reaching carbon neutrality by 2020, but says it flatly makes business sense: "We get $3 back for every dollar we invest in carbon-reduction projects. It's sparked lots of innovation and gotten our [employees] excited that the company is doing this, and they're part of it."
ExxonMobil's thinking about carbon taxes demonstrates more resignation than enthusiasm, but there's little equivocation. In a 2009 speech Rex Tillerson, ExxonMobil's chief executive officer, recommended that if governments do price carbon, they should impose a revenue-neutral carbon tax. Under such a policy, all carbon tax revenue would be refunded to the public, say through reduced payroll taxes, so higher energy prices wouldn't reduce personal incomes. Jeffers says this remains the company's preference. The business world may not be all that happy about regulation, but can accept it, as long as the regulations are evenly applied to all the players; costs can then, necessarily will, be passed on to consumers, without any player suffering a competitive disadvantage in the market.
Another option is the "cap-&-dividend" system, in which revenue is returned to citizens through an annual check, a scheme that Alaska uses to distribute oil revenue. There are things that can be done, but for now the prospects of getting action out of Congress is slight. The growing pressure of events suggests that will not always be so.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* FECAL TRANSPLANTS GO MAINSTREAM (3): The push in fecal transplant research is to get rid of the feces in the treatment, instead simply administering the proper suite of micro-organisms in a pill or the like. There may be downsides to use of such "cocktails"; Thomas Borody suspects they may be less effective than full fecal transplants, and bacteria cultured in the lab for generations may lose its effectiveness.
Then again, if we ever do get a detail understanding of the workings of the bacteria in the transplant, we might well tailor them to be even more effective. That's over the horizon, but a number of research teams are still optimistic about the cocktail approach. A group under Kenya Honda at the University of Tokyo has reported curing mice of colitis and allergic diarrhea by treating them with 17 harmless Clostridium strains that had previously been shown to induce regulatory T cells of the immune system, stifling an overactive immune response.
Similarly, in a project named "RePOOPulate", a Canadian team under Elaine Petrof of Queen's University in Kingston and Emma Allen-Vercoe from the University of Guelph has produced a stool-derived set of 33 microbial strains for treating C. difficile infections and inflammatory bowel disease. They started out with 70 strains, but then winnowed it down, with a strong emphasis on safety. Allen-Vercoe said her final selection criteria was a question: "Would I put this bug into my mom? No? Then I would take it out."
A US company named Rebiotix is working towards commercial introduction of a cocktail, the US Food & Drug Administration (FDA) having recently approved a phase II clinical trial of its product, derived from several hundred stool-derived strains and targeting C. difficile infections. CEO Leo Jones, obviously fearful of the "ick factor" of fecal transplants, says: "We don't consider our product a fecal transplant. Instead, we are developing a microbiota restoration therapy in the form of a biologic drug."
Nieudorp is happy to see fecal transplants shake off their stigma in the medical community and generate so much activity. The complexity of the research is intimidating, but its potential is enormous; it's going to take a long time to probe its depths, but the trip promises to be rewarding. Nieudorp commented: "I'm 36 now. I'll be happy if by the time I'm 60, microbiota analysis will be standard procedure in hospital labs."
* A sidebar to this article discussed the regulatory aspects of fecal transplant research. The European Medicines Agency has an hands-off attitude: all a doctor has to do is get patient consent and follow a donor screening protocol. The rules are much the same in Australia. However, in the USA, in early May 2013 the FDA told a workshop on fecal transplants that they had been categorized as an "unapproved new drug". That meant that transplants could only be performed as part of a clinical trial and doctors had to file an "Investigational New Drug (IND)" application, which could take months. The agency did say that exceptions would be granted as necessary.
The reaction from the fecal transplant community was pained, researchers protesting that they had been blocked by hospital lawyers from giving fecal transplants to patients whose lives were in danger from C. difficile infections. FDA officials were treated to impassioned testimony from patients whose lives had been saved, and in mid-July issued much more permissive guidelines. Doctors, as long as they follow certain rules, will be able to perform fecal transplants on C. difficile patients, but will need an IND to perform transplants to treat other diseases, and for C. difficile infections in infants. The agency is considering long-term policy.
The FDA seems more comfortable with the idea of cocktails since the procedure is much the same as administering any other drug, and has as mentioned has approved trials of the Rebiotix product. However, in 2011, Health Canada, the country's s medical regulatory agency, clamped down on the RePOOPulate project, informing the research team that they were producing a drug and that it would need to conform with the regulations controlling drugs. Petrof had no complaints: "Actually, they are not unreasonable. Health Canada realizes this technique is not going away, and they want to sort this out with us."
* As another footnote to this series, a study has shown that frozen fecal matter encapsulated in clear pills was just as safe and effective as traditional fecal transplant techniques at treating a C. difficile. Within eight weeks or less, 18 out of 20 participants got rid of their diarrhea after swallowing 30 or 60 of the feces-filled capsules. It sounds unappetizing -- "You want me to eat THAT?!" -- but I suppose the pills would be easy to swallow as long as they were properly sealed, and possibly given a bit of flavoring.
Another study has identified that a relative of C. difficile named Clostridium scindens seems to be able to keep its nasty relative in check by producing bile acid in the intestine. Being able to control C. difficile by simply taking pills containing C. snidens bacteria -- and possibly other micro-organisms found to be effective in suppressing the pathogen -- would be much more convenient for all than having to process and consume feces. Certainly, every bit we learn about the micro-ecology of our digestive tract is all for the good. [END OF SERIES]START | PREV | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* THE COLD WAR (49): The sense of normalcy provided by the Eisenhower Administration helped calm down, at least to a degree, the anti-Communist hysteria that had been rampaging out of control. Eisenhower had always been reluctant to confront Senator McCarthy, assuming that McCarthy would go too far in his hysterical campaign against Red subversion and hang himself, sooner or later. He finally did so.
In 1953, McCarthy became chairman of the Senate Committee on Government Operations -- with its Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, dominated by chief counsel Roy Cohn -- which spent its time hunting down Communists and the Red-tainted in the government. The subcommittee began to investigate Communist penetration of the US Army; nothing much was found, but the Army shot back that McCarthy and his people had attempted to seek special treatment for a Private G. David Schine, who had been associated with the subcommittee.
The Senate decided to investigate the issue; somewhat awkwardly, of course this task had to be handled by the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, which was one of the targets of investigation. Republican Senator Karl Mundt of South Dakota took over control of the subcommittee to eliminate conflict of interest. The assault on McCarthy was quietly aided by the White House, with Eisenhower ordering that the administration do nothing more than absolutely necessary to cooperate with the senator's investigations, the president claiming "executive privilege" to shrug off McCarthy's inquiries. That didn't raise much concern at the time -- though by invoking executive privilege, Eisenhower had established a precedent that would come back to haunt the White House.
The subcommittee worked through much of the spring of 1954, with the proceedings televised to the public. The hearings ended up being a circus of accusations and counter-accusations, with McCarthy and his people appearing much worse for the exchanges, being unable to back up most of their charges and being caught faking photographs. Near the end of the hearings, McCarthy crossed swords with Democrat Senator Stuart Symington of Missouri, nicknamed "Sanctimonious Stu" by McCarthy, rejecting Symington's accusations: "You're not fooling anyone!"
Symington shot back: "Senator, the American people have had a look at you now for six weeks; you're not fooling anyone, either."
The conclusion of investigation was that Cohn had indeed engaged in "unduly persistent or aggressive efforts" on behalf of Schine, with Cohn resigning as chief counsel in consequence; the investigation also criticized the Army for attempting to undermine the investigation. The investigation cleared McCarthy of wrongdoing in the matter, but he had publicly discredited himself, with the Senate moving to censure him as a result. A vote of censure was passed on 2 December 1954.
That was the effective end of McCarthy's theatrical political career. He had exploited the news media to broadcast his over-the-top anti-Communist crusade; now it had turned against him, reducing him to a figure of mockery, when any attention was paid to him at all. His fellow senators avoided him; there were tales that he was often drunk, even sometimes on the floor of the Senate. He would die three years later, at age 48, officially due to hepatitis, possibly aggravated by alcohol. He would not be greatly missed. [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* Space launches for November included:
-- 03 NOV 14 / SHIJIAN 11-08 -- A Chinese Long March 2C booster was launched from Jiuquan at 0659 GMT (local time - 8) to put the "Shijian 11-08" experimental satellite into space; "shijian" is Chinese for "practice". The spacecraft was developed by China Spacesat Company LTD, under the supervision of the state-owned China Aerospace Science & Technology Corporation. The function of the Shijian 11 satellite series is unknown; they are suspected to be missile launch early warning satellites.
-- 06 NOV 14 / ASNARO 1, SMALLSATS x 4 -- A Russian Dnepr booster, a converted SS-18 SATAN missile, was launched from Dombarovsky at 0735 GMT (local time - 4) to put the "Advanced Satellite with New System Architecture for Observation 1 (ASNARO 1)" Earth observation satellite into orbit. ASNARO 1 was developed by Nippon Electric (NEC) Corporation and was the first flight of the "NEXTAR" standard minisatellite bus, devised by a collaboration between NEC and the Japanese space agency JAXA. The program was under the umbrella of Japan Space Systems, a government-chartered non-profit organization under contract to Japan's Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, with NEC hoping to sell low-cost observation satellites on the export market.
There are three size ranges in the NEXTAR series, including the "NEXTAR-100L", the "NEXTAR-300L", and "NEXTAR-500L", with the relatively small size tailored to the new JAXA Epsilon booster. They consist of a standard bus containing satellite support systems, with well-defined interfaces for payloads and support for autonomous operations, as well as well-defined communications links and associated ground support. ANSNARO 1 is based on the NEXTAR-300L bus and had a launch mass of almost 500 kilograms. It carried a visible-light camera with a best resolution of 50 centimeters (20 inches), sending imagery back to the ground through an X-band datalink. ASNARO 2 will carry an X-band synthetic aperture radar, while ASNARO 3 will carry a hyperspectral imager.
Four smaller satellites accompanied ASNARO 1 to orbit:
-- 14 NOV 14 / YAOGAN 23 -- A Chinese Long March 2C booster was launched from Taiyuan at 1853 GMT (next day local time - 8) to put the "Yaogan 23" satellite into orbit. It was described as an Earth observation satellite, but was apparently an imaging radar surveillance satellite.
-- 20 NOV 14 / YAOGAN 24 -- A Chinese Long March 2D booster was launched from Jiuquan at 0712 GMT (local time - 8) to put the "Yaogan 24" satellite into orbit. It was described as an Earth observation satellite, but was believed to be a Jianbing 6 electro-optic military surveillance satellite.
-- 21 NOV 14 / KUAIZHOU 2 -- A Chinese Kuaizhou booster was launched from Jiuquan at 0637 GMT (local time - 8) to put the "Kuaizhou 2" satellite into space. This was the second launch of the Kuaizhou booster. Kuaizhou 1 was described as an Earth resources survey satellite, but it appears the Kuaizhou booster is a fast-reaction launch vehicle for military payloads. It it believed to have three solid-fuel stages and a liquid-fuel upper stage, which is integrated with the payload, and to be launched from a wheeled mobile transporter.
-- 23 NOV 14 / SOYUZ ISS 41S (ISS) -- A Russian Soyuz-Fregat booster was launched from Baikonur in Kazakhstan at 0901 GMT (local time - 6) to put the "Soyuz ISS 41S" AKS "Soyuz TMA-15M" manned space capsule into orbit on an International Space Station (ISS) support mission. The crew consisted of commander Anton Shkaplerov of Russia / RKA (second space flight), flight engineer Samantha Cristoforetti of Italy / ESA (first space flight), and Terry Virts of the US / NASA (second space flight). The Soyuz capsule was launched on a "direct ascent" trajectory and docked with the ISS less than six hours after liftoff. They joined the ISS "Expedition 42" crew of commander Barry "Butch" Wilmore, Alexander Samokutyaev, and Elena Serova, who were launched to the station on 25 September.
-- 28 NOV 14 / GLONASS K -- A Soyuz 2-1b booster was launched from Plesetsk Northern Cosmodrome in Russia at 2152 GMT (next day local time - 4) to put a "GLONASS K" navigation satellite into orbit.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* NO STRINGS ATTACHED: Although no one can sensibly deny that people are motivated by self-interest, on the other side of that coin they also have a sincere inclination to charity. However, they also often have misgivings about their charity -- wondering if it really does any good, or if it ends up doing more harm than good.
As discussed by an article in THE ECONOMIST ("Pennies From Heaven", 26 October 2013), there seems to be a certain Zen to the matter. Consider Gabriel Otieno Anoche, a poor twenty-something carpenter living in Western Kenya. He came home one day to find that strangers had simply handed his wife a mobile phone -- a nice enough thing for a poor person in itself, but it was also hooked up to a bank account seeded with $1,000 USD, which could be spent as desired.
The gifts, in a sense, descended from heaven. A satellite survey of the region was inspected by "crowd-sourced" workers in the Philippines, working for the charity Give Directly; they observed that Anoche's house had a thatched instead of metal roof, the thatched roof demonstrating his poverty. Give Directly personnel, using money contributed by Google and Facebook, then showed up at Anoche's doorstep.
The idea of simply handing out money sounds to most people as nuts as tossing it out of a helicopter, but it reflects a shift in thinking: that more often than not people are responsible; that poor people have strong incentive to make the best use of whatever resources they get; that they have a better idea of what they really need than strangers do; and that scammers will figure out how to game the system, no matter what anyone does. This is something of a new idea, the traditional approach to aid being for governments, charities and development banks to build schools and hospitals, roads and ports, irrigation pipes, and electric networks -- necessarily run by large bureaucracies.
That's generally a good thing; schools and irrigation systems are very useful, and despite the inevitable prejudice against them, bureaucracies are not necessarily incompetent or overbearing. However, people began to wonder if other useful things could be done as well. From around 2000, governments began to give poor households small stipends to spend as they wished, on condition that their children went to school or visited a doctor regularly. These "conditional cash transfers (CCTs)" first appeared in Latin America and then spread around the world. Again, they didn't replace building schools; they had their own priorities, such as supporting individual household budgets and helping women, most of the payments going to mothers. They were also cheap to run.
Now projects such as Give Directly in Kenya are asking if the conditions are really needed; if not, wouldn't "unconditional cash transfers (UCT)" be even cheaper to administer than CCTs? Having been put to the test by various charitable organizations, early results show that UCTs work just as well or better than CCTs in helping people out of poverty.
When Give Directly's founder, Michael Faye, went to traditional aid donors with his free-money idea, he recalls: "They thought I was smoking crack." Wouldn't people blow it on booze and brothels? Wouldn't it encourage scammers and deadbeats? However, Faye discovered that Silicon Valley liked the idea, in part because Give Directly had something of a "start-up" company mentality. Google donated $2.4 million USD, while Facebook chipped in $600,000 USD.
So far, results are encouraging: giving money away unconditionally does help poor people improve their lives. Some of it does end up being squandered, but that's the exception, not the rule, and all aid programs suffer from wastage. However, throwing the money out of helicopters isn't the way it's done, the approach does require careful consideration of who to give the money to. Give Directly crunches census data to identify Kenya's poorest districts -- which includes Anoche's village of Koga, near Lake Victoria. The charity outsources the nitpicking job of distinguishing tin roofs from thatch to a crowdsourced web service called "Mechanical Turk", mentioned here in 2012. Field workers visit the villages with GPS devices to register beneficiaries and distribute cash using M-Pesa, Kenya's mobile money system.
Anoche of course promptly replaced his thatched roof; thatch tends to leak, and it also has to be replaced twice a year, at $40 USD a pop. He spent half the money on his home, the other half to buy timber and chickens. Now he has business activities that bring in almost $90 USD a month. He commented: "If you've got the money and the mindset, you can change your life."
Unconditional cash transfer programs have their failures. Sometimes the money is squandered, but preliminary studies show them to be generally effective, though Give Directly still has obstacles to overcome. In one village, some recipients thought the money came from Barack Obama, his father having come from their tribe.
UCT programs appear to do better than job-training programs, generally preferred by mainstream ad agencies. They seem to do even better than secondary education, which pushes up wages in poor countries by 10% to 15% for each extra year of schooling. They also outscore CCTs, which tend to be more constrained by bureaucratic considerations.
It might seem from the surprising success of UCT programs that they are superior to CCT programs. However, CCTs are necessarily more focused and the grants are smaller, meaning more people helped by the same amount of money. Whether UCTs or CCTs are preferred depends on circumstances: UCTs focus on providing ad-hoc assistance in the short term, CCTs tend to focus on education and health care, meaning a payoff over the longer term.
The biggest CCT programs are Brazil's Bolsa Familia and Mexico's Oportunidades. They are credited with cutting poverty and boosting literacy in Latin America's largest countries. They have helped tens of millions, not just tens of thousands. In an interesting experiment, a program in Ghana took both the UCT and CCT routes. The Ghanaian program gave small sums ($120 USD) to a random selection of business owners, some unconditionally, some requiring the owner to buy something the firm. The firms that got the conditional transfers ended up becoming more profitable than the "controls".
UCTs do best in conditions where the problem is simply that people don't have enough money. If there's other problems, such as lack of education and medical care, CCTs do better. Charities that don't really have the manpower to conduct widespread social programs may find UCTs perfectly tailored to their efforts; but for governments, CCTs win hands down.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* WILL APPLE PAY FLY? On 20 October 2014, following the release of the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus, the Apple company unveiled their new "mobile payments" scheme, named "Apple Pay". As reported by an article from TIME magazine ("The Apple Pay Effect" by Victor Luckerson, 3 November 2014), industry observers see causes for both caution and optimism in the exercise.
The caution is due because there's uncertainty how much the world needs mobile payments. It is certainly true that cash is being used for an even-decreasing amount of payments and may cease to exist completely sometime over the horizon -- but is there a compelling need to buy things with a smartphone? Although Americans are expected to spend $4.9 billion USD in stores via smartphones this year, that has to be compared to the $4.8 trillion USD they'll spend with charge cards. The US, lagging the world with magstrip charge card technology, does have a security problem with the existing electronic payment technology -- but smart cards are expected to emerge in 2015, the charge card firms having set a deadline of October 2015 to make the conversion.
Google tried to take on mobile payments with Google Wallet, and went nowhere in any hurry. Apple, however, has traditionally viewed their product offerings from a systems perspective, and the company has done everything they could think of to make Apple Pay fly. To start working with Apple Pay, Alice just takes pictures of her charge cards with her smartphone, and selects one as the default. When she wants to make a purchase at a vendor, she holds up the smartphone, or conceivably a smartwatch, to a near-field wireless reader, with the Apple Pay app coming up automatically -- no need to log into the phone. She either uses the default card or selects an alternate; in any case, to complete the transaction, she presses her thumb to the thumbprint reader on the phone, and the transaction is completed.
The purchase is logged on her smartphone. The vendor never actually sees the charge card number; it's passed on to the card service company, the vendor only getting a one-time "dynamic code" -- meaning hacker break-ins to vendor computing systems won't yield lists of charge card numbers. Apple gets a small cut out of every transaction. In principle, Alice could scan a product in a store with her smartphone camera and make the purchase then and there; or she could order in advance from a restaurant from a menu displayed on the smartphone or tablet, pay for the order, then come in and pick it up.
Apple has also worked to line up a set of payment apps with Apple Pay, and has been careful to line up powerful allies in launching Apple Pay, including McDonald's, Walgreens, & Bloomingdales; Chase Bank and Bank of America; plus Visa, American Express, and MasterCard. It is particularly significant that Apple has lined up with the big charge card companies, ensuring that Apple will work with them and not against them. Indeed, it was the charge card companies that came up with the dynamic code scheme; they saw Apple as the player big enough to implement it.
Unfortunately, Apple Pay is missing several significant elements:
These deficiencies will be addressed, but there's a bigger issue, in that mobile payments are now entering the standards war phase. Giant Walmart has snubbed Apple Pay, working with Best Buy and others to set up a competing mobile payment scheme named "ConnectC" that does include loyalty features; a group of mobile service providers is pushing another scheme named "Softcard", while Paypal is working on a mobile payment scheme as well. There's nothing new about standards wars, of course; in the end, only one at most will be left. Given the clout of Apple, Apple Pay may be the one to bet on.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* FECAL TRANSPLANTS GO MAINSTREAM (2): Some doctors hardly needed formal trials to be convinced of the effectiveness of fecal transplants. One, Thomas Borody of the Australian Centre for Digestive Diseases in Five Dock, has performed fecal transplants in more than 3,000 patients. He's used the procedure not only to treat C. difficile infections, but also irritable bowel syndrome; inflammatory bowel syndrome; constipation; arthritis; and even inflammations associated with lower back pain. Borody has published some of his results, one example being a 2012 paper in which he reported improvements in 92% of 62 ulcerative colitis patients and full recovery in 68% from fecal transplants.
However, although Borody's work is highly respected, he's never carried out formal trials. Other advocates of fecal transplants have reported at least some effectiveness in non-gastrointestinal disorders that appear to be linked to changes in microbial flora, including Parkinson's, autism, and multiple sclerosis -- but these claims are based on small samples of cases, leaving them open to doubt. Although there's plenty of enthusiasm for fecal transplants in the medical community, but wider the claims made for it, the more doubts increase. Although Borody criticized Nieudorp's C. difficile trial as unneeded, given the strong evidence in that particular case -- it was compared to a trial on whether parachutes actually save lives -- the more claims are made for fecal transplants, the more the need for controlled trials becomes evident.
Such trials are in progress, including one on ulcerative colitis at McMaster University in Hamilton, Canada, with Borody working on a similar study; as well as one in Crohn's disease at Nanjing Medical University in China. Nieudorp is working on a new trial investigating "metabolic syndrome", a metabolic disorder that is often a precursor to diabetes. Lawrence Brandt of the Montefiore Medical Center in New York City, a long-time fecal transplant pioneer, is performing a study on recurrent C. difficile infections that is blinded and includes a placebo group, with patients given transplants of their own stool. That design is now standard.
* As fecal transplants have become more popular, doctors have been seeing an opportunity to make good profits from what amounts to a cheap procedure. A do-it-yourself industry has also sprung up, with internet websites and YouTube videos showing how people can administer their own fecal transplants. Advocates are not at all happy about that development, seeing considerable potential for harm in fecal transplants performed in such a slapdash fashion. Donor stool is usually screened for pathogens such as HIV, hepatitis B and C, and so on -- but even that's not enough for complete confidence, since we really don't know a great deal about microbiome and the health effects of variations in its composition. Khorus is very careful to screen donors, accepting samples for freezing in a donor bank after running them through a long list of criteria.
That leads to the complicated issue of figuring out how the transplants actually work. What happens to the donor populations after they've been transplanted? Which thrive, which die out, and how do they all interact with existing micro-organisms? Willem de Vos, a microbial ecologist at Wageningen University in the Netherlands -- a specialist in the anaerobic bacteria that dominate the human gut, who has collaborated with Nieudorp -- commented: "We have shown that in C. difficile patients, some important species are absent, while others you don't want are dominant."
De Vos' research has also shown that the low microbial diversity in C. difficile patients is comparable to that of a one-year-old child -- but that following a transplant, anaerobic bacteria from a donor do settle in and restore a healthy microbiome. Nieudorp also works with Fredrik Baeckhed of the University of Gothenberg in Sweden, who runs a facility to raise mice without a microbiome in a sterile environment, the sanitized mice being used to study different bacterial sets. [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* THE COLD WAR (48): Eisenhower's "Atoms for Peace" initiative was intriguing in several ways. It did not call for disarmament as such; it instead proposed that the global production of fissionable materials be diverted to peaceful purposes, with the IAEA supervising the stockpiling and distribution of those materials. It would sap momentum from the nuclear arms race by ensuring that not all fissionable material ended up in bombs, and would not require any intrusive inspections -- the IAEA would get fissionable materials that the nations participating in the effort committed to provide. Knowing the Soviets would never be happy if the US remained in the lead in production of fissionable materials, Eisenhower was prepared to have the USA become the biggest donor to the IAEA.
Sadly, "Atoms for Peace" was a fizzle. The Soviets were not interested; the scheme simply did not provide remotely enough incentive for them to slow down their efforts to catch up with the USA in nuclear strength, even though the sensible on both sides realized the race was driving off into the absurd. In addition, the underlying vision of nuclear power in service to humanity would prove naive, atomic power eventually becoming far more controversial than most could have seen in 1953. It is unclear just how much stock Eisenhower placed in Atoms for Peace: by appearances, he was enthusiastic, but he was perfectly capable of hidden agendas, and the cynical have suggested he was merely out to gain propaganda points. That might well have been the truth, but the proposal in itself had plenty of merit.
In April and May 1954, the hearing that Robert Oppenheimer had demanded to address the charges against him was finally held, and did not go well for Oppenheimer. His associations with Reds -- including his brother Frank -- were established, as well as the fact that he had lied to government investigators on such matters. Edward Teller testified against him, saying: "I would feel personally more secure if public matters would rest in other hands."
The end result was that Oppenheimer was disgraced and his influence in the government was at an end. Aside from the personal humiliation, which he had to a degree brought on himself by his dishonesty, he was not otherwise penalized, continuing his career in academia. Some of Oppenheimer's colleagues just shrugged at his disconnect from the government, one saying that if the government "didn't want to consult with the guy, then don't consult with him."
The hearing had been something of a farce, not reflecting well on any of the participants. However, there was a strong sense in the science and academic communities that Oppenheimer had been wronged, and the assault on him was nothing but a cover for a McCarthyist assault on liberal academia. Wernher von Braun told a Congressional committee: "In England, Oppenheimer would have been knighted." Instead, he was publicly disgraced. Teller was, on the other side of that coin, largely ostracized by the science community. In consequence, Teller would strengthen his connections with the power elite, single-mindedly doing what he could to accelerate the arms race.
Eisenhower took a dim view of lobbying by Teller and others for more Bombs, but in the end the president went along with it: his "Atoms for Peace" initiative having been a flop, he could see no real alternative to building up arms, though he believed some restraint was needed as well. There was little domestic protest over the US nuclear arms buildup in that era of anti-Communist sentiment. The US was enjoying peace and an economic boom, the Eisenhower Administration being notably friendly to businesses; Eisenhower's cabinet was described as composed of "eight millionaires and a plumber", the "plumber" being a plumber's union official. The general mood was happy, tagged by the popular slogan of "I Like Ike!"
Eisenhower was able to successfully pursue both guns and butter, while being careful not to rock the boat: he had no great sympathy with the growing American civil rights movement, doing no more than implementing Supreme Court decisions against Southern racial segregation with a notable lack of enthusiasm. Admittedly, the racial division of American society was a tough problem: FDR had tiptoed around it, Truman's efforts to confront it made only limited progress, and changing the attitudes of Americans was going to take time and a lot of effort. Eisenhower did what he thought right to do, but he did not challenge the current social order -- even though it undermined the notion of America as the leader of the "Free World". [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* SCIENCE NOTES: As discussed by a note from AAAS SCIENCE NOW Online ("Two Hundred & Nineteen Million Stars, & Counting" by Sid Perkins, 16 September 2014), astronomical surveys and extensive star catalogs are nothing new, but given 21st-century "big data", they've become more ambitious.
A ten-year survey of our Milky Way galaxy has resulted in a digital catalog including over 219 million stars. Observations for the catalog were obtained using a 2.5 meter telescope in the Canary Islands, with more than 7,600 images taken of a 10 degree by 185 degree swath of sky, including an edge-on view of the galactic main. In the regions not blocked by interstellar dust, individual stars as dim as magnitude 20 were logged, such stars being a millionth as bright as the dimmest stars visible to the human eye. In the central regions of the Galaxy, the team logged about 300,000 stars for each square degree of sky.
The corresponding digital catalog provides more than 99 bits of data for each of the objects, including information about each star's position, shape, and brightness in various wavelengths. That's about three gigabytes of data in all, impressive if not in the same league as most "big data" projects. Unfortunately, uncooperative weather meant that about 8% of the target area couldn't be properly observed in the survey up to its end in November 2012 -- but since that time, follow-up observations have filled in about half the gaps. Future efforts will survey the same region of sky in different wavelengths to fill out the catalog entries.
* As reported by a note from AAAS SCIENCE NOW, it was learned a few years back that dolphins will imitate whale calls -- that is, it seems dolphins can "speak whale". Now it seem whales can "speak dolphin" as well. Researchers studied the vocal repertoires of 10 captive orcas (killer whales), three of which lived with bottlenose dolphins, and the other seven with their own kind. Of the 1,551 vocalizations these seven orcas made, more than 95% were the typical pulsed calls of killer whales. In contrast, the three orcas that had only dolphins as pals busily whistled and emitted dolphinlike click trains and terminal buzzes. What they're saying -- who knows but them and the dolphins?
* As reported by an article from SPACE.COM ("Want to Colonize an Alien Planet? Send 40,000 People" by Mike Wall, 30 July 2014), Dr. Cameron Smith, an anthropologist at Portland State University in Oregon, suggests that if we wish to set up a space colony, we'll need to do with from 20,000 to 40,000 people. A smaller population would lack the genetic and demographic diversity to thrive over the long run. Smith comments: "Do you want to just squeak by, with barely what you can get? Or do you want to go in good health? I would suggest, go with something that gives you a good margin for the case of disaster."
Scenarios for space settlements have traditionally focused on populations of a few hundred, but Smith didn't see the numbers as carefully thought out: "I wanted to revisit the issue ... we now know more about population genetics from genomics."
In his study, Smith assumed an interstellar voyage lasting roughly 150 years. Smith's calculations, leveraging off information from population genetics theory and computer modeling, point toward a founding population of 14,000 to 44,000 people. He judges 40,000 to be the most comfortable figure, with about 23,000 of the population being men and women of reproductive age:
This number would maintain good health over five generations despite (a) increased inbreeding resulting from a relatively small human population, (b) depressed genetic diversity due to the founder effect, (c) demographic change through time and (d) expectation of at least one severe population catastrophe over the five-generation voyage.
He adds: "Almost no natural populations of vertebrates dip below around five to 7,000 individuals ... when they do go below this, sometimes they survive, but many times they go into what's called a 'demographic' or 'extinction vortex'." Sending frozen sperm and eggs on the voyage might help maintain genetic diversity, but he didn't examine that issue in his paper.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* ROBOTRUCK: As reported by an article from WIRED Online blogs ("Mercedes Is Making A Self-Driving Semi To Change The Future Of Shipping" by Alex Davies, 7 October 2014), Daimler is exploring the future of highway freight haulers with the Mercedes-Benz "Future Truck 2025". The FT25 doesn't look too radical, more or less a conventional heavy hauler in appearance, with streamlining to improve fuel efficiency -- the only visible gadgets being LED light arrays, instead of conventional lights, and no rear-view mirrors, cameras doing that job.
Where the FT25 innovates is in its "Highway Pilot" automated driving system. Autonomous highway driving is far easier than navigating cities. There are no cyclists or pedestrians to watch out for, speeds are steady, and turns are minimal. The Highway Pilot system combines several established technologies that will maintain lane position and following distance using cameras and radar, with the sensors providing full coverage of the truck's surroundings. The Highway Pilot adds wireless vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communication technology to link the truck to other cars on the road, providing their exact locations and speeds. It can drive without having that data -- but it helps with issues such as moving aside for emergency vehicles, or detecting accidents ahead.
The person in charge of the FT25 on the road is designated the "transport manager", instead of a driver. Transport manager Bob drives the truck onto the highway; when it gets up to 80 KPH (50 MPH), the Highway Pilot prompts him to allow it to take over. Bob can then pivot his seat away from the dashboard, allowing him to read a book or take a nap or whatever, while the Highway Pilot navigates towards the destination using GPS guidance. If the truck approaches construction or an accident, or it's time to get off the highway, the Highway Pilot flashes a visual alert to tell Bob to take the wheel. If he doesn't, the truck will sound an alarm, and if necessary bring itself to a "controlled emergency stop".
The FT25 is a conservative approach to vehicle autonomy, and technically seems within reach. However, it's going to take some work, which is why it's been given the "2025" date. Vehicle autonomy may take longer than expected; then again, given the ferment in the field, it may come together faster than anyone thinks.
* ED: I have a suspicion, if no guarantee, that self-driving vehicles may arrive sooner than expected. Partly, as mentioned above, that's because vehicle autonomy is not an "all or nothing" proposition: the FT25 can't handle city traffic on its own, only taking over on the open road, and then reverting control to the driver when something unusual happens. Autonomous cars might well be introduced with limited capability, more to assist a driver than take full-time control, and then updated with improved control and sensor systems until they can fully drive themselves.
One element that doesn't seem to be getting much attention is the prospect of linking V2V communications to a fixed wireless road network. Intersections and freeway ramps could wirelessly identify themselves, enhancing vehicle navigation; wireless modules could be mounted on streetlights or signs. A driver could be given an alarm before, say, turning the wrong way on a one-way street. A coordinating processor system could, to a degree, optimize traffic through an entire urban area. A vehicle would tell the network where it was going, and the network would then provide the quickest route.
Indeed, we may possibly be underestimating the potential reach of a civic "internet of things". Microsoft has been working on an earphone for the blind that picks up locations, through a smartphone, from wireless "beacons" set up everywhere to identify each location and tell the wearer what it is. Such a network would be of benefit to both humans and machines, and in development not much more expensive than a streetlamp. It would be relatively straightforward to implement the nodes as streetlamps and porch lamps, possibly just by screwing in a new "bulb" and using a smartphone to configure it appropriately. Security would definitely be an issue -- the opportunities for pranksters would be tremendous -- but that's another can of worms.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* SURFING THE DARK NET: As reported by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("The Amazons Of The Dark Net", 1 November 2014), from the beginning of the public internet, it was used for criminal activities -- but it wasn't until the "Silk Road" website appeared in 2011 that the "dark net" AKA "deep web", dedicated to the criminal class, actually came of age. Silk Road was focused on drug deals; it could only be accessed via an anonymizing network scheme known as "The Onion Router (TOR)". TOR is a form of digital "shell game", in which encryption is used to make it very difficult to identify which node in the TOR network is the source of a message. Buyers and sellers conducted transactions in the similarly difficult-to-trace bitcoin cyber currency.
Silk Road was shut down in 2013 with the arrest of Ross Ulbricht, an American alleged by investigators to be The Dread Pirate Roberts, Silk Road's founder. Come 2015, Ulbricht will stand trial in New York on charges including computer hacking and money laundering. However, a "Silk Road 2.0" dark website, under new management, promptly rose from the ashes following Ulbricht's arrest -- to be swept up in turn by the authorities in November 2014.
The dark net is not invulnerable to the law; but the law can't shut it down either, with investigators engaged in a running game of "whack-a-mole" with criminals. Indeed, the dark net now features dozens of Amazon and eBay equivalents, or "crypto-markets"; they're thriving, and becoming more sophisticated. The number of FOR SALE listings in the 18 crypto-markets tracked by the Digital Citizens Alliance (DCA), an advocacy group, grew from 41,000 to 66,000 between January and August 2014. Even before Silk Road 2.0 was shut down, it had been eclipsed by two newcomers, Agora and Evolution.
The number of listings is only a rough indicator of economic activity, none of the dark net sites being inclined to announce sales data -- but it is estimated that the biggest crypto-markets turn over several million dollars a month. Users pay a fee to register and a commission per transaction, usually about 3% to 6%. Buyers are from all over the world, with purchases sent by post, most of them arriving undetected. User satisfaction with dark net sites is typically high.
Illegal and prescription drugs are the largest product category -- some sellers are crooked pharmacists. The Silk Road sites focused almost exclusively on drugs; Agora, however, deals in weapons as well. Europeans like to buy weapons from dark net sites, because it's harder to score illegal weapons in Europe. Evolution, which has been booming, is the least principled of the big players. Like the others, it does ban child pornography, but it sells stolen charge card numbers and medical information, along with guns, fake IDs, and bogus university diplomas. It includes a handy tutorials section to provide "how-to" instructions on pulling off crimes. It does draw the line at peddling contract murders, though there are small dark net sites that specialize in such activities.
For drug users, online markets offer several advantages. It's not as physically dangerous as trading on the street, and dealers find it better for their health as well. Product quality is higher, largely thanks to an Amazon-like five-star customer-review system. The dark net's hundreds of forums provide further intelligence on dodgy gear and scammers. The FBI made over 100 purchases on the original Silk Road before closing it down; FBI agents found the product impressively pure.
Dealers work hard to get good reputations, that being a critical factor when users know they can't protest a bad deal through small claims court. Indeed, the dark net has empowered users, with dealers quick to apologize for technical problems, as well as offer loyalty discounts and money-back guarantees. Dark net site operators have set up schemes to put a lid on fraud -- for example, building communities of trusted buyers and sellers, with invitation-only participation.
Sites that specialize in stolen charge card data also work at being user-friendly, for example offering a service to allow buyers to verify that a card is active, with the purchase price automatically refunded if it isn't. Others hook up charge card numbers stolen from consumers near to specific businesses, since charge card monitoring software gets suspicious of transactions that take place at businesses located far away from a consumer.
Investigators can penetrate the dark net easily enough by pretending to be players, but it's hard to nail down criminal transactions in the environment. The law can shut down dark net markets, but then players simply go to other markets. The authorities are unhappy with technologies such as TOR that make life so hard for them, but it seems the cat is out of the bag, and there's no way to suppress the technology: TOR has legitimate uses, such as protecting activists in authoritarian states. The dark net is not going away any time soon.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* FECAL TRANSPLANTS GO MAINSTREAM (1): The practice of fecal transplants, in which a sample of feces is transplanted from a donor to a patient with defective intestinal microbiome, was discussed here in 2012. AAAS SCIENCE ran a wider-ranging article on the subject ("The Promise Of Poop" by Jop de Vrieze, 30 August 2013), which described how the procedure is catching on.
In a fecal transplant, a fecal sample is obtained from a donor. There are a number of different ways to prepare the sample, but it is usually blended with a saline solution and run through a strainer; it can be frozen for storage. The patient is then flushed out to get rid of a hostile intestinal population, and the sample administered via a tube through the mouth or nostril; a deep colonoscopy can also be used. Such measures may seem like unnecessary roughness, but an enema, often used by "do-it-yourself" practitioners, only reaches the lower end of the colon.
Fecal transplants have been around a long time, the oldest mention being a report by a Chinese doctor from the 4th century CE. Use of fecal transplants to treat cattle and other livestock go back to the 17th century, but their use with human patients has been sketchy. To the extent that they were used on humans, once antibiotics came into common use, interest in fecal transplants faded away.
The rise of antibiotic-resistant pathogens has led to renewed interest in fecal transplants. In 2006, Max Nieuwdorp was beginning his residence at the Academic Medical Center (AMC) in Amsterdam. He was confronted with the unfortunate case of an 81-year-old woman who had been hospitalized for a urinary tract infection. That in itself should have been manageable, but she then acquired an infection of the nasty Clostridium difficile bacterium, which reduced her digestion to chaos. Worse, the C. difficile strain was resistant to antibiotics; the patient was not expected to live.
Nieudorp refused to give up. He found a 1958 paper by Ben Eiseman, a physician then at the University of Colorado, reporting on the cure of four patients with severe intestinal infections by fecal transplants. Nieudorp decided to try it on the patient; she walked out of the hospital three days later. He tried it on six more C. difficile patients, four recovering after one treatment, the other two after a second attempt. However, when he reported the results at a hospital meeting, one of the doctors sneered: "If you seriously want to treat our C. difficile patients with poop, why don't you infuse our cardiovascular patients as well?" -- and walked out of the room in a huff.
Few are sneering now, more and more doctors performing fecal transplants and finding the technique highly effective at treating stubborn C. difficile infections. Enthusiasts believe that fecal transplants might also be effective in treating other afflictions, such as inflammatory bowel disease, diabetes, and the ghostly chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS).
Ironically, Nieudorp more or less forgot about fecal transplants when he left the AMC to perform postdoc research at the University of California in San Diego. When he returned to Amsterdam in 2008, he picked up the thread again, publishing a paper on his fecal transplant cases that same year in a Dutch medical journal. The paper had no strong impact in the USA, but in 2010 THE NEW YORK TIMES ran an article describing how Alexander Khoruts, a gastroenterologist at the University of Minnesota Medical Center in Minneapolis, used fecal transplants to cure a very nasty C. difficile case.
Global interest began to rise rapidly, with Nieudorp deciding he needed to conduct a proper clinical trial. The trial compared fecal transplants with vancomycin, the usual treatment for C. difficile infections, and vancomycin combined with bowel flushing. The trial was supposed to cover 120 patients, but it was halted after just 43 -- because fecal transplants were so obviously superior to the other treatments that it would have been unethical to continue. Of the fecal transplant patients, 94% were cured, versus 31% and 23% respectively in the two control groups. [TO BE CONTINUED]NEXT | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* THE COLD WAR (47): President Eisenhower, torn between conflicting advice over America's nuclear arsenal, chose a limited step that, he hoped, would help slow down the overheated arms race and reassure the public about atomic energy. On 8 December 1953, Eisenhower addressed the General Assembly, starting out by describing the emergent nuclear standoff:
On July 16th, 1945, the United States set off the world's first atomic explosion. Since that date in 1945, the United States of America has conducted 42 test explosions. Atomic bombs today are more than 25 times as powerful as the weapons with which the atomic age dawned, while hydrogen weapons are in the ranges of millions of tons of TNT equivalent. Today, the United States' stockpile of atomic weapons, which, of course, increases daily, exceeds by many times the total equivalent of the total of all bombs and all shells that came from every plane and every gun in every theatre of war in all the years of World War II.
... But the dread secret, and the fearful engines of atomic might, are not ours alone. In the first place, the secret is possessed by our friends and allies, Great Britain and Canada, whose scientific genius made a tremendous contribution to our original discoveries and the designs of atomic bombs. The secret is also known by the Soviet Union. ... If at one time the United States possessed what might have been called a monopoly of atomic power, that monopoly ceased to exist several years ago.
... let no one think that the expenditure of vast sums for weapons and systems of defense can guarantee absolute safety for the cities and citizens of any nation. The awful arithmetic of the atomic bomb does not permit of any such easy solution. Even against the most powerful defense, an aggressor in possession of the effective minimum number of atomic bombs for a surprise attack could probably place a sufficient number of his bombs on the chosen targets to cause hideous damage. ... Surely no sane member of the human race could discover victory in such desolation. Could anyone wish his name to be coupled by history with such human degradation and destruction?
Eisenhower stated that the USA was interested in following up a UN General Assembly resolution of 18 November and have private conversations with the various players on possible solutions to the nuclear arms race. He then made a specific proposal:
The Governments principally involved, to the extent permitted by elementary prudence, [should] begin now and continue to make joint contributions from their stockpiles of normal uranium and fissionable materials to an International Atomic Energy Agency [IAEA]. We would expect that such an agency would be set up under the aegis of the United Nations.
The ratios of contributions, the procedures and other details would properly be within the scope of the "private conversations" I have referred to earlier. ... Undoubtedly initial and early contributions to this plan would be small in quantity. However, the proposal has the great virtue that it can be undertaken without the irritations and mutual suspicions incident to any attempt to set up a completely acceptable system of world-wide inspection and control.
The Atomic Energy Agency could be made responsible for the impounding, storage, and protection of the contributed fissionable and other materials. The ingenuity of our scientists will provide special safe conditions under which such a bank of fissionable material can be made essentially immune to surprise seizure.
The more important responsibility of this Atomic Energy Agency would be to devise methods whereby this fissionable material would be allocated to serve the peaceful pursuits of mankind. Experts would be mobilized to apply atomic energy to the needs of agriculture, medicine, and other peaceful activities. A special purpose would be to provide abundant electrical energy in the power-starved areas of the world. Thus the contributing powers would be dedicating some of their strength to serve the needs rather than the fears of mankind.
On summing up his ideas, Eisenhower thanked the assembly for hearing him out. He had not been interrupted during the speech, and there was a dead silence after he finished -- which then erupted into a wave of cheers that had never been exceeded in volume during the history of the UN. Even the Soviet delegates joined in. [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* GIMMICKS & GADGETS: Talk of the "internet of things" has been floating around for some years now -- the idea having been introduced with utopian optimism, which gradually ran into a thicket of ugly realities. As discussed by a note from THE ECONOMIST ("The Language Of The Internet Of Things", 6 September 2014), one of the most obvious obstacles is just giving all the different "things" a common language so they can communicate.
A group of manufacturers -- the biggest players being Haier, LG, Panasonic, Qualcomm, and Microsoft -- have set up a consortium named the "AllSeen Alliance" to address the problem. Their solution is named "AllJoyn", being a software module originally developed by Qualcomm, but passed on to the alliance. Any node, such as a TV or clock or smartwatch or air condition that communicates over wi-fi or bluetooth will be able to describe its capabilities in a common language, and another node will be able to access those capabilities. For example, a smartwatch might be able to control an air conditioner, and get a report on its status; or a smoke alarm might be able to send an alert to a TV.
If that sounds simple, it isn't. There's a huge number of different sorts of devices that could be hooked up today, and more certain to arrive in the future, with some capabilities that haven't even been thought of yet; Alljoyn will have to be able to adapt to new circumstances, with firmware updates for devices to add functionality. In addition, the Allseen Alliance isn't the only player in the standards game for the internet of things; AT&T, Cisco, GE, IBM, and Intel back a different consortium, the "Industrial Internet Consortium".
There are still other players, each group tending to have a somewhat different focus. The Institute of Electrical & Electronic Engineers (IEEE) trying to get a consensus on standards -- many current electronic schemes being formalized in IEEE specs. Nobody's expecting things to happen quickly, and given the variations on focus, there may be overlapping specs in the end.
* As discussed by a note from WIRED Online "Boeing's Figuring Out How To Make Jet Fuel From Tobacco" by Alex Davies, 7 August 2014), aircraft giant Boeing and South African Airways (SAA) are now trying to produce biofuels derived from the tobacco plant. Fuel is the biggest expense to the airlines, and so they are energetically investigating alternatives.
Boeing has biofuel projects running on six continents. Tobacco was chosen the feedstock for the South Africa project, since biofuels make much more sense if the feedstocks are grown in the locale where the biofuel is produced. Tobacco is currently grown in South Africa, but the market is slowing as smoking is publicly discouraged. The feedstock is a tobacco strain named "Solaris", which is light on leaves but heavy on oil-rich seeds. SAA aircraft won't be using the biofuel until 2017 or so, and even then the biofuel will be used as a blend with conventional fuel. At the outset, the biofuel will be more expensive than conventional jet fuel, but that is expected to change as production ramps up.
* Another note from WIRED Online blogs ("Bruges Will Cut Traffic With ... an Underground Beer Pipeline" by Alex Davies, 26 September 2014), the De Halve Maan brewery has been a fixture of Bruges, Belgium, for centuries. In 2010, the brewery opened up a bottling plant outside the city, ferrying the beer produced inside the city to the bottling plant in tanker trucks.
Now the brewery is installing a 5 kilometer (3 mile) polyethylene pipeline between the two facilities to transfer the beer; when completed, it will be able to handle 6,000 liters (1,580 US gallons) an hour. De Halve Maan will handle all the costs of installation, using computer-aided drilling techniques to minimize the need to cut up the city streets. The idea of shuttling beverages by pipeline is not new -- the use of a pipeline to pump orange juice having been mentioned here in 2013 -- but it is unclear if anyone else has set up a beer pipeline.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* SURFACE TENSION: As discussed by an article from AAAS SCIENCE ("Water's Tough Skin" by Elizabeth Pennisi, 14 March 2014), we tend to find the surface tension of water an interesting curiosity, noting how we can fill a glass to over the brim without spilling. However, we don't pay much attention to it in our day-to-day lives because, at our scale of size, it doesn't evidently interfere much with our actions. If we jump into the water, surface tension poses no obstacle; if we get wet, the water that sticks to us only adds a slight fraction to our weight. Even a furry small dog will only gain weight by a few percent.
When we notice water strider bugs skittering across the surface of a pond, we do get a glimmering that surface tension is a bigger deal for smaller creatures. Indeed: get an ant wet, its weight almost triples. Mosquitoes are grounded when they get wet, while juvenile flying fish find they bounce off the underside of the water's surface.
The mechanisms of surface tension pose no mystery to physicists or chemists. Surface tension arises because water molecules have an electric polarity. That's not such a big deal inside a fluid, but at the air boundary of a fluid, the water molecules will tend to link up through their electrical imbalances and form a skin. This electrostatic force is what makes water roll up into droplets.
That's about all most physicists or chemists care to know about the phenomenon, but it has implications that are poorly understood. Mechanical engineer David Hu of the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta got to wondering how the water strider could get any traction from its water-walking act. He and his colleagues used dyes and high-speed cameras to determine that the bug rows ahead by generating tiny vortexes with its feet.
That would seem only too trivial in itself, but Hu got to thinking that biologists might be overlooking just how big a deal surface tension might be in the structure and lives of organisms. He has since become a leader in the field of investigation of surface tension in biology. Steven Vogel, a biomechanist at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, finds the subject very exciting: "The sheer dazzling diversity of biological phenomenon to which surface tension is relevant is mind-blowing."
For example, plants don't have muscles, so they have other mechanisms to provide motive power -- surface tension being one of them. Consider Erodium, a group of flowers whose fruit resembles a bird beak. Inside each beak, a grown seed features a centimeter-long tail or "awn", which is stretched out as the seed grows. When the fruit dries and cracks open, the awn abruptly coils up, dispersing the seed from the fruit. The awn's job isn't over, however, since it coils and uncoils on a day-night cycle, driving the seed into the soil.
Kim Ho-Young of the University in Seoul in South Korea determined that the awn's change in configuration was driven by overcoming surface tension. A plant leaf tends to repel water -- it's "hydrophobic" -- and so we visualize water droplets on leaves. An awn, however, is made up mostly of lignin and pectin, both of which attract water -- they're "hydrophilic". When the humidity's high during the day, the awn absorbs moisture and straightens out. At night, it dries up, returning to its coil configuration. Kim has examined awns from other plants working on the same principle; he believes that the scheme might be useful for nanorobots that won't need any power source.
The awns are notably hydrophilic; the floating fern Salvina molesta, in contrast, is notably hydrophobic. It is a native of South America, forming thick beds on ponds and slow-moving watercourses; as an invasive species, it has become a nuisance elsewhere. It refuses to get wet, keeping an air layer trapped against itself when submerged, allowing it to continue to photosynthesize, as well as pop to the surface once any obstruction holding it under is removed.
Wilhelm Barthlott and his colleagues at the University of Bonn in Germany got to wondering how the fern pulled off this trick, examining the plant in detail. It turned out that its leaves were covered in tiny hairs, which terminated in an eggbeater-like head composed of four hairs joined at the bottom and the top. Except for the very top, the hairs were waxy and hydrophobic; the top, in contrast, was bare and very hydrophilic. It turned out that the hairs were like tent-poles, pinning a layer of water to their tips so that surface tension would keep water out below. Water droplets falling on a leaf do not penetrate. Marine engineers are interested in such studies to determine means of allowing vessels to move more efficiently across water.
In a scenario with some similarities, physicist Manu Prakash of the University of Stanford in California noticed how water lily beetles, which feed on water lily leaves, use their wings to skitter across the surface of a pond to another leaf. On close examination, it turned out the beetles were covered with hydrophobic hairs -- but the claws at the end of its legs were hydrophilic. When it flew from leaf to leaf, it retained contact with the water using its fore and aft sets of legs; without the four contacts, it would end up in full flight, which would demand more energy.
Other researchers have investigated how pathogens can be carried by droplets, modeling how they can be distributed by a sneeze, or by flushing of a toilet. One study even showed that rain falling on leaves can spatter droplets from plant to plant, carrying pathogens with them. Obviously this work has applications, but Hu finds it fascinating in itself: "I love that when I study surface tension dynamics, I can draw on ideas from many disciplines: mathematics, biology, chemistry, physics, computer science, and engineering. We need all these perspectives to understand the many ways surface tension impacts the world."COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* THE PENTAGON EMBRACES CLIMATE CHANGE: While the extremist Right is loud in contempt of environmental issues, as discussed here in the past, the US military takes a much more positive view. America's armed services have embraced renewable energy to reduce costs in running their installations, successfully doing so on a shoestring; and have been very interested in biofuels, being concerned about long-term assured fuel supplies -- the incrementally higher cost of biofuels at present being not a big issue compared to the much higher cost of getting that fuel to warfighters.
As discussed by an article from BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK ("The Military Takes On Climate Change Deniers" by Mark Hertsgaard, 27 October 2014), the brass and their civilian bosses in the Department of Defense (DOD) have strong concerns about climate change, since it will have major effects on the global strategic chessboard. Indeed, according to the Pentagon's "Climate Change Adaptation Roadmap" for 2014: "Climate change will affect the Department of Defense's ability to defend the Nation and poses immediate risks."
Other than the emphasis on immediacy, this is not news. As far back as 2004, there were reports of a secret Pentagon document that warned climate change might well force powers such as China, India, and Pakistan into armed confrontations. Roadmap documents were also released in 2012 and 2013, but the Defense Department didn't push the matter, since it was likely to antagonize conservative members of Congress. Indeed, in May 2014, House Republicans tried to tack on an amendment to the annual National Defense Authorization Act to block the DOD from spending any money on climate-related issues. Representative Dave McKinley of West Virginia, who sponsored the bill, told his colleagues: "This amendment will ensure we maximize our military might without diverting funds for a politically motivated agenda." The amendment passed the House, but died in the Senate.
The Pentagon is becoming more assertive. In a foreword to the 2014 climate roadmap, outgoing Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel -- a combat veteran and previously a Republican senator for Nebraska -- announced: "Politics or ideology must not get in the way of sound planning."
Hagel is backed by 16 retired generals and admirals on the military advisory board of the CNA Corporation, a government-funding nonprofit defense research organization. A CNA report issued in May 2014 called climate change a "catalyst for conflict", suggesting that instability in Syria was aggravated by a record drought that drove peasants into cities, where they were organized by radical groups. According to Ron Keys, a retired Air Force four-star general on the CNA military advisory board who describes himself as "just to the Right of Genghis Khan": "People are going to have less water, less food. There are going to be huge regional wars over such issues."
David Titley, a retired rear admiral and another member of the CNA military advisory board, says that not all Republicans are as dismissive of climate change as their public rhetoric suggests: "If you talk to them privately, without any media around, the vast majority of Congressional Republicans know perfectly well that climate change is real. But they don't want to say so publicly, because they don't want to end up like Bob Inglis."
While it's hard to assess just how many Republican members of Congress are more convinced of climate change than they let on in public, they are all certain of what happened to Bob Inglis. He had been the representative from South Carolina's 4th Congressional District for six terms, with a solidly conservative voting record -- only to be ousted in 2010 when he admitted publicly that climate change is for real. Inglis is now executive director of the Energy & Enterprise Initiative, a nonprofit out of George Mason University that pushes free-market approaches to dealing with climate change. He says there is real fear among members of Congress on the issue: "A lot of people on Capitol Hill are down in their foxholes. They're afraid of getting their heads blown off if they head up the hill."
Retired military brass have been traveling the country to explain to American citizens the implications of climate change. Since August, Keys has visited Iowa, Pennsylvania, Ohio, New Hampshire, and North Carolina, visiting local Rotary Clubs and businesses; talking to state legislators, mayors, business leaders, mayors, business leaders, civic groups, and "Mom & Pop on Main Street". His message is that climate change means trouble, and the US is going to have to be ready for it.
Oklahoma Republican Senator James Inhofe, the arch-denialist in the Senate, sneered at the CNA's military advisors when the CNA report was released in May: "There is no one more in pursuit of publicity than a retired military officer." Keys was unimpressed: "I spent 40 years as a fighter pilot. You're going to have to come at me with facts."COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* ANOTHER MONTH: The resurgence of wildlife populations in the USA and their penetration into urban areas was last discussed here some months back. On Thanksgiving, WIRED Online blogs ran an article ("The Weirdest Incidents Regarding Wild Turkeys This Week" by John Mooallem) that zeroed in on the wild turkey.
Wild turkeys have staged a comeback in almost every US state, from Massachusetts to Florida to Texas. There were so many turkeys in Utah that last fall, the state government sanctioned a turkey hunt, restricted to areas where the population had boomed, for the first time in 30 years. There are so many turkeys in north California that people increasingly see them as pests.
In Wyoming, a wild turkey likes to frequent a high school, pecking bugs out of car grills, and very tamely eating out of people's hands. He has the run of the neighborhood, one little girl telling a reporter that the first time she saw "Turk" -- one of the names the bird has been given -- it was sprawled out on a porch "like a dog". A woman in Lodi, California, wrote a children's book about a well-liked local turkey named "Tom Kettleman", who had his own Facebook page. He regularly crossed six lanes of traffic, to finally be hit and killed a few months ago, even though, it is said, he used the crosswalk. Possibly so; wild turkeys have a reputation for being keenly intelligent birds, noted for their ability to lead hunters in circles.
Turkeys can be aggressive: in the Boston suburb of Brookline, gangs of turkeys have attacked children, homeowners, and street crossing guards. A Youtube video, "Turkey Attack Compilation", spliced together acts of turkey aggression, to the heavy metal beat of Survivor's "Eye Of The Tiger", with stills thrown in of police SWAT teams in flak vests and bristling with firepower, along with clips of fire engines and police cars racing to the scene with sirens blaring.
* I had a microwave oven I'd bought in the early 1990s, and was wondering exactly how much longer it would last. It finally went south this last month: the button to open the door broke. I might have been able to tinker with it and fix it, but since it was on its last legs anyway, why bother? I put it out of its misery.
Since I'm dependent on the microwave, I promptly went over to Walmart and bought a replacement, a West Bend unit, for $63 USD, including sales tax. It was the smallest I could find; that was not just because I never warmed up anything big and wanted to spend as little as I could, but because I didn't want to clutter up my kitchen with something having a bigger footprint. I'll see how long it lasts. Given that there's not that much to go wrong with a microwave, and I don't put a lot of load on it, I would be surprised if it didn't last at least a decade.
I was also surprised at how cheap it was, expecting it would cost me more than a hundred bucks. Microwaves are such a mature, downright mundane, technology that it's hard to remember the time when they seemed at least slightly whizzy. According to Wikipedia, the first consumer microwave oven was introduced by Amana in 1967, and they likely weren't common for a few years, so that would suggest their emergence in the 1970s.
They're also mature in the sense that there was little functional difference between my old and new microwaves. One improvement was that the new microwave didn't have a pushbutton to open the door, it just had a handle, with spring-loaded latching hooks to keep it closed, with less there to break. The new microwave was also well more powerful than the old: I gave an item a three-minute heating, as normal practice, and it got kind of scorched. OK, two minutes next time.
Another plus was the control interface. It had the special-purpose buttons that I don't use -- I never pop popcorn at home -- but the number pad was marked as "EXPRESS COOKING". Wot? I was puzzled, but I finally realized that if I pressed "2", it would blast the food at 100% power for two minutes. If I just pressed the START button, it would blast for 30 seconds; if I pressed the START button while the microwave was cooking, it would add 30 seconds. That fits my usage approach perfectly, I've never seen much need for finesse, get it hot and that's enough. I doped out the other settings, just to make sure I wasn't missing a trick.
A few weeks before, I'd heated up a spicy dried noodles bowl that I'd bought as an experiment. I could eat it, but the smell it left was appalling and extremely persistent. I had to clean up my kitchen with a bleach-based spray cleaner to kill the smell. The smell was particularly strong in the microwave, but the cleaner couldn't get rid of it, because the stink had got into the internal vents. With the old microwave failing and being given the boot, I had to think with a bit of satisfaction: "That solved that problem decisively!"
* The US mid-term national elections last month were a big boost to the Republicans, who now control both houses of Congress. Since it had been very difficult for the White House to get anything through Congress before the election, nor was Congress noted for an inclination to take any action itself, it is unclear if there's been any real change in the status quo.
In Colorado, the Republican won the Senate seat, which bothered me very little; the Democrat governor kept his job, which was even more of a shrug; and the "personhood of the unborn" amendment got shot down 2:1, pretty much as expected. I was pleased to see that the "special Colorado labeling for GM foods" got shot down by about 2:1 as well, rumors having had it that it was well expected to pass. So much for rumors.
Actually, I was most interested in the approval of the new Larimer County animal shelter, which will be a substantial facility, with a total floor area of 2,500 square meters (26,900 square feet). In a slight irony, it will be near where the old, now dismantled, dog racing track used to be. At one time, retired greyhounds adopted by Loveland families were a fairly common sight here; I miss seeing them around, they were always such attractive, pleasant, and easy-going dogs.
* Finally, the big "back East" road trip I'm considering for October 2016 or 2017 has, as its centerpiece, the new hangar at the Air Force Museum near Dayton, Ohio. The museum had been forced to keep some exhibits stowed in a hangar on adjoining Wright-Patterson AFB; the fourth hangar will allow them to be properly displayed. Work started on the hangar this summer, the fun part being that every month, a construction summary video is released on Youtube. I find it entertaining to track the progress of the work, and look forward to each new installment.COMMENT ON ARTICLE