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DayVectors

jan 2015 / last mod mar 2017 / greg goebel

* 22 entries including: Cold War (series), post-revolutionary Iran (series), worries about sugar (series), developing world economic boom over (series), shopping mall healthcare clinics, record high global temperature in 2014, construction in London, dim prospects of global nuclear zero, TEDAC bomb analysis center, renewable energy increasingly competitive, Colorado DOT clears the roads of snow, anticipatory software, & smartphones talk by vibrations.

banner of the month


[FRI 30 JAN 15] NEWS COMMENTARY FOR JANUARY 2015
[THU 29 JAN 15] WINGS & WEAPONS
[WED 28 JAN 15] HEALTHCARE ON THE MALL
[TUE 27 JAN 15] GETTING WARMER
[MON 26 JAN 15] POST-REVOLUTIONARY IRAN (1)
[FRI 23 JAN 15] THE COLD WAR (54)
[THU 22 JAN 15] SPACE NEWS
[WED 21 JAN 15] REBUILDING LONDON
[TUE 20 JAN 15] NOT CLOSE TO ZERO
[MON 19 JAN 15] DEMON SUGAR (2)
[FRI 16 JAN 15] THE COLD WAR (53)
[THU 15 JAN 15] SCIENCE NOTES
[WED 14 JAN 15] TEDAC DOES BOMBS
[TUE 13 JAN 15] COMPETITIVE RENEWABLES?
[MON 12 JAN 15] DEMON SUGAR (1)
[FRI 09 JAN 15] THE COLD WAR (52)
[THU 08 JAN 15] GIMMICKS & GADGETS
[WED 07 JAN 15] SNOWFIGHTERS
[TUE 06 JAN 15] SECOND-GUESSED / GOOD VIBRATIONS
[MON 05 JAN 14] DIMINISHING RETURNS (2)
[FRI 02 JAN 15] THE COLD WAR (51)
[THU 01 JAN 15] ANOTHER MONTH

[FRI 30 JAN 15] NEWS COMMENTARY FOR JANUARY 2015

* NEWS COMMENTARY FOR JANUARY 2015: As discussed by an article from BBC WORLD Online ("Iranian President Rouhani's Referendum Warning To Hardliners" by Amir Paivar, 6 January 2015), there was disappointment that negotiations with Iran over that country's nuclear program did not yield an agreement on schedule in November 2014, but the talks were extended to a deadline of 30 June 2015.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani seems determined to make progress, stating in a public address to a group of economists and business leaders on 4 January that he is thinking of holding a referendum on "crucial, disputed matters". That was vague, but in the address Rouhani said he wanted to end Iran's isolation in the world, and harshly criticized those who opposed the nuclear negotiations. Rouhani announced: "By God, by Lord, it is impossible: the country cannot have sustained growth when isolated." He added: "Our ideals are not bound to centrifuges."

The president observed that under Iran's constitution, Iranian citizens were entitled to have important economic, social, political and cultural issues put to a referendum instead of having Parliament decide. "On a crucial matter that affects all of us and our livelihoods, let's ask people's opinion directly, just for once."

Iran has held three referendums since the revolution: the first, in March 1979, approved the creation of the Islamic Republic; the second, in December 1979, ratified the country's new constitution; and the third, in 1989, amended the constitution following Ayatollah Khomeini's death. It's obviously an extraordinary measure, and it's not easy to have a referendum; Hossein Shariatmadari, the editor of hardline newspaper KAYHAN, told the Fars news agency that Rouhani seemed to have forgotten that proposals for referendums had to be approved by two-thirds of ministers of parliament.

Rouhani hasn't forgotten. He's clearly trying to pressure the hardliners, handing them the prospect that he will call for a referendum, and they will be framed as opponents of the popular will if they shoot it down. If the referendum did go through, on the other hand, it would give hardliners an easier out, by allowing them to bow to the will of the people. Matters are certain play out over the next few months.

* As reported by JANES.COM, General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a press conference on 9 January that, while Iran and the US are not holding hands in Iraq, neither does America have much problem with Iran's assistance to the Iraqi government:

BEGIN QUOTE:

Iran has been both interested and sought to influence the future of Iraq since Iraq's sovereignty was restored in 2004, so Iranian influence is not [a] surprise and Iranian advisors have been in Iraq for a very long time. As long as the Iraqi government remains committed to inclusivity of all the various groups inside the country, then I think Iranian influence will be positive. It's not threatening to US forces or to our mission at this point. If it were to become that way, then we would have to adapt our campaign plan.

END QUOTE

Since mid-2014, the Iranians have ramped up assistance to Iraqi Shiite militias fighting Sunni Islamic State insurgents. These are essentially the same Shiite militias that were killing American and British soldiers during the occupation of Iraq, from 2003 to 2012 -- but the occupation's over, and there are other concerns. The Shiite militias are making heavy use of Iranian-supplied weapons and equipment; their logos sometimes appear on Iraqi Army vehicles, which does raise concerns about state factionalism.

Iranian F-4 Phantom aircraft have been seen carrying out airstrikes in support of joint Iraqi Army-militia operations in eastern Iraq. The Iraqi Army is also using Iranian military hardware, most notably Su-25 ground attack aircraft. A video showed an Iranian-made HM-20 rocket launcher -- a six-wheeled vehicle, with 40 launch tubes for Russian-style 122 millimeter unguided rockets -- operating with Iraqi forces.

Iranian HM-20 rocket launcher

Transfers of Iranian military hardware to Iraq are a violation of the UN arms embargo against Iran. Iranian military assistance is under the direction of Brigadier General Qasem Soleimani, the commander of the Qods Force -- an arm of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps that supports foreign armed groups such as Lebanon's Hizbullah. Soleimani is seen as aiding and abetting terrorists by the US. However, for the moment, the US is not making a fuss.

* US President Barack Obama made a bit of a splash by proposing that the Federal and state governments establish two years of education in a community college as a public right, just like primary and secondary education. The US community college system, which includes 1,600 campuses across the country, provides two-year associate degrees, and can provide freshman and sophomore sequences for bachelor's degrees at traditional four-year US universities. According to the American Association of Community Colleges, more than 12.8 million Americans studied at community colleges in 2012, with 7.7 million taking courses for credit toward a degree.

The White House says if the plan were to be adopted by all 50 states -- which would pick up 25% of the costs, while the Federal government takes the rest -- it would save the average community college student $3,800 USD in tuition per year, benefiting about 9 million students. Of course, by going to a community college, students can remain at home, saving much of the expense of boarding at a university. A White House spokesman said the plan would cost $60 billion USD over ten years. Critics were quick to pounce on the vagueness of the financing, being particularly scornful of the use of the work "free", even though it was meant in the same sense that public-supported primary and secondary education is "free".

Despite the complaints, the plan may get momentum. Not only is it a straightforward extension of government-backed primary and secondary education, which nobody seriously challenges, it's based on a Tennessee program devised by Republican Governor Bill Haslam, who joined the president and the state's two Republican senators when Obama later spoke about the proposal. Advocates see the program as doing much to help elevate America's disadvantaged youth, and also providing a lever to help get the nation's overpriced higher educational system under control. Skeptics suggest it will do the opposite, draining the taxpayer while driving up education costs. It may not fly this time around, but even if not, it will have been put on the table for consideration by a later administration.

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[THU 29 JAN 15] WINGS & WEAPONS

* WINGS & WEAPONS: Gulfstream has long been known for its line of prestigious business jets. As reported by an article from AVIATION WEEK Online ( "Gulfstream Launches New Large-Cabin, Long-Range Jets" by Fred George, 20 October 2014), it has now enhanced its product line with two new offerings, the "G500" and "G600", featuring more speed, range, and cabin volume, along with modernized cockpit technology. The new bizjets were developed from 2008 under Gulfstream project P42. The first of five G500 prototypes was rolled out from the Gulfstream plant in Savannah, Georgia, on 14 October.

The new machines follow on from the current Gulfstream 650, and share the general configuration common to modern Gulfstreams: low-mounted swept wing with winglets, swept tee tail, twin tail-mounted turbofans. They inherit G650 wing aerodynamics, large windows, fly-by-wire controls, and many subsystems. The two new bizjets are to replace the current G450 and G550, though these older aircraft will remain in production as long as demand persists. The G500 and G600 have a wider body than the G450 and G550, though not as wide as the G650, the need for greater speed having demanded a slimmer fuselage.

High-speed cruise for both aircraft is Mach 0.9. At Mach 0.85 long-range cruise speed, the $54.5 million USD G600 has a range of 11,470 kilometers (6,200 NMI), 3% more than the G550, while the $43.5 million USD G500 has a range of 9,250 kilometers (5,000 NMI), 18% more than the G450, which cruises at Mach 0.8. The higher speed of the new bizjets can cut an hour off a long flight.

Gulfstream G500 & G600

Although Gulfstream has traditionally preferred Rolls-Royce engines, the G500 and G600 will be powered by twin Pratt & Whitney Canada (PWC) PW800 turbofans -- more efficient, quieter, with less emissions, and demanding less maintenance than earlier engines in their class. The G500 will be powered by twin PW814GA turbofans with 67.3 kN (6,870 kgp / 15,144 lbf) thrust each, the G600 by PW816GA turbofans with 69.8 kN (7,110 kgp / 15,680 lbf) thrust each.

The G500 & G600 are innovations for Gulfstream in featuring sidestick controllers, with tactile feedback, instead of yokes. They also have a Honeywell Symmetry flight deck with ten touchscreen displays, as well as head-up displays and an infrared night-vision camera. Initial flight of the G500 is planned for 2015, leading to certification in 2017 and service entry in 2018. The design of the G600 -- which is similar, but with a longer fuselage and greater wingspan -- has not been frozen yet, but plans are for first flight in 2016, and service entry in 2019.

* The 40-millimeter grenade has been a standard munition for America's ground-pounders for over half a century. Now General Dynamics is working with Singapore Technologies Kinetics LTD to update it for the 21st century, adding a time fuze system that will allow it to burst as it flies over or past a target, depriving the Black Hats of cover. The new timed grenades will be launched from conventional grenade launchers. However, such weapons will presumably be fitted with laser rangefinders that download the appropriate timing into a grenade, possibly by a passive wireless link.

* The hovercraft -- a vehicle that flies over the waves on an air cushion generated by fans -- was seen as a "technology of the future" in the 1960s, with visions that hovercraft would eventually be commonplace. It turned out instead that it was a niche technology, such machines being built in relatively small numbers for specialized applications.

One of those applications was amphibious assault, the hovercraft proving extremely useful as a landing craft: it could carry loads at relatively high speed, right up onto a beach. It could also pick them back up off the beach if necessary, reloading a landing craft with heavy gear on a contested beach being a difficult procedure. After experiments with hovercraft for patrol in Vietnam, in the 1970s the US Navy began a program to develop a hovercraft landing craft, the "Landing Craft Air Cushion (LCAC)", which was introduced into service during the 1980s.

The LCAC is powered by four gas turbines, with all four engines used together for lift and forward propulsion, by twin ducted fans at the rear. It appears that the ducted fans do not pivot, maneuvering being under the control of rudders in the duct and reversible prop. It can be armed with twin 12.7 millimeter machine guns or similar light weapons; it can carry a typical load of 54 tonnes (60 tons) at a speed of 75 KPH (45 MPH / 40 KT) or better.

LCAC

Now the Navy is developing a replacement, the "Ship-to-Shore Connector (SSC)", for the LCAC. Configurationally, the SSC is similar enough to its predecessor to be confused with it, but it has about 20% more payload, plus more powerful and efficient engines; modern avionics, including a fly-by-wire system with joystick controls; plus extensive use of composites and aluminum, reducing weight and improving corrosion resistance. The SSC is expected to be cheaper to operate, more reliable, and easier to maintain than the LCAC. An initial batch is now in production by Textron, with expected introduction to service in 2017.

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[WED 28 JAN 15] HEALTHCARE ON THE MALL

* HEALTHCARE ON THE MALL: Although the US healthcare system is still clearly out of economic control, it is under pressure to reform, and there are a number of encouraging actions being taken. As discussed by an article from BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK ("Medical Clinics Take Over Malls' Empty Spaces" by Doni Bloomfield, 8 January 2015), while the past years of economic hardship have left empty spaces in America's shopping malls, many are now being filled up by walk-in medical clinics that treat ordinary problems like sprains and burns.

Such clinics -- operated by regional chains such as City Practice Group of New York and national ones like Concentra, the largest urgent-care organization in the USA -- are expanding rapidly. There were 9,400 walk-in clinics in the US in 2013, a 20% increase since 2009, with a bit more than a third located in strip malls and shopping centers. Mall owners like them as tenants, because they pay higher rents, have better credit, and are inclined to sign long-term leases.

The clinics serve patients who don't have a regular doctor, or can't get a timely appointment with one; instead of an overcrowded hospital emergency room, they visit a walk-in clinic. Malls are good sites for clinics because malls tend to have public visibility, lots of traffic, and plenty of sign space to tell visitors what's there. The move into malls is called the "Blockbuster" strategy, after the video rental firm that shut down in early 2014, leaving shuttered retail locations that can be turned into walk-in clinics.

Palisades Urgent Care, now owned by City Practice Group, moved into a former Blockbuster in a Kohl's shopping plaza in Nanuet, New York, in November 2012. No appointments are needed at the clinic, and it's open 365 days a year. City Practice now has 39 clinics. Concentra, owned by health insurer Humana, runs 290 clinics in malls and shopping centers, as well as at stand-alone locations. The clinics offer physical exams, vaccinations, and some specialized treatment delivered by board-certified doctors, registered nurses, and physical therapists.

Some hospitals also run mall clinics, to reduce pressure on their emergency rooms and bring in patients. In Nashville, Vanderbilt University Medical Center is building clinics in retail settings throughout the metro area. Its expansion was inspired partly by the hospital's first major move, in 2009, off its main campus, when Vanderbilt took over a large part of Nashville's first enclosed mall, One Hundred Oaks, to house dozens of specialty clinics.

The average center assists about four patients an hour in a 12-hour day. The more than 10 million people who gained insurance under the Affordable Care Act are boosting demand. Some ACA plans offer cheap monthly premiums in exchange for high deductibles for emergency room visits. The average cost to the patient of treating a sore throat at an urgent-care retail clinic in 2013 was $94 USD, according to CareFirst, a health insurer in Maryland; the same treatment in an emergency room cost $590 USD.

Private equity firms and venture capitalists have noticed the trend towards walk-in clinics, investing more than $3 billion USD into them since 2010. Growth is not meeting demand, but there are still worries that services will overshoot the market, leading to a shakeout. For now, however, both the medical industry and patients find the arrangement satisfactory.

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[TUE 27 JAN 15] GETTING WARMER

* GETTING WARMER: As discussed by an article from THE NEW YORK TIMES ("2014 Breaks Heat Record, Challenging Global Warming Skeptics" by Justin Gillis, 16 January 2015), assessment of climate data for 2014 shows it was the Earth's warmest year since record-keeping began in 1880. The US National Aeronautics & Space Administration (NASA) and the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration issued separate data compilations 16 January that confirmed the 2014 record. A Japanese agency had released preliminary information early in the month, also showing 2014 as the warmest year. A British scientific agency will release its report on global temperatures soon.

global temperature rise

The previous record was set in 2010; the ten warmest years have occurred since 1997. In 2014, Alaska, Arizona, California and Nevada all set temperature records. Some parts of California had effectively no winter last year. The temperature in Anchorage, Alaska's largest city, never fell below freezing in 2014 -- the first time that has happened in 101 years of record-keeping for the city. While the eastern USA had below-average temperatures, it was an anomaly, record highs being set on almost all continents. The difference in temperature between the western and eastern halves of the USA was related, a variation in Arctic air circulation to the south driving cold into the east, while warming the west.

global temperature variation 2014

In addition, the ocean surface was unusually warm almost everywhere but near Antarctica, the heat driving strong Pacific storms. Temperature measurements taken from satellites do not show 2014 as a record year, although it is close. Several researchers said the satellite readings reflected temperatures in the atmosphere, not at the Earth's surface, so it was unsurprising that they would differ slightly from ground and ocean-surface measurements.

A number of researchers commented that what was most surprising was that the higher temperatures had occurred in a year that did not have a strong El Nino -- a large-scale weather pattern, driven by the warming of the atmosphere by the Pacific Ocean. Gavin A. Schmidt, head of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies in Manhattan, believes the next strong El Nino will drive a new and dramatic global high temperature record.

Climate-change denialists have made much of the fact that the curve of global temperature seemed to have been flat for the past decade, some denialists pushing the leveling back as far as 1998. There has been intense debate over the length of the interval of leveling, and well as whether the leveling was, to a degree, a measurement artifact -- but there's no honest doubt that the leveling is over. The temperature of 1998 is now being surpassed every four or five years.

According to Stefan Rahmstorf, head of earth system analysis at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany: "Obviously, a single year, even if it is a record, cannot tell us much about climate trends. However, the fact that the warmest years on record are 2014, 2010 and 2005 clearly indicates that global warming has not 'stopped in 1998', as some like to falsely claim."

Climate-change denialists are unlikely to be impressed. One of the most prominent, atmospheric scientist John R. Christy of the University of Alabama in Huntsville, pointed out in an interview that 2014 had surpassed the other record-warm years by only a few hundredths of a degree, well within the error bars of global temperature measurements. Christy says: "Since the end of the 20th century, the temperature hasn't done much. It's on this kind of warmish plateau."

It is true that the 2014 record temperature only breaks the previous record by a slight amount -- but it still demonstrates that the trendline is up. Most of the rest of the climate science community believes the Earth is consistently warming, that it's due to human greenhouse-gas emissions, and that it's going to cause a hell of a lot of trouble. Michael Mann, a high-profile climate researcher at Pennsylvania State University, says in an email: "It is exceptionally unlikely that we would be witnessing a record year of warmth, during a record-warm decade, during a several decades-long period of warmth that appears to be unrivaled for more than a thousand years, were it not for the rising levels of planet-warming gases produced by the burning of fossil fuels."

Decades of negotiations on reducing greenhouse-gas emissions have accomplished little, but the pressure for action is becoming stronger, while increasingly unambiguous science has been pushing climate-change denialists into a corner. The next major attempt at a global climate agreement will come when negotiators from around the world gather in Paris in December 2015. There is a degree, not excessive, of optimism that progress will be made.

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[MON 26 JAN 15] POST-REVOLUTIONARY IRAN (1)

* POST-REVOLUTIONARY IRAN (1): As discussed by a survey from THE ECONOMIST ("The Revolution Is Over", 1 November 2014), Iran still remains on the top list of rogue states -- seen as paranoid, interested in little but stirring up trouble for its own sake. The country is now under harsh economic sanctions for its nuclear program; Iranian officials say the work on nuclear power is for peaceful purposes, but the Western states pushing sanctions aren't buying it.

However, outsiders visiting Iran see things have changed. Revolutionary zeal has faded; Iranian citizens just want to get on with their lives, and the government is, at least in part, more pragmatic than it was. Adam Michnik, a Polish historian who helped break the Soviet hold over his country, once said: "Revolutions have two phases: first comes a struggle for freedom, then a struggle for power. The first makes the human spirit soar and brings out the best in people. The second unleashes the worst: envy, intrigue, greed, suspicion, and the urge for revenge."

Iran is a model for this pattern. The street demonstrations that overthrew the repressive Shah were courageous; the new regime that followed then seemed, at times, determined to duplicate his repressiveness. The revolution, however, is long over, many who were involved have moved on, and those who were born after it know nothing directly about it. Iranians are, by and large, much more interested in the bright lights of the outside world, and cannot understand why the government tries to set up a wall around Iran. Seven of grandchildren of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeni, the harsh-minded cleric who led the revolution, have openly criticized the regime.

Many of the students who humiliated the USA by taking American diplomats hostage 35 years ago are now reformists. Ebrahim Asgharzadeh, who was one of their spokesmen and then served on Tehran's city council, now says: "I no longer take radical actions, and I believe gradual reforms last longer than radical changes."

Asgharzhadeh's statement reflects a cautious attitude on both sides. Reformists took to the streets in 2009 to protest an election widely seen as rigged, to suffer a bloody crackdown in response. Nobody wants it to happen again; neither reformists nor conservatives want to descend into the chaos of the Arab spring. Says a Western diplomat: "The Arab spring fallout has scared everyone. Iran is now a bastion of stability. The question of the validity of the regime has been resolved."

Indeed, the hopes of Iran's foreign adversaries that Iranian citizens want to overturn Iran's government are greatly exaggerated. Most Iranians -- at least most of the ethnic Persians -- still take pride in the 1979 revolution as their liberation from foreign domination. The inclination of Iranians toward paranoia makes more sense when it is realized that, not being Arab, Turkic, or South Asian, they have little affinity with their neighbors. Although Iranians have no liking for international sanctions, there is still widespread public support for the country's nuclear program, as a sign of Iranian strength.

The urge for change is low-key, but it's still clearly there, if generally expressed in a passive fashion. All public buildings in Iran are required to have prayer rooms, but visitors notice that they are generally empty at prayer time. The daughter of one high cleric claims that "religious belief is mostly gone. Faith has been replaced by disgust."

That might be an exaggeration, but it is still the obvious truth that preaching gets boring. Arab states like Egypt empowered Islamic zeal by attempting to repress it; Iran weakened that zeal by attempting to establish it as a norm. Iran is now one of the most secular countries in the Middle East. To be sure, Iranians are proud of their Islamic identity, but that doesn't interfere with wanting to enjoy life. The clergy still have a high level of authority, as well as economic power, but have become much less publicly assertive. Some of the more astute among them have suggested that, in obtaining political power, the clergy have sacrificed their moral authority, to become just another class of bosses. [TO BE CONTINUED]

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[FRI 23 JAN 15] THE COLD WAR (54)

* THE COLD WAR (54): On 12 March 1955, Secretary of State Dulles announced in a speech that the US "had new and powerful weapons of precision", following up on 15 March to unequivocally state the USA was prepared to use tactical nuclear weapons in case outright war broke out in the Far East. Dulles had prudently cleared his remarks with Eisenhower first. In a press conference on 16 March, Eisenhower was asked by a reporter if Dulles' statements reflected policy, that America really would go nuclear. Eisenhower replied:

BEGIN QUOTE:

I wouldn't comment in the sense that I would pretend to foresee the conditions of any particular conflict in which you might engage; but we have been, as you know, active in producing various types of weapons that feature nuclear fission ever since World War II. Now, in any combat where these things can be used on strictly military targets and for strictly military purposes, I see no reason why they shouldn't be used just exactly as you would use a bullet or anything else.

I believe the great question about these things comes when you begin to get into those areas where you cannot make sure that you are operating merely against military targets. But with that one qualification, I would say, yes, of course they would be used.

END QUOTE

That was entirely disingenuous, Eisenhower having repeatedly made it clear in the past, sometimes in public, that he did not regard the Bomb as "just another weapon". Democrats expressed grave concerns, while Admiral Radford and other hawks were elated. Public controversy served Eisenhower's purposes perfectly, his intent merely being to sow fear, uncertainty, and doubt into the minds of America's adversaries. Of course, it made America's allies nervous as well, but Eisenhower accepted that as part of the game he was playing. On 20 March, Dulles raised the tensions further with a hot speech that blasted the Red Chinese as "an acute and imminent threat", comparing their "aggressive fanaticism" with Hitler's.

By that time, Goodpaster had come back to Washington DC to report that the Nationalists were heavily reinforcing Quemoy and Matsu. Dug in, they would be able to hold out unless the PLA threw in air power, in which case the US would have to intervene. Eisenhower continued with his policy of obfuscation. On 23 March, just before a news conference, White House Press Secretary Jim Hagerty told Eisenhower: "Mr. President, some of the people in the State Department say the Formosa Strait situation is so delicate that no matter what question you get on it, you shouldn't say anything at all."

Eisenhower had no intention of doing so, replying with a laugh: "Don't worry, Jim, if that question comes up, I'll just confuse them." It did, and he responded with an extended exercise in bafflegab that left the reporters entirely bewildered.

The Red Chinese were beginning to come around, with Zhou Enlai speaking on 23 April of traditional Chinese-American friendship and flatly saying that China did not "want a war with the United States." Zhou offered to negotiate, with Eisenhower replying that the USA was interested in doing so. Shelling of Quemoy and Matsu slacked off, to fade to a stop in May. The Chinese released the four American fighter pilots at the end of the month; on 1 August, the eleven B-29 crewmen were released as well, talks beginning at the same time. The two civilians would not be released until 1973, at the time of the Sino-American thaw, when the US admitted they really were CIA agents.

For the time being, the dispute over Quemoy and Matsu had been resolved. The islands were of strategic consequence to neither side; Mao had attacked them merely because they were there and within reach, ultimately more for reasons of prestige and propaganda than anything else. Eisenhower made it clear the US was not willing to give them up without a fight, while leaving exactly how America would conduct that fight entirely unclear. Mao, recognizing that the bombardments had served his purposes, could only shrug and turn to diplomacy.

Mao was hardly impressed by Eisenhower's ambiguous nuclear saber-rattling; he frightened Soviet leadership with his defiant statements of indifference to the prospect of nuclear war, and often called the US a "paper tiger". That was not entirely heartfelt; China had no offensive capability, beyond export of revolution, that could challenge the United States, and Mao had no intention of doing so. The shelling of Quemoy and Matsu was strictly a political demonstration. Mao had never wanted a general war, and he wasn't expecting one. [TO BE CONTINUED]

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[THU 22 JAN 15] SPACE NEWS

* December 2014 was a lively month for space launches:

-- 03 DEC 14 / HAYABUSA 2 -- An H-2A booster was launched from the Japanese launch facility at Tanegashima at 0422 GMT (local time - 9) to put the JAXA / Japanese space agency "Hayabusa (Peregrine Falcon) 2" asteroid sample return mission into space. Hayabusa 2 was to perform an Earth flyby in December 2015; arrive at the target, asteroid (162173) 1999 JU3 in July 2018; depart in December 2019; and return to Earth in December 2020, dropping its sample capsule on Australia.

Hayabusa 2 flies

Hayabusa 2 had a launch mass of 590 kilograms (1,300 pounds), with four ion thrusters for propulsion. Once on station near the asteroid, Hayabusa 2 would fire a projectile -- the "Small Carry-On Impactor (SCI)", with a weight of 2.5 kilograms (5.5 pounds) -- that would blast through the asteroid, with Hayabusa 2 collecting fragments from the other side, placing them in the sample capsule. The probe also carried four landers:

-- as well as the "DCAM-3" nanosatellite, to be deployed to observe operations. The H-2A carried three other payloads:

-- 05 DEC 14 / ORION EFT-1 -- A Delta 4 Heavy booster was launched from Cape Canaveral in Florida at 1205 GMT (local time + 5) on "Exploration Flight Test (EFT) 1", a suborbital test flight of NASA's Orion multi-purpose crew vehicle. The capsule was launched to an altitude of 5,800 kilometers (3,600 miles) to test the Orion's re-entry system. The capsule was successfully recovered.

Orion capsule

-- 06 DEC 14 / DIRECTV 14, GSAT 16 -- An Ariane 5 ECA booster was launched from Kourou in French Guiana at 2040 GMT (local time + 3) to put the DIRECTV "DirecTV 14" and Indian ISRO "GSAT 16" geostationary comsats into space. The DIRECTV 14 spacecraft was built by Space Systems/Loral, being based on the SSL 1300-series platform. It had a launch mass of 6,300 kilograms (13,900 pounds), carried a payload of 16 Ka band / 18 reverse band transponders, and had a design life of 15 years. It was placed in the geostationary slot at 99 degrees west longitude to provide digital entertainment services across the US and Puerto Rico for DIRECTV.

GSAT 16 had a launch mass of about 3,150 kilograms (6,495 pounds), 12 Ku / 36 C band transponders, and a design life of 12 years. It was placed in the geostationary slot at 55 degrees east longitude to provide communications services to the Indian subcontinent.

-- 07 DEC 14 / CBERS 4 -- A Chinese Long March 4B booster was launched from Taiyuan at 0326 GMT (local time - 8) to put the fourth collaborative "China-Brazil Environmental Satellite (CBERS 4)" into Sun-synchronous orbit. The spacecraft had a launch mass of 1,980 kilograms (4,365 pounds). It carried a payload of four imagers:

CBERS 4 also carried a "Data Collection System (DCS)" to relay environmental data from surface stations, and a "Space Environment Monitor (SEM)" to monitor "space weather" conditions.

CBERS 4

CBERS 1 had been launched in 1999, followed by CBERS 2 in 2003 and CBERS 2B in 2007. A CBERS satellite, identical to CBERS 4, was destroyed in a Long March 4B launch failure on 9 December 2013. Since all the earlier CBERS satellites were out of operation, the launch of CBERS 4 was moved up in response. This was the 200th launch of a Long March booster.

-- 10 DEC 14 / YAOGAN 25 -- A Chinese Long March 4C booster was launched from Jiuquan at 1933 GMT (next day local time - 8) to put the "Yaogan 25" satellite into orbit. It was described as an Earth observation satellite -- but was observed to be a triple payload, possibly a "flying triangle" type naval ocean surveillance satellite, to track maritime traffic from their radio emissions. Similar spacecraft were launched in March 2010, November 2012, September 2013, and August 2014.

-- 13 DEC 14 / NROL-35 (USA 259) -- An Atlas 5 booster was launched from Vandenberg AFB at 0319 GMT (previous day local time + 8) to put a classified spacecraft payload into orbit for the US National Reconnaissance Office, the mission being designated "NROL-35" AKA "USA 259". The spacecraft was placed in a high-inclination, high-eccentricity "Molniya" orbit, suggesting it was a "Trumpet" signals intelligence satellite to track communications in Russia. Some "Quasar / SDS" data relay satellites have also been placed in Molniya orbits, but the NRO appears to be moving towards a purely geostationary SDS system. The rocket was in the "541" configuration with a 5 meter (16 feet 5 inches) diameter fairing; four solid rocket boosters; and a single-engine Centaur upper stage.

-- 15 DEC 14 / YAMAL 401 -- A Proton M Breeze M booster was launched from Baikonur at 0016 GMT (local time - 6) to put the "Yamal 401" geostationary civil communications satellite into orbit for Gazprom Space Systems of Russia. The spacecraft was built by ISS Reshetnev of Russia, with the payload subcontracted to Thales Alenia Space of France and Italy. Yamal 401 had a launch mass of 2,950 kilograms (6,510 pounds), carried a payload of 53 transponders, and had a design life of 15 years. It was placed in the geostationary slot at 90 degrees east longitude to provide communications services to Russia and neighboring countries.

-- 18 DEC 14 / GSLV MK3 -- An ISRO Geostationary Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) Mark 3 booster was launched from Sriharikota at 0400 GMT (local time - 5:30) on a suborbital test flight to investigate the vehicle's atmospheric dynamics. It carried a prototype crew capsule, which parachuted into the Bay of Bengal and was recovered.

This was the first flight of the GSLV Mark 3; it was a two-stage vehicle with twin large strap-on boosters. The GSLV Mark 3 was capable of placing 10 tonnes (11 tons) of payload into low earth orbit, or four tonnes (4.4 tons) to a geosynchronous transfer orbit. Only the first stage and boosters were live in this launch, the second stage being a dummy, loaded with liquid nitrogen to simulate propellant.

GSLV Mark 3 launch

The dummy capsule payload was the "Crew Module Atmospheric Re-entry Experiment (CARE)", a prototype for ISRO's crewed space program, with a launch mass of 2,735 kilograms (8,234 pounds). The CARE test focused on re-entry and recovery; the dummy lacked a service module and was actually flown upside-down, protected by the payload fairing, so it didn't have to turn around before re-entry.

-- 18 DEC 14 / O3B x 4 -- A Soyuz ST-B booster was launched from Kourou in French Guiana at 1837 GMT (local time + 5) to put four "O3b" comsats into orbit to provide communications services for developing countries; the satellites were designated "FM9" through "FM12". The O3B satellites were built by Thales Alenia Space; each had a launch mass of about 700 kilograms (1,545 pounds). They were placed in an equatorial orbit at an altitude of 8,000 kilometers (5,000 miles). The launch raised the number of O3B satellites in orbit to 12, with two of them being on-orbit spares, providing enough satellites to begin initial operations.

-- 18 DEC 14 / KONDOR E1 -- A Strela booster was launched from Baikonur in Kazakhstan at 0443 GMT (local time - 6) to put the "Kondor E1" radar surveillance satellite into orbit, on behalf of South Africa. The Kondor series was built by by NPO Mashinostroyenia (NPO Mash) of Russia; it was designed to carry either an electro-optical or radar imaging payload. The Kondor E was the export version. The Strela booster was a converted SS-19 "Stiletto" missile; it was not the same conversion as the Rokot booster, which adds a new third stage.

-- 23 DEC 14 / ANAGARA 5 -- An Angara 5 booster was launched from Plesetsk Northern Cosmodrome in Russia at 0557 GMT (local time - 3) on the booster's initial test flight. The booster used a Briz M upper stage to put a dummy payload into geostationary orbit.

-- 23 DEC 14 / COSMOS 2503 (LOTOS S) -- A Soyuz booster was launched from Plesetsk Northern Cosmodrome at 0301 GMT (local time - 3) to put a "Lotos S" class ELINT satellite into orbit. The spacecraft was designated "Cosmos 2503".

-- 25 DEC 14 / RESURS P2 -- A Soyuz 2-1b booster was launched from Baikonur at 1855 GMT (local time - 6) to put the "Resurs P2" civil Earth resources observation satellite into Sun-synchronous orbit. It was the second launch of the Resurs P series, replacing the Resurs DK series, with the Resurs P carrying a hyperspectral imaging payload with 96 channels, a wide-angle imager, and a high-resolution imager with a resolution of a meter. It also had a payload to track maritime shipping, and a "Nucleon" experiment to investigate high-energy cosmic rays. The spacecraft had a design life of five years.

-- 27 DEC 14 / YAOGAN 26 -- A Chinese Long March 4B booster was launched from Taiyuan at 0322 GMT (local time - 8) to put the "Yaogan 21" satellite into Sun-synchronous orbit. It was described as an Earth observation satellite, but was presumed to be a military surveillance satellite.

-- 27 DEC 14 / ASTRA 2G -- A Proton M Breeze M booster was launched from Baikonur at 2137 GMT (next day local time - 6) to put the "Astra 2G" geostationary civil communications satellite into orbit for SES of Luxembourg. ASTRA 2G was made by Airbus Defense & Space; it had a launch mass of 6,600 kilograms (14,550 pounds) and carried a payload of 62 Ku / 4 Ka transponders. It also had an X / Ka band communications payload for the government of Luxembourg, intended as a regulatory "placeholder" for a military comsat. ASTRA 2G was placed in a geostationary slot between 28.2 and 28.5 degrees east longitude to deliver next generation broadcast and broadband services in Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

-- 31 DEC 14 / FENGYUN 2G -- A Long March 3A booster was launched from Taiyuan at 0102 GMT (local time - 8) to put the "Fengyun 2G" geostationary weather satellite into orbit. It had a launch mass of 1,360 kilograms (3,000 pounds); it was in the form of a spinning drum, its primary payload being a scanning imaging radiometer, operating in the visible and infrared components of the spectrum. It also carried a space weather monitoring payload. Fengyun 2G replaced the Fengyun 2E weather satellite at 105 degrees east longitude. Fengyun 2E, which had been launched in December 2008, was then placed at 86.5 degrees east longitude, replacing the Fengyun 2D satellite, launched in December 2006.

* OTHER SPACE NEWS: NASA's Kepler satellite, launched in 2009, has done an extraordinary job in hunting planets in other solar systems. The agency now plans to follow it up with the 2017 launch of the "Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS)", which will continue the hunt during its two-year mission.

TESS will be manufactured by Orbital Sciences, and will be based on the company's LEOStar 2 satellite bus. Its launch mass will be about 325 kilograms (717 pounds); it will carry a payload of four wide field-of-view 16.8 megapixel cameras, with 400 times field of view of Kepler. TESS will monitor 500,000 stars across the entire sky, watching for temporary dimming caused by the passage of a planet between the star and Earth.

TESS

TESS will be launched by a Falcon 9 v1.1 booster from Cape Canaveral, making it the second science spacecraft to be launched by the Falcon. It will be placed in a highly eccentric, high altitude Earth orbit, in a resonance with the Moon's orbit, ranging from 108,000 to 374,000 kilometers (67,000 to 232,000 miles) on a period of 13.7 days. Total mission cost is capped at $200 million USD.

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[WED 21 JAN 15] REBUILDING LONDON

* REBUILDING LONDON: As discussed by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("Bodies, Bombs, & Bureaucracy", 9 August 2014), much of central London is being torn down and rebuilt. Some 650,000 square meters (7 million square feet) of floorspace was added in 2014, the most since 2003, a rate of growth not exceeded by another city in Western Europe or North America. This despite the fact that construction in the central city is painfully expensive; even without considering the cost of land, a structure costs a fifth more than an equivalent in New York City or Hong Kong.

One reason is that London has so much history. Dud bombs dropped by the Luftwaffe still turn up surprisingly often, as do medieval bodies; work on one structure was held up by the discovery of thousands of Roman artifacts. Another complication is the city's underground networks, including the Tube system, as well as sewers, government tunnels, and historical oddities such as the Royal Mail network -- a subscale electric underground railroad used to shuttle mail between post offices, shut down in 2003, but slated to be opened as a tourist attraction in 2020.

Above ground, London's medieval street pattern also complicates construction, restricting access to building sites. Construction typically begins with a small crane, which lifts in vehicles and in turn erects a bigger tower crane. The cranes cannot operate from roads or overhang existing buildings, which explains why so many of the ones in London are elaborate, multi-jointed things; sometimes they're custom-made.

the Cheesgrater & Gherkin

And then, there's the bureaucracy. In Westminster, more than 75% of land is covered by 56 conservation areas protecting the historic appearances of streets, with zoning regulations right down to the color of paint on doors. Demolition of old structures has to be performed discreetly, behind facades, so as not to inconvenience activities in neighboring structures. Tall buildings cannot block specific views of various landmarks, which is why the City of London has such unusual skyscrapers. The Leadenhall Building, a wedge stood on end and known as "the Cheesegrater", was built that way to protect a view of St Paul's Cathedral from a pub in Fleet Street. Its design means that it does not have a central concrete core, as is typical of most skyscrapers; the floors are are held up by an innovative steel exoskeleton. The result means an exciting journey up the building's glass lifts, but it did add to cost.

Only a handful of construction firms have the specialized knowledge to bid on building projects in central London. Construction is thoroughly modeled on computers before things get rolling, with each day's work planned out in detail, and materials scheduled for delivery as they are needed. Since working on site is expensive, there's a bias towards prefabrication: about 85% of the Leadenhall Building was manufactured in the Midlands and Northern Ireland. These firms also understand how to deal with the politics, which would be tricky for outsiders who don't know the hidden traps in the system.

The end result is high rent for occupants; leasing office space in the West End is twice as expensive as in Madison Avenue in New York. The long lead times for construction mean that a structure being put up in a boom time may end up being opened in a slump. It's much cheaper and quicker to build in Birmingham and Manchester, or even in London suburbs such as Croydon. It doesn't matter: businesses are willing to pay the rents, as steep as they are. As much as people may curse it, London remains the central magnet of Britain.

ED: I would like to visit London, if just for the quirky skyscrapers, finding the 30 Saint Mary's Axe building AKA the "Gherkin" particularly amusing. Fans of the DOCTOR WHO show know that the big London Eye ferris wheel is really an alien communications antenna, and that the headquarters of the anti-alien UNIT force is in the deep sub-basement of the Tower of London -- the SHIELD-type UNIT helicarrier usually stays hidden in the clouds, with which Old Blighty is generously endowed. The Gherkin has got to be a DOCTOR WHO starship; it looks so much like one. The show hasn't got to that yet, but I would bet it will eventually.

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[TUE 20 JAN 15] NOT CLOSE TO ZERO

* NOT CLOSE TO ZERO: As reported by an article titled "Still On The Eve Of Destruction", from THE ECONOMIST's special forecast issue THE WORLD IN 2015, come this August, it will have been 70 years since the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. These were the first and last times the Bomb was used in anger -- though there was a close brush with disaster during the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, and a number of accidents and false alarms along the way.

Considering what could have gone catastrophically wrong in the decades-long nuclear standoff between the US and the USSR, it's encouraging nothing did. Even with the current tensions between the US and Russia, there's not much fear any longer of a massive nuclear exchange between them that could destroy civilization; the path has been towards arms-control deals between the two sides to ensure nuclear weapons aren't going to be used. However, frictions have been growing, and more significantly, the drift towards nuclear proliferation has enhanced the prospect of a small-scale nuclear exchange.

Such concerns are to be addressed in May, when the 189 signatories of the nuclear "Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT)" meet at United Nations headquarters in New York City for a review conference, the "RevCon" being held every five years. The NPT was established in 1968 to restrict nuclear weapons to the "P5", the five permanent members of the UN Security Council -- Britain, China, France, Russia, and the USA. The NPT was based on three principles: non-proliferation, peaceful use of nuclear power, and eventual nuclear disarmament by the P5. Unfortunately, although America and Russia have indeed greatly cut down their nuclear arsenals, arms control has stalled since the last (modest) agreement, the "New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START)", which was signed on the lead-up to the 2010 RevCon.

The P5 still has 10,000 warheads between them; India, Pakistan and Israel, all nuclear-weapons states, are non-signatories; North Korea left the NPT without much effective sanction after gaining nuclear-weapons technology. Others, particularly Iran, and in the past Libya, Iraq, and Syria, have stayed within the NPT, while working against it in spirit. In 2009, in a speech in Prague, US President Barack Obama denounced the prevailing spirit of complacency over nuclear arms control, calling for efforts to push towards "global zero" -- the complete elimination of nuclear weapons.

Obama's call was inspiring enough to win him the Nobel Peace Prize, but it wasn't enough to bring global zero into sight. The 2010 RevCon did have some accomplishments, which seemed encouraging because the 2005 RevCon was a bust. However, such momentum as was obtained in 2010 has largely faded out. Putin's belligerent Russia is not interested in further talks with America, while China has shrugged off calls for more transparency about its nuclear arsenal. In fact, all the P5 states are now modernizing their arsenals.

Signatories from the non-aligned movement (NAM) are also unhappy with matters. A pledge to hold a conference by 2012 on establishing the Middle East as a nuclear-weapons-free zone was not met; the region remaining in turmoil, it is clearly not going to happen before RevCon 2015, with little prospect of it happening later. A new initiative on the "humanitarian consequences" of nuclear weapons, in which they would be banned by international humanitarian law, is popular, being backed by players including Norway, Austria and Ireland, as well as the NAM -- but the P5 has been disinterested, while Russian saber-rattling has left most NATO countries under the US nuclear umbrella about as cold on the idea.

Vladimir Putin's meddling in Ukraine has been backed up by the Russian nuclear arsenal, which being modernized; Putin can't actually use his missiles, but they prevent outsiders from handing him an ultimatum. That much can be expected, but Putin's actions have more directly undermined the NPT. In 1994, under the "Budapest Memorandum", Britain, France, and Russia provided security guarantees to Ukraine, in exchange for Ukraine giving up the nuclear weapons it had inherited with the fall of the USSR. It's obvious that Putin would not feel so bold in stirring up trouble if the Ukraine still had its nukes.

The only good news for the NPT right now is that the efforts of the P5 + Germany to restrain Iran's nuclear program seem to be making progress, enough to lead to an extension of talks; Russia is not breaking ranks. An effective deal with Iran might provide a basis for reviving the NPT. Collapse of the talks might reset it to square one.

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[MON 19 JAN 15] DEMON SUGAR (2)

* DEMON SUGAR (2): The fear of fructose is driven by the concern that when a person consumes too much of it, their liver gets overwhelmed and converts some of the fructose into fat that ends up in their blood as small dense LDL cholesterol that lodges in blood vessels, causing atherosclerosis and, subsequently, heart attacks. This narrative is at the core of the documentary movie FED UP, which was introduced at Sundance in early 2014 and was widely viewed. Produced and narrated by Katie Couric, the film included interviews with more than 20 nutrition experts, basically a who's who of NEW YORK TIMES Magazine nutrition articles. Lustig is heavily cited in the movie.

It is true that when researchers have given animals enough pure fructose, their livers convert it to the saturated fatty acid palmitate, which increases LDL cholesterol levels in their blood, increasing their risk for heart attacks. Fat also accumulates in the liver itself, which results over time in insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome. Colorado State University biochemist Michael Pagliassotti observed these changes in as little as a week when animals were fed fructose or sucrose. When he stopped giving the animals sugar, their fatty livers and insulin resistance went away.

However, the animals were fed large amounts of fructose, proportionally much more than most humans could stand to eat. Fred Brouns, a professor of Health Food Innovation at Maastricht University in the Netherlands, claimed in a recent paper that the evidence against fructose was inconclusive:

BEGIN QUOTE:

Since the recent publications of Lustig and co-workers, in which it was suggested that fructose is toxic and should be 'treated as alcohol', the daily news all over the world highlighted fructose in sugar-sweetened beverages as a potential poison. ... The metabolic effects of fructose presented in ordinary human diets remain poorly investigated and highly controversial. ... One may rather aim at reducing the consumption of energy-dense foods.

END QUOTE

Brouns didn't say fructose should be given a free pass; he merely said the case against it was not remotely airtight. A recent review of many large meta-analysis studies did find that calories from sugar are all the same in terms of obesity outcomes. Bread, pasta, or pixie sticks, the researchers found that at least when it comes to carbs and weight, a calorie is a calorie -- and it doesn't make much difference if it's from fructose, or something else.

Dr. Barry Popkin, an influential nutritionist who did pioneering work on the effects of sugar, sounds a similar note of caution, admitting that we do eat far more sugar than did our ancestors -- but adds that we don't have a good handle on what that means:

BEGIN QUOTE:

We're in a whole new world of sugar consumption. It's not just beverages; it's in all the foods. And we don't really know what that means to our health. We know that we face an epidemic of things like fatty liver disease. Not just obesity, not just diabetes, but many other problems that could potentially be related to all the sugar. We think from some studies that fructose could be responsible, but we don't have slam-dunk evidence on any of it.

END QUOTE

Popkin does warn that efforts to downplay the hazards of sugar may be swayed by lobbying of the fizzy-drink industry. He isn't accused of being a "sugar industry shill" -- but Brouns has been, for making statements such as: "Fructose is not the enemy; the main cause of obesity is overall lifestyle and eating too much of everything."

While Brouns does have connections to industry, so do other prominent nutritional experts, and there is no honest evidence that he is on the take. He is certainly not restraining his judgements in response to criticisms, replying to studies that claim to show fructose is linked to various health hazards with:

BEGIN QUOTE:

The rates of shark attacks in Australia also increase with the rates of ice eating -- because when it is hot out, more people go swimming. There is also a correlation between gray hair and osteoporosis. When a person advocates radical change on the order of eliminating one of the three macronutrient groups from our diets, the burden of proof should be enormous.

END QUOTE

Brouns observes that HFCS is unlikely to be a particular driver of the obesity epidemic in the US "because obesity has grown just as quickly in countries that barely use HFCS. It is a misconception." For example, Coca-Cola in Mexico famously contains sucrose in place of HFCS. "Natural" sodas at places like Whole Foods advertise that they, too, have sucrose or fruit-juice concentrate instead of HFCS -- but Mexico has recently been competing with the USA for the claim to the most obese country in the world.

Popkin has recently been taking aim at the use of fruit-juice concentrate as a purportedly healthy natural sweetener: "Starting about six or seven years ago, we started seeing a huge spike in the amount of fruit-juice concentrate that was added to foods. Is that because people think it's (quote-unquote) natural?"

Popkin says fruit juices are as dodgy in potential as any other kind of sweetener. Trends in nutrient-based eating come and go. Yesterday agave was in, and today it's out; when it comes to food, defining what is "natural", and how much it buys us, remains questionable. Eliminating sugars from a diet can't constitute playing it safe, in that it means getting calories elsewhere. Too much fat is bad, too much protein is bad, and too much starch is bad. There is no doubt we could be having a healthier diet -- but we're not likely to get there by singling out any one part of it as a particular danger. [END OF SERIES]

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[FRI 16 JAN 15] THE COLD WAR (53)

* THE COLD WAR (53): While the Indochina crisis was being temporarily resolved, another crisis emerged in East Asia. In consequence of the American lifting of restraints on Nationalist Chinese actions by the US Seventh Fleet, in August 1954 Jiang sent troops to occupy Quemoy and Matsu (Jinmen and Mazu), two small islands at separate locations, directly off the coast of mainland China. During the Korean War, Mao Zedong had been forced to suspend operations against the Nationalists -- but now that the war was over, it was time to renew that struggle, if at the very least to energize the Chinese people for the repossession of Taiwan. The Chinese People's Liberation Army began taking pot-shots at the two islands, leading up to heavy bombardments from 3 September.

Eisenhower knew the two islands were entirely vulnerable and had little strategic value -- but Jiang didn't want to give them up, and once again the US ended up dancing to the tune of a second-string ally. On 12 September, there was a conference on the crisis in Denver, Colorado, with Secretary of State Dulles and the Joint Chiefs of Staff in attendance. Admiral Radford wanted the US to send troops to Quemoy and Matsu, and conduct a bombing campaign against the mainland, it seems with the nuclear option in mind. Eisenhower wasn't buying, saying as he had earlier in the summer that the only choice was between no war and all-out war: "If we get into a general war, the logical enemy will be Russia, and we'll have to strike there."

By late October 1954, the Chinese PLA seemed poised to capture the two islands. Radford and the JCS believed that would justify all-out war with China, a suggestion to which Eisenhower reacted with exasperation. The Seventh Fleet had a commitment to defend Taiwan; the USA had no obligation to get into a death struggle with China just to support Jiang's delusions of a war of liberation against the mainland. If America was to go to war with mainland China, Eisenhower explained, it would only be with congressional approval. The idea that two strategically irrelevant islands were worth such effort was preposterous.

The domestic pressure on Eisenhower to take action, unfortunately, didn't let up. Senator McCarthy was still around and active, willing to pillory the Eisenhower Administration for the least perceived sign of weakness. That suited Mao Zedong fine, since it gave him leverage in his demonstrations against the US. In November, the PLA expanded its bombardments to include other coastal islands held by the Nationalists.

In a particular provocation, on 23 November 1954, Radio Beijing announced that thirteen American "spies" had been tried and convicted, with sentences handed down ranging from four years to life. The Americans were outraged. The prisoners had fallen into Chinese hands late in the Korean War, when a US Air Force B-29 Superfortress and a "civilian", presumably CIA, C-47 Dakota transport had been shot down over Manchuria -- the B-29 allegedly having been on a "leaflet drop", suggesting it might have strayed over the North Korean border into China, the C-47 apparently having been inserting Nationalist Chinese agents. There were eleven survivors from the B-29 and two from C-47. There were also four American fighter pilots in Red Chinese custody.

Trying US military personnel who had been captured in uniform as "spies" infuriated the American public, even more so since the Korean armistice agreement had stipulated the return of all POWs. Eisenhower claimed he felt "the same anger, resentments, and frustration" as everyone else, but when the military brass called for use of force -- again! -- he counseled patience, and asked for the United Nations to get involved. UN Secretary General Dag Hammerskjoeld decided to take on the cause of the American aircrew, though he didn't concern himself with the two civilians, it seeming likely they really were spies.

Eisenhower, on his part, pushed through a mutual defense treaty with Taiwan, the treaty being signed on 2 December 1954 -- to go into effect the following March, with an American military command group setting up headquarters on Taiwan. The treaty committed the US to the defense of Taiwan and the Pescadore Islands, but it carefully did not mention Quemoy and Matsu. Jiang, on his part, was not allowed to attack the mainland without American consent; the treaty was aimed at Jiang as well as Mao.

The UN General Assembly also passed a resolution condemning Red China for trying the aircrew as spies and not treating them as prisoners of war. That complicated matters for Hammerskjoeld, but he sent a message to China anyway, seeking an audience with Zhou Enlai; Hammerskjoeld made no mention of the resolution, simply saying the UN had empowered him to act on the issue and that he had made it a personal mission. The request was granted. He flew into Beijing on the afternoon of 5 January 1955, spending most of his five days there in conversations with Zhou.

Hammerskjoeld insisted the airmen were not spies, Zhou was equally insistent that they were -- but suggested that China might show "leniency" if the Americans toned down the rhetoric. Hammerskjoeld came back to New York to counsel restraint; unfortunately, the US government and the American public were not feeling restrained, in good part because on 10 January, the PLA had attacked the Tachen Islands, other offshore territories held by the Nationalists.

Eisenhower was finally forced to make a decision, of sorts, choosing to abandon the Tachens while remaining entirely vague about Quemoy and Matsu. To that end, he chose to push a resolution through Congress that would allow the administration to take military action in defense of Taiwan, the Pescadores, and "such other territories as may be determined." By adding that rider, Eisenhower was effectively asking Congress for a blank check, allowing him to take action in the crisis strictly at his own discretion. He sent the "Formosa Resolution" to Congress on 24 January, with the House promptly voting for it, the Senate doing so as well a few days later. The votes were very one-sided, demonstrating Eisenhower's astounding credibility; it is hard to believe Truman would have ever been able to obtain such a level support.

The trust was deserved, since it was not Eisenhower's intent to take drastic action; he simply wanted to make it clear to the world that his options were open. John Foster Dulles suggested to Eisenhower that the US drop a handful of nuclear bombs on the Chinese mainland; Eisenhower bluntly told Dulles not to make such a suggestion again. The Tachen Islands were duly evacuated by the US Navy from February 7 to February 11, a fleet of ships hauling off tens of thousands of civilians and Nationalist troops, as well as large quantities of supplies.

The PLA moved into the islands three days later; no doubt, all that hadn't been removed had been destroyed. The Nationalists had cut their losses, while the Red Chinese had gained little, and lost an opportunity to make more trouble. That still left the issue of Quemoy and Matsu. In March, to determine more specifically what to do next, the president sent Army Colonel Andrew Goodpaster -- his staff secretary and most trusted military advisor -- to the Pacific to discuss the situation with the US military command there. [TO BE CONTINUED]

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[THU 15 JAN 15] SCIENCE NOTES

* SCIENCE NOTES: As reported by a note from AAAS SCIENCE Online ("Ancient Bird Had Wingspan Longer Than A Stretch Limousine" by Sid Perkins, 7 July 2014), when work was being done in 1983 on a new terminal building for the Charleston International Airport in South Carolina, work crews uncovered the fossilized remains of a bird, dated from about 28 to 25 million years old. The fossil included most of a skull, plus parts of a wing and a leg.

The remains ended up in the Charleston Museum, to then be inspected by Daniel Ksepka, who at the time was at the North Carolina State University in Raleigh, now at the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, Connecticut. Ksepka has now reported on the find, extrapolating from more complete remains of relatives of this species that it had a wingspan of at least 6.4 meters (21 feet), giving it the widest wingspan of any bird ever found. Ksepka estimates its weight as in the range of 22 to 40 kilograms (48 to 88 pounds).

The new species, named Pelagornis sandersi, is a member of the genus Pelagornis -- "bird of the open sea" in ancient Greek. Pelagornithids were much like the modern albatross, soaring all over the seas, being at least as big as an albatross, twice as big in terms of span with P. sandersi. It was once judged that pelagornithids actually were related to albatrosses and pelicans, but more recent studies hint that the group is more closely related to ducks, geese, and swans.

Ksepka suggests that the "super-albatross", as it has been somewhat dubiously nicknamed, had a glide ratio of 22 -- that is, in still air it dropped one meter for every 22 meters of forward flight, as good or better than the best modern soaring birds. The pelagornithids thrived for 55 million years, only dying out about 3 million years ago. Why did they die out? Climate change or a shift in the oceanic ecology? Who knows?

* As discussed by a note from SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN ("Plastic On Ice" by Rachel Nuwer, September 2014), it is well-know that the oceans are loaded with plastic, mostly broken down into bits of "microplastic" a few millimeters in size, with the microplastic concentrated in certain "patches" of ocean by currents. Research by Rachel Obbard, a materials scientist and engineer from Dartmouth College, and her colleagues has now shown that Arctic sea ice has concentrations of up to 240 microplastic particles per cubic meter, this being about three orders of magnitude greater than the dense concentrations of the sea.

The research team was actually inspecting ice cores for algae concentrations, and stumbled across the microplastic. Why the high concentrations of particles? Obviously, when sea ice freezes, it traps whatever's in the water; it seems that this process ends up suspending microparticles that would otherwise sink to the seafloor, leading to accumulation.

* As discussed by a note from AAAS SCIENCE Online ("There Are Only Four Types Of Cities" by John Bohannon, 7 October 2014), a team of mathematicians ran city maps through a network analysis program, and discovered that city layouts occurred in four different patterns:

Boston's famously confusing streets, following pattern 2, are more like a European city's than that of a typical gridlike American city. Some big cities are composites, the five boroughs of New York City being less like each other than they are like cities elsewhere: Manhattan's street layout is perfectly orderly, while Staten Island is like walking the streets of As-Suwayda, Syria.

ED: I found this interesting because the one time I went to Boston, I indeed found it easy to get lost walking around downtown. At the other side of the spectrum, Salt Lake City is orderly almost to a fault: a neatly rectangular grid, the streets known generally only by number, for example "58th North by 22nd East". Of course, Washington DC is a neat grid, but has the notoriously confounding factor of the set of radial streets emanating from its center overlaid on it. It was laid out by a French designer named Pierre Charles de l'Enfant; It is said this was done to permit rapid movement of troops from one sector of the city to another.

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[WED 14 JAN 15] TEDAC DOES BOMBS

* TEDAC DOES BOMBS: It can be hard to imagine all the possible things that people can do for a living. BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK likes to examine some of the more unusual lines of work, with an article from the 30 June issue ("Inside the FBI's Giant Bomb Warehouse" by Del Quentin Wilber, 26 June 2014) looking over the US Federal Bureau of Investigation's (FBI) "Terrorist Explosive Device Analytical Center (TEDAC)" -- a component of the FBI's labs at Quantico, Virginia, with TEDAC having a headcount of about 700.

At TEDAC, bomb analyst Ruel Espinosa inspects the remains of "improvised explosive devices (IEDs)" used against American servicemen in Afghanistan and Iraq. IEDs are pieced together from a wide range of available materials: radios, cell phones, car tires, sandals, circuit boards, burlap sacks, egg timers, wristwatches, and kitchen utensils. Espinosa says: "They are industrious -- they make bombs out of everything."

TEDAC was set up in 2003, primarily to support the military; the center has now been examining IEDs for over a decade. TEDAC often ends up analyzing fragments left over from an IED that was detonated -- but they also receive them intact, if of course rendered inert before shipment. The specimens are examined for evidence, such as fingerprints, fibers, and hairs; impressions of tool marks are taken, to be fed into a computer that creates 3D images and checks them against a database for similarities to other bombs. Electronic components are inspected to determine how the IED works. When the examination is completed, the materials are catalogued and shelved in a huge warehouse -- the world's biggest such repository, crammed full of boxes.

Analysts have lifted at least 6,000 fingerprints from IEDs, helping American authorities identify more than 1,700 people with terrorist ties, according to the FBI. The lab's experts have published thousands of intelligence reports detailing the latest bombmaking trends, which warfighters have used to keep up with enemy tactics. Despite the fact that government agencies are noted for infighting, TEDAC's activities tend more towards the cooperative: although the facility is run by the FBI, analysts from the US Department of Defense as well as the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives also work there, while TEDAC shares its findings with the National Security Agency, the CIA, and other agencies.

In 2015, TEDAC will move from its current hodgepodge of facilities at Quantico to a new $132 million USD facility in Huntsville, Alabama. Although the withdrawal of American forces from Iraq and Afghanistan means that TEDAC's headcount will decline, the center will remain busy examining improvised bombs from all over the world. In 2014, TEDAC's analyzed dozens of bombs recovered in Pakistan, Somalia, the Philippines, and other terrorist hot spots. Its forensic team aided the investigation into the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. More than 1,200 pieces of evidence from that attack are being studied behind a locked door labeled "Boston Bombing."

The bombs arrive at the lab's processing center in large boxes, filled with dozens of smaller containers inside that hold parts of the IEDs. Each box is assigned a priority code that determines how quickly it must be analyzed, usually based on whether the device killed or injured American troops; analysts sometimes find bits of bone or uniform amid the debris. Boxes tagged "red" have to be examined immediately; "amber" components are to be scrutinized within a month; "green" ones should be finished within 120 days.

The lab's reports are circulated to military and intelligence agencies so they can improve countermeasures. Other reports focus on the identity of bombers and bombmakers. TEDAC has linked as many as 44 devices to a single bomber; lab officials say the lab developed nine biometric signatures from a large bomb planted in 2013 in Afghanistan by the Haqqani Network, a terror group that has staged attacks against Western targets.

The lab has also aided criminal prosecutions in US and foreign courts. In February 2014, an Afghan linked by TEDAC to 39 IEDs -- including one that killed a US marine and wounded three others in 2011 -- was sentenced to 25 years in an Afghan prison. TEDAC's archive of IEDs represents a gold mine for counter-terrorist operations, one TEDAC supervisor saying: "This is a library of modern IED warfare."

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[TUE 13 JAN 15] COMPETITIVE RENEWABLES?

* COMPETITIVE RENEWABLES? As reported by an article from THE NEW YORK TIMES ("Solar and Wind Energy Start to Win on Price Versus Conventional Fuels" by Diane Cardwell, 23 November 2014), one of the traditional weaknesses of renewable energy has been its high price; except for cases such as hydropower, it hasn't been competitive with fossil fuel power sources. Renewable energy advocates have replied that renewables are not as expensive as they seem, if all factors such as health and environmental costs are considered. However, it would be all for the good if renewables seemed competitive, even without such accounting exercises.

The price of renewables has been dropping for decades, and now it seems to be reaching a tipping point: in some markets, renewable power is cheaper than coal or natural gas. Utility executives say the trend accelerated in 2014, with a number of companies signing contracts, known as "power purchase agreements", for solar or wind at prices below that of natural gas. Renewables are doing particularly well in the Great Plains and Southwest, where there's plenty of wind and sunlight.

True, those low prices are still dependent on subsidies that may soon fade or vanish completely, but analyses show that renewables are ever more competitive with traditional energy sources. Utilities are increasingly enthusiastic as well. In Oklahoma, American Electric Power ended up tripling the amount of wind power it had originally wanted after seeing in 2013 how low the bids were -- Oklahoma, incidentally, does not mandate that utilities buy renewable power. According to Jay Godfrey, managing director of renewable energy for the company: "Wind was on sale -- it was a Blue Light Special. We were doing it because it made sense for our ratepayers."

Investment banking firm Lazard estimates that the cost of utility-scale solar energy is as low as 5.6 cents a kilowatt-hour (KWH), while wind is as low as 1.4 cents. In comparison, natural gas comes at 6.1 cents a KWH on the low end, and coal at 6.6 cents. Without subsidies, the firm's analysis shows, solar costs about 7.2 cents a KWH the low end, with wind at 3.7 cents.

According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, the main trade group, the price of electricity sold to utilities under long-term contracts from large-scale solar projects has fallen by more than 70% since 2008, particularly in the Southwest. The average price to install standard utility-scale projects dropped by more than a third since 2009. Prices are similarly dropping for solar installations in homes and small businesses.

The wind industry is also on the falling cost curve. Especially in the interior region of the USA, , from North Dakota down to Texas, where wind energy is particularly strong, utilities were able to lock in long contracts at 2.1 cents a KWH -- less than half of what it was five years ago.

Renewables have the obvious limitation that they work intermittently -- the Sun goes down or is hidden in clouds, the wind dies off. However, conventional power sources obviously generate emissions, with governments likely to impose restrictions, and are dependent on fuel supplies where long-range pricing fluctuates, sometimes dramatically. Nobody in the utilities industries sees renewables as replacing conventional sources; the two are complementary, renewables reducing the load on conventional sources. The traditional difficulty was that renewables were more expensive, but now they are approaching break-even.

The subsidies are something of an embarrassment, suggesting that renewables only survive on government life-support; pointing out, correctly, that conventional energy sources also benefit from substantial subsidies gives an appearance of defensiveness. Solar energy firm management doesn't want subsidies to go away just yet, lobbying to extend a 30% Federal tax credit that will fall to 10% by the end of 2016. Wind power companies would like to see renewal of a production tax credit that Congress has allowed to lapse and then revived several times over the last few decades.

Senator Ron Wyden (DEM-OR), on the Finance Committee, held a hearing in September 2014 over the issue, hoping to develop an even-handed tax system for all forms of energy. The Republicans will take over the Senate during 2015, lending some uncertainty to this exercise -- but as long as subsidies and the argument over them persists, nobody could sensibly object against establishing a level playing field on the matter.

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[MON 12 JAN 15] DEMON SUGAR (1)

* DEMON SUGAR (1): Dietary fads come and go; as discussed by an article from THE ATLANTIC ("Being Happy With Sugar" by James Hamblin, 5 June 2014), the current dietary bogeyman is sugar, being denounced as "toxic", with claims for the superiority of "natural" sweeteners like agave nectar or fruit juice. For example, take Dr. Mehmet Oz, a cardiac surgeon and professor at Columbia University, who runs a popular daytime TV show as "Doctor Oz". For almost a decade, Doctor Oz had proclaimed table sugar as unhealthy, to promote agave nectar in its place. As he told daytime TV queen Oprah Winfrey, who placed him on the media map, in 2004:

BEGIN QUOTE:

Agave is a natural sugar, but it's really, really powerful. It's very sweet to the palate." It's actually a natural product, it's really, really sweet. You just put a little bit in your tea or whatever you're eating, so you don't get many calories.

END QUOTE

Agave has about 60 calories per tablespoon, compared to 48 calories for the same amount of table sugar, though less agave is required to deliver the same sweetness. Doctor Oz believed agave nectar an excellent substitute for high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), the most widely used and -- not coincidentally -- most widely demonized sweetener, accused of causing obesity and damaging liver function. Now cut to early 2014:

BEGIN QUOTE:

After careful consideration of the available research, today I'm asking you to eliminate agave from your kitchen and your diet. It turns out that although agave doesn't contain a lot of glucose, it contains more fructose than any other common sweetener, including high-fructose corn syrup.

END QUOTE

Other health-media giants were also turning against agave nectar. People are certainly entitled to change their minds in view of new facts, but the high fructose content of agave nectar had been known all along. Along with that fact was the reality that nobody is at all certain there's anything honestly wrong with fructose.

Doctor Oz and others championed agave not just because it seemed to be "natural", but because it has a low "glycemic index", meaning it increases your blood-glucose levels more slowly than other types of sugars. The glycemic index, introduced by Dr. David Jenkins at the University of Toronto in the 1980s, categorizes carbohydrates based on their impact on our blood-glucose levels and insulin release after eating a particular carb, with less impact long seen to be a virtue.

The glycemic index is a very rough indicator of a food's quality -- for example, carrots have a high glycemic index, and lard has a glycemic index of zero. In this particular case, the difficulty with relying on the glycemic index is that demon fructose has the lowest glycemic index of any sugar.

The facts get even murkier with a closer look at HFCS. It has been used commercially since the 1960s; its name is misleading, because it is "high fructose" only compared to older corn syrup. It actually has about the proportion of fructose as does table sugar: 55% for HFCS, 50% for table sugar. The agave plant's syrup has a higher proportion of fructose over glucose, given as in the range of 65% to 90%.

Agave nectar has become another casualty of the anti-fructose crusade. The war cry of that campaign was issued by Dr. Robert Lustig, a professor of pediatrics at the University of California in San Francisco, whose 90-minute anti-fructose 2009 lecture -- using terms like "toxic" and "poison" 13 times -- went viral, with millions of view on YouTube to date. In reference to Lustig's claims of the toxicity of fructose, well-known medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta asked him: "Do you ever worry that just sounds a little bit over the top?"

Lustig replied: "Sure, all the time. But it's the truth." However, in matters of nutrition and health in general, it is often very difficult to establish a connection between any single factor and its effect on health; not all of Lustig's colleagues are convinced he has done so. [TO BE CONTINUED]

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[FRI 09 JAN 15] THE COLD WAR (52)

* THE COLD WAR (52): The scare over Chinese intervention in the Indochina conflict blew over quickly. In the face of President Eisenhower's refusal to bail France out of the quagmire, the French were finally accepting reality. In June, Pierre Mendes France had become the French prime minister, with an agenda to end the war. Great power discussions on Korea and Indochina had been taking place in Geneva since April, with the "Geneva Accords" signed on 21 July. Ironically, although the talks on Korea had been focused on reunification of the country, that didn't happen, while the talks established the division of Indochina into Cambodia, Laos, and a Vietnam divided between north and south at the 17th Parallel.

North Vietnam was controlled by Ho Chi Minh and the Viet Minh; South Vietnam was controlled by the Emperor Bao Dai. With the signing of the accord, the French began a phased withdrawal from the region, while there were migrations north and south in Vietnam of people seeking the regime they preferred. The US and France assisted in the relocation of people south. Elections were supposed to be held in 1956 to re-unify the two Vietnams -- but neither the US nor South Vietnam actually signed the accord. The Viet Minh only agreed to the accord because they believed they would win, but the vote would never take place. The accord was so vaguely worded and carried so little weight that it amounted to nothing but a pause in the fighting.

Within a year, Bao Dai would be pushed aside by his prime minister, Ngo Dinh Diem, in a blatantly rigged election, with Bao Dai going off into exile. South Vietnam formally became the "Republic of Vietnam", with American backing, in contrast to Ho Chi Minh's "Democratic Republic of Vietnam", with Chinese backing. Neither state was remotely democratic, and the lull in the fighting would be short-lived. All Eisenhower had accomplished was to stall for time; given the inability to achieve anything better, there was good sense in doing what could be done, and hope that those who came later would figure out how to untie the knot.

Eisenhower hoped that SEATO would maintain the status quo, the organization being created by the signing of the "Manila Pact" in September 1954, and going into operation in February 1955 -- its members including Australia, Britain, France, New Zealand, Pakistan, the Philippines, Thailand, and the USA. SEATO officially extended protection over Laos, Cambodia, and South Vietnam, but the organization would prove ineffectual, its members feeling little commitment to collective action; it would never be another NATO.

The American push to align the "Free World", as it was known, against the Communist Bloc would always be a task along the lines of herding cats. All the players had their own agendas and they, sensibly, cooperated with the USA to the extent it served their own interests to do so. If the superpowers were inclined to meddle in the affairs of smaller nations, it was inevitable that the smaller nations would be inclined to manipulate them in return.

The small states hardly had a choice but to do so, being perfectly aware that the giants could well step on them. In June 1954, a CIA-backed coup had toppled Left-leaning Guatemalan President Jacobo Arbenz, with Arbenz fleeing into exile. For the next four decades, Guatemala would be run by Right-wing dictatorships. As with the Iranian coup a year earlier, Eisenhower was careful to make sure no paper trail led back to him.

The French did not forget that the Americans had refused to back them up in Vietnam. Eisenhower had been pushing for a "European Defense Community (EDC)", which amounted to a multinational force for the defense of Europe. It had been originally proposed by the French, partly as a scheme by which West Germany would re-militarize, but with German forces kept under collective control. Eisenhower found the French turnaround on EDC merely an act of spite, in defiance of their own interests -- and warned that if France sank the EDC, the Americans would push for the re-armament of West Germany anyway. The French Assembly voted to reject the EDC on 30 August 1954, with Mendes France also then quietly stepping up work on a French nuclear weapon.

Eisenhower was unhappy with the French, but he could only shrug and give American blessing to West German re-militarization. West Germany would become a full NATO partner in May of the following year, the military occupation of the country formally ending at that time, though foreign troops would remain on the soil as NATO commitments. The French endorsed German re-armament and membership in NATO, no doubt with some reservations; the Soviets certainly didn't like the idea -- all the more so because there was absolutely nothing they could do about it. [TO BE CONTINUED]

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[THU 08 JAN 15] GIMMICKS & GADGETS

* GIMMICKS & GADGETS: 3D printing for the home hasn't been able to generate much but toys yet; a startup firm named Ingocraft has accepted that reality, and is pushing a 3D-printed construction set for small kids via Kickstarter. The elements of the kit, known as "Ingos", are easy to put together, with Ingocraft offering an app to allow a project to be virtually designed, and then assembled. Missing a part? Print one out. Given the expense of home printing these days, the parts are likely to be spendy, but prices should come down -- and one can imagine a community that defines its own custom parts for the system.

There's always an element of "vaporware" to Kickstarter efforts, but if counting chickens before they're hatched is a problem, one can now buy the "Thymio II" educational robot -- from the Ecole Polytechnique Federale Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland -- for $100 USD. It's a little flat box with wheels on each side in the rear and a rollerball under the front, crammed with sensors, actuators, and indicator LEDs. It also has a trailer hook, a slot for a flash card, and "mechanic fixation" points for mounting Lego blocks.

Thymio II

To program a Thymio II, young roboticists can use a graphical interface, or a simple programming language called "Aseba". The Thymio II is cheap because it's a nonprofit effort; it's also open-source, for both hardware and software.

* As discussed by a note from THE ECONOMIST Manu Prakash, a bio-engineer at Stanford University, has reinvented the microscope -- by making it out of paper. His "Foldscope" does include a lens, an LED, a battery, a switch, and some circuit elements bonded onto the paper, but the full assembly costs less than a dollar, and can magnify by 2,100 times. A cheaper version, costing less than 60 cents, can magnify by 400 times.

The paper subassemblies of the Foldscope, which will be coated with polymer in production units, are color-coded and marked with perforations to guide assembly and use. It can accommodate standard microscope slides, and with a more powerful LED can project an image onto a screen. Prakash primarily intends the Foldscope for diagnosis of tropical diseases, but he sees it as having substantial educational value as well.

* Also as discussed by THE ECONOMIST, one of the keys to renewable energy has been energy storage, to allow irregular sources of energy such as solar and wind to deliver power on demand. One option is to store energy as heat, with a UK startup named Isentropic now pushing a "pump heat energy storage (PHES)" system.

PHES involves a heat pump system, driving argon as a working fluid through pipes laced through dual silos filled with gravel. When external energy is available, it drives a compressor to squeeze the argon, heating it up. The argon is pumped through one silo to transfer heat into it; the gas is then allowed to expand as it goes into the second silo, cooling it. When the PHES has to deliver energy, hot argon from the first silo passes back through the pump, now being used as a generator, into the second silo. Isentropic officials estimate the storage efficiency of the scheme as about 75%, comparable to other large-scale energy storage systems, and believes it can be scaled down for household use.

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[WED 07 JAN 15] SNOWFIGHTERS

* SNOWFIGHTERS: In an era of galloping suspicion of government, it is easy to miss that much of government is just attending to mundane necessities of life; the work is taken for granted, unless somebody drops the ball. For example, as discussed by an article from WIRED Online blogs, ("How Colorado Keeps 9,000 Miles of Highway Clear of Snow" by Jordan Golson, 19 December 2014), just think of how much effort the state of Colorado takes to keep the highways open during the winter.

Colorado is bisected by an impressive complex of mountains running up its center; some of the mountain passes get enough snow in the winter season to bury a house. Drivers are required to have tire chains, and put them on when told to. Loveland Pass, at 3,655 meters (11,990 feet) and with a steep 6.7% grade, is kept open all winter for trucks hauling hazardous materials that can't go through the famous Eisenhower Tunnel. To keep the roads open, the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) has to work with state and Federal agencies, keep close watch on the weather in the region, shuttle employees where needed, and maintain a complicated data matrix.

The effort starts with the National Weather Service (NWS), which has a number of forecasting offices around the state. CDOT, responsible for more than 14,500 kilometers (9,000 miles) of roads, gets daily briefings from the NWS concerning weather systems brewing off the Pacific Coast that could impact Colorado more than 72 hours out. As storms approach, the Colorado Avalanche Information Center provides short-range forecasts.

As a storm becomes threatening, CDOT holds briefings every 12 hours. All affected agencies are invited, including the state patrol, county-level Office of Emergency Management personnel, and sheriff's departments. As the storm closes in, supervisors of Colorado's eight "maintenance sections", each with 100:220 employees, begin figuring staffing levels; the status of equipment, such as plow trucks and front-end loaders; and stockpiles of "product" such as salt, sand, and magnesium chloride. CDOT's target is to have 80% readiness on both people and equipment; product, of course, has to planned well in advance, with large enough supplies to get through the winter. If it runs out during a storm, no more can be obtained until the storm's over.

In the day before the snow hits, CDOT obtains data from traffic management company Iteris, plugging it into the CDOT "Maintenance Decision Support System (MDSS)" -- a computer system that links plow trucks, supervisors, and statewide CDOT managers with localized estimates on factors such as pavement temperature and snowfall rates.

The first step in response is to apply product, usually magnesium chloride -- a liquid de-icer that lowers the freezing point of a roadway by about 5 degrees Celsius (10 degrees Fahrenheit). CDOT prefers it over salt, which not only washes into streams, becoming a pollutant, but is hard on vehicles; and over sand, which can become a nasty local air pollutant, and can also be hard on vehicles. A mix of sand and salt still has to be used on critical mountain passes. Up to third of dry product can be lost to "bounce" off the roadway, so the more modern plow trucks have saddle tanks to wet the dry product down with magnesium chloride; the long-term plan is to make sure all the trucks have saddle tanks,

CDOT's performance measure is "time to bare pavement" from end of snowfall. There are ten categories of roadway -- including interstate, US highway, state highway, and mountain passes -- graded by traffic volume. Interstates are the highest priority, CDOT trying to keep them clear at all times. A less-traveled state highway might have a four-hour back-to-pavement goal.

The floods that hit Colorado in the fall of 2013 presented CDOT with the prospect of snowfalls that could overwhelm the system. In consequence, CDOT has developed contingency plans to shift workers and equipment to where they're most needed. For example, in a major storm, workers and equipment from the eastern plains, where there is less snow, might get moved to the vital I-70 highway corridor, climbing into the mountains west of Denver.

when the going gets tough

When the storm starts, plow drivers go on grueling 12 hour shifts, some being told to go home and get some sleep so they can take the next shift. Mechanics are on call at all times, attending to breakdowns as they happen. Communications are vital to keeping the effort going: drivers stay in touch with each other over radio, while dispatch centers issue updates through the statewide traffic information system; text alerts; a road conditions website; and mobile apps. A central traffic operations center keeps the media informed as to road conditions and closures. Law enforcement draws on protocols and experience to determine when roads need to be closed, or when to call for chains. Some of the plow drivers are very experienced, familiar with the roads they are plowing, and what it's like to drive them when the weather's bad.

Once the storm is over and the roads are open, CDOT goes out with front-end loaders and dump trucks to clear away snow that was piled up on the side of the road. The supervisors, plow drivers, and mechanics can then get some rest -- unless another storm is bearing down on Colorado.

CDOT thinks the system could be greatly improved: the data network is unsophisticated, still requiring a lot of fiddling, and more data would be very welcome. Once wireless links become common in cars, they'll be able to report over the wireless network such factors as activation of windshield wipers, or stability problems due to slick roads.

For the present, although CDOT uses the same dispatch centers as the state patrol, communications with law enforcement leave something to be desired. CDOT is working to set up emergency operation centers (EOC) in each region, as well as a main EOC in Denver, which can all communicate with each other and with other state and local EOCs. It's nothing really sophisticated, it's just having the organization to get the job done. It's not an easy job, and any smarts that can be added are all for the good in making it easier.

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[TUE 06 JAN 15] SECOND-GUESSED / GOOD VIBRATIONS

* SECOND-GUESSED: A note from THE ECONOMIST special forecast issue THE WORLD IN 2015 ("When Smart Becomes Spooky" by Tom Standage), discussed the emergence of "anticipatory computing", citing several real-world examples:

The best-known implementation of anticipatory computing, AKA "predictive intelligence", is "Google Now", introduced in 2012:

Apple and Microsoft are also working on anticipatory computing systems, as are scores of startups. Not too surprisingly, it doesn't always work well -- but when it does, users get this impression the phone is a mind-reader. Some find it creepy.

Future anticipatory systems will work better. Right now, they draw on sources such as browsing history, email, appointment calendar, but obviously there are far more sources they can mine -- for example, tracking weather conditions at a favorite beach; or providing unprompted alerts when some new product comes out, along with where best to buy it. They will fit into the "network of things", obtaining data from fitness bands or smart thermostats, and they will be able to track conversations, anticipating what information will be most helpful. On the other side of that coin, anticipatory computing will find its way into smart appliances and smart TVs.

It is also obvious that anticipatory computing will have applications in legal or medical practice and business in general, helpfully providing documents as they are needed. More annoyingly, advertisers are excited about the potential -- envision a phone saying: "I bet you'd like a coffee right about now."

That underlines the quandary of 21st-century information technology: that we want to make use of all the information we can, while simultaneously worrying about its misuse by other parties. To an extent, we'll collectively figure out rules for where to draw the line, but we'll also just to get used to it. Having a smartphone second-guessing us, and doing a good job of it, will also take some getting used to, all the more so because many people are not happy to find out they are more predictable than they believed they were. One of the keys to anticipatory software, then, is discretion -- the ability to spontaneously identify just how much anticipation a user really wants.

* GOOD VIBRATIONS: In a related note from WIRED Online blogs "Soon Your Tech Will Talk to You Through Your Skin" by Clive Thompson, 22 December 2014, an app named "Mumble!" has taken advantage of the vibrate alert of a smartphone to actually hand messages to the user: it plays a text message as a sequence of vibrations, syllable by syllable, using higher-intensity vibrations when a message has exclamation points or capitalizations. It sounds dubious, but users claim that in a few weeks of use, they learn to recognize texts from particular users by their vibration patterns.

It turns out there's a lot of interest in such "haptics" technologies these days, such as seats in "smart cars" that vibrate at different locations to indicate, for example, some other car in the blind spot. Apple's new smartwatch can generate taps of different intensity to the wrist to communicate everything from a new message to GPS directions.

Studies have shown that users quickly catch on to haptic messages. Google wearables designer Seungyon Claire Lee has tested "BuzzWear", a wristband that vibrates three small buzzers in 24 different patterns; after 40 minutes of training, her subjects were able to distinguish among them with 99% accuracy. Other studies show that users are able to remember the patterns for an extended period of time. Simple buzzer patterns are likely to give way to more sophisticated interfaces; Lee envisions, a bit fancifully, conductive threads, capable of providing tiny electric sparks, woven into clothing that could provide detailed images. Such technology has obviously potential for helping the blind, but it seems likely to have wider application.

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[MON 05 JAN 14] DIMINISHING RETURNS (2)

* DMINISHING RETURNS (2): It is true that quality of governance and introduction of market reforms has accounted for the better economic performance of some developing countries than others. However, those weren't the only factors. In the 2000s, interest rates were low and capital was easy to scrape up; another element was rapid growth in commodity prices, since many emerging economies rely heavily on natural resource exports. However, the biggest single factor, linked to the commodity-price boom, was global trade. From 1980 to 1993, global trade grew at about 4.7% per year on average, or a bit more than the 3% rate of global growth -- but between 1994 and 2007, trade grew at almost twice the rate of the world economy. Goods export soared to about a quarter of global GDP.

Most of the growth was due to China, with China's trade becoming not only essential to its own economy, but that of the rest of the world as well -- a phenomenon dubbed "hyperglobalization". The only earlier economy that had boomed in such a way was 19th-century Britain's.

There were two major factors in the modern boom. Work on trade liberalization led to the establishment of the World Trade Organization in 1995, with China joining its ranks in 2001. At the same time, technological improvements made possible longer and more complex supply chains. By the 1990s, container shipping had made transporting goods around the world easier and cheaper than ever before. New ports needed to add trade capacity were built quickly and easily. Better communications, and the development of computer-based design technologies that allowed the precise specifications of components to be easily sent from place to place and to be changed at will, meant that the range of things to be shipped increased. Cheaper and easier international trade allowed supply chains that had been segregated within countries and regions to expand across the globe.

Technology transfer was greatly simplified. While Japan and South Korea had needed to build industrial and technological capabilities from the ground up, more recent entrants needed little more than a supply of cheap labor, plus the regulations and infrastructure required to move products quickly in and out of factory towns.

Now Chinese growth has dropped from a peak of above 14% in 2007 to just over 7% now, with a knock-down effect on commodity prices. Capital flows have become more erratic over the past year as rich-world central banks have reduced their interventions in the economy. Trade, which tumbled in the global financial crisis, briefly roared back in 2010, but in recent years has barely kept pace with output growth.

The boom was, in some ways, superficial. It was easy to import know-how; not so easy to develop robust infrastructure, and expertise in fields such as design and marketing. China and some other emerging markets used the intoxicating catch-up years to develop underlying technological and managerial capabilities and invest in infrastructure. Others made less progress.

Another issue is that manufacturing, once the foundation of economic growth, is less significant than it used to be, there having been a shift from "goods" to "services". Intense competition in global manufacturing has pushed down profit margins, while automation has reduced the number of workers in the manufacturing sector. No matter how much an emerging economy develops manufacturing, it will not be able in that way to catch up with the rich world.

Coupled to this are dwindling efforts in economic reform in places such as India and China. Countries where reform was minimal in the first place -- being overshadowed by weak infrastructure, corrupt government, and social insecurity -- were at the tail end of the boom, and have stagnated the most as it comes to its end. In a tough global economic climate, there is also a greater push towards trade protectionism that adds further drag to economic development.

There is still work on global trade liberalization, including simplification of trade regulations and breaking down barriers to international trade in services -- but for the moment, such efforts are stalled. Investment in poor countries is also sluggish for the time being. There doesn't seem to be any immediate prospect of a return to the boom years; gains, from now on, will be dependent on wise policies and hard work. [END OF SERIES]

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[FRI 02 JAN 15] THE COLD WAR (51)

* THE COLD WAR (51): With the end game at Dien Bien Phu, the French started to push a rumor that the Chinese were going to intervene. Secretary of State Dulles told President Eisenhower that Chinese intervention would be a "declaration of war" against the United States; Eisenhower then trumped him by declaring that if America went to war with China, there would be no "halfway measures" or "frittering around", that the US would go in "full power", and be prepared to take on the USSR as well.

That was far more than Dulles could easily swallow, which was exactly Eisenhower's point. The president consequently told hawkish Admiral Arthur Radford, chairman of the JCS, that if the US took on China, Russia would be targeted as well, and that the admiral needed to consider the implications:

BEGIN QUOTE:

I want you to carry this question home with you. Gain such a victory, and what do you do with it? Here would be a great area from the Elbe to Vladivostok ... torn up and destroyed, without government, without its communications, just an area of starvation and disaster. I ask you what would the civilized world do about it? I repeat, there is no victory except through our imaginations.

END QUOTE

What Eisenhower was emphasizing was that, even if the US could win such a war, it would amount to nothing but a staggering crime against humanity, and leave the US with a staggering mess to clean up. The loose talk about an expanded, greatly expanded, war came to the attention of the news media. On 11 August 1954, Eisenhower held a press conference, and made his thoughts on the matter clear:

BEGIN QUOTE:

All of us have heard this term "preventive war" since the earliest days of Hitler. I recall that is about the first time I heard it. In this day and time, if we believe for one second that nuclear fission and fusion, that type of weapon, would be used in such a war -- what is a preventive war? I would say a preventive war, if the words mean anything, is to wage some sort of quick police action in order that you might avoid a terrific cataclysm of destruction later.

A preventive war, to my mind, is an impossibility today. How could you have one if one of its features would be several cities lying in ruins, several cities where many, many thousands of people would be dead and injured and mangled, the transportation systems destroyed, sanitation implements and systems all gone? That isn't preventive war; that is war. I don't believe there is such a thing; and, frankly, I wouldn't even listen to anyone seriously that came in and talked about such a thing.

END QUOTE

When asked to elaborate about his comments on "preventive war", Eisenhower curtly called the term "ridiculous in itself" and said "it is so completely unthinkable in today's conditions that ... it is no use to go any further."

Eisenhower's stature as a warfighter gave his remarks extraordinary weight, few being in a position to credibly challenge him. In late July, South Korea's Rhee Syngman visited Washington DC, telling Eisenhower that America needed to take on the Reds. Eisenhower was blunt in reply, saying: "Atomic war will destroy civilization." He elaborated: "If the Kremlin and Washington ever lock up in a war, the results are too horrible to be contemplated. I can't even imagine them." [TO BE CONTINUED]

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[THU 01 JAN 15] ANOTHER MONTH

* ANOTHER MONTH: 2014 was an unusually lively year of changes in my existence -- not in the sense of much alteration in mindset, just a lot of modifications in habits. One of the more significant was a jump into video downloading, after keeping it at arm's distance for a long time.

During the fall, Amazon.com offered a deal on a "Fire TV" HDMI stick that could be plugged into the HDMI port of a TV for access to video services. I had been using a notebook PC, hooked up to my TV over HDMI, for downloads, and it had worked well enough -- but the Fire TV stick looked like it might be more convenient for most purposes, and on sale, it was only $19 USD. Pocket change, so why not? I bought it.

The Fire TV stick arrived in mid-December. I had to sit on it for a few days, being crunched for time and fearing, since it was something entirely new to me, that installation would be troublesome. Not at all. It looked like a large USB stick, but with an HDMI port -- I was a bit puzzled to find it also had a USB port, then I realized HDMI doesn't provide power. The mini-USB port was on the side of the stick, which was also slightly confusing; I got an arm's length USB power cable and a wall-socket USB adapter along with the kit, but since I already had a four-port USB power adapter as part of the TV complex, I didn't need the Amazon power adapter. So far, so good.

Fire TV stick

As per instructions, I then turned my TV on, with the Fire TV stick asking me to put batteries in the bluetooth remote. It took some fumbling to get the remote open; after I got the batteries in, the Fire TV stick looked for a wi-fi connection, and then had me enter the wi-fi access code, which was the hardest part of installation. A tutorial video followed, and then I was navigating the home screen. I was ready to fly, being able to run the videos I get free with Amazon Prime, and easily rent movies with the push of a button. I was impressed; the Amazon people knew exactly what they were doing.

There were things left to dope out. The Fire TV stick is actually a little Android computer -- imagine that, a computer for $19 USD! -- and can run at least some standard apps. I can get free games with Amazon Prime, playing them with the remote, or with a bluetooth game controller I can buy. I'll think about the game controller. Anyway, installing the Fire TV stick left me feeling upbeat, which was welcome, since I had been feeling grumpy. Nothing serious, just the periodic sense of feeling disgusted with things, myself included, or maybe myself most of all. I shrug, the world turns as it always has, with its opportunities and hazards. I'll bounce back up.

* Another big change during the year was a general re-organization of finances. One of the drivers was that I realized I was going to be on a fixed income from investments for the next decade, until I got on Social Security, and so I had to set up a strict budget. I ended up with a generous one, backed up with good reserves for medical expenses and so on -- but my reserve for discretionary expenses had to be cut down to a minimum to make sure the most important reserves were adequate.

I'll get the discretionary reserve built back up, I should be comfortable by midsummer, and be flush again in a few years -- back up to the level where it feels absurd not to be spending some money. However, for now I've heavily trimmed back my discretionary spending, and been on the lookout for ways of scrounging up a buck or two. To that end, I've been picking up on product coupons and supermarket sales deals, diverting the dollars saved on food and the like to a little slush fund.

There's something of an art to playing sales deals; one has to be careful not to, in effect, cheat oneself. I have to make sure I'm buying something I would have bought in any case, and not making use of it at any greater rate than I would normally. For instance, getting a two-for-one deal on McDonald's hamburgers would be worthless, since with my poor digestion, I would be punishing myself to eat two at a sitting, and hamburgers don't really keep well for the next day. In contrast, I got a deal at the supermarket for Ruffles potato chips: buy four, get a dollar off on each.

Let me see, I like potato chips, I would go through a package in no more than ten days, so I would go through four packages in less than six weeks. They'll keep that long, no problem. Okay, there's four bucks into my slush fund. I picked up seven bucks that way on one trip to the supermarket. The limitation is that I've shot my bolt on those bargains until I get rid of the bulk buy. More usually, I can only get a dollar or so a week.

This ends up being a bit of fun. I did have to puzzle how to handle the slush fund on my budget spreadsheet. Since the fund wasn't balanced against inputs on the sheet it looked, from the accounting point of view, as if the money was just magically appearing from nowhere. On thinking it over, I realized: Well -- isn't it? I shrugged, and renamed it the "magic fund".

I've also been keeping an eye out for contests, but that hasn't worked out at all so far. They're more attractive if they offer a lot of little prizes that are useful; in practice, they tend to focus on big prizes that can't be transferred, and don't offer cash equivalent prizes. Not only are my odds of winning low, even if I did, I wouldn't get anything useful to me.

Contests typically can be entered via a website, no need to spend postage, but one has to be careful to stay with contests from recognizable companies -- it turns out that some online contests are scams, set up to rip people off using loaded mobile-phone charges. Along with death and taxes, there always has to be scams. I've got other plans for making a little money, which I'll talk about later.

* Finally, one minor change I made late in the year was to get a Facebook account. I never had any interest in Facebook, seeing nothing impressive about it, but it comes in handy as a form of online ID; since an account is free, I decided to sign up. On further tinkering with Facebook, I found that my initial negative impressions were not misleading, judging it a shrine to triviality, over-commercialized, and burdened with a klunky user interface. Since I only signed up to use it as ID, that's all a wash -- but I still can't see what other use it could be to me.

* Thanks to three readers for their donations to support the websites last month. It is very much appreciated, all the more so because November was completely dry.

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