* 20 entries including: Cold War (series), post-revolutionary Iran (series), genome's defenses against transposons, Gates Challenge reviewed, Danish agritech, Volvo turbocharged engines & FEDEX hybrid vans, exploring Venus by airship, US measles epidemic, tight times in the defense industry, and Delphi and Audi work on robocars.
* NEWS COMMENTARY FOR FEBRUARY 2015: As discussed by an article from TIME magazine ("The Path To Peace" by Joe Klein, 19 January 2015), the uprisings across the Middle East in the course of the "Arab Spring", and the rise of the Islamic State (IS) insurgency in Syria and Iraq has changed the political map of the region. As evidence of this, on 26 May 2014, Amos Yudin and Prince Turki al-Faisal -- previously high officials in the intelligence organizations of Israel and Saudi Arabia respectively -- had an unofficial chat in Brussels. They differed on some matters, such as an Israel-Palestinian peace treaty, but were strongly in tune on others:
Startlingly, Prince Turki commented that the Arabs had "crossed the Rubicon" and "don't want to fight Israel any more." They have more pressing concerns, many of which are shared with Israel. Again, the meeting was unofficial, not endorsed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. However, Netanyahu has dropped hints that there have been other quiet unofficial meetings, and there are rumors that the Israelis and Saudis are sharing intelligence.
The Sunni states are nervous in the face of the emergence of IS on one side and, on the other, Iranian-backed Shiite assertiveness -- particularly manifested in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard's Quds force, focused on covert use of force beyond Iran's borders. Aggravating the case of nerves are worries that the US is going to abandon them. They see as confirmation American engagement with Iran; US denunciations of Egypt's military government over political repression; and, most ironically, the Obama Administration's relative lack of enthusiasm for the military option, compared to the previous administration.
Considering how poorly things went when the military option was seen as the best tool, it's hard to understand why anyone would place too much stock in it -- and it's not like the US has given it up entirely, with American strike aircraft hammering IS insurgents. Obama aides say that the US is not thinking of leaving its allies in the Middle East in the lurch, pointing out there are two US Navy task forces in the region, plus American bases in Qatar, Abu Dhabi, and Djibouti: "Does that sound like disengagement? We're not going anywhere."
On the other side of that coin, an Arab diplomat said the nations of the Middle East have unrealistic expectations of the USA: "Whenever we're in trouble, we dial 911. But it is illogical to think the US was created to protect the Sunnis."
The upshot of the regional insecurity is a perception that the Arab states must band together to deal with the troubles, but alliances between them haven't tended to work well in the past. To add to the complexity, it now increasingly seems like Israel will have to be part of that alliance if it is to work; unfortunately, that would be very difficult to achieve in the absence of a settlement with the Palestinians. Although the embrace of the Palestinian cause by Arab governments may be much more theatrical than heartfelt, indifferently throwing the Palestinians to the Israeli wolf would utterly discredit those governments with their own citizens.
Netanyahu's government collapsed in December, and for now he can do nothing. Elections will be in March, and if he prevails, one might hope he will forge a centrist coalition that will allow him to take more overt actions. When it comes to the Mideast, hopes have a long and weary history of being dashed, but it will still be interesting to see what happens.
* In breaking news relative to Islamic State, the figure known as "Jihadi John" from gruesome execution videos released by IS has been tentatively identified as Mohammed Emzawi, from West London. He was fingered by an un-named friend who announced: "I have no doubt that Mohammed is Jihadi John. He was like a brother to me ... I am sure it is him."
Emzawi was born in Kuwait, but grew up in a middle-class family in Britain, obtaining a college degree in computer programming. Acquaintances said that from 2009, he had become increasingly radicalized. Although the British authorities will not confirm that Emzawi is Jihadi John, saying the investigation is ongoing, they acknowledge that he had been on their radar, and there is no doubt he went off of it.
Islamic State is unusual among insurgent groups in its disinterest in establishing the legitimacy of its cause to the world; it instead issues declarations of war against the world. Jihadi John is known from the videos to be the killer of American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff; British aid worker David Haines; British taxi driver Alan Henning; and US aid worker Abdul-Rahman "Peter" Kassig. British authorities add: "Our prime minister has been clear that we want all those who have committed murder on behalf of ISIS to face justice for the appalling acts carried out."
Josef Stalin was once cited as saying: "The death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic." -- though it was apparently not original to him. Jihadi John, whoever he really is, may not be remotely the worst criminal in IS, but he has made his crimes personal, and he will be hunted to the ends of the Earth.
* In non-news of the month Rudy Giuliani, once mayor of New York City, went public with a dramatic revelation about President Barack Obama, Giuliani proclaiming: "I do not believe that the president loves America."
Columnist Eugene Robinson, writing in THE WASHINGTON POST, termed this an example of "Obama Derangement Syndrome": Republicans remain so annoyed that Obama won the last two elections that they seem determined to do all they can to help him get elected again, even though he can't be. Exactly what Giuliani thought he was trying to accomplish with this tempest in a teacup is unclear; Giuliani did backtrack after finally realizing that, while he had done nothing to diminish Obama, he had done a fair job of diminishing himself. Robinson suggested that if the Republicans want to win in 2016, they'll need to forget about the water under the bridge and get relevant.
The episode was somewhat reminiscent of Donald Trump's attempt to make an issue of Obama's birth certificate back in 2011, discussed here at the time -- but nobody, including Trump, thought Trump was a credible politician. Although Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal added his own petulant shots at Obama to Giuliani's, other prominent Republicans waffled on the question. It was something of a relief that Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, demonstrating that he was sensible enough to recognize a loser game when he saw one, forthrightly replied he had "no doubt" the president loves his country -- end of story, move along folks, nothing to see here.
Of course, empty-headed tantrums against the chief executive are an American tradition, and they are not restricted to either Right or Left. The president, after all, is the most convenient of targets, and it is in the nature of the job that a president cannot please everyone -- there are plenty of people who cannot be pleased at all -- nor be scrupulously honest. There are those who continue to rail against Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan, contriving half-baked conspiracy theories against them, oblivious to the fact that nobody else cares one way or another. Robinson admitted that he had suffered from a comparable "Bush Derangement Syndrome" in 2006; fortunately, he was able to recover by facing reality.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* WINGS & WEAPONS: The US Navy's small "Littoral Combat Ship (LCS)" program has not gone smoothly. As reported by JANE'S Online ("USN To Proceed With Modified LCS For Multi-mission Small Surface Combatant Program" by Grace Jean, 11 December 2004), LCS has been the navy's program to fulfill a standing requirement for 52 fast "small surface combatants (SSC)" to replace the USN's AVENGER-class minesweepers and OLIVER HAZARD PERRY-class frigates, with an emphasis on shallow-water operations. Two designs -- the FREEDOM variant, a steel monohull built by a team led by Lockheed Martin, and the INDEPENDENCE variant, an aluminum trimaran built by a team led by Austal USA -- are being procured. Each can be fitted with one of three interchangeable mission packages for anti-surface, anti-submarine, or anti-mine warfare.
The LCS program has proven too costly and the vessels not capable enough, the type being referred to as the "Little Crappy Ship" for its various failings, real and imagined. Not long ago, outgoing US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel cast around for something else to complete the SSC requirement.
The conclusion, after examination of a wide range of alternatives, was that the LCS was the right sort of ship for the requirement, it just wasn't put together as needed to do the job. Instead of dumping the LCS, the Navy plans to begin acquisition in 2019 of 20 up-gunned and more survivable follow-ons of the current two LCS designs. The new warships will feature enhanced surface and anti-submarine warfare capabilities, with weapons for over-the-horizon attack, along with improved defenses against air and undersea threats, as well as hardened shipboard spaces and systems. The LCS will still retain a degree of modularity that will allow it to be configured for different missions.
According to Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Jonathan Greenert: "The Navy needs a small surface combatant. We have about 32 today; we need 52 to do the job out there in the future. This ship will meet that need. It brings the added capability to the fleet."
* There's a lot of interest in animal-like "biomimetic" robots these days. An article from WIRED Online discussed one of the latest of them, the title saying all: "The Navy's New Robot Looks And Swims Just Like A Shark" (Jordan Golson, 16 December 2014).
The "GhostSwimmer" was developed by the Advanced Systems Group at Boston Engineering, a Navy contractor that specializes in robotic systems for military use. It is an underwater drone, about 1.5 meters (5 feet) long and with a weight of about 45 kilograms (100 pounds), intended to evaluate the military utility of biomimetic underwater vehicles. It sways its tail for propulsion, with dorsal and pectoral fins for guidance, just like a real shark. It can swim in knee-deep water, or dive to a depth of 90 meters (300 feet); it can operate autonomously, or be controlled via a 150-meter (500-foot) -long tether.
No mention was made of potential armament. The Navy currently trains dolphins and seals for harbor security and other missions, but they're expensive to train and maintain, while being difficult to deploy to remote locations. The Navy wants to automate the task, with the GhostSwimmer as a candidate. The Department of Homeland Security has been working on a similar biomimetic robot, the "BIOSwimmer".
* As reported by FLIGHTGLOBAL Online, Krossblade Aerospace is now promoting its SkyCruiser "transformer" unmanned air vehicle to the delivery market in the hope that once airspace regulations are lifted, it will offer speedy delivery of parcels across the USA.
The SkyCruiser looks like a flying shark with a vee tail and slightly swept wings, with twin electric pusher props behind the tail. When it arrives at its destination, two arms swing out from behind doors along each side of the rear fuselage, the four arms forming an "X" fore and aft of the wings, with two-bladed rotors being unfolded, to land the machine vertically. Four-wheel landing gear pops out before touchdown; after touchdown, the four arms tuck back into the rear fuselage, with the wings then similarly folding back into the rear, while the pusher props fold down and the vee tail folds over them. The SkyCruiser is then driven over roads to its final destination.
Krossblade has flown a small-scale drone to demonstrate the "switchblade" concept, with videos showing the drone taking off, tucking in its rotors, flying around, extending the rotors, and then landing straight down. A full-scale flight prototype is planned for 2016. "Flying car" concepts are nothing new and don't have an encouraging history -- company officials admit there are certification challenges -- but the emergence of distributed hybrid-electric flight propulsion does appear to be opening doors for unorthodox aircraft like the SkyCruiser. Even if it doesn't go into production, it will certainly be fun to see it fly.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* THE GENOME'S IMMUNE SYSTEM: As reported by an article from AAAS SCIENCE ("The Immune System's Compact Genomic Counterpart" by Mitch Leslie, 4 January 2013), the genome of humans and most other animals can be afflicted by "transposons" AKA "jumping genes": chunks of DNA code that do nothing but copy themselves through the genome. They can disable gene operation; lead to cancer; and disable germline cells, rendering an organism sterile.
Over the past decade, researchers have discovered that the genome of germline cells has a defense against transposons known as "piRNAs", pronounced "pie-RNAs". The piRNAs team up with certain proteins to suppress transposons. The protein-piRNA complexes operate as an "immune system" for the genome; like the immune system, the complexes can tell friend from foe, having a memory of known threats, and can adapt to new threats. Humans may generate hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of distinct piRNAs, which may also have other functions besides protecting the genome.
PiRNA was discovered over a decade ago, as part of an effort to learn more about "small RNAs". There are a range of them, serving a range of functions. Among the earliest known small RNAs were the "small interfering RNAs (siRNAs)" and "microRNAs", which can block protein production. Many organisms actually use small RNAs as part of their true immune system; in plants and nematodes, for example, small RNAs help destroy viral RNA.
In 2001 Alexei Aravin, then a grad student at Moscow State University, and his colleagues discovered several small RNAs that disabled a transposon-like gene in fruitflies. These small RNAs only seemed unusual to Aravin in that they were slightly longer than siRNAs. However, in 2003 Aravin -- now a molecular biologist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena -- and his colleagues conducted a follow-up investigation on fruitflies, identifying more than 170 unique small RNAs that specifically targeted transposons. Aravind began to wonder if he had found something new and different.
At the time, he and other molecular biologists were also working on "Piwi proteins", which were not well understood, but were known to be related to fertility in some animals. It was also known that some proteins related to Piwi proteins bound to small RNAs, so it seem plausible that the Piwi proteins did as well. In 2006 a team led by Aravin and three other teams confirmed that notion. It turned out that the Piwi proteins had an association with the transposon-targeting RNAs spotted by Aravind in 2003. These RNAs were then classified as "Piwi-interacting RNAs" -- piRNAs.
The piRNAs differ from siRNAs and microRNAs in not requiring an enzyme named "Dicer" for their synthesis; piRNAs are also only found in multicellular animals, while siRNAs and microRNAs are found in a much wider range of organisms. The genome codes for piRNAs using a few "piRNA clusters". Nobody yet understands in detail how the piRNAs are synthesized; it is known that about ten different proteins are involved in the synthesis, but the specific process hasn't been nailed down just yet.
It is known that the piRNA clusters contain a "library" of known transposons, with each piRNA having a genetic pattern matching one of those transposons and so targeting it. But what happens when a new transposon that's not in the library arises? In effect, that problem neatly solves itself, at least eventually, since in its genomic jumping around, sooner or later the transposon is going to jump into a piRNA cluster and become part of the cluster's library.
In other words, if the transposon rolls the dice often enough, it will shoot "snake eyes" sooner or later, and lose the game. It turns out that it may do so readily. In a study published in 2011 by a team under molecular geneticist William Theurkauf of the University of Massachusetts Medical School (UMMS), the research team observed female flies that had inherited a transposon named the "P element", which the researchers hadn't seen before. At first, the new transposon raised hell with the flies, rendering them infertile, with little reaction from fly piRNA. Worse for the flies, the P element also activated other transposons that had been latent in the fly genome. However, over time the flies began to generate piRNAs against the P element transposon, bringing it under control, and then began to herd in the other transposons as well.
* The highly effective way in which piRNAs target transposons leads to a question: What prevents piRNAs from targeting "legal" sections of the genome? One obvious answer is that legal sections aren't jumping around the genome as a normal habit, and so are not likely to end up in piRNA clusters. There is, however, an unanswered puzzle relative to that glib answer in that, as discovered by a team under molecular geneticist Craig Mello, another UMMS researcher, piRNAs also have a selective ability to target genetic sequences that have never been "expressed" -- that is, translated into protein sequences by the cell -- and may not be jumping around, either.
Another puzzle is how piRNAs actually act against transposons. Researchers have been uncovering a number of different mechanisms. Some piRNAs attack transposon RNA sequences directly, binding to them so that the associated Piwi proteins chop them up. Others enable siRNAs to attack transposon RNA sequences. Although a genome may encode a large number of piRNAs -- nematodes encode at least 16,000 different ones -- they can only produce a few copies at a time, while siRNAs are plentiful, or in other words the piRNAs can call in "reinforcements".
In 2007, a Zen defense mechanism named the "ping-pong amplification loop" that uses transposons against themselves was been identified, with the mechanism now having been identified in flies, mice and zebrafish:
Another trick that piRNAs are capable of is targeting transposons lurking idle in the genome. Studies show that in mice, piRNAs trigger germline cells to affix methyl groups to transposon DNA sequences in the genome, which "locks" them so they can't jump any more. Fruit flies have a comparable mechanism to lock down latent transposon sequences, but in their case the piRNAs cause molecular modification of "histones" -- the protein spools around which DNA coils -- to do the job. In other words, it should be hardly surprising if we can lay out an evolutionary tree of piRNA mechanisms.
While the immunities we acquire against pathogens aren't passed down to our progeny, the piRNA immunity mechanism is part of the genome that is handed down to the next generation; studies show that "genomic immunity" can be carried down for 20 generations or more in nematodes. Given that transposons are carried down through a genome as well, it is certainly advantageous to ensure they don't cause the next generation any trouble.
Some researchers believe that piRNAs do more than just protect the genome from transposons. Mello and his colleagues, for example, have shown that about 1,000 of the roughly 20,000 genes of the nematode are under piRNA control. Mello speculates that the genes being controlled are only expressed under environmental stress, when the production of controlling piRNAs is suppressed. Others are skeptical of the idea, or believe that nematodes are a misleading outlier in this case.
It should be pointed out that transposons are not necessarily bad: the crapshoot might play out, might not, that's the way evolution works. Yes, they can be a spanner in the genomic works, but they can also be a source of genetic diversity, inserting new sequences in the genome that can, after mutations, perform novel functions. A few researchers speculate that when times are tough, animals may inhibit their piRNAs and the jumping genes jump at will, speeding up their evolution. Maybe so, maybe not; we don't know much about piRNAs just yet, and there's a lot left to discover.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* GATES CHALLENGE REVIEWED: As discussed by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("A New Challenge", 11 October 2014), a decade ago the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, under the direction of its two founders, established a set of 14 "Grand Challenges" to be met in global health care. They ranged from "preparing vaccines that do not require refrigeration" to "developing a genetic strategy to deplete or incapacitate a disease-transmitting insect population" -- with an invitation also extended to the research community for suggestions about specific projects that might not otherwise be funded to achieve such goals. Since the Gates Foundation had announced a year earlier that $200 million USD would be available for the exercise, there was no shortage of suggestions.
In October 2014, a tenth anniversary review meeting took place in Seattle. The Gates and the other foundation board members had hoped their philanthropic answer to venture capitalism would yield medical breakthroughs, such as vaccines for malaria and other chronic tropical diseases. A decade and a billion dollars later, neither the original Grand Challenge project nor its offspring, "Grand Challenges Explorations" -- which gives seed money to young researchers instead of relying, as the original challenge did, on established names in the research community -- have scored any blockbuster breakthroughs. Bill and Melinda Gates are not giving up, however, with the foundation announcing a new set of challenges, taking a broader approach to the strictly science-based approach taken up to now.
The original challenge has not proven a complete bust. Of the 44 original projects, a fifth are approaching completion, and a fifth have proven partial successes. For example, Scott O'Neill of Monash University, in Melbourne, was one of the original challengers. He thought to suppress dengue fever not by killing the mosquitoes that transmit it, but by making those insects immune to the virus that causes it. Such immunity is conferred by a bacterium named Wolbachia that infects many different species of insects, with a wide range of effects. In mosquitoes, Wolbachia is passed from mother to egg, and if the mother mates with an uninfected male mosquito, the eggs won't develop. This accelerates the spread of Wolbachia through mosquito populations, rendering all the mosquitoes sterile.
Grand Challenges has invested $44 million USD in the project, while three other charities -- the Wellcome Trust, the Tahija Foundation, and the Gillespie Family Foundation -- have contributed as well. O'Neill and his team have begun field trials in Australia, Brazil, Indonesia, and Vietnam, releasing Wolbachia-infected mosquitoes to see if they can take over as theory says they should.
Another promising project, led by James Collins of Boston University, is working to create a brew laced with bacteria that kill other, cholera-causing bacteria after they have become established in someone's intestines. The genetically engineered bugs in the brew will produce anti-cholera drugs, and then disintegrate when their work is done. Collins has started a company, called Synlogic, to develop the idea, and to see it can be used to treat other diseases. Other Grand Challenge concepts are more speculative, for example a scheme cooked up by an astrophysicist to use lasers that would drive off malaria-carrying mosquitoes.
All that's well and good, but the Grand Challenges still haven't scored any major breakthroughs. The new challenges are different in tone: "All children thriving", "putting women and girls at the center of development" and "creating new interventions for global health" -- which sound like broad aspirations at best, bland platitudes at worst. However, the governments of America, Brazil, Canada, India, and South Africa are joining in to the effort.
The difficulty with the original challenges was that they focused on the technical fix, while ignoring the broader context. The Victorians, in contrast, didn't defeat cholera by figuring out how to treat the disease, they instead acquired the political will to improve public sanitation. In general terms, while the technical fix can do its part, public health more broadly depends on educating the citizens and persuading them to change their behavior, as the HIV-AIDS effort has dramatically shown.
Children will not benefit from the development of a new vaccine if their mothers are unconvinced that the vaccine is worthwhile, or are even afraid of it. They will be more easily convinced if they have a basic education and access to information. However, trying to get the "big picture" can make it harder to nail things down, resulting in muddle. Bill & Melinda Gates are very smart people, of course, and it would be cynical to not have hopes they will prevail in their efforts.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* POST-REVOLUTIONARY IRAN (4): Simply because Hassan Rouhani was the most agreeable candidate to both sides in Iran's 2013 elections doesn't mean conservatives have given him a free pass. During 2014, conservatives impeached one of Rouhani's ministers, hauled an advisor into court, tried to keep Rouhani off state television, and jammed his attempts to free up the internet -- not, as discussed earlier, that anyone's been able to actually do much to control it.
At the core of Iran's power structure sits an octopus of an organization, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), established by the Ayatollah Khomeini to protect his revolution. If there's any element of the Iranian government that creates unease, it is the revolutionary guard: an armed paramilitary organization, which also serves an intelligence function, in control of a sprawling network of businesses, many but not all security-related -- such as mobile-phone service providers, oil firms, carmakers, and construction companies. On top of all that, the guard is only beholden to the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, who outranks Iran's president.
Although revolutionary guard commanders may rise to high government posts, even those still in the ranks of the guard exert substantial influence. Their baseej militia, made up of tens of thousands of baton-wielding youth volunteers, helps maintain domestic order -- as the guard defines it. The people of the guard are the storm troopers of Iranian conservatism, having been highly active in the 2009 crackdown on dissent. Informers can call "114", the guard's national hotline, to report the disloyal.
The fundamental principle of the revolutionary guard is a strong Iran, both at home and abroad -- asserting government control over the citizens, while working to counteract the efforts of America and American allies to pressure Iran. The guard supports terror groups elsewhere in the name of revolution, with a special unit, the Quds Force, performing actions outside of Iran's borders. The guards support the beleaguered Syrian regime, as well as the Hamas and Hizbullah movements, both enemies of Israel. A decade ago, the guards helped Iraqi insurgents kill American soldiers; today, they are believed to be supporting rebels in Yemen and Bahrain. Most significantly, the guards oversee Iran's nuclear-power program, which few really believe is for peaceful purposes. In addition, the guard controls smuggling operations to bypass sanctions.
Hassan Rouhani has never got along well with the revolutionary guard. When he was a presidential aide to Hashemi Rafsanjani during the Iran-Iraq War, according to Rafsanjani, guard commanders were always complaining about him. Under Ahmadinejad, about half the cabinet posts went to guard commanders; under Rouhani, guard commanders only make up four of the 18 cabinet posts, the only one of the four of significance being defense minister. Guard commanders used to make up half the number of provincial governors; now it's only a tenth. Rouhani has also been insistently pressing for an end to the tax exemptions enjoyed by firms under the guard's umbrella, as well as firms controlled by religious foundations. He has a strong case, the government being in need of the money, while guard leadership can offer few credible protests in response.
However, Rouhani has not stacked his cabinet with reformists. Five of his cabinet ministers are from the ministry of internal security, the secret police. Under Rouhani, many dissidents are still in lockup; while citizens may question the competence or honesty of individual government officials, criticism of the Islamic Republic itself is not allowed. Conservative judges still pass down harsh sentences for trivial offenses. Reformers who voted for Rouhani have been disappointed; they can say he's much better than Ahmadinejad, but that's a painfully low standard of comparison.
Moderates such as Rouhani can make small changes without too much trouble, but the hardliners won't let him make fundamental changes, and he's not pursuing them. They still view America and the rest of the Western world with fear and contempt -- America, so it's claimed, created the Sunni jihadist groups fighting Shias in Iraq -- and call for the destruction of Israel. To be sure, having an external enemy provides justification for repression, but the hatred is real enough. In a certain inevitable circularity, American pressure to halt Iran's nuclear weapons program has led the hardliners to think that Iran needs the Bomb to tell the Americans to back off. [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* THE COLD WAR (57): The drive to put an artificial Earth satellite into orbit had been building up steam from 1954. The global science community was organizing a research effort under the name of the "International Geophysical Year (IGY)", which would run over a period of 18 months, from mid-1957 to the end of 1958; it would involve dozens of countries and tens of thousands of researchers. American scientists involved in the IGY believed that the US should orbit an artificial Earth satellite as part of the American contribution, and had been sounding out possibilities among the US rocket development community.
The satellite, as envisioned, would carry instruments to examine the near-space environment around Earth. The Army's Wernher von Braun had been promoting what he called Project ORBITER, tacking on a cluster of solid-fuel rockets to the top of a Redstone to put a minimal satellite into orbit. It would essentially be a propaganda stunt. The US Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) wanted to use a booster cobbled together from various existing science rockets to put a more sophisticated satellite into orbit.
Those pushing the satellite project ended up talking to Defense Undersecretary Donald Quarles, who proved gratifyingly interested. The more perceptive among the advocates could well suspect there was a military agenda behind the interest, but could only guess at what. It was the "freedom of space" issue, on which space reconnaissance was dependent: if the Soviets raised no objection to scientific satellites overflying the USSR, it was less likely they would object to spy satellites. As paranoid as the Soviets were, they would automatically recognize the military significance of the overflight of a science satellite, all the more so because the USSR's space community was tinkering with the idea of spy satellites as well.
In any case, on 29 July 1955 White House Press Secretary James Hagerty announced to the world that the US would put a science satellite into orbit during the IGY. A Pentagon committee examined the options, and in August recommended the NRL satellite project. It was approved by the White House, being given the name "Vanguard".
Von Braun was in a hurry, and he was exasperated by the commitment to Vanguard, feeling he was in a position to move ahead immediately on ORBITER. The reasoning behind the decision to back the NRL remains mysterious: the Navy project was more closely tied to the civil science community and the Vanguard satellite was more useful, but there may have also been reservations about handing the baton to von Braun, both because of his Nazi-tainted past and because of his public grandstanding.
Von Braun's people continued to work on ORBITER as what might be called a "garage job" -- tinkerings at home, or more generally as a sideline to official work. A Redstone was stockpiled, officially as a test to see how well it endured extended storage, but also with an eye towards flying ORBITER if the opportunity arose.
In August the Soviets, not to be outdone by the US, publicly announced they would fly their own satellite for the IGY. At the end of August, Soviet rocket designer Sergei Korolyev told a state committee that his R-7 ICBM would be able to put a heavy satellite into orbit -- and would be able to do so before the IGY. Although there were concerns doing so might slow down work on use of the R-7 as a weapon, the commission endorsed the proposal. Work on the science satellite was formally approved on 30 January 1956; the "Object D", as it was designated, would be a large, sophisticated spacecraft with a mass of a tonne or more.
Korolyev's OKB-1 bureau was the "prime contractor" for Object D, with the USSR Academy of Sciences being responsible for the science mission, and a suite of other organizations providing subsystems and support. More quietly, work was also authorized on a spy satellite, the "Object D-1". [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* January was a slow month for space launches, but it did have its distinctions:
-- 10 JAN 15 / SPACEX DRAGON CRS5 -- A SpaceX Falcon 9 booster was launched from Cape Canaveral at 0947 GMT (local time + 5), carrying the fifth operational "Dragon" cargo capsule to the International Space Station (ISS). The booster was in "flyback" configuration and attempted to land on a SpaceX barge platform; it reached the platform, but landed hard and was destroyed. The capsule returned to Earth on 10 February, splashing down into the Pacific Ocean and being safely recovered.
-- 21 JAN 15 / MUOS 3 -- An Atlas 5 booster was launched from Cape Canaveral at 0104 GMT (next day local time + 5) to put the third "Mobile User Objective System (MUOS)" geostationary military comsat into orbit for the US Navy. Built by Lockheed Martin, MUOS 3 was intended to provide narrowband tactical communications designed to significantly improve ground communications for US forces on the move.
The prime contractor for the program is Lockheed Martin, with the spacecraft based on the company's A2100M bus. MUOS 3, like the other MUOS satellites, had a launch mass of about 6,740 kilograms (14,900 pounds) and has two large unfurlable antennas. It was the heaviest payload ever launched by an Atlas 5.
The US Navy's MUOS series is a successor to the "UHF Follow-On (UFO)" satellites, launched between 1993 and 2003. UFO was a successor in turn to the earlier FLTSATCOM and Leasat constellations; the UFO series consisted of eleven satellites constructed by Hughes and later (after acquisition of Hughes Satellite Systems) Boeing, which were launched on Atlas I, II and III rockets. Once complete, the MUOS constellation is to consist of five satellites, the last being scheduled for launch in 2016.
MUOS 1 was launched on 24 February 2012 by an Atlas 5, to cover the Pacific region; MUOS 2 was launched on 19 July 2013 aboard another Atlas 5, to cover the continental US. MUOS 3 was to cover the Atlantic region. This was the 200th launch of an Atlas-Centaur booster. The Atlas 5 was in the "551" configuration, with a 5-meter (16.4-foot) fairing, five solid rocket boosters, and a single-engine Centaur upper stage.
-- 31 JAN 15 / SMAP -- A Delta 2 booster was launched from Vandenberg AFB to put the NASA "Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP)" satellite into orbit. SMAP was designed to measure and map Earth's soil moisture and freeze/thaw state to better understand terrestrial water, carbon, and energy cycles.
SMAP had a launch mass of 944 kilograms (2,081 pounds) and was powered by a three-panel solar array. Its payload included an L-band synthetic aperture radar (SAR) and a radiometer, both using a 6-meter (20-foot) deployable mesh antenna. The SAR could determine soil moisture from reflections, obtaining mapping images with a resolution of from 1 to 3 kilometers (0.6 to 1.8 miles). The radiometer, in contrast, was a passive instrument, picking up microwave emissions from the surface, with a resolution of 40 kilometers (25 miles). The intent was to obtain maps with a resolution of about 10 kilometers (6 miles), on a cycle time of two to three days.
SMAP's SAR had to cope with interference from ground-based radars, featuring multiple bands, the likelihood being low that there will be conflicts with all the bands over any one part of the Earth. SMAP was a follow-on to the European Space Agency's "Soil Moisture & Ocean Salinity (SMOS)" satellite, launched in 2009, with only a radiometer, discussed here at the time. The resolution of SMOS was about three to five times coarser than that of SMAP.
The launch also included four nanosats, flown under the NASA "Educational Launch of Nanosatellites (ELaNa)" program. The "ElaNa-X" payloads included:
The booster was in the "7320" configuration, with three solid rocket boosters, a 3-meter (10-foot) -diameter fairing, and no upper stage.
* OTHER SPACE NEWS: Following the end of the Cold War, one of the interesting symptoms of the thaw was that the Atlas V space launch booster, a descendant of the Atlas missile developed in the 1950s to confront the Red threat, ended up being powered by the Russian RD-180 rocket engine. With the freeze returning to a degree, the US Congress is now working on a measure to fund a US-built replacement for the RD-180, to go into service by 2019. The measure would allow the RD-180 to be used after that time if necessity demanded it.
* A video from NASA JPL showed how that organization has become interested in toy helicopters, the kind with coaxial contra-rotating two-bladed rotors. They want to fly one on Mars, the idea being that it could scout out terrain for a Mars rover.
Although Mars gravity is only 3/8ths that of Earth, atmospheric pressure is only a hundredth, which presents a challenge to the Mars copter. JPL prototypes feature unusually large rotor blades, spinning at 2,400 RPM. There is a solar panel on top of the rotor shaft to keep the copter powered. JPL engineers don't see the aerodynamics as so much the problem, as hardening the copter against the Mars environment, along with flight control -- particularly for landings.
* As reported by AVIATION WEEK, as the number of CubeSats and other little satellites continues to proliferate, launch capacity is not keeping pace, remaining constant over the past few years, while demand for smallsat launch services is increasing. Smallsat makers are also frustrated by the launch delays imposed by trying to piggyback a ride on a booster lofting much heavier payloads.
Ironically, there's still plenty of spare lift capacity on launches, it's just that many boosters don't have the kit to handle CubeSats and the like, nor the procedures for flying the little satellites. One might suspect that people who want to fly big payloads are not all that interested in jumping through hoops to fly small ones as well. It seems that if someone does come up with a cheap little booster that can put, say, 100 kilograms into low Earth orbit, the demand is going to be there.
To that end, as discussed by an article from AVIATION WEEK ("New Space Churn" by Frank Morring JR), Thomas Markusic -- a rocket propulsion engineer, a veteran of NASA and private space firms such as Elon Musk's SpaceX -- has now set up a startup company named "Firefly" out of Austin, Texas, to develop a smallsat launcher, featuring a methane-fueled "aerospike" engine and composite cryogenic fuel tanks. The projected Firefly booster is similar in size and configuration to the "Falcon 1" booster originally developed by SpaceX, which had three launch failures and two successful flights, to then be abandoned in favor of the bigger Falcon 9 booster.
In an aerospike rocket engine, the engine exhaust is minimized, effectively eliminating the "bell" nozzle traditionally associated with liquid-fuel boosters. Without the nozzle to contain the exhaust plume, it then assumes the most efficient configuration for the ambient atmosphere, resulting in more efficient engine operation. Aerospike engines are not a new idea, they've been test-flown, but have never been used operationally.
The Firefly's "Lumen" aerospike engine features a truncated cone AKA "plug", surrounded by ten combustion chambers. The plumes from the combustors expand with the falling ambient air pressure as the vehicle ascends, the interior parts of them push against the plug to generate additional thrust. According to Markusic:
We come off the pad with, effectively, a 30:1 area ratio nozzle, which dramatically increases our performance. That's the theory. In practice, it doesn't quite work that way. The aerospike actually goes through kind of a 'closed-wake' and an 'open-wake' regime, and you really don't start seeing the benefits until the pressure starts going down a little bit in practice. But if you integrate over the whole boost trajectory, you definitely see an enhancement.
Firefly is using methane fuel instead of kerosene as a way to avoid the expense and operational difficulty associated with the helium used to pressurize propellant tanks. Helium is hard to get , and helium leaks can be troublesome. With methane, Firefly is able to use a heat exchanger built into the aerospike plug to boil both of the engine's propellants -- methane and liquid oxygen -- for self pressurization. Methane has a higher engine-exhaust velocity than kerosene, but it is much less dense, which means large tanks. To keep weight down, Firefly is working to build lightweight composite tanks, with composite materials to be used for other parts of the booster as well.
By leveraging off mass production and rapid flight rates, Firefly hopes to hold down the price of a launch with its two-stage "alpha" vehicle to no more than $9 million USD. The Alpha will be able to put 409 kilograms (900 pounds) of payload into a circular equatorial orbit at an altitude of 500 kilometers (310 miles), or 218 kilograms (480 pounds) into polar orbit at the same altitude.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* DANES DO AGRITECH: As last mentioned here in 2013, Danes have been farming for a long time, with some farms having been passed down through families for generations. As discussed in that earlier article there's nothing necessarily quaint or old-fashioned about Danish farms; the Danes are enthusiastic about the latest agritech, and continue to be a powerhouse for food production. An essay by THE ECONOMIST's rotating business blogger, Schumpeter, titled "Bringing Home The Bacon" (4 January 2014), conducted a survey of Denmark's farm industry.
Consider, for example, the Danish Crown company's slaughterhouse at Horsens, in central Denmark. It's a huge plant, about ten athletic fields long with 11 kilometers (6.8 miles) of conveyor belts. 20,000 pigs, drawn from a national swine population of 30 million, are sent there each week, with workers guided them with swatters to their doom; the workers wear green, not white, since pigs find green more relaxing than white. The slaughtered pigs are hung up, split in two, shaved of their bristles, and scalded clean. A cutting machine uses a smart vision system to determine how to butcher each pig, the meat products being sorted and packaged, then shipped off to markets all over the world.
Okay, it's not pretty -- but that's not a word anyone would associate with a slaughterhouse in the first place, and it's impressive in its efficiency. A determination to stay on the leading edge of agritech is the only way Denmark can compete in the global agritech market, the country being tiny, with only 5.6 million people, and burdened by high labor costs. Thanks to aggressive automation and meticulous operational processes, agricultural exports make up about a fifth of Denmark's exports of goods. Danish agribusiness is continuing to grow, with 4 billion euros ($5.5 billion USD) of food exports in 2001, to 16.1 billion euros in 2011, and a projected 22.8 billion euros in 2020.
Denmark's agricultural industry is rooted around a set of big players: Danish Crown, Arla, Rose Poultry, and DuPont Danisco. The fact that DuPont was eager to buy up Danisco in 2011 suggests the strength of Danish agribusiness; the buyout unsurprisingly raised national worries about the intrusion of multinationals. Small startups pop up all the time as well, exploiting trends and coming up with new ideas, while Danish technology firms provide services to support the farming industry:
Research institutions such as the Danish Cattle Research Center and Knowing Center for Agriculture, provide support for the industry; the Cattle Research Center, for example, documents how dairy cows can be kept contented, healthy, and productive by keeping them washed, keeping them brushed, keeping their living quarters clean, and using smart milking machines to spot anomalies in milk that might indicate an ailing cow. Danish universities do their bit as well -- the Danish Technical University has 1,500 staff involved in agritech research -- while agribusiness public-private partnerships have a long record of success.
Can Denmark stay in the forefront of global agribusiness? There are challenges. At home, a murmur of protest against factory farming is growing, and expanding the industry necessarily confronts limits on water and other basic resources. As far as the export world goes, demand is gradually shifting from Europe to developing countries -- which is not a bad thing for Denmark, but developing countries are also becoming competitors in the global food market.
However, as the world's population grows towards 9 billion souls by 2050, the demand for food is going to rise, and Danish farmers live by the mantra: INNOVATE. As far as resistance to factory farming goes, no doubt concessions will end up being made to public sensitivities, but Danes are generally proud of their nation's farm power, and most of them understand what meat production involves. The Danish Crown slaughterhouse conducts tours for visitors, including schoolkids, the tours including the killing line.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* TURBOCHARGED: As reported by an article from WIRED Online blogs ("Volvo Bets Its Future on Small, Turbocharged Engines" by Jordan Golson, 20 October 2014), Swedish car-maker Volvo -- from 1999, a division of Ford Motors, from 2010 a division of Chinese car-maker Geely -- has gone wild over compact turbocharged engines.
The push to turbo started when Ford sold Volvo to Geely. Under the terms of the sale, Ford agreed to continue to supply engines for five years, but that Volvo would be on its own from 2015. Chinese bosses provided the money and Swedish engineers provided the expertise. They started by investigating how customers actually drove Volvo vehicles, notably the popular XC90 SUV.
Various engine options were offered for the XC90, the most powerful being a V8. Examination showed the V8 to be absurd; drivers rarely pushed it past 4,000 RPM, and then generally only for short bursts. According to Michael Fleiss, Volvo's vice president of powertrain: "When the customer drives with a very heavy powertrain, they're never using the sweet spot of the engine. Instead, it's idling all the time, running in a very inefficient area of the engine maps."
The answer was to design smaller engines that were optimized for normal driving, but were capable of bursts of power when needed. As a result, Volvo is abandoning V8 and V6 engines. The 2016 XC90, to go on sale in 2015, will have a two-liter four-cylinder engine. To get burst performance, it features both a supercharger and a turbocharger. Both of these devices are blowers to ram airflow into an engine, enhancing performance, but are driven in different ways:
The new XC90 engine uses the supercharger from zero to 3,500 RPM; above that, it's disengaged with a clutch, and the turbocharger takes over. However, this engine is just a first step, the next one being the two-liter, four-cylinder High Performance Drive E Powertrain Concept engine, with three turbochargers. It will be able to provide 335 kW (450 HP), more than the five-liter V8 in the new Ford Mustang GT.
Twin turbochargers are nothing new. The third actually is not exactly a turbocharger, being driven electrically and not by the exhaust stream, but it doesn't drive the engine -- it drives the other two turbochargers. The "e-booster", as Volvo calls it, gives the turbochargers good performance at low RPM, and eliminates turbo lag. To drive the e-booster, Volvo is developing a 48-volt electrical system, to replace the traditional 12-volt system. The new electrical system will be able to provide more power, not just to keep the e-booster going but also to enhance the performance of other car systems. It is, however, a big step to take, and it's going to take a few years to get it into production.
Volvo is designing a set of gasoline and diesel engines that will share a common engine block design, and will have modular components that can be switched in and out like Legos. The one worry with the charged-up engines is complexity, but Fleiss isn't too concerned, saying that tests have shown "no issue at all with durability." Indeed, Fleiss says new gimmicks are being investigated, lifted from Formula One racecars, such as turbo-energy recovery systems. It's just a question of what's cost-effective and reliable enough to be put into a mass-production vehicle.
* FEDEX DOES HYBRIDS: Also as discussed by an article from WIRED Online blogs ("FedEx's New Electric Trucks Get a Boost From Diesel Turbines" by Jordan Golson, 30 September 2014), global parcel company Federal Express operates more than 47,000 vehicles and 700 aircraft to deliver about 4 million parcels a day. As a consequence, FedEx is very interested in anything that can be sensibly done to increase fuel efficiency and reduce fuel costs.
To this end, FedEx is now working with Wrightspeed -- a Silicon Valley startup company founded and run by Ian Wright, who helped create Tesla in 2003 -- to convert 25 FedEx vans into hybrid vehicles. The Wrightspeed conversion yanks a van's piston engine, transmission, and differential, to then install battery-operated electric motors on the drive wheels; regenerative braking allows power from deceleration to be fed back into storage. On battery power alone, the van can only drive about 50 kilometers (30 miles) on a charge, which isn't enough. However, the van also has a diesel turbine that can charge up the batteries.
The bottom line is fuel consumption cut in half. The diesel turbine simply charges the batteries, and so it runs at an optimum constant speed, no matter how many times the van itself starts and stops. It can be fueled by diesel from any filling station.
Wrightspeed is not talking much about costs, saying only the price is below $100,000 USD. That's about three times the cost of replacing an engine and transmission but, according to Wright, Wright says, between fuel savings and lower maintenance costs, the hybrid system pays for itself in just a few years. Wright has concerns about what will happen to WrightSpeed if FedEx or UPS decide to convert to hybrid, saying that would be "stressful for our little company." There are worse problems to have.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* POST-REVOLUTIONARY IRAN (3): Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of Iran's Islamic Republic, was something of an anarchist, having spent his life being hounded by the Shah's government. As a result, when he guided the creation of the Islamic Republic, he implemented checks and balances with a vengeance: the army balanced against the revolutionary guard, parallel civil and clerical courts, militias and police, a clerical supreme leader and an elected president.
The result in the modern day is not a real democracy nor a real dictatorship, featuring some aspects of both. As one dissident puts it: "We have freedom of expression, just not freedom after expression." Although public debates over governance are lively, sometimes furious, they are often mere window dressing, the real decisions being made by the power elite behind closed doors. It is not a small group of people, however, composed of thousands of politicians, clerics, generals, judges, journalists, academics, businessmen, and others. They are associated with their particular social and organizational factions; political parties, as such, amount to little in Iran. Although Iran is often described as a constitutional oligarchy, Iran also resembles a democratic oligarchy. No one man or group within the power elite holds more than a fragment of power, and it takes a wide consensus to settle big decisions. It can be time-consuming to do so, but once big decisions are made, they are hard to reverse and tend to stick.
At the center of this disorderly system sits the supreme leader, always a cleric, appointed for life. The first was the Khomenei; he was followed in 1989 by the current supreme leader, Ali Khamenei. There is a tendency for outsiders to see Khamenei as the stealth dictator of Iran, but he sees himself instead as a referee, following the consensus and intervening only in the case of a deadlock. Khamenei is now in his mid-seventies, and there is considerable discussion of who might succeed him. No heir apparent has been identified, and some observers believe that Khamenei's death will trigger a fratricidal power struggle. Others point out that Iran's factions all know they need a supreme leader to keep the system going, and are capable of settling on a compromise.
At a lower level, the factions can be uncompromising. After Mohammed Khatami, the first real reformer, became Iran's president in 1997, conservatives all but declared war on their own government. Fearing that the system would crash, Khamenei used his influence to steer Iran back to conservatism, leading to the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005. The expectation was that Ahmadinejad would establish a safe consensus -- but he quickly veered to the opposite extreme, establishing a hardline power base among the ruling elite, and taking on everyone else.
Ahmadinejad won a second term in 2009 by rigging the vote; Khamenei and other conservatives supported him since the alternative was another reformist, but the results were disastrous: street demonstrations of a magnitude not seen since the fall of the Shah, and a brutal security crackdown also reminiscent of the Shah's reign. Few wanted to go through such madness again, so in 2013, four conservative and two moderate candidates, all carefully vetted, were allowed to campaign on a more or less level playing field. Khamenei announced before the election that he was not endorsing any one candidate, and that "all votes will be counted."
Hasan Rouhani won because he was the Goldilocks candidate: not too hot, not too cold. Reformists were most enthusiastic about Mohammed Reza Aref, vice president under Khatami -- but Aref's supporters convinced him that only Rouhani could actually win. Since the conservatives couldn't agree on their own candidates, that might not have actually been true, but the reformists didn't feel like taking chances, nor pushing a candidate who, as with Khatami, would face relentless opposition once in office. There was a time when they had been militant and uncompromising, but that time had passed, Khatami saying: "The hot-headed young learned to play politics in the Ahmadinejad years. They saw that fielding candidates who are die-hard reformists doesn't get results. They had to be more moderate, less ambitious. That's the lesson from the many defeats of the past."
Many reformists had been broken by the crackdown in 2009, seeing that their efforts had got their supports humiliated, disgraced, injured, in some cases killed. The discouraged stayed at home and smoked hashish; or left the country; or focused on non-political careers. Those who didn't drop out became cautious. However, on the other side of that coin, the clerics and generals realized that the price of the crackdown for the credibility of the regime was too high, and that it should not happen again. Many conservatives supported Rouhani in the 2013 elections.
After Rouhani won the election, Khamenei gave him public support. Nobody, least of all Rouhani, thought that support was unconditional, but he felt in a strong enough position to take risks, most significantly engaging the West in talks over Iran's nuclear program. It wasn't quite as risky as it might seem, since there is a consensus, however grudging, for a "central solution" to the problem of Iran's international isolation. According to Kevan Harris, an academic at Princeton University, "radicals on both sides are exhausted. They have run out of ideas. Neither ambitious reforms under Khatami nor hardline isolation under Ahmadinejad proved successful." [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* THE COLD WAR (56): With some encouragement from the Austrian peace treaty, in mid-July 1955, the leadership of the US, Great Britain, France, and the Soviet Union met in Geneva, with an eye to establishing better relations between West and East. There was, at the time, still ambiguity in the West on who was predominant in the Soviet hierarchy, and one of Eisenhower's motives in attending was to see who was really in charge; the CIA didn't know. He met with his old friend Marshal Zhukov, to find him sadly muted, only a shadow of the assertive person he had once been. He was clearly not in charge. That left Nikolai Bulganin, Premier of the Soviet Council of Ministers, and Nikita Khrushchev, First Secretary of the Communist Party of the USSR, as prospects.
On 18 July, the first day of the summit, Eisenhower threw out challenges to the Soviets, proclaiming that Germany should be re-unified, as a NATO partner; that the USSR should live up to its Yalta agreements in Eastern Europe; and the Soviets should cease their efforts to promote Communist revolution the developing world. There was no chance they would agree to any of these things, and so the declarations were mostly for domestic consumption -- though they did set a baseline for discussion, at least if the Soviet leadership in Geneva saw any prospect for concessions. The next two days were marked by quarreling, the Soviet delegation demonstrating particular annoyance with the Western position on Germany.
On 21 July, Eisenhower dropped a bombshell, proposing that the superpowers reveal the locations of their military establishments to each other, and allow foreign reconnaissance overflights of those facilities at will to ensure that any preparations for offensive warfare were observed. Each nation would provide airfields and other facilities in their own country for use by surveillance assets of the other. The proposal, which acquired the name of "Open Skies", was sincere, but it also reflected, in a veiled way, on the Lockheed Angel program, with the first aircraft -- designated "U-2", which misleadingly suggested a utility machine -- to fly before the month was out.
Eisenhower had nothing to do lose and everything to gain by proposing Open Skies. If the Soviets accepted it, well and good; if they rejected it, they would suffer a propaganda defeat. The US was planning to being begin U-2 overflights of the USSR anyway, and the Soviets would be at a disadvantage in complaining, having rejected the invitation to perform overflights of the USA in return. The prospect of flying spy satellites only enhanced the significance of Open Skies: the two sides would have the capability in a few years to maintain strategic surveillance on each other, and there was a case for doing nothing to prevent it.
When Eisenhower completed his speech, there was a reverberating clap of thunder, and the lights went out. When they came back on, he said: "Well, I expected to make a hit, but not that much of one." There were tales that some of the Soviet delegation wondered for years how Eisenhower had pulled the trick off. The British and French endorsed the proposal; Bulganin spoke last, cautiously saying the proposal had merit and deserved further study. However, after the speeches were over, Khrushchev buttonholed Eisenhower and said: "I don't agree with the chairman."
Eisenhower knew perfectly well that Khrushchev would have never defied Bulganin if there were risk in doing so, and concluded that Khrushchev was the real boss. Eisenhower's attempts to persuade Khrushchev went nowhere; Khrushchev denounced Open Skies as a pretext for spying. The simple fact was that the Soviet Union was far weaker than Khrushchev dared admit to the world, telling his rocket engineer son Sergei: "We have nothing to hide -- and if we don't hide it, everyone will know we have nothing."
Eisenhower had anticipated the rejection. The proposal was still a good idea, in particular pointing the way to a modus vivendi on spy satellites. On 22 July, Eisenhower pushed for increase in trade between East and West, as well as free flow of ideas and people. On 23 July, he delivered his closing address on a note of optimism:
I came to Geneva because I believe mankind longs for freedom from war and rumors of war. I came here because my lasting faith in the decent instincts and good sense of the people who populate this world of ours. I shall return home tonight with these convictions unshaken ...
Although the Geneva conference amounted to little in the end, Eisenhower did not express regrets: he'd established a connection, however fractious, with the Soviet Union's new leader; put America's best foot forward on the world stage; and set a tone of conversations for peace, inviting the Soviets to reply with proposals of their own. Khrushchev drew almost completely opposite conclusions from the conference: he'd come there feeling insecure, noting unhappily how much more impressive the VIP airliners of Western leaders were than his own -- to then realize that Western leaders actually feared the USSR. Having perceived weakness, he was determined to exploit it in the future.
However, the year following Geneva would prove unusually calm -- which was fortunate for Eisenhower, since he had a heart attack on 23 September, and wasn't fully fit to go back to work until Christmas. Had 1955 been as fractious as 1954, the loss of the measured Eisenhower at the helm might well have made an enormous difference. The calm, of course, wouldn't last. [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* SCIENCE NOTES: As discussed here in 2013, researchers were startled when Figaro -- a Goffin's cockatoo, part of a captive colony in Austria -- began to trim sticks to fetch nuts from outside of his cage. That was surprising because cockatoos are not known to use tools in the wild.
Figaro was kept isolated from other cockatoos during studies of his tool use lest it confound the experiments. As discussed by a note from AAAS SCIENCE Online ("Cockatoos Can Learn From Each Other How To Make And Use Tools" by Virginia Morell, 2 September 2014), the next step was to see if Figaro could teach other cockatoos his tricks.
The researchers took a dozen other cockatoos and ran tests on them. One group of birds watched as Figaro used a stick to reach a nut placed inside an acrylic box, with a wire-mesh front panel; a control group simply observed the same sort of box, with the treats moved around by hidden magnets, just to show they could be moved. The group of three males and three females that had taken Figaro's "class" picked up sticks and tried to imitate him, but only the males figured out the trick. None of the six birds in the control group got anywhere.
The clever observers actually developed a better technique than Figaro's for getting the treat, showing they were not simply "parroting" him, but were demonstrating creativity. Two of the successful cockatoos were later given a chance to make tools of their own; one, Dolittle, did so immediately, and the other, Kiwi, succeeded after watching Figaro make a tool. The video of Dolittle and Kiwi ripping sticks out of a card of wood is very entertaining; parrots and cockatoos tend to be fun to watch in the first place.
* As reported by a note from VOX.COM ("Why Some Animals Have Blue, Green, Or Purple Blood" by Joseph Stromberg, 31 October 2014), we instinctively think of blood as red -- but that's not the only color it comes in. Our blood is red because of a protein called "hemoglobin", which binds to oxygen and allows it to be carried to the body's organs in red blood cells. At the center of hemoglobin is an iron atom, which provides the red color. The red color persists whether oxygen is bound or not.
Horseshoe crabs, in contrast, use a different protein, named "hemocyanin", to bind oxygen. Hemocyanin is built around a copper atom instead of an iron atom, which is why it's blue when oxygenated -- though it has little color when it's not. Incidentally, horseshoe crab blood has a very useful chemical named "coagulogen" that can spot bacterial contamination at very low concentrations; pharmaceutical companies collect horseshoe crabs and bleed them to build up stockpiles of coagulogen.
Some marine worms, such as peanut worms, have an oxygen-binding protein named "hemerythrin", which is purple when oxygenated, colorless when not. Other marine worms, the polychaetes, use yet another oxygen-binding protein, named "chlorocruonin", that may look red when concentrated, but bright green when diluted. Both are based on iron. It is a marker of evolution that many different solutions may emerge to a problem, when only one of them would have been needed to do the job.
* As reported by a note from AAAS SCIENCE NOW Online ("Earthquake Sensors Track Urban Traffic, Too" by Esther Landhuis, 29 October 2014), researchers tracking a network set up around Long Beach, California, of 5,300 "geophones" -- essentially, microphones designed to pick up the vibrations of the Earth, primarily to watch for quakes -- found over a week's observations that they could pick up much more than quakes.
Digging into the data, the researchers found they could measure how fast individual trains were moving between stations; count the number of aircraft landing and taking off at the airport; and calculate the average speed of vehicles on a ten-lane highway. A cute trick, certainly -- but it could have practical application, permitting analysis of vehicular traffic without snooping with cameras, or by collecting GPS data. The technique could also be used to track building use, and locate industrial, residential, or office zones within cities.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* EXPLORING VENUS? As discussed by an article from IEEE SPECTRUM Online ("NASA Study Proposes Airships, Cloud Cities for Venus Exploration" by Evan Ackerman, 16 December 2014), there's never been too much enthusiasm for the idea of landing astronauts on the planet Venus, since they'd have to deal with 92 atmospheres of pressure and temperatures of about 500 degrees Celsius (about 900 degrees Fahrenheit). Now, as previously discussed here in 2013, there's been a shift in mindset: if astronauts go to another planet, do they really need to land? Maybe they could do a better job if they didn't.
Dale Arney and Chris Jones -- two researchers at the US National Aeronautics & Space Administration (NASA), working in the Space Mission Analysis Branch of NASA's Systems Analysis and Concepts Directorate at Langley Research Center, Virginia -- have made a case for exploring Venus by airship, flying above the planet's clouds, their scheme being labeled the "High Altitude Venus Operational Concept (HAVOC)". They point out that conditions at an altitude of about 50 kilometers (31 miles) in the atmosphere of Venus are surprisingly benign, at least by planetary standards: almost the same gravity as Earth, effectively the same atmospheric pressure as Earth, and an average temperature of about 75 degrees Celsius (165 degrees Fahrenheit). Contrast that with Mars, with a ground atmospheric pressure only about a hundredth of that of Earth, only a third the gravity, and average temperatures of -63 degrees Celsius (-80 degrees Fahrenheit).
It is true that the extreme temperatures of both planets would be a challenge, and their atmospheres are not breathable -- but the thicker atmosphere of Venus means that astronauts there will not be exposed to the same levels of cosmic radiation as they would be on Mars. The low gravity of Mars may also have health implications for long-term missions there. Very significantly, while sunlight is relatively dim on Mars, it's strong on Venus, meaning solar power would be more effective. Proximity to the Sun means Venus gets 40% stronger sunlight than Earth, and 240% stronger sunlight than Mars.
Yet another plus for Venus is that it's easier to get to than Mars. Because of how the movements of Venus and Earth align over time, a crewed mission to Venus would take a total of 440 days using existing or very near-term propulsion technology: 110 days out, a 30-day stay, and then 300 days back -- with the option to abort and begin the trip back to Earth immediately after arrival. A comparable mission to Mars would be 500 days at a very minimum, or more likely 650 to 900 days, since astronauts would have to wait for a favorable orbital alignment for the return journey. They couldn't just abort the mission and come home earlier: If anything went wrong, astronauts would have to wait around on Mars until their return window opened.
HAVOC envisions a phased series of expeditions to Venus:
The key to the HAVOC effort is the Venus air vehicle -- a helium-filled, solar-powered airship. The robot precursor would be 31 meters (102 feet) long, about half the size of a Goodyear blimp; the crewed version would be 130 meters (426 feet) long, about twice the size of a Boeing 747. The top of the airship would be roofed with an array of solar panels, with a gondola slung underneath for instruments and, in the crewed version, a small habitat and the ascent vehicle that the astronauts would use to return to Venus orbit, and then home.
The biggest problem would be to get the airship to Venus. The crewed mission would involve a Venus rendezvous, with the airship itself, folded up inside a spacecraft, sent to Venus ahead of time. Humans would follow in a transit vehicle, hooking up with the airship in Venus orbit. The airship would descend into the Venus atmosphere in an aeroshell, burning off its entry velocity, to then deploy a parachute, with the aeroshell falling away. The airship would inflate, and discard the parachute.
The atmosphere is most stable near the equator of Venus, but there are high winds of about 360 KPH (225 MPH), circulating around the planet in 110 hours. The airship would effectively orbit Venus every 110 hours; the winds veer north, so during the dark period, the airship would drift north along with the winds to conserve power, then push back south during the light period. Venus itself has a very slow rotation, the day being longer than the year, but it doesn't matter, since the two astronauts won't ever set foot on the planet's surface. They would do science from a habitat, hauled underneath the airship, working with robots and static stations landed by other missions.
The airship has a payload capacity of 70,000 kilograms (154,350 pounds). Of that payload, about 85% would be the ascent vehicle, which would take the astronauts back to Venus orbit. They would climb into a tiny capsule, with the ascent vehicle blasting them back into space, and the capsule hooking up with the interplanetary vehicle.
The HAVOC team believes that "Venus First" is the best strategy for crewed planetary exploration, easier than a Mars expedition but paving the way for one. It would require development of the Block II Space Launch System booster, which will not be ready to fly for over a decade. Studies are being performed on teflon coatings that would protect solar cells and other airship elements from the sulfuric acid droplets found in the Venusian atmosphere, and also for figuring out how to cram an airship into an aeroshell, then deploy it. The prospect of a Venus mission appears remote at the present time, but advocates are hopeful that they will live to see it happen.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* MEASLES RESURGENT: Measles was declared eliminated from the US in 2000. Unfortunately, the disease can still be imported from elsewhere; America is now undergoing the worst resurgence of the disease since that time. It started in January at the Disneyland Resort in Anaheim, California, with over a hundred people from 14 states infected.
Measles was previously discussed here in 2012. An article from AAAS SCIENCE Online ("What Does Measles Actually Do?" by David Shultz, 30 January 2015) gave the dirty lowdown on measles. Measles is caused by a paramyxovirus from the genus Morbillivirus; it is notable among infectious diseases in being unusually contagious, with more than 90% of the people who come in contact with a carrier ending up infected. In the absence of widespread vaccination, the average person with measles will infect an average of 12 to 18 other people. In contrast, ebola is typically transmitted to 1.5 to 2.5 people.
Children are particularly likely to suffer complications as a result of a measles infection. Although the overall mortality rate for children who get measles is only between 0.1% and 0.2%, as many as one out of every 20 children will also develop pneumonia. The disease symptoms can be dealt with using common anti-inflammatory drugs, hydration, and rest -- but like many other viral illnesses, there is no cure, antibiotics are worthless. Death rates from measles are much higher in developing countries.
Measles virus is spread from through the air by the spew from coughing. The virus tends to exploit the immune system, being picked up by the "first defenders", macrophages and dendritic cells, which carry it to the lymph nodes, where they infect B and T cells. These infected cells then carry the virus through the body, which targets spleen, lymph nodes, liver, thymus, skin, and lungs. In about one in a thousand cases, the virus can cross the blood-brain barrier and cause dangerous swelling of the brain. The infection of the lung cells leads to a hacking cough that keeps the virus in circulation.
Measles is best known for the rash it causes, with flat red blotches appearing on the face, then spreading down to the feet in the course of a few days. The rash is due to inflammation when the measles virus infect capillaries in the skin; immune cells try to counter the infection by releasing chemicals such as nitric oxide and histamines, which destroy the viral invaders and call other immune cells into action. These same chemicals, however, cause swelling and damage to host cells, resulting in the usually itchy skin rash, which is often accompanied by a fever that can reach 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit).
Although there were no more than 250 cases of measles in the US per year from 2001 through 2013, there were 644 cases from 14 separate outbreaks in 2014. The high count so far in 2015 indicates that this year is likely to be worse, possibly much worse. The primary reason for the resurgence is the number of parents who either don't bother, or refuse, to vaccinate their kids. Vaccination rates must run to at least 92%, or the measles virus will "leak" through the "holes" in herd immunity. Although the vaccine refusal rate in California is only 2.6%, vaccine refusal tends to be "clustered" in certain locations, with the local refusal rates going to 13.5%. In a jam-packed place like Disneyland, measles spreads easily, and from there it can spread far and wide.
* ED: The posting of this article was followed, to no surprise, by the assertions of antivaxxers -- some comments being obvious trash, like vaccines cause autism, that measles is much less dangerous than the vaccine. Some of the other comments were a bit more devious:
Yes indeed, there's always more baloney. The one silver lining in the 2015 measles epidemic is that the antivaxxers are being unflatteringly spotlighted by the news media, which can do their cause, such as it is, no good. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, reflecting on the measles outbreak, made some dodgy comments about vaccination -- to be promptly called to task for it in the press. Rightfully so: undistinguished folk talking trash in a blog are monkey business as usual, but those in positions of public authority have influence, and are accountable for their actions.
Christie quickly backtracked, and being a smart guy, it seems unlikely he will shoot himself in the foot in that particular way again. Once politicians recognize that a certain issue is a no-win game -- that they can't make one faction happy without incurring the equivalent wrath of another, and the majority of the voters don't really care one way or another -- they have an incentive to avoid it.
However, a Dr. Jane Orient of the Association of American Physicians & Surgeons told the WORLD NET DAILY website in an interview that she doesn't disagree with anything Christie said in his initial statement:
Vaccines are a medical procedure, and we don't know fully what the risks are because testing is limited. There are not enough studies that follow those who receive vaccines over a long enough time period, and there are suspicions that the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) is not being altogether honest.
The bland and professional-sounding title "Association of American Physicians & Surgeons (AAPS)", in conjunction with the troglodyte-Right WORLD "NUT" DAILY website, immediately set off alarms. According to Wikipedia, AAPS is not to be confused with the Association of American Physicians or the American Association of Physician Specialists, both of which really are professional groups. AAPS, in contrast, is a political action organization; THE GUARDIAN's medical columnist, Ben Goldacre, called the AAPS JOURNAL an "in-house magazine of a rightwing US pressure group well known for polemics on homosexuality, abortion and vaccines."
I find such fake science organizations low comedy. Scholars are hardly celebrities in the USA -- but they have enough implied authority that members of the fringe, while trashing scholarship, feel compelled to pretend to be scholars themselves. If not at all convincingly: a 2007 essay on the connection between HIV and AIDS published in the AAPS JOURNAL concluded:
There remain many reasons for doubting the HIV = AIDS hypothesis, or even for positively denying it. The truth regarding the cause of AIDS will only be established through civil, dispassionate scientific discussion, not by marginalizing or suppressing dissent. Furthermore, the doubts raised here indicate a need for additional research that explores alternative hypotheses.
Enough rope; enough said.BACK_TO_TOP
* POST-REVOLUTIONARY IRAN (2): Oil money has done much to transform Iran. Tehran is a shiny city of modern skyscrapers and infrastructure, compared more to Madrid than to Cairo. Modernization has changed the smaller cities and towns even more. Although the sanctions imposed since 2011 have crimped the boom, Iranians generally live better than most of their neighbors. Facebook is used by half the country's youth, and government officials put out statements on Twitter -- despite the fact that both are supposed to be banned.
Iranian media is controlled by the state, but it's like trying to block a firehose with a sieve. Iranians access foreign news sites, including some that focus on Iran, and download Western entertainment videos, including pornography. The government has attempted to create a closed national internet like that of China, and failed miserably. One Iranian blogger says: "The government tries to set up controls, but people are well versed in evading them."
The hunger for information is driven by the fact that Iranian education levels are high. One of the most positive achievements of the Islamic Republic has been its promotion of education, with education levels now comparable to those of Western countries. In 2009, over a third of college-age Iranians were in universities; now the number is over half, mostly thanks to the massive expansion of the Azad University system, with over a hundred campuses and 1.5 million students. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has a law degree from a Scots university; his cabinet has more PhDs from American universities than Barack Obama's cabinet. Over the past decade, the number of scientific papers published by Iran has increased almost sixfold; Iran also published three times more books than all the Arab nations combined.
The government worked hard to provide education to poor and rural families, with the not entirely expected result of encouraging independent thinking. The arts are still monitored by the state, but the leash tends to be loose, and the predominance of religious propaganda has faded. The higher education levels have also made Iran a middle-aged country: birth rates zoomed after the revolution, but with higher education they began falling, and are now under pre-revolutionary levels. The largest group in the country is in the age range of 25 to 29, at a time of life when they are growing less interested in political activism and more interested in raising a family.
As a consequence, the age of incendiary politics is fading out as well. In the 2013 presidential election the political debate, even among conservatives, was over who was the best manager. Few mentioned religion, and in fact it was seen as a vote-loser. Iranians have had enough of mass mobilization and indoctrination; few are now inclined to accept the proposition that the leadership is wiser than themselves, and should be blindly obeyed.
Rouhani's government embodies this change in mindset, his government being staffed by pragmatic technocrats, not ideologues. Government controls on expression have loosened, one Iranian journalist saying: "We can now print things that were off-limits last year -- but of course, not everything." The pressure on wearing headscarves has lessened, though femmes who don't wear them may be detained by the "morality police".
Rouhani is taking a gentler line with the outside world than did his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who projected an image of a dangerous nut. In an essay printed in THE WASHINGTON POST in 2013, Rouhani said: "We must work together to end the unhealthy rivalries and interferences that fuel violence and drive us apart." The questions remain: does he really mean it, and even if he does, will the rest of Iran's political establishment go along? [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* THE COLD WAR (55): One of President Eisenhower's aggravations in the confrontation between East and West was his lack of intelligence on Red capabilities and intent. The leadership of the Communist states had little interest in transparency, being much more inclined to secrecy, and what was announced by state news could not be seen as anything more than propaganda. Ike, in his days as a warfighter, had learned how to recognize good intelligence from poor intelligence, and he had to judge what he had as "poor". He also knew that intelligence provided by the armed services was often self-serving and not always to be trusted. More direct access to intelligence was one of the reasons Truman had set up the CIA, and one of the reasons Eisenhower elevated the agency in his administration.
However, the question remained of how to obtain valid intelligence. During 1954, Eisenhower had set up a "Technological Capabilities Panel (TCP)", chaired by James Killian of the Massachusetts Institute Of Technology (MIT) to provide a broad evaluation of the issue. The TCP report, titled "Meeting The Threat Of Surprise Attack", was handed over to the president in early 1955.
The "Killian Report", as it was popularly named, was very comprehensive, covering both offensive and defensive systems. The report suggested that work on intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) be accelerated. Since 1951, the Air Force had been working on an ICBM, the "Atlas", but hadn't made very much progress on it. As originally conceived, given the hefty size of nuclear weapons of the time, Atlas had to be huge; but new developments in warheads had recently cut their size down, making Atlas much more practical. Atlas was still a major technical challenge. One difficulty with large rockets is that, as one uses up fuel, it still ends up carrying the dead weight of its airframe around. The trick is to use "stages", in effect a rocket mounted on another rocket, with the first stage discarded once it's used up its fuel, and the smaller second stage being ignited to continue in flight. This is tricky, effectively launching a rocket from on top of another rocket while the assembly is flying at high speed, and the Atlas designers came up with a compromise. At take-off, Atlas would have three rocket engines, but two of them were attached to a "skirt" around the base of the rocket. Once it got up to speed, it would discard the skirt, leaving a single engine burning until fuel was exhausted.
Work was also recommended on both land and sea based intermediate range ballistic missiles (IRBM), and made general recommendations for the development of space assets, such as communications satellites and in particular spy satellites. Although the Air Force would soon begin formal development work on spy satellites, they were clearly well down the road. As an interim solution, the report pushed the development of a piloted spyplane that could overfly adversary territory at high altitudes. It would carry advanced reconnaissance cameras developed by Edwin Land of Polaroid, a member of the TCP.
From early in the Cold War, Western reconnaissance aircraft had been keeping an eye on the Communist Bloc in general and the USSR in specific -- usually from international airspace, but with occasional, extremely hazardous overflights of the USSR itself. A reconnaissance aircraft that could fly above the reach of Soviet anti-aircraft defenses would be able to make such overflights with impunity. The program was already in progress. Aircraft manufacturer Lockheed had developed a supersonic jet fighter, the F-104 Starfighter, and proposed a reconnaissance aircraft derived from it, with very long wings and optimizations for high-altitude flight.
The Air Force had other ideas, but the CIA was very interested; Eisenhower wanted the agency to take charge of the program, fearing that the Air Force would give him biased intelligence if they were in the pilot's seat. An initial contract for a batch of the aircraft, which was nicknamed "Angel" by Lockheed engineers, had been placed in December. The program was under the direction of a highly competent CIA officer named Richard Bissell.
Following up the series of RAND reports on spy satellites generated over the past few years, in March 1956, the Air Force formally began a development program, codenamed "Weapon System (WS) 117L". Initial concepts envisioned two types of spy satellites:
* Soviet efforts paralleled American work. From 1953, Sergei Korolyev's OKB-1 missile design bureau had been performing studies on the USSR's answer to Atlas, the "R-7" ICBM, with the design becoming solid in 1954. To deal with the staging problem, Korolyev used "clustering" -- in the case of the R-7, in effect surrounding a rocket with four other similar rockets. The cluster of all five rockets would be ignited at launch, with the four "strap-on" boosters discarded once the assembly was up to speed, leaving the central "core" stage to burn to fuel depletion.
The Soviet Union had no good way to deliver nuclear weapons to the US; in principle, the R-7 promised to be the "equalizer" the USSR needed for protection against an American nuclear strike. Korolyev also wanted to use the R-7 to put a heavy satellite into orbit, with work on such a spacecraft -- designated "Object D" -- initiated in 1956. The Object D was intended as a science platform, but the work dovetailed with studies on how the same technology could be used for a spy satellite, the "Object OD-1".
While the Soviets pushed forward on ICBMs, they also demonstrated some willingness to reduce tensions. In early May 1955, the Kremlin announced that the USSR wanted to settle the question of Austria, with a peace treaty consequently signed on 15 May. The treaty guaranteed the independence of Austria, with foreign occupation forces then finally withdrawing. Austria became formally neutral, not a member of NATO, with limitations on its military forces. Nazi / Fascist political groups were banned. On the face of it, that would have been a good solution for Germany, but it wasn't going to happen. [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* GIMMICKS & GADGETS: As discussed by an article from THE ECONOMIST, ("A Virtual Revolution", 13 September 2014), TV channels in Saudi Arabia tend toward the dull, being characterized by obedient state-run news, or dull sermons. However, 60% of Saudis are online, and so they do have access to YouTube and other diverse online information sources.
An industry has emerged in Saudi Arabia, mostly focused in the relatively cosmopolitan city of Jeddah, to service this market. One Saudi firm, UTURN Entertainment, produces a wide variety of fare, from cookery and religious programs, to talk shows and dramas. UTURN's YouTube channel has 300,000 subscribers -- which is not too surprising, since Saudis watch an average of seven YouTube videos a day.
Twitter is also big in Saudi Arabia, the number of users having risen 45% from 2012 to 2013; and about 8 million of the country's 31 million people have Facebook accounts. The users are overwhelmingly male, in the 26 to 34 age range. The online world gives them a freedom they simply don't otherwise have in straitlaced and censored Saudi society. A student in Riyadh says: "The rulers can't hide anything any more."
However, online access isn't entirely liberating. The five most-followed Twitter accounts are of clerics, while jihadists are notorious for their use of online services. The online world is also monitored by the state, forcing users to be circumspect, since they know what will happen to them if they're not. On 25 June 2014, a Saudi court sentenced Fawzan al-Harbi, to seven years in lockup for disseminating information "harmful to the public order", in accordance with a cybercrime law passed in 2007.
* While I don't have an iPhone, I do like cute gimmicks. As discussed by an article from WIRED Online blogs ("New Case Turns Your iPhone Into An Interchangeable-Lens Camera" by Tim Moynihan, 27 January 2015), there are plenty of lens enhancements to boost an iPhone's built-in camera -- one being from a startup named Moment Lens, which sells 60-millimeter telephone lens and 18-millimeter wide-angle lens attachments. However, Moment is now breaking new ground, having begun a Kickstarter campaign for an interchangeable-lens camera system for the iPhone 6.
The Moment Case -- to be designed first for the iPhone 6, then possibly the iPhone 6 Plus and popular Android phones later -- will sense when a lens is mounted and communicate to the phone via Bluetooth LE. Once user Alex screws a lens onto the case's bayonet mount and the case pairs up with the phone, the Moment's free iPhone app can be used to tweak the camera's focus and exposure.
The case is also designed to make the iPhone feel more like a camera; it has a physical shutter button on top, a rubberized grip on the back, and the bottom has aluminum loopholes so Alex can fasten a strap for carriage. Just like on a real camera, half-pressing the physical shutter button locks focus, with on-screen sliders then being used to tweak exposure levels. The app offers a different set of options, depending on which lens is mounted, and has an instructional capability to help Alex get better shots.
The case is battery-operated, with a user-replaceable non-rechargeable coin cell, providing an endurance of at least six months. Right now, Moment is asking $49 USD for a Moment Case in all-black, or white with a black grip; $129 USD for the case with one lens; $199 USD for the case with both lenses; and $299 USD for a special wooden version of the case with both lenses. Moment is hinting about new lenses, no comment on whether third parties will play or not. I have zero real use for this myself, but I'd sure like to play with it a bit.
* In local gimmick news, the City of Loveland, Colorado, has obtained six new "hydraulic hybrid" trash trucks from Parker RunWise of Columbus, Ohio. I find it a little difficult to think of them as "hybrids", since all they've really got is a regenerative braking scheme: when a driver applies the brakes, the braking system pressurizes a hydraulic reservoir, when the driver hits the throttle, the hydraulic pressure is used to help get the truck rolling. The concept was mentioned here in early 2013, UPS having adopted it.
However, the scheme works perfectly well for the start-stop operation of a trash truck. It also saves wear on brakes, with the result that brakes will only need to be replaced once during the ten-year life cycle of a truck, instead of every year. The system is expected to pay itself off in a bit over six years. I haven't seen the trucks in person yet, but they are decorated with a Loveland landscape image, with trees in fall foliage and the Rockies in the background. It appears from photographs of Parker RunWise trash trucks that they are usually delivered with such imagery, as defined by each customer.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* THE WAR BUSINESS: As discussed by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("The Case For Defence", 19 July 2014), the world's arms manufacturers are going through a lean period. To be sure, there are big contracts up for grabs to make bombers, trainers, and drones -- but the USA, the world's biggest buyer of weapons, and other rich-world governments are struggling with deficits. As a result, the revenues of 17 of the top 20 American weapons-makers shrank in 2013. The US-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan had helped to push global spending to a record $1.7 trillion USD in 2008, but since then, spending has fallen by $100 billion USD.
The good news for arms manufacturers is that they've likely seen the worst. In the USA, Congress has reversed some of the severe cuts automatically imposed by the budget sequester, while in Europe, the rate of decline is slowing down. Increasing wealth in emerging economies and new threats in Syria, Iraq and the South China Sea are encouraging rapid growth of military spending in Asia, the Middle East and Latin America. The market is expected to bottom out in 2015.
Although the Pentagon's budget is as big as that of the next 15 defense ministries combined, its financial resources have never been unlimited, and they are now at a level that makes meeting commitments difficult. The US military is, as a result, more focused on "make do and mend", upgrading existing kit -- the most striking example being the Boeing B-52 bomber, which has been continuously updated in over a half-century of service, and which is expected to be still flying past its 90th birthday in 2042. At the moment, there's an effort to give the B-52 modern engines; that's been tried before, but the need to keep the bomber flying, and the lessons of past failures, may get results this time.
The Pentagon has moved away from "cost-plus" contracts, which almost encourage contractors to overspend, since they end up with a profit margin no matter how inefficient they are. However, an internal assessment showed that under the alternative -- fixed-price contracts -- contractors have sometimes ended up with profit margins "spectacularly" higher than they would have obtained with cost-plus deals. As a result, the Pentagon is seeking a more flexible formula that will keep a lid on costs while still giving a contractor an attractive profit.
The US military is also taking an interest in innovative deals being struck across the Atlantic, particularly in the UK, to reduce defense costs. Britain awarded a contract with BAE Systems in 2009 for maintenance of the Royal Air Force's Eurofighter Typhoon jets that yields "strike power by the hour", and has outsourced maintenance for cargolifters to Flybe, a budget airline. There was even a move to outsource all UK military procurement -- though the decision was made not to.
The defense drawdown during the 1990s in the wake of the end of the Cold War resulted in a wave of defense consolidation. This time around, the Pentagon has indicated that further consolidation is out, since it would be sure to create monolithic monopolies. There's also been resistance against further consolidation in Europe -- with the result overall that defense contractors, unable to merge, have been forced to downsize. Although budgets aren't likely to fall much further, defense ministries have become more demanding, continuing the squeeze on profitability.
One approach is to find new, civilian markets. Some big defense players, such as Boeing and UTC -- parent of engine-maker Pratt & Whitney -- actually have more civilian business than military business. However, many past attempts by big defense firms to diversify into non-military have been "unblemished by success", in the words of Norman Augustine, a former Lockheed boss. The military tends to demand highly qualified and robust products that are usually overkill for civilian use; to the extent that defense contractors have tech that could be applied to civilian markets, it is specialized, and they are up against much smaller and nimbler civilian outfits. Makers of swords aren't notably good at producing plowshares.
Export sales of weapons help, but not that much. Although there's a big market overall, it's highly fragmented, consisting of many small buyers -- Brazil's defense budget, for example, is 4% that of America's. To make sales more difficult, buyer nations often insist that some manufacturing be done locally. Although India is one of the biggest buyers these days, it is a tough customer, imposing a wide range of conditions in return for arms contracts. International competition is tough as well, with much Russian and Chinese gear being perfectly effective and having a reputation for ruggedness, but much cheaper than Western equivalents.
Those arms-makers that are part of big civilian aerospace conglomerates can spread their research and development overheads across a broader base; they also have a better chance of cross-selling to the defense ministries of countries whose state airlines are already their customers. Airbus's recent restructuring was in part conducted with such notions in mind. Civil aerospace is booming, giving such firms strong financial firepower. Defense firms can look forward to bigger military budgets in the future -- but they also can see that the ground rules have changed to the tougher, and are going to stay that way.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* DELPHI DOES ROBOCARS: As discussed by an article from WIRED Online blogs ("A System That Any Automaker Can Use To Build Self-Driving Cars" by Alex Davies, 18 November 2014), auto parts manufacturer Delphi traces its history back to the dawn of the automobile, building the first electric starter in 1911, the first in-dash car radio in 1936, and the first integrated navigation system in 1994.
Now Delphi is working on robot cars, having put together an Audi robocar to show auto manufacturers what Delphi systems can do for them. Delphi got into automotive robotics in the late 1990s, introducing a radar system that would work with an adaptive cruise control to avoid crashes. From the turn of the century, the safety systems became more diverse and capable, leading inevitably to a robot car. According to John Absmeier, director of Delphi's R&D lab in Silicon Valley: "The reality of automated driving is already here. It's just been labeled mostly as active safety or advanced driver assistance. But really, when you take that one step further and marry it with some intelligent software, then you make automation. And you make cars that can navigate themselves."
Delphi partnered with Ottomatika, a company spun out of Carnegie Mellon University's autonomous vehicle research efforts to commercialize its technology. Delphi provided the sensors and associated software, while Ottomatika provided the central control system. The result is the "Delphi Automated Driving System", implemented on a 2014 Audi SQ5.
On first sight, the Audi looks like any other car, but under the skin, it's a very smart vehicle. A camera in the windshield keeps an eye on lane lines, road signs, and traffic lights; there's a mid-range radar, with a reach of about 80 meters (260 feet), on each corner of the vehicle, plus one on the front and one in the back. There's also a long-range radar, with a reach of about 180 meters (590 feet), in front and back. Finally, there are four short-range lidars, one on each corner; the radars are hidden in body work, but the lidars need viewports, so they're installed behind acrylic windows.
The SQ5 already had electronic steering and throttle, permitting computer control; the only thing that had to be added was an actuator to control the brakes. Internally, the robot Audi doesn't look much different from a stock Audi, the only immediately noticeable difference being an "autonomous mode" button, twist to turn on, push to turn off. For now, the autonomous mode is very conservative -- accelerating slowly, matching speed of traffic, and not even turning right on a red light.
Although Google wants to see a fully autonomous car in five years, Delphi is conservative in saying when robocars will arrive. Absmeier says that the goal of the effort is less to provide auto makers with a complete solution than to give them the parts to make their own solutions: "The platform enables us to build out all those different components that are required to make an automated driving system in a car, and OEMs can either take the whole package or they can say I want that algorithm and that sensor and that controller, or whatever it is that they need."
* A related, more recent, article published in WIRED Online ("I Rode 500 Miles In A Self-Driving Car", 7 January 2015) put author Alex Davies behind the wheel of an Audi-built robocar, this one being an A7, cruising from Palo Alto, California, to Las Vegas. This Audi robocar can't handle city traffic, but Davies found it did perfectly well on the open highway, saying it seemed like a "glorified version of adaptive cruise control". OK, he admitted that was an understatement, but Audi still says they expect to have product in three to five years.
I was thinking myself that a robot car that can only handle freeways would still be extremely useful. My regular trips from Loveland, Colorado, to Spokane, Washington, are just a bit too long to be reasonably done in a single day's time, demanding a night stop and a motel room. If the car could handle the freeway by itself, I could get up before midnight, drive onto the freeway, point the car in the right direction, press the autonomous mode button, and crash out until sunrise -- then stop for breakfast and refueling.
If it wasn't too expensive, it would pay for itself in a few years by eliminating unnecessary intermediate motel stops. The expense is a big catch; I'm sure it'll be a luxury-car option at the outset, and it will take some time to migrate down to the subcompact domain. I also have to think that I wouldn't be able to honestly nap behind the wheel until I got used to automatic cruise in day driving for a time. I think the police will have some problems with people snoozing at the wheel, at least at first, but they'll have to get use to it -- if I'm wearing shades and resting my head back, how could they tell if I was awake or asleep?COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* ANOTHER MONTH: As reported by a note from AAAS SCIENCE Online, a survey conducted by Oklahoma State University demonstrated that 80% of Americans support the mandatory labeling of food containing DNA. We may be hearing about this again, come the next election; the urge to put this proposition to a referendum may be difficult to restrain. I'd certainly think of it.
A less interesting study showed that people with extremist mindsets are more likely to believe conspiracy theories. Gosh, WHO knew?! That's along the lines of my observation that, while it's not a good bet that a conspiracy geek is an antisemite, it is a good bet that an antisemite is a conspiracy geek -- oh, forgive me, I mean "anti-Zionist". One of the peculiarities of such folk is that they insist on the semantic distinction, despite the fact that nobody else either can, or wants to, comprehend the difference.
In more cheerful news of the weird, Bostonians got comedy relief from the intense blizzard that swept New England by somebody who put on an Abominable Snowman costume and strolled the streets. He had troubles hailing a cab, but he was able to get a Twitter account and reassure the world:
@BostonYeti2015: Loves the snow, but wants everyone to be safe.
There were reports (unconfirmed) of school closings due to widespread terror caused by the Yeti. We probably haven't see the last of the Yeti, either; he is likely to show up elsewhere in cities under assault by blizzards in the years to come.
* Regarding my current shortage of pocket money: I was reading an article in THE ECONOMIST that touched on ebooks, with a mention that some authors are making good money self-publishing ebooks on Amazon.com. It didn't seem all that promising to me -- I suspected I'd have to jump through too many hoops, with no promise of enough return for the effort -- but I checked around on publishing Amazon Kindle ebooks, and found that they were in HTML format.
That caught my eye: I wondered if I could simply bundle up one of my website documents and sell it as an ebook. That sounded too easy to be true, but I was curious enough to set up an Amazon Kindle author account and give creating an ebook a shot. I found out, to no surprise, it wasn't true. To make a long story short, Kindle ebooks follow a particular scheme related to MS Word (or equivalently, OpenOffice Writer) formatting, just saved as an HTML file. Trying to shoehorn one of my big website documents into the Kindle ebook format was clearly unworkable. It wasn't just a question of the overhead of reformatting; although one might write a long novel as a Kindle ebook, it's not very good for long technical works, the "window" into the text is just too small. I bailed and shut down my Kindle author account.
However, during the dark hours of the night, I woke up and realized that I might be able to alter some of my smaller documents, convert them to HTML, copy and paste them into Writer, and then make the appropriate formatting tweaks. The next morning, though I was concerned I'd get pulled in up to my shoulder figuring it out, I decided to give it a try. I wouldn't be able to forget about the matter unless I saw it through, either to success or a dead end. With a bit of embarrassment, I revived my Kindle author account.
The first thing to do was to revise my home-grown HTML formatter program to do the appropriate first-phase conversion -- which wasn't that much work, all I needed was some cheap-&-dirty tweaks. The next thing was to figure out how to perform the proper formattings in Writer, which was more problematic. I don't like word processors, I just want to write; please don't hassle me about formatting any more than I need to be, and word processors tend to be fussy to work with. However, though it was indeed troublesome to get Writer to do what I wanted, I persevered, sometimes having to google the world to figure out some function I needed, and made progress.
Although I had feared having to push through an endless thicket of obstacles, I was a bit surprised to find how quickly I ferreted out all I needed to know about Writer, and was flying straight. Indeed, I felt confident that I'd be able to figure out anything else I needed to know about Writer in the future. It's nasty, but not so nasty after I got my head wrapped around it.
Figuring out how to upload the ebook to my Kindle author account was straightforward, more time-consuming than anything else. It took a number of cycles to get on an even keel, but not more than I could have expected. It turns out Amazon is not all that picky about formats, and I found I could devise my own tricks to make my ebooks more readable. I published my first ebook, A SHORT HISTORY OF MONEY, on 27 December. I wasn't expecting to get a sale before the end of the year, but I got one on 31 December, to a Japanese reader, for 166 yen -- a yen's about a penny, BTW.
By the end of January, I'd published eight more ebooks. It took a little time to set my expectations for sales, but at the end of the month, I'd sold ten, and given that I'd started from one title, that means I was doing like two sales per title on the average a month. I figure I should pull in $25 USD in the first payoff, which is my baseline target.
I have over 40 more titles lined up, though I don't think I'll be able to crunch more than four a month out; I got the eight out in January in an initial burst of enthusiasm, but that was eating into time on other work I have to get done, and I want to take the time to do a good job on the ebooks anyway. It might take me to the end of 2016 to get to the fifty titles knocked off; after that, I'll be writing them from scratch, and I won't get out more than two or so a year.
I had to laugh at an ebook on ebook publishing that proclaimed an author could make "A SIX FIGURE INCOME!" -- well, maybe six figures in a penny currency like yen. If I wasn't satisfied with the prospect of making $50 USD per payoff, I would have thought it more bother than it was worth. Like I said, I need the pocket money, and have no other realistic way of making it.
Another nice thing about publishing ebooks is that it makes me feel more like I have a real job, and not just an obsessive hobby. It certainly feels good to get some financial reward, even if petty, for my work. It is said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Wrongo. Payment is.
Amazon also has a scheme for self-publishing print books. I won't be able to consider that until I get to a saturation point on ebooks, and that won't be for several years. If the ebooks never sell more than a few each a month, I doubt I will be inclined to churn out print books; they wouldn't be worth the investment of time. Still, the idea has its attractions. I've never wanted to have to jump through the hoops of dealing with a publisher, but in that case I would be largely my own publisher, Amazon merely being the printer.
* One of the things that I have to do in February that limits my time to work on ebooks is get my taxes done -- I usually like having them complete by March 1. It shouldn't be too difficult. One thing I've already done is update my spreadsheet for Colorado state taxes; the Colorado state tax form is simple, and some years ago I made a spreadsheet version of it, tweaking it every year as per changes to the official form. There was only a single addition to my spreadsheet for the tax year 2014 form: a new entry for "Colorado marijuana business deduction". I won't be getting that deduction.
* Thanks to four readers for their donations to support the websites last month. It is much appreciated.COMMENT ON ARTICLE