* 22 entries including: Cold War (series), post-revolutionary Iran (series), digital modeling of C. elegans, metagenomic study of NYC subway stations, problems with Chinese coal usage, cyber war games, ATM robberies in the UK, authorities versus strong encryption, poor public data in the developing world, and JAGM missile program zigs & zags.
* NEWS COMMENTARY FOR MARCH 2015: As discussed by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("The Pushback", 21 March 2015), the assault of the blood-soaked Islamic State (IS) insurgency on Iraq came as an enormous shock to the governments of Iraq, the US, and Iraq's neighbors in the Middle East. Last summer, IS claimed to have established a "caliphate" in the territory IS fighters had conquered, with a population of 8 million, and seemed poised to seize Baghdad.
Now the IS wave has been halted, and is gradually being driven back. The coalition against IS that was put together by America after Iraqi prime minister Nuri-al Maliki left office in August 2014 now numbers about 60 countries, carrying out a dozen air strikes a day. The US has given weapons to the Iraqi Army and the Kurdish Peshmerga militia -- though most of the burden of the offensive against IS has been borne by Shiite militias, under an umbrella organization named "Hashid al-Shabi", back by the Iranians.
The Iranians are also assisting the Iraqi Army, and have helped set up formidable defenses ringing Baghdad; IS no longer presents any real threat to the city, and life there is more relaxed than it has been for a dozen years, since the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. The Kurds have driven IS out of their territory, and have set up a fortified line to keep them out. Sometimes IS fighters penetrate the line, but Peshmerga fighters drive them back out again. In all, IS has lost a quarter of the territory it held at its peak, as well as thousands of fighters.
There's plenty of replacements, disaffected Muslims from all over the world still being eager to sign up -- but thanks to air power, IS no longer has much interest in stand-up battles, resorting instead to guerrilla tactics, such as IEDs and suicide bombings. IS is in large part supported by oil revenues, but has seen them dry up as air strikes cripple their oil infrastructure. Public services in IS-controlled towns are starting to fall apart. The harsh law enforced, brutally, by IS is also leading to disaffection.
The leading role played by Shiite militias presents a problem to the Americans and their allies, since the territory obtained by IS is mostly Sunni, and the Sunnis living there have every good reason to fear armed Shiites coming into their towns, bent on revenge. The Americans are quick to respond to requests for air support from the Iraqi Army, but reluctant to do so to help Shiite militias, who have ended up getting their fire support from Iran. The current Iraqi government under Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi is working towards a more inclusive government, but there are doubts that he can or is willing to alter Shiite dominance.
Iraqi forces are now moving in on the city of Tikrit; the Americans are providing air support, having made it clear that the militias should withdraw before they did so. There are solid military reasons for doing this, since the presence of the militias would make it difficult for pilots to know who to kill, and the militia drive on the city was much more noisy than effective. Still, the Americans would prefer the militias were out of the battle anyway. There is little doubt that Tikrit will be recaptured, and then action will move on to the bigger prize, Mosul. The days of the Islamic State appear to be numbered -- though what comes after IS remains dangerously uncertain.
* The Wikimedia Foundation, in collaboration with eight other organizations, has now pressed a lawsuit on the US National Security Agency (NSA) and the US Department of Justice (DOJ), the suit claiming that the NSA's mass surveillance efforts violate US laws on freedom of speech, and should be halted.
According to Lila Tretikov, executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation: "By tapping the backbone of the internet, the NSA is straining the backbone of democracy." She adds that such searches cast a "vast net" that inevitably scoops up data unrelated to any specific target, violating the rules governing what the NSA can spy on. Relative to NSA surveillance of Wikipedia, she said: "By violating our users' privacy, the NSA is threatening the intellectual freedom that is central to people's ability to create and understand knowledge."
Other organizations joining the lawsuit include Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International USA, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and the Global Fund for Women. The NSA and DOJ have yet to comment.
This promises to be a very interesting case. The outrage over NSA surveillance has been hot and emotional, but not clearly unjustified; NSA, being a secret organization, necessarily refuses to either confirm or deny its actions, referring discussion of such activities to the agency's political superiors in the White House. The White House, so far, has backed the NSA, which says the agency hasn't "gone rogue", it's doing what it's authorized to do. Since the administration does have to "face the music", the leadership has a disincentive to do things that will get them hanged -- and, at the same time, has a right, not unlimited, to secrecy in matters of internal and external security.
What is more overlooked is that, though of course citizens have rights to privacy, they are necessarily not unlimited, even on the basis of simple logic. Reading someone's emails is illegal without a warrant; in contrast, effectively all activity on Wikipedia is performed in public, as per Wikipedia's charter, with any citizen able to join in. Privacy? What privacy? Anyone can snoop around if they want, how can the government be made an exception? How can anyone complain about the government using bots to crawl the internet, when there's no law against anyone else using them?
Citizens have a right to privacy in their homes, but once they go out on the street, they're exposed to public surveillance, and have no legal basis for complaint. What makes the fuss over privacy particularly ironic is that in practice, vendors collect information on us all the time, everyone knows it, and most of us don't worry about it. That information can be, often is, abused, particularly by the Black Hats -- who are more a clear and present danger to citizens than the NSA. We want to be able to use information ourselves, but we don't want it used against us, and want the authorities to step on the Black Hats.
I find it unlikely that the suit will be decided in the plaintiffs' favor. However, they've still done the right thing in pressing it, since it will help clarify privacy issues for the future. Do we have a right to conceal our emails with hard encryption? The inclination would be to say YES. Do we have a right to conceal our banking and other commercial transactions? While obviously such information cannot be divulged to the world in general, the authorities have always had a right to know such things -- at least, if they can present a warrant or have some other legal authorization. That's not going to change.
The limitations on the right to privacy are not really news. What is new is the era of global digital communications and automated means of monitoring and analyzing them, allowing a level of surveillance that wasn't conceivable before. There's no stopping it, the only question is just what restrictions and safeties have to be added. Once that issue has been resolved -- which admittedly is not going to be either quick or painless -- a later generation will exist in an environment of effectively continuous public surveillance, be perfectly aware of it, and think little of it.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* POST-REVOLUTIONARY IRAN (8): The leadership of the Islamic Republic has always wanted to flex muscles, an urge driven both by revolutionary zeal and by insecurity. The outside world seemed generally antagonistic to the revolution, while Shiite Iran was outnumbered by often-hostile Sunni states in the region.
After thwarting Saddam Hussein's misconceived attempt to crush the Islamic Republic in the 1980s, Iran began to select friends in the region. In Syria, it became the main sponsor of the Assad regime after the collapse of the country's traditional patron, the Soviet Union. In Lebanon, the Islamic Republic supported the Hizbullah militia which became the dominant political force there and, with support from Tehran, proved a formidable adversary to Israel. Iran also sponsored Hamas, the most successful of the Palestinian groups warring against the Israelis; Iranian backing of the struggle against Israel won Iran higher standing in the Arab world.
In the aftermath of the 9-11 terrorist attacks on the USA, America seemed dangerously belligerent at the outset, but George W. Bush's misadventures in the Mideast ended up serving Iran's purposes. The Americans brought down regimes hostile to Iran in Afghanistan and Iraq, with Iran then bolstering Shiite dominance in Iraq. After becoming bogged down in Iraq, American belligerence faded, with the US pulling out in 2011, with little stomach for getting into more fights in the region. To Sunni neighbors, Iran looked like a growing regional threat, working to establish a "Shia crescent" stretching from Tehran via Baghdad and Damascus to Beirut. The Saudis, for once striking the same note as the Israelis, raised concerns about Iran's nuclear program, but there was little prospect of military action to stop it.
Then everything started to go sour for Iran. When the Arab spring began in December 2010, it seemed like yet another plus, a thunderous resonance of the revolutionary spirit that had toppled the Shah, with a promise of the dominance of Islamic parties. However, the uprisings gradually bogged down into chaos, and there was no general enthusiasm for rule by Islamic parties, since they were inclined to much the same authoritarianism that had created the spirit of public rebellion in the first place.
The worst part was Syria; thanks to Iranian support, Bashir Assad's regime did not fall, but it was profoundly weakened, with the country plunged into interminable civil war. The Islamic Republic could not help but be tainted by the violent excesses of the Assad regime in the conflict, with Hizbullah dragged down along with Iran, and Hamas deciding to find a new sponsor, in the form of Qatar. The billions of dollars spent by Iran to prop up Assad aggravated Iran's economic problems, and discontent at home. The rise of the Salafi Islamic State (IS) movement in Syria and Iraq was Iran's worst nightmare, undermining Iraq's Shiite regime and dragging the Americans, however reluctantly, back into Iraq. Nobody talks of a Shia crescent anymore, the worry being about a "Salafi circle", completed by the resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Iran now finds itself increasingly without friends. Even China, Iran's biggest oil customer, voted for sanctions against Iran at the UN. In August 2014, Sudan expelled an Iranian diplomat and closed a cultural center. An Iranian agent in Nigeria, where a Sunni insurgency rages in the northeast, has been jailed for arms smuggling. Ayatollah Khomeini's vision of Iran as leading Muslims against the West is now irrelevant. Indeed, not only do Salafi extremists preach war against the Islamic Republic, so do Shiite extremists, who see the government in Tehran as a corruption of the radical vision.
The Rouhani government has been trying to reach out to neighbors; officials have held talks with the Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia. There is a degree of accommodation between Iran and the US in Baghdad, the Iranians having been instrumental in pressuring Nuri al-Maliki, the unpopular Iraqi prime minister, to step down. There has been cooperation between American forces and Iranian-backed militias on the battlefield. The Iranians have a convergence of interests with the Saudis and others in the region to restore order.
Iran's nuclear program remains a big obstacle, the Saudis threatening to go nuclear if the Iranians do. The threat remains of Israeli military action against Iran's nuclear facilities, with aggravated chaos as the result. In that light, the liabilities of Iran's nuclear ambitions become ever more visible, while the benefits of giving up the Bomb become ever more visible. The Americans are likely to provide some degree of security guarantees as part of the settlement package; in any case, if tensions relax, the US is then likely to start withdrawing the tens of thousands of troops it has stationed in the Gulf. It's expensive to keep them there, and their presence tends to reinforce the image of the US as a military bully.
There doesn't seem any prospect of Iran and the US becoming allies, but America has been distancing itself from the Mideast, and is becoming less partisan in its dealings with states in the region. If Iran and America may not end up friends, they will still be much better off not to be enemies. [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* THE COLD WAR (61): Nerves were frayed in the Kremlin by the turmoil in Eastern Europe, and they had not been made calmer by the report of an intrusion of a Western aircraft over Soviet airspace on 4 July 1956, flying at an astonishing height, well above the reach of Soviet air defenses. It was the Lockheed U-2 spyplane, flying out of a base in West Germany; it had overflown East Germany and Poland in the previous weeks, but this was the first overflight of the USSR itself. Khrushchev was attending American Independence Day celebrations at the US embassy in Moscow at the time, and when he learned of the overflight, he was deeply offended that his act of graciousness to the Americans had been simultaneously answered with an insult.
The U-2 was being operated by a USAF "weather reconnaissance" squadron as a front, with any outsider who got a hint of the aircraft to be told it was for weather observations. The CIA judged that the Soviets had been unable to track the U-2 -- or at least, tried to give Eisenhower the impression that they hadn't -- but Moscow lodged a quietly angry protest on 10 July. On 19 July, the US blandly replied that no US "military planes" had been conducting overflights of the Soviet Union. That was technically true, if disingenuous; the CIA was not an armed military service, which was one of the big reasons why the overflights were entrusted to the agency and not the Air Force. The CIA had even tried to train foreign pilots to fly the U-2, but only the best pilots could fly the notoriously tricky aircraft, and they couldn't find foreign pilots who were good enough.
Still, Eisenhower ordered overflights of Eastern Europe to cease. He knew that reconnaissance missions over adversary territory looked only too much like acts of war, or at the very least preparations for war. He was not only concerned about Soviet outrage; he also worried about American public dismay over a US covert action. However, the overflights proved extremely valuable to the Eisenhower Administration, the spectacular imagery demonstrating that the "bomber gap" was a myth: there were very few heavy bombers at Soviet air bases.
To be sure, there was no way the administration could tell critics about the U-2 overflights, and so no way to halt the obnoxious chatter about the "bomber gap" -- but Eisenhower felt the overflights had proven their value, and he was prepared to selectively continue them. The fact that the Soviet response was relatively muted, with no dire threats of war, encouraged Eisenhower that the risks involved in later overflights were worth taking. The president did, however, insist that each overflight be submitted to him for specific approval.
The unexpected visibility of the U-2 to Soviet radars alarmed Richard Bissell, the CIA program director, but the belief was that the U-2 flew too high to be intercepted. Soviet jet fighters might be able to reach such altitudes on zoom climbs -- the Soviets would try such -- and Soviet surface-to-air missiles could reach such heights, but in either case, their flight controls were likely to be ineffective in the thin air. They wouldn't be able to maneuver and zero in on the U-2, which could take effective evasive action with a slight change in course.
Bissell still began investigations on reducing the U-2's visibility to radar. Nothing that was tried would work out very well, the modifications to the U-2 being cluttered and degrading the spyplane's already troublesome flight characteristics. The "dirty birds", as Lockheed's Kelly Johnson contemptuously referred to them, were abandoned, the dead-end exercise suggesting that a radar-invisible or "stealthy" aircraft, in the modern terminology, would need to be designed from the ground up.
Spy satellites were a better option over the long run, but for the moment the US wasn't in any rush to fly satellites at all. The Vanguard program was not going all that smoothly, to the massive frustration of von Braun and his people. On 20 September 1956, they flew their modified Redstone satellite launcher, named "Jupiter-C", under the cover of a test of re-entry vehicles for missiles. They could have put its final stage into orbit then and there, but politically that was out of the question: they were being watched.
The test was significant, however. One of the long list of problems in developing ICBMs was building a warhead that could survive the high speeds and associated temperatures of re-entering the atmosphere from space. Early concepts had envisioned streamlined re-entry vehicles that could take the heat, but they were a dead end. The solution turned out to be a round-nosed re-entry vehicle, with the nose covered by an "ablative" material that would gradually burn off as it descended. Not only was this an enabling technology for nuclear warheads, it also opened the door to recovering payloads sent into space -- which would prove at least as strategically significant. [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* WINGS & WEAPONS: As reported RUSSIAN TIMES, the Soviet Union had a set of "nuclear trains", each carrying three "RT-23 Molodets" (NATO "SS-24 Scalpel") solid-fuel intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM). The "Combat Railway Missile Complexes", or "BZhRK" in their Russian acronym, were intended to complicate an American "first strike" on Soviet nuclear assets by keeping the missiles on the move. The BZhRK were retired from service after the signing of the START missile treaty in 1993, and eventually decommissioned.
Now the Russian military says the BZhRK is being revived, with five such mobile launch systems, each carrying six "RS-24 Yars" ICBMs, to be in service in five years. The new BZhRK will be named "Barguzin", after the strong eastern wind that blows over Lake Baikal. Like its predecessor, Barguzin's carriages hauling missiles would be disguised as refrigerator cars. However, since a Yars missile only weighs half of what a Molodets missile did, the cars would not need reinforced wheel-sets to carry the load, making them harder to spot. The weight difference also means that a single nuclear train would be able to haul twice as many missiles, though their total "throw weight" would be less. Molodets had ten warheads with a total yield of 5.5 megatons; Yars reportedly has four warheads with a total yield of between 0.4 and 1.2 megatons. The more advanced Yars, however, is more accurate and has greater range.
START expired in 2009, and the Russians claim the mobile ICBMs won't be covered by the NEW START treaty, which went into effect in 2012. The Russians say they are responding to US work on conventional quick-reaction precision-strike ICBMs, which seems a bit contrived -- the US isn't going anywhere on that effort in much of a hurry, nor would they pose much of a threat to Russian ICBMs in hardened silos. It appears more likely that the Russians are asserting their nuclear power to intimidate Western nations concerned about Russian actions in the Ukraine, and elsewhere in the Russian sphere of influence.
The Russians are not neglecting other components of the their strategic nuclear force. They are now replacing their silo-based R-36 (NATO SS-18 SATAN) heavy ICBMs with the new "Sarmat" ICBM, with a range of over 5,500 kilometers (3,400 miles); it will be fully deployed no later than 2020. The Russians are also making noises about the introduction of a new mobile solid-fuel ICBM, the "RS-26", from 2016. No details have been released about either weapon.
* A note from WIRED Online tipped me off to one of the most unique firearms ever: the Russian TOZ-82 / TP-82 survival weapon, part of the kit in Soyuz space capsules from 1986. The TOZ-82 looked a bit like a sawed-off break-open double-barreled shotgun -- a scaled-down one, with bores of 12.5 millimeters (32 gauge), also useful as a flare gun -- but with a pistol grip. It also had a rifle barrel between and below the shotgun barrels, firing a 5.45x39 millimeter round, the same as used by the AK-74 assault rifle; and featured a buttstock that could be clipped on to the base of the handgrip -- the buttstock being useful as a machete / tool when the canvas cover was removed.
The kit included an ammunition belt carrying 11 rounds of 5.45 millimeter rifle ammunition, 10 rounds of birdshot, and 10 rounds of red signal flares. The TOZ-82 was dropped from cosmonaut kit in 2007, when the shelf life of its shotgun shells ran out; it seems there wasn't anything else in Russian service that used 32 gauge shotgun shells.
* As reported by JANE'S IHS Online, while China has been flexing its naval muscles, working towards an aircraft carrier capability, Taiwan has in response now unveiled a 21st-century "carrier-killer" catamaran corvette, the TUO JIANG.
The TUO JIANG has dimensions of 60 by 40 meters (197 x 131 feet), a weight of 500 tonnes (550 tons), a crew of 41, and "stealth" features to make it hard to pick up on radar. It has a top speed of 70 KPH (44 MPH / 38 KT) and a range of 3,700 kilometers (2,300 miles / 2,000 NMI). Gun armament includes a single turreted automatic Otobreda 76-millimeter gun; a Mark 15 Phalanx gatling cannon for defeating projectiles and adversary missiles; and four 12.7-millimeter (0.50-caliber) machine guns for close-range defense.
Its heavy armament consists of eight subsonic Hsiung Feng II (Brave Wind 2 / HF-2) and eight supersonic ramjet-powered Hsiung Feng III (HF-3) anti-ship missiles. Not much has been released about the HF-3, but it is believed to have a speed of Mach 2 to Mach 2.3, and a range of about 150 kilometers (93 miles / 81 NMI). Production began in 2007, the missile already having been deployed on eight CHENG KUNG-class frigates and seven CHING CHIANG-class corvettes in a four-canister configuration. The HF-3 can also be fired from shore-based launchers.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* VIRTUAL WORM: As discussed by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("Computer Worms", 24 May 2014), the internet has been a huge benefit to collaboration, allowing the like-minded all over the world to pool their efforts -- one example being "OpenWorm", an informal collaboration of biologists and computer scientists from the US, the UK, Russia, and elsewhere. In May, the OpenWorm group managed to get over $120,000 USD of seed money to build a computer model of an organism named Caenorhabditis elegans.
C. elegans is a millimeter-long nematode roundworm that inhabits the soils of the world's temperate regions. It's a well-established scientific "lab rat", being relatively simple, transparent, and easy to tend, the result being that it is extremely well understood. Most of these worms are hermaphrodites; the hermaphrodite form has exactly 959 cells, of which 302 are neurons. Thanks to work from the 1970s, researchers have even been able to map out all its neural connections, its "connectome". It was the first, and to this time the only, organism to have its complete connectome documented.
That modest level of detail gives a basis for a useful computer simulation of the worm. According to Stephen Larson, a neuro- and computer scientist who is coordinating the OpenWorm effort, the goal of the exercise is to model the biochemical behavior of every one of the worm's cells, and how they interact with each other. Since C. elegans is commonly used for tests on everything from basic biochemistry to the actions of drugs, the model will be useful to perform "virtual tests" to help focus real ones. The model will also provide a stepping stone to models of more elaborate organisms -- suggesting a future where models of organisms will be common in cyberspace, accessible by anyone with the need.
Since nobody's ever made a computer model of a complete organism, the first problem is to know what to leave out. Each of the cells of C. elegans is a complicated matrix of organelles, enzymes, ion channels, and messenger molecules; duplicating the worm down to the molecular level of its cells would bring even the most powerful supercomputer to its knees. For a start, the OpenWorm team is planning to simulate how the worm's muscle cells work, how its neurons behave, and how electrical impulses move from one to the other.
The virtual worm will be placed in a virtual petri dish, defined by physics formulas, to give it a proving ground to roam through; its virtual muscles will then be jolted by virtual neurons to move it around. The results will be compared with reality, in the form of a database of about 12,000 videos of how C. elegans behaves in the real world. The software model will be modular and easy to tweak, by changing constants in existing code or plugging in new code. More data on the worm is coming in all the time; the model will be updated as it does so.
Being an open effort, anyone who has useful competence can sign up with OpenWorm. Using Kickstarter to obtain seed funds got the project off on a good foot, Larson saying: "We've thought about applying for traditional grants. And the success of this crowd-funding proves that there's public interest in this, which ought to help our case."COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* METAGENOMICS IN THE SUBWAY STATION: As discussed by an article from THE NEW YORK TIMES ("Bubonic Plague in the Subway System? Don't Worry About It" by Anemona Hartocollis, 6 February 2015), researchers at Weill Cornell Medical College decided to perform a metagenomic study of New York City's subway system, which carries a total of about 5.5 million riders on an average weekday. The study, which was named "PathoMap", involved a team of medical students, graduate students, and volunteers that spent 17 months taking samples in triplicate with nylon swabs from benches, doors, handrails, seats, poles, and turnstiles at more than 400 subway stations.
Sequencing of the samples and analysis of the result showed there were hundreds of species of bacteria, most of them harmless, some of them alarming. Given the pervasiveness of micro-organisms, it was not so surprising that only about 0.2% of the DNA was human; what was more surprising was that half the DNA didn't match any known organisms. According to Dr. Christopher E. Mason, lead author of the study: " "People don't look at a subway pole and think, 'It's teeming with life.' After this study, they may. But I want them to think of it the same way you'd look at a rain forest, and be almost in awe and wonder, effectively, that there are all these species present ..."
Mason got the inspiration for the study about four years ago when he dropped his daughter off at day care, to observe the tots there exchanging toys, which often went from one mouth to the next. He wondered: "How much is being transferred, and on which kinds of things?" On consideration, he realized the subway system would be an even more interesting environment for examination.
Microbial diversity was the greatest in the Bronx, followed by Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens, and Staten Island. The human DNA found unsurprisingly matched the ethnic backgrounds of people living in particular areas. What caused a bit of excitement, however, was that the bacterial population included traces of Yersinia pestis, the bacteria responsible for bubonic plague, the Black Death. That suggested the possibility of rats infesting the subway system starting a lethal pandemic among New Yorkers. They also found traces of anthrax.
City officials were quick to respond, publicly announcing that "microbes were found at levels that pose absolutely no danger to human life and health", while calling the study "deeply flawed" and misleading. Mason agreed with the first conclusion, and though he admitted the possibility of false identifications, defended the study: "Our findings indicate a normal, healthy microbiome, and we welcome others to review the publicly available data and run the same analysis." In other words, put up or shut up.
The US sees an average of seven cases of bubonic plague a year, concentrated in the rural West; it is possible visitors carried the bacterium with them. It actually isn't all that strange to find traces of deadly pathogens anywhere, if generally in very low concentrations. Besides, as Mason explains: "The strain of plague from the Middle Ages was a particularly bad strain. New York City today, by comparison, even though some people might complain, it's a far cleaner environment than the Middle Ages."
No doubt city officials were worried about the only-too-human tendency towards hysteria, fearing a loud public outcry and not liking the PathoMap research team encouraging such. There hasn't been any such outcry so far, and the researchers are continuing their studies. They now plan to validate their Yersinia pestis samplings and see if there's any connection with rats, and also genetically probe New York City's populations of cockroaches and bedbugs.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* POST-REVOLUTIONARY IRAN (7): As noted earlier in this series, Iranian hardliners do exploit foreign pressure on Iran to justify repression at home, but they also use sanctions to paper over the fact that Iran's inefficient, corrupt, and bloated economy was headed for a fall anyway. Almost all Iranians receive cash transfers meant for the poor; last year, the state spent $100 billion USD on subsidies, a quarter of GDP. Until recently, diesel cost the equivalent of two American cents per liter. Turkey, which has a population about the same size as Iran's and is more industrialized, consumes about 60% less fuel.
After the revolution, comes the bureaucracy: Iranian government offices are grossly overstaffed. The oil ministry has expanded from 100,000 employees in 2005 to 260,000 today. Many officials are engaged in graft, with international surveys classifying Iran as "highly corrupt". Money ends up pouring down a black hole, while many Iranian firms are on the edge of financial collapse. Banks lend almost exclusively to state-affiliated firms; small and medium-sized enterprises can't get loans. Investment in industry has been decaying steadily. According to an Iranian economist: "The lack of investment capital is the country's biggest problem. We're $300 to $400 billion short every year."
In keeping with the Ayatollah Khomenei's indifference to economics, the government of the Islamic Republic was traditionally not very competent at running the economy -- but Mahmoud Ahmadinejad ran in into the ground. The problem was that, thanks to oil price increases, money was pouring into Iran; Ahmadinejad squandered it on absurd construction initiatives. His prestigious Mehr housing project created 200,000 apartments throughout the country without access to water, gas, or sewerage, and most of them are now empty.
Ahmadinejad did try to boost the private sector by selling state assets; now boards and stockholders have more power to bring inept management to heel. Unfortunately, Iranian private investors didn't have the money to take control of the divested assets, while foreigners were reluctant to invest in Iran because of its high-handed government and dodgy relations with the outside world. The result was that many of the assets were picked up by entities close to the state, even public pension funds; analysts speak of the rise of a "semi-private" sector.
Ahmadinejad also abandoned Iran's traditional push for economic autarky, bringing down tariffs and forging new trade relations. That was a positive step, but it also made Iran more vulnerable to sanctions. Ironically, sanctions did have positive effects on the Iranian economy: Iran's currency, long overvalued, slid downward, and Iranian goods became much more competitive on the export market. Sanctions have also helped keep out foreign competition, and convinced the government of the hazards of relying so heavily on oil exports.
That only mitigates the pain. Iranian leadership now realizes the country has been hit with a "triple whammy" of oil dependency; inefficiencies masked by years of reckless government spending; and sanctions. Hassan Rouhani and the capable technocrats of his government have been able to stabilize the economy, with the results that inflation is down, even with sanctions the trade surplus is up, and subsidies have been cut.
There is much more to do. Fuel is still heavily subsidized, and unemployment remains high; the government also needs to reduce industrial subsidies, cut padded welfare payments, and trim back overstaffed government bureaucracies. Things aren't as bad as they were under US sanctions in the 1980s; for now, Iranians are not going hungry, and the economy is nowhere near collapse. Still, reforms are seen as inevitable, with getting out from under the thumb of sanctions recognized as a prerequisite to making any real progress. [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* THE COLD WAR (60): Khrushchev's "secret" speech, with its denunciations of Stalin, made wider and wider rounds from late February 1956. East Germany's Walter Ulbricht raised no protest against it, but he tried to conceal it from his own people until it became no longer possible to do so. The Polish Communist Party was more enthusiastic, printing thousands of copies and distributing them widely. Israel's intelligence operation, the Mossad, got hold of copy in Warsaw and passed it on to the CIA. The US State Department released a copy to the NEW YORK TIMES, which published it on 4 June 1956; Khrushchev and other Soviet officials refused to confirm or deny its authenticity.
Western leadership thought the speech was a big step in the right direction, but wondered how much it really amounted to, and with good reason. Soviet leadership remained split on de-Stalinization. When the new Yugoslav ambassador to the USSR, Veljko Micunovic, arrived in the Soviet Union in early spring, he saw pictures of Stalin still displayed in airports. When Micunovic met with Khrushchev in Khrushchev's office, the ambassador got a lengthy diatribe against Stalin -- but noticed Stalin's picture was still on the wall. Micunovic found no great enthusiasm for de-Stalinization among other Soviet officials he encountered.
In the wake of Khrushchev's speech, there was agitation in meetings of organizations all up and down the Soviet hierarchy of authority. There were reports of portraits of Stalin being torn down, with an attempt at one local Communist Party meeting to declare Stalin an "enemy of the people". However, the pent-up outrage against him met with strong resistance from those who still admired him. Most of Stalin's defenders could admit that his rule had left something to be desired, but they understood that to attack him was to undermine the Soviet state that he had created.
In response to the turmoil, the Soviet Presidium sent a resolution around the country that condemned "hostile outbursts", with the state newspaper PRAVDA denouncing "slanderous fabrications". On 30 June, the Presidium released what amounted to a sanitized version of Khrushchev's speech, which went no farther than to accuse Stalin of "serious errors".
* The Chinese looked on events in the Soviet Union with great dismay. They hadn't been given any advance warning, and Mao Zedong was flatly contemptuous of Khrushchev's attack on Stalin, telling colleagues that Khrushchev had "made a mess" of things, that he was "just handing the sword to others, helping the tigers harm us."
Mao's implicit defense of Stalin did not ring entirely true, since Stalin had never been notably sympathetic to the Chinese Communist cause in general, nor to Mao Zedong in particular, which Mao understood perfectly well. It rings more true that Mao found the assault on Stalin's reputation the latest of a long string of Soviet annoyances, in hindsight proving the straw that broke Mao's back. According to Dr. Li Zhisui, Mao's personal physician, Mao said that Stalin should have been "criticized but not killed", and concluded that Khrushchev wasn't big enough to rule the USSR. When May Day, the Communist holy day, arrived, there were no images of Stalin gracing Red Square in Moscow -- but they were very much in evidence in Tianenmen Square in Beijing.
At the time, Mao was also focused on nonviolent solutions to problems, with Foreign Minister Zhou Enlai following up internal discussions with a public announcement on 28 June that China was willing to discuss with the Taiwan authorities steps and conditions for the "peaceful liberation of Taiwan." Zhou invited Taiwan to send representatives to begin discussions. Late in the year, Zhou would outline a diplomatic solution to a journalist, saying that after re-unification, the Nationalists would remain in charge on Taiwan, and that Jiang would obtain a high position in the unified Chinese government. Mao, for the moment, was focused on economic reconstruction and not military adventures.
Having embraced the calm and patient approach, at least for the moment, Chinese leadership could only marvel at the rashness of Khrushchev, and the chaos that it had caused. Poland and Hungary were descending into growing unrest. The citizens of both countries had little liking for Communism; the Communist leadership there had no warning of Khrushchev's move either, and could only greet it with pain -- entirely literally in the case of Polish Prime Minister Boleslaw Bierut, who had a heart attack when he read it, and died on 12 March. There were rumors he had committed suicide.
Khrushchev came to Warsaw for Bierut's funeral, staying for a time to lecture the Polish Communist leadership on de-Stalinization -- oblivious to the discomfort he gave them, and their hints that he should go back to Moscow. They didn't see his lectures as very helpful in dealing with Poland's troubles. Poles took to the streets of Poznan in a huge demonstration at the end of June that ended in bloodshed when security forces intervened, with dozens killed.
Hungary remained under the control of Party Secretary Matyas Rakosi, a hard-core Stalinist; yielding to pressure from Moscow, Rakosi had appointed the reformist Imre Nagy as prime minister in 1953. Rakosi now engineered his dismissal; Hungarian public reaction was overwhelmingly negative, but Moscow allowed "that idiot Rakosi", as Khrushchev labeled him, to remain in power -- at least until late June, when unrest in Hungary convinced the Kremlin that Rakosi had to go. In mid-July, Rakosi was replaced by Erno Gero, who turned out to be no improvement. [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* Space launches for February included:
-- 01 FEB 15 / IGS RADAR SPARE -- A Japanese JAXA H-2A booster was launched from Tanegashima at 0121 GMT (local time - 9) to put a "Joho Shushu Eisei / Information Gathering Satellite (IGS)" spysat into orbit. This spacecraft was a spare radar surveillance platform.
The IGS satellites were built by Mitsubishi Electric; Mitsubishi Heavy Industries built the H-2A booster. The IGS constellation, operated by Japan's Cabinet Satellite Intelligence Center, consists of optical and radar imaging spacecraft. This satellite was the 6th radar satellite and the thirteenth overall for IGS, including two prototype optical satellites. Japan initiated the IGS program following North Korea's attempted launch of the Kwangmyongsong-1 satellite in August 1998, with that launch overflying Japan.
The first two IGS satellites -- one an optical imaging spacecraft and the other a radar imager -- were launched together in March 2003, using an H-2A. A second dual launch, later in 2003, ended in failure after one of the H-2A's solid rocket motors failed to separate, that being the only failure the H-2A has suffered in 26 launches to the present. After the failure, IGS launches resumed in 2006 with the deployment of a lone optical satellite; a radar spacecraft followed in 2007, launched along with a prototype second-generation optical satellite.
Launches of operational second-generation satellites began in November 2009 with the fourth IGS Optical spacecraft; another second-generation optical spacecraft followed in September 2011. The radar element of the constellation has also gone to a second generation, with spacecraft launched in December 2011 and January 2013. The 2013 launch carried a prototype for the third-generation optical IGS spacecraft as well.
-- 01 FEB 15 / INMARSAT 5-F2 -- An International Launch Services Proton M Breeze M Enhanced booster was launched from Baikonur at 1231 GMT (local time - 6) to put the "Inmarsat 5-F2" geostationary communications satellite into orbit.
Inmarsat 5 F2 was the second satellite for London-based Inmarsat's $1.6 billion USD Global Xpress system, a next-generation network designed to enable faster data transfer speeds for customers on airplanes, at sea, and in remote regions worldwide. The spacecraft was built by Boeing Satellite Systems and was based on the BSS-702H comsat platform; it had a launch mass of 6.07 tonnes (6.7 tons), a payload of 89 Ka-band transponders, and a 15 year service life. It was placed in the geostationary slot at 55 degrees west longitude.
-- 02 FEB 15 / FAJR -- A Safir two-stage booster, a variant of the Shahab missile, was launched from an unspecified military base in Iran at about 0850 GMT (local time - 3:30) to put the "Fajr (Dawn)" smallsat into orbit. Fajr had a launch mass of 50 kilograms (110 pounds) and carried a low-resolution imaging system. It was the fourth satellite launched by Iran, the biggest to date, following successful space launches in 2009, 2011 and 2012. Two more Iranian satellite launch attempts in 2012 reportedly failed. The Fajr launch occurred during national ceremonies marking the 36th anniversary of the 1979 Iranian Revolution. The Safir rocket used to launch the Fajr satellite was based on the Shahab 3, Iran's most advanced ballistic missile.
-- [11 FEB 15 / IXV -- A Vega booster was launched from Kourou in French Guiana at 1340 GMT (local time + 3) to perform a suborbital test flight of the "Intermediate Experimental Vehicle (IXV)". The IXV was an instrumented prototype of a lifting body re-entry vehicle. The flight lasted about 100 minutes, from liftoff to splashdown in the Pacific. The mission was the first European re-entry testbed to fly since 1998, when ESA launched a blunt Apollo-like capsule on a ballistic flight around Earth on an Ariane 5 rocket.
European engineers are in the early stages of developing a follow-on automated space plane -- the "Program for Reusable In-orbit Demonstrator for Europe (PRICE)" -- that would launch on a Vega rocket into orbit, perform research and deploy or retrieve satellites, and return to Earth for landing on a runway. If fully funded, PRIDE could fly by 2020.
-- 11 FEB 15 / DSCOVR -- A SpaceX Falcon 9 booster was launched from Cape Canaveral at 2303 GMT (local time + 3) to put the "Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR)" spacecraft into space. It was placed at the L1 (Sun-Earth) libration point to give warnings of solar storms for the US Air Force, NOAA, and NASA, as well as observe the sunlit face of the Earth. It was to replace the NASA's Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE) spacecraft which was put into orbit in August 1997. The spacecraft had a launch mass of 570 kilograms (1,257 pounds), and carried a payload of three instruments:
The mission concept, or at least part of it, for DSCOVR was actually suggested in 1998 by US Vice President Al Gore, who proposed boosting climate awareness by broadcasting a live view of the Earth from space on a regular basis. The spacecraft was originally built as "Tirana" and was to be flown on the space shuttle in 2001. It missed that launch window, and was then cancelled by the Bush II Administration. It was mothballed at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, to be pulled out in 2008 for testing to see if it could be flown.
The mission is to only last two years, but the spacecraft has a design lifetime of five years. Although the Falcon 9 first stage was configured for flyback, there was no attempt to land on the SpaceX recovery barge, due to high seas. The stage did, however, perform a "soft landing" in the ocean as a systems test.
-- 17 FEB 15 / PROGRESS 58P (ISS) -- A Soyuz booster was launched from Baikonur at 1100 GMT (local time - 6) to put the "Progress 58P" AKA "M-26M" tanker-freighter spacecraft into orbit on an International Space Station (ISS) supply mission. The spacecraft docked with the ISS Kurs module six hours after launch. It was the 58th Progress mission to the ISS.
-- 27 FEB 15 / COSMOS 2503 (BARS-M) -- A Soyuz 2-1a booster was launched from Plesetsk at 1101 GMT (local time - 4) to put the first "Bars-M" spy satellite into orbit for the Russian military. The spacecraft was designated "Cosmos 2503".
The Bars-M is a new series of survey-mapping satellites, providing wide area imagery with relatively coarse resolution. The Bars-M, formally designated "11F148", replaced the "Yantar-1KFT" film-return satellites operated by Russia, and previously the Soviet Union, between 1981 and 2005; the last was "Cosmos 2415", launched in September 2005. Also known as "Kometa" and "Siluet", the Yantar-1KFT was able to remain in orbit for 45 days at a time before separating its film capsule for return to Earth. It used a spacecraft bus developed by the TsSKB design bureau for the Yantar-2K spacecraft -- a high-resolution film-return optical surveillance satellite, originally launched in 1974 -- integrated with the return capsule from the Zenit series of reconnaissance satellites, the automated version of the Vostok crewed space capsule.
In contrast, Bars-M is an electronic imaging satellite, relaying its imagery to Earth via a datalink. Bars-M spacecraft have a new spacecraft bus, a launch mass of four tonnes (4.4 tons) and an operational design life of five years. The Bars-M spacecraft was developed by TsSKB Progress, with its Karat camera produced by the Leningrad Optical-Mechanical Association (LOMA).
* OTHER SPACE NEWS: As discussed by AVIATION WEEK, the huge "Roc" space-launch booster carrier is now being put together for Stratolaunch Systems by Scaled Composites, at that firm's production facility in Mojave, California. The Roc will be the biggest airplane ever, with twin fuselages and six reconditioned Pratt & Whitney PW4056 turbofan engines, salvaged along with other parts from two ex-United Airlines Boeing 747-400 jetliners.
The Roc is still far from completion. What was more interesting in the article was a description of the three-stage Orbital Sciences "Pegasus II" AKA "Thunderbolt" booster it will straddle-carry to altitude for launch. It will use provided solid rocket motors -- provided by ATK, the firm having merged with Orbital in 2014 -- for the first and second stages, while the third will be powered by two liquid-fueled Aerojet Rocketdyne RL10C engines.
The Thunderbolt will be 40 meters (131 feet) long, will have a launch mass of about 250 tonnes (275 tons), and will be able to put a payload of 6,120 kilograms (13,500 pounds) into low Earth orbit. It will have a payload fairing 5 meters (16.4 feet) in diameter. Test flights of the system will begin in 2016, with operation to service planned for 2018.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* CHINA COAL CRISIS: While the USA is currently flush with natural gas produced by "fracking" technology, China is heavily reliant on coal for energy. As reported by an article from BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK ("China's Unquenchable Thirst For Coal", 5 August 2013), coal is not merely a dirty sort of fuel, extracting and cleaning it also demands large quantities of water. The result is that China is facing a head-on collision between coal and water supplies.
Tens of thousands of China's rivers have dried up since 1990, and those that are still flowing tend to be badly polluted. China's per-capita share of fresh water is 1,730 cubic meters, painfully close to the 1,700 cubic meter threshold that the United Nations judges as "stressed". The situation is worse in the north, where half of China's population, most of its coal, and only a fifth of its water are located. According to a report that Greenpeace commissioned from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, a government plan to boost coal production and build more power plants near mines will drive up industrial demand for water in Inner Mongolia by 141% by 2015 from 2010 levels, causing aquifers to dry up and deserts to expand.
The Chinese government is aware of the threat, and is responding with tougher limits on water usage; a rate scheme that permits steep water rate increases; and plans to spend the equivalent of over $650 billion USD to 2020 to improve water infrastructure. Rules enacted in 2013 require the manufacturing hubs of Jiangsu and Guangdong provinces and Shanghai to reduce water use every year. A major project is under way to divert water from the Yangtze River north -- though analysts suggest that even that won't be nearly enough to head off the water crunch.
Much of the problem is simple inefficiency, studies showing that Chinese industry uses 4 to 10 times as much water per unit of production as is the average for developed countries; similarly, Chinese industry only recycles about 40% of its water, compared to an average of about twice that level for developed countries. That suggests substantial improvement is possible, but improvement can't happen fast enough. Scott Moore, a research fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School's Sustainability Science Program, commented: "In an absolute worst case, you'd see a large-scale shift in economic activity and population further south for lack of water, and manufacturing increasingly moving abroad."
Chinese farmers in coal-mining regions are already feeling the pain, being forced to dig deeper and deeper wells to find clean water. That's if it's even possible to find any clean water; farmers can end up being forced off their land because there is no clean water to grow crops, with the pressure to move enhanced by local officials who are pushing coal mining at the expense of farmers. One woman now waiting for relocation commented: "We're angry because we have to leave. We're worried about moving to a strange place."
* In related news, as reported by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("Limiting The Fallout", 20 July 2013), the Chinese government is also bullish on nuclear power. Chinese citizens aren't necessarily so enthusiastic; traditionally, they just shrugged, but after the nuclear disaster at Fukushima in Japan in 2011, grassroots anti-nuclear activism began to spread in China, with murmurs spreading through the Sina Weibo messaging system.
At the time of the Fukushima accident, China had 13 operational reactors, with plans for a hundred by 2020. In mid-July 2013, citizens of Jiangmen city in Guandong province protested in front of the local government building, carrying signs reading OPPOSE NUCLEAR POLLUTION and GIVE US BACK OUR GREEN HOMELAND. Their target was a nuclear reprocessing facility that was in suspension, the fear being that the project would be reactivated. Public officials assured the protesters that it would not.
The Jiangmen demonstration was the first major public protest against China's efforts to boost nuclear power. The government is proceeding on track, but is also trying to reassure the public as it does so. Chinese citizens willing to protest against nuclear power are still a tiny minority, and for the moment the government can more or less ignore them; but anti-nuclear sentiment seems to be growing.
A follow-on survey on China's environmental problems was run by THE ECONOMIST in August 2013, suggesting the magnitude of the environmental problem that the government faces. There was a ghastly fit of smog blanketing Beijing in January 2013, leading to a mass outcry from citizens over the "airpocalypse". However, China is also suffering from failing water supplies, one component of which was discussed above, as well as dwindling wildlife, and is ramping up carbon emissions. The last of course is more a source of argument than the other issues, but in all cases the government is in a difficult situation in trying to balance environmental troubles against the need to develop the economy.
There is some work on improving energy efficiency, making more use of renewable energy, and recycling, but it's not a first priority. The central government has been surprisingly weak when it comes down to laying down the law to regional governors, who often ignore directives they don't like. Environmental regulatory agencies have traditionally been weak to begin with, lacking enforcement clout.
Protests have been limited and local, but the government is still worried, the fear being that anti-nuclear activism and the like might become causes around which popular resistance to the government accumulates -- a scenario that's the Chinese Communist Party's worst nightmare. Chinese President Xi Jinping has made environmental issues one of his policy planks, and has been enhancing the power of the central government over provincial government; his crackdown on official corruption incorporates a prominent environmental element, Xi saying in 2015: "We are going to punish, with an iron hand, any violators who destroy ecology or the environment, with no exceptions." How much he can accomplish remains to be seen.
* A related article from THE ECONOMIST ("Generational Shift", 25 October 2014) discussed China has achieved remarkable rates of economic growth over the past three decades, in large part by dumping the inefficient central planning system imposed by Mao Zedong. However, some major economic sectors have yet to embrace the market. Power generation is one, and it's becoming a problem.
China's modernization was enabled by electric power, most of it generated by coal. Coal is cheap but dirty, leading to pressures on the government to move towards clean but relatively expensive renewable power. In 2013, for the first time growth in renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar, exceeded growth in coal and nuclear sources -- but reducing dependence on coal is problematic.
The difficulty is that China's power industry is dominated by large state-owned enterprises (SOE) -- monopolistic corporate dinosaurs that do things pretty much as they see fit, with little regulation and no liking for public transparency. Although their bosses are appointed by the central government, they tend to form cozy relationships with regional leaders that allow them to ignore public pressures.
One of the resulting difficulties is with "dispatch" -- that is, determining which power sources will feed the grid at any given time. Since the power SOEs handle dispatch by their own rules, much of China's clean energy production is unused, about 10% overall. In the UK, it's about 2%. Toothless reforms were implemented in 2007; Xi Jinping is committed to reform, but the old dinosaurs of China's power industry are not likely to go to extinction without a fight.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* CYBER WAR GAMES: As discussed by an article from BBC WORLD Online ("What's Involved In Cyber War Games?" by Mark Ward, 16 January 2015), many large companies perform attacks on their own information technology (IT) systems. These attacks are usually known as "penetration tests"; they're actually conducted by outside firms to identify vulnerabilities in IT systems, and mistakes by company personnel that help hackers get in. The organization being tested generally fails -- but that's the point, to figure out what needs to be fixed.
Beyond penetration tests are "war games", in which an organization's personnel know they're going to be attacked, and have to respond. The UK Cyber Security Challenge, a government and industry backed competition, is now conducting a series of war games for some of its entrants that will involve them working in teams to handle a range of different attack scenarios. Earlier simulations run by the challenge involved both high-profile, publicly-announced attacks by hacker-activist groups, along with low-key campaigns involving sophisticated malware and "social engineering" tricks, such as phishing.
Of course, military organizations also conduct cyber war games; NATO regularly runs such exercises, involving the armed services of member states. In November 2014, NATO carried out one of the biggest cyber war games in its history, involving almost 700 soldiers and civilians from 28 separate nations. During the three-day exercise, a cadre of 100 "Black Hat" cyber attackers in a NATO command center in Estonia hit defending "White Hat" teams around Europe with a series of simulated attacks. The attacks ranged from booby-trapped apps sent to Android phones; compromises of computer equipment at firms supplying military materiel; and the penetration of networks run by the armed forces. One attack involved the fictitious kidnapping of the family of a senior NATO official, who was then blackmailed into stealing large amounts of classified data that was handed over to the Black Hats.
Stephanie Daman, chief executive of the Cyber Security Challenge, says that cyber war games are set up to match real-world threats: "You cannot prepare adequate protections against these threats unless you understand their true nature. And to do that you have to be in the attack situation."
Not all such attacks are blatant; some are subtle, breaching security over the long term without being noticed, until the disaster becomes apparent. According to Daman: "Sometimes something that seems very innocuous can build up into a major threat."
Teams are graded in the Challenge on the competence of their response to the attack. Daman say: "You are very much testing resilience and readiness." -- and adds that, in many war game scenarios, failure is expected: "You want to find out what works well, what works badly, and what you can put in place to make it work better next time."
* A related BBC article, released at the same time, announced that the US and the UK will conduct cyber war games against each other later in 2015. The exercises will involve teams set up by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and Britain's MI5 counter-intelligence service. The first war game will involve the Bank of England and commercial banks, targeting the City of London and Wall Street. It will be followed by "further exercises to test critical national infrastructure", according to a British government announcement. A recent report by GCHQ, the UK government's communications security agency, on the issue of cyber attacks said that more than 80% of large UK companies experienced some form of security breach in 2014, and attacks were on the rise.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* POST-REVOLUTIONARY IRAN (6): The Ayatollah Khomeini was an ideologue, focused on principles, and only concerned with practicalities in light of those principles. He famously said: "We did not rise up to get cheaper melons."
Hardliners continued in the path of ideology, no matter the cost, while reformers called, when they dared, for pragmatism, and ducked for cover when they dared too much. With the softening of revolutionary zeal, things are finally changing. Debate in the 2013 elections focused on getting the economy on track, and Hassan Rouhani's main appeal to the voters was that he seemed the most likely of the candidates to do the job. Hardliners were once anti-trade, keeping with the autarkic and socialist sentiment of the revolution -- but now even Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, is a trade advocate. Asked why, a senior government official laughs and says:
My son is in grade two, and was recently standing for election as class president. I had high hopes; he is a popular guy and articulate, too, and yet he lost. I couldn't believe it. I asked him: "What did you campaign for?"
"Justice and dignity", he said.
"And your opponent?"
"He promised the class better lunch and longer breaks between lessons."
Iranians today live much more comfortably than they did a generation ago, but thanks to sanctions, things have been tough since 2011. Says one shopper: "The bazaar is ruined. And I feel ashamed that I can no longer afford the same food. I cannot invite anyone to my home."
Iran's economy is the third-biggest in the Middle East; it has a large industrial base, an educated workforce, and a service sector which in 2012 accounted for over half of the economy. That year, however, GDP fell by 5.8%, according to the central bank, and last year it dropped by another 2%. Unofficial figures are worse. Over the previous decade, the economy had been growing at an average rate of 5.1% a year. When it began its fall, inflation at one point shot up to over 50%, and salaries failed to keep pace. In real terms, private pay dropped by 35% to 40%, and government employees lost up to 50%. At least half the population suffered a dramatic loss of income. Unemployment has skyrocketed, and industrial production is grinding to a halt.
Unsurprisingly, Iranian citizens are unhappy, and the leadership is entirely aware of the fact. Thanks to oil exports, the government was once able to throw money at problems and buy off popular discontent. Now, thanks to the embargo, Iran's coffers are empty and the budget is in deficit. Although conservatives in the US Congress deride the Obama-driven sanctions program as ineffectual, few Iranians would agree. [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* THE COLD WAR (59): Although American spy balloons were an annoyance to the leadership in the Kremlin, in early 1956 Nikita Khrushchev had other things on his mind. The perceptive might have noticed a hint in December 1955, when Stalin's birthday -- usually played up loudly in Soviet state media -- was barely mentioned.
The Twentieth Congress of the Soviet Communist Party convened on 14 February 1956, with over a thousand Party delegates in attendance. This was the first congress since Stalin's death, and the expectation was that Soviet leadership would use the event to articulate the post-Stalin policy of the state. The question: to what extent would the Soviet Union's course be a continuation of Stalin's agenda, or a repudiation of it?
The leadership delivered a set of addresses, most of them doing nothing to rock the boat. It was Khrushchev's report on domestic and foreign policy that diverged from the predictable script. Delegates were uneasy when Khrushchev, naming no names, denounced the "cult of the individual" as "alien to the spirit of Marxist-Leninism", and condemned an "atmosphere of lawlessness and arbitrariness". Who could that have meant but Stalin? Khrushchev then went on to repudiate fundamental tenets of Stalinism: a new world war was not inevitable; different countries might take their own roads to socialism; and a peaceful, non-revolutionary path to socialism might well be possible.
That represented a significant divergence from Stalinist policy, but not a frontal attack against it. That took place on 25 February, the last day of the congress. During a secret morning session, Khrushchev conducted a four-hour denunciation of Stalin's rule, accusing him of megalomania and "grave abuse of power"; speaking of mass arrests and deportations, executions with little or no pretense of due process; and saying that most of the accusations against "enemies of the state" during Stalin's rule had been "absurd, wild, and contrary to common sense," with victims forced to confess under torture.
Delegates were shocked, the initial reaction being a dead silence among the audience; leading to an agitated hum, with components of dread and joy mingled with each other. The address was officially supposed to be secret, but it was widely distributed throughout the USSR, with no strong concern for security, and it was inevitably leaked. The CIA soon got a copy of it via Poland.
It was a bold step for Khrushchev, but not as bold as it seemed on the face of it. He in no way criticized the Soviet system, saying only that Stalin had betrayed Lenin's revolution by taking it into excess. Khrushchev did not fault Stalin for the destruction of real class enemies, such as Trotskyites, only denouncing him for the persecution of loyal Communists. The class enemies? They deserved what they got. Khrushchev pledged to return the Soviet Union to true Marxist-Leninism, meaning no fundamental changes in the structure of the Soviet government to protect against abuses of power, no change in the dubious articulation of the personal rights of Soviet citizens. The Party remained in charge, and would no more accept challenges to its authority now than it had before.
Khrushchev's motives in the denunciation were clearly mixed. The leadership had good cause to want Stalin behind them. He had terrorized the nation, even his chief ministers, in a number of cases arresting family members -- although nobody had been closer to Stalin than Foreign Minister Molotov, Molotov's wife had been arrested in 1949, and not been released until after Stalin's death. All the leadership was sick of mindless fear. However, Khrushchev's denunciations were to a considerable extent a power play, since he denounced all his rivals for power for their complicity in Stalin's crimes, while ignoring or brushing off his own complicity. Stalin was dead, defiance of him was no longer fatal, and attacking him was politically useful.
It was, as a consequence, unsurprising that not all the leadership was enthusiastic about turning on Stalin in such a strong way. The denunciation was a lever that Khrushchev was trying to use against them; and how could Khrushchev denounce Stalin without undermining the structure that Stalin had built? Khrushchev, however tainted himself by his past and his motives, had done the right thing, but he had wounded both himself and the system in doing so, in a way that would never heal.
* Almost as if to take a vacation from the turmoil he had raised at home, in April Khrushchev went to Britain accompanied by Bulganin, following up an invitation from British Prime Minister Anthony Eden the year before. If Khrushchev couldn't swing an invitation from the US, Britain would have to do. The two leaders arrived by Red Navy cruiser and remained for ten days. Khrushchev was very concerned about appearances, preening before going out to make sure he looked his best; Britain's MI5 intelligence service bugged his rooms, but picked up little more than Khrushchev fussing about his attire and such hair as he had. They judged him vain, failing to appreciate that insecurity had at least as much to do with his behavior.
Khrushchev indeed made a good impression on the British; he was rarely at a loss on any subject of discussion, and his humorous common ways of doing things went over well with the British public -- one Labour Party leader thinking he looked like "a rather agreeable pig". There were hiccups on both sides, Khrushchev telling Mrs. Eden at dinner that Soviet missiles "could easily reach your island and quite a bit farther", which Khrushchev admitted later was "a little bit rude". On being booed by the gallery at one event, he asked what "BOO BOO" meant; his hosts reluctantly explained that it was an indication of disapproval, with Khrushchev then saying "boo boo" on occasion to nobody in particularly through the rest of the day.
Still, the trip was a pleasant one for Khrushchev, even it resulted in nothing of much substance: he had gone abroad as the leader of the great Soviet nation, and had been welcomed appropriately. Unfortunately, if Khrushchev was relaxed on his return to Moscow, the sense of relaxation didn't last for long. [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* SCIENCE NOTES: The fact that female spiders and mantises may devour male consorts after mating is well-known. A note from AAAS SCIENCE NOW expanded on this by first pointing out that, when a female mantis is gravid with eggs, she generates pheromones to attract males. That seems straightforward, but a recent study of false garden mantises -- in which a set of females were starved, being fed only a quarter as much as females in a control group -- showed that the starved females actually produced more pheromones than those in the control group.
The starved females attracted twice as many males, even though they typically had only about ten eggs, while well-fed females had 60. Mother Nature, as the saying goes, is a bitch: exploiting males as easy prey gives a selective advantage to female mantises, and since the males are under an unavoidable evolutionary dictate to reproduce, there's not enough selection disadvantage in the ugly ploy to make it die out.
* In another, less malign, example of biological deception, as discussed by an article by Carl Zimmer from NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC Online ("The Caterpillar Defense", 10 December 2014), in 2012 biologists drew attention to a bird named the "cinereous mourner" -- more formally Laniocera hypopyrra -- of the Peruvian rain forests, having found it puzzling.
The puzzle was that mourner chicks are born with a riot of orange plumage. The chicks being defenseless, it seemed strange that they would have plumage that attracted attention, instead of concealing them. What was more puzzling was that when the chicks matured, their plumage turned a dull gray. Why the orange plumage? Was it a warning to predators that the chicks were toxic, with poison in their feathers? That didn't prove to be the case.
Gustavo A. Londono of the University of California at Riverside and his colleagues observed cinereous mourner chicks in the wild, and notice that they crept around in their nests in a way reminiscent of a local caterpillar species, as yet un-named. The caterpillar is big, about 12 centimeters (almost five inches) long, about the same size as the mourner chick. The caterpillars also have long orange hair, and the tips of the hair are toxic. There are fine details in the hair pattern of the caterpillars that are duplicated by the mourner chicks.
The chicks are engaged in what is called "Batesian mimicry" -- the best-known example being butterflies that taste good to predators acquiring colorations of other butterflies that taste bad. However, this is the first time anyone's spotting a case of Batesian mimicry in birds. Londono and his people observed that the predation rate of mourner chicks is high, creating a strong selection pressure to obtain defenses. Evolution, as the saying goes, is cleverer than we are.
* As discussed by an article from CHEMISTRY WORLD Online ("Sunlight Activates Radical Approach To Dengue Eradication" by Vicki Marshall, 11 December 2014), dengue fever is a common tropical disease, the virus that causes it being spread by the Aedes aegypti mosquito, with victims suffering from high fever, joint pain, and vomiting.
Bleach can be added to water to kill mosquito larvae, but bleach is environmentally unfriendly, easily diluted to ineffectiveness during the rainy season, and breaks down readily in sunlight. Now Jadson Belchior and colleagues at the Federal University of Minas Gerais in Brazil have developed an alternate means of killing mosquito larvae, using little porous blocks of concrete that are coated with iron oxide, Fe2O3.
The little blocks, which are reminiscent of and roughly the size of croutons, are thrown in water and float, with solar ultraviolet producing hydroxyl (-OH) radicals from the water, the reaction being catalyzed by the iron oxide. The hydroxyl radicals degrade organic matter, such as bacteria, fungi, and plankton, depriving mosquito larvae of food, and also killing mosquito larvae directly. Tests of the scheme show it to be highly effective; it is also environmentally benign and cheap, with a cost of a US dollar for over 2,000 blocks.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* THE LIVERPOOL BANGERS: As discussed by an article from BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK ("Bomb Spree", by Nick Summers with Nick Lieber, 2 February 2015), on the night of 26:27 September 2013, explosions rocked the darkness in the English towns of Birchwood and Wirral. Thieves had injected oxygen and acetylene gas -- cylinders of which are easily and cheaply obtained, being commonly used to fuel cutting torches -- into automated teller machines (ATM) at two Barclay's banks, to then ignite the mixture. The explosions blew open the ATMs, with thieves hauling off almost 250,000 British pounds.
The authorities were familiar with this gang, since they had already knocked over 26 other ATMs, usually with oxy-acetylene. The first use of gas to blow open ATMs was apparently in Italy in 2001, though early statistics are fuzzy. What is clear is that there were almost 200 such attacks across the Continent in 2005, and they've continued to increase since then. They've taken place around the world, but mostly have been a European phenomenon. The Dutch call the trick "plofkraak", which loosely translates as "boom burglary."
Gas attacks didn't catch on in the UK until 2013. The trailblazers were two small-time burglars, Kurt Beddoes and Craig Cartwright. They recruited help and started focusing on ATMs, usually at Barclays, early in that year -- first trying to use a grinder, then prybars, to get into the machines, but then using gas against an ATM at a supermarket. They didn't breach the ATM that time, but they tried again at a Budgens supermarket in Loughborough on 24 March. Practice makes perfect: they got off with 54,910 pounds.
Gas attacks started proliferating across the UK. In early April, another gang tried to use propane to blow open an ATM at a petrol station near London. The propane worked a bit too well, a huge orange fireball hurling the door of the ATM cash machine across the street, most of the money being incinerated. Gas attacks are tricky and dangerous, it being easy to get burned or otherwise hurt, and they also quickly attract the attention of the authorities. Beddoes and his gang knew better than to hang around the scene of a crime any longer than they absolutely had to, usually escaping via major freeways in a stolen car at insane speeds -- Beddoes took a photo of his speedometer touching 307 KPH (191 MPH) one night.
They hit over a dozen more ATMs in May and June, not always successfully, not always with gas -- but when they scored, they scored big. However, the police were able to get DNA samples linking Cartwright to three of the heists, and they busted him on 3 July 2013. He told the authorities nothing. Beddoes went back to his roots in Liverpool to regroup. The decay of the British industrial Midlands left the city impoverished, a breeding ground for gangs noted for their ruthlessness and viciousness. Liverpool has recovered considerable ground in the past few decades, but Beddoes had no problem finding tough cases to help him blast open ATMs, building up a gang of about ten men.
They started hitting ATMs again in early August, with the attacks centered around Liverpool. Most or all the gang had criminal records and were on the radar of the authorities, and one of the gang members, Thomas Whittington, was arrested on 30 August by police who had tip-offs on his suspicious activities, though they weren't aware that he was associated with the ATM gang. The police were a bit startled to haul in along with him a stolen Audi, prybars, black clothes, balaclavas, gas cylinders, and piles of cash; Whittington blandly told them he knew nothing. The police tipped off a special task force that was trying to nail the ATM gang.
Although the authorities did question gang members, the gangsters still felt confident, or greedy, enough to pull off more ATM heists, leading up to the 26:27 September burglary. That was the end of their crime spree, since the cash they grabbed concealed a GPS tracer. The police descended on the gang in the morning; some of them managed to get away, but the authorities tracked most of them down. Three of them fled to Spain, where they performed gas attacks on ATMs there until Spanish authorities snatched them up. Two were extradited back to the UK, one was released -- much to the annoyance of British prosecutors. One other gang member also remains at large.
Given the spectacular lack of subtlety in the crimes, it's a bit surprising the gang wasn't busted sooner. There were two trials, with Judge Mark Brown at the bench, the prosecutor being Anya Horwood. Brown handed down sentences ranging from 13 to 18 years; although Cartwright and Beddoes were ringleaders, they plea bargained and got some leniency, being sentenced to 17 years. Brown had discretion in the matter, since the crime was effectively unprecedented in the UK: "There are no sentencing guidelines." Brown took advantage of his loose leash, saying: "This was undoubtedly serious organized crime on a significant scale."
Two of the arrested were acquitted, all evidence suggesting they simply were hanging with bad company, in the wrong place at the wrong time. Horwood enjoyed the trial: "It was a fabulous case because it's like a jigsaw, putting all those pieces together. There were no eyewitnesses. It wasn't one of those cases where you've got incontrovertible evidence."
Horwood also saw the gang's crimes as having a bit of dash -- certainly not long on scruples or foresight, but requiring a lot of nerve, and with nobody getting seriously hurt. The gang members didn't cooperate with the law any more than they felt the need to, but it seemed to her they felt there was to it than just the money: "They've never offered any sort of information as to ... why they suddenly went to do this. But you can see footage of it happening on YouTube ... you can imagine, the old bank robbery-type glory of it coming out."
Although gas attacks are continuing, European ATMs increasingly incorporate schemes to thwart them. Oddly, there haven't been any such robberies in the US so far. One suggestion as to why is that skimming charge cards is so easy in the US, where the old insecure magstrip cards remain universal, that nobody needs to go through the effort to blow up ATMs. Much more secure smart cards will be introduced from late 2015 -- and it's not hard to think American crooks will then move on to more dramatic methods of stealing.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* LOCKOUT: As discussed by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("Cryptography For Dummies", 29 November 2014), modern data technology gives us world-spanning access to almost any information we want -- but it has necessarily done so at a cost to personal privacy. However, what one hand takes away, another gives back, since 21st-century technology also provides encryption that is very difficult to crack. The revelations of government surveillance from documents leaked by Edward Snowden, who had worked in the US spy apparatus, have led social-media companies to strengthen encryption of data to protect user privacy.
Why not? Even those who suspect Snowden's revelations are overblown know perfectly well that the internet is frighteningly insecure. Businesses in particular have good reason to fear the public humiliation, not to mention staggering losses, of digital break-ins, and have a clear need for protection.
The authorities are not so happy about tough digital security. Lawmakers in both the US and the UK are pressuring social-media companies to be more cooperative in handing over information on crooks and terrorists using their services. James Comey, the director of the US Federal Bureau of Investigation, has said the encryption of computers, smartphones, and other digital gadgets largely benefits pedophiles, criminals, and terrorists. In Britain, a report into the jihadi-inspired killing of a soldier in London said websites such as Facebook provide a "safe haven for terrorists" to communicate.
Apple and Google, in the crossfire of this shootout, say they are making their mobile operating systems more secure because people and businesses want it and need it. Until recently, there was little security online, and such security as existed was easily penetrated. Now, as Apple's boss Tim Cook commented, the vendors themselves increasingly can't crack it: "We don't have a key." This has the sly context of extricating the vendors from the no-win game of keeping both customers and the authorities happy.
The internet continues to be insecure, but the holes are being plugged up. At present, attachments to emails are not usually encrypted, even though the technology has been available to do so. Apple, for instance, has encrypted all data passing through its FaceTime and iMessage applications from the start. Now WhatsApp, an instant-messaging service owned by Facebook and with more than 600 million users, has adapted a highly regarded open-source system named "TextSecure" for its app running on Android-based devices. TextSecure is extremely effective, and easy to integrate with apps; WhatsApp plans to extend it to devices using other operating systems.
Apple's "Touch ID" fingerprint-recognition technology on iPhones or iPads -- coupled with a "Secure Enclave" encryption scheme, implemented with processor cores featuring encryption hardware -- is a notable step forward, and is likely to be copied by other mobile systems, and can be seen as a step towards robust electronic ID. Late in 2014, Facebook itself launched an experiment to improve access to its service via the TOR network, which makes it very difficult to trace back internet connections to their sources. This would allow access to Facebook in countries like China and Iran, where the authorities are trying to block out the outside world.
Protecting information stored on a device is also becoming easier. Apple and Microsoft have offered "full-disk encryption (FDE)" for their desktop operating systems for years, in which a user's login or other token unlocks an encryption key that is then used for all data read from and written to a disk drive. Destroy the key, and the disk's data is unreadable. FDEs were once klunky and slow, but they are now much easier to turn on and work much more invisibly. Android, Apple's iOS, and other mobile platforms adopted similar forms of encryption a few years ago, but the protection has only recently become complete.
Web browsing is likely to become more secure as well, thanks to the establishment of an industry consortium -- including router-maker Cisco; Mozilla, maker of the Firefox browser; and Akamai, a cloud systems outfit -- under the umbrella of the "Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF)", a digital privacy organization. The group is creating a web security system named "Let's Encrypt" that will use digital certificates to prevent conversations between a browser and an internet server from being intercepted. It will also maintain digital certificates without user intervention. One of the project's leaders, Peter Eckersley of EFF, has high hopes: "Within a year or two, if we complete these projects successfully, internet users should have their browsing, their e-mail and their messaging encrypted in most or all cases by default."
Eckersley points out that the authorities need not be so concerned about encryption: it protects data during transfer and prevents it from being hijacked, but at the endpoints it is not encrypted, and to a degree remains open to examination. Email service providers, for example, will still be able to check email to see if it's spam, and of course such transactions as are made on Amazon.com or other online service are necessarily as open to the authorities as they ever were. We can rightfully insist on the confidentiality of our personal messages; we don't have that same right when it comes to transactions with, say, a bank, or for that matter with any commercial entity.
Making information on such transactions available to the general public is of course unacceptable, but the authorities are able to obtain such data on lawful request, and there's nothing that can really be done, even in legal principle, to stop them. Online services do need to have encryption to protect themselves and their clients from break-ins, and again, do have an obligation to protect the privacy of their clients. However, such services have the keys to their own encryption, and as the saying goes: if the Man has a warrant, he's going to come in. It's people who don't have warrants that worry Eckersley; he wants "to protect everyone else who isn't being targeted for surveillance."COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* POST-REVOLUTIONARY IRAN (5): The US first slapped sanctions on the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979, in response to American diplomats being taken hostage in Tehran. Few of America's allies could protest against the US taking such actions, and there was effectively no protest at home -- indeed, there was mindless howling that the US should go nuclear on Iran. In 1983, further sanctions were imposed in after Iranian-sponsored militants bombed US Marine barracks and the US embassy in Lebanon in 1983. The screws were turned further in the 1990s, and again after the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks on the US; there was no sensible reason to think Iran had anything to do with 9-11, but rage against militant Islam of any form skyrocketed followed the destruction of the World Trade Center.
After 2005, primarily in response to Iran's nuclear program, the web of sanctions spread internationally, with nations from Australia to India jumping on the bandwagon, and the United Nations adding its endorsement. From 2010, the pressure was increased further, only being relaxed from November 2013, while talks were in progress. At first, sanctions were selective, aimed at some of the companies and individuals involved, but the focus gradually expanded to the entire Iranian economy.
The sanctions regime is made up of a bewildering array of laws, executive orders, agency directives, and UN Security Council resolutions. They cover Iranian assets held abroad; foreign aid; visas; insurance; shipping; trade and investment; currency transfers and other transactions, especially those involving the central bank in Tehran; oil sales and the energy sector generally. Even gifts over $100 USD are banned. Some goods and services, notably medicine, are exempt, but the overall effect of the sanctions regime has been to make it very tough for Iranian individuals, companies, banks and state institutions to do business with the outside world. Iran, long dependent on oil exports, has seen them dry up, and it's difficult to get new hardware or spares to support industry.
There's cheating: some non-Western states ignore the sanctions and continue to trade with Iran. The Iranian government tries to pay them in gold and at the very least tacitly accepts smuggling, profits from which have set off a construction boom. However, sanctions don't need to be airtight to be effective: they do enough just by making everything more expensive and painful.
Nobody sensibly doubts they hurt, but do they hurt enough to persuade Iran to change its ways? The obstinacy of Iranian hardliners in the face of Western sanctions against Iran's nuclear program is mirrored by the suspicions of Westerners, notably strong among conservatives in the US Congress, that the Iranians are not negotiating in good faith -- they're just stalling for time until they get the Bomb, in the belief they will then have a stronger bargaining hand to deal with sanctions. Besides, the revolutionary guard makes tons of money through its smuggling operation, so what does the guard care about sanctions?
The first problem with this point of view is that the attitude of Westerners involved in negotiations is the well-established principle for arms treaties of "trust but verify". There's not going to be an agreement that will make it at all easy to get away with cheating. As far as stalling for time goes, if negotiations drag out, sanctions will only continue to get tougher. As far as the revolutionary guard's smuggling operation is concerned, that is balanced in the minds of the guard's top commanders by the pain inflicted by sanctions on the businesses they control.
Besides, although the guards do control a big business empire, it's estimated to still be no more than 10% of the economy -- and it's a hodge-podge of companies, some of them losers, featuring an element of corruption that has brought the government down on wrongdoers and embarrassed guard leadership. It is also possible to overstate the solidarity of the guards in their opposition to change, one former guard commander who fought in the Iran-Iraq war saying: "There are many differences of opinion. It is a vast organization. There is not one single voice. That's not how it works."
Voting records in districts with guards barracks show many of them voted for Rouhani in 2013. Senior guards commanders have also demonstrated that they are willing to accept a nuclear deal. Qassam Suleimani, commander of the Quds Force and high on the US military's list of Iranian Black Hats, got up before parliament in 2013 to defend Mohammed Javad Zarif, the dovish foreign minister and an admirer of the Americans. Muhammed Qalibaf, mayor of Tehran and former head of the guard air arm, has advocated a diplomatic solution. According to an academic close to the guards: "There is very little opposition in principle to a nuclear deal. General Suleimani is prepared to accept a decent deal. Iran does not want to confront America and lose. That's not useful in terms of grand strategy."
In short, Iran's hardliners would give up the Bomb, however reluctantly, if Iran got some respect, in particular security guarantees, from the Americans. It is hard to know how much of the defiant rhetoric of the hardliners is sincere, and how much of it is show. Few are so crazy as to think they could win an all-out military confrontation with the US; Iran's strategy has been just to make the prospect of military action seem expensive to the Americans, both sides understanding that it would be much more expensive for Iran. The spirit of martyrdom having faded, negotiations on Iran's nuclear program now resemble a high-stakes game of cards; a deal seems perfectly possible, it's just a question of how much each side is willing to give. [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* THE COLD WAR (58): President Eisenhower's enthusiasm for flying an artificial Earth satellite was limited, and the American effort to do so was not getting off on the right foot. Vanguard would prove a troubled development program, poorly conceived and managed, with costs ultimately multiplying several times. He considered canceling it, but events would ensure that wouldn't happen. Eisenhower also tried to keep a lid on spending for long-range missiles, anticipating that he would still be accused by Democrats in Congress that he was spending too much. To his surprise, he found they were accusing him of not spending enough. Nobody in Congress could be too tough in the face of the Red Menace.
1956 was an election year; after Eisenhower's heart attack, there was some doubt he would run for re-election, but he eventually announced he would do so. The Democrats were hammering on the weaknesses, both real and imagined, of his administration. Senator Stuart Symington -- a Democrat from Missouri, a secretary of the Air Force under Truman -- was conducting hearings that suggested there was a "bomber gap" between the US and the USSR, with the Soviets fielding more long-range bombers, and paranoia was growing that the Reds were likely ahead in long-range missile development as well. In response to a query on the matter at a press conference on 8 February 1956, Eisenhower said:
Can you picture a war that would be waged with atomic missiles ... ? It would just be complete, indiscriminate destruction, not [war] in any recognizable sense, because [war] is a contest, and you finally get to a point where you are talking merely about race suicide, and nothing else.
Eisenhower resisted the push to accelerate spending on long-range missiles. In hindsight, it is startling that anyone would have demanded that he should hurry things up, given that work on such weapons was running at a frantic pace at the time. A crash program was underway to develop the Atlas ICBM; a program had also been initiated to develop a second ICBM, a two-stage rocket vehicle that was given the name of "Titan". On top of that, worries from intelligence that showed that the Soviets were developing IRBMs that could hit Britain from mobile launchers in East Germany predictably led the Americans to consider similar weapons of their own.
Among other benefits, an IRBM could be developed quickly, providing an interim nuclear strike capability until ICBMs came along. Von Braun and his people at Huntsville came up with a proposal for an American IRBM named "Jupiter", originally conceived of as basically a bigger and better Redstone. The Air Force was the logical home for long-range missiles, but von Braun suggested that the Army could develop it for the Air Force. The Air Force, not surprisingly, wasn't keen on that idea, preferring instead to develop their own IRBM on a fast track, with this weapon to be named "Thor". The Atlas program had been ambitious enough, but now the US was working on Titan and Thor as well, as if America were on a "hot war" footing.
Although the Air Force snubbed von Braun's proposal for Jupiter, he was not a person easily discouraged, and got the Navy interested. The US Navy, not wanting to be sidelined by the Air Force in the strategic nuclear role, needed a long-range missile that could be launched from ships or submarines. Thor was too tall to fit on a submarine, but von Braun managed to squeeze the Jupiter design down so that it would fit, if just barely. Development of Jupiter was approved; in a sense, the Army and Navy had joined forces against the Air Force.
Since the new missiles had clearly outgrown the White Sands test range, launch facilities were being built up at Cape Canaveral on the east coast of Florida. "The Cape", as it would become known, had been selected as a missile test center in 1947, since it had a big open downrange flight path southeast over the Atlantic; the first launches were in 1950, of small science rockets. The Cape had been used primarily for Snark test flights since then. Now it was being built up rapidly.
Eisenhower could only wonder if the US really needed all these weapons. The problem was that he didn't really know what the Soviets were up to. Efforts to penetrate the Iron Curtain were not working out well. In one of the more eccentric tales of the Cold War, in early 1956, under Project GENETRIX, the US sent more than 400 high-altitude balloons over the USSR, carrying automated camera payloads, which were to be snatched out of the sky by a cargo aircraft once they completed their mission. Not many were recovered, with the Soviets becoming more adept in time at shooting them down, and protesting angrily. As might be expected from such a hit-or-miss approach to reconnaissance, those that were recovered revealed little of value.
GENETRIX, in short, was a bust. Eisenhower could only be patient and wait for the CIA to get the U-2 spyplane operational. The CIA was working the bugs out at the time. Pilots had been obtained from the Air Force, "sheep-dipped" to officially become civilians, and had been training to fly the aircraft. It was a very challenging machine to fly, easily affected by crosswinds on landings, and so lightly built that putting it into anything that resembled a dive would tear its wings off. The fanatical insistence on cutting weight to provide height and range also meant it didn't have an ejection seat at the outset.
High-altitude balloons, incidentally, had come into their own following the war, thanks to the invention of low-cost, lightweight polyethylene films. The balloons were being extensively used for high-altitude research, including samplings of the upper atmosphere to detect traces of fallout. Their use for surveillance had generally been a bust; there had also been experiments with using them to disperse biowarfare agents over Red territory, notably rice blasts for attacking Chinese crop production. That effort went nowhere, the US military having no fondness for biological or chemical weapons, finding them of little use on the battlefield. They did have potential as weapons of mass destruction -- but the US had the Bomb, why toy around with such puny weapons?
The high-altitude balloons were only partially inflated at launch, resembling green onions as they rose into the sky. At high altitudes, where the air pressure was so low, they expanded to take on a roughly spherical form. They could move surprisingly fast in the air currents at such heights, and when the Sun was low in the sky, they could shift through vivid colors. Those assigned to chase after the balloons released over the US to ensure recovery of their payloads found they could track them from public reports of "unidentified flying objects (UFO)" that followed the trail of the balloons.
The 1950s were the great age of UFO reportage. They were, to a degree a symptom of Cold War insecurities, reflecting worries of visitations by mysterious, and possibly malign, alien beings. Such themes were common in movies and pop fiction of the time, along with visions of the world after a nuclear apocalypse, or of mad science gone amok. Even as America enjoyed a time of general ease and prosperity, worries about the future and doubts about science were on the rise. [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* GIMMICKS & GADGETS: As discussed by a note from IEEE SPECTRUM Online ("Can Solar Power Go Truly Transparent?" by Dave Levitan, 25 August 2014), there's been a lot of interest in building solar power systems that can be integrated into windows. Unfortunately, so far the proposed schemes have not done a great job of imitating normal glass -- tinting them or darkening them beyond an acceptable level.
Yimu Zhao and his colleagues at the Michigan State University department of chemical engineering think they have the better answer: transparent plastic made with organic luminescent salts that absorb sunlight outside of the visible range, harvesting energy from the ultraviolet and near-infrared, to fluoresce at a longer infrared wavelength. The emitted infrared light is guided by panel through the plastic substrate to its edge, where it is converted into electricity by strips of solar cells.
Efficiency of the scheme is only about 1%, but the MSU researchers think they can get up to 5%. That's not great either, but if the panels are cheap enough, they will still be cost-effective, allowing a considerable amount of power to be obtained from a skyscraper's glass sides. Lunt says their tech might also have applications in power generation for smartphones or tablets.
* As discussed by an article from BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK ("Forget Everything You Didn't Understand About Bitcoin" by Carter Dougherty, 19 January 2015), the bitcoin digital currency scheme has been pretty much a bust for anyone but crooks performing illegal transactions. The value of bitcoins has tanked, and few use it, or can use it, for legal transactions. Jeffrey Robinson, a mouney-laundering expert who wrote the book BITCON, says: "If you measure bitcoin as a transactional currency, the buying of goods and services, bitcoin is a non-event."
However, Robinson agrees that the technology is intriguing, and a startup company named Circle is working to put it to use in currency transfers. Despite global currency markets, transferring money across borders is expensive and troublesome. Circle plans to avoid the overhead by using bitcoin as a "trusted intermediary". For example, if parents in the US want to transfer money to their daughter studying in South Korea, they convert dollars into bitcoins, send the bitcoins to South Korea, where their daughter converts them into won.
Since the conversion would be quick, changes in the value of bitcoins would not be a serious issue. The expense of the transfer would be a fraction of current methods -- which leads to the interesting question of how Circle plans to make money with it. Company officials aren't saying.
* In somewhat related news, I was putting together a long-range financial spreadsheet to cover the rest of my life, and I got to thinking it would be nice, in the era of fully electronic currency, to have currency automatically adjusted to inflation -- the size of a bank account growing or shrinking as prices shift.
I quickly doubted the sensibility of that idea and discarded it; but then I got to thinking that it would still be nice to have some purely virtual "currency" that maintains a constant buying power to which any real-world currency could be compared, if only so I could know how far my money will go at any time. Then, poking through THE ECONOMIST, I realized that's been done: THE ECONOMIST has been running a "Big Mac Index (BMI)" for decades, comparing how much a Big Mac burger costs in different currencies.
OK, changes in the price of the Big Mac are a crude indicator of changes in cost of living, but given what I wanted to accomplish, it would work about as well as anything: in this case, precision would be a joke. I set up another long-range spreadsheet, in which every year I will enter the value of a Big Mac and my current assets, with the assets then translated from dollars into "macs".
The BMI was invented in 1986, in an effort "to make exchange-rate theory a bit more digestible." Oh, the droll British ... there's a variation on it, indexing the typical amount of hours a citizen of one place must work to earn enough to buy a Big Mac, which wouldn't apply to my case. The BMI exercise has been called "burgernomics".
Incidentally, according to the BMI, the cost of a Mac in 1986 was $1.60 USD. My price for a Big Mac is now $4.36 -- which means that, extrapolating to 2016, the price has almost tripled in 30 years, which doesn't seem too bad, some figuring shows it's less than 3.7% inflation a year. I got that price off a teacher's website.
I also ran across a website for the NATIONAL INFLATION ASSOCIATION (NIA) that gave shocking Mac inflation figures, twice or more than the ECONOMIST figures. Then I noticed the subtitle on the website name: "Preparing Americans For Hyperinflation" -- and got suspicious, since inflation is notably low at the present time. The NIA doesn't even rate a Wikipedia article, even though it's otherwise easy to find out about fake professional organizations there. On checking around, I found they seem to be a borderline scam operation, selling stock market picks to suckers, getting them excited with warnings of hyperinflation.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* A WORLD IN THE DARK: As discussed by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("Off The Map", 15 November 2014), much has been made of the ever-growing floods of data that connect modern societies in the 21st century. What may be overlooked is that there are large parts of the world where data amounts to an inconsistent trickle.
In Africa, for a significant example, fewer than half the births are recorded; some countries haven't taken a census in decades. Maps only cover big cities and main streets. In Latin America, the slums that have spontaneously sprung up around many big cities are off the map as well, with governments having only the vaguest guesses of how many inhabitants they have. Afghanistan's last census was in 1979, and it was cut short after census-takers were killed by mujahedin insurgents.
Nongovernmental organizations (NGO) find their efforts in undeveloped countries hobbled by a lack of maps. The highest-profile development exercise, the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDG) was set up in 2000, with ambitious targets to eliminate extreme poverty, cut infant mortality, and get all kids into primary school by 2015 -- but the lack of data makes it difficult to track the effectiveness of MDG work. An independent UN advisory group has found that the availability of data on 55 core indicators has never exceeded 70%.
MDG data is the sketchiest in the smallest, poorest countries, and countries that are trapped in armed conflicts. About half the data that does exist is from estimates and models, not from records or census data. Another third is generated by the governments of the countries, and it's not always very accurate. Methods to use digital technology to help fix the data famine are in discussion, preparatory to setting new and more ambitious development targets to follow the MDGs in 2016.
Efforts are now in progress to fill in the maps. A volunteer effort named "Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team (HOT)" has been getting map information from locals, and hosting "mapathons" to take satellite imagery -- which covers the globe in detail -- and figure out what's on it. On 7 November 2014, a group of charities, including the Red Cross and HOT, unveiled "MissingMaps.org", a joint effort to create free, detailed maps for cities across the developing world. The recent Ebola epidemic in Africa has underlined the need for such maps.
In Kenya and Namibia, mobile phone operators have made their call data records available to researchers working against malaria; by comparing the movements of users with data on outbreaks, they hope to be able to spot where the disease will flare up next. In Uganda, a phone-based medical health records system named MTRAC, has made data on medical cases and supplies much more accurate and timely; the number of facilities that run out of malaria treatments has fallen drastically since the introduction of MTRAC.
There is the irony that citizens tend to distrust attempts to compile data on them -- and not without some good reason, since the data can be misused or willfully misinterpreted. However, if a government is to properly see what needs to be done for its citizens, government officials need to know what's going on. The public cannot demand that government officials serve the citizens, and then keep them completely in the dark on what they need to do.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* JAGM RESURRECTION: The US Army has now put out requests for proposals to obtain a replacement for the Hellfire anti-armor missile. The response of industry observers was: "What, again?"
The tale goes back over a decade, when the Army started a combined-service effort, with the Navy and Marines as partners, to obtain a "Joint Common Missile (JCM)" to replace both the Hellfire, used on helicopters and "slow mover" attack aircraft, like the Predator drone; and the Maverick, used on "fast mover" attack jets. It seemed like a good idea; a development contract was awarded to Lockheed Martin in 2004, with a promised buy of 54,000 missiles.
The UK was already working on a successor to the Hellfire, logically named "Brimstone", for both platforms. A development contract had been awarded to MBDA in 1996, with the Brimstone fielded with the Royal Air Force in 2005. That same year, the budget crunch from the second Iraq war forced the cancellation of JCM -- though at the end of the year, Congress provided funding for further technology development.
JCM was formally given the axe in 2007, but in 2008, the program was resurrected as the "Joint Air To Ground Missile (JAGM)", with technology development contracts awarded to Lockheed Martin and Raytheon. In 2011, JAGM went into advanced development -- and then, in 2012, the Navy and Marines bailed out of the exercise, saying they would stay with Hellfire, Maverick, and the new Small Diameter Bomb II, a lightweight "smart" bomb, developed by Raytheon, incorporating seeker technology developed for JAGM. JAGM survived as a downscaled, Army-only program. In that same year, Brimstone saw its baptism of fire in Libya.
The Army didn't drop the "Joint" from JAGM, which was just as well, since in 2014 the Marines rejoined the program. After all the zigs and zags, JAGM is now to be done in phases, which seems would have been a good idea in the first place:
Although trying to figure out what went wrong with JAGM is troublesome, it appears to have suffered factors outside control of the management, particularly budget cuts. Another difficulty was that the Hellfire seemed generally good enough, while the military was increasingly distracted by new small smart weapons -- 70 millimeter laser-guided rockets, plus miniature smart bombs and missiles -- that were particularly useful for drone carriage, and a very good fit for "dirty little wars".
JAGM seems to be on track for now, but it faces much the same tensions in the future as it did in the past. While Brimstone has been fielded and MBDA is working on next-generation derivatives, the Army does not want a foreign company involved with the program, which involves secret technologies. Of course, if Increment 3 happens, the Navy will likely pick it up. I'd hate to work in defense procurement.
Incidentally, the Raytheon GBU-53 SDB II is currently in live-fire tests, the expectation being that it will go into low-rate initial production later in 2015. Along with the tri-mode seeker, and GPS-INS midcourse guidance, it has a two-way datalink, and multi-function warhead that can destroy either hard or soft targets. An F-15E can carry four SDBs on a stores pylon, meaning it could carry a maximum of 28 such munitions.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* ANOTHER MONTH: Billionaire Warren Buffett, now in his mid-80s and going strong, told FORTUNE magazine that he attributes his get-up-and-go to his unorthodox diet: "I'm one-quarter Coca-Cola." He typically drinks three Cokes during the day, and two at night; he prefers regular Coke at work, and Cherry Coke at home. He typically munches on Utz-brand potato sticks along with his Cokes. He even says he drinks a Coke for breakfast, adding that on that particular morning, he also had chocolate chip ice cream.
At that age and with that kind of financial clout, one does pretty much what one likes, within the bounds of the law. Worries about long term health? Buffett doesn't have a long term. According to Buffett: "I checked the actuarial tables, and the lowest death rate is among six-year-olds. So I decided to eat like a six-year-old. It's the safest course I can take."
I thought I had a sweet tooth, but that blows my doors off. I like Pepsi instead of Coke -- Pepsi is clearly sweeter than Coke, preferable to the real sugar junkie -- but I only have one after I get up, not liking coffee to get my day started, giving me enough of a boost to work out before eating breakfast. I was up to two cans of fizzy drinks a day for a time, but then cut it without any real difficulty to one on the great majority of days. Given that Buffett clearly has a sweet tooth, it's maybe a bit strange that he prefers Coke, but the fact that he owns $16 billion USD in Coke stock might have something to do with it. Maybe he gets an unlimited free supply? Dang, now I've got an itch to buy a can of potato sticks, can't recall having them since I was a kid.
I've been going around a bit with my sister-in-law, who has got on the "sugar is toxic" kick. I suggest to her that reducing consumption of sweets is a good idea, but thinking that sugar is a poison, or worrying about fructose versus sucrose, is mucking around in the noise level of health science -- there's a lot of that going around, and indeed I heard the "sugar is toxic" message back in the 1970s from a popular book by Adelle Davis, the number-one food quack of the era. I don't push the point, my sister-in-law is more into flattery than confrontation, and I have to agree that her overall policy on sugar is wiser than not.
Incidentally, Adelle Davis believed that people who drank a quart of milk a day wouldn't get cancer, and so she drank a quart of milk a day. Do I need to say how she died? No.
* My little project to make pocket money by selling ebooks on Amazon.com is moving along nicely; I have 14 titles now and they seem to be selling well. It's a funny sort of business, like having a crafts hobby and selling product at local fairs. I got to thinking that if I sold one of a specific title every day, it would be a "best-seller" as far as I'm concerned -- but that would be only about $730 USD a year, invisibly negligible by publishing standards. Even if I could average ten sales overall a day, that would be about $7,300 USD total a year, a great return as far as I'm concerned, but still negligible in the big picture. That might be a sales ranking on the Kindle store of about 100,000, maybe 50,000 at best. I'm getting a satisfying piece of a very big pie.
I alternate between pounding out aircraft ebooks and ebooks on other topics. It turns out the aircraft ebooks account for the predominance of sales, but I'm still staying with the alternation, not wanting to get stuck in a niche. I'll have everything I can translated to ebooks soon enough, no great reason to rush out the aircraft ebooks for the short run. I haven't got much in the way of reviews yet, but I'm patient, and looking forward to them. I'll get useful feedback, which is hard to come by -- though some reviews will of course be trolling. If they buy one of my ebooks, they can troll if they like, it'll be a shrug to me; if they don't buy one of my ebooks, it will be even more of a shrug.
* In other tricks to bring in a buck, I've been draining my penny and nickel stashes during my weekly supermarket visit by buying a pastry or suchlike at the automated checkout, factoring the outlay into my slush fund. Getting rid of pennies and nickels is a nuisance for all concerned, and that approach keeps the nuisance factor mostly to myself. One time I pulled this trick, and the nickels jammed in the coin feed. The clerk helped me out; I told him: "I'm just trying to get rid of these coins."
He replied: "Oh yeah, people do that all the time." I had to laugh, being given another lesson, if any were really needed, not to overestimate my own uniqueness: The odds of me being one in a million are a million to one. I'm just another upright monkey, and I don't have a problem with that. Indeed, I find it humorous, and I couldn't get along without humor.
* Thanks to five readers for their donations to support the websites last month. It is very much appreciated. I'm getting a certain larger number of smaller donations, and I think it's because I set up stand-alone versions of my longer Vectorsite documents in downloadable zipfiles, requesting but not requiring a donation from readers if they take one of the downloads. I didn't think it would work very well, but stats show I'm getting a fair number of downloads each month.COMMENT ON ARTICLE