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DayVectors

apr 2015 / last mod mar 2017 / greg goebel

* 22 entries including: Cold War (series), chronic disease vaccines (series), BRAIN initiative (series), post-revolutionary Iran (series), factories for Africa, experiments in cadaver decay, plant communications, dispute over next-generation refrigerants, online book sales, cheese microbiome, global economic deflation, and MMS satellites in orbit.

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[THU 30 APR 15] NEWS COMMENTARY FOR APRIL 2015
[WED 29 APR 15] FACTORIES FOR AFRICA
[TUE 28 APR 15] WORM FOOD
[MON 27 APR 15] CHRONIC DISEASE VACCINE CHALLENGE (1)
[FRI 24 APR 15] THE COLD WAR (65)
[THU 23 APR 15] WINGS & WEAPONS
[WED 22 APR 15] PLANT COMMUNICATIONS
[TUE 21 APR 15] ANOTHER GO-ROUND
[MON 20 APR 15] DECODING THE BRAIN (2)
[FRI 17 APR 15] THE COLD WAR (64)
[THU 16 APR 15] SPACE NEWS
[WEB 15 APR 15] A BARGAIN AT ANY PRICE
[TUE 14 APR 15] THE COMMUNITY OF CHEESE
[MON 13 APR 15] DECODING THE BRAIN (1)
[FRI 10 APR 15] THE COLD WAR (63)
[THU 09 APR 15] GIMMICKS & GADGETS
[WED 08 APR 15] GONE FLAT
[TUE 07 APR 15] MMS IN ORBIT
[MON 06 APR 15] POST-REVOLUTIONARY IRAN (9)
[FRI 03 APR 15] THE COLD WAR (62)
[THU 02 APR 15] SCIENCE NOTES
[WED 01 APR 15] ANOTHER MONTH

[THU 30 APR 15] NEWS COMMENTARY FOR APRIL 2015

* NEWS COMMENTARY FOR APRIL 2015: As reported by TIME magazine, on 9 April Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader, finally broke his silence on the preliminary agreement over Iran's nuclear program, to be finalized by 30 June. He sounded unenthusiastic: "I have told the officials to not trust the opposing side, to not be fooled by their smiles, to not trust their promises, because when they have achieved their objectives, they will laugh at you."

In the speech, Khamenei told the Iranian negotiators to heed and answer critics, while insisting that the final agreement specify the immediate lifting of sanctions; he also protested the access of UN inspectors to Iranian military facilities. He threw cold water on Iranian public celebrations over the preliminary agreement: "Nothing has yet been done and no binding topic has been brought up between the two sides. Therefore, extending congratulations is pointless."

Ali Khamenei

Surprisingly, foreign observers found Khamenei's remarks encouraging. Karim Sadjadpour, an analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, commented: "He throws a lot of red meat to his hard-line base to reassure them he's still an anti-American revolutionary. But careful readers also notice that underneath all the vitriol, he leaves the door of compromise with the US slightly ajar. Given how badly the Iranian people want this deal to happen, Khamenei doesn't want to be seen in their eyes as the obstacle."

Khamenei made his opinion of the US perfectly clear ("obstinate, unreliable, dishonest and into backstabbing"), but he raised no objections to a deal in principle, and even conditionally suggested more deals could follow: "Of course, the negotiations on the nuclear issue are an experience. If the opposite side gives up its misconduct, we can continue this experience in other issues."

There may well have been an element of "push-back" in Khamenei's speech, targeted indirectly at conservative members of the US Congress who oppose the deal, matching their pressure on negotiations with his own. In addition, according to Abbas Milani -- who runs the Iran studies program at Stanford University -- while President Hassan Rouhani was elected on the platform of coming to an agreement, Khamenei "doesn't want Rouhani to get too much credit. He's very clear: If there's a deal, it's because I wanted it. And if there's not, it's because these guys were too frivolous to understand they were giving away too much."

* In more unambiguously positive news on the diplomatic front, as reported by THE ECONOMIST, Ashraf Ghani -- as of September 2014, president of Afghanistan, replacing Hamid Karzai -- visited Washington DC in late March, to thank the Americans for their investment of a trillion dollars in Afghanistan and for the sacrifice of 2,200 of American soldiers there, even personally addressing some of the families of those killed in action. That was more than anyone could have expected of him, particularly since Karzai had treated the US as just barely short of an enemy.

Ghani extracted a concession from US President Barack Obama, who had planned to reduce US troop count in Afghanistan, starting in mid-year, from 9,800 soldiers to 5,500 by the end of the year. Now all will remain to the end of the year, and Obama made it clear that withdrawal after that isn't set in stone. American soldiers will not engage in direct combat, however, only operating in training, advisory, and support roles. While there's no lack of spirit among loyal Afghans to come to grips with the Taliban -- Afghans have a warrior tradition and are enthusiastic fighters -- bringing up Afghan forces to fighting strength is taking time, all the more so because many Afghan government soldiers have been killed or wounded fighting the Taliban.

Public opinion polls show Afghans do not want an immediate withdrawal of foreign forces supporting Afghan government troops. If Afghan Army soldiers can hurt the Taliban once the snows recede this year, even if the Taliban hurts them back just as badly, the insurgents will have a motive to negotiate. Ghani is also mending fences with Pakistan, previously the Taliban's sponsor, and the Pakistanis are now pushing for negotiations as well.

Ghani believes that Afghanistan must fight for itself, but needs help to do so. He wants the US to pay for the country's 352,000 police and soldiers to at least the end of 2017; he was careful to thank not just the sacrifices of American troops, but also "the American taxpayer for his and her hard-earned dollars."

* Under the circumstances, the US Congress would be hard-pressed to refuse the request for funding. It would be a strain for Obama's adversaries in Congress to refuse to assist Afghanistan, while they are simultaneously blasting the president for being weak on terrorism. As the 2016 election campaign starts to warm up, many Republicans believe that they can get an advantage over the Democrats by painting them as spineless when it comes to the use of force, evoking the memory of Jimmy Carter's presidency and its humiliation in the Iran hostage crisis.

The comparison seems forced. Obama was originally elected president on promises that he would extricate the US from unpopular foreign wars, the American public having no general fondness for sacrificing their sons in dirty little conflicts in the back of beyond. If Obama has erred on the side of caution in foreign interventions, that is precisely what he was elected to do -- and the Republicans haven't seen fit to push very hard for sending the Marines themselves, or for that matter, funding America's military. It also ends up being an irony that Obama is criticized for being too militarily assertive, having long authorized drone strikes on militants, with outrage over that fact that some of the strikes have, inevitably, gone wrong; while being criticized for not being assertive enough.

The sniping at the White House tends to reinforce the perception that the Republicans are hooked on nihilism, having nothing going for themselves but complaint, a notion further bolstered by the extreme cases in their ranks. THE ECONOMIST took a close-up of Senator Ted Cruz of Texas -- a hardline Rightist in Congress, one of the "wrecking crew" who provoked the government shutdown in 2013, and now a presidential hopeful -- to paint him as a demagogue, adept at working the crowd, lacking in any coherent plan for governing. Cruz calls for abolition of the Internal Revenue Service, while promising Federal largesse to his constituents; during his time in the Senate, he has never sponsored any bill of significance.

There's always been demagogues in Congress, that's nothing new, but the prospect that the "Cruz Missile" could be the Republican nominee for president is staggering. It is strange that the Republican Party is so dominated by its extreme wing; a Pew Research poll revealed that only about 12% of the US public could be characterized as extreme Right, THE ECONOMIST pointing out that they are outnumbered by moderate Republicans -- including business conservatives who have no sympathy with Right-wing political fantasies, like abolishing the IRS; and younger Republicans who are socially liberal, while worried about overbearing government.

Why should the tail, so to speak, wag the dog? Cruz can't win the White House, since independent voters wouldn't touch him. If he ran, he would be certain to lose, and drag the Republican cause down with him. As THE ECONOMIST put it: "Voters in 2016 deserve a choice between two grown-up candidates."

* As a personal comment along similar lines, climate change may well end up being a critical issue in 2016. The candidates will have to establish their public positions on the matter, leaving the Republican nominee in the awkward position of either embracing climate-change denial, to antagonize the independents; or advocating a credible program to deal with climate change, to antagonize the extremists. The climate-change denialists have lost the science argument; sooner or later, they will lose the political argument as well. For the well-being of the Republican Party, they need to lose it in 2016.

Incidentally, President Obama, equipped with a dry and self-deprecating wit, is able to take the sniping at himself with a certain self-assurance, saying at the White House Correspondent's Dinner in late April: "Michele Bachmann predicted I would bring about the Biblical End of Days. Now that's BIG! Lincoln, Washington -- they didn't do THAT!" Obama can only be thankful that he has enemies so negligible.

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[WED 29 APR 15] FACTORIES FOR AFRICA

* FACTORIES FOR AFRICA: As something of a footnote to the series run here on Africa in the 21st century, an article from THE ECONOMIST ("Manufacturing In Africa: An Awakening Giant", 8 February 2014), took a look at Africa's growing manufacturing base.

Welcome to Ethiopia, one of Africa's emerging economies. There is much that is modern in the capital of Addis Ababba, but Ethiopia is still dominated by small, poor villages, trapped at end of dirt tracks. One of the big needs is for transport to allow locals to haul goods to market; sturdy bicycles would fit the need. An affiliate of SRAM, the world's second-largest cycle-components maker, based in Chicago, is now trying to sell its "Buffalo Bicycles" to meet that need. They're built for the job, with heavy frames, puncture-resistant tires, and a rear rack that can handle up to 100 kilograms (220 pounds) of load.

Foreign firms selling goods to Africans is not at all a new thing, but these machines are made in the continent, the initial production facility having been set up in South Africa. Africans have bought over 150,000 Buffalo Bicycles; the only competition are Asian bike-makers, who don't match the Buffalo Bike's sturdiness. The firm wants to add manufacturing capacity in Addis Ababba, as well as Mombasa in Kenya.

Africa is not yet undergoing a manufacturing boom, farming and services being dominant, with exports being largely of commodities. However, manufacturing is growing rapidly. Manufacturing's share of GDP in sub-Saharan Africa has held steady at 10% to 14% in recent years -- which may sound static, but it's rising along with the general growth in GDP. Other foreign firms manufacturing in Africa include:

Locally-owned manufacturing is expanding as well. Seemhale Telecoms of South Africa is planning to make cheap mobile phones for the African market, while Angola is trying to build its own arms industry, with help from Brazil. The rise of retail chains across the continent is being shadowed by the rise of local manufacturing to stock their shelves, goods being expensive to transport. African manufacturing is also the beneficiary of a boom in infrastructure, such as electrical power distribution networks and mobile banking, along with other software services. Increasing rates of education are helping as well.

Chinese coming to Africa to work on Chinese-driven projects often stay behind to develop businesses there, seeing wide-open opportunity. The US Congress has even given a spur to African manufacturing, via the African Growth and Opportunity Act, enacted in 2000, that has boosted trade in African-made goods. Indeed, the failure to achieve more to this time is in part due to the failure of African governments to encourage business activity, clogging it up in bribes and red tape, failing to invest in infrastructure.

That's changing. Labor costs have been rising in Asia, providing an opportunity for Africa to achieve economic growth based on low-cost labor. Much more investment in infrastructure and education will be required. Growth in manufacturing in Africa has only been a component of overall economic growth there so far, and that situation is likely to continue. African economic development is taking place along a number of fronts, and is likely to be all the stronger because of it.

* A later article from THE ECONOMIST ("The Twilight Of The Resource Curse", 10 January 2015), Africa has long been dependent on commodities, and so African economies tend to get hammered when commodity prices drop. Commodities have dropped from 2014, but though some pain, it hasn't been as troublesome as it was in the past, since manufacturing and services are increasingly able to take up the slack. Tourism has been particularly healthy in the African services sector.

One reason for the shift is that Africa is more peaceful and African governments more sensible in the past, making a good environment for outside investment. Nigeria, Africa's biggest economy, long dependent on oil, is obtaining growth from mobile phones, construction, and banks. Services now represent 60% of GDP. The Angolan government, long dependent on oil revenues, now gets a third of its funding from non-oil sources -- compared to effectively nothing a decade ago. A similar story emerges from Botswana, Zambia, Rwanda, and Congo-Brazzaville. Rwanda, two decades ago a land of bloody chaos, now has thriving banks and business-services firms; Congo-Brazzaville is getting a boost from the All-African Games, which will be held there this year.

Good fiscal policy helps. African governments used to spend when money was available, stop spending when it wasn't -- which, if intuitive, was the wrong thing to do, it being more effective to build up a surplus in flush times and then make use of it in lean. Africa still remains generally tied to commodities, but less so than in the past, with fair hopes of being even less so in the future.

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[TUE 28 APR 15] WORM FOOD

* WORM FOOD: Not all cadavers donated to research end up in medical establishments. As discussed here in 2010, some are used in crash testing -- while other, as per an article from THE ECONOMIST ("Cold Comfort Farm", 3 January 2015), are used for forensic studies, in demonstrations to show how they rot away.

Welcome to Texas State University's Forensic Anthropology Research Facility at Freeman Ranch in San Marcos. The ranch has several sections; the most startling is the body farm, one of four in the US, where the process of decay of human corpses is examined to help educate the world's police forces. Some cadavers are not well-suited to medical research, being too skinny or too fat or too diseased, but that diversity suits the body farm researchers perfectly, giving a wide range of subjects for examination. Other variables under consideration include temperature, rainfall, shade, and degree of protection -- if a body isn't protected, vultures will reduce it to scattered bones, of little use for analysis, in a few hours.

The test subjects at the body farm are exposed to the elements, but placed in cages to deter vultures. They are perfectly accessible to the set of other organisms, known collectively as the "necrobiome", in the body-disposal business. Some were actually already present before death, being part of the microbiome that we carry around with us when we're alive; many others arrive by fly, most commonly the green bottle flies that predominate in this part of Texas. Some microbes actually emit pheromones to attract flies, which then carry the micro-organisms to feed elsewhere.

Of course flies, or rather their maggots, do much of the basic work, maggots quickly thinning out a corpse over two or three days. Slower decay processes take place over the following months. After a year's time, the bones are brought into the lab for examination.

The body farm experiments began at Freeman in 2008, with several hundred corpses run through test cycles so far. Researchers there have been able to characterize the progress of decay in detail:

The bodies themselves are not the end of investigation, consideration also being given to changes in the place where a corpse was left on the ground, or buried in a shallow grave. One useful fact is that the nutrients from a corpse may produce more lush vegetation -- meaning a body might well be spotted by a drone, scanning terrain with a camera linked to an image-analysis system. Watching the dead return to the earth may not be a pretty job, but it's still one that has to be done.

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[MON 27 APR 15] CHRONIC DISEASE VACCINE CHALLENGE (1)

* CHRONIC DISEASE VACCINE CHALLENGE (1): Although vaccines get a lot of bad press, they are in general one of the most effective medical treatments. Biomedical researchers think that more can be made of them -- that vaccines can be used to treat chronic conditions such as Alzheimer's disease, obesity, asthma, diabetes, and nicotine addiction. However, as reported by an article from AAAS SCIENCE ("Chronic Disease Vaccines Need Shot In The Arm" by Bijal Trivedi, 21 September 2012, 1479:1481), progress in the field of chronic disease vaccines has been painfully slow.

In 2002, for example, a vaccine intended to generate antibodies to counter the beta amyloid protein that accumulates in the brains of Alzheimer's victims came to an abrupt halt when 6% of the clinical trial subjects -- 18 out of 298 -- developed a severe brain inflammation. Work towards anti-nicotine vaccines, intended to take the kick out of smoking, has also gone nowhere.

Kim Janda, a chemist at the Scripps Research Institute in San Diego, California, who has worked on vaccines to deal with obesity, smoking, and addictive drugs over the past decades, says that researchers in his field are not only up against technical challenges, they also have a cultural barrier to deal with: "In large part, society still views addictions or even obesity as a moral failure rather than a chronic disease." It's hard to get backing for development of vaccines to treat conditions that many regard as due to a failure of will.

Janda, however, believes that chronic disease vaccines present too much of an opportunity to pass up: "If you can find a target that is the underlying cause [of an illness], then you can develop a vaccine for its treatment." He points out that there's considerable work on vaccines against cancer, which is a chronic disease, and few have any problem with that. So why should there be an issue with vaccines to handle obesity, diabetes, and drug abuse?

* Vaccines traditionally have focused on immunization against microbial pathogens such as the tuberculosis bacterium and the smallpox virus. Typical vaccines are based on live or killed microbes, or molecular components of such, administered to provoke an immune response against the specific pathogen being targeted.

Vaccines can in principle do more than set up defenses against infectious diseases; they could, for example, be used to treat asthma. About 300 million of the world's population suffers from asthma, which is often initiated by a violent immune response to common environmental allergens. Current treatments include corticosteroids -- which reduce inflammation, but have side effects -- and a procedure named "desensitization", in which asthma and other allergy patients are given increasingly large doses of an allergen cocktail. However, some patients don't respond well to desensitization, and a few suffer dangerous anaphylactic attacks.

A team under Bruno Pitard at the University of Nantes in France is now working on an asthma vaccine. The work started out from the observation that half of Europeans with allergies have antibodies against the Dermatophagoides farinae dust mite, or more specifically against a protein associated with the mite named "Der f 1". However, immunizing people with actual Der f 1 proteins can cause an allergic response, and so the Nantes team is working on a "DNA vaccine" -- discussed in general terms here in 2010, in this case the vaccine being made of the DNA sequence for the Der f 1 protein, with injections of the DNA hopefully training the immune system to tolerate the mite protein.

More typically, chronic disease vaccines don't target microbial molecules, but proteins generated by the human body. The original attempt to develop an Alzheimer's vaccine, for example, tried to provoke the immune system into suppressing the beta amyloid protein. That approach having led to dangerous brain inflammations, researchers are now focusing on "passive immunization" -- manufacturing antibodies against beta amyloid and then injecting them into a patient. Work does continue on Alzheimer's vaccines, however, with some companies investigating that they hope won't lead to the same nasty side effects. [TO BE CONTINUED]

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[FRI 24 APR 15] THE COLD WAR (65)

* THE COLD WAR (65): On 31 October, Anthony Eden survived a vote of confidence in the House of Commons, 270 to 218. When the news got to Eisenhower, he was disbelieving: "I could not consider committing my nation [to war] on such a vote." He was similarly disbelieving when the report came in of the Soviet announcement of non-interference in the Hungarian crisis. CIA Director Allen Dulles told the president that it was one of the "most significant" issued by the USSR since the end of war. Eisenhower could only reply: "Yes, if it is true."

That morning Henry Cabot Lodge, the American ambassador to the UN, offered a resolution to the General Assembly that called for a cease-fire in the Middle East; for Israeli forces to pull back to Israel's borders; for UN members (that is, Britain and France) to not resort to force; and for all UN members to embargo Israel until the Israelis complied. At mid-day, Lodge was able to report to Eisenhower that the resolution had been met with "tremendous acclaim" in the General Assembly, that the reaction was "absolute delight". The small nations were astounded that the United States was backing Egypt in the crisis.

It amounted to nothing. Not long after Lodge reported to the president, Eisenhower got news that the British and French were bombing Port Said, at the northern end of the Suez Canal. The Egyptians then began to sink ships in the canal to block passage. At 7:00 PM, Eisenhower addressed the nation on television, saying that the United States would extend support to the nations of Eastern Europe as they asserted their sovereignty -- but added, to reassure the Kremlin, that America did not see these nations as allies. As far as the Middle East went, Eisenhower proclaimed that the USA would be even-handed in its treatment of Arabs and Jews; that the US government had not been consulted in the assault on Egypt, and would support UN resolutions calling for peace.

In Moscow, the fighting in Egypt had helped tilt the leadership in the Kremlin towards repression in Hungary. It distracted the world from Soviet actions, and it also suggested the possibility of Western intervention in the Hungarian crisis, though that sounded more like a rationalization than a motive. The decision was made to send the Red Army into Hungary in force. To obtain support Khrushchev, Malenkov, and Anastas Mikoyan -- one of the four "chief deputies" of the council of ministers -- made a lightning tour of Eastern Europe, talking to the Poles at Brest; to the Romanians and Czechs at Bucharest; the Bulgarians at Sofia; and Tito, on the Adriatic island of Brioni.

Khrushchev had been trying to mend fences between the USSR and Yugoslavia, having gone to Belgrade the year before to meet with Tito. The trip had been something of a diplomatic bust, and further attempts to bolster the relationship between the two countries had not accomplished much more: Tito wanted a good relationship with the Soviet Union, but by "good", of course he meant one that served his interests. Still, Khrushchev persevered in courting Tito, having rolled out the red carpet for him when he had visited Moscow in June, and wanted to make sure he was in the loop with Soviet actions in Eastern Europe.

Tito did not feel like meeting the Soviet leaders in Belgrade, and they endured a nightmarish journey to see him, flying through a thunderous storm and taking a journey through rough seas to the island in a small launch. Khrushchev wasn't really asking Tito for permission to take action in Hungary, but he felt the need to justify Soviet actions to Tito -- who, for what it was worth to all involved, gave his assent.

* Tensions continued to build to the snapping point in Hungary; to add to the pressures on Eisenhower, on 3 November Secretary of State Dulles underwent emergency surgery -- Dulles had thought he had a hernia, but it turned out he had colon cancer. In the dark hours of the morning of Sunday, 4 November 1956, Soviet tanks rolled into Budapest Hungarians offered enough resistance to get themselves killed in hundreds, but they were no match for the might of the Red Army. On Monday morning, 5 November, British and French paratroops landed around the Suez Canal, paving the way for amphibious landings.

Later in the day, the Kremlin issued warnings to the British and French governments to cease and desist, speaking of a "Third World War" and hinting at use of the nuclear option. Little attention was paid to the threats. Eisenhower wasn't too much happier at a Soviet proposal that the USSR and USA join hands against Britain and France; his response was a stern warning for the Red Army to stay out of the conflict, and that the US would answer an attempt to do so with force. U-2 flights were sent over Syria and Egypt to see if any Soviet combat aircraft could be spotted there; none were.

6 November was election day in the US, but as far as Eisenhower was concerned, he had more pressing things to worry about. At mid-day, Eisenhower called Eden, to find that the British prime minister, in the face of international outrage, was ready to accept a cease-fire. Eisenhower replied: "I can't tell you how pleased we are." The UN was working to send Canadian troops to Suez to act as peacekeepers; Eden asked Eisenhower to send American troops instead, but the president replied that the "Big Five" weren't the right players for the peacekeeping mission there.

Come the morning of 7 November, Eisenhower had been re-elected, beating Democratic challenger Adlai Stevenson for the second time, by a substantial margin in the popular vote, and by an electoral college landslide -- Stevenson only took seven states. Eden had also survived another vote of confidence in Commons late the day before. No doubt, Eisenhower was weary by that time, and was certainly not glad to see a message from Ben-Gurion, refusing to pull back Israeli troops, and saying UN troops were not welcome; the president replied with a strong protest. Eisenhower then got a message from the Kremlin in response to American concerns over Hungary that said, in so many words, that what happened there was none of America's business. Like it or not, Eisenhower knew that, in any practical terms, it wasn't. [TO BE CONTINUED]

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[THU 23 APR 15] WINGS & WEAPONS

* WINGS & WEAPONS: As reported by an article from WIRED Online ("Electric Airplanes Are The Future Of Pilot Training" by Mary Grady, 12 January 2015), fully electric airplanes are effectively toys for the moment, but now there's a push to put them to work in the primary flight training role.

A Colorado-based startup firm named Aero Electric Aircraft Corporation plans to have its two-seat "Sun Flyer" ready for flight test by the summer. According to George Bye, Aero Electric's boss, if fuel costs and maintenance are factored in -- a fully electric airplane is much easier to maintain than a piston aircraft -- the Sun Flyer will cost about $5 USD an hour to operate, compared to $73 USD an hour for a Cessna 172, a four-seater airplane often used for training. A new Sun Flyer will sell for about $200,000 USD -- which may sound like a lot, but a new Cessna 172 sells for about $370,000 USD.

Bye wants to have the Sun Flyer certified by the US Federal Aviation Administration by 2017, with customer deliveries following immediately. He's got competition, however: in April, European aircraft giant Airbus announced their own two-seat electric airplane, the "E-Fan 2.0", with deliveries to flight schools planned for 2017 as well.

E-Fan

The E-Fan, to be built in collaboration with the French manufacturer Daher-Socata, the partnership being named "VoltAir", will have a flight endurance of two hours -- not a lot by conventional aircraft standards, but plenty for training flights, which usually last about an hour. After landing, the depleted battery pack can be swapped out for a charged one, allowing the E-Fan to fly again, while the depleted battery pack is charged up again. By 2019, Airbus plans to put the "E-Fan 4.0" on the market, this version having four seats and hybrid propulsion, giving it plenty of endurance.

* As discussed by an article from AVIATION WEEK ("Cargo Cult" by Graham Warwick, 25 August 2014), the German DLR aerospace agency, operating on behalf of the European Union, is now funding a low-cost research effort into a radical aircraft concept, the "FanWing", from a British firm of the same name and the brainchild of American inventor Pat Peebles.

The FanWing features a wing with a horizontal rotor installed in the wing leading edge, the rotor generating both distributed propulsion and augmented lift at low airspeed. The goal is to provide short-field performance close to that of a helicopter or tiltrotor, with operating costs close to those of a conventional aircraft. Peebles has been developing his idea by flying small radio-controlled models of increasing scale and complexity, and was looking for funding to develop a two-seat ultralight aircraft. Then along came the DLR and the EU-funded SOAR ("diStributed Open-rotor AiRcraft") project to refine the concept, and explore the feasibility of a FanWing cargo hauler.

FanWing

The SOAR project is aimed at a gap in the global logistics infrastructure, working towards an aircraft able to carry the ISO-standard 9-meter (20-foot) intermodal shipping containers now moved by ship, rail and road -- but not by air, because of their size and weight. Today, containerized loads must be broken down for air transport, either as bulk cargo or in lightweight airfreight containers. Advocates of the "container-plane" concept argue that the ability to transport the ISO containers by air would be valuable in underdeveloped countries lacking road and rail infrastructure, while enabling "door-to-door" deliveries in developed nations and providing flexibility for military cargo operations.

SOAR project participants are now conducting wind-tunnel tests and analyses, with the DLR working towards a feasibility study to define take-off and landing runs, speeds, fuel consumption and life-cycle costs for a cargo FanWing. Present estimates say it it should have a laden take-off run of 90 meters (300 feet), with a cruise speed of 275 KPH (170 MPH) at 5,500 meters (18,000 feet).

* I ran into a reference to the "IOMAX Archangel Border Patrol Aircraft (BPA)", described as a turboprop close-support aircraft, in service with Jordan. Say what? There's not many military aircraft unfamiliar to me, so I had to run it down -- being surprised to find it's an armed cropduster, derived from Thrush S2R-660 AKA 710P crop sprayer, itself a direct descendant of a pioneering 1950s cropduster design.

IOMAX is a secretive company, founded by Ron Howard, a former aviator with the US Army's elite 160th Special Operations Air Regiment AKA "Night Stalkers", associated with the US Special Operations Command. The Thrush 710P is a popular agricultural aircraft, with a 16.4-meter (54-foot) wingspan; a Pratt & Whitney Canada (PWC) PT6A-65AG turboprop engine, providing 970 kW (1,300 SHP); and taildragger landing gear.

IOMAX modifies the aircraft with a two-seat cockpit, six stores pylons, and an L-3 Wescam MX-15Di imaging / targeting turret on a centerline station -- the turret being in a pod on a pylon. The MX-15Di features infrared, color and grayscale daylight cameras and a laser designator. The Archangel can carry laser-guided bombs, Hellfire missiles, any of the new laser-guided 70-millimeter rockets, and 12.7-millimeter three-barrel gatling machine gun pods.

The Archangel is fitted with an Esterline CMC Electronics Cockpit 4000 glass-cockpit avionics suite, already in use on a number of jet trainers, with three multi-function displays in the front cockpit and one in the rear cockpit, plus a mission computer to manage and integrate sensors and radios. The airframe has been aerodynamically optimized, with fuselage and airfoil modifications, and speed fairings on the landing gear assemblies; the turboprop engine drives a six-bladed prop with scimitar blades.

IOMAX says the Archangel costs about a third as much as competing platforms, such as the EMBRAER A-29 Super Tucano or the Beechcraft AT-6 -- but has a 2,270-kilogram (5,000 pound) payload and nine hours of endurance. Of course, it's slower, and lacks cockpit pressurization. It also lacks ejection seats, but the cockpit is built as a roll cage, and IOMAX is looking at ejection seats for the future. Ejection seats will require fit of a bubble canopy, which will also improve aircrew field of view.

The market focus is on border patrol in a permissive environment, where there is no serious anti-air threat. Sources are a bit confusing about the Archangel, suggesting there was an earlier, less optimized version, and also that there's a competing close-support aircraft based on the similar Air Tractor cropduster. In any case, the Archangel does look more warlike than might be expected for its ancestry -- but I still suspect it gets snickers from fast-jet jocks.

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[WED 22 APR 15] PLANT COMMUNICATIONS

* PLANT COMMUNICATIONS: As reported by an article from QUANTA magazine ("How Plants Secretly Talk to Each Other" by Kat McGowan, 16 December 2013), two scientific studies published in 1983 declared that willow trees, poplars and sugar maples can warn each other about insect attacks: intact, undamaged trees near ones that are infested with hungry bugs begin generating bug-repelling chemicals to ward off attack. The studies were greeted with considerable skepticism, and bogged down in criticisms.

Interest in the concept did not die out, however, eventually resurfacing in much better studies that were harder to shoot down. It is now well established that when bugs chew leaves, plants respond by releasing volatile organic compounds into the air; at last count, 40 out of 48 plant communications studies show other plants detect these airborne signals and ramp up their production of chemical weapons or other defense mechanisms in response.

Researchers in plant communications are now relieved to know they're not being dismissed as a crackpots, Richard Karban of the University of California at Davis commenting: "It used to be that people wouldn't even talk to you: 'Why are you wasting my time with something we've already debunked?' That's now better, for sure."

* It's been a long, tough road to scientific respectability for plant communications researchers. Karban started off investigating cicada infestations, studying how trees cope with the plague of sap-sucking bugs that descends upon them every 17 years. At the time, the assumption was that plants survived by being tenacious, passively adapting their physiology to tolerate infestations, droughts, and other threats. However, in the early 1980s, zoologist David Rhoades of the University of Washington began to suspect that plants had more active capabilities, that they could fight back -- for example, producing chemical and other signals to make their foliage less palatable, forcing bugs to go elsewhere.

In 1983, Rhoades published a paper in which he concluded that Sitka willows degraded the nutritional quality of their leaves, in response to infestation by tent caterpillars and webworms, with nearby trees not infested responding in the same way. In his lab investigation, he fed the insects leaves from infested trees, to find the insects grew poorly; it turned out the insects also did poorly on leaves from healthy trees near infested trees. That same year, Ian Baldwin and Jack Schultz of Dartmouth University found that seedlings of poplar and sugar maple began pumping out anti-herbivore phenols when placed in a growth chamber next to saplings with shredded leaves.

There was a lot of excitement over these studies, and in hindsight they were perfectly plausible. The problem was that they were tainted by association with trendy "woo". The 1979 film THE SECRET LIFE OF PLANTS, from a 1973 book of the same name, had charmed audiences with time-lapse photography that had played up the vitality of plants as they unfurled their leaves and pushed out roots -- with the film claiming that science had proven that plants were conscious and could sense human emotions. To the fringe, the research by Rhoades and others seemed to vindicate the fantasy of plant consciousness; the unwanted association with the fringe inevitably provoked intense suspicion in the mainstream science community.

In 1984, the two "talking tree" papers were picked apart by the eminent ecologist John, later Sir John, Lawton, who said the studies were poorly designed and conducted. Rhoades couldn't get funding to perform better studies, and finally dropped out of research to run a bed & breakfast. However, interest in plant communications didn't die out; Ted Farmer, now a professor at the University of Lausanne, then a postdoc in the Washington State University lab of well-known plant hormone specialist Clarence Ryan, still thought there might be something to it.

Farmer and Ryan worked with local sagebrush, which produces plentiful amounts of methyl jasmonate, an airborne organic chemical that Ryan suspected acted as an insect repellent. In their experiment, when damaged sagebrush leaves were put into airtight jars with potted tomato plants, the tomatoes began producing proteinase inhibitors -- compounds that harm insects by disrupting their digestion. They published their results in a 1990 paper, which concluded: "If such signaling is widespread in nature, it could have profound ecological significance."

Their study had been very carefully put together; they were not going to be humiliated as Rhoades had been. There was still a lot of skepticism, but that very skepticism led researchers to investigate. At the time, Karban had just started work at a field station in a part of northern California that was thick with sagebrush and wild tobacco, a tomato cousin. He replicated Farmer's experiment in the wild; when he clipped sagebrush plants, imitating the injuries caused by the sharp teeth of insects and inducing the plants to produce methyl jasmonate and other airborne chemicals, the wild tobacco nearby started pumping out the defensive enzyme polyphenol oxidase. At the end of the season, those tobacco plants had much less leaf damage from grasshoppers and cutworms than the control plants. Karban didn't know for a fact that the reduced damage was due to the airborne chemicals, but the connection was suggestive.

Further studies showed that almost every green plant investigated released its own cocktail of volatile chemicals, and many species register and respond to them. For example, the smell of cut grass -- a blend of alcohols, aldehydes, ketones and esters -- may be pleasant to us, but is a warning signal to plants. When wild-growing lima beans are exposed to volatiles from other lima bean plants afflicted by beetles, they grow faster and resist attack. Compounds released from damaged plants prime the defenses of corn seedlings, so that they later mount a more effective counterattack against beet armyworms. The signals cross species boundaries: sagebrush induces responses in tobacco; chili peppers and lima beans respond to cucumber emissions, too.

Plants can communicate with insects as well, sending airborne messages to call in predatory insects that kill pests. Maize attacked by beet armyworms releases a cloud of volatile chemicals that attracts parasitic wasps to lay eggs in the caterpillars' bodies. It turns out ants, microbes, moths, even hummingbirds and tortoises all can detect and react to these blasts.

Such interspecies communication was puzzling to Karban and others, since it seems like the transmitting plant was providing assistance to its competitors, which would be counterproductive from an evolutionary point of view. On consideration, that was simplistic: plants of one species communicated with each other with such signals, and not surprisingly other species could listen in on them. It's not such a different idea from how an alarm call employed by a herd of one species of animal might be picked up by other species of animals. The signaling could also evolve into symbiotic relationships, such as that between plants and parasitic wasps -- the plants obtaining protection, the wasps obtaining prey.

* While plant communications are an intriguing subject in itself, the work may also have practical implications. A 2011 study showed that commercial corn hybrids had lost the ability of wild maize to "call" parasitic wasps, suggesting that such a trait might be bred back into corn, reducing the need for pesticides. Another interesting idea is to grow plants that have a very strong response to pest infestations near field crops, to provide an "early warning" system. Applications are all for the good, of course, but they're only an added benefit for most researchers in the field, who have their work cut out for them in probing the real secret lives of plants.

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[TUE 21 APR 15] ANOTHER GO-ROUND

* ANOTHER GO-ROUND: Back in the 1980s, worries that freon refrigerants were leading to upper-atmosphere ozone depletion led to an agreement, the 1989 United Nations Montreal Protocol, to phase them out in favor of ozone-friendly "hydrofluorocarbons (HFC)". As discussed by an article from BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK ("The Obama Plan For Keeping The World Cool" by Alex Nussbaum, 23 March 2015), it unfortunately turned out that, although HFCs were good for the ozone layer, they were super greenhouse gases, vastly more effective at trapping heat than carbon dioxide.

Talks began in Bangkok, Thailand, on 20 April to discuss phasing out HFCs. The Obama Administration regards getting rid of HFCs as a major component in America's effort to control climate change. According to Todd Stern of the US State Department, special envoy for climate change: "HFCs are pretty small in the grand scheme of things right now, but they have an explosive growth path."

American chemical manufacturers, including Honeywell and DuPont, see the drive to eliminate HFCs as an opportunity to sell "hydrofluoroolefins (HFO)", which are not greenhouse gases. Ken Gayer, general manager of Honeywell's fluorine products division, estimates that in maturity, the global market for HFOs will be as much as $8 billion USD a year. DuPont executives believe HFOs could bring in as much as a half billion dollars a year for the firm.

According to Gayer, HFOs cost in the range of several percent to several times as much as HFCs, but HFOs are not only benign, they are more efficient than HFCs. The US Environmental Protection Agency has estimated that HFOs will add about $60 USD to the cost of a new car. Concerns about the cost and effectiveness of HFOs as replacements for HFCs have led a group of developing nations, led by Saudi Arabia and India, to balk at establishing an international agreement. They are calling for impartial technical demonstrations to establish the practicality and cost-effectiveness of HFOs; they suspect that they're being promoted by a handful of chemical manufacturers who dominate the market and are downplaying what have been called "natural" refrigerants -- propane or other hydrocarbons, ammonia, high-pressure carbon dioxide, even dried air -- so they can lock in profits.

There is a general desire for a solution, there's just an unwillingness to accept HFOs without making sure there isn't a better option. Some environmental groups, notably Greenpeace, are doubtful of HFOs on principle, preferring natural refrigerants. However, the case for natural refrigerants is not water-tight: although HFOs are flammable, they are not strongly so, while hydrocarbons like propane tend towards the outright explosive in gaseous form; and though dried air is hard to beat as far as being environmentally benign in itself, it's not highly efficient, meaning more expensive and energy-hungry refrigeration systems.

The idea of using ammonia, in fact, is going full circle: it was the first refrigerant in wide-scale use, being phased out in favor of freons because it is dangerously toxic, with tales of fatalities due to leaks, while freons are inert and effectively harmless to health. Freons were then found to be depleting the ozone layer, and so were replaced by HFCs; now HFCs have been found to be greenhouse gases, and so there's a push to replace them with HFOs. Greenpeace believes we're on a merry-go-round with synthetic refrigerants, that HFOs have, or will turn out to have, significant drawbacks in turn.

It is certainly easy to agree that, the matter not being urgent, the options need to be thoroughly vetted. It is also plausible that different applications could well use different refrigerants: ammonia is still used as an industrial refrigerant, where the refrigeration unit is more or less isolated and not a serious threat to workers, but it is hard to think it's a good solution for automotive air conditioning. The talks in Bangkok are being conducted under the 1989 UN Montreal Protocol, and are seen as a test run for the next round of talks for a UN climate agreement, to start in December. A consensus from the Bangkok talks would be a good sign -- while a collapse into bickering would be deja vu, all over again.

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[MON 20 APR 15] DECODING THE BRAIN (2)

* DECODING THE BRAIN (2): The BRAIN Initiative is starting out with a focus on tools. To inspect cells and their networks in new detail, investigators will need to develop a new toolbox, possibly including microscopes that can look at larger sections of a brain than is now practical, and "optical needles" that can penetrate a brain's deep tissues, rather than just the outermost layers where most imaging now occurs. There's also interest in methods to activate cells or whole networks inside a living animal, providing insights into cell roles and network dynamics, eventually linking them to behavior. Optogenetic techniques, for example, deliver light-sensitive molecules to target cells, then stimulate them with light pulsed through a fiber-optic implant.

Farther down the road, the BRAIN Initiative will need tools to record neuronal activity. One concept involves flexible sheets made up of hundreds of thousands of nanowire electrodes, which would conform to a brain's topography while non-invasively recording brain activity. Nobody thinks it's practical to monitor every neuron; it's just a question of what level of inspection will do the job. Right now, tiny implanted electrodes can be used to track the operation of about 100 neurons, while functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) can measure blood flow as a proxy for activity in regions containing millions of cells. There's a huge gap between those two extremes that has to be explored.

Such observations of the brain will also have to be made over extended periods of time, the brain being a highly dynamic system, with connections changing on a continuous basis. Victims of strokes can recover some lost functionality by the spontaneous rewiring of their brain circuits. Such observations lead to floods of data, which means addressing the storage challenge, and particularly the analysis challenge. If we don't understand the low-level function of the brain, we have problems figuring out how to model the data generated by the brain. The brain is, like the weather, a "nonlinear system with feedback", and modeling such systems is very troublesome.

NIH is funding BRAIN studies addressing a wide range of concerns, from measurement to data storage and analysis. One agenda of the Pentagon's DARPA is to treat combat brain injuries, but DARPA, having a blue-sky approach to research, also has an interest in cyborg-like brain implants, both to help injured soldiers and possibly enhance healthy ones.

Given the uncertain US government budget situation, BRAIN Initiative boosters worry about long-range funding. Given how ambitious the program is, worries about long-term support are very strong, all the more so because few honestly think the effort can pay off in any substantial way over the short run. Researchers involved in the exercise are faced with walking a fine line, either underselling their work and finding support drying up, or overselling it to end up being caught very short in the end. There's a good case to be made for the BRAIN Initiative -- but doing a half-baked job, hamstrung by funding shortfalls and organizational chaos, will be worse than doing nothing at all.

Even if it all goes well, neuroscientists warn that the BRAIN Initiative will not be the final word, or even close to the final word. Scientists may come to understand neurons, brain regions, connections, make progress on Parkinson's and Alzheimer's disease -- but they are not thinking of "solving the brain" any time soon. That will be a project for decades, possibly even centuries. [END OF SERIES]

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[FRI 17 APR 15] THE COLD WAR (64)

* THE COLD WAR (64): On 26 October 1956, Eisenhower presided over a meeting of the National Security Council, being briefed on events in Hungary. The president emphasized caution, saying the United States should not give Soviet leadership any reason to believe that the uprising was being conducted with support from, much less at the instigation of, the USA. There was nothing there that justified any risk of war between the superpowers.

As far as events in the Middle East went, Secretary of State Dulles told the president that he expected an imminent Israeli drive on Jordan. On 28 October, Israel began a general mobilization; Eisenhower sent a message to Ben-Gurion to do nothing "to endanger the peace". The president was much more surprised to find that U-2 observations revealed a buildup of British and French forces on Cyprus, supported by an unusual level of military air and sea activity. Eisenhower finally began to get suspicious, thinking the British and French would take advantage of an Israeli attack on Jordan to seize the canal. The president was incredulous; Dulles spoke to the French ambassador, who replied that he knew nothing about any such plot. Dulles, more suspicious by nature than Eisenhower, believed that in itself confirmed the worst.

Dulles was right. On 29 October, Israel attacked Egyptian forces in the Sinai, handily driving them back. Eisenhower now understood the plan, realizing to his fury that the British and French would then seize the canal. Egypt was no friend of the USA; he didn't want to cross the British, French, and Israelis -- but they had deceived him, and "nothing justified double-crossing us." A White House statement was issued immediately that condemned Israeli aggression against Egypt and called for a cease-fire, in hopes the British and French would take the hint.

Ben-Gurion replied the next day, 30 October, that Israel had been forced to strike, and rejected the appeal for a cease-fire. Eisenhower couldn't have been too surprised by the reply, nor by news that the British and French were poised to strike. The Americans introduced a resolution to the UN Security Council asking members of the UN to refrain from use of force in the Middle East crisis, with the Soviets also introducing a resolution to tell the Israelis to pull their forces back to Israel's borders. Both Britain and France voted down the resolutions later that day.

In the early afternoon, the British and French issued a 12-hour ultimatum to the Egyptians (and, in appearance at least, to the Israelis) to tell both sides to pull back behind a buffer zone along the Suez Canal. The British and French would then occupy key points along the canal, on the basis of keeping the two warring sides apart and preserving the security of the canal. Secretary of State Dulles described the ultimatum to the president as "about as crude and brutal as I have ever seen." The Israelis would keep the Sinai, the British and French would keep the canal, while Nasser would fall from power. Eisenhower drafted and sent a message to Eden and Mollet, pleading with them to cease and desist. The message was ignored.

* The same day the British and French issued their ultimatum over the Suez Canal, 30 October, the Kremlin was considering what to do about Hungary. The violence in Budapest was still sputtering on, piling up bodies -- leaving the question of whether Red Army forces should be withdrawn, or reinforced. The tilt that day was to withdraw; even Mao Zedong, with his distaste for de-Stalinization, sent a message encouraging withdrawal. All of Khrushchev's ministers were in favor of withdrawal, with Khrushchev concluding: "We are unanimous. There are two paths, a military path, one of occupation, and a peaceful path, the withdrawal of troops, negotiations."

That evening, the Soviet government issued a public statement, admitting to "mistakes", saying that the USSR would "observe the full sovereignty of every socialist state." Hungary would be allowed to go its own way -- Stalin would have rolled in his grave. Unfortunately, it was too little, too late. Hungarian security forces had fired on a demonstration earlier that day, killing scores, with a mob then attacking Budapest Party headquarters and hanging security police from lamp-posts. Hungarian troops were beginning to mutiny; Nagy called for Hungary to quit the Warsaw Pact and for the withdrawal of the Red Army. Unrest threatened to spread from Hungary throughout Eastern Europe. Khrushchev couldn't sleep that night: "Budapest was like a nail in my head." [TO BE CONTINUED]

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[THU 16 APR 15] SPACE NEWS

* Space launches for March included:

-- 02 MAR 15 / EUTELSAT 115 WEST B, ABS 3A -- A SpaceX Falcon 9 booster was launched from Cape Canaveral at 0350 GMT (previous day local time + 5) to put the "Eutelsat 115 West B" and "ABS 3A" geostationary comsats into orbit. Eutelsat 115 West B had a launch mass of 2,200 kilograms (4,850 pounds), a payload of 12 C-band / 34 Ku-band transponders, and a design life of 22 years. It was placed in the geostationary slot at 114.9 degrees west longitude to provide the Americas with video, data, government, and mobile services for Paris-based Eutelsat.

ABS 3A had a launch mass of about 2,000 kilograms (4,400 pounds), a payload of 24 C-band / 24 Ku-band transponders, and a design life of 22 years. It was placed in the geostationary slot at 3 degrees west longitude to distribute television programming, internet, maritime communications, and mobile phone services across the Americas, Europe, Africa and the Middle East for Asia Broadcast Satellite of Bermuda and Hong Kong. It replaced the elderly ABS 3 satellite, launched in 1997.

Eutelsat 115 West B & ABS 3A launch stack

Both new satellites were manufactured by Boeing and were based on the 702SP bus, being the first comsats designed to use electric propulsion for raising their orbits. The efficient electric thrusters meant the mass of the satellites were cut almost in half, without any loss of functionality, though it would take eight months for them to reach their operational orbits. The 702SP was also designed to permit stacking of one spacecraft on top of another, eliminating need for a mating adapter. This was the 16th launch of a Falcon 9, and first launch of a Falcon 9 with dual large payloads. The large payload mass precluded the use of a recoverable first stage.

-- 13 MAR 15 / MMS -- An Atlas 5 booster was launched from Cape Canaveral at 0244 GMT (previous day local time + 4) to put the "Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS)" mission into space, placing a constellation of satellite into a highly elliptical orbit, for a two-year mission to study the Earth's magnetosphere. The Atlas 5 booster for the MMS launch was in the "421" configuration, with a 4-meter (13.1-foot) fairing, two solid rocket boosters, and a single-engine Centaur upper stage.

-- 18 MAR 15 / EXPRESS AM7 -- A International Launch Services Proton M Breeze M booster was launched from Baikonur in Kazakhstan at 2205 GMT (next day local time - 6) to put the "Express AM7" geostationary communications satellite into orbit for the Russian Satellite Communications Company. The spacecraft was built by Airbus Defense & Space and was based on the firm's Eurostar 3000 satellite bus. Express AM7 had a launch mass of 5,760 kilograms (12,610 pounds), a payload of 24 C / 36 Ku / 2 L band transponders, electric thrusters, and a design lifetime of 15 years. It was placed in the geostationary slot at 40 degrees east longitude to provide communications services over a footprint from the UK to India to South Africa.

-- 25 MAR 15 / GPS 2F-9 (USA 260) -- A Delta 4 booster was launched from Cape Canaveral at 1836 GMT (local time + 4) to put the "GPS 2F-9" AKA USA 260 AKA "Navstar 2F" navigation satellite into orbit. It was the ninth Block 2F spacecraft, with the Block 2F series featuring a new "safety of life" signal for civilian air traffic control applications. It replaced the elderly and inactive GPS 2A-22 satellite, launched in August 1993. With the launch of GPS 2F-9, the constellation had 31 satellites, including 3 GPS 2A, 12 GPS 2R, 7 GPS 2R-M, and 9 GPS 2F spacecraft. The Delta 4 was in the "Medium+ (4,2)" configuration, with a 4-meter (13.1-foot) diameter fairing and two solid rocket boosters.

-- 25 MAR 15 / KOMPSAT 3A -- A Russian Dnepr booster, a converted SS-18 SATAN missile, was launched from Dombarovsky at 2208 GMT (next day local time - 4) to put the "Kompsat 3A' high-resolution Earth observation satellite into Sun-synchronous orbit for the Korea Aerospace Research Institute (KARI).

Kompsat 3A

-- 26 MAR 15 / IGS OPTICAL 5 -- An H-2A booster was launched from Tanegashima at 0121 GMT (local time - 9) to put the fifth optical "Information Gathering System (IGS)" spysat into orbit. The booster flew in standard "202" configuration, with twin strap-on solid-fuel boosters; heavier payloads may require four boosters.

-- 28 MAR 15 / SOYUZ ISS 42S (ISS) -- A Soyuz booster was launched from Baikonur at 1932 GMT (next day local time - 6) to put the "Soyuz ISS 42S" manned space capsule into orbit on an International Space Station (ISS) support mission. The crew included spacecraft commander Gennady Padalka (fifth space flight), flight engineer Mikhail Kornienko (second space flight), and NASA astronaut Scott Kelly (fourth space flight). The spacecraft took a direct-ascent trajectory and docked with the ISS Poisk module six hours after liftoff. Kornienko and Kelly were to spend 342 days on the ISS.

-- 28 MAR 15 / GALILEO FM03, FM04 -- A Soyuz ST-B (Fregat) booster was launched from Kourou at 2152 GMT (local time + 3) to put the first two "Fully Operational Capability (FOC)" Galileo navigation satellites, "FM03" and "FM04", into orbit. They followed the initial four "Galileo In-Orbit Validation (IOV)" satellites. The complete Galileo constellation will consist of 30 satellites along three orbital planes in medium Earth orbit, including two spares per orbit.

-- 29 MAR 15 / IRNSS 1D -- An ISRO Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle was launched from Sriharikota at 1149 GMT (local time - 5:30) to put the fourth "Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System (IRNSS)" spacecraft into orbit. The space platform had a launch mass of 1,425 kilograms (3,140 pounds), a design lifetime of ten years, and was placed in a geostationary-altitude orbit, with an inclination of 30.5 degrees. The previous IRNSS satellites were launched in in July 2013, April 2014, and October 2014, and at the time of the launch of IRNSS 1D were in good operating condition. In completion, the IRNSS constellation will include three satellites in equatorial geostationary orbits and four spacecraft in inclined orbits, swinging about 30 degrees north and south of the equator.

-- 30 MAR 15 / BEIDOU BDS I 1-S -- A Chinese Long March 3C booster was launched from Xichang at 1352 GMT (local time - 8) to put a "Beidou" navigation satellite into orbit. This was the 17th Beidou launch, and the first launch of a third series of Beidou spacecraft. In completion, the Beidou network will consist of 35 satellites, in three different classes of orbits: geostationary, inclined geostationary, and inclined medium, with geostationary at 35,900 kilometers (22,300 miles) and medium at 21,400 kilometers (13,300 miles).

The new satellite, "BDS I 1-s", was the first to transmit civil signals on a band and with modulation similar to that to be used on GPS and Galileo satellites in the future. It also used a new bus with a phased array antenna laser retroreflector. Launch mass was about 800 kilograms (1,765 pounds), with the spacecraft having a operational lifespan of 5 years. This was also the first launch of a Long March 3C booster with an improved "Yuanzheng-1 (Expedition 1)" upper stage. The Long March 3C is similar to the Long March 3B, but uses only two strap-on boosters, in contrast to the four on the Long March 3B.

-- 31 MAR 15 / GONETS M x 3 -- A Rockot booster was launched from Plesetsk Northern Cosmodrome in Russia at 1348 GMT (local time - 3) to put three "Gonets (Messenger) M" store-&-forward civil communications satellites into orbit. Each of the 280-kilogram (617-pound) Gonets M satellites was built by ISS Reshetnev, and had a five-year design life; the payloads were designated Gonets M satellites Number 21, 22 and 23. The full comsat constellation was to be completed, with 12 operational satellites, by the end of 2015. A next generation "Gonets M1" series of spacecraft is currently in development. A mysterious auxiliary payload, "Cosmos 2504", was also included in the launch.

* OTHER SPACE NEWS: The US has long been dependent on the traditional Delta and Atlas boosters, both with roots back to the 1950s, for putting payloads into space. United Launch Alliance (ULA), a collaboration of Lockheed Martin and Boeing that provides the Atlas V and Delta IV boosters, is now under pressure from Elon Musk's SpaceX firm, with Musk claiming he can substantially undercut ULA's prices.

ULA officials have responded to Musk's claims by saying he uses cooked accounting assumptions, but they have tacitly acknowledged the competitive pressure by announcing ULA's new "Vulcan" booster, which will feature a main stage with a re-usable engine, and an upper stage with a restartable engine. ULA officials say that the baseline Vulcan should have a cost under $100 million USD, with 4 and 5-meter (13.1 and 16.4-foot) diameter fairings to be offered. The top of the line, the "Vulcan Heavy" -- with up to six strap-on solid-rocket boosters (SRBs) and a new upper stage -- will come in under $200 million USD.

The preferred main stage propulsion will be the Blue Origin BE-4 engine -- Blue Origin being the company founded by Amazon.com's Jeff Bezos, the BE-4 being designed to burn liquid oxygen and liquefied natural gas -- with the Aerojet Rocketdyne AR-1, burning liquid oxygen and kerosene, as a backup; in either case, twin engines will provide about 4,450 kN (454,000 kgp / 1,000,000 lbf) thrust. The choice will be made in less than two years. A new SRB will also be obtained, with Aerojet Rocketdyne and Orbital ATK to compete for the award. The Vulcan will be introduced in four phases:

ULA officials say they plan to make the pricing structure of the Vulcan more transparent than that of the Atlas V and Delta IV, no doubt to force Musk to make his pricing claims on a level playing field. They add they would have placed development of ACES as the first phase, but Russian threats over embargoing the Russian-made RD-180 engine used on the ULA Atlas 5 shifted priority to the new first stage. The baseline Vulcan should be flying after 2018, at which time the single-core Delta IV will be retired, while the Vulcan Heavy will be introduced after 2023, at which time the Delta IV Heavy will be retired as well.

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[WEB 15 APR 15] A BARGAIN AT ANY PRICE

* A BARGAIN AT ANY PRICE: As noted previously, I've been on a restricted budget for the present, one result being that I've been focused on buying used books from Amazon.com. They can be very cheap, at least if a particular title is common and widely available online -- price down to a penny, obviously the intent being to get rid of inventory, build sales volume and so Amazon rankings, and pocket part of the charge for shipping.

An essay by Free Exchange, THE ECONOMIST's rotating economics blogger, took a different perspective on online used book sales, though not one that really contradicted my own experience. In a report on various papers on online commerce at an economics conference, Free Exchange highlighted one by Glenn & Sara Ellison of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), in which the two scholars collected prices for 335 titles and found that the average price was $17.80 online, 50% more than at a used-book store.

The trick here was that the Ellisons were only interested in average price of particular titles, not the average price of all used books sold online. If they had focused on total volume, it seems likely that the average price would have been lower online because of competition. The higher prices came in because obscure used books, for which there is no real competition, can be sold for a handsome markup on the internet. Take some out-of-print book, say on World War II naval logistics, dry and only of interest to a small clique of readers. Before the internet, that book might well gather dust on the shelf indefinitely, no matter how much it was marked down, because nobody who wanted it knew where to find it. List it online, and anyone who is trying to find it can do so. Since the book is rare and the buyer really wants it, the seller can set a premium price, and get it.

Sara Ellison commented that, some years ago, she bought online a decades-old academic tome on pharmaceuticals that she couldn't find in the MIT library. It cost her $20 USD, which she found a good price. On inspecting the book, however, she found it marked with a penciled price of 75 cents. It had been sitting unsold for years, no buyer willing to pick it up even at that price. She didn't feel ripped off; it was worth $20 USD to her to find it.

* I ran into this phenomenon while trying to hunt down the biography of Admiral William Leahy, one of Franklin Roosevelt's primary military advisors -- an important figure in World War II, but largely neglected in comparison with other figures like George Marshall or Douglas MacArthur. The biography was long out of print, but Amazon listed plenty of copies for sale. The cheapest sale price was $60 USD. I concluded that I had a long list of other things I was interested in, and wasn't inclined to shell out $60 USD for the time being.

I won't forget about it, however. I have noticed that the library here in Loveland, Colorado, is part of a network of Colorado libraries, and that I could have books shipped from other libraries -- possibly for a fee, I don't know, I didn't dig very deep. I suspect library networks are gradually extending their connections, meaning I eventually might have access to a lot of obscure books.

Now to take that idea a step further, what happens when ebooks start to predominate at libraries? I could check out an ebook as easily from one library on the network as any other. The networking would allow libraries to make better use of obscure titles with few readers, and since the readership demand is low, there would be few conflicts between readers trying to check it out at the same time. To be sure, libraries have to pay for each copy of an ebook, and can only check it out to one reader at a time -- but I still suspect publishers are going to be very unhappy with this scenario.

There are already general online services for ebooks of various sorts, think Project Gutenberg for one big example, and it would seem straightforward to have a global-access "library" of commercially-available ebooks supported by modest subscription fees -- indeed, for all I know, there may be several emerging right now. I don't think the publishers would be very happy with that, either. It would also impact, to a degree, the market for obscure used books.

I've always been interested in aircraft, and when I was a lad, I had a handful of PROFILE publications -- a series of pamphlets on different aircraft (and other things like cars, it seems) from the UK. They're long out of print, but I was able to buy a complete set of all the aircraft PROFILEs on a CD-ROM from Amazon for about ten bucks. I used to also collect the detailed aircraft books by the late William Green, which are long out of print as well; I have fair hopes someone will cut a CD-ROM for them, too. In the long-term ebook future, nothing will ever go out of print, and nobody will have trouble finding any book they want.

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[TUE 14 APR 15] THE COMMUNITY OF CHEESE

* THE COMMUNITY OF CHEESE: As discussed by a article from WIRED Online blogs ("Scientists Uncover a Surprising World of Microbes in Cheese Rind" by Greg Miller, 31 July 2014), nobody is too surprised that the rind of a good cheese is a thriving microbial community. A single gram, a tiny crumb, of cheese contains ten billion microbial cells -- a mix of bacteria and fungi that help generate the distinct flavors of the cheese. However, although cheese-making is thousands of years old, we still know very little about cheese microbial communities. Classic cheese varieties were established centuries ago, by trial and error, with unexpected lucky accidents playing a part, and cultures then made of the communities needed to produce a particular cheese.

Benjamin Wolfe and Rachel Dutton, microbiologists at Tufts University and Harvard University respectively, decided to investigate, seeing the cheese microbial community as a convenient "lab rat" for investigation of microbial communities in general. They ended up bringing 137 cheeses from ten countries into Dutton's lab at Harvard for genetic analysis. In a collaborative paper, they show the microbes that live on cheese turn out to be diverse -- but not that diverse, with the two researchers identifying 10 types of fungi and 14 types of bacteria that tend to dominate the cheese communities. Some of them were well known, like Penicillium fungus, a genus that includes the P. roqueforti that puts the blue in blue cheese; and P. camemberti, which puts the white mold on the rind of camembert.

blue cheese

What was surprising was finding the oceanic bacteria Pseudoalteromonas and Vibrio, in cheeses made nowhere near the sea; possibly they were introduced from sea salts used to salt cheeses. In the sea, these microbes live on the chitin-rich shells of crabs and other marine invertebrates; in cheeses, they feed off the chitin in the cell walls of fungi.

Not too surprisingly, although there were commonalities among cheese communities, different types of cheeses still proved to have distinctly different communities of microbes. For example, bloomy rind cheeses, which are inoculated with mold to produce soft creamy cheeses such as brie with a fuzzy white rind, tend to have a different microbial makeup than natural rind cheeses, such as traditional cheddars, which are basically left alone and allowed to age. There doesn't seem to be much correlation between population composition and the locale where the cheeses are made, but there does seem to be a correlation with moisture.

In the course of their work, Dutton and Wolfe, not all that intentionally, became stars among the cheese community. When the two researchers attend American Cheese Society meetings, cheesemakers line up with their cheeses for analysis. Of course, cheese is only a component of foods dependent on microbes for their production: yeasts give us bread, wine, and beer; mold produces soy sauce and miso; bacteria are responsible for the flavors of chocolate, kimchi, vinegar, and salami.

Manhattan chef David Chang enlisted Dutton and Wolfe to make sure the pork loin he had fermented wasn't going to kill anyone. That going well, they helped him figure out how to grow koji, the mold used to ferment soybeans, so he could make miso and other koji-derived consumables. Chang sings their praises: "It's been a real blessing to have Rachel and Ben as a resource. They've opened all kinds of doors ... There's no way we would have found out anything without their help. Outside of some basic knowledge about cheese and wine and brewing beer, there's not much info [about microbes] out there for chefs."

Chang believes that their science amounts to a culinary revolution. "Every chef I ever worked for told me: Here's how you make sauerkraut! -- but he never said why. He never said it has to do with the bacteria already present in the cabbage ... Now, understanding how bacteria work, what if we can make an aged Parmesan in six months instead of two years? What if I can age beef in six days instead of 60?"

For the time being, Dutton and Wolfe remain focused on cheese. The two microbiologists are now creating cultures of the cheese communities in their labs for analysis.

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[MON 13 APR 15] DECODING THE BRAIN (1)

* DECODING THE BRAIN (1): As discussed by an article from IEEE SPECTRUM ("The US BRAIN Initiative Boldly Begins" by Brandon Keim, January 2014), in April 2013 US President Barack Obama announced the "Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies" program, better known as the BRAIN Initiative. As the name suggests, the BRAIN Initiative seeks to map out the detailed structure and operations of the human brain. An initial budget of $110 million USD was parceled out to the US National Institutes of Health (NIH), the National Science Foundation (NSF), and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Four private institutions -- the Kavli Foundation, Allen Institute for Brain Science, Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and Salk Institute for Biological Studies -- also committed a total of $122 million USD of their own money to kick-start the BRAIN effort.

We have a fair understanding of the operations of neurons and of biochemical influences on the brain, along with a general notion of the partitioning of functionality among the various portions of the brain -- at least to the extent that it is partitioned, the brain not being at all modular in the way human-made machines are. However, the way in which neurons are specifically wired up to perform the brain's functions is staggeringly complicated and beyond our present understanding. The ambitious goal of the BRAIN Initiative is to plug that gap.

Miyoung Chun, vice president of science programs for the Kavli Foundation, was one of the prime movers behind the BRAIN Initiative, having led the charge with the White House and the neuroscience community. She appreciates the challenge: "In my mind, it's the greatest challenge of our time."

Everyone else in the community appreciates the challenge as well; some have questioned if it can be done. When Obama first announced the BRAIN Initiative, many researchers were skeptical. The most sophisticated neurological recording exercise at the time involved the zebra fish, with only 80,000 neurons, and required drastic intrusiveness that wouldn't be possible with human subjects under any conditions. A mouse brain, in contrast, has almost a thousand times more neurons, 75 million, while a human brain exceeds that of the mouse brain by about the same factor, running to 86 billion neurons. Assuming that challenge could be met, the volume of data would be monstrous, dwarfing genomic big data, making storage and analysis problematic.

In the face of agitated feedback, the NIH, NSF, and DARPA held a series of workshops and meetings to discuss the organization of the BRAIN Initiative. What emerging was an evolutionary scheme, somewhat paralleling that of the Human Genome Initiative, starting out with basic science and tool development to provide a basis for more ambitious efforts.

The report from the NIH advisory committee didn't put recording of cell activity at the top of the list. One of the first tasks planned was a census of the brain's cell types, which cover not only many varieties of neurons but also glia, a somewhat obscure family of cells that may actually outnumber neurons. The physical forms of these cells in mice and other animals will be characterized, along with their molecular and genetic properties, their locations, and ultimately how they connect to other cells, both individually and in groups.

Such network-spanning wiring diagrams are called "connectomes", and they're fundamental for understanding the operation of the brain. Traditionally, there was a tendency among neuroscientists to think that mental functions were compartmentalized in the brain, local assemblies of neurons doing the work; now it's generally understood that an act of perception and cognition isn't localized, it involves elaborate neural circuits that can weave through multiple regions.

There's nothing new about connectome studies, the roundworm connectome having been published in 1986, with the NIH kicking off the "Human Connectome Project" in 2009. It was a five-year effort, run by twin consortiums: one collaboration among Harvard, Massachusetts General Hospital, and the University of California at Los Angeles, the other collaboration between Washington University, the University of Minnesota and the University of Oxford.

A range of other, smaller-scale connectome projects have been conducted or are in progress at various research institutes. There's been progress, though the task remains enormous. As one researcher put it: "A century ago, brain maps were like 16th-century maps of the Earth's surface. Now our characterizations are more like an 18th-century map." The NIH report envisions a far more ambitious effort. [TO BE CONTINUED]

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[FRI 10 APR 15] THE COLD WAR (63)

* THE COLD WAR (63): While instabilities built up in Eastern Europe, other troubles had been brewing in the Middle East. Egypt had been occupied by Britain in 1882, the intent being to protect the Suez Canal, Britain's lifeline to India and other East Asia colonies. After World War II, the British occupation became increasingly intolerable to the Egyptians. In July 1952, an officer's coup had overthrown Egyptian King Farouk, with the charismatic Gamal Abdul Nasser effectively taking the helm of the new Egyptian republic.

The British felt they could get a fresh start with Nasser, agreeing in 1954 to withdraw forces in 1956, the agreement stipulating that the canal would not revert to the Egyptian government until 1968. The CIA also kept in touch with Nasser, hoping to keep him aligned with the US. The US was concerned, in hindsight too much so, with the prospect of Soviet dominance in the region, and was working to set up a security alliance, the "Central Treaty Organization (CENTO)", with Britain, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, and Turkey signing the "Baghdad Pact" to set up the alliance in 1955.

CENTO would amount to little, being later seen as a prime example of the Eisenhower Administration's fondness for alliances, or "pactomania". Egypt refused to join CENTO, one of the ambitions of Nasser's state being to destroy Israel, which the Americans would not contemplate. In September 1955, Egypt obtained a huge purchase of arms from the Soviet Union via Czechoslovakia, and any doubts among the Americans of Nasser's tilt to the Soviet camp evaporated. The Israelis were not happy to hear that the Egyptians were obtaining advanced weapons that were certain to be used against them.

The centerpiece of Nasser's development plans for Egypt was the Aswan High Dam, which was to tame the Nile and produce power. Nasser had lost all friends in the West: John Foster Dulles regarded him as a Soviet tool, British Prime Minister Eden thought him another Hitler, French Premier Guy Mollet was angry with Egyptian support for FLN rebels fighting French rule in Algeria. On 19 July 1956, President Eisenhower withdrew American financial support for the Aswan High Dam, the British following his lead and dropping their support as well. On 26 July, Nasser hit back, announcing that the Egyptian government would nationalize the Suez Canal, with the revenues to be used to build the dam, and the international shareholders given compensation.

The fuze towards war had been lit. Eden expressed outrage, wiring Eisenhower on the same day to say that the situation "demanded action", adding that Britain was working on military plans to deal with the situation by force "as a last resort". Eisenhower's response reflected American long-standing distrust of British colonialism: he felt that the use of force would be a grave error, the American people would be antagonized by a military response, and Nasser was within his rights. Eisenhower added that Nasser had still gone about things the wrong way, and some response to his action was required.

France was close to Israel at the time, the French being the primary arms suppliers to the Israelis. The two countries began talks on military action, with the British becoming involved. In September, flights by CIA U-2 spyplanes operating out of Turkey showed the Israelis were mobilizing for war, and that the French had been providing them with more combat aircraft than were allowed under existing agreements in which the US had been involved. Eisenhower suspected the Israelis were preparing to attack Jordan; he concluded that Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion was exploiting the fact that Eisenhower was distracted by his re-election campaign, and so would not be able to interfere in Israeli operations.

* US intelligence failed to anticipate events in the Middle East. The CIA was distracted by events in Eastern Europe, while Eisenhower was indeed pre-occupied by running re-election; he didn't expect that the Israelis, French, and British were likely to anything rash about the canal. They were giving no public hint that they intended to take action, and Eisenhower had no cause to believe they did.

High officials of the three nations secretly met at Sevres in France from 22 to 24 October to plan a military operation to grab the Suez Canal -- the operation being codenamed MUSKETEER, to emphasize its tripartite nature. It was to be imperialism of the old school: Israel would attack Egypt, with the British and French then intervening to "restore order" and secure the canal. On 25 October, Egypt, Syria, and Jordan announced that they had signed an agreement that unified their military commands, with an Egyptian general to take supreme command in the event of war. Ben-Gurion announced in reply that Israel was in "direct and immediate danger". Both sides were racing for the gun. [TO BE CONTINUED]

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[THU 09 APR 15] GIMMICKS & GADGETS

* GIMMICKS & GADGETS: The latest Apple MacBook has a feature that might easily go unnoticed, but it's a portent of the future: a Type-C USB connector. We're familiar with the "standard" large Type-A USB connector, and the smaller Type-B connectors whose diversity leads to the annoying necessity to pack different USB cables. The Type-C represents an end to the plug hassles, at least eventually, being small enough to be used with any device, 8.4 x 2.6 millimeters, and also symmetrical -- it can be plugged in with either side up, it works the same.

What makes the USB-C scheme much more significant is that it reflects the "Power USB" spec, capable of handling 20 volts DC at 5 amps, or 100 watts. It can also handle power bi-directionally, and supports data rates of 10 gigabits per second. In other words, USB-C may well mean the end of annoying incompatible plug-in AC adapters -- with a particular plus that, in a decade or so, we'll be able to take our gadgets to any modern hotel around the world and plug them into Power USB -- and can also support almost any peripheral, from external drives to high-resolution displays. Add to that the potential of a hardwired, plug and play, home data network with gigabit transfer speeds.

USB-A versus USB-C

As CNET called it: ONE CABLE TO CONNECT THEM ALL. It's going to mean buying a messy kit of adapters early on, but the pain of that is certain to decline over time. I'm thinking of buying an Acer Switch tablet, but I've been waiting for Windows 10 to come out; not being in a hurry, I think I'll wait until they add USB-C as well.

* Early in the industrial revolution, canals were a primary form of transport in Britain and other developed societies, the image lingering of dray horses pulling barges up a stream. As discussed by a note from THE ECONOMIST ("Crowded Waters", 20 December 2014), the invention of the locomotive sent canals into decline, and they gradually became an element of the UK's industrial decay.

In 21st-century post-industrial Britain, they are undergoing a revival. Britain boasts 4,800 kilometers (3,000 miles) of canals, and they are now seen as an civic asset, being spruced up, with paths once trod by dray horses becoming bike paths. In places with high rents such as west London, a two-bedroom barge is less than half as pricey as a flat on dry land. Between 2005 and 2014, the number of boats on the canals in England and Wales increased by a quarter, to 32,000. Britain's canals aren't seen as just leisure facilities, either, freight haulage coming back to them in the container freight age: the number of containers transported on the Manchester ship canal leaped from 3,000 in 2009 to 23,000 in 2013.

The renaissance of Britain's canals has been substantially aided by government far-sightedness. In 2012, seeking to cut budgets, the UK government dumped British Waterways, the state corporation that ran two-thirds of the canals. The Canal & River Trust was set up, along with a separate state-run organization for Scotland. Although assistance to the trust from the UK Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs was cut almost in half, it was guaranteed for 15 years, giving the trust money for long-term investments. The trust also gets assistance from local heritage funds and the UK Arts Council, which has provided money for arts events along the waterways of northwest England. Private citizens help, too, with the trust counting over 9,000 "friends".

Birmingham canal

Britain, like the US, faces challenges in maintaining infrastructure. Too often, infrastructure decisions are made on a case-by-case basis, with no strong concern for long-range planning. Calls are being made for an infrastructure commission to plan out the UK's roads and railways a quarter-century into the future. Should the commission be created, the commissioners might well find Britain's canals as food for thought.

* The British are also keeping up with the latest innovations in transport infrastructure. As discussed by TIME Online, Britain is now charging forward on the robocar future by reviewing road regulations, and launching autonomous driving trials across the country. By this spring, the government will publish guidelines that will allow the testing of driverless cars to begin in the country. A full review of current legislation will be completed by the summer of 2017. The effort will involve rewriting highway regulations to take into account the effect of automated vehicles on traffic. The UK government is also shelling out about 19 million pounds ($29 million USD) to launch robocar projects in four locations.

According to Transport Minister Claire Perry: "Driverless vehicle technology has the potential to be a real game-change on the UK's roads, altering the face of motoring in the most fundamental of ways and delivering major benefits for road safety, social inclusion, emissions and congestion."

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[WED 08 APR 15] GONE FLAT

* GONE FLAT: Monetary inflation is a chronic nuisance, leaving us worrying about the invisible depletion of our savings, while prices keep on climbing. Inflation hasn't been much of a concern over the past decade, the world's economies being in the doldrums; it might seem that low inflation is a silver lining to that cloud, but economics is a funny sort of science. As discussed by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("The High Cost Of Falling Prices", 21 February 2015), it turns out that low or negative inflation -- deflation -- poses problems of its own.

Central banks tend to regard 2% inflation as a magic value. If prices grow at that rate, consumers tend to ignore their slow rise; while it gives bosses a way to motivate slow workers by passing over their pay raises, effectively cutting their pay. With inflation at 2% or more, company leadership also has an incentive to invest the money to get a good return, or pay out dividends to shareholders, both of which promote economic activity. However, below 2%, deflation starts to bite, with two results: people hoard cash and delay purchases, knowing their money will go farther in the future, while debtors find paying off debts ever more burdensome over time.

Although the US, the UK, and Canada now have economic growth rates of better than 2%, inflation remains low, while China, Japan, Thailand, and the euro zone are clearly slipping into deflation. A generation ago, the countries in what is now the euro zone were threatened with runaway inflation -- in the 1980s, Italy suffered price rises of an average of 11% a year, while Greece was hit with 20% inflation -- but now, 15 of the 19 nations in the bloc are in deflation. Austria has the highest inflation rate of the 19, a mere 1%.

One factor is the falling price of oil, which has dropped by roughly half over the past year. On the face of it, that's a good thing, with consumers not having to pay so much for heating and transport, while producers end up with lower overheads -- which, in competitive industries, means lower prices for consumers. Another factor has been the general long-term decline in cost of consumer technology, where customers have become almost bizarrely accustomed to paying less and getting more. That makes life nerve-wracking for producers; manufacturers of phones, tablets, and other consumer electronics tend to accept it as part of their way of life, but for makers of appliances, cars, and other heavy durable goods, it's harder to swallow. Consumers don't have any reason to complain, of course, because unemployment has been high and pay raises rare, so they want costs to stay low.

Unemployment is fading in the US, Japan, and notably the UK, with even the feeble euro zone gaining ground, if not by much. Traditionally, growth in employment should be accompanied by growth in wages, leading to inflation -- but that hasn't happened. This is where the inflation quandary becomes more apparent. The reason higher employment hasn't resulted in inflation appears to be that the jobs being created tend to be constrained forms of employment -- entry-level jobs, part-time work, temporary hiring -- with the new hires having little wage bargaining power. In other words, low inflation suggests workers are getting the short end of the stick.

That inevitably leads to political backlash. In the US, President Barack Obama is pushing to raise the minimum wage from $7.25 USD to $10.10 USD an hour. In Britain, both main parties are are concerned about abusive hiring policies, while Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has recently announced that temporary workers should expect the same employment deals as their permanent colleagues. It's not really that inflation is a good thing in itself from this point of view, it's just that deflation is a symptom of a squeezed labor market. Easing the squeeze clearly means a rise in inflation, but the leadership sees that as the lesser of evils.

Again, deflation also means hoarding money and rising debt burden, so it does cause for concern in itself. Central banks, such as the European Central Bank (ECB) and the Bank of Japan, are now engaged in "quantitative easing (QE)" procedures, such as creating money to buy up government debt, in hopes of raising inflation. As perverse as deliberately raising inflation may sound, it gets worse: in June 2014, the ECB began paying -0.1% interest on deposits held in its vault, then lowered it to -0.2% in September. The central banks of Denmark, Switzerland, and Sweden also started dabbling in negative interest rates.

Negative interest rates? What sense does it make to loan money at a loss?! The theory behind it is mind-bogglingly arcane; certainly, it gives a disincentive to simply stash money away instead of invest it or otherwise put it to work, but many economists believe it's every bit as absurd as it sounds, judging that people will simply stuff cash in a mattress before losing money on loaning it out. Then again, keeping lots of cash around the house is troublesome and risky. In fear of deflation, central banks are willing to try desperate measures.

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[TUE 07 APR 15] MMS IN ORBIT

* MMS IN ORBIT -- An Atlas 5 booster was launched from Cape Canaveral on 12 March to put the NASA "Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS)" mission into space, placing a constellation of satellites into orbit for a two-year mission to study the Earth's magnetosphere.

MMS consists of four identical spacecraft, designed to conduct magnetospheric plasma physics research, with a focus on a phenomenon known as "magnetic reconnection" -- shifts in the magnetic field map that release energy stored in the magnetic field. MMS was conceived in 2003, with development go-ahead in 2008. The four spacecraft were built by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC), being based on a custom bus.

MMS in launch preparation

The four MMS satellites were initially placed in a highly elliptical orbit of 2,500 by 70,080 kilometers (1,600 by 43,500 miles), flying in a tetrahedral formation, for 18 months of observations on the day side boundary of the magnetosphere, where the magnetic fields of the Earth and Sun interact. Following that phase, the orbital apogees is to be raised to 153,000 kilometers (95,000 miles), to fly through the Earth's magnetospheric tail and study events on the night side of the planet.

The MMS satellites are in the form of an octagonal hatboxes, each with a diameter of 1.67 meters (5 feet 6 inches) and a height of 1.23 meters (4 feet). The launch stack of all four satellites had a height of 4.92 meters (6 feet 2 inches). The internal structures of the satellites were anodized different colors to prevent confusion during assembly -- satellite one being orange, satellite two being blue, satellite three being green, and satellite four being pink. It seems the colors were assigned as per the uniforms of the Beatle's pop group of the 1960s on the cover their album SGT. PEPPER'S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND.

All four satellites have an identical payload, each with three three suites of instruments and a total of eleven experiments:

MMS was a follow on to the European Space Agency's four-satellite "Cluster II" mission and NASA's five-spacecraft THEMIS constellation. The first Cluster launch attempt was in 1996, in the maiden flight of the Ariane 5 booster, which ended in failure; the replacement Cluster II constellation was launched by an Ariane 5 in 2000. THEMIS was launched by a Delta II in 2007. Although Cluster II and THEMIS did observe reconnection events, unlike MMS, that was not the primary focus of their missions.

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[MON 06 APR 15] POST-REVOLUTIONARY IRAN (9)

* POST-REVOLUTIONARY IRAN (9): Up to the tightening of sanctions, Iranians had been thinking life was getting better. Now, jobs are hard to find and inflation is eating away their savings. The government's oil revenues are drying up, while allies around the Mideast are tottering. When will things start getting better again?

The key, of course, is Iran's nuclear power program. A preliminary agreement on the matter was achieved in early April, to be finalized by the end of June. Significant elements of the agreement include:

In return:

The deal may well fall apart. Although the US Congress is not supposed to interfere directly in an administration's foreign policy -- the principle being that "politics stops at the water's edge", that America needs to have one face to present to the world, not two faces bickering with each other, with dissent on foreign affairs kept internalized -- that's a principle often honored in the breach, and hardline Republicans have sensed the Obama Administration is vulnerable to public opinion on its deal-making with Iran. They've been cheered on by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has been loudly denouncing the deal, fostering a climate of hostility with the White House.

Although there was celebrating in the streets of Tehran when the deal was announced, Rouhani has his own hardliners to deal with, who believe that the value of the Bomb outweighs worthless concessions from the treacherous Americans. If the agreement falls apart, the US will tighten sanctions, while Iranian hardliners will assert themselves -- some already talking about a "resistance economy", a state under siege, with the diatribes against America ramping up again. To be sure, the international consensus on sanctions will deteriorate if the US is seen as unreasonable, but even then, sanctions will still cause pain.

The big difficulty with a failure to come to an accommodation is that the US will no longer have any way to prevent Iran from getting the Bomb except the military option -- and nobody who's given any serious thought to the matter thinks war is the best, or a very realistic, solution. The effectiveness of military action is uncertain, while the US has little interest in striking at Iran when it is also fighting Islamic State militants, bracing up Europe against Russia, and guarding Asian allies against an overbearing China. A deal with Iran has plenty of attractions for America, too. [END OF SERIES]

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[FRI 03 APR 15] THE COLD WAR (62)

* THE COLD WAR (62): The turmoil in Poland continued through the summer and into the fall of 1956. On 19 October, in an attempt to restore order, the Polish Communist Party appointed Wladislaw Gomulka, a reformer who had been purged and had been languishing behind bars, as Polish Communist Party First Secretary. Khrushchev and other high Soviet officials promptly flew into Warsaw, leading to a loud confrontation at the airport that Gomulka described as "beyond comprehension". Red Army forces were about to move in and Gomulka knew it, but he kept his head, telling Khrushchev that though he, Gomulka, felt Poland should take a more independent line, Poland needed the Soviet Union far more than the Soviet Union needed Poland.

The visitors flew back to Moscow, with then Khrushchev vacillating on the intervention for several days, to finally come down on the side of patience. The Polish crisis had been averted; Gomulka would remain in charge in Poland until the 1970s.

The Chinese were kept informed of developments in Eastern Europe, with Mao Zedong taking a very strong interest in the matter. Mao chaired a meeting of the Chinese Politburo Standing Committee on 20 October -- organized, it seems, in some haste, Mao not bothering to get dressed, attending the meeting in his pajamas. He was solidly against Soviet intervention, calling it "big-power chauvinism", asserting that the crisis was due to Soviet mismanagement of the relationship between the USSR and the socialist states of Eastern Europe. After the meeting, he called Pavel Yudin, the Soviet ambassador to China, to his quarters, lectured Yudin about the Kremlin's mistakes, and said China would protest military intervention.

Events of the next few days suggested that the military option was not going to happen -- but in any case, on 23 October, Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping of the Chinese Politburo flew off to Moscow to make China's voice directly heard in the halls of the Kremlin. By that time, the crisis in Poland had passed, but the Chinese visitors were still vocal in finding fault with the Kremlin, denouncing Soviet "big-power chauvinism", and saying that de-Stalinization had been taken well too far. The Chinese would remain to the end of the month, continuing their criticisms and evaluations.

* Matters continued to get worse in Hungary. Informed by reports from Radio Free Europe of events in Poland, on 23 October, the same day the Chinese arrived in Moscow, Hungarians crammed the streets of Budapest to demand reforms, particularly the appointment of Imre Nagy as prime minister. There was a clash between protesters and security police that evening, with the police being overwhelmed. Hungary seemed in full revolt, and so the decision was made at the Kremlin to send in forces to help restore order.

Soviet troops and tanks entered Budapest on the morning of 24 October, the same day Nagy was appointed prime minister. It was fatal timing for Nagy; he might have been another Gomulka and restored order, but he took power at moment everything went to hell, and could only end up being blamed for it.

The CIA-backed Radio Free Europe and Voice of America had been endorsing the free rights of Eastern Europeans, though publicly Dulles and Eisenhower had been specific in saying change there should come through nonviolent means. There were factions in the US government that thought America should take more aggressive action: as conditions deteriorated in Hungary, the CIA asked Eisenhower for permission to air-drop arms and supplies to Hungarian resistance fighters.

The president turned them down flat, seeing no sense in getting into a major fight with the Soviets over Hungary. All the CIA accomplished in the Hungarian crisis was to suggest to the Kremlin that the unrest had been provoked by the Americans -- that being more convenient to believe than that it was spontaneous. For the next week, chaos accelerated, with Khrushchev wavering again on what to do. [TO BE CONTINUED]

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[THU 02 APR 15] SCIENCE NOTES

* SCIENCE NOTES: As reported by TIME Online, the US National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has announced that this last winter, from December 2014 through February 2015, was the warmest on record, exceeding the previous record, in 2007, by 0.05 degrees Fahrenheit.

That's not exactly a global heat wave, but it does suggest where things are going. The high winter temperatures will come as a surprise to folks in the eastern US and Canada, who suffered through some serious cold, not to mention lots of snow -- Boston setting a record for winter snowfall. However, that was one of the few regions on the planet that had a big chill; the western US, for instance, had an unsettlingly warm winter that proved miserable for owners of ski resorts. Besides, heavy snowfalls are not incompatible with warming, since heating means more evaporation and so, more precipitation.

* As discussed by a note from THE ECONOMIST ("Set A Thief", 20 September 2014), pharmaceutical researchers are always on the lookout for new antibiotics, usually extracting them from micro-organisms collected in the wild, from locations all over the world -- but now, awareness is growing that very effective antibiotics may be found in the human microbiome. The microbiome is not just a passive hitch-hiker in the human body; at least parts of it help maintain our health, with some of the players in the microbiome capable of generating chemicals to deal with malign intruders.

A paper published by Mohamed Donia of the University of California, San Francisco, and colleagues, examined this approach. The research team wrote software to scan DNA databases for genes that seem promising for production of antibiotics. It was "trained" to find interesting genes by exposing it to 752 genes with known functions, including synthesis of antibiotics, allowing it to spot new genes similar to them. They ran the software against the database of the Human Microbiome Project, an international scientific collaboration which aims to catalogue the gene sequences of all bacteria found in humans. The search turned up 3,118 "potentially useful" clusters of genes. The team zeroed in on one bacterium Lactobacillus gasseri, which lives in the vagina, to culture. The culture produced a chemical similar to known antibiotics.

The search scheme, as mentioned, simply looked for genes that seemed "interesting", and so the exercise is likely to yield more than new antibiotics. It could also turn up "neurotransmitters", the molecules that carry messages between nerve cells; they could be used to treat certain neurological diseases. More intriguingly, some of the members of our microbiome can selectively suppress our immune system, preventing it from wiping them out. That suggests the possibility of drugs that can do a more selective job of immune suppression, needed to keep organ transplant patients from rejecting their transplants. In addition, the search should turn up beneficial micro-organisms that can be used in fecal transplants, or techniques derived from it.

* As discussed by an article from BBC WORLD Online ("HIV Evolving Into Milder Form" by James Gallagher, 1 December 2014), a study by a team of researchers at the University of Oxford in the UK has shown HIV is evolving to become less deadly and less infectious -- that the virus is being "watered down" as it adapts to our immune systems. The study shows it is now taking longer for HIV infection to cause AIDS, and that the changes in the virus may help efforts to contain the pandemic. Some virologists suggest the virus may eventually become "almost harmless", as it continues to evolve.

More than 35 million people around the world are HIV-positive; the virus wrecks their immune systems, leaving them vulnerable to lethal opportunistic infections. However, every so often HIV infects someone with a particularly strong immune system. Professor Philip Goulder of the Oxford team says that then "the virus is trapped between a rock and hard place, it can get flattened, or make a change to survive -- and if it has to change, then it will come with a cost."

The "cost" is a reduced ability to replicate, which in turn makes the virus less infectious and slower to kill its host. The team showed this process happening in Africa by comparing Botswana, which has had an HIV problem for a long time, and South Africa, where HIV arrived a decade later. According to Goulder, the difference is "quite striking. You can see the ability to replicate is 10% lower in Botswana than South Africa, and that's quite exciting. We are observing evolution happening in front of us and it is surprising how quickly the process is happening. The virus is slowing down in its ability to cause disease and that will help contribute to elimination."

The study also suggested anti-retroviral drugs were pressuring HIV to evolve into milder forms, since the drugs primarily target the nastiest versions of HIV and so encourage survival of the milder strains. According to Goulder: "Twenty years ago, the time to AIDS was 10 years, but in the last 10 years in Botswana, that might have increased to 12.5 years, a sort of incremental change -- but in the big picture, that is a rapid change. One might imagine as time extends this could stretch further and further, and in the future people being asymptomatic for decades."

Although seemingly harmless HIV variants are found in other primates, the study did not suggest that human HIV strains were going to be harmless any time soon. However, a less virulent HIV strain would restrain the spread of the virus, helping to get the pandemic under control.

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[WED 01 APR 15] ANOTHER MONTH

* ANOTHER MONTH: Russian President Vladimir Putin dropped out of sight for ten days during May, leading to lively rumors that he had died, or been kicked out by a putsch, or lying low until some invisible Kremlin furor died down. The only apparent fact in the matter was the lack of transparency of the Russian government; no matter how low an opinion Americans have of their own government, nobody could realistically conceive that an American president could drop out of sight for any extended period of time without explanation.

In any case, THE ECONOMIST took the idea and ran with it, envisioning the same scenario with other world leaders, with a simplified list provided here:

* In the "ridiculous gimmick and proud of it" category this month, a Kickstarter effort is underway to introduce the "Brik Case", which is an ABS plastic panel covered with Lego studs that snaps onto the back of the display of a MacBook Pro or MacBook Air, different sizes to be offered for different sizes of MacBook.

Brik Case

Yes indeed, the assertively geeky will be able to decorate their computing horsepower with colorful Lego patternings, no doubt while it's playing bleep-bloop chiptune music. No need to slap stickers on a MacBook any more; users can make up their own. The Brik Case is also cross-platform, being compatible with Duplo, Mega Blox, K'nex, Tyco Super Blocks, Built to Rule bricks, Kre-O, Nintendo's short-lived N&B blocks, PixelBlocks, Rokenboks, and most Kiddicraft brick clones now on the market -- they're close enough to Lego that they'll fit.

The Brik Case is supposed to ship in August, pricetag being about $40 USD. That might seem a bit steep for a gimmick like this, but it's not there's any more than perceived value in it anyway -- that is, it's worth as much to users as they feel like it is -- and besides, a "Bag O'Brix", with 100 1x1 multi-colored blocks, comes along with it, to allow immediate gratification of the urge to snap together Legos.

* Thanks to one reader for a donations to support the websites last month. It is very much appreciated.

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