may 2015 / last mod apr 2017 / greg goebel

* 21 entries including: Cold War (series), China & the internet (series), chronic disease vaccines (series), printing body parts, Trans-Pacific Partnership deal, peak copper production, cancer vaccine progress, methane as a vehicular fuel, Chernobyl shelter, stevia for colas, and the warming Arctic.

banner of the month

[FRI 22 MAY 15] THE COLD WAR (68)
[FRI 15 MAY 15] THE COLD WAR (67)
[FRI 08 MAY 15] THE COLD WAR (66)


* NEWS COMMENTARY FOR MAY 2015: On 14 May, US President Barack Obama conducted a retreat at Camp David in Maryland for representatives of Persian Gulf states, members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Obama's message to the representatives was that US efforts to come to a deal with Iran on restraining that country's nuclear program did not mean the US was selling out its allies in the region.

Obama told them that the US has an "ironclad commitment" to protect their security, promising further cooperation with the Gulf States on counter-terrorism, maritime security, cybersecurity, and ballistic missile defense. As far as the nuclear deal with Iran went, the president acknowledged that while the Gulf leaders hadn't been asked to "sign on the bottom line" in the negotiations, there was a consensus that "a comprehensive, verifiable solution that fully addresses the regional and international concerns about Iran's nuclear program is in the security interests of the international community, including our GCC partners."

Obama told the representatives that the US believes Iran's priority is not to get the Bomb, but to restore health to an economy that has struggled under sanctions. The reaction of the participants at the retreat to the US position seems to have been a polite, if not necessarily heartfelt, acceptance. Other issues discussed at the retreat included the US-led campaign against the Islamic State, the fighting in Syria, and the unending conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. Another issue was the situation in Yemen, where Houthi rebels with ties with Iran have ousted the US- and Saudi-backed leader. The Saudis have been leading that fight, with the Americans remaining in the background, but it is clearly a matter of interest to the US.

* The Cold War, if it could be honestly rendered down to any simple theme, was a conflict between two ideologies: democratic capitalism and communism. In the end, the communist bloc fell over in a world-shaking crash, providing the lesson that state-imposed egalitarianism could not compete in any sense with private enterprise.

Or so the populist wisdom has it; in reality, the inevitable tension between the pursuit of personal wealth and the common welfare remains strong. Only the extreme denounce the pursuit of wealth as evil in itself; but only the extreme say the common welfare can be disregarded. The question is now where the balance should be struck.

This debate was given a strong kick by the 2013 book CAPITAL IN THE 21ST CENTURY by French economist Thomas Piketty, in which Piketty argued that growing inequality would undermine the capitalist system, and that governments needed to intervene to establish a balance. Piketty's book drew a storm of criticism, even condemnation, from other economists; the disputes are neither here nor there to outsiders, but everyone can recognize that Piketty generated an extremely lively discussion.

Thomas Piketty

As discussed by British economist Clive Crook in BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK, at the center of this clash of ideas is the question of if inequality is really an inherently bad thing for society. In his influential 1975 book EQUALITY & EFFICIENCY: THE BIG TRADE-OFF, American economist Arthur Okun argued that inequality was an inevitable consequence of economic growth and general prosperity. However, a report released this last month by the Organization for Economic Cooperation & Development (OECD) titled "In It Together: Why Less Inequality Benefits All" suggested, as the title suggests, that Okun was off the mark.

According to the OECD report, income inequality measured at the country level (as opposed to globally) has been rising almost everywhere for years; the report also finds that "income inequality tends to drag down GDP growth". However, the report then adds significant fine print, pointing out that the lag in economic growth is not correlated to the gap between the poor and ultra-rich; it's based on the gap between the lower 40% of the income distribution and the upper 60%. The gap between average incomes and top incomes had no evident bad effect on growth -- admittedly, it didn't boost growth, either.

In short, the OECD report says that, while there is a real problem, the supposed struggle between the "99%" and the "1%" is misguided -- being the age-old confusion of the Left to attack the rich, indifferent to whether that helps the poor. What, then, should be done to help the poor? At the top of the list of the report's recommendations was "human-capital investment", implying improvements in education for children of low-income families -- as well as reducing the taxes of the bottom 40%, boosting their wages, getting more women into the workforce, and shifting the jobs market from irregular or part-time work into full-time jobs.

What sort of tax structure is required to fund such efforts is, of course, another convoluted issue -- particularly so in the USA, where tax policy, never noted for its tidiness, has become something resembling a train wreck. There is an irony in Thomas Piketty's rise to global fame, since it's made him as much a media superstar as an economist could ever hope to be. It is hard to begrudge him rewards he has obtained as a result, any more than they can be begrudged for anyone who has profited handsomely by entirely legal means, and Piketty also insists that he isn't anti-capitalist; still, the perks can only seem a little bit awkward.

* Although Texas and Oklahoma have been suffering from drought, this spring the rains came with a literal vengeance, in downpours that broke local records. Almost a score of people are known to have died, with more still unaccounted for; dozens of counties were declared disaster areas.

wet Texas

The floods have inevitably factored into the bickering -- it's hard to call it a "debate" -- over climate change. Pop-science star Bill Nye attributed the floods to climate change, but then came under fire from climate-change denialists because, in 2012, he claimed that the drought in the region "is absolutely consistent with the mathematical models and predictions associated with climate change."

Climate researchers are cautious about pointing to any one event as caused by climate change: weather is not climate, as the saying goes, in the same way that any one citizen is not a population. Katharine Hayhoe, a climate change researcher at Texas Tech University and one of the authors of the 2014 United States National Climate Assessment -- discussed here at the time -- says that Texas is no stranger to extreme weather: "It's famous for floods and drought, hurricanes and tornadoes, dust storms and ice storms. Climate change is not causing these events; they've always happened naturally. But climate change is exacerbating these events."

Hayhoe notes that the impact of the floods is also greater because Texas has enjoyed a building boom in recent decades -- there's just more there to damage. While arguing for caution in attributing any weather event to climate change, she points out that the floods are consistent with it, since a warming world means more evaporation and more rain, with the Gulf of Mexico serving as a source of water that ends up being dumped on Texas.

Of course, the regional drought confounds that observation. Andrew E. Dessler, a climate researcher at Texas A&M who has been outspoken about the threat of human-driven climate change, compared the question of climate change and weather to trying to figure out which of baseball great Barry Bonds's home runs were caused by his steroid use: "You know statistically some of them were, but you don't know which ones. Almost certainly, it would have rained a lot even without climate change -- but it's possible climate change juiced it, added a little bit."

The "weather versus climate" argument amounts to nothing. The science argument for human-driven climate change is effectively over, the handful of researchers who remain in denial having taken refuge in the fringe. There's conclusive evidence for climate change in the melting of the Earth's icecaps and in the rising seas, with Gulf Coast communities -- coastal communities all over the world -- at clear and present danger of storm surges.

There's no real debate that it's being caused by humans either, since no denialists have been able to identify any non-human cause that has held up to a wire-brushing. For the moment, however, the political obstructionism over the matter continues -- but it does so by contempt for climate science, and has nowhere to go but down, however long it takes.



* WINGS & WEAPONS: As discussed by a note from AVIATION WEEK Online ("2016 Budget To Bring U-2 Stay Of Execution" by Amy Butler, 14 January 2015), the Air Force's Lockheed Martin U-2 spyplane and the Northrop Grumman Global Hawk spy drone have been engaged in a power struggle, with the U-2 on occasion threatened with cancellation in favor of the Global Hawk, and then the Global Hawk threatened with the axe in favor of the U-2. Now the two have achieved a balance of power -- it seems, at least in part, because the Air Force wants to keep Congress happy. Hey, if the blue-suit brass can use a political football to pry funding out of the legislature, it's not like they have any real cause to complain.


The U-2 has been around a long time, the initial flight of a first-generation model in 1956. It's going to be around for a while longer, modest funding is being planned for updates, mostly of payload systems:

When the Air Force announced that the U-2 would be retired, field commanders raised hell, saying the Global Hawk was not an adequate replacement. Though capable, the Global Hawk carries 1,360 kilograms (3,000 pounds) of sensor payload, compared to the U-2's 2,265 kilograms (5,000 pounds); while a U-2 can act as a surveillance and relay platform at the same time, the Global Hawk cannot. The Global Hawk typically flies at 16,800 meters (55,000 feet); the U-2, in contrast, flies well above 21,300 meters (70,000 feet), providing a much wider field of view of the battlefield.

Northrop Grumman officials say the Global Hawk has lower operational costs, and believes that the drone can be brought up to U-2 parity, though it will cost several billion dollars to do it. It is also the basis for the Navy Triton drone, and has been offered for international sales. The joker up the sleeve in the contest between the U-2 and the Global Hawk is the secret RQ-180 drone, which is believed to be approaching operational service. There is a suspicion that the public controversy over the U-2 and Global Hawk amounts to window dressing, that the RQ-180 is the platform the Air Force both wants and believes they can make a water-tight case for.

* Boeing's "GBU-39 Small Diameter Bomb" -- a GPS-guided munition with pop-out "switchblade" wings and a weight of 129 kilograms (285 pounds) -- has become a standard weapon in the US arsenal. Boeing has been working with SAAB of Sweden to use an M26 rocket booster and an adapter to launch the SDB from a Multiple Launch Rocket System (MLRS) ground vehicle. M26 rockets were originally built with cluster warheads; the US has not agreed to a ban on cluster munitions, but is de-emphasizing them, with the M26 cluster munition warheads being decommissioned. That leaves a stockpile of rocket motors for other use.

GLSDB launch

The new "Ground Launched SDB" is clearly an improvisation, but it seems a very effective one, and likely low-cost, given the availability of its primary elements. It has a maximum range of 150 kilometers (95 miles); it is capable of maneuvering as per a flight program to attack targets from a roundabout direction, if at expense of range. The GLSDB has completed trials and is being demonstrated to potential customers.

In related news, the Raytheon "SDB II" -- with a triple-mode seeker, featuring millimeter-wave radar, uncooled infrared imaging, and laser homing technology, plus a digital datalink -- has now been cleared for low-rate production by the US Air Force. No mention on whether it will be used with the GLSDB; that seems a possibility, but the fact that the GLSDB is a Boeing product and the SDB II is a Raytheon product complicates things.

* According to IHS JANE'S 360 Online, the Chinese Norinco arms firm has now announced the latest version of its "Blue Arrow" laser-guided missile, the "Blue Arrow 9". The earlier Blue Arrow 7 was announced in 2014; it's roughly comparable to the US Hellfire, and has a broadly comparable configuration; it has a weight of 47 kilograms (104 pounds), being a useful weapon for helicopter gunships and large drones. The Blue Arrow 9 is more or less a half-scale Blue Arrow 9, with a weight of 26.5 kilograms (58 pounds); it is intended for carriage by smaller drones.



* PRINTING BODY PARTS REVISITED: The notion of printing body parts was discussed here in 2010. An article from THE ECONOMIST ("Printing A Bit Of Me", 8 March 2014), expanded on the theme.

To be sure, parts for body implants can be fabricated by 3D printing, just as can any other metal, plastic, or ceramic part. 3D printing is particularly well-suited to fabrication of implants, since they can be unique items, tailored to a specific patient. However, firms such as Organovo of San Diego are thinking a lot bigger, of actually fabricating replacement organs -- grown from the cells of the patient, ensuring such an organ won't be rejected by the patient's immune system.

That's a very ambitious goal, and nobody involved thinks it's going to happen any time soon. The very idea is only about a decade old. Dr. Thomas Boland -- one of the pioneers in the field and now head of bioengineering research at the University of Texas in El Paso -- started out tinkering with using commercially-available inkjet printers to squirt cells, obtaining his first patent in 2003. In 2004, the University of Manchester in the UK ran the very first international workshop on bioprinting and biopatterning, with 22 speakers from ten countries.

In 2007, Dr. Gabor Forgacs, who had worked with Boland, helped found Organovo, the firm leveraging off his advanced bioprinting technology. Instead of using an inkjet's tiny nozzle, Forgacs' printer used an extrusion-based printing process, featuring a syringe fitted with a needle or micropipette that could have a bore as large as several hundred microns. Such a printer could deposit large aggregations of cells, in spherical or cylindrical form; pressure to drive the syringe was typically derived from a plunger. Organovo is now putting its first product, a kit of human liver samples in a tray, intended to support pharmaceutical studies.

Printing bits of liver -- or heart, or lung, or whatever -- seems a long way from actually constructing a complete organ, but bioprinting promises to be an important enabling technology to that end. There's been work in fabricating organs by hand, culturing cells and then applying them to biodegradable moulds or scaffolds with a handheld pipette. Such a procedure is laborious and tricky, since the scaffold can't degrade away too soon, before the supported structure sets, or too late, which would promote scarring. 3D printing is both more precise and amenable to mass production.

So far, tissue engineering has been restricted to relatively simple structures such as skin, blood vessels, and bladders. More elaborate organs, such as the heart or kidney, remain a big challenge. Forgacs believes that one the ways forward is to dispense with preprepared scaffolding, laying down cells along with a temporary water-based gel during the printing process. The gel can be removed at will by dissolving it, or peeling it off.

One of the big problems in fabricating elaborate organs like the heart is that they are interlaced with elaborate networks of blood vessels; Boland has been working on multilayer printing techniques that could be used to lay down such networks. Forgacs suggests that, to a degree, organ engineers don't need to duplicate nature; they could devise organs that do the same job, but are much simpler.

In the meantime, work has been proceeding on using bioprinters to directly print cells on wounds and burns, with a laser mapping the target and software guiding the application of cells. Researchers think such procedures should be ready for clinical trials in four or five years. Forgacs also envisions the use of bioprinting and other tissue-engineering techniques for the commercial synthesis of meat and leather. If printed hearts and kidneys aren't just around the corner, bioprinting seems like it still has a lot of potential even in the near term.



* TRANS-PACIFIC PARTNERSHIP? As discussed by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("Fighting The Secret Plot To Make The World Richer", 25 April 2015), the global recession that began in 2007 was hard on open trade, with countries becoming more inclined to trade protectionism -- which could only drag down global commerce even more.

The push for free trade did not die out, and now the Obama Administration is working to establish the "Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP)" -- which would lower trade barriers of twelve nations on the Pacific rim, including the US, Japan, and Singapore. These dozen countries together account for 40% of world GDP, and a third of its trade. The TPP is also working to resolve difficulties such as intellectual property rights, as well as establish labor and environmental standards. US trade negotiators estimate that by 2025, the TPP will grow the global economy by $220 billion USD.

Although Republicans in Congress are often at loggerheads with President Obama, they are generally in tune with him on open trade; indeed, one of the benefits of the TPP to Obama is that it counters the public perception that he is anti-business. However, Obama is going to need all the help from Republicans he can get to push through TPP, because many Democrats are strongly against it. Labor unions hate it; Hilary Clinton has been careful to say nothing about it, at least until, if, she clinches the nomination.

There's a good case for TPP. China has been trying to extend its economic influence with its neighbors, which is perfectly within China's rights, but it would be nice for the US to balance China's efforts -- particularly since China has also demonstrated an inclination to bully its neighbors. Their discomfort is driving them towards the US, which has every incentive to welcome them with open arms. Nobody has much doubt the TPP will make America more prosperous, one estimate suggesting that by 2025, it will raise American incomes by 0.4% a year.

Public support for the TPP is strong as well. A Gallup poll revealed that 58% of Americans see it primarily as an opportunity, while only a third see it as a threat. The public approval rating for trade deals has shot up by 17% points from the start of the recession; Republican attitudes haven't changed much, but the approval rating among Democrats was at 36% in 2008, while it's 61% now. Partly that increase may be due to the fact that many Democrats work in globalized industries; it may also be due in part that a Democratic president is pushing the TPP, not a Republican.

However, in general, Democratic politicians are less trade-friendly than Democratic voters, worrying that low-overhead countries such as Vietnam will hurt American workers in industries such as carmaking and textiles. Such concerns are not without cause. True, globalization has meant better and cheaper goods for American consumers: the US Chamber of Commerce estimates that imports boost the average American family's purchasing power by $10,000 USD a year. On the flip side of the coin, international trade has clearly held down worker's wages in rich countries, and has contributed to unemployment in them.

The problem for the opposition is that the international competition exists, and there's nothing that can be done to make it go away, trade agreement or not. The US has no free-trade agreement with India, but imports of goods from there have more than doubled over the past decade. Though many Democrats see NAFTA, a deal with Canada and Mexico that Bill Clinton signed in 1993, as a disaster for America's workers, few economists think it had any real effect on the labor market. There is also the fact that it is difficult to help producers without hurting consumers; and since all producers are consumers as well, attempts to help producers necessarily have a mixed aspect. Still, the Obama Administration is under pressure to sweeten the trade deal by offering assistance to workers displaced by foreign trade.

There are also concerns over a lack of public transparency in the trade negotiations, with Democrats to the Left of Obama suspecting he is inclined to sell out American workers, human rights, and the environment, the president acting as an agent of the "global corporate agenda" -- no doubt Obama, a man with a sense of irony, finds this amusing in its contrast to the noisy accusations that he's a "socialist". As far as worker's rights go, the US TPP platform includes provisions along the lines of the "May 10th Agreement", a deal that includes the rights of workers, and has been factored into other American trade pacts. However, concerns remain that the US is backpedaling on climate-change issues in the TPP; and is failing to address "currency manipulation", in which trading partners deliberately down-value their currencies to boost exports.

Economists believe that burdening trade pacts with rules about labor, greenery, and currencies amounts to unnecessary and counterproductive complication: trade pacts should be about trade, other issues of significance are better handled in their own discussions. It makes no sense to pile up issues on a trade pact, if that ensures the pact sinks like a stone and accomplishes nothing at all. If anyone insists that trade agreement must be linked to an environmental agreement, the proper response would be to ask if environmental agreements should be held hostage to trade agreements in turn.

Obama will nonetheless have to trim to the winds. On 16 April, congressional leaders settled on a bill to give Obama "Trade Promotion Authority (TPA)", AKA "fast track". If the bill passes, the president will be able to negotiate a deal, then submit it to Congress for a YES-or-NO vote, with no amendments. It would be very difficult for the administration to close a credible trade deal, if the ducks in Congress could then start pecking it to death with alterations. Past trade deals have nearly always been negotiated using fast track.

Obama's ability to conclude TPP and an even bigger proposed pact with Europe -- the "Transatlantic Trade & Investment Partnership" -- hinges on him getting fast-track authority. Most Republicans in Congress, where they hold a majority in both chambers, are likely to support him, since free trade is a conservative doctrine. In addition, Congressional Republicans, looking forward to 2016, now increasingly want to show they can govern, instead of merely being an obstacle to getting anything done. That means Congressional Democrats hold the key to forging trade deals, and not all of them see any reason to compromise their principles. [ED: Obama did get fast-track authority in late June, overcoming obstructionism by House Democrats.]



* CHINA & THE INTERNET (3): The Chinese government's control of the internet rests on two foundation stones:

Several government departments have an internet division, and it's not unusual for state and local governments to have offices for monitoring the internet. That represents a business opportunity, more than a hundred Chinese companies having made a total of at least 125 products for monitoring and filtering public opinion online, according to a Chinese government register. Some of the tools are harmless, doing no more than assessing online trends -- an activity that any government would find useful and non-intrusive.

Others aren't so harmless. The "Founder" system, created by Peking University, monitors China's websites and websites elsewhere frequented by Chinese to provide early warning of material that may "prompt mass incidents in society and on campus" -- with the material being suppressed as quickly as possible. There's also a shadowy group of firms for hire by big shots in business and industry to delete news circulating on China's internet that's unflattering to clients; related services use armies of "sock puppets" and phony tweets to build up the public reputation of clients, or to smear their adversaries. The authorities will step on such outfits on occasion, but the internet bandits also have influential friends who protect them.

Given the size of China's internet control operation, it's not too surprising that it's inconsistent in its operation, with the level of control varying from province to province. It is also far from highly automated, being heavily reliant on worker bees to check and delete content, one item at a time. Since the operation is stealthy, nobody's quite sure how big the headcount is, but estimates of 100,000 are not seen as unreasonable. That includes internet police, 20,000 or more; propagandists; and staff, including in-house monitors, at thousands of websites, from small discussion forums to giants like Tencent and Sina. A study reckoned that Sina Weibo, the country's main microblog, currently employs more than 4,000 censors.

The reliance on headcount has problems: the censors can be lazy or make errors, they can be overwhelmed when a disaster strikes and the internet is flooded with traffic. Given so many censors, it's not surprising that some of them become disaffected, leaking state directives they receive, to be displayed and distributed by the Chinese dissident community. However, the great majority of the censors are loyal to the government, and earnestly do their jobs. The Chinese Communist Party has a strong presence in China's internet business, with cells inside most, if not all, of the big internet companies. Key posts go to party members; the government shrewdly co-opts company leaders by giving them perks, balanced with penalties if things aren't done as the party thinks they should be.

The censors have clear guidelines on the message they implicitly give China's online community:

Outside of those rules, the censors tend to be lenient. In a study of deletions of Chinese blog posts in 2011 and 2012, Harvard researchers found that posts that merely griped about government policies were tolerated. The ones most likely to get deleted were those that could trigger protests, this being true even for posts that seemed pro-government. [TO BE CONTINUED]


[FRI 22 MAY 15] THE COLD WAR (68)

* THE COLD WAR (68): Anthony Eden resigned as Britain's prime minister on 10 January 1957. British political cartoonist Leslie Illingworth marked the event with a cartoon displaying Eden's head on a platter, being presented to a very pleased Nasser. Eden was replaced by Chancellor of the Exchequer Harold Macmillan; Macmillan had worked with Eisenhower as a political advisor during the North Africa campaign, the two men having a warm relationship that would do wonders to heal the breach caused by America's intervention in the Suez crisis.

Dwight Eisenhower was inaugurated for his second term as President of the United States on 21 January, 1957. In his inaugural address, Eisenhower focused on the competition between America and the Reds in the post-colonial developing nations, framed in starkly Cold War terms:


In too much of the earth there is want, discord, danger. New forces and new nations stir and strive across the earth, with power to bring, by their fate, great good or great evil to the free world's future. From the deserts of North Africa to the islands of the South Pacific, one third of all mankind has entered upon an historic struggle for a new freedom: freedom from grinding poverty. Across all continents, nearly a billion people seek, sometimes almost in desperation, for the skills and knowledge and assistance by which they may satisfy from their own resources, the material wants common to all mankind.

No nation, however old or great, escapes this tempest of change and turmoil. Some, impoverished by the recent World War, seek to restore their means of livelihood. In the heart of Europe, Germany still stands tragically divided. So is the whole continent divided. And so, too, all the world.

The divisive force is International Communism and the power that it controls. The designs of that power, dark in purpose, are clear in practice. It strives to seal forever the fate of those it has enslaved. It strives to break the ties that unite the free. And it strives to capture -- to exploit for its own greater power -- all forces of change in the world, especially the needs of the hungry and the hopes of the oppressed.

Yet the world of International Communism has itself been shaken by a fierce and mighty force: the readiness of men who love freedom to pledge their lives to that love ... Thus across all the globe there harshly blow the winds of change. And, we -- though fortunate be our lot -- know that we can never turn our backs to them.

... We seek peace, knowing that peace is the climate of freedom. And now, as in no other age, we seek it because we have been warned, by the power of modern weapons, that peace may be the only climate possible for human life itself.

Yet this peace we seek cannot be born of fear alone: it must be rooted in the lives of nations. There must be justice, sensed and shared by all peoples, for, without justice the world can know only a tense and unstable truce. There must be law, steadily invoked and respected by all nations, for without law, the world promises only such meager justice as the pity of the strong upon the weak. But the law of which we speak, comprehending the values of freedom, affirms the equality of all nations, great and small.

... We are called to meet the price of this peace ... We must use our skills and knowledge and, at times, our substance, to help others rise from misery, however far the scene of suffering may be from our shores. For wherever in the world a people knows desperate want, there must appear at least the spark of hope, the hope of progress or there will surely rise at last the flames of conflict.

We recognize and accept our own deep involvement in the destiny of men everywhere. We are accordingly pledged to honor, and to strive to fortify, the authority of the United Nations ... We honor the aspirations of those nations which, now captive, long for freedom. We seek neither their military alliance nor any artificial imitation of our society. And they can know the warmth of the welcome that awaits them when, as must be, they join again the ranks of freedom.


Eisenhower believed that American economic -- and, if need be, military -- power should bolster regimes in the nations of the developing world, or "Third World", as it was called then. When Eisenhower came into office in 1953, the political consensus had been that aid programs, notably the Marshall Plan, had served their purpose, and were no longer necessary. The watchword became "trade not aid". The ferment in the developing world, however, told Eisenhower that it couldn't be ignored, that it represented too much an opportunity for Communism.

The president began to talk "trade and aid", attempting to push a development loan program through Congress. He wouldn't get anything close to what he wanted out of the exercise. Although both houses of Congress were under Democratic control, if by slender majorities, Eisenhower's real adversaries in the foreign-aid battle were conservative Republicans, who were unconvinced that the USA should spend its money helping out little countries in the back of beyond.

Eisenhower rightfully found the attitude that poor countries could go hang infuriatingly short-sighted -- but in hindsight, the skeptics had a point. As Eisenhower pointed out to them, most of the money would be spent in the US to obtain goods and services, and as countries became wealthier, they would become more active consumers of American products. That was not actually a problem in itself, but that mindset had an inherent bias, skewing aid towards what was best for the USA, not necessarily for the recipient country. In addition, the aid could be used for political and economic profiteering by the leadership clique of the recipient country.

To be sure, any scheme, no matter how benign in intent, can, and likely will sometimes, be gamed -- but the bottom line was that aid was not necessarily benign, nor competently administered. Any aid that was granted needed to be, if not always was, carefully considered, discussed in detail with the recipient country and the international aid community.

The worse problem, however, was military aid. Again, as Eisenhower pointed out, it was cheaper to help other countries perform their own defense than for the US to intervene; the difficulty was that, in their competition in the developing world, both sides would find themselves manipulated by dodgy national leaders exploiting the superpower rivalry to shore up their shaky regimes, the tail wagging the dog. The inclination of the two superpowers to supply weapons to their clients in the developing world helped fuel warfare there. To be sure, wars were an inevitable consequence of the unstable post-colonial world, but funneling in weapons helped make them more calamitous. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* Space launches for April included:

-- 14 APR 15 / SPACEX DRAGON CRS6 -- A SpaceX Falcon 9 booster was launched from Cape Canaveral at 2010 GMT (local time + 4), carrying the sixth operational "Dragon" cargo capsule to the International Space Station (ISS). The capsule docked with the station three days after launch. The main stage was to perform a soft landing on the SpaceX barge, but the stage fell over on touchdown, and was destroyed. The flight also included a set of smallsats, intended for deployment from the ISS:

-- 16 APR 15 / THOR 7, SICRAL 2 -- An Ariane 5 ECA booster was launched from Kourou in French Guiana at 2000 GMT (local time + 3) to put the "Thor 7" and "Sicral 2" geostationary comsats into space. Thor 7 was built by Space Systems / Loral and had a launch mass of 4,590 kilograms (10,120 pounds). It was placed in the geostationary slot at 1 degree west longitude to provide high-throughput communications services, using 26 Ka-band transponders, for the offshore sector in the North Sea, the Norwegian Sea, the Red Sea, the Baltic Sea, the Persian Gulf, and the Mediterranean for Norway's Telenor Satellite Broadcasting. The satellite also relayed meteorological data from polar stations.

Sicral 2

Sicral 2 was built by Thales Alenia Space, and had a launch mass of 4,360 kilograms (9,260 pounds). It was a military comsat, providing support for the Italian and French armed forces, carrying UHF & SHF communications payloads, with the Italians having a two-thirds share and the French a one-thirds share. Sicral 2 added to the constellation of earlier Italian Sicral satellites; France's Syracuse satellites; and the joint Franco-Italian Athena-Fidus spacecraft launched in 2014, which was developed under the same agreement as the Sicral 2 program. Sicral 2 was placed in the geostationary slot at 37 degrees east longitude.

-- 17 APR 15 / TURKMENSATALEM52E -- A SpaceX Falcon 9 booster was launched from Cape Canaveral at 2303 GMT (local time + 4), placing the "TurkmenSatAlem52E" AKA "MonacoSat 1" geostationary comsat into orbit for Thales Alenia Space and the government of Turkmenistan. The satellite was built by Thales Alenia Space, and was based on the Spacebus 4000 C2 satellite platform. It had a launch mass of 4,705 kilograms (10,375 pounds), a payload of 38 Ku-band transponders, and a design lifetime of 16 years. 26 of the transponders were dedicated to Turkmenistan communications, while 12 were dedicated to Monaco -- the spacecraft also being known as "MonacoSat". It was placed in the geostationary slot at 52 degrees east longitude to provide communications services to Turkmenistan and Monaco.

-- 28 APR 15 / PROGRESS 59P (FAILURE) -- A Soyuz 2-1a booster was launched from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at 0709 GMT (local time - 6) to put the "Progress 59P" AKA "M-27M" tanker-freighter spacecraft into orbit on an International Space Station (ISS) supply mission. It was the 59th Progress mission to the ISS; unfortunately, the spacecraft went out of control after reaching orbit, and was unable to dock with the station. Progress 59 fell to Earth at 0204 GMT on 8 May.

* OTHER SPACE NEWS: As discussed by an article from, of all places, MOTHER NATURE NETWORK Online ("Cryosleep: It's Not Just Science Fiction Anymore" by Chanie Kirschner, 17 April 2015), putting astronauts in "cryosleep" for long space journeys is a long-standing sci-fi gimmick -- but NASA, in cooperation with Atlanta-based SpaceWorks Enterprises, is taking the idea seriously.

A crewed mission to Mars is a huge challenge, one big problem being to haul along enough consumables to keep the crew alive for the several years of the mission. NASA and SpaceWorks suggest that a form of short-term hibernation, known as "torpor" and found in a number of mammalian species, could help with the problem. By creating a torpor stasis habitat in which the Mars crew "hibernates" for much of their travel time, the supply overhead of a Mars mission becomes more practical.

to Mars in cold sleep

The basic scheme, known as "induced hypothermia", is already at work in medicine, being used in critical care of patients with, say, traumatic brain or spinal injury. The idea is to lower a patient's body temperature, reducing the risk of injury to tissue after a period of insufficient blood flow. Nobody's been kept in such a state for more than a week so far, however.

In a Mars mission scenario, the Mars craft would feature a torpor habitat. The chamber would accommodate six crew members simultaneously in a torpor state. A crew member would be put into a torpor state by reducing the body core temperature over a period of a few hours. While the crew members are in a hypothermic state, various sensors hooked up to them would track their condition. They would obtain nutrition through an intravenous hookup, with a catheter to draw off urine. Since the crew wouldn't be eating anything, bowel function would not be a problem. Electric muscle stimulation would protect key muscle groups from atrophy.

The crew would be in the induced hypothermic state for 14 days at a time, with crew members taking turns being awake on watches for stints of two or three days. The benefits would be a major reduction in consumables due to an inactive crew; much smaller pressurized volume required for living quarters; a reduction in requirements for shielding against space radiation; and less overhead for a food galley, exercise equipment, entertainment, and so on. SpaceWorks says the mass of a Mars ship habitat could be cut in half.



* PEAK COPPER? As discussed by an article from AAAS SCIENCE ("The Coming Copper Peak" by Richard A. Kerr, 14 February 2014), humans have been mining copper for thousands of years, and today they are mining more of it than ever. A normal auto has 20 kilograms (44 pounds) of copper; a hybrid, with its electric drive, has twice that. Total production of copper in 2012 was 17 million tonnes.

The significant question is just how long such production can be maintained. Now a paper by a group of Australian researchers -- Steve Mohr of the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS); Damien Giurco of UTS; Gavin Mudd of Monash University in Clayton; Zehan Wang of Monash Clayton; and Stephen Northey of CSIRO, the Australian government research agency -- suggests that copper production will peak in midcentury. After that, there will be shortages, higher prices, more recycling, and substitution of materials.

Not everyone in the mineral resource community is convinced by this projection, skeptics pointing out that there's a lot of copper on the planet. Yes, the rich lodes have been long mined out, but mining firms having been ingenious in economically extracting copper from ever lower-grade ores. Ore grades were typically 10% to 20% up to the late 19th century, when they quickly declined to 2% to 3%. Since the mid-1990s, the global ore grade has been less than 1%, and is slowly declining.

Kennecott copper mine

So far, miners have been able to keep up, and in fact copper's price has been on a long-term decline, aside from a temporary peak in 2005 due to Chinese demand. There are several reasons why:

At the meeting of the Geological Society of America in 2013, a group of US Geological Survey (USGS) researchers led by geologist Jane Hammerstrom of USGS headquarters in Reston, Virginia, estimated that 2.2 billion tonnes may still be extracted using current technology, which would be a 125-year supply at current production rates.

The qualification of "current rates of production" is significant, however, since global population is continuing to rise and more countries are developing their economies, meaning demand is likely to rise. That makes projections of a mineral peak trickier. Steve Mohr took on the task with a model of general mineral consumption he devised in 2010 for his dissertation, taking into account known resources and expected increases in production. While such models have long been devised for oil consumption, Mohr's was one of the first to attempt to realistically model mineral consumption. Mohr and his colleagues used that model as the basis for the new paper on the copper peak.

The authors drew on an estimate of available copper resources published by Mudd and Weng in 2012, assumed that growth in demand would continue at the historical rate of 1.6% a year, and that global population would rise from its current level of over seven billion people right now to 10 billion in 2100. The model showed production should be able to keep up with demand for the next two or three decades, but will peak around 2040. Given exponentially increasing demand, even adjusting the model to the most optimistic scenario only pushes the peak out to 2075.

Professor John Tilton of the Colorado School of Mines in Golden believes that is still being too pessimistic: "As a society, we have tended to underestimate how much copper is out there, and how creative society can be about extracting it. He noted that the current estimates of available copper produced by the USGS today are twice those produced in the 1970s: "And it's very likely to double again. We know the copper's there, it's a matter of resolving technical problems allowing extraction."

Others suspect all that's left are scrapings, and Mudd also has pointed out there may be political difficulties in extracting some of the large deposits currently know -- such as environmental objections and political instability. Adding such factors into the model cut the peak production year to 2030.

What happens when copper starts running out? One issue is that it's one of the four major metals -- along with chromium, manganese, and lead -- for which we have no good substitutes at the present time for their primary uses. Of course, recycling is going to become more important; currently about 50% of copper is re-used, and that proportion is likely to rise as recycling is encouraged, as well as made more efficient. A future civilization might be able to obtain copper from metal-rich asteroids, but that isn't remotely a practical option in the present era.

Despite all the argument over when the copper peak will occur, it will occur sooner or later; exponential growth in demand can't be maintained indefinitely. It seems wiser to start preparing for that day than to deny it will come.



* CANCER VACCINES? As discussed by an article from AAAS SCIENCE Online ("Personalized Cancer Vaccines May Fight Tumors" by Jocelyn Kaiser, 2 April 2015), there have long been attempts to develop vaccines that direct the body's immune system to wipe out tumors, but nothing much has come of the effort. Now, a small clinical study has shown that a new cancer vaccine has been able to put a dent in tumors that defy other treatments. Three patients in the study who were suffering from advanced melanomas -- skin cancers, usually caused by solar ultraviolet -- had a strong immune response, while the tumors in two other patients shrank or stabilized, at least temporarily.

The immune system normally targets infectious agents for destruction using bits of distinctive proteins or other materials on their surface, these molecular targets being known as "antigens". Vaccines are traditionally designed to present the immune system with antigens for specific pathogens that will allow the body to recognize and respond to an infection by those pathogens. The idea behind cancer vaccines is much the same: to present the immune system with antigens associated with cancer cells, so the body will generate an immune response to them and suppress them.

Cancer vaccines haven't worked well in the past, since it's proven difficult to find antigens associated with tumor cells that aren't also found in small quantities on healthy cells. The immune system has mechanisms to prevent it from targeting those antigens, and so the vaccines didn't provoke much of a response.

The trick is to find antigens only associated with tumor cells. Since cancer cells are victims of abnormal mutations, those mutations are likely to produce abnormal antigens, distinctive to tumor cells. That sounds like a completely obvious approach, but it implies sequencing a lot of tumor DNA, which wasn't feasible or affordable until recently. Now that DNA sequencing costs have dropped and speeds increased, researchers at Washington University in Saint Louis (WUSTL) have used the new tools to zero in antigens associated with melanomas. The WUSTL researchers found that the tumor cells generated unusual short proteins, or "peptides", that were not found on healthy cells, that could be used as "neo-antigens" in a cancer vaccine to target tumors.

The WUSTL researchers investigated three melanoma patients who had surgery to remove their tumors, but still had cancer cells that had spread to their lymph nodes, making tumors likely to recur. They sequenced the protein-coding DNA, or "exome", of the melanoma cells, and compared it to the exome of healthy cells. They found dozens of mutations coding for newly created peptides that might be useful as neo-antigens -- since not all the peptides were necessarily expressed on the surface of a tumor cell, not all of them were useful as vaccine targets.

The researchers analyzed the prospective neo-antigen structures and performed lab tests to determine if the peptides were actually produced by a tumor cell, and if they actually ended up on its surface. Having identified candidates, they then zeroed in on those they believed most likely to generate an immune response. For each of the patients, they selected seven neo-antigens unique to that person's tumor, and then took blood from the patients to harvest immune system "dendritic cells".

Dendritic cells are front-line defenders of the body's immune response, obtaining antigens from pathogens and then stimulating other elements of the immune system to target the invaders. The WUSTL researchers mixed the neo-antigens for each patient with the appropriate set of dendritic cells, creating personalized neo-antigen vaccines. They were infused into the patients about three times, over about four months. In response, the number of immune system T cells specific to the neo-antigens rose in the patient's blood, along with a rise in diversity of the T cells. These T cells could also kill melanoma cells in culture.

In one patient, metastatic tumors in the woman's lungs shrank, then grew back, but are now stable after 8 months; the second person's tumor remnants have also been stable for 9 months. A third patient who had received an immunotherapy drug after surgery that put his cancer in remission remains cancer-free. However, this was not an trial for efficacy, just to check on the safety of the vaccines and see if they could provoke an immune response; the patients had been getting other treatments, and there was no saying the cancer vaccines actually helped at all.

Still, after so many years of frustration, this is good news for cancer vaccine researchers. If further work demonstrates the value of the approach, it might prove less troublesome than chemotherapy -- and more effective, able to prevent cancers from recurring, since the immune system will keep a persistent guard against those cancer cells. Even if it's not that effective in itself, it could be used with drugs used to treat cancers, the two together proving more effective than each used by itself.



* CHINA & THE INTERNET (2): Although having a walled-off national internet does make surveillance of online traffic much easier, it's still a big job. The Chinese government has allocated the resources to get the job done, not only in terms of personnel, but also in terms of sophisticated spy software. Dissidents are monitored; if they persist in defiance of warnings, they can end up with stiff prison terms. When news of unrest begins to circulate, it is isolated and suppressed.

Keeping up with the challenge is difficult; the Chinese government is engaged in a "Red Queen's race", like the animate chesspiece in Lewis Carroll's THROUGH THE LOOKING-GLASS that had to run as fast as it could to stay in one place. It's not just the wild profusion of new internet tricks that's troublesome, but also the massive growth in number of users. At the turn of the century, there were only about 20 million Chinese online; now there are more than 560 million, rivaling the online population of Europe and America combined. The biggest surge has been in the rural areas, partly thanks to enthusiasm for mobile devices, which now make up the majority of China's internet connections.

To be sure, like other Chinese, farmers usually want to do things like check the weather, download music, or play games, not engage in political radicalism. However, like citizens everywhere, people tend to grumble about the government; in places like the USA, such grumbling is normal, and the authorities don't pay it too much mind -- but it makes the Chinese government uneasy. That uneasiness can have a publicly beneficial effect, allowing the leadership to sense the pulse of public opinion, to then focus on major problems such as food safety or air pollution. Government officials caught on smartphone videos acting in a corrupt or abusive fashion may end up being sacked, or worse.

Stepping on a few officials serves government interests. The victims are essentially small fry, and if they've been so indiscreet as to embarrass the government, actions against them provide a lesson to the rest to behave themselves -- while also demonstrating to Chinese citizens the responsiveness of the government to their needs. Of course, it's more style than substance. The big bosses don't mingle much with the people except on ceremonial occasions, so they don't have much worry about embarrassing smartphone videos. More generally, there's little transparency in Chinese government decision-making, citizens knowing no more about it than the authorities want to tell them; the leadership wants to keep it that way.

The Chinese government does understand that grumbling is normal, but is concerned when it ceases to be normal. Chinese citizens can gripe and poke fun at official propaganda all they like, since all they can do is rattle the bars of their cage. If they try to do more, they cross certain mysteriously-defined lines to find themselves in the crosshairs of a set of mysteriously-defined laws against subversion of the state. Anyone who attempts to organize defiance of the state is going to get stepped on hard, as will anyone who directly challenges the right of the Chinese Communist Party to rule. Chinese dissidents like to say that freedom is knowing how big your cage is; Chinese authorities have built a very roomy, well-equipped, and sturdy cage.

In fact, they've done such a good job that they've created an export market for tools to monitor and filter the internet. Huawei and ZTE, two big Chinese companies, are leading suppliers of internet and telecoms hardware to a number of states in Central and South-East Asia, eastern Europe and Africa, including Kazakhstan, Vietnam, Belarus, Ethiopia, and Zambia, with many of them working to emulate China's controlled internet.

In some respects, the global competition between internet ideologies resembles the competition between authoritarian and democratic states that characterized the last century. We all know how that turned out; if authoritarian governance hasn't gone away, it cannot escape being on the defensive. One would hope from that example that the authoritarian internet will go the same way -- but is that what the realities honestly suggest? [TO BE CONTINUED]


[FRI 15 MAY 15] THE COLD WAR (67)

* THE COLD WAR (67): Nikita Khrushchev did have cause, at least on the face of it, for his belief that the Suez crisis was a crisis for NATO. It was certainly true that American action against the British and French could well have broken NATO, but it did not -- one reason being that the intervention in Suez hadn't been wildly popular among the members of government of those two countries, loud protests being fired at Eden in the House of Commons and elsewhere in the UK. He was under tremendous political pressure, and was not helped by difficult health problems; he had also been taking amphetamines, which were at the time regarded as a benign stimulant, but which had clearly been a malign influence on his behavior during the fall.

The French were contemptuous of Eden, having found the collapse of MUSKETEER in the face of US opposition a bitter cup to swallow. Once again, "perfide Albion" had sold them out: when push came to shove, the British would always side with their overbearing American cousins. To hell with the British, then. France would seek alliances elsewhere to counterbalance the damned Americans and neutralize their British stooges.

It didn't take long to find friends, either. According to French Foreign Minister Christian Pineau, when Mollet got the call from Eden on the evening of 6 November calling off MUSKETEER, German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer was in attendance. Adenauer was blunt: "France and England will never be powers comparable to the United States ... Not Germany either. There remains to them only one way of playing a decisive role in the world: that is to unite Europe ... We have no time to waste; Europe will be your revenge."

The notion of a united Europe was not a problem to Eisenhower; it was exactly what he wanted, since it would allow Europe to shoulder more of the burden in confronting the Soviet threat. The threat, at the moment, was on the rise, relations between the US and the USSR being particularly edgy in the wake of the events of the fall. Eisenhower considered making a peace overture, but couldn't get any momentum for the idea in his administration. The US was continuing U-2 overflights beyond the Iron Curtain, to which the Soviets raised loud, if not public, objections. In mid-December, Eisenhower said that he was going to order "complete stoppage" of the overflights, telling State Secretary Dulles that "this is no time to be provocative".

Unfortunately, the need for intelligence ensured that the overflights would not stay dead. As much as Eisenhower wanted to restrain ballistic missile development, in the face of misplaced fears of Soviet nuclear superiority, American ballistic missile was accelerating. The US Navy, having decided to back von Braun's Jupiter IRBM, then had second thoughts; it was a liquid-fuel missile, and handling such a beast on a ship, much less a submarine, was problematic, downright dangerous.

The Navy had been funding very promising research into solid rocket fuels, working towards the fabrication of solid rocket motors or "grains" of unprecedented size, and had performed studies of solid-fuel IRBMs for launch from submarines. The studies were initially discouraging, envisioning missiles too big to be reasonably carried on a submarine -- but that summer, Edward Teller had come up with a design for a missile warhead that cut weight by almost three-quarters. New studies showed that a solid-fuel missile not much bigger than a V-2, but with a range of 2,000 kilometers (1,200 miles), was now feasible. The missile was named "Polaris", after the North Star. It would be America's first "submarine launched ballistic missile (SLBM)".

Polaris was, of course, a top priority effort for the Navy. Navy brass seemed less driven by worries about the Soviets than worries about the Air Force, fearing that the Navy would be reduced to second-class status in the all-important strategic nuclear role; Polaris was the answer to the admirals' prayers. To build a submarine that could carry the carry the Polaris, the Navy turned to the new SKIPJACK-class nuclear attack submarine design -- cutting it in it in half behind the sail and splicing in two rows of silos, housing a total of 16 Polaris missiles.

A Polaris submarine would be able to lurk, effectively undetected, in the open oceans well off the coasts of the USSR, poised to obliterate targets deep in the Soviet Union. Although Jupiter no longer had a patron, work on it continued as a "back-up" plan. Eisenhower could only marvel at the impossibility of killing weapons programs, no matter how pointless they might seem. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* GIMMICKS & GADGETS: As discussed by an article from WIRED Online blogs ("A Giant Charger That Juices Up Electric Buses In Three Minutes" by Jordan Golson, 2 October 2014), electric buses have many advantages for urban transport, such as quiet and clean operation. The limited range of electric vehicles isn't such a problem for buses, since they operate on fixed routes and can be recharged at intervals.

The difficulty is that recharging takes time. That's why Oprid, a Spanish firm that produces automatic charging systems, has developed the "Busbaar V3" fast charging system for buses. The Busbaar looks something like the pantrograph arm array that hooks high-speed electric trains to power lines -- except it's reversed, with the pantograph extending from an overhead power station to connect to a copper bar on the top of the bus.

Busbaar in action

The idea is to install it at stations where buses stop for a few minutes at a time, in high-traffic areas or at the end of the route. The bus will get in a quick charge, enough to top off the battery. When charging is complete, the pantograph pops back up into the Busbaar's stand and the bus gets going again. It floods 650 kW of electricity into the bus -- as compared to the 120 kW for Tesla EV charging stations -- and, when charging lithium-titanate batteries, can top off a bus in three or four minutes.

Unlike lithium-ion batteries, lithium-titanate batteries can tolerate rapid charging and are not degraded by it. They are bulkier than lithium-ion batteries, but that's not a big problem with a bus, and given a relatively close-knit array of charging stations, there's not such a need for a big battery pack. Oprid is also offering a "Trukbaar" for garbage trucks and the like. The first three Busbaar charging stations have now been installed in Umea, Sweden, for use with the city's existing 18 meter (59 foot) electric articulated buses.

* As discussed by an article from the NIKKEI ASIAN REVIEW ("The Next LED revolution is Upon Us, and it is Ultraviolet" by Yusuke Hinata, 15 January 2015), Japanese LED manufacturer Nikkiso is now ready to produce ultraviolet (UV) LEDs. The firm sees them as useful for environmental and medical sterilization; chemical analysis, working in conjunction with photodetector systems; and for curing resins in industrial bonding and coating applications. The UV LEDs will replace mercury vapor lamps, which are more power-hungry, last half as long at best, and have to be disposed of with care since they contain toxic mercury.

Nikkiso has been working on UV LEDs since 2006. The firm obtained help from Isamu Akasaki of Meijo University and Hiroshi Amano of Nagoya University, who shared the 2014 Nobel Prize in physics for their work on blue LEDs with Shuji Nakamura of University of California, Santa Barbara. Nikkiso has been shipping samples since 2012. Nikiso has completed a production facility, and will be shipping production units this spring. Competitors are also working on UV LEDs, so buyers can expect technology improvements and lower costs as production matures.

* As discussed by a note from WIRED Online blogs ("New iRobot App Lets You Control A Bot Army With An Android Tablet" by Tim Moynihan, 9 October 2014), the iRobot firm is widely known for its Roomba robot vacuum cleaners, but the firm has also sold thousands of defense and security robots around the world, performing jobs ranging from reading radiation levels in the Fukushima nuclear power plants to bomb-disposal duties in Iraq and Afghanistan.

To this time, these robots have been controlled by a proprietary interface, consisting of a joystick and a Linux-based processor / display. It would take three to five days to teach an operator to get the robot to work, which was too much time given that, in many cases, the robots were only supposed to be used once in a while. Now iRobot has introduced the "uPoint Multi-Robot Control System" -- which is an Android app that runs on almost any Android tablet, and can be mastered in a sitting.

In the simplest setup, the uPoint app's live-view screen displays a feed from a robot's front-mounted camera; tapping on locations simply drives to that point. The operator can also drag a fingertip to trace out a route for a robot to take, with the drive path illustrated on the display, adjusted to get around obstacles; navigation becomes extremely easy. If the robot has an arm, the app provides onscreen arrows for moving it around, or provides a 3D model that can be manipulated into a desired position, with the real robot arm then moving to that position. There are presets for common arm positions. The uPoint supports hopping between multiple robots, the operator simply tabbing from one to another.

The uPoint scheme supports video feeds to multiple platforms. It does require a "uPoint Robot Radio Link", bluetooth not being robust enough for typical iRobot applications. The link hops from frequency to frequency if it encounters network interference, and the robots in the system can act as relays to keep them hooked into the network.



* METHANE ON WHEELS: As discussed by an article from AAAS SCIENCE ("Stepping On The Gas" by Robert F. Service, 31 October 2014), in the age of booming natural gas production, buses and other large vehicles propelled by methane -- the major constituent of natural gas -- are becoming increasingly common. However, for passenger cars and light trucks, methane isn't a noticeable player.

The US Department of Energy's (DOE) "Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy (ARPA-E)" is now working on a program, named "Methane Opportunities For Vehicular Energy (MOVE)", to bring methane to smaller vehicles. The obstacle is energy density: given a volume of gasoline adequate to drive a car across town, that same volume of methane gas at normal temperature and pressure will barely get it out of the driveway. In practice, methane is normally used in chilled, liquefied form, as "liquefied natural gas (LNG)", or compressed to about 250 bars (atmospheres, approximately), as "compressed natural gas (CNG)" -- but LNG still has only about two-thirds the energy density of gasoline, while CNG is well under a third.

So why would anyone care about methane? In the first place, it's very cheap, with a cost about half that of gasoline on an energy-equivalence basis. It's also cleaner, with only about two-thirds the emission of CO2 as gasoline, with much less output of the nitrogen oxide and sulfur oxide pollutants that contribute to urban smog.

methane for the road

Modern gasoline or diesel engines need only a bit of tweaking to burn methane. According to NVGAmerica, an industry trade group in Washington DC, there are over 15 million natural-gas vehicles on the road worldwide, with over 140,000 in the USA -- most of them being transit buses and heavy trucks. Some natural-gas advocates believe that most heavy trucks in the US will be burning natural gas by 2030. While a heavy truck that uses methane costs tens of thousands of dollars more than a diesel rig, that's a tolerable increment of the purchase price, and given the costs of fuel, it's paid back in two to three years. Tightening emission rules for buses and heavy trucks are also pushing them towards methane.

Methane is practical for large vehicles because the bulk of the tanks isn't such a problem. It is such a problem for passenger cars and light trucks. Honda does make a methane-powered Civic Sedan -- but the ratio of sales of that model to gasoline-power Honda cars is about 1 to a thousand. Due to the big CNG tanks, the methane-powered Civic has only half the trunk space of the gasoline-powered version. In addition, the tanks have to be robust to stand the pressure; they are either made of thick metal, which makes them heavy and cuts into vehicle fuel efficiency, or made out of carbon fiber, which is lighter but much more expensive. The current price increment for natural gas is $3,500 USD; the target of the MOVE program is to cut it to $2,000 USD.

One option is to fill tanks with a porous material that sponges up methane at relatively low pressures, releasing it as pressure is reduced. The tanks wouldn't need to be so robust and expensive, and would also reduce the cost of compressors needed to fill the tanks. The absorption ratio is rated in "v/v", meaning the number of volumes of methane at normal pressure and temperature that can stored in a volume of absorbent. To have the same storage density as CNG, the DOE says the v/v ratio must be at least 263.

Activated carbon is one option, since it's cheap and produced in large quantities, but its maximum theoretical capacity is only 220 v/v. Materials known as "metal organic frameworks (MOF)" have already topped that number. While activated carbon particles have a randomly oriented internal structure, MOFs have designed structure that can be tailored to trap methane molecules.

Hundreds of different MOFs have been synthesized. The first to seem promising for methane storage was a copper-based MOF designated "HKUST-1". When pressurized to 35 bars, it could store as much as 220 v/v. Unfortunately, it wasn't eager to let it all go, with a third of the methane left at 5 bars, reducing its usable capacity to 149 v/v. New candidate MOFs have emerged, some that have less total capacity than HKUST-1, but more usable capacity; others that have more total capacity, but less usable capacity. Researchers are continuing their efforts to get the best at both ends, in hopes of making the 263 v/v mark. There's also work to produce them in bulk, in efforts to make a $10 USD per kilogram of MOF goal set by ARPA-E. Everyone involved admits there's much more work to be done.

A MOF tank with a v/v of 263 wouldn't be any smaller than a CNG tank, but GNG tanks have to be cylinders -- "bullet tanks" -- to stand 250 bars of pressure. A MOF tank could be made in the form of a box; it would still be large, but it would be much easier to tuck it into the back of a car. There's also work to build high-pressure tanks based on an assemblage of small tanks, or a larger tank of convenient configuration with an internal network of storage channels, to get around the form-factor problem, though that implies greater elaboration and expense.

Even if that problem's fixed, there's the problem of fueling up. A gas pump can fill up a tank in about two minutes, depending on the size of the tank. Current CNG pumps for large vehicles could do the job in five minutes -- which isn't so bad, but these pumps are expensive, being affordable only to fleet operators. Work is being performed on cheaper pumps, with appear much more achievable if low-pressure MOF tanks become available. In fact, since American homes typically have natural gas lines, it would be attractive for drivers to fill up their own cars.

Researchers at Oregon State University in Corvallis are working on a natural gas engine that can also be used as a pump, dedicating one of its cylinders to the task; another research team at the University of Texas in Austin on a very simple compressor, with a piston that slides back and forth, that could be manufactured for $1,500 USD. As with MOFs, however, there's still a long way to go, problems including filtering water and other impurities out of the fuel flow, so they won't accumulate in fuel tanks. There's a chicken-&-egg problem at work: with so few natural gas cars on the road, funding remains limited.

That problem is all the worse because of the current predominance of cars running gasoline and diesel on the roads. Natural gas has its attractions, but drivers still have to be convinced that a natural gas car will work as well as a conventional car; that they will be able to fuel up on natural gas as easily as they do on gasoline; that mechanics will be able to fix natural gas cars. Even advocates admit, there's a long way to go.



* ENTOMBING CHERNOBYL: On 26 April 1986, reactor number four at Chernobyl in Ukraine blew its stack, resulting in the worst nuclear accident in history. As discussed by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("The Ultimate Security Blanket", 22 November 2014), after a backbreaking and expensive emergency response operation, the crippled reactor was sealed into a concrete and steel structure -- known officially as the "Shelter Object", informally as the "sarcophagus". It's done the job for almost three decades, but wind, rain, rust, and decay leave nobody confident it will do so for much longer. Nobody can get inside it to fix it, if they want to remain among the living.

Work is now advanced on the "New Safe Confinement (NSC)" building, discussed here in 2006, to make sure the failure of the sarcophagus doesn't mean a replay of the original disaster. The NSC is like a giant hangar made of double-skinned stainless steel, a half-cylinder with flat walls at the ends. It has a weight of 30,000 tonnes (33,000 tons), a height of 110 meters (361 feet), a width of 260 meters (853 feet), and a length of 165 meters (541 feet). The NSC is being built by Novarka, a French consortium, with its cost of 1.5 billion euros (about $1.62 billion USD) being shouldered by donations from dozens of countries, administered by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. The NSC was supposed to have been completed in 2005, but has been delayed by political bickering, and difficulties in lining up the funding. It is now expected to be completed in 2017, with an expectation that it will last for about a century.


Building the NSC was not easy, even by the standards of large structures. The sarcophagus is much too "hot" to allow the NSC to be built around it, so it is being put up 300 meters (984 feet) away, to be slid into place on rails when completed. Novarka officials say it is the biggest moveable structure ever built. Instead of having to move large quantities of radioactive dirt for the rails, a concrete shield was built to allow the NSC to be erected closer to the sarcophagus. The elements of the NSC are being fabricated modularly off site and hauled into the site on special transporters, to be assembled and jacked into place. The structure is being set up as two half-length arches that will be mated together in completion.

To complicate things further, reactor four shares a building with reactor three, which did not blow up and isn't contained by the sarcophagus. The NSC will only cover the reactor four part of the building, meaning the wall has a hole to allow the building to fit.

Once in place, the problem remains of keeping the NSC intact. There are steel structures, such as the well-known Firth of Forth Bridge in the UK, that have survived for more than a century, but they are regularly painted. Given the radioactivity, that won't be possible. That's why stainless steel was used in its construction, and also why it was built with double skins. The idea is to continuously pump warm, dry air into the space between the skins to keep the humidity down and prevent rust.

Ultimately, the goal is to dismantle the sarcophagus and the crippled reactor, then cart off the remains and dispose of them. The NSC is being built with several internal, remotely operated cranes, with the plan being to use them and robots to do the job. Nobody has yet made a robot that can stand the radiation levels; that's why the NSC is being built, to buy time, and to wait for the radiation to die down to a much lower level. The end solution to the Chernobyl disaster is, of necessity, being passed down to another generation.



* CHINA & THE INTERNET (1): As discussed by a survey from THE ECONOMIST ("A Giant Cage", 6 April 2013), before Bill Clinton left the White House, he stated that semi-authoritarian China would never be able to control its internet, that trying to do so would be like attempting to "nail jello to a wall." That was the conventional wisdom of the time; it seemed obvious that the massively connected, diffuse internet would inevitably slip any leash placed on it.

Clinton was wrong. China's government, a creature of the Chinese Communist Party, has set up an army of cyber-police, hardware engineers, software developers, web monitors, and paid online propagandists to maintain control over the internet -- not just to keep citizens in line, but to use the internet to serve the goals of the state. Chinese authorities have been so successful in controlling the country's internet that other authoritarian states have used China as a model to do the same.

Ironically, the first e-mail from China, sent to an international academic network on 14 September 1987, proclaimed proudly: "Across the Great Wall we can reach every corner in the world." At the time, few foresaw the "Great Firewall" that the government would erect to block "undesirable" foreign websites such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube; or the "Golden Shield", which monitors internet activities within China. China has created its own "proprietary" internet, made up of local alternatives to foreign online giants, such as:

Chinese users have effectively all the online capabilities available in the West, with all the business remaining in the hands of Chinese firms under government oversight. Google tried to penetrate the Chinese market, setting up a search engine there in 2006 that ran by government rules, but called it quits in 2010. It wasn't the government regulations that shut it down; Google was just being literally hacked to pieces.

Chinese hackers are a very busy lot, and no outsiders have a clear idea which of them are freebooters, and which of them are working for the government. Nobody doubts the Chinese government really likes hacking, however, since popular targets include email accounts of political dissidents; computer systems of foreign media firms that criticize China; foreign corporate systems; and of course, foreign military and defense systems.

China's government has nailed jello to a wall by creating a national internet that looks and feels much like the global internet, but in practice is something like a fenced-off playground with paternalistic guards. Yes, China's internet sounds just as unruly as elsewhere, but Chinese are not surprised when they step over the line and are told, generally politely but always firmly: "You ought not do that."

It's not iron-fisted tyranny at work, more the chiding of a stern father, but it's still effective; somebody's watching, so China's users try to be careful about what they say. When given a hint, they usually take it -- knowing that the authorities are unlikely to stop at hints if they don't. [TO BE CONTINUED]


[FRI 08 MAY 15] THE COLD WAR (66)

* THE COLD WAR (66): By early November 1956, the dual crisis had passed its climax. The fighting in Hungary was dying down; while early reports claimed tens of thousands of Hungarians had been killed, the body count was later downsized to thousands, which was still appalling. There were mass arrests, with scores of executions; although Nagy had been promised safe passage out of the country, he was arrested by the new Hungarian regime, to be tried in secret and shot in two years' time. An estimated 200,000 Hungarians fled to the West, with the US agreeing to accept 21,000 of them.

The invasion of Hungary was a public-relations disaster for the Communist cause, doing much to sow doubts around the world that the color of the future was certain to be Red. Indeed, while Khrushchev insisted the action had been justified, Kremlin leadership was shocked to see public protests by Soviet citizens. The protests were few and isolated, but under Stalin they would have been completely unthinkable. The authorities responded by arresting protesters, with hundreds given sentences ranging up to seven years. Khrushchev would then publicly boast there were no political prisoners in the USSR.

Mao Zedong endorsed the invasion, describing it as necessary to suppress "counter-revolutionaries", but still criticized Moscow's "big-power chauvinism" and de-Stalinization, saying they had created the crisis in the first place. Tensions between the Soviets and the Chinese were growing, despite the fact that, superficially, relations between them seemed good. In 1954, the new Soviet leadership had visited Beijing, endorsing efforts begun in 1953 in which Soviet experts would build, or help build, what would end up being hundreds of new factories in China, with the USSR also providing a good portion of the funding. In April 1955, the Kremlin agreed to assist China's supposedly peaceful nuclear-power program.

Khrushchev, however, later recalled the 1954 visit with annoyance, describing the Chinese as superficially polite, but unappreciative of Soviet assistance. Partly it was a clash of styles, Khrushchev thinking of himself and acting the part of the Soviet common man, preferring to be addressed by the chummy "Nikita Sergeyevich"; he was also outspoken and direct, sometimes to the point of tactlessness. Mao, in contrast, was an emperor in all but name -- and saw himself as one, though he had to adjust the semantics to allow it to fit with Communist egalitarianism.

There were more fundamental problems, however. Mao resented being the junior partner in the relationship with the Kremlin. He felt that the mantle of authority in the world socialist revolution had fallen on his shoulders; his "more Red than thou" attitude did not go over well with the Kremlin. In hindsight, the greatest irony was that Mao never considered for a second the possibility, underlined by the invasion of Hungary, that the potential of the world socialist revolution was oversold, and popular enthusiasm for the idea would end up being decidedly mixed. If capitalism was the oppression of man by man, communism was increasingly appearing to be the reverse.

* By the end of November 1956, the UN peacekeeping force was almost in place in Suez, with the British and French almost gone; the Egyptians began clearing the canal to get it back in operation. The Israelis were staying put in the Sinai and wouldn't leave until the following spring -- after a remarkable effort by Canadian Foreign Minister Lester Pearson, later a Canadian prime minister, to hammer out an agreement and implement a peacekeeping force.

The Israelis had good reason to be happy with the results of the war, having handed Nasser a good thrashing, and also ensuring the re-opening of the Straits of Tiran -- between the Sinai and Saudi Arabia at the base of the Gulf of Aquaba, Israeli shipping having been blocked at the straits since 1951. The Israelis made it very clear that any attempt by Nasser to close the straits again would be considered an act of war. Despite the humiliation of the Egyptian military, however, Nasser felt that Egypt had diplomatically triumphed in the affair, the British and French having been forced to crawl off with their tails between their legs.

Khrushchev was also happy with the outcome, believing that his noisy atomic threats against the British and French had forced them to retreat, saying it was a "direct result" of Soviet pressure, that their "nerves broke", that the failure of the Americans to respond to Soviet challenge showed they had been intimidated as well. That vindicated his belligerent approach to international relations, and his belief in the political power of the Bomb -- though in reality, it was the Americans who had tipped the balance. Nobody, not the Americans, British, French, Israelis, or Egyptians, not even some Soviet officials, had taken Khrushchev's threats seriously.

Even though Khrushchev didn't believe that American actions in the crisis had resolved it, he still gloated, saying that the US had helped its own allies in "the way a rope helps a man being hanged." He also crowed in public, saying at a gathering in the Polish embassy in Moscow in mid-November that the capitalist states had no future: "Whether you like it or not, history is on our side. We will bury you."

That comment made the rounds over the world, becoming the phrase that Khrushchev would be identified with forever. He acknowledged later that it got him bad press, clarifying that, as per Marx's claim that the proletariat would be "the undertaker of capitalism", the capitalist states would not survive, and that the Soviet Union would witness their fall. The clarification was hairsplitting; it was a mindless provocation, contrary to any notion of "peaceful coexistence", that could only feed the perception of Western leaders that the supposedly monolithic communist bloc was out to destroy democratic capitalism.

The realities were that Khrushchev himself would have had to admit he didn't have any idea of when the capitalist states would fall, that he didn't see any immediate prospect of them doing so, and that he didn't represent anywhere near as much of a threat to them as he tried to pretend he was. His prediction of the future would prove, from a later perspective, highly inaccurate. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* SCIENCE NOTES: The finding that bats can generate what appear to be "identification" calls was discussed here last year. As discussed by a note from AAAS SCIENCE Online ("Holy Blocked Bat Signal! Bats Jam Each Other's Calls" by Virginia Morell, 6 November 2014), it also turns out that they can jam each other. Actually, it's not entirely clear which they are doing.

Aaron Corcoran, a biologist at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, first detected the jamming call while recording bat-moth interactions in Arizona. Other researchers had previously discovered that Mexican free-tailed bats (Tadarida brasiliensis) make at least 15 types of social calls, and even adjust their ultrasonic vocalizations to avoid interfering with those of others. Corcoran and his colleagues used ultrasonic recordings, along with tracks of bat flight. When a bat is zeroing in on a target, it stars emitting a fast series of ultrasonic chirps to get precise targeting; the researchers found that that rival bats would emit a jamming call just as a bat was closing in on prey, causing the bat to lose target lock.

The field studies showed that the "kill rates" of bats were cut in half when the jamming calls were used; using controlled experiments with recorded jamming calls and moths on monofilament tethers, they were able to duplicate the same effect. There is now some argument over whether the "identification" calls were actually jamming calls, though they may both exist. Corcoran and others wonder if other echo-locating species, such as dolphins, engage in jamming as well.

* As discussed by a note from BBC WORLD Online ("Study Casts Doubt On Health Benefits Of Milk", 18 November 2014), saying something is "safe as milk" is reassuring indeed -- but a study performed of 107,000 Swedish adults and published in the medical journal BMJ suggests it's not so reassuring after all. According to the study: "We observed a dose-dependent higher rate of both mortality and fracture in women and a higher rate of mortality in men with milk intake, a pattern not discerned with other dairy products."

Women who drank three or more glasses of milk a day, for instance, were 93% more likely to have died during the study period, which ranged from 13 to 22 years. Indiana University School of Medicine Professor Aaron E. Carroll, writing in THE NEW YORK TIMES, says there's not a lot of evidence that milk really is all that healthy. There's no cause to think the calcium it provides actually results in stronger bones, and though it is nutritious, it is loaded with calories, about 83 a cup: "In an era when every other caloric beverage is being marginalized because of obesity concerns, it's odd that milk continues to get a pass."

Luisa Dillner of THE GUARDIAN newspaper in the UK cautions that it's too early to decide to kick the milk habit, however. She says the study is based on possibly unreliable self-reporting; Swedish environment and health practices may be different in the UK and other parts of the world; and there's no specific proof of a negative connection. Giving up milk, which is generally iodine-fortified, may lead to increases in iodine deficiencies.

This provides yet another example, if any were required, on just how hard it is to establish causal relationships in health matters. Dillner writes: "Nutritional guidelines are unlikely to change in the short term until there is more direct evidence on the long-term effects of liberal milk drinking. The phrase 'more research is needed' was invented for questions such as this."

* As discussed by another note from BBC WORLD Online ("WHO Urges Shift To Single-Use Smart Syringes" by James Gallagher, 23 February 2015), the United Nations World Health Organization (WHO) is encouraging the global adoption of "single use" syringes by 2020. In single-use syringes, the plunger locks at the end of an injection, preventing the syringe from being reused; reusing syringes leads to more than two million people being infected with pathogens such as HIV and hepatitis each year.

single-use syringes

A standard syringe costs from about two to four cents; single-use syringes cost from four to six cents. This is a small increment in itself, but given 16 billion injections performed around the world, it ends up being a considerable total cost to bear. That increment, however, is much less than the cost of treating millions of people infected by dirty needles.

The WHO is also calling for sheathed needles that prevent doctors accidentally pricking their fingers; this has happened many times during the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. Unfortunately, that would triple the cost of syringes, and the WHO admits that safer syringes will have to be introduced in phases. The WHO is calling on industry to expand production and cut unit costs. Even if the new world of safe syringes arrives, however, traditional multi-use syringes will persist, being needed for needle exchange programs for drug users, as well as in some treatments in which multiple medicines are mixed in the syringe before being injected.



* COLA WARS: As discussed by an article from BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK ("Coke's Unlikely Savior" by Duane D. Stanford, 23 March 2015), manufacturers of fizzy drinks are suffering badly from the backlash against sugar, with sales of cola -- which accounts for half the production of fizzy drinks, the overall market being $187 billion USD a year -- falling by 4% per annum.

Cola is not likely to become extinct any time soon, being the world's most popular packaged drink, but manufacturers have got to do something about sugar. Cola is mostly water, with a bit of flavorings, the rest being sugar -- about 140 calories worth, about the equivalent of three Oreo cookies. Diet drinks are available, the problem with them being that artificial sweeteners -- discussed here in 2007 -- don't taste as good as the real thing. There are also worries about the safety of artificial sweeteners; the worries are overblown, the US Food & Drug Administration (FDA) has neither tried to pull them from the market nor is under any real pressure to do so, but the label "synthetic" still has a bad taste to the public.

Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and DrPepperSnapple, the three biggest US manufacturers of fizzy drinks, have been diversifying into energy drinks and even designer milks -- but they refuse to admit defeat on cola. The solution to the problem appears to be stevia, a sweet plant long chewed by the Guarani Indians of Paraguay. In 2008, the FDA green-lighted use of a key stevia molecule named "rebaudioside A (reb A)" that's as much as 300 times sweeter than sugar. In 2014, stevia accounted for 11.4% of the global sweetener market, with estimates that it will account for 15% by 2020.

Coca-Cola now uses stevia variants in at least 20 different products globally, including the (literally) green-labeled "Coca-Cola Life" that is now being gradually introduced in the US. PepsiCo sells their answer to Coca-Cola Life, named "Pepsi True", in a few US markets and on Amazon.com. However, although reb A works well enough in teas, in higher concentrations it leaves a licorice aftertaste, so the Coke and Pepsi products add sugar to their stevia colas -- giving about a third of the calories of ordinary colas, but still not yielding a sugarless solution.

Coca-Cola Life

Stevia actually contains dozens of sweet molecules, though most are present in low concentrations, making it impractical to extract them from plants. Researchers at the facility of Swiss biotech company Evolva Holding in Copenhagen, Denmark are now splicing genes from stevia for the sweet molecules into baker's yeasts: feed the yeasts glucose, and they churn out stevia molecules. Such schemes were discussed here in 2014.

It's strictly a lab demonstration right now, but Evolva has teamed up with agribusiness giant Cargill, which has long supplied sweeteners to Coca-Cola, to industrialize the process, with initial production deliveries expected in 2016. The ability to mix stevia genes in the yeasts allows them to produce a precisely tailored sweetener, with a Cargill official proclaiming: "Sugarlike taste, no aftertaste, no bitterness."

A plant science company named Chromocell is taking a complementary approach at their facility in New Brunswick, obtaining taste receptor cells from animals and examining how they respond to different sweetener molecules. The various sweet plant molecules are cataloged in a huge flavor library, to then be mixed in various combinations to give the biggest sweet bang for the buck. They've been able to reduce the amount of sugar in Coke's stevia products by a third.

All this food technology is impressive, but will it pass muster from consumers who want a "natural" product? Evolva CEO Neil Goldsmith believes that's misguided, since the stevia genes are natural, so are the baker's yeasts, nothing's being chemically synthesized from scratch: "It's as natural as beer or bread." -- both of which are produced using yeasts.

That might be argued, but then again, natural food geeks usually don't buy fizzy drinks anyway; one could bet they would say they dissolve the teeth or such. The yeast production process also promises to churn out low-calorie sweeteners in bulk at low cost, and since such sweeteners are well more potent than sugar, a little bit can go a long way. Consumers may have mixed notions about what is "natural" and what is not -- but there's no ambiguity that they won't buy a new cola, no matter how jazzed up, that's well more expensive than the old.

* In closely related news, TIME magazine reports that a study of people who drank diet fizzy drinks tended to gain more weight than people who drank sugary fizzy drinks. What happens, it appears, is that the "empty" calories of the diet drinks simply don't satiate the drinker, who then eats snacks that do give satisfaction. The study also hinted that diet drinks can lead to a higher risk of heart attacks and type 2 diabetes, or cause alterations in the gut microbiome. We just can't ever win.

As a personal comment, if GM yeast-produced flavorings can pass under the radar of the natural food hype -- arguable, though the yeast output will be effectively the same as that from the traditional plant source, and nobody will eat the GM yeasts -- it could have a noticeable impact on agriculture. Could chocolate be produced with the yeasts? It would certainly be a lot more efficient than getting it from the cacao tree, and might well be optimized to produce premium chocolate on the cheap. One wonders if GM yeasts might even be able to efficiently synthesize staple foods.



* THE WARMING ARCTIC: As discussed by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("Awakening", 14 February 2015), in November 2011 the US Coast Guard icebreaker HEALY set sail from Seward, Alaska, to journey north through the Arctic Circle into the Chukchi Sea. At that time of year, the Sun never rose above those waters, and the expectation was that sea organisms were going to be few in number, going into hibernation. The ship's survey actually found that planktonic animals such as copepods and krill were abundant, grazing on the algae of the smaller phytoplankton, themselves adapted to live on the slightest trace of winter light. Animal larvae were growing into their adult forms, and some species were even reproducing.

The Arctic is taking on greater importance in an era of climate change. A rise in temperature of a degree Celsius at the equator does have an effect, but it doesn't really overturn the ground rules. A rise of a degree Celsius in the north, however, can mean the difference between liquid water and ice. If there's much more open water where there used to be ice, everything changes, from local biology to global meteorology.

For all the squabbling over climate change, there is zero honest doubt that the Arctic is melting, and melting rapidly. Julienne Stroeve, of the US National Snow & Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colorado, calculates that between 1953 and 2014 the average area of the Arctic sea ice shrank by 48,000 square kilometers (18,500 square miles) a year, a mere three-hundredth of its winter extent. Between 1979 and 2014, it shrank at 1.8 times that rate; between 1996 and 2014, the rate went to triple of that from 1953 -- though it is true that past two seasons have seen an increase in summer ice, compared with the low point in 2012.

While climate change is driven by emissions, Arctic ice melt is accelerated by feedback loops:

For whatever the other effects of Arctic sea warming, it should be on the balance be a benefit to marine life there. More open water means more phytoplankton soaking up light, establishing biomass to support a more active ecology. According to Mar Fernandez-Mendez of the Alfred Wegener Institute in Bremerhaven, Germany, in the summer of 1982 a column of Arctic seawater with a cross-sectional area of a square meter fixed 26 milligrams of carbon a day. By 2012, that figure had risen to 34:53 milligrams per day.

There has been, in consequence, a boom in the number of codfish -- notably sexually-active codfish, more than seven years old. The codfish are now found well closer to the North Pole than they used to be. Harbor seals are also doing well, having more to eat, and not being dependent on the ice to give birth. They like the warmer weather.

Not all are benefiting. Examination of the thickness of blubber of minke whales and harp seals shows it has been gradually becoming thinner since the 1990s. The whales live on Arctic zooplankton; their traditional feed is apparently being displaced by more temperate species that are less nutritious. Harp seals are also suffering from a change in diet, but they particularly suffer from the dwindling sea ice -- they give birth on it, and rest there when not hunting. If they go north to follow the ice, the run into increasing populations of polar bears that prey on seal pups.

There is also the issue that the photosynthetic bloom of the Arctic waters is likely to run out of steam sooner rather than later. The phytoplankton at the bottom of the food chain need nitrates, to make proteins, and silicates, to make shells. When they run out of these feedstocks, they can't grow any more. Compounding this is the fact that dead algae tend to sink to the seabed, taking their nitrates with them. That happens in other oceans, of course, but elsewhere they are brought back to the surface by upwelling currents, which seem notable absent in the north.

Another factor limiting the population boom is that Arctic organisms have evolved to take advantage of the short summer -- a season so compressed that the timing of plant growth, animal births, and feeding cycles ends up being closely synchronized. If the algae bloom too early, copepods emerging later won't have enough to eat, and predators higher up the food chain won't have copepods, either. Computer models of the impact of changing environmental conditions on food webs suggest the system is coming under strain.

Along with considerations of regional ecology, there is the more significant question of how much a warming Arctic will affect conditions elsewhere on the planet. Jennifer Francis of Rutgers University believes it has a significant impact. Since the poles are cold, warm air flows from the equator north and south, with the Earth's rotation disturbing these air currents. In the northern hemisphere, the result in the jet stream, a wavy circulation that brings up warm air and makes northwest Europe hotter than other places at the same latitude.

Should the temperature gap between the north pole and the equator fall enough, then the poleward flow of air might falter -- indeed, wind speeds have been measurably dropping. That could have two effects:

Not everyone is convinced that there is any strong link between these weather patterns and the warmer Arctic -- but nobody has been able to rule it out, either. The bottom line is that more research on the impact of the warming Arctic is needed.



* CHRONIC DISEASE VACCINE CHALLENGE (2): The various vaccines intended to fight obesity also work by targeting natural human proteins. Somatostatin, a small peptide hormone produced in the hypothalamus, inhibits growth hormone as well as insulin-like growth factor, with a resulting boost of metabolism. A vaccine to suppress somatostatin named "Somatovac" was developed by a company named Braasch Biotech for agricultural purposes, with the objective of raising milk production in cows and lean meat production in pigs, without using bovine growth hormone or antibiotics. On the possibility that Somatovac could also help obese humans keep weight down, the vaccine was tested on overweight mice. They didn't lose weight, but their rate of weight growth slowed down, compared with control mice on the same diet.

George Jackson, a neuroscientist at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston who has been working on Alzheimer's vaccines, said that a vaccine against obesity isn't a crazy idea, but it is a tricky one. With Alzheimer's, he commented that we could potentially "target Mr. Hyde without harming Dr. Jekyll", since beta amyloid appears to have no beneficial role; it could be thought of as a toxin. However, he added, obesity is different: "Somatostatin is doing something bad, but also something good. A vaccine could cause side effects by interfering with that normal function."

Somatostatin isn't the only potential target for an obesity vaccine. Researchers have also focused on "ghrelin", an appetite-stimulating hormone. Anti-ghrelin vaccines -- and passive immunization -- have demonstrated some effectiveness at curbing appetite in rats and mice. However, few working on such vaccines believe they are close to a practical vaccine, and some suspect the exercise is a dead end. Martin Bachmann, an immunologist formerly with Cytos Biotechnology, observed that obesity is hard to nail down to any one factor: "It's so complicated, and people love to eat." Animals have an evolutionary incentive to eat, and trying to persuade them not to do so is difficult. Bachmann also said that different animals have different feeding behavior, and that effects an obesity vaccine might show in mice may not reflect what they will do in a human.

Bachmann is more optimistic about vaccines to blunt the effects of nicotine, though work towards such vaccines hasn't gone well, either. On the face of it, a vaccine against nicotine -- and other addictive drugs, such as heroin and cocaine -- isn't as tough as a vaccine against obesity. Nicotine isn't normally found in the body and it should be easily targeted by the immune system with few problems, the immune system's antibodies "jamming" the nicotine molecules to eliminate their effect.

In the late 1990s, researchers at Nabi Pharmaceuticals, of Rockville, Maryland, cooked up a nicotine vaccine named NicVAX, a "conjugate" vaccine consisting of a foreign protein hooked up with a nicotine molecule -- nicotine is a small molecule that is generally ignored by the immune system, so the protein was attached to "flag" nicotine to the immune system. Animal studies seemed to go well, so Nabi went on to clinical trials. However, Nabi finally had to concede that advanced trials showed no greater percentage of quitters in the NicVAX test group than there were in the control group.

Other work on nicotine vaccines hasn't gone much better. One of the problems is that there needs to be a fairly high concentration of antibodies against nicotine, since there's almost half a gram of nicotine in a typical cigarette, and once the nicotine gets in the bloodstream, it gets through the blood-brain barrier very quickly. Janda and colleagues have been investigating an intriguing hybrid approach, injecting mice with a genetically modified virus that carries a gene for an antibody that targets nicotine. The virus infects the mouse liver, with the liver cells churning out antibodies against nicotine.

Results seem promising. Mice "chill out" in response to nicotine much as humans do, with mouse blood pressure and heart rate dropping by almost half within a half hour. Mice that were given the treatment were unaffected by nicotine; concentrations of nicotine in the brains of treated mice were only 15% of those of the control group. Those working on the treatment call it "elegant", and it is -- though the idea of deliberately infecting a patient with a virus might well get the exciteable agitated. The scheme has yet to go on to trials.

Since smoking kills so many people every year, Big Pharma is very interested in a nicotine vaccine, Janda commenting that "there's money in it." There has to be, since so far vaccines for chronic ailments haven't come close to paying off, and it's going to take organizations with deep pockets to get them to work. [END OF SERIES]



* ANOTHER MONTH: The more attentive fans of the long-running British DOCTOR WHO sci-fi series -- about a spacetime-traveling, world-saving visitor to Earth from the planet Gallifrey, simply known as the "Doctor" -- know that the Doctor can be reached at the phone number 07700 900461, as mentioned on an episode released in 2008. Well, in principle anyway, since if anyone tries that number, they get a NOT RECOGNIZED message.

That's not so surprising, but it wasn't just a question of the scriptwriters making up a gibberish number that didn't go anywhere. In 2000, the UK Ofcom, the telecoms regulator, implemented a change in the phone number scheme for Britain, and reserved 20,000 "dummy" numbers for use in fictional presentations. They're not all that random either, with 15,000 of the lot featuring codes specific to particular large cities or regions, such as Leeds, London, Bristol, Tyneside and Northern Ireland. 4,000 are dummy mobile numbers, premium rate services, and so on; while the final 1,000 are set in a fictional geographic area with the area code 01632, for shows that do not want a number associated with a specific city or region.

Of course, there's a liability aspect to this, in that simply picking a phone number at random might get a show's producers in hot water with some unfortunate soul being hit with prank calls. American residents with the telephone number 867-5309 still get prank calls, thanks to the song "867-5309 / JENNY", released in 1981 by Tommy Tutone. Although some businesses picked up the number and fed it to a recorded answer as a promotional gimmick, an Alabama household with that number kept getting calls for "Jenny" late at night, until they changed the number. The mistress of the household said of Tutone: "I'd like to get hold of his neck and choke him."

* I'm getting ever more enthusiastic about video downloads, but I've been stuck with a problem. I like anime, but I don't like dubbing, much preferring subtitles -- although my comprehension of Japanese is low, I love the sound of the language, and the English dubbing is usually cheesy anyway. Amazon.com sells anime series, but their downloads are "dubbed", there being no option I can find for "subbed".

I was frustrated about finding a source of subbed anime, until I ran across the website for Funimation, a major US anime house. What surprised me was that they offer unlimited downloads for $4.95 a month, with considerable discounts for longer-term subscriptions. Even at $4.95 a month, that was cheap: Amazon.com sells episodes of TV series usually at $1.99 each, and if I watched an anime episode off Funimation once a week, I'd come out well ahead of that. In addition, most anime is trash; with an "all you can eat" subscription, I could sample as many different series as I like to find the ones I like.

I decided to bite on a one-month subscription, primarily to see if I could get it to work. One problem was that Funimation didn't have an app for Kindle Fire HD. The company did have an Android app, but it seemed unlikely to work with the Kindle Fire HD remote control. That sounded like a show-stopper, but then I realized I was being dense: I'd got so used to the convenient Kindle Fire HD system that I'd forgotten the notebook computer I also had hooked up to my TV, allowing me to watch web-based videos. It's a little klunky to use compared to Kindle Fire HD, but it works. Hopefully, one of these days, Funimation will mod their Android app so it will work with Kindle Fire HD.

* Thanks to three readers for a donations to support the websites last month, one being particularly generous. It is very much appreciated.