* 22 entries including: Cold War (series), China & the internet (series), OCO maps chlorophyll fluorescence, LUVOIR super space telescope, US healthcare fraud, end of Moore's law, revolutionary robocars, USA Freedom Act, space solar power, and no-stick coatings.
* NEWS COMMENTARY FOR JUNE 2015: The US Supreme Court (SCOTUS) has been productive as of late. On 25 June, the SCOTUS judged on a lawsuit, KING V. BURWELL, that struck at the foundations of the Affordable Care Act (ACA or "ObamaCare), the US national health-care plan -- but decided against it on a resounding 6:3 vote. All the four liberal justices voted against it, while Justice Anthony Kennedy and Chief Justice John Roberts crossed the aisle to join them.
The lawsuit did not sound very compelling in the first place. Instead of challenging the constitutionality of ObamaCare, it claimed that the act only allowed the Federal government to grant tax credits to citizens obtaining health care from state-run exchanges, not from Federal health-care exchanges. To a layperson, the argument could only sound pettifogging; the SCOTUS seems to have found it so as well, with the decision, written by Roberts, stating: "Congress passed the Affordable Care Act to improve health insurance markets, not to destroy them."
The justices conceded that the ACA, a monster piece of legislation, has plenty of ambiguities, but judged them unsurprising. The language used in the SCOTUS decision made it clear that any other attempts to exploit perceived loopholes in the ACA to topple it were not going to work. President Obama indulged in a little justified crowing in response to the decision, saying that the ACA is now "woven into the fabric of America" and "is here to stay".
It was always true, by the murky laws of bureaucracy, that the longer ObamaCare survived, the harder it would be to topple. One might hope that it has finally turned the corner, with resistance losing altitude from now on, and public acceptance growing. One can only hope that will lead to a realistic debate on how to make the ACA work better, instead of simply trying to derail it.
The next day, 26 June, the SCOTUS well topped the ObamaCare decision by judging that gay marriage was the legal in all of the US, and states could do nothing to deny it. The vote was closer -- 5:4, Justice Kennedy being the swing vote as usual. Chief Justice Roberts didn't cross the aisle this time, with Roberts and other conservatives holding out for the right of the states to make that decision. Incidentally, the fact that Roberts re-established his conservative credentials on the gay marriage decision only reinforced his judgement on ObamaCare, by demonstrating that he is clearly not a liberal.
In any case, this would seem another decisive judgement: once gay marriages become normal practice across America, attempting to turn back the clock and nullify those marriages will be just plain impossible. The moving finger, having writ, moves on; and all your protests will not unwrite a word of it.
* According to a recent Gallup poll of over 1,500 Americans, confidence in organized religion has hit its lowest point ever, down to 42%. Churches are in fourth place in public confidence -- which is, admittedly, doing better than the medical profession; much better than the news media; and far better than (at the bottom of the barrel) the US Congress.
Such news is actually reassuring to nonbelievers, dampening the exaggerated fear that religious fundamentalism is a threat to the republic, a notion echoed in the hysterical view that occasionally filters across the Pond that America is dominated by a red-white-&-blue flavor of the Taliban. In reality, even among believers, the extremists are well outnumbered by the moderates; the extremists are simply a noisy minority. Although the likes of David Barton -- to those not familiar with him, a faux historian dedicated to breaking down the barriers between church and state through selective readings of America's Founding Fathers -- are certainly appalling and definitely a nuisance, they're not any more than that.
Reading between the lines of the poll, it seems to suggest that, among nonbelievers, indifference is more prevalent than antagonism, and that non-Christian beliefs are gaining ground, if generally from a low level. One interesting thing that was spelled out is that Catholicism is doing much better for itself than Protestantism, with the confidence level up to over 50%, compared to 39% in 2007. The primary reason for the boost is Pope Francis's effective measures to deal with clerical sex scandals.
American Catholicism is also robust because it encompasses a diversity of opinion, ranging from the zealousness of Senator Rick Santorum to the secularism of Melinda Gates, who has made no secret of challenging the church's bishops with promotion of birth control by the Gates Foundation. Indeed, while the pope is honored by Catholics, papal pronouncements are not necessarily taken all that seriously by them. Pope Francis does seem to be raising hopes that the church will implement long-wanted reforms of policy on birth control and priest celibacy, even possibly female priests, or (walk softly) gay marriage -- a hope reinforced by Pope Francis's recent call for the world to reign in carbon emissions, and get climate change under control. That suggests the Pope is both realistic and progressive.
It is a sign of the diversity of Catholicism that such a plea for sanity has drawn fire from the conservatives in the ranks, Senator Santorum saying that the Pope should "leave science to the scientists" and not weigh in on science issues. This from a politician who has promoted pro-creationist legislation. Enough said about that.
* However, as an additional comment, in response to the 26 June Supreme Court decision on gay marriage, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops said it was "profoundly immoral and unjust for the government to declare that two people of the same sex can constitute a marriage." It appears the flock does not agree, a 2013 Gallup poll showing that 60% of Catholics were in favor of gay marriage, with 36% against and 4% undecided.
Senator Santorum made it clear a few months back that he was in the AGAINST category, but no doubt the ratio is even more lopsided today. A Gallup poll released in late June -- I've got into checking the Gallup website every week -- showed that 82% of Catholics were willing to vote for a gay / lesbian presidential candidate, comfortably above the national average, with Protestants rating about the same margin below.
Catholics were slightly less likely than average to vote for an evangelical Christian; that's not too surprising, since there are primitive Christian sects who regard Catholicism as the work of the Anti-Christ. To be sure, the bishops could respond to the Catholic faithful that the Church is not controlled by a vote, it is not a democracy -- of course it isn't, that's obvious -- but then again, they may have second thoughts when they realize that their directives are falling on deaf ears.
* In late 2013, the German magazine DER SPIEGEL ran a news story, derived from documents released by American whistle-blower Edward Snowden, that the US National Security Agency (NSA) had been monitoring the phone of German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Obama told Merkel that the NSA was not tapping her phone, though there were concerns because he seemed reluctant to say the NSA had never done so.
In June 2014, top German public prosecutor Harald Range began an investigation into the allegation. The investigation is now complete, Range announcing that the document that hints at the tap doesn't do any more than hint, giving nothing of substance to lead to any conclusions. According to Range: "The document presented in public as proof of an actual tapping of the mobile phone is not an authentic surveillance order by the NSA. It does not come from the NSA database."
The incident, in short, was just what it sounded like: reading between the lines and jumping to conclusions. That should not itself be construed as proclaiming there are no issues, that the NSA has beaten the rap -- a spokesman for the chancellor refused to comment on the prosecutor's announcement, but said that the concern was not specifically over the tapping of Frau Merkel's phone, being more focused on the general activities of the NSA in surveillance of Germans.
Those who see the world to be in black & white are still not likely to be satisfied that the Germans and Americans are in conversations on the subject: the conversations are going to be secret, and the end result will likely be, at most, an adjustment of business as usual, possibly with a few apologies, and pledges of better behavior on an honor basis. In a world ever more enmeshed in a network of information, it is a futile hope to think that we will ever be able to have confidence that any of it that travels outside our homes will be secure.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* CHINA & THE INTERNET (7): China's hackers are not particularly skilled, the US and Russia having plenty of such who are at least as good, maybe better. What makes Chinese cyber-attacks distinctive is their quantity, open-ended range of targets, and sheer brass. Why so out of control? According to Dmitri Alperovitch, co-founder of Crowdstrike, a computer-security firm: "They don't care if they get caught."
Alperovitch used to work for McAfee, another computer-security firm, where he helped nail down several Chinese hacking operations in 2010 and 2011. His team identified more than 70 targets, with many more not identified, and determined that Chinese hackers had penetrated some networks for years. Alperovitch found that Chinese cyber-attacks were on an industrial scale, and that Chinese hackers "don't see any downsides to being caught. They have so far not suffered economically or politically for being caught."
Victims usually don't try to make much trouble for the hackers; companies don't like to admit they've been hacked, since it makes them look bad to customers. Nongovernmental organizations (NGO) working in China don't complain about being hacked, since complaining would only make life more difficult for them. Foreign governments have also been reluctant to complain, partly because they can't prove exactly who's behind the attacks, partly because they have cyber-spying operations of their own -- though as of late, the US has been more inclined to protest.
Chinese officials emphatically deny all allegations of state-sponsored hacking. They are not believed. Hacking on such scale would not be possible unless the Chinese government were turning a blind eye to it, and the hacking is often targeted at obtaining foreign secret defense technology. Besides, as mentioned above, the spies of other governments perform hacks themselves, making Chinese denials entirely unbelieveable. The hacking into Google was clearly part of the campaign to drive the firm out of China; a Chinese source told American officials that members of the elite Politburo Standing Committee had ordered the attack. Other targets have included NGOs, activists, dissidents, and foreign think-tanks focused on Chinese affairs. It seems very unlikely that free-booting online bandits would see such non-commercial targets as worth their own time.
The Chinese government has so far refused to sign any anti-cybercrime conventions. Although hacking is a criminal offense in China, Chinese police don't pay attacks on targets outside of China any evident mind. The only time the police have reacted is when the hackers strike inside China, stealing state secrets and assets. The first publicized hacking trial in China, in 1998, was of two men who got into the website of a state-owned bank in Jiangsu province, stealing less than $100,000 USD, with one of them being executed.
Chinese government activities underlying the hacking are barely visible. US experts point to the People's Liberation Army's (PLA) 3rd Department, which according to the Project 2049 Institute, an American think-tank, is roughly equivalent to America's National Security Agency. The source of cyber attacks on the US appears to be the Shanghai headquarters of Unit 61398, part of the 3rd Department. These days, the PLA openly recruits hackers, sponsoring contests at universities and posting job advertisements.
Security experts outside China have learned how to reverse-engineer methods of attack and trace attackers' internet-protocol addresses back to their physical origins. They have identified up to 20 "Advanced Persistent Threat" teams operating in China, including one that stole commercial secrets from Google, Adobe and other Silicon Valley companies; another that for years targeted a number of global energy companies; and yet others that have hacked hundreds of companies, government agencies, think-tanks and NGOs the world over. Some of the attacks have been very sophisticated, but many are old corny tricks, such as "phishing" emails to trick recipients into clicking on a link.
China has no patent on playing dirty games online; the Chinese are just playing them more blatantly and indiscriminately than others. The only thing that can be done in response is to improve defenses and refine counterattacks. One of these days, the balance of power may tip towards security, making international agreements on cyber-spying more than jokes, but nobody sees that happening any time soon. [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* THE COLD WAR (72): Nikita Khrushchev's noisy public belligerence fueled the arms race between East and West. The Soviets performed a set of above-ground nuclear tests in January and March 1957, followed by a set of five in April that left an easily-detected cloud of fallout circling the globe. There were international protests but Khrushchev, rising to the occasion, replied that the USSR had a fusion bomb that was so powerful that it could, all by itself, melt the Arctic icecap "and send oceans spilling all over the world."
It is hard to understand how he could have said such a thing with a straight face. For all Khrushchev's big talk, he didn't even have a realistic way to hit the US with nuclear weapons. The first launch attempt of the R-7 was on 15 May, from the new launch complex at Baikonur in what is now Kazakhstan. The complex had been established specifically with testing the R-7 in mind, the old site at Kapustin Yar in Russia not being up to the task, with construction having begun in mid-1955. The big rocket went up in a fireball less than two minutes into flight. He didn't announce that to the world, there being no way to put a grand spin on it.
In response to the Soviet nuclear tests, that May the US began Operation PLUMBOB -- a series of tests, the concentration being on tactical weapons, the biggest being a "mere" 80 kilotons, which was still an order of magnitude bigger than the Little Boy bomb that had destroyed Hiroshima. The weapons were designed to produce less radioactive fallout, a matter with which Eisenhower was becoming gravely concerned. In June, Eisenhower had talks with Lewis Strauss of the AEC, wondering to Strauss if the tests were really necessary. Strauss replied that small warheads were crucial to air defense, not just against Soviet bombers, but also against missiles. The US Army had been conducting studies of anti-ballistic missile (ABM) defense systems from 1955, moving from feasibility studies to preliminary design concepts, focusing on nuclear-armed surface-to-air missiles to deal with the threat.
Eisenhower was not entirely convinced. Although he wasn't confident in the intelligence estimates being handed him, they suggested to him that the Soviet threat was exaggerated -- and he could easily recognize Khrushchev's bluster as just that, loud talk that suggested insecurity and weakness more than strength. Still, at a press conference on 5 June, Eisenhower was challenged over fallout, and he replied not to get too worried about it:
REPORTER: Mr. President, in the last few days some top geneticists and other scientists have testified that fallout radiation from nuclear weapons tests will damage hundreds of thousands and, perhaps, millions of the yet unborn in terms of physical deformities and shortened life spans. Could you, as the man who must make the final decision on these tests for our country, tell us what your scientist advisors tell you on this matter?
EISENHOWER: Well, first of all, last October we published a very long report from the National Academy of Sciences which gave a very full discussion of this whole matter, bringing up the amount of radiation you get from natural sources, the sun and X-ray pictures and all the rest of it -- I believe down even to include phosphorous on the dial of your watch, and things of that kind. That is the authoritative document by which I act up to this moment, because there has been no change that I know of.
Now, on the other hand, here is a field where scientists disagree. Incidentally, I noticed that many instances -- scientists that seem to be out of their own field of competence are getting into this argument, and it looks like almost an organized affair.
I am concerned, just as much as I am of this fallout, I am concerned with the defense of the United States. I have tried, and this Government has tried, to make the abolition of tests a part of a general system of disarmament, controlled and inspected disarmament. If we can do that, we will be glad enough, and very quickly, to stop tests. But we do have the job of protecting the country.
Publicly, Eisenhower had to downplay his own fears of fallout, claiming that scientists who were raising a fuss over the issue were not on solid ground. However, fallout still remained an issue. [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* WINGS & WEAPONS: The prototype of the Pilatus PC-24 business jet performed its maiden flight, from Buochs airport in Switzerland, on 11 May, with no serious problems encountered on the flight. While very similar in appearance to other executive jets in its class -- swept flight surfaces, low wing, tee tail, turbofans on each side of the tail -- it is designed for short, rough field operation, notably featuring dual wheels on each main landing gear assembly.
The PC-24 has one or two crew and space for up to ten passengers in a commuter layout, or six to eight in an executive layout. It has a length of 16.8 meters (55 feet 1 inch); a wingspan of 17 meters (55 feet 9 inches); an empty weight of 4,970 kilograms (10,950 pounds); a maximum take-off weight of 8,005 kilograms (17,650 pounds); and a range of 3,610 kilometers (2,245 miles / 1,950 NMI). It has a take-off distance of 820 meters (2,690 feet), and a landing distance of 770 meters (2,525 feet). It is powered by twin Williams Research FJ44-4A turbofans with 15 kN (1,540 kgp / 3,400 lbf) thrust each.
The PC-24 has a glass cockpit with four large displays and two small displays. It has a large cargo door for hauling materiel to remote locations. Certification and initial customer deliveries of the "Super Versatile Jet" are expected in 2017. There are dozens of orders on the books already -- one customer being the Swiss Air Force, which will operate the type as a government VIP transport.
* The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has released videos demonstrating the "EXtreme ACcuracy Tasked Ordnance (EXACTO)" 12.7-millimeter (0.50-caliber) guided sniper round. The videos show the bullet not only taking corners, but even backtracking on its flight path. How it pulls off this trick is unclear, because it's classified. Computer-generated imagery of the bullet shows it to look like an order 12.7-millimeter bullet, but with a few bands around it.
* In 2011, the French Army introduced the FELIN (Fantassin a Equipement et Liaisons Integres / Integrated Infantryman Equipment and Communications) Future Soldier System into combat in Afghanistan. FELIN is a comprehensive system for the combat infantryman:
FELIN incorporates a networking system for coordination of squad operations, as well as hookup to higher-level networks. The SAGEM firm has now been awarded a contract to develop an improved FELIN, with substantially reduced weight and new software, to be delivered from 2016.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* THE FAINT GLOW OF A LIVING PLANET: In 2009, the US National Aeronautics & Space Administration attempted to launch the "Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO)", a spacecraft dedicated to mapping the carbon dioxide concentrations in the Earth's atmosphere, carrying a telescope feeding three spectrometers. The 450-kilogram (1,000-pound) OCO, built by Orbital Sciences Corporation, was to be placed in a near-polar Sun-synchronous orbit, taking the lead in set of six satellites known as the "A-Train". OCO was to make a full map of the Earth's atmospheric CO2 concentrations every 16 days. Unfortunately, when the launch took place on 24 February 2009, the payload shroud of the Orbital Taurus XL booster failed to separate, and the satellite fell back to Earth.
The mission was felt to be worth a retry, and so the "OCO 2" satellite was launched on 2 July 2014 -- by a Delta 2 booster, NASA not trusting the Taurus XL to do the job. Although OCO 2 was generally similar to the original OCO, the new mission featured refinements. As reported by an article from AAAS SCIENCE ("Carbon-Mapping Satellite Will Monitor Plants' Faint Glow" by Eric Hand, 13 June 2014), OCO 2 is able to observe both CO2 concentrations and the photosynthetic activity affecting them.
As any schoolkid knows, plants use the chlorophyll molecule to absorb energy from sunlight; what fewer know is that about 1% of that energy is re-emitted as a faint red glow. What is particularly interesting about "chlorophyll fluorescence" is that it only takes place when plants are photosynthesizing, providing an indication of photosynthetic activity.
Nobody paid too much attention to the phenomenon until the Japanese "Greenhouse Gases Observing Satellite (GOSAT)" was launched in 2009, a month before the ill-fated launch of the original OCO. GOSAT's technology and mission were similar to that of OCO, though GOSAT's instruments didn't have as much resolution. Researchers crunching through GOSAT data to measure CO2 had to clean out the confounding effects of clouds and aerosols, and also found they had to get rid of the fluorescence signal; it didn't take much thought to realize the fluorescence signal was valuable in itself.
What makes the Zen of that realization more profound was the fact that OCO 2 didn't need any new instruments to map both carbon dioxide concentrations and photosynthetic activity, and that it could get both measurements together for each locale it inspected, with updates on activity for each measurement cycle. GOSAT data has already provided revelations: it turns out that the US corn belt has the brightest peak fluorescence in the world, and that climate modeling may be under-estimating the carbon uptake there by 50% to 75%. Researchers are particularly interested in using OCO 2 to give similar insights into the Amazon rain forest, in particular to see how it responds to droughts and heat waves.
More can be done with chlorophyll fluorescence. OCO 2's smallest measurement resolution is a square two kilometers on a side; if resolution could be reduced to hundreds of meters, global maps could be made of agricultural productivity, and of how that's affected by shifting climate in a warming world. The European Space Agency is now considering a mission named the "Fluorescence Explorer (FLEX)" that will have a resolution of 300 meters. There's no commitment to FLEX just yet -- but Earth science researchers are chafing to get more data to improve their vision of our dynamic and changing planet.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* A BIGGER SPACE TELESCOPE? As discussed by an article from AVIATION WEEK & SPACE TECHNOLOGY ("Future Space Telescopes Will Be Even Bigger Than The Webb" by Frank Morring JR, 18 March 2015), astronomers are anxiously looking forward to NASA's James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), which is currently scheduled to be launched in 2018. The 6.5-meter (21-foot), $8.8 billion USD JWST will provide an unprecedented view of the infrared sky, giving a detail view of cosmic phenomena, such as star birth and the atmospheres of planets orbiting other stars.
Some people are never satisfied, of course, with a faction of astronomers now considering how to leverage JWST technology to build a space telescope with an aperture almost twice as wide. Sometimes referred to as a "Large Ultraviolet Optical Infrared (LUVOIR)" telescope, the observatory would feature a folding segmented mirror that could fit into a large payload fairing. Once on station, the LUVOIR's primary mirror and the composite structure holding the secondary mirror that reflects photons into the observatory's instrument suite would unfold, like an origami toy, to result in an operational telescope with an aperture 10 to 12 meters (33 to 39 feet) wide.
According to Kathy Flanagan -- interim director of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, which manages scientific research on the Hubble Space Telescope, and will play the same role with the JWST -- LUVOIR "would be able to detect biomarkers and evidence of life in other Earth-like worlds. Indeed, it is likely to be able to see the seasons change on an exoplanet."
LUVOIR will also leverage off another space astronomy project. Astronomers believe only about 4% of the Universe is visible, the rest consisting of theoretical "dark matter" and "dark energy". There's some suspicion that theory is wrong; the only way to find out is to obtain more data about the large-scale structure of the Universe. To that end, work is underway to use a 2.4-meter (8-foot) surplus National Reconnaissance Office mirror to build the "Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST)".
WFIRST will obtain very wide field views to improve the understanding of the expansion of the Universe, which will help nail down dark matter and energy. However, the observatory has another agenda, being equipped with a coronagraph to block the light from stars for direct imaging of the exoplanets orbiting them. Mark Clampin, JWST observatory project scientist at NASA Goddard, comments: "The WFIRST coronagraph will really provide the science and technical foundations for future missions that could search for life."
LUVOIR is clearly one of those future missions. With its large aperture and an effective coronagraph, the observatory should be able to detect the spectroscopic signatures of life -- ozone, oxygen, water, carbon dioxide, methane -- in the atmospheres of exoplanets orbiting in the "habitable zones" of their stars, where water can exist in its liquid state. With refined instruments derived from those used on WFIRST, LUVOIR will be able to survey hundreds of stars, looking for the estimated 16% of exoplanets that lie in the habitable zone, and zeroing in to look for biosignatures.
Clampin adds that LUVOIR "also has a lot of appeal to the general astrophysics community. One of the interesting things is, when you get to that size of aperture, you can basically resolve 100 parsecs anywhere in the universe, and that just happens to be the kind of scale of star formation in galaxies, so you can really start to study some of these other questions in great detail."
LUVOIR will operate at room temperature, being shielded, like the JWST, by a multilayer sunshield. Tests of the JWST sunshield, which is the size of a tennis court, have demonstrated that deployment doesn't appear to be a major challenge. LUVOIR's sunshield would be correspondingly larger, probably being made of three or four layers of lightweight insulating material. To keep the telescope at a constant thermal profile when it moves to another target, it would be mounted on a gimbal instead of connected directly to the sunshield, as is the JWST. Current ideas call for the instruments to be serviceable by astronauts or robots.
Clampin says a number of JWST facilities and technologies could be used to build a LUVOIR, including the Apollo-era thermal vacuum chamber at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, where the JWST will soon be tested. Examples of useful JWST technologies include:
Using JWST technology for new observatories in space has been the subject of a US National Research Council decadal survey of scientists, and will be addressed in a new report from the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy. There is no commitment to LUVOIR just yet, but the groundwork is being laid for its development.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* CHINA & THE INTERNET (6): A decade ago, Chinese online gamers were likely to spend their time playing foreign import games; now they are far more likely to play Chinese-made games, such as "Fantasy Westward Journey" or "Dream of Three Ancient Kingdoms". At the same time, the Chinese game market has surged from below $160 million USD in 2003 to an estimated $9 billion USD in 2012, more than a third of the global total. By 2016, it is expected to be worth $20 billion USD.
That statistic reveals two significant facts about the Chinese internet as a place to do business: first, the number of people on the Chinese internet and the money they are spending has skyrocketed; and second, it's Chinese firms that are getting all that business. Instead of visiting Western internet portals, Chinese users go to Sina, Sohu, and NetEase. Instead of eBay, they shop at Taobao -- and pay not with PayPal, but with AliPay, an affiliate of Taobao within the Alibaba Group, China's dominant online shopping business. Instead of Google, users search on Baidu. Attempts by outsiders to get a share of China's online business foundered in part because of their failure to understand China, but also because the system was blatantly stacked against them.
China's internet is not just about state security; it's also trade protectionism in cyberspace, making sure all the money goes to Chinese instead of foreigners, with the considerable added benefit that Chinese firms are much easier for the state to keep under control. The downside for consumers is that Chinese online firms are derivative, finding it easier to simply rip off ideas from elsewhere than come up with ideas of their own. It's faster, cheaper -- and what's to stop them? Wang Xing, a talented engineer trained at Tsinghua University, China's Massachusetts Institute of Technology, created four successive clones in China: of Friendster, Facebook, Twitter, and Groupon.
The big shots in the Chinese online industry are wealthy indeed. The creator of Taobao, Jack Ma, a former English teacher, first skyrocketed to fortune with Alibaba.com, an online platform for importers and exporters. Now Taobao generates about 60% of the parcels delivered for online shopping. However, Tencent, the leader in online games, is the most profitable internet business in China, earning more than $2 billion USD in 2012. Online video does very well, largely because it's not so much under state control as broadcast and other video services.
Early on, the government disliked online gaming, comparing it to "opium" and "heroin", and rehabilitating game addicts in boot camps. The realization then soaked in that games had great cultural reach, and also meant profits for Chinese businessfolk. In 2003, PEOPLE'S DAILY announced: "Long scorned and labeled as electronic heroin, online games now teach people history and culture in China."
The government helped China's gaming industry by raising obstacles to foreign games, resulting in joint ventures that transferred game technology to Chinese firms. The government wanted online games to be Chinese -- not South Korean or American, and particularly not Japanese. The gaming market is now dominated by big Chinese companies including Tencent, NetEase, and Shanda. The Communist Youth League has helped fund "Red" games like "Resistance War Online" in which users can play Red Army soldiers killing Japanese invaders.
The deliberate effort to isolate China's online business from the rest of the world pays benefits as far as the Chinese government is concerned, but it inevitably means that Chinese online firms are minor players at best in the rest of the world. Kai-Fu Lee, a Taiwanese-born former executive at Apple, Microsoft, and Google, now funds start-ups in China. Lee believes that China's rote education system and its blocking of Facebook, Twitter, and other creative influences will delay true innovation for a long time:
The out-of-box thinkers like Steve Jobs and Larry [Page] and Sergey [Brin], if people like that were born in China, they might not blossom to be the great people that they became, because they're maybe too radical, too cowboy-like. When you go in to get funding in China, lots of teams will say, "Who's done something like that in the US? Who are you analogous to?"
Lee particularly lamented Google's withdrawal from China in 2010. Google had wanted to play by the government's rules in China's internet business, which drew considerable flak in the West; Brin was uneasy himself, being a child of the Soviet system. What killed Google in China, however, was the fact that the authorities didn't like outsiders, even when they were trying to play by the rules. Google was persistently attacked in state-led media for promoting porn and for committing other sins. However, that wasn't enough to force Google to quit: it was relentless attacks by hackers that drove Google out. There's a lot of hackers in China, and they're a story of their own. [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* THE COLD WAR (71): President Eisenhower had little notion of the strains between the USSR and China. Both appeared threatening in their own ways -- but he also recognized that arming to the teeth against them left something to be desired, tending towards wretched excess, and not financially sustainable. Congress, despite the frantic hysteria of its members, was in practice proving very stingy on Eisenhower's budgeting in general, and the budget hadn't been generous to begin with.
Having little else he could cut, Eisenhower first looked at the CIA, which was soaking up a billion dollars a year. The president wondered how well that money was being spent, not having a high opinion of the intelligence the agency was handing him. The Hungarian crisis had also highlighted how little leverage the CIA had in Eastern Europe; given Eisenhower's reluctance to take provocative actions against the Soviets, that was likely inevitable, but it still diminished the CIA.
The president instituted changes in the agency, though they amounted to little. The irony was that the CIA had been, in part, established by Truman as a means of ensuring that intelligence supplied to the White House wasn't under the control of the armed services -- but the agency ended up having its own agendas. Eisenhower was thoroughly wise in the ways of government agencies, but he still found the situation exasperating.
The Pentagon, of course, was an even greater sink for taxpayer's dollars, and was at least as hard to control. The Air Force was pushing ahead on an atomic-powered airplane, with the budget for the program swelling while technical obstacles piled up. Eisenhower was concerned about the cost escalation; in hindsight, the notion of atomic-powered aircraft was technically and operationally absurd, and it seems surprising the idea was taken seriously for as long as it was. The president, much to his frustration, was unable to do much to restrain the exercise. He was also particularly annoyed to find the Air Force was working on another scheme for sending reconnaissance balloons over the USSR, codenamed MELTING POT, with balloons that would fly at much higher altitudes, up in the stratosphere. He ordered it killed. The order was ignored.
The real big-ticket item, however, was ICBM development. Defense Secretary Charlie Wilson told the president that the US needed 150 ICBMs; Eisenhower did not understand why so many were required. Each ICBM, as he pointed out, would deliver more explosive yield than all the bombs America had dropped on Germany in World War II; a few dozen such missiles, at most, would be able to inflict such staggering damage on the USSR as to provide all the disincentive to war that the US could want. Unfortunately, not only was the Air Force determined to have as many ICBMs as possible -- while the Navy, loathe to take a back seat to the Air Force, was already considering their options in the matter -- but the Democratic majority in Congress was only too quick to pounce on the administration for any sign of weakness against the Red Menace. [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* Space launches for May included:
-- 16 MAY 15 / MEXSAT 1 (FAILURE) -- A Proton M Breeze M booster was launched from Baikonur at 0547 GMT (local time - 6) to put the "Mexsat 1" AKA "Centenario" geostationary communications satellite into orbit for the Mexican government. The satellite was built by Boeing Satellite Systems and had a launch mass of 5,325 kilograms (11,740 pounds). It was to be placed in geostationary orbit to provide communications support for Mexican security services. Unfortunately, there was an upper-stage failure, and the payload didn't make orbit.
-- 20 MAY 15 / OTV 4 (USA 261) -- An Atlas 5 booster was launched from Cape Canaveral at 1505 GMT (local time + 4) to put the Air Force "X-37B" AKA "Orbital Transfer Vehicle (OTV)" AKA "Air Force Space Command 5 (AFSPC 5)" AKA "USA 261" unmanned spaceplane testbed into space. This was the fourth flight of the OTV; the military had no comment on whether this was reflight of a vehicle launched previously. Two experiments flown on the mission were described, however:
The launch also included a set of ten CubeSats, collectively known as the "Unique Lightweight Technology & Research Auxiliary Satellites (ULTRASat)", sponsored by NASA and the National Reconnaissance Office. They were carried by eight "Poly-Pico Orbital Deployers (P-POD)", built by the California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo. The P-PODs were packaged in a CubeSat launcher attached to the Centaur upper stage, and built by the Naval Post-Graduate School. The CubeSats included:
The Atlas 5 501 configuration featured a 5-meter (16 foot 5 inch) diameter fairing, no solid rocket boosters, and an upper stage with a single Centaur engine.
-- 27 MAY 15 / DIRECTV 15, SKY MEXICO 1 -- An Ariane 5 ECA booster was launched from Kourou in French Guiana at 2116 GMT (local time + 3) to put the DIRECTV "DirecTV 15" and "Sky Mexico 1" geostationary comsats into space; Sky Mexico was the Mexican subsidiary of DIRECTV.
DirecTV 15 was built by Airbus Defense & Space, and based on the company's Eurostar 3000 comsat bus. It had a launch mass of 6,200 kilograms (13,670 pounds), a payload of 30 Ku / 24 Ka / 18 Reverse (R)-band transponders, and a design life of 15 years. The satellite was placed in the geostationary slot at 102.8 degrees west longitude to provide direct-to-home TV services to customers in the US, including Ultra HD video.
Sky Mexico 1 was built by Orbital Sciences and was based on the Orbital GEOStar-2 bus. It had a launch mass of 3,180 kilograms (7,014 pounds), a payload of 24 Ku / 2 R-band transponders, and a design life of 20 years. It was placed in the geostationary slot at 78.8 degrees west longitude to provide direct-to-home video for customers in Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* RIPPING OFF THE HEALTHCARE STYSTEM: The inclination of thieves to target the US healthcare was last discussed here in 2007. An article from THE ECONOMIST ("The $272 Billion Swindle", 31 May 2014), suggests things are getting worse.
The US government's Medicaid program, intended to help the poor and disabled, distributes $415 billion USD a year; Medicaid, intended to help the elderly, hands out almost $600 billion USD. Total healthcare spending in the US is a staggering $2.7 trillion USD, or 17% of GDP. Estimates suggest that about $98 billion of Medicare / Medicaid funding is eaten by fraud and the countermeasures used to fight it, meaning about 10% of the sum is lost. The losses for the entire healthcare system are estimated at $272 billion.
Federal prosecutors had over 2,000 healthcare fraud investigations open at the end of 2013. A Medicare "strike force", formed in 2007, has taken down seven nation-wide fraud rings to date. In a raid on 13 May 2014, 90 people, including 16 doctors, were swept up in six cities -- including Miami, the epicenter of medical fraud. One of the doctors is said to have stolen $24 million USD, a component of that being a thousand power wheelchairs.
The money isn't the only reason healthcare fraud is so popular; it's also traditionally been a soft target, enforcement being weak and penalties not so severe. That's changing: an owner of a mental-health clinic got 30 years in lockup for false billing. Efforts to recover lost cash are getting better as well. In 2011:2013 the government's main fraud-buster program -- run as a joint effort of the Department of Justice and the Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) -- got back $8 USD for every $1 USD spent.
The growing crackdown has reduced the level of bogus billing in the worst-hit areas, such as durable medical kit and home visits. Home visit fraud got so bad that the US government's Center for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), in charge of the programs, had to declare moratoriums for signing up new providers in several cities. The CMS has also yanked the licenses to bill the government of thousands of providers, and raised the bar on dodgy applicants by requiring them to obtain accreditation and post surety bonds of $50,000 USD.
Still, only $4.3 billion USD was recovered in 2013 -- large in absolute terms, paltry in relative terms. Gangsters still find medical fraud attractive; Florida investigators often find stockpiles of weapons when they make busts. The gangs tend to be organized along ethnic lines: Russians in New York, Cubans in Miami, Nigerians in Houston, and so on. Thievery is becoming more sophisticated, with doctors, pharmacists, and patients colluding in fraud -- recruiters will canvass nursing homes to find accomplices. The trend nowadays is to overbill for real services, that being harder to spot than pure fabrications.
The CMS acquired a "predictive analysis" system -- modeled on the schemes used to provide alerts against charge card fraud, discussed here back in 2006 -- which identified $115 million USD of dodgy payments in 2012. The government has also implemented a voice-recognition system in which health workers who conduct home visits have to call in from a patient's house to be identified, or they can't claim payment for the visit.
However, what technology gives, it takes away. Medicare's computers were blindly pumping out payments for thousands of patients who weren't actually getting treatments, until somebody noticed what was going on. The bureaucratic complexity doesn't help, either: by 2015, Medicare will have a staggering 140,000 different codes to describe claims, which drives doctors absolutely crazy.
One big worry is that as more Medicare / Medicaid patients end up in privately-administered "managed care" plans, governments won't have as much data to bust frauds. As part of efforts to address this problem a public-private forum, the "National Health Care Anti-Fraud Association (NHCAA)". Some insurers have been reluctant to sign up, worrying about lawsuits over privacy issues; the NHCAA has been lobbying for Federal immunity guarantees to reassure them. ObamaCare has been helpful in breaking down barriers to information flow by requiring that when states step on a dodgy Medicare provider, they tell Medicaid, and the reverse.
Alas, there isn't a lot of money for investigators, and it's on the downward direction, no thanks to government budget-cutting. There's a push to get patients to help, with more than 5,000 of America's elderly joining "Medicare patrols" -- holding meetings to spread information on recognizing scams. One big help has been a simplified statement for patients that allows them to more easily spot when some fraudster is impersonating them. A CMS executive told Congress: "Our best weapon in fighting fraud is our 50 million Medicare beneficiaries."COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* MOORE'S LAW NO MORE? As discussed by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("Beyond Moore's Law", 26 May 2015), in 1965 Gordon Moore, one of the founders of chip-maker Intel, suggested that, on the basis of rates of growth in density of integrated circuits at the time, the number of transistors on a chip would double every two years. It was an astute observation: in 1965, a chip might have a few hundred transistors, but today it may have billions.
Moore knew perfectly well that the curve of increasing component density had to come to an end sooner or later, and it is generally believed the end will come in a few years, as the dimensions of transistors approach those of atoms, with quantum and thermodynamic effects helping to ensure they won't get any smaller. Chip-makers have had to resort to clever trickery to get as far as they have.
Traditionally, integrated circuits have been based on a planar -- two-dimensional -- architecture, with a metal gate placed over a conductive channel of silicon, with a layer of insulator between them. The transistor acts as a switch, with a voltage applied to a gate allowing current to flow through the channel, while removing the voltage from the gate shuts the current off.
Once a transistor gets too small, however, electrons can "tunnel" from the channel through the insulator into the gate, with this "leakage" wasting power, raising temperature, and possibly leading to device failure. Leakage starts to become a problem when the thickness of the oxide layer approaches about three nanometers (nm). Any thinner than that, leakage increases exponentially, and the transistor becomes useless.
Intel's latest "Broadwell" chips are made using a 14 nm process -- the nomenclature being an index of IC density, giving the half-distance or "half-pitch" between element cells on a chip. That means that the features in a cell, a transistor, may be much smaller than the half-pitch, with the gate insulator being only half a nanometer thick, the width of a handful of silicon atoms.
Intel, a leader in the semiconductor industry, began work to deal with the leakage problem several "nodes" -- jumps to smaller feature size -- ago, when the company was producing 32 nm chips. Intel's solution was to turn a transistor's flat conducting channel into a vertical fin that stood up from the chip substrate. Instead of one small contact patch, this gave the gate straddling the fence three contact areas, including a large one on either side of the fence and a smaller one across the top.
Intel introduced their "Tri-Gate" transistors, now better known as "finFETs", when they jumped to their 22 nm node; the company says they boost CPU performance by 37%, and reduce power consumption by 50%. They used the same scheme when they jumped to the current 14 nm node, and will use it on the upcoming 10 nm node, which will go into full production in 2016. Intel says it is working on a 7 nm node, with ideas about a 5 nm node, but isn't talking any details. The general expectation in the industry is that 7 nm is the effective end of the road; 5 nm is seen as not much more than a useless stunt.
However, there's another problem with shrinking feature sizes, a point of diminishing returns that has already been passed. The halving of feature sizes implies halving chip costs: given a particular chip design, smaller features mean more chips per silicon wafer, meaning cheaper chips. Since leads and contacts can't shrink like transistors, as feature sizes get smaller, it gets more difficult to increase the number of devices per wafer proportionally. That's not such a big deal, since there's a more significant problem: as feature sizes get smaller, chip yields -- the number of working devices per wafer -- start to fall off, making the chips more expensive.
Industry observers believe that, for a given chip design, it is cheapest to produce it at 28 nm. That's not just because of the yield problem, but because the equipment needed to fabricate chips with smaller features gets very expensive. There's also the fact that memory cells and input-output (I/O) circuitry don't scale down as easily as logic blocks. Given one-chip CPUs that include memory and all the I/O devices necessary to run a phone or tablet, moving beyond 28 nm technology doesn't buy that much. It seems we've already more or less hit the limit.
Does that mean electronics has hit a brick wall? Hardly. Even if feature sizes can't get much smaller and chip densities can't get greater, there's so much room to move in the microscale that the number of options for new device technologies and architectures is open-ended. For example, a technology known at POET, developed over the past 20 years by a team at the University of Connecticut, uses gallium arsenide to combine optics and electronics in a single chip. The developers claim considerable improvements in power, speed and cost over today's silicon-based chips. There's also a lot of work in graphene-based devices. Now, instead of just throwing more transistors at a task, we have to work smarter and design the tools more cleverly.
In addition, power consumption can be shrunk, and obviously production costs can be reduced, with new schemes emerging for fabricating entire systems of chips and other components as single modules. The emergence of a global network of personal devices linked into a cloud-computing infrastructure also means that any one smartphone or tablet can leverage off of enormous computing power that is continually growing; a user can upload difficult tasks to the cloud, or download solutions from libraries or services maintained in the cloud. On the other side of the coin, we won't be so stuck on the treadmill of buying a new computer every five years or so; they'll be more built to last, possibly with modular designs for phones and tablets that can be updated or repaired just by buying a new module. If chips aren't going to get much bigger in the future, that will still leave us with the endless task of figuring out what we can do with the technology.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* CHINA & THE INTERNET (5): Had it not been for China's microblogs, Chinese citizens wouldn't have paid much attention to Pan Shiyi -- a filthy-rich Chinese property mogul who helped found the SOHO China development group. Pan could certainly be found in the national WHO'S WHO register; but that would make him no more of public interest than any other "fat cat", and China's got plenty of those.
What put Pan on the map was that he was one of the first microbloggers on Sina Weibo, China's answer to Twitter, when it started up in 2009. He acquired a following, though he wasn't one to rock the boat, boasting the next year that not one of his tweets had ever been deleted. However, in the face of Beijing's choking smog, worrying in particular of his two sons, Pan felt compelled to speak out: "You need to breathe, and so do I. State leaders need to breathe, and so do ordinary people."
That remark by itself would have likely got past the censors, but Pan was data-oriented. The US embassy in Beijing monitored a hazardous category of air pollutants known as "PM2.5" -- particulates less than 2.5 microns in diameter -- issuing the current level every hour on Twitter. Chinese authorities had leaned on the embassy to shut up, but it wasn't that big a concern, since Twitter was locked out by the Great Firewall, and so most Chinese didn't see the particulate data. Or at least they didn't until Pan managed to get his hands on the PM2.5 feed in 2011, and began to repost it on Sina Weibo.
Pan didn't think even that would cause him trouble -- it was just measurement data -- but then, in November 2011, he conducted a poll among his followers, asking them if they wanted a government PM2.5 standard within one year; two years; or not at all. The environmental-protection bureau in Beijing called Pan in for a dressing-down, and slapped a temporary news blackout on him.
Despite the crackdown, Pan's message was getting out. On 7 February 2012, several Beijing papers ran a common story on their front page: that managing PM2.5 pollution should be Beijing's priority in that year. There was absolutely no way the news media would provide that level of coverage except if it were approved from the top, and Pan later found out that President Hu Juntao himself had given the go-ahead. Beijing had begun releasing its PM2.5 levels the month before, and by the fall the city had its own PM2.5 standard. At the beginning of 2013, 73 other Chinese cities began to release their PM2.5 data as well.
That was just in time for a ghastly session of smog that began on 12 January 2013, which suffocated Beijing and other Chinese cities for days. The news media gave it front-page attention -- who would be so dim as to think it could be concealed? -- while millions of outraged tweets circulated online. On 29 January 2013, Pan took another poll, asking whether China should have a clean-air act: 99% of his followers voted YES. The authorities were now declaring they were convinced of the need for action.
Such online mass actions are unusual; as elsewhere, Sina Weibo and other Chinese microblogs are a diversion, the collective online mind having a short attention span, going off in all directions at once. To the extent that any focus can be picked out of the noise, it may be manufactured by online pirates who've set up armies of fake "followers" to promote brands, celebrities, anyone with an agenda who can pay. For example, Sina Weibo has more than 500 million registered accounts, but it appears the majority of them are robots, tweeting away to game the system. Sina said that the number of daily active users at the end of 2012 was only 46 million.
As Pan showed, sometimes microblogging can still make a difference. Chinese tweets have an advantage over those in the West: they're limited to 140 characters, but those are Chinese characters, typically two characters per word, meaning a tweet carries well more information than one in roman text. Pan has become a famous face in China, with the environmental officials who had chewed him out now publicly consulting with him. The authorities don't block his tweets, though Pan has been very careful to focus on air pollution and leave other topics alone, saying:
Weibo can be used as a tool to participate, to express one's opinions on many things, all kinds of things. However, if you talk about food safety, you will touch on the interest of food manufacturers, and that's not safe for you. It would be even less safe if you talk about Chinese politics, democracy and freedom. Social reform and religious issues are also not safe topics given the current social environment in China.
Pan, in short, is aware of how big his cage is. His caution speaks volumes about the government's control of the flow of information in China. However, Pan still remains excited about what microblogging is doing for China -- saying that China used to be like a cold piece of iron, now gone hot. Behind the veil, the authorities appear to suspect he's right, and are not happy with the idea at all. Pan is honestly trying to play nice with the authorities, and they've been compelled by public pressure to play nice with him, but they are most uneasy with the situation. [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* THE COLD WAR (70): Soviet Premier Khrushchev was personally excited at the prospect of the USSR putting a satellite into orbit; he took great stock in technology and dramatic public gestures. To an extent, however, he was just looking for something to cheer about, the headaches of the chaotic previous year still lingering. One of the pains was the strain in the relationship relationship between the USSR and China, which was getting worse. Chinese Foreign Minister Zhou Enlai visited the USSR, Poland, and Hungary in January 1957; on his return, he handed Mao Zedong a report, dated 24 January 1957, that was critical in tone of Soviet leadership, and included a number of astute observations:
In my view, the mistakes of the Soviet Communist leadership arise from erroneous thinking. They often set the interests of the Soviet Communist Party ahead of their brotherly parties; they often set their own interests as the leaders ahead of those of the party. As a result, they often fail to overcome subjectivity, narrow-mindedness, and emotion when they think about and resolve problems; they often fail to link together the interests of the above-stated sides in an objective, farsighted, and calm fashion. Although they may correct one mistake, they are not free of making others. Sometimes they admit that they made mistakes; but it does not mean that they fully come to grips with their mistakes, for they merely take a perfunctory attitude toward these mistakes.
... [At a dinner party] on the 17th, Khrushchev again raised the Stalin issue. Spelling out a good deal of inappropriate words [it seems that was Zhou's way of saying "baloney'], however, he made no self-criticism. We then pushed him by pointing out that, given the development of Stalin's authoritarianism, ossified way of thinking, and arrogant and conceited attitude over twenty years, how can those comrades, especially those [Soviet] Politburo members, who had worked with Stalin, decline to assume any responsibility? They then admitted that Stalin's errors came about gradually; had they not been afraid of getting killed, they could have at least done more to restrict the growth of Stalin's mistakes than to encourage him. However, in open talks, they refused to admit this.
... I believe that some of the Soviet leaders have revealed a utilitarian attitude toward Sino-Soviet relations. ... I decided not to raise our requests concerning the abolition of the long-term supply and purchase contracts for the Five-Year Plan, the [Soviet] experts, and [Soviet] aid and [Sino-Soviet] collaboration on nuclear energy and missile development. ... [I wanted to] avoid impressing upon them that we were taking advantage of their precarious position by raising these issues. These issues can be raised later or simply dropped.
... In spite of all of the above, however, Sino-Soviet relations are far better now than during Stalin's era. ... the majority of the Soviet people love China and feel happy for the Chinese people's achievements and growth in strength. Their admiration and friendship with the Chinese people are being enhanced on a daily basis.
However, [Soviet leadership is], on the one hand, extremely conceited, blinded by lust for gain, lacking far-sightedness, and knowing little the ways of the world, some of their leaders have hardly improved themselves even with the several rebuffs they have met in the past year. On the other hand, however, they appear to lack confidence and suffer from inner fears and thus tend to employ the tactics of bluffing or threats in handling foreign affairs or relations with other brotherly parties. Although they did sometimes speak from the bottom of their hearts while talking with us, they nevertheless could not get down from their high horse. ... Therefore, changes on their part can only be achieved [by China] through a well-planned, step-by-step, persistent, patient, long-term persuasion.
Zhou could have hardly characterized the insecure, blustering Khrushchev better -- and Zhou also conceded that Stalin had not been such a great friend to the Chinese Communists. Where the Chinese foreign minister was not apt was in thinking that the relationship between Moscow and Beijing, as it stood, had anywhere to go but down. Certainly, Zhou's condescending attitude towards Soviet leadership suggested that their Chinese counterparts were on a "high horse" of their own, and were no more cognizant of the fact themselves.
That was underlined on 27 February 1957, when the Chinese press reported a speech by Mao titled "On The Correct Handling Of Contradictions Among The People" that encouraged the public to speak their minds, the speech including a poem that asserted: "Let a hundred flowers bloom; let a hundred schools of thought contend!" Mao, it appears, had been more influenced by the shake-up in Soviet Communism during 1956 than he was eager to admit -- though cautious Chinese citizens might well have noted that Mao made it clear that public criticisms should be "constructive"; they should not be "hateful and destructive".
One might easily suspect that Mao had idiosyncratic notions of what was "constructive" and what was "hateful and destructive". Indeed, according to his personal physician, Li Zhisui, Mao expected that the criticisms would serve his own purposes, saying that Mao was taking "a gamble, based on a calculation that genuine counter-revolutionaries were few, that rebels ... had been permanently intimidated into silence, and that other intellectuals would follow Mao's lead, speaking out only against the people and practices Mao himself most wanted to subject to reform." The results of the "Hundred Flowers Campaign" would not meet any such expectations. [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* GIMMICKS & GADGETS: As discussed by an article in BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK ("Now Hear This" by David Gauvey Herbert, 9 March 2015), the hearing aid has moved into the wireless age, in the form of bluetooth-enabled "personal sound amplification products (PSAP)". Wireless hearing aids are not all that new, but low power bluetooth links allow them to last much longer without recharging, and more importantly provide a high level of connectivity. A PSAP user can get a feed straight from a smartphone, for conversations, or listening to music and podcasts; a smartphone can also support a directional mike, or others can be handed a bluetooth-enabled mike for direct conversation.
Conventional hearing aids tend to be expensive, partly because they are regulated, and partly because they are proprietary technologies; due to the expense, many people who are hard of hearing don't wear one. PSAPs typically cost an order of magnitude less, but because of their unregulated status, they aren't marketed to the deaf. The result is that they have been slow to catch on, another big reason being that the average buyer of a hearing aid is 71 years old, and generally not very technology-savvy. PSAP makers feel their product can really help the hard of hearing, and are trying to unravel the regulatory tangle.
* A note from WIRED Online discussed the latest gimmick in the "internet of things": the "Trakdot", which plugs luggage to be hauled by airliners into the network. Given how painful it can be to lose luggage, it doesn't take much thought to see how potentially useful the Trakdot is.
The Trakdot is a pocket-sized module, powered by two AA cells -- note that lithium-ion cells shouldn't be used, airlines see them as a fire hazards. It's stuck inside luggage and then tracks the movements of the luggage, reporting back to the owner via text, email, the Trakdot website, or the Trackdot app.
On buying a Trakdot, the owner signs up for an account on the website, then registers the Trakdot by the ID code marked on it. The Trakdot app can be downloaded to a smartphone or tablet to do the same job. In either case, the owner then provides a cellphone number for location updates. On arrival at the airport, the user turns on the Trakdot and then stows it in the luggage. On take-off, the Trakdot senses the long acceleration and goes into a sleep mode, both to conserve battery power and to keep the FAA happy. It then senses the long deceleration on landing, turns itself back on, and reports its location: "Your Trakdot device: Suitcase #1 is in Orlando International Airport (MCO)."
It will send updates on a selected interval, indicating its location and power reserves. The website or app records a history of the movements of the Trakdot. Incidentally, it uses cell towers for location, not GPS, which gives enough resolution to locate what airport it's at. It has a bluetooth link to help find luggage within the airport. The Trakdot costs about $50 USD, which isn't too bad -- but since it's a sort of robot cellphone, of course it has a yearly service fee. It would seem to pay off the best for frequent travelers.
* The notion of "ad-hoc wireless networks" -- wireless data networks in which nodes communicate with each other directly, instead of through centralized servers -- was discussed here in 2010. A note from SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN Online ("Future Cell Phones Will Make Emergency Calls Even When the Network Goes Down" by Corinne Iozzio, 15 july 2014), Qualcomm and other wireless companies have been working on scheme, named "Proximity Services" AKA "LTE Direct", that will allow cellphones to talk to each other even if the cellular network goes down.
In normal cellular communications, cellphones link into the phone network through tower base stations that each handle their own geographic "cells". Under LTE Direct, in an emergency cellphones will be able to hook up with each other on the same radio band as 4G LTE transmissions. Users will be able to hook up with each other or first responders if they are no more than 500 meters (1,100 feet) away; messages may also be relayed from phone to phone over longer distances. LTE Direct requires modification of network, and it will arrive.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* ROBOCAR REVOLUTION? As discussed by an article from WIRED Online blogs ("Self-Driving Cars Will Make Us Want Fewer Cars" by Alex Davies, 9 March 2015), consulting firm McKinsey & Company has released a report on the future of robot cars. The first phase, as the report has it, is almost upon us: in three to five years, cars will be able to handle freeway cruising and congested commuting traffic, but won't be able to navigate through city streets. The current wisdom is that fully robotic cars should be available in the 2040 timeframe -- maybe earlier, maybe later.
The McKinsey report envisions the revolution as involving three phases, the first phase being the present. Self-driving vehicles are already at work in industrial and other controlled environments, such as farms and mines, but passenger vehicles are still in the experimental and prototype phase. Manufacturers such as Mercedes, Nissan, and Audi are expecting to have robocars capable of freeway cruising on the market by 2020.
The second phase, from 2020 to 2035, will be a period of adaptation. Regulators around the world will have to create sets of rules to define how robocars are are developed, tested, approved, and licensed. Insurance companies will have to change their basic model, from one where drivers are liable, to one where manufacturers are.
As robocars become more sophisticated, accident rates will drop, making insurance less of a burden. Even the modest accident-avoidance systems available now have had a sizeable impact: the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) reports a 7% reduction in crashes of cars that have a basic forward-collision warning system. Add in automatic braking features, says Consumer Reports, and that percentage doubles. The lower accident rates will also mean less business for repair shops, as will cars with intelligent diagnostics and downloaded updates.
It's in the third phase that the revolution really takes hold. Long-distance truckers will likely be reduced to caretakers; cabbies will be largely irrelevant. Families will have fewer cars: one car can take Alice to the market, drop Bob off at the gym, then go take Alice home, and return for Bob at a preprogrammed time. Why even own a car? On the average, they're idle 95% of the time, and they're something of a nuisance to own, what with insurance and all; a subscription service would be attractive, with Alice and Bob calling a car via smartphone when they need one.
No worries about parking, either, since once released from service, a subscription robocar would be fetched by another subscriber. The McKinsey report suggests that by 2050, we'll only need 25% of the parking space we do now. When robocars are parked, they will also be able to park themselves precisely and tightly, since nobody will have to get in or out of them -- with a corresponding reduction in door dings.
Still, people like to own cars, but if a family has one for personal use, there will be little need to own a second. Yes, a robocar will be more expensive -- ten percent more, something like that -- but the value it adds will make that a bargain. At the very least, there will be many fewer injuries and deaths, McKinsey estimating the number of crashes will drop by 90%.
Unrealistic? Even the notably conservative US National Highway Transportation Safety Administration says that robocars will provide "completely new possibilities for improving highway safety, increasing environmental benefits, expanding mobility, and creating new economic opportunities for jobs and investment."
* ED: I got to thinking about what will happen when robocars start to predominate, but manually-operated cars are still on the roads. A manually-operated car in an automated traffic flow would represent a hazard, and so the law might well require the driver to install a module that dictates how the car is driven when on controlled roads: telling the driver what speed to maintain, when lane changes are permitted, and so on. The driver would be obligated to obey, since the module would tattle on any failure to do so. The same consideration applies to motorcycles, which are obviously going to be tricky to automate, though the functionality would likely be built into a "smart helmet".
There's also going to be a transition time for the police, who are going to have problems at the outset with drivers reading or taking a nap in a car rolling down the freeway at high speed. However, there won't be much the police can do about it; if people are driving with their head leaned back, how will the police know if they are sleeping or just relaxing? If the cops stopped people who seemed to be napping, it wouldn't be like they could give them the equivalent of a breath analyzer test to see if they'd been snoozing.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* USA FREEDOM ACT: As discussed by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("Let A Little Sunshine In", 2 June 2015), on 2 June 2015, the US Senate passed the "USA Freedom Act", which replaces and updates a lapsed provision of the Patriot Act, the law that regulates US domestic intelligence operations. The USA Freedom Act had been passed by the House of Representatives the month before; there wasn't a lot of debate in the Senate, with the bill quickly passed up to President Barack Obama, who signed it into law without hesitation.
Senate hawks such as Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky), the majority leader, resisted the USA Freedom Act, saying it would hobble the defense against terrorism. Under the act, the US National Security Agency (NSA) will not be allowed to indiscriminately harvest phone-call "metadata"; however, the Feds will be able to ask the phone companies for records using a "specific selection term", on the basis of a "reasonable articulable suspicion" that the call information is linked to terrorism.
There seems to be nothing in the act to hinder phone companies from scanning their own metadata -- they're going to keep records of their calls, of course, and will extract statistics on them as their business needs demand -- and report suspicious activities to the authorities. Similarly, there is nothing to prevent the authorities from having conversations with the phone companies about what might be considered "suspicious activities". The phone companies would have every good reason to cooperate, as long as it didn't cause them troubles with their honest customers. That would be a good deal for the NSA: the agency gets much the same intelligence as before, but lets somebody else get their hands dirty.
The USA Freedom Act also has provisions to increase transparency of the "Foreign Intelligence Security Act (FISA)" court, which provides legal oversight of government surveillance and was discussed here in 2013:
All this is well and good, but how much does it really change things? Under the old system, the FISA court and the administration provided surveillance oversight as they saw fit. In the new system, the FISA court and the administration get to determine what decisions are "significant"; they will also appoint "amicus curiae" at their discretion. Activists working against state surveillance have not been impressed, blasting the "unstoppable surveillance-industrial complex".
Indeed, although Mitch McConnell condemned the USA Freedom Act -- pushing instead to renew the Patriot Act provision -- when it became obvious as the 1 June deadline approached that wouldn't happen, he threw his weight behind the new act. Obama tweeted after the act passed the Senate: "Glad the Senate finally passed the USA Freedom Act. It protects civil liberties and our national security. I'll sign it as soon as I get it."
ED: The dispute over public surveillance takes place in a fog of law. While it's true that nobody wants the government snooping into their business, it's just as true that the government has a right to perform some degree of surveillance in the interests of public safety. If the authorities want to put surveillance cameras on every public lamp-post, there's nothing to prevent them from doing so, any more than they could be prevented from putting up lamp-posts -- though restraints on access to and use of the camera network would be called for.
In addition, though the public can sensibly argue for tighter rules, there will be no choice but to trust that the authorities will abide by the rules, with no more safeguard than to present them with penalties if they get caught breaking them. Could there be any rules that the authorities would accept that would be entirely acceptable to activists? It seems hard to think so.
Protests against government surveillance always end up being hobbled by the fact that we want open access to information for our own benefit, but not when it works against us. Similarly, while we impose more transparency rules on the authorities, we want to limit transparency for ourselves, even though the law insists on transparency in banking or other commercial transactions. It's less a case of the White Hats versus the Black Hats, than of the right hand versus the left.
I obtained a particularly convoluted view of the issue when I was writing my Kennedy assassination document, and got familiar with the conspiracy dimension. The conspiracists would post to public forums, and express outrage at the idea that the authorities might read their postings, calling it spying. Spying? They wrote their posts to public forums where everyone could see them; they might as well have put them up on billboards on their front lawn -- except that wouldn't have global visibility.
The supreme irony is that for all the hot revolutionary rhetoric of conspiracists, they're harmless, inflating themselves with theatrics, but careful to do nothing that would get themselves into trouble. Criminals or terrorists who have reason to fear the authorities would never be so indiscreet. The authorities are perfectly aware that conspiracists are harmless, that all they amount to is a distraction. Much fuss is made about the volumes of data that the authorities can inspect; to be sure, there is a potential for abuse, but at the same time, those volumes of data put the authorities, in their search for threats to society, in the position of hunting for very small needles in a very big haystack.
That leads to the question of just how much broad surveillance really accomplishes. What isn't a question is that the internet is insecure. It is futile to push for robust privacy in the online world. Any time we go online, no matter what legal safeguards are implemented, we will assume, we will have to assume, somebody could be listening. We can use encryption if we feel the need, and the authorities don't have a very good case for banning it -- how big a threat the authorities are is arguable, it's less arguable that the Black Hats are the bigger threat -- but it doesn't render us invisible, and for casual communications, it tends to be more bother than it's worth. Welcome to the 21st century.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* CHINA & THE INTERNET (4): The internet became commercially available in China in early 1995. There were less than a hundred thousand users at the outset, but from the beginning the government was apprehensive, blocking foreign websites. By 1997, reports were leaking out of the authorities attempting to obtain filtering software. The next year, China held the first known trial for an internet political crime, jailing Lin Hai, a software engineer, for sending 30,000 Chinese e-mail addresses to a pro-democracy magazine based in America. He was the first of many to Chinese to be locked up for indiscreet internet activities.
In 2005, the authorities decided the internet was going out of control and more effort was required to leash it in. Along with surveillance, censorship, and carefully tuned repression, the government decided to actively direct discourse on the internet. The authorities started to hire online commentators to steer conversations in the right direction, who became known as the "50-Cent Party", since they were paid 50 Chinese cents per post. In January 2007, President Hu Juntao gave a speech to the Politburo calling for the government to "assert supremacy over online public opinion" and "study the art of online guidance". Controlling the internet was not enough; Hu said the party also needed to "use" the internet.
The arrival of Twitter-like microblogging services in China, and particularly of Sina Weibo in August 2009, forced the authorities and their web commentators to further ramp up their activities. Officials have tried, but so far failed, to compel all users to register for online accounts with their real names. Social media also made the government even more concerned about the threat of "hostile foreign forces" online, reinforcing the Great Firewall to block out threatening sites from outside.
Thanks to long experience, China's internet managers have fine-tuned their ability to quickly react to events that threaten social stability:
Response time to the appearance of disruptive messages can be very rapid, minutes or even seconds. Managers who doesn't respond quickly enough are ordered to sit through indoctrination sessions that spotlight their failings, and exhort them to do better in the future; it's much gentler than the iron fist, but it's damned humiliating, intimidating, and works.
Despite all the effort, bad news still gets out, being more obscured and muted than rendered invisible. Big trouble tends to crop up every few years:
In 2012, rumors circulated of an attempted coup in Beijing; and so on. With each incident, the government has learned to react more swiftly and capably to the next incident. The need to suppress news of outbreaks of disease and train crashes suggests the insecurity of the government, which appears neurotic in its ever-escalating attempts to control the flow of information.
Although the government prefers the fine-tuned approach, heavy-handed tactics remain an option -- in response to the 2009 riots in Xinjiang, the internet for the entire province was shut down for months, and only gradually restored to service. However, from a technical point of view shutting down one isolated province was easy, or at least far easier than shutting down all of China. From the point of view of party ideology, doing so would be the internet equivalent of going nuclear. The party's insistence on its authority is one side of a coin, the other side being the party's faith in the legitimacy of its rule. By shutting off communications to all of China's citizens, the party would be suggesting it was not really in service to the people. [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* THE COLD WAR (69): Although the US Congress was not supportive of Eisenhower's push for aid to developing nations, it did confirm the president's Middle East policy, referred to as the "Eisenhower Doctrine". As per Congressional approval of Eisenhower's policy in the first Quemoy-Matsu crisis, the president was given his discretion to intervene in the Middle East, with a particular eye towards countering Soviet ambitions there. Of course, as was pointed out by skeptical members of Congress, a president did have authority to take military actions on his own responsibility in response to a crisis -- but they would have to justified to Congress; Eisenhower wanted to ensure that he had the backing of Congress up front. He got the backing, though his request for special aid funds to the Middle East went nowhere.
As far as US relations with Europe went, considering how much trouble the 1956 Suez crisis could have created, they were remarkably harmonious. In February, Eisenhower met with European leaders, encouraging them in the establishment of a European nuclear energy program -- "Euratom" -- and in the establishment of an economic community. The president was very emphatic in his support of European unity, saying that Europe faced inevitable "deterioration and ultimate disaster" if a stronger union wasn't formed. The next month, on 25 March, Euratom and the "European Economic Community (EEC)", or "Common Market", was established at a meeting in Rome by Belgium, France, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and West Germany.
Britain did not sign the Treaty of Rome; British policy traditionally disapproved of Continental alliances that could work against British interests. The "special relationship" between the US and the UK was in full force, however, with Eisenhower and Macmillan having talks in Bermuda from 21 to 24 March. Britain was a perfect site for IRBMs: the British were already a nuclear power, and Britain was an ideal launch site for such missiles, being neither too far nor too close from the USSR. Putting them in Germany was a much more troublesome prospect. Macmillan liked the idea of IRBMs for Britain and agreed to it readily, though no details were hammered out in the meeting.
* In the meantime, American rocket designers were trying to get the missiles to fly. The first attempt to launch a Navaho had been in the previous November; it had shaken itself to pieces less than half a minute into flight. The Navaho would never fly all that well, to become known as "Never-Go Navaho", and would not go into operational service. Launches of Snark cruise missiles from Cape Canaveral, which had begun in 1953, were also not going well, with the sea downrange being referred to as "Snark-infested waters". The Air Force would eventually put it into service, but it would be then promptly withdrawn.
The first attempt to launch a Thor was on 25 January 1957, with the missile exploding after ignition; the first Jupiter launch was on 1 March, with the missile flying for over a minute, until it went up in a fireball. Nobody was overly discouraged by the failures -- all development of big rockets to that time had been troublesome, initial failures were expected. Things would be fixed, and more missiles launched.
The Soviet R-7 ICBM hadn't been got to the launchpad yet -- but Chief Rocket Designer Korolyev was equally confident of getting it to fly right. Still, he was worried that the United States would be the first to put a satellite into orbit -- and so he proposed that, instead of trying to fly the big and complicated Object D satellite, a set of two "Prosteishy Sputniks (PS / Simple Satellites)" should be quickly built, to be put into orbit as soon as the R-7 could do so. They were conceptually along the lines of von Braun's Project ORBITER, carrying no payload except a radio transmitter to announce their presence to the world. [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* SCIENCE NOTES: Researchers have been steadily churning out the codings for the complete genomes of more and more organisms. An international team of researchers has now sequenced the genome of the extinct woolly mammoth. They obtained preserved samples of the mammoths from Wrangel Island, in the Arctic Sea north of Siberia. The Wrangel mammoths were the last known surviving population, dying out only 4,000 years ago, within the limits of recorded human history. They had died out on the Siberian mainland 6,000 years earlier.
Exactly what caused the mammoths to die out remains mysterious, though the inbreeding of the small population on Wrangel Island may have been a factor there. Analysis of the genome suggested there were two major population declines -- one some 300,000 years ago, and another around 12,000 years ago, at the end of the last Ice Age, hinting that the mammoth went into decline because of environmental change. The sequencing of the mammoth genome suggests the possibility of reviving the beasts, though the researchers were careful to stay out of such speculative and controversial territory.
* As discussed by a note from AAAS SCIENCE NOW Online, it has long been known that some fungi emit a greenish glow in the dark, but nobody was quite sure why they did so. One such glowing fungi, named Neonothopanus gardneri, grows at the base of palm trees in Brazilian forests; an international group of researchers got to wondering if it glowed to attract insects that would then spread its spores.
To test the idea, they made plastic decoys of the fungus, with some of them illuminated by green LEDs, and then placed them at the base of palm trees. In five nights of observations, they counted the number of insect visitors to the dummies: 42 visitors to the glowing fakes, 12 to the ones that didn't glow. In the course of their studies, they also found that the fungus shuts down its light production during the day, obviously to save energy.
* As reported by a REUTERS dispatch ("Despite Deforestation, The World Is Getting Greener" by Alisa Tang, 30 March 2015), a new study, based on the analysis of 20 years of satellite data, shows that the world's vegetation coverage has expanded, adding nearly 4 billion tonnes of carbon to plants above ground in the decade since 2003 -- thanks to tree-planting in China, forest regrowth in former Soviet states, and more lush savannas due to higher rainfall. The increase was in spite of ongoing large-scale tropical deforestation in Brazil and Indonesia.
According to Yi Liu of the University of New South Wales, the study's lead author, the 4 billion tonne increase is tiny compared to the 60 billion tonnes of carbon released into the atmosphere by fossil fuel burning and cement production over the same period. Liu says: "From this research, we can see these plants can help absorb some carbon dioxide, but there's still a lot of carbon dioxide staying in the atmosphere. If we want to stabilize the current level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere -- and avoid the consequent impacts -- it still requires us to reduce fossil fuel emissions."
Liu had expected to find increased forests in China, which has had tree-planting projects for two to three decades, as well as on abandoned farmland in former Soviet countries. He was, however, surprised to discover the large expansion in vegetation due to higher rainfall on tropical savannas and shrublands in Australia, Africa, and South America. He warns that a return to drier conditions in those regions would quickly cancel out the gains he observed.
Louis Verchot, a research director at the Indonesia-based Center for International Forestry Research, says Liu's findings are "by and large what we would expect in the warmer and wetter world that results from climate change. As ice and permafrost melt, they are being replaced by vegetation, and the tree line is moving north as the Arctic warms."COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* SPACE SOLAR POWER PERSEVERES: The notion of "space solar power (SSP)", last discussed here in 2009, made its first splash in the 1970s, to go flat in the face of its technical impracticality. Advocates envisioned huge solar power satellites (SPS) beaming their power down to Earth from geostationary orbit, but on examination, there was no way it could be done at reasonable cost. SSP, it seems, was a technology of the future, and always would be. As discussed by a set of articles from AVIATION WEEK ("Sun Power" by Frank Morring JR, 9 June 2014), a cadre of SSP enthusiasts remain undiscouraged, seeking ways to make the impractical practical. It is, after all, an attractive idea to capture a bit of the energy continually poured out by the Sun and beam it to the Earth, providing clean power all day, every day of the year.
There is, however, no way to build an operational SSP station at reasonable cost with today's technology. Michael Griffin, previously an administrator of the US National Aeronautics & Space Administration (NASA), commented: "I have studied the space solar power thing, and I cannot figure out how solar power in orbit can overcome the transportation costs relative to solar power on the ground."
The barriers to building an economically practical SPS seem huge, but advocates are working to see if they can knock them down. Among them is John Mankins, previously a researcher for NASA who worked on advanced space technologies, now CEO of Mankins Space Technology (MST). Mankins has devised an architecture for an SSP system, the "Solar Power Satellite via Arbitrarily Large Phased Array (SPS-ALPHA)", that he believes is up to the job:
Space solar power has as a concept never been more appealing and more promising than it is right now. [SPS-ALPHA], which exploits all of the technological advances of the past 30 years in terrestrial technology -- electronics, robotics, materials -- makes the approach to space solar power both affordable and scalable.
Mankins believes the key to a workable SSP system is incrementalism. He doesn't want to build a full-blown SPS right away, preferring instead to develop a "level-1" SPS to drive power to communications satellites, allowing them to allocate more mass to payload: "Imagine a satellite which costs no more than today's communications satellites, but has ten times more bandwidth, ten times more power, ten times more revenue for the same spacecraft."
SPS-ALPHA is organized around a hexagonal frame with communications links that he calls the "HexBus". The HexBus provides a structure on which standardized, mass-produced modules -- a small set of interconnections, auxiliary structural elements, reflectors, solar power units, and microwave transmitting units -- can be assembled into arrays of any desired size:
There is no hard limit on the size of the SPS-ALPHA array. Mankins believes that if launch costs drop to less than $1,000 USD per kilogram to geostationary orbit, SPS-ALPHA will be economically feasible. With improvements in launch systems, power satellite technology, and manufacturing technology, Mankins believes an SPS could deliver power for 9 cents per kilowatt-hour -- in the ballpark with coal power. The power satellites could also be placed in orbit around the Moon or Mars to support surface installations.
Mankins isn't the only visionary working on SSP; research is being conducted, if on a modest basis of funding, all over the world. NASA is doing little right now, but the US Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) is evaluating power modules for an SSP -- with solar cells on one side and a power converter / microwave transmitter on the other -- in a small thermal vacuum chamber. The NRL is interested in SSP because, as discussed in the previous article run here on the concept, the US military sees SSP as a possible solution to the problem of providing power to forward operational bases.
Other SSP research is being conducted in China, Japan, and Europe. It is, however, an indication of the speculative nature of SSP that China, which is confronted with a painful energy crunch, still spends only about $30 million USD a year in tinkering with it. That exceeds spending by Japan, which is faced with a similar energy crunch; and Europe -- where studies are being performed by the European Space Research & Technology Center (ESTEC) at Noordwijk in the Netherlands. For the moment, SSP seems like a blue-sky proposition -- but advocates keep coming up with new schemes, and someday they may find a formula that could end up in orbit.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* NOT STICKING AROUND: As discussed by an article from THE NEW YORK TIMES ("With New Nonstick Coating, The Wait, And Waste, Is Over" by Kenneth Chang, 23 March 2015), squeezing sticky stuff, like glue, out of a tube or squeeze bottle has an unavoidable drawback: the glue sticks to the container, and it's not possible to get it all out.
At least, it used to be unavoidable. LiquiGlide of Cambridge, Massachusetts -- a startup established by Kripa K. Varanasi, a professor of mechanical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and J. David Smith, one of his grad students -- has developed a "no-stick" coating that ensures sticky stuff won't stick to the container, not only reducing waste, but making it less work to squeeze out. Elmer's Products INC has now signed an exclusive licensing agreement with LiquiGlide for the use of such coatings in glue containers.
LiquiGlide has also licensed its technology to a packaging company in Australia, the intent being to create no-stick paint cans. The idea is to make sure that paint won't stick to the lid and dry; the dried bits fall into the paint and not only end up as bumps on a painted wall, but can also clog painting equipment.
It's surprising how much we waste because we can't get it out of the container. Tests by Consumer Reports in 2009 that we waste up to a quarter of skin lotion; 16% of laundry detergent; and 15% of condiments, such as mustard and ketchup. We can get more out, but it requires effort that increases until the returns are too meager to be worth it. The problem with mayonnaise, toothpaste, and the like is that they are what is known as "Bingham plastics" -- named after Eugene Bingham, a chemist who described their mechanical properties. The term does not mean they are plastics like styrene or polyethylene; it just means that they are highly viscous materials that won't flow, except under strong pressure. Varanasi says: "It's pretty crazy, getting mayonnaise out."
Varanasi was not originally interested in making it easier to get mayo out of a container; he was thinking of bigger things, such as preventing ice buildup on airplane wings, or allowing more efficient pumping of crude oil and other viscous liquids. When water or other liquids flow through a pipe, the layer of liquid next to the pipe wall typically sticks, not moving. Farther from the pipe wall, the liquid flows, fastest at the center. The problem is known as the "no-slip boundary condition."
Neelesh A. Patankar -- a professor of mechanical engineering at Northwestern University, not involved with LiquiGlide -- has also conducted research on the flow problem: "Different layers of water are sliding past one another, and therefore there is friction, which is viscosity, and that is why you need to pump it. What people have tried to do is, can we have something between the solid surface and the liquid which will help the liquid slide?"
Patankar and other scientists have been investigating "superhydrophobic" surfaces. A hydrophobic surface repels water; a superhydrophobic surface, as its name suggests, does so with a vengeance. Inspired in part by lotus leaves, the surface of a superhydrophobic material looks rough, at least under a microscope. Water rolls up into balls, sitting on the tips of the rough surface, but mostly on air trapped between the droplet and the rough surface. The droplets roll off easily.
There has been some commercial use of superhydrophobic technology -- but the microscopic roughness can be damaged, and then water flows in, displacing the pockets of air, and sticks to the no-longer-slippery surface. Since air dissolves into water, superhydrophobic surfaces can also lose slipperiness when submerged for long periods.
LiquiGlide's technology gets around this problem by coating the textured surface with a lubricant. It's a straightforward idea: the lubricant binds more strongly to the textured surface than to the liquid, and that allows the liquid to slide on a layer of lubricant instead of being pinned against the surface, while the textured surface keeps the lubricant from slipping away. The company has a range of schemes for the textured layer and the lubricant to fit the properties of different liquids; for example, for food applications, the coatings are derived from edible materials. LiquiGlide is not revealing any details.
Varanasi got interested in packaging applications when his wife was having trouble getting honey out of a bottle, and asked him if, as an expert on slipperiness, he couldn't do something about it. At the time, MIT was sponsoring a $100,000 USD contest for imaginative entrepreneurial ideas; Varanasi and Smith came up with a prototype no-stick ketchup bottle. They got a runner-up award, and then established LiquiGlide.
A mayo bottle could be coming in 2015 or early in 2016, while no-stick toothpaste tubes might be out by 2017. Ketchup manufacturers haven't shown much interest so far, because it's not as sticky. However, if the LiquiGlide scheme is cheap and reliable, it could eventually become all but universal. The firm is also exploring the industrial applications originally envisioned, including coatings for petroleum storage tanks and pipelines. That could not only reduce the energy needed to push materials through the pipes, but also speed cleaning of tanks, with fewer chemicals. LiquiGlide is now expanding its operation.
ED: Being inclined to thrift, I tend to be persistent in draining the last dregs out of a squeeze bottle or tube. Eventually, it gets to feeling absurd to bother; I generally continue somewhat beyond that point.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* ANOTHER MONTH: I took my routine road trip from Loveland, Colorado, to Spokane, Washington, in May. It was nothing much beyond routine, though this time I decided to make the outbound trip -- 1,795 kilometers (1,115 miles) -- in one day. It wasn't just that I wanted to save the cost of a night in a hotel, though that was a factor, it was also that I wanted to cut a day off the trip time. It took some advance planning, running a short night once a month for the previous few months to see how I could cope with it, making sure I got plenty of sleep a week ahead of time; then getting to bed early and getting a bit over five hours of sleep the night before.
I set out from Loveland at 2:00 AM, following a carefully-calculated trip schedule with checkpoints. The schedule was as conservative as I could make it, at least considering that I had to make good time, and even factored in two 15-minute naps. I didn't have to take the naps, it all went well, and I got into Spokane at 7:30 PM, after 17.5 hours on the road. I wasn't even noticeably blown the next day. I had to count that as a very successful effort.
The following day in Spokane was pleasant, if not greatly memorable. I set off on the return journey the next morning; I was going to take two days going back to Colorado, the idea of running two short nights so close together being obviously impractical, indeed unsafe. I was also taking the longer way back, via Salt Lake City. I had last been there in 2013, and as discussed then, that exercise had been a frustrating bust, leaving me with little desire to return. However, one of the problems was that the Hogle Zoo in SLC had been thoroughly torn up by construction, turning it into something of a madhouse; I got to wondering if the work had been completed, and checked online to find that it had.
That made me mildly curious about what the new environments in the zoo looked like. SLC wasn't that far out of the way, I could just drop in, take some photos, and be on my way -- to hell with the rest of SLC. My trip plan put me in Idaho Falls, Idaho, in the afternoon for a night stop; I made good time, getting me there before the little Idaho Falls Zoo closed. I got a few good photos, and had some particular fun in the petting zoo. They had a two-month-old dwarf Nigerian billy goat who was a glutton for affection; I picked him up and a zookeeper took a shot for me.
He had a sister about a year older who wanted some attention, too, so she just butted him out of the way. I also got a fair shot of a snow leopard, something I didn't have; it was behind a wire mesh fence, with a large mesh, and I had to take some care to frame its head through one of the mesh cells, holding my camera at arm's length so I could get a fit.
I didn't spend much time at the zoo, going to my hotel on the east side of town. Idaho Falls is a nice place, appears to be booming; the area where I was rooming for the night was all new construction, with a big shopping mall. I walked around the mall in search of a place to get a Milky Way chocolate-caramel bar -- I'd got to the point on the trip of often picking one up at a fuel stop. It took a while to find a supermarket to buy one, but it was a nice walk. I thought the wind turbines in the hills beyond city limits were a nice touch.
The next morning, I got on the road to SLC; I was careless, thinking that since I had been there before I could find my way around on the freeways easily enough, but I should have scribbled out a quick map; I got confused on the highway numbers and took a wrong exit. Not a real problem, I only lost about five minutes, but I won't be so careless in the future. The visit to the zoo was okay, nothing spectacular; I got a few shots, and then was on my way east to Colorado. It was worth the side trip, but in part just to ensure that I won't go back there again. I actually enjoyed Idaho Falls more.
My trip plan specified precise fuel stops, so I got off the interstate in Evanston, just across the Wyoming state line, to tank up, and eat supper at a McDonald's. I went to the head and recalled from a stop a few years' back at the same outlet: "Oh yeah, this is the place where they have a TV just above the urinals!"
The TV was gone; it seems the management realized it wasn't a good idea. It felt like an invasion of privacy of sorts, like having a window in a lavatory. In any case, I got back to Loveland at a reasonable hour. On tallying my expenses on my trip spreadsheet, I found I'd come in way under budget, and I hadn't been expecting that it would be very expensive in the first place. It wasn't much of a trip, but it didn't cost me much either, so I was very happy with it. Doing a carefully-scheduled short night was a good trick; I'll have to keep it in my pocket for future trips.
* My ebook sales have gone soft over the past two months, which was unsettling, since I've been adding titles. Was I saturating the market? That seemed implausible, since my ebooks are not being promoted; I'm not driving demand, I get sales as demand allows, which I doubt would decline over time. In fact, given that ebooks are a generally growing market, I would think sales would be growing -- and as I add titles, and they remain on the market for longer, I might be expecting a gradual upward trend from that, too.
Was it more competition from ebook self-publishers? That seemed very unlikely, even though it appears the number of such titles is growing rapidly: I only have to worry about competition from ebooks on the same subjects, and that's not much to worry about. My pricing is competitive, and I believe I can out-write most, if not all, of the competition.
Finally, I spotted a blog posting by an ebook writer, who had got to wondering if his own sales were seasonal. He plotted them out, to find they peaked in December and January; went down to about 50% through July; went back to 100% in August, then declined to 75% in September; went back to 50% in October and November; and then the cycle began again. That was only one set of data, but then I found a chart of bookstore sales based on US census office data, accumulated from 2004 into 2013, and got effectively the same pattern.
I'm now somewhat reassured, if not completely so, not having enough experience to know if the stats I found mean anything; I will be unsurprised, though pained, if sales don't shoot back up in August. The sales pattern is puzzling -- not the December & January peak, people buy for the holidays and when days are short and dark; but why the peak in August and September? Summer holidays? Back to school?
* Indeed, publishing ebooks has been an interesting education in practical probability. David Hume once observed that, since we necessarily see the world as operating by regular rules, we'd never be able to learn from experience if we didn't assume so, nothing actually happens by chance. For every thing that happens -- at least in the macroscale world, Hume didn't know anything about quantum physics, not that it changes his argument at all -- it is the result of a causal chain of events. However, Hume being a sensible person, he immediately added that our usual ignorance of those causal chains means we see most events as happening by chance. In other words, all a chance event amounts to is one we don't see coming.
With a potential market of tens of millions of Amazon ebook buyers, and with no promotion that amounts to much, effectively my sales are, as far as I can see, by chance -- but not always so. After I released my little Hume biography, I got a burst of about five sales of it, including more sales on a single day than on any other day to date, and then few sales after that. I had no doubt that was due to "word of mouth", somebody tipping off others to the book, though I had no way to test the idea.
I also find it interesting to follow the daily patterns of sales. For a week or so, I sold precisely one ebook every day, which I found unlikely. It was, in the sense that it hasn't happened again; I'll get a regular sales pattern in short bursts, and then go back to an unpredictable variation from day to day. There's a tale that when financier J. Pierpont Morgan was asked what the market would do next, he replied: "Fluctuate."
* Thanks to three readers for their donations to support the websites last month. It is very much appreciated.COMMENT ON ARTICLE