* 23 entries including: Cold War (series), chicken domestication (series), China & the internet (series), hype cycle, 5G phones, Kiribatis rising above climbing seas, death sentences in the USA, China in Africa, more on turbochargers, studies of robotaxi utility, & progress towards climate change pact.
* NEWS COMMENTARY FOR JULY 2015: After 20 months of negotiations, including a fair amount of overtime, on 14 July 2015, Iran agreed to a deal with the "P5+1 group" of world powers -- the US, UK, France, China, and Russia, plus Germany -- to restrain its nuclear program, in return for the lifting of crippling sanctions.
The deal involves constraints on the uranium enrichment facilities at Natanz and Fordo; a drastic reduction in the Iranian uranium stockpile, with limits on enrichment levels; redesign of the reactor at Arak so it can't produce weapons-grade plutonium; and open access to sites by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) -- though the judgement of an arbitration panel may be required for access to military sites. Sanctions will not be lifted until the IAEA confirms that Iran has implemented its part of the bargain.
The arms embargo will be retained for five years, with a ban on ballistic missile technology to continue for up to eight years. The deal is not indefinite, with Iran in principle free to go its merry way in no more than 15 years; but the belief is that, if the Iranians become convinced they doesn't need the Bomb to ensure national security, they won't be inclined to go through all the expense and trouble of developing one. The Bomb, after all, is a useless weapon in any tactical terms, and comes with at least as many liabilities as advantages. Besides, if Iran does go nuclear, nobody could have any doubt that sanctions will be imposed again, and they weren't any fun the first time around.
The deal with Iran is an historic achievement for the Obama Administration, on the same level as the ObamaCare national health plan. Not everybody is happy about it, of course; the Israelis have blasted the deal, one minister saying that it gave Iran "a free pass in developing nuclear weapons." That was to be expected, while the inspection components of the deal suggest that it's hardly a "free pass".
Congressional Republicans may yet scuttle the deal, but the smart money is that they won't; for all their complaints, they've never been able to realistically propose a better deal, and they know there's no public support for war. They will need a two-thirds majority to override a presidential veto, and it's unlikely they'll get it. Chris Christie, Republican governor of New Jersey and a presidential hopeful, said that he would not seek to overturn the deal -- realizing the obvious fact that, whatever its limitations, it is much better than the alternatives.
The Saudis and America's other Sunni allies aren't so afraid that Iran will get the Bomb; their problem is with the lifting of sanctions. The trouble, from their point of view, is that Iran will economically recover, making it a more dangerous foe in the ancient battle between Sunni and Shia for regional dominance. The White House could not dispute that, but would have to reply: "That's a separate problem." Such is international politics; and besides, a prosperous Iran, focused on regional or even global trade, may well be less inclined to stir up trouble. Overall, it's bad for business.
* In further dark comedy over the US National Security Agency (NSA) spying on the governments of American allies: as reported by THE ECONOMIST, in late June, the French government issued protests in response to a report that the NSA was monitoring the communications of French leadership. However, the French are noted for a certain realism -- some might unkindly call it "cynicism" -- and the complaints had the sound of: "We are shocked! Shocked! Deeply shocked!"
Philippe Hayez, a former French intelligence officer, commented that the indignation "is surprising, because political authorities know their communications are intercepted." The French ambassador to Washington tweeted that "all diplomats live with the certainty that their communications are tapped." Diplomatic missions perform some degree of intelligence gathering as a normal practice, and so they are kept under some degree of observation by host countries as a normal practice. There is nothing that resembles a higher authority to set and enforce rules in international relations, and so the only rules observed are those established by mutual convention -- "gentlemen's agreements" that are ambiguous, and not all that consistently observed.
The French are very aware of US surveillance activities, because the two countries cooperate closely on counter-terrorism and share intelligence. The French government is also known to have conducted its own mass surveillance of internet communications; and even as a fuss was being raised over NSA actions, the French Parliament was approving a new intelligence law that gave their own snoops expanded powers of surveillance and metadata analysis. The measure was pushed through in response to the vicious islamist attack on the office of the Charlie Hebdo publication in January, with strong support on both sides of the aisle. The French take terrorism deadly seriously, and they are not overly fussy about niceties in coming to grips with it.
It cannot be denied there are real issues with internet surveillance, but trying to dig into them suggests that anyone seeking a fundamental fix will become lost in a maze of shadows, ambiguity, secrecy, and contradiction; that in the end, all the authorities will do is "arrest the usual suspects", and then continue as before, with some minor changes in policy. Who could sensibly blame them? If they face being pilloried for surveillance, they know they'll get it worse if they let a terrorist attack slip through that the critics will insist they should have been able to see coming.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* GIMMICKS & GADGETS: On 13 July, Mozilla disabled the use of the Adobe Flash multimedia player software in the Firefox browser. Mozilla's action, provoked by recent security breaches due to problems in Flash, was its effective death knell, Facebook officials calling for Adobe to announce a discontinuance date. YouTube now uses HTML 5 by default for playing videos. Flash still persists for the moment, but everyone can now see the writing on the wall, the Flash bashing being loud and shrill.
As for myself, I was a bit surprised to find out Firefox had turned off Flash, but I was hardly unhappy about it. When I bring up the websites I normally check each morning, it was nothing unusual for one of them to hang up on playing Flash media, bringing my PC more or less to a halt until the Flash player timed out. Hopefully, in the HTML 5 world of the future, web browsers will be able to more consistently step on automatic playing of audio and video.
When Apple came out against Flash on its mobile systems some years ago, there was a tendency to see it as another example of Apple's imperious determination to keep their products in a walled garden -- but even then, it could be seen that Apple had a point, that Flash was klunky. It looks much more unarguably klunky now. In a few years' time, Flash is going to be all but history, and nobody but Adobe will regret its passing.
I might add that Mozilla's suspension of Flash was, to my disappointment, only temporary, amounting to no more than a warning shot. However, it did provoke me to see if there was some way I could then suppress Flash myself, and quickly found a plug-in to do the job.
* As discussed by BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK, the push towards robot cars has to overcome a huge hurdle before they become reality: they have to be properly tested to make sure they're safe, with testing being a major engineering challenge in itself.
To help meet the challenge, a 9.3 hectare (23 acre), $6.5 million USD test facility named "M City" has now come into operation at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. M City -- which is a collaboration of of the Transport Research Institute at the university, the Michigan Department of Transportation, plus major automakers like Ford and Toyota -- features 40 building facades, angled intersections, a traffic circle, a bridge, a tunnel, gravel roads, and an assortment of obstructed views. It even has a four-lane highway, with entrance and exit ramps, to test how robocars will handle merging traffic.
"Mechatronic pedestrians" will occasionally pop out to test the ability of robocars to spot them and react in time. The facades can be easily rearranged to present more challenges; the harsh Michigan winters will also stress robocars, whose sensors don't always cope well with poor visibility. In addition, M City will provide an environment for testing road infrastructure related to robocar operation, particularly wireless technology to back up or replace traditional road signs and traffic controls. Says Peter Sweatman, who oversees the exercise: "We've been inundated with requests for visits and demonstrations."
* As discussed by an article from WIRED Online blogs ("In Less Than Two Years, A Smartphone Could Be Your Only Computer" by Christina Bonnington, 10 February 2015), chip-maker ARM has now released the Cortex-A72 CPU and Mali-T880 GPU. The new CPU provides fifty times the processing power of a chip from five years ago, at only 25% of the power draw of chip from three years ago. Other new chipsets have similar specifications.
ARM officials believe that in two years, a smartphone will have all the power of desktop PC, and will be the only computing device most users will need. All that will be needed is some way to conveniently hook up the smartphone to a keyboard and full-sized display. It's not very convenient to do that right now, but in a few years it may be possible to set a smartphone down in a cradle, where it is wirelessly charged up by induction, and hooks up automatically to a display and keyboard. The desktop environment would likely have more than just the display and keyboard, providing a USB hub and mass storage as well.
Right now, even a souped-up smartphone doesn't run desktop apps very well -- but Microsoft is developing standards for "universal apps", which will automatically adjust to whatever environment they're run in. Microsoft has been bringing up the rear in the computing business for the last decade or so, but if the firm can get a leg up on the integration of mobile and desktop environments, or for that matter video players or game boxes, they may come to the forefront again. The only problem there is that Microsoft is effectively shut out of the phone market, the iPhone controlling the top end, Android controlling the bottom end; one wonders if this is a problem with any solution.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* THE HYPE CYCLE: An editorial by Babbage, THE ECONOMIST's rotating technology columnist ("Divining Reality From The Hype" 27 August 2014), focused on technology cycles and how, as they are becoming ever more rapid, they are increasingly under the influence of hype.
The pioneering analysis of the industrial technology cycle was performed by the Russian economist Nikolai Kondratieff in 1925. A "Kondratieff cycle" begins when new technologies emerge: steam, rail, steel, and telegraphy in the mid-19th century; electricity, chemicals, and the internal combustion engine in the early 20th century. Investment is pumped into the new technologies, businesses are set up to churn them out, and economic activity grows.
As the market for the new technologies becomes established, weaker businesses are forced out, with production by a set of established players. Over time, the market softens, with economic activity declining and businesses gradually dropping out. New technologies then arise that displace the old ones, and the cycle starts over. Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter described the cycle as "creative destruction".
Kondratieff observed that, in his time, such cycles lasted about 50 years or so. By the 1990s, the cycle time had been reduced to half that; and now it appears to have been cut in half again. The more technology we have developed, the more quickly new technologies emerge, all the more so because of 21st-century communications networking. Businesses have had to work ever harder to keep up with the competition.
The speed of the technology cycle in the modern day creates a number of problems, a significant one being the difficulty of determining the viability of a new technology. It is nothing new to place a bad bet on a technology that doesn't take off as expected, but it's easier than ever to make such a blunder today. Gartner, an information-technology consultancy based in Connecticut, has created a set of decision-making tools based on a "hype cycle", with the company providing assessments of where current technologies are in the cycle, and the prospects of emerging technologies at the entry threshold of the cycle. The cycle has five phases:
The market will stay on the plateau until the technology is displaced by a new one. It should be noted that most of the firms that jumped into the market early do not survive to the maturity of the market.
As a cautionary tale, Gartner points to 3D printing, showing that it actually focuses on two different markets: industry / enterprise, and consumers. They are entirely different markets. First, there are 40 or so established manufacturers selling enterprise-class 3D printers to business for $100,000 USD and up. In contrast, more than 200 start-ups are hoping to crack the consumer market with 3D printers priced as low as several hundred dollars.
In addition, 3D printing is not a single technology, instead being a combination of seven different ones, and none of it has been refined to the point where it is seriously viable for consumer use. Pete Basiliere, research vice-president at Gartner, comments: "Hype around home use obfuscates the reality that 3D printing involves a complex ecosystem of software, hardware, and materials, whose use is not as simple as hitting [the] PRINT [button] on a paper printer."
3D printing has become established in industry for making prototypes, and it is increasingly used in direct manufacturing -- for low-volume parts, or for parts difficult to make with injection molding or other traditional manufacturing processes. The most that can be done with home 3D printers at present is to turn out little plastic toys or other trinkets; it's a hobbyist market right now, in the hands of people who simply like to play with 3D printing, and don't care that they could buy such trinkets much more cheaply at a store.
Basiliere suggests that consumer 3D printing is five to ten years from widespread adoption; that may be optimistic. It is inevitable that factories will make increasing use of 3D printing, but when a home might have a 3D printer that could amount to anything more than a toy is anyone's guess.
ED: I think my favorite example of the hype cycle was the big media push over diamond-coated blades in the 1990s. I was really looking forward to having a razor that never went dull. Alas, although it appears there has been progress in diamond technology, I am still waiting.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* 5G PHONE REVOLUTION: As discussed by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("Your Phone On Steroids", 30 May 2015), new mobile phone networks arise about once every decade. The first generation, arising around 1980, was based on analog technology. The second generation, which arrived around 1990, went digital; while the 3rd generation, entering around the turn of the century, dropped circuit-switching for packet-switching: instead of keeping a channel open between two users, their conversations were broken up into chunks -- packets -- and sent interleaved with packets from other conversations.
The fourth generation, arriving about 2010, embraced internet protocol (IP) technology, giving mobile phone users at least some degree of broadband access. Mobile phone companies are now discussing what the 5th generation (5G) is going to look like, the issue being escalated by the arrival of powerful outsiders, such as Google and Facebook, into the mobile phone business.
The simple goal will be instantaneous and high data-rate communications. 3G networks still persist; they have a "latency" (response time) of up to half a second. 4G networks cut that to a tenth; 5G networks will have to cut it to a hundredth. They will also need data rates with a baseline of 1 gigabit per second (GBPS), evolving to several times that. Current 4G networks, based on "long-term evolution (LTE)" technology, can handle about 10 to 100 megabits per second (MBPS). LTE is a patchy technology, some vendors pushing marginal schemes, some vendors now introducing the full-fledged "LTE advanced", which claims to be able to handle 1 GBPS -- but only on a burst basis, more like 250 MBPS on a continuous basis. In any case, the growth curve suggests that gigabit speeds will be available in the next decade.
Two technologies -- "carrier aggregation" and "multiple input multiple output (MIMO)" antennas -- help LTE advanced support high data rates, and are likely to figure prominently in 5G technology:
Better use of bandwidth leads to the question of what band 5G will use. Contemporary wireless devices use the crowded 700 megahertz (MHz) to 2.6 gigahertz (GHz) band of the radio-frequency spectrum. It's not like 3G and 4G users will go away immediately when 5G is introduced, and so it's problematic to fit it into the current "very high frequency (VHF)" band. The apparent answer is for 5G to move from the VHF band to the "super high frequency (SHF)" between 3 and 30 GHz, or even to the "extremely high frequency (EHF)" band at 30 to 300 GHz. The current residents of the "millimeter wave" region include satellite TV, microwave communications relays, air traffic control links, radio astronomy, and amateur radio.
There is also a sub-band in the EHF range, around 60 GHz, that has been designated in most of the world for public use without a license -- for short-range wireless communications, notably wi-fi links. Obviously, 5G will have to leave that sub-band alone, but current developments in wi-fi hint at what can be done for 5G. The latest wi-fi standard, 802.11ad, can support 6 GBPS or better around the home, enough to support ultra-high-definition video feeds. Finnish networking firm Nokia has tinkered with links that can do 115 GBPS in the lab.
Such high frequencies have drawbacks, one being that they are easily blocked by walls, even by people getting in the way. They also are absorbed by the atmosphere, but only beyond ranges of about 100 meters. Above 70 GHz, atmospheric absorption is less of a problem, but rain can cause fading.
The implication is that 5G will need a much denser network of base stations than required for current cellphone technology. Current "microcells", no bigger than wi-fi modems, point the way; they're used in buildings where reception is a problem. The 5G revolution will require little base stations everywhere, fixed to streetlights and to buildings. It will be a nuisance to set up -- but few will regret the passing of the notoriously unsightly cellphone tower.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* THE TAMING OF THE CHICKEN (1): We have a fair grasp of the history of the domestication of animals such as the dog, cat, cow, and horse, but as discussed by an article from AAAS SCIENCE ("In Search Of The Wild Chicken" by Andrew Lawler, 23 November 2012), the domestication of the chicken remains somewhat mysterious. Americans ate 16 billion kilograms (36 billion pounds) of chicken in 2009, with chicken becoming more popular in the developing world as well -- and so it was no surprise that it was the first farm animal to have its genome published, back in 2004. Given the continued growth of factory farms and the shrinkage of chicken genetic variation, there have been worries that avian influenza or some new pathogen could have devastating effects on this important food supply.
That has led to continued interest in chicken genetics, one consideration being the genetic changes the bird has undergone in the course of its domestication. In the course of such investigation, researchers have also been seeking the answer to a puzzle that fascinated Charles Darwin: When, where, and how was the chicken domesticated?
It is generally believed that the colorful red jungle fowl (Gallus gallus), an inhabitant of South Asia, is the ancestral species of the domestic chicken (Gallus gallus domesticus). That's about as much as anyone agrees on, however. Was domesticated 4,000 years ago; or as long as 8,000 years ago? Was it domesticated once; or multiple times? And ever since Darwin, there's been an academic dispute over whether three other wild fowls contributed to the genome of the domestic chicken. There's also uncertainty that what we think is the red jungle fowl is a truly wild species any more, or that it's just a mutt of wild and domestic fowl.
Genomic studies are now digging up the answers, one paper suggesting that two different wild fowls contributed to the domestic chicken genome, another that the bird was domesticated separately in multiple regions. Researchers are studying wild fowl populations across South Asia, and canvassing museums to find old specimens for sequencing; some researchers are even trying to extract DNA from old chicken bones for clues. Curiosity is driving the effort -- but once again, chickens are big business, and understanding the birds better may help produce better chickens.
* Charles Darwin's eccentric grandfather Erasmus Darwin was one of the first to suggest that the red jungle fowl was the ancestor of the domestic chicken. Charles followed up the suggestion with one of his typically meticulous description of the jungle fowl's characteristics, and postulated that the chicken was domesticated in India, to then spread around the world. With equally typical cautiousness, he added that "sufficient materials do not exist for tracing the history" of the bird.
The red jungle fowl ranges from the western foothills of the Himalaya Mountains to the tip of Sumatra. In contrast to the domesticated chicken, all roosters have colorful plumage; the hens don't have combs; both genders have thin, dark legs, and can fly fair distances. The jungle fowl is also only about half the size of a White Leghorn domesticated chicken, but the two species can interbreed easily.
The domestication of the red jungle fowl was obviously not straightforward, because is very shy and hard to approach. However, once the threshold of association with humans was crossed, the jungle fowl took readily to the domesticated life. The jungle fowl lives by day on the forest floor, eating insects, seeds, and fruits; by night, it nests in trees, to escape its many predators. That's not so far from the lifestyle of the domestic chicken, of pecking around the barnyard in the day, safe in a coop at night. From the human point of view, the fowl provided meat, eggs, and feathers, as well as entertainment with cockfights. It could eat almost anything, and it was portable -- where humans could go and live, it generally could as well.
But when and how was it adopted? Bones and artifacts at Indus River valley sites south of the jungle fowl's range demonstrate the existence of domesticated birds in 2000 BCE, reinforcing Darwin's suggestion of a single domestication event in India. However, in 1988 a Chinese find seemed to place domestication as far back as 6000 BCE -- though that discovery was controversial.
The introduction of genetic sequencing tools in the 1990s promised to help resolve the controversy, but the immediate result was just more controversy. Obtaining the chicken genome in 2004 was all very well and good, but tracing out the chicken's ancestry meant obtaining genomes from remains, or from candidate wild ancestral species.
Early on, researchers focused on "mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA)", the separate small genome found in the cellular organelle named the mitochondrion, common to all multicellular organisms. In 1994, an ornithologist named Akishinomiya Fumihito -- a prince of Japan's royal family, incidentally -- claimed that mtDNA from Thai red jungle fowl suggested a single domestication event in Thailand. In 2002, another team used mtDNA from native Chinese chickens to back up that notion.
However, in 2006 a team led by Yi-Ping Liu of China's Kunming Institute of Zoology performed a thorough analysis of the mtDNA of a large sampling of wild and domestic modern birds. The analysis revealed nine distinct "clades" -- subgroups derived from a single ancestral population -- that suggested a distinct and separate expansion of lineages in southern China, Southeast Asia, and the Indian subcontinent, supporting a multiple origins theory. Recent research has backed up this finding, but few believe the matter has been settled. [TO BE CONTINUED]NEXT | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* THE COLD WAR (76): The uproar over Sputnik was a purely manufactured crisis. There was no particular public concern over the matter, at least for the moment; it was driven by the Democrats and hardline Republican critics of the Eisenhower Administration on one side, along with the sensationalism of the news media on the other. Reporters were normally friendly to the president, but in a press conference on 9 October, they hectored him over Sputnik 1, a reporter demanding:
Mr. President, Russia has launched an earth satellite. They also claim to have had a successful firing of an intercontinental ballistics missile, none of which this country has done. I ask you, sir, what are we going to do about it?!
Eisenhower tried to explain how the US was working on a satellite for the IGY, saying that the effort had never "been considered a race", while missile work was going at high priority. He correctly pointed out:
... the value of that satellite going around the earth is still problematical ... if we were doing it for science, and not for security, which we were doing, I don't know of any reasons why the scientists should have come in and urged that we do this before anybody else could do it.
... I think that [the Soviets] have fired objects a very considerable distance, but I don't know anything about their accuracy, and until you know something of their accuracy, you know nothing at all about their usefulness in warfare.
The president was wasting his breath. Eisenhower grasped power firmly but discreetly, preferring to get things done out of the spotlight, inclined to obfuscation when it suited his purposes -- all of which had the unfortunate effect of giving the public impression that he wasn't really in charge, being more interested in his golf game. Now, he came across as simply clueless. The loud barking didn't let up; it got worse on 3 November 1957, when the Soviets put the second Earth satellite, "Sputnik 2", into orbit.
Sputnik 2 was a much more elaborate affair than its predecessor, weighing about half a tonne, and carrying a dog named Laika. The Soviets had been launching dogs on sounding rocket flights using their R-2 missile; Korolyev, always on the lookout for the main chance, had leveraged the dog support pods developed for those tests into the new satellite. The Soviets were fond of using dogs for test flights, incidentally, employing mutts for the job, finding them hardy and easy to work with. The satellite overheated and Laika suffered an unpleasant death, but there was no provision for recovery anyway; TASS, the Soviet state news outlet, reported that Laika had been painlessly killed by being fed poisoned food.
First Sputnik; now "Muttnik"; and the US hadn't even flown a satellite yet. The manufactured crisis began to pick up momentum with the American public. Although the Navy's Vanguard was still on track, von Braun's Army team was given the green light to go ahead with their launch; they threw themselves into the work with a vengeance. In the meantime, although Eisenhower was exasperated with the uproar over the Sputniks, he did bow to suggestions that he could use a science advisor. Harry Truman had set up a "Science Advisory Council" in 1951 to provide insights on military technologies; Eisenhower then upgraded it to a "President's Science Advisory Council (PSAC)", with the PSAC becoming part of the White House organization on 21 November.
James Killian of MIT was made chair of the PSAC; the press immediately labeled him the "rocket czar", much to his annoyance. Killian was familiar enough with government bureaucracy to realize that a "czar" was merely political excess baggage -- not part of, nor with any real authority over, any government organization. A "czar" might be humored at best, pointedly ignored and snubbed at worst. The PSAC's job was as specified, to advise the president. Eisenhower was not actually caving into to pressure in establishing the PSAC, he often had multiple agendas: he wanted counsel from those with mindsets differing from those of Strauss, Teller, and others embedded to the government defense establishment, and devoted to it to the near-exclusion of any other concern. [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* WINGS & WEAPONS: New drones appear all the time, many of them being hard to tell apart, but a US startup named Dragonfly Pictures INC (DPI) is introducing something a bit different -- the "DP-14 Hawk" helicopter drone, which uses the tandem-rotor scheme associated with the Boeing Chinook helicopter. The DP-14 is large by the standards of helicopter drones, with a length of 4.1 meters (13.5 feet) and a maximum payload of 204 kilograms (450 pounds), either in its internal cargo bay or externally. It is aimed at applications ranging from agricultural aerial spraying to air supply of military forward operating bases.
The DP-14 will be powered by either a Solar T62 turboshaft with 65 kW (87 SHP) or Microturbo eAPU turboshaft with 100 kW (133 SHP), burning heavy fuel. It will have an autonomous navigation system, using GPS guidance. DPI is expecting initial flights in 2016; the company is already selling a smaller tandem-rotor drone, the "DP-12 Rhino".
According to a DPI official: "We think tandem designs hold a lot of advantages over single rotors, which are like most of the [drones] you see today. Single-rotor [drones] do not necessarily work as well in certain applications, especially when you have to fly somewhere remote where you don't really know what the terrain is like. The tail rotor is what gets damaged by debris, plants and bushes. Tandem rotors are higher and have a wider center of gravity, offering greater loading flexibility."
ED: The original article had the DP-14 as the "Pelican", but when I checked the DPI website, it was "Hawk". Why the change? I suspect it was a trademark collision.
* The US Marine Corps (USMC) has committed to the Bell-Boeing MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor transport as their primary vertical-lift machine, with plans to obtain a total of 360. Since no self-respecting Marine wants gear that doesn't shoot back, the service has been performing experiments in fitting the Osprey with offensive armament.
Initial experiments involved fitting a launcher for 70-millimeter laser-guided rockets to the forward fuselage. Second-phase experiments involved dropping tube-launched weapons -- the Griffin small guided missile and the Switchblade loitering attack drone -- out the tail ramp. No doubt the Marines are considering a more effective launch system, such as the "derringer door" used on C-130 Hercules to drop tube-launched weapons. The MV-22 will be able to provide fire support without requiring forward support bases, as needed by the AH-1Z helicopter gunship.
* As mentioned in earlier installments of this column, the Japanese have been interested in obtaining the MV-22, with an eye towards use on their helicopter carriers. The "other shoe" has now dropped, the State Department having approved the sale of up to 17 MV-22B Block C machines to the Japanese Ground Self-Defense Force (JGSDF), for "humanitarian and disaster relief capabilities and support amphibious operations." The Japanese have now ordered an initial five machines from Bell Boeing.
The MV-22B Block C is operated by the USMC. Compared to earlier variants, it features a weather radar; improved environmental controls; an enhanced electronic countermeasures suite, including including chaff and flare dispensers to defeat both surface-to-air and air-to-air threats; upgraded cockpit displays; and rear cabin displays. No doubt, Marine investigations of armament options are of some interest to the JGSDF.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* ONE STEP AHEAD: As discussed by an article from AAAS SCIENCE ("Warming May Not Swamp Islands" by Christopher Pala, 1 August 2014), atoll island nations of the world are very worried about climate change. Consider Kiribati, a nation consisting of 33 coral atolls, covering an area of ocean about the size of India, halfway between Hawaii and Fiji. Anote Tong, Kiribati's president, is so worried about the possibility of his islands being swamped by rising seas that he bought 22 square kilometers of land in the Fijis for $8.7 million USD, as living space for displaced Kiribatis. Other atoll nations, such as Tuvalu and the Maldives, are similarly concerned.
Many researchers see this as, to a degree, over-reaction. To be sure, there is a threat: current estimates suggest that the seas will rise at least a meter by 2100. However, coral atolls are unusual among geological structures in that they are largely the products of biological activity. As described by Charles Darwin in the 19th century, a coral atoll begins its life as a volcano risen from the sea. A coral reef grows around its shorelines, with the reef building up as the tip of the volcano subsides by erosion back beneath the waves.
The nature of coral atolls, then, was by no means news, but in the early years of the climate-change debate, nobody appreciated just how adaptable they are. In 1999, the World Bank asked geologist Paul Kench -- now head of the University of Auckland's School of Environment in New Zealand -- to evaluate the effects of climate change on atoll nations such as the Kiribatis. Kench initially assumed that they would drown under the rising seas: "That's what everyone thought, and nobody questioned it."
However, the more Kench investigated, the more he realized that nobody had ever seriously addressed the question. Working with colleagues, he created a model to examine what might actually happen. During episodes of high seas, storm waves will wash over higher and higher sections of an atoll -- but instead of washing the atolls away, they actually will build it up by depositing sand produced from broken coral, coralline algae, mollusks, and foraminifera. Kench also realized that reefs can build up height by 1 to 1.5 centimeters in a year, plenty fast enough to keep up with sea-level rise: "As long as the reef is healthy and generates an abundant supply of sand, there's no reason a reef island can't grow and keep up."
That sounds a bit speculative, but cores drilled from coral atolls support the model. Cores from the island of Jabat in the Marshall Islands show the atoll emerged 4,000 to 4,800 years ago, when sea levels were rising as fast as they are now. In addition, aerial photos and satellite images show that, in general, atolls haven't been much affected by the 15-centimeter rise in seas over the past half century.
President Tong has played up the threat to the Kiribatis by pointing to Bikeman Islet off South Tarawa, which is already submerged. However, researchers believe that Bikeman's problems were due to human activity: causeways, sand removal, and badly-built seawalls. It was marginal living space to begin with, and human meddling made it worse.
Although worries that the Kiribatis will disappear seem exaggerated, climate change is still making trouble for the islanders, or at least those who live close to the shore. As is the case for low-lying coastal areas around the world, from the US East Coast to Bangladesh, rising seas mean much more damaging storm surges. South Tarawa is particularly vulnerable, with salt water driven in by storms polluting fresh water sources on which the islanders are dependent. However, even if exclusion zones are set up along the waterfronts of the Kiribati atolls, there will still be plenty of living space left for the Kiribatis.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* SENTENCED TO DEATH: On 15 April 2013, the Boston Marathon was rocked by explosions, with three killed and hundreds injured. The bombers, Chechen brothers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, were quickly hunted down; Tamerlan died in a shootout with the authorities, Dzhokhar was arrested. On 15 May 2015, a Federal jury condemned Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to death by lethal injection. However, as discussed by an article from BBC WORLD Online ("Does A Death Sentence Always Mean Death?" by Charlotte McDonald, 23 May 2015), the odds are not high that he will actually be executed.
Between 1973 and the end of 2013, 8,466 people were sentenced to death in the USA, but only 1,359, about one in six, were executed. Some didn't live to be executed, dying in prison, either by natural causes or suicide, while of the rest:
The figures are suggestive, particularly for the ratio of people executed to people exonerated: about one in nine.
18 out of America's 50 states have banned the death penalty, Nebraska being the latest, having passed the ban this spring. Of the 32 other states where the death penalty remains in force, Virginia is the most aggressive in carrying it out, with almost three-quarters of those sentenced to death actually executed. Appeals in Virginia are limited to 12 months; it is the only state with such restrictive rules, and the only state where over half the death sentences are carried out. California, in contrast, has an execution rate of about 1%.
The US Federal justice system still retains the death penalty, and has imposed it in the case of Dzhokar Tsarnaev. However, between 1973 and 2013, the Federal government has only executed three people out of 71 sentenced to death, with 56 people still on death row. That's less than 1 in 20 actual executions relative to sentencing; the odds are that Tsarnaev will not actually be executed.
More than half of all the countries in the world have officially banned the death penalty, and less than a quarter have used it in the last decade. In 1988, only 35 countries had banned the death penalty; the number is 107 today. Another 52 that still have the death penalty on the books haven't executed anyone in ten years. Only 39 countries have executed someone in the past decade, most of them in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia.
While there are emotional arguments both for and against the death penalty, in the USA it is simply proving unrealistic. Even those who are for the death penalty admit it is extraordinary, and so is exposed to appeals. Countries that are fond of the death penalty not only have weak or effectively nonexistent appeals processes, they may not allow the accused a reasonable defense in court, or may coerce suspects into false confessions.
Although the numbers of executions in China have fallen substantially, the death penalty is still popular there, with tales of ghastly miscarriages of justice. According to one story, a man was executed for murdering his neighbor, who had disappeared -- but ten years later, the neighbor returned to the village, alive and well. Not only was the accused not guilty; there hadn't been a crime.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* CHINA & THE INTERNET (10): The nongovernmental organizations that have sprung up across China in the last decade are a diverse lot. Some are run by religious groups, with Christian doctors helping with public health care, Buddhists helping with the elderly. Others involve groups of citizens working to address their specific concerns, such as parents of autistic children, or those who want to assist local education. Money is tight, wealth in China not being widespread, but philanthropy by those who can afford it is on the rise.
Government leadership, having accepted that the people have lost revolutionary fervor for the Red cause -- having taken the capitalist road, the utopian Red of the Chinese Communist Party has faded considerably -- has been pleasantly surprised to find that idealism is not dead, and that this idealism does not, on the face of it, pose a threat to party rule. He Jianyu of the NGO Research Center in Beijing says the leadership has realized "NGOs are not all revolutionaries who want to overthrow the party, as they had thought."
The big boost to NGOs was the devastating 2008 earthquake in Sichuan, in which 70,000 people died. Thousands of volunteers came in to help, and were often well more effective than the government. The government bowed to reality and opened the gates further to NGO registration.
Underlying the emergence of NGO power is the growth of China's middle class. Yes, increasingly prosperous Chinese want comfortable lives, but at least some want to participate in creating the new China. The intent to work for change outside the government suggests a certain lack of confidence in party rule, the party seen as lacking in ideas, understanding of tactical issues, and trust from the local community; nobody believes party proclamations any more. The government has sensibly accepted the implied reprimand, and decided to co-opt that public spirit under loose party supervision.
That change in mindset, ironically, has come at a time of greater oppression. Since Xi Jinping became party boss in 2012, the boot has come down heavily on anyone who dares publicly criticize the exclusive right of the party to rule China. The leadership, in other words, wants to have their cake and eat it too, using NGOs to help support the system, while making sure they do nothing to undermine it. The big bosses will be quick to tighten the leash if things seem to be going out of control.
From one point of view, that seems to be what Jessica Teets, an American academic, has neatly labeled "consultative authoritarianism" at work, the iron fist being discreetly kept out of sight. However, many people working for NGOs believe that they are quietly transforming the party from within by challenging the idea, if not the practice, that the party can and should be in ultimate control.
Wishful thinking? There's no real motion for reform, and party hardliners have made it clear they have no tolerance for any such "peaceful evolution" of party ideology. However, that very touchiness over the idea suggests it carries more weight than they would admit; Chinese working in NGOs, seeing the wish for change circulating, if discreetly, on China's proprietary internet, believe that the glacier of Chinese government may appear solid and permanent -- but that it is slowly being eroded by gentle currents of change underneath. As the saying goes, nothing can stop an idea whose time is coming; the most that can be done is slow it down. [END OF SERIES]START | PREV | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* THE COLD WAR (75): More or less secure at the top of the USSR, Khrushchev took satisfaction in the progress of Soviet missile development. Sergei Korolyev's OKB-1 missile design bureau was moving forward on the R-7 ICBM, the missile performing its first successful launch on 21 August. A following launch also went well, with Korolyev then getting permission to launch the PS-1 satellite on the next shot.
The Americans were making progress as well, though with missteps of their own. The first launch test of an Atlas was on 11 June, with the missile veering off course; it was commanded to self-destruct. The Jupiter IRBM, however, was flying successfully by that time, and the Thor would do so soon.
For the moment, Eisenhower was primarily focused on domestic issues, being concerned with a noisy fuss over school desegregation in Arkansas. 1957 had been a fairly quiet year for him on the international scene, but the relative peace was about to be shattered. On 4 October, a Soviet R-7 missile put the world's first space satellite, "Sputnik (Fellow Traveler) 1", into orbit. Khrushchev had judged it would impress the world; the reaction he got from the US was beyond anything he could have expected.
Since the USSR had already expressed plans to put a satellite into orbit, Sputnik 1 wasn't really a surprise to the White House; indeed, the president had received a CIA report in July that said the Soviets were about ready to launch a satellite. What was a very much a surprise was the hysterical screaming over the Soviet feat, as if it were a second Pearl Harbor. The Soviets, so long dismissed as backwards, suddenly had become ten feet tall.
Eisenhower was baffled over the fuss; the US could have already put a satellite into orbit, had the will been there. Indeed, on 8 October, Defense Undersecretary Donald Quarles told the president that "the Russians have in fact done us a good turn, unintentionally, in establishing the freedom of international space ... "
It does not appear that Khrushchev had considered that implication in his eagerness to trump the USA. The US government had no intention of objecting to Sputnik 1's overflights of America; if US satellites, including spy satellites, then overflew the USSR, the Soviets would be in a difficult position to object themselves. Eisenhower did not dare raise this point to the public, however, and the loud howling continued. [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* Space launches for June included:
-- 05 JUN 15 / COSMOS 2505 (KOBALT M) -- A Soyuz 2-1a booster was launched from Plesetsk Northern Cosmodrome at 1524 GMT (local time - 4) to put a "Kobalt M / Yantar 4K2M" class optical reconnaissance film-return satellite into orbit. The spacecraft was designated "Cosmos 2505"; it was possibly the last Kobalt M to be launched, the Persona electro-optic satellites being the way of the future.
-- 22 JUN 15 / SENTINEL 2A -- A European Vega booster was launched from Kourou in French Guiana to put the ESA "Sentinel 2A" optical Earth observation satellite into Sun-synchronous near-polar orbit. It had a launch mass of 1,135 kilograms (2,500 pounds), and carried a payload of multispectral imagers. Sentinel 2A was the second in the ESA "Copernicus" series of Earth observation satellites, following the Sentinel 1A radar satellite, launched in 2014. Sentinel 2A is to be followed by the similar Sentinel 2B, plus the Sentinel 1B radarsat, and two Sentinel 3 satellites for ocean surveillance.
-- 23 JUN 15 / COSMOS 2506 (PERSONA) -- A Soyuz 2-1b booster with a Volga upper stage was launched from Plesetsk at 1644 GMT (local time - 4) to put a "Persona" electro-optic surveillance satellite into orbit, the spacecraft being designated "Cosmos 2506". This was the third Persona launch, the first being in 2008, the second in 2013; the first Persona failed on arrival in orbit, the second was still operational at last notice.
-- 26 JUN 15 / GAOFEN 3 -- A Long March 4B booster was launched from Taiyuan at 0622 GMT (local time - 8) to put the "Gaofen 3" Earth observation satellite into orbit, the third of six such spacecraft for Earth resource observation.
-- 28 JUN 15 / SPACEX DRAGON CRS7 (FAILURE) -- A SpaceX Falcon 9 booster was launched from Cape Canaveral at 1421 GMT (local time + 4), carrying the seventh operational "Dragon" cargo capsule to the International Space Station (ISS). It was carrying eight "Flock 1f" triple-CubeSat Earth observation satellites. The launcher disintegrated 139 seconds into flight. This was the third loss of an ISS cargo vessel in less than a year, putting ISS under stress.
* OTHER SPACE NEWS: European aerospace giant Airbus Defense & Space has now announced an alliance with a startup named "OneWeb", backed by Richard Branson's Virgin Group and wireless tech giant Qualcomm, to create an "internet in the sky", woven from 900 satellites, to be launched from 2018.
Each OneWeb satellite will weigh less than 150 kilograms (330 pounds); the satellites will fly in orbits about 1,200 kilometers (745 miles) above Earth. The constellation will consist of 648 operational satellites, the rest being ground or orbital spares, with the satellites deployed in 20 orbital planes to provide continuous global coverage at 50 megabits per second, with a maximum latency of 30 milliseconds -- equivalent to a cable modem. It will take about 30 launches to establish the entire constellation.
Established by telecom entrepreneur Greg Wyler and based in Britain's Channel Islands, OneWeb's satellite constellation will supply private consumers, businesses, schools, and hospitals with broadband connectivity in the Ku band through small ground user terminals, which can link nearby phones, computers and other devices to the global internet. Wyler previously founded O3b networks, set up to provide broadband services to rural areas. O3b has 12 satellites in orbit today, with telecom companies from Pacific island nations and Africa among O3b's initial customers.
OneWeb is confronted with competition from SpaceX corporation, whose boss Elon Musk is pushing his own "internet in the sky" with Google backing. The SpaceX constellation will consist of 4,000 satellites, with initial operations expected by 2020. People are keeping an open mind on these concepts, while being careful to remember that they are long shots -- with pointed questions being raised about the proliferation of space debris from so many spacecraft.
* NASA is now planning to launch an "Insight" Mars lander in 2016. The agency has now decided to fly two nanosats with the mission, which will provide a data relay capability, relaying status signals from the lander as it enters the Martian atmosphere.
The secondary mission is named "Mars Cube One (MarCO)", the two nanosats being based on the popular CubeSat format, if somewhat loosely so: they will be unprecedented six-unit CubeSats, the size of six single CubeSats, in a 3 x 2 arrangement, and incompatible with standard CubeSat deployer systems. In launch configuration, they will have dimensions of 36.6 x 24.3 x 11.8 centimeters (14.4 x 9.5 x 4.6 inches), about the size of a large box of breakfast cereal.
NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory is building the Insight lander -- which will carry a suite of French and German instruments to detect seismic activity and study the Martian interior -- and the MarCO nanosats. The mission will be launched in March 2016 from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, by an Atlas 5 booster. Mars landing is scheduled for 28 September 2016, after six and a half months of flight.
The MarCO spacecraft will be stored inside a container attached to the aft bulkhead of the booster's Centaur upper stage, away from the payload fairing enclosure housing InSight during ascent. The nanosats will spring-deploy from the Centaur stage after it releases the InSight spacecraft. The nanosats will extend two solar panels to generate electricity, and a UHF receiver antenna and X-band high-gain reflector panel will open to link up with InSight and ground stations on Earth.
Each nanosat features a cold-gas thruster system to keep it flying right on the way to Mars. Eight thrusters will adjust the spacecraft's trajectory, while four smaller jets will control its orientation, working with a trio of reaction wheels. They will not go into orbit around Mars, simply relaying data during the nerve-wracking entry sequence, when communications with Mars landers is traditionally broken. The mission is not reliant on the nanosats, but they may pave the way for nanosat relays and other orbital assets to be flown on later Mars missions.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* CHINA IN AFRICA: There's been something of a fuss about the economic penetration of China into the African continent. As discussed by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("One Among Many", 17 January 2015), a closer look at the issue shows the fears are overblown.
It is true that China is by far Africa's biggest trading partner, exchanging about $160 billion USD worth of goods a year; more than a million Chinese, most of them laborers and traders, have moved to the continent in the past decade. However, the African boom that China has helped create is attracting other investors. The non-Western ones are particularly competitive; African trade with India is projected to reach $100 billion USD in 2015, up from $57 billion USD in 2013; it is growing at a faster rate than Chinese trade, and is likely to overtake trade with America. Brazil and Turkey are leapfrogging many European countries.
If China doesn't seem so big when placed in the context of overall trade with Africa, it seems puny when it comes to direct investment. In 2012, Britain invested three times as much as China, while the US invested 50% more, with Italy only slightly less than that. Chinese businessmen don't feel they're holding all the cards in Africa, in part because they see their game as global. According to He Lingguo, a Chinese construction manager in Kenya: "This is a good place for business, but there are many others around the world."
He's thinking of moving to Venezuela. Chinese President Xi Jinping has promised to invest $250 billion USD in Latin America over the coming decade. In addition, for now China's appetite for commodities has slackened, with the global market for such tilting to the advantage of buyers instead of sellers. That may be temporary, since China does have a growing need for agricultural products and other goods.
There is also the difficulty for the Chinese in that Africans are becoming more suspicious of them, believing they are pushing dodgy deals and intend to loot Africa. There is also the problem for China that Africans are increasingly embracing democracy and open society, while China remains essentially authoritarian -- if not in a heavy-handed fashion, at least with a flat refusal to accept democratic principles.
In 2014, citizens of Senegal blocked a deal that would have handed a prime section of property in the center of the capital, Dakar, to Chinese developers; in Tanzania, labor unions criticized the government for letting in Chinese small traders. Some African officials are critical as well, accusing the Chinese of a "new form of imperialism", in which China takes commodities from Africa while using Africa as a market for Chinese manufactured goods. China is increasingly aware of the problem. During a tour of Africa in January, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said that China "absolutely will not take the old path of Western colonists".
China's trade with Africa is big -- but China is negligible when it comes to aid, and African countries do not look to China for counsel in how to run their affairs. Africans, having had enough of "Big Man" leaders and their corrupt statism, are moving increasingly to democracy and free-market economics, and don't see China as a providing an inspiring example for either. France and Britain, both in spite of and because of their earlier colonialist domination of the continent, have far more influence, and the Americans are generally happy to concede them their leadership role.
Certainly, heavy Chinese investment in Africa hardly precludes other nations from investing in Africa themselves; the only reason America doesn't invest more is because there's no perceived need to do so. Chinese immigrants in Africa laugh at the idea that they could lord it over the locals. On inspection, few can seriously believe China is likely to dominate Africa; instead, it amounts to just another foreign investor, trying to find an advantage.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* TURBOCHARGERS REVISITED: The trend towards smaller, turbocharged engines for cars has been discussed here in the past, last in February of this year. An article from THE ECONOMIST ("The Little Engine That Could", 7 March 2015), provided more details.
Turbochargers, to review, uses the engine exhaust to spin a turbine that drives a compressor to blow air into the engine inlet, ensuring a faster rate of fuel burn and more power, with more complete combustion improving efficiency and reducing emissions. For higher performance, an intercooler may be placed between the compressor and the engine's inlet manifold, the intercooler drawing heat out of the compressed air, increasing its density. In general terms, a turbocharged 1.8-liter four-cylinder gasoline engine can match the power and torque of a naturally aspirated 3-liter six-cylinder engine, while consuming 15% less fuel.
Carmakers started to take turbocharging more seriously in 2010, after the US government announced that its corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) target would rise to 35.5 miles per US gallon (6.63 liters per 100 kilometers) by the 2016 model year. Compared to superchargers, which are blowers driven by the engine drivetrain, turbochargers are more efficient, but they also suffer from "turbo lag" -- a delay between stepping on the gas and the spin-up of the turbine.
In Europe, where half of all cars and light trucks sold are diesel models, turbocharging is common. Diesels ignite their fuel by using the heat of compression, not spark plugs, and so demand much higher compression ratios. The higher pressure means a stronger and heavier engine, which ends up operating at lower RPM than a gasoline engine because the engine's moving parts are heavier. The lower RPM makes it harder for a diesel engine to obtain adequate air, and so they have long been fitted with turbochargers.
Turbochargers for gasoline engines have somewhat different requirements from those used on diesel engines:
There are many other fine points to turbocharger design. Making the spinning parts of a turbocharger smaller allows it to respond more quickly to throttle changes, but limits the turbocharger's output. Bigger ones have more output, but of course have poorer response. One of the most popular schemes for dealing with this quandary is the "twin-scroll" turbocharger, in which the turbine has separate feeds from the two engine exhaust manifolds. One nozzle injects exhaust gas at a steeper angle to the turbine blades, for quick response, while the other injects the exhaust gas at a shallower angle, for peak performance.
As a further refinement, the two exhaust manifolds can draw off air from the piston exhaust cycles so that they alternate in their drive to the turbocharger, ensuring smoother operation and also a more complete exhaustion of burned gases from the cylinders, improving engine efficiency further. If the piston engine is a venerable technology, it hasn't run out of new tricks yet.
* In related news, as discussed by a note from IEEE SPECTRUM Online ("Lasers Could Boost Engine Efficiency by 27%" by Evan Ackerman, 25 February 2015), we are so accustomed to the spark plugs that set off the fuel in our auto engines that we don't stop to wonder if there's a better way. Spark plugs aren't all that efficient; they ignite the fuel-air mixture in an engine cylinder from the top, and the cycling of the engine ensures that the burn won't go fully to completion. That's troublesome for both engine efficiency and emissions.
The answer? Lasers, which can ignite the fuel-air mixture in the middle of the cylinder, ensuring a much more complete burn. Lasers can also be fired with more precise timing, and even several times during a combustion cycle. The end result is up to 27% better energy efficiency, and lower emissions.
In 2011, Toyota got laser ignition to work in a lab. It was just a proof-of-concept demonstration, and Toyota didn't pursue matters much further. However, the US Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy (ARPA-E) is now working with a company named Princeton Optronics to develop a practical laser ignition system. Early in 2015, the firm presented a functional, laser-ignited automobile engine at an ARPA-E conference. Nobody involved with the research expects laser ignition to show up in mass-market vehicles soon, with the technology likely to be first used in aeronautics or maritime shipping.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* CHINA & THE INTERNET (9): As something of a footnote to this series, as reported by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("Beneath The Glacier", 12 April 2014), China's peculiar balancing of yin and yan -- liberty and control -- in its approach to the internet is paralleled by a similar approach to Chinese nongovernmental organizations (NGO). Traditionally, authoritarian governments have no patience with nongovernmental activist groups of any kind, supplanting them with tame government organizations. However, the Chinese government is not really fond of the iron fist, and now takes a relatively positive view of NGOs, at least as long they do nothing to distress the party.
For example, consider the Chinese NGO named the "Panyu Migrant Workers' Service" in Panyu, a suburb of the southern city of Guangzhou. The NGO is run by one Zeng Feiyang to help defend the rights of workers in the factories of Guandong province. Zeng is used to being harassed for his work; he has been evicted, had his utilities shut off, and been bullied by local authorities or their minions. Zeng was then startled when last fall he got a call from an official, Zeng saying: "The man asked if I wanted to register the NGO. I was very surprised."
Over the past three years, the authorities have been calling up NGOs to talk over registration with them. It sounds on the face of it like a mere bureaucratic paperwork issue, but the change in mindset is significant. At the moment, over half a million NGOs are registered with the state. To be sure, some of these were actually set up the state, while some are fake front operations run to pry money out the state -- China has plenty of activists, but it also has plenty of scammers. Of the legitimate registered NGOs, as a strong rule they are engaged in noncontroversial activities.
There are an estimated 1.5 million unregistered NGOs, whose activities are viewed by the government with varying degrees of apprehension. They represent social forces bubbling up from below in a state that thinks in top-down terms. Government leadership understands that the NGOs partly represent a threat, but also represent an opportunity to obtain energy out of citizen activism, and has been liberalizing the rules accordingly.
Not surprisingly, there are limits to liberalization. Those NGOs that, say, provide services to groups such as the poor, the elderly, and the disabled, are encouraged. Those that have a clearly political agenda, particularly in promoting religious, ethnic, or labor rights, are strongly discouraged. However, there has been a degree of cautious relaxation on that front as well. If such activism poses no real threat to party rule, it works as a social safety valve, letting off public pressure.
* After Mao Zedong's Communists took over China in 1949, all groups operating outside of the party's control, such as religions and trade unions, were suppressed; there was even an attempt to undermine the Chinese dedication to the extended family, though that was doomed to failure. The state set up organizations of its own that had the appearance of citizen groups, such as the China Youth Development Foundation, with such outfits known by the unintentionally comical label of "government-operated NGOs (GONGO)".
After the suppression of the 1989 Tiananmen protests, the state relaxed a bit, telling the citizens that whatever wasn't forbidden wasn't mandatory: if people were careful not to rock the boat, they could pretty much do what they pleased. The subsequent collapse of Soviet control over Eastern Europe and the fall of the USSR did revive caution in Chinese leadership, but NGOs were not completely suppressed, with those working on environmental issues and HIV-AIDs benefiting. NGOs were still often harassed, with a particularly strong clampdown after the 2005 "color" revolutions in Ukraine, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan.
Since then, the state has been on the path of relaxation. Rapid urbanization has put a strain on the party's ability to provide services to the people, while citizen expectations have grown; the central government has reacted by trying to shift responsibilities onto local governments, which may be too strapped or too indifferent to respond. If NGOs can help keep the Chinese people happy, that means less stress on the party. The number of NGOs began to increase rapidly.
In 2011, the government specified four types of NGOs that could register: industry associations, science & technology organizations, charities, and those that provide social services. Until 2012, any NGO that wanted to register and be legal had to have a sponsoring government organization, typically a government agency that worked in the NGO's domain of interest. That ensured tight control over NGOs -- or "social organizations" as the government calls them, "non-government" having uncomfortable overtones of "anti-government". That rule has now been relaxed as well. [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* THE COLD WAR (74): Premier Khrushchev's primary concern at that time was not nuclear testing, but a challenge to his authority, from members of the Council of Ministers who wanted to dislodge him from his dominant position. On 18 June 1957, he was summoned to a meeting of the council, to find himself under attack by Malenkov, Molotov, Bulganin, and others, with his critics demanding that he step down as party secretary. Taken by surprise, he admitted to some errors, but fought back on other fronts. Nonetheless, when he went home that evening, he was obviously distraught and worried about the future.
The next day, however, Khrushchev came back swinging, blasting back at his adversaries, matching them blow for blow. That evening, he set up a plenum of the Party Central Committee, to which the Council of Ministers was in principle responsible, and arranged for senior committee members to be flown into Moscow immediately. By the end of the next day, the plotters were in retreat; the Central Committee plenum began on 22 June with bitter denunciations against them.
Defense Minister Zhukov led the charge, saying that Malenkov and Molotov were among the most prominent of Stalin's henchmen in "arrests and executions of party and state cadres." The uproar went on for six days, with accusations and counter-accusations flying back and forth. When Molotov declared that all members of the Politburo were implicated in Stalin's crimes, Khrushchev shot back at him that as "second in command", Molotov bore the "main responsibility". Molotov stood his ground: "But I raised more objections to Stalin than any of you did, Comrade Khrushchev!"
The debate, such as it was, echoed Khrushchev's denunciations of Stalin a year earlier -- but it was hardly an indictment of Stalin's regime. Having been forced to acknowledge that the frontal attack on Stalin had been, to a large degree, a mistake, Khrushchev had no intention of pressing the issue of past crimes any more than necessary. Indeed, at one point, Khrushchev effectively admitted that he was still in awe of Stalin: "Why do you all keep on about Stalin this, Stalin that? All of us taken together aren't worth Stalin's shit!"
The raucous plenum ended on 28 June, with the plotters cowed and subdued. Khrushchev was triumphant, crowing at them, saying that Bulganin had ended up "on a pile of manure." He sneered at them: "And you call yourself politicians? No, you're just pathetic schemers."
The Party Central Committee, so long drained of power, had reasserted itself, thanks to Khrushchev's agile maneuvers. Khrushchev, having been underestimated by the opposition and then vanquishing them, had bounced back from his doubts, to be more sure than ever of his authority. Too much so, in fact; even family members noted that from that time on, he would become increasingly imperious in his decision-making, indifferent to the concerns of other Soviet leaders, disinterested in reality checks. In growing more confident of his position, Khrushchev ended up doing much to erode it.
* In China, Mao Zedong was taking actions to consolidate his own position. He had expected that encouraging citizens to speak out through the Hundred Flowers Campaign would help establish his authority, the people demanding that things be done the way Mao wanted to see them done. Of course; did not the Chinese people love him? Was he not praised to the skies wherever he went? Mao was unpleasantly surprised by what really happened: Chinese people wrote letters to the authorities and put up posters on "Democracy Walls', criticizing the Chinese Communist Party for its authoritarianism and corruption, protesting government repression, and calling for a multi-party democracy.
That was not at all what Mao had in mind when he began the exercise, and in July 1957, Mao ordered a crackdown, what would become the "Anti-Rightist Campaign". Intellectuals were targeted as "Rightists", to be publicly criticized and shamed; or demoted; or sent to penal camps; or, it seems in some cases, shot. Mao declared he had simply been encouraging dissidents to show themselves so they could be dealt with, saying he had "enticed the snakes out of their caves."
That was rationalization after the fact, but it was neither here nor there. Mao never wanted anything resembling an honestly democratic society, in which different points of view would contend; the Chinese Communist Party would run things, and the Chinese people would do what the party told them to do. Mao would never again suggest to the Chinese public that dissent was welcome, and few Chinese thought independent thinking would be good for their well-being. [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* GIMMICKS & GADGETS: Although movie theaters have increasingly gone to digital projectors, replacing the cumbersome distribution of cans of film with digital downloads, as discussed by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("The Next Picture Show", 6 December 2014), digital movies have their drawbacks. They don't quite match the detail and contrast of a good 35-millimeter print -- and worse, the xenon lamps that provide illumination for digital movies tend to fade, losing half their brightness in a few hundred hours. They cost $1,500 USD to replace. It's even worse for 3D movies, since the projector has to cast two images with different polarizations, the 3D glasses only allowing one image to reach each eye -- cutting total brightness in half.
The solution? Laser-illuminated digital projectors, which promise not only bright images, but also better contrast, more natural colors, high frame rates, and resolutions that could approach those of a good 35-millimeter print. Laser diodes, in contrast with xenon lamps, last tens of thousands of hours and generate uniform light in specific bands. They are more efficient as well. The first commercial laser movie projectors use hundreds of laser diodes, offering about twice the brightness -- 60,000 lumens -- of xenon-based projectors, while consuming only half as much electricity.
Other advantages of laser projectors are that they can produce a wider range of colors than xenon lamp projectors; they have better contrast; they can handle frame rates faster than the traditional 24 frames per second, giving better action imagery; and they can support advanced 3D projection schemes. Advocates believe laser projectors will ultimately rival the best 35-millimeter film.
So what's the catch? Price, mostly. A xenon lamp projector might cost $60,000 USD, but a first-generation laser projector can run to $500,000 USD. Even factoring in savings in electricity and replacement lamps, laser projectors end up costing two to four times as much. Since digital projection benefited distributors, they helped foot the bill for theaters to go digital; theater operators can't count on such assistance with laser projectors. A few high-end cinemas have gone laser, but most theaters are hanging back. The Digital Cinema Initiatives (DCI) group, set up by the movie studios in 2002 to push digital movie projectors, has not yet endorsed next-generation movie standards, so nobody's sure when the new laser age will arrive.
* Wireless networking for households and facilities has an interesting synergy with lighting systems; since light fixtures are distributed through all the rooms in a building and provide power, they can also support wireless modules without any need for additional wiring. A startup named Terralux is now offering LED light fixtures that incorporate wireless modules, along with sensors, with the wireless / lighting network being controlled by a PC, tablet, or smartphone.
Customers can choose what sensors they want in the fixtures. Along with the high efficiency of LEDs, the network controller can adjust lighting as needed by the presence of humans, as determined by the sensors. The fixtures are spendy at present, but Terralux executives say they expect prices to fall as LEDs do, and they gain manufacturing experience.
* As discussed by a note from BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK ("Mastering The Art of Palm Reading" by Olga Kharif, 12 March 2015), the increasing use of biometric identification -- fingerprints, palm-vein, and retinal patterns -- in commerce has led crooks to take countermeasures, some of them drastic. In Brazil, banks began to introduce ATMs with fingerprint readers; no problem for the crooks, they just started cutting off fingers. The push now is towards palm-vein readers, which won't work with a severed hand.
It is estimated that by 2020 every smartphone, tablet, and wearable device will have an embedded biometric sensor, compared to fewer than 7% today. Banking and e-commerce are driving biometrics; it is estimated that by 2020, half of all mobile payments and 10% of in-store payments will use biometric ID. Even now, however, fraud rates on transactions using Apple Pay are high, since it's not hard for criminals to link their own fingerprints to a stolen charge-card number.
Few companies that have introduced biometric ID schemes ever thought they were foolproof, and knew in practice they would necessarily a component of a cross-matrix of validations -- for example, it's only possible to cheat on Apple Pay because the transaction systems aren't smart enough to know what charge-card numbers really should go with what fingerprints. Retailers and banks have an incentive to warehouse fingerprints; over the long run, biometric ID might be better stored in a central bank in the cloud.
Over the long run, it's likely we'll be better off with biometrics, but there's going to be a tricky learning curve until we wring the bugs out of it. Once that's done, then on the other side of that coin, we are permanently stuck with the fact that, by using fingerprints or other biometric ID, we've made our actions just that much more traceable, and there's not a lot we can do about it. Be careful what you ask for: you may just get it.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* ROBOTAXIS: As discussed by an article from IEEE SPECTRUM Online ("Robot Taxis Will Reshape Urban Landscapes" by Willie Jones, 29 April 2015), a team of researchers at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development's International Transport Forum has released a study of the possible effects of self-driving cars on urban traffic. What they found is that robocars will have a dramatic effect on cities, allowing major parcels of land now dedicated to transport to be turned over to recreational and commercial use.
The study imagined what might happen when all human-driven cars are replaced by a mix of shared and semi-private robocars in a midsize European city. The researchers used computer models based on data from actual trips in Lisbon, Portugal, with the models based on robocars -- either "TaxiBots", being robotaxis that would pick up multiple riders, or "AutoVots", which would be single-passenger vehicles. The models assumed that the TaxiBots and AutoVots would replace all car and bus trips, while performing exactly the same trips as current vehicles. The models determined:
The results were startling: robocars, combined with high-capacity public transport such as light rail, would provide the same mobility inside a midsize European city, but with only 10% of the number of cars on the roads today; even without mass transit, a city's populace could be hauled around with nearly 80% fewer cars than are registered now.
In addition, commute times would be reduced by 10% during rush hour, while the reduced need for parking -- on the average, currently a car spends over 90% of its time parked -- would free up the "equivalent to 210 football fields, or nearly 20% of the street space in our model city."
* We appear to be sliding into an era of rapid and revolutionary change in personal transport. What is particularly significant is that it's happening incrementally; while a fully robotic car would be a nice thing, nobody expects that to happen in the near future, and right now people are happy with the partial solution they can get. According to a note from WIRED Online blogs, a JD Power survey of 5,300 people on smart cars found particular enthusiasm for five technologies:
Things consumers aren't so concerned about include gesture recognition for automotive control, driver monitoring, and haptic touch screens. Older drivers tend to prefer an automated car that acts as a driving assistant, while younger drivers are more interested in full automation.
In a related note from WIRED, a Swiss firm named WayRay is working on a driver navigation scheme named "Navion". Smartphone navigation apps are readily available, but it's not so convenient to drive, while keeping an eye on the smartphone. Navion envisions a little box mounted on the dashboard that projects navigation information and safety alerts on the windscreen; it's a little like turning driving into a video game. WayRay is talking about pre-orders later in 2015.
WIRED also had an item on Zonar of Seattle, a firm that provides intelligent tools for the trucking industry. In 2014, Zonar introduced an Android-based tablet that drivers can use to track their hours, ensure they complete their inspections, exchange messages with dispatchers, and get truck-specific navigation -- avoiding low bridges, for example. Relevant data is sent to trucker dispatch centers, reducing the need for physical paperwork.
Zonar also helps with fuel economy, which is significant because fuel bills for a single vehicle can hit $8,000 USD. Driver behavior influences fuel economy, and so Zonar provides guidance by "gamifying" the experience, providing realtime feedback on how efficiently on how the driver's doing, and how to do better: Shift now! Don't slam on the gas pedal! This is a trick pioneered by passenger cars: some hybrids and electrics, like the Chevy Volt and Ford Fusion Hybrid, tell drivers how much energy they recapture through regenerative braking, for example, encouraging more efficient driving.
Efficient drivers are also safer, partly because they tend to be more "tuned in". The tablet's font size and lighting are designed for use in a truck cab. There are no frills, and although drivers don't get to download games, they find the tablet makes their job easier, and is not hard to use. Most of them have smartphones and know their way around Android in the first place. It's hard to say that the Zonar tech defines a "smart truck" -- but it certainly clearly demonstrates the incremental nature of the "intelligent transport revolution."COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* TOWARDS A CLIMATE CHANGE PACT: According to a NEW YORK TIMES article ("Global Climate Pact Gains Momentum as China, US and Brazil Detail Plans" by Coral Davenport, 30 June 2015), nations working to deal with climate change have been outlining their plans for doing so, preparatory to a climate summit in Paris in December. Under a United Nations (UN) accord reached in Peru in December 2014, every nation is to submit a plan for cutting carbon emissions in preparation for the upcoming summit, the plans to be used as a basis for constructing an agreement.
China, the world's largest greenhouse gas emitter, submitted a 16-page plan to the UN on 29 June that detailed how the country intends to alter its economy to reduce fossil fuel emissions by 2030. On the same day, President Dilma Rousseff of Brazil, one of the top 10 carbon emitters, and President Obama of the US announced in Washington DC that their nations had agreed to expand electricity generation from renewable sources.
South Korea, Serbia, and Iceland also submitted their plans for cutting emissions on 29 June, joining the 40 or so countries that had already done so, including Canada, Mexico, Russia, and the United States, along with the European Union. Brazil has not yet submitted its climate plan to the UN, with plans still pending from other carbon emitters, including India and Japan.
The joint announcement by Brazil and the US committed the two nations to increase the use of wind, solar, and geothermal energy to provide 20% of national electrical production by 2030. That would double renewable power's contribution in Brazil, and triple it in the US. Brazil also committed to restore over 120,000 square kilometers (47,000 square miles) of Amazon rain forest, an area about the size of the US state of Pennsylvania. Obama said he was pleased with the agreement: "Following progress during my trips to China and India, this shows that the world's major economies can begin to transcend some of the old divides and work together to confront the common challenge that we face -- something that we have to work on for future generations."
China and the US, the world's biggest greenhouse gas emitters, have long been seen as the critical players in a global climate change deal. Progress towards such a deal seem stalled until November 2014, when Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping jointly announced that the United States would lower its emissions up to 28% from 2005 levels by 2025, while China's emissions would peak and then begin to fall no later than 2030.
This March, Obama submitted a plan to the UN detailing how the United States would meet its target, saying it would rely on enactment of Environmental Protection Agency regulations on emissions from cars, trucks, and power plants. China's plan is based on a broad commitment to decouple economic growth from the use of fossil fuels -- China is notoriously dependent on coal, the dirtiest of all major fossil fuels, for electricity production -- and to improve efficiency of production in terms of carbon emissions by up to 65% from 2005 levels by 2030. China is also working towards a national cap-and-trade system, emissions in which companies must pay for emission permits, and can buy and sell those permits among themselves.
In his first term, Obama tried and failed to push a similar cap-and-trade system through Congress. Republican members of Congress have consistently opposed any climate change deal. The UN is working on a $10 billion USD "Green Climate Fund" to assist developing nations to deal with climate change; Obama has pledged $3 billion USD, more than any other nation, but Congress refuses to let go of the money.
Even if a climate deal along the lines of the plans submitted so far to the UN gets passed this December, few climate researchers believe that it will halt a rise rise in global temperature of 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), which will lead to extreme storms, droughts, food shortages, water shortages, and rising sea levels.
However, nobody concerned about climate change is unhappy at the prospect of an imperfect deal, since it will give a basis for further diplomacy on the subject. It's the way diplomacy works; a step at a time, building confidence with each step. Christiana Figueres, the top United Nations climate change official, said: "It's not a one-shot deal. It's like a highway, with each country going in the lane with the speed that they can go. Some will start out slowly and speed up later. It will be a progressive process over time."COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* CHINA & THE INTERNET (8): A high-level inspection of China's internet yields a mixed picture, of well-tuned control of a system that is straining to break out of it. The government is holding their own far better than anyone could have expected at the outset, with the government use of the internet to spread the official message providing a lever to balance the forces of disruption.
The restlessness of China's citizens has been growing in the 21st century. Development has generally raised the wealth of the people, in a few cases to stratospheric levels, but it has inevitably been accompanied by problems: corruption, income inequality, pollution, food-safety scares. Incidents of mass unrest have risen dramatically in the past two decades. Even prosperous Chinese worry that their gilded age cannot last.
If there is going to be an upheaval eventually, it's not easy to see China's internet as encouraging it. The government has made China's internet a great and profitable playground for gaming, chat, videos, shopping, and all other amusements; a cage, the bars not all that visible. The government, instead of trying to completely suppress dissent online, has simply muffled it, making it more trouble than it's worth to most Chinese, and drowning it out with the official message disseminated online.
China's internet does promote democracy of a sort, in that the government uses it to track public opinion and will make changes in response to public concerns -- though not to the extent of even contemplating any deep modifications of the political system. Changes will come, slowly or quickly, but when history books about the present period are finally written, the internet may well turn out to have been an agent not of political upheaval in China, but of authoritarian adaptation before the upheaval, building up expectations for better government, while delaying the political transformations needed to deliver it.
The Chinese Communist Party is firm in its belief in its right to rule China, insecure in its refusal to accept competition, or any other substantial checks on its authority; this contradiction is unlikely to be resolved in the near future. For the present, the Chinese example is most useful in showing how government involvement in the internet can go wrong, reaching beyond mere following of trends and public communications, to pervasive snooping and a carefully calibrated chokehold on communications. Although there are serious issues over government intrusion into and surveillance of the internet in the US as well, it's not in the same league; in America, the issues can be discussed publicly.
As far as the penetration of Chinese hackers into computers around the Earth -- for the time being, that's just the way the world works, pointing to the need for refining security, until the time comes that the world can collectively come up with and agree on a fix. That may not be in the near future. [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* THE COLD WAR (73): President Eisenhower talked to Admiral Strauss of the AEC on 14 June 1957, with a number of physicists in attendance, notably Edward Teller. Teller reassured the president that, thanks to the PLUMBOB tests, the US would soon have effectively "clean" nuclear weapons that didn't generate fallout. Teller was no doubt sincere in believing so -- anyone as single-minded as Teller was always sincere, no matter what came out of his mouth -- but the "clean" Bomb was something of a non-starter, there being serious questions over just how "clean" such a weapon was. More importantly, a clean Bomb was inevitably substantially less powerful than an conventional Bomb. The military, in consequence, never wanted clean Bombs, and there really wasn't any other customer for the Bombs.
Teller, having been briefed by Strauss, then went on to say that, with clean bombs, it would be possible to use them for peaceful purposes, such as digging canals or harbors, and even to "modify the weather on a broad basis through changing the dust content of the air." Although it wasn't clear there were really customers for such applications, and a later generation would find such claims dubious at the very least, there was a certain public enthusiasm for "Our Friend The Atom" in the 1950s -- and Eisenhower, as his "Atoms For Peace" initiative had demonstrated, was very interested in peaceful uses of atomic energy.
The president was receptive to the message of the physicists, but skeptical enough to hedge his bets on fallout, asking the scientists if a test ban would be sensible. The answer was strong NO -- why, of course the Soviets would cheat on it. What about, Eisenhower suggested, sharing the results of PLUMBOB with the Soviets, so they could build their own clean Bombs? The answer was an even more emphatic NO, there was no way America was going to give nuclear secrets to the USSR; had Truman made such a suggestion, he would have been called a traitor. Teller added that, after clean bombs were developed, it would be possible to add materials "to produce radioactive fallout if desired."
It is unlikely that Eisenhower, having established that he wanted to solve the fallout problem, was keen on the idea of making more fallout. The notion of the "dirty Bomb" would lead to the "cobalt Bomb", in which a nuclear weapon was given a jacket of cobalt-60 metal to produce additional fallout. The "cobalt Bomb" was also a non-starter; it wasn't that much dirtier than an ordinary Bomb, the radiation effects were just more lingering, and the military was never enthusiastic about it, either.
Eisenhower was suspicious of the sales job he was getting from the atomic scientists, expressing exasperation in an NSC meeting about how every science team that gave him advice was eager to obtain deadly new toys. He expressed the wish that he could find a team that "would recommend programs which we could dispense with." However, he chose to continue with testing; Strauss was adept at controlling access of atomic scientists to the president, and so Eisenhower's only source of counsel on nuclear weapons was Teller and those of like mind. The president could only go on the advice he had.
The Eisenhower Administration continued to go through the motions of presenting nuclear disarmament proposals -- but they were skewed to maintaining American nuclear superiority, ensuring a lack of enthusiasm among the Soviets. As far as a test ban went, the Soviets did suggest a temporary moratorium, as opposed to a complete ban, a notion that appealed to Eisenhower. However, Strauss, Teller, and the other nuclear scientists in the AEC clique came to the White House to protest -- with Teller also informing the Joint Congressional Committee on Atomic Energy, with his usual modest understatement, that a moratorium would be a "crime against humanity", since it would halt work on clean bombs. Khrushchev was rightfully scornful of all such talk about "clean" bombs: "How can you have a clean bomb to do dirty things?"
There was talk between the US and USSR about slowing down the nuclear arms race, but it wasn't gaining any traction. Although there was considerable public opposition to nuclear testing among the citizens of Europe, the governments of Britain and France were strongly opposed to a test ban as well, since it would hobble their own nuclear ambitions. London and Paris were still careful to only protest against a test ban in private, keeping a low profile on the issue in public, implicitly shifting the burden to the US. To Eisenhower, that was a shrug; he was happy to see Britain and France help take up the nuclear burden, and if they had to keep a low profile doing it, that wasn't a serious problem. If that implied making the US look like the "bad cop", Eisenhower was too self-assured to worry about it much. [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* SCIENCE NOTES: Trying to determine when life arose on Earth has necessarily proven troublesome, since it's hard to identify fossils of micro-organisms. As reported by a note from AAAS SCIENCE Online, for a long time, a 3.46-billion-year-old rock from Western Australia seemed to hold the record. The "Apex chert", as it was known, contained tiny, wormy structures could have been fossilized cell walls of early cyanobacteria.
A new study casts substantial doubt on the Apex chert "fossils". It appears that the elongated filaments were instead created by minerals forming in hydrothermal systems. After the filaments were formed, carbon accumulated on the edges, leaving behind an organic signature that suggested cell walls. That means the oldest known fossils are about a percent younger -- the 3.43-billion-year-old Strelley Pool formation, also from Western Australia, which provides stronger evidence of microfossils: hollow, bag-shaped bodies arranged in chains or clusters.
* As discussed by a note from AAAS SCIENCE Online ("Human Skeleton Has Become Lighter Over Time" by Lizzie Wade, 22 December 2014), a chimpanzee's bones are considerably denser than those of modern humans, being packed with with microscopic structures known as "spongy bone". The lack of spongy bone in humans makes their bodies lighter, but also makes their bones easier to break. Why the difference between the two species?
Two papers from the PROCEEDINGS OF THE NATIONAL ACADEMY OF SCIENCES published in December 2014 probed into the matter. In the first paper, the authors compared skeletons from modern chimpanzees, the early human ancestor Australopithecus africanus, Neandertals, early Homo sapiens, and today's modern humans. They found that chimps, Australopithecus, Neandertals, and even the early modern humans had much higher densities of spongy bone than today's humans, suggesting that modern humans are "domesticated", insulated from the need to hunt and forage, meaning they don't need such heavy bones.
The second paper compared the density of spongy bone in the hip joints of nonhuman primates, ancient hunter-gatherers, and ancient farmers. The hunter-gatherers' hip joints were about as strong as those of the apes, while the ancient farmers' hips showed significant loss of spongy bone. The hint in this study is that humans may not have evolved to have lightweight bones; if we were forced to revert to a primitive life-style that kept us active all day, we'd likely revert to heavier bones as well.
* The fact that Yellowstone National Park in the state of Wyoming is a volcanic caldera, essentially one huge volcano -- discussed here in 2008 -- that occasionally undergoes massive eruptions is a source of uneasiness to those of us who don't live so far away from it. As discussed by a note from AAAS SCIENCE ("Two Huge Magma Chambers Spied Beneath Yellowstone National Park" by Eric Hand, 23 April 2015), researchers are keeping an eye on it; geoscientists have now completely imaged the subterranean plumbing system underneath Yellowstone and have found not just one, but two magma chambers underneath the giant volcano.
Scientists had already known about a magma "plume" that brings molten rock up from deep in the mantle to a region about 60 kilometers (37 miles) below the surface. They had also imaged a shallow magma chamber about 10 kilometers (6 miles) below the park, containing about 10,000 cubic kilometers (2,400 cubic miles) of molten material; eruptions occur when the material is ejected from this chamber. Now they have found another chamber, 4.5 times larger, between that and the plume, from 20 to 50 kilometers (12 and 31 miles) below the surface.
This discovery gives no greater worries of an eruption. The last major eruption was 640,000 years ago, there's no sign another one will happen any time soon, and the major current concern is earthquakes. However, the deeper chamber does imply that the shallow chamber can be replenished again and again, leading to the eruption of far more material.
Researchers used seismometers to probe the Earth below Yellowstone, tracking the propagation of earthquake waves. When earthquakes pass through liquid material, seismic waves slow down, with these low-velocity regions interpreted as magma chambers -- although these chambers are still mostly solid rock, with only a small fraction of liquid melt. 11 seismometers from the EarthScope USArray -- discussed here in 2010 -- were used to listen to deep quakes, and 69 seismometers from several local seismic networks gathered data from shallower earthquakes. The study will enhance our understanding of the Yellowstone caldera, and our ability to predict its future behavior.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* ANOTHER MONTH: According to TIME magazine online, the state of New Jersey is working to clamp down on "dead driving". A state audit in March revealed the Motor Vehicle Commission had issued official documents, such as licenses, to more than 300 people no longer among the living. A proposed law would require the Commission to cross-check records with the Social Security Administration databases to avoid issuing legal documents to the deceased. If we must fear the walking dead, at least we won't have to worry about them behind the wheel.
* I had been using Amazon's Cover Creator app to build covers for my Amazon Kindle ebooks. I finally got to looking at the covers I had and thought: These are sorry -- I could put together much better covers myself.
I have a collection of old racy detective paperback covers that I retouched on Flickr, and I'd also added a few simple fake covers that I brewed up myself. I decided to use the fakes for inspiration in cooking up my own ebook covers, and quickly got one thrown together. It looked good, much better than what I had; I put other things on the back burner, and knocked out covers for all 21 of my ebooks as quickly as I could. They were all evolved from a common general configuration -- edition number at top right, then title, then an image, then author at the bottom -- with variations as per ebook type, and for individual ebooks as seemed useful. Once I acquired a few covers as templates, it was easy to modify them for other ebooks.
I was thinking that I might get a bit of extra sales from the better covers, but didn't want to get my hopes up, particularly since I would have no way to sort out a slight increase in sales. It's not certain that I did, but I had a record sales month in June, selling an average of more than one ebook a day, despite the fact that June isn't supposed to be a big book sales month. I'm very interested in seeing what happens in August, traditionally one of the top sales months.
Publishing ebooks has, incidentally, made me more reticent in face-to-face communications, and I'm not all that forward to begin with. The pocket change I'm picking up is all very good, but there's also the fact that there are people out there who are interested enough in what I have to say to actually pay money to read it. How cool is that? It's also interesting to me that well more people read hobbyist material like AIRBUS JETLINERS, than meatier historical or scientific fare.
That then poses the question of why I would bother to say things to people that they would never think of paying any money for. The end point of such idle discussions seems to usually be tiresome disputes over politics, religion, and such, with questions posed to me along the lines of: "What do you think about that?!" -- to which I reply: "It's all very complicated; or it's all very simple; or maybe it's both; or neither."
Unfortunately, that ends up picking a fight, or at least inflaming the fight already in progress. Such considerations, of course, do not rule out the polite small talk I use to lubricate interactions with others, nor does it suggest that maintaining my open websites is a waste of time. People only read my blog if they damn well feel like it, and that teaches me the necessary humility of being a writer: The customer is always right. I can do things on the websites that would be too inconsequential to sell, or too elaborate to cram into an ebook, and the websites give me a feedstock that I can use to produce ebooks; the websites and ebooks complement each other. Besides, I do get donations every now and then.
* Thanks to one reader for a donation to support the websites last month. It is very much appreciated.COMMENT ON ARTICLE