* 21 articles including: Cold War (series), new green revolution (series), chicken domestication (series), gunfire location systems, Ebola virus vaccine, cleaning up tar sand oil extraction, limitations of consciousness, measles vaccine provides implicit protection against other diseases, verification of Iran nuclear deal, Obama Clean Power Plan, and Estonia prepares for digital assault.
* NEWS COMMENTARY FOR AUGUST 2015: Late on Friday, 21 August, a gunman wielding a Kalashnikov assault rifle emerged from the bathroom of a high-speed train on the way from Amsterdam to Paris. A group of three young Americans, boyhood pals -- Anthony Sadler, a student at Sacramento University in California; Air Force Airman Spencer Stone; and active-duty Army National Guardsman Specialist Alek Skarlatos, back from a tour of duty in Afghanistan -- simply reacted and set upon the gunman, with an older Briton, financial consultant Alex Norman, lending his weight.
They overpowered the gunman and disarmed him, Stone being slashed with a box-cutter in the process. Marc Moogalian, a French-American teacher, was hit with a bullet in the neck -- but Stone, disregarding his own injuries, just shoved two fingers in the wound, pressed an artery to stop the bleeding, and kept his fingers there until medical aid arrived. On the following Monday, French President Francois Hollande awarded all four men the Legion d'Honneur medal.
The attacker was a Moroccan named Ayoub el-Khazzani; he had nine magazines for the AK-47, plus a pistol, but Skarlatos said he seemed inept in the handling of his weapon, which was why nobody was killed. The assailant, who has been nicknamed "Jihadi Junior", claimed he only intended to rob the train, but few are believing him. In any case, it was a ringing endorsement of the USA -- all the more so because of the diverse ethnicity of the three Americans, Sadler being black, the other two being white -- as well as of the UK. Not all news is bad news.
* As discussed by THE ECONOMIST ("Counting Heads", 29 August 2015), on 17 September, the US Congress will vote on repudiating the Iran nuclear deal. Given that both houses of Congress are controlled by the Republicans, the vote is inevitable; it is almost as inevitable that the vote will not achieve the two-thirds majority needed to override an Obama veto. The Republicans will need the votes of 13 Senate and 44 House Democrats to get the super-majority; that's simply not going to happen.
Indeed, the Republicans may not get enough of a margin to overcome a Democratic filibuster, meaning that Obama won't need to exercise his veto. The Democrats have no sympathy with the Republicans on this issue, and the Republicans are not trying to get any sympathy from them. Donald Trump, doing his bit to diminish Republican credibility, insists that the Iranians "are going to take over parts of the world that you wouldn't believe. And I think it's going to lead to a nuclear holocaust." Mike Huckabee was at least as subtle in claiming that Obama would "take the Israelis and march them to the door of the oven."
The Republican position is weakened not only by the hysterical rhetoric, but by the failure to offer a credible alternative. All the Republicans have been able to propose is tougher sanctions to force total capitulation in Tehran, and the subsequent complete dismantling of the Iranian nuclear infrastructure. Nobody involved in pressing the deal on Iran ever had as a goal absolutely guaranteeing that Iran could never get the Bomb. The goal was to present carrots and sticks to the Iranians to persuade them that they didn't need the Bomb, and were better off without it. This persuasion was reinforced by the fact that the six nations pushing the deal included Russia and China, indicating that there was a strong consensus in resistance to Iranian nuclear ambitions. The Iranians, on their part, could retain a "virtual deterrent" by still having the potential to acquire the Bomb, should they decide that altered circumstances require that they do so.
The strident and incoherent Republican outrage over the issue is disturbing. Certainly, particularly in an election season, politics inevitably involves a good deal of noisy theatrics -- but the tradition is that, when it comes down to making decisions, the leadership will be inclined to face reality. It is hard, however, to see how politicians who have risen into the sky on a balloon driven by their hot rhetoric are ever going to get their feet back on the ground.
* As reported by an article from BBC WORLD Online ("President Obama Eyes African Legacy" by Alastair Leithead, 17 August 2015), Africa has long tended to be an afterthought in the concerns of American presidents, for valid reasons falling below Europe, Asia, and the Americas in political priority. Barack Obama, however, is genetically wired to think more of Africa, due to his Kenyan father and relations, and regarded his trip to the continent in July as another one of his string of recent successes.
Obama got a rousing welcome in Africa, with the speeches he gave there covering a wide range, emphasizing the significance of security, particularly the fight against extremism; trade replacing aid; the importance of youth and women, human rights, and democracy; and the battle against corruption.
In particular, he used the "bully pulpit" granted him to twit African "Big Men" who don't want to give up power. In a speech to the African Union (AU) commission secretariat delivered in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Obama spoke of the "cancer of corruption," making a strong impression in referring to leaders who "refuse to step aside when their terms end." Obama added: "I love my work, but under our constitution I can't run again." He got rousing cheers when he said: "I don't understand why people want to stay so long -- especially when they've got a lot of money."
Presidents Teodoro Obiang of Equatorial Guinea (36 years in office), Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe (35), and Paul Biya of Cameroon (33) have been in power the longest of all of Africa's Big Men -- but Africans are getting tired of Big Men. Obama said: "Sometimes you will hear a leader say 'I'm the only person who can keep the nation together'. If that's true, that leader has failed to truly build the nation."
Along with him on the trip were American businessmen and at least one billionaire. He made sure to visit successful start-up companies, among them one developing a solar lighting system, under the Obama-backed "Power Africa" initiative, to bring electricity to the remotest of villages. Although Presidents Clinton and Bush plowed huge sums into Africa to tackle AIDS and malaria -- massive health challenges that needed the dollars -- Obama is more interested in the long term. His vision is of major but gradual changes in infrastructure, agriculture, and trade, with a push towards younger and more democratic leadership.
Obama's supporters say his African legacy may take time to build, but will pay off, and it was clear he was laying groundwork for a future career once he leaves the White House. He told the AU: "I'll be honest with you. I'm looking forward to life after being the president. I won't have this big security detail all the time ... and I can visit Africa more often."
Obama was obviously glad to be in Kenya, and Kenyans were glad to have him there. Terror attacks have hit the country's reputation hard, and the first-ever visit by a sitting American president did a great deal to improve that global image. There was real Obama-mania on the streets of Nairobi, despite the high security and grumbling over road closures. He still didn't pull his punches there, publicly clashing with President Uhuru Kenyatta over gay rights. It's hard to see that much of specific substance came of the tour; it's the long game where Obama, "Kenya's first American president" as he called himself, believes he will be judged.
* As discussed by a note from THE ECONOMIST, after Vladimir Putin came to power in Russia, he turned his sights on the powerful Yukos oil firm and its independent-minded boss, Mikhail Khodorkovsky. The company was broken up, with the state oil firm Rosneft walking off with the guts of it in an auction in 2004. That left the shareholders of Yukos empty-handed -- but what could they do, in the face of official indifference and a leashed judiciary? What they could do was take their case elsewhere, with recent judgements against the Russian state by tribunals in Strasbourg, Stockholm, and The Hague. The plaintiffs are now going after Russian state assets being held outside the country's borders, with courts in Belgium and France freezing such assets.
Putin has vowed to retaliate and seize Western assets in Russia. That isn't an empty threat, but then again, Russia is at a disadvantage in economic warfare with the West -- because Russia economically needs the West far more than the West needs Russia. Yes, it's a messy and ugly situation all around, but it's well uglier for Putin, particularly because it makes him seem, justly, so backward and weak. His governance, only too reminiscent of the era of the tsars, appears badly out of tune with the 21st century, doing prospect of change in Russia and no sign that Putin's grip on power is weakening, but the question remains: After Putin, what?
* As part of their campaign against the West, Russian authorities have now banned a range of Western products from sale in Russia, most recently dishwashing liquids and laundry detergents, saying they had "toxic" ingredients. Never let it be said that Russians lack a sharp and black sense of humor, a tweet going around telling of a Russian who had been busted with two grams of foreign detergent on his person: "In court, the defendant tried unsuccessfully to prove that the washing powder was merely cocaine."
A related tweet included a photo of a little ziplock bag with a white powder in it, with the caption: "Psst, kid -- do you want a bit of washing powder?"COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* THE COLD WAR (80): American worries over being second-place to the Soviets in space were not relieved by a second launch attempt of a Vanguard satellite on 25 January 1958. The Vanguard didn't go up in a ball of flame, but the launch was aborted 14 seconds before launch, with extended rework needed before an attempt could be made again. The abort was prudent, there being no sense in taking the chance of losing another shot, but it made for public disappointment.
Von Braun's people continued efforts to launch their satellite, which was named "Explorer 1", on a modified Redstone missile, renamed "Juno" in its launch vehicle configuration. The Juno was a Redstone missile with a cluster of 11 solid-fuel rockets on top, capped by the Explorer satellite, which looked much like a solid-fuel rocket itself.
Explorer 1 was successfully launched into orbit on 31 January 1958. Although von Braun had envisioned his Orbiter satellite as carrying nothing but a radio transmitter, Explorer 1 carried a modest science payload, including a radiation counter. As it looped upward in an elliptical orbit, the radiation counter would go silent, to revive after the satellite fell lower again. Later Explorer shots would determined that the reason it went silent was because it was overloaded, and that the Earth was surrounded by radiation belts -- the "Van Allen belts", named after project scientist James Van Allen of Iowa State University.
Unlike the two Sputniks, Explorer 1 actually had some science payback, though that was much less significant to the public than the fact that the US had finally got into space. Von Braun's star continued his own rocket-like rise; now it was his turn to have his face on the cover of TIME magazine, on the 17 February 1958 issue, labeled as "Missileman Von Braun", with the flaming Juno booster rising into the night sky behind him.
In the meantime, the race to build ICBMs continued more quietly, if also more energetically, in the background. The Air Force had taken interest in the Navy's work on the solid-fuel Polaris SLBM, and had been conducting studies towards a land-based solid-fuel ICBM under the "Weapon System Q (WS-Q)" program. In February, Air Force brass lobbied to proceed to full development of WS-Q, with approval granted readily. The new ICBM was given the name of "Minuteman"; it would be stowed in buried concrete "silos", the gyros of its inertial guidance system kept spinning, ready to launch on a moment's notice at all times. It was to use the latest solid-state electronics, the government pumping money into the US electronics industry that would pay off in a big way later.
The Soviets were similarly moving towards more effective ICBMs than Korolyev's awkward R-7. Korolyev was developing a two-stage missile, the "R-9", which was still fueled by liquid oxygen and kerosene, but was much easier to prepare for launch, and also had a gyroscopic inertial guidance system that gave it reasonable targeting accuracy, without requiring radio control.
The R-9 was really just a half-step beyond the R-7, and would never amount to much; the Soviets were also pursuing a more promising ICBM, the two-stage "R-16" -- which would eventually be codenamed "SS-7 Sadler" by NATO -- being investigated by the OKB-586 missile development bureau, under Mikhail Yangel. Instead of liquid oxygen and kerosene propellants, the R-16 would use "storable" propellants, nitric acid and kerosene. Storables were nasty to handle, but unlike liquid oxygen, which would soon evaporate away after being loaded into a missile, the storables could be loaded into a missile and left there for an extended time, allowing the missile to be launched at will.
The Soviets were lagging the US in development of large solid-rocket grains and would become very fond of storables. The R-16 would also have the improved inertial guidance system. In parallel with the R-16, OKB-586 was working on a medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM), the "R-12", NATO "SS-4 Sandal", which was a derivative of the existing R-5 IRBM, but with storable propellants and the inertial guidance system; the organization was also developing a scaled-up IRBM derivative of the R-12, the "R-14", NATO "SS-5 Skean". Each of these missiles were to have both surface- and silo-launched variants.
The fact that development of the R-16, R-12, and R-14 had been assigned to Yangel's OKB-586 did not indicate any particular prejudice against Sergei Korolyev and his OKB-1. His Sputnik satellites had put him in very good graces with Premier Khrushchev, and he was preparing to launch the more impressive Object D satellite. Studies were also being performed towards a spy satellite, the "Object OD-1", and a manned space capsule, the "Object OD-2".
Object OD-2 envisioned a spacecraft in which the passenger rode in a sphere or "sharik" that would be returned to Earth, and deploy a parachute for landing. While Khrushchev liked the idea of putting a Soviet citizen into orbit, Red Army generals were not so enthusiastic, seeing it as useless stunt, and were much more interested in a spy satellite.
Korolyev was very shrewd, and promoted for a scheme in which the same basic technology was to be used for the spy satellite: instead of returning a passenger to Earth in the sharik, the spy satellite would return cameras and film in the sharik. Development of the manned space capsule would then be integrated into development of the spy satellite. There would intense discussion over the proposal -- no doubt, Red Army brass suspected they were being had -- but Korolyev would finally get his own way. [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* WINGS & WEAPONS: The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has selected two finalists, Aerovironment and Northrop Grumman, for the "Tactically Exploited Reconnaissance Node (TERN)" project, which is to demonstrate a Predator-sized drone that can be launched and recovered from a naval patrol vessel.
DARPA has no immediate customer lined up, but believes that TERN will open up new opportunities for drone operations. To the present, patrol vessels have only operated small drones in service, recovering them with a net system; TERN will give patrol vessels a drone with more payload capacity, endurance, and a potential to carry light munitions.
Although DARPA has kept a lid on the specifics of TERN proposals, the agency has released an artist's concept of a TERN vehicle -- a twin-engine "tail-sitter" or "pogo" machine that can take off and land on its tail. It will require no special recovery facilities, being able to use a patrol vessel's aft helideck. Such a TERN vehicle would have a very sophisticated flight-control system, since landing tail-first on a small vessel in rough seas is obviously going to be problematic.
* In other drone news, the US Office of Naval Research (ONR) is planning a demonstration in which small attack drones will operate as an intelligent swarm to overwhelm adversary defenses. Under the "Low-Cost UAV Swarming Technology (LOCUST)" program, ONR plans to launch 30 Coyote attack drones from a ship off the coast of Florida, with the Coyotes forming a swarm and autonomously conducting a mission.
The tube-launched "Coyote" drone was originally developed developed by a startup named Advanced Ceramics Research, which was bought out and then eventually became a component of Raytheon. The Coyote has pop-out wings, a pusher prop with electric drive, a weight of about 5.4 kilograms (12 pounds), and an endurance of about 90 minutes. Under LOCUST, the Coyotes will be launched in a mass in about half a minute, to then establish communications, with one drone establishing the lead and the others following. The leader may change if necessary, with the swarm having the ability to break up into sub-swarms, or send individual drones off on specific secondary missions.
* As discussed by a note in THE ECONOMIST, a team of researchers at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, has used 3D printing to fabricate a complete jet turbine engine. It's actually just an "auxiliary power unit (APU)", a small turbine fitted to an aircraft to provide ground power and engine starting, with a total weight of 38 kilograms (88 pounds). The printing system used laser sintering to create parts using titanium, nickel, and aluminum alloys; it seems to have been more a exercise in construction, since at last notice the APU hadn't been actually run.
While commercial jet engine manufacturers are very interested in 3D printing, they are only using it to build selective parts for their engines, not entire engines just yet. However, fully printed engines might be useful in small drone aircraft, or particularly in expendable jet-powered missiles -- where the engine's only used once, and for a short period of time.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* LISTEN UP: As reported by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("Calling The Shots", 13 September 2014), on 3 September 2014, a think tank named the Urban Institute released a report on Washington DC's "ShotSpotter" system -- a network of microphones that covers about a quarter of the city. In the 2011:2012 school year, the network detected 336 incidents of gunfire during the school day. A gunshot was fired in the vicinity of over half the schools covered by ShotSpotter, with most of them going unreported.
The police find such data very useful, which is why gunshot-monitoring technology is being adopted so widely. DC's ShotSpotter was one of the first, having gone into operation in 2005; now about 80 police forces use the technology, which is manufactured by SST of California. Microphones are set up through areas noted for gun crime, with software filtering out confounding noises such as firecrackers, car backfires, or jackhammers. The system can even triangulate the sound of a gunshot if it's picked up several microphones, and give police officers a precise location within minutes of a shot being fired.
One interesting observation is that celebratory gunfire is surprisingly common in the USA. In the final hours of 31 December 2013, ShotSpotter microphones picked up over 1,100 shots -- a quarter of the total for the month, with a high proportion of shots from areas where shots are otherwise rarely heard. In some places, outbursts of shots will accompany a win by a favored local sports team. More practically, gunshot detectors reveal that in the territory covered, guns are fired almost 400 times for every homicide, while only one firing in five is reported.
ShotSpotter certainly makes life easier for cops -- for example, they don't have to look around for shell casings to validate whether a shooting has occurred, lending credibility to reports by witnesses. The system can even tell if multiple shooters were involved, or if a shooter was moving when he was firing. Several US states allow microphone analysis to be used as evidence in court. Police are definitely enthusiastic, feeling that better public surveillance reassures the public.
There are critics, for example Daniel Webster, a criminologist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, who judges that the microphones are simply overloading police with data, giving too many reports of gunfire for them to check into. In addition, some police officers say the microphones have a high rate of false positives, indicating shots that never happened, while being similarly afflicted by false negatives, shots fired indoors rarely being picked up. In Suffolk County in New York State, police found that only 7% of the shots picked up by the ShotSpotter system could be validated.
Still, the number of microphones is likely to grow, along with cameras and license plate scanners, the data being returned by such networks being analyzed by software to spot geographic crime trends. Even with a high rate of false alarms, surveillance will still be able to identify problem areas, allowing police to focus on them.
* In somewhat related news, the controversial shooting of black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, on 9 August 2014 -- which touched off waves of public unrest -- also led to police there being fitted with body cameras, clipped to their shirts, with other police forces becoming interested in the technology as well. A study in the Los Angeles suburb of Rialto concluded that bodycams significantly reduce complaints about police brutality: cops are less inclined to play rough, citizens are less inclined to make a fuss if the camera doesn't back them up.
Ferguson citizens responded to the death of Brown by taking videos of their own of the police. That sounds like something the police would welcome, except for the fact that it can lead to "dueling videos" in court. Although the 2009 police shooting of one Oscar Grant in a subway station in Oakland, California, was video-recorded by many witnesses, there was still intense debate over whether the officer was guilty of murder or involuntary homicide; a jury decided the latter, the inclination in such cases being to give the police the benefit of doubt, if possible. What is unambiguous is that cameras are now everywhere, they're not going to go away, and we're going to figure out how to deal with them.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* EBOLA VIRUS VACCINE: As discussed by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("Cluster Bombing", 8 August 2015), the epidemic of Ebola fever in West Africa, which has killed over 12,000 people, is dying down -- but people are still getting infected, and it might well flare up again. Fortunately, the Public Health Agency of Canada has come up with a vaccine, with the less-than-snappy name of "rVSV-ZEBOV", to protect against the disease.
The vaccine uses the "vesicular stomatitis virus (VSV)" -- which causes illness in cattle and horses, but not in humans -- modified to express a coat protein for the Ebola virus (EBV), Zaire ebolavirus. VSV remains functionally as it was before being altered, the alteration being cosmetic, so the modified VSV doesn't present a threat to humans; however, the immune system still targets it, becoming primed to deal with EBV if it makes a showing.
A trial was conducted on more than 7,600 people in Guinea by a group of researchers, led by Marie Paule Kieny of the United Nations World Health Organization and John-Arne Rottingen of the Norwegian Institute of Public Health. Clusters of people who were at risk of EBV infection -- having been in contact with a victim, or in contact with somebody who had been in contact with one, the patterns of contact being referred to as "rings" -- were offered the vaccine, being told that it was experimental; women who were pregnant or breast-feeding were excluded from the trial.
To no surprise, most of those offered the vaccine volunteered. Each cluster was split into two "arms", one that was vaccinated immediately, the other being a control group that was vaccinated three weeks later. EBV has an incubation time of ten days; nobody who got the vaccine immediately came down with the disease, while 16 of those who had to wait came down with the disease before they could be vaccinated. Nobody from either group that had actually been vaccinated came down with the disease after ten days.
At that point, the efficacy of the vaccine appeared so solidly demonstrated that it was unconscionable to withhold it from the controls. Analysis now consists of tracking whether anyone who was vaccinated actually comes down with Ebola fever, or has significant side effects. Given the seriousness of the threat, there's going to be enormous pressure to approve the vaccine for general use.
The vaccine was trumpeted as "100% effective", but as this narrative shows, only 16 of the test subjects, out of thousands, came down with Ebola fever. Of necessity, the controlled trial was so quickly abandoned as to make any precise value for effectiveness dubious; all that can be done now is keep track of the vaccinated. Actually, that hardly seems like a problem; EBV was never seen as a particularly tricky immunological target, not like the shifty influenza virus -- or worse, HIV or the plasmodium parasite that causes malaria, whose ability to spoof the immune system almost seem willfully malign, and that have so far defied attempts to develop an effective vaccine against them.
Coming up with an EBV vaccine did require work, in particular demanding high-biohazard handling of the virus, but it did not require any breakthroughs in vaccine science. Side effects, or some ugly fumble in vaccine production, do remain a possibility that may not be noticed until the vaccine is in wide use. However, given how fearsome EBV is, only the wildest antivaxxers would think of opposing it, even though the vaccine features terms like "live virus" and "genetic modification" that tend to set them off. If there's any silver lining in the Ebola fever epidemic, it's that it's helped keep the antivaxxers on the run.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* ANOTHER GREEN REVOLUTION (2): The second green revolution did not come about overnight. Flood resistance was first observed in a few existing varieties of rice found in Odisha, another flood-prone state in India. It took more than a decade's work to nail down the genes that provided the trait, but splicing them into existing strains got results much more quickly than traditional selective plant breeding.
Now work is underway on heat tolerance. High temperatures during rice flowering can lead to sterility. When it's too hot, the anthers of the rice plant, the pollen-containing organs, may not open properly and release their pollen. Flowering usually occurs at midday; tweaking the plant to release in the cool early morning would fix the problem. A gene has been found that codes for early-morning flowering, and work is underway to fix it in a new rice variety.
Three-quarters of the world's rice is produced in irrigated paddies, but they only amount to half of the world's riceland. The rest is rain-fed, being vulnerable to drought and floods. Most African paddies are in this second category, which is why the first green revolution mostly passed Africa by. Providing drought- and flood-resistant seeds for these areas could double yields, which would be enough to meet projected demand in 2035. The yields of rain-fed lands are so low that a doubling wouldn't increase total production as much as the first green revolution did, but it would have a great effect on poverty, allowing the poorest rice farmers to earn more money, while ensuring that other poor remain fed. Work on "golden rice" that's more nutritious, for example with more vitamin A, would help them stay healthy as well,
The first green revolution was not entirely driven by technology; it also had to be driven by capital for mechanization, distribution, and all the other components of rice production and delivery. The second green revolution will also need capital inputs to be successful. Unfortunately, government policies tend to raise obstacles to the generation of capital needed to drive the exercise.
Governments do finance basic research, and in many places they subsidize farmers by ensuring they're paid above world price. That can boost demand for new seeds over the short run, but it undermines international trade in rice, and raise prices for consumers. That pushes higher wages, with a knock-on effect on the rest of the economy. Price subsidies have their upsides, but they also have their severe downsides.
Land-use policy is also problematic. In the US and Europe, the modernization of agriculture has driven the consolidation of farms into larger units. In much of Asia, plots are usually tiny, governments being unwilling to see small farmers driven off the land. That's understandable, but farmers will never be able to do much more than eke out a living on small plots, while productivity of rice suffers, reducing supply and driving up prices. Improving crop productivity implies a degree of farm consolidation.
The first green revolution ensured that Asia would no longer starve, and did much to push the Asian demographic transition to smaller, richer families. The social transformation due to the second green revolution will not be as dramatic, but it will encourage agricultural and industrial development, and more importantly will stave off famine. [END OF SERIES]START | PREV | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* THE COLD WAR (79): The US Vanguard satellite was ready to go on 6 December: the booster lifted off the launch pad, then settled back down into a blossoming ball of flame. The satellite bounced away from the explosion into the brush, chirping away its radio telemetry as it sat on the ground. A newswriter said: "Why doesn't somebody go out and kill it?!"
The US had tried to match the Soviets and fumbled in a very public way. The press called the satellite "Flopnik", "Plopnik", "Puffnik", "Kaputnik", and "Stayputnik". Representatives of the USSR at the United Nations asked their American counterparts if they would be interested in receiving Soviet technical aid for backward nations. One Congressman actually blamed von Braun for the fiasco. The launch was certainly a disappointment, but again, launch failures were hardly anything unexpected. The bottom line was still that the US wasn't going to get into space in 1957.
In their first issue of the new year, TIME magazine put Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev's picture on the cover -- grinning toothily, wearing a golden crown in the form of the Kremlin, playing with Sputnik 1 -- and declared him "Man Of The Year". Indeed, Khrushchev was flying very high at the time, not just because of Sputnik, but because the USSR was enjoying rapid rates of economic growth, so rapid that he was convinced the Soviet Union would soon outstrip the United States. Unfortunately, there were difficulties with this rosy outlook:
Khrushchev was placing too much weight on his own propaganda; to the extent the USSR was making economic progress, it was unlikely to be open-ended. Like a person climbing a tree to reach the Moon, progress might be rapid at first, but the Moon would remain just as far away in the end.
That was so with Sputnik as well. Khrushchev had started a contest that, in hindsight, the USSR wasn't at all in a position to win. Ignoring space stunts, the Soviet Union was not any further along in long-range missile development than the USA, with both sides stuck on the literally dreadful strategic nuclear treadmill. The US PLUMBOB test series had been completed in early November 1957, after a total of 24 shots, two of which were duds. The Soviets tested 15 nukes during the year, while the British had tested four. Strauss and the AEC were already pressuring Eisenhower for a new series of tests, codenamed HARDTACK, to be conducted in 1958.
However, Eisenhower had dropped out of the loop for the moment, having suffered a minor stroke on 25 November. He was back in the saddle within weeks, but it was a depressing time for him. Dealing with one crisis after another, enduring incessant criticisms from Congress and media talking heads, was discouraging, with calls for him to resign for health reasons being a trial. Even more aggravating were the attacks on John Foster Dulles, who was being blamed for everything.
In response to the sniping at Dulles, Eisenhower made it clear that Dulles had never done anything that he, Eisenhower, had not approved; and if there were complaints, they were better targeted on the president, not the secretary of state. Admittedly, Dulles conveniently drew fire away from the president -- and Dulles, being thick-skinned, some would say arrogant, didn't mind the attacks very much -- but Eisenhower did not feel Dulles was expendable.
Privately, Eisenhower admitted that Dulles overstated his public denunciations of the Reds. The president didn't disagree with what Dulles said, it was just that the denunciations were not necessarily helpful to diplomacy, and inappropriate to a secretary of state. Although Eisenhower did admire Dulles' keen mind, the president also expressed exasperation with Dulles' mindset as a lawyer; the secretary of state was inclined to lay out a rigorous advocate's case for a policy, instead of proposing alternatives and options. There was, after all, a place for flexibility and imagination in diplomacy.
Despite that, when Dulles suggested resigning, Eisenhower made it sincerely and emphatically clear that the secretary of state should stay on the job. The president did not discourage independent thinking in his subordinates, and honestly thought highly of Dulles -- and besides, Dulles had become secretary of state in part because of his hardline anti-Communism, since it protected Eisenhower from attacks from the extreme Right over being soft on the Reds. The fact that Dulles made America's European allies nervous was inconvenient, but could be accepted. Dulles would remain, literally, to the end. [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* Space launches for July included:
-- 03 JUL 15 / PROGRESS 60P (ISS) -- A Soyuz-U booster was launched from Baikonur in Kazakhstan at 0455 GMT (local time - 6) to put "Progress 60P" AKA "M-28M" tanker-freighter spacecraft into orbit on an International Space Station (ISS) supply mission. It was the 60th Progress mission to the ISS. It docked with the ISS Pirs module two days later. The mission was seen as vital, after several failures of cargo ship launches.
-- 10 JUL 15 / DMC3 x 3, DEORBITSAIL, CBNT-1 -- An ISRO Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle was launched from Sriharikota on the Bay of Bengal at 1628 GMT (local time - 5:30) to put the first three third-generation Disaster Monitoring Constellation (DMC3) satellites into orbit for Beijing-based imaging company AT21. Each of the three spacecraft had a launch mass of 447 kilograms (985 pounds) and carried a "Very High Resolution Imager", capable of producing panchromatic images with a resolution of a meter (3 feet), or multispectral images with a resolution of 3 to 4 meters (10 to 13 feet).
The DMC3 satellites were built by Surrey Satellite Technology LTD (SSTL), being based on the SSTL-300 S1 bus. SSTL also flew two other payloads on the launch, including a triple-unit CubeSat named "DeorbitSail", intended to test a deployable kapton de-orbiting sail 4 meters on a side; and an experimental Earth observation satellite named "CBNT-1", with a launch mass of 91 kilograms (201 pounds). CBNT-1 was intended to test new technologies and manufacturing processes; the meaning of the acronym was not announced, apparently being some sort of inside joke.
The booster was in "PSLV-XL" configuration, with six large solid-rocket boosters. This is the most powerful PSLV configuration, the payload being the heaviest commercial payload ever launched on a PSLV, with a total mass of 1,440 kilograms (3,174 pounds). This was the 30th flight of the PSLV, its 25th consecutive successful flight, and 27th successful flight overall.
-- 15 JUL 15 / GPS 2F-10 (USA 262) -- An Atlas 5 booster was launched from Cape Canaveral at 1536 GMT (local time + 4) to put the "GPS 2F-10" AKA USA 262 AKA "Navstar 72" navigation satellite into orbit. It was the 70th GPS satellite and tenth Block 2F spacecraft, with the Block 2F series featuring a new "safety of life" signal for civilian air traffic control applications. The Atlas 5 was in the "401" configuration, with a 4-meter (13.1-foot) diameter fairing, no solid rocket boosters, and an upper stage with a single Centaur engine.
-- 15 JUL 15 / STAR ONE C4, MSG 4 -- An Ariane 5 ECA booster was launched from Kourou in French Guiana at 2102 GMT (local time + 3) to put the "Star One C4" and "MSG 4" geostationary satellites into orbit. The Star One C4 comsat was built by Space Systems / Loral for Brazilian operator Embratel Star One, being based on the SS/L-1300 bus. The satellite had a launch mass of 5,565 kilograms (12,270 pounds) and a payload of 48 Ku-band transponders. It was placed in the 70W geostationary slot to provide TV services over Latin America and the US the Brazil, Latin America, and the United States.
The MSG 4 geostationary weathersat provided real-time weather imagery for Eumetsat, the European meteorological satellite organization. The spacecraft was built by Thales Alenia Space and had a launch mass of 2,043 kilograms (4,504 pounds). Eumetsat initiated the MSG program in 1993, with the first satellite in the series, "MSG 1", launched in 2002; MSG 4 was renamed "Meteosat 11" when it became operational. It was placed in standby, on the expectation of the retirement of earlier Meteosats in the following few years.
-- 22 JUL 15G / SOYUZ ISS 43S (ISS) -- A Soyuz-Fregat booster was launched from Baikonur at 2102 GMT (next day local time - 6) to put the "Soyuz ISS 43S" AKA "TMA-17M" crewed space capsule into orbit on an International Space Station (ISS) support mission. The crew included Kjell Lindgren of NASA (1st space flight), Oleg Kononenko of Russia's Roscosmos (3rd space flight), and Kimiya Yui of Japan's JAXA (1st space flight). The spacecraft took a direct ascent trajectory, docking with the ISS Rassvet module six hours after liftoff. They joined the "Expedition 44" crew of Terry Virts of NASA, Anton Shkaplerov of Roscosmos, and Samantha Cristoforetti of the ESA.
-- 24 JUL 15 / WIDEBAND GLOBAL SATCOM 7 (USA 263) -- A Delta 4 booster was launched from Cape Canaveral at 0007 GMT (previous day local time + 4) to put the US Department of Defense's "Wideband Global Satcom (WGS) 7" AKA "USA 263" geostationary comsat into space. WGS 7 was based on the Boeing BSS 702 comsat bus; the satellite had a launch mass of 6,000 kilograms (13,200 pounds), carried a payload of Ka / X-band transponders, and had a service life of 14 years.
The satellite was the first "Block 2 Follow-On" spacecraft in the USAF WGS program; it provided increased downlink channels and bandwidth. The WGS constellation at the time included:
Ten WGS satellites will be launched in all, replacing the aging Defense Satellite Communication System (DSCS); each WGS satellite has an order of magnitude more bandwidth than the entire DSCS network. The 9th WGS satellite will include Canada, Denmark, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and New Zealand as partners.
-- 25 JUL 15 / BEIDOU x 2 -- A Chinese Long March 3B booster was launched from Xichang at 1229 GMT (local time - 8) to put two "Beidou" navigation satellites into orbit. They were placed in a medium orbit at 55 degrees inclination, with an altitude of 21,400 kilometers (13,300 miles). These were the second and third elements of a new 35-satellite constellation, which is expected to achieve global coverage by 2020. The constellation will consist of at least 27 satellites in the medium orbit; three satellites at geostationary altitude, but in an inclined orbit; and five satellites in geostationary orbit. The Beidou network will provide positioning accuracy to about ten meters (33 feet) and time reference to about ten nanoseconds.
* OTHER SPACE NEWS: As discussed here in 2013, the US National Aeronautics & Space Administration (NASA) launched the "New Horizons" Pluto deep space probe on 19 January 2006. The probe, which had a launch mass of about half a tonne, performed a "gravity assist" flyby of Jupiter in early 2007 to line it up for Pluto encounter -- which took place this July, closest approach during the flyby being on the 14th, the high-payoff observation period lasting a total of nine days. The probe's observations were backed up by more from Earth- and space-based observatories, working together to obtain a matrix of data that will enhance what New Horizons has found.
The mission science team, under principal investigator Alan Stern, is now examining the flood of data the probe is returning. It won't be obtained all at once; the encounter filled up the probe's two mass storage units with about 50 gigabits of data, and given a data rate of no more than 2 kilobits per second at best -- even using NASA's biggest receiving antennas -- it will take a total of 16 months to complete the download.
The mission science team has, after releasing some spectacular imagery of Pluto, settled down to data analysis, with weekly public briefings. Early results show Pluto features surprisingly diverse terrain, with broad plains and young mountains, suggesting an active geology; there are also streaks that suggest winds or geysers. A full accounting of the results likely won't be available until 2017 at earliest.
NASA has lined up two more Kuiper Belt objects along the probe's trajectory for further investigation, "2014 MU69" and "2014 PN70", both discovered by the Hubble Space Telescope. New Horizons would fly past one of them in early 2019, if the follow-on mission is approved. Each is approximately the size of Pluto's mini-moons, about 25 to 55 kilometers (15 to 34 miles) in diameter. Focusing on Pluto had the drawback that region of sky through which possible trajectories could be taken is relatively sparse of Kuiper Belt objects.
Incidentally, the images of Pluto returned so far seem fully illuminated, even though Pluto is so far away from the Sun. Those who have done the calculations say that the Sun's brightness on Pluto is several hundred times that of the brightest full Moon, so no problem.
* As discussed by an article from THE CONVERSATION website ("Here's Why Scientists Haven't Invented An Impossible Space Engine" by Steven Thomson, 9 August 2015), every now and then stories circulate in the space-related press of an advanced propulsion system that will overthrow everything in use today. The latest is the "Electromagnetic Drive (EMDrive)", which was first proposed by one Roger Shawyer in 1999.
Shawyer says the EMDrive works by bouncing microwaves around inside a conical cavity. The taper of the cavity, so the story goes, creates a change in the "group velocity" of the microwaves as they move from one end to the other, which leads to an unbalanced force, which then translates into a thrust. While the EMDrive would require energy, it would not require any propellant to generate thrust. This is problematic because, according to conservation of momentum, for a mass to accelerate in one direction, it has to eject mass in the other direction. The EMDrive doesn't emit particles or radiation, and so it's hard to see how a vehicle could use it to accelerate.
However, a few open-minded experimental groups have built prototype EMDrives, and all claim to have seen that they generate some form of thrust. Eagleworks, a NASA-based group, built a prototype and reported in 2014 to have obtained 30:50 micronewtons of thrust; this work was not peer-reviewed. Now a group at the University of Dresden in Germany under Professor Martin Tajmar claimed to have verified that the EMDrive produced about 20 micronewtons of thrust.
The paper generated by Tajmar's group is actually much more ambiguous than it sounds at first. First, they observed that a control experiment, which wasn't supposed to generate any thrust at all, generated more thrust than the EMDrive. Second, the thrust measurements varied in a slow and gradual way that suggested some thermal effect on measurement. Third, the thrust is very small, about on the order of the gravitational attraction between two bricks being held at arm's length. The Eagleworks report features much the same ambiguities.
In short, there's nothing there that suggests anything more than experimental error -- from thermal effects, problems with magnetic shielding, or even a non-uniform gravitational field in the laboratory. Tajmar himself said: "I believe there is no real news here yet." The difficulty with doing much more is that few regard the EMDrive as worth more trouble to investigate.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* CLEANING UP TAR SANDS: Canada is not the first country that comes to mind as an oil producer, but only Saudi Arabia and Venezuela have greater proven oil reserves than Canada. Unfortunately, 97% of Canada's 174 billion barrels are in the form of "oil sands" AKA "tar sands", mostly in the province of Alberta -- these being deposits of "bitumen", a gummy, dirty, goopy material that doesn't pump very well. Traditionally, turning it into usable oil means strip-mining the sands and running them through processing that demands a lot of energy and produces a lot of toxic waste water. As discussed by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("The Steam From Below", 6 September 2014), there has been considerable work towards cleaning up tar sand's act.
One trick is known as "in-situ" production, in which steam heated to 300 degrees Celsius (570 degrees Fahrenheit) and injected at high pressure into deep boreholes. The steam, driven out of millions of slits in a steel borehole liner, liquefies the bitumen, allowing it to be pumped up to the surface. Extracting usable oil is then much easier, the need to chew up the Earth is minimized, and the technique can reach deposits far out of the reach of strip mining. Such waste water as is produced can be cleaned and recycled.
Steam now generates over half of all the bitumen extracted from the ground, and the proportion will continue to grow as the technology is improved. One of the newer tricks, "steam-assisted gravity drainage (SAGD)", has proven highly effective. SAGD involves drilling two horizontal wells through an oil-sands reservoir, one about five meters (16 feet) below the other. Steam is released from the top well, in a few weeks melting bitumen as far as 50 meters (165 feet) above and to the sides of the bore. The bitumen then trickles down and into the lower well, through which it is pumped to the surface.
The problem with using steam is that natural gas has to be burned to generate it. In a trial in 2013 Suncor, an Alberta firm, found that adding oil-based solvents to steam increases recovery while cutting the amount of water that has to be heated by 15%. Suncor plans to start commercial production within a year using solvents that include butane, propane, and a proprietary emulsifier. Other firms are working on schemes they claim will reduce the need for steam even more. Imperial Oil, based in Calgary, has replaced steam altogether by injecting solvents under high pressure, but at much lower temperatures; the scheme depends on being able to separate and reuse the solvents pumped to the surface along with the bitumen.
Experiments with more radical concepts are under way. Suncor is now testing the use of microwaves transmitted from a borehole into the surrounding bitumen deposit. The microwaves would dump most of their energy into the bitumen, not the surrounding earth, in the same way that a microwave oven heats up food, but not the glass or ceramic container for the food. Lab tests suggest using microwaves could cut energy requirements by three-quarters or better. Germany's Siemens is taking another innovative approach, generating an alternating magnetic field from a cable to melt bitumen deposits.
Use of new technologies to exploit tar sands is catching on fast, thanks in part to the "Canadian Oil Sands Innovation Alliance", in which member firms share information about their developments. The tar sands industry has a dirty reputation, is aware of it, and is trying to placate critics. Even those industry officials who don't really care about the critics still know they are obligated by law to clean up the mess from tar sands processing, and so any means of extracting the oil more cleanly, and also with less use of energy, should pay off.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* NOT SO MUCH THERE: As discussed by an article from TIME Magazine Online ("Why You're Pretty Much Unconscious All the Time" by Jeffrey Kluger, 26 June 2015), Pixar's animated movie INSIDE OUT has been a big hit this summer, envisioning our heads as occupied by five colorful characters, and operating a giant control panel. Of course, it's not an image that's supposed to be taken seriously -- and a recent research paper suggests that our consciousness is actually only a superficial component of what's going on upstairs.
The paper was written by a research group led by associate professor of psychology Ezequiel Morsella of San Francisco State University. It didn't involve any particular experimentation, other than self-examination by the researchers -- after all, every one of us is our own test subject when it comes to consciousness.
They came up with a scheme they call "Passive Frame Theory", which says that all the brain's heavy lifting is done without our being particularly aware of it, with the results then being brought to mind to allow a decision to be made. We consciously examine the results, and then the decision pops into our head. Morsella commented in a statement along with the paper: "The information we perceive in our consciousness is not created by conscious thought. Nor is it reacted to by conscious processes. Consciousness is the middle-man and it doesn't do as much work as you think."
If we honestly had to consciously think everything out, we would be hopelessly inefficient. Anyone who, say, plays the piano, at least at an amateur level, knows how laborious it is to step through a piece of music the first few times. Some dozens of times later, it's increasingly automatic; just consciously decide to play the tune and the hands do the rest, with specific attention only paid to parts that are troublesome to master.
Humans are, among all the creatures of the Earth, the most verbal, with the most elaborate capability for communication. The authors point out that if we want to say something, we start with a general idea, and then piece together the proper words to express that idea as we go along. We also don't usually give much conscious thought to how speak the words; we just want to say them, and they happen.
Our consciousness does seem magical, and some people insist that it is, that it's beyond our ability to ever really understand. The reality, according to the researchers, is that our consciousness is a result of the mechanistic operation of our brain; it's only there because it functionally needs to be there, and it isn't there except to the extent that it functionally needs to be. It is difficult to understand why anyone would be upset about that, since our perception of existence remains exactly the same in any case -- and if there's any surprise in the matter, it's like that in the old tale of the person who was surprised to find out he had been speaking prose all his life.
ED: I think this exercise is covering old ground, coming to conclusions that would have been no great revelation to David Hume, 250 years ago. Of course our thought processes are mechanistic. If those who insist that they cannot be are asked why, they are unable to give any credible answer, falling back on hand-waving and incredulity; nor can they say, in anything that resembles specifics, what they might otherwise be. They haven't lost the argument; they didn't have an argument in the first place.
Nor is it any real news that consciousness is superficial. If we punch in a calculation on a pocket calculator, the hardware inside the calculator does all the heavy lifting, and simply displays the result. That's all we care about, right? Is that different in any general way from the operation of our minds? Aside from an ongoing indifferent awareness that doesn't even go into short-term memory, and a certain background wool-gathering, we're only conscious to the extent that we have to recognize something; to imagine something; to analyze and make a decision. To make a decision, we are presented with the issue, and then we are presented with the decision; we go from scene to scene in the mind, everything else taking care of itself. Consciousness is no more or less than our internal multi-media display system and interface shell. What else would it be?COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* ANOTHER GREEN REVOLUTION (1) As discussed by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("The New Green Revolution", 10 May 2014), in the summer of 2008, the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh was hit by unusually heavy monsoon rains. Rice is a wet crop, but there are limits to how much flooding it can tolerate, and rice farmers in the worst-affected areas had good cause to worry about their crop. However, some had planted an experimental rice seed developed by the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines, genetically modified to put the plants into a sort of suspended animation when submerged. When the waters receded, the farmers ended up with a bumper crop.
Since that time, flood-resistant rice has caught on, with five million farmers around the world planting more than a dozen varieties of rice with flood-resistant genes, the varieties being collectively called "Sub 1". That's only the first step: new plants are emerging with tolerance against drought, salinity, and extreme heat that will revolutionize the cultivation of the planet's most important cereal crop -- if they work as promised and, significantly, public policies friendly to them are enacted.
The first green revolution, in the 1960s, helped save the developing world from disaster. Two plant breeders, Norman Borlaug, working with wheat, and MS Swaminathan, working with rice, persuaded governments in Asia and elsewhere to encourage the planting of higher-yielding varieties, especially of rice. At the time, China was suffering from famine due to Mao Zedong's disastrous Great Leap Forward, and India was generally thought to be on the brink of mass starvation. Thanks to the rise of responsible governments and the green revolution, doomsday was called off. Today, India even exports rice.
Unfortunately, Asian governments tend to think the problem of hunger has been largely defeated, and so are now focusing more on environmental issues. There isn't a lot of push for a new green revolution, even though population growth is once again threatening to outstrip food production. As a rough proportionality, if the world's population grows by a billion, another 100 million tonnes of rice a year will be needed to feed them. Current forecasts indicate that total rice consumption, now under 450 million tonnes, will grow to 555 million tonnes a year by 2035, which amounts to an increase in the range of 1.2% to 1.5% a year. The problem is that increases in rice yields are only making half that rate.
The first green revolution almost doubled yields from 1.9 tonnes a hectare in 1950:64 to 3.5 tonnes in 1985:98. Even that was only enough to keep pace with population growth, with yields and population both rising at about 1.75% a year in the half century after the green revolution started. Now gains have leveled out, and there are worries they may fall. For 25 years, IRRI has been planting a test field using its best seeds; output from the plot has fallen from nine to ten tonnes a hectare in the early 1990s to seven to eight tonnes now, as pests and diseases have taken their toll. Rice yields were rising at 2.5% a year between 1962 and 1982 -- but from 1992 to 2012, growth fell to just 0.8% a year.
There are many pressures on rice cultivation. Rice uses two to three times as much water as other cereals -- largely for leveling the paddies, the plant itself consumes no more water than wheat or maize -- but it's getting harder to find fresh water. The growth of Asian, particularly Chinese, cities, has cut into prime rice-growing land. Climate change poses a great threat, harvests tending to be pushed down by extreme heat. Worse, the richest rice-growing areas in the world are the deltas of Asia's great rivers, such as the Mekong, Brahmaputra, and Irawaddy; they are vulnerable to rising sea levels and increased salinity, which kills rice.
These river basins are the world's rice bowls; nothing else will grow with the same productivity, it is rice or nothing, and a shortfall in rice would be disastrous in all respects. Much is riding on increasing rice yields, but what are the chances that will happen?
The first green revolution was relatively straightforward, at least in terms of the agritech. If conventional rice varieties were fertilized, they would grow too tall and fall over. IRRI addressed that problem in 1962 by releasing a dwarf variety named "IR8". Not only would it not fall over, more of the plant growth would go into the productive head, instead of the stem. IR8 spread from the Punjab to the Philippines, transforming farming wherever water could be controlled and fertilizer delivered.
The second green revolution will be trickier. There won't be a single new miracle plant: instead, researchers will tailor seeds for particular environments -- dry, flooded, salty and so on. They will also improve the nutritional value of rice, not just the number of calories. The first green revolution had the biggest impact among farmers with the most water and fertilizer; the second will enrich the poorest farmers. [TO BE CONTINUED]NEXT | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* THE COLD WAR (78): If Mao Zedong had been indifferent to Khrushchev's Sputniks, the Americans were still agitated over them, finding in them dire evidence of a frightening Soviet threat. On 7 November 1957, Eisenhower was handed a report by the PSAC, titled "Deterrence & Survival in the Nuclear Age", that gave an exaggerated estimate of Soviet power. It had been written by a "security resources panel" organized under the PSAC, at the request of the NSC, and chaired by H. Rowan Gaither JR of the Ford Foundation; it would be accordingly known as the "Gaither Report". The report's focus was to examine "active and passive defense measures from two standpoints: their contribution to deterrence; and their protection to the civil population if war should come by accident or design."
Eisenhower found the Gaither Report "rather sobering", the document stating:
The Gaither report painted a dire picture of a monstrous Soviet military buildup, and declared that Soviet military tech was stepping ahead of America's in terms of quality. In reality, the report bordered on hysteria: over the previous two years, Soviet armed forces had been cut by a staggering two million personnel; and the R-7 ICBM, though it had a payload capability no American rocket could match for the time being, was barely a real weapon, Khrushchev later privately admitting that it was "only a symbolic counter-threat to the United States."
Not only was the R-7 laborious and troublesome to launch, but an ICBM needed a guidance system that would allow it to fly around the world and hit a target within a few kilometers. The only way the R-7 could be guided to anything like a specific target was by positioning a string of radio control stations along its flight path. It was really not much more than a bluff, Khrushchev hoping he could balance the American "ring of steel" around the USSR with ICBMs, presenting a threat to the US homeland in principle.
In the meantime, Khrushchev was cutting major defense development programs, notably jet bombers; although the Soviets were developing supersonic fighters, air-to-air missiles, and surface-to-air missiles at a rapid pace, that effort was heavily driven by the need to defend the Motherland against US attacks. The U-2 overflights only enhanced Soviet insecurity on that score, with work on rocket-boosted jet fighters in hopes of shooting the high-flying intruders down.
Eisenhower's view of the Soviet Union, no matter how fuzzy, was much closer to reality than the alarmism of the Gaither Report. The call for a massive program to build fallout shelters was entirely preposterous, the report itself saying half of the country's population would die in a nuclear attack, even with the shelters. The president saw that as close enough to Armageddon to make the shelters an ugly joke, like issuing everyone umbrellas as protection against the falling of the sky. The only defense was, like it or not, the threat of retaliation, and he said "fallout shelters rank rather low in the list of priorities." -- adding: "I can't understand [Americans] being quite as panicky as they are."
To compound Eisenhower's annoyance, the Gaither Report was leaked, with his critics in Congress using it to declare that the administration was unprepared and complacent in the face of grave danger. [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* GIMMICKS & GADGETS: As discussed by a note from WIRED Online blogs ("Amazon's Smart-Home Hub Has Been Here All Along" by Brian Barrett, 9 April 2015), Amazon.com's "Echo" -- a Bluetooth speaker that also responds to voice commands, at present only in controlled distribution -- doesn't seem, on the face of it, as ground-breaking as it actually is.
It certainly does sound like a fun product, not only able to stream music from the cloud, but also provide weather and traffic reports; sports scores, and obtain data from Wikipedia. However, it now supports products from WeMo and Philips Hue that allow a user to tell the Echo to dim the lights. In other words, Echo is extending its footprint into home automation territory.
The products Echo now works with include the WeMo Switch and Insight Switch, which are plugged into outlets to provide limited control over appliances; Light Switch, which does the same for, of course, lights; and various smart bulbs from Philips Hue. To get the networking in operation, a user simply configures the various devices, as per manufacturer instructions, on a common wi-fi network, and then says: "Alexa [the AI personality in Echo], discover my appliances." It finds them, and then they can be controlled by voice.
Of course, Amazon being Amazon, Echo isn't just about one-stop smart home control, it's also about one-stop shopping. Need to buy something? In potential, we could just ask Echo, and then order it from Amazon. Home automation has long been something of a solution in search of a problem; Echo, by working its way into the home as a speaker that can do more than just play music, may be flexible enough to cover all the bases.
* I don't have a mobile phone -- being solitary and working at home, it isn't worth much to me -- but it would nice to get a navigation app that I could run on a tablet when I'm on a far-flung road trip. The problem would be that I would need a phone contract to keep the app working as I rolled down the road.
Fortunately, WIRED Online did a review of a set of navigation apps that work offline. The one that I found to be the most interesting was "Navmii", earlier "Navfree", which runs on iOS, Android, Blackberry, and Windows Phone -- the last option suggesting that it could well run on Windows 10, which I'm expecting to be the OS of the tablet I'm going to buy down the road.
The user interface was described as simple, easy to use, if somewhat minimalist. "Points of interest" are hidden by default; they can be selectively activated. Its vocal alerts also can be given different celebrity voices. One nice feature is that it's free -- it's ad-supported, but the ads can be eliminated by paying a modest fee.
* Hamburger giant McDonald's has been suffering the business blues as of late, suffering from declining customer interest and sales. The company's management has been trying to respond, with WIRED Online blogs playing up a particularly clever innovation: "McBike", a cardboard tote with a hole in the bottom for a drink cup, holders on each side for fries and a burger, and a hole at the top to slip over a bike's handlebars. It opens neatly for dining.
I always fancied being a packaging engineer; it looks like somebody had some fun with this item. It's just being promoted on a trial basis for the moment. I hope McDonald's rallies; it would feel very unsettling for the Golden Arches to disappear, since they've been such a fixture for most of my life, which I've spent thousands of dollars over the decades to keep going. However, changes in my digestion suggests they won't be getting much money from me in the future.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* ADDED BENEFIT: As discussed by an article from AAAS SCIENCE NOW Online ("Measles Vaccine Protects Against Other Deadly Diseases" by Mitch Leslie, 7 May 2015), measles kills about 140,000 people around the world each year. The mortality is actually well under a percent, so most kids who get it will recover -- but even if they do, they're not out of the woods, since a recent study suggests the measles infection impairs their immune system for a number of years, exposing them to opportunistic infections. The bright side of this unpleasant news is that the measles vaccine seems to provide a degree of implicit protection against other diseases.
It is not news to the biomedicine research community that measles suppresses the immune system, but traditionally, the belief was that the effect only lingered for a few months. However, studies of children in developing countries, where measles is most troublesome, revealed that measles vaccination reduces the overall death rate from infections for up to five years.
The initial thinking for why that was so was because the measles vaccine somehow primed the immune system to take on other diseases. However, that was the complicated way of seeing the issue, the reality being simpler, as revealed by work on monkeys. In 2012, Rik de Swart of the Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, Netherlands, and colleagues found that the measles virus kills large numbers of "memory cells" -- white blood cells that prevent subsequent infections by known pathogens. The conclusion from that was that measles causes what scientists call "immunological amnesia", impairing the immune system's ability to remember pathogens it's already suppressed. According to Michael Mina -- lead author of a new paper and a medical student at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta -- the effect is that "you are vulnerable to diseases you shouldn't be vulnerable to."
De Swart and Mina were members of an international team that investigated the issues, obtaining data on the numbers of measles cases and deaths from other infectious diseases in the United States, Denmark, and part of the United Kingdom. Measles vaccination started in the 1960s in the United Kingdom and United States, and in the 1980s in Denmark, with the research team examining statistics from before and after its introduction.
The researchers were trying to see if there was a correlation between the number of kids who had measles, and the number of kids who died from other diseases. If measles only inhibited the immune system for a few months, there would be a spike in deaths in the year following the measles infections, but nothing much after that. However, the team's research paper suggested a susceptibility to other diseases for an average of 2.5 years, this interval being the same for all three countries. As a control, they checked for a correlation between whooping cough, which is not known to inhibit the immune system, and infections by other diseases -- to find nothing.
Since there's plenty of epidemiological data on measles, it's a bit surprising the correlation wasn't noticed before; it appears that was just because nobody was looking for it. Studies of children from West Africa didn't reveal a lasting "measles shadow" -- but that was because opportunistic infections are more common there, and kids who had measles were often soon infected by another disease.
There's been some skepticism of the result, because the data didn't say that the kids who died from other diseases actually had measles first; correlation is not necessarily causality. However, the research community finds the correlation plausible and "highly suggestive" -- few researchers having any problem with the notion that the measles vaccine might give protection against other diseases.
* In related news, at the end of June 2015, California Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill that eliminated all exemptions for vaccination of California public schoolchildren, except for those kids who had defective immune systems or were otherwise intolerant of vaccines. Comedian Jim Carrey, a prominent vaccine denialist, angrily blasted the bill, implausibly calling Governor Brown -- a card-carrying liberal -- a "corporate fascist".
While it was obvious the Disneyland measles outbreak last year was making life difficult for vaccine deniers, the passage of the bill, it seems with strong bipartisan support in the notoriously factional California legislature, was something of a surprise. California tends to influence the rest of the USA, so it may be the start of a trend.
The vaccine deniers are saying they'll challenge the bill in Federal court. Good luck with that -- it seems the precedents are they'll lose, on the unlikely chance they can get the court to hear the case. There have been voices suggesting, with some fair reason, that the demonization of vaccine deniers should be reined in, that many of them are people with honest concerns. Alas, in such a polarized confrontation, moderation is simply not going to happen. People just don't work that way; certainly, the antivaxxers have never been inclined to take prisoners themselves.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* MONITORING IRAN: The agreement finally hammered out on restraining Iran's nuclear program is, as per the tradition of arms-control agreements, based on the long-standing tradition, with all irony pounded out of it, of "trust but verify". The job of verification is to be handled by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), an independent international organization affiliated with the United Nations. The IAEA has long experience in nuclear arms verification; IAEA currently has safeguard agreements with 180 countries, and conducts around 20,000 inspections each year.
An article from WIRED Online ("The Tools Inspectors Can Use to Catch Iran's Nuclear Hijinks" by Brian Barrett, 18 July 2015), took a look at the tools the IAEA will use to keep an eye on Iran's nuclear program -- or at least what will probably be used to do the job. IAEA declined comment on the article, as did both the US Los Alamos National Laboratory and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. That's neither surprising nor suspicious; the inspectors don't want to let out any more than they have to about how they check for cheats, and they are also obligated not to unnecessarily let out secrets about what goes on in nuclear facilities being inspected. The inspections of Iranian facilities are particularly sensitive, given how hard it was to come to an agreement.
The IAEA already has visited Iranian nuclear facilities, as part of a fact-finding mission in 2003, but access was quickly cut off. The new effort will be much more formidable; according to Anthony Cordesman, a defense expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington DC, the IAEA "will be allowed to have a better set of surveillance systems that provide much more detail on a real-time and continuing basis. What they've agreed to is not only far better access, but the use of much more advanced inspection technologies."
Again, the exact details of the inspection effort are not known, but much can be inferred from other IAEA inspection efforts that aren't kept under such wraps. The toolkit will include:
All the on-site monitoring gear -- seals, cameras, UMS -- is to be integrated into the "Next Generation Surveillance System (NGSS)". NGSS will be a centralized smart data-acquisition system, collecting all the data from the gear; it will perform local processing, passing the results on to an external collection point.
The inspectors themselves carry portable tools, including radiation counters and cameras, and also have backup from laboratory "destructive analysis" of samples, obtained using polyethylene or glass sample bottles, or a cotton swab. According to Cordesman: "The IAEA is not an intelligence agency. It doesn't seek out new facilities; somebody has to tell them."
That isn't such a problem, since nuclear production facilities are hard to conceal from spy satellites. Even if intelligence analysts aren't sure of what's going on down below, that uncertainty is enough to ensure that questions will be asked. Yes, as per the treaty, it could take up to 24 days to get access to a facility, but Cordesman doesn't judge that an issue: "The problem [for the Iranians] is that if you tool up and then have to tear it down, that's a pretty expensive game, as well as a very high-risk one, when it comes down to the stuff that's going to be detectable. While 24 days sounds like a lot of time, if it involves any radioactive material, it is damn hard to get rid of."
* A somewhat related article from AAAS SCIENCE ("Iran Nuclear Deal Holds 'Goodies' For Scientists" by Richard Stone, 24 July 2015) pointed out that, since the nuclear deal concedes Iran the right to pursue a peaceful nuclear program, Iranian physicists will be able to join up with international physics research efforts, while foreign physicists will be able to go to Iran to work with the physics community there. For example, Iran is interested in working with the "International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER)" project, in which a prototype fusion reactor is being built in France. Since Iran's physics community has little experience with controlled fusion, for now Iranian participation is likely to consist of sending visiting scholars to ITER-associated fusion laboratories.
There's also talk of Iranian involvement in the mainstream of astrophysics research, of neutrino and other particle astronomy, and medical use of radio-isotopes. Some things are still off-limits, however; Iran has agreed to suspend studies of metallic uranium and plutonium for a decade. They could probably get away with small-scale studies, of course, that wouldn't end up on the IAEA's radar, but it's arguable they would think it worth the bother.
The deal doesn't suspend Iranian weapons research indefinitely; the idea is to convince the Iranians that they need not fear an American invasion, their Bomb program having been heavily driven by the US invasion of Iraq; and that the Bomb is a ruinously weapon of dubious utility that comes along with substantial liabilities. Besides, if Iran tries to "go nuclear", that would mean sanctions again, with no nation of consequence opposing them, and the Iranians have had enough of that. It's not like the Bomb could be used to break the sanctions, which only underlines its lack of utility.
Iranian physicists are very excited at the prospect of working with foreign colleagues -- though they do have cause for some fear of coming out in the open, since a number of them were assassinated, the suspicion being that the Israelis were behind the killings. The Israelis have been dead-set against the nuclear deal, and there's no saying what covert actions they might take against Iranian physicists.
Still, foreign physicists are interested in seeing what the Iranians can bring to the party. Robert Rosner, a theoretical physicist at the University of Chicago in Illinois and former director of Argonne National Laboratory, commented: "It's an incredibly long time since we built any nuclear reactors. Iran has world-caliber scientists and engineers, and they have been in the thick of doing that."COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* THE TAMING OF THE CHICKEN (2): Whether domestication of the chicken was by "one" or "many" routes, other genetic evidence suggests that other wild fowls made their contributions to the domesticated chicken. In 2008 Greger Larson, an archaeologist at Durham University in the UK, and Leif Andersson, of Uppsala University in Sweden, announced they had found evidence for the hybrid origin of the domestic chicken. Using genetic markers named "single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs)" in nuclear DNA -- as opposed to mtDNA -- the research team found that the domestic chicken's yellow skin allele likely came from the gray jungle fowl, which lives in southern India, not the red jungle fowl. The suggestion was that chicken domestication took place in many stages.
There is a potential pitfall in studies of chicken genetics, in that there has been genetic transfer between wild fowl and domestic chickens for a long time, Larson commenting: "The chicken is like a sponge, sucking up genes wherever humans take them." The bird's human association gave it global mobility; travelers, hunters, and merchants carrying the birds with them on journeys would have crossbred their hens with wild or hybrid roosters, muddying up the wild fowl's gene pool.
In short, it is by no means certain that the modern red jungle fowl is that much like its ancestors of millennia past. Biologist Sambandan Sathyakumar of the Wildlife Institute of India in Dehadrun, says genetic studies show that more than 95% of their birds are "relatively pure". Ecologist I. Lehr Brisbin of the University of Georgia and some other researchers aren't so sure. For example, biologists have tracked the gradual loss of the red jungle fowl's "eclipse" plumage -- a long black feather across the middle of his back, and slender red-orange plumes on the rest of his body -- which is not seen in domestic chickens. The eclipse plumage started to disappear in wild Southeast Asian birds a century ago, and was gone in most Indian birds by the 1960s. Many red jungle fowl hens in zoos have combs, while they were not traditionally known in wild birds.
Brisbin has a reference source that he believes may be helpful. In the 1960s, the US Fish & Wildlife Service bred and released 10,000 red jungle fowl across the US south in hopes of introducing a new game bird for hunters. The fowl did not thrive, and the program was canceled. Brisbin managed to save five of the survivors from being slaughtered, and now has a hundred of them at an aviary in Alabama. He believes they may provide a better genetic baseline for chicken genetics studies; Tomas Condon, a biologist who has studied the flock, thinks Brisbin's fowls could provide "a reservoir of potentially invaluable genetic variation" for domestic chicken breeding. Andersson is now sequencing them in his lab.
Other researchers are combing museums for preserved samples that could be sequenced -- but there is still skepticism that samples from 50 to 100 years ago can be regarded as "pristine". Obviously, much older samples are required, but chicken bones are small and hard to find, and traditionally there was not much interest in them. There's more now, but properly assessing the samples found to date has tended to be troublesome. The small size of chicken bones means they are not only hard to find, but that they are easily moved around by small animals and tend to shift in deposits. The 1988 claim of chicken bones from China dating to 6000 BCE mentioned earlier was apparently a false alarm, with closer study suggesting they are only about 2,000 years old.
Carbon dating is now being used to more reliably validate the ages of chicken bones. Of course, DNA tends to degrade rapidly by historical standards, particularly in warm climates, and to date nobody's been able to give much of a genetic inspection to old samples.
Despite all the obstacles, modern genetic studies have been able to make some progress identifying traits of the chicken associated with domestication. One study identified a thyroid-stimulating hormone receptor apparently linked to growth, found in all domestic chickens, but not in wild fowl. Other studies have suggested the original domesticated populations were small, hinting that the original driver for domestication was cockfighting, not eggs and meat.
Cockfighting still is popular in the places where the red jungle fowl roams wild. In Vietnam, trapping the fowls is illegal, but it is profitable and common. That raises the ugly prospect of the red jungle fowl becoming extinct in the wild. Condon commented that the chicken "is the most important bird in the world. We need to preserve the original."
* ED: A related note from AAAS SCIENCE NOW Online discussed research -- by a team led by Per Jensen, a behavioral geneticist at Link?ping University in Sweden -- of the genetic changes of chickens under domestication.
The research group began with a pool of about 60 male-female pairs of red jungle fowl, breeding them down through generations. In each successive generation of chicks, they segregated 60 or so offspring according to how the birds react -- for example, to being touched by a person. Eventually, they ended up with one line of very timid jungle fowl, and one line of fearless ones.
As discussed in a paper on the research, even after just three generations, other traits had begun to change: tamer birds grew faster, laid larger eggs, and were bossier than their more fearful counterparts. In other words, they were simply becoming more domesticated. The research team is now up to the fifth and sixth generations of chickens, giving them a better handle on changes in metabolism; feeding efficiency; and body chemicals involved in boldness. The basal metabolic rate -- an indication of how efficiently food is turned into energy -- was higher in the tamer birds, who gained more weight per kilogram of food consumed.
The tamed birds also had higher levels of serotonin -- which is both a signaling molecule in the brain that may be involved with fear responses, and a hormone associated with metabolism and feeding in chickens. The suspicion is that the serotonin changes underlie the other changes related to domestication. In any case, Jensen says he is startled to find that the changes took place in so few generations: "I am surprised that we see such strong effects in such a short time." [END OF SERIES]START | PREV | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* THE COLD WAR (77): Following the failed attempt of the "pathetic schemers" among Soviet leadership to get rid of Khrushchev in June 1957, he had his revenge. Stalin would have had them all shot, but Khrushchev was content to simply demote them, in some cases sending them away to remote postings, with the KGB keeping tabs on them. Molotov ended up being posted as the ambassador to Outer Mongolia, being shipped off to Ulan Bator -- where he complained about being surrounded by yaks and nomads, telling a visitor that "even the foreign minister here is a veterinarian." Molotov lobbied against Khrushchev over long distance, via the phone and letters, to little effect other than to antagonize Khrushchev further.
Despite the fact that Marshal Zhukov had helped defeat the effort to oust Khrushchev, Zhukov was called back to Moscow in late October, to be unceremoniously sacked after being subjected to a torrent of denunciations. The primary motivation for getting rid of him, it seems, was that he was simply brusque and overbearing, engaged in building up his own "cult of personality" -- but for good measure, he was accused of plotting a military coup against the government. There doesn't appear to have been honest evidence that was the case; but given the way things were done in the USSR, it's hard to say for certain it wasn't true.
November 1957 was the 40th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, and prominent Communists, including Mao Zedong, came to Moscow to celebrate. If Khrushchev was feeling triumphant over Soviet accomplishments and consolidation of his authority, he did not get much in the way of praise for them from Mao.
Stalin had been inclined to snub Mao, Khrushchev recalling that Stalin called Mao a "caveman Marxist", equipped with "peasant-like views", and "never spoke of him favorably." Mao knew Stalin had a low opinion of him, saying that Stalin thought him a "turnip" -- "Red on the outside, white on the inside." Khrushchev thought he could do better than that, rolling out the red carpet for Mao, providing him with every indulgence and luxury.
Mao was simply petulant in return, walking out of a performance of SWAN LAKE at the Bolshoi; refusing to eat Russian cuisine prepared by Soviet chefs, relying on his own Hunanese chef instead; sleeping on the floor instead of in a great soft bed, once used by Catherine the Great; and even insisting on using his own chamberpot, instead of the Russian toilet facilities. Such petulance was actually normal behavior for Mao; he didn't like much food other than Hunanese dishes, didn't like soft beds, didn't like sitting toilets -- and when he traveled in China, he expected things would be done to suit his preferences. Of course, the Soviets did not find Mao's insistence on complete accommodation as agreeable as Mao's subjects did.
Mao also regarded Khrushchev's attempts to be a good host as a sign of weakness, and complained about him to aides in blunt terms, knowing the complaints were likely to be picked up by KGB bugs. In public, Mao declared that the Kremlin political showdown earlier in the year had been between "two lines: one erroneous, one relatively correct." It seems that the translation to Russian was even more slighting and tactless; Mao also went on in an elliptical fashion about "learning from mistakes", clearly hinting that he didn't think Khrushchev was very good at doing so.
Mao was, however, only too direct in his theatrical contempt for the threat of nuclear war, saying: "If worst came to worst, and half of mankind died, the other half would remain, while imperialism would be razed to the ground and the world would become socialist." As if this peculiar flavor of optimism and callousness wasn't mind-boggling enough to his hosts, Mao suggested that if the USSR were invaded, the Red Army should not fight back, but retreat behind the Urals; in three years' time, the Chinese People's Liberation Army would be able to rescue them. Khrushchev looked in Mao's face, but couldn't determine "if he was joking or not."
When Mao left Moscow after the celebrations, it was for the last time; he would never return there. That was the only positive thing Khrushchev got out of the encounter with the Chinese leader, though it wouldn't be the last time they met. Mao returned to Beijing to consider what he believed China should do in the coming year. He had been pursuing a diplomatic solution to the Taiwan issue, with Zhou Enlai establishing contacts with the Nationalist government on the island, and tossing out ideas for a deal on re-unification; there had also been quiet discussions with the Americans.
Mao's patience with the soft approach was running out; in mid-December, he told Peng Deuhai, now defense minister, to consider moving air force elements into Fujian province, on the coast, in preparation for actions against the Nationalists. Since Jiang had American protection, there was no way Mao could seriously consider the liberation of Taiwan, but he believed a clash with the Nationalists could pay dividends. Mao was a revolutionary, that was what he was about; he believed that the revolutionary spirit needed to be brought to the front to assert China's power, and establish a further transformation of China's Communist society. What better way to do this except by picking trouble with the Americans? The fact that it would also undermine Khrushchev's fitful attempts at "peaceful coexistence" was another benefit. [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* SCIENCE NOTES: Headlines suddenly popped up in July proclaiming that the Earth was headed towards a "mini ice age" from about 2030 to 2040. The assertion seemed implausible, given that all climate research groups show steady warming for the rest of the century, and further investigation suggested the headlines were over-reactions.
The headlines had their roots in a presentation by Valentina Zharkova, a professor of mathematics at Northumbria University in England, at the Royal Astronomical Society's National Astronomy Meeting in Wales. She was discussing her work on solar cycles, saying that solar activity should fall off from about 2030 to 2040. There was a similar solar minimum in the mid-1700s, which coincided with a period of very bitter winters called the "Little Ice Age" -- though apparently there was a lot of volcanic activity at the time as well.
Climate scientists think that, at most, the upcoming solar minimum will simply slow down warming for a time, and regard the idea of another "Little Ice Age" in that period as absurd. Zharkova is apparently something of a climate change skeptic and doesn't find it so silly -- but she made it clear her presentation was on solar cycles, not climate prediction, that not being her line of work.
The flap over her research does not say much about climate science, but it does say something about the inclination of the popular media to sensationalism. However, what sensible person would expect any different, or find it much but a shrug? If the headlines blew up the story, it was still not difficult for readers willing to do a bit of work to chase down the facts behind it.
* As last discussed here in 2006, after the First World War there was considerable work in the use of "bacteriophages" or "phages" -- viruses that infect bacteria -- to control bacterial infections. Interest faded out in the West, but the Soviets pursued the matter, with bacteriophage therapy still being practiced in Poland and Georgia, using natural phage strains with some selective breeding.
Given the rise of antibiotic resistance among bacterial pathogens, interest in phage therapy has revived to a degree in the West. As discussed by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("Strange Medicine", 26 February 2015), a team at the Synthetic Genomics company in La Jolla, California, under Sammy Farah, head of the vaccines and therapeutics unit there, is working to genetically engineer "super-phages" to attack several antibiotic-resistant strains of Pseudomonas, a bacterium that causes skin infections; sepsis; and, particularly in those with cystic fibrosis, potentially fatal pneumonia.
The researchers began work with 300 various samples of Pseudomonas, and 25 strains of a phage that infects it. They sequenced the genomes of all the bacteria and all the phages, then tested how well each phage did against each bug. That gave them a matrix to help find which phage genomic sequences proved most effective against the target, with a new and more lethal phage then synthesized.
Simply killing bacteria is good, but not good enough. Pseudomonas and other bacteria can form "biofilms", or sheet-like colonies that cover the surface of tissues they infect. The biofilms provide a defense, making it harder for the immune system, drugs, or phages to destroy the bacteria. The researchers want to enhance the ability of the phages to penetrate biofilms. In addition, bacteria have their own immune systems of a sort, able to recognize and destroy invasive viral genes; Farah wants to find ways to allow the phages to dodge the bacterial defenses.
He also wants to find ways to allow phages to dodge the human immune system. Phages are no threat to anything but bacteria; they cannot infect human cells, but the body still recognizes phages as invaders, and attacks them. It would be nice if the phages were able to clean out a bacterial infection before they were suppressed by the body's immune system.
While the genetically-engineered phages will be more effective, they also have the benefit that, unlike natural phages, they can be patented. Animal tests have now begun, with human trials tentatively planned to begin in 2017.
* A group of British teenagers have come up with a concept for a tool to control sexually transmitted disease (STD): condoms coated with antibodies that cause them to change color when a particular STD pathogen is present. Color changes include chlamydia; purple for genital warts; blue for syphilis; and yellow for herpes. The idea needs further development, but is seen as practical and potentially effective.
* It's long been believed that constrictor snakes kill their prey by suffocation, but two decades ago, a suggestion was raised that the pressure inflicted by the snake sent the prey into cardiac arrest. Now studies -- not for the squeamish -- of mice fed to constrictor snakes show the suggestion was correct.
The mice were knocked out, wired with electrodes and catheters, and offered to the snake. Once in the snake's coils, a mouse's blood pressure plummeted and its heart rate shot up, quickly sending the rodent into cardiac arrest. Potassium levels also skyrocketed, with the result that the mouse might still die from cardiac arrest, even if it were to escape.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* OBAMA CLEAN POWER PLAN: On 3 August, the Obama Administration announced the enactment of a "Clean Power Plan (CPP)" to address climate change, intended to curtail emissions of greenhouse gases from power plants, with a long-term goal to revamp the country's energy infrastructure. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations, which are finalized versions of proposals from 2012 and 2014, call for a 32% reduction in carbon emissions from power plants by 2030, baselined from 2005 levels. Renewable energy is projected to provide 28% of America's power by that time.
This actually follows the current trendline: US electricity production generated 15% less emissions in 2013 than in 2005, though that was admittedly partly due to global economic downturn from 2007, while renewables have been gradually extending their footprint, as their costs drop in pace. It should be realized that electrical power production accounts for less than a third of America's emissions, but the administration has also been tightening fuel-economy rules for cars and trucks -- which could reduce emissions by the same factor -- while upgrading efficiency standards for household appliances, lowering tolerance for methane leaks from oil and gas wells, and so on.
The CPP sets carbon emissions reduction standards for each state, based on the current makeup of the state's energy sources. Under the CPP, each state will be allowed to determine how it meets those standards, whether by targeting specific plants, or making changes across the board -- the CPP merely proposing options, "building blocks", for putting the plans together. The CPP also includes an incentive program in which Federal funds will be provided to help states develop clean energy. Alaska, Hawaii, Guam and Puerto Rico will not be required to submit plans, since they're not hooked up to the national power grid; they're not being forgotten, but how they will fit into the CPP remains to be addressed.
Prominent Republicans have protested against the CPP, calling it impractical, expensive, and ineffective, labeling it the "Costly Power Plan". The White House, as well as environmental advocates, reply that it will stimulate the economy and create tens of thousands of jobs. Hundreds of business leaders have thrown their support behind the CPP, encouraging state governors to support the plan.
It is expected that the initial response to the CPP will be a "tsunami" of legal counter-action, but EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy says the agency has considered the legal implications, and says the CPP is "very strong" from that viewpoint. The ruling's authority is derived from the Clean Air Act of 1970, signed into law by President Richard Nixon, which greatly expanded earlier clean-air legislation -- with Nixon invoking the pioneering conservation efforts of Teddy Roosevelt in signing the bill into law. Although the 1970 Clean Air Act was not concerned with greenhouse gas emissions, a 2007 Supreme Court decision, MASSACHUSETTS V. EPA, gave the EPA the green light to regulate them, with subsequent Federal Court decisions reinforcing that position, though at least in one case directing changes in agency procedure. The administration has good cause for confidence in the legal solidity of the CPP; protests may not even get out of the circuit courts.
The announcement was only the first expected in a White House climate-change blitz, heading up to a United Nations conference on climate change in Paris this December. President Obama, freed from direct concerns about elections, is making the most of his final lap in office, trying to place the USA in a position of international leadership on climate change, and establishing a legacy for his presidency. Obama announced: "We're the first generation to feel the impact of climate change, and we're the last generation that can do something about it. We only get one planet. There's no Plan B."
It also clearly raises the visibility of climate-change action as an issue in the 2016 election. The majority of Americans are for climate-change action; if the Republicans want to win in 2016, they are going to need a credible story on climate change. The plan itself will not go into action on Obama's watch; states have until 2018 to submit plans to EPA on how they propose to cut their emissions, and the plans won't go into effect until 2022. What Obama is doing is presenting his successor with a "fait accompli" that will either bolster the next administration's actions to address climate change -- or complicate efforts to backtrack. What is done, is then difficult to undo.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* HARDENED TARGET: As discussed by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("How To Back Up A Country", 7 March 2015), the Baltic state of Estonia is highly digitally wired, and also has a big, mean Bear as a neighbor. These two facts are closely related: in 2007, during a dispute with Russia over a war memorial, Estonia's main websites were hit with a "distributed denial of service" attack that brought them to their knees, crippling online banking and interfering with online emergency services. The Bear hasn't been much more pleasant a neighbor as of late, with Estonia suffering from airspace intrusions and a barrage of propaganda.
Having suffered through a cyber-war once, Estonia's government is determined to be prepared the next time around. In September 2014 Estonia, working with Microsoft, ran a test exercise to evaluate means of defeating cyber attacks. One aspect of the trial was to maintain government online services by switching to backup computers in Estonia, or hosts in other countries if that proved inadequate.
One prominent element in the exercise was "bullet-proofing" the website of Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves. During the war between Russia and Georgia in 2008, hackers defaced the website of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, and the Russians make no secret of their hostility to Ilves. In the course of the exercise, his website was moved smoothly to Microsoft "cloud" servers in Dublin and Amsterdam.
A more elaborate effort focused on protecting the "State Gazette", the official repository of Estonian laws, which does not exist in paper form. As well as ensuring backup, the experiment tried to see how easy it was to access in an emergency. Two tests were performed to that end: an unusually heavy user load, and a denial of service attack. The experiment was judged a success, with services operating from outside Estonia for a short period, but it also revealed a list of unexpected difficulties.
One issue was ensuring that accounts are legally protected if they are moved to other countries. One interesting angle is the "digital embassy", with a server system located in an Estonian embassy in another country; the embassy being effectively Estonian territory, the data in the server is not subject to local laws.
A big problem is translating domain names -- that is, relocating a URL address from one server to another by changing entries in the Domain Name System (DNS). Making the changes is labor-intensive and prone to error; even when done right, it takes time for the changes to propagate through the internet. There's also the problem making the change transparent to online software systems. Estonia's public and private databases trade information over a peer-to-peer network named the "X-Road", in which users offer a password and PIN to, say, access a hospital's health record system. The real complication is that the network includes a lot of different software and software versions, and stressing it tends to reveal a lot of problems not visible in normal operation -- a problem made worse by poor documentation.
Overall, the exercise was judged a success, but suggested that much improvement was required. The major issue was not really resistance to attack, but the simple robustness of the system: how well it was organized, standardized, and documented. Addressing those problems will improve the system even if it's not under attack.
* In somewhat related news, as discussed by an article from BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK ("Tracking The Enemy Within" by Dune Lawrence, 16 March 2015), in the wake of the revelations of US National Security Agency (NSA) snooping by Edward Snowden, there's been an intense argument over whether he's a traitor or a publicly-spirited whistle-blower -- but there's been no argument that he's alerted organizations of all stripes to the "insider threat", the alarmed perception being that: "Wow, if that happened to the NSA, it could happen to us."
The insider threat is nothing new, well preceding the digital age, and nobody thinks it's theoretical -- earlier in 2015, banker Morgan Stanley fired an employee for walking off with data for about 350,000 clients of its wealth-management division. Since insiders often have legitimate access to the systems they loot -- that's the root of the "insider job" problem -- setting up an early-warning network involved searching for suspicious patterns of employee behavior.
Security companies such as Fortscale Security of San Francisco and Securonix of Los Angeles offer software that assesses a company's systems, and obtains a profile for each employee -- determining when and where, say, Alice normally logs in, what program she uses, which databases she accesses regularly, and what external websites she browses. Given a baseline, it is then easier to spot suspicious activity, such as Bob downloading thousands of documents from a database he's never been into before.
Security firms may install "spyware" on PCs and laptops that watch for suspicious activity; some even have systems that monitor employee communications to spot anomalous behavior, for example zeroing in on phrases like "late rent" or "medical bills". Companies are not particularly comfortable with such intrusive methods, particularly in countries with strong privacy laws, and so by default the scanning system is "sanitized", giving codes instead of names in reports, only providing names when an investigation is warranted. Still, the Big Brother aspect is hard to dodge, particularly when inspection of digital communications is integrated with video camera feeds and employee electronic access key use. The exact specifics aside, however, this is the future, like it or not, and we're going to have to figure out how to live with it.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* ANOTHER MONTH: I've noticed when reading news websites that the pages will sometimes have lists of "interesting" news from elsewhere on the web. On occasion, there will be lists titled "Around The Web" or "Recommended For You", which will reference obscure websites such as "My Dot Comrade" or "Odometer". On checking them, they seem to invariably be pages with minimal content and maximum ads, all pretty much in the same format. The referrals, it seems, are coordinated by two competing Israeli "content referral" companies, "Outbrain", and "Taboola". It seems they're just trying to milk online advertisers by getting them to pay for low-grade traffic.
Whether they have legitimate activities or not, I have learned to ignore anything with their stamps on it. There is a clear tendency on the internet to allow commercialization to tilt against content, until the content effectively disappears, and all we're left with is some variant of malware. Given large volumes of operation, even such marginal activities can get by just on random noise. Take any system, and someone will game it.
* One of the satisfactions of publishing ebooks for Amazon Kindle is that it means I am now a published author. Granted, it's toy publishing, but it is publishing nonetheless. Amazon Kindle Direct performs all the mechanics of production, sales, and distribution of my ebooks, and it's not a vanity press -- I don't pay them, they take their cut and hand me a royalty. Granted, Amazon's editorial oversight is minimal, but there are print publishers like that, too, if not particularly reputable ones.
So now I am listing "Amazon Kindle Direct" as the publisher of my ebooks. A bit of a conceit, from a little person on the rock bottom of the pyramid? Yes, but I can't think of a reason why I couldn't or shouldn't. Self-published ebooks are a real and growing sector of the books business in the 21st century; to the extent I get a very modest distinction out of it, it's a distinction nonetheless.
* I was updating my 35-chapter JFK ASSASSINATION document for a re-release in October. I was proof-reading a chapter, and was suddenly overcome by weariness and disgust: The world does not care about the JFK assassination any more; the only people who do care are crazy; nobody reads this document; it's a bore to re-read.
I decided to delete it from the website. I had considered that I would do so eventually when I originally posted it; when the notion came back to me, I decided to do so with little hesitation. So much for over two years of work. It was actually something of a relief to kill it off. I couldn't stomach reading it again.
I didn't completely give up. I had written a one-chapter introduction to the assassination, which I have now extended to two chapters to add an overview of conspiracy lore. Instead of wading through all the nonsense, I took a "three strikes you're out" approach, focusing on the more prominent claims of conspiracists, dismantling them, and saying all the rest isn't any better. I'm retaining the short document on my website. I'd actually already written the two-chapter document as a Kindle ebook -- and I think I might have sold two copies of it, year to date. Superstition's not the way.
* Thanks to three readers for donations to support the websites last month. They are very much appreciated.COMMENT ON ARTICLE