* 22 entries including: Cold War (series), air conditioning (series), interrogation science (series), Airbus ADELINE recoverable booster, online advertising, questioning patents, hydropower opportunities in the USA, ISS as cosmic ray observatory, next-generation trucking, Citibank climate-change report, and Ogallala aquifer drying up.
* NEWS COMMENTARY FOR SEPTEMBER 2015: As expected, the US Congress failed to overthrow the Iran nuclear deal, and it is now effectively unchallenged law. An article from THE ECONOMIST ("Not Deja Vu All Over Again", 25 July 2015) focused on one argument that had been used against the pact: the deal struck by the Clinton Administration in 1994 to restrain the North Korean nuclear program. It didn't work: in 2006, North Korea detonated its first nuclear weapon. Why, then, would anyone think the agreement with Iran will work any better?
There's very good reasons to think it will be effective. First, the agreement with North Korea only ran to four pages, and included few specifics about verification. The agreement with Iran runs to over a hundred pages, detailing the most intrusive nuclear inspection scheme ever created. The deal was put together on the assumption that if Iran could cheat, it would, and President Obama was not exaggerating when he said that every pathway towards an Iranian Bomb has been blocked.
Second, there is little resemblance between North Korea and Iran. North Korea is a total, whimsical tyranny, with the leadership focused on isolating the country from the outside world. Iran is a popular democracy of sorts, and the leadership is tuned to the will of the people -- which is to end the country's isolation. Iranians are tired of economic hardship; they have skills and ambition, they want to deal with and trade with the outside world.
The lobbies of Tehran's high-budget hotels were almost empty a year ago. Now they are humming with foreign visitors, primarily members of trade delegations. Although sanctions won't be lifted right away, analysts estimate that Iran has a pent-up need for $1 trillion USD in investment, to revitalize the oil industry and other infrastructure. Iran Air, for example, wants to obtain a modern fleet of jetliners to compete with other big regional players, such as Emirates. However, Hassan Rouhani's government will need to implement commercial reforms and clamp down on corruption to make it all happen -- Iran currently being listed as 130th on a World Bank list of the world's nations where it's convenient to do business.
* Saudi Arabia, Iran's Sunni arch-rival, officially welcomed the agreement, but a Saudi businessman privately voiced a different opinion, it seems widely shared with other Saudis: "Iran before the agreement was an enemy, a powerful hungry regime. After the agreement, it has become a devil, a mad hulk with green eyes."
Even as the deal was being tied up in mid-July, the forces of a Saudi-led Arab coalition were hammering their way into Aden, the second-biggest city in Yemen, which had been held by Shiite Houthi rebels, backed by Iran, for four months. Yemen used to be divided into north and south; the Saudis would like it to be split again, to create a buffer that will keep the Shiites away from Saudi Arabia. Iran is also propping up the government of Bashir al-Assad in Syria -- dominated by Alawites, a Shiite splinter sect -- while Saudi Arabia is backing rebel factions. In addition, the Saudis believe Iran is fomenting subversion among the kingdom's 10% Shiite minority, and in response have been funding Sunni preachers to raise hatred against the Shiites, not hard to do, given the centuries-old hostility between the two major branches of Islam. The Iranians return the cordiality as they are able.
The Saudis have a particular fear that the Americans are about to throw them over, in favor of a security alliance with Iran. Given the long and close relationship between America and Saudi Arabia, in contrast to the tradition of hostility between the US and Iran, that seems far-fetched; the US has been trying to reassure the Saudis, US Secretary of State John Kerry saying: "We believe that if you are going to push back against Iran, it's better to push back against an Iran without a nuclear weapon than with one."
It's hard to argue with that logic, but the short-term impact of the deal, as far as the Saudis are concerned, is going to be intensified violence on the battlefield. New Saudi King Salman has given the green light for military actions, intended to deal the Iranians heavy blows before sanctions are lifted and the Iranians can get their hands on over $100 billion USD in frozen funds. While the Republicans have been blasting the Obama Administration for its failure to impose order on the Middle East -- how could they pretend they can do any better?
Not all the Gulf States are unhappy about the deal. Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), is a commercial hub of the Arab world; it's been a gateway for profitable smuggling into Iran, and stands to greatly prosper as a front office to an open Iran. About 400,000 Iranians live in the UAE, many of them in Dubai, with thousands of Iranian businesses having offices there as well. True, many of them have been little more than fronts for smuggling, but now they can do their business above-board.
Dubai also has specific expertise in commercial aviation, oil infrastructure, and modern finance -- all three of which are at the top of the list of Iranian needs. Dubai's airlines are already ramping up services to Iran. The slowness of the lifting of sanctions has restrained the gold rush, but the outlook is upbeat. The re-emergence of Iran on the regional and world stage implies a competition between blood and money; seen from that point of view, money looks pretty good.
* Another article in THE ECONOMIST ("Small Reefs, Big Problems", 25 July 2015) focused on China and its confrontations with its neighbors. In the north, China and Japan have contested claims to a small chain of barren islands, which China calls the "Diaoyu" and the Japanese call the "Senkakus". At the moment, the confrontation is polite: Chinese coastguard cutters periodically break into the 12-mile limit around the islands, to be shadowed by Japanese cutters until they depart again. It's all very nonviolent, the cutters being very lightweight warships -- but warships are not all that far away. The Americans have also backed up Japan's claim to the islands, making it clear that the US will come to the defense of Japan if a clash breaks out there.
In the South China Sea, which China claims as more or less its own, things are not so polite. The Chinese have set up an oil rig in waters claimed by Vietnam, and have been performing landfill work to build up reefs and islands in disputed territory for occupation and use. The Chinese government claims they intend to set up public goods such as lighthouses, weather stations, and search-&-rescue hubs -- but they have been building an airstrip on one built-up reef that could clearly handle combat aircraft.
China's neighbors on the South China Sea are not as wealthy nor as militarily powerful as Japan, and they do not have guaranteed American military backing as does Japan. They have been acquiring weapons and strengthening their ties with the US. The Americans claim neutrality in the territorial quarrel, but it is a neutrality that is much less agreeable to China than to China's neighbors.
Nobody sees a violent confrontation in the immediate future; the built-up reefs and islands aren't much of a practical threat, being easily targeted and vulnerable if it came to a shootout. Right now, the primary playing pieces are coastguard cutters, the two sides attempting to use them to establish their presence in disputed waters. The numbers are roughly equal on both sides; Japan is financing the construction of ten cutters for the Philippines and six cutters for Vietnam.
Nobody is ignoring the possibility of an armed clash down the road. China has been pursuing a strategy of "asymmetric warfare" against the US Navy, developing long-range antiship missiles to force US carrier groups to stay out of the area. The response of the Americans and their allies has been to fight asymmetry with asymmetry, with China's neighbors deploying their own antiship missiles, fast missile boats, submarines, and mines.
One Japanese official, reflecting on Japan's blunders in the 1930s, says of the Chinese: "They are making the same mistakes we did." However, China is not immune from external pressures. A UN-sponsored arbitration panel in The Hague is now considering whether China's "landfill grabs" are allowable under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS)". China has snubbed the panel's work, but finds itself being drawn in anyway; should the panel decide against the Chinese, it would make things politically very difficult for them. China has cause to concede to a mutually-agreeable settlement of the territorial disputes; it can be hoped the Chinese will understand that the most successful battle is one that doesn't end up being fought.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* AIRBUS ADELINE: As discussed by an article from AVIATION WEEK Online ("Airbus Proposes Reusable Core-Stage Engine Concept, Upper-Stage Tug" by Amy Svitak, 10 June 2015), Elon Musk has made a big impression on the space launch industry, notably with his work on a recoverable version of the SpaceX Falcon 9 booster. Other booster manufacturers are coming up with their own re-usable booster concepts, European aerospace giant Airbus Defense & Space having now announced their "ADvanced Expendable Launcher with INnovative engine Economy (ADELINE)" concept.
Airbus is taking a distinctly different approach from SpaceX. Musk envisions recovering the entire launch vehicle; he's working on the first stage right now, with the boosters for the new Falcon Heavy to use the same technology. Airbus engineers see that as overly ambitious, believing that it imposes too much of a penalty in fuel and payload to be cost-effective. In ADELINE, in contrast, only the engine and avionics systems are recovered, these accounting for roughly three-quarters of the cost of the booster.
The base stage of an ADELINE booster would have wings on the bottom. After separation of the main stage, its fuel tanks would be discarded, with the blunt-nosed winged rocket / avionics module flying back to Earth. As it approaches a landing strip, it would unfold the propellers of a fanprop, fitted pusher-style to the rear of each wing and drawing fuel from tanks in the wings, to fly it in for a landing. The propulsion unit would be reflown ten to twenty times. As discussed here in April, rival United Launch Alliance is proposing a similar scheme for its projected Vulcan booster, with the engine / avionics module using a parasail to glide back to Earth, the parasail being snagged out of the air by a helicopter.
According to Herve Gilibert, technical director for Airbus Defense & Space's space division:
There is no re-ignition [of the engine module after separation] because we are using auxiliary propulsion -- turbofans, instead of rocket propulsion required for the main mission -- and fuel stored in ADELINE's wings. SpaceX brings back an engine that suffers high dynamic flux and has to withstand it, and that means it is damaged when it comes back to Earth, To do this, SpaceX loses one-third to one-half of the vehicle's performance to extra propellant in order to recover the lower stage of the Falcon 9, or the boosters of the Falcon Heavy.
ADELINE, which was unveiled to the public in June, has mostly been financed by company funds, an aerodynamic demonstrator having been flown a number of times. ADELINE is targeted as an enhancement to the next-generation Ariane 6 booster, which is scheduled to enter service in 2020. The ADELINE refinement will not be available before 2025. Although the technology is being tailored to the Ariane 6, Gilibert says it will have broader applicability: "The concept is fully scalable and can be adapted and used for any type of liquid propulsion launcher. The technology we need already exists individually, so there is very little we have to develop; but we have to come up with a system that has to be tested and made reliable."
ADELINE isn't the only advanced spacelift technology Airbus is working on. The firm is also investigating a concept in which an electrically-propelled upper stage would be put into low Earth orbit, operating as a "space tug" to ferry communications and other satellites from low-Earth orbit (LEO) to geosynchronous orbit. Similar to Lockheed Martin's Jupiter concept proposed under NASA's commercial cargo program, the solar-powered space tug is based on an Ariane liquid fuel upper stage. According to Gilibert, the concept could mean significant savings for satellite operators: "The satellite that is taken up to the tug no longer needs to have its own propulsion for reaching operational orbit. The satellite developer can then focus just on the payload, making the spacecraft lighter, cheaper, less complex and offering a manufacturing cycle that is much shorter."
The orbital tug program is independent of ADELINE, though of course it could be put into orbit using an ADELINE-based booster. Airbus doesn't see the tug as becoming available until 2035 at earliest.
ED: There seems to be real ferment in booster technology these days. We've been hearing talk of re-usability and orbital tugs for decades and it's gone nowhere, but now the industry seems serious. Elon Musk may a showboat, but he has successfully managed to shake up an industry that seems to have been stagnant.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* KEEP COOL (1): Air conditioning is one of modern life's pleasures, particularly for those who live in hot climates. As discussed by an article from AMERICAN HERITAGE INVENTION & TECHNOLOGY ("Cold Comfort" by Tom A. Heppenheimer, Spring 2005), the technology has been around for more than a century; it was originally focused on industrial applications.
Those who lived in the hot zone were long clever in designing structures to deal with heat -- featuring thick walls that could retain the coolness of the night, avoiding sun-facing windows, strategically planting trees to block sunlight. Cultures that had access to ice and snow also sometimes hauled it from the mountains to the city for relief.
One of the first people to attempt to mechanically cool a room was John Gorrie, a doctor at the US Marine hospital in Apalachicola, Florida. In 1842, he was trying to deal with an outbreak of yellow fever, and noticed the disease tracked temperature -- reaching a peak in the heat, then dropping off as the temperature fell. He came to the reasonable, though not really correct, conclusion that simply keeping patients cool would help curb the disease, initially importing ice from New England to do the job. The ice was obtained by cutting it from frozen lakes, then packing it in sawdust for insulation.
Ice did the job, but it was an expensive option. Gorrie started poking around through the literature for a mechanical cooling system. One Oliver Evans had published a description of such a device in 1805, but never got it to work before he died in 1819; however, in 1834 Jacob Perkins, a friend of Evans, managed to construct and obtain a patent on a mechanical cooler. The Perkins cooler used volatile dimethyl ether as a "working fluid", with the ether being compressed until it liquefied, with heat soaked out of the liquid by a water bath; and the ether then evaporating into a partial vacuum, producing cooling.
Gorrie used a conceptually similar system, but his working fluid was simply air, compressed and then cooled with a water bath, with the air then allowed to expand into a partial vacuum. Gorrie could produce small quantities of ice with his mechanism, but he couldn't get backing to build a system that could produce ice in bulk.
* Following Gorrie, there were experiments elsewhere. In the 1850s, an Australian used an ether-based cooling system to chill two breweries, one in Australia, the other in England. However, from that time attention turned to ammonia as a working fluid. Undiluted ammonia boils at a relatively convenient temperature of -33.3 degrees Celsius (-28 degrees Fahrenheit) and it also has a high "latent heat", meaning it soaks up a lot of thermal energy when it evaporates, making it useful for cooling technologies. A Frenchman named Ferdinand Carre tinkered with ammonia-based refrigeration in the 1860s, but it was a German named Carl von Linde who established the technology in the 1870s. Soon refrigeration became common in meat-packing plants and the like, with refrigerated railroad cars and ship cargo holds being introduced as well.
By the early 1890s, efforts were also made to cool buildings with the new refrigeration technology. Eastman Kodak, for example, installed a cooling system in a film-production factory, the cooling actually being intended to reduce humidity in order to dry out films. There were also attempts in several cities to set up central cooling facilities that would pump coolant, such as refrigerated ammonia, to nearby clients, though the pioneers couldn't make a success of it. The idea of piping coolant from a central facility does have merits, particularly in high-density cities and the like, and it is now found in some such places.
An engineer named Alfred Wolff took a special interest in developing cooling systems for buildings, beginning with one developed in 1892 for Carnegie Hall, in Manhattan. It was crude, just blowing air over blocks of ice, but Wolff went on to design more sophisticated cooling and dehumidification systems, blowing air over coils piping ammonia coolant, with the moisture liquefying out of the air on the chilly coils. The scheme was workable, but control over the cooling and dehumidification left something to be desired.
In 1902, Wolff installed a heating system in Andrew Carnegie's house, featuring an adjustable humidifier scheme. His control system featured a significant innovation in the form of dual thermometers, a "dry bulb" that measured temperature, and a "wet bulb" -- wrapped in a cloth kept continually wet -- that effectively gave a humidity reading. That was as much as Wolff accomplished, since he died in 1909 at the age of 50.
* In parallel with Wolff's later efforts, a young engineer named Willis Carrier tinkered with cooling and dehumidification for his employer, the Buffalo Forge Company, a maker of ventilation gear from Buffalo, New York. In 1902, a printing firm in Brooklyn went to Buffalo Forge to see if they could control the humidity in the printing plant, the moisture playing hell with the printing process. Carrier came up with a system similar to those developed by Wolff; he wasn't satisfied with it, and struggled to come up with something better.
Later in 1902, Carrier was waiting for a train in Pittsburgh one evening in the cold and fog, with the chilliness of the scene giving him an insight. He realized that cold air can't hold much moisture, and that he could actually control humidity by injecting a very fine mist of cold water into a chamber, through which air was blown. Baffles would collect water condensing out of the air. The counterintuitive end result of the water spray was drier air; the colder the water, the drier the air. The process also cleaned the air of dust.
Carrier developed his technology -- which became known as "air conditioning", though he didn't invent the name himself -- and it took off. Focusing mostly on humidity control, he developed systems for a range of industries, with his business booming to the extent that in 1907, Buffalo Forge established a subsidiary, the Carrier Air Conditioning Company of America. By 1911, Carrier had a list of clients including paper, pharmaceutical, film, tobacco, candy, and bakery companies, using air conditioning to deal with gelatin pills that took too long to dry, chocolate that turned gray, and movie film that developed spots. [TO BE CONTINUED]NEXT | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* THE COLD WAR (84): The calm in Lebanon proved strictly temporary. On 14 July 1958, a military coup overthrew the Hashemite monarchy of Iraq, with the royal family murdered; Nasser immediately recognized the new Iraqi regime. The US government suspected he was behind the coup, but had no evidence; however, it was plain that Nasser welcomed the death of one of the region's monarchs. The idea of intervening in Lebanon to prevent the fall of its government to Nasser's suspected machinations suddenly went back on the front burner.
Eisenhower called an NSC meeting that morning, but simply passively sat through it. He explained later that the NSC was too big, running to about 20 people, to permit quick decision-making, and that the Dulles brothers were inclined to try to dominate the meetings. The president complained that Allen Dulles gave briefings that were "too philosophical, laborious, and tedious", while John Foster Dulles gave briefings that were "frequently too long, and in too much detail in historical account." After the meeting, Eisenhower called a handful of his key advisors -- including Nixon, Goodpaster, and the Dulles brothers -- into the Oval Office for a less formal discussion that the president could keep under control.
Worries were voiced in the meeting that an American intervention in Lebanon smelled too much like the Suez intervention in 1956. To be sure, Chamoun had asked for outside help, but Secretary of State Dulles warned it wasn't likely anyone but America's friends would appreciate the distinction. Eisenhower was calm and non-committal, simply ordering the Sixth Fleet to the eastern Mediterranean and getting troops ready for possible action; then requesting a meeting of the UN Security Council.
That afternoon, the president raised the question of intervention in Lebanon with congressional leaders. Most weren't enthusiastic about the idea, but the objections weren't so vehement as to convince Eisenhower that Congress would rise up against the administration if they were presented with a fait accompli in the matter. That done, the president ordered the troops to land, with no advance notice to anyone in Lebanon -- but called British Prime Minister Macmillan to notify him. The British, of course, had got Chamoun's pleas for help, as well as one from King Hussein of Jordan, Macmillan patronizingly calling them "the two little chaps". Eisenhower told the prime minister that US forces were at that moment descending on Lebanon, with Macmillan dryly replying: "You are doing a Suez on me." The president laughed, having already heard that suggestion.
Macmillan wanted a joint operation, but Eisenhower thought the British should intervene in Jordan while the US intervened in Lebanon, with each nation following its own plan. That would seem less conspiratorial, and also show that Britain was acting as a partner, not simply acting as a US proxy. The president promised that the US would provide logistical support for a British intervention in Lebanon, and of course that America would provide complete diplomatic backing for the exercise.
US forces landed on the beaches of Beirut on 15 July, the operation being codenamed BLUE BAT. Ground forces included about 8,500 US Army and 5,700 US Marine troops, supported by 70 ships, including three aircraft carriers, the operational commander being Admiral James Holloway. Although the first wave of Marines went ashore in full combat gear, it ended up being something of a vacation exercise, the troops being greeted by sunbathers on the beach, as well as vendors of ice cream and soft drinks. The plan was for US forces to take control of the port, airport, and approaches to the city; General Chehab had his tanks block the route of advance, but after discussions and reassurances, he ordered the Lebanese army to escort the invaders into Beirut.
Only hours after the first landings, Eisenhower spoke with Macmillan again, with the prime minister suggesting that the US and Britain go further to clean up Jordan, Syria, and Iraq. Eisenhower replied, one would think with considerable understatement, that such an idea "gives me a good deal of concern" -- and was not in favor of such drastic action. That evening, the president addressed the nation, downplaying the intervention, saying that US troops had been "stationed" in Lebanon, really not such an exaggeration, and that they wouldn't stay long.
On 17 July, the British sent 2,200 paratroopers to Jordan to help stabilize the country. On 18 July, American diplomat Robert Murphy, acting as a personal representative for Eisenhower, arrived in Lebanon to engage in discussions with the government. After conversations, Murphy could report to the White House that, if there had been a crisis in Lebanon, there wasn't any more. Elections were planned for Lebanon in July.
The intervention could be, and to a degree was, seen as over-reaction, but it was shrewdly calculated. Eisenhower perceived that Nasser regarded the US as a paper tiger; that the Americans would not intervene in the Middle East, no matter what the provocation. The intervention was essentially a field exercise to show that the US was capable of taking and willing to take serious action if it were needed. Eisenhower also wanted to reassure American allies in the region, particularly the Saudis, that the US would back them up in a crisis. He found the action personally satisfying, bringing back memories of days as commander of the D-Day invasion. It would be the only time in the eight years of his presidency that he would send US troops into a foreign country.
Premier Khrushchev denounced the intervention, as did the Chinese government, with mass anti-American demonstrations in Beijing and other major Chinese cities. That came as no surprise to the White House; however, Arab reaction was also overwhelmingly negative. Eisenhower was concerned, as was Secretary of State Dulles, who felt that "Arab nationalism was a flood that was running strongly."
America could not oppose it, Dulles said, merely cope with it as best as possible, which was made very difficult by American support of Israel. Dulles qualified his worries, saying that the US should not over-estimate "Arab nationalism and Arab unity" -- perceiving, correctly as it would turn out, that the UAR alliance was flimsy and transitory. Eisenhower could only conclude that the US was laboring at a disadvantage in the Middle East, and there was not much that could be done to change matters. [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* WINGS & WEAPONS: Cluster munitions pack an enormous punch against adversary ground forces, but they leave behind "pollution" from duds that poses a threat to civilians. The US is planning to phase out cluster munitions by 2019, with the US Air Force now considering a replacement: the "Mark 82 Mod 7" 225-kilogram (500-pound) bomb, with a "cast ductile iron" casing that provides enhanced fragmentation.
From a tactical point of view, cluster munitions seem dated, since the push has been towards small smart munitions that are very accurate and have focused lethality -- much better for the "dirty little wars" in fashion now and for the foreseeable future, causing fewer civilian casualties. The primary need for the larger footprint of lethality is on the Korean Peninsula, where the prospect remains of a ground invasion of South Korea by the unstable and unpredictable North Korean regime.
We may, over the longer run, see strike aircraft carrying "sticks" of fragmentation-type bombs, maybe about 50 kilograms (110 pounds) each, with ten or so released at once to destroy a dispersed target. The bombs might have a degree of smarts, each with a seeker to pick out the best target beneath it, with datalinks between them to ensure optimum dispersal.
* In related news, European defense giant MBDA is now investigating new warheads with casings made of "reactive metals (RM)", to provide more punch. Traditional warheads use non-reactive metal casings (such as steel, aluminum, tungsten, or sometimes copper, which account for some two-thirds of the warhead weight) to provide target penetration and blast fragmentation.
RM technology instead uses "transition" metals (such as titanium, tantalum, zirconium, hafnium, and even aluminum), which actually catch on fire. The initial detonation or impact of the warhead on the target causes a chemical reaction among the reactive metals, delivering a significantly augmented blast effect that can increase lethality by up to a factor of five, and also helping to torch up the target. While enhancing blast effects, RM warheads reduce fragmentation effects; conventional warheads can throw lethal fragments hundreds of meters, causing unwanted collateral damage.
* According to IHS JANE'S 360 online, the inclination of North Korea to rattle its missiles at the world has led South Korea to invest substantially in missiles in response, most notably the "Hyunmu 2" solid-fuel tactical ballistic missile (TBM). While much remains secret about the Hyunmu 2, it is known that the initial variant was introduced in 2008, and has a range of about 300 kilometers (185 miles). It is fired from a truck-towed transporter-erector from a box launcher, and is said to have an inertial guidance system with an optical terminal targeting seeker, with a circular error probability of tens of meters.
A second- or possibly third-generation Hyunmu variant has now been tested, with a range of 500 kilometers (310 miles). Such imagery as has been released show it to be "stretched" compared to the original Hyunmu 2, and it has a 1,000-kilogram (2,200-pound) warhead. Sources claim that there is a version with a 500-kilogram (1,100-pound) warhead that has range extended to 800 kilometers (500 miles).
The Hyunmu 2 has a strong resemblance to the Russian 9K720 Iskander TBM, and is believed to have been developed with Russian assistance. South Korea plans to have a force of 1,700 TBMs by 2017. The country also has the Lockheed Martin MGM-140 ATACMS, with a range of 300 kilometers (185 miles), and more than 500 Hyunmu 1s, bombardment weapons based on the US Nike Hercules surface-to-air missile that can fly 180 kilometers (110 miles). There's also a "Hyunmu 3" cruise missile.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* ONLINE AD REVOLUTION: A survey from THE ECONOMIST ("Little Brother", 13 September 2014) inspected the state of online advertising, with an eye towards privacy issues, worth briefly summarizing here.
Advertisers have always wanted to target their ads more precisely; it costs them to place ads, so there's no point in presenting them to people who are not likely to buy the particular products advertised. Old folks and young folks, for example, have clearly different agendas, and only overlap in their buying at a level of the lowest common denominator. Now, thanks to the selectivity of online advertising, people can be targeted to a level of precision that would have been impossible to conceive a generation ago.
In 2013, online advertising accounted for a quarter of the world's $500 billion USD advertising business, with the proportion continuing to increase. Online advertising has floated such giant companies as Google, while making life miserable for firms still hung up on pre-digital advertising. It also inflicts a certain degree of misery on those that aren't, since the relative ease of digital advertising and its openness to many players means it's hard to make a profit as an online advertiser.
A survey revealed that Americans spend about 12 hours a day immersed in media, sometimes several different forms of media concurrently. About half that time is spent in digital media. Mobile devices, meaning smartphones and tablets, are becoming predominant over desktop systems. Social networks such as Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest are providing huge online "gathering places" that can be exploited by advertisers. In response, through "programmatic buying", firms interested in placing ads can bid to place ads to highly targeted markets in real time.
Those firms that gather data for the targeting fall into two categories: "first party" organizations, such as Amazon.com, want the data for their own purposes; while the generally anonymous "third party" organizations collect the data to sell to others. There's not a strong dividing line between the two, since a first party organization may also sell its data as well.
Consumers are of mixed mind about such surveillance. They're much happier to get targeted ads than be spammed by ads that simply annoy them, but they find it unnerving to see targeted ads following them everywhere they go online, not liking the idea of somebody watching their every move. Digital advertising officials deny that they are interested in snooping into the personal lives of consumers, one saying: "I don't care if you're cheating on your taxes or on your spouse. We are trying to figure out if you are a high-value customer, and are in the market for a car."
While that's obviously the truth, it's not that reassuring. Although online advertisers as a rule try to anonymize their data, consumers still find it creepy to be second-guessed and be offered products relevant to their personal situations -- AIDS patients, for example, could be easily targeted from their online activities, and hammered with ads for medical care, some of it dubious. Advertisers are not generally in a position to vouch for the honesty of those who buy their services. Worse, collect enough anonymous data on users, and it can, at least in theory, pinpoint them just as well as if they had given their names. One study showed that, of a particular group of users, only two data points were needed to identify half of them.
The USA is fairly indifferent to the issue, the only protection now available being to allow users to opt out of ads -- a request that is usually honored by legitimate businesses. However, they can still track consumers. Consumers can fight back to a degree, using anonymous web browser sessions, or deleting the "cookie" files websites use to store data about users on their own computers. Unfortunately, such evasions typically just complicate online transactions; for example, after deleting cookies, users have to establish their logins and such again. Very few users bother to block tracking, in much the same way that they usually don't have much problem with providing a lot of personal information to online services, and typically tell the truth when they do.
Europe is more concerned than the USA, already requiring that websites inform readers that 're being tracked. Tougher European Union rules are in the works, some claiming they're shaping up to be absurdly tough. Even China's President Xi Jinping has asked his prime minister to look into data security, despite the fact that the Chinese government explicitly does not accept that online users have a right to privacy. Few involved in US online advertising expect the happy-go-lucky approach taken here to persist indefinitely.
In the meantime, the issue is getting bigger. Smartphone operation involves a degree of tracking, with advertisers able to exploit it to target ads by location; the introduction of location beacons, able to identify the aisle of a store where the phone happens to be, enhance that targeting further. Smartphones are the cutting edge of online advertising, with 1.7 billion people around the world owning smartphones. Smartphone advertising is very promising but also, being more or less new, a bit troublesome. It's hard to place ads on a little smartphone screen without dominating the display; while advertisers can be annoying, they know it's not in their interests to flatly antagonize consumers. Unfortunately, make the ad too small, and nobody notices it. Ideas being floated include schemes to allow consumers to place calls to vendors just by clicking on an ad.
The pervasiveness of information technology in the 21st century has led to an inevitable decline in privacy. The dilemma is that personal information both helps and hurts. The question is whether citizens will be able to obtain more control over their personal information, or whether they will simply, given some basic safeguards, get used to its dissemination.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* PATENT ABSURDITY? As discussed by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("Intellectual Property: A Question Of Utility", 8 August 2015), the notion of patent protection is the established wisdom. Of course -- if people go through the effort of coming up with some clever and useful new invention, shouldn't they have exclusive rights for it, at least for a time?
This notion was not always seen as being as obvious as it seems now. The famous Great Exhibition, staged in London in 1851, was set up as a showcase for the inventive brilliance of Victorian Britain. One of the consequences was a bitter fight over intellectual property rights:
As a contemporary editorial in THE ECONOMIST pointed out, most of the wonders of the Victoria Britain -- from mule-spinning to railways, steamships to gas lamps -- seemed to have emerged without the help of patents. If the Industrial Revolution didn't need them, were they really so important?
The anti-patent faction lost, and since that time, the bureaucracy of patent protection has swelled around the world. Although patent backers say patents serve the public good, they actually weren't originally devised with the public good in mind. Sovereigns first introduced them as nice little money-makers; in the early 17th century, King James I was raising 200,000 pounds a year from granting patents. However, as patents became established, they were increasingly seen, as the US Constitution put it, as a tool with which to "promote the progress of science and useful arts."
In modern times, a patent works like this: in return for registering and publishing an idea, which must be new, useful and non-obvious, an inventor gets a temporary monopoly -- today, typically about 20 years -- on its use. Patents, seen in this way, would appear to be a good idea: an inventor gets a payback on an invention, while making sure the world knows about it, spurring invention. Incidentally, this is not the same as copyright protection, which covers artworks and the like that are unique products of an individual, and have no general applicability as do inventions.
The difficulty with the patent system is, as a number of scholars have pointed out in recent years, the system can be gamed much too easily, making it doubtful that it really helps anyone. Once a patent is established for a successful product, competitors will simply figure out variations, or find improvements, that let them get into the market. OK, from that point of view, it would seem that patents are indeed a spur to innovation -- but they're not really protecting the original inventor, who may feel compelled to tie the industry up in knots with patent litigation, doing everything possible to hold back innovation, while enriching the lawyers and burdening the courts.
Indeed, patents are often written in a deliberately obscure fashion, ensuring that few can honestly spot a good idea to copy, while giving the maximum footprint for striking out at patent infringers -- both real and conveniently assumed. Certainly, everyone is familiar with "patent trolls", who try to establish a matrix of patents, without necessarily actually building anything, just so they can trump up patent suits against those who are trying to build something. Companies have taken to piling up patents just to protect themselves; if a rival tries to press a patent suit, they get hit with a countersuit. The end result is to make innovation all the harder.
Studies investigating the correlation between tough patent protection and innovation show they are weakly related at best. Ironically, studies of industries undergoing a high rate of initial innovation show that patents aren't filed until the boom starts to die down, and people get concerned with protect their turf. In another irony, although China's enforcement of global intellectual property rights is notoriously lax, China's businesses are not, as a rule, all that competitive with leading-edge foreign firms. Just having access to the intellectual property isn't enough to ensure an advantage in business.
One case that is often held out in favor of patent protection is pharmaceuticals. It can be frightfully expensive to develop and qualify a new drug; since a drug out of patent protection is going to be copied by manufacturers of cheap "generics" in short order, the developer honestly needs to be guaranteed a payback. However, studies suggest that this case is overstated. Italy didn't have patent protection on drugs until 1978, and the pharmaceutical industry there seems to have been perfectly innovative.
In addition, much of basic medical research is government-funded, meaning pharmaceutical firms that leverage off it are getting something of a "free ride" -- while burdening the health-care system, and the government, with high costs for expensive drugs. However, the fact that the US government ends up paying tens of billions of dollars for drugs suggests a way out of the impasse: drop or minimize patent protection on drugs, but award billion-dollar prizes for the new drugs that seem worth it. The government would also do the qualification for the promising drugs. Why not? The government is the ultimate arbiter of the tests anyway. That would all mean billions in outlays, but that's not in a league with tens of billions in medical costs. It would also help ensure that the drugs with the most significant payback have the highest profile.
A number of bills to reform the patent system are working their way through the US Congress. None of them attempt, or would dare to attempt, to overturn the patent system as it exists. There is a good case, however, for giving the matter a serious re-examination, and experimenting with new approaches.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* WE CAN MAKE YOU TALK (3): The notion that interrogations should be about gathering information and not getting confessions leads to the issue of how to interrogate people to get solid information out of them, even when they're trying to be helpful, which has been a prime focus of HIG-funded research and training. Subjects may not have clear memories of events, or provide clear explanations even when they do, and interrogators may not ask the right questions.
In the early 1980s, a young cognitive psychologist named Ronald Fisher noticed he had a knack for helping people find misplaced possessions. A friend would call asking if he had left his wallet at Fisher's apartment, then while talking remember where he'd put it. Fisher realized that he had been unconsciously jogging their memories, guided by the theories of memory he was teaching his students at the University of California at Los Angeles. Along with his colleague Edward Geiselman, he started digging into the research literature and watching hundreds of hours of interviews.
In a 1985 paper, the two formalized the procedure into what they would call the "Cognitive Interview". One of their insights was that a typical question-&-answer format isn't very productive. Fisher says: "Good interviewers ask very, very few questions. If you stop and think about it, it makes sense. Why do you ask a question during an interview? Because the witness is not telling you what you want to know."
In other words, the subject becomes passive, just waiting for the next question. To deal with this issue, the Cognitive Interview emphasizes open-ended questions, to report everything they remember, whether it seems important or not; they're asked to close their eyes, or draw a sketch of how a room was laid out. Interviewers prompt them by asking them to describe the scene from other vantage points -- across the street from where they stood, or from the car in front of theirs -- and to retell a sequence of events starting at different points, or in reverse order. Memory is highly associative, and it is much more effective to establish a "matrix" of an event, than to try to lay it out as a neat sequential story.
In 2013, Fisher ran a study at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Centers in Glynco, Georgia, to find they obtained 80% more relevant and accurate information using the Cognitive Interview approach, than by using traditional methods they taught their students. Police departments and intelligence agencies have begun to adopt it. HIG is teaching Federal investigators the method, and the Air Force Office of Special Investigations, the branch's law enforcement and intelligence arm, is training all its investigators in it.
There also seems to be more to getting information from an interrogations than just knowing how to ask questions. In 2012, Maria Hartwig started looking at the role an environment plays in investigative interviewing. Hartwig, 34, is a former student of the University of Gothenburg's Granhag, now a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. The basis for her work is what is called "embodied cognition", which just means that physiology is intertwined with cognition -- for example, being physically warm makes people more generous than others.
Following up that notion, Hartwig believes the typical interrogation room -- claustrophobic, locked, cold, austere -- is exactly the wrong sort of space to get someone to reveal information. It works better to have open windows, open doors, a picture of the open sky; her studies showed that subjects became distinctly more informative when queried in such an environment. The Philadelphia Police Department has expressed interest in her work.
Too "airy-fairy" to be honestly practical? Hartwig admits her work is preliminary, and she's not claiming that the right decor will get terrorists to reveal bomb plots. However, most interrogators admit there isn't any one trick that will. According to Colonel Kleinman: "Interrogation doesn't have a magic switch. There's not some BREAK IN CASE OF FIRE type of option."
Believing there is, he says, is part of how interrogators end up becoming torturers. As people doing interrogation research like to put it: There is no Pinocchio's nose. [END OF SERIES]START | PREV | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* THE COLD WAR (83): Although the nuclear arms race had been on the top of Eisenhower's list of worries in the first half of 1958, he was then distracted by the Middle East. Early in 1958, Egypt and Syria formed the "United Arab Republic (UAR)", proclaiming they were now a single nation. Gamal Abdel Nasser had pushed the concept in response to fears among the Syrian ruling elite that the Syrian Communist Party would take over. In effect, Syria surrendered its sovereignty to Egypt, with Nasser then promoting Syrian factions favorable to his leadership, and sidelining those in opposition. It was an odd and implausible arrangement; since the Egyptians hadn't militarily occupied Syria, Egypt could only call the shots there to the extent that, as long as, the Syrians played along.
The US government was inclined to see Nasser as another Red tyrant. It was true that Nasser was authoritarian and busily engaged in construction of his own "cult of personality" -- but the only real reason the Americans had to think him a communist was because of his efforts to obtain aid, particularly military aid, from the East Bloc. Nasser's primary ideological platform was "pan-Arabism", a notion, wildly unrealistic in hindsight, that the Arab states of North Africa and the Middle East represented, and should be, a single entity. Nasser linked his pan-Arabism with a form of socialism to create "Arab socialism", promoted by the Ba'ath Party.
Arab socialism was always a fuzzy notion, not much more than an agenda for state control and mobilization of the nation, with no evident solidarity with Soviet communism. One Soviet analyst said that the structure defined for Arab socialism was hardly more than "a hazy outline on a barely developed ideological negative." That raises the question of whether Soviet communism was anything more than state control and mobilization of the nation with ideological window dressing.
In any case, the bottom line was that given Nasser's authoritarianism; his determination to unify the Arab states under a single banner; his dealings with the Soviets; and his commitment to socialism, no matter how thinly defined, it wasn't surprising that the US government was inclined to see him as a malign schemer who aspired to take over the Arab world. Hitler being so fresh in memory, the Americans tended to see clones of him everywhere. Eisenhower had discussions with the CIA about getting rid of Nasser, but waffled on the issue, establishing no clear policy.
Nasser certainly seemed threatening to the monarchies of the Middle East, particularly Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Jordan. The Syrians were attempting to subvert the Jordanian government; in response to the formation of the UAR, Jordan and Iraq, both monarchies of the Hashemite dynasty, formed an "Arab Union", essentially focused on a unified military command.
With these events as a backdrop, in late April, Lebanese President Camille Chamoun amended the constitution to allow himself an unprecedented second term. Lebanon was the most religiously diverse country in the Middle East, with various sects of Christians, the Maronites being dominant; both Sunni and Shia Muslims; the deliberately obscure Druze sect, which tilted towards the Muslims; and smatterings of other faiths. Chamoun, a Maronite Christian, set off a wave of unrest with his action, with fighting breaking out in May between Christian and Muslim militias. The chief of staff of Lebanon's little army, General Fuad Chehab, was a Christian, but also a rival of Chamoun; he refused to intervene, fearing that Christian and Muslim soldiers in the army would start fighting with each other.
Chamoun sent out feelers asking for possible military support from the US, Britain, and France -- Lebanon having been a French mandate in the era between the wars. Eisenhower believed that the unrest in Lebanon was driven by communist subversion, even though the factional nature of Lebanese society and Chamoun's high-handed actions would seem to have been enough to explain everything without invoking communists. However, on 13 May, Vice President Nixon, on a visit to Caracas, Venezuela, was attacked by howling mob that smashed the windows of his limousine with rocks and tried to tip it over. The Venezuelan military arrived and dispersed the mob. Eisenhower saw this event as part of an overall communist program of subversion, and was easily inclined to see more subversion elsewhere as part of the pattern.
Eisenhower sent the US Navy's Sixth Fleet into the eastern Mediterranean, just in case. Secretary of State Dulles had reservations about intervening on behalf of Chamoun, who had provoked the crisis, but Eisenhower began considering the possibility of intervening in collaboration with the British -- he was much less keen on French involvement. However, on 14 May General Chehab put his troops into action, restoring calm over most of Lebanon. The crisis appeared to have passed.
Appearances were deceptive, with fighting breaking out again a week later. On 22 May, Chamoun asked the UN Security Counsel to consider his accusation that the Syrians and Egyptians were behind the unrest. On 10 June, the Security Council ordered an observation team to Lebanon to get the facts, with the team arriving from 12 June. At the same time, Nasser was in communication with Eisenhower, coming up with proposals to restore calm to Lebanon. Eisenhower didn't trust Nasser and didn't go along with any of his proposals -- but in the course of the conversations, Eisenhower still found the charismatic Nasser much more impressive as a leader than the heads of state of other Arab countries.
Eisenhower and his people began to talk about intervention again. John Foster Dulles thought it would be disastrous if America sent in troops before the UN reported on the situation. Eisenhower agreed, expressing misgivings about intervention, but also worried that American credibility would suffer from a failure to act. Then, on 18 June, UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjoeld arrived in Lebanon, to report a few days later that Chamoun's claims of Syrian and Egyptian meddling in Lebanon were greatly exaggerated. Although UAR propaganda indeed blasted Chamoun, Lebanon had plenty of sources of instability within its own borders; outside interference wasn't needed to explain the unrest. Chamoun then announced he wouldn't seek a second term as president, eliminating the key reason for the disturbances. The White House stood down once again. [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* Space launches for August included:
-- 19 AUG 15 / HTV 5 -- An H-2B booster was launched from Tanegashima at 1151 GMT (local time - 9) to put the fifth "H-2 Transfer Vehicle (HTV 5)" AKA "Kounotori (White Stork) 5", an unmanned freighter, into orbit on an ISS resupply mission. HTV 5 was built by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and had a launch mass of 15,875 kilograms (35,000 pounds), including 3,855 kilograms (8,500 pounds) of payload. Along with supplies and kit for the ISS, HTV-5 carried:
HTV-5 docked with the ISS Harmony module five days after launch. The CubeSats were deployed from the ISS later.
-- 20 AUG 15 / EUTELSAT 8 WEST B, INTELSAT 34 -- An Ariane 5 ECA booster was launched from Kourou in French Guiana at 2034 GMT (local time + 3) to put the "Eutelsat 8 West B" and "Intelsat 34" geostationary comsats into orbit. Eutelsat 8 West B was built by Thales Alenia Space and was based on the Spacebus 4000 C4 platform. It had a launch mass of 5,780 kilograms (12,745 pounds), a payload of 40 Ku / 10 C band transponders, and a design life of 15 years. It was placed in the geostationary slot at 8 degrees west longitude, to provide direct-to-home television broadcasts over North Africa and the Middle East.
Intelsat 34 was built by Space Systems / Loral and was based on the SSL 1300-series platform. It had a launch mass of 3,300 kilograms (7,275 pounds) and a design life of 15 years. It was placed in the geostationary slot at 55.5 degrees west, where it broadcast television to homes in Brazil; distributed video programming for companies such as HBO and Fox across Latin America; and beamed broadband services to travelers on airplanes and ships crossing the North Atlantic.
-- 27 AUG 15 / YAOGAN 27 -- A Chinese Long March 4C booster was launched from Taiyuan at 0231 GMT (local time - 8) to put the "Yaogan 27" satellite into orbit. It was described as an Earth observation satellite, but was apparently a military optical surveillance satellite.
-- 27 AUG 15 / GSAT 6 -- An ISRO Geostationary Satellite Launch Vehicle was launched from Sriharikota at 1122 GMT (local time - 5:30) to put the Indian "GSAT 6" geostationary comsat into orbit. GSAT 6 had a launch mass of 2,115 kilograms (4,665 pounds) and carried a payload of C / S band transponders. It was placed at the geostationary slot at 83 degrees east longitude, primarily to provide communications support of India's military. This was the second consecutive successful flight of the GSLV, which has suffered through a troubled development program, with 4 of 9 launches to date being failures. ISRO officials felt that the corner had finally been turned on the GSLV, and it was on its way to be as reliable as the workhorse PSLV.
-- 28 AUG 15 / INMARSAT 5-F3 -- An International Launch Services Proton M Breeze M booster was launched from Baikonur at 1144 GMT (local time - 6) to put the "Inmarsat 5-F3" geostationary communications satellite into orbit for Inmarsat of London. Inmarsat 5-F3 was built by Boeing Satellite Systems, and was based on the BSS-702HP comsat bus. The spacecraft had a launch mass of 6,070 kilograms (13,385 pounds), a payload of 89 Ka-band transponders, and a design life of 15 years. It was placed in the geostationary slot at 55 degrees west to support the Inmarsat "Global Xpress" service, intended to provide global broadband communications services for aviation, maritime, government, and commercial users.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* THE OTHER RENEWABLE: As discussed by an article from IEEE SPECTRUM Online ("US Hydropower Fleet Has Upside Power And Storage Potential" by Peter Fairley, 30 April 2015), hydropower doesn't get a lot of respect -- seeming "old hat" in comparison to renewables such as wind and solar, as well as seen as not all that environmentally benign. However, a study of the US hydropower industry by the US Department of Energy's (DOE) Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) in Tennessee suggested that maybe it does deserve some esteem.
According to the report, there are almost 2,200 hydropower plants in the US, most of them having been installed from 1930 to 1970. Although only 176 of the plants are operated by the Federal government -- including the US Army Corps of Engineers, the Bureau of Reclamation, and the Tennessee Valley Authority -- those are the biggest of them, accounting for almost half the power produced. US hydropower grew by 1.5 gigawatts (GW) to 79.6 GW over the past decade, allowing it to hold on to its 7% share of the US power supply. It is, for now, bigger than solar and wind put together, offsetting 200 million tonnes of of carbon emissions per year, equivalent to more than 42 million cars taken off the road.
During that decade, $6 billion USD has been invested in the hydropower system. Most of the growth has come from upgrading the capacity of existing hydropower systems, without adding any new big dams. Some industry observers judge that the US can almost double its capacity, through further upgrades; installing "run of river" hydropower systems, where generators are installed with little or no reservoir backing them up, to tap seasonal water flows; and adding power generation to the more than 80,000 dams lacking generation capability at the present time, such dams being used for recreation, flood control, and irrigation. Installing power generation capability in just a hundred of those dams would add 8 GW to US power generation capability.
Hydropower also provides 21.6 GW of electrical storage capacity, through 42 "pumped storage hydro (PSH)" plants; that's 97% of all utility electrical storage in the US. PSH is almost the only game in town at present for large-scale storage, providing load leveling for the rest of the power grid. A next generation of PSH -- already available in Europe and Asia -- features variable-speed pumps driven by power electronics that allow stored hydro to rapidly balance grid loads. No such advanced plants are yet under construction in the US, but in 2014, the US Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) issued licenses for two of them, with FERC considering licenses for two more. Regulatory and market issues have hobbled development of advanced PSH; FERC and other players are attempting to streamline the bureaucracy to level the playing field.
Hydropower, in short, has a significant role to play in America's future renewable energy network, as a complement to wind and solar. It is becoming apparent that the future of energy is not going to be determined by any one technology; instead, it will be based on a mix of different technologies, with centralized power plants complemented by power systems at residences, small businesses, and facilities -- all linked by a smart grid system.
* In vaguely related news, an article from BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK ("Turning Drilling Waste Into Clean Energy" by Jeremy van Loon, 4 May 2015) discussed how, in the course of pumping oil out of the ground, scalding hot water is pumped up along with the oil -- and in the case of fracking, also pumped down, to be heated and come back up again. Drillers in North Dakota are experimenting with obtaining electrical power from the hot water, by running it through a heat exchanger that vaporizes a refrigerant, which then drives a power turbine. The refrigerant is cooled and liquefied, then run past the heat exchanger again.
A prototype has been able to produce 250 kW of electricity, enough to run a well's systems, with power left over to sell to utilities. The DOE estimates that each well with such a generating system would be able to bring in $100,000 USD extra a year. Not all oil drillers are enthusiastic; their objective is to minimize pumping water, and few are excited about getting into the electric power business on the side, having concerns that doing so would be more trouble than it's worth.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* ISS DOES COSMIC RAYS: As discussed by an article from AAAS SCIENCE ("Catching Cosmic Rays Where They Live" by Emily Conover, 7 August 2015), the construction of the International Space Station took decades -- going back to the Reagan Administration, if the initial period of false starts is factored in -- and was extremely expensive. However, now that it's there, it's a bargain as a space science platform: payloads are regularly launched to the ISS, and it provides all the support systems a science payload needs. It's well cheaper for a space science team than flying a stand-alone satellite.
One niche being exploited by the ISS is cosmic-ray astronomy. Ground-based detectors spot cosmic rays indirectly, by observing the showers of other particles they generate on striking the atmosphere. Astrophysicists believe direct measurements in space will give them a better understanding of the types and energies of cosmic ray particles reaching Earth. They are particularly interested in "ultra-high energy cosmic rays (UHECR)", which remain somewhat mysterious. UHECRs are believed to originate from violent cosmic events, such as supernovas, and are seen as useful probes into such events.
Since 2011, the station has hosted the "Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS)" instrument -- a general-purpose detector, measuring electrons, protons, nuclei, and antimatter at a range of energies. AMS was something of a "big space science" project; it took a decade of planning and cost $1.5 billion USD. It is now being joined by two other, more specialized cosmic-ray experiments -- the "CALorimetric Electron Telescope (CALET)" and the "ISS Cosmic Ray Energetics And Mass (ISS-CREAM)" experiment. They will measure cosmic rays at energies many times higher than the AMS can reach, at a much lower cost.
CALET is an international project, with a pricetag of $33 million USD; it was launched to the ISS on a Japanese H-2B booster on 19 August 2015. CALET is focused on high-energy electrons. These particles quickly lose energy as they travel through space, so any that are detected must come from sources less than a few thousand light-years away. Sources could include supernova remnants, pulsars, or "dark matter" -- the unseen mass that, as theory would have it, makes up 85% of the mass of the Universe.
Some models predict that dark matter particles colliding in space should annihilate one another, giving off electrons and anti-electrons AKA positrons. The AMS has already observed unexpectedly high numbers of positrons that might be signs of such reactions; CALET can't distinguish positrons from electrons, so it will look for a surplus in the total number of both particles at high energies. Although that surplus would not decisively confirm dark matter processes, such observations could help refine theory and lead to more conclusive tests.
ISS-CREAM -- which is, of course, pronounced "ice cream" -- is scheduled to be launched by a SpaceX Falcon booster in 2016. It will focus on high-energy atomic nuclei, from hydrogen up through iron. ISS-CREAM will effectively obtain particle samples from supernovas and other violent cosmic events, and will obtain insights on a puzzling phenomenon known as the "knee". Low-energy cosmic rays are, to no great surprise, much more common than high-energy ones. The surprise is that, as cosmic rays increase in energy, their numbers steadily decline, and then fall off steeply.
Astronomers suspect the knee defines the energy at which supernovas begin to run out of steam. Because the energy a supernova gives a particle depends on the particle's electric charge, nuclei with more protons should reach higher energies; ISS-CREAM will check whether this pattern holds. If results confirm that supernovas fade out around the knee, then more energetic cosmic rays must come from more powerful accelerators -- possibly active galaxies powered by supermassive black holes.
AMS, CALET, and ISS-CREAM may eventually be joined by a fourth experiment, the "Extreme Universe Space Observatory at the Japanese Experiment Module (JEM-EUSO)", tentatively scheduled for launch in 2021. It would watch the Earth instead of space, using a wide-angle camera to spot bursts of ultraviolet light generated by the particle showers UHECRs make when they hits the atmosphere. JEM-EUSO will help determine just how powerful UHECRs can get, and possibly give clues as to their origins. Although the ISS had troubled origins, astronomers are happy with it, finding it a superlative platform for performing coordinated observations in high-energy astronomy.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* WE CAN MAKE YOU TALK (2): A decade ago Mellissa Russano, a professor at Roger Williams University in Rhode Island, began to perform lab investigations of the social and emotional dynamics of interrogation. Test subjects were asked to take a cognitive ability test in a room with another student; half the time, the other student would ask for help, which would usually be given, even though it was against the rules. After the test, the test administrator would tell the subject that there was a potential issue; let the subject stew for five minutes; and then conduct an interrogation that was recorded on video.
Russano was interested in testing what have long been the twin poles of interrogation styles: "minimization" and "maximization" -- essentially the "good copy / bad cop" act, with minimization playing down the issue of concern: "Anybody would done pretty much the same thing in your situation." -- and maximization pumping it up: "You are really in big trouble." They're common tools in police and military interrogations, and they often produce confessions. The difficulty, as Russano discovered, was that the confessions were unreliable: "Guilty people are more likely to confess ... The problem is, so are innocent people."
Russano found that minimization alone almost doubled the number of cheaters who confessed in her studies -- but it tripled the number of confessions from those who didn't cheat. To be sure, college students are easy marks, not typically as tough as criminals or insurgents, but the work still strongly suggested that even gentle coercion can yield too many false positives. She's been tweaking the script of the tests, for example taking a a sympathetic approach in an interrogation, but making it clear leniency wasn't in the card. The result was as many true confessions, but far fewer false ones.
Another problem with coercive methods is that interrogators almost necessarily make some assumption of the innocence or guilt of the subject at the outset. Unfortunately, hundreds of studies show the accuracy of such prejudgements to be about as good as flipping a coin. It's not as easy to determine if someone's guilty as it's made out to be on TV shows; worse, even formal interrogation manuals are full of baloney.
In 2003, a team led by the psychologist Bella DePaulo, then at the University of Virginia, studied supposed cues, such as breaking eye contact or fidgeting, and found that none of them had any strong correlation to guilt or lying. According to Par-Anders Granhag, a psychologist at the University of Gothenburg who has trained the instructors at the Norwegian Police University College: "The basic assumption that liars will be more affected emotionally. It's very intuitive, but it's never been supported empirically."
Granhag is a leading advocate of an alternate approach to lie detection that focuses on the labor of lying. People who are innocent will normally come right out and say so -- but liars have to think to keep their story straight, they have to gauge the listener's reaction, they have to watch themselves so they don't seem shifty. As a result, liars tend to speak more slowly, and offer fewer details.
When the psychologist Aldert Vrij, of the University of Portsmouth in the UK, asked English police officers to watch videos of people telling stories and pick which ones seemed to be thinking harder rather than which were lying, the officers got better at spotting deception. Vrij has also found that adding to the workload for liars tends to trip them up, for example trying to get them to tell their story from the end to the beginning, not from beginning to end. Introducing evidence incrementally also can confound liars, forcing them to alter the story to explain away inconvenient facts.
* Not everyone is impressed by such lab experiments, saying they're too artificial to be relevant to the real world. Real-world interrogations do, however, seem to work better when no coercion is involved -- no threats, no promises. Laurence Alison, a psychologist at the University of Liverpool in the UK, got access to 181 interrogations of Islamic and Right-wing terrorists by British police, and coded them for different approaches. He found that the most productive interrogations in terms of information yield were those in which interrogators essentially acted like therapists.
The trick, Alison found, is that interrogations should be simply to gather evidence without assuming either guilt or evidence, to get the facts, not extract a confession. On one side of the coin, in places such as Japan and Singapore where the conviction rates are absurdly high, the police are after confessions less to ensure justice than to wash their hands of the case and make themselves look effective. On the other side of that coin, the high false positive rate of confessions means they are not a good indicator of guilt or evidence. Better to just to talk to the accused, and see if the answers are consistent with plausibility and the evidence.
This approach is now increasingly being used by investigators in Australia, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, and the United Kingdom. Confessions are not discouraged, but British conviction rates suggest that juries are at least as impressed by the contortions of defendants trying to explain away inconvenient facts, only to dig themselves into a deeper hole. [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* THE COLD WAR (82): While Eisenhower reluctantly signed on to the space race, the Soviets were conducting a series of nuclear tests, with the US poised to respond with the HARDTACK series. However, on 27 March 1958, Bulganin resigned as Soviet premier, with Khrushchev now becoming, as with Stalin before him, both premier and party first secretary. On 31 March, Khrushchev announced to the world that the Soviet Union would cease nuclear testing -- though, of course, it would be resumed if the Americans and British did not suspend their own tests.
This ploy was not unexpected, since Eisenhower had been discussing scenarios and possibilities for a nuclear test ban with his advisors; he knew it would be only too easy for the Soviets to obtain a propaganda advantage at the end of their set of tests by daring the Americans to halt theirs. Eisenhower was still furious, even though his own peace initiatives unavoidably had mixed aspects as well. In any case, Eisenhower was getting contradictory advice on a test ban, Strauss of the AEC fighting it tooth and nail, while Secretary of State Dulles was in favor.
The critical issue was inspections, Strauss and Teller being adamant that there was no credible way to verify that the Soviets wouldn't cheat on a ban. Killian's PSAC performed a study suggesting that, though it would be difficult to devise an absolutely foolproof scheme, one could be set up that could detect detonations as small as two kilotons, and it would be difficult to cheat on it. PSAC also said that, since the US had a continuing lead on the Soviets in nuclear weapons technology, once a test ban was achieved, it would leave the US with an edge.
Eisenhower had set up the PSAC in part as a foil to the AEC clique, and it was working as desired. The two groups of scientists were, not at all incidentally, on such bitter terms that they could barely talk with each other. Strauss raised objection after objection in response, the inflexible single-mindedness of his opposition diminishing his credibility. Dulles was a hefty counterweight, a force to be reckoned with when it came to bureaucratic infighting -- and despite his hardline anti-communism, he had come around to thinking the US was spending too much on defense.
At a 25 April meeting of the NSC, Eisenhower questioned the notion, popular at the time, that ICBMs would render bombers obsolete, saying with more foresight than even he could have imagined that the B-52 would still be in service after first-generation ICBMs were obsolete. The president added that, if he caved into the demands of the hawks for more delivery systems, it would "create unheard-of inflation in the United States."
Much to everyone's surprise, Dulles replied that Eisenhower was likely spending too much already. Dulles told the president: "The United States should not attempt to be the greatest military power in the world, although most discussions in the NSC seemed to suggest we have the most and best of everything." Dulles added: "In the field of military capabilities, enough is enough. If we didn't realize this fact, the time would come when all our national production would be centered on our military establishment."
Dulles said that the Soviets needed to respect American power, but they needn't be frightened to death of it. When Eisenhower said that the JCS was concerned with saving money, Dulles said that he was "not at all sure this was so." It was the business of the military, he went on, to assure the strongest defense of America, it was right for them to do so, that was their job -- but there was another side to the issue that the military's civilian bosses had to take into account.
Dulles, backed up by the PSAC and senior government officials in his camp, was able to persuade Eisenhower that the US should promote a test ban, without demanding an end to production, and with talks to follow between the superpowers on an inspection system. On 28 April -- the day of the first HARDTACK shot -- Eisenhower sent a message to Khrushchev, proposing a test ban. Eisenhower told Dulles that unless America took "positive action, we were in future going to be in a position of moral isolation" in the world.
The Soviets were also keeping up the pressure in space. On 15 May 1958, they put the Object D satellite, "Sputnik 3", in orbit -- a huge spacecraft by the standards of the time, weighing about a tonne, and carrying a dozen instruments. [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* GIMMICKS & GADGETS: Shutterbugs know that taking photos through glass can be an exercise in frustration, the images being corrupted by reflections. Cameras can have "through-glass" shooting modes, but they don't work all that well. Putting the camera objective up against the glass isn't always practical, and it can be hard on the zoom mechanism.
According to a note from THE ECONOMIST ("Double Take", 23 May 2015), YiChang Shi of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and his colleagues have come up with a slick idea for getting rid of the reflections. The trick is that glass has a thickness, separating two sides -- which means the camera picks up two slightly-offset reflections. If the two reflections can be detected, they can be subtracted from each other, and eliminated.
Well, it's slick in principle; it's not, however, trivial to implement. The MIT group has been working on a learning system, feeding a computer large numbers of photos to allow it to tell reflections from images. Once debugged, the filter may demand too much processing power to be conveniently implemented in a camera itself, being implemented instead in an image editor. Incidentally, forensic scientists are interested in this research -- not because they want to get rid of reflections, instead to get rid of the image so they can see the reflection, in hopes it yields clues to a crime.
* There was a time when a 2 gigabyte flash drive seemed like a big deal. Now Samsung has announced a 16 terabyte flash drive, the "P1633a". It uses a vertical fabrication scheme known as "V-NAND" to achieve the higher densities. It's not intended for personal use, being way too expensive for that, with cloud server systems being the target market.
* As discussed by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("The Crowd Will See You Now", 23 May 2015), rare diseases, those that afflict less than a percent of the population, are not as a group all that rare, because there's so many of them -- the US National Institutes of Health recognizes 7,000. A general practitioner will not know about many of them, and may only encounter any one of them a single time. Studies indicate that about 8% of Americans, 25 million people, have rare diseases, and it takes an average of 7.5 years to properly diagnose them, with patients suffering through repeated misdiagnoses.
Enter the "CrowdMed" website, where patients can submit their cases, sometimes offering a cash reward for help. A collective of volunteers -- including students, retired doctors, nurses, and the occasional talented amateur -- then responds. A ranking system helps determine which advice is valuable and whose advice is the best. The system works. A woman who had been burping up to 150 times a day had gone through procedure after procedure, tried changing diets, and found nothing worked. CrowdMed came up with a diagnosis of "supergastric belching", with a speech pathologist recommended for treatment, resulting in a cure.
Although the internet is a notoriously unreliable source of medical information, Crowdmed appears to have figured out how to maintain professional credibility. A survey of CrowdMed users revealed that about 80% of the patients got accurate diagnoses out of the system; it turned out that some of the best diagnosticians were not those with the best credentials. There's considerable work on intelligent diagnostic systems these days; it will be interesting to see how crowdsourced diagnostics stacks up against them, and if the two can leverage off of each other.
* WIRED Online blogs discussed another web-based medical tool, named "VisualDX", useful for tracking down unusual diseases. A medical practitioner enters a description of a patient and symptoms, with VisualDX returning a grid of photos of possible conditions, ranked in order of likelihood. Selecting an image gives more details. Those who have used it have found it extremely capable.
VisualDX is not all that new, having been Launched in 2001 by Dr. Art Papier, a professor of dermatology and medical informatics at the University of Rochester, New York. It is now a common fixture in hospitals, clinics, and medical schools. Early on in his career, right out of medical school, working as the only dermatologist in a rural town, he realized how hard it could be for a doctor to properly diagnose a disease when there were so many of them out there. "I quickly saw that primary care doctors had difficulty with even common diseases. I saw this real need to bring expertise to the generalist."
VisualDx now contains more than 100,000 peer-reviewed photos that correlate to more than 1,000 diagnoses. It is available as a subscription service for physicians. Of course, it doesn't do well when conditions are not all that visible, and not all physicians who use the app do so very effectively. Still, Papier thinks VisualDX is working; in 2014, doctors brought up 60 million images on the app. As new medical threats emerge, VisualDX should help the medical profession to get on top of them quickly.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* NEXT-GEN TRUCKING: As discussed by an article from WIRED Online blogs ("Making Trucks More Efficient Isn't Actually Hard to Do" by Alex Davies, 24 June 2015), the Obama Administration is pilloried for its actions, sometimes with cause and sometimes not -- but there has been little fuss over the government's aggressive push to improve vehicular fuel economy.
In June 2015, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration announced new fuel economy standards for medium- and heavy-duty vehicles, ranging from the larger pickup trucks and delivery vans to the heavy-hauler semis that roar down the freeways, with an eye to major improvements in fuel economy over the next decade.
Current standards for these vehicles were introduced in 2011 and take effect in 2015, requiring a 20% reduction in fuel consumption. The new "phase two" rules apply to heavy haulers, large pickup trucks, vans, and buses built between 2021 and 2027, which will have to cut another 25%, based on 2018 numbers. That's not as hard as it sounds, according to Noel Perry, an economist who works in transport and logistics: "They are easily achievable."
Transportation accounts for 28% of the nation's carbon emissions, second only to power plants at 31%. Although trucks make up just 4.3% of vehicles in the US and drive 9.3% of all miles driven each year, they consume more than 25% of the fuel burned annually. The EPA estimates that the new standards will save $170 billion USD at the pump, and cut CO2 emissions by a billion tonnes -- about as much as all US residences generate in a year.
The big international truck makers -- such as Daimler, Volvo, and Mack -- aren't at all unhappy about the new fuel standards, since their customers want vehicles that are economical to operate, and the US government is merely providing them with an added incentive. The manufacturers feel they should have no problem meeting the fuel efficiency standards, even comfortably beating them.
One of the easiest ways to improve efficiency is to make the trucks more aerodynamic. Today's vehicles are far slicker than those of the past, with elements such as side skirts and the ATDynamics "Trailertail", which fits to the back of a trailer to improve stability and cut wind resistance. More can be done: rounder edges, lower noses, smaller gaps to smooth the airflow, particularly between the tractor and trailer. One simple and very useful change would be replacing those huge side mirrors with cameras, which would have the added benefit of providing a better view to the rear and sides. The technology exists; it's a matter of getting the Feds to approve it -- and since they're pushing for fuel economy, they have an incentive to be agreeable.
Another straightforward fix: improved tires. Companies such as Michelin favor using a wide tire in place of two narrower ones, as is common today, to reduce rolling resistance -- with Michelin saying its "X One" wide single tire can cut fuel use by 10% through reduced resistance and weight.
Although diesel engine technology is mature, there's room for improvement, such as regenerative braking, which could capture the energy otherwise lost as heat, using it to store a hydraulic boost to the drivetrain or an extra kick to a turbocharger. Smart digital automatic transmissions will be able to improve fuel economy through optimized shifting.
Yet another straightforward fix would be bigger semis, using fewer semis to haul the same amount of goods, achieving substantial efficiency gains overall. The Australians are already using "road trains", with one tractor pulling multiple trailers, hauling several times the limit of a US truck.
Platooning is another option, with one truck leading the way, the others behind it tracking its moves, separated by as little as 7.5 meters (25 feet). According to Daimler, a platoon of five trucks could obtain 6% fuel savings. Platooning does require vehicle-to-vehicle communication and some level of autonomous driving, but the technology is almost there.
It appears that there's not much sniping about US government fuel economy standards, because nobody's all that unhappy about the idea. President Obama commented in 2014: "Improving gas mileage for these trucks are going to drive down our oil imports even further. That reduces carbon pollution even more, cuts down on businesses' fuel costs, which should pay off in lower prices for consumers. So it's not just a win-win, it's a win-win-win. You've got three wins."
* ED: I just had to find a photo of a road train for this entry. To no surprise in hindsight, it was easy to find them; after all, what gear-headed shutterbug could pass up taking a shot of such an impressive monstrosity?
Road trains seem distinctly Australian, slightly like something out of a MAD MAX movie, roaring across the Outback, kangaroos bounding out of their way. I'm already leery of heavy haulers when I'm on the freeway -- I have a little car, which gives me worries about getting stepped on, I've had close calls a few times. Such fears would be considerably amplified by a road train. Incidentally, among the photos were various gag images of road trains pulling a hundred trailers or the like.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* CITIBANK DOES CLIMATE CHANGE: As reported by an article from THE GUARDIAN ("Citi Report: Slowing Global Warming Would Save Tens Of Trillions Of Dollars" by Dana Nuccitelli, 31 August 2015), in August, Citi Global Perspectives & Solutions (GPS) -- a division of Citibank, the third-biggest bank in the US -- published an extended report on the economic impact of climate change, contrasting the costs and benefits of a policy of "Action" to restrain carbon emissions versus a policy of "Inaction".
In terms of outlay, the report suggested that there was no financial penalty to the "Action" policy; infrastructure is always being updated anyway, and the costs of doing so weren't strongly affected by focusing on dealing with climate change. Indeed, to the extent there was a difference, the Action scenario was a bit cheaper, since it implied greater energy efficiency, reducing ongoing operating costs; and a push towards increased use of renewable energy, which also has lower ongoing operating costs. The costs of new infrastructure would necessarily be factored into energy costs for end-users. The Citibank report estimated the US outlay for energy over the next quarter century would be $190.2 trillion for Action, versus $192 trillion for Inaction.
As far as the costs inflicted by climate change, they were major in all cases, and rose steeply with the magnitude of temperature change. The difference in penalties between low warming (1.5 degrees Celsius / 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) and high warming (4.5 degrees Celsius / 8.1 degrees Fahrenheit) was estimated at over $50 trillion USD, with total low warming penalties running to $20 trillion USD and high warming penalties running to $72 trillion USD. Intermediate warming (2.5 degrees Celsius / 4.5 degrees Fahrenheit) would have a penalty of $44 trillion USD, almost $30 trillion less than the high warming scenario. According to the Citi GPS report:
By comparing the cost of mitigation to the avoided "liabilities" of climate change, we can derive a simple "return on investment". On a risk-adjusted basis, this implies a return of 1% to 4% at the low point in 2021, rising to between 3% and 10% by 2035.
The report echoes themes common among the economic community, where there is wide agreement that a revenue-neutral carbon tax would be modest benefit to the economy -- even before factoring in the damages due to climate change. According to the Citi GPS report: "Coupled with the fact the total spend is similar under both Action and Inaction, yet the potential liabilities of Inaction are enormous, it is hard to argue against a path of Action."
The United Nations COP21 meeting in Paris in December 2015 represents an opportunity to reach a major international agreement to deal with emissions. Ahead of the meeting, as discussed here a few months ago, the United States, Canada, the member states of the European Union, and several other countries have proposed greenhouse gas emissions reductions targets. There is some confidence that, given enhanced commitment to dealing with climate change by both the US and China, the world's biggest emitters, that progress will finally be made towards an effective global climate change pact.
* ED: The Citi GPS report has been, as one might expect, praised among the green community and blasted by the denialist community. The fact that the green community endorsed it could not be cause for objection -- but it did have the unfortunate effect of giving the report exactly the wrong partisan coloration. The reality is that the business community, hardly made up of hippies and tree-huggers, increasingly recognizes the need to deal with climate change.
The Pentagon, by all indications, is already convinced, while the public continues to tilt toward acceptance; it's only the politicians, mostly out of fear of their constituents, who are lagging. It is clear that there will be no bigger issue in the 2016 US elections than climate change, leading to the prospect that the controversy over the matter will, however fitfully, finally come to a head, and be resolved. The denialists are living in a bubble of unreality; the bubble is going to deflate, it's just a question of WHEN.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* WE CAN MAKE YOU TALK (1): As discussed by an article from BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK ("Looking For Answer About Questions" by Drake Bennett, 16 February 2015), Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Steve Kleinman arrived in Baghdad in August 2003, six months after the US invasion of Iraq, just as the insurgency against the American occupation of Iraq was building up steam.
Kleinman, who had almost twenty years of experience in military intelligence, was assigned to a special operations task force operating out of Baghdad airport. He had long experience with interrogations, but what he saw in his work in Baghdad was new to him: prisoners being methodically slapped around, run through stress routines designed to wear them down and humiliate them. At the time, according to Kleinman, the rough approach to interrogations was "going on in Iraq, and Afghanistan, and of course at Guantanamo. Sometimes I got to the point where I had to literally order them to stop ... people thought I was coddling terrorists."
Kleinman didn't think of himself as soft, however; he just felt he was a professional. In the course of his intelligence career, he'd paid increasingly close attention to behavioral science related to his profession, and had experimented with it in his work. One day, he interrogated an Iraqi prisoner, a man in his 30s who had been accused of selling weapons to insurgents; he'd been put through the wringer for three days, but remained defiant. Kleinman, however, simply talked with him for three hours.
The fact that the Iraqi was willing to talk was half the battle. He told Kleinman he had two young daughters and that he was worried about them; Kleinman, lying through his teeth, said he had two young daughters as well. Then he asked the Iraqi: what if insurgents inadvertently killed an Iraqi child during an attack on American soldiers, using weapons they had been sold by an arms dealers? Would the arms dealer have any responsibility for the death of the child?
The Iraqi simply stared at Kleinman, who thought he had failed. However, the Iraqi then dropped his face into his hands, and told Kleinman he'd never thought of that. He told Kleinman where his weapons were stored, where the weapons of his competitors were stored, and added information that his interrogators hadn't even asked for.
* US ground forces are no longer fighting in Iraq, but the bad taste of rough treatment of terrorist subjects lingers. Of more immediate concern is that American police conduct interrogations of prisoners every day, and by all indications end up doing more harm than good to all concerned. According to Mark Fallon, who served for more than 30 years in the Federal law enforcement and counterintelligence community, including as a Naval Investigative Service Special Agent and as the Assistant Director for Training of the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center:
Most police officers can tell you how many feet per second a bullet travels. They know about ballistics and cavity expansion with a hollow-point round. What as a community we have not embraced as effectively is the behavioral sciences.
Police tend to work by gut feel in dealing with suspects; the evidence suggests it doesn't work very well. Of the 325 people exonerated in the US by DNA evidence, more than a quarter had falsely confessed, at times to horrific crimes. As for the war on terror, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report released in December 2014 on the US Central Intelligence Agency's (CIA) "enhanced interrogation" program made a persuasive case that waterboarding, extreme sleep deprivation, rectal feeding, "wall slamming", and other rough stuff were not just unconscionable -- they were ineffective, even counterproductive. Other studies out of the intelligence community have voiced similar concerns over the lack of anything that resembled science in interrogation techniques.
A community of interrogators and behavioral researchers is working to establish better procedures, finding out that existing concepts and training on interrogations are deeply flawed. Five years ago, President Obama created a new intelligence body, the "High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group (HIG)", to handle suspected terrorists. HIG has funded dozens of studies, and put its ideas to work -- a HIG team interrogated Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev after his arrest.
Christian Messner, a psychologist at Iowa State University, helps coordinate HIG's research. According to Messner: "The goal is to go from theory and science, what we know about human communication and memory, what we know about social influence and developing cooperation and rapport, and to translate that into methods that can be scientifically validated." Once validated, they become part of the kit of the people on the front lines. [TO BE CONTINUED]NEXT | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* THE COLD WAR (81): President Eisenhower had his own misgivings about space stunts. The Senate had established a special committee on space early in the year, the main backer being Democratic Texas Senator Lyndon Baines Johnson, who became its chairman; the House established its own committee not long afterward. At Eisenhower's request, the PSAC had set up a committee to assess the issue.
Eisenhower also ordered, as established in Public Law 85-325, passed by Congress on 12 February, the creation of a Pentagon office to work on "advanced projects essential to the Defense Department's responsibilities in the field of ... research and development which pertain to weapons systems" that was "further authorized to engage in ... advanced space projects", working with "private business entities, educational or research institutions, or other agencies of the Government ... or by utilizing employees and consultants of the Department of Defense."
Weapons systems developed by the office would passed on to the military services for production if they were as worthwhile. A parallel Pentagon directive set up the office as the "Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA)". Jim Killian had suggested the idea, and Eisenhower thought it had plenty of merit. The primary motivation behind the agency was to investigate "blue sky" technologies that the armed services themselves, under the pressure of their immediate requirements, would not see as worth their time. Although it wasn't made explicit, it is entirely plausible -- given Eisenhower's suspicions of the service chiefs and his indirect ways of doing things -- that ARPA was also been set up to take the wind out of the sails of the armed services when they tried to sell the White House on far-out weapon systems.
Space was a distraction to Eisenhower; he humored it, to the extent he could restrain the amount of money being pumped into it. It was the nuclear arms race that dominated his concerns, with hardliner Republicans pressuring him to buy more B-52s, and to accelerate missile development. On 28 January, in response to hectoring, Eisenhower complained about defense being "just so damn costly", and said he could not conceive that the Soviets could do so much damage to the US in a first strike that America would not have plenty of bombers left over to pay them back in aces: "If six hundred won't do it, certainly seven hundred won't."
In March, Eisenhower did authorize more procurement of B-52s, and more funding for ICBM and missile defense work. He was still appalled that the Pentagon wanted $10 billion USD in new funding, finding it hard to take such ludicrous demands seriously; he only authorized a "mere" $1.5 billion USD.
* Late in March, the space committee set up by PSAC handed its report to Eisenhower -- saying that America needed to explore the new space frontier, both for its own sake and for national prestige, as well as obtain new technologies. That compounded the president's worries over the budget; he didn't want to get into a "pathetic race" to space, and also didn't want to divert resources from missile development.
There was a push from Congress for the administration to set up a new agency to focus on space -- which also made Eisenhower uneasy, the president believing it would end up be just another government bureaucracy scrambling after a piece of the budget pie, which would eventually prove entirely foresighted. However, the pressure on him to create such an agency was very hard to resist, and he was also annoyed by competitive lobbying of the different armed services to establish a foothold in non-military space activities. There was even absurd talk, declared with a straight face, of using rockets to deliver troops to world trouble spots.
The obvious reality was that the military had no evident charter to conduct space exploration, as opposed to defense activities in space, and their attempts to move in were simply bureaucratic empire-building. Besides, if the US wanted to conduct peaceful space activities for world prestige, it hardly made sense to give the job to the military, which would be inclined to secrecy, and would always inspire suspicion of a military agenda behind space activities.
From that point of view, it was much better to give the job to a purely civil agency that wasn't hidden in any way by secrecy requirements; it would also put the brakes on the military's efforts to muscle into space exploration. Eisenhower saw a civil space agency as the lesser of evils to the militarization of space, and on 2 April passed a request to Congress for its formation. Congress would prove agreeable. [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* SCIENCE NOTES: As discussed by an item from AAAS SCIENCE NOW Online ("Yeast Can Live With Human Genes" by Mitch Leslie, 21 May 2015), the last common ancestor of yeasts and humans lived about a billion years ago -- but a group of researchers has demonstrated the two still have a lot in common. After inserting more than 400 human genes into yeast cells one at a time, researchers found that almost half of the genes functioned, with the yeast surviving or even thriving.
The genetic overlap between the two groups is not news. Our genome contains counterparts to about a third of yeast genes; similarly, on the average, the amino acid sequences of comparable yeast and human proteins overlap by about a third.
Biologist Edward Marcotte of the University of Texas in Austin and colleagues got curious about the fact that genes in humans that coordinate the growth of new blood vessels are also found in yeasts, even though yeasts don't have blood. Instead, these genes help the yeasts respond to environmental stress.
The researchers wondered just how the functions of genes common to the two groups mapped between them. They picked 414 genes that the fungi can't live without, for example genes that help control metabolism and dispose of cellular junk; and then inserted a human version of each gene into yeast cells whose own copy of the gene had been turned down, turned off, or removed. If the cells could still grow on culture plates, the team inferred that the human gene could fill in for its yeast equivalent. In 176 cases, the replacement worked fine -- the altered yeasts could often even compete with unaltered yeasts.
The researchers then got curious about what made a human gene a workable stand-in for a yeast. They evaluated more than 100 possible influences, from the length of the gene to the abundance of its protein. Similarity in DNA sequence across the species divide, as it turned out, didn't have much to do with replaceability; instead, when an ensemble of genes in yeasts or humans work closely together, either most of them are replaceable, or most of them aren't. For example, every gene in a pathway that instigates DNA copying couldn't be swapped out, but almost all the genes in the molecular pathway that in humans manufactures cholesterol could be replaced. The experiment was significant in its insights into molecular evolution, but it might also have practical applications, allowing modified yeasts to be used for testing drugs.
* In related news, researchers in the US and Canada are close to coming up with genetically-modified yeasts to synthesize opiates. This is seen as a "good news / bad news" prospect, since there are legitimate uses for opiates, so reducing costs and increasing supply are attractive. However, although the yield of the process needs to be scaled up by several orders of magnitude to make it commercially useful, it still raises the possibility that pushers of recreational drugs will be able to home-brew heroin in the future. Kenneth Oye, a biotech policy expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says: "If you get the integrated pathway for one-pot synthesis of glucose to morphine, that's not controllable if it gets out. You better darn well get on top of it before that happens."
* Moving from there, a startup company named Bolt Threads in the San Francisco Bay area is using yeasts to produce proteins for spider silk. By varying the genetics of the yeast and the process used to spin the proteins into threads, fabrics can be produced to specified levels of softness, durability, and strength. The company is focusing at the outset on "high-performance" apparel, such as sports shirts and bras, with initial product offering planned for 2016.
Officials at Bolt Threads are focusing on the high-end market, until they can get the production volumes up and the costs down. They perceive that yeast-grown textiles have a potential to revolutionize the industry, which continues to be reliant on natural fibers, like cotton, and petroleum-based synthetics, such as polyester. Given the ability to tailor the properties of the vat-grown silk, the material generated by the process could be used to replace kevlar in bullet-proof vests, and in surgical sutures.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* GOING DRY: As discussed by an article from BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK ("The Great Plains' Looming Water Crisis by Alan Berga, 6 July 2015), America's farm belt rests largely on an uncertain foundation -- the Ogallala aquifer. It's an system of water deposits underneath eight states, spanning an area of 451,000 square kilometers (174,000 square miles), almost double the footprint of the Great Lakes. About a fifth of all US cattle, corn, cotton, and wheat production depends on the Ogallala. Farm communities sitting on top of the aquifer are almost totally dependent on it.
That's ominous, since about about 30% of the aquifer's water has been pumped out, with another 39% expected to be lost in the next 50 years. Replenishing the aquifer would take millennia. Farmers in dried-out areas are feeling the pinch, having trouble getting bank loans -- land that can't be properly irrigated any longer loses almost three-quarters of its value -- and being pushed towards crops that don't need so much water.
Some parts of the Ogallala are not as threatened as others. Northern regions, including Nebraska, where the water may be deep enough to last hundreds of years, are less stressed than the southern High Plains, which a 2012 US Geological Survey study estimated will lose irrigation capacity on 35% of the land in the next three decades.
There have been local efforts to address the problem, but so far no coordinated program. In western Kansas, farmers have organized voluntary districts to reduce water use by 20%, part of a statewide 50-year conservation strategy. In Texas, in 2013 voters authorized $2 billion USD for a new effort that will invest in projects that boost water storage capacity. Sasha Richey, a hydrologist at Washington State University in Pullman, says a multi-state response is required, but feels optimistic: "The good news is we can increase the sustainability of the system" with water-saving technology and wiser resource management.
Rich Seedorf, who grows irrigated corn and sugar beets, along with non-irrigated wheat, in Yuma County, Colorado, says that farming the region has been based on illusions that led to unsustainable over-development: "If we had given more thought to where the soil was best or the supply was greatest, we might be able to get more out of the land. It would have been great if that had happened, but how do you fix that now?"
According to Seedorf, some farmers will be "mining the vein until it runs out." He anticipates a return to a more parched era -- like before the 1940s, when large-scale pumping began, to the era when "grandfather crops" like sunflowers and wheat were much more prevalent. Crops optimized by genetic modification to get by on less water will be a necessity. Does America's farm belt have a future? Certainly, but it's not going to be reached without pain and dislocation.
* In closely related news, it's been traditionally difficult to determine just how much water is in an aquifer because, duh, it's underground. That changed in 2002 when the dual "Gravity Recovery And Climate Experiment (GRACE)" satellites -- a collaborative effort by the US NASA and German DLR space agencies -- were launched by a Russian booster. The two satellites were placed in the same orbit, one following the other by 220 kilometers (140 miles). They were fitted with precision location kit, and were linked by a microwave beam that allowed them to keep very close track of their relative positions. From variations in their flight path, the mission science team was able to construct exquisitely precise gravity maps that allowed determination of the Earth's water deposits.
A team of researchers has now used the GRACE data to observe changes in the Earth's 37 biggest underground aquifers. They found that between 2003 and 2013, 21 of these basins had declining water levels; eight of them weren't being replenished at all, and five of them were only being minimally replenished. Aquifers in the world's driest areas, such as the Arabian Peninsula, tended to be the worst shape of those 13.
There isn't enough data to be able to determine when the aquifers will run dry, with estimates ranging from a decade to millennia, depending on the aquifer. Incidentally, the GRACE satellites were still operating at last notice, having survived long beyond their five-year design lifetime; but they will re-enter the Earth's atmosphere no later than 2016. A "GRACE Follow-On" mission is scheduled to be launched in 2017 to provide data continuity.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* ANOTHER MONTH: As mentioned here in the past, I've been more interested as of late with pulling in a little bit of money with supermarket coupons. It's not just the money, it's also a fun little game, particularly because the technology of such has improved so greatly since I was a kid. I get a packet of coupons in the mail from the Kroger supermarket chain once a month; it took me a bit to notice that, in the packet, I'd get one coupon for a freebie, no purchase required. I let a coupon expire that could have saved me six bucks on Kroger's paper towels? Inexcusable.
And then the promotions started talking about "digital coupons". Say what? Do I print them out? Do I download to a smartphone? The first would be a nuisance, the second impossible, since I don't own a smartphone. No worries, I got into my Kroger online account -- another example of how the technology has changed in half a century -- to simply go through the coupon selections and click on the ones I wanted. They're automatically assigned to my Kroger club card, to be accounted for when I go through the checkout line. I've got into the habit of sorting through my little box of paper coupons each week before going to the supermarket; now I'll need to go through the online account as well.
There still remains the part of the game in determining whether the deal I'm being offered actually is a "deal". I'm fond of potato chips -- Lay's sour cream and cheddar being my favorite -- and I'll get promotions for a lower price if I buy two family-sized packages. That turns out to be still more expensive per unit weight than if I buy the party-size package, which is my habit. There's also the issue of how Krogers gives me such neatly-targeted coupons in the packet I get once a month, which means they're keeping close track of my purchases. However, that bothers me not at all, since I can't see what harm it does me, and it saves me a few bucks. I get such a good deal, it somewhat amazes me to think that it actually pays off for Kroger as well. The information they have on me is solid gold for them.
In another example of 21st-century supermarket technology, the store has shopping carts with plastic kiddie cars up front that two little ones can sit in to keep them out of trouble. That's nothing new, but I was surprised to see one such contraption with a tablet computer in the toy car dashboard, playing a cartoon video. I found that very ingenious; could they play games, too?
Ah, the advance of civilization -- and no, that's not entirely meant as an irony. I really like going to the supermarket, not because there's so many marvelous things to buy there, but because I like to see the parents with their kids, who are often really cute. The kids are also very typically well-behaved, only infrequently making a fuss, though they do tend to run around without much awareness of traffic hazards. And then, occasionally I see some of the girls entering their teens who make me think: Future model or movie star. And then I carefully pay them no more mind.
Incidentally, on seeing the shopping carts with tablets, I got to wondering if a case might be made for putting tablets on shopping carts in general -- possibly with some sort of RFID interface to keep track of the contents. The only difficulty is that theft of shopping carts is so common. Another idea I had was to fit up gym exercise equipment with tablets. Why not? They need some sort of control interface anyway, and it would be nice to watch videos over wi-fi, or run "screen-saver" type apps that, say, allowed the user to pretend to be in a road or air race.
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