oct 2015 / last mod may 2017 / greg goebel

* 22 articles including: Cold War (series), energy efficiency (series), air conditioning (series), DNA loops (3D structure), Siri & other virtual assistants, government hacking , dealing with falling birth rates, factoring Earth equivalents, DOE energy report, renewable energy in Africa, and bacteriophage metagenomics.

banner of the month

[FRI 23 OCT 15] THE COLD WAR (88)
[MON 19 OCT 15] KEEP COOL (4)
[FRI 16 OCT 15] THE COLD WAR (87)
[MON 12 OCT 15] KEEP COOL (3)
[FRI 09 OCT 15] THE COLD WAR (86)
[MON 05 OCT 15] KEEP COOL (2)
[FRI 02 OCT 15] THE COLD WAR (85)


* NEWS COMMENTARY FOR OCTOBER 2015: As discussed by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("The Next Battle Begins", 24 October 2015), the nuclear control pact with Iran became effective on 18 October. Resistance in the US Congress amounted to nothing but noise, and the Majlis, the Iranian Parliament, endorsed the deal by 161 to 59.

Iranian reformists are feeling powerful right now, believing that they have successfully outflanked the country's hardliners, with Iranians obtaining greater civil liberties and business picking up -- notions greatly to the liking of most Iranian citizens. However, now Iran must implement the deal, with sanctions not being lifted until certain benchmarks have been reached. Implementing the provisions of the deal is not going to be trivial, and much can go wrong.

The hardliners are not likely to remain passive in the course of the process. There are factions among them, most prominently the Revolutionary Guards, that liked the previous status quo, having benefited from sanctions, and they also do not like the idea of letting down Iran's walls. According to an analyst in Tehran: "The regime is scared of the ramifications. American culture has more sexiness than a revolutionary guy can ever expect to have today."

One of the arguments used by the hardliners is that the Americans will never lift sanctions, since the US continues to make an issue of Iranian backing of foreign organizations judged as terrorist, as well as Iranian abuses of human rights. The Ayatollah Khamenei, the Supreme Leader, has cut off further negotiations with the US, at least for the time being, and there appears to be something of a crackdown going on -- over 700 people have been executed by the state since the beginning of 2015, more than in several years.

However, the hardliners know that the public is desperate for change, and dare not antagonize the citizens. It's not just a question of losing support; older Iranians have unpleasant memories of the repressive regime of the late unlamented Shah, and all but the most fanatical of the hardliners have misgivings about turning 21st-century Iran into something like it. The next big test will be elections in February 2016 for the Majlis and for the Assembly of Experts, the body of around 80 people that will select the next supreme leader should Khamenei die or step down -- he is 76, and has had prostate cancer.

The blatantly rigged election of 2009 was a disaster that brought Iran to the threshold of revolution, and nobody believes it will be repeated. There's still much concern over what candidates will get through the vetting process, run by the Guardians Council, a hand-picked body of 12 Islamic jurists, and onto the ballot paper. Some 10,000 names are already rumored to be on its blacklist. According to a Tehran analyst: "I am confident about Iran in the long term. I just have no idea about the short term."

* On 27 October, the US Navy destroyer USS LASSEN cruised blithely through the 12-nautical-mile limit declared by China around the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, where the Chinese have been building reefs into islands through massive dredging. The Chinese government denounced the "intrusion", saying China would respond to "deliberately provocative actions" by foreign powers. The US government blandly replied that the destroyer had been conducting "routine operations ... in accordance with international law." It was a less-than-subtle hint that China should take the UN tribunal examining the issue more seriously.

This was just another move on the global strategic chessboard by the Obama Administration. An editorial in THE ECONOMIST ("Owl Meets Bear", 10 October 2015), examined the administration's strategic thinking through a focus on Ashton Carter -- as of last February, the US secretary of defense, the Obama Administration's fourth, replacing Leon Panetta.

Carter is a physicist by education who worked at the Pentagon in the Cold War, puzzling out the uncertain possibilities of surviving a nuclear exchange. Colleagues describe him as not a hawk, nor a dove -- but a cooly analytical owl, making him representative of the administration's military mindset. With regards to the Spratlys, Carter has made the US position clear: "We are going to sail, fly, and operate wherever international law permits."

Ash Carter

In an interview, the defense secretary made it clear that if rival powers challenge the US, the US will respond appropriately. Russian President Vladimir Putin has persistently challenged the US, through his invasion of the Ukraine, intimidation of NATO members in Eastern Europe, and nuclear saber-rattling. In reply, the US has stepped up exercises, deployed equipment to Eastern Europe, and is updating its own nuclear arsenal. As for Putin's interventions in Syria, Carter dismissed them as "illogical, maybe psychological" -- or in simple words, nuts.

Carter is echoing the sentiments of his boss, President Obama, who rightly mocks the idea that Vladimir Putin's actions are shrewd. What has Russia got out of its provocative actions? Nothing but isolation, sanctions, and economic hardship; with Obama saying that Putin's intervention in Syria has done nothing but mire Russia down in a "quagmire". Obama hasn't been much more kindly to presidential hopeful Hilary Clinton and other Democrats who have advocated greater US efforts in Syria, calling such notions "half-baked" and "mumbo-jumbo".

Indeed, it is difficult to find much basis in fact for the claims of Obama's domestic critics that he is a military weakling. Much to the president's disappointment, he is retaining US troops in Afghanistan, even though he promised to bring them all home. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said his forces needed the help and backup; Obama gave it to him. The administration has also dispatched a force of 300 to Cameroon to help in the fight against the Islamist Boko Haram group. The Americans will conduct airborne surveillance in the region to help counter the militants, who are expanding their operations beyond their base in Nigeria.

The issue of appropriate use of American military power is perplexing, nothing resembling the simplistic vision of the administration's critics. The Obama Administration believes that US military actions need to be carefully and cooly considered, evaluated on their relevance to the interests of America and its allies, as well as their probability of success. If the bottom line shows that the US shouldn't intervene, then it's not going to happen.

Obama and Carter are professorial men, and it seems that this professorial mindset is one of the major things that upset the critics. War isn't for sissy professors, it's for Pattons -- fighters who charge in and kick ass. Those who know more about the real Patton realize that, though he was indeed a fighting general who could certainly win battles, such an emotional, egocentric, and impulsive man would have been a poor choice for directing a war. Winning battles is a different issue from determining if a battle should be fought; or if there's some less costly way to do things; or if there's any way to do them at all.

* On 25 September, Speaker of the House John Boehner announced that he would retire from office at the end of October. He expected to be replaced by Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, but then announced he would not seek the position, with Boehner saying he would remain until a successor could be chosen.

As discussed by an essay of Jeremy Carl of the Hoover Institution, the fall of Boehner brought to the surface the hidden civil war between the Republican Party's moderates and extremists -- the latter being represented by the "Freedom Caucus" in the House. The membership roster is not published, but can be easily determined by the voting record of Republican Congressmen. They are generally junior representatives, split between Christian conservatives and libertarians, and mostly male; surprisingly, minorities are more strongly represented among the Freedom Caucus than the Republican House in general, and the caucus has a higher level of academic achievement in top-50 universities.

Boehner was forced out after pushing through a budget resolution that allowed the government to go on operating after 30 September. The Freedom Caucus was trying to use the threat of a government shutdown to force all funding to be cut for Planned Parenthood. Boehner had made it clear that he was hostile to Planned Parenthood -- but he knew there wasn't enough support to take serious action against it, and didn't feel that a forced government shutdown was a sensible way to get anything done.

That was the last straw for the Freedom Caucus. It is a simple statement of fact that Republican leadership has been unable to overturn a single one of President Obama's major initiatives; members of the Freedom Caucus felt House Republicans needed more forceful leadership, and so Boehner had to go. Kevin McCarthy was found wanting as well.

John Boehner:  off with his head

One wonders if the Freedom Caucus needs to be reminded of the saying: Be careful what you wish for, you may get it. It is certainly an irony that they don't appear to realize that one of the major reasons Obama has been getting his own way is because the Republicans can't get a consensus among themselves; nor that demanding a full loaf, instead of settling for half, may well mean ending up with none. The reason Boehner wasn't any friend of the Freedom Caucus was because, no matter how much he sympathized with their goals, he knew it would accomplish nothing for the GOP to be one.

Since there are 247 Republican Representatives, it is a fantasy to think that such a small minority will be able to call the tune indefinitely -- as just as much a fantasy that extraordinary political tactics, such as forced government shutdowns, can do anything more than further discredit Congress, with polls already showing it in the lowest rank of US public esteem.



* WINGS & WEAPONS: On 27 October, the US Air Force awarded Northrop Grumman a contract for the "Long Range Strike Bomber (LRS-B)", to be the mainstay of America's future strategic bomber force. The LRS-B will reach initial operational capability in the mid-2020s, with 100 to be built, estimated price being $511 million USD each at that quantity. Northrop Grumman beat Boeing and Lockheed Martin for the contract; there's a lot of money involved, so the losers are expected to appeal.

The Air Force was obviously expecting that, and no doubt is pre-prepared to rebut challenges. Indeed, by all indications, the USAF was extremely methodical in setting up the program, suggesting the Pentagon has become sick of weapons procurement fiascos. The LRS-B program grew out of the "Next Generation Bomber (NGB)" program, initiated in 2006, and cancelled in 2009. The cancellation of NGB was partly due to budget cuts, but also to the fact that it was overly ambitious, envisioned as performing a wide range of roles, and using new technology all along the board.

The lesson seems to have finally soaked in on the military that it isn't wise to built a weapon system that can do everything, that its mission be reasonably specified, and that a new design should leverage off existing technology when possible -- but made to be easily upgraded to new subsystems as they come available, and adaptable to new missions.

Frustratingly, effectively no details or specifications for the LRS-B are known just yet; no service designation has been announced, either. It is believed that it will be a stealthy flying-wing aircraft with subsonic performance, smaller than the B-2, with space and weight provision for future upgrades. Since the program has been announced to the public, more information is likely to be forthcoming in the near future.

Hopefully, we may also learn something about the mystery flying-wing aircraft photographed flying high over Amarillo, Texas, in 2014, and mentioned here at the time -- there being a suspicion that it was an LRS-B demonstrator. However, it could just as easily have been for a completely unknown "black" program, which will remain hidden for some time longer.

* The US Army's "Joint Air to Ground Missile (JAGM)", intended to be the service's next-generation anti-armor missile, has undergone a painful series of zig and zags, as discussed here early this year. Much to everyone's relief, Lockheed Martin has been given the green light to go ahead with full development of the initial-series JAGM, which will feature a dual mode seeker, with millimeter-wave radar and semi-active laser homing. Initial operational capability is expected in 2018. Later development will feature a triple-mode seeker, presumably with some class of "smart" target recognition with an optical-infrared imager, and extended range.

* Social media company Facebook is dabbling in aerospace, having unveiled the prototype of a solar-powered flying-wing drone, the "Aquila", which is to fly above 18,300 meters (60,000 feet) for three months, acting as an internet communications relay in regions of the world now denied access. Internet search giant Google is similarly building a solar-powered drone for data relay, having obtained the Titan Aerospace firm to that end.

Facebook Altair

The Aquila is a pure flying wing in the shape of a shallow vee, with winglets on the wingtips, and four electric motors driving two-bladed props. The Aquila is made primarily of carbon composite and has a span of 42 meters (138 feet). The drone is being constructed in Yeovil, UK, by a firm named Ascenta, bought out by Facebook in early 2014. Ascenta had been founded by a veteran of the Zephyr solar-powered drone project, the Zephyr having set a record for long-endurance, powered flight in 2010. First flight of the Aquila is expected in 2016.



* LOOPY DNA: As discussed by an article from AAAS SCIENCE Online ("3D Map Of DNA Reveals Hidden Loops That Allow Genes To Work Together" by Elizabeth Pennisi, 11 December 2014), it is well-known that the DNA molecule, the carrier of heredity, encodes genes using sequences of its three nucleotides, assembled into long double-helix chains. The DNA in a single human cell, if all stretched out end-to-end, runs to a staggering two meters in length; that's not so surprising, given the complexity of the human organism, but it does lead to the question of how all that DNA is packed up into such a small space -- and also of the significance of the way it's packed up.

The "double helix" configuration of DNA is well-known, but a DNA molecule has also has a three-dimensional configuration that is important to its functioning. To turn a gene on or off, it must be in contact with the appropriate regulatory DNA that controls its activity, and the two may be very far apart. Molecular biologists have long suspected the way DNA folds up in the nucleus is key to making these connections. They acquired tricks to nail down such connections one at a time, but there was no way to make real progress with such limited techniques.

In 2009, Erez Lieberman Aiden -- a biologist now at Baylor College of Medicine (BCM) in Houston, Texas -- and his colleagues came up with a trick they called "Hi-C" to look at all the connections at once. However, they couldn't nail down the connections to less than a million-base resolution, many times larger than the size of a gene; they could only locate connections in broad "compartments", not precise locations. They also could only use the technique on DNA that had been removed from the nucleus, which affected folding.

Now Suhas Rao and Miriam Huntley of BCM have figured out how to zero in on details as small as a thousand bases, that being smaller than a typical gene, and have been able to use their technique to probe DNA inside a cell nucleus. They have drawn up 3D DNA maps for eight lines of human cells, including cancer and basic tissues, and for one mouse cancer cell line. For one human lymphoid cancer cell line, for example, they detected a staggering 4.9 billion contacts between pairs of DNA pieces; for other cell types, the number of contacts ranged from 395 million to 1.1 billion.

The more contacts between two particular pieces of DNA, the closer together those pieces are in 3D space. Working with sophisticated computer programs, the researchers used the contacts to produce the maps. They plotted how many times a pair of DNA pieces made contact, and from that data, determined where each piece of DNA was relative to all the rest of the DNA.

A new paper released by the BCM researchers says the genome is arranged in about 10,000 loops of DNA, each established by a connection at the base of the loop. In each different cell type, different pieces of DNA come in contact, meaning the loop patterns change from cell type to cell type. These differences in structure may set up the different patterns of gene activity that define each cell type. In cells from female donors, the researchers also noticed gigantic loops in one of the X chromosomes; they suspect that a loop silences the second X chromosome, as is necessary for the proper functioning of the still active X chromosome's genes.

The researchers also compared maps of the mouse and human cancer cells. The maps were very similar, with most of the same loops, indicating that the 3D arrangements that define a specific type of cell have not changed much during evolution. The Aiden lab has set up a website that works a little like Google Earth: researchers can locate their favorite gene, and drill down from compartment to loop to the DNA it touches. However, other approaches to probing the 3D structure of DNA have given different maps. Aiden is all in favor of the diversity, saying: "You want to have multiple lines of experimentation that can confirm one another or conflict one another."

To sort things out, the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) set up a "4D Nucleome" program in July 2014 -- to run five years, funded at $24 million USD a year. It's called "4D", because the nucleome structure changes as a cell ages, differentiates, and divides. Still, the bioscience community sees the BCM work as a big first step, that all it needs is refinement. Wouter de Laat, a molecular biologist at the Hubrecht Institute in Utrecht, the Netherlands, says: "It sheds a light in a dark room. It puts things into perspective."



* TELL ME WHAT YOU WANT: As discussed by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("The Software Secretaries", 12 September 2015), Apple introduced the voice-operated Siri personal assistant -- discussed here in 2014 -- for the iPhone in 2011; despite its limitations, it has proven a hit. Apple has now unveiled a set-top box with a remote featuring Siri, not only permitting voice control of the box, but also allowing a user to perform searches for weather or sports results.


Siri has spawned imitators, Google offering "Google Now" and Microsoft offering "Cortana", both of which harvest digital knowledge of their users. Amazon sells a very "smart" bluetooth speaker named "Echo" that can respond to voice commands, control wireless appliances in the home, and of course allow users to buy Amazon products; Amazon has also introduced a new version of their Kindle Fire video downloading system that responds to voice commands. Chinese internet giant Baidu has now introduced their personal assistant, named "Duer", and Facebook is making noises about an assistant system via their messaging app.

The technology still leaves something to be desired, but it's an idea whose time has come, and it means changes for computing. Searching is becoming less a matter of figuring out how to phrase Google queries, than it is asking questions of an intelligent agent that's smart enough to find what the user wants. More significantly, instead of sets of apps, users are increasingly getting things done via a personal assistant that can take on an extensible range of tasks. According to market research firm Gartner, about 38% of American consumers have used virtual assistants on their smartphones; by the end of 2016, two-thirds of consumers in the developed world will use them daily.

The virtual assistants being produced by the tech giants are the entering wedge of a wider effort to refine and exploit artificial intelligence (AI) technology, particularly "machine learning" -- in which computers do not simply follow a rigid program, but crunch through mountains of data, sift patterns out of it, and then determine how to do their tasks better. The big tech firms are spending billions to buy up AI startup companies, and AI experts are in great demand.

The current virtual assistants are getting better at speech recognition, though they still have room for improvement. When Google Now was introduced, it mangled about 25% of the words spoken to it, but now the defect rate has been reduced to 8%. While work goes on to reduce that rate further, a parallel effort is focusing on how to use the information consumers store on devices to second-guess users, instead of just passively answering questions -- such "anticipatory software" having been discussed here early this year. For example, Google Now goes through users' emails, and then reminds them of appointments and flights.

GPS location is also being factored in; if a user makes a reminder to buy milk, the virtual assistant will issue the reminder when the user goes into a supermarket. One of the latest refinements is the automated arrangement of meetings. It typically requires a series of emails to set up a meeting; several startups are working on robots that are copied on emails proposing meetings, with a robot then scanning through the calendars of all involved to find the best time. Another effort is to link virtual assistants with each other, even across vendor lines, and develop online services that augment virtual assistants, instead of passively responding to their requests.

People tend to be pleasant to virtual assistants, even though the software doesn't care if they are or not. That's not really surprising, since everyone knows the virtual assistant is unfailingly obedient and helpful; it is not judgemental; it does not try to conceal anything from the user. Being curt and nasty to it accomplishes nothing -- it doesn't really accomplish much to be inconsiderate to humans who are trying to be cooperative, either -- and sane people get little gratification in being mean to a machine.

Human personal assistants are not likely to be replaced by virtual assistants, at least for now. They do well at simple tasks, but struggle with more complicated ones, such as planning a trip. They can deal with straightforward requests, but can't understand those that are not well defined.

Virtual assistants will soon be all but universal, and that leads to two problems. The first is privacy; a virtual assistant necessarily knows a great deal about its user, and that information can be misused by others. Obviously, the virtual assistant needs provisions for data security; but there's also the fact that the vendors who provide virtual assistants want to get their hands on that data, too. Google Now, of course, mines consumer data and targets ads. In contrast, Apple has been peddling privacy.

The second problem is commerce. Virtual assistants end up making lots of purchases -- in fact, Amazon's Echo is optimized for purchases through Amazon.com. That suggests the possibility of tilting the playing field to particular vendors, at the expense of competitors and the consumers. If a user asks a virtual assistant to book a plane flight, will the result be the best price? Virtual assistants are certainly helpful and detached; but can we be sure they be impartial?



* MAXIMIZING EFFICIENCY (1): As discussed by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("Green Around The Edges", 11 April 2015), from the beginning of the industrial revolution, it became a truism that economic growth meant more power consumption. Since the turn of the century, that linkage has been weakening: in 2014, advanced industrialized countries used 0.9% less electricity than in 2013, and slightly less even than in 2007, even though their combined economies have grown by 6.3% since that time.

While environmental denialists dismiss energy conservation, as discussed here in 2008, it is already significant; it is certain to become more so. A study from the UN Environment Program (UNEP) identified two factors in push towards energy efficiency:

All the improvements in energy efficiency are still not enough to offset climate change -- but few think that we're close to diminishing returns on energy efficiency, while the technology options to make it happen are continuously growing, and becoming cheaper overall. Few are going to be against energy efficiency if it pays for itself.

However, progress towards a more energy-efficient world has been frustratingly slow. The International Energy Agency (IEA) -- a research organization for countries that import fossil fuels -- estimates that global spending on energy efficiency needs to rise from $300 billion USD a year today to $680 billion USD. Unfortunately, the UNEP report says the likelihood of that happening is "very slim".

Advocates of energy efficiency find the complacent attitude exasperating, since it's obvious that gains would be obtained if the will was there. Transport accounts for 27% of global energy demand. Lighting, heating, cooling and ventilating buildings account for about another third.

New vehicles and buildings are far more efficient than old ones. Vehicle efficiency standards to be introduced in the US in 2016 will reduce their fuel consumption by 27%; a US home built to 2012 standards is 36% more efficient than one built to 2006 standards. New "passive homes", which not only use energy-efficient systems but are also designed to obtain the maximum energy benefit from their local environment, can do even better. Throw in solar panels or geothermal energy, it is then possible to create "net-zero" buildings that can put as much energy back into the power grid as they draw from it.

One difficulty is that vehicles are replaced once every ten years or so, but half the buildings standing today will still be standing in 2050. That means the current challenge is to make existing structures more efficient. The simplest approach is to simply make use of heating and cooling smarter; there is, for example, no reason to heat empty rooms. Identifying waste and providing a plan on how to reduce it is now a growth industry. Opower, a data-analytics firm, crunches figures on size, occupancy, location, and energy bills to find trends and make suggestions to 50 million, mostly American, households. According to Pacific Gas and Electric, a California utility, in 2013 Opower saved 500 gigawatt-hours, or nearly 75,000 homes-worth, of consumption, cutting customer bills by more than $50 million USD.

Such simple measures only trim energy use by a few percent -- though since they don't cost much to implement, they pay themselves off quickly. However, they do focus end-user attention on energy conservation, with consumers then inclined to replace inefficient appliances, and install efficient cooling and heating systems.

Automating energy use in response to utility demand management takes consumer energy conservation to the next level. If utilities charge higher rates for power at peak times, consumers will have an incentive to shift their power use to off-peak times, using automation to handle the rebalancing, aided by "smart" boilers that switch off when necessary, as well as battery packs that can be charged up at low-demand times. This is particularly useful for air-conditioning systems; a US firm named Calmac sells building cooling systems that turn water into ice during the cool times when power is cheap, and use the ice to keep a building cool during times when it's hot, and power is expensive. [TO BE CONTINUED]


[FRI 23 OCT 15] THE COLD WAR (88)

* THE COLD WAR (88): Lebanon had conducted elections in July 1958, with General Chehab becoming the new president. Chehab would prove smooth and skilled in dealing with the baroque complexities of Lebanese politics, affirming stability and helping to bring greater prosperity to Lebanon. The Americans began pulling out their troops in early August; they would all be out by the end of October.

The indignation over the US intervention in Lebanon had spread to Beijing. From late 1957 Mao, frustrated with stalled discussions over rejoining Taiwan with the mainland, worked to give up the peaceful approach to the matter. The ambassadorial-level talks between China and the US in Warsaw were suspended at that time -- though it appears due to procedural issues, and not a Chinese policy decision. Under pressure from Mao, in the spring Zhou Enlai confessed to his "errors" in seeking a diplomatic solution and resigned as foreign minister, though he still remained the premier of the Chinese Council of Ministers.

In parallel to the correction of the CCP's direction, Mao also had been building up forces in coastal China for a confrontation with Jiang. Mao did not regard Jiang as his real enemy, seeing him as a tool of the Americans. To Mao, US backing of Jiang's Nationalist Taiwan was "interference in internal Chinese affairs", a continued foreign occupation of Chinese territory, as demonstrated by the presence of US forces on Taiwan.

The American and British military intervention in the Middle East was, as Mao saw it, more meddling by the Western powers in the affairs of other nations; something needed to be done by China to show that such high-handed conduct had a cost. In addition, Mao was a revolutionary who believed in revolution first, last, and always. Having evicted the Nationalists from the mainland, he wished to continue his revolutionary mobilization of the Chinese people, driving them in greater efforts to make China the great nation it had once been, once more. Mao called the new initiative "the Great Leap Forward", having announced it publicly in January; it would accelerate the collectivization of agriculture -- already in progress since 1956, though not with very good results -- and boost Chinese industry in a single jump.

As with the war in Korea, a military confrontation would provide a focal point for a new phase of the ongoing revolution. In the wake of the occupation of Lebanon, Mao ordered a force buildup in Fujian province in preparation to taking action against Quemoy and Matsu. From late in the month, there were heavy troop movements to Fujian province, with a steady arrival of air assets, along with trainloads of soldiers and battlefield gear, particularly artillery and ammunition. The initial deadline for beginning the shelling was 25 July -- though that date would pass without incident.

The Chinese were not coordinating their plans with the Soviets. The Kremlin had proposed to the Chinese that the two countries create a joint submarine base in China, and similarly put up a long-wave radio station, with China granted access to the Soviet naval base in Murmansk in return. To say that Mao was not enthusiastic about such notions would be an understatement. On 22 July, Mao met with Soviet Ambassador Pavel Yudin -- and simply erupted, seeing the proposals as slighting, more evidence of Soviet "big power chauvinism". Mao accused the Soviets of trying to control China, and curtly said that if Khrushchev had business with China, he should come and make his case personally.

Khrushchev promptly flew to Beijing to mend fences, thinking that Yudin had been tactless, or had been misunderstood. On arrival on 31 July, it became immediately apparent that Mao had wanted Khrushchev to come himself simply so Mao could cut him down to size -- there being no red carpet, no honor guard, nothing that suggested Khrushchev was at all welcome. His talks with Mao proved frustrating, tempers rising in the exchange until Mao told him:


We don't want to use your Murmansk, and we don't want you to come to our country either. The British, Japanese, and other foreigners who stayed in our country for a long time have already been driven away by us, Comrade Khrushchev. I'll say it again: we do not want anyone to use our land to achieve their own purposes any more.


Mao was not so scathing in later talks, but still did nothing but lecture Khrushchev as if he were a slow-witted child. Mao said nothing to his visitor about the impending assault on Quemoy; not only would China use the action to make a point to the Americans, he would also use it to make a point to the Soviets, demonstrating that China did not dance to the Kremlin's tune, and also undermining Khrushchev's fitful push for peaceful coexistence. Khrushchev was inclined to the volatile, but even a milder person would have been angered. He went back home in bad humor on 3 August, never again having much good to say about the Chinese in general, and Mao in particular. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* Space launches for September included:

-- 02 SEP 15 / SOYUZ ISS 44S (ISS) -- A Soyuz-Fregat booster was launched from Baikonur at 0437 GMT (local time - 6) to put the "Soyuz ISS 44S" AKA "TMA-18M" crewed space capsule into orbit on an International Space Station (ISS) support mission. The Soyuz crew included commander Sergey Volkov of the RKA (third space flight), astronaut Andreas Mogensen of the ESA / Denmark (first flight, fist Danish astronaut), and cosmonaut Aidyn Aimbetov of Kazakhstan (first flight).

The Soyuz capsule docked with the ISS Poisk module two days later, with the Soyuz crew joining the "ISS Expedition 44" crew -- including commander Gennady Padalka, Mikhail Kornienko, and Oleg Kononenko of the RKA; Scott Kelly and Kjell Lindgren of NASA; and Kimiya Yui of Japan's JAXA. Padalka returned to Earth with Mogensen and Aimbetov on Soyuz TMA-16M on 11 September, with Kelly becoming commander of "ISS Expedition 45."

-- 02 SEP 15 / MUOS 4 -- An Atlas 5 booster was launched from Cape Canaveral at 1018 GMT (local time + 3) to put the fourth "Mobile User Objective System (MUOS)" geostationary military comsat into orbit for the US Navy. MUOS 4 was intended to provide narrowband tactical communications to significantly improve ground communications for US forces on the move.

MUOS 4 ready for launch

MUOS 4 was built by Lockheed Martin, and based on the A2100M satellite bus. The comsat had a launch mass of 6,740 kilograms (14,860 pounds). Deployment of the MUOS constellation began with the launch of MUOS 1 in February 2012, with MUOS 2 following in July 2013, and MUOS 3 being launched earlier in 2015. MUOS 4 will give the MUOS system worldwide coverage for the first time, with the fifth and final satellite, to be launched in the summer of 2016, intended to serve as an on-orbit spare.

The MUOS constellation replaces the seven "UHF Follow-On (UFO)" comsats launched between 1993 and 2003. The UFO comsats followed in turn from the FLTSATCOM spacecraft, lofted by Atlas-Centaur vehicles during the late 1970s and 1980s. UFO also served as a replacement for the five Leasat spacecraft operated by Hughes Communication Services for the US Navy. The rocket flew in the "551" configuration, with a 5 meter (16.4 foot) fairing, five solid rocket boosters and a single-engine Centaur upper stage.

-- 11 SEP 15 / GALILEO FM05, FM06 -- A Soyuz ST-B (Fregat) booster was launched from Kourou at 0556 GMT (local time + 3) to put the two "Fully Operational Capability (FOC)" Galileo navigation satellites, "FM05" and "FM06" (AKA "Galileo 9 / Alba" and "Galileo 10 / Oriana", into orbit. The satellites were made by OHB of Germany; each had a launch mass of 715 kilograms (1,576 pounds). The completed constellation will consist of 30 satellites along three orbital planes in medium Earth orbit, including 24 operational satellites, and two spares per orbit.

-- 12 SEP 15 / TJSSW-1 -- A Chinese Long March 3B booster was launched from Xichang at 1542 GMT (local time - 8) to put a satellite into orbit. The payload was not announced, but was said to be the "Communications Engineering Test Satellite -1 (TJSSW-1)". The launch was not announced ahead of time, and no details were provided.

-- 14 SEP 15 / GAOFEN 9 -- A Long March 4B booster was launched from Jiuquan at 0445 GMT (local time - 8) to put the "Gaofen 9" Earth observation satellite into orbit, the third of six such spacecraft for Earth resource observation.

-- 14 SEP 15 / EXPRESS AM8 -- A International Launch Services Proton M Breeze M booster was launched from Baikonur in Kazakhstan at 1900 GMT (next day local time - 6) to put the "Express AM8" geostationary communications satellite into orbit for the Russian Satellite Communications Company. The spacecraft was built ISS Reshetnev, and featured a payload provided by Thales. Express AM8 had a launch mass of 2,100 kilograms (4,630 pounds), a payload of 42 Ku / C / L band transponders, electric thrusters, and a design lifetime of 15 years. It was placed in the geostationary slot at 14 degrees west longitude to provide data services to the Russian government.

-- 19 SEP 15 / LONG MARCH 6 INITIAL FLIGHT -- A Long March 6 booster was launched from Taiyuan at 2301 GMT (next day local time - 8) to put a set of 20 Chinese smallsats in orbit. This was the first launch of the Long March 6, powered by kerosene and liquid oxygen.

Long March 6 launch

The smallsats included:

It appears that few or none of the nanosats were based on the CubeSat format. The 20-payload haul was the biggest number of satellites ever launched on a single rocket by China. The Long March 6 has a height of about 29 meters (95 feet) and a payload capacity of 1,500 kilograms (3,300 pounds).

-- 23 SEP 15 / COSMOS 2507:2509 (STRELA-3M x 3) -- A Rokot Briz-KM booster was launched from Plesetsk at 2200 GMT (next day local time - 4) to put three Strela-3M military store-dump comsats into orbit. The spacecraft were designated "Cosmos 2507", "Cosmos 2508", and "Cosmos 2509".

-- 23 SEP 15 / LONG MARCH 11 INITIAL FLIGHT / TIANWANG-1 x 3 -- A Long March 11 booster was launched from Jiuquan at 0141 GMT (local time - 8) to put three "Tiangwang-1" nanosatellites into orbit. This was the maiden flight of the solid-fuel Long March 11. The three Tianwang-1 satellites -- Tianwang-1A (SECM-1), Tianwang-1B (NJUST-2) and Tianwang-1C (NJFA-1) -- were developed by the Nanjing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics. They were all CubeSats, A and B being 2-unit CubeSats, C being a 3-unit CubeSat. They were to demonstrate formation flying and intersatellite communications.

Two of the Tiangwang-1 satellites, flying 150 meters (490 feet) apart, operated as a solar coronograph. The communications scheme was based on the "GAMALINK" software-defined radio technology from the company Tekever of Portugal. The trio also demonstrated tracking of maritime traffic in polar regions using an AIS receiver, and monitoring air traffic using an ADS-B receiver. Other technology carried included video cameras, GPS-Beidou navigation receiver, and cold-gas thruster system. A "Pujian-1" nanosatellite, from the Shanghai Academy of Spaceflight Technology was also flown, carrying payloads to monitor weather, traffic, and population density of Chinese cities.

The Long March 11 (Chang Zheng 11) is a small solid-fueled quick-reaction launch vehicle, developed by the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (CALT). Few details have been released; the mass of the four nanosatellites was obviously much less than the lift capacity of the booster, the payloads being carried on a test flight, since they were relatively replaceable in case of a launch failure.

-- 28 SEP 15 / ASTROSAT -- An ISRO Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle was launched from Sriharikota to put the ISRO "Astrosat" space observatory into orbit. Astrosat was the first Indian dedicated astronomy satellite. It had a launch mass of 1,650 kilograms (3,640 pounds) and carried six instruments, including:


Astrosat was built as a general-purpose high-energy astronomy satellite, to perform sky surveys; search for transient events; and perform observations of known high-energy sources, such as X-ray binaries and active galactic nuclei, with the set of four primary instruments on a common focus to obtain comprehensive measurements over a wide band. The launch also carried six nanosats, including:

-- 29 SEP 15 / BEIDOU -- A Chinese Long March 3C booster was launched from Xichang at 2313 GMT (next day local time - 8) to put a "Beidou" navigation satellite into orbit. This was the 20th Beidou launch. In completion, the Beidou network will consist of 35 satellites, in three different classes of orbits: geostationary, inclined geostationary, and inclined medium, with geostationary at 35,900 kilometers (22,300 miles) and medium at 21,400 kilometers (13,300 miles). This spacecraft was placed into inclined geostationary orbit, being an improved design with a more precise atomic clock and greater launch mass.

-- 30 SEP 15 / SKY MUSTER, ARSAT 2 -- An Ariane 5 ECA booster was launched from Kourou in French Guiana at 2030 GMT (local time + 3) to put the "Sky Muster" and "Arsat 2" geostationary comsats into orbit. The Sky Muster satellite, AKA "NBN Co 1A", was built by Space Systems / Loral and had a launch mass of 6,438 kilograms (14,197 pounds). It provided high-speed internet services for Australia's National Broadband Network (NBN). Arsat 2 was built by INVAP of Argentina. It had a launch mass of 2,796 kilograms (6,563 pounds), a payload of 16 Ku / 4 C band transponders, and a design life of 15 years. It was placed in the orbital slot at 81 degrees West longitude to provide data transmission, Internet, and television services over the Americas for Arsat of Argentina.



* DIGITAL SPYING: The stereotype of a hacker is a scruffy antisocial loner working in his basement, but that stereotype is increasingly being challenged by the reality that governments have been getting into hacking in a big way. As reported by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("The Spy Who Hacked Me", 29 November 2014), on 23 November 2014 Symantec, an American maker of antivirus software, announced the discovery of a piece of malware named "Regin", which had been found on computers in Russia and Saudi Arabia -- the name was derived from a string found in the code. Malware tends to be brute-force and crass, sometimes pointedly obnoxious as an end in itself, but Regin was very sophisticated and stealthy. Symantec concluded it had been made by a government.

There's nothing all that new about government-made malware, the most famous example being "Stuxnet", uncovered in 2010, which was tailored to infect industrial controller modules. It was used to help bring down Iran's centrifuges in hopes of slowing the Iranian nuclear program. Nobody's talking about who made Stuxnet, but it is suspected to a product of an Israeli-US collaboration.

Stuxnet was unusual in that it actively performed sabotage. Most government-made malware is intended to perform intelligence-gathering, and does as little as possible to announce its presence. Of course, intelligence breaches can be disastrous, and in any case, cleaning up after malware takes time and money, just to make sure it's not there any more.

Nobody signs such malware, and trying to figure out where it came from can be tricky, based on evaluations of tiny clues and considerations of style -- there will be similarities, even re-use of code, that may link two different pieces of malware. The "DarkHotel" virus, which was uncovered only weeks before Regin surfaced, targets corporate executives by penetrating hotel wi-fi networks; it is suspected to have come from South Korea, since it contains Korean characters, and was localized primarily to South Korea and its neighbors. Nobody really knows for sure where it came from.

There are hints that Regin came out of Britain: it resembles other malware suspected to have been made by British spooks and contains a cricket term, "LEGSPIN". However, there's nothing to stop malware writers from including false leads; when the Russian government began hacking, their malware was faked to look like it was sourced from China.

It's really not that hard to penetrate computer systems. Modern software is very elaborate, which means it's almost impossible to make sure it works perfectly. Anyone can play, and it is believed that North Korea, Pakistan, and a number of African countries are in the game. Since malware isn't going to go away, and defenses are not reliable, there's increasing pressure for those at risk to give up on the marvelous capability of modern software, and opt for something much simpler, stupider, and more secure. Indeed, it appears the Russian government has been buying typewriters.



* BABY BUST REVISITED: The decline in populations of developed countries was discussed here in 2009. An article from THE ECONOMIST ("Breaking The Baby Strike", 25 July 2015) discussed what some of the governments of countries affected by falling birth rates are trying to do about it.

Turkey, for an example, is no longer having enough babies to support its population; Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan blasts abortion and tells Turkish women they should bear at least three children. More practically, the government is introducing "birth aid" payments for new babies, and longer parental leave for civil servants.

Payments for babies are nothing new in Singapore, where couples get $6,000 Singapore dollars ($4,450 USD) for their first child, another $6,000 SD for their second child, and $8,000 SD for their third. Families with babies go to the front of the queue for government housing, in which most Singaporeans live. South Korea and Russia are also taking measures to encourage more babies.

In every developed country except Israel the fertility rate, or overall births per woman, is below 2.1, the rate needed to maintain a stable population. Some not-so-developed countries, such as China and Russia, have also fallen below the replacement rate, with China now reversing its notorious "one child" policy. Japan's fertility rate is 1.4, while Singapore and South Korea have replacement rates of just 1.2.

In an undeveloped country, children are an investment with a positive material return -- the kids can help out in the fields, and take care of the parents in their old age. In developed countries, kids are a stiff financial drain; they require a lot of material investment in care and education, with the effort in taking care of them at the expense of to work that can bring in money. While the kids typically will help take care of elderly parents, they are not under any legal obligation to do so, and may end up moving far away, out of touch. Couples generally still do want kids, but few want more than two.

In lands with high populations, a declining population is welcome -- but only to a degree, since it poses problems, first and foremost resulting in societies heavily laden with the elderly, with relatively few of working age there to help fund their care. Opening the doors to immigration is one solution, but the public everywhere is not very enthusiastic about bringing in outsiders, at least to take up residence, with culturally homogeneous countries such as Japan having a particular resistance to the idea.

As a result, governments have been turning to pro-natalist policies: a per-baby lump sum; ongoing child-benefit payments; generous paid leave or subsidized nurseries, Nordic countries tending to offer both; child tax credits or tax breaks. Tax breaks are particularly effective in encouraging high-income parents to have kids, but they are hard to defend politically. It does seem that the more governments shell out for babies, the more babies they get -- though that might be an artifact of parent's lobbies, out to get more benefits for themselves.

Some policies do clearly work better than others. Olivier Thevenon -- who examines natalist policies at the Organization for Economic Cooperation & Development (OECD), a club of mostly developed countries -- comments: "The kind of spending matters more than the amount." Longer maternity and paternity leave are appreciated by citizens, but don't lead to more babies; cash payments for babies encourage parents to have them more quickly, but not to have more of them.

According to Thevenon's research, the biggest booster is subsidized child care, with the state promoting nurseries to make it easier for women to combine work and motherhood. That seems to be the big reason France and Sweden have good fertility rates, though their relatively open immigration policies no doubt help as well. Belgium, with state-subsidized nurseries, has had higher birth rates than Germany; the Germans are leery of natalism, since the Nazis pushed it, but have moved towards subsidized nurseries as well. Efforts to automate and reduce the cost of higher education, seen increasingly as a necessity for one's kids, should also help encourage larger families.

However, natalist policies, no matter how well thought out, can run into cultural obstacles. In Turkey, husbands do not like the idea of doing housework, and mothers are supposed to stay at home. In Japan, employees are expected to spend most of their time at work, even though they don't necessarily work all that hard when they are; and kids have to be painfully crammed to pass examinations for Tokyo University, or failing that lesser institutions, making their rearing more expensive.

There's another factor that seems to be universal, common to West and East: the bigger the city, the lower the birthrate among those who live in it. In most countries, fertility tends to be highest in the rural areas, rates declining with the size of the town. Nobody's quite sure why this is so -- it appears that big cities are simply not the best place to raise kids, while they offer so many amusements and entertainments that kids become more of a distraction.

As long as global population continues to increase, shortages of babies will be a relatively local problem. Could we look down the road to a time when the entire planet is below the replacement rate? That wouldn't be such a bad thing for some generations, but there would come a time when the business of procreation and child-rearing would have to be globally rethought -- and one could imagine that the whole notion of family, as we know it, would at the very least be greatly revised.


[MON 19 OCT 15] KEEP COOL (4)

* KEEP COOL (4): As a follow-up to the previous installments in this series, an article from THE ECONOMIST ("No Sweat", 5 January 2013) provided a survey of air conditioning in the 21st century.

Welcome to the Persian Gulf, a land whose summers are marked by intense heat and high humidity. Before 1950, less than half a million people lived on its shores; today, 20 million people live and work there. Without air conditioning, the place would be almost uninhabitable, but cities like Dubai have made it, to a degree, less a hell and more of a tropical paradise.

Some insist that air conditioning is actually the work of a devil, blasting it as a waste of resources; a climate-change villain; and even, in occasional fits of hair-shirt puritanism, a diminishment of the human spirit. Most of the puritans would soften their views if they suffered through a sweltering hot spell; and they also fail to realize, as discussed earlier in this series, that air conditioning began its existence in support of industrial processes, as it still does today.

That significance can be extended to support of those in the workplace. Even in the 1950s, when air conditioning of office buildings was fairly new, a study of US government typists showed that air conditioning raised productivity by a quarter. A 1957 survey of American firms revealed air conditioning as their single biggest boost to worker productivity. Studies show that workers in cool climates are well more productive than those in hot ones. As for home air conditioning, workers are more productive when they can get a good night's sleep, instead of sweating in bed.

Cooling also lowers death rates. In studies of what epidemiologists call the "harvesting effect", summer heatwaves have been shown to cause sudden upticks in the number of deaths from cardiovascular, respiratory, and cerebrovascular disease. A 2006 survey of six South Korean cities, for example, showed that a mere 1 degree Celsius rise over normal peak summer temperatures increased mortality from all causes by roughly 10%. Spain's health ministry found that, during a heat wave in the summer of 2003, the increase in mortality was about a quarter over normal. A study in California also showed lower mortality rates for people over 65 when they lived in air-conditioned comfort.

But what about resource depletion and climate change from use of air conditioning? Such worries seem overstated. According to the US Energy Information Agency, in 2005 air conditioning only accounted for 8% of America's home energy use -- contrasted with 41% for heating and 20% for heating water, which few make a fuss about. Incidentally, thanks to better insulation and other energy-saving features, overall energy use by US households hasn't increased in 30 years. Air conditioning is energy intensive, but it's not used as much as heating; the shift in population to warm places has, due to reduction in heating requirements, has helped to conserve energy.

However, air conditioning is catching on in the developing world, too, giving it an expanding footprint. Between 1995 and 2004, the proportion of homes in Chinese cities with air conditioning rose from 8% to 70%. Asia now accounts for half the global air conditioning market, with China generating 70% of global production. Climate change, ironically, will also stoke the demand for air conditioning. In some compensation, a typical air conditioner sold today is twice as energy-efficient as one sold in the 1980s. A number of firms are also promoting alternative approaches to air conditioning that, they claim, can be even more efficient.

Along with improved air conditioning technology, there's also been a push to design living spaces to resist overheating in the first place. Much of it is simple: paint exterior surfaces with light colors to reflect sunlight, plant trees to block sunlight blasting in through windows, and install insulated windows to help block that which gets through. Proper ventilation also helps, as do simple tricks -- such as watering down a hot roof to cool it off. Still, no amount of trickery or puritanical exhortation is going to change the fact that people will want to turn on the air conditioning rather than endure a stiflingly hot day. [END OF SERIES]


[FRI 16 OCT 15] THE COLD WAR (87)

* THE COLD WAR (87): The Pentagon and the AEC were adamantly opposed to a test-ban agreement with the Soviets, as were the British and French. President Eisenhower knew that British military power had greatly declined since World War II, and he believed it was partly due to an over-reliance on the Bomb. He wanted Britain to spend more on conventional forces; he suggested that the US send more Bombs to Britain, and share more atomic data with the UK. The US military and the AEC were both opposed, citing the McMahon Act, which blocked the transfer of nuclear secrets to foreign countries. Eisenhower could only point to the extensive transfer of British secrets to the US during the war, and that Britain needed to be treated as a full ally.

In France, Charles de Gaulle had just returned to power, and was energetically pursuing a French Bomb. Eisenhower knew de Gaulle very well, having a balanced understanding of de Gaulle's weaknesses and strengths, recognizing that though he was egocentric, he was also intelligent and generally sensible, indeed at times perceptive and shrewd. Eisenhower still could not understand any good reason for France to have the Bomb, but when he told French Foreign Minister Couve de Murville on 21 August that the US was going to propose a test ban, the president got back, in effect, a Gallic shrug: the US and the USSR could have a test ban if they liked, France would test their nukes.

The next day, 22 August, Eisenhower issued his invitation to the Soviets to begin test-ban negotiations on 31 October, in hopes of dealing with the atmospheric fallout problem and slow down the arms race. On 27 August, the AEC's McCone told the president that the US needed "one more test", and that an immediate decision was required. Eisenhower was clearly annoyed, though he didn't blow his stack; McCone bulldozed through the president's annoyance, badgering him on the absolute necessity of the tests. Eisenhower caved in, telling McCone with weary resignation that "the AEC might as well go ahead."

Eisenhower had already been getting flak from hawks like Strauss and Teller over his invitation, and to compound the pressure to test, on 22 August the British began a sequence of nuclear tests on Christmas Island in the Pacific. On 29 August, Khrushchev agreed to negotiations on a test ban. On the same day, the US began a new series of tests -- formally designated HARDTACK II but nicknamed "Operation DEADLINE" by the media, in recognition of the fact that it was an attempt to set off nukes while it was still possible to do so. HARDTACK II focused on small tactical weapons.

In a separate set of tests, codenamed ARGUS, at the end of August and in early September, the US Navy fired three "peewee" nuclear weapons into near space from a fleet of vessels at sea between South Africa and Antarctica. ARGUS had been inspired by the discovery of the Van Allen radiation belts, the idea being that a space nuclear detonation would create a short-lived radiation belt that could fry Soviet ICBMs. The shots did create a radiation belt, but it was too weak to disrupt enemy missiles. The scheme did have the potential of disrupting or damaging satellites in orbit, since they would spend much more time in the artificial radiation belt, but there were only a handful of satellites in orbit at the time.

More significantly, ARGUS raised questions about the nuclearization of space, an issue that had also been underlined by HARDTACK I, since three of the shots had been at near-space altitudes. The high-altitude shots had revealed that the radiation of the detonation of a nuclear weapon would generate a powerful "electromagnetic pulse (EMP)" when it hit the upper atmosphere that could disrupt communications and electronic systems.

ARGUS was kept secret, it seems to keep the Soviets from getting upset; they didn't have the means to detect the tests at the time, and there was no reason to excite them when Eisenhower was trying to persuade them to stop testing for the moment. Of course, in the face of HARDTACK II, on 30 September the Soviets began their own sequence of "deadline" tests, focused on large strategic weapons. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* GIMMICKS & GADGETS: Work on perovskite-based solar / photovoltaic cells was discussed here in 2014. An update from THE ECONOMIST ("Crystal Clear?", 16 May 2016), discussed work in the field since then. There's been notable progress in "tandem" PV cells, featuring a top layer of perovskite, which absorbs energy from light at the blue end of the spectrum, on top of a layer of silicon, which absorbs energy at the red end of the spectrum. Oxford Photovoltaics of the UK has demonstrated a tandem cell with 20% efficiency, and would like to introduce product in 2017. Since perovskite layer formulations can be tuned to different bands of light, over the longer run, the company would like to introduce tandem cells with multiple layers of perovskite. They are also looking at transparent perovskite cells to carpet glass-box skyscrapers.

Perovskites are, in principle, much easier to fabricate than normal silicon PV cells, for example by chemical vapor deposition. Perovskites decompose when exposed to water, but sealing perovskite PV cells is not seen as a major challenge. Oxford Photovoltaics says they have run perovskite PV cells for thousands of hours without a hiccup.

* As discussed by a note from TIME Magazine Online, a firm named Smart Palm in the United Arab Emirates is now installing over a hundred "solar powered palm trees" in the city of Dubai. They're stylized representations of date palm trees, with solar panels for branches; each tree is a wi-fi hot spot, with a range of about 100 meters (330 feet), and also has a set of charger stations for cellphones and other gadgets.

Dubai solar powered palm tree

* An article from BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK discussed how big companies are now abandoning their ".com" URLs and moving to their own domains; instead of "something@walmart.com", late this year or early next, it will be "something@walmart".

Why? Because scammers have been so enthusiastic about creating copycat websites that look like official company websites -- but their URLs are just slightly different, enough to be confused with the real things, both by search engines and users. It's only ten bucks or so to set up an arbitrary ".com" address, while it costs $185,000 USD to obtain a dedicated domain. That's pocket change to a big company, but renders scamming unprofitable.

There's also a push towards controlled domain names, such as ".bank", that should be attractive to smaller companies; they cost less than a straight company domain name, but the targets are smaller too, meaning it's just as unprofitable for a scammer to try to muscle in. There's likely to be some confusion until the new domain name system settles down, but over the long run, the expectation is that it will do much to improve internet security.



* HOW MANY EARTHS? As discussed by an article from BBC WORLD Online ("How Many Earths Do We Need?" by Charlotte McDonald, 16 June 2015), it is a truism among the ecologically-minded that that if everyone on the planet consumed as much as the average US citizen, the wealth of four Earths would be needed to sustain the world. While it is obvious that Americans consume more than citizens of undeveloped countries, on examination this statistic appears, if not flatly wrong, at least a bit glib.

four Earths?

The meme has been circulating since 2012, when science writer Tim De Chant produced an infographic illustrating how much land would be required if seven billion people lived like the populations of nine selected countries, from Bangladesh to the United Arab Emirates. De Chant was using a subset of data produced by the "Global Footprint Network (GFN)", which since 2003, has been trying to measure the impact of humans on the planet.

In "ecological footprinting", investigators look at how much land, sea, and other natural resources are used to produce what people consume, basing their analyses on published statistics on consumption and the amount of land or sea used to produce the quantity of goods consumed. The answers are expressed in the "global hectare (GH)", defined as a biologically productive hectare with world-average bioproductivity. According to GFN director and co-founder Mathis Wackernagel, ecological footprinting is "is a book-keeping approach for resources."

The latest GFN figures, based on data from 2011, show that the average American uses seven GH, as opposed to a global average of 2.7 GH. Multiplying the seven GH figure times the seven billion people on the planet gives the result of four Earths to support that level of consumption -- to be precise, 3.9 Earths.

OK, now it gets muddier -- one issue being that the US is not in the top rank of consumption, actually being ranked fifth among countries with a population of a million or more. Kuwait is first with 8.9 GH (5.1 Earths), followed by Australia (4.8 Earths), the United Arab Emirates (4.7 Earths), and Qatar (4.0 Earths). The others in the top 10 are Canada, Sweden, Bahrain, Trinidad and Tobago, and Singapore. The UK is ranked 32nd (2.4 Earths).

Another issue is that, according to the GFN, the world is currently using 1.5 Earths, which doesn't seem to make sense. That extra 0.5 Earth comes from surplus carbon emissions, with the GFN calculating the amount of extra land and sea that would be needed to balance it. For the four Earths we would need if everyone consumed like an American, more than two-and-a-half of those would be needed just to absorb carbon dioxide. Not everyone buys this measure as meaningful; critics also wonder if the GFN really has adequate data to make projections for places where data isn't reliably collected. Wackernagel admits that the GFN figures are inexact, but believes they are underestimates.

The biggest limitation of ecological footprinting is that it says nothing in itself on how to change matters. It is obvious that Americans, and other folk in the wealthy world, have a lifestyle that, in its present form, isn't sustainable over the long run, there's no sensible dispute over that; so, isn't the real question one of how to work towards a more sustainable world?

Still, few believe that ecological footprinting is a bad idea, much less label it a conspiratorial plot. As discussed here in 2012, companies often perform "carbon footprinting", a particular sort of ecological footprinting, on their production processes, finding it useful to help spot opportunities for efficiency improvements. Governments are buying into ecological footprinting; Switzerland publishes footprint estimates on its Federal Statistics Office website, while the UK has formed a "Natural Capital Committee" to study how the country consumes its natural resources and how long they will last.

Of course, the question of "how many Earths" does still come across as moralistic, instead of constructive -- the intent being to afflict the comfortable, but not to comfort the afflicted. Then again, there's nothing much there to get upset over; we can just shrug, and go on about our business.



* AMERICA'S ENERGY FUTURE? Every four years, the US Department of Energy (DOE) releases a "Quadrennial Technology Review (QTR)" to suggest directions for US energy policy. The first was released in 2011; the second, distilling the views of more than 700 energy experts, was released in this September, with Obama administration science wonks -- including Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz and White House science adviser John Holdren -- proclaiming that it identifies "enormous, under-appreciated, and underexploited" opportunities to conserve energy and increase supply in six sectors of the US energy system, including the electric grid, buildings, and transportation. A more efficient national energy infrastructure could cut US energy use in half, with little or no penalty.

Buildings, which account for 76% of all electricity use in the USA and 40% of all energy use, are a central focus in the QTR. According to the report, wider adoption of technologies already common in America -- such as the efficient appliances bearing the government's Energy Star seal -- could cut consumption in that sector by about 20%. New technologies, such as more efficient LED lights and heat pump systems, will reduce consumption by 35% if they became widespread as well.

The 2011 report suggested that the DOE focus on development of electric vehicles, though that effort proved disappointing, EVs now being seen as mostly useful for urban fleet vehicles, not general transportation. One reason for the backtracking on EVs was, as Holdren commented, that since the 2011 report, the US has seen a "renaissance" in fossil fuel production, astonishingly making it the world's leading producer of oil and gas -- an "energy revolution" heavily promoted by the Obama Administration. Although useful as a corrective to claims that Obama is a "radical socialist", that works against the administration's push to hold down greenhouse gas emissions, with the report encouraging new projects to increase the capture of carbon dioxide produced by burning fossil fuels.

Over roughly the same timeframe, while coal consumption has gone down by one-fifth, the amount of wind power being produced has more than tripled, and solar power production has increased twenty-fold. According to Moniz, the push towards greater use of renewables is part of the reason "why we've had a roughly 10% emissions reduction since 2007 or so."

Looking to the future, the report estimates that wind could provide 35% of the country's electricity by 2050, especially if firms are able to increase turbine hub height by tens of meters in certain regions, and use sophisticated analysis systems to determine the optimal locations for wind farms. Along with more renewable power sources, as also emphasized by the 2011 QTR, the US needs to develop a "smart" power grid that can immediately and efficiently shunt power from production facilities to users, with more storage capability, plus protection against terrorist attacks, particularly cyber-attacks; or accidents, particularly solar superflares.

Moniz says the United States and other countries will need innovative materials and technologies to achieve energy security and protect the planet from climate change. Along with the science and technology involved, the exercise remains dependent on well-considered policies, and political will. With reference to the upcoming United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris, to take place in December: "On the way to Paris, in Paris, and sure as hell after Paris, we're going to continue working on this."


[MON 12 OCT 15] KEEP COOL (3)

* KEEP COOL (3): Willis Carrier was not satisfied with dielene as a working fluid for his air conditioning systems, and went on to experiment with other candidates. First he tried tricholoroethylene (C2HCl3), then methlyene chloride (CH2Cl2) AKA dichloromethane; Carrier liked dichloromethane, claiming it provided twice the effectiveness of ammonia, and adopted it as a standard, naming it "Carrene-1" after himself.

However, in 1930 the DuPont chemist Thomas Midgley introduced the first of his cholofluorocarbon (CFC) refrigerants, which became known as "freons". Carrier visited Midgely and learned about CFCs; Midgely had one, CCl3F AKA "Freon-11", that didn't interest him much, but it interested Carrier a great deal. It wasn't as effective a refrigerant as ammonia, but it was nontoxic -- indeed, it was highly inert -- and it worked well at modest pressures, making less demands on system plumbing and so resulting in a cheaper air-conditioning installation.

By this time, Carrier was also pushing air conditioning for office buildings, starting with the 21-storey Milam Building in sunny Austin, Texas, which opened in 1928. The installation featured a large cooling plant in the basement, and a smaller one every two floors; it proved highly satisfactory. A distributed system was used because centralized air conditioning required large ducts with insulation to drive the cool air to the parts of the structure without it being warmed en route. That ductwork cut into office space; many architects and building owners didn't like that idea, and that was why the Empire State Building didn't have air conditioning when it opened in 1931.

Carrier devised a compromise approach, coming up with a central plant that drove strong flows of dehumidified air through narrow conduits. Each office had its own console that heated or cooled the air by passing it over coils filled with hot or cold water, giving each office direct control over its climate. Carrier patented the scheme in 1939, then implemented it in the Statler Building in Washington DC -- the last hotel to be built in the USA before war intervened.

Air conditioning for homes still remained generally impractical. The Doherty-Brehm firm advertised a home air conditioning system, promising a price "as low as $875". Just how steep a price that was at the time could be realized from the fact that was enough to buy two new cars. The De La Vergne Engine Company introduced the first plug-in window air-conditioning unit in 1932; it was technically crude, but it was compact and easy to install. A number of firms licensed the De La Verge design -- though during the Depression, few could afford such luxuries. By 1941, only a tiny fraction of American homes had air conditioning.

With a war on, industry focused on military production, but at the end of the war, air conditioning boomed. Carrier put his mark on the new era by air conditioning the United Nations Secretariat building in New York City. The UN building, designed by Oscar Niemeyer and Le Courbisier, was not merely the mark of a new political order but of the establishment of "glass slab" buildings, paneled in glass panes that couldn't be opened, entirely dependent on climate control to remain liveable.

Home air conditioning boomed as well, with Sears, Roebuck leading the pack to sell home air conditioners. By the early 1950s, sales had gone from the tens of thousands of air conditioning units a year to hundreds of thousands, reaching a million a year by mid-decade and climbing upward into the 1960s.

modern household air conditioner

Air conditioning for cars followed a similar if lagging trajectory. There had been clumsy attempts to sell air-conditioned cars in the 1930s, most notably the 1939 Packard -- with the air conditioner filling up the trunk and adding 25% to the price tag. It wasn't until 1954 that the first compact, practical car air conditioning systems were introduced, by both the Nash-Kelvinator Corporation of American Motors, and the Harrison Radiator Division of General Motors. In 1963, only 14% of cars sold in the US had air conditioning -- but as the technology improved, it went to 50% in 1969. By the end of the century, it was rare to find a car that didn't have it.

The reliance on CFCs turned out to be a trap, however. In the 1970s, researchers suggest that the inert CFCs might migrate to the upper atmosphere, to be broken down by solar radiation and then catalyze the destruction of ozone molecules there, that blocked harmful solar ultraviolet radiation. In the 1980s, a growing "ozone hole" began to appear in Antarctica in the winters there, showing that the destruction of ozone was not a purely theoretical consideration.

The "Montreal Protocol" was signed in 1987 to begin a global phaseout of CFCs in refrigeration, air conditioning, aerosol sprays, and other technologies. Refrigeration and air conditioning has since converted to hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), which are less effective than CFCs but don't contribute to ozone depletion. Unfortunately, it turned out that hydrofluorocarbons do contribute disproportionately to climate change -- and so, as discussed here earlier this year, there is now a search for a substitute that doesn't. [TO BE CONTINUED]


[FRI 09 OCT 15] THE COLD WAR (86)

* THE COLD WAR (86): ARPA's work on the Moon shot stunt was strictly a temporary expedient, ARPA not having been set up as a space agency. The wheels of government had been turning towards the creation of a civilian space agency in the meantime, with Senator Lyndon Johnson being one of the prime movers. Eisenhower signed Public Law 85-568, the "National Aeronautics & Space Act", on 29 July 1958, establishing a civilian space agency named the "National Aeronautics & Space Administration (NASA)" effective 1 October 1958. It was cobbled together from various existing civil and military organizations involved in aerospace, the central component being the "National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA)" -- established in 1915, from that time having conducted aeronautical research in cooperation with military and civil aviation.

NASA inherited existing scientific space programs, including Vanguard -- though for the time being, the Army insisted on hanging on to von Braun and his organization in Alabama. The Army's case for involvement in space was weak and that state of affairs could not last, all the more so because von Braun was already proposing new space launch vehicles for NASA. He was also pushing "Project Adam", a scheme for launching a man on a short flight into space, in a capsule mounted on top of a Redstone. One NACA old-timer had said the idea had "about the same technical value as the circus stunt of shooting a young lady from a cannon." -- but it was an idea whose time had come. It would soon become a centerpiece of NASA's agenda, to be named "Project Mercury".

The Sputniks had not only raised alarms that the US had fallen behind in space, but also that the Soviets were well ahead in turning out scientists and engineers. Eisenhower didn't believe that was the case, and didn't think the Federal government should be taking a leading role in education, in his eyes that being a matter for state and local government. However, as with space, the president couldn't resist the pressure to "do something" about education, and so a "National Defense Education Act" was working its way through the political process, to be enacted in September.

The NDEA set up a student loan program, and provided hundreds of millions of dollars to boost education in broadly defense-related fields -- science, math, and foreign languages. Demonstrating how Senator McCarthy's ghost still haunted Washington DC, the NDEA also included a clause insisting that beneficiaries sign an affidavit stating that they did not advocate the overthrow of the US government. In hindsight, the clause looks more silly than offensive, but it was enough to make a few prestigious universities, including Princeton and Yale, turn down NDEA money. The number of institutions protesting would continue to grow, with the obnoxious clause dropped by the next administration. In any case, the NDEA ended up being a half-hearted measure that accomplished little.

* Eisenhower could only wearily shrug at notions of putting a man into space, or taking charge of education. He also continued to be aggravated with the under-the-table lobbying of Congress by the military brass through controlled leaks. In August, an Air Force officer told Senator Symington of a government study that examined the possibility of American surrender after a nuclear attack. Without bothering to validate it, Symington played up the supposed study in Congress, with the president being grilled by Republican senators over the matter. Eisenhower told them he knew of no such study, dryly saying that he "might be the last person alive, but there wouldn't be any surrender in the next two and a half years, at least."

At the end of August, Symington wrote the president about information the senator had obtained "from undisclosed sources" that the CIA had been underestimating Soviet strength. Eisenhower asked Symington to come to the White House, where he told the senator that the facts were the opposite, that the CIA had been overestimating Soviet capabilities, adding that he "thought it would be out of character for me to be indifferent to valid assessments of Soviet strength." Symington was unconvinced.

The push for more Bombs continued. Although Admiral Strauss had left the AEC, his replacement, John McCone, was just as determined to keep on testing, working with Defense Secretary McElroy to push through a test of ABM technology on the Gulf Coast. Eisenhower didn't like the idea of setting off nukes over the Gulf of Mexico, believing with obviously fair cause that would upset Latin nations along its shores, and ordered the tests canceled.

The nuclear hawks were equally determined to block a general test ban, even as discussions between the US and the USSR on the matter continued in Geneva. A report from the group was issued on 21 August, stating that it was "technically feasible" to set up a workable verification system, though there was still fussing over the details. It was a landmark of sorts: for the first time, the US and USSR had agreed on nuclear matters. Eisenhower ordered the State Department to start working on a test ban treaty. The exercise would not prove at all straightforward. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* SCIENCE NOTES: As discussed by an article from LIVESCIENCE Online, ("Panda Poop Reveals They're Bad at Digesting Bamboo" by Laura Geggel, 19 May 2015), while cows do a pretty good job of digesting grasses, not all animals that have taken up the diet do so well at it. A research study of the gut microbiome of pandas, the bears that eat bamboo, show that their microbiome is still largely similar to that of their meat-eating cousins, with few micro-organisms to help them out in eating grass.

Pandas at dinner

The fossil record suggests pandas began munching on bamboo 7 million years ago, to finally become exclusive bamboo eaters about 2 million years ago. They acquired powerful jaws and teeth to help grind down the bamboo, and even a "pseudothumb" -- a wrist bone that acts like a thumb -- to help them strip the bamboo. However, their adaptation to their lifestyle leaves much to be desired: not only do they not have genes to generate enzymes that can digest grasses, their microbiome doesn't contain plant-degrading bacteria, such as Ruminococcaceae and Bacteroides, which are common in other herbivorous animals. At the gut level, they're still more or less carnivores, only able to digest about a fifth of the bamboo they eat. They spend almost all their waking hours eating it.

In the study, researchers did a genetic analysis of the gut bacteria in the droppings of 45 healthy pandas living at a research site in the Chengdu province of China. After about one year, they collected 112 samples from panda cubs, juveniles, and adults. Except for the cubs, which drank milk, each panda ate about 10 kilograms (22 pounds) of bamboo and bamboo shoots, as well as up to 800 grams (1.7 pounds) of steamed bread every day. The droppings were full of undigested bamboo fragments.

No doubt researchers are curious about what might happen if plant-degrading bacteria from other herbivores were introduced into the panda microbiome -- with the prospect of giving the panda a great evolutionary leap in one step. That might be too glib an idea, and in any case, one might think twice before doing something that drastic to a rare species.

* Japanese researchers have conducted a set of experiments that demonstrate lab rats are capable of altruism. They had a test chamber with a transparent partition in the middle, featuring a door that the rat on the left side could open to allow the rat on the right side to escape. When the right side of the chamber was flooded, forcing the rat to tread water -- it wasn't in any real danger, incidentally -- the rat on the left would open the door.

The rat on the left would not open the door if the right part of the chamber wasn't flooded; it would be more prone to open the door if it had undergone a dunking itself. If the rat on the left had two doors, one to let the wet rat in, the other to get a piece of chocolate, the rat on the left usually rescued the wet rat.

* Danish researchers investigating porpoise sonar location have found they can focus their sonar. It is well known that toothed whales, including dolphins, generate clicks and buzzes, with the echoes returned from remote targets giving their distance and other data. The research showed them switching from a narrow to a wide beam of sound -- "like adjusting a flashlight" -- as they homed in on a fish.

Danish harbor porpoise

The researchers worked with harbor porpoises in a semi-natural enclosure at a conservation research center on the coast of Denmark. They were only separated from the harbor outside the center by a net, through which fish could come and go. Underwater microphones were used to measure sounds that the porpoises produced, with arrays of microphones allowing the geometry of the sound propagation to be determined.

As porpoises hunt, they switch from an exploratory clicking to a more intense, high frequency buzz for precision tracking of a target. Echolocating clicks pass through a fatty structure at the front of their skull called the "melon" -- manifested as a bulge on the animal's head. The melon acts as an adjustable acoustic lens, focusing the sound into a beam and altering the size of that beam, with a wide angle for search and a narrow angle for targeting and tracking. This is actually not so conceptually different from the radar carried by a fighter jet, which will normally perform wide-area searchers, zeroing in on a target to engage it.

The harbor porpoises involved in this study came to the facility were rescued from fishing nets. The researchers hope their work will help develop ways of using sound to prevent porpoises from accidentally chasing fish into such nets. When the porpoises go to a tight beam for targeting, they may not notice the wider net they are swimming into. Sufficiently loud and repetitive alarms hooked up to a net may warn them of the danger.



* AFRICA DOES RENEWABLES: As discussed by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("The Leapfrog Continent", 6 June 2015), Africa is in desperate need of electric power. Across sub-Saharan Africa, economic growth would be as much as 4% greater each year were power supplies more adequate, according to the World Bank. Businesses end up buying petrofuel generators, paying many times the rate of grid power per kilowatt-hour (kWh), just to make sure they can operate.

Poor families are even worse off; a report by the Africa Progress Panel -- led by Kofi Annan of Ghana, previously a UN secretary-general -- estimates that more than 600 million poor Africans do not have access to grid electricity. They may spend as much as 16% of their income on energy and pay up to $10 USD per kWh for fuels such as kerosene, or disposable batteries, for cooking and lighting. That's about a hundred times the unit cost of power in the developed world.

According to the report, fixing Africa's power problem may cost as much as $55 billion USD a year, compared to current investment of about $8 billion USD a year. However, Africa's power capacity is nonetheless growing, estimates suggesting an increase in power generation capacity in the double digits in the last 25 years. Much of the investment is going into fossil fuel plants, burning coal or gas -- but a rising share is going into renewable sources. In 2010:12, Nigeria's renewable power production exhibited the world's fastest growth, at more than 15% a year, according to the World Bank.

Renewable energy looks good in Africa because there's so much of it available, waiting to be tapped -- sunny deserts, windy uplands, and big rivers that haven't been plugged by dams yet. The use of cheap solar panels by poor Africans is well-known, having last been mentioned here in 2012, but there's also considerable interest in centralized "concentrated solar power (CSP)" plants, in which an array of mirrors heats a fluid into steam to drive a power turbine. There's a certain snobbery among renewable-energy advocates against CSP, who often regard it as expensive and klunky compared to solid-state photovoltaic solar panels, but CSP advocates say it can be cost-effective with solar panels -- all the more so if there's a heat-storage system to keep the turbine going after the Sun goes down. Large-scale electrical storage should make it look even better.

South Africa, plagued with crippling power shortages, has now set up one CSP plant at a cost of $640 million USD, with four more plants in the pipeline. The CSP plants are relatively cheap and easy to implement, more so than coal-fired power plants, which can take decades to plan and build. Once a CSP plant is going, it doesn't need to be fueled, either. South Africa has added more than 4 gigawatts (GW) of renewable power to the nation's electrical grid in four years, producing an impressive tenth of the country's electricity. Costs per kWh of electricity from renewable sources have fallen almost 70% in South Africa as it has run a series of auctions, buying power from the lowest supplier. Africa is very bullish on CSP, with six of the ten biggest CSP plants being built around the world now being set up there.

South African CSP plant

The "other renewable", hydropower, has even more potential. A McKinsey study estimates that hydropower could provide about 15% of Africa's electricity by 2040, compared with a little under 10% from solar power. Ethiopia plans to increase its electricity production more than four-fold from 4 GW in 2011 to 17 GW by 2020, much of it from the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. Engineers have long considered the potential of the Congo river where it plunges down the Inga Falls, between Kinshasa, the Congolese capital, and the Atlantic ocean. Inga Falls could be the world's biggest hydropower station, generating 40 GW, 20 times the generating capacity of America's Hoover Dam. The World Bank is funding studies on how to make it happen.

Although renewable energy in Africa does not seem poised to overtake all fossil fuels, it will overshadow the dirtiest of them, coal, which now produces more than half the continent's power. According to McKinsey, that figure will probably shrink to 23% by 2040. Renewables also have special advantages -- particularly for distributed power, where villagers off the grid can get their own power from a cheap solar panel, or from a village solar power station. It can be much cheaper to provide renewable power locally -- via solar, wind, or "micro-hydropower" -- than to extend the power grid to a village, and certainly much cheaper than relying on generators.

The price of renewable energy systems, such as solar panels, is continuing to drop, making them even more attractive. Africa, long a laggard in global development, has an opportunity to be a leader in utilization of renewable energy.



* BACTERIOPHAGE METAGENOMICS: As discussed by an article from WIRED Online blogs ("Scientists Unearth a Trove of New Bacteria-Killing Viruses" by Shara Tonn, 3 September 2015), biologists have long known about "bacteriophages" AKA "phages", the viruses that infect bacteria -- last mentioned here this summer -- and have a good understanding of them. What biologists haven't had is much of a handle on the diversity of phages. Thanks to modern metagenomic technology, a research group at Ohio State University in Columbus has changed that, performing a metagenomic study of a population of bacteria, and then extracting the phage genomes.

There was, as discussed in earlier articles run here on phages, considerable interest before World War II in using phages to treat bacterial infections. Interest then faded out in the West, though the Soviets continued to make use of them for treatments. With the rise of antibiotic resistance, interest has now revived in the West.

Phages are widespread, and they can have devastating effects on bacterial populations. One particularly deadly set of phages in a bacterial ocean community can kill off half the bacteria in one day. Despite their abundance, phages are hard to study; they have to be grown in bacterial cultures, and most bacteria can't be easily cultured in a lab, meaning no way to culture the phages that infect them, either.

Enter metagenomics. Instead of culturing the bacteria, researchers simply obtain the genomes for an assemblage of them, nailing down the phage genomes in the process. This is a straightforward approach to obtaining the DNA codings; what is hardly straightforward is then sorting them all out. As project researcher Tanja Woyke -- a microbiologist at the Joint Genome Institute of the US Department of Energy -- described it: "It's almost like you took hundreds of different puzzles and threw all the pieces together. Now you have to put those puzzles together and figure out which pieces come from which puzzle."

To make it even more troublesome, phages are inclined to exchange DNA with their bacterial hosts, stealing genes from their hosts, and leave behind genes that are absorbed into a host. One way to help sort out the puzzle is to hunt for sequences that are already known and stored in public genomic databases. That only goes so far, unfortunately; although more than 30,000 microbes have had their genomes sequenced, only about 1,300 viruses have.

Fortunately, phage genomes have a few specific tell-tales. First, they have distinct genes that encode the protein capsule that protects their genetic material; bacteria don't have anything like capsids. Second, their genes are not that much like those seen in bacteria, or anything else for that matter; find an unfamiliar gene that can be linked to a capsid gene, that means it's likely to be part of a phage. According to Simon Roux, a postdoc virologist on the project: "Sixty to 80 percent of the genes look like nothing we have ever seen before."

Roux developed a program named "VirSorter" to spot viral sequences from these two tell-tales, then used it to sift through almost 15,000 public microbe genomes, hunting for "prophages", or phage genomes that had been inserted into bacteria. Although there are other programs that can spot prophage sequences in complete bacterial genomes, VirSorter is the first that can that can accurately pull phage sequences out of a metagenomic assemblage.

The 12,500 phage sequences obtained so far are only a starter; project researchers expect the number to quickly grow by a hundredfold. VirSorter was made accessible and easy to use; any microbiologist with a genome dataset can use it to search for new phages. That leads to another challenge, building the genomes into a taxonomic hierarchy -- a "tree of life" -- that will also require a fair amount of software ingenuity and computing horsepower.

As the big picture becomes clearer, microbiologists and virologists will increasingly be able to track the co-evolution of phages and their hosts, discovering the interesting tricks that phages can play, and the countermeasures bacteria have acquired to fight back. Researchers are starting out from a low level of knowledge, but they're not discouraged; that only means they have a lot they can learn.


[MON 05 OCT 15] KEEP COOL (2)

* KEEP COOL (2): Willis Carrier's air conditioning systems were a sales success, but he was still not happy with what he had. He could figure out what kind of an air conditioning installation a facility might need, but it was only by virtue of his considerable experience, and the performance of those systems was not all that predictable. It was an art; it needed to be a science.

From the 1880s, there had been some formal research into the properties of moist air, a field known as "psychrometrics" -- psy-CHRO-metrics, not psy-CHO-metrics -- but not much progress had been made. Carrier saw enough there to build on, however, and worked to create a more effective science of psychrometrics. Carrier devised a comprehensive set of equations, most significantly one that expressed the moisture content of damp air in terms of pressure plus dry-bulb and wet-bulb readings. Using charts, engineers could then predict the performance of an air-conditioning system with some accuracy. Carrier published his results in an influential landmark 1911 paper titled "Rational Psychrometric Formulae".

With his improved grasp of psychrometrics, Carrier could readily control both temperature and humidity. By mixing chilled air with unchilled air that had bypassed the cooling spray, he could achieve any desired setpoint of humidity and temperature. Carrier then decided it was time to move air conditioning on from strictly industrial applications, to providing comfort to the public.

That wasn't quite as straightforward as it might seem in hindsight. An air-conditioning system represented a considerable cost -- both in terms of original outlay and ongoing service -- and a, say, restaurant owner had no way of knowing if it would bring in enough new business to pay for itself. Using ammonia as a coolant was also a problem, since raw ammonia is very nasty, toxic stuff.

However, movie theaters were booming at the time, moving up from auditoriums to entertainment palaces, and owners of top-flight theaters could see the benefits of air condition. In Chicago, two sets of brothers -- Barney and Abe Balaban, Sam and Maurice Katz -- built the ornate Central Park and Riviera Theaters. An engineer named Frederick Wittenmeier installed air-conditioning systems for these two theaters that used carbon dioxide as a working fluid. That technology had been introduced in 1866 by "Professor" Thaddeus Lowe, well-known as a Civil War balloonist; the system tended to leak, but carbon dioxide is odorless and harmless, except in high concentrations.

Obviously, Carrier was interested in cooling movie theaters, working with Sid Grauman of Los Angeles. Grauman had already built the Chinese and Million Dollar Theaters there; when he opened his third theater, the Metropolitan, there in 1923, it featured a Carrier air conditioning system.

Early public air conditioning systems had vents in the floor, like heating vents, but that was forgetting that cold air doesn't rise, with customers freezing their feet. Soon the vents were placed on the ceiling. Carrier also introduced some significant innovations of his own. His original air conditioners had used reciprocating compressors, with pistons moving back and forth, but in 1922 he went to a centrifugal compressor. It was lighter, simpler, more reliable, and easier to keep running.

Carrier also wanted to obtain a better working fluid than ammonia for public air-conditioning systems, settling on a cleaning fluid named dichloroethylene (C2H2Cl2) AKA "dielene". He chose to use it for an air-conditioning system to be installed in New York City's Rivoli Theater, but the city safety commissioner refused to go along. Carrier got an appointment with the commissioner and demonstrated that dielene was safe, even pouring some into a container, then throwing a lit match into it. It burned as gently as a candle, and Carrier got his permit.

Rivoli air conditioning ad

The Rivoli was the first air-conditioned theater in New York City, and it was also the first major public installation of an air-conditioning system with a centrifugal compressor and dielene working fluid. The system made its debut in 1925 with Adolph Zukor, boss of Paramount Pictures, in attendance. There was a big crowd; the air conditioning took its time get rolling and Carrier was worried, but soon the theater chilled out, and so did the audience. After the movie, Zukor told Carrier: "The people are going to like it."

The further history of air conditioning would show that was an understatement. By the late 1930s, all but a fraction of US movie theaters had air conditioning. They became a great place to go on hot summer evenings. [TO BE CONTINUED]


[FRI 02 OCT 15] THE COLD WAR (85)

* THE COLD WAR (85): Eisenhower had been feeling pressured by events; he was then pressed to the snapping point. Although he had ordered the MELTING POT stratospheric reconnaissance balloon program killed, the Air Force had continued to work on it anyway. It seems that the Air Force was less concerned about the USSR than the CIA, wanting to have an Air Force strategic reconnaissance capability to counter the CIA's U-2, and not being too concerned as to how credible a capability it was.

Three MELTING POT balloons were launched in July from a small "jeep" carrier from off the east coast of Japan. The balloon reconnaissance payloads had a timer that would cut them loose, to parachute down to lower altitude for recovery. The timers were given settings that were too short, and all three balloons dropped their gondolas while over Red territory. The next thing the president knew, he was getting an angry protest from the Kremlin.

Eisenhower had a very hot temper and tried to keep it under control, but that was too much. He called up the Pentagon; failing to get Defense Secretary Neil McElroy, he got Deputy Defense Secretary Quarles on the line. The president was furious, saying that if he had been the military officer who had pulled such a stunt, he would have shot himself. Eisenhower suggested that a few heads needed to roll, that people either needed to obey orders or get the hell out of the service.

He cooled off -- slightly -- to then write a stiff memo to Defense Secretary McElroy, saying "there is disturbing evidence of a deterioration in the processes of discipline and responsibility within the armed forces." The president indicated his displeasure with the balloon overflights and also unauthorized U-2 overflights, telling McElroy that he wanted disciplinary action taken "at once".

Exactly what disciplinary actions were actually taken is not clear, but that was the end of American balloon reconnaissance efforts -- or so it seems, since Russian sources claim that balloon reconnaissance overflights of the USSR continued into the 1970s and beyond. The records of encounters between Soviet interceptor aircraft and balloons are detailed and specific, and there's no good reason to doubt they happened; but what were the balloons doing over the Soviet Union?

It seems plausible that the Soviets were excitably chasing after weather and research balloons that had strayed into their airspace, though it is of course difficult to rule out the existence of another "black" reconnaissance balloon program that hasn't been declassified yet. Balloons were a ridiculous approach to aerial reconnaissance, but it is possible they were being used as probes of Soviet air defenses; in other words, they were supposed to detected and intercepted. There are no records of such an effort, and it's difficult to think of a good reason as to why the records would be hidden away, over a half-century later -- thought they might have been simply filed and forgotten. Russian accounts on the balloons are lacking in specifics to help identify their function. In the absence of any solid evidence to the contrary, the most believable conclusion is that they were stray weather balloons.

* The world paid little attention to the balloon overflights; the US government of course said nothing much about them, and the Soviets didn't make a major issue of them. The relatively muted response of the Kremlin had the unfortunate effect of also diminishing Eisenhower's concerns about conducting overflights by other means.

As far the public space frenzy went, it was going full blast, and in fact was continuing to accelerate. In January 1958, Sergei Korolyev wrote a memo to the central committee, proposing the development of an R-7 derivative with an upper stage. The official rationale was to use the improved booster to first send a probe to crash into the Moon, and then to launch a probe to go into orbit around it and take pictures of the unseen lunar farside. Korolyev also emphasized that the new booster would have military applications, such as the launch of heavy reconnaissance satellites.

In parallel, the Americans were also creating a program to "shoot the Moon" under "Project Baker", which was announced at the end of March. The Air Force planned to use a Thor missile fitted with an "Able" second stage, derived from the Vanguard second stage; while the Army planned to use the "Juno II", a Jupiter missile topped with a cluster of solid rockets, like the Redstone modified as the Juno 1 to put Explorer 1 into orbit. ARPA was put in charge of the program, the agency's charter being broad enough to allow the agency to work on space projects of no clear military utility. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* ANOTHER MONTH: I went over to the Loveland Public Library to find they had put up a display about, of all things, the mechanics of classic pinball machines, with exhibits showing the various subsystems. It was a tribute to the era of electromechanical intelligence, showing what could be done with switches, relays, mechanical numeric indicators, arrays of little light bulbs, and so on, with sequencing performed by notched sets of wheels. It was thoroughly ingenious, though a fully operational pinball machine with a window into the internals showed what a wiring nightmare it all was. These days, we do all that stuff with digital electronics, and use a networking bus.

In more modern technology news, I found a "PC Remote" -- like a TV remote control, but to control a PC -- for cheap on Amazon.com. Since I use a notebook computer hooked up to my TV to play videos, I thought it might come in handy. In any case, it was so inexpensive as to be worth a try, so I ordered it.

PC remote

It took some time to get to my place, having come from Hong Kong, but I was very pleased with it. It uses infrared wireless, via a USB dongle featuring a cable on a spool to allow the IR sensor to be placed where convenient. It has a little thumb control to move the mouse pointer, along with mouse button equivalents, and various useful PC controls -- NEXT, PREV, PLAY-STOP, VOLUME-UP, VOLUME-DOWN, and so on. I'm not sure it will prove very useful, but it is fun to play with.

* I took my second twice-yearly trip to visit family in Spokane, Washington, this last month. I normally take it in August, but it was delayed by various difficulties -- and the US Northwest was also covered with smoke from wildfires at the time.

I did the outbound trip, 1,770 kilometers (1,115 miles) in a single day, as with the previous in May -- no problems, it's easier to do than I thought it would be. As long as I get regular sleep on the days before and after getting up very early, I can readily soak up the short night. There wasn't much evidence of fires along the route, though I did see a few acres of burned trees along one stretch.

Not much to say about my time in Spokane, it was all just family stuff. I bought some flowers at the Fred Meyers store there; the clerk asked me if I had a Fred Meyers loyalty card, and I said: "I have a King Soopers card, which is another Krogers chain in Colorado -- it might work?"

"It should." She tried it, and it did. I'm really beginning to love loyalty cards.

aircraft at Felts Field

I did some planespotting while I was in town. I'd been feeling like I was getting into diminishing returns on that hobby, but I found a fair number of interesting aircraft to shoot on the flight lines at both Felts Field, the municipal airport, and Spokane International Airport (SIA). I keep wondering about the "International" in that title, but I know they operate to Canadian cities, so I guess it's barely legal.

I also did some shooting on the approach path. It's easy to do at SIA, there's convenient places to park alongside the road, and so far nobody's ever hassled me. I only got incoming aircraft about once every 15 minutes or so, but I've become more patient. Previously, I'd not been very interested in shooting airliners I'd shot before, but I've come to appreciate that good aerial shots are hard to come by, and I don't care if they're new any more. It's a bit like fishing, I suppose; just get comfortable, read a book or something, and wait for a bite.

For the trip to Loveland, I decided I would visit the fossil museum in Thermopolis in central Wyoming -- it wasn't very far out of my way. I had to take two days driving back in any case, it would have been intolerable and reckless to try to do it one day both ways, so I decided to spend the night in Billings, Montana, about halfway home.

I dropped by the Missoula airport on the way to do more planespotting, again having fairly good luck; and since I had time to spare, visited the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman. That was something of a bust; the most fun I had with it was running into two little girls in the parking lot who were carrying around long-haired rabbits, wrapped up in towels or such. "Wanna pet him?" "Sure." The big attraction at the museum was a road show of Warner Brother Looney Toons material, which I didn't find very stimulating.

I checked into the Hampton Inn in Billings and did a bit of homework that evening. The next morning, I left Billings for Thermopolis. Trying to navigate along back highways is a good way to get lost, but it was easy, just as long as I knew which towns were along the route. I had to be careful going into the towns, figuring they were speed-trapped, and indeed I often saw a sheriff's car lurking along the road, ready to pounce on the unwary. I still made good time, even stopping at Greybull to take pictures of aircraft on a roadside display. There'd been an air tanker outfit that went bust there, with decrepit old aircraft littering the airport in the distance; they'd hauled up those in best condition out to attract those passing by.

PB4Y-2 Privateer air tanker

I didn't have any problems finding the museum in Thermopolis. It turned out to be a good news / bad news sort of thing. The good news was that it's one of the best fossil museums I've ever seen. The bad news was that, when I visited it some years back, it had been well-lit; now it was predominantly dark, and it was hard to take good photos, even with the camera's low-light mode. I should have tried the handheld night mode, though that's a very hit-or-miss capability.

Still, I did get some good shots. One that turned out well was a nice pterodactyl (flying reptile) skeleton. They also have an Archaeopteryx (primitive toothed bird) fossil that was found locally, and have a beautiful holographic reconstruction of it. The 3D video starts out with the fossil, "lifts" the bones out of it, assembles them into a proper skeleton, and then covers it with feathers, with the bird flapping its wings. "Just like Disney World!"

Archaeopteryx hologram

There was a crowd of people over in one corner; I didn't pay too much mind to them, until I took a look at one of them, and did a double-take. They were impaired folk, some of them seriously impaired, with their keepers. They were no bother, the keepers were maintaining a close eye on them; I just stayed out of their way. Not as much fun as the gang of high-school kids from the Wind River tribal reservation to the south who were there the last time I visited the Thermopolis museum, some of the little "Indian Princesses" being real cuties.

I didn't spend too much time at the museum, being impatient to get back to Loveland. It was the normal unexciting drive, though going through the Wind River Gorge was interesting -- some impressive geology, I had to stop and take pictures. By chance, there was a convoy of maintenance vehicles running up the railroad tracks on the far side of the river, and I got plenty of shots of them as well. I wish I knew what they did, I'll have to poke around on the internet to see if I can find out more. I also ended up finding a pile of aluminum cans to recycle, still being in penny-pinching mode.

Wind River Gorge walls

I'm sorting out the pictures now. I'm still several years behind in getting my photo collection straight; indeed, I recently went through the whole thing to find imagery I judged unacceptable, finding about a hundred that either needed fixing or disposal, and am cleaning them up for the moment. I don't think I'll get done before the end of the year. The photos keep piling up; I took about 400 shots on this trip to sort through, which will render down to only maybe 40 or 50 "keepers", but that still takes time.

* Thanks to one reader for a donation to support the websites last month. It is very much appreciated. Notice also that this month's banner is on a Disney motif. It's small, a bit hard to make out, and it will be only be up for a month -- but I still wonder if Disney's lawyers are going to get on my case.