nov 2015 / last mod may 2017 / greg goebel

* 21 entries including: Cold War (series), green India (series), metagenomic analysis of sewage, global anti-smoking efforts, RNA folding game, ecology of a warmer world, Urban Skyways for drones, nuclear waste disposal, dashcams, and Iran's digital startups.

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[FRI 27 NOV 15] THE COLD WAR (92)
[FRI 20 NOV 15] THE COLD WAR (91)
[FRI 13 NOV 15] THE COLD WAR (90)
[FRI 06 NOV 15] THE COLD WAR (89)


* NEWS COMMENTARY FOR NOVEMBER 2015: Following the attacks by terrorists aligned with Islamic State (IS) in Paris on the evening of 13 November -- which claimed 130 lives, as well as the lives of at least seven of the assailants -- as reported by THE ECONOMIST, the British tabloid THE SUN ran an article with the heading:


-- reflecting on the results of a poll that indicated 20% of Muslim respondents felt "some" or "a lot" of sympathy for "young Muslims who leave the UK to join fighters in Syria". This led to irritated tweeting by British Muslims, for example:

   1in5Muslims have to hear this BS all the time.

Polls always have to be taken with a grain of salt, and they certainly have to be examined for exactly what questions they ask, and how the data was collected. What do Muslims around the world really think of IS? That same poll showed that 71% of Muslim Britons have NO sympathy for expatriate British fighters -- a number not so different from the 77% of other Britons who felt that way in a survey conducted in March by the same polling firm, Survation.

In a more recent survey Pew, a research firm, polled attitudes in 11 Muslim-majority countries, concluding that they were overwhelmingly negative towards IS. It found that 99% of Lebanese, 94% of Jordanians, and 85% of Palestinians, for instance, held "very unfavourable" views of the group. Even in Saudi Arabia, a country whose Wahhabist creed is seen as a breeding-ground of jihadism, there is little indulgence: in a face-to-face poll in September sponsored by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think-tank, only 4% of Saudi respondents expressed any degree of support for the group.

public mourning in France

Recent IS terrorist attacks in Turkey, Egypt, Lebanon, and France have not boosted the group's popularity among Muslims; prominent Muslim clerics, admittedly those on good terms with the authorities, almost universally label IS a gangster operation, and an embarrassment to the Muslim faith. In addition, prominent Muslims have expressed worries about how the teachings of Islam, through carelessness or intent, may end up driving Islamic terrorism.

Alas, there are many voices, often those of government mouthpieces, who attempt to pin the blame for IS on the West. Following the Paris attacks, the conservative Tehran daily KAYHAN fulminated: "[IS terrorists] operate as a tool of the White House, the Elysee, Buckingham Palace, and Tel Aviv, with funds from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the UAE, and their servants Turkey and Jordan, and carry out the plans of the US."

Islamic State is a Sunni operation, and Shiite Iran is naturally inclined to see the hand of Western adversaries in its activities. Still, although it is undeniably true that biases tend to color perceptions, it is a much different thing for people to let their biases fly them off beyond the edge of the world.

* As reported by THE ECONOMIST ("Reef Knots", 7 November 2005), while China has raised tensions among its neighbors along the Pacific Rim, as of late China has been increasingly relying on the diplomacy card. While Chinese relationships with Vietnam and Japan have been very strained, Chinese President Xi Jinping has paid a state visit to Vietnam, while Chinese diplomats have been working to mend fences with Japan.

The state visit to Vietnam was more surprising. China has been attempting to reinforce claims to the South China Sea by energetically building up reefs and shoals into islands, much to the irritation and apprehension of other nations ringing the sea, particularly the Philippines and Vietnam. In late October, a US Navy destroyer cruised close to one such reef as a "freedom of navigation" exercise; while the Philippines cheered and Vietnam did not, there was little doubt the Vietnamese took satisfaction in the event. The Chinese protested the "violation" of Chinese territory, but made no sincere threats.

China is not making any concessions either. In early November, China attended a meeting of the foreign ministers of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN), of which Vietnam and the Philippines are members. The meeting ended with no joint communique, since China refused to discuss anything related to the South China Sea.

China also has difficulties with international law on the matter. On 29 October, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague ruled that it had jurisdiction over a case filed by the Philippines under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The court will judge on whether the artificial islands China is building in the South China Sea are entitled to the 12-nautical-mile territorial water limit and the 200-nautical-mile economic exclusion zone (EEZ) defined around natural inhabited islands. The Philippines maintains the artificial islands are no more than props erected on uninhabitable rocks or reefs submerged at high tide, which get no territorial limit or EEZ. China refuses to acknowledge the jurisdiction of the court, but will find it difficult to assert its claims if the court rules against China.

Xi's visit to Vietnam appears to have been an effort to offer carrots instead of just sticks. Yes, China is a military power that threatens Vietnam, but it is also Vietnam's biggest trading partner. There's a debate going on in the Vietnamese government on the right balance between the US and China; the US has fewer axes to grind in the region, but China is right next door, and is not going away.

As far as China's dispute with Japan over the uninhabited Senkaku / Diaoyu islands go, China is in a worse position, because the Americans have made it clear they are backing up Japan, with force if it comes to that. Japan has also been engaged in a dispute with South Korea over another pile of sea rocks. There are now encouraging signs of a thaw: although a recent meeting of senior Chinese, Japanese, and South Korean officials in Seoul in early November did not result in any agreement, all parties indicated their commitment to further cooperative discussion. This was a great relief to the Americans, who are particularly nervous about the feuding between Japan and South Korea, with the resulting tilt of South Korea towards China.

However, China has also been mending fences with North Korea, relations having been strained since Kim Jong Un came to power four years ago. Should North Korea engage in an attack on South Korea, as it does from time to time, diplomacy in the region is going to become more difficult. China does appear to be increasingly aware that the American economic, diplomatic, and military tilt towards East Asia is being ever more warmly greeted by China's neighbors, suggesting that it might serve China's interests to be more agreeable; nonetheless, for the moment, tensions remain the rule.

* As discussed by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("Revenge Of The Nerds", 7 November 2015), those who do not live in the USA have a difficult time understanding American attitudes towards firearms. Case in point, in June 2015, Texas became the eighth state to legalize the carriage of firearms on college campuses -- Arkansas allows school faculty but not students to carry them.


The "campus carry" laws were enacted in response to mass shootings at college campuses. School administrators and students have generally found such laws a dubious solution to the problem, but state legislators, backed by gun rights groups, pushed them through anyway. However, they hedged their bets: the Texas law says that public colleges cannot "generally prohibit" firearms, but they can come up with "reasonable rules" about guns on campus "after consulting with students, staff, and faculty."

OK, does that mean that universities can prohibit carriage into school facilities, particularly classrooms? Advocates in the Texas state legislature insist that universities must adhere to "the letter and the spirit of the law" -- but that's just whistling Dixie in the dark, since absolutely nobody cares about doing any more than meeting the letter of laws they don't like. The courts are inclined to adhere to the letter of the law as well. In reality, there is a considerable difference of public opinion over the campus carry law in Texas, and it is likely some compromise over the exact implementation of the law will be established.


[FRI 27 NOV 15] THE COLD WAR (92)

* THE COLD WAR (92): The talks in Warsaw between the US and China began on 15 September, with the US ambassador to Poland, Jacob Beam, across the table from Wang Bingmen. Wang had been given instructions as to China's negotiating position:

Mao regarded shifting to the peaceful approach as a major concession -- despite the fact that the Americans knew China had no way in the foreseeable future to take Taiwan by force, and if the Nationalists weren't agreeable in negotiations, Mao could then give up the peaceful approach and blame it on them. In short, the Chinese negotiating position was a nonstarter. Wang was instructed to play cagey, so that the Americans would outline their position before the Chinese did, giving China the higher ground in the discussions.

The Americans started out the talks, insisting on a cease-fire before further discussion. Wang thought that over for a bit; possibly muddled by Mao's confusing instructions, possibly thinking they were an exercise in finesse at the cost of sensibility, Wang then laid out the Chinese position. Beam replied that the Chinese position was unacceptable. The next day, Secretary of State Dulles publicly announced that an immediate cease-fire was the first step towards resolving the crisis.

Mao was furious, blaming the diplomatic impasse on Wang, saying Wang was "worse than a pig" -- not that the Chinese position was likely to have gone anywhere, no matter what Wang said or did. Mao wanted Wang sacked, but Zhou took full responsibility for the alleged faux pas, and convinced Mao that abruptly recalling Wang from Poland would be an embarrassment to the Chinese government.

However, Mao then dropped any thought of serious diplomatic discussion, deciding instead that the talks be used for propaganda, as a "positive offensive" against the Americans. The Chinese position, such as it was, ended up being a declaration that if the Americans wanted to resolve the crisis, they would have to get out of Taiwan and the US Navy should stay away from China. The Chinese began to try to drum up support from the Soviets -- who had to be wary after the way the Chinese had jerked them around in the crisis -- and non-aligned nations. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* WINGS & WEAPONS: The rise and fall of the US military's attempts to build 21st-century airships has been documented here over the past years. Although the military's efforts along such lines all came to nothing, the concept dies hard. At the Paris Air show in June, Lockheed Martin unveiled a hybrid airship for the aerial heavylift role, with a 20 tonne (22 ton) capacity, intended primarily for mining and oil exploration.

The unimaginatively named "Lockheed Martin Hybrid (LMH) 1" vehicle will be based on the Skunk Works-developed P-791 prototype that first flew in 2006, and discussed here at the time. Hybrid airships, as described then, are not lighter-than-air. The LMH-1 will only get about 80% of its lift from its helium gasbag, obtaining the other 20% from its fan propulsors and the aerodynamics of its outer shell. The hybrid configuration is much easier to handle on the ground in high winds. The LMH-1 will also have an "air cushion landing system (ACLS)" to allow it to maneuver on irregular ground, with the ACLS being able to operate in reverse, generating suction to secure the machine when loading or unloading cargo.

Lockheed Martin LMH-1 airship

Lockheed Martin officials say the LMH-1 will feature:

The LMH-1 will be powered by four 225 kW (300 HP) diesel thrust-vectoring engines, and was generally described as "the size of a football field", exact dimensions not being available yet. Lockheed Martin will only build a prototype if a customer signs up. We'll see.

* As reported by IHS JANE'S 360 Online, Lockheed Martin is now working on a "miniature hit-to-kill (MHTK)" kinetic interceptor for the US Army's "Extended Area Protection & Survivability Integration Demonstration (EAPS ID)". The program was begun in 2008, as a technology demonstration for a "counter rocket, artillery, and mortar (C-RAM)" and "counter-unmanned aerial vehicles (C-UAV)" weapon, with application against cruise missiles as well. Both Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman received contracts. The work covers not only the MHTK missiles themselves, but also launchers, command & control systems, and sensors.

MHTK missile

Initial flight tests of the Lockheed Martin MHTK weapon were in the spring of 2012, with initial intercept test in early 2014. The demonstrations are to take place in 2016. The weapon is about 70 centimeters (29 inches) long and 4 centimeters (1.6 inches) in diameter, with a launch weight of about 2.5 kilograms (5.5 pounds). Range will be 3 kilometers (1.6 miles) or more. As the name implies, the missile doesn't have an explosive warhead, instead a dense penetrator that destroys by impact -- though a warhead could be fitted instead, if there were a mission requirement for it.

The initial seeker system used semi-active radar homing, with a feasibility study conducted for a fully active radar seeker. Lockheed Martin is also evaluating semi-active laser homing and a video seeker. The MHTK will be packaged as an "all-up round" in a sealed handling / launch tube; the company is also considering a shoulder-launched system.

* As discussed here in the spring, the US Air Force is conflicted between the venerable U-2 piloted spyplane and the RQ-4 Global Hawk drone; the Global Hawk was supposed to replace the aged U-2, but it hasn't quite obtained all the capability to do so. However, the Air Force plans to retire the U-2 in 2019, with the Global Hawk to take over the job. While technical improvements should ensure that the Global Hawk will be up to the task, it will still have a limitation, not being designed to survive in hostile airspace.

Lockheed Martin is now proposing a stealthy and "optionally piloted" follow-on to the U-2, tentatively designated the "RQ-X", that would give the best of both worlds: it would be able to do carry all the U-2 payloads, plus advanced payloads being developed for the RQ-4; it could be flown piloted or as a drone; and it would be very difficult for adversary defenses to spot. There is no Air Force requirement for the RQ-X at present; Lockheed Martin is pitching the idea to the service, and trying to get feedback where to go with the idea. Lockheed Martin is also proposing a hypersonic reconnaissance aircraft, the "SR-72", but it is seen as much more speculative.



* DATA FROM SEWAGE: As discussed by an article from AAAS SCIENCE Online ("Pollution, Human Health Tracked With Sewage Microbes" by Elizabeth Pennisi, 4 March 2015), a new metagenomic study of sewage across the USA shows that every city has a distinct collective microbiome that can provide an indicator of public health, such as prevalence of obesity.

Mitchell Sogin, a molecular evolutionist at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, and Sandra McLellan, a microbiologist at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, were inspired by studies of the human microbiome to cast a wider net, and examine the microbiomes of entire human communities. They were also looking for a better indicator of human fecal pollution.

Of course, that meant figuring out how to assess the microbiomes of large numbers of humans at once. They recruited wastewater treatment plant operators from 71 US cites to collect more than 200 samples of incoming sewage, then sequenced DNA in the samples to determine its origin. According to a paper released by the research team, about 15% of the isolated sewage DNA belonged to microbes found in humans, much of the rest being microbes that normally reside in sewer pipes. Using special analysis techniques devised for the job, the researchers identified about 60 types of bacteria common to people in all of the cities.

Those bacteria could in principle be used to spot human fecal contamination. However, there were clear variations in the abundance of the different types of bacteria, each city had a "unique signature", which could reveal something about the inhabitants. Fat people tend to have a different microbiome from that of lean people, for example. By analyzing the microbes in each city's sewage, the researchers determined that Denver and Key West, Florida, had a leaner population Salina, Kansas, and Memphis, Tennessee.

The researchers did not investigate other possible public health conditions using sewage microbiomes, but feel there's a lot more that can be made of the approach. Investigating sewage may not seem entirely sanitary, but it's certainly more so, and definitely easier, than obtaining stool samples from everyone in a city.

* In related news, an article from WIRED Online ("Airplane Poop Could Help Track Global Disease Outbreaks" by Sarah Zhang, 6 August 2015), researchers at the Technical University of Denmark (TUDK) in Copenhagen have been performing metagenomic analyses on waste from airliner toilets, in hopes of learning about the global demographics of pathogens.

Genes for antimicrobial resistance, they found, were more common in microbial samples from South Asia than North America. They also, to no surprise, found regional variations in pathogens: Salmonella enterica, which can cause diarrhea, was more common in South Asian samples, while the infamous Clostridium difficile, the bacteria behind an unpleasant hospital-acquired infection that often follows a course of antibiotics, was most common in North American samples. They were relieved to find little trace of the nastiest pathogens, such as anthrax.

However, Thomas Sicheritz-Ponten -- a molecular biologist and one of the research team at the TUDK -- says the worst pathogens are still out there, and monitoring airliner toilet waste could provide an early-warning system. If the prevalence of certain bacteria coming from say, South America, suddenly skyrockets 100 times, that's an alarm bell. In contrast, traditional methods of surveillance, like monitoring doctor's reports, are slow and reactive. According to Sicheritz-Ponten: "When you've detected it, you already have an epidemic."

This idea sounds nice on paper -- but to no surprise, it's not quite so easy in practice. It's not just that reducing the analysis of waste to a regular procedure is non-trivial; it's also that the genomic difference between a really dangerous pathogen and its completely harmless relatives might be only 20% or 10%. Sicheritz-Ponten says that his colleagues are collaborating with experts on different pathogens to come up with tests that can reliably spot pathogens.



* KICK THE HABIT: As discussed by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("Time To Quit", 11 July 2015), there has never been any honest argument that smoking is unhealthy. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates the number of people killed by smoking tobacco around the world each year at six million -- even arbitrarily making the assumption that half these people wouldn't have lived much longer if they hadn't smoked, that's the level of casualties of a major war. The WHO also says that there are a billion smokers, and they're concentrated in developing countries.

In much of the developed world, smoking has been socially stigmatized, and is in decline. In America, Australia, Britain, Canada, and Italy, one in five or fewer people smoke; there are proportionally more smokers among the poor than the rich in such places, but the poor are gradually kicking the habit as well. Unfortunately, the trendline is going the other way in many countries, mostly in Africa. According to the WHO, a quarter of Nigerian men will be smokers by 2025. Tobacco firms are fighting hard to hang onto the fast-growing African market. On 2 July 2015, in a case brought by British American Tobacco, Kenya's High Court suspended new tobacco regulations, eight years in the making, on the basis that the company should have been consulted beforehand. To make matters worse, tobacco is hanging or or gaining in a number of developed countries, including Belgium, France, Germany, and Portugal.

just say no to cigarettes

There's no real argument for how to discourage smoking: raise taxes, ban advertising and smoking indoors, publicize the health hazards, and help people quit. Uruguay and Turkey took such measures over the past decade, with the result that smoking rates in Uruguay have fallen from 33% to 25% in six years, and the proportion of Turkish men who smoke has fallen from 52% to 41% in eight years.

Health benefits show up quickly. In several cities across eight countries in Europe and the Americas, hospital admissions for heart attacks dropped by an average of 17% in the year after strict smoking bans went into effect; after three years, they had fallen by 30%. A Danish study found that the lifetime economic gains from quitting at age 35 were around 25,000 euros ($27,400 USD) for men and 34,000 euros ($37,300 USD) for women, with about two-thirds gains being from increased productivity.

Unfortunately, while Turkey has implemented and enforces all the basic anti-smoking measures, in other countries, efforts to curtail smoking have been half-hearted at best, with the inertia enhanced by tobacco-firm lobbying, as well as by protests of bars and restaurants. In places where smokers are thick on the ground, politicians are reluctant to antagonize them. Only 29 countries have total bans on tobacco advertising. The WHO has found that the Greeks and Portuguese are largely indifferent to no-smoking rules. In Beijing, a ban on smoking in some public places, enforced through petty fines, was ineffective; on 1 June a wider ban, with stiff fines, went into effect.

A heavy sales tax on tobacco is the most effective measure against smoking; a 10% price increase cuts consumption by 4% to 5%, with half the drop from smokers who quit completely. However, only 33 countries, most of them developed, have imposed taxes that are more than three-quarters of the retail price, as the WHO recommends. There are parts of the USA where smoking doesn't cost more as a share of income now than it did in the 1970s.

It can be legitimately argued that high taxes promote smuggling, to the point of undermining the attempt to gain revenue and cut smoking. In reality, the evidence from France, Mexico, South Africa, and a number of other countries is that revenues grow, while smoking falls. Between 2000 and 2012, the proportion of cigarettes sold in Britain that had been smuggled in fell from 21% to 9%, as the government tightened customs checks at the same time as jacking up taxes.

It is also true that tobacco taxes are regressive. In the UK, 33% of blue-collar workers smoke, compared with 15% of professionals and managers; the mentally ill smoke twice as much as everyone else; in some prisons, the rate is as high as 80%. Still, is making smoking tougher for the poor doing them an injustice? Or is it merely assuming that they can take control of their own lives? The fact that high cigarette taxes pinch the poor much harder than the rich gives the poor just that much more incentive to quit, and so stop throwing away money they need for things that do them more good.

Technology, such as nicotine patches and gum, helps. Electronic cigarettes don't seem to be any more harmful than nicotine patches -- nicotine isn't really much more a health hazard in itself than caffeine, the much bigger problem being the tars and such inhaled with the nicotine -- but they're controversial, regulations for e-cigs being all over the map. Many countries treat them just as they do regular cigarettes; some treat them as medical products; and several, including Australia, Brazil, Switzerland, and Norway, ban their sale completely.

Anti-smoking media campaigns also help, though their quality varies: the WHO only gave a "top-notch" grade to the campaigns of 39 countries in the past two years. Australia's "sponge" campaign, which shows what smokers' lungs soak up, was so successful that the tobacco industry tried to get it banned; China, India, Russia, and Senegal have all aired it. Graphic images on cigarette packs are mandated in 50 countries, and spreading. Australia pioneered plain packs in 2012: they come in drab colors with a gory image. Britain, Ireland, and France have also passed plain-pack laws. Tobacco firms have launched lawsuits in some countries to derail such laws, with the Gates Foundation pledging money to fight back.

Some countries are moving towards zero tolerance. Ireland, New Zealand, and Scotland have set themselves deadlines to bring smoking to less than 5% in the next decade or two, while Finland aims to become nicotine-free by 2040. A legal ban on tobacco is probably not realistic; it would then become just another illegal drug, making enforcement a nightmare. However, there's no reason that the world can't put tobacco on the road of decline, with considerable benefits in every life saved.



* GREEN INDIA (2): Is India really faced with an impossible choice between development and the environment? On examination, the dilemma seems overstated. Consider energy, where the government has four main goals beyond increasing power to cities and industry:

The interesting thing is that research by the Center for the Study of Science, Technology & Policy (C-STEP), a think-tank in Bangalore, suggests the energy mix India would get if the goals were just to improve access, security and so on, is much like that India would get just by concentrating on cutting carbon and preventing deforestation.

How so? One factor is that, given the ramshackle Indian electric grid, the quickest way to improve energy access is to supply power off the national grid via "distributed energy" -- things like solar panels on house roofs, or a micro-grid for a particular village linked to a wind turbine. Distributed energy can use any available power source, renewable energy is particularly suited to it. Providing villages with reliable energy would allow families to switch from burning wood and dung to electric stoves, improving the health of villagers.

Since solar and wind are free, at least after setting up and maintaining infrastructure, they help reduce energy imports. In many parts of India, solar and wind are competitive on price. Electricity from power stations that run on imported coal costs about 6 rupees (9 cents) per kilowatt-hour (kWH). In Karnataka state, in the south, new providers of solar power are selling it for 5.5 rupees per kWH, while wind costs about 6 rupees per kWH. The solar business also provides jobs, typically more than from generating power through burning fossil fuels.

The question still remains of whether India's government can devise sensible environmental policies, and get them to work. On paper, the government plans a huge expansion in solar and wind power; a sketchy "100 smart cities" plan to improve urban design and infrastructure; and a "clean-up India" campaign, which includes everything from better waste management, to building over 100 million lavatories, rural India being well-known for wretched sanitation. Lavatories are also seen as an option for producing biogas for village heating and other uses.

Soon after coming to office, Modi promised to increase renewable energy more than fivefold by 2022 -- which would require doubling solar capacity every 18 months for the next seven years, and cost about $100 billion USD. Investors like this concept, but so far have made financial commitments for less than a third of it. Modi's plan would save maybe 170 million tonnes of carbon a year, compared with adding the same amount of power using the current energy mix. At about 3% of emissions forecast for 2030, that is something, but not a big impact.

However, there are other steps that can add their own increments to reduction of India's emissions footprint. One is energy efficiency. A study by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory at the University of California estimates that if India switched to using the most efficient air conditioners, with the least-polluting refrigerants, it would save over 300 million tonnes of carbon a year -- twice as much as the savings from solar power. India's program to subsidize the replacement of 400 million cheap incandescent light bulbs with more expensive LED ones would save 6,000 megawatts of installed capacity -- equivalent to the entire electricity-generating capacity of Nigeria.

As for urbanization, India has a "late adopter" advantage. Possibly seven-tenths of the urban infrastructure that it will need in 2030 -- such as roads, buildings, and sewers -- has yet to be built. As the new urban India emerges, it will hopefully adopt the best practices being invented elsewhere, with compact cities featuring efficient transport systems and buildings.

Would all such measures really achieve much? Using varying assumptions about future policies and actions, five Indian forecasting groups predicted that emissions in 2030 could be between 3 billion tonnes and 5 billion tonnes a year, compared with a range of 4 billion tonnes to 5.5 billion tonnes on current trends. This is significant, but hardly revolutionary. C-STEP, the Bangalore think-tank, estimates that a further 20% to 30% savings could be achieved by more aggressive actions -- such as having four-fifths of lighting from LED lamps by 2030, and sending half of all freight by rail instead of road instead of 39%, as is planned.

Although India's government has a reputation for inefficiency and corruption, it has nonetheless demonstrated that it can get significant things done. In the past two years, for example, it has removed a subsidy on diesel consumption, which subsidized emissions, and replaced subsidized liquefied natural gas with a cash payment for the poor, encouraging people to use gas less wastefully. For the present, India's emissions don't come close to those of China -- but India's economy is continuing to grow. The challenge for the government is to decouple that growth from emissions, to ensure that it can be sustained for future generations. [END OF SERIES]


[FRI 20 NOV 15] THE COLD WAR (91)

* THE COLD WAR (91): Secretary of State Dulles' firm reply to the crisis in the Taiwan Straits on 4 September alarmed the Kremlin; Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko was promptly dispatched to Beijing as a result. Before Gromyko's arrival, Zhou Enlai explained to Soviet diplomats what China was trying to accomplish:

Zhou assured the Soviets that China was not going to land on Quemoy, and emphasized that China did not want to drag the USSR deeply into the confrontation.

Gromyko flew into Beijing on the morning of 6 September, bearing the draft of a letter Khrushchev wanted to send to Eisenhower. In a meeting that afternoon, Zhou reiterated what he already told Soviet diplomats about the crisis, with Gromyko emphasizing that the Kremlin was "in full support of the stand and measures taken by the Chinese comrades." Gromyko met with Mao that evening, again proclaiming Soviet support for Chinese actions, and giving Mao the draft of the letter for his review. Mao was pleased with it, suggesting only modest changes; Khrushchev sent the letter to Eisenhower the next day, 7 September -- telling the American president that the USSR would regard an "attack on China as an attack on the Soviet Union", and that Khrushchev would "do everything" to protect both countries.

Eisenhower could see the letter as more evidence of the solidarity of the global Communist movement, but he wasn't inclined to think in black and white terms, and may well have suspected there was less to it than met the eye. Rightly so; Gromyko wrote later that both Zhou and Mao were almost cheerful about the prospect of an America nuclear attack on China, saying that it wouldn't be necessary for the Soviets to respond unless the Americans pulled out the stops -- and then the USSR should pull out the stops in response, using "all means at its disposal" to hit back at the USA.

The Soviets had heard such talk from Mao before, and found it no more credible this time around than they had been before. It was such a fantastical vision that it left the Kremlin uncertain if the Chinese were merely clowning around in a fit of revolutionary exuberance, or were sincerely crazy. Gromyko wrote later that he was "flabbergasted", and made his lack of enthusiasm for the proposal known to Mao. Khrushchev's promise to "do everything"? What did that mean? Nothing; Khrushchev couldn't disavow Chinese actions, but he couldn't let them take the driver's seat, either.

Also on 7 September, US Navy vessels joined into the force escorting Nationalist vessels to Quemoy. The guns were quiet that day, the Chinese foreign ministry simply giving a "serious warning" to the US. The leadership thought matters over, to conclude that the bombardment should resume, and that if the Americans persisted in their escorts, they should be warned again. So far so good, but what if the Americans didn't heed the warning? Then, according to orders, Nationalist ships should be bombarded, but not US Navy ships. General Ye, to no surprise being somewhat bewildered, called Mao for clarification:

This exchange has to be contrasted with Mao's grand talk to Gromyko of China blithely soaking up a nuclear attack. Ye could not have been very reassured by his conversation with the party chairman, having been ordered to open fire, but somehow not hit the wrong target: hanged if he did, hanged if he didn't, it was pure Mao. In any case, when the convoys came back to Quemoy on 8 September, Ye opened fire as ordered, to be relieved to see that US Navy vessels held back, out of mutual range.

The bombardment settled down to a pattern, with the PLA firing on Nationalist ships attempting to set anchor at Quemoy, and tossing out a few hundred shells through the days and nights in an irregular fashion, just to get on the nerves of the defenders. By this time, however, the Nationalists were shooting back, having obtained 155-millimeter and 203-millimeter (8-inch) howitzers from US Marine stocks to engage in counter-battery fire. The 203 millimeter howitzers hit so hard that they left understandably excited PLA soldiers wondering if they were under nuclear attack. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* Space launches for October included:

-- 01 OCT 15 / PROGRESS 61P (ISS) -- A Soyuz-U booster was launched from Baikonur at 1649 GMT (local time - 6) to put the "Progress 61P" AKA "M-29M" tanker-freighter spacecraft into orbit on an International Space Station (ISS) supply mission. It took a direct-ascent trajectory, docking with ISS Zvezda module six hours after launch. It was the 61st Progress mission to the ISS.

-- 02 OCT 15 / MORELOS 3 -- An Atlas 5 booster was launched from Cape Canaveral at 1028 GMT (local time + 4) to put the "Morelos 3" AKA "Mexsat 2" geostationary comsat into orbit. Morelos 3 was built by Boeing Satellite Systems and was based on the Boeing 702HP Geomobile comsat bus; it had a launch mass of 5,300 kilograms (11,685 pounds), a payload of L / Ku band transponders, and a design life of 15 years. Morelos 3 was placed in the geostationary slot at 113 degrees west longitude to relay communications for disaster relief, emergency services, telemedicine, rural education and government agency operations to people living in remote parts of Mexico. The booster was in the "401" configuration with a four meter (13.1 foot) fairing, two solid rocket boosters, and a single-engine Centaur upper stage.

Atlas 5 with Morelos 3

-- 07 OCT 15 / JILIN 1 x 4 -- A Long March 4B booster was launched from Jiuquan at 0413 GMT (local time - 8) to four "Jilin 1" Earth observation satellites into Sun-synchronous orbit. The largest of the satellites was about the size of a compact car, and reportedly had a best resolution of about 0.7 meters (2.3 feet) in its panchromatic (grayscale) imaging mode. The other three satellites were smaller, with two being for video imaging and one for engineering test.

-- 08 OCT 15 / NROL-55 (USA-264) -- An Atlas 5 booster was launched from Vandenberg AFB at 1249 GMT (local time + 7) to put a secret military payload into space for the US National Reconnaissance Office (NRO). The payload was designated "NROL-55". It was suspected to be seventh third-generation "Naval Ocean Surveillance Satellite (NOSS)" system, featuring two satellites that could pinpoint maritime traffic from their radio signal emissions.

The launch also included 13 CubeSats:

The NASA-sponsored payloads were flown under the agency's "Educational Launch of Nanosatellites (ELaNa)" program, this set being designated "ELaNa XII". The full set of CubeSats on this mission were flown as the NRO's "Government Rideshare Advanced Concepts Experiment (GRACE)", being carried into orbit by a Naval Postgraduate School CubeSat Launcher (NPSCUL), attached to the Centaur upper stage's Aft Bulkhead Carrier to deploy the satellites.

-- 16 OCT 15 / APSTAR 9 -- A Chinese Long March 3B booster was launched from Xichang at 1616 GMT (local time - 8) to put the "Apstar 9" geostationary comsat into orbit for the APT Satellite Company LTD of Hong Kong. The spacecraft was built by the China Academy of Space Sciences, and was based on the DFH-4 satellite bus. Apstar 9 had a launch mass of 5,200 kilograms (11,465 pounds), a payload of 32 C / 14 Ku band transponders and a design life of 15 years. It was placed in the geostationary slot at 142 degrees east longitude to provide commercial video broadcast, VSAT connectivity and cellular backhaul services over the Asia-Pacific and Southeast Asia for APT Satellite.

-- 16 OCT 15 / TURKSAT 4B -- A Proton M Breeze M booster was launched from Baikonur at 2040 GMT (next day local time - 6) to put the "Turksat 4B" geostationary civil communications satellite into orbit. Turksat 4B was built by the Mitsubishi Electric Corporation, and was based on the MEC DS2000 satellite bus. It had a payload of 36 transponders, and a design life of 15 years. It was placed in the geostationary slot at 50 degrees east longitude, providing communications services from Europe to Afghanistan, including Turkey, the Middle East, and Africa.

Turksat 4B launch

-- 26 OCT 15 / TIANHUI 1C -- A Long March 4B booster was launched from Jiuquan at 0710 GMT (local time - 8) to put the "Tianhui 1C" cartographic satellite into Sun-synchronous orbit. It followed two previous Tianhui 1 satellites, one launched in 2010 and the other in 2012.

The Tianhui (Sky Drawing) 1 spacecraft perform Earth mapping using stereo topographic imaging. They are built by the Hangtian Dongfanghong Weixing Corporation, under the direction of the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation and the Chinese Academy of Space Technology (CAST). They feature a three dimensional survey camera and a CCD camera, with finest resolution of 5 meters (16 feet).

-- 31 OCT 15 / GPS 2F-11 (USA 265) -- An Atlas 5 booster was launched from Cape Canaveral at 1613 GMT (local time + 4) to put the "GPS 2F-11" AKA "USA 265" AKA "Navstar 75" navigation satellite into orbit. It was the eleventh Block 2F spacecraft, with the Block 2F series featuring a new "safety of life" signal for civilian air traffic control applications. It had a launch mass of 1,630 kilograms (3,590 pounds). The Atlas 5 was in the "401" configuration, with a 4 meter (13.1 foot) diameter fairing, no solid rocket boosters, and an upper stage with a single Centaur engine.

* OTHER SPACE NEWS: As discussed by an article from AVIATION WEEK Online ("In-Space Habitat Module Next Step For NASA" by Frank Morring JR, 8 October 2015), current US efforts in crewed spaceflight are focused on commercial launch and International Space Station (ISS) support, the Orion space capsule, and the Space Launch System (SLS) heavylift booster.

US space exploration planners say the next big piece of human hardware needed on the road to Mars is a modular habitat that could be stationed near the Moon, to be visited by early Orion capsule missions. In a new report, NASA says the first flight of a habitat module could come as early as the first crewed flight of the Orion capsule, currently planned for 2023, with the habitat module evolved to support a Mars mission. The habitat would be launched on the SLS.

Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot recently told a congressional audience: "We want to take [the habitat] on a shakedown cruise and put it around the Moon. And then we'll have the systems in it that are designed for the longer-term duration, not designed for just being at the Moon, but to give us a chance to test those. We'll do that on the backbone of the Space Launch System and Orion."

The NASA report says there may be a commercial role in building the new habitat, along with work underway at the agency and its international partners. Bigelow Aerospace already is scheduled to attach a subscale version of its expandable habitation modules to the ISS for testing later this year -- the exercise having been mentioned here in 2013 -- while Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and Orbital ATK are working under small NASA contracts on concepts for modifying their proposed or existing commercial cargo vehicles into habitat modules.

According to the NASA report, the agency and its partners "will also develop an initial habitation capability for short-duration missions in cislunar space in the early 2020s and evolve this capability for long-duration missions in the later 2020s ... [With] standardized interfaces, common structures, and modular designs, multiple pressure vessels could be aggregated, leading to a more complete habitation system to validate the full suite of capabilities needed for the journey to Mars."

Flying SLS with a habitat would require completion of the planned "Exploration Upper Stage (EUS)" to bring the SLS lift capacity from an initial 70 tonnes tons to 105 tonnes. The habitat module would serve as a baseline, supporting refinements in life support, autonomous operations, communications and information technology gear that would be needed to sustain a four-person crew on a 1,100-day mission to Mars.

The Mars missions would require a 10-meter diameter fairing for the advanced SLS to accommodate the large payloads, and possibly some sort of supersonic retropropulsion for entry, descent and landing at the planet, the report states. An advanced solar electric propulsion (SEP) vehicle could either carry separate chemical-propulsion stages to bring crews back to Earth, or use a "hybrid" SEP/chemical design for the round trip.



* THE RNA GAME: The use of networked systems allowing an army of users to participate in "crowdsourced" research and analysis has been discussed here in the past, last in 2012. One of the pathfinders in this technology was "Foldit", a computer "game" developed by University of Washington researchers to enlist users in solving difficult problems in protein folding.

As reported by an article from AAAS SCIENCE ("Online Video Game Plugs Players Into Remote-Controlled Biochemistry Lab" by John Bohannon, 31 February 2014), back in 2009 two researchers in the Foldit team, Adrien Treuille and Rhiju Das -- now at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh and Stanford University in Palo Alto, respectively -- got to thinking about a follow-on effort to solve problems in folding of the RNA molecule. Treuille's grad student Jeehyung Lee did the grunt work on putting together "EteRNA", as it would become known, and got a prototype working, but then Das had a bright idea: why not hook the game up to a lab automated RNA synthesis system?

Lee went back to the drawing board and came up with a much improved version that not only incorporated the "wet lab" interface, but beefed up the software's capability in general. The second-phase EteRNA was ready for testing by 2010; the production EteRNA went online in early 2011, with an article in THE NEW YORK TIMES bringing in thousands of players.

RNA is a long-chain polymer, the links consisting of four nucleotide "bases":

   adenine  (A)
   cytosine (C)
   guanine  (G)
   uracil   (U)

The bases can "plug into" each other via hydrogen bonds as per the rules:

   C:G    A:U    G:U

An RNA polymer will fold back on itself through these hookups, as well as an open-ended set of subtler folding rules. Newcomers run through a game tutorial that brings them up level by level, until they acquire 10,000 points and graduate to actually doing real work, designing RNAs that fit into a given target structure.

Every week, eight candidates are selected by a vote of the community and sent to Stanford for synthesis and structure determination. The data returned from the lab reveals how closely the game designs match reality, with the game's RNA design rules tweaked in response. One rule uncovered in the process was that junctions between different parts of an RNA structure, such as between a loop and an arm, is much more stable if enriched with C & G, which form the strongest bond of the base pairs.

Using the refined rules, an "EteRNA Bot" program was developed to automate RNA structure design, outperforming existing RNA structure design programs but, so far, still not beating human players when competing in the game. As more rules are added, EteRNA Bot should more closely match human skills, and ultimately become a useful stand-alone tool. Work is also being done to fully automate the RNA synthesis lab, which still requires some human intervention.

Well over a hundred thousand players have contributed time to EteRNA, with several thousand elevated to the status of formal researchers. A recent paper from the EteRNA group listed 37,000 authors, only ten of them professional scientists. Shawn Douglas, a biomolecular engineer at the University of California, San Francisco, doesn't feel that such "cloud biochemistry" is suitable for any problem in his field, but there are plenty that can be "gamified", and he is excited that "there are tens of thousands of people around the world with surplus mental bandwidth and the desire to participate in scientific problem solving."



* HOTWORLD: As discussed by an article from WIRED Online blogs ("Climate Change Means One World's Death & Another's Birth" by Lizzie Wade, 1 September 2015), as the reality of global climate change becomes more solidly established each year, researchers are now trying to figure out just how a hotter Earth will look.

To this end, a few years ago plant physiologist Klaus Winter, of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, conducted a set of experiments at a lab in Panama. He planted seedlings of ten tropical tree species in small geodesic greenhouse, each maintained at distinct temperature range:

Although there are fears that rising temperatures will kill off the Amazon, that isn't what Winter observed in his little controlled environments. Very few of the seedlings died; in fact, most thrived at significantly warmer temperatures than they experience today, growing faster and larger. Only two species couldn't take the heat, and then only at the hottest temperatures.

This result echoes paleobiological data, which suggests tropical forests do well at higher temperatures. However, although the forests may thrive, according to Christopher Dick, an evolutionary geneticist who studies tropical trees at the University of Michigan: "The forests that come out of this change are probably going to be much different than the kinds of forests we have today."

Winter's study hints at one such change in forest structure. The three species that did the best in the hottest environment were the coralwood tree (Adenanthera pavonina); a species of fig tree named Ficus insipida, which starts life as a vine growing on dead trees, or live ones that it eventually strangles; and the balsa tree (Ochroma pyramidale). They are known as "pioneer species"; they move into cleared areas and grow rapidly.

balsa tree

Pioneer species help restore a forest quickly after a calamity, such as a flood or fire. However, after they move in, a forest then matures, with tree species moving in that take longer to grow, while growing larger. These "climax species" provide most of the basis of the ecosystem, supporting the existence of insects, birds, monkeys, vines, and other organisms. These climax trees did not do so well in Winter's study.

That suggests that the forest of 2100 will be less diverse in its organisms than the forest of today, dominated by small animals that reproduce quickly, are highly mobile, and are not too fussy about where they live or what they eat. Larger and more specialized animals with either adapt, or fade away. Simon Lewis, a plant ecologist at University College London and the University of Leeds in the UK, comments: "One would expect that tropical futures of the future would be dominated by those nimble species that can disperse very well."

* Rising temperatures also mean changes in the oceans. One of the major effects is increasing acidification of the seas, as they absorb more carbon dioxide. This is a particular problem for marine invertebrates, since the acidity tends to eat away at their shells and bodies. However, according to Ivan Nagelkerken, a marine ecologist at the University of Adelaide in Australia, "there are always the winners as well as the losers of climate change."

To investigate how acidification may affect oceanic ecologies, Nagelkerken traveled to two locales where underwater vents are currently spewing carbon dioxide into the sea: Vulcano Island in Italy, and White Island in New Zealand. As with Winter's experiment, Nagelkerken found that the seas around the vents were far from lifeless, but similarly found that the ecologies were constrained. Near a vent, all ecosystems "transform into systems that are dominated by turf algae -- very short, fleshy algae with very little structural complexity."

This changes the entire food web. Small grazing fish that eat turf algae will probably thrive in the acidic oceans of the future. We may envision future seas as dominated by little fish like gobies; bigger fish, like tuna and marlin, will suffer. Nagelkerken says that if the oceans recover, "it's not going to be in a few generations -- you could wait around for 10,000 years."

* Those willing to take the long view, like a million years, and overlook the many ugly details can take heart in that the Earth will indeed recover its complex ecosystems. Climate change, in suppressing many existing species, will promote rapid evolution. The Amazon, for example, features many rare plant species that don't come close to playing a dominant role -- but might have traits that will allow them to prosper in a future world.

None of those involved in such research believe that climate change threatens the survival of humanity; humans are too adaptable to be killed off in such a way. Everyone does know climate change means a lot of trouble for society, posing a grand challenge to human resourcefulness. Humans are indeed resourceful; they could, for example, genetically modify climax species to be more heat-tolerant -- but whether humans will be able to head off the worst effects of climate change on the global ecosystem, or eventually restore the balance, remains to be seen.



* GREEN INDIA (1): As discussed by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("Catching Up With China", 10 October 2015), China's rapid economic development of the past few decades has brought it up to US levels of carbon emissions. The two countries have come to an agreement to limit emissions; since they are the biggest emitters, their efforts will have the most impact on climate change.

India's prime minister, Narendra Modi, wants his country to match China's economic growth, having set growth targets of 8% a year. With 1.3 billion citizens, that raises the potential of India become a third major emitter, wiping out all the efforts of China and the US to cut emissions. Right now, India emits 1.6 tonnes of carbon per person each year, which is roughly the same as China's per-head emissions in 1980. Today, China emits four times that much per head. Indian government planners believe that, if Modi's growth targets are achieved, that country's carbon emissions will more than triple by 2030, from 1.7 billion tonnes in 2010 to 5.3 billion tonnes, with per-head emissions running to 3.6 tonnes.

Narendra Modi

Modi's government understands what that means for climate change. India has filed an emissions plan in advance of a UN climate conference to soon take place in Paris; unlike most other plans, the Indian plan did not specify when Indian emissions would peak and then fall, but it did promise to reduce the nation's "carbon intensity" -- that is, carbon emissions per unit of GDP -- by a third before 2030.

India has been criticized for what has been perceived as waffling, but there's no real choice. India has more poor than anyplace else in the world: 230 million citizens living on $1.90 USD a day or less -- the World Bank's definition of extreme poverty. Almost half of rural households, or over a quarter of a billion people, have no electricity. The Indian government must bring its people up from poverty; that's a tremendous challenge in the first place, and the need to curb emissions complicates it.

However, the two goals are not necessarily at odds. Consider that the emissions control plan announced by US President Barack Obama commits America to reduce emissions by over a quarter by 2025, a target that amounts to just under two billion tonnes a year. Should India adopt a growth program that sensibly factors in emissions control, the net savings over the same timeframe will be three billion tonnes per year.

Growth is necessarily Modi's first priority, but environmental considerations still end up being a significant factor in that consideration. After all, clean air and water are basic material considerations for the welfare of citizens; they end up being necessarily factored in to the balance sheet of better lives, certainly taking priority over buying gadgets. 13 of the world's 20 most-polluted cities are in the subcontinent. Smoke from cooking with wood or dung in Indian homes may be responsible for 500,000 premature deaths a year, mostly of women and children.

In addition, the problems created by climate change will inhibit growth. Some two-thirds of India's agriculture depends on the monsoon, which may become less reliable as a result of global warming. Some Himalayan glaciers are retreating, sending less water to rivers that feed hundreds of millions of people downstream. A quarter of Indians live near coasts that are threatened by sea-level rise.

Many Indian government officials are gloomy about the prospect of balancing economic growth and the environment. Modi's economic plans envision more factories, which will generate more emissions. Old-growth forests are shrinking, in part for access to coal beds underneath them, with India planning to double coal output by 2020. Losing forests and burning coal is a double-whammy for the environment. Water is plentiful right now, with 1,800 cubic meters of water per person as of 2001, but the trendline is down -- to reach 1,000 cubic meters per head in 2050, that being the international threshold of water scarcity. [TO BE CONTINUED]


[FRI 13 NOV 15] THE COLD WAR (90)

* THE COLD WAR (90): The Chinese operation against Quemoy settled into a strangulation effort, relief vessels being targeted by artillery and torpedo boats, with Chinese jet fighters providing air cover while the Nationalist garrison on Quemoy continued to be pounded with bombardments. For whatever reason, however, the PLA radio station in Fujian announced on 24 August and 27 August that a landing operation was "imminent", and called on the defenders of Quemoy to surrender so they could assist "in the great cause of liberating Taiwan."

Of course, the Americans, in fact everyone outside of China who was paying attention to the crisis, believed that the Chinese intended to land on Quemoy. On 27 August, the US State Department announced that the offshore islands were "vital to the defense of Taiwan" -- the implication being that the US was committed to their defense as well. Neither Eisenhower nor his senior advisors thought the islands worth fighting over, but America could not cave in to attempts at military intimidation. Mao didn't learn about what the radio station had been saying until he read it in an internal newsletter -- and then he blew up, calling the announcement a "serious mistake", and passing down the message that nobody was to make such statements without clearing them from the top.

Mao didn't want to escalate the crisis, but he wasn't thinking of backing down either, at least not for the moment. He shifted the pieces on the playing board, with Chinese media announcing to the world on 4 September that the bombardment would cease for three days, while also announcing that China's territorial waters would now be set to twelve nautical miles (22 kilometers) from China's shores -- a limit that encompassed most of the offshore islands. Any foreign vessels that went through the limit without permission would be fair game.

That same day, Secretary of State Dulles publicly announced that the United States was obligated by treaty to defend Taiwan from armed attack, and that the US had recognized the defense of Quemoy and Matsu had "increasingly become related to the defense of Taiwan." That was only slight hedging on a commitment to go to war over Quemoy. However, Dulles made no threats, instead saying the US was willing to once again engage in ambassadorial talks for ending the crisis on the basis of "mutual and reciprocal renunciation of force." Dulles had actually suggested to Eisenhower that tactical nuclear weapons might be used against the Chinese -- though the president was not enthusiastic about that idea, since using nukes against the mainland Chinese would give a "green light" for nuclear attacks on Taiwan.

At this point, Mao began talking about a "noose strategy" -- asserting that Quemoy had become a "noose" for the Americans that he could tighten or relax at will, leaving him in control of the situation. In reality, Mao didn't escalate the crisis, instead restarting ambassadorial-level talks in Warsaw. On 6 September, Zhou Enlai issued a statement blasting America's "policy of aggression" in the Taiwan strait and US interference in Chinese internal affairs, but also said China wanted to discuss the matter with the Americans.

To Mao, turning to diplomacy wasn't a concession, it was just expanding the struggle onto a new front. Mao would continue to milk the confrontation for all it was worth -- the worth being measured in how much he could impress the Chinese people, and to a hoped-for extent, revolutionary nationalists outside of China, by toying with the US. More specifically, Mao ordered Wang Bingman, Chinese ambassador to Poland and the head negotiator in the Warsaw talks, to see if the Nationalists could be convinced to pull out of the offshore islands of their own accord. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* GIMMICKS & GADGETS: It appears that people who carry a mobile phone end up being peculiarly conditioned by it: they'll feel the phone vibrate, reach for it, and find they're not carrying it. Similarly, they may hear the phone ring, and on answering, find out that nobody's called.

A 2012 study of 290 undergrads showed that about 9 out of 10 experienced "phantom phone vibrations", typically about once every two weeks. Only about a tenth of those who did considered it annoying, however, most just regarding it as one of the little puzzles of life. It's not really a big mystery: our brains are tuned to pick patterns out of events, and sometimes they misinterpret things that happen, for example confusing some odd rubbing of clothes against the skin as a phone vibration. It seems to happen more often when wearing corduroy pants. Similarly, phantom ringings may be triggered by some faint random sound that is misinterpreted as a ring.

It's a kind of superstition, really. If it's a problem, just try being less inseparable from the phone, leaving it in a drawer for part of the day. The brain will then stop constantly monitoring for the signal.

* As discussed by an article from Oilprice.com ("Pee Power: A New Way to Light Up Refugee Camps" by Andy Tully, 14 March 2015), the University of the West of England, working with relief organization Oxfam, is developing a urinal that generates electricity, using a stack of microbial fuel cells (MFC) that are fueled by urine. The researchers have already demonstrated a proof-of-concept system. The MFCs contain live bacteria that thrive on urine, generating electricity as they metabolize it. The prototype urinal is illuminated by its own power. An MFC costs only about $1.50 each, with the cost of a full urinal running to about $900 USD. Oxfam is interested in obtaining the urinals for refugee camps, giving them a local source of power, and improving public safety by providing illumination at night.

* A somewhat related article from AAAS SCIENCE Online ("Sewage Sludge Could Contain Millions of Dollars Worth of Gold" by Warren Cornwall, 16 January 2015), suggested there may be mineral riches in sewage. Metals have long been known to concentrate in sewage, which mixes toilet water with effluent from industrial manufacturing, storm runoff, and anything else that goes down the drain. Utilities aren't very happy about the heavy metals that have to be cleaned out of discharge water or sludge that might otherwise be used as fertilizer.

As the optimistic saying goes, pollution is nothing more than a misplaced resource. Researchers at Arizona State University (ASU) in Tempe decided to quantify the different metals in sewage sludge, and determine what they are worth. They took sludge samples gathered from around the country and measured the metal content using a mass spectrometer that can pick out different elements as they are ionized in a superhot plasma. The literal bottom line, given in a paper released by the research group, is that there's as much as $13 million USD worth of metals in the sludge produced every year by a million-person city, including $2.6 million USD in gold and silver.

The ASU researchers focused on 13 of the most concentrated minerals with the highest value, including platinum, gold, and silver, as well as more common copper, iron, and zinc. A tonne of sludge contained 16.7 grams of silver and about a third of a gram of gold. The study assumed effectively complete extraction of the metals in its payoff estimates, which is obviously not realistic, but even a lower payoff might well be attractive.

The Japanese city of Suwa has already tried to extract gold from sewage, a treatment plant was able to obtain almost two kilograms of gold from every tonne of sewage, which is a higher enrichment ratio than common ores -- apparently because there are a number of small manufacturers in the city who use gold but don't have the capability to sift it out of their waste effluent. It doesn't appear many other treatment plants have tried to extract metals from sewage, but a few are obtaining phosphorous and nitrogen, which can be sold as fertilizer. A Swedish treatment plant is testing the practicality of making bioplastics from wastewater. A model sewage incinerator that generates electricity and drinking water is being promoted by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which helped fund its construction.

Resource extraction from sludge is not a simple prospect. Concentrations of metals in sewage tend to be dilute, sometimes highly dilute, and vary from location to location, and even in optimum conditions, it can be difficult to turn a profit. However, given that implies a possibility of profit, there's an incentive to investigate.



* URBAN SKYWAYS FOR DRONES: As discussed by an article from BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK ("Drone Makers Seek Traffic Control" by Michael Belfiore, 13 April 2015), commercial use of drones remains mostly illegal in the USA, but the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which is working on drone rules, neither can be nor is trying to be strict about it right now. In February, the FAA gave State Farm Insurance a waiver to allow the company to experiment with drones in claims investigations; in March, the agency gave a waiver to Amazon.com to allow the firm to continue experiments with drone parcel delivery.

A startup company named SkyWard out of Portland, Oregon, is looking forward to the day when swarms of drones are cruising through the sky. The firm is working on an aerial traffic control system that will allow thousands of drones to fly through cities, without colliding with each other or endangering the citizens. Skyward is working with the US National Aeronautics & Space Administration (NASA) and three of the world's biggest drone makers -- DJI of China, 3D Robotics of the US, and Parrot of France -- to develop "Urban Skyways", which will be an automated air traffic control system, flying drones along corridors below an altitude of 365 meters (1,200 feet).

Urban Skyways London

Under Urban Skyways, all the computers of drone operators and all the drones in an urban area would be loaded with SkyWard's software, hooking them into a network -- a company official comparing the scheme to managing "flying cell phones". A dispatcher wanting to send out a drone would tell the Urban Skyways system where a drone was supposed to go, and then get back a flight plan that will allow the drone to get there and back automatically, while remaining in compliance with local regulations. SkyWard plans to make money by operating as a subscription service to drone operators.

Currently, the FAA only plans to allow operators to fly drones within line of sight, and won't allow drones to fly over unprotected bystanders. The agency says that's only a first step, but officials are reluctant to commit to anything more for the time being. SkyWard officials are confident that Urban Skyways is practical, the regulatory rules envisioned not being that much different from those that govern crewed helicopter operations over urban environments. Given that full-sized helicopters are moving towards flight automation, acceptance of drone operations appears inevitable.

SkyWard is now conducting demonstrations of Urban Skyways in London, Vancouver, Las Vegas, and Portland. The company has developed demo routines that should impress regulatory officials with the capability and safety of the system.

* In related news, a Silicon Valley startup named "MatterNet" has made a bit of a splash in tech media by pushing a scheme in which quadcopter drones are used to deliver parcels. The initial drones are battery-operated, can carry a kilogram load, and have a range of about 20 kilometers (12 miles). The primary intent is to deliver medicines and other emergency materials in undeveloped countries, though MatterNet is also working on a demonstration with Swiss Post -- the emphasis, again, being on delivery of emergency materials.

AVIATION WEEK Online described how a group of three British companies -- Blighter Surveillance Systems, Chess Dynamics, and Enterprise Control Systems -- are anticipating that the widespread employment of drones will necessarily include their malevolent use. Their "Anti-UAV [unmanned aerial vehicle / drone] Defence System (AUDS)" will be able to spot, track, and disrupt drone within a range of 8 kilometers (5 miles), providing security for public events and VIP appearances. AUDS includes a Blighter Ku-band radar, a Chess electro-optical / infrared imaging system, and an Enterprise directional radio jammer. The group has conducted demonstrations for French and British authorities, showing that AUDS could detect and identify threats, to then jam their GPS or control / telemetry channels. Trials are planned for the US and Canada.

As a final note on this subject, the idea has been proposed, possibly in sarcasm, that drones be used to track one's children when they go to school, following a child using a wrist tracer module. Sarcastic or not, it could happen, lending an entirely new meaning to the notion of "helicopter parenting".



* WHERE GOES THE WASTE? An article from THE ECONOMIST ("Faff & Fallout", 29 August 2015) begins at the Surry Nuclear Power station, on the James river in southeast Virginia. Every 18 months, spent atomic fuel assemblies -- uranium pellets encased in zirconium -- are pulled from the station's twin reactors and placed in a spent fuel pool to cool off, the water absorbing heat and intense short-term radiation. It will remain there for five years, to then be pulled and stowed in big concrete casks. So what happens then? Nobody really knows.

Not much care was taken in disposal of nuclear wastes early in the atomic age, the perceived need to face the Soviet threat overriding all other concerns. The result was contaminated nuclear sites, now the target of expensive clean-up operations that won't be completed for decades. That particular problem is being addressed; the other problem, civilian waste from power plants that went online from the 1960s into the 1980s, remains unsolved.

Nuclear power generates a fifth of America's electricity; the nation's 99 reactors account for almost a third of all nuclear power generated worldwide. Five more are under construction, the first to be approved since the 1970s, partly thanks to Federal loan guarantees intended to boost clean energy production. The waste they generate has been stored safely for the moment, but only for the moment; it will remain troublesome for tens of thousands of years, and current measures are entirely inadequate to ensure security for such a length of time.

Under the 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act, the Federal government committed to permanent disposal of the nation's nuclear wastes. Various schemes were investigated for disposal, notably involving burying the waste in salt deposits deep underground. To fund the effort, a tax was added to the bills of consumers of nuclear power.

The problem was that nobody wanted a waste disposal site in their backyard. In 1987, Congress decreed that the site would Yucca Mountain in Nevada, about 130 kilometers (80 miles) northwest of Las Vegas. House Majority Leader Tom Foley had made it clear it would not be in his home state of Washington, while Speaker of the House Jim Wright similarly insisted that it not be in his home state of Texas. The problem was that Nevadans didn't want it either, and never gave up their resistance. After an expenditure of $15 billion USD, no nuclear waste has been stored at Yucca Mountain.

The exercise came to a full stop in 2009, when Barack Obama took office. He had pledged to oppose the Yucca Mountain site during his presidential campaign, in order to obtain backing from Harry Reid of Nevada, the Democratic leader in the Senate. The Department of Energy formally repudiated the site in 2010. In a lawsuit in 2013, the government was legally forced to stop collecting the tax on nuclear power until a plan is created for a permanent disposal site; it has also been forced to pay utility companies for the costs of storing waste temporarily -- with current stockpiles at plants amounting to tens of thousands of tonnes.

Obama and Reid will be leaving office in 2017, suggesting there may be an opportunity to get the disposal program going again. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the regulator, has concluded the Yucca Mountain site is safe for the disposal of waste. Nevadans are dubious, with a particular worry about accidents involving transport of nuclear wastes on railroads.

The US does operate a deep storage site near Carlsbad, New Mexico, for radioactive wastes from nuclear weapons production. Experience there has, of late, not been very good, the facility suffering two high-profile accidents in 2014. For the time being, it is not accepting any more nuclear wastes. For now, concrete casks will have to suffice. They should easily last for hundreds of years -- but that's not remotely long enough.



* MAXIMIZING EFFICIENCY (2): There's so many ways to improve energy efficiency that it's surprising people are taking so little advantage of them. The IEA estimates that only a third of the available energy-saving opportunities with a cost-effective payback period are being taken up. For businesses and residents alike, factors such as ignorance, inertia, and perverse incentives are still the rule. A recent study commissioned by McDonald's suggested that a typical McD's outlet could cut its energy use by at least a fifth, and by up to four-fifths by using solar power. Unfortunately, the outlay for improvements is much more obvious than the payback, particularly if the payback period is longer than a few years.

Utilities, however, are getting on board the efficiency train. Their business models now push consumers to reduce energy use, instead of pushing them to use ever more juice. Utilities are also interested in replacing old, inefficient power plants and transmission networks -- but that costs big bucks, one estimate being that it will take an investment of $2 trillion USD by 2030 to update America's antiquated power grid.

Utilities in the US and elsewhere are also being pressed to update their systems by regulations that require them to buy back power from consumers who produce energy, typically from solar panels, whether there is any demand or not. That used to be no big deal, but it is becoming one. The solar eclipse that took place in Europe in March 2015 demonstrated the complications such a requirement introduces. In Italy, which has one of Europe's best-developed solar-power industries, as the sunlight faded out, so did solar power; other generators had to take up the slack, of around 27 gigawatt-hours. The eclipse cost Italian consumers around 10 million euros (about $10.9 million USD). More generally, the boom in solar has increased the cost of "balancing" Italy's network -- keeping capacity in reserve for cloudy days -- by 50%.

Such problems can be seen as growing pains, which will decline as smart grid technology improves, and utilities come up with innovative profit models their customers can live with. The utilities are on the front lines of energy efficiency: with their large scale, they can build storage and solar capacity much more economically on a unit basis than consumers can. It is all for the good for consumers to tinker with solar power and energy-efficient gadgets for their homes -- but it will be the utilities who will end up carrying the weight.

* In related news, as discussed by an article from WIRED Online blogs ("Elon Musk's Grand Plan to Power the World With Batteries" by Alex Davies, 1 May 2015), hyper-energetic entrepreneur Elon Musk is now pushing a "Tesla Energy" scheme, built around the "Powerwall Home Battery". The Powerwall will be available in 7 kilowatt-hour (kWH) or 10 kWH versions; it will allow end users to store energy they produce with a solar array. While it's useful for small businesses as well, larger concerns will be more interested in the "Powerpack" --a 100 kWH unit along the lines of a refrigerator -- to make better use of renewable energy, avoid peak demand charges, and keep things afloat during a power outage.

Schemes for energy storage have been floated since the 1970s, but they didn't start gaining traction until the turn of the century. One of the drivers is improved lithium ion battery technology. Battery efficiency is currently growing at about 8% annually, while prices are expected to fall by about half over the next two to three years. Schemes for utility-scale energy storage have been discussed here in the past, last in 2012, but Musk is focused on household / business energy storage. While home solar systems are increasingly popular, so far there hasn't been much interest in home energy, storage, mostly because it's been too expensive.

Musk wants to change that. The 100 kilogram (220 pound) Powerwall will, as its name suggests, be mounted on the wall of a home. It's only 15 centimeters (six inches) deep, comes in a choice of colors, and has a ten-year warranty. It is network-connected, and has a built-in DC-to-AC converter. The 7 kWH version is $3,000 USD, while the 10 kWH version is $3,500 USD.

Tesla Powerwall

A typical US home uses about 30 kWH of electrical energy a day, so even the 10 kWH version won't be able to support a home at full operation all day long. However, according to Musk, the ability to store energy and make use of it at peak times means the Powerwall can pay off -- although utilities do have to buy back power from consumers, they don't pay back enough to offset consumer rates for line power.

While the focus for Tesla Energy is the household or small business, Musk sees the technology as "infinitely scaleable". As he puts it, a mere 2 billion of these things would be enough switch the entire world over to renewable energy stored in batteries -- which is comparable to the number of cars and trucks are on the planet's roads. Nobody ever accused Elon Musk of thinking small.

* And, as pointed out by a related commentary in BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK, nobody ever accused him of understatement either, with the magazine estimating that a homeowner would need a solar array costing $98,000 USD for the Powerwall to pay off. As far as peak balancing goes, few US homeowners draw power that's rated by the hour of the day -- and even in places where it is, the Powerwall still isn't cost-effective. However, BUSINESSWEEK does judge that commercial Powerwalls are worth the money; that Musk can get a fair business off of that market; and his promotionalism, pure Musk that it is, does him plenty of good. [END OF SERIES]


[FRI 06 NOV 15] THE COLD WAR (89)

* THE COLD WAR (89): The Red Chinese continued to build up forces in Fujian. The movements were too obvious to be concealed from the Nationalists, who built up forces in the offshore islands in preparation for a confrontation. That didn't deter Mao Zedong, in fact it only increased his determination -- but he still chose to delay, partly to make sure adequate forces were in place, partly to evaluate his options. Since the confrontation was at Mao's discretion, he could afford to take his time.

The delay did confuse Chinese People's Liberation Army officers, who began to think nothing was going to happen. However, from 17 August, top Chinese leadership met at Beidaihe, a coastal resort for senior party officials, to plan the next steps in the Great Leap Forward: the consolidation of the rural peasantry into state communes, and the industrial mobilization of the Chinese urban workforce. On the first day of the conference, Mao announced that the shelling would begin, saying that the confrontation would lend weight to the Great Leap Forward: "To have an enemy in front of us, to have tension, is to our advantage."

The rationale that China needed to "punish" the Americans for their intervention in the Middle East had been more or less forgotten, US forces already being withdrawn from Lebanon. The next morning, 18 August, Mao sent a message to Defense Minister Peng to get ready to begin. Over the next few days, Mao provided clarifications for the plan, telling his generals that the shelling should only be of Quemoy, not Matsu -- the exercise being strictly a demonstration, Quemoy would suffice. Mao worried about killing American military advisors on Quemoy during the shelling, and asked General Ye Fei, commander of the operation in Fujian, if that could be avoided. No doubt struggling to keep a straight face, Ye answered NO; Mao thought that over for a while, then told Ye to go ahead as planned.

The bombardment started on the afternoon of 23 August. The Americans were not taken by surprise, but they were not sure of Chinese intentions: was this a prelude to an assault on Taiwan? Eisenhower ordered the US Seventh Fleet into the Taiwan Straits, and expedited the delivery of weapons to the Nationalists.

The next day, 24 August, Mao told a meeting of the politburo central committee at Beidaihe that the bombardment would demonstrate the injustice of the continued US "occupation" of Taiwan and teach the Americans a "lesson", with the chairman proclaiming:


Our demand is that American armed forces withdraw from Taiwan, and Jiang's troops withdraw from Jinmen and Mazu [Quemoy and Matsu]. If they do not do so, we will attack. Taiwan is too far away to be bombed, so we shell Jinmen [Quemoy] and Mazu. This will surely produce a shock wave in the world. Not only will the Americans be shocked, but the Asians and Europeans will be shocked, too. The people in the Arab world will be delighted, and the vast masses in Asia and Africa will take our side.


That seems, in hindsight, like putting a grand face on an action that would effectively be forgotten by everyone except those involved a year later -- but given that Mao was only concerned with image, it was as true as he liked it to be. The bombardment went on through that day, with Chinese torpedo boats also attacking Taiwanese shipping, claiming to have damaged one cargo vessel and sunk another.

There was a big aerial dogfight over the combat zone between PLA MiG-17 and Nationalist F-86 jet fighters on 25 August, both sides claiming the win. Mao accurately told the Politburo that day that China had made the Americans "extremely nervous" -- but added that he had no intention of raising the stakes, preferring to see just how far the US would go to defend Quemoy: "We will not say if we are or if we are going to land on Jinmen. We will be doubly cautious and act in accordance with the situation." [TO BE CONTINUED]



* SCIENCE NOTES: It's traditionally been troublesome to figure out how many people are involved in public demonstrations, with partisans inflating or deflating the numbers as per their biases. The actual number of people who walked in the "Millon-Man March", conducted in 1995 in Washington DC to promote black consciousness, was estimated from 400,000 to two million. It's even harder to determine the number of people in chaotic violent demonstrations.

The near-universality of cellphones suggests that statistics on mobile phone calls from the area of a demonstration might provide a reasonable index of the size of that demonstration. A British group has now attempted to calibrate just how well that index tracks the size of a crowd, by matching mobile phone data to crowds of known size -- at an airport and a stadium in Milan, Italy. The mobile phone data tracked the actual number of people with an error rate of no more than 13%.

* As discussed by a note from NPR Online ("Why You Should Thank A Caterpillar For Your Mustard And Wasabi" by Jessie Rack, 29 June 2015), an evolutionary arms race is the reason that condiments such as wasabi and mustard have their spice. In a recent paper, researchers zeroed in on the co-evolution of caterpillars of the cabbage butterfly, and plants in the order Brassicales, which today includes cabbage, horseradish, kale and mustard.

According to Chris Pires, a plant evolutionary biologist at the University of Missouri and one of the lead authors of the study, about 90 million years ago, the ancestors of these vegetables evolved defenses to protect themselves from being eaten by insects, beginning by synthesizing chemicals named "glucosinolates", which are a major component of mustard oil. Pires says: "Most bugs don't like it. It's toxic. It turns their guts inside out."

Ten million years later, a branch of the caterpillar family tree acquired a protein that allowed them to defy the glucosinolates. Given a new food source, which no other insect could safely consume, the cabbage butterflies evolved into several different species that could eat plants with mustard oil. Eventually, a branch of the plants came up with glucosinolate variants that the protein couldn't neutralize ... with a new branch of caterpillars acquiring a protein that could neutralize them ... with the plants acquiring still newer variants ... and the caterpillars acquiring the means to neutralize them in turn.

This arms race was reflected in the evolutionary trees the research team drew up of the caterpillars and plants, with branches in one tree driving branches in the other. The adaptations were not made by tweaking existing genes, but by duplicating genes that were altered by selection processes -- or in the case of the plants, sometimes duplicating entire genomes, which they are inclined to do every now and then.

The end result is tasty condiments. According to Danielle Reed, a taste researcher the Monell Chemical Senses Center: "Glucosinolates have at least two sensory properties: burn and bitter." Glucosinolates with the "burning" sensory property are found in plants like wasabi, while those with the "bitter" property are found in plants like broccoli. She adds: "There is a cocktail of glucosinolates in many plants, and they do contribute to the overall flavor." While many other compounds contribute to the taste of radishes or cauliflower, glucosinolates provide the dominant note.

* As discussed by an article from LIVESCIENCE Online ("Everything's Bigger in Texas: Ancient Supersize Shark Fossils Unearthed" by Laura Geggle, 19 October 2015), fossils of sharks dating back 300 million years have been uncovered in Jacksboro, Texas. Nicknamed the "Texas supershark", the beasts were more than 8 meters (26 feet) long. That's well larger than a modern great white shark -- though the supershark is still dwarfed by modern basking sharks, and the fossil shark C. megalodon, which was up to 18 meters (60 feet) long, and lived from 16 million and 2.6 million years ago.

It is the age of the supershark that makes it distinctive, no other shark fossils of remotely that age and of that size having been found. When supershark was alive, during the Carboniferous period, a shallow sea called the Western Interior Seaway covered Texas and much of the American West. The supershark fossils were fragmentary, the most complete elements being two braincases; the size was determined comparing the braincases with more sharks of the era known from more complete fossils.



* DASHCAMS EVERYWHERE: The fondness of Russians for dashboard cameras -- "dashcams" -- was mentioned here in 2013. Russians like them because they help get action out of the authorities and the insurance companies. As discussed by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("Driving On Camera", 5 September 2015), dashcams are also popular in China, and becoming more so in the US and Europe.

Dashcams were an outgrowth of the emergence of cheap digital camera and flash memory card technology. They were originally introduced by nondescript Chinese, Taiwanese, and South Korean manufacturers -- but now are available from major labels, such as Japan's Panasonic and Garmin of Switzerland, the last being well-known as a maker of GPS locators.

Cyclists and motorbikers were the first to use small cameras to film their rides, in hopes of legally defending themselves in disputes with motorists; they have also been adopted by police, and drivers of commercial vehicles. These days, dashcams are often specifically designed for use with cars, with prices ranging from $100 USD to $300 USD or more. They are usually attached to the inside of the windshield with a suction cup, in much the same way as a portable satnav unit. While they typically have a small battery for backup, they have to be powered by a lead stuck into the cigarette lighter socket. They start recording when the car key is turned in the ignition, and turn off when the key is turned to off. Some can be wired directly into the car's electronics systems.

The fancier dashcams offer high-definition video recording, and some have GPS receiver chipsets, allowing them to log a vehicle's position during its journeys. The more detailed the log acquired by a dashcam, the more useful it is as evidence, either supporting a driver or not. Dashcam videos aren't allowed as evidence everywhere, however; in fact, in Austria, they are illegal for privacy reasons.

The "402G" GPS-enabled dashcam from Nextbase in the UK is a representative modern dashcam. It has a display screen for changing settings and ensuring the unit is working; the screen can be set to turn off after a few seconds, to prevent distracting the driver. It streams video to a flash card, running in a loop, overwriting the oldest video when the card is full. It has a sensor that detects a crash, and locks the video leading up to the accident to prevent it from being overwritten.

402G dashcam

Dashcams continue to be improved. Mio of Taiwan makes one that works through a rearview mirror, while BlackVue of South Korea makes one that records video both to the front and rear of the vehicle. The nueviCan from Garmin even will alert drivers if they are drifting out of the lane, or approaching the vehicle in front of them too closely. There's interest in hooking up dashcams to the event data recorders (EDRs) that monitor vehicle operation.

It is likely that dashcams will become optional kit for new cars, powered directly from a car's electrical system, all the more so because cars are increasingly incorporating cameras anyway -- from May 2018, backing-up cameras will be mandatory in new cars sold in the USA, and forward-looking cameras are an important element in the instrument suite of robocars. It seems unlikely that Austria will be able to maintain its law against dashcams for long; they're here to stay, and becoming more universal, doing their bit to highlight the quandary between our demand for more information, and the inevitable loss of privacy that follows.



* DIGITAL IRAN: With the gradual lifting of sanctions on Iran, Iranian businesses are looking forward to a boom. As discussed by an article from BBC WORLD Online ("Iran's Digital Start-Ups Signal Changing Times" by Hossein Sharif, 12 October 2015), among those businesses are a set of tech startups that are already doing well for themselves.

Welcome to Digikala, Iran's answer to Amazon.com. It was set up by brothers Hamid and Saeed Mohammadi, and now has a staff of 900; its website is the sixth most popular in Iran, getting about 850,000 visitors a day. It started out eight years ago, when the brothers were trying to find a digital camera online, but couldn't find any reviews in Farsi. They thought of not only doing reviews for the Iranian market, but also selling product. They have their own Digikala TV arm.

Sanctions actually benefited Digikala in some ways, according to Professor Nader Habibi of Brandeis University, in the US, who says the result was an "empty playground" that represented a opportunity: "Companies who rely on foreign trade and imports were harmed the most. But for domestic digital companies, sanctions just kept out reputable brands like Amazon and Google. It actually gave them an opportunity to raise their market share."

The Mohammadi brothers claim the firm is valued at $500 million USD, several times what it was in 2014. Hamid Mohammadi says that, though sanctions have made life financially miserable for Iranians, they're still eager to buy the latest gadgets: "Iran has one of the youngest, most highly educated populations in the region. For them, technology isn't a luxury. It's the fabric of their lives. They will get it, even if it is difficult to afford."

Digikala is not remotely lonely among Iran's internet startups, others including:

The Iranian technology world of gadgets and games exists as a disjoint parallel universe to the more stereotypical Iran of conservative clerics, harsh justice, and strident propaganda against Iran's adversaries. According to sociologist Hossein Ghazian, the official Iran still maintains its grip on power, but it no longer has sole control over the narrative: "In Iran you used to have the hegemony of a central official culture. Not any more."

According to Iran's own National Internet Development Center, the internet now reaches 73% of the country's citizens, one of the highest proportions in the Middle East. Professor Fawas Gerges of the London School of Economics says that young Iranians, being so connected with the rest of the world, are now "the least anti-Western oriented" folk in the region. Social media has become so significant that even conservative Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei has an online presence.

Iran's internet entrepreneurs are generally careful to steer clear of political controversy, but Digikalas Hamid Mohammadi makes it clear he is aware of the ironies involved: "When 4G first came, it was supposed to be forbidden. But now, increasing bandwidth is the government's top priority and 4G is everywhere. The internet is doing its own thing."



* ANOTHER MONTH: I juggle as a hobby. One morning one of the beanbags I was juggling broke, dribbling plastic "sand" over the floor. Juggling is part of my morning routine, and I knew I would miss it, so I promptly ordered a set of juggle balls -- not beanbags; balls, the beanbags wear out too fast -- from Amazon.com.

I have an Amazon Prime subscription, which gives me two-day delivery by default; but the juggle balls were an "add-on" item, meaning they would only be shipped without additional charge if I bought other goods worth at least $25 USD. I shrugged; I had been interested in trying the Toshiba "FlashAir" card, which is an SD card that plugs into a camera and has a wi-fi connection, allowing me to get into the camera over wireless. No more putzing around with USB cables? I thought I'd give it a try, and bought a 16 GB FlashAir card.

After receiving the card from Amazon, I sat on it for a while. When I got around to using it, it turned out to be straightforward to get to work. All I had to do was turn on the camera, check for wi-fi connections on my notebook, look for the "flashair" access point, select it, and give "12345678" as the password. To get into my photos, I just entered "flashair" in my web browser, and I could browse through the camera directories.

Toshiba FlashAir

Actually, it wasn't nearly as simple as that. I started out trying to get it to work with my desktop, but I had nothing but trouble. The primary difficulty was that I couldn't find the Windows utility to configure wi-fi connections on the desktop. It finally dawned on me that the desktop didn't know about wi-fi, because it didn't have a wi-fi interface; it was instead connected to a wi-fi hub. Okay, could I hook up the FlashAir card through the hub? Further poking around gave the answer: NO -- because the FlashAir card is a hub itself.

Well, DUH. The FlashAir does work fine with my notebook, except for the fact that using a web browser to get into the camera is nowhere near as convenient as using Windows Explorer to grab all the pictures via USB and haul them in. Toshiba does provide a Windows utility for the FlashAir card, but it's the kind of software made by those who don't do software for a living -- klunky, not very capable, not easy to use. I tried some other tricks to see if I could get more direct access to the FlashAir card in my camera, but came up zeroes. I do suspect there are ways, but the documentation is effectively worthless, so all I can do is poke around. That works surprisingly often, but it's never efficient.

Okay, I guess I'm going to stay with using USB cables for picture transfers, it's not that big a deal. I put the FlashAir card into one of my pocket cameras, just to tinker with it a bit when I'm on the road; I might find some way to get Windows Explorer or an equivalent to work over the wi-fi connection. That camera only had an 8 GB card before, so the 16 GB FlashAir gives me more capacity, for what that's worth. The FlashAir is an interesting toy, it works as specified, it's just not very useful for my purposes. I think a Bluetooth connection would be better, though it would need an app that wasn't braindead along with it.

As far as the juggle balls go, incidentally, they're a bit harder to juggle than the beanbags. The balls are lighter and bouncier; they're not that bouncy, but if they collide hard in mid-air, there's no recovering them, they shoot off to the sides. I'm working my way up again. I intend to get a backup set.

* The local library finally stopped carrying AAAS SCIENCE magazine; they apparently got them as hand-me-downs from a local reader, and it seems that source finally dried up. I really liked reading it, and when I found I could get an online subscription for only $50 USD a year, I thought: That's not bad! So now I get an email every week announcing the latest issue, and I just click on a link to bring it up in a web page.

Trying to save articles from each issue turned out to be frustrating, however. If I got into AAAS SCIENCE from the normal web page, I could find links to PDF downloads from articles, but I was refused access. I finally discovered that I had to get a full AAAS membership to be granted full access. Funny, I had downloaded their PDFs in the past -- maybe they changed policies, or they were just special offerings.

Anyway, on considering matters, I realized I had installed a PDF-to-file printer driver on my PC, "PDF995" -- the outfit that makes it, "pdf995.com", offers a capable free version, or one can buy the full version for ten bucks. I could print from my online issue, so all I had to do was specify a print range, select "PDF995", and save the output file -- worked like a charm. I had the free version of PDF995, but it would have been worth ten bucks.

I also wanted to be able to save the articles as text, so I could rewrite them; trying to save them from the web page didn't work very well for whatever reason, and I also found that I couldn't do it from the PDF files, since they contained images instead of text. Fortunately, I remembered I had found an online OCR site:


-- and it worked perfectly well to convert the PDF printouts to text files. OK, not perfectly well; OCRs tend to get confused on some letters, but well enough to give me something to work with. I tried to scan some pages I'd shot with a pocket camera, but the OCR didn't like that at all. Incidentally, "online-convert" has all kinds of great free conversion tools; I'll have to slip them a donation next month. In any case, in my adventures with technology, sometimes I lose one; sometimes I win one; but I usually have fun.

* Thanks to three readers for donations, one extraordinarily generous, to support the websites last month. That is very much appreciated.