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DayVectors

dec 2015 / last mod may 2017 / greg goebel

* 23 entries including: Cold War (series), future flight 2015 (series), multi-factor authentication, farming in Africa, viruses against cancer, data anonymity, termites, progress against AIDS & staph vaccine, Cretaceous climate, Big Oil & climate change, and Obama Clean Power Plan revisited.

banner of the month


[THU 31 DEC 16] NEWS COMMENTARY FOR DECEMBER 2015
[WED 30 DEC 15] MULTI-FACTOR AUTHENTICATION
[TUE 29 DEC 15] FARM AFRICA?
[MON 28 DEC 15] FUTURE FLIGHT 2015 (4)
[FRI 25 DEC 15] THE COLD WAR (96)
[THU 24 DEC 15] WINGS & WEAPONS
[WED 23 DEC 15] VIRUSES AGAINST CANCER
[TUE 22 DEC 15] DATA ANONYMITY?
[MON 21 DEC 15] FUTURE FLIGHT 2015 (3)
[FRI 18 DEC 15] THE COLD WAR (95)
[THU 17 DEC 15] SPACE NEWS
[WED 16 DEC 15] THE TERMITE IMPACT
[TUE 15 DEC 15] PROGRESS AGAINST AIDS / STAPH VACCINE
[MON 14 DEC 15] FUTURE FLIGHT 2015 (2)
[FRI 11 DEC 15] THE COLD WAR (94)
[THU 10 DEC 15] GIMMICKS & GADGETS
[WED 09 DEC 15] CRETACEOUS CLIMATE
[TUE 08 DEC 15] BIG OIL & CLIMATE CHANGE
[MON 07 DEC 15] FUTURE FLIGHT 2015 (1)
[FRI 04 DEC 15] THE COLD WAR (93)
[THU 03 DEC 15] SCIENCE NOTES
[WED 02 DEC 15] CLEAN POWER PLAN REVISITED
[TUE 01 DEC 15] ANOTHER MONTH

[THU 31 DEC 16] NEWS COMMENTARY FOR DECEMBER 2015

* NEWS COMMENTARY FOR DECEMBER 2015: While the news from Iraq tends very consistently towards the dismal, on 28 December the Iraqi government announced that the city of Ramadi, effectively abandoned to Islamic State (IS) insurgents in May, had been retaken by the Iraqi Army, supported by Coalition air strikes, after weeks of fighting. The city is said to be largely in ruins and littered with booby traps; mopping up is ongoing.

The Americans successfully pressured the government of Haider al-Abadi to exclude Shiite militia groups from the operation, fearing they would do nothing but inflame factional fighting between Sunnis and Shiite. The US wants to set up Sunni militias to fight IS, but the government has been reluctant to provide them with arms. The cities of Fallujah and Mosul still remain in IS hands; the government has proclaimed they will be retaken in 2016.

* As discussed by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("The Emperor's Descendants", 14 November 2015), on 7 November the presidents of Taiwan and China, Ma Ying-jeou and Xi Jinping, shook hands for a full minute in front of the cameras at a hotel in Singapore. The handshake capped an informal meeting between the two leaders, this being the first time the top leadership of the two governments has ever dealt face-to-face.

What the meeting underlined was the byzantine nature of the relationship between China and Taiwan. When Mao Zedong's communists took over the mainland in 1949, Chiang Kai-shek's Kuomintang (KMT), or Nationalist Party, retreated to Taiwan. Since that time, it has been a basic tenet of China's leadership that there cannot be two Chinas; Taiwan does not have a legitimate independent existence and must, sooner or later, become part of China again.

That goal has never gone away, but it has never come close to happening. In the early 1980s Deng Xiaoping, Mao's pragmatic successor, offered Taiwan a "one-country, two-systems" solution, having agreed with Britain on a similar deal for Hong Kong: in exchange for recognizing the authority of the government in Beijing, the island would enjoy self-governance, and even get to keep its army. Even such a cosmetic subordination was too much; the Taiwanese government rejected the offer.

It would be hard to see the meeting in Singapore as a step towards re-unification. Ma was elected president of Taiwan in 2008, in part on the basis of pledges to improve social, political, and economic ties with China -- if only to reinforce a stable, peaceful status quo in which Taiwan would remain the master of its own fate. Xi also wants to improve ties, but sees them as a stepping-stone towards re-unification.

Each side understands the attitude of the other only too well. Xi met with Ma partly to underline his authority, to show that he was strong enough to imply a sort of recognition of the legitimacy of Taiwan's government, without fear of serious opposition. There also appears to have been a motive to influence Taiwan's imminent elections. Polls hint that the KMT's presidential candidate, Eric Chu, will lose to Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). The DPP may even, for the first time, gain control of the legislature.

China detests the DPP, since the party's roots are in the notion of Taiwanese independence. The KMT at least sticks to the idea, known as the "1992 consensus", that there is only "one China" -- a notion that carefully remains undefined. In the meeting in Singapore, Ma and Xi publicly reinforced their commitment to the consensus, while continuing to leave it undefined. The DPP rejects the consensus.

The number of Taiwanese who buy the consensus is decreasing all the time; Taiwanese increasingly don't see themselves as Chinese, and have never been enthusiastic about re-unification. Most people in Taiwan come from families that lived on the island for generations before 1949. Nobody on the island remembers a time when China ruled Taiwan; it was ceded to Japan in 1895. Nonetheless, if a DPP government were to officially repudiate the consensus, it would place China's government in a painfully awkward position of tacitly approving what would sound very much like a declaration of independence; or resorting to ineffective protests; or trying to conquer Taiwan.

The third option is not out of the question, China having built up its military forces with a primary focus on dealing with the Taiwan issue; but it would be painfully expensive in all regards, and very possibly create greater long-term problems for China than it could resolve. In the past, dire warnings and even crude military threats -- as in 1995:96, ahead of Taiwan's first direct presidential election, when China conducted missile tests in the Taiwan Strait -- have served only to alienate Taiwan's people further, and also underline American military support for Taiwan.

If force can't be used, the threat of force does have its uses, but for the time being, there seems no way to alter the status quo: both sides maintaining the fiction of unity, both sides recognizing the effective independence of Taiwan. The fiction is uncomfortable for Taiwan. It is much more so for China.

* The Leftist government of Venezuela -- a creature of demagogue Hugo Chavez, Nicholas Maduro having replaced Chavez as president following his death in 2013 -- suffered a stinging electoral setback in early December. The opposition alliance, made up of centrist and conservative parties, is confident of ultimately taking at least 112 seats in the National Assembly, after 16 years of control by the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV). This was another blow to Left-wing governments in Latin America, coming two weeks after a Center-Right candidate won in Argentina's presidential poll. Voter participation in the Venezuelan election was high, almost 75%, clearly revealing substantial public support for change.

Hugo Chavez, though highly skilled at working the crowd, had never been much of an administrator, and Maduro has proven no more skilled. Venezuela's inflation rate is currently 100%, and there are chronic food shortages of staples -- such as milk, rice, coffee, sugar, corn flour and cooking oil. The fall of oil prices hit Venezuela very hard. Maduro, not too surprisingly, blamed the problems on an "economic war" waged by the opposition.

According to senior figures in the opposition alliance, their majority will allow them to pass amnesty laws allowing the release of political prisoners, and to reverse, for example, appointments to senior legal positions made by the current government. It also gives stronger momentum to the opposition should it wish to call a referendum on Maduro, before his term ends in 2019. The PSUV remains a force to be reckoned with, and even if the opposition obtains the decisive political upper hand, they will find straightening out Venezuela's political-economic train wreck difficult. In addition, Chavez was able to obtain power in large part because of the incompetence and corruption of the preceding government; the opposition will have to demonstrate they can do better.

* With the impending relaxation of sanctions on Iran, long-standing issues are now being resolved -- one being that the 53 Americans who were held hostage by Iranian militants for 444 days from 1979 into 1981 are now going to receive compensation of up to $4.4 million USD each. Congress passed legislation in late December to allow the payments go go through,

The terms under which the release of the hostages was secured in 1981 prevented them from seeking compensation from the Iranian government. The compensation is to be obtained from companies that have been fined for defying US sanctions against Iran and other rogue nations like North Korea, including $8.9 billion US paid by French bank BNP Paribas in 2015. It might have been more satisfying to have got the money out of Iran, but it seems unlikely there will be much in the way of complaint.

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[WED 30 DEC 15] MULTI-FACTOR AUTHENTICATION

* MULTI-FACTOR AUTHENTICATION: As discussed by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("Passe Words", 30 May 2015), passwords are the necessary evil of our dependence on information systems. They're not convenient nor very secure -- being easily lost, forgotten, and stolen -- and there's long been calls for getting rid of them in favor of something better. Alas, that's proven easier said than done.

Now new schemes are emerging that should at least reduce dependence on passwords, these schemes being known under the general label of "multi-factor authentication". The idea, as its advocates put it, is to combine "something you know with something you have." "Something you know" is a person's password; "something you have" may be a gadget that generates a variable code, or "token", distinct to that person. The token may be further paired with "something you have", such as a voice analysis, iris scan, or fingerprint. As more smartphones and computers are being delivered with biometric systems that can obtain "something you have", in time, passwords may be less and less necessary.

The smartphone is seen as the central element in multi-factor authentication. A smartphone with a near-field interface can be used for transactions, with its biometric interface providing authentication. The phone's GPS receiver can also help with authentication, verifying that a transaction isn't being made at a location distant from those normally associated with a particular user.

A consortium of firms named the "Fast Identity Online Alliance (FIDO)" -- members including hardware makers Lenovo, Samsung, and ARM; payment firms PayPal, Visa and MasterCard; and e-commerce companies such as Alibaba -- is investigating implementations of multi-factor authentication. FIDO is working on two approaches, both relying on "public-key cryptography".

In public-key cryptography, a particular user has two cipher keys -- a public key that is broadcast to the world, and a private key known only to the user. Anyone can encrypt a message to the user with the public key, but only the user's private key can decrypt it. In a reverse fashion, anyone with the public key can use it to verify a "digital signature" generated by the user with the private key, validating the user's identity. Under the FIDO protocols, an online retailer would obtain the public key from a customer, stored as part of the user's account information; the retailer can then authenticate the user's digital signatures, and send communications to the user that only the user can decrypt.

The first FIDO scheme envisions that a biometric validation, including a fingerprint or iris scan, will be used to back up the cipher protocol, eliminating the need for a password. However, tradition dies hard, so provision is being made for an optional personal identification number (PIN). The second FIDO scheme, "Universal 2nd-Factor Authentication (U2F)", replaces the password with a physical token, such as a USB stick or near-field device.

There's nothing all that new about this approach, and it's had troubles in the past -- getting rid of passwords to replace them with a USB stick or such may not seem like an improvement to everyone. However, if passwords aren't necessarily going away, multi-factor authentication promises to make them much more secure. Breaking into a company's system and stealing passwords for all their clients is only too easy; getting fingerprints from all of them is more troublesome.

ED: Having found out that my new smart charge card changes nothing for online purchases, they're not any more secure than before, I am looking forward to multi-factor authentication. Yes, it would be a nuisance to have to use a USB stick or whatever to make online purchases, but I would feel much more secure in doing so.

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[TUE 29 DEC 15] FARM AFRICA?

* FARM AFRICA? In the 21st century, the economy of Africa is starting to take off, but as discussed by an article in THE ECONOMIST ("Wake Up And Sell More Coffee", 19 September 2015), farming -- particularly small farms -- have been a laggard.

That should not be so; the continent has about half the world's uncultivated arable land, and no shortage of people to farm it. True, erratic rainfall -- and droughts aggravated by climate change -- add to risks of farming on large parts of the African savannah, but a switch to drought-tolerant varieties of plants, or from maize to drought-tolerant crops like cassava or sorghum, could help deal with such issues. A half century ago, Africa was a net exporter of food, with Ghana providing most of the world's cocoa; Nigeria being the biggest exporter of palm oil and peanuts; and Africa providing a quarter of the planet's supply of coffee.

Africa hasn't kept up, with the continent's share of global agricultural exports having slipped to a mere quarter of what it was at its prime. Thailand now exports more food than all of Africa. Food production there hasn't fallen, it just hasn't kept pace, with a rate of improvement only half that of modern agricultural states. Farmers in Malawi obtain less than a seventh of the yield of maize as do farmers in Iowa.

There are a number of reasons for Africa's stagnant agricultural productivity, but government bungling is one of the big ones. After independence, many African countries fell into heavy-handed statism, establishing (or continuing a colonial custom of) state-owned agricultural monopolies for export crops that squeezed farmers, with the money obtained from food sales pumped into dead-end heavy industry projects. For a prominent example, the colonial government and first independent government of Ghana taxed cocoa exports so heavily that farmers stopped planting new trees. By the 1980s, Ghana's cocoa production was a third of what it had been.

In the 1990s, under the encouragement of Western donors and aid experts, many African countries dismantled their agricultural monopolies. That was the right thing to do in itself, but it was generally a switch from excessive control to no control at all, resulting in anarchy in the farm market. Commercial farmers in places like South Africa could exploit their new-found freedom, with output soaring -- but in most of Africa, the result for small farmers was economic chaos. Today, farmers in Zambia pay twice as much for fertilizer as those in the US.

However, the worst seems to be over and things are moving up, if from a low level. Small farmers are getting resources and good advice from organizations such as the Rockefeller and Gates Foundations, as well as interested multinational agritech companies such as Nestle. They're talking to the farmers, trying to find out what their problems are, and discussing solutions with them.

Africa does farming

African agriculture is being advanced along two fronts. First, farmers are being shown how to increase crop yields, either by straightforward changes in technique; switching to better plant varieties; or, when applicable, growing different crops. Second, farmers are being granted better access to markets, being able to monitor prices and connect with buyers through mobile phones. The mobile phone has also streamlined government assistance to farmers. Nigeria used to distribute subsidized fertilizer and seeds through middlemen, with the result that only about a tenth of the largess actually got to the farmers. Now the government issues electronic vouchers to the mobile phones of more than 14 million farmers.

The World Bank estimates that food production and processing in Africa could generate $1 trillion USD a year by 2030, over three times as much as today. There is skepticism that such a boom could take place in a mere 15 years, but the success of projects such as those conducted by Olam International, a commodity trader, to help farmers grow more cashews, sesame seeds, and cocoa in Nigeria suggests it's a perfectly realistic future. While Africans see the need to pursue industrial and technological development, it makes no sense for them to slight the economic opportunity offered by Africa's farmers.

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[MON 28 DEC 15] FUTURE FLIGHT 2015 (4)

* FUTURE FLIGHT 2015 (4): One of the enabling technologies for modern jetliners was the high-bypass turbofan engine, providing high thrust to weight ratios, and high fuel efficiency. The push for improved fuel efficiency has led to a push for bigger and bigger turbofans. As discussed by an article from AVIATION WEEK Online ("Ever-Bigger Engines Challenge Conventional Airliner Designs" by Graham Warwick, 6 July 2015), they're getting so big that it's becoming troublesome to fit them to aircraft.

Turbofans are usually placed under the wing, but as the engines get bigger, the landing gear has to be longer and longer; their bigger nacelles generate more drag, and they also produce more noise. Aircraft designers are now considering new options for integrating "ultra-high-bypass-ratio (UHBR)" engines onto aircraft, such as mounting the engines above the wing for noise shielding, or embedding them in the rear fuselage for drag reduction.

Mounting engines above the wing flaunts tradition, and there is the problem that the nacelles could interfere with airflow over the wing. However, Honda Aircraft got the scheme to work with the firm's Hondajet light business jet, by using raked pylons that set the engines behind the wing. Analysis showed the placement was superior in almost all respects to any other scheme.

Lockheed Martin has performed a similar analysis for a "Hybrid Wing Body (HWB)" airlifter concept, and also identified that top-mounted engines, staggered behind the wing trailing edge, were an optimum placement. The US National Aeronautics & Space Administration (NASA) has evaluated an HWB model in the transonic wind tunnel at the agency's Langley Research Center.

The Russian TsAGI aero-hydrodynamics research institute has similarly performed wind-tunnel tests of a model for a short-haul airliner design with large-diameter turbofans, mounted above the trailing edge of a wing with reduced sweep. TsAGI officials say the configuration reduces noise and landing-gear weight, while also increasing safety by protecting the engines from runway debris.

ONERA, the French aerospace research center, is investigating new fuel-efficient designs for medium-haul airliners to be available in the 2025 timeframe, with a focus on integrating UHBR engines. The work is being driven by the French National Research Agency, with the "NextGen ONERA Versatile Aircraft (NOVA)" project to lead to wind-tunnel tests of two candidate configurations, in 2017 and 2018.

The NOVA jetliner is seen as having 180 seats, being a notional replacement for the Airbus A320. A geared turbofan (GTF) engine was selected for NOVA, featuring a cruise bypass ratio of 16, as opposed to 12 for the Pratt & Whitney PW1100G, used on the new Airbus A320neo. ONERA chose a fuselage with a flattened elliptical cross section, with the result that NOVA, though a replacement for single-aisle jetliners, has a double-aisle configuration, with 2 + 3 + 2 seats like a Boeing 767. That means a heavier fuselage per unit length, but a shorter one, so the weight balances out, while the fuselage contributes to lift.

The wing has a long and slender aspect ratio of 13. One NOVA configuration has a gull wing, allowing bigger turbofans to be placed under the wing without demanding longer landing gear; the dihedral on the inboard section is 15 degrees, with 5 degrees on the outboard span. The gull wing configuration also features a vee tail. The other configuration actually has the twin engines embedded in the tail, with the engines ingesting the "boundary layer" airflow over the fuselage, and providing a powered wake that reduces drag. The embedded version features a tee tail.

The "Propulsive Fuselage Concept (PFC)" -- developed by German research institute Bauhaus Luftfahrt, under a European Union-funded project named "Dispursal" -- goes the embedded concept one big step further, with the fanjet making up the rear end of a small jetliner, the duct of the engine ringing the fuselage. The fan will be 4 meters (13.1 feet) in diameter, being driven by a core in the tail through a gearbox.

Propulsive Fuselage Concept

Bauhaus engineers envision fuel savings of about 10% at cruise speeds. The project recommended the construction of a flying testbed, possibly based on a SAAB 340 or Dornier 328Jet small airliner. Over the longer run, there's interest in hybrid-electric systems, with a core engine generating power for one or more electrically-driven fans.

* In related news, engineers at Airbus are investigating the design of a hybrid-electric airliner with 100 seats, to be available in the 2030 timeframe. The Airbus work follows, to a degree, the NASA "N3-X" concept airliner of a few years back, which -- featuring a blended-wing body, with gas turbine engines generating electricity for a row of electric thrusters, buried in the boundary layer flow along the trailing edge of the fuselage. Instead of turbines, however, Airbus engineers are more interested in diesel engines, able to generate six megawatts of power.

Airbus is already flying a two-seat electrically-powered aircraft named the "E-Fan", and is working towards an "E-Fan 4.0" that will feature hybrid propulsion. The E-Fan 4.0 will provide critical data for work on a hybrid-electric airliner. [TO BE CONTINUED]

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[FRI 25 DEC 15] THE COLD WAR (96)

* THE COLD WAR (96): President Eisenhower, though he recognized the troublesome vulnerability of West Berlin, judged that Khrushchev's threats were just more of the same old bluster. The president refused to snap at the bait, believing that in the face of American firmness, the Soviets would back down before push came to shove: "Khrushchev should know that, when we decide to act, our whole stack will be in the pot."

In hindsight, that was an unnerving position to take. The "whole stack"? Did that mean that Eisenhower was willing to go nuclear? Impossible to say, but it underlined how nuclear weapons were "spring-loaded to the accident position", as the military likes to say -- that it was only too easy to imagine situations where "things were automatically going to happen." Eisenhower understood that perfectly well, in fact he was banking on the fact that Khrushchev understood it, too, and wouldn't push his luck. However, Eisenhower also knew that Khrushchev was impulsive and unpredictable; the president had to call his bluff, but he couldn't be absolutely sure Khrushchev was bluffing.

Eisenhower was annoyed to read a report that said French Foreign Minister de Murville and British Prime Minister Macmillan were swallowing the bluff, the two suggesting that it might be better to grant some sort of "low level" recognition to the GDR instead of risking war. However, Secretary of State Dulles later told the president that Macmillan, at least, was holding firm. Dulles also told the president that the Soviets were proposing negotiations, suggesting that Berlin be made a "free city". Eisenhower was agreeable to that idea -- at least, under the conditions that the entire city be a free zone, with access controlled by the United Nations.

Of course, Khrushchev really was bluffing; when his son Sergei wondered what would happen if the Americans called him on it, the premier just laughed and said: "Nobody would start a war over Berlin." Sergei pressed him on the issue; his father wasn't at all specific, simply saying that he hope to give the Americans a "good scare" to push them to negotiate. What if they didn't? Nikita Sergeyevich replied, with a bit of irritation: "Then we'll try something else. Something will always turn up."

* The biggest irony of Khrushchev's theatrics was that Eisenhower honestly wanted to slow down the US nuclear arms buildup, but wild Soviet threats were making it that much harder to do so. In late November, the president conducted a defense review, examining lists of SAC bombers, the status of ICBM and IRBM development efforts, work on the six Polaris submarines then authorized for the Navy, and above all the piles of Bombs being accumulated. Eisenhower could only ask: "How many times do we have to destroy Russia?"

A few weeks later, the president would given the latest list of targets for nuclear weapons in the USSR, to find that it had expanded from 70 -- whose destruction would inflict entirely unacceptable damage on the Soviet Union -- to thousands, to be hit with megaton Bombs. Eisenhower thought that was insane, that the fallout from the attack would wipe out America as well, that "there just might be nothing left of the Northern Hemisphere."

Still, Eisenhower found it very difficult to keep a lid on the accumulation of more Bombs. Khrushchev was also not doing a very good job of scaring the Americans into demilitarizing Germany; if anything, he was provoking them to accelerate its re-armament. In mid-December, Secretary of State Dulles told the president that the West Germans were making excellent progress in building up forces, having established eight active divisions, with four more to be set up within a year -- under a treaty limit of 20 divisions. Dulles said the French would take fright at West Germany obtaining 20 divisions. Eisenhower replied that he would be happy if they did obtain 20 divisions, in hopes that "would have an effect on French pretensions at being a world power."

Secretary of State Dulles found his dealings with de Gaulle frustrating, describing him as "troublesome". Eisenhower, who knew de Gaulle well better than Dulles did, replied that de Gaulle was capable of the "most extraordinary actions". On 13 December, Dulles arrived in Paris for a NATO minister's meeting, sending a message to Eisenhower that de Gaulle was demanding an equal voice in American global decisions, or he would pull France out of NATO. Eisenhower replied that "our friend should cease insisting upon attempting to control the whole world, of course, with partners, even before he had gotten France itself in good order."

* There were potential difficulties for the US brewing closer to home. Since the overthrow of the Guatemalan government in 1954, the US government had paid little attention to Latin America, neither meddling with the countries there, or providing them with much in the way of assistance. Eisenhower had other things to worry about, and as long as nothing happened to rock the boat in Latin America, Eisenhower had little interest in what happened to the south.

The one disturbing element in this sleepy picture was Cuba, under the control of a Rightist dictator named Fulgencio Batista. Although Batista was agreeable to American economic domination of Cuba -- both by big American companies and the American Mafia -- his thuggish regime won him few friends among his Latin neighbors, and the Eisenhower Administration was not keen on backing him. There had been domestic resistance to Batista's rule from shortly after the 1952 coup that brought him to power, the resistance becoming a full-blown insurgency from 1956.

The insurgency was known as the "26th of July Movement", named after an attack on Cuban government barracks on that date in 1953. The movement was led by a charismatic Cuban revolutionary named Fidel Castro, his chief lieutenant being an Argentine named Ernesto "Che" Guevara, previously a medical doctor before taking up the banner of revolution. Batista lacked popular support, and his government was incapable of accomplishing much but theft; it was increasingly obvious that his regime didn't have a future. On 23 December, Undersecretary of State Christian Herter sent a memo up to Eisenhower that concluded "any solution in Cuba requires that Batista must relinquish power ... He probably should also leave the country."

That very same day, however, Secretary of State Dulles told an NSC meeting: "Communists and other extreme radicals appear to have penetrated the Castro movement." Further discussion left the president undecided on the matter, unwilling to support Batista, suspicious of Castro. Eisenhower concluded that if Castro did turn out to be trouble, "our only hope, if any, lay with some kind of non-dictatorial "third force", neither Castroite nor Batistiano."

Later events would prove Eisenhower wise in his careful qualification of that position. The situation in Cuba was not ending 1958 on a hopeful note for Eisenhower. He would later describe 1958 as "the worst year of his life". [TO BE CONTINUED]

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[THU 24 DEC 15] WINGS & WEAPONS

* WINGS & WEAPONS: As discussed by a WIRED Online blogs ("The Glider That's Aiming to Fly Higher Than Any Plane Ever" by Jordan Golson, 25 September 2015), a group led by Airbus is now planning to fly a sailplane, the "Perlan 2", to an altitude of 27,400 meters (90,000 feet). The sailplane will be hauled into the air by a tow plane and then released, to then use "wave lift" -- the upward current of air created by wind blowing over a mountain range -- to soar to the heights.

The current altitude record for a sailplane is held by the "Perlan 1", which billionaire Steve Fossett and a copilot took to over 15,450 meters (50,700 feet) in 1996. The Perlan 1 could have gone higher, but the lack of cabin pressurization prevented the two aircrew from doing so. The 815 kilogram (1,800 pound) Perlan 2, with a wingspan of 25.6 meters (84 feet) does have cabin pressurization; the two aircrew will breathe pure oxygen, with a re-breather system to scrub out carbon dioxide. The sailplane will carry science instruments to perform high-altitude atmospheric research.

Perlan 2

At its operational altitude, the atmospheric density will be only about 2% that of sea level -- which is about the same as the atmospheric density of Mars. In the thin air, the sailplane will step out at a startling 640 KPH (400 MPH). If something goes wrong, the aircrew will be able to deploy a drogue chute to cause the Perlan 2 to lose altitude, but not too rapidly -- in the thin air, it could easily build up enough speed to tear itself apart. If the sailplane is not in flying condition any longer, a ballistic recovery chute may be deployed to bring it safely back to Earth. The Perlan 2 performed its first flight from Redmond, Oregon, on 23 September, where it was built by RDD Enterprises, an experimental aircraft shop. Plans are to have it go for the altitude record over the Andes in 2016.

* The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the Pentagon's "blue sky" investigation agency, is now working on the "Gremlin" program, which envisions launching drones for reconnaissance and electronic warfare missions from a larger carrier aircraft, and then recovering them again after they've completed their mission.

DARPA Gremlin drones

Bringing a drone back home to a ground base tends to require addition of landing systems, which adds to weight and complexity; it would be much simpler, at least from the mechanical point of view, to simply snatch them out of the air. An air-mobile launch and recovery platform would also make it easy to deploy drones over a battle area, and give them more reach. Although the Gremlin project is just in the initial investigation phase, DARPA envisions performing initial tests with a Lockheed Martin C-130 Hercules -- adding to the "Herky's" already impressive list of mission capabilities, from transport, to tanker, to electronic warfare, to gunship.

* As discussed by a related note from IEEE SPECTRUM Online ( "Watch This Massive Drone Launch and Recover Another Drone in Flight" by Evan Ackerman, 4 November 2015), military forces are fond of small fixed-wing drones for tactical use -- one example popular with US armed services being the Boeing ScanEagle, from the company's Insitu group.

These drones are relatively cheap, featuring better performance and more endurance than rotorcraft drones -- but they generally need to be launched by a bungee catapult or such, and getting them back down on the ground can be tricky. Some simply cut power and drop to earth, though that means designing them to handle impacts; others use a parachute, or they can be recovered by flying into nets, or snagging a cable. Nets or cable snags are the only options for recovery on small vessels.

Insitu has come up with an innovative approach to launch and recovery, in the form of the "Flying Launch And RecovEry System (FLARES)". FLARES looks like a giant quadcopter -- or maybe octocopter, the vehicle having four contra-rotating rotor elements -- on stilts. To launch a ScanEagle, FLARES hauls it to altitude; the drone fires up its engine, with FLARES then dropping it, and the ScanEagle flying away.

FLARES with ScanEagle

For recovery, FLARES takes off, with a tether connecting it to the ground, and the drone snagging the tether. The tether winch unwinds to reduce the shock of capture; once settled, FLARES descends with the drone to the ground. FLARES originally flew in 2014, performing its first recovery in August 2015. It was built with off-the-shelf parts; there's nothing all that demanding in its design, there being no great cause to worry about minimal weight, long flight endurance, or a great deal of digital smarts. As is, FLARES can handle a drone of up to about 20 kilograms (44 pounds) weight, which is a bit too light; Insitu wants to develop a FLARES that can handle about three times that much weight.

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[WED 23 DEC 15] VIRUSES AGAINST CANCER

* VIRUSES AGAINST CANCER: As reported by WIRED Online blogs ("The FDA Just Approved One Cancer-Killing Virus -- Expect More" by Sarah Zhang, 29 October 15), biotechnology company Amgen has now received FDA approval for its new cancer treatment, "Imlygic". On the face of it, Imlygic doesn't seem much to write home about: a full treatment costs $65,000 USD, and it only extends the lives of melanoma (skin cancer) patients by an average of 4.4 months.

The oncology (cancer research) community still sees Imlygic as a game changer. It's not really a drug as most would think of one: it's a live virus, the first to be approved as a treatment for cancer. It's not really a new idea either, one of the attractions being that the derangement of cancer cells that makes them proliferate out of control also undermines their defense against viruses. However, until recently, work on viruses to treat cancer went nowhere.

Imlygic is a re-engineered variant of the herpesvirus, a well-known agent of cold sores. To administer the drug, oncologists inject a dose of millions of viruses into the skin tumor. Not only are cancer cells vulnerable to viruses, the modified herpesvirus is biased towards attacking cancer cells, and then breaking them up. It was also modified to generate a protein that, along with the debris of the cancer cell, alerts the host immune system to attack the cancer cells, giving the treatment a double punch. In other words, Imlygic is a bit like a live-virus vaccine, though it also works more directly. Given our limited understanding of the immune system, there's still puzzlement over whether the immune system only attacks cancer cells infected by the virus, or then attacks all cancer cells indiscriminately.

Again, Imlygic is not very effective by itself, though it does have the advantage of very mild side-effects -- notably in comparison with chemotherapy, which is effectively carpet-bombing the body to get rid of cancer cells. The gentle side-effects also demonstrate the safety of the approach. Imlygic does show promise in combination with other drugs known as "checkpoint inhibitors", which suppress molecules that restrain the immune system. One small trial in which both approaches were used demonstrated a positive response in half the patients.

John Bell -- a cancer researcher at the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute, who helped pioneer the use of viruses to treat cancer -- says that Imlygic is significant not so much for what it is, but for what it promises: "What this really is, in the end, is proof of concept."

Oncolytic viruses work; they just have to work better. Bell is working with vaccinia, a virus related to smallpox, while Duke University researchers are experimenting with a poliovirus, and biotech company Oncolytics Biotech has a reovirus in clinical trials. Dozens more studies are underway. Imlygic is merely generation one.

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[TUE 22 DEC 15] DATA ANONYMITY?

* DATA ANONYMITY? It hardly seems a month goes by without news of the latest hacker raid on a corporate database. While the hackers are usually after credit-card numbers and the like, those databases may also have a lot of personal information that the unscrupulous could exploit. An article from THE ECONOMIST ("We'll See You, Anon", 15 August 2015), posed the question of whether the contents of large databases can be honestly kept anonymous.

As an instructional tale, a data researcher named Anthony Tocker decided, just for fun, to analyze taxi-ride data centered on the Hustler Club, a men's club in New York City. He found that there were distinctive clusters of source and destination addresses for the rides, clearly identifying regular customers. Names could have been easily linked to the addresses by scanning a voter-registration database -- but Tocker decided he'd had enough fun, and going further would have been asking for trouble.

Anonymized databases are often released to researchers, and sometimes are available to the general public as well. They have been cleaned of names and other personal details, such as phone numbers, addresses, and dates of birth. Such databases are often used in medical studies, and the people listed in the databases are generally happy to be of service. The problem is that it doesn't take much data mining, via cross-referencing of multiple databases, to tear anonymity to ribbons. Participants in genomics projects, promised anonymity in exchange for their DNA, have been identified by simple comparison with electoral rolls and other publicly available information. That's not an isolated example, either.

Every time the headlines proclaim such breaches of anonymity, the cry goes up for more controls. The confounding problem is that such data can be extremely useful. Modern cars, for example, record in their computers about how, when and where the vehicle has been used; analysis of such records may be able to reveal dangerous stretches of road. Similarly, an opening of health records, particularly in a countries with national health service, and cross-linking them with other personal data, might help find cures for afflictions such as Alzheimer's disease.

This is the dilemma of the information age: we want information to work for us, but don't want it to be used against us. The problem would be largely fixed if there were some way to provide bullet-proof anonymization of databases -- but current anonymization schemes are not remotely bullet-proof. Worse, there is no standardization of anonymization schemes, with each US state defining its own.

Some of those working on the problem don't think there will ever be any comprehensive standard. Paul Ohm, of Georgetown University in Washington DC, believes that the information environment changes too continuously to make it possible: "If we could pick an industry standard today, it would be obsolete in short order."

There are still things that can be done. Few believe that public release of anonymized personal data is a good idea any more; the consensus is that controls have to be placed on its distribution. Data could, for example, be maintained in a private environment, and only accessible to researchers on the basis of specific queries. Researchers should also be held to contractural obligations in their searches, with stiff legal penalties for misuse of data searches.

Cryptology also can play a role, with the encryption of both data and searches, but it's proven difficult to get to work in practice. Another scheme named "differential privacy" is favored these days. The idea is obscure individual records with randomized noise that is then factored out of the cumulative results. It's tricky too, but it has been used by the US Census Bureau to gather commuting data, while Google is tinkering with it to analyze user software through a browser plug-in. Much more work needs to be done on differential privacy to make it generally useful, however.

There is also an educational issue. Again, everyone wants to make use of data while simultaneously fearing its misuse, leading to widespread confusion over the matter. End users will need to be informed on the tradeoffs between utility and privacy, and how they can achieve the proper balance between the two. Most of all, they will need to learn that the age of innocence about personal data is long gone, never to return.

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[MON 21 DEC 15] FUTURE FLIGHT 2015 (3)

* FUTURE FLIGHT 2015 (3): Along with smarter interiors, airlines are now adopting smarter flight plans. The notion of "4D" aircraft trajectories -- airline flights scheduled by software to minimize flight time, particularly idle time in being stacked up and waiting to land. "Free-routing" seems like a straightforward and appealing idea, but as discussed by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("Free Flight", 6 September 2014), it has a big catch: if every aircraft is flying its own optimum route and schedule, how to they keep from colliding?

Traditionally, air traffic has been routed with a rigidity resembling that of trains on tracks, with airliners flying from sector to sector, each sector being under the control of an air traffic control (ATC) center that uses radar to keep tabs on the flights. ATC staffers communicate with pilots to over radio to instruct them on maintaining a safe separation, both horizontally and vertically, from each other. The routes are inflexible, cover only a limited amount of sky, and can force airliners to take zigzag routes.

The scheme was all that could be done at one time, but it is not only inefficient, growing air traffic is making it impractical. In the past 40 years, the number of airline passengers worldwide has grown tenfold to some 3.1 billion in 2013; by 2030, it is expected to reach over 6.4 billion. The manual approach to ATC is becoming unworkable.

Work is under way to bring ATC up to date. Although plagued by delays and budget constraints, America's "NextGen" ATC-modernization program is moving along; Europe is similarly working on the "Single European Sky" initiative, which will increase cooperation between a reduced number of control centers; while Japan also has a project in hand to renovate its ATC systems.

A critical aspect of the emerging new ATC order is the "Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B)", which will be compulsory for airliners in Europe by 2017, and in the US by 2020. ADS-B obtains an aircraft's position from navigation satellites, and sends out that position over radio datalinks, along with identification and other data. ADS-B is more precise than radar, allowing planes to be spaced more closely together.

The continuous, real-time tracking of aircraft by ADS-B, coupled with computing power and sophisticated software, also allows the flight paths of aircraft to be globally optimized. In a typical flight, a pilot may climb, descend, change course, and speed up or slow down many times -- but with "trajectory-based management (TBM)", as it's called, the flight path and altitude changes are minimized. One advantage is that aircraft will rarely, if ever, have to circle an airport in a holding pattern, waiting for their turn to land, their flight paths being adjusted so that each can make a smooth "continuous descent approach", and land in its own time slot. That not only saves fuel, it means less noisy throttling up and down of engines.

The aviation industry is, for good reasons, conservative, and TBM is not going to take over abruptly, with the old methods working alongside the new until the technology is in place, and everyone's comfortable with the system. Once in place, it is unlikely that a jetliner will ever simply disappear as did Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 in March 2014; the network will keep track of airliners, and quickly alert the ATC supervisors when an aircraft isn't flying as it should.

In addition, the new approach will make it much easier to operate drones in civilian airspace, providing the same instructions to guide robot aircraft as it does piloted aircraft. By offloading the intelligence needed to fly drones, TBM should boost the drone industry, and also pave the way to the era -- somewhere down the road -- when cargo planes and airliners are unpiloted.

European Union officials working on Single European Sky are highly enthusiastic about the prospects, saying it will triple the capacity of Europe's airways, while improving on safety, cost, and service. They even claim that aircraft will be able to land within a minute of their scheduled arrival time. We'll believe that when we see it. [TO BE CONTINUED]

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[FRI 18 DEC 15] THE COLD WAR (95)

* THE COLD WAR (95): Only a few days after the 1958 US elections, Khrushchev, possibly taking a page from Mao, decided it was his turn to rattle the cage of the Americans. A lavish "friendship meeting" of senior Communist leadership from all over had been set up in Moscow, with Khrushchev greeting them on 10 November. The expectation was that he would extend the usual bland, polite courtesies to his guests, but he chose instead to use the occasion to challenge the US and NATO over Berlin:

BEGIN QUOTE:

The imperialists have turned the German question into an abiding source of international tension. The ruling circles of Western Germany are doing everything to whip up military passions against the German Democratic Republic, against the Polish People's Republic, against all the socialist countries. Speeches by Chancellor Adenauer ... [and] the atomic arming of the Bundeswehr and various military exercises all speak of a definite trend in the policy of the ruling circles of Western Germany. ... The West German policy-makers would do well to consider more soberly the existing situation and desist from whipping up military passions.

... The armed forces that are being recreated in Western Germany are again headed by Nazi generals and admirals. The West German army is being trained in the spirit of the predatory aspirations of the Nazi Wehrmacht, in the spirit of revenge and hatred for the Soviet Union and other peaceable states. Moreover, the German militarists -- with the blessing of the Western powers, and primarily the United States -- are receiving nuclear weapons. ...

Economically, Western Germany is literally taking its West European allies by the throat. ...

... Is it not time for us to draw appropriate conclusions from the fact that the key items of the Potsdam Agreement concerning the maintenance of peace in Europe and, consequently, throughout the world, have been violated, and that certain forces continue to nurture German militarism, prompting it in the direction in which it was pushed before the Second World War, that is, against the East? Is it not time for us to reconsider our attitude to this part of the Potsdam Agreement and to denounce it?

The time has obviously arrived for the signatories of the Potsdam Agreement to renounce the remnants of the occupation regime in Berlin and thereby make it possible to create a normal situation in the capital of the German Democratic Republic. The Soviet Union, for its part, would hand over to the sovereign German Democratic Republic the functions in Berlin that are still exercised by Soviet agencies ...

... As for the Soviet Union, we shall sacredly honour our obligations as an ally of the German Democratic Republic -- obligations which stem from the Warsaw Treaty and which we have repeatedly reaffirmed to the German Democratic Republic. If any forces of aggression attack the German Democratic Republic, which is a full-fledged member of the Warsaw Treaty, we shall regard this as an attack on the Soviet Union, on all the Warsaw Treaty countries ...

END QUOTE

In blunt terms, Khrushchev was saying that if the Western powers didn't recognize East Germany, the Soviet Union would sign a separate peace treaty with East Germany -- which would be a peculiar exercise, since the East German regime was effectively a creature of the Soviet Union in the first place. The Soviet government would wash its hands of Berlin, turning it over to the East German government to deal with it as they liked -- as if they would dare stick their necks out without clearing it with the Kremlin first. If the East Germans then told the Western powers to get out of the city and put the squeeze on them to do so, the Red Army would back up the East Germans.

Khrushchev -- annoyed by the refusal of the Western powers to recognize East Germany; West German re-armament; the ever-growing economic power of West Germany, while East Germany fell behind; and the indigestible irritant of a divided Berlin behind the Iron Curtain, through which East Germans were fleeing at a growing rate, slowly bleeding down East Germany -- was making a grandstand play. Llewellyn "Tommy" Thompson, the US ambassador to the Soviet Union, who knew Khrushchev about as well as any American did, believed Khrushchev was trying to force a summit meeting on the German question. Thompson judged the goals were to obtain recognition for the GDR and to make West Germany a nuclear-free zone, but remained "baffled" at the logic behind Khrushchev's move. Many senior Soviet leaders were equally baffled, since Khrushchev hadn't bothered to discuss the initiative with them beforehand.

Khrushchev wasn't much more forthright with them afterwards either, but nobody felt like seriously challenging him. While Khrushchev wouldn't have them arrested, much less shot, anyone who tried to stand up to him was likely to be sacked, then sent off to the back of beyond, and the premier wasn't inclined to listen to criticisms anyway. On 27 November, Khrushchev summoned American diplomats in Moscow away from their Thanksgiving dinner to deliver an ultimatum: if the Western powers did not sign a German peace treaty that recognized the GDR and turned West Berlin into a demilitarized "free city", the USSR would turn control of access to West Berlin over to the East Germans. Khrushchev had just fabricated a crisis that would sputter along nervously for four years. [TO BE CONTINUED]

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[THU 17 DEC 15] SPACE NEWS

* Space launches for November included:

-- 03 NOV 15 / CHINASAT 2C -- A Chinese Long March 3B booster was launched from Xichang at 1625 GMT (next day local time - 8) to put the "Chinasat 2C" geostationary comsat into orbit. The spacecraft was developed by the China Academy of Space Technology, and was believed to be a military comsat.

-- 04 NOV 15 / ORS 4 (FAILURE) -- A Super Strypi booster was launched at 0345 GMT (previous day local time - 10) from the Pacific Missile Range Facility at Barking Sands on the Hawaiian island of Kauai to put the "ORS 4 / HiakaSat" and 12 CubeSats into low-Earth polar orbit. HiakaSat was a 55-kilogram (121-pound) satellite from the University of Hawaii, with a hyperspectral imaging camera to test new Earth observation technologies for military and scientific applications.

Super Strypi booster

The Super Strypi -- AKA the "Low Earth Orbiting Nanosatellite Integrated Defense Autonomous System (LEONIDAS)" -- was a three-stage solid-rocket vehicle, about 20 meters (67 feet) long, launched from a rail. It was derived from a Cold War sounding rocket, having been developed by Sandia National Laboratories with assistance from the University of Hawaii, Aerojet and the US Defense Department. Other payloads on the flight included:

The rail-launched Super Strypi booster went out of control and broke up after about a minute of flight. The launch had suffered repeated delays, suggested the effort encountered difficulties; however, launch failures of new boosters are nothing all that unexpected. A retry is planned for 2016. Air Force estimates the Super Strypi launch system will cost about $15 million USD per flight once in production, with a goal of cutting the unit cost to $12 million USD.

-- 08 NOV 15 / YAOGAN 28 -- A Chinese Long March 4B booster was launched from Taiyuan at 0706 GMT (local time - 8) to put the "Yaogan 28" satellite into orbit. It was described as an Earth observation satellite, but was apparently a military optical surveillance satellite.

-- 10 NOV 15 / BADR 7, GSAT 15 -- An Ariane 5 ECA booster was launched from Kourou in French Guiana at 2134 GMT (local time + 3) to put the "Badr 7" AKA "Arabsat 6B" and GSAT 15 geostationary comsats into orbit. Badr 7 was built for Arabsat of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, by Airbus Defense & Space, being based on the E3000 comsat bus, with its communications payload provided by Thales Alenia Space. It had a launch mass of 5,798 kilograms (12,784 pounds), with a payload of Ka / Ku-band transponders, and a design life of 15 years. It was placed in the geostationary slot at 26 degrees east longitude to provide direct-to-home television programming and broadband services over the Middle East, Africa and Central Asia for the Arabsat firm.

Badr 7 & GSAT 15 attain orbit

GSAT 15 was built and operated by the Indian Space Research Organization. It had a launch mass of 3,164 kilograms (6,975 pounds), with a payload of 24 Ku-band transponders plus a "GPS Aided GEO Augmented Navigation (GAGAN)" system, and a design life of 12 years. It was placed in the geostationary slot at 93.5 degrees east longitude, to provide communications services for the Indian subcontinent, including secure and emergency communications, navigation, and video broadcast.

-- 17 NOV 15 / EKS 1 (COSMOS 2510) -- A Soyuz-2.1b booster was launched from Plesetsk at 0634 GMT (local time - 4) to put the first "Integrated Space System" -- "EKS" in its Russian acronym -- satellite early-warning satellite into highly elliptical orbit. It was assigned the designation of "Cosmos 2510". EKS replaced the "Oko" early-warning satellites, the last of which was launched in 2012.

-- 20 NOV 15 / LAOSAT 1 -- A Chinese Long March 3B booster was launched from Xichang at 1607 GMT (local time - 8) to put the "LaoSat 1" geostationary comsat into space for the government of Laos. LaoSat-1 was the first Laotian satellite, and the first spacecraft to use the "Dongfanghong (DFH) 3B" bus, from the China Academy of Space Technology (CAST).

The DFH-3B bus is the latest in the DFH-3 series, which defines a comsat bus in the medium-high range of capability. It features a hexahedral structure, consisting of propulsion, service and communication modules, communication antennas and solar arrays, with 3-axis stabilized attitude control. The bus is applicable to communications and navigation satellites, as well as deep space probes. Typical launch mass is 3,800 kilograms (6,118 pounds). The communications payload on LaoSat-1 consisted of 14 C-band / 8 Ku-band transponders; design life was 15 years. The satellite was placed in the geostationary slot at 128.5 east longitude, to provide communications services to Laos and Southeast Asia.

-- 24 NOV 15 / TELSTAR 12V -- An H-2A booster was launched from Tanegashima at 0650 GMT (local time - 9) to put the Telesat "Telstar 12 Vantage" geostationary communications satellite in space for Telesat of Canada. Telstar 12V was build by Airbus Defense & Space, being based on the Eurostar 3000 bus; it had a launch mass of 4,800 kilograms (10,580 pounds), a payload of 52 Ku-band transponders, and a design life of 15 years. The satellite was placed in the geostationary slot at 12 degrees west longitude to provide broadband communications coverage over the Americas, the Atlantic, Europe, the Middle East and Africa. This was the first commercial flight of the H-2A; the rocket was in the "204" configuration, with four solid rocket boosters.

-- 26 NOV 15 / YAOGAN 29 -- A Chinese Long March 4C booster was launched from Taiyuan at 2124 GMT (next day local time - 8) to put the "Yaogan 29" satellite into orbit. It was described as an Earth observation satellite, but was apparently a military radar surveillance satellite -- previously launches of such being believed to have been Yaogan 1 (launched 2006), Yaogan 3 (2007), and Yaogan 10 (2010).

* OTHER SPACE NEWS: The use of chlorophyll fluorescence to map vegetation concentrations from space was mentioned here in June, the entry also mentioning that the ESA was considering a satellite dedicated to the mission, named the "Fluorescence Explorer (FLEX)". The other shoe has now dropped, the agency having committed to the mission, with launch scheduled for 2022.

FLEX in orbit

The FLEX mission will cost about $300 million USD, the goal being to track the health and stress of plants over the globe. The FLEX satellite's instrument -- the "Fluorescence Imaging Spectrometer (FLORIS)" -- will observe plant fluorescence in blocks of about 90,000 square meters (22 acres), enough resolution to map individual agricultural and forestry management units.

FLEX follows a series of earlier ESA "Earth Explorer" missions:

Future Earth Explorer missions include the "ADM-Aeolus" wind measurement satellite, to be launched in 2017; "EarthCare", a joint European-Japanese mission, to be launched in 2018 to study how clouds and aerosols reflect solar radiation back into space; and "Biomass", to be launched in 2020, which will use a Ku-band synthetic aperture radar to tally the mass of the world's forests, tracking their growth and contraction caused by seasons, climate, and human activity.

FLEX will fly in formation with one of ESA's "Sentinel 3" Earth observation satellites in a Sun-synchronous near-polar orbit at an altitude of 815 kilometers (506 miles). FLEX will be built by either be built by Airbus Defense & Space or Thales Alenia Space, will be launched by a Vega light booster from the European spaceport at Kourou, in French Guiana.

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[WED 16 DEC 15] THE TERMITE IMPACT

* THE TERMITE IMPACT: As discussed by an article from THE NEW YORK TIMES ("Termites: Guardians of the Soil" by Natalie Angier, 2 March 2015), visitors to the savannahs of Africa are usually impressed by the giant termite mounds that dot the landscape -- but it turns out their impact is more than merely visual, the mounds being important elements in their surrounding ecosystem.

Researchers at Princeton University and their colleagues have reported in the journal SCIENCE that termite mounds may serve as oases, with the plants surrounding them able to survive on a fraction of the rainfall they would need to live away from the mounds, to bounce back when the rains return. Corina Tarnita, one of the authors of the report, an assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Princeton, commented: "Even when you see desertification start to happen between the mounds, the vegetation on or around the mounds is doing so well, it will keep reseeding the environment."

When most people think of termites, they envision vermin that can wreck a home -- but only a few of the roughly 3,000 known termite species are pests. Most species burrow into the soil, and are responsible for its health. David Bignell, a termite expert and emeritus professor of zoology at Queen Mary University of London, is an admirer, saying: "They're the ultimate soil engineers."

termites

As they dig through the ground, they leave holes, "macropores", that can allow rain to soak deep into the soil, instead of running off or evaporating. The termite lifestyle also results in the construction of a mix of inorganic materials -- bits of sand, stone, and clay -- and organic materials -- leaf litter, discarded exoskeletons, and the occasional squirrel tail or such -- that help the soil retain nutrients and resist erosion. Termite feces and other body excretions lend structure and coherence to the soil, also prevent erosion. Finally, in the termite's gut are energetic nitrogen-fixating micro-organisms, able to extract the element from the air and convert it into fertilizer, benefiting the termite host and the vast underground economy. Bignall says: "Overall, termites are extremely good for the health of the soil."

Their collective behavior, "swarm intelligence", is proving an interesting field of research as well. In a new study of "panic escape" behavior among termites as they run from danger, researchers at Louisiana State University Agricultural Center found that termites do not act panicky when they are experimentally disturbed; they don't act like a mob of humans trying to get out of a theater on fire, or even like ants whose nest has been disturbed. Instead, the LSU researchers found that when they placed 110 termites on round plastic dishes and gave the plates a shake, the termites started running in an orderly, rules-based fashion, depending on whether they were ordinary workers, or soldiers dedicated to nest defense:

Although they couldn't escape the dishes, the termites would continue to seek an exit; if one stumbled, those behind it would stop and wait for it to right itself. Ants, in contrast, can crowd over each other and get trapped at exits or intersections. Possibly termites have benefited from a bit more practice: they were one of the first animals to form societies, about 200 million years ago, or 50 million years earlier than the emergence of colonies of ants, or their hymenopteran cousins, the bees.

All eusocial insects share a common general policy: a strict division of labor, and the assigning of colony breeding privileges to a single large, long-lived, continuously egg-laying queen. However, although the majority of individuals in an ant nest or beehive are sterile, closely related females, a termite colony is roughly 50:50 males and females, brothers and sisters.

How colonies emerged is somewhat puzzling from an evolutionary point of view, since within every species there is a competition between individuals to propagate their own genes, each lineage either propagating or dying out. In eusocial organisms, there's a blurring of the concept of "individual", with the competing lineages identified not with single organisms, but with a "hive" of organisms sharing a more or less common genome. The collective capability of the hive ensures that it passes that common genome on to the next generation of hive, in competition with other hives.

In the evolutionary race, termites have been undeniably successful, both in terms of longevity, and in terms of quantity. Taxonomically, as Bignell puts it, they're considered "a superior kind of cockroach", but termites account for a far greater portion of the world's insect biomass than do all the other cockroaches combined. In the tropics, where social insects rule, the termites outweigh the ants hundredfold.

With the help of symbiotic bacteria and protozoa packed into the termite gut at what might be the highest microbial densities in nature, termites thrive by eating what others can't or won't: wood, dung, lichen, even dirt. The prominent mound-building termites of Africa, have also obtained an external symbiont, a fungus, which they cultivate in the mound's tunnels and galleries. The termites eat a small portion of the fungal spores, using the fungal enzymes to help break down their more fibrous food sources. The termites in turn offer their fungal partners plenty of water, nourishment and a clean, safe, temperate and well-ventilated environment free of competing fungal strains.

termite mount, Ghana

The mounds of course protect the termites -- from being dried out by the hot sunlight, from being drowned by downpours, from being eaten by predators. The biggest African mounds can measure 9 meters high and 24 meters across (30 x 80 feet), and house millions, tens of millions of termites. The mounds are refuges for plants, fungi and large herbivores, too. In Mozambique's Gorongosa National Park, antelope like bushbuck and kudu often gather around termite mounds, and not just for the plants that grow around them. Robert Pringle, an ecologist at Princeton and another author of the report in SCIENCE: "The mounds are cooler in the heat of day and warmer at night. They're a very pleasant place to hang out."

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[TUE 15 DEC 15] PROGRESS AGAINST AIDS / STAPH VACCINE

* PROGRESS AGAINST AIDS: As reported by THE ECONOMIST, the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) released its latest report on 24 November, in advance of World AIDS Day on 1 December. According to the report, although 1.2 million people died from AIDS in 2014, that number was down from 1.3 million the previous year, and from a peak of 2 million in 2005. The fall in the death rate, along with new infections, does have the result that the number of those infected has risen, to 36.9 million, from 36.2 million in 2013. Fortunately, the number of new infections is down -- to 2 million in 2014, compared with 2.1 million in 2013 and 3.1 million at the peak in 2000.

UNAIDS

Much of the credit for this goes to the widespread use of antiretroviral (ARV) drugs. In June 2015, 15.8 million of those infected were on ARVs, up from 13.6 million in June 2014. Just as important, there's no shortage of funds for fighting AIDS. In 2014, more than $20 billion USD was raised for spending on dealing with AIDS in poor and middle-income countries. For 2015, it looks as if the figure will be between $22 billion and $24 billion USD.

The short-term aim, to be attained by 2020, is what UNAIDS calls "90-90-90": 90% of those infected will be aware of the fact; 90% of the aware will have sought and received treatment; and 90% of the treatments will be effective. Effectiveness means reducing the "viral load", the level of the HIV pathogen in blood samples, to an undetectable level. The "90-90-90" goal means reducing the viral load into the noise in 75% of all those infected with AIDS.

The low viral load will not only allow victims to survive AIDS, it will make it less likely that they will pass AIDS on to others. Along with other measures -- such as circumcision (which reduces the odds of infection by 60%), the use of condoms, and prophylactic drug treatment for those at particular risk -- will bring the new-infection rate down sharply to 2020.

After that, progress will tougher, since most of the "low-hanging fruit" on the tree of measures will have been picked, with the rate of decline of both of new cases and of deaths leveling off. UNAIDS wants to "end the epidemic" by 2030, the "end" being defined as reducing AIDS-related deaths to 10% of those of 2010. Those working against AIDS feel confident that the pandemic will ultimately be defeated; still, how long it will linger on remains to be seen.

* STAPH VACCINE: In other tales of efforts to control deadly pathogens, as reported by BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK ("The Quest for a Vaccine Against a Killer Bug" by Cynthia Koons, 8 October 2015), mutant strains of the Staphylococcus aureus bacterium have been a growing threat in hospitals around the world. Although S. aureus is normally found on human skin and causes no trouble, some strains can be lethal if they invade the lungs or bloodstream, and they have increasingly become resistant to antibiotics. One antibiotic-resistant strain frequently found in hospitals is responsible for about 75,000 serious infections and 10,000 deaths in the US each year, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Protection.

Attempts to develop a vaccine have not gone well; some candidates did provoke an immune response, but not one that gave protection against the pathogen. The bacterium is simply a difficult immunological target. Pharmaceutical giant Pfizer is still optimistic, having spent more than 15 years working on a staph vaccine, and is now engaged in a 2,600-person trial, to be completed in 2017.

The prototype Pfizer vaccine takes a multipronged approach: two of the vaccine's components go after the bacterium's external capsule, which cloaks the pathogen from the immune system; a third deprives the bacterium of manganese, which staph needs for its metabolism, and to fight the body's immune response; while a fourth targets the mechanism staph uses to establish itself in a victim's body. If the trial goes well, the US Food & Drug Administration is likely to approve the vaccine. It could be worth billions to Pfizer -- which would be highly valuable to the company, due to patent expirations of profitable blockbusters such as cholesterol treatment Lipitor and arthritis drug Celebrex.

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[MON 14 DEC 15] FUTURE FLIGHT 2015 (2)

* FUTURE FLIGHT 2015 (2): Advanced technology is not only changing the seating in first and business class on airliners, it's altering seating in economy class as well. In 2014, Air Mediterrane, a French carrier, pulled out the 220 economy seats in an A321, the seats having been obtained for about $300,000 in 2006, and replaced them with new, lighter seats. The lightweight seats, made by a Paris startup named Expliseat, weigh 4.2 kilograms (9.3 pounds) each, a little over a third of the weight of the old seat. The new seats, made of titanium and carbon fiber, also cost three times as much, but they are guaranteed to pay themselves off quickly in fuel savings -- saving a kilogram of weight, as a rule of thumb, cuts $100 USD off fuel bills over a year's time.

Expliseat

Alas, that doesn't mean economy passengers get more space; it means cramming in another row or two of seats. The race for "efficiency" has advanced along other fronts; there's been a general trimming back on the weight of seat cushioning as well, the weight of which per seat has been cut from 1.8 kilograms (4 pounds) to about a quarter of that now. Shrinking the seatback pocket and placing tray stowage higher on its seats has already helped Lufthansa of Germany increase seating on its Airbus A320 fleet from 150 to 168, says Samuel Engel of ICF International. Through the addition of new seats, Lufthansa gained the equivalent capacity of 12 new A320s.

Taking "efficiency" to a ghastly extreme, there's even been consideration of standing passenger accommodations, if they can be called that -- but safety regulations are likely to ensure that won't happen. Indeed, part of the agenda on improvement in seating design design for economy class is to make accommodations more bearable, airlines knowing that providing a better service gives a competitive advantage. One thing is to get rid of seat tilt, which is an absurdity in economy class, more trouble than it's worth to passengers on the balance, while adding weight and expense to a seat; Expliseat's titanium seat is a fixed-position seat. Another nice feature of the Expliseat product is that it has a flexible sheet in the rear, easier on the kneecaps, with an internal barrier in the back of a seat to prevent knees from hitting the person in front. Another trick dreamed up by PaperClip is a two-level armrest, to prevent clashing elbows between passengers.

There's been considerable work on improving the general ambience of airline flight, most significantly through "smart" LED lighting schemes. Boeing pioneered the concept on its 787 jetliner with the "Boeing Sky" scheme, using the lighting to simulate dusk and morning. Boeing researchers are expanding on the concept to make cabins seem roomier. Accentuating ceiling curves with sky-blue light generates a "sense of space expanding above", while bathing vertical surfaces in white light creates an illusion of greater width.

Boeing Sky interior

The 787 was also innovative in other respects. The aircraft features large "electrochromic" windows that trap a thin gel between two panes of glass; an electrical current is applied to darken the gel, allowing passengers to choose from five transparency settings. Since the 787 is mostly made of composite materials, not metal, the humidity can be higher, and the strength of the composite material allows pressures to be kept higher as well.

Of course, video displays on the back of a seat are fairly normal, even in economy class, at least for more modern jetliners; trendsetters also have USB sockets for powering gadgets, allowing passengers to use smartphones, tablets, or notebooks, with in-flight wi-fi now becoming increasingly common.

Work is being done on flexible thin-film displays using organic light-emitting diodes (OLEDs), providing yet another weight reduction. Epson of Japan is developing goggles for a "virtual reality" experience, with a South Korean airline putting them through operational test. One could ultimately see VR technology, coupled with cameras placed around the aircraft's fuselage, as allowing a passenger to see right through the aircraft, as if flying through the sky in a glass bubble -- though some might find that unnerving. Flying economy is not likely to be any less cramped in the future; but technology is likely to make the experience more bearable.

* In related news, one Craig Rabin has been promoting a slick, simple, and practical idea for the economy air traveler -- the "Airhook", which is intended as an alternative to the classic airliner tray table. The Airhook clips onto the top of the stowed tray table, with a cupholder on the front, and with a slot on top for a smartphone or tablet -- there's a cord with a clip at the end to keep the tablet snugged up. If the seat in front is tilted, the Airhook has a knob to allow its own tilt to be adjusted.

Rabin has got an enthusiastic response on Kickstarter, and plans to have the Airhook in production soon. It is interesting to imagine, the airlines always being interested in ways to enhance their offerings at the lowest price, new airline tray tables may be introduced that feature similar gimmickry. If a few pieces of plastic were added to a tray table, it would seem unlikely Rabin would be able to proclaim a patent infringement. [TO BE CONTINUED]

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[FRI 11 DEC 15] THE COLD WAR (94)

* THE COLD WAR (94): As with so many of the actions in the Cold War, the Taiwan Straits crisis of 1958 had been driven by domestic politics. Mao could now accelerate the collectivization of agriculture -- which meant, in effect, driving the peasants off their private holdings, however modest they might be, and consolidating them into communes. The communes would have a flavor of forced labor camps, with party cadres making sure peasants did what they were told, disobedience or recalcitrance being dealt with harshly. In the meantime, urban labor would be regimented to work on industrial development programs that were characterized by an excess of zeal and a deficit of methodical planning.

It is a truism, most aptly invoked relative to Mao, that revolutionaries are good at blowing up bridges, not so good at building them. Mao, entirely unlike Eisenhower, did not think much of technical experts and their advice, believing Communist doctrine was the true source of wisdom. In the late 1920s, Josef Stalin had conducted a massive campaign of forced collectivization of the Soviet peasantry that had proven a humanitarian and agricultural disaster. Mao certainly believed he could do better -- but just as with Stalin, the first priority was really to assert the state's, and Mao's, control over the people.

* With the fade-out of the second Taiwan Straits crisis, Eisenhower was able to return his focus to disarmament. On 31 October 1958, the "Conference on the Discontinuance of Nuclear Weapons Tests" began in Geneva. Although the president wanted to be flexible in the talks, saying that in the negotiations that he would prefer to "err somewhat on the liberal side", the talks did not get off to a great start, the two sides failing to agree on an agenda. The Soviets wanted a discussion of a comprehensive test ban, while the Americans wanted to discuss inspection schemes.

Matters were not helped by the fact that the Soviets performed two more nuclear shots after the beginning of the talks. However, Eisenhower had made it clear that if the USSR stopped testing for the duration, the US would as well, and so the Soviets ended their tests from 3 November. The Soviet delegation then agreed to put inspection at the top of the agenda, but then the talks ground to a halt again on the specifics of inspection.

Eisenhower wanted to move ahead, and so when Senator Albert Gore -- Democratic senator from Tennessee, a member of the negotiating team, father of nobelist and Vice-President Al Gore -- offered suggestions, the president was very willing to listen. Gore suggested that the US unilaterally declare a moratorium on above-ground weapons tests for three years; Gore said that the Soviets had been "whaling us over the head" on fallout from atmospheric nuclear tests, but if the US declared a halt, "the Soviets would have to do the same, or be put on the defensive, propaganda-wise." The president had mixed feelings about the idea; for the time being, he was noncommittal. Since a temporary moratorium was in effect anyway, he could think it over.

Eisenhower's frustrations over the weapons talks were aggravated by the outcome of the US mid-term elections in early November. The Republicans ended up being outnumbered by Democrats in both houses of Congress by almost two-to-one, with Democrat state governors trumping Republican governors by more than two-to-one. This was the third successive Congress to be controlled by Democrats. That was troublesome, but not more than Eisenhower could deal with. If the Republicans were in the doghouse with the electorate, Ike remained popular and respected by the public. He was also on fair terms with Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson and House Majority Leader Sam Rayburn. There were differences of opinion, of course, but the president found Democratic leadership less troublesome than hardline Republicans in Congress. [TO BE CONTINUED]

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[THU 10 DEC 15] GIMMICKS & GADGETS

* GIMMICKS & GADGETS: Adobe has finally declared the end of their much-despised Flash multimedia system. Flash, which was something of a marvel when it was introduced, gradually became a klunky mess that was riddled with security holes. Unfortunately, all that Adobe is planning to do is change the name to "Animate", add some new features, and leave it the same treacherous mess it was before.

The only really good news is that Adobe has, in announcing the name change, acknowledged that the future is HTML5. According to an Adobe representative: "We've always been at the forefront of HTML5 design and development, and have embraced it as the future of the web platform."

When will that future arrive? HTML5 is already making inroads against Flash -- to hell with the name change -- in online advertising. However, large portions of the internet are still reliant on Flash, and they're not going to give up on it overnight. As a result, neither is Abode. Nobody can say when Flash will go away. More ominously, do we have any guarantee that HTML5 will be any more secure? As Flash fades, the Black Hats are certain to shift their attention to HTML5, and nobody can say at present whether it will stand up to the onslaught any better.

* Although vacuum tubes would seem to have died out in the 1960s, "vacuum electronic devices (VED)" are still in common and essential use. Microwave ovens are driven by a microwave VED, the magnetron, which dates from World War II. Communication satellites use traveling wave tubes (TWT) to generate high-power transmission signals. The tubes have high power output, are efficient, and very reliable. The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the Pentagon's "blue sky" investigation office, is now conducting a "Innovative Vacuum Electronic Science and Technology (INVEST)" program towards the development of a new generation of VEDs for operation at higher frequencies.

The US military uses hundreds of thousands of VEDs. VEDs capable of operating at in the millimeter wave region that can outperform the current generation of devices will provide significant defense advantages. Higher power operation produces RF signals that are "louder" and thereby harder to jam and otherwise interfere with. Meanwhile, higher frequency operation brings with it vast swaths of previously unavailable spectrum.

According to Dev Palmer, the program manager for INVEST: "Any time you need to operate at the outer reaches of the power-frequency parameter space, vacuum tubes are the technology of choice -- but at the high millimeter-wave frequencies of interest to this program, the design and construction of VEDs is an intricate, labor-intensive process that requires exquisite modeling tools, exotic materials, and expensive, high-precision machining."

However, as frequencies increase, the fabrication of a VED becomes more troublesome, with an increase in cost and a fall in efficiency. INVEST will fund studies to improve the understanding of device physics; refine software to model and simulate VEDs; reconsider component design; and in particular, come up with new approaches to manufacturing. As Palmer says: "As you push frequencies up, you can't use conventional manufacturing techniques any more. If you could print the whole structure with a 3-D printer, so that everything was aligned right off the assembly line, it would make it much easier."

* PC maker Acer of Taiwan has now introduced a modular desktop computer, the "Revo Build Mini PC", the core module being a box or "brick", 13x13x5 centimeters (5x5x2 inches) in size, containing a lower-end Intel Celeron or Pentium processor with integrated graphics. The base brick also includes 8GB RAM, 32GB of solid-state storage, and I/O including three USB ports, HDMI-out, a display adapter port, Ethernet, and an SD card slot.

Want more functionality? Just stack up bricks, which snap together magnetically, with connectors top and bottom -- bricks including a 1 TB or 500 GB hard disk module, which can also be used with other computers over USB; a "Voice Block" brick with speakers and microphones; a "Graphics Block" brick with a fancy GPU for gamers and such; and a "Wireless Power Block" battery brick.

Revo Build Mini PC

The Revo Build Mini PC has already been introduced in most of the world, but not yet in the US. How honestly impressive it is is unclear, but to some mindsets, it sure it cute, and it does complement other efforts to modularize smartphones and tablets. If it were to become something of a standard, with multiple vendors selling modules for it, it might build up some momentum -- but I wouldn't guarantee that happening.

[ED: It didn't, the introduction of the product was half-hearted, with only the core and none of the accessory modules. It was as if the company had lost confidence in the product and didn't have the guts to stop the introduction.]

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[WED 09 DEC 15] CRETACEOUS CLIMATE

* CRETACEOUS CLIMATE: As discussed by an article from AAAS SCIENCE ("Dinosaur Climate Probed" by Jane Qui, 12 June 2015), it has been firmly established that a giant asteroid struck the Earth 66 million years ago, the crater now being buried under the Yucatan, centered on the town of Chixulub. The impact effectively marked the end of the age of dinosaurs -- but, since the discovery of the buried crater, it has become increasingly obvious it didn't do the job by itself.

Drill cores of an ancient lakebed in northeastern China now show that the Earth's climate was undergoing violent swings in the millennia leading up to the impact, with average annual temperature going up or down by as much as 20 degrees Celsius (36 degrees Fahrenheit) over intervals of tens of thousands of years -- an eyeblink on the geological scale of time.

The Songliao Basin covers 260,000 square kilometers (100,000 square miles), about the size of New Zealand. During the Cretaceous, the last age of the dinosaurs, the basin was a gigantic lake for 80 million years, with its sediments reflecting climate changes. According to Page Chamberlain -- a paleoclimatologist at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, and a principal investigator of the Songliao International Continental Scientific Drilling Project -- the sediments "provide a unique record of what the land environment was like during this turbulent time."

Over the past decade, the drilling team, led by geologist Wang Chengshan of the China University of Geosciences in Beijing, has probed 2.6 kilometers (1.6 miles) into the basin, below the "K-Pg" boundary between the Cretaceous and the Paleogene periods. By examining oxygen and carbon isotope ratios in the sediment cores, they could track the seesawing temperatures during the last 6 million years of the Cretaceous, an age known as the Maastrichtian.

While marine sediments from that time also reflect climate changes, Songliao is a better source of information. It's at relatively high altitude, which tends to amplify climate changes; and since its sediments accumulate about ten times faster than oceanic sediments, it provides a more finely-grained record. However, according to Stephan Graham -- a sedimentary geologist at Stanford University and another principal investigator of the project -- the ancient lake was much better positioned to record climate changes in the interior of a landmass.

The sediments reveal not only the extent of the temperature swings, but also a likely cause. Two major Maastrichtian warming events captured in the Songliao cores -- 68 million years ago and 66.3 million years ago -- coincide with massive eruptions of the Deccan Traps, a volcanic region in present-day India. That second warming event was well bigger, resulting in a rapid doubling in atmospheric carbon dioxide. The intense greenhouse effect drove average temperatures to about 22.3 degrees Celsius (72.1 degrees Fahrenheit), compared with 5 degrees Celsius (41 degrees Fahrenheit) at Songliao today. Adding to the climate turmoil, the warming was interrupted just after the K-Pg boundary by a brief cooling episode -- presumably dust, soot, and aerosols from the Yucatan impact.

As climate went wild, ecosystems changed. The Songliao sediments trapped spores, pollen, algae, and ostracods (seed shrimp). The researchers were startled to find that some of the species typical of the Paleocene -- the geological epoch following the Cretaceous -- emerged several million years before the K-Pg boundary. Wang says that turnovers in the biota were already in progress when the asteroid struck. Other studies have suggested that the number of non-avian dinosaur species shrank by half in the last 10 million years of the Cretaceous, with the biggest losses occurring in the Maastrichtian. The Chicxulub impact was, Wang says, "the straw that broke the camel's back."

Wang is now continuing his probe, drilling into the basin to as deeply as 6.4 kilometers (4 miles), all the way to the Jurassic-Cretaceous boundary, about 145 million years ago -- a time also marked by climatic havoc, mass extinctions, and species turnovers. The cores obtained will give researchers a record of the entire Cretaceous period, and a window into the final time of the great reptiles.

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[TUE 08 DEC 15] BIG OIL & CLIMATE CHANGE

* BIG OIL & CLIMATE CHANGE: As discussed by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("Nodding Donkeys", 14 November 2015), the 20th century was the era of fossil fuels. By the end of the century, the writing was on the wall; between the gradual reach of diminishing returns in fossil-fuel production and growing worries over climate change, there was no real doubt that the fossil-fuel era was coming to an end -- the only question being when.

Oil companies are of course critically affected by this issue; the response of their leadership has been inconsistent, with the bosses occasionally making efforts to see the future beyond oil, to then cover their heads again. In the 1990s, oilmen responded to criticism from environmentalists by launching campaigns to encourage debate about climate change, and by increasing their investment in renewable energy. Under John (now Lord) Browne, BP of the UK declared itself to be moving "Beyond Petroleum". Still, business is business; with the rise in crude oil prices, Big Oil scaled back its investment in marginal renewables, chasing after profits to be made in hydrocarbons.

Anxiety is setting in once again, provoked by a dramatic, if very likely temporary, drop in oil prices; the Paris climate-change summit of December 2015 also caught Big Oil flat-footed, the summit underlining a wide consensus that greenhouse-gas emissions need to be cut. It's not a deep consensus, to be sure, the actions pledged not being enough to head off an increase in global temperature of two degrees Celsius (2DC) by 2100 -- but having taken the first step, who would then believe that further steps were not likely to follow?

The hint to leaders of oil firms is that their expectations for the continued rule of oil are unrealistic. Exxon Mobil, the world's biggest publicly-traded oil company, claims that fossil fuels will still account for three-quarters of primary energy demand even in 2040, only slightly below their current share. However, the International Energy Agency (IEA), a body that represents oil-consuming countries, says that to keep under 2DC, fossil fuel use would need to fall to 60% of the energy mix by 2040. That still means a lot of oil, but Fatih Birol, the executive director of the IEA, issued a warning on 10 November 2015: "There should be no energy company in the world [which] believes that climate policies will not affect their business."

Some oil majors are scrambling to line up with the new order, or at least to present the image that they are. In October 2015, the heads of ten big oil and gas companies -- unfortunately, none of them from the USA -- officially endorsed the adoption of measures to keep the temperature rise beneath 2DC. Many are revising their energy portfolios by enhancing production of natural gas, which creates less carbon dioxide than oil for each unit of energy liberated. Anglo-Dutch oil company Shell is buying up BG, a British firm with big gas reserves.

Others are investing in renewables. Total of France has a majority stake in SunPower, one of the world's biggest solar-power firms. Eldar Saetre, the boss of Statoil, Norway's highly-respected state-run oil company, says that in 15 years there may be more opportunities outside oil and gas than within. BP executives have now conceded the risk in developing reserves that may never be tapped -- one company analysis showing that only a third of all the estimated fossil fuels that might be extracted could be burned without exceeding the two-degree goal.

Partly buoyed by growing demand for oil in the developing world, oilmen are still confident of the future, believing that there are three ways to stay in the fossil-fuel business, while still reducing greenhouse-gas emissions:

Many oil firms, including Exxon, are also calling for governments to slap a "carbon tax" on emitters of greenhouse gases. Critics snipe that they have ulterior motives for doing this -- first, because it hurts coal producers in particular, boosting the gas business; and second, because a carbon tax may be politically impossible in many countries, particularly in the developing world, and so it amounts to little in practice anyway.

However, Big Oil leadership is also becoming painfully aware that if a carbon tax isn't implemented, governments will turn to much less predictable and more painful methods in the battle against climate change that will make life very difficult for oil producers. Exxon is now being investigated by the office of the attorney-general for New York for allegedly covering up company research, back to the 1970s, on the threat of climate change. Exxon replies that it has long disclosed information about the risks to its business from climate change, and from action to deal with it, in reports to its shareholders. If that's what the reports say, Exxon should be able to dodge the bullet.

The problem is, there's always more bullets. The public is inclined to see villains, and so politicians have an incentive to hunt for them. The political threat to Big Oil is becoming increasingly obvious, as is pressure from shareholders worried about dead-end investment in oil production. Current events are lending an edge to such considerations, with the energy glut -- not climate-change action -- forcing majors to abandon high-cost reserves in the Arctic, Canada, North Sea and Gulf of Mexico. One oil executive describes it as a "practice run" for the day in the future, possibly not so distant, when nobody with sense will be able to deny that the fossil-fuel era has had its day.

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[MON 07 DEC 15] FUTURE FLIGHT 2015 (1)

* FUTURE FLIGHT 2015 (1): As discussed by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("Flying Into The Future", 30 May 2015), envision riding the airliner of 2050 into New York City's JFK Airport, as imagined by European aerospace giant Airbus.

This future airliner will have a composite structure that mimics the bones of birds, permitting strength with light weight. The upper part of the cabin is covered by a plastic sheet that can selectively turn transparent or opaque, eliminating the need for windows, which also helps cut weight while increasing strength. The sheet also provides a video display, providing a night sky for passengers who are coming in from another time zone, with an artificial sunrise waking them up on arrival. The seating is "smart", able to adjust to different bodies, and with reprogrammable spacing; there are no permanent class sections on the airliner. The seats will raise and become firmer for landing.

Bits and pieces of this vision are already available in modern airliners. While aircraft aerodynamics, propulsion, and avionics are obviously major factors in airliner design, the design of interiors has become an issue that increasingly rivals them in importance, with airliners spending vast sums to stay up to date -- about $10 billion USD in 2015, 5% more than in 2014.

The airline business is very price-sensitive, leading to a tendency to cram passengers into the economy section. The seat pitch in standard economy class -- pitch being measured as a point on one seat to the same point on the seat in front -- is typically between 78 centimeters (31 inches) and 82 centimeters (32 inches). Spirit Airlines, a budget American carrier, has trimmed the pitch of its economy seats to just 71 centimeters (30 inches). The airlines euphemistically label shrinking seating density "efficiency".

The conflict between the price sensitivity of airline tickets and the need for passenger comfort has led to a multiplication of airline classes, the next step up from the unpleasant baseline being what are called "premium classes". There's still a divide between the luxury business and first classes. At the very top end, the uber-rich can buy a ticket for what amounts to a small apartment, serviced by a butler and a chef.

However, the real money is in business class, with about ten times the seating overall as first class. Competition has ensured that business class at least matches and can often exceed the first-class accommodations of a decade ago; a business-class seat that doesn't lay out into a flat bed is behind the times. There's a lot of work in figuring out ingenious ways to obtain the most comfort with the smallest space and cost. Paperclip Design of Hong Kong has come up with a concept called "Butterfly", in which the basic unit is a double seat, with the aisle seat offset to the rear. Both seats are used in premium economy, but the unit can be easily converted to business class by reconfiguring it to a single sleeper seat. Some designers have considered stepped or stacked seating arrangements, but so far airlines haven't been enthused about such "3D" concepts.

Design of a business-class sleeper seat can take several years, and the cost of a top-end seat might be $350,000 USD each, once kitted up with electronics. It's not the electronics that so much drives the cost, however, but the fact that the seat has to be highly crash-resistant; in 2009, the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) mandated that the existing requirement for handling 9 gees of deceleration be raised to 16 gees. The need to ensure strength without imposing weight has led to increased reliance on lightweight composite materials, notably carbon fiber -- already increasingly used for airframe assemblies. [TO BE CONTINUED]

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[FRI 04 DEC 15] THE COLD WAR (93)

* THE COLD WAR (93): As the talks in Warsaw began, the shelling of Quemoy fell in intensity, being accompanied by occasional naval and air clashes with the Nationalists. One of the air clashes led to one of the quirkier tales of the Cold War. The US had been working for several years on air-to-air missiles (AAMs), one facet of this effort being development of the "Sidewinder" heat-seeking AAM. After the crisis broke out, the Americans shipped Sidewinders to the Nationalists, who were then to first use the missiles in combat. On 24 September, a Taiwanese F-86 fired a Sidewinder at a Chinese MiG; the missile didn't detonate, instead remaining lodged in the MiG. After the fighter landed, the Sidewinder was carefully disarmed and then, after some wrangling, handed over to the Soviets. They would copy the Sidewinder as their "K-13" AAM, which was assigned the reporting name "AA-2 Atoll" by NATO.

In any case, by early October the crisis, having been entirely artificial in the first place, was beginning to bore itself to death. At a Politburo session running from 3 to 4 October, Zhou Enlai suggested that the US goal in the crisis was to concede the loss of the offshore islands, but then seek to guarantee the security and independence of Taiwan -- a position consistent with US statements and actions, but which also was something of a logical consequence of the circumstances that Beijing had created. Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping agreed with Zhou, indicating that it was time to bring the action to a closure, saying that "the shelling had mobilized the Chinese masses, had mobilized world opinion, had played the role of supporting the Arab people, and had created dramatic pressure on American rulers."

Mao was agreeable, suggesting there was an advantage in leaving the offshore islands in Nationalist hands: the Nationalist occupation of the islands presented no real threat to the Communist state, and as long as the Nationalists were there, the islands were hostages, with China "tightening the noose" or loosening it, as events dictated. If they were seized, China would then lose political leverage, ensuring a greater tilt towards the dreaded "Two Chinas" scenario.

The trick was to conduct a propaganda campaign to convince the Chinese people, and hopefully enemies of the US elsewhere, that Beijing was not simply backing down. The bombardments were halted for the moment, with the Chinese government began a closed-doors diplomatic offensive to establish the new direction. On the morning of 6 October, a message was broadcast from Beijing radio stations to the world, calling for reconciliation; saying the bombardment had taken place to "punish the rampant actions" of the Nationalists; to emphasize that there was only one China, there would never be two; and that the "US imperialists are the common enemy of all of us." The message announced that the bombardment would be suspended for a week.

On 13 October, a two-week extension of the cease-fire was broadcast -- though a one-hour bombardment took place on 20 October, on the occasion of a visit by Secretary of State Dulles to Taiwan. Dulles was trying to persuade Jiang to retreat from the islands, but he wouldn't hear of it. On 25 October, another message was broadcast, announcing that shellings would only take place on odd days, with the Nationalists able to move without hindrance on even days. Eisenhower saw that announcement as underlining the absurdity of the confrontation, wondering "if we were in a Gilbert & Sullivan war." The Nationalists drew down their forces on the islands, and the alternating-day bombardments settled down into a long-term exchange of shells carrying propaganda leaflets.

The Communists would never take serious military actions against the islands again. The crisis was over, finally having run out of steam. It had never made any sense in strictly military terms, amounting to no more than an unrestrained display of fireworks. Such benefits as it had for relations with the rest of the world were intangible at best, and it did nothing to change the growing friction between Moscow and Beijing; if anything, it aggravated it. In terms of relations with the US, it had simply hardened the antagonism between the two countries, cementing American support for Taiwan.

As far as the opinion of the rest of the world went, Mao could extract as much satisfaction from that as he liked. As far as the Soviets went, his attitude was increasingly: to hell with them. Mao had, as far as he was concerned, showed Khrushchev just who was now carrying the Red torch of Karl Marx, and who had dropped it. As far as antagonism with the US went, that was precisely what Mao wanted. China had defied the mighty United States, in Mao's view showing it to be the "paper tiger" he claimed it was, and he had also reinforced the status of the USA China's number-one enemy. He needed a demon to maintain the revolutionary spirit of the Chinese people, and enhance his personal authority over his rivals. Taiwan was an issue, but its resolution would have to wait for new circumstances. [TO BE CONTINUED]

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[THU 03 DEC 15] SCIENCE NOTES

* SCIENCE NOTES: As discussed by an article from BBC WORLD Online ("Warming Set To Breach 1C Threshold" by Matt McGrath, 9 November 2015), according to the UK Met Office, global temperatures are set to rise more than one degree Celsius (1.8 degree Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels this year. Figures from January to September 2015 are already 1.02 degrees Celsius above the average from 1850 and 1900. If temperatures remain as predicted, 2015 will break all records since record-keeping began.

The Met's latest temperature information comes from a dataset jointly run by the Met Office and the Hadley Climatic Research Unit (HadCRUT) at the University of East Anglia. The HadCRUT database shows that in the first nine months of this year, the global mean temperature had just gone above 1 degree Celsius, hitting 1.02 degrees with a error factor of plus or minus 0.11 degree. The elevated temperature for 2015 is attributed to a a combination of carbon emissions, and the impact of the El Nino weather phenomenon.

The World Meteorological Organization, the UN's weather agency, says levels of carbon dioxide and methane, two key greenhouse gases, reached record highs in 2014. Since 2013, warming of the oceans and land surfaces has reached new heights. The year 2014 went down as the warmest year since records began, but it is likely that 2015 will go beyond that level. Researchers believe that 2016 is also shaping up to be a very warm year, and they expect that the one degree margin will become more firmly established in the coming years.

Peter Stott, head of climate monitoring and attribution, at the Met Office, offered a caveat: "This year marks an important first, but that doesn't necessarily mean every year from now on will be a degree or more above pre-industrial levels, as natural variability will still play a role in determining the temperature in any given year."

* As discussed by a note from AAAS SCIENCE NOW Online, almost a billion people in the developing world have no access to toilets, with haphazard latrine arrangements when they have latrines at all. A new study from the United Nations University Institute for Water, Environment, & Health suggests that improving sanitation would not only be good for the environment and public health, it could also be used to power millions of homes.

If all the openly defecated human waste were deposited in proper latrines, with the sludge were then collected and heated in kilns at temperatures exceeding 300 degrees Celsius (572 degrees Fahrenheit) to produce charcoal-like briquettes, it would yield up to 8.5 million tonnes of charcoal. The briquettes would have the same energy density as coal.

In addition, if the waste were fermented in tanks with methane-producing microbes, the gas generated could produce enough electricity to power an estimated 18 million households -- or be used for direct heating, or for transport. According to the UN report, the value of the gas produced by a toilet fermentation system would probably cover the costs of building and maintaining the system within just a couple of years.

* As discussed by a note from AAAS SCIENCE NOW Online, researchers have been using robot dummy owls to investigate bird alarm calls. Up to recently, the calls were seen as strictly local in operation; a bird saw a predator such as an owl, gave an alarm call, and other birds in the locale picked up on it.

The study showed that birds run a grapevine across the landscape, with birds hearing an alarm call and passing it on, the alarm traveling over a large area at surprisingly high speed. The researchers know the calls are distinct for different predators, and so may be able to distinguish between, say, a pygmy owl and a Cooper's hawk; the researchers also suggest other animals, such as squirrels and chipmunks, may eavesdrop on the calls, and at least know they suggest a predator is around.

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[WED 02 DEC 15] CLEAN POWER PLAN REVISITED

* CLEAN POWER PLAN REVISITED: The Obama Administration's "Clean Power Plan (CPP)", in which the Federal government handed the states a directive for reducing power plant emissions, was discussed here in August. As was expected by all, the plan has run into resistance -- but as reported by an article in THE ECONOMIST ("Mostly Over Bar The Shouting", 7 November 2015), there's less to the resistance than meets the eye.

Take, for example, Scott Pruitt, the Republican attorney-general of Oklahoma. Pruitt was elected to his office in 2010, and since then has consistently filed suits against the Obama Administration. It is then not surprising that Pruitt is leading the charge against the CPP, which he calls "constitutionally infirm". He has sued, as have 26 other states.

Under the CPP, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has given each state an emissions-reduction target to meet by 2030; how a state does so is pretty much up to the state government. Pruitt still feels the CPP is overbearing, saying it trespasses on states' rights by "trying to co-opt state officers to carry out Federal policy and Federal will." Pruitt feels that such measures can only be enacted by legislation, not executive action -- which, in the current political climate, would mean no such measures.

The first round of the legal fight will take place in the appeals court of Washington DC. It will be complicated; along with the suits from the states, 20 suits have been filed by private firms, mostly energy users and producers, with more such suits expected. A dozen states, mostly those run by Democrats, have filed petitions in support of the plan. If the case goes up to the Supreme Court, it won't be settled until 2017 -- and if a Republican administration is in power by then, it may well scrap the plan. However, in the meantime, the rules remain in effect, with no promise that they will be overturned. The litigants, faced with having to take action, are attempting to get the courts to suspend the rules until a decision is made.

Relative to the CPP, states fall into three categories:

It is questionable that state opposition has staying power. Polls now show that a majority of Republicans, and a substantial majority of Americans in general, accept that climate change is happening, and that something should be done about it. The number of stridently rejectionist states is falling, with a quiet pragmatism spreading. Only the day before Pruitt filed his suit against the Feds, Oklahoma's energy secretary, Michael Teague, hinted that the state may produce a compliance plan after all.

Pruitt insists he isn't flinching, but even Oklahoma has realized that the cost of complying with a plan that goes with the flow of current trends in America's energy mix -- principally, falling gas prices, and pre-existing environmental controls -- looks manageable. The costs of failing to comply, which would include suffering the humiliation of having a plan imposed onto the state by Washington DC, look painful by comparison.

The Supreme Court has already judged that the Obama Administration has a right to regulate carbon emissions, so the chances of legal challenges getting through the high court are poor. Nobody has any real idea who will take the presidential oath of office in 2017, meaning nobody can have confidence that the next administration will overturn the plan. Given the shift towards public acceptance of climate-change action, it isn't even clear a Republican administration would do so. Yes, executive action is never the preferred way to do the heavy lifting; but the Obama Administration has the good hand, and has played the cards well.

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[TUE 01 DEC 15] ANOTHER MONTH

* ANOTHER MONTH: It was just the American Thanksgiving holiday, fourth Thursday in late November -- the Canucks have Thanksgiving as well, but it's on the second Monday in October. In any case, US Thanksgiving is always marked by a parade in New York City, sponsored by Macy's department store, noted for helium balloons of cartoon and other pop-culture figures.

TIME Magazine Online provided a short history of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade, saying the first was in 1924 -- no balloons, but there were live animals in the parade, and it was also billed as a Christmas parade. That makes a certain amount of sense, because the following Friday is the kick-off to the Christmas shopping spree, known as "Black Friday", since it puts the accounts of retailers in the accounting black.

The first giant helium balloon, of Felix the Cat, appeared in 1927 -- it appears partly because live animals tended to get spooked by the crowds, and could be a threat to the crowds in turn. Although the parade continued during World War II, the balloons were grounded, since the military needed the rubber, with the helium being used by Navy blimps conducting coastal patrols. The balloons were revived after the war, with the 1946 parade being the first to be televised.

Things occasionally go wrong with the balloons, the worst case being in 1997, when high winds blew a Cat in the Hat balloon onto a lamppost; the resulting shower of debris put a woman in a coma for a month with head injuries. However, such difficulties are rare, with the parade having become an American tradition, featuring new pop icons and more diversity to keep up with the times. This year, the Angry Birds balloon made its first appearance, while the Snoopy balloon set a record for longevity, approaching its 40th appearance.

Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade 2015

I was online in the Amazon.com science forum on Thanksgiving, and somebody commented:

   Happy Thanksgiving!

To which I had to reply:

   Tell that to the turkey.

* I always put up my Christmas tree and plastic Santa on the Friday after Thanksgiving. I had a bit of trouble this time around; the tree's lights are hooked up to house power via an extension cord, with a plug-in switch on the end of the cord to allow me to turn the lights on or off. So ... I get everything set up, and turn on the switch. POP! I get a flash, a bit of smoke, and an acrid smell. As the saying goes: "It's smoke that makes these things work -- let the smoke out, they don't work any more."

Anyway, I tried another plug-in switch, nothing happened, no lights. Uh-oh ... do I have to replace fuses for the tree lights? That's always a pain. I have an old notebook PC on my kitchen table -- never mind why, that's another story -- and tried turning it on, it came on fine. Still, nothing seemed to work.

Then I remembered: That notebook has batteries in it. DUH. Further checking suggested I'd thrown a circuit breaker. I went into the garage; checked the breaker panel; spotted one with the indicator gone RED; reset it; and all was good. Well, not completely good, since the blinking of the lights on my tree is controlled by a remote, and the remote's battery was dead. Alas, instead of a convenient AAA cell, it was an A23 battery -- looks like an AAA cut in half. An A23 really is a battery, incidentally, not a cell like an AAA, the A23 being a pile of eight alkaline button cells under the skin, providing 12 volts total. They're used in garage-door openers and the like. No worries, I dropped by Walmart after going to the gym the next morning, and got a pack of two A23s.

* I enjoy these little household challenges -- if some more than others. I had a leaky hot-water tap in the kitchen, which wouldn't have been a big deal, but the shut-off valve would leak substantially if I tried to shut off the water to the tap. I think I damaged it while swapping out the garbage disposal.

Oh no, I had to go navigate the house crawlspace to shut off the house water; it's like a obstacle course designed to inflict injuries, and the shut-off valve is in the far corner of the house. I knew I had to do it, so I took the plunge, got parts from Home Depot store, and some hours later -- after multiple injurious trips through the crawlspace; mopping up water all over the kitchen floor from a blowout; and a rush trip back to Home Depot to get a more appropriate part -- I had the satisfaction of a hot-water tap that worked properly, plus a shut-off value that worked as well, so I wouldn't have to go through the same rigamarole again.

Despite all the little nicks, scratches, and bruises I picked up, the exercise wasn't any more trouble than I expected it was going to be. I don't know if that could be chalked up to being an optimist, or being a pessimist.

* Thanks to three readers for donations to support the websites last month. That is very much appreciated. I'm coming out somewhat ahead of the target I was hoping for this year.

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