jan 2016 / last mod jun 2017 / greg goebel

* 21 entries including: Cold War (series), natural food? (series), future flight (series), animal friendship, quantum entanglement satellite, tardigrades, airport security as farce, dark net pharmaceuticals, DAMPE dark matter probe satellite, Prakash gives sight to the congenitally blind, and Russian hackers.

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[FRI 22 JAN 16] THE COLD WAR (99)
[FRI 15 JAN 16] THE COLD WAR (98)
[FRI 08 JAN 16] THE COLD WAR (97)
[MON 04 JAN 16] FUTURE FLIGHT 2016 (5)


* NEWS COMMENTARY FOR JANUARY 2016: Worries about Russian control over Europe's supply of natural gas have been discussed here in the past, last in 2014. According to an article in BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK ("Gazprom Is Losing Its Market Muscle" by Elena Mazneva ET AL, 28 December 2015), in the currently flooded energy market, it's Russia that is getting more worried.

The Russian Gazprom organization, which sells gas to Europe, supplies about 30% of Europe's gas, which sounds like a lucrative business. However, Gazprom's profits have fallen by 70%, with the organization playing nice to customers in hopes of maintaining what profit it still has. To be sure, over the long term, Europe needs more gas -- the International Energy Agency (IEA) says Europe will import 77% of its gas in 2025, up from 63% now -- but competition means that Gazprom will not necessarily benefit. US companies will start shipping liquefied natural gas to Europe in 2016, while Algeria and Middle Eastern nations are also trying to increase sales.

In other words, it's a buyer's market. Gazprom's Siberian fields are operating far below capacity. Gazprom has been working on pipelines to China, but volume shipments of gas to China aren't expected to start up until 2019. For now, Gazprom has stopped threatening buyers with cutoffs of gas supplies in response to criticisms of Russia for actions in Ukraine; the Russians can no longer point a gun at customers, without realizing it is likely to shoot themselves in the foot.

* THE ECONOMIST amplified on Russia's economic problems in an article ("Russia's Economic Problems Move From The Acute To The Chronic", 23 January 2016), leading off with:


As the oil price tumbled from its mid-2014 peak of over $100 USD a barrel, Russia's exports and government revenues, heavily dependent on oil and gas, collapsed. GDP shrank by nearly 4%; inflation ran close to 13%. Having lost half its value against the dollar in the second half of 2014, the rouble dipped a further 20% in 2015. But in the autumn the contraction slowed. Vladimir Putin, Russia's president, triumphantly declared that "the peak of crisis" had passed.


OK, but no recovery is in sight. The oil market continues to hammer Russia, with the International Monetary Fund estimating that the country's economy will contract by 1% in 2016. Russian businesses do have healthier finances than they did in 2014, foreign debt having fallen by a third since that time. Banking is better off, thanks to sensible interventions by the central bank; oil companies are plugging along, in part because most of their revenues are in dollars, in part because taxes are progressive and not so painful when profits are low.

However, the low oil price is clobbering the government with growing deficits, with not much that can be done to change matters. Reserves are low; simply printing more money to pay debts would of course merely stoke inflation, while spending cuts would inflict pain on everyone. Russians are getting poorer, with GDP per person cut from $15,000 USD in 2015 to $8,000 USD now. Consumer spending has tanked, as has foreign travel; the street price of heroin, in roubles, has doubled in a year's time. Foreign investment has wilted, and may start going into reverse from defaults and divestments. Russian strongman Vladimir Putin has long maintained a surprising level of public popularity; but just how much Putin can Russians stand?

* Closer to home ... although I am inclined to tune out electioneering, particularly when it's as bizarre as it has been this season, Joe Klein, TIME magazine's witty, articulate, and perceptive columnist, had sharp observations on the ideological background of the current furor. No, he wasn't talking about the troglodyte Right -- Klein, after attending a Donald Trump public love-in, could not see Trump was capable of expressing complete thoughts -- but of the Democrats' bizarre refusal to disavow socialism. As Klein commented, his text being strongly edited down here:


A question is being asked, mostly by Republicans: What is the difference between a Democrat and a socialist? Democrats have been inclined to dodge this question, Hillary Clinton replying: "I can tell you what I am ... I'm a progressive Democrat."

That's not a bad answer in itself, but it doesn't answer what shouldn't be such a hard question. WEBSTER's describes socialism as: "A social system or theory in which the government owns and controls the means of production." How many Democratic politicians are opposed to capitalism in principle? Few to none; they think government should regulate the means of production, but not own it. Democrats know that "socialism" has always been a poison word in American politics, being mostly used as a sneer by the Right.

And yet, according to a recent DES MOINES REGISTER poll, 43% of Iowa Democrats describe themselves as socialists. What gives? Okay, they're not really socialists; they're European-style social democrats, who believe in some redistribution of wealth, and government control of essential public services, like the health care system. Neither are revolutionary notions: the question of how much government should redistribute has been the central argument in American politics since the passage of the graduated income tax in 1913, while even the vast majority of Republicans believe in Social Security and Medicare.

So we're talking about shades of socialism here, but the shades are still important. Take health care: Bernie Sanders is proposing socialized medicine, and Hillary Clinton isn't. The ObamaCare system, which Clinton supports, provides a framework for commercial insurers and health-care providers, with the government subsidizing the working poor, while providing Medicaid to support the dirt-poor and Medicare to support the elderly. While Clinton rejected socialized medicine, she couldn't bring herself to say so. Her campaign has instead charged that Sanders would raise taxes on the middle class to pay for it; true, but he'd eliminate insurance premiums.

In fact, the best argument against Sanders' health plan is the core case against socialism -- which Clinton's supporters raised after the debate -- and its next of kin, redistributionism: it lends undue power to state bureaucracy, and chokes off economic initiative. At their best, Democrats are like European conservatives, leaning toward more fairness, wary of too much government control.

Sanders actually has some good ideas. His notion of a tax on overheated Wall Street gaming would be a more effective control on financial markets than the ghastly thicket of regulations imposed by the Dodd-Frank bill. His support for big infrastructure spending is good, too; it needs to be done, it's a free-market approach, and it provides jobs for workers. Nonetheless, such ideas are more "progressive" than "socialist."

Sanders is unlikely to win the Democratic nomination, but even he should be worried about his party's confused attitude toward socialism. Socialism speaks of an overbearing, inefficient, bureaucratic state -- why, then, should Democrats hesitate to reject the label? So we have this strange election: Republicans race toward know-nothing chauvinism, and Democrats stumble over socialism, oblivious to the fact that both are entirely discredited ideas.


The fall of the Soviet Bloc thoroughly up-ended the authoritarian statism that Karl Marx had, without exactly realizing that he was doing so, established as the solution to the pernicious inequality to which capitalism is prone. In the aftermath, unfortunately, even though that issue remains with us, it seems we are left with a choice between two uninhabitable poles: a belief that government is, more than less, evil and the individual has no obligation to the collective; and the belief that capitalism is, more than less, evil, and the perceived needs of the collective nullify the rights of the individual.

To be sure, few will come right out and assert such extreme positions, but nonetheless, there appears to be little draw towards the middle ground: that capitalism is here to stay; that government has a necessary existence, and is obligated to provide for the common good; and that there needs to a fair balance between the rights of the individual, and the demands of the collective.



* WINGS & WEAPONS: Crowdfunding is now catching on in the aviation business, with a startup name "XTI Aircraft", founded by experienced industry figures, now conducting a campaign for the development of the "TriFan 600", a vertical take-off / landing (VTOL) executive aircraft.

The TriFan is envisioned as a six-seat aircraft, including pilot and five passengers, powered by twin turboshaft engines in the 1,865 to 2,090 kW (2,500 to 2,800 SHP) range. The twin engines drive three ducted fans, all three set to the vertical for take-off and landing. The two wing-mounted fans switch to horizontal for forward flight; while the embedded rear fan is disengaged, and covered by upper and lower doors.

XTI TriFan

The TriFan will have fly-by-wire flight controls and carbon-fiber composite construction. Gross weight is to be under 4,530 kilograms (10,000 pounds), with expected cruise speed to be around 640 KPG (400 MPH / 350 KT), and range towards the top end of the 1,430 to 2,220 kilometer (920 to 1,380 mile / 800 to 1,200 NMI) bracket. It's pretty and clever; we'll see if it happens.

* Low-cost airline EasyJet now plans to use quadcopter drones at ten maintenance facilities across Europe to inspect the company's Airbus A320 jetliners for hail and lightning-strike damage. Thomas Cook Airlines of Britain is also planning to use it to inspect bigger Airbus A330s.

The system was developed by the UK companies Blue Bear Systems Research and Createc. It was originally devised to inspect British nuclear facilities for contamination. EasyJet wanted something off-the-shelf, but the vendors said they could give them a more optimized system, better tuned to the job, with modest development work. It can take up to eight hours to visually inspect an airliner for damage, with platforms and cherry pickers needed to do the job; the drone can inspect an A320 in ten minutes.

The Rapid drones being used in the application weigh 4 kilograms (9 pounds); work is underway to cut their mass in half, customers believing that heavier drones could damage a jetliner in a collision. They are fitted with high-intensity lighting, a high-definition camera, and use a laser scanner for navigation indoors -- where GPS is not available -- as well as collision avoidance.

The system will only be partly autonomous at the outset, but the plan is to make it much more highly automated. At present, the Rapid drones can only be flown in an airport hanger; the team is working with regulators to obtain approval for outdoor inspections, the dream being that, someday, a drone will inspect an airliner every time it comes up to an airport gate.

* For a half-century, small- to medium-sized turboprop aircraft have been, well more often than not, been powered by the Pratt & Whitney PT6A turboprop, available in a range of ratings. General Electric (GE) is now working on a family of "advanced turboprop (ATP)" engines to challenge the PT6A, the immediate target being a new single-engine turboprop aircraft from Beech Textron.

The GE effort is focused on the power range from 970 to 1,490 kW (1,300 to 2,000 HP), with the work building on the smaller existing GE H80 turboprop engine, itself derived from the venerable Czech Walter 601 engine. The ATP will feature a powerful compressor, with a pressure ratio of 16:1, compared to no more than 10:1 in existing comparable engines; linked to a full-authority integrated propulsion control system that will govern both engine and propeller pitch as a unit. The engine will have 20% better fuel burn and produce 10% more power at altitude than comparable "existing turboprops" -- that is, the PT6A.

Advanced Turboprop

The ATP design is a "reverse-flow" engine, meaning the airflow does a U-turn to go through the combustor in the forward direction, with the exhaust doing another U-turn -- this reducing length and so weight. It use a compressor stage derived from that of the venerable CT7 (T700) engine, featuring four axial fan stages and a single centrifugal impeller stage, with titanium being used to implement the ATP compressor. The combustor is of annular ring configuration featuring advanced materials, being derived from that of the GE-Honda HF120 engine.

The power section downstream of the combustor includes a two-stage high-pressure (HP) turbine and three-stage low-pressure (LP) turbine, with advanced materials used in fabrication. GE officials see the combined digital engine / propeller control system as a particular advance, providing highly optimized operation. First bench test of the ATP is expected in 2018. No details have been released of the Beech Textron single the ATP will power, though such an aircraft has been anticipated, as a complement to the popular Beech Super King Air turboprop, and is the focus of considerable curiosity.



* ANIMAL FRIENDSHIPS: As discussed by an article from THE NEW YORK TIMES ("Learning From Animal Friendships" by Erica Goodejani, 26 January 2015), videos of different species of animals playing or getting cozy with each other are a YouTube staple. They might well be judged merely amusing and corny, but some scientists are finding the idea of inter-species friendships more interesting.

The idea that different species may form cooperative relationships is not new. Biologists, for example, have documented collaborative hunting between groupers and moray eels. And in the middle of the last century, Konrad Lorenz and other ethologists demonstrated that during critical periods after birth, certain birds and other animals would follow the first moving object they saw, whether animal, human or machine, a phenomenon known as "imprinting". Lorenz was famously photographed with a gaggle of imprinted geese trailing behind him.

The idea that different species might just like each other's company has traditionally been seen as Disneyish anthropomorphism, and many researchers are still skeptical. However, many studies of animals show other species have abilities once regarded as distinctly human, including some emotions, tool use, counting, certain aspects of language, and even a moral sense. Barbara Smuts -- a primate researcher at the University of Michigan, who in 1985 shocked some of her colleagues by applying the word "friendship" to describe bonds between female baboons -- believes that animals also have a concept of friendship: "There are so many questions. We know this is happening between all sorts of species. I think eventually the scientific community will catch up."

Smuts has her own tales of interspecies friendships, recalling that in the 1990s her dog, Safi, a big German Shepherd mix, struck up a friendship with a donkey named Wister on a ranch in Wyoming. Initially, Wister regarded Safi as a threat, charging her and kicking at her. However, Safi was persistent, performing repeated play bows, running up and down along the fence of the corral where the donkey was penned. Eventually, as Smuts wrote in a 2001 essay: "Each dawn, after being released from his corral, Wister would stand outside our door and bray until I let Safi out, and then they would play and wander together for hours."

The dog taught the donkey to pick up a stick and carry it in its mouth, although, as Smuts put it, "he looked like he didn't quite know why he was walking around with a stick in his mouth." If Wister accidentally kicked Safi during play, the donkey would go still as if to concede an error, while Safi might nip at Wister's neck as a protest.

Barbara J. King, an anthropologist at the College of William and Mary, wants to built a database of examples of interspecies interactions: "I think we're not even at the point of being able to extract patterns, because the database is so small." She believes that some criteria should be applied to sort through examples: for example, the relationship should be sustained over an extended period of time, with both animals adjusting their behavior to accommodate the relationship.

This would rule out the videos that show a snake seemingly comfortable with a hamster, or a lioness seemingly protective of antelope calves. In such case, the predator was likely not hungry and not inclined to take the effort to kill easy prey -- at least for the moment. While it seems plausible that species that aren't adversaries might strike up friendships in the wild, it seems very implausible those that are adversaries would do so.

However, animals that wouldn't seem likely to be friends, if raised together from a young age in captivity, can get along surprisingly well. Since 1981, trainers at the San Diego Zoo & Safari Park have been pairing cheetahs with dogs, with the relationship having a domesticating effect on the skittish cats, making the cheetahs easier to take to public events. According to Janet Rose-Hinostroza, an animal trainer in charge of cats at Safari Park, a particular canine personality type is needed to make such relationships work: puppies that are too domineering or too submissive aren't right for the job.

The dog and the cheetah gradually work out mutually agreeable interactions. Dogs like to tussle, but cheetahs, not surprisingly, prefer the chase. According to Rose-Hinostroza, the cheetahs seem to be telling the dogs: "No, no, you need to be the gazelle!" There being few animals that can read human body language better than a dog, the dogs end up helping the cheetahs work with humans.

The dogs, in fact, end up having a good grasp of cheetah psychology as well. According to Rose-Hinostroza, when a dog named Clifford had trouble getting his cheetah partner Majani to play, Clifford then pretended to have a limp, a trick he picked up from a trainer. Majani, cued by a sign of injured prey, was then willing to come down and play. Ultimately, once a dog earns the confidence of a cheetah, the cat will lick and groom the dog. Although there does seem to be some scientific value in investigating animal relationships, most of the public fascination with such is simply that we find it pleasing, an answer to the question: "Why can't we all get along?"

* In closely related news, according to an article from BBC WORLD Online ("The Girl Who Gets Gifts From Crows" by Katy Sewall, 25 February 2015), four years ago Gabi Mann of Seattle, Washington, now eight, dropped a chicken nugget off her lap when getting out of the family car. A crow hopped up and ate it. When she started going off to school, she got into the habit of feeding the crows bits from her packed lunch, with her little brother eventually joining in.

Ultimately, the crows were lined up, waiting for Gabi to get off the bus when she got out of school. Her mother Lisa encouraged the game, and in fact in 2013, Gabi and Lisa got it down to a system -- filling up the backyard birdbath every morning, leaving peanuts in the shell and dry dog food out for the birds. It wasn't surprising that crows, notably intelligent birds, flocked in; what was surprising was that they started leaving gifts for Gabi in the feeder.

Crows will present gifts to a mate, and so it's not a huge step to give them to a human. It's not an everyday thing, but Gabi's acquired a fair collection of bright objects -- earrings, polished stones, bolts, screws, a lego block, other little plastic items. Once Lisa dropped her camera lens cap in a nearby alley while photographing an eagle overhead, and hadn't realize she'd lost it. It showed up on the feeder very quickly, with a check on the backyard cam showing a crow placing it there. It was very hard for Lisa not to think the crow was saying: Hey, did you lose something?

The BBC article got a lot of response from other folks who feed crows or keep them as pets, reporting that the birds often brought home gifts like bottle caps or toys or foam darts. Another feeder of crows in Seattle said their cat Bart liked to play with the crows; when a coyote killed Bart, the crows recovered his collar, with nametag, and brought it back. A Dutchman who kept one as a pet trained it to deposit gifts on a tray kept to keep them organized. Alas, this crow took to raiding barbecues of neighbors, and the Dutchman had to release it into the woods.



* QUANTUM ENTANGLEMENT IN ORBIT: As discussed by an article from IEEE SPECTRUM ("Two Steps Closer to a Quantum Internet" by Alexander Hellemans, 30 December 2015), at the quantum level, the familiar logic by which the Universe takes devious turns. For example, consider "quantum entanglement", which was devised by Albert Einstein and a team of colleagues to mock quantum physics.

It is a basic principle of quantum physics that some of the properties of, say, an electron, are not in any way established until that electron is observed. For example, an electron has a property named "spin" -- a misleading name, it's not spin as we generally think of the term -- that can be either in an UP or DOWN state. Before the electron is observed, the spin is indeterminate; not unknown, but both UP and DOWN at the same time.

Einstein postulated that if a pair of entangled particles was created in an indeterminate state, and if the two particles were separated and taken a distance apart, then if the state of one is determined, the other will simultaneously have the complementary state. Einstein judged this absurd, there being no communications between the particles; he didn't live long enough to find out that such "quantum nonlocality" could be experimentally verified.

Quantum nonlocality is a hot field of research today. There's a popular belief it could provide a basis for faster-than-light communications, but those working in the field know it can't be, not even in principle; nothing in quantum nonlocality violates the principle that information can't be transferred faster than light. The interest is primarily in cryptography, the idea being that quantum entanglement could be used to encipher digital messages that can't be cracked by any cryptanalytic means.

Suppose Alice and Bob each read the states of a sequence of entangled electrons, and record spin UP as a "1" bit and spin DOWN as "0" bit appropriately. Each obtains the same stream of completely random bits -- or rather inverses of each other's streams, it makes no real difference; in any case, they haven't transferred information between each other, and indeed they have to communicate by radio or other communications channel to create their streams.

Alice then takes such a stream of random bits as long as the digital message she wants to send to Bob, and then "masks" the message with this "cipher key" using an operation known as an XOR:

   0 XOR 0 == 0
   0 XOR 1 == 1
   1 XOR 0 == 1
   1 XOR 1 == 0

The XOR is symmetrical, in that any data masked by an XOR with a particular key can then be "unmasked" by XORing it again with the same key. When Bob receives the enciphered message, he performs an XOR with his copy of the random stream, unmasking so he can read it. Since the key is created from readings of entangled particles -- with no communications in any sense we understand between them -- there is no way to eavesdrop on its creation; since the key is purely random, the enciphered message is purely random as well, amounting to completely indecipherable noise, and there's no way to analytically crack it.

This is not a practical scheme; it's much easier to deal with entangled photons over a distance instead of electrons, and there's really no need to mask an entire message using quantum nonlocality. It is effectively just as good to hand off cipher keys using quantum nonlocality, with the key then used with a robust cipher to encrypt messages. It can be done; there have been ground-based proof-of-concept demonstrations. Now the Chinese Academy of Sciences is preparing to launch the "Quantum Science Satellite (QSS)", which will demonstrate a quantum-key relay protocol between a spacecraft in low Earth orbit, and ground stations in Europe and China.

Thomas Scheidl of the University of Vienna -- Scheidel being a student of physicist Anton Zweilinger, a pioneer in the technology, with the Vienna group involved in the QSS project -- explains:


The satellite flies over a ground station in Europe and establishes a quantum link to the ground station, and you generate a key between the satellite and the ground station in Europe. Then, some hours later, the satellite will pass a ground station in China and establish a second quantum link and secure key with a ground station in China.

The satellite then has both keys available, and you can combine both keys into one key. Then you send, via a classical channel, the key combination to both of the ground stations. This you can do publicly because no one can learn anything from this combined key. Because one ground station has an individual key, it can undo this combined key and learn about the key of the other ground station.


The researchers see the QSS as a pioneering step towards a secure global communications network of satellites and ground stations. Quantum nonlocality does not and cannot make sense by any human logic; but as long as we understand its rules, we can still make use of it.



* NATURAL FOOD (3): To suggest the complications in the war over genetically modified food, another article from WIRED Online ("New Gene-Editing Techniques Mean a Lot of GMO Loopholes" by Sarah Zhang, 19 August 2015), showed how the government's attempts to regulate genetically modified organisms are becoming ever more tangled by new GM techniques.

The first GM regulations appeared during the Reagan Administration. At that time, the main technique for creating GM crops was based on a soil microbe named Agrobacterium tumefaciens. In its wild state, this bacterium can be a plant pest by inserting its own DNA into plant cells; researchers figured out how to use it as a tool to insert specified DNA sequences -- for example to synthesize proteins poisonous to insects -- into crop plants. As a consequence, the USDA regulated GMOs as potential plant pests or noxious weeds.

That was then -- this is now. Today, GM researchers can, instead of adding a new gene to a plant, knock out an existing gene, using "transcription activator-like effector nucleases (TALEN)". Agritech giant Monsanto is also investigating schemes in which RNA is sprayed onto fields to block expression of certain plant genes, without modifying the plant. Such tricks are not covered by the old regulations. According to Alison Peck, an agricultural law professor at West Virginia University: "We've basically got a gaping hole in the USDA's jurisdiction."

To complicate matters further, although there's a central authority in Europe to regulate food biotech, in the US, regulation of GMOs is fractured between three different agencies:

The Federal government realizes that their regulatory process for GMOs leaves something to be desired. In July 2015, the White House ordered the three agencies to begin reviewing their rules on the matter, kicking off a process that will not reach any conclusion soon, if at all -- much to the frustration of GM researchers.

The issue is becoming even more urgent, thanks to the introduction of gene-editing techniques like TALEN, and a newer, more hyped, technology named CRISPR. Both allow researchers to make precise genomic tweaks, performing minor edits to recreate naturally-occurring mutations, and have made it easier to create new, distinct categories of GMOs. Animals or plants can be modified to contain a gene from a different species; to contain a gene from the same species; or to have an existing gene knocked out.

The first category, "transgenic" GM, has always been the most controversial; but what about the other two? There's been interest in selectively porting genes from wild ancestral species of plants to domesticated species, and knocking out genes is perfectly straightforward. In 2015, Korean biologists used TALEN to create a super-muscular pig lacking a single gene inhibiting muscle growth. The pig is genetically modified, yes, but doesn't contain any foreign genes. The same effect could have been obtained, if much more laboriously and less precisely, with classic selective breeding. If we're not transferring genes from other species, is everything then okay? Changing a gene in any way, including deleting it, can have any effect from almost invisible to obviously drastic.

Given that worries about transgenic organisms are largely superstition, some biotech companies are betting the regulatory authorities will be inclined to go easy on them. That may be particularly significant for GM animals, which are covered by different regulations than those for plants. The FDA regulates genetic modification of livestock as equivalent to use of medical drugs on animals, which might seem a bit dubious even to those who aren't frightened of GMOs. It certainly hasn't been an efficient approach: a GM salmon, engineered with a trout DNA for faster growth, spent nearly two decades in the FDA review process.

Recombinetics, a biotech firm that is modifying livestock to promote animal welfare, is hoping to dodge the regulatory bullet. One company project is to take the hornless mutation in Angus cattle and integrate it into other breeds, such as Holsteins -- dairy farmers typically de-horn cows for safety, but it's painful to the cows. The genetic tweaking results in cows that have 100% cow DNA, just mixed and matched from different breeds.

Everybody working in biotech hopes that the regulatory tangle will be straightened out presently. The biggest worry is not so much how long it will take; but that, given the technology is moving so fast, any new regulations will be obsolete and just as much trouble by the time they're introduced. It's like the Red Queen's Race in ALICE: running as fast as one can to stay in the same place.

* Incidentally, in Europe, GM is defined by the genetic modification process, and so there is no legal distinction between porting genes from other species, from another breed of the same species, or deleting a gene. This sidesteps a good number of the problems of the US approach -- or more realistically sweeps them under the rug, with the hope they will go away.

The European Food Safety Agency (EFSA) qualifies GMO crops on a case-by-case basis, and so far has not found any of those examined to pose a threat. Challenges to the EFSA from maverick researchers on GM crops have, so far, all been shot to pieces in review. However, European Union (EU) rules allow member nations to declare their own bans, regardless of EFSA recommendations, and 19 of the 28 EU member have declared bans. The remainder are generally enthusiastic about growing GM crops, and are increasing acreage; it seems likely that anti-GMO sentiment has peaked in Europe, and that over time, as the hysteria over GM crops fades in the face of untroubled experience, the number of EU states banning GMOs has nowhere to go but down, if slowly. [TO BE CONTINUED]


[FRI 22 JAN 16] THE COLD WAR (99)

* THE COLD WAR (99): The sham Berlin crisis wasn't helping President Eisenhower restrain the out-of-control arms race. Khrushchev had fabricated the confrontation to get the pot boiling; Eisenhower was perfectly aware it wasn't for real, saying in a White House meeting that the Soviet premier was simply trying to get the US upset. Khrushchev had succeeded in doing so, with a war scare gathering steam in the US -- but the premier hadn't thought things out very well. Eisenhower saw in the pattern of Soviet provocations an intent to economically bankrupt the US by encouraging ruinous defense spending; that was reading too much into Khrushchev, who was driven primarily by fear, intimidated by the ever-growing number of guns pointed at the USSR, while he was trying to keep his own defense budget under control.

Khrushchev's response to his fear was more insecure bluster and threats, ensuring that the balance would tilt still further against the USSR. The White House was under siege from voices crying that America needed to "get tough" with the Soviets, even parroting the weary and absurd demand that the US should liberate the Soviet-dominated states of Eastern Europe. What particularly annoyed Eisenhower was how self-serving the hysterical chorus often was, the president saying that he saw the lobbying of defense contractors as less about "the defense of the country, but only more money for some who are already fat cats."

This, from a man who counted many prominent capitalist "fat cats" as friends; Eisenhower had absolutely nothing against the profit motive, but it wasn't in the job description of the presidency to place making money over the common welfare. When the president cut troop strength, Congress howled, with senators wondering how the White House could dare reduce America's armed forces, while "wasting" funds building up the forces of allies. Eisenhower could correctly reply: "If we desire to abolish mutual security and to provide instead some eighty or ninety divisions, this course of action will solve our unemployment problem, but will ensure that we are a garrison state."

As Khrushchev's 27 May deadline for a decision on Berlin began to come closer, the hysteria grew even more shrill. Eisenhower gave a simple reply: Crisis? What crisis? He wasn't going to put SAC on alert, he wasn't going to suggest a general mobilization of NATO. The Soviet threat to Berlin was essentially theoretical, and if the weapons available to the president weren't locked and loaded at the moment, so what? It would be straightforward to lock and load them if the threat became more tangible.

In an 11 March news conference, reporters hectored Eisenhower over defense cuts. The president replied that he didn't want people "to make everything a hysterical sort of proposition", that there was no cause to "go a little bit half-cocked." One item of concern was his refusal to send more troops to Europe; he shot back: "Where will I put them? Well, just some place where it's nice to keep them out of the way, because I don't know what else to do with them."

One of the reporters wondered if the president's belief that nuclear war "doesn't free anyone" ruled out less drastic actions. Like what? What was the administration supposed to do that it wasn't already doing? What military action could be taken that didn't run the risk of general war? It was a damn-fool question, and the president irritably blew it off:


I didn't say that nuclear war is a complete impossibility. I said it couldn't, as I see it, free anything. Destruction is not a good police force. You don't throw hand grenades ... to police the streets so that people won't be molested by thugs.


With John Foster Dulles gone, Eisenhower was almost alone in holding the line against the Red scare. Air Force General Nathan Twining, the current chairman of the JCS, was supportive of the president's restrained defense policies, flatly acknowledging that SAC had the Soviets vastly outgunned: "Our Air Force is four times the size of the Soviet's, and ten times as good." Secretary of the Treasury Robert Anderson also opposed an arms buildup, but Defense Secretary McElroy and all the chiefs of staff of the individual armed services were hawks. Eisenhower grumbled that he wanted to clean out the JCS and get replacements. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* Space launches for December 2015 included:

-- 03 DEC 15 / LISA PATHFINDER -- A European Vega booster was launched from Kourou in French Guiana at 0404 GMT (local time + 3) to put the "Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA) Pathfinder" satellite into space. It was a testbed to investigate technology for a space-based gravity-wave detector constellation. LISA Pathfinder had a launch mass of 1,900 kilograms (4,200 pounds), consisting of a propulsion module -- in effect, a "kick" stage -- and a separate experiment module, with a mass of 480 kilograms (1,058 pounds). LISA Pathfinder was built by Airbus Defense & Space in the UK, leveraging off a propulsion system used by Airbus Eurostar comsats.

LISA Pathfinder

The spacecraft was placed in the L1 Earth-Sun equilibrium point, 1.5 million kilometers (932,000 miles) from Earth, where it was gravitationally balanced between the two bodies. LISA Pathfinder was strictly a technology testbed, originally intended as a demonstrator for a full LISA constellation, which was to be a joint ESA and NASA project. NASA was forced to pull out due to budget problems; the ESA reconsidered the project, coming up with the "Evolved LISA (eLISA)" effort. The eLISA constellation is expected to be launched in the 2030s; the three satellites will form a triangle about 5 million kilometers (3 million miles) on a side, using precision laser tracking systems to monitor slight changes in position of the satellites due to passing gravity waves.

-- 05 DEC 15 / KANOPUS ST (FAILURE) -- A Soyuz 2-1v booster with a Volga upper stage was launched from Plesetsk at 1409 GMT to put a "Kanopus ST" military ocean surveillance satellite into space. The payload failed to separate from the upper stage, and re-entered a few days after launch.

-- 06 DEC 15 / CYGNUS 5 (OA-4) -- An Atlas V booster was launched from Cape Canaveral at 2145 GMT (local time + 4) to put the fifth "Cygnus" supply capsule, designated "OA-4" AKA "SS Deke Slayton II", into space on the fourth International Space Station (ISS) support mission. It carried 3,348 kilograms (7,383 pounds) of cargo, including 18 nanosats:

All the nanosats were later deployed from the ISS. The booster was in the "401" vehicle configuration, with a four-meter (13.1 foot) fairing, no solid rocket boosters, and a single-engine Centaur upper stage. Orbital obtained the Atlas V booster since the Orbital Antares booster was grounded at the time, having suffered a catastrophic launch failure in October.

-- 09 DEC 15 / CHINASAT 1C -- A Chinese Long March 3B booster was launched from Xichang at 1646 GMT (next day local time - 8) to put the "Chinasat 1C" geostationary comsat into orbit. The spacecraft was developed by the China Academy of Space Technology, and was believed to be a military comsat based on the DFH-4 bus.

-- 11 DEC 15 / ELEKTRO-L 2 -- A Ukrainian Zenit rocket with a Russian Fregat upper stage was launched from Baikonur at 1345 GMT (local time - 6) to put the Russian "Elektro-L 2" geostationary weather satellite into space. Launch of the first was in 2011. The Electro-L weathersat is comparable to the US Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES) spacecraft, Europe's EUMETSAT series, and China's Fengyun-II satellites. The satellite was built by NPO Lavochkin, being based on the company's "Navigator" satellite bus. It had a launch mass of 1,740 kilogram (3,840 pounds), and a design lifetime of ten years. It was placed in the geostationary slot at 77.8 degrees east longitude.

-- 13 DEC 15 / GARPUN (COSMOS 2513) -- A Proton M Breeze M booster was launched from Baikonur in Kazakhstan at 0019 GMT (local time - 6) to put a "Garpun (Harpoon)" military geostationary comsat into orbit. The spacecraft was designated "Cosmos 2513". This was the second launch of a Garpun, following the first in 2011; the new series replaces the earlier "Potok" or "Geizer" satellites, ten of which were launched between 1982 and 2000.

The Garpun constellation, like its predecessor, is intended to provide data relay for Russian reconnaissance satellites, such as the "Persona" electro-optical imaging spacecraft and "Lotos-S" signals intelligence satellites. It is the Russian answer to the US National Reconnaissance Office's "Quasar" AKA "Satellite Data System (SDS)" satellites. Garpun spacecraft are built by the Reshetnev, earlier "NPO PM", which built the Geizer spacecraft as well.

Although specifics of Garpun are classified, Reshetnev also builds the "Luch" relay satellites which Roskosmos, the Russian Space Agency, uses to relay communications for scientific missions, Soyuz or Progress spacecraft, and the Russian component of the International Space Station. There are likely to be at least similarities in payload between Garpun and Luch. The "Luch 5A" and "Luch 5V" spacecraft launched in 2011 and 2014 respectively were 1,150-kilogram (3,540-pound) satellites, based on the Ekspress-1000 bus. In addition to the two Luch 5 satellites, Reshetnev is building a larger relay spacecraft, using the Ekspress-2000 bus -- originally named "Luch 4", but now "Yenisey-A1" -- with launch planned for 2019.

-- 15 DEC 15 / SOYUZ ISS 45S (ISS) -- A Soyuz booster was launched from Baikonur at 1103 GMT (local time - 6) to put the "Soyuz ISS 45S" AKA "TMA-19M" manned space capsule into orbit on an International Space Station (ISS) support mission. The crew consisted of Yuri Malenchenko (sixth space flight) of the RKA, Tim Kopra (second space flight) of NASA, and Tim Peake (first space flight) of the ESA -- Peake was the first "official" British astronaut, though Brits have flown in space on a commercial basis, and several NASA astronauts have been UK-born. The Soyuz capsule was launched on a "direct ascent" trajectory, docking with the ISS MRM-1 module six hours after launch.

-- 16 DEC 15 / TELEOS 1 -- An ISRO Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle was launched from Sriharikota at 1230 GMT (local time - 5:30) to put the "TeLEOS 1" Earth observation satellite into orbit for Singapore. Five smaller satellites from Singapore were also aboard the launch.

PSLV in launch prep

TeLEOS 1 was built by ST Electronics in Singapore. The spacecraft had a launch mass of 400 kilograms (880 pounds), a payload of an imager with one-meter best resolution, and a design life of five years. Although Earth observation satellites are typically placed in near-polar Sun-synchronous orbits, TeELOS 1's orbit only had a inclination of 15 degrees to the equator, since it was primarily intended to provide mapping for Singapore. The other five payloads included:

The PSLV was in the "core alone" configuration, with no solid rocket boosters.

-- 17 DEC 15 / DAMPE -- A Long March 2D booster was launched from Jiuquan at 0012 GMT (local time - 8) to put the "Dark Matter Particle Explorer" science satellite into orbit, discussed in detail earlier this month.

-- 17 DEC 15 / GALILEO FM07, FM08 -- A Soyuz 21-B (Fregat) booster was launched from Kourou at 1151 GMT (local time + 3) to put the two "Fully Operational Capability (FOC)" Galileo navigation satellites, "FM07" and "FM08" (AKA "Galileo 11" and "Galileo 12"), into orbit. Each weighed 700 kilograms (1,545 pounds), with a payload including two hydrogen-maser atomic clocks; two rubidium atomic clocks; a clock control unit; a navigation signal generation module; L-band antenna for navigation signal transmission; C-band antenna for uplink signal reception; two S-band antennas for telemetry and commands; and a search and rescue antenna. The complete Galileo constellation will consist of 30 satellites along three orbital planes in medium Earth orbit, including two spares per orbit.

Galileo FOC satellite

-- 21 DEC 15 / PROGRESS 62P (ISS) -- A Soyuz 2-1a booster was launched from Baikonur at 0844 GMT (local time - 6) to put the "Progress 62P / MS-1" tanker-freighter spacecraft into orbit on an International Space Station (ISS) supply mission. It was the 62nd Progress mission to the ISS. The capsule docked with the station Pirs module two days later. This was the first flight of the improved Progress MS version of the supply capsule. Changes included:

-- 22 DEC 15 / ORBCOMM OG2 x 11 -- A SpaceX Falcon 9 v1.1 booster was launched from Cape Canaveral at 0129 GMT (previous day local time + 4) on the fifth Falcon 9 flight, placing 11 "Orbcomm Gen-2 (OG2)" data-relay satellites into orbit.

The Orbcomm network was originally lofted about 16 years ago, with 25 first-generation satellites in service at the time of the initial OG2 launch. Subscribers used the satellites to relay status updates, location pings, commands and other data between companies and trucks, ships, rail cars, oil / gas infrastructure, weather buoys, and research stations. Clients include Caterpillar, Walmart, Volvo, Tropicana, and General Electric; Orbcomm says it focuses on the commercial transportation, heavy equipment, industrial fixed assets, marine, and homeland security industries.

The OG2 satellites were built by Sierra Nevada, had a launch mass of 170 kilograms (375 pounds) each, and a design life of ten years. This initial batch of six is to be followed by eleven more. While clients could still use their old OG1 ground systems with OG2, OG2 satellites had 85 times the on-board memory, eight times the number of receivers, and six times the number of transmitters. The OG2 satellites also featured an "Automatic Identification System (AIS)" payload to track shipping traffic.

This was the first flight of the Falcon 9 since a launch failure in June. The Falcon 9 main stage managed to perform a soft landing on a barge in the Atlantic, after separation of the upper stage. Two previous attempts to perform a soft landing had been failures.

Falcon 9 landing

-- [24 DEC 15 / EXPRESS AMU1 -- A International Launch Services Proton M Breeze M booster was launched from Baikonur in Kazakhstan at 2131 GMT (next day local time - 6) to put the "Express AMU1" geostationary communications satellite into orbit for the Russian Satellite Communications Company. The satellite was built by Airbus Defense & Space and was based on the company's Eurostar E3000 platform; the spacecraft had a launch mass of about 5,900 kilograms (13,000 pounds), a payload of 70 Ku / Ka-band transponders, and a design lifetime of 15 years. It was placed in the geostationary slot at 36 degrees east longitude to provide broadcast communications services to Russia for RSCC and communications coverage over sub-Saharan Africa for Eutelsat, which called its part of the spacecraft payload "Eutelsat 36C".

-- 28 DEC 15 / GAOFEN 4 -- A Long March 3B booster was launched from Xichang at 1604 GMT (local time - 8) to put the "Gaofen 4" geostationary Earth observation satellite into orbit, the fourth of six such spacecraft. Gaofen 4 had a launch mass of about 4,600 kilograms (10,140 pounds), and had a visible imager with a resolution of 50 meters (164) feet, plus an infra-red imager with coarser resolution. The satellite was suspected to be a military surveillance platform, to locate US carrier groups; it was placed in a geostationary slot that allowed it to overlook the Asia-Pacific region.



* TARDIGRADES SURVIVE: There are many organisms that can survive under conditions that would seem to be lethal to any living organism. Most such "extremophiles" are single-celled organisms, but as discussed by an article from BBC WORLD Online ("Tardigrades Return" by Jasmin Fox-Skelly), there are some multicellular organisms that are just as tough -- one being the "tardigrade".

Tardigrades were discovered in 1773 by a German pastor named Johann August Ephraim Goeze. Three years later, the Italian clergyman and scientist Lazzaro Spallanzani investigated them more closely, and found they were remarkable creatures. Spallanzani added water to sediment from a rain gutter, and looked at the sample under a microscope, to find hundreds of little bear-shaped creatures swimming around. He named them "il Tardigrado", meaning "slow-stepper", because they moved so slowly.

Tardigrades, sometimes called "water bears", have been around since the Cambrian period, about 500 million years ago. They can be found high up in the Himalayas, in hot springs, at the bottom of the ocean, and in Antarctica. They are more or less a group of animals unto themselves, not closely related to any more familiar organisms. Tardigrades are typically about a half millimeter in length, ranging from less than half that to more than twice that. They have four pairs of stubby legs, and a tubular mouth. There's about a thousand known species, which typically live on the juices from moss, lichens, and algae -- though some prey on small invertebrates, including other tardigrades. They're easy to find in moss, also being known as "moss piglets".


In 1922, a German researcher named H. Baumann found that when a tardigrade dries out, it retracts its head and its eight legs, to enter a deep state of suspended animation; it becomes dessicated, curling up into a dry husk, its metabolism barely ticking along at a ten-thousandth of its normal rate. Baumann called this state a "Toennchenform", later simplified as a "tun". In 1948, the Italian zoologist Tina Franceschi claimed that she had revived tardigrades in tun form, found in dried moss from museum samples over 120 years old; there's considerable skepticism about her claim, but in 1995, dessicated tardigrades were brought back to life after eight years in suspension.

When an ordinary cell dries out, its membranes rupture and leak; its proteins unfold and clump together; its DNA fragments. Tardigrades obviously have mechanisms for preventing or repairing such damage, though nobody fully understands how. Besides tardigrades, some nematode worms, yeast, and bacteria can also survive desiccation; they do so by making a lot of a sugar called "trehalose", which forms a glass-like state inside their cells that braces up key components, such as proteins and membranes.

Trehalose also seals up water molecules, preventing them from doing damage by freezing or vaporization. Not all species of tardigrades seem to make trehalose, hinting strongly at other mechanisms to allow them to survive lengthy suspended animation. When tardigrades start to dry out, they seem to make a lot of antioxidants. These are chemicals, like vitamins C and E, that soak up damaging reactive chemicals.

Once in the tun state, tardigrades shrug off temperature extremes. In 1842, a French researcher named Doyere showed that a tardigrade in its tun state could survive being heated to temperatures of 125 degrees Celsius (257 degrees Fahrenheit) for several minutes. In the 1920s, a Benedictine friar named Gilbert Franz Rahm brought tardigrades back to life after heating them to 151 degrees Celsius (304 degrees Fahrenheit) for 15 minutes. Rahm also tested them in extreme cold, even keeping them at a few degrees above absolute zero for hours; they came back to life once exposed to water.

Nobody has a clue as to how tardigrades deal with high heat. As for extreme cold, they don't seem to have any sort of antifreeze molecules, as are sometimes found in other deep-cold organisms; trehalose may help, and they may also have "nucleating agents" that cause ice to form outside of cells instead of inside, so the cells won't be ruptured.

In addition, tardigrades are highly tolerant of radiation. In 1964, scientists exposed tardigrades to lethal doses of X-rays and found that they could survive, with later experiments showing they can also cope with high levels of alpha, gamma, and ultraviolet radiation -- if they're not in the tun state. They can even survive pressures well greater than those found in the deepest regions of the ocean.

What is particularly puzzling is that tardigrades never encounter such extreme conditions in their normal lives, meaning they couldn't have evolved to cope with them. Instead of hinting there's some sort of "intelligent design" at work, it seems more likely that the mechanisms that allow tardigrades in the tun state to shrug off difficult conditions they do encounter just happen to work in very extreme conditions they don't encounter.

That tardigrades did evolve such mechanisms is suggested by the fact that the most venerable group of tardigrades, the Arthrotardigrada, cannot survive extreme conditions or suspend their metabolism. They're marine organisms, which live in an environment that doesn't vary widely between extremes. Land-living tardigrades, in contrast, must deal with flood and drought, snow and scorching heat.

In addition, the tun state has the problem that it leaves tardigrades vulnerable to scavenging micro-organisms, agents of decay. It may produce "xenoprotectants", essentially repellents to keep troublemakers away. While tardigrades may seem strange, they're not miraculous. Whatever compromises they've made for survival, however, they're proven survivors, having persisted for a half billion years.



* AIRPORT INSECURITY: As discussed by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("No More Of The Same, Please", 14 November 2015), on 31 October Metrojet Flight 9268, an Airbus 321 jetliner flying out of Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt to Saint Petersburg, was blown out of the sky, the general belief being by a bomb carried on board the aircraft, with all 224 on board lost. Public officials all over the world announced that airport security would be tightened in response.

Airliners are a tempting target for Islamic terrorists. Following the appalling success of the attacks on 11 September 2001, al-Qaeda and its associate groups have conducted further attacks on air transport:

There are two interesting features to these events. The first is that, in spite of all attempts to destroy airliners, attempts to do so are infrequent, such attacks as having taken place being of clearly less significance than losses of airliners from accidents. The destruction of Metrojet 9268 was, it seems, the first real terrorist success since 2004, when two Russian planes were blown up. The second interesting thing is that the enhanced airport security introduced after the terrorist attacks of 2001 played no role in preventing these attacks.

Officials responsible for airport security argue that, without security screening, there would be many more successful attacks. Possibly so; but there are still legitimate doubts that airport security does much more than make passengers miserable. Bans on liquids on flights -- the 2006 plot involved liquid explosives -- and the requirement to scan shoes -- implemented after Reid's foolish plot -- have not uncovered any terrorist attempts.

Maybe terrorists have been deterred from trying the same trick twice? Or are the security measures merely a show to reassure the public? Philip Baum, a security consultant and editor of AVIATION SECURITY INTERNATIONAL, judges them it "security theater, as opposed to security reality".

America's Transportation Security Administration (TSA), an agency of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), has a budget of more than $7 billion USD a year, with the best scanning technology money can buy. Critics point out that TSA hasn't foiled a single terrorist plot, or caught a single terrorist, in the past decade.

Bruce Schneier, chief technology officer of the security firm Resilient Systems, comments that while the TSA snaps up plenty of guns and knives carelessly packed by passengers, it is not so good at spotting more determined attempts to penetrate security. In June 2015, TSA's acting head was "reassigned" after a "red team" appointed by the DHS inspector-general succeeded in getting fake bombs and weapons through the screening process in 67 out of 70 tests carried out in airports across the USA.

Schneier sees the failures as primarily due to simple fatigue: "Security screening is an incredibly boring job, and almost all alerts are false alarms. It's very hard for people to remain vigilant in this sort of situation, and sloppiness is inevitable." The screening technology is also not that hard to spoof, underlining the belief that it's for show, since it could be readily thwarted by those who make a determined effort to do it. Schneier believes that the only useful security changes implemented after the 2001 terrorist attacks were the introduction of locked, blast-proof cockpit doors, to prevent terrorists from taking over the plane; and the willingness of passengers to intervene if they see somebody acting up.

Some security experts, such as Baum, believe the worst security vulnerability is the "insider threat". It is suspected that the Metrojet bomb was placed in the aircraft hold by a baggage handler or by someone who had airside access, to be detonated by a barometric trigger device when the plane gained altitude. Baum believes that staff security at Sharm el-Sheikh was no worse than that at many British and America airports. In 2015, police at Miami International Airport used a hidden camera to film baggage handlers rifling through bags in a plane's hold, and lifting whatever they liked; given that airlines get thousands of complaints from passengers of theft every year, it appears this was nothing unusual. How much more difficult would it have been for them to plant a bomb?

The big problem with airport security, according to Baum, is that it focuses on finding weapons and such, instead of on people who might be carrying them. Issy Boim, a former Shin Bet officer who worked closely with Israel's airline, El Al, says that while the Americans are looking for weapons, the Israelis "are looking primarily for the terror suspect".

Baum is an advocate of what is known as "profiling", building a picture of both passengers and airline staff. Profiling has a bad reputation for whimsically singling out innocent people, particularly minorities, but Baum thinks it can be done more scientifically, based on behavior both prior to flying -- for example, when, where, and how a ticket was purchased -- and at the airport itself. Schneier is much more dubious of profiling, saying that its advocates "are really asking for a system that can apply judgment. Unfortunately, that's really hard. Rules are easier to explain and train ... judgment requires better-educated, more expert, and higher-paid screeners."

What to do, then? Obviously, more of the same airport security by rote is not a good use of resources. There should be more focus on the insider threat, through better vetting of staff and more security cameras. Software scanning to profile passenger behavior, interpreting transactions and security camera imagery, would be more efficient in all respects than the whims of security personnel.

The ultimate question is, however: how much really needs to be done? Terrorists have any number of targets they can choose from: buses and trains, sporting events, open-air concerts. Does it really make sense to be spending such extraordinary efforts on the safety of air travel, when the actual risk level is no higher than it would be in other circumstances? Or are we trapped -- by the inclination of the public to worry about perceived risk, and the reluctance of the authorities to appear indifferent -- to continue with obnoxious and useless security theater indefinitely?



* NATURAL FOOD (2): The food wars are continuing unabated. Even as restaurants were committing to "natural" foods, in late July, the US House of Representatives passed HR 1599, the "Safe & Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015", the provisions of which belied the common belief that the government is determined pile up regulations:


This bill amends the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act to require the developer of a bio-engineered organism intended as food to submit a premarket biotechnology notification to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) ...

The premarket notification must include the developer's determination that food from, containing, or consisting of the GMO (GMO food) is as safe as a comparable non-GMO food. For the GMO to be sold as food, the FDA must not object to the developer's determination. If the FDA determines that there is a material difference between a GMO food and a comparable non-GMO food, the FDA can specify labeling that informs consumers of the difference.

A food label can only claim that a food is non-GMO if the ingredients are subject to certain supply chain process controls. No food label can suggest that non-GMO foods are safer than GMO foods. A food can be labeled as non-GMO even if it is produced with a GMO processing aid or enzyme or derived from animals fed GMO feed or given GMO drugs.

The FDA must allow, but not require, GMO food to be labeled as GMO ... This bill preempts state and local restrictions on GMOs or GMO food and labeling requirements for GMOs, GMO food, non-GMO food, or "natural" food.


In short, HR 1599 says that the FDA will accept that a GMO food requires no particular regulation if the producer says it doesn't, and will intervene only if a difference is found. Producers may, but don't have to, label that a food contains GMO ingredients, with GMO having a restricted definition. Producers may similarly label a food as non-GMO, but only as long as it really isn't GMO, with no health claims made for the fact that it isn't GMO. By the way, the Federal act will pre-empt state or local requirements for labeling. The bill is now working its way through the senate, though it doesn't seem to be making much progress there for the moment [ED: and ultimately died].

* Similarly, BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK says that China has traditionally been leery of GMO foods. While imports of GMO-derived soybeans and corn are used as livestock feed in China, human consumption of GMO-based food is banned except for cooking oil and, oddly, papayas.

However, the advantages of GMOs have not been lost on the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). In a speech released in the fall of 2014, Chinese President Xi Jinping said China must "boldly research and innovate, [and] dominate the high points of GMO techniques."

The Chinese government has disbursed at least $3 billion to institutes and local companies to develop bio-engineered seeds; the government is refining policies on GMOs, and conducting a public information campaign to promote GMOs. In early 2015, the official Xinhua News Agency announced that "GMO technology has long been considered an effective way to increase yields on marginal lands."

There remains some hostility towards GMO products from foreign companies -- if clearly due to protectionist instincts, not any particular fear of GMOs. The production and development of GMO seeds by foreign multinationals remain banned inside China. Companies such as DuPont Pioneer have joint ventures in China that develop and sell non-GMO seeds there, but foreign firms trying to peddle GMOs in China have found the going is getting tougher.

* The case for GMOs is strong and the case against them weak, but the battle continues. An article from THE WASHINGTON POST ("Why We're Scared Of GMOs" by Roberto A. Ferdman, 6 July 2015) reported an interview with Jason Lusk, an agricultural economist at Oklahoma State University, who has been studying public attitudes toward GMOs since they were introduced. Lusk commented:


What brought GMOs to everyone's attention was, quite frankly, the sellers of many natural foods and organic products. I don't want to say that they were stoking people's fears, but they kind of were, at least to the extent that that helps sales of their own products. So there was some of that advertising, and the advertising that pitched products as not containing GMOs, which raised consumer awareness ...

Most people don't have a lot of knowledge about GMOs. The average person hasn't spent much time thinking about it. Nonetheless, if they were to see a label about them, they would likely be averse to them. It's something that seems a little unnatural, and there's a psychological tendency to desire naturalness in food and avoid some forms of novelty in food. That plays into a psychological bias that we have against them ...

... I think it's akin to anything that appears on a label that says "may contain X," where X is literally anything people haven't heard of or don't understand, and because of that, sounds somewhat strange. We actually tested this with a label on apples that said "this apple is ripened using ethylene," which is a very commonly used and safe process. But people were as averse to those apples as they were to GMOs, simply because they didn't know what ethylene was ...

... One of the biggest concerns people have is that we have these big agrochemical companies benefiting from this technology. It's benefiting them, for instance, by allowing them to sell more seeds or herbicides. What people don't know is that some of those crops are now being produced by nonprofits and at universities, and those crops would actually reduce the need for any chemical inputs or fertilizer inputs. Some of them get rid of the need for pesticides and herbicides altogether ...

... If people were objective about risk, they would be much more worried about cars, which kill more people every year than most anything else. But they're not ...

In general, I'd like to elevate the conversation about GMOs beyond the current one. The truth is that many of the concerns people have with GMOs, especially those tied to the use of pesticides and herbicides, will wither away. The technology that we have coming down the pipeline won't require their use.


Lusk was unwilling to say when the furor over GMOs would die down, but he did have some confidence that -- given the scientific consensus that GMOs are safe, or at least as safe as other foods -- the controversy has nowhere to go but down. How long it takes to drop below the radar is another question. [TO BE CONTINUED]


[FRI 15 JAN 16] THE COLD WAR (98)

* THE COLD WAR (98): John Foster Dulles was no longer in the loop in the White House. His colon cancer had returned, forcing him to take a leave of absence on 9 February to undergo surgery at Walter Reed Hospital; Herter was the acting secretary of state in his place. Eisenhower visited Dulles in the hospital on 14 February, the president finding him determined in spirit, even though the prognosis was grim. At his age, Eisenhower was no stranger to, or often deeply affected by, the deaths of people around him, but he was discouraged by Dulles' plight:


... it seems so wrong somehow that a man who has given of himself as has Dulles must die in such a painful fashion, held up at every moment to the world's prying eyes. Somehow it makes you wonder why and whether it is all worth it.


Eisenhower called Dulles on a regular basis to keep him informed -- but though the president missed having Dulles around, Eisenhower made his decisions for himself. On 12 February, after an NSC meeting, Eisenhower had a chat with General Twining, the current chairman of the JCS; Defense Secretary McElroy; and Defense Undersecretary Quarles. They wanted the president to authorize more U-2 overflights of the East Bloc. Eisenhower believed that the CORONA spy satellite program was "coming along nicely", and they would be much less provocative than U-2 overflights.

After all, the Soviets had flown their Sputniks with little concern about overflights of America territory, and had not raised the roof when American satellites overflew the USSR. Although Eisenhower knew little or nothing about Soviet work on spy satellites, he could assume they were working on them -- rightfully so, since come the spring, the Soviet authorities would formally authorize Sergei Korolyev's OKB-1 to move ahead on development of a spy satellite, and the coupled effort to put a man into orbit. The two programs would eventually be named "Zenit (Zenith)" and "Vostok (East)" respectively.

Quarles told the president that CORONA wasn't expected to be operational for another year and a half or two years, but the president was unworried. For all the chatter about a "bomber gap", he reminded Quarles, the supposed huge fleets of Red bombers predicted four years earlier had ended up a fantasy, and there was no reason to think the Soviets would be able to build up forces any more rapidly in the future.

Eisenhower's self-confidence in the matter was all the more remarkable since CORONA launch attempts were not getting off to a good start, the first shot having taken place only a few weeks earlier, and proving a complete bust -- the booster didn't even get off the pad. It was only the first in a long and painful string of failures. However, the president knew that CORONA was breaking new ground: the US had only been flying satellites for a year, and to that time, the satellites had been simple. CORONA was much more sophisticated than anything the US had put into space before, involving a camera system that could return useful imagery from orbital altitude; a control system to sequence the satellite's flight operations; and toughest of all, a re-entry vehicle to return camera film from space for recovery. It was obviously not going to be easy.

Eisenhower refused to authorize an expanded program of U-2 flights, calling them "undue provocation", and added: "Nothing would make me request authority to declare war more quickly than violation of our airspace by Soviet aircraft." That the president had ever authorized them at all demonstrated just how desperate he was for intelligence, not merely to make sure that Khrushchev was really bluffing when he started waving rockets around, but also to hold out against the hysterical demands for arming America to the teeth -- when America was already piling up Bombs and delivery systems at a breakneck pace.

In response to objections from the group, Eisenhower said he would be willing to authorize selective flights if absolutely necessary, but he would not authorize a large-scale program of overflights, adding at the end of the meeting that there was enough tension over Berlin. The president also made clear his displeasure with leaks of intelligence from officials in the Pentagon and the CIA that painted an inflated picture of Soviet capabilities to Senator Symington. Eisenhower was similarly unhappy with the way defense contractors were lobbying Symington and others to work for accelerated weapons procurement.

To add to his frustrations, Killian and the PSAC had been waffling on nuclear test inspections, telling the president that their earlier notions of what would be adequate weren't enough after all. Eisenhower was discouraged with this revelation, knowing that it would derail the Geneva talks with the Soviets; early in the year, the US delegation in Geneva had presented the demand for more inspections to the Soviets, who as expected balked -- they wouldn't even talk about it. Disarmament was, for the moment, dead in the water. The AEC and the military brass were also demanding new weapons tests; for the moment, Eisenhower was holding the line against them, in hopes that talks could get back on track sometime. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* GIMMICKS & GADGETS: As discussed by WIRED Online blogs ("All NFL Players Are Getting RFID Chips This Season" by Tim Moynihan, 7 August 2015), players in the US National Football League (NFL) are now being "wired" with RFID units, embedded in their shoulder pads, that keep track in real time of their speed, location, and paths traveled during a game. The RFID technology is from Zebra Technologies MotionWorks; it was trialed in 18 stadiums in 2014.

The data is used with the "NFL 2015" app for XBox One or Windows 10. This new version of the NFL app has a feature using the RFID called "Next Gen Replay". In coordination with a highlight clip posted shortly after the event occurs on the playing field, Next Gen Replay displays every player's speed at each moment of a play, lets users toggle between players, and keeps track of player yardage. Although it might seem challenging to connect speed, position, and distance data to 22 separate football players; animate them on a virtual field; and aggregate all their data over time, it's all done automatically, with no delay perceptible to the user.

NFL 2015 app

* Wireless recharging has been discussed here in the past, the last mention in 2012 saying that the standards battle for wireless recharger technology would be resolved until at least 2014. According to an article in THE ECONOMIST ("Coiled & Ready To Strike", 27 June 2015), it hasn't been quite resolved yet.

There's a hodgepodge of industry groups fighting it out, including the "Wireless Power Consortium (WPC)", the "Power Matters Alliance (PMA)", and the "Alliance for Wireless Power (A4WP)"; the WPC and PMA specs both drive up to about five watts, enough for a smartphone, while A4WP can drive higher power levels. PMA and A4WP have now merged their organizations, though they didn't merge their specs. Apple, to no surprise, is pushing a wireless recharger scheme that isn't compatible with anyone else's.

The WPC scheme, known as "Qi", has some penetration, being used in the phone cradles of about a dozen makes of cars, with more than 80 different smartphones able to use the cradles. Qi is also built into some tables, and bedside lamps sold by IKEA. PMA, however, is now available in several hundred McDonald's and Starbucks outlets, allowing customers to recharge during a visit. Although the A4WP scheme, known as "Rezence", has no real adoption at present, it is being adopted as a standard by chip-maker Intel, which grants it a certain amount of clout. For the moment, phone-makers are building phone that are compatible with two or all three of the standards, ensuring the phones will still be wirelessly rechargeable after the shakeout.

Electric vehicle makers are also interested in wireless recharging, though they're talking about much higher power levels. The Society of Automotive Engineers has been tinkering with a spec, having already determined a 20-kilowatt power level and 85-kilohertz operating frequency. However, Tesla Motors, the most visible EV maker, doesn't feel that wireless will do the job, with the company's "Superchargers" able to provide six times the power, with hundreds of installations now available around the world. There's talk of wireless charging systems built into roadways, though that does sound like a remote future -- but maybe not too remote, since bus stops with wireless rechargers have been installed in various places around the world.

* Motorola is now shipping its second-generation Moto 360 smartwatch -- the main feature of which is that it doesn't look like a smartwatch, at least in its default operating mode, being hard to distinguish from a normal watch in the middle of the quality range. It does have smartwatch functionality under the skin, being based on Android Wear -- Google's version of Android for smartwatches and such -- with the ability to hook up via wireless to Android phones or an iPhone.

Moto 360 smartwatch

There has been suspicion that smartwatches are just silly gimmicks, a flash in the pan, more expense than they're worth. Consider, however, the possibility that eventually low-end commodity watches will offer at least a degree of smartwatch capability. If we may not see a good reason to carry a computer on the wrist, nobody could find reason to complain about a watch that just so happens to have some computer functionality.



* DARK NET PHARMACY: An article from BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK Online ("Big Pharma's Darknet Drug Deal" by Kristin Schweizer, 20 October 2015), took a closeup of the murky world of illicit pharmaceuticals being peddled on the illegal internet, the "darknet".

Welcome to Centient, a British internet intelligence and investigation firm. Tim Ramsey -- once a copper, now an official of Centient, his job being to track online sales of product knock-offs in the service of big firms, directing a staff of 15. He's looking into a darknet site named "Agora", which sells pharmaceuticals for ailments such as cancer, heart disease, and diabetes. He buys an injectable human growth hormone, handing over 0.527 bitcoins -- about $124 USD -- to make the purchase.

Agora is not alone in the darknet pharmaceutical sales business, which is booming. Ramsey can also find knockoff pharmaceuticals on about a dozen other illicit eBay-like marketplaces where buyers can rate products, and leave reviews of sellers with names like "The Peoples Drug Store", "Got Milk", and "Amish Mafia". Big pharma companies are justifiably afraid of darknet drug peddlers -- not just because they bite into corporate profits, but because their drugs are often fake, even dangerous.

Counterfeit drugs bought online have been shown to include everything from gypsum and rat poison, to heavy metals and household cleaners. Ramsey recalls obtaining "Viagra" pills that turned out to mostly consist of cement dust. In April 2015, a 21-year-old British student named Eloise Parry died after taking diet pills she ordered online. The pills contained "2,4 Dinitrophenol (DNP)" -- an industrial chemical used as an antiseptic and pesticide. DNP sounds entirely unsuitable for human consumption on the face of it, but it was used in diet pills in the 1930s after scientists at Stanford University discovered it raises metabolism, then quickly banned after it turned out it could produce killer fevers.

Why would people obtain pharmaceuticals from such dubious sources? It's because they may not be able to afford the real thing, and are encouraged by reviews on darknet sites to think they can find reliable sellers there. According to Ramsey: "People are being driven by desperation to buy drugs on the darknet."

At Centient, Ramsey and his team remain "stealthy" in their investigations, by using computers that have been scrubbed of any identifying information -- getting rid of Gmail or Facebook accounts, or even hosting a registered operating system. The investigators buy in bitcoin; communicate through encrypted emails; employ a host of made-up user names; and receive shipments at covert addresses. Once Centient gets the product, it's handed off to drug companies for tests to determine whether the knock-offs bear any relation to what's on the label. The companies use the information to identify counterfeiters, and alert authorities to shut them down.

Although about half of the pharmaceuticals Ramsey's team obtains are legitimate, half are not, being either counterfeits or scams. In one case, Ramsey bought a treatment for seizures from a seller in Cameroon. A week later, he got an e-mail from the vendor claiming the shipment had been held up by French customs at Orly airport in Paris, and that he needed to pay a further 150 euros to get it released. He never got the pills.

Illegal drug makers often use a relay system: counterfeits made in Asia are shipped to distributors in Europe to make it appear they're produced there. One case in Germany, involving what the German press labeled "The Pill Gang," has seen seven people convicted. The group pulled in 21.5 million euros over a period of several years, processing about 17,000 orders a month for erectile dysfunction and diet pills, according to court documents. The drugs were made in India or China, stored Spain and the Czech Republic, shipped to customers with addresses in other European countries, and the proceeds deposited in Cyprus.

According to Ramsey, it wasn't long ago that the darknet was almost entirely populated by career criminals -- but now ordinary folks mingle with the black hats, lured by sites selling drugs they need and can't afford, and which often aren't what sellers claim. He says: "Narcotics, guns, and hitmen lifted the lid on the darknet, and closely behind came pharmaceuticals. It's morphing, quickly, and now you have an older generation going there to buy medicines."

* Another article from BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK Online ("World's Worst Greenhouse Gas Spurs Global Smuggling Ring" by Alex Nussbaum, 29 October 2015), investigated an even more obscure aspect of the underground economy: the smuggling of refrigerants.

In 1987, in response to worries about depletion of the Earth's ozone layer, the world's nations signed on to the Montreal Protocol, which limited the use of chlorofluorocarbons (CFC), which had been recognized as the cause of the depletion. They were replaced by hydrofluorcarbons (HFC), which were ozone-friendly -- but unfortunately turned out to be potent greenhouse gases, thousands of times more effective per unit mass at trapping heat than carbon dioxide. The US and Europe have taken measures to ban HFCs and are encouraging other countries to do the same, as well as offering financial aid to help poorer countries switch to newer refrigerants.

The new refrigerants are more expensive than the old, which means a business opportunity for smugglers. Under the Montreal Protocol, developing countries were allowed to keep producing for a time some coolants barred in the US and Europe; there's profit in selling the older coolants in places where they're banned. A decade ago, it was more profitable to smuggle refrigerants than cocaine, though price changes mean that's no longer the case.

Illicit chemicals have been shipped inside containers of oranges and glass ornaments; hidden in canisters-within-canisters designed to fool port inspectors; and packed away on fishing boats plying the South China Sea. The business is worth tens of millions of dollars, with international criminal networks involved in the trade. The leading manufacturers of replacement chemicals -- Chemours and Honeywell International -- have responded with education campaigns and surveillance programs. They've also conducted joint raids with local authorities, but the illicit trade in coolants continues to be lively.



* DAMPE IN ORBIT: As discussed by an article from AAAS SCIENCE NOW Online ("China Launches Satellite To Join The Hunt For Dark Matter" by Dennis Normile, 17 December 2015), on 17 December 2015, a Chinese Long March 2D booster was launched from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the Gobi desert, about 1600 kilometers (1,000 miles) west of Beijing. The rocket's payload was the "Dark Matter Particle Explorer (DAMPE)", the first of a series of four Chinese space science projects. The satellite was named "Wukong", after the Monkey King character in the famous 16th-century Chinese novel JOURNEY TO THE WEST.

While China is an energetic spacefaring nation, the Chinese have had little enthusiasm for space science projects -- preferring instead to focus on civil, commercial, and military spacecraft. China did collaborate with the European Space Agency (ESA) on the "Geospace Double Star Exploration Program", launched in 2004 to study Earth's magnetosphere. Since 2007, China has also flown three "Chang'e" Moon probes, including two orbiters and a lander, plus a Mars probe named "Yinghuo-1" that was lost on launch in 2011 -- but these planetary probes were effectively technology demonstration exercises, and broke little new scientific ground.

According to Yizhong Fan -- a mission scientist for DAMPE, being an astrophysicist at the Purple Mountain Observatory in Nanjing, a facility run by the Chinese Academy of Sciences -- says that DAMPE represents a departure: "DAMPE is the first Chinese space mission for astronomy and astrophysics."

DAMPE in orbit

DAMPE was placed in a near-polar low Earth orbit. It had a launch mass of about 1,900 kilograms (4,200 pounds), and two solar arrays to provide power. Its payload was a sophisticated particle detector system to observe and characterize high-energy gamma rays, electrons, and other cosmic particles, with a particular focus on particles that might be generated by annihilation of dark matter particles -- which should produce gamma rays, or high-energy particles produced by follow-on interactions with such gamma rays.

Dark matter is believed to make up most of the matter in the universe, but it has never been detected directly; its existence is inferred from the observed behavior of gravity across the Universe, and what is known about the structure of the Universe. There are suspicions that dark matter is merely a theoretical crutch that will go away when we find out what's wrong with current theory; however, if there is anything wrong with theory, so far nobody's been able to identify what -- and so, the only way to move forward on the question is to obtain better observations that can confirm or deny such ideas as we have about dark matter now.

DAMPE is designed to observe the incoming direction and properties of extremely high-energy photons and electrons that result when dark matter candidate particles labeled "weakly interacting massive particles (WIMP)" are annihilated. The DAMPE instrument is in a shielded box, open at the top, consisting of a stack of four instruments, from top to bottom:

DAMPE is the product of a collaboration of four institutes under CAS, including the National Space Science Center in Beijing, with other organizations involved being the University of Science and Technology of China in Hefei; the University of Geneva; and Italian universities in Bari, Lecce, and Perugia. The satellite's mission will last three years, with observations beginning no earlier than February 2016.

DAMPE is the first mission flown under the CAS "Strategic Pioneer Program on Space Science", initiated in 2011 as the first comprehensive Chinese space science plan. Missions under the program are being managed by the CAS National Space Science Center (NSSC), which plans further space science missions. The "Hard X-ray Modulation Telescope", planned for launch in 2016, will observe black holes, neutron stars, and other astronomical phenomena. There is also a satellite for quantum science experiments in the works. NSSC has set up a new mission control center for scientific satellites in Huairou, a northern suburb of Beijing.

"We are, of course, confident that DAMPE will contribute to the dark matter search," says Philipp Azzarello, a University of Geneva astrophysicist who collaborated in the design of DAMPE's detector system. Azzarello says the satellite improves on the energy range and resolution of previous space-based dark matter experiments. DAMPE will complement other space-based detectors, as well as underground laboratories seeking to detect WIMPs directly. There's no guarantee that DAMPE will spot signatures of WIMPs -- but that in itself will be useful data, and DAMPE will still perform valuable general observations of high-energy cosmic particles.



* NATURAL FOOD (1): As discussed by an entry from WIRED Online blogs ("America Needs A Real Definition Of What A 'Natural' Food Is" by Nick Stockton, 1 June 2015), in the spring of 2015, fast-food restaurant chains Taco Bell and Pizza Hut, both owned by Yum! brands, announced that they would ensure that only "natural" ingredients would be in their product offerings. This was dodgy, because they didn't define what they meant by "natural" -- which was inevitable, because there is no agreed-upon definition of "natural".

That means the companies get to make up their own definition. On being queried, a Taco Bell representative says they're following the rules established by the US Food & Drug Administration (FDA). The difficulty is that the FDA says any food product or additive is "natural" if it's not produced by purely chemical synthesis. If it traces its origins back to a biological process, no matter how much processing it goes through, it is officially "natural". It could come from a plant or animal that's been genetically modified; there's a big push these days on synthesis of additives via GM yeasts.

Government regulators might be more specific. In 2000, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) came up with an "official" definition of organic foods, establishing technical practices and what is or is not allowed in the production of organic foods. Now organic food products can be certified by the USDA -- though the department does not make any value judgement on the benefits or drawbacks of organic foods, with restrictions similarly imposed on producers as to the claims they can make.

According to Barbara Rasco -- a food scientist and industry legal expert from Washington State University in Pullman -- believes the "natural" label could be better defined, in much the same way: "We are going to agree that natural might mean the absence of preservatives, absence of certain colors, absence of certain flavors."

Rasco believes that the FDA could do the job, but accepts that the food industry could establish their own guidelines. She does believe that companies working to ensure they have a "natural" product are sincere in their efforts. Unfortunately, they end up chasing their tails, with the definition of "natural" becoming so totally conflicted that consumers -- who have been driving the issue all along -- are increasingly becoming cynical at the label.

* In an effective follow-on to this item, another entry from WIRED Online blogs ("You Know What Makes Great Food Coloring? Bugs" by Gwen Pearson, 10 September 2015) pointed a widely-used red color additive named "cochineal" that is indisputably natural -- it's made from insects.

The insect in question is the "cochineal scale" AKA Dactylopius coccus. While sometimes referred to as a "beetle", it isn't; it's a "hempiteran", a "true bug", more specifically a "scale insect". Scale insects are tiny creatures, often without visible legs or antennas, that infest and drink the sap of plants, looking somewhat like an outbreak of plant pimples. Cochineal scales live on prickly pear cactus, and cover their bodies in a white, fluffy wax -- with an insect being seen, if it is visible at all, as a red dot in the blob of wax. Ants don't like to eat the scales, since they have acquired a defense in the form of an "ant repellent" named "carminic acid", which is just another word for cochineal. It is also known as "carmine", "Natural Red 4", and "E120".

cochineal scales

Cochineal coloring has been used by humans for hundreds of years, and provides an important source of income for many rural Central and South American peoples. It is used to color sausage and artificial crab, as well as pink pastries. Many yogurts and juices use cochineal, and it's often used in lipsticks and blushes. It's very stable during cooking, freezing, or in an acid environment, and so food producers like it a lot. However, customers do get upset about the idea of consuming insects, and so some firms have dropped it; Starbucks went to a substitute with their Strawberries & Creme Frappuccino.

In fact, one would be hard-pressed to find bug parts in cochineal with a microscope. The dye is processed from cochineal scales, with the insects being crushed, the pigment extracted, and impurities strained out. There's no evidence of any health problems associated with cochineal, except for rare allergic reactions; on the basis of three reports of such reactions over ten years, in 2009, the FDA required that cochineal be specified in the ingredients list of a product.

The FDA, not at all incidentally, also regulates the maximum level of insect parts and other contaminants found in food -- for example, chocolate has an average of 60 insect parts per 100 grams, as well as a single rodent hair. Of course, these contaminants are purely "natural", and we don't worry about them anyway. We do not live in a sterile environment; we've always known we carry around a community of micro-organisms, which rarely do us harm, and to a considerable degree we can't do without. There is little more sense in an obsessed concern over the purity of our food than there is over our microbial community. [TO BE CONTINUED]


[FRI 08 JAN 16] THE COLD WAR (97)

* THE COLD WAR (97): If 1958 had been a miserable year for President Eisenhower, it at least had, to an extent, cleared the path for the last two years of his administration. He no longer had to be concerned about the next national elections, at least for his own sake, and the way was open for him to pursue his disarmament agenda.

For the moment, there wasn't any sign of the arms race slowing down. Both the Thor and Jupiter IRBMs had been declared operational in the last half of 1958, and work was underway to deploy them in Europe. The Atlas ICBM was coming up to speed; in fact, on 18 December 1958, one had been put into orbit around the Earth, under ARPA's Project SCORE -- meaning "Signal Communications by Orbiting Relay Equipment". SCORE was intended primarily as a technical demonstration, to show the world that the US could put heavy payloads into orbit; but it was also the first communications satellite, receiving messages from ground stations, storing them on tape, and then playing them back later for transmission to other ground stations. It also broadcast Christmas greetings from President Eisenhower.

Atlas would be declared operational in September 1959. The first Titan I test launch was on 6 February 1959, though it was already more or less obsolete; studies had shown it would be straightforward to adapt it to storable fuels, with the modified ICBM given the designation of "Titan II". The Titan II would also improve on the Titan I by having a self-contained "inertial" guidance system that would allow it to hit a target accurately from half the world away; the Titan I required assistance from radio command updates. The plan was to produce a small batch of Titan Is as an interim measure, before moving on to the Titan II. The Navy's Polaris was still suffering launch failures, but progress was being made, and it would be flying right by the spring. Eisenhower could have no complaints about the state of long-range missile development, though he still had misgivings about spending such large sums on it.

The president had another cloud in his vision of peace. On 1 January 1959, Cuban dictator Batista fled Havana, with Fidel Castro entering the city in triumph. Batista had plenty of loot in foreign accounts, so he was able to live a comfortable life in exile -- though Eisenhower made it clear he was unwelcome in the US, not wanting to make America a "safe haven" for loser dictators. Batista would die of a heart attack in Portugal in 1973. Castro started out by setting up an inclusive government, but by mid-January he had made the Communist Party legal in Cuba, started to denounce the US, and approved executions of Batista loyalists without much pretense of due process.

Eisenhower looked on events in Cuba with dismay. If it were not possible to "roll back" authoritarian communism where it had become established, that made the idea of nipping it in the bud where it hadn't all the more attractive -- particularly in the case of a communist regime in the New World, the US having long maintained the Monroe Doctrine, under which interference by foreign powers (in this case the USSR and the "World Communist Movement") in the hemisphere was unwelcome.

The president had no intention of taking any action for the moment, but he was evaluating his options. The most obvious one was to send in the Marines and clear out Castro's gang, but the heavy-handed US approach to Latin America had generally gone out of fashion, and Castro was popular -- not merely in Cuba and Latin America, but even in the US to a degree. That left covert action as the most attractive option.

Covert action in the Eisenhower Administration was under the direction of the "5412 Committee", set up in 1955 in accordance with a paper named "NSC 5412". The committee consisted of the undersecretary of state, the national security advisor, and the director of central intelligence -- who at the time were Christian Herter, George Gray, and Allen Dulles respectively. The purpose of the committee was to review covert actions to make sure they couldn't hurt the president; it was only beholden to the president, who flatly told Gray that the NSC was not to be informed of the committee's deliberations.

On 19 January 1959, Gray wrote a memo after a committee meeting, in which Allen Dulles discussed current CIA covert actions. In the memo, Gray expressed annoyance with the CIA director, who had taken the attitude that "it is easier to beg forgiveness than ask permission", and had been setting up covert programs on his own initiative, to then inform his superiors. Gray suggested the CIA needed to be brought to heel; but he also suggested that the CIA set up a propaganda program to counter Castro's influence in Latin America.

On 29 January, Eisenhower met with Gray, Goodpaster, Allen Dulles, and Eisenhower's son John -- now Goodpaster's aide -- to follow up on Gray's memo, making it clear to Dulles that covert activities were only to performed with presidential authorization, and that the president should "be kept adequately informed." Eisenhower wasn't too keen on leaving a paper trail, saying that oral reports would do the job; when Dulles asked if the Joint Chiefs should be informed as well, the president said that was unnecessary. In other words, covert actions were to be just that, known only to the CIA people involve, the 5412 Committee, and the president himself -- who would then inform other elements of the administration or Congressional leaders if he saw fit to do so.

The small circle involved in covert actions could easily be argued as within the prerogatives of the president: the government had some necessary right to secrecy, and the president was under no obligation to keep officials in his administration informed if they weren't in the chain of command of, or directly affected by, an operation. The president also had some right of discretion in briefing Congressional leadership, the issue being that he could stay silent only to the extent that he didn't need Congressional support, nor fear Congressional antagonism; willfully hoodwinking Congress on substantial matters was likely to lead to trouble sooner rather than later.

The biggest difficulty was the attempt to deny a paper trail, which was to deny accountability, and could easily drift over the line into the criminal. The White House is subject to the "daylight test", meaning that a secret action must be defensible once comes to light, and it was contrary to that principle to try to bury it -- and imprudent, since it be very difficult to keep matters of any significance from leaking. In any case, the wheels were starting to turn on US efforts to "get rid of" Fidel Castro. They would end up turning for a long time but never, ever, at all well.

On 13 February, Fidel Castro became premier, with the denunciations of the US and the executions ramping up; on the last day of February, Castro announced he was postponing promised free elections for two years. Allen Dulles reported to Eisenhower that the Communist Party was operating freely in Cuba, that communists were gradually displacing non-communists in the Cuban government, and concluded that "the regime is moving towards a complete dictatorship." [TO BE CONTINUED]



* SCIENCE NOTES: It is well known that ants are very smell-oriented, in effect "following their noses", or more properly antennas, to communicate -- for example, laying trails to lead their comrades to food. It also turns out, to no surprise, that ants secrete long-chain hydrocarbons, giving particular castes in a colony distinctive odors, and allowing ants from other colonies to be spotted, to then be driven out or killed.

For instance, the various castes of Florida carpenter ant all secrete the same kinds of hydrocarbons, but they differ in quantity; a queen will have different levels than a worker. Since a colony has so many individuals, it might seem the smells of the lot would blend together, but the hydrocarbons are non-volatile, so they can only be smelled in close contact.

AAAS SCIENCE NOW Online reports that one ant species of the Eastern US, the slaver ant Temnothorax pilagens, has adapted to game the system, acquiring a smell enough like that of the denizens of target ant colonies. They encounter no resistance as they carry off adults and pupae to labor in their own colonies.

* As discussed by a note from AAAS SCIENCE NOW Online ("Leafcutter Ants Use Chemical Warfare To Keep Fungus At Bay" by David Schultz, 28 April 2015), Leafcutter ants, which can live in colonies of a million or more, maintain a complex relationship with several species of fungi -- some of which provide the insects with nutrients and some of which, like Escovopsis, are a threat to the ants. How does a leafcutter ant colony prevent parasitic fungi from wiping it out?

leafcutter ants

Researchers have found that some members of the Atta genus deal with the fungus through chemical assault. Whenever they spot Escovopsis, they secrete phenylacetic acid from a special gland in their thoraxes, and use it to kill the fungus -- distinguishing them from close relatives that cultivate bacteria and other microbes to destroy the fungi. The team also found that as colonies grew larger, Atta ants develop more diverse specializations. An entire subset of small worker ants, for example, acquires enlarged glands, and apparently specialize in finding and treating fungus outbreaks.

Ants seem to be generally successful in keeping Escovopis under control, but populations of the fungus that live alongside ants that use phenlyacetic acid against it do seem to be acquiring resistance against the acid. Why the fungus hasn't defeated the acid is puzzling; the researchers involved in the study suspect that the ants are very selective in their use of the acid, only using it when necessary, and in conjunction with grooming procedures that clean all the fungus out of an infected area.

* In yet more ant news, AAAS SCIENCE NOW Online reports that Vietnamese cashew farmers have turned to harvester ants to protect their crops from pests. A 2008 study showed the ants were so much more effective and cheaper than chemical sprays in dealing with pests that the farmers' net income jumped 71%.

A recent study, published in the JOURNAL OF APPLIED ECOLOGY, examined whether harvester ants could protect other crops as well -- to find the insects proved superior to other pest control methods in four of six studies that evaluated cost-effectiveness. The authors of the study pointed out that there's nothing new about deliberately using ants for pest control; 1700 years ago, Chinese farmers bought them in the market to protect citrus groves.

The practice died out after the introduction of chemical pesticides. Now two European companies are considering how to provide weaver ant nests to farmers, and a Danish aid project is helping to establish ant nurseries in Africa to help African farmers deter crop pests. The authors of the study point out that there are 13,000 ant species in the world, giving plenty of options for obtaining help from them. It's a tempting idea to genetically modify them to be even more effective -- but that might be asking for trouble.



* OPEN YOUR EYES: As discussed by an article from AAAS SCIENCE ("Out Of The Darkness" by Rhitu Chatterjee, 23 October 2015), there are many people in the villages of India who are blind from infancy due to cataracts, even though their vision problems could have been corrected had medical help been available. From 2004, a program named "Prakash" -- Sanskrit for "Light" -- led by neuroscientist Pawan Sinha of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has been giving them vision by swapping out their defective eye lenses for synthetic replacements.

While Prakash is clearly a humanitarian effort, it has a scientific agenda as well. Sinha had been curious about how the brain learned to see, and thought that giving the blind sight would provide insights into that process. At the outset, it wasn't certain that the exercise would be very worthwhile; the conventional wisdom was that, if people were blind from birth, their brains would never develop properly to handle sight. Even if their sight were restored, they would not actually be able to see.

Anecdotal evidence suggested to Sinha that wasn't necessarily true, and so he went ahead with Prakash -- to find that the blind can indeed regain their sight. Manoj Kumar Yadav had been blind up to 2011, when he was a teenager; Prakash gave him sight. Vision was bewildering at first, presenting a world filled with light, in which he couldn't tell people from objects, or see where one object ended and another began. Gradually, however, all fell into place: "It took me about one and a half years before I could see everything clearly. Now, I can even ride a bicycle through a crowded market."

The brain, it turns out, is prewired to an extent to support vision. Prakash researchers observed the responses of the newly-sighted to classic optical illusion tests, to find they responded as fully-sighted people did. Sinha judges that the responses are "being driven by very simple factors in the image that the brain is probably innately programmed to respond to."

Studies of the test subjects before and after they regained their vision showed that, unsurprisingly, they had very poor visualization skills; but such skills improved rapidly after they gained sight. They also couldn't recognize faces at first -- which, ironically, also defied preconceptions, facial recognition having long been seen as an innate capability -- but within weeks, they could make out faces, and start to recognize them. Similarly, they learned to quickly hook up sight to touch; they could visually recognize objects, be blindfolded and handed them, and know what they were.

Their recovery of sight was not complete, however. A study performed in Canada of adults who had been blind at birth and then had surgically recovered sight at about a year of age, showed their 3D perception and their ability to perceive motion was impaired. Startlingly, unlike normally sighted people, the visual cortexes of these people also processed sound. Sinha confirms this: "Despite following these kids for several years, we do not find a progression of acuity to normalcy."

For example, the subjects are not as sensitive to changes in contrast as normally sighted people. Uri Polat -- a neuroscientist at Tel Aviv University in Israel -- believes that training will still help: "The window doesn't shut. It becomes less sensitive."

In 2004, Polat was the first to show that training can restore eyesight in adults with "amblyopia" AKA "lazy eye". A lazy eye prevents normal development of the visual cortex during early childhood. Patients have impaired binocular vision, as well as poor acuity and contrast sensitivity; the diminished sight was considered irreversible after age 10. Polat didn't accept that; he had patients look at a computer screen with variations of a "Gabor Patch" image, which has blurry black-&-white patterns that change in size and contrast. After just a month of training, his patients had better acuity and contrast sensitivity. Prakash researchers are also interested in such training schemes, but believe that sound and touch should be integrated as well.

The Prakash team has been probing the brains of subjects with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to observe the changes in brain operation associated with acquiring sight. When they image the visual cortex of a patient before and two days after surgery, different areas of the cortex appear to be working in synchrony. Sinha says: "So if you have high activity in one part of the cortex, you'll have similar activity in another part of the cortex. It's as if much of the visual cortex is pulsating together."

Just a couple of months after surgery, the fMRI picture starts to change. Different regions of the visual cortex light up differentially, suggesting a division of labor. Pictures of human faces shown to patients, for example, activate an area of the cortex known to respond to faces in normally sighted people. At the outset, their brains are useless to make sense of what they see -- but as time goes by, and the brain learns to distinguish objects, shapes, and faces, different areas of the visual cortex start to specialize.

Sinha is relieved at how well Prakash has turned out: "I was worried that having to work with fairly old children, we were setting ourselves up for failure." Failure? Not only are there now hundreds of young people in India who have been granted sight, but the exercise has also provided fascinating insights into the operation and development of the brain.



* THE KREMLIN'S CYBER CORPS: As discussed by an article from BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK Online "Cyberspace Becomes Second Front in Russia's Clash With NATO" by Michael Riley & Jordan Robertson, 14 October 2015), in October 2014, hackers broke into the Warsaw Stock Exchange Along with stealing some data, the attackers also revealed dozens of client logins, opening the exchange's systems to additional chaos from cyber-criminals of all stripes. An announcement on Pastebin, a hangout for the cyber-underground, said the attack was retaliation for Poland's support of the bombing campaign against Islamic State insurgents: "To be continued! Allahu Akbar!"

Investigation showed the attack was actually performed by a gang of hackers with ties to the Russian government, the instigation apparently being Poland's assertive protests against Russian moves in the eastern Ukraine. Although no great damage was done, the trading system continuing in operation without interference, the intrusion was still a wake-up call. The Polish government is now hardening its computer systems in government offices, the financial sector, and hospitals.

Russian computer attacks have become more brazen and more destructive as tensions with the West continue to grow. US officials fear that Russian efforts to exploit vulnerabilities in critical infrastructure like global stock exchanges, power grids, and airports to strike out against the West will lead to reprisals and escalation.

Of course, while attacks can be traced to Russia, it is difficult to determine which ones might have been pulled off by intelligence agencies, and which ones by criminals with access to sophisticated tools, working with an indirect relationship to the Russian government. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov denied the Russian government had anything to do with the attacks: "These are absolutely unsubstantiated allegations, which are often absurd. We also have been the targets of attacks, which again shows that everyone can just as easily be subject to such attacks. International cooperation is required to expose and deal with these threats. But unfortunately, we don't always see a constructive approach on this issue from our partners."

Nonetheless, some attacks are known to be coming from Russia, and their targets aren't necessarily those that would be profitable targets for thieves. US intelligence believes Russian President Vladimir Putin has continued to pour money and manpower into the country's hacking forces since returning to the presidency in 2012. The number of attacks is increasing, and they are becoming more destructive.

Russian hackers damaged a blast furnace early in 2014 at a plant in Germany. The hackers hijacked a computer that controlled the blast furnace, inserting malware that caused the machine to overheat and melt down. It was clearly not a kiddie prank that went too far; the hackers had been methodically working their way into the factory for months, with the attack involving progressive subversion of multiple systems. In that case, malware found in the system had previously been tied to Russian spy activity -- though US intelligence agencies have not linked the incident directly to the Russian government, said one person familiar with the matter.

Hits by Russian hackers on the e-mail systems of the White House and the State Department were disclosed early in 2015, but they represent only a fraction of the overall activity, according to government and private security specialists. In April 2015, the same group that attacked the Warsaw stock exchange in 2014 hit the operations of French television network TV5Monde, shutting it down for two days. TV5Monde executives say it will cost 15 million euros ($17 million USD) to fix the damage. The motive for the attack remains unclear; TV5Monde may have simply been used as a lever to allow Russian intelligence to find connections to Islamic terrorist groups.

The group went on to penetrate the email system of the US House of Representatives. US government agencies were then hit with malware-loaded emails. Russian hackers have stepped up surveillance of power grids and energy supply networks in the US, Europe, and Canada -- it appears simply as part of a war of nerves: Take action against Russia, Russia can take action against you.

According to Mike Buratowski, vice president of cyber-security services for Fidelis Cybersecurity: "Russia is exceptionally skilled. If you see them, chances are it's a decision: Russia is OK with you seeing them, or wants you to see them."

Russia is home to the most sophisticated collection of cyber-criminals anywhere in the world, and the government maintains close relationships with many of them, according to assessments by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and US intelligence agencies. It is suspected the group that attacked the Warsaw exchange -- nicknamed variously by cyber-security companies as "APT 28", "Fancy Bear" or "Pawn Storm" -- is most likely staffed by a loose confederation of the country's best criminal hackers.

APT 28's tools are very sophisticated. One, known as "X-Agent", is a remote access tool, that uses encryption and other techniques on par with the best US National Security Agency hacking software. APT 28 may have links to the FSB, the Russian state security agency -- the group having been linked to hacks of Putin's domestic opponents, including the rock group Pussy Riot, and counter-terrorism efforts. The attacks on the White House and State Department were by a different group, nicknamed "APT 29"; they sent in "spear-phishing" e-mails designed to get White House staffers to click on them.

Laura Galante, an official at cyber-security company FireEye, leads a team focusing on state-sponsored espionage. She says: "China has always had lots of groups with distinct behaviors and victim types; we're now starting to understand Russian groups in a similar fashion. The uptick in activity over the last few years, especially since [Russian meddling in] Ukraine, has provided us with more data points about potentially state-sponsored groups."

It seems likely Russian provocations will lead to reprisals in kind, if they haven't already; if so, nobody's talking about it. The US has the capability to hack into Russian systems, and the temptation to hit back must be very strong. Whether that is the best response remains to be seen.


[MON 04 JAN 16] FUTURE FLIGHT 2016 (5)

* FUTURE FLIGHT 2015 (5): Although hybrid-electric airliners are on the leading edge of aircraft design right now, as discussed by an article from AVIATION WEEK ("Are Aerial Refueling, Intermodal Transport The Future For Airlines?" by Graham Warwick, 2 July 2015), there are more daring concepts on offer, from aerial refueling of airliners, to "intermodal" transport.

Aerial refueling is attractive for commercial flight, since as range stretches out, an aircraft's load becomes more and more fuel, less and less payload -- or in other words, the aircraft is burning fuel to haul fuel. For an aircraft with a range of 5,500 kilometers (3,450 miles / 3000 NMI), payload and fuel are each about 20% of gross weight; but for an aircraft with a range of 12,950 kilometers (8,050 miles / 7,000 NMI), the payload decreases to 10%, while fuel increases to 40%.

A European Union investigation project named "Recreate" performed simulations of airliners using inflight refueling for long-haul routes, and showed that it would cut fuel and emissions by 10% to 20%. The study took a careful look into the technical and regulatory issues, to find there were no apparent show-stoppers.

Recreate was funded by the EU under its "Seventh Framework" research program, involving research institutes and universities in four countries, including the Netherlands, Germany, the UK, and Switzerland. The exercise lasted 42 months, to end in early 2015. Recreate originally started out from an EU-funded "out of the box" study to evaluate the concept of a nuclear-powered "cruiser" aircraft that could circle the globe, with a passenger module transferred via rendezvous with short-range "feeder" shuttle aircraft. That was way too far out of the box -- but the inflight-refueling concept seemed to have promise.

The Recreate scheme involved airliners and tankers with refueling booms. The airliners would have 250 seats, with a range of 4,625 to 5,550 kilometers (2,870 miles to 3,450 miles / 2,500 to 3,000 NMI). A 9,250 kilometer (5,745 mile / 5,000 NMI) flight could be achieved with a single refueling, with a total fuel weight reduction of 20%. Extend range to demand two refuelings, and the savings approached 25%.

The tankers would have a "diamond wing" configuration, with a forward-swept tail joining the backard-swept wings, and would use refueling booms instead of hose-drogue systems because booms support much higher fuel transfer rates; hose-drogue refueling becomes increasingly impractical as aircraft get bigger, since the time required to tank up becomes more intolerable. The tankers would be able to perform three refuelings per sortie.

Originally, the Recreate project visualized that the airliners would fly up to the tankers from below and mate with the refueling boom, as per military aircraft, but that would require special training for the airliner crews. Instead, the tanker would have a boom mounted on top and pointing forward, with the tanker crew approaching the airliner from below, mating to it, and refueling as the airliner crew continued on course. Only the tanker crews would need special training. Of course, the rendezvous and refueling operation would be highly automated, using GPS-inertial navigation, radar / transponder kit, electro-optic imaging, and a fair amount of processing power. Tanker and airliner would communicate via datalink, and the crews of each would have displays on which to monitor progress of the refueling, and take action if required.

The airliner would have to reduce speed and altitude to keep it out of the way of other jetliner traffic, and to make it easier for the tanker to rendezvous. Since the tanker would not journey far from its operating base, the fuel burn by the tanker would be small, in comparison to the fuel savings for the airliners, and would be offset by the fuel savings of the airliners not having to land for a ground refueling, and then take off again.

The scheme is seen as practical and safe, at least if the stability of the forward-extending boom can be assured, presumably by smart flight control surfaces. One problem is certification by civil aviation authorities, since there are currently no regulations that cover inflight refueling of civil airliners. Military forces do have well-established procedures and qualifications for inflight refueling operations, of course, and there should be no obstacle in adapting them for civil operations.

Recreate cobbled up a flight simulation system to evaluate midair refueling operations; the simulator was then "flown" by 20 commercial airline pilots, some of them with military inflight refueling experience. Their consensus was that the system could be implemented safely, though it would demand a bit of extra training. Traffic simulations were also performed to assess the impact on operations and the potential fuel savings.

* Another innovative concept examined by an EU study is intermodal transport. As considered by the "Fantassy" project, passengers would get into pods at an airport, to be shuttled to an appropriate airliner by an automated ground vehicle. The pods would then be loaded into an airliner. The pods wouldn't have to be restricted to the airport; passengers could get onto them at, say, a train station, and be shuttled over a dedicated track to an airport. The scheme sounds wild, but the Fantassy study showed it could cut aircraft turnaround time in half. Further investigation is being considered.

A somewhat less daring concept known as "Clip-Air" has been investigated by Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (EPFL) of Switzerland, in which a flying-wing carrier aircraft would haul up to three clip-on capsules, loaded with either passengers or cargo. The capsules would be 30 meters (100 feet) long and weigh 30 tonnes (33 tons), with about the capacity of an Airbus 320, with passenger seating for 150. They would be compatible with rail transport and could be loaded at a train station. [END OF SERIES]



* ANOTHER MONTH: This new month brings in 2016, which suggests taking inventory of 2015. In domestic politics, the US Supreme Court made several high-profile decisions, approval of gay marriage being at the top of the list, and also shooting down a last-ditch attempt to derail ObamaCare. The year ended up with a primary election campaign that was particularly absurd -- but primaries tend towards the absurd generally, and they are always forgotten after the election is over.

In international politics, the biggest news was likely the deal with Iran on restraining the country's nuclear program. Violence and unrest continued, to no surprise, in the Mideast, with spillage in the form of terrorist attacks elsewhere, notably the November attacks in Paris. In East Asia, tensions continue over Chinese claims to islands, or reefs made into islands, to trump rival territorial claims of their neighbors. The effect has been to encourage alliances, notably between Japan and India, to oppose China.

Likely the most significant news of all was that 2015 has proven the warmest year ever. Although there arguably was a hiatus in the temperature increase for over a decade, there is no argument it is over. Weather in the US was notably erratic during the year, with a severe drought in the West; floods in Texas and Oklahoma early in year, and in the Midwest late in the year; plus an extremely warm winter in the Northeast -- following a notably snowy one a year earlier. A clear majority of Americans now accept that human-created climate change is happening, and represents a threat, with the majority increasing with every poll.

A significant, if by no means decisive, agreement on restraining climate change was achieved in Paris in December, with China and the US -- the biggest CO2 emitters -- committing to targets for limiting emissions. The Obama Administration had backed up their commitments with a "Clean Power Plan" and aggressive fuel economy standards. Although renewable energy still is not close to picking up the load for US power requirements, it is now increasingly competitive with other power sources. Other significant science news included a stream of metagenomics studies; the Federal government's BRAIN initiative, to unravel the wiring of the human brain; and the flyby of Pluto by the NASA New Horizons probe.

In medical news, an outbreak of measles centered on Disneyland led to a crackdown by the California legislature on vaccination exemptions; the antivaxxers have been put heavily on the defensive. Vaccine technology also seems to be on a roll, with work on cancer vaccines showing promise, and a vaccine developed to deal with an outbreak of Ebola virus in Africa.

In space technology, CubeSats and other small-satellite technology have proven a boom business, with the first six-unit CubeSats being flown late in the year. Work is progressing energetically on light boosters to fly CubeSats and other smallsats, while plans were announced to fly constellations of hundreds of low-orbit comsats to create an "internet in the sky". To cap off the year, Elon Musk's SpaceX firm was finally able to perform a soft landing of the main stage of a Falcon 9 booster, after two failures.

In defense-aero technology, hybrid aircraft, including vertical take-off machines, appear to be an emerging technology. Highly-efficient transport aircraft remain studies for the time being, but the technology is promising. Drones were a big consumer hit this Christmas season, accompanied by a bit of public hysteria.

In consumer technology, the real boom appears to be in robot cars, with technology for automated highway cruise now clearly practical, and substantial work on cars that don't need a driver at all, though that remains a future. Nothing evidently revolutionary happened in computing hardware over the past year, but artificial intelligence apps like Siri and Cortana did become established, and the new Power USB / USB-C interconnect technology began to catch on.

2015 also marked the emergence of general and noisy dissatisfaction with the Abode Flash multimedia system, though its final demise doesn't seem imminent. Concerns over digital privacy and security continued non-stop, with work on new security technologies, and inconclusive -- even, to a degree, farcical -- public debate on the extent to which citizens are entitled to privacy.

* It was an uneventful Christmas season, at least in Northeast Colorado. The weather was typical for winter here, nothing like the extremes seen in some other locales. The only new thing for myself was that I got further into video downloads. I discovered a better way of sorting through Amazon Prime's "free" movie downloads -- that is, they come with the subscription, no rental fee required -- and ended up watching a set of Marvel Comics animated movies. They were generally no more than watchable, though NEXT AVENGERS, children of the Avengers and Hulk against Ultron, was pretty good. Anyway, I couldn't complain about the price.

I did have some mysterious difficulties with lockups on downloads. My Kindle Fire HD stick, plugged into the back of my TV, gets internet access through wi-fi; I was very puzzled about the lockups, until I remembered an article I'd glanced at a few weeks before that mentioned blinking Christmas tree lights can jam wi-fi. I turned off the blinking, and all was well -- or at least it was well, after I yanked the power from the Kindle Fire HD stick to hard-reboot it. Whaddya know, Christmas tree lights really can jam wi-fi.

From 25 to 31 December Amazon ran a contest on Prime, with $30,000 USD in an Amazon gift account as grand prize, other prizes going down to $5,000 USD. I got one entry for every day I downloaded an Amazon Prime show, so I picked a series at random, then ran an episode every morning, with the sound off while I did something else. It was no trouble, though it wasn't very likely to pay off, either; I've never won a contest in my life, I don't expect to do so now. I entered for the amusement of playing the game.

I had to wonder if it would be a good thing if I did win, since I'd have to pay taxes on the prize, and wouldn't get any cash to do it with. After puzzling it over, I judged it a shrug; I'd just pay off the taxes, and then figure out how to make it back up out the gift account over the long run. For example, on some poking around, I found out there are websites for exchanging gift cards; I could buy gift cards from Amazon and swap them for a bit of a loss. Of course, this is not really a problem in any sense, because officially I've forgotten the matter. The prizes will be awarded in late January; if I win, Amazon will let me know, otherwise it's nothing I will be concerned with.

* Thanks to four readers for donations to support the websites last month. That is very much appreciated. I came out somewhat ahead of the target I was hoping for last year.