* 21 entries including: Cold War (series), natural food? (series), sensitive viral probe, China & climate change, Jell-O recipe, light-connected processor, rethinking car sales, Jason-3 in orbit, nanosat launch vehicles, and deep decarbonization.
* NEWS COMMENTARY FOR FEBRUARY 2016: On 2 December, Syed Rizan Farook -- a Pakistani-born US resident, a health inspector for the San Bernadino County, California, Department of Public Health -- and his wife Tashfeen Malik crashed a social event being conducted by the department. They were heavily armed, killing 14 people and wounding 22 others, before fleeing in an SUV. The couple were stopped and gunned down by police a few hours later.
The US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) obtained Syed Rizan Farook's iPhone, and handed a court order to Apple Corporation to help crack it, in hopes of finding leads to other Islamic terrorists. Apple Chief Executive Tim Cook shot back: "The United States government has demanded that Apple take an unprecedented step which threatens the security of our customers. We oppose this order, which has implications far beyond the legal case at hand."
Since September 2014, data on the latest Apple devices, such as text messages and photographs, have been encrypted by default. If a device is locked, the user's passcode is required to access the data. Entering an incorrect code 10 times will automatically erase the phone's data, if this option has been enabled. Apple says even its own staff cannot access the data. The FBI wants Apple to modify the iPhone, so that investigators can make unlimited attempts to crack the passcode, and also wants Apple to come up with an automated way to scan through the 10,000 4-digit numeric passcodes.
It is understandable that Apple wants its users to know their data is secure. What is more puzzling is that, to that end, Apple has tried to design iPhone security so that the company itself cannot break into one. Is it even possible for Apple to crack iPhone security? Since Apple does not release details of its operating systems, much less details of its digital security schemes, that is very hard to say -- but it also true that there are very few security systems that can't be cracked, if enough resources are pumped into doing it. This is particularly true for computer systems, which are notorious for security holes.
So what's going on? Apple, having made it publicly clear they can't crack their own encryption, was apparently startled by the FBI request, feeling like they were being backed into a corner. Besides, the authorities can trace the numbers the terrorists called, even if they can't necessarily decrypt the messages. Tim Cook clearly knew that Apple's refusal to cooperate was drastic, saying: "We have no sympathy for terrorists. We are challenging the FBI's demands with the deepest respect for American democracy and a love of our country."
* As discussed by an editorial from THE ECONOMIST ("Who's Afraid Of Cheap Oil?", 23 January), fuel prices at the pump are astonishingly low, thanks to a glut of oil production. In a year and a half, the price of oil fell by 75%, from $110 USD a barrel to below $27 USD a barrel. Saudi Arabia is pumping at near maximum capacity; the Saudis of course aren't telling the world why they are doing so, but one of the big reasons is an attempt to sandbag Iran, now poised to re-enter the world's oil market as sanctions are lifted. No doubt the Saudis are trying to make life difficult for American frackers as well.
Bad news for producers, good news for everyone else? It might seem so; when there was a glut in 1986, it helped promote an economic boom. An economist's rule of thumb suggests that a 10% drop in oil prices can boost growth by up to half a percentage point. The problem is that no such economic surge is in evidence now, consumers not being encouraged enough by low fuel prices to stop economizing as much as they have.
Of course, the low prices are painful to producers, as they tighten their own belts to survive the shakeout -- with the pain spreading through the corporate sector, dragging down a weak economy. In countries such as Russia and Venezuela, overly dependent on oil revenues, it threatens government defaults; Venezuela has declared an "economic state of emergency".
Over the longer run, the oil glut undermines attempts to reign in climate change; startups working on alternative fuels are suffering badly. Not everyone cares about that, but it is short-sighted not to realize that the low oil prices are a fool's paradise; the long-term trendline is upward, and there's only so long the Saudis will inflict pain on themselves in order to inflict it on their rivals. How long that will be is anyone's guess.
* Although the global economy is currently lagging, well-known magnate Warren Buffett sounded upbeat notes in his annual letter to shareholders in Buffett's holding company, Berkshire Hathaway. Buffett said the current season of political theatrics may be getting people down: "It's an election year, and candidates can't stop speaking about our country's problems -- which, of course, only they can solve." He added later: "That view is dead wrong: the babies being born in America today are the luckiest crop in history."
Buffett's annual letter is highly influential in the business world, since he has a good track record in assessing business trends, and an excellent command of language -- being able to explain complicated subjects in simple terms, without slipping into crank economics. Buffett acknowledged that there will still be economic troubles as the business environment changes, but that the country needs to make sure it can help people who are having trouble making the transition, not try to stop the changes: "The answer in such disruptions is not the restraining or outlawing of actions that increase productivity. Americans would not be living nearly as well as we do if we had mandated that 11 million people should forever be employed in farming."
Berkshire Hathaway employs more than 360,000 people at its far-flung mix of companies, including insurance, utilities, railroad, manufacturing and retail firms. Berkshire also holds significant stakes in Coca-Cola, Wells Fargo, American Express, IBM, and other companies.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* THE COLD WAR (103): The US exhibition in Moscow, a model American suburban home, opened on 24 July 1959. Vice-President Nixon officiated at the opening, with Nixon giving Premier Khrushchev a tour, a troop of reporters in their wake, the tour being captured by television cameras. It was a tense situation for Nixon, who was not the most relaxed person in the first place: he was lining up for a presidential bid in the 1960 election and had to put on a good showing for the American public; he was also perfectly aware of Khrushchev's inclination towards aggressive bluster.
As Nixon demonstrated a American color television set to Khrushchev -- color TV was something very new in the US, so new that color TV programs were unusual -- the premier decided to take the offensive:
NSK: We want to live in peace and friendship with Americans -- because we are the two most powerful countries, and if we live in friendship, then other countries will also live in friendship. But if there is a country that is too war-minded, we could pull its ears a little and say: Don't you dare; fighting is not allowed now; this is a period of atomic armament; some foolish one could start a war, and then even a wise one couldn't finish the war.
... in another seven years, we will be on the same level as America. When we catch you up, in passing you by, we will wave to you [Khrushchev waving his hand to emphasize]. Then, if you wish, we can stop and say: Please follow up. Plainly speaking, if you want capitalism, you can live that way. That is your own affair, and doesn't concern us. We can still feel sorry for you, but since you don't understand us -- live as you do understand.
On 17 July, the US Congress had passed the "Captive Nations Resolution", an exercise in political theatrics proclaiming a "Captive Nations Week", beginning on 29 July, in which the "study the plight of the Soviet-dominated nations and to recommit themselves to the support of the just aspirations of the peoples of those captive nations." Khrushchev was derisive:
NK: What happened? What black cat crossed your path and confused you? But that is your affair, we do not interfere with your problems. [Wrapping his arms about a Soviet workman] Does this man look like a slave laborer? [Waving at others] With men with such spirit how can we lose?
RN: With men like that [pointing to American workmen] we are strong. But these men, Soviet and American, work together well for peace, even as they have worked together in building this exhibition. This is the way it should be. ... I can only say that if this competition in which you plan to outstrip us is to do the best for both of our peoples and for peoples everywhere, there must be a free exchange of ideas. After all, you don't know everything.
NSK: If I don't know everything, you don't know anything about communism except fear of it.
The exchange wasn't flatly hostile, it was more in the nature of edged banter. Khrushchev said he hoped he hadn't offended Nixon, who replied: "I've been insulted by experts. Everything we say is in good humor."
Indeed, after more banter, the discussion ended on high hopes for what might be accomplished at the foreign minister's meeting in Geneva, to which Khrushchev had dispatched Foreign Minister Gromyko:
RN: We have great respect for Mr. Gromyko. Some people say he looks like me. I think he is better-looking. I hope [the Geneva conference] will be successful.
NK: It does not depend on us.
RN: It takes two to make an agreement. You cannot have it all your own way.
NK: These are questions that have the same aim. To put an end to the vestiges of war, to make a peace treaty with Germany -- that is what we want. It is very bad that we quarrel over the question of war and peace.
RN: There is no question but that your people and you want the government of the United States being for peace; anyone who thinks that it is not for peace, is not an accurate observer of America. In order to have peace, Mr. Prime Minister, even in an argument between friends, there must be sitting down around a table. There must be discussion. Each side must find areas where it looks at the other's point of view. The world looks to you today with regard to Geneva. I believe it would be a grave mistake, and a blow to peace if it were allowed to fail.
NK: The two sides must seek ways of agreement.
The reporters had a field day, taking pictures of Nixon poking a finger at Khrushchev. The "kitchen debate" -- most of the exchange had taken place in the model home's kitchen -- made headlines the next day, being selectively cited to emphasize the antagonism. THE NEW YORK TIMES called it a political stunt, but it did accordingly raise Nixon's public profile for 1960. In hindsight, Nixon's advocacy of the superiority of American consumer technology was the mindset of postwar America laid out bare, but it would certainly prove much more the way of the future than Khrushchev's vision of a communist utopia.
The exhibition, incidentally, was a big hit, with Muscovites standing in long lines to visit, and get a free Pepsi-Cola. Indeed, despite the limits of Khrushchev's relaxations of state control over media and expression, urbanized Soviet citizens had been acquiring a taste for things American, enjoying American jazz broadcast over Voice of America radio -- jazz proving much more persuasive than any US propaganda, which was easily discounted -- and imitating Western fashions.
The interest only went so far. The Soviet TASS new agency was cynical about the exhibition, announcing in a fit of sour grapes: "There is no more truth in showing this as the typical home of the American worker than, say, in showing the Taj Mahal as the typical home of a Bombay textile worker." There were sniping comments in the guestbooks at both exhibitions, Americans asking about Soviet labor camps at the Russian exhibition, Soviet citizens saying the gadgetry in the American exhibition was produced by imperialist exploitation of workers. [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* WINGS & WEAPONS: The latest US defense budget was released this month, and includes a number of interesting items:
In reflection of the need to back up NATO against Russian sabre-rattling, the budget more than quadruples funding for the "European Reassurance Initiative", to $3.4 billion USD. Carter says: "By the end of 2017, we will be able to rapidly field a highly capable combined-arms ground force [to Europe.]"
* One of the interesting items in the new US defense budget was that funds for the Air Force's new Long-Range Strike Bomber (LRS-B) were trimmed, while work on a new intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) is being accelerated. Air Force officials say the funding cut is something of an illusion, the USAF's original projections for the program having proven on the high side relative to actual vendor bids. If that's for real, it's welcome to see that weapon system costs, at least for now, are less than those expected -- which is not the custom in defense procurement.
Increased funding for the new ICBM, the "Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD)", clearly shows where the Air Force's strategic priorities lie, ICBMs being a preferred nuclear delivery system relative to bombers. There's some controversy, nothing new, as to whether ground-based ICBMs make much sense, given the survivability of the Navy's submarine-based force -- but whatever else might be said in that argument, it is also clear that the USAF does not want to give up control of the strategic nuclear mission to the Navy.
The current funding is for risk reduction in development of the GBSD. Specifics are unclear, but it was originally known as "Minuteman IV", suggesting an improved Minuteman III. There's been talk with the Navy about leveraging off common subsystems, such as warheads, with the next-generation Navy sub-launched ballistic missile. Next year, work will pick up on the replacement for the AGM-86 Air-Launched Cruise Missile, the "Long-Range Stand-Off Weapon".
* The "Armee Universal Gewehr (Universal Army Rifle / AUG)", an assault rifle developed by Steyr of Austria from the 1960s that went into production in 1978, looked like a sci-fi weapon at its introduction, and indeed became a common prop in sci-fi movies. It is a "bullpup" weapon, with the operating mechanism moved into the buttstock -- meaning the magazine is behind the handgrip, resulting in a compact configuration. It fires 5.45-millimeter standard NATO ammunition, and features a high proportion of high-impact plastics in its construction; notably, its magazine is made of transparent plastic, allowing a shooter to see how many rounds are left.
The AUG has been successively refined. One of the latest versions, the "F90", is now being acquired by the Australian military as its standard infantry weapon, with 30,000 being obtained in the initial contract. The F90 is built by Thales Australia, under license to Steyr, with the new version incorporating a number of improvements over the original.
The F90 features redesigned fixtures, such as a folding front handle, and is lighter. Instead of a fixed telescopic sight, it features a "picatinny rail" to allow the flexible mounting of various day or night sights. An "SL40" 40-millimeter grenade launcher can be fitted under the barrel. The F90 also has provisions for surveillance and targeting electronics, but that's a future option. Two versions of the weapon are being acquired: the baseline F90, with a length of 70 centimeters (27.6 inches); and the longer "F90M", with a length of 80.2 centimeters (31.6 inches).COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* VIRAL PROBE: As reported by an article from THE WALL STREET JOURNAL ("Every Virus A Person Has Had Can Be Seen In A Drop Of Blood, Researchers Find" by Denise Grady, 4 June 2015), a test devised by a research team under Stephen J. Elledge -- a professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School and Brigham & Women's Hospital -- can, from a single drop of blood, identify almost every virus a person has ever been exposed to.
Funding for the work was provided by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. The test, which is named "VirScan", is still experimental, Brigham & Women's Hospital having applied for a patent on it. It can be performed for as little as $25 USD; right now, it can take up to two months to get results of a test, but once the scheme is refined for use, it will only take a few days. It could become an important research tool for tracking patterns of disease in various populations, as well as for uncovering correlations between viruses and chronic diseases or cancer.
The test can detect past exposure to more than 1,000 strains of viruses from 206 species, effectively the entire human "virome", meaning all the viruses known to infect people. The test works by detecting antibodies generated by the immune system against the viruses. It can miss some very small viruses, or past infections to which the immune response has faded; Elledge says that future versions will be more sensitive.
VirScan has been evaluated on 569 people in the United States, South Africa, Thailand and Peru, with results showing that most had been exposed to about 10 species of virus -- of course, widespread viruses, like those causing colds, flu, gastrointestinal illness, and other common ailments. However, a few subjects had evidence of exposure to as many as 25 species, and there were also differences in patterns of exposure between continents. In general, people outside the United States had higher rates of virus exposure, which the researchers attributed to "differences in population density, cultural practices, sanitation or genetic susceptibility."
William Schaffner -- an infectious disease expert at Vanderbilt University, not associated with the work -- says: "This will be a treasure trove for communicable disease epidemiology. It will be like the introduction of the electron microscope. It will allow us to have more resolution at a micro level."
Schaffner suggests that VirScan could be used to test large populations to find out the ages at which children are exposed to various illnesses, in order to help determine the best timing for vaccinations. He also suggests it could be used to test collections of frozen blood samples -- government laboratories and some universities archive them from past studies -- to learn about historical patterns of disease.
Similarly, Adolfo Garcia-Sastre -- a professor of microbiology and medicine and co-director of the Global Health and Emerging Pathogens Institute at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York -- says VirScan brings viral epidemiology into the "big data" era. By showing the full repertoire of antibodies that a person has produced against viruses, the test may shed light on many illnesses that, though not known to be caused by viruses, may be triggered or influenced by them. The most obvious candidates are autoimmune diseases like multiple sclerosis and Type 1 diabetes. Garcia-Sastre also says VirScan could help answer questions about cancer, such as why the same disease progresses faster in some patients than in others, and why chemotherapy works better in some people.
Elledge says that their initial study had a number of surprises, one being "that the immune response is so similar from person to person." Different people made very similar antibodies that targeted the same region on a virus. Another surprise came from subjects with HIV; the expectation was that immune responses to other viruses would be diminished, but in reality they have exaggerated responses to most of the other viruses. Elledge said he had his own blood tested, and so did other researchers, out of curiosity: "All the scientists wanted to know."COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* CHINA & CLIMATE CHANGE: As discussed by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("Raise The Green Lanterns", 5 December 2015), while representatives of the Chinese government were attending a world climate-change summit in Paris in December 2015, smog levels in Beijing reached staggering levels -- 30 times the safe limit in some locales. Chinese citizens could be forgiven for wondering just how serious their leaders really are about the environment.
They are very serious. Not so long ago, the Chinese government viewed international climate talks as a conspiracy to constrain its economy. Now a global agreement is seen as helpful to China's development.
China accounts for two-thirds of the world's increase in the carbon dioxide emitted since 2000. When China first joined into international climate talks, environmental issues were not a priority; the ministry for environmental protection had little authority until 2008, and it wasn't until 2012, in the face of public pressure, that Chinese cities began to release air-pollution data.
The government had stubbornly argued that, as a developing nation, China should not be bound to absolute reductions in emissions. Now China's government has pledged to cap carbon emissions by 2030, and will cut its carbon intensity -- emissions per unit of GDP -- by a fifth; the amount of electricity generated from sources other than fossil fuels will be increased by the same proportion. The latest five-year plan of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), unveiled in November 2015, included policy prescriptions for making economic development more environmentally friendly. China is moving towards an emissions-trading scheme, to begin in 2017, and is considering a carbon tax.
Why the enthusiasm for addressing environmental issues? It's not because China's leadership have all become tree-huggers, it's because China's people are demanding it. The government wants to use that civic energy to support difficult reforms that will sustain growth in the coming decades. Since the global economy went into low gear in 2008, it's become obvious that China must move away from energy-intensive heavy industry and focus more on services. At the same time, China is finding it difficult to obtain energy for growth, with the intensive use of coal proving environmentally and socially unsustainable.
International accords, such as that reached in Paris, give Chinese leadership a lever against entrenched interests at home. China-watchers see a parallel with China's joining the World Trade Organization in 2001, which allowed leaders to push through internal economic reform against fierce domestic opposition. There is no shortage of opposition to environmental reform. Provincial CCP bosses and state-owned enterprises hate to shut factories -- this being a particular issue in those parts of the country, such as Shanxi and Inner Mongolia in the north, where coal is a big employer. The demand for electricity by private firms and households is certain to increase; and at present, environmental regulations are often ignored.
Nonetheless, rural Chinese are all but up in arms over water pollution, urban Chinese over air pollution -- both being appalling -- and it adds up to a directive and mandate for government action. National economic goals, political goals, public opinion, and international pressure all drive the government towards cutting emissions, including pollutants. The environmental record of government officials is becoming a major component of their performance evaluations; several provinces have punished officials for environmental accidents, and for not enforcing environmental laws.
Progress will not be easy. The electricity grid and national power market are poorly set up to handle greater reliance on renewable energy. Industrial procurement is often corrupt, with no concern towards promoting long-term efficiency or reductions in emissions. The government of course has mixed feelings about shutting down established industries, no matter how dirty they are. Although current government environmental plans are encouraging, they are also limited, notably saying little about dealing with the problem of scarce and polluted water. Literally covering everything else is the Chinese government's uneasiness with transparency, a disinclination to dig up or release bad news.
Critics have shrugged off China's commitments for emission reductions in Paris as vague and meaningless. Vague, arguably so, but meaningless? The Chinese government is no longer trying to pretend the problem is going to go away if it's ignored; if the leadership can't really say they know how the problem can be addressed, it's on their report card to find the answer.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* NATURAL FOOD (6): For another angle on the natural foods controversy, consider artificial meat. Meat substitutes have been around a long time, but they've always been marginal in various respects. Now, according to an article from THE ECONOMIST ("Silicon Valley Gets A Taste For Food", 7 March 2015), a cluster of Silicon Valley-funded startups are trying to create new plant-based foods that will be healthier, cheaper and just as satisfying as meat, egg, dairy and other animal-based products -- but with a much lower environmental impact. Patrick Brown, founder of one such startup, Impossible Foods, based in Redwood City in the heart of Silicon Valley: "Animal farming is absurdly destructive and completely unsustainable. Yet the demand for meat and dairy products is going up."
According to the United Nations, livestock uses around 30% of the world's ice-free landmass, and produces 14.5% of all greenhouse-gas emissions. Making meat also requires supplying animals with large amounts of water and food: in the United States, producing a kilogram of live animal weight typically requires 10 kilograms of feed for beef, 5 kilograms for pork, and 2.5 kilograms for poultry. However, from now to 2050, the world's population is expected to rise from 7.2 billion to over 9 billion people, and the demand for meat is growing. Something's got to give.
Ali Partovi, a San Francisco-based entrepreneur and investor in tech startups, such as Dropbox and Airbnb, as well as half-a-dozen sustainable-food companies, says that this challenge presents an opportunity: "Any time you can find a way to use plant protein instead of animal protein, there's an enormous efficiency in terms of the energy, water, and all sorts of other inputs involved -- which translates at the end of the day to saving money."
Put simply, people prefer to pay less for food; but, except for a small minority of vegans and vegetarians, they also like to eat meat and dairy products. If they could get the same experience with plant-based products and pay less for it, they'd jump at it. Brown says: "We want to have a product that a burger lover would say is better than any burger they've ever had."
That's a challenge, and the big food companies are not yet eager to jump in. That means startups will have to pave the way; if they can demonstrate success, the big food companies will then be inclined to buy them out. The startups do have plenty of financial backing, obtaining funding from high-profile investors and venture-capital firms, including Bill Gates and Google Ventures. It seems like a good bet to them: the US beef industry alone is worth $88 billion USD, and even the market for condiments, such as mayonnaise, runs to $2 billion USD. Even a piece of such would mean profits.
* Brown of Impossible Foods believes the company has a winning product. The inventor of a DNA chip now widely used in gene-expression analysis, his firm has been developing meat and cheese imitations from plants since 2012. For meat, the aim is to duplicate its key components -- muscle, connective and fat tissue -- using suitable plant materials. The company's first product, a hamburger patty, already looks and cooks like meat, and Brown says it will taste as good or better by the time it reaches the market.
The research staff at Impossible Foods looks more like that of a biotech or pharma company than a food manufacturer. The research team is largely made up of molecular biologists and biochemists, even some physicists; only a few have a background in food science or have culinary training. In the company's lab, the researchers break down plant materials and extract individual proteins with functional properties that can, for example, help foods firm up or melt down during cooking or baking.
The company has also spent a lot of effort to figure out what gives meat its flavor. According to Brown, the secret to a burger's taste is "haem", a compound found in all living cells, including plants. It is especially abundant in haemoglobin in blood, and in muscle tissues as myoglobin; it also gives a burger its red color. During the cooking process, haem acts as a catalyst that helps convert the amino acids, vitamins, and sugars in muscle tissue into numerous volatile and flavorful molecules. To create the meaty flavor in its burger patties, the company uses a heme protein equivalent to one found in the roots of legumes.
The company's early burger prototypes were described as "rancid" after a taste test, but the latest has been called "better than a turkey burger". In terms of nutrition, the patty may be higher in protein than a conventional burger, and have at least as many micronutrients. Since it is made from plants, it will not contain any traces of antibiotics, hormones, or cholesterol. The company is now trying to get the product on the market. [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* THE COLD WAR (102): As badly as Eisenhower wanted to defuse the arms race, he was seeing no progress in that direction at the foreign ministers' meeting in Geneva. There, Gromyko maintained a "NYET!" line, being only agreeable to the idea of a summit of the superpower leadership. Macmillan liked that idea as well, but Eisenhower was unenthusiastic: if the foreign minister's meeting couldn't come to any agreement, what was the point of a summit? The president suggested a recess, which was done, the meeting being suspended for three weeks on 20 June. All Khrushchev had been doing was to rock the boat; much to his frustration, Eisenhower simply sat and did nothing.
Eisenhower, who took a personal attitude towards diplomacy, did have an interest in informal face-to-face talks with Khrushchev; the Soviets had been persistently dropping hints for an invitation to the premier to come to the USA, which would be reciprocated by an invitation for the president to come to Moscow. Having just obtained a new Boeing 707 as the presidential jetliner, Eisenhower did want to indulge his itch to travel, and he wasn't going to be president for that much longer.
As per an agreement on cultural exchanges established in 1958, in June the Soviets opened a national exhibition in New York City, with the US to set up a parallel exhibition in Moscow. On 10 July, Eisenhower suggested to his key lieutenants that if there was any progress in the foreign ministers' talks in Geneva, due to reconvene on 13 July, Khrushchev should be invited to the United States, where he would open the Soviet Exhibition and address the United Nations. In return, Eisenhower would visit Moscow and fly on to India. The president said that he would like to talk to Khrushchev, one thing he really wanted to say being: "If Khrushchev were to threaten war or use of force, I would immediately call his bluff, and ask him to agree on a day to start."
Undersecretary of State Robert Murphy delivered the proposal to Soviet First Deputy Premier Frol Kozlov, who was in New York City at the time. On 22 July, the White House got back Khrushchev's answer: He would be delighted to come to the US on a ten-day trip, there was much he wanted to see. The premier didn't say a word about progress in Geneva.
Eisenhower read the reply with consternation, leading to outrage when Murphy said he had misunderstood his instructions, and extended an unconditional invitation. There are historians who have problems believing this story, but screw-ups are hardly unknown in government; the president's anger is well-documented, while Khrushchev indicated in his memoirs just how astonished he was to get an unconditional invitation for a visit.
Eisenhower was finding out just how much he missed John Foster Dulles. The news media had been playing up the "new Eisenhower", who seemed much more assertive and dynamic than, as reporters had previously seen him, the easy-going duffer who didn't really seem to be in charge. He'd always been in charge, but he'd been inclined to delegate, particularly to Dulles, and remain in the background. With Dulles gone, Eisenhower couldn't stay in the background so easily any more. In any case, the president could not withdraw the invitation -- it might all turn out well, in any case. [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* Space launches for January included:
-- 15 JAN 16 / BELINTERSAT 1 -- A Chinese Long March 3B booster was launched from Xichang at 1657 GMT (next day local time - 8) to put the "Belintersat 1" geostationary comsat into orbit for the government of Belarus. Belintersat 1 was built by the China Academy of Space Technology (CAST), and was based on the CAST DFH-4 comsat platform; it had a launch mass of 5,200 kilograms (11,460 pounds), a payload of 20 C-band / 18 Ku-band / 4 enhanced Ku-band transponders, and a design life of 15 years. It was placed in the geostationary slot at 51.5 degrees east longitude to provide fixed and mobile communications services for Belarus.
-- 17 JAN 16 / JASON 3 -- A SpaceX Falcon 9 booster was launched from Vandenberg AFB at 1842 GMT (local time + 7) to put the "Jason-3" ocean altimetry satellite into orbit to measure ocean surface topography. The data was to aid in ocean circulation and climate change research for NOAA, EUMETSAT, NASA and the French space agency CNES.
-- 20 JAN 16 / IRNSS 1E -- An ISRO Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle was launched from Sriharikota at 0401 GMT (local time - 5:30) to put the fifth "Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System (IRNSS)" spacecraft into orbit.
IRNSS 1E had a launch mass of 1,425 kilograms (3,141 pounds), and a design life of 12 years. It was placed in an "inclined geostationary" medium Earth orbit, oscillating in position 28.1 degrees north and south of the equator. Two more are to be launched by the spring of 2016, completing the constellation. The seven satellites -- four in inclined geosynchronous orbits like that of IRNSS 1E, three in equatorial geostationary orbit -- will give India an independent navigation system with coverage over Indian territory and regions extending up to 1,500 kilometers (930 miles) from its borders. The booster was in its most powerful configuration, the "PSLV XL", with six big solid rocket boosters.
-- 27 JAN 16 / INTELSAT 29E -- An Ariane 5 ECA booster was launched from Kourou in French Guiana at 2320 GMT (local time + 3) to put the "Intelsat 29e" geostationary comsat into orbit. Intelsat 29e was the first Intelsat "EpicNG" high throughput satellite, hosting a next-generation all-digital payload that could be reconfigured in orbit, as well as resilient to interference and jamming.
The satellite was built by Boeing Satellite Systems, being based on the BSS 702MP platform, with a launch mass of 6,550 kilograms (14,450 pounds) and a design life of 15 years. The payload had the equivalent of 270 C / Ku / Ka-band transponders. Intelsat 29e was placed in the geostationary slot at 50 degrees west to provide coverage spanning North and South America, the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean Sea, and the North Atlantic aeronautical route connecting North America and Europe.
-- 29 JAN 16 / EUTELSAT 9B -- A Proton Breeze M booster was launched from Baikonur in Kazakhstan at 2220 GMT (next day local time - 6) to put the "Eutelsat 9B" geostationary comsat into orbit for Paris-based Eutelsat. Eutelsat 9B was built by Airbus Defense & Space; it had a payload of 56 Ku-band transponders and a design life of 15 years. The satellite was placed in the geostationary slot at 9 degrees east longitude to provide digital television and video programming across Europe.
The spacecraft also hosted the first payload for the European Space Agency's "European Data Relay Satellite (EDRS)" system, intended to relay communications between ground stations and satellites in low Earth orbit. EDRS uses laser datalinks to provide near-real-time Big Data relay services; among its benefits will be better access to time-critical data, assisting in disaster response by emergency services and maritime surveillance. Initial service will begin in the summer of 2016, supporting data relay from the ESA Sentinel-1 and Sentinel-2 satellites. Additional EDRS nodes will provide support for other low-orbiting satellites, the International Space Station, and drones. In maturity, EDRS will relay up to 50 terabytes of data from space to Earth on a daily basis.
* OTHER SPACE NEWS: Thanks to an infusion of funding, NASA has accelerated development of the "Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST)", which was previously supposed to start in 2017. Congress increased funding for the new flagship telescope project to $90 million USD for fiscal year 2016, far above the president's $16 million USD budget request. The telescope -- which will feature a 2.4-meter (7.9 foot) mirror, about the same size as that of the Hubble Space Telescope -- is expected to observe nearly 400 million galaxies and 2,600 exoplanets during its six-year primary mission. The mission could launch within about a decade.
The WFIRST project emerged as a top priority for NASA after astronomers placed it high on the list of their last decadal survey in 2010. The project has evolved over time, but it is now being designed to take advantage of a spy satellite mirror donated to NASA by the US National Reconnaissance Office in 2012. WFIRST is projected to carry two instruments:
During the formulation phase of the WFIRST project, NASA will assess the technology needed to complete the science goals of the mission; as well as develop a budget and schedule for construction, testing, and launch of the instrument. NASA is currently preparing the James Webb Space Telescope for launch in 2018; if there are problems with the Webb, it could affect WFIRST.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* THE JELL-O RECIPE: In the category of "how ordinary things really work", an article from WIRED Online blogs ("What's Inside Jell-O? Lots of Sugar and, Well, Cowhide" by Lee Simmons, 20 April 2015) dissected Jell-O gelatin.
Gelatin desserts have been around a long time, but up to the late 19th century, they were fancy dishes for the wealthy. In 1895, a cough-syrup maker in Le Roy, New York, named Pearl Waite bought the patent for a "portable gelatin" powder, added some of his sugary flavorings, and named it "Jell-O". The "-O" suffix, incidentally, was a contemporary marketing meme, in somewhat the same way that the Apple iPhone led to a rash of tradenames starting with "i".
Waite wasn't able to make a go of the concept, and in 1899, he sold out for $450 USD to Orator Woodward, a patent-medicine huckster from Le Roy who'd had success with a coffee substitute named "Grain-O". Woodward was an astute marketeer; his first ad in LADIES' HOME JOURNAL promoted Jell-O as "America's most famous dessert," which it soon became.
The key to Jell-O is gelatin. It's derived from collagen, the fibrous protein that makes skin tough and stretchy. The collagen is derived from cowhide and pigskin, which is obtained from the slaughterhouse, chopped up, soaked in an alkali (cowhide) or acid (pigskin) bath, and stewed in hot water. The resulting broth is then filtered, dried, and ground into powder.
Collagen is made up of three long amino-acid chains, twisted into a triple helix. Adding hot water to Jell-O powder softens the helix, so it unravels into a mass of floppy, free-floating threads. As the mix cools, the helices re-form, tangling themselves up in a web, gradually stiffening into a fibrous matrix, with millions of tiny pockets where water gets trapped, just like in a sponge. What starts out as a colloidal suspension of solids in liquid, ends up as a wobbly suspension of liquid in a solid.
Gelatin isn't much of a food in itself, being colorless, odorless, and flavorless, so the other prime ingredient is sugar; Jell-O is 90% sugar by weight. The other 10% are ingredients whose very names would give natural foods advocates fits:
Although few would say Jell-O is a "natural" product, it's been around a long time, and though its food value may be dubious, it's not been linked to any noticeable health problems. In an era of suspicion of processed foods, Jell-O appears to be on the decline, but it doesn't seem to be threatened with extinction. It's cheap, tasty, and a light dessert -- there are times when we don't want to eat something with a lot of food value.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* LIGHT-CONNECTED PROCESSOR: As discussed by an article from IEEE SPECTRUM Online ("Processor With Photonic Interconnects Built" by Neil Savage, 23 December 2015), there's long been interest in using light beams instead of copper wires to move bits from microprocessor to microprocessor. It would have a number of benefits -- very fast data transfer rates being at the top of the list -- but it's proven tricky to do. Now a collaboration of researchers has come up with a way to build transistors and optics on the same chip, without having to overturn existing chip-making technology. As a demonstration, the team has built an IC containing 70 million transistors and 850 photonic components.
Engineers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the University of California in Berkeley, and the University of Colorado in Boulder founded a start-up to commercialize the "zero-change" technology, based on standard CMOS processes used to make today's computer chips, based on 45-nanometer (nm) fabrication technology. They built a dual-core RISC-V system -- RISC-V being an open-instruction-set architecture, originally developed at Berkeley -- with a megabyte of static RAM memory.
They began with a silicon substrate, then added a 200-nm-thick layer of insulating silicon oxide. On top of that, they laid down an active layer, 100 nm of crystalline silicon; plus a 100-nm layer of nitrides, and a dielectric coating. The crystalline silicon included a small amount of germanium to enhance speed.
One key component to the photonics portion of the chip is a "micro-ring resonator" -- a loop 10 micrometers across that's coupled to an optical waveguide. They doped the structure with the same elements used to make PN junctions in the transistors to create a voltage-controlled modulator to impose a digital signal onto a light beam. The micro-ring also helps with receiving light, which is circulated through the ring multiple times, making it easier to detect. Micro-ring resonators are not new, but they have traditionally suffered from thermal drift in operating wavelength; the team developed an active thermal stabilization system to adjust the voltage to the micro-ring to cancel out the drift.
Chen Sun, one of the prime movers behind the effort, says his startup company, Ayar Labs, hopes to be able to commercialize the technology within a couple of years. There is some skepticism, however, that the design can overcome traditional problems with electronic-photonic systems of cost, power dissipation, and optical losses.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* NATURAL FOOD (5): When the US National Organic Standards Board defined "genetically modified organisms" in 1995, it started with a narrow definition, but by 2012 was working to come up with a better definition. What the board members realized was that "engineered genetic manipulation of plant breeding materials" was already well-established in organic farming. Organic farmers were enthusiastically raising disease-resistant tomatoes; wheat and barley; hybrid corn; seedless tangerines and mandarins; and other crop plant varieties obtained by mutagenesis, forced hybridization, and other brute-force genetic modification techniques.
In 2014, Humboldt County in California voted to ban GMOs under the 1995 organic definition. In an editorial, biology professor Mark Wilson suggested this was problematic, because it ...
... seems likely that many local farmers are growing crops that somewhere in their history underwent gene doubling, or cell fusion. The farmers who planted these crops are almost certainly unaware of their breeding histories.
What would happen if one of the massive GMO corporations (which have been conspicuously silent), or even just a mischievous student, stepped in ... to force the county to actually follow the letter of the law? Farmers would have 30 days to destroy crops that they had planted in good faith, and more importantly, crops that there is no rational reason to think are somehow dangerous. A major disruption to our local farmers is possible.
That didn't happen, and it doesn't seem likely to happen -- all the more so because nature also performs such brute-force tricks. As noted with wheat, plants hybridize very easily, and there are viruses and bacteria that, as a matter of normal operation, insert their genomes into host-cell genomes. These inserted genomes tend to be, from our point of view, malign. Nature is a much more enthusiastic genetic engineer than we are. If we define GMOs as gene combinations that nature would not make, then nothing is a GMO.
One might, in desperation, then simply declare GMOs as plants or animals produced by human genetic modification, but that brings us right back to square one, since humans have been modifying their domestic stock by selective breeding for as long as we've had domestic stock. Well then, we can get even more desperate, and come up with: a GMO is an organism bred by a human using modern genetic engineering techniques, in a lab, not on the land.
This does seem to be how the general public defines "GMO" -- singling out big sinister agritech companies like Monsanto, while sparing honest farmers working the land -- but once more, it's a fantasy. There's nothing particularly modern about mutagenesis and forced hybridization, and nothing at all controversial about them; the image of honest farmers plodding away at selective breeding of their stock is way out of date. It is precisely such techniques that have been used to produce staggering increases in crop yields, after centuries of slow, incremental progress. Farmers who really want to get ahead buy the latest and best seeds from the agritech companies that cook them up in the lab.
Ultimately, a blanket ban on GMOs is absurd. Does that mean GMOs should be given a free pass? No, what it means is that there's no justification for giving them a higher level of scrutiny than that given to crop plants produced by traditional methods, because it is impossible to show they present any different level of risk. If screening is judged inadequate, then it needs to be tightened up for all crop plants. That would make far more sense than the hysterical political circus now in progress over GMOs. [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* THE COLD WAR (101): The foreign minister's summit began in Geneva on 11 May 1959. John Foster Dulles finally passed away on 24 May, with the funeral in Washington DC on 27 May. Foreign ministers of other nations attended the funeral, with Eisenhower inviting them to the White House for a luncheon. When a State Department aide protested, the president replied that he simply wanted to invite them all in and tell them that "it is, in my judgement, ridiculous that the world is divided into segments facing each other in unending hostility. Decent men should be able to find some way to make progress towards a better state of things."
It was somewhat reassuring to that end, though not much of a surprise, that Khrushchev's initial deadline for an answer to the Berlin question was that very same day, and nothing had happened. Khrushchev would repeatedly announce postponements, reinforcing the perception that he was bluffing. The Americans would refuse to discuss the deadlines.
In any case, at the luncheon, Soviet Foreign Minister Gromyko seemed very agreeable, even belying his notorious stone face by laughing frequently -- though Eisenhower didn't read much into it, judging that in the Soviet system, "there is only one boss, and Gromyko is nothing but an errand boy." That was entirely astute; while Eisenhower relied heavily on the counsel of experts and the knowledgeable, Khrushchev's attitude towards advice bordered on the contemptuous, sometimes straying over the line; the premier did not believe in delegation of authority. Gromyko was intimidated by Khrushchev, knowing the premier did not encourage independent thinking, while being quick to displeasure. Khrushchev, if not outright terrifying like Stalin, was still not an easy boss to work for.
With no prospect of an agreement on arms limitation of any sort, Eisenhower found it hard to restrain America's contribution to the arms race. IRBMs were ready for deployment to Europe; in a meeting on 17 June, the president endorsed the idea of setting up IRBM sites in Britain, France, and Germany -- it strongly underlined US commitment to their defense -- but found the idea of setting them up in countries closer to the USSR "questionable", saying: "If Cuba or Mexico were to become Communist-inclined, and the Soviets were to send arms and equipment ... we would have to intervene, militarily if necessary."
Defense Secretary McElroy replied, correctly, that it was Khrushchev's nuclear sabre-rattling that had led to the deployment of IRBMs to Europe: "It was a situation resulting from threats such as these that led us to offer these IRBMs to our allies, who were showing signs of being shaken by the threat."
McElroy then advanced what would become known as the "bargaining chip" argument, or the counter-intuitive notion that if the US were to acquire more weapons, the Soviets would be more inclined to disarm themselves: "I feel we can push the Soviets towards willingness to consider disarmament seriously if these weapons are in fact deployed near them."
Really? Khrushchev's nuclear threats hadn't encouraged the US to reduce weapons procurement; exactly the opposite. Eisenhower rejected the suggestion, saying: "This [missile] deployment does not seem to serve to reduce tensions between ourselves and the Soviets." The president said he wanted no pressure to be put on the Greeks, Italians, Turks, or anyone else to accept nukes -- the US would do so for them only if asked.
Much to the president's exasperation, the Pentagon continued to ask for more weapons. At a 23 June meeting in the White House, top PSAC and DOD officials made another pitch for a nuclear-powered bomber. The idea was starting to get weary by that time, and certainly Eisenhower was tired of it. He grilled them on exactly why they thought America needed such a thing; from the answers, he got the impression they just thought it would be a neat toy to have. He told them grumpily: "The next thing I know, somebody will be proposing to take the liner QUEEN ELIZABETH, put wings a mile wide on it, and install enough powerplant to make it fly."
Physicist Herbert York, a senior official at ARPA, replied, not entirely in jest, that the president shouldn't let the idea get around; somebody would want to try it. The nuclear-powered bomber was clearly a long shot, though the Air Force had a less ambitious plan, if not by much, to build a supersonic bomber, the "B-70", that could cruise at Mach 3 at stratospheric altitude. Eisenhower wasn't much more enthusiastic. The Air Force was acquiring a huge fleet of B-52s, but was now telling him they weren't adequate to do the job. If not, then why buy a better bomber? ICBMs promised a strategic deterrent that would be even harder to stop, and likely much cheaper.
The Air Force proposed that the B-70 could be used to hunt down Soviet ICBMs being carried in railroad cars -- a scenario that Eisenhower called "crazy". Chasing after trains in a nuclear shootout? It would be all but over by the time they found them. The president said: "We are not going to be searching out mobile bases for ICBMs. We are going to be hitting the big industrial and control complexes."
At a later meeting with the JCS, Eisenhower said that in ten years, both sides would have enough ICBMs to totally destroy each other many times over. It was absurd; as Eisenhower knew, if each side were able to "merely" destroy the dozen biggest cities of the other, that would be a completely unacceptable price to pay for war.
Late in the year, the president would also bring up the idea of reducing US forces in Europe. America kept six divisions in Europe, "which we never intended to keep there permanently," and also wondered why the US Navy's Sixth Fleet should stay in the Mediterranean, which seemed to him to be the proper turf of the French Navy and the British Royal Navy. Traditionally, it was; however, US forces had to be maintained in Europe to reassure America's NATO partners of the US commitment to the alliance. Although Eisenhower felt that the defense of Western Europe was fundamentally the responsibility of the European members of NATO, Dulles had always stubbornly insisted on the need for the US presence and, as the president put it, the Europeans were inclined to become "almost psychopathic" at any suggestion of reducing that presence. [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* GIMMICKS & GADGETS: As discussed by a note from WIRED Online blogs ("The Deceptive Simplicity of Intel's New Memory Tech" by Cade Metz, 29 July 2015), Intel and Micron have developed a new nonvolatile memory technology, named "3D XPoint" -- pronounced "3D crosspoint" -- that, on the face of it, seems like simplicity itself, at least conceptually, involving nothing but two arrays of wires at right angles to each other, with memory values stored through connections linking the arrays. According to the two companies, the chips are about 1,000 times faster than flash memory, and can store about 10 times more data than the more expensive and volatile DRAM memory used in PCs and such -- though it's not as fast as DRAM.
The crosspoint elements are known as "selectors", and appear to be a form of "memristor", switched between a low and high resistance state. The exact details? Intel and Micron aren't talking, saying nothing about the materials and construction of the selectors. They are, however, saying they'll have product this year.
* As discussed by a note from BBC WORLD Online, South Korean electronics giant Samsung has prototyped the "Safety Truck", which features a wireless camera up front, coupled to a display made up of four flat-panels on the rear of the trailer. It allows drivers behind the truck to see what's going on in front. A slick idea -- but how practical? We'll see.
* As discussed by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("One Step Ahead", 3 April 2015), compared to the wheel, walking tends to be an inefficient way to get around. As a result, there's been tinkering for over a century on gadgetry to recycle some of the energy lost in walking. Up to now, the solutions have been complicated and impractical -- but now Steven Collins, of Carnegie Mellon University in Pennsylvania, and colleagues have developed a simple brace that fits over the lower leg, and improves the walking efficiency of the wearer by about 7%.
The device stores energy produced when the wearer lifts a foot off the ground. That movement flexes the ankle, tilts the foot up, and stretches the Achilles' tendon; the ankle flexure pulls on a cable, which in turn causes the rotation of a clutch that can turn only in one direction. When the foot lands, the clutch is disengaged and the device releases its stored energy, pulling at the back of the ankle in parallel with the recoil of the Achilles' tendon. That gives a boost to the push-off of the next step. It might well have military applications, giving the foot soldier a bit of relief, or could be useful for hikers.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* RETHINKING CAR SALES: As discussed by an article in THE ECONOMIST ("Death Of A Car Salesman", 2 August 2015, there are few retail outfits more disliked in the USA than automotive dealerships. When Americans go shopping for a smartphone, they find the model they want online, figure out what it costs, and then buy from Amazon.com or some other online retailer. Buying a car, however, is an exercise in frustration. While it is possible for Americans to go online to find the model of car they want and the options, all they can get is a typical price, and then they have to go to a car dealership -- where the salesmen do everything possible to conceal the price, and run the buyers through hardball negotiating tactics to keep the price as high as possible. Some buyers like this sort of thing; most do not, wondering why they can't get a transparent price that includes whatever profit the people selling the car believe is appropriate.
In the early days of the car industry, manufacturers tried selling their vehicles at the factory gate; in proprietary shops; by mail order; and through traveling salesmen. In the end, they settled on a network of independent dealers, a dealer only selling the cars of one manufacturer, or of several, if they didn't directly compete with each other. The dealerships refined their tactics to ensure they got as big a cut out of the buyers as possible.
If the internet hasn't changed this model, it has put it under severe strain. Buyers now show up at a dealership, knowing what car they want to buy, knowing what the options are, and knowing what price they are inclined to pay. What people do not do any longer is go into a dealership and have a salesperson convince them to buy the high-price model. The buyers want to talk to someone who will facilitate the sale, not make it as obnoxious and painful as possible.
After all, Apple is able to sell their products for a premium on the basis of their quality and reputation, in a competitive marketplace, with the price being both transparent and generally non-negotiable. Some dealerships have experimented with haggle-free pricing, most notably Toyota's Lexus brand -- the price is listed and non-negotiable. However, haggle-free pricing isn't all that new an idea, and it hasn't gone anywhere in a hurry.
Tesla, a maker of expensive electric cars, has a different idea: get rid of the dealers and sell directly through factory outlets. Elon Musk, boss of Tesla, believes with very good cause that conventional car dealerships are not interested in selling EVs, and so Tesla has no choice but to sell direct. Two decades ago Ford and General Motors tried to push factory outlets, but they ran into too much resistance from dealers and, in some US states, restrictive laws. The laws were established in the 1950s, in response to the attempts of car manufacturers to squeeze dealerships. The laws are now being used to block Tesla from opening its own stores in several states; Tesla is fighting back. The company has overturned bans in New Jersey and Maryland, though the struggle goes on in Arizona, Michigan, Texas, and West Virginia.
In other countries, manufacturers generally don't face legal obstacles preventing them from selling cars directly, but they would face resistance from dealer networks. However, Hyundai, Daimler Benz, BMW and Volvo have set up small experiments in Europe to sell cars through company websites. Customers can use the sites to configure cars and pay a deposit. Volvo sold all 1,900 of a special version of a sports-utility vehicle it offered online last year, and it now wants to get its entire line-up for sale online by 2016. Daimler is considering an expansion of pilot schemes in Hamburg and Warsaw. GM's premium Cadillac brand plans to open several test-drive centers and virtual dealerships across Europe.
In these cases, a dealer still closes the sale, but the transaction has been mostly conducted by the manufacturer. As cars become more internet-enabled, the manufacturer's connection to the buyer will be reinforced, through remote diagnostics, and automatic updates of car software. Certainly, in a business where profit margins are so thin, car manufacturers have plenty of incentive to cut out the middleman and keep all the margin themselves. Having direct sales would also help ensure that manufacturers didn't overproduce.
Dealers actually don't make that much money selling cars. In Britain, typically two-thirds of revenues but less than a quarter of profits come from that part of the business. Where they make their profit is in finance, insurance, warranties -- dealers love extended warranties, though the sensible realize they're typically just overpriced insurance -- and servicing. However, online firms are chipping away at these facets of the business, and without much obstruction from state laws. Dealers are not facing a sunny future.
Auto dealerships remain a powerful lobby, and it's way too soon to count them out. However, they clearly recognize that Tesla's push towards direct sales represents a dire threat: direct sales of EVs aren't much of an issue, they don't seriously compete with mainstream auto sales, but Tesla's assault on regulations against direct sales could have devastating consequences on the dealerships. Once the obstacles have been knocked down, car manufacturers will have an open door to push in and cut the dealerships out of the loop.
Yes, it does sound ruthless to dump the dealerships, but it's hardly out of the question; Apple sells direct, after all, and few see any cause to object, or legal basis for doing so. More significantly, auto dealerships are so detested by the public that few tears would be shed over their extinction.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* JASON-3 IN ORBIT: On Sunday, 17 January 2016, a SpaceX Falcon 9 booster was launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California to put the "Jason-3" Earth-observation satellite into orbit. As its designation indicated, it was the third in the "Jason" series of spacecraft, flown by a collaboration of the US National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA); the US National Aeronautics & Space Administration (NASA); the European weather research organization EUMETSAT; and French space agency CNES. The three Jason satellites were in turn follow-ons of the "TOPEX (Topography Experiment)" satellite, launched over two decades ago.
Jason-3 had a launch mass of 510 kilograms (1,120 pounds). It was built by Thales Alenia Space, being based on the company's "Proteus" satellite bus, also used on the first two Jason satellites. Its payload included:
Jason-3 was placed in the same orbit as its predecessors -- Jason-2, Jason-1, and TOPEX -- being a circular orbit at an altitude of 1,336 kilometers (850 miles) and an inclination of 66 degrees to the equator, giving the satellite optimal coverage of the Earth's oceans. The four spacecraft have given continuous coverage of ocean heights for going on a quarter of a century:
Jason-3's instrument suite is effectively a refined version of that of its predecessors, the central Poseidon radar altimeter system having originally been designed for TOPEX -- indeed, the full name of that mission was "TOPEX / Poseidon". Mission software has also been generally refined across the board; Jason-3's improved algorithms allow determination of wind speeds and ocean currents within about a kilometer from coastlines, while Jason-1 and -2 were limited to about ten kilometers. Jason-3, like its predecessor Jason spacecraft, has a design life of three years -- but Jason-1 survived for more than 11 years, and Jason-2 is going on its eighth year in orbit.
Jason-3 will monitor 95% of the Earth's ice-free oceans every 10 days. The observations of this series of satellites have confirmed that the Earth's oceans have been rising at 3 millimeters per year, resulting in a total rise of 7 centimeters. Jim Silva, Jason-3 program manager at NOAA, commented: "Think of it -- a satellite that is orbiting Earth more than 1,300 kilometers away is able to tell us the height of the sea surface with an accuracy of less than two inches."
NASA and CNES are now investigating a more sophisticated joint ocean-monitoring mission, the "Surface Water Ocean Topography (SWOT)" spacecraft, to be launched around 2020. SWOT will be generally more capable than the Jason series, in particular being able to measure more elements of the global water cycle, including lakes and rivers.
* The Jason-3 launch was the last flight of the Falcon 9 "v1.1" variant of the booster, with upcoming flights to be of the improved Falcon "Full Thrust (FT)" variant, which has a stretched second stage, uprated engines, and other improvements. The Falcon 9 FT is intended to reduce the payload penalty for making the Falcon first stage recoverable. The previous Falcon 9 flight was of an FT, which performed a successful soft landing on a barge at sea, following two failures. Although there was an attempt to land the first stage after the Jason-3 launch, it did not go well, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk writing:
Definitely harder to land on a ship. Similar to an aircraft carrier vs land: much smaller target area, that's also translating and rotating. However, that was not what prevented it being good. Touchdown speed was OK, but a leg lockout didn't latch, so it tipped over after landing. At least the pieces were bigger this time! Won't be last RUD (Rapid Unscheduled Disassembly), but am optimistic about upcoming ship landing.
It was very foggy at the launch site, and it is suspected that condensation got into the leg mechanism -- with the water turning to ice at altitude, locking up the landing leg.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* NATURAL FOOD (4): As a complement to the previous installment in this series, an article from GRIST Online by Nathanael Johnson ("It's Practically Impossible To Define GMOs", 21 December 2015) started out with:
Do GMOs really exist? It's an important question, because no one ... can tell you precisely what a GMO is. I've come to the conclusion that "GMO" is a cultural construct. It's a metaphor we use to talk about a set of ideas. It doesn't map neatly onto any clear category in the physical world.
GMOs, like other cultural constructs -- think of gender or race -- do have a basis in reality, of course: we can roughly define "male" or "Asian," but when we try to regulate these divisions, all kinds of problems crop up. And definitions of "GMOs" are much messier ... As one researcher put it: "It is ... practically impossible to precisely specify a supposed common denominator for all [GMO] products."
The author went on to review transgenic organisms, which seems to be the core GM bugbear; gene silencing and gene editing, which are tweakings of elements of existing genomes; and mutagenesis, forced mutation, which has been around a long time, and nobody defines as "GM" -- even though, as the author put it, mutagenesis "is more likely to cause unintended outcomes than transgenesis."
In fact, the prejudice against GM has led to a boom in mutagenesis -- and there's nothing to prevent an agritech company from identifying a foreign gene that would be nice to splice in into a particular crop plant; run that plant through mutagenesis until a workable approximation of the gene is found; and then splice in back into the original plant. It does, however, make the selective bias against GM seem absurd.
Is there any way off the slippery slope? The obvious measure is to expand the definition of GM to any and all genetic modification of crop plants and animals -- if they're not purely natural, they're GM. Unfortunately, that doesn't help, since no domesticated crops and animals are identical to their wild forebears, and in some cases they have been modified almost out of recognition to their ancestors.
For a particularly confusing example of modification of crop plants, consider grafting of trees -- the technique of splicing the branches of one species onto the root stock of another, plants not having the kind of difficulties with immune rejection that animals have. Grafting is a very long-standing method of surmounting the species barrier to combine the best traits of two organisms that can't interbreed. Nonetheless, grafting doesn't actually alter genes, and so the European Union excludes grafts from the EU GM definition with fine print: "An organism in which the genetic material has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally through fertilization and/or natural recombination."
Okay -- but that doesn't work so well either, since such a definition still nets up a range of long-established and significant crop plants. For example, there's a French variety of wheat named "Renan" that is particularly useful to farmers who don't use pesticides, since it is very disease-resistant. It was bred in the 1940s, with its traits leveraged into many other wheat varieties, and its genes spread around the world.
It must be understood that wheat is a genetic train wreck to begin with, a merger of the chromosomes of three ancestral grasses -- not only are plants more amenable to grafting than animals, they also hybridize much more easily. This is why obtaining the genomic sequence of wheat was particularly difficult.
Renan was developed through a second train wreck, by breeders who managed to combine the genetic material from wheat and two other distantly related species. To do this, they bathed the plants in "colchicine", which keeps chromosomes from recombining after they split during cell division, doubling the number of chromosomes in the plants. They then exposed the plants to X-rays to scramble some of the DNA, and with iterative tweaking finally got the set of traits they wanted. As a crop-science researcher put it:
So what's the difference between Renan and many other GM crop varieties? Not much it appears, except for the fact that Renan contains much more transgenic material, has not undergone the large amount of testing for safety and environmental impact as other GM events, and little is known about the mechanisms of the transferred genes.
Renan hasn't undergone testing because the EU waffled, deciding that GMOs created in the way that it was were exempt. There were just too many high-value crops, in long circulation, that were created by such messy approaches to genetic modification: disease-resistant cocoa, organic brown rice, barley used for craft beer and expensive whiskey, the Star Ruby and Ruby Red grapefruits, peas, pears, peanuts, peppermint, and many more. None of them are more or less safe than crop plants officially labeled as "GM", but they've already made it in under the radar. [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* THE COLD WAR (100): On 17 March 1959, President Eisenhower conducted a White House meeting with Killian, Twining, and Quarles, to discuss missile development and related issues. Killian reported that work on ABMs was at an impasse, but then the president was told the US needed an expanded, hardened ICBM force. Eisenhower was exasperated, saying that once such large numbers of nuclear weapons and their delivery systems were tossed about, "the discussion loses all meaning."
The ABM option didn't die out; it would be back again and again over the following decades -- but at least the AEC's claims that testing more nukes to support the exercise had been, for the moment, deflated. That elevated the status of the hazards of fallout from atomic tests, and on 20 March, Eisenhower told Herter: "I am coming to the conclusion that we should not test in the atmosphere." The president wanted to focus on banning above-ground testing, the ban being easily verifiable by fallout sampling and other means. It was straightforward politics: do something worthwhile that could be achieved, and then move on to other issues.
Harold Macmillan arrived in Washington DC that same day, 20 March, with the president and the prime minister conversing with John Foster Dulles at his hospital bed. Macmillan had just returned from Moscow, where he'd had conversations with Khrushchev; Dulles suspected that Macmillan was willing to give ground on Berlin, and let the visitor know that the US was not agreeable to "appeasement and partial surrender."
In talks between Eisenhower and Macmillan later in the day at Camp David, the prime minister reassured the president, saying that Khrushchev seemed conciliatory himself, that the Soviet premier said the 27 May deadline on Berlin was "in no sense an ultimatum" -- which was confusing, since it certainly sounded like one. Macmillan was more eager than Eisenhower for a summit meeting; Eisenhower wanted a foreign minister's meeting first, with Macmillan conceding that would be wise. The proposal for a foreign minister's meeting was made to the Soviets, with Khrushchev accepting on 30 March, and the meeting scheduled for 11 May.
The Geneva negotiations had been in recess; on 13 April, Eisenhower wrote Khrushchev that the US was only, at the outset, concerned about banning atmospheric testing, and that other issues could wait. Khrushchev expressed skepticism, but said he still wanted to talk, and so the negotiations resumed. That was encouraging; it was much less encouraging, if not a surprise, to Eisenhower that John Foster Dulles, his condition growing more dire, handed in his official resignation on 15 April, with Christian Herter officially taking his place on 18 April.
Herter was really no more than a stopgap, not being at all the equal of Dulles, not as informed nor decisive. That left Eisenhower at the helm of US foreign policy. Although the president made it publicly clear that the US was not going to abandon Berlin, and also idly considered various dirty tricks America could play on the USSR, his formal policy was conciliatory. As he told Dulles during a hospital visit: "In the long run, there is nothing but war, if we give up all hope of a peaceful solution."
The president said he was was open to negotiating the status of Berlin, but framed the issue in terms of the re-unification of Germany, his suggestion being that it should be done by a free election among the German people. The Soviets did not like that idea at all -- fearing, with good reason, that if any such election took place, the East German government would promptly disappear -- and backed a merger of the two governments. Eisenhower was willing to at least consider Soviet proposals along such lines, though German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer was unwilling to even recognize the East German government.
Along with Berlin, Cuba remained a simmering concern for Eisenhower. Fidel Castro had come to the US on 17 April, at the invitation of the American Society of Newspaper Editors -- much to the president's annoyance. About a week later, Secretary of State Herter told Eisenhower that Castro was ...
... a most interesting individual, very much like a child in some ways, quite immature regarding problems of government, and puzzled and confused by some of the practical difficulties now facing him. In English, he spoke with restraint and considerable personal appeal. In Spanish, he became voluble, excited, and somewhat 'wild' ... [Castro] made a plea for patience while his government tries to deal with the situation in Cuba.
The next day, the CIA handed Eisenhower a report that cast doubts on Castro's claims that Cuba was going to stay in the Western bloc in the Cold War, suggesting that Castro's land reforms might have an impact on American-owned properties in Cuba. The CIA said that he "confuses the roar of mass audiences with the rule of the majority in his concept of democracy" -- but added that it would be "a serious mistake to underestimate this man", that he was "clearly a strong personality and a born leader of great personal courage and conviction." The report labeled Castro an "enigma", accordingly suggesting that things might still turn out well between Cuba and the US. The president scribbled on the report: "File. We will check in a year! DE."
* As dubious as Eisenhower was of the space race, it did have some entertainment value. On 7 April 1959, NASA announced the selection of a cadre of seven "astronauts", as the job had been named, who would ride in the Mercury space capsule, with work on the capsule then moving along at a quick pace. The "Mercury Seven", as they became known, were all military test pilots -- seen as the most qualified group for riding a spacecraft, something that had never been done before -- and were all white males. From the announcement, a publicity circus began to build up steam around the astronauts, who were seen as Cold War heroes in the competition with the communist bloc.
For the time being, the US Air Force was also interested in flying astronauts. The year before, the USAF had began a program to developed a winged spaceplane, the "Dyna-Soar" -- for "Dynamic Soaring" -- that would carry two astronauts, being launched on top of a Titan booster, flying back to Earth after its mission, to land on a runway. There was some uncertainty as to what the "mission" was going to be; the Air Force had a faction that thought space was the service's next frontier, while there was another that had difficulty figuring out what the military point of the spaceplane was. There was no such uncertainty over the CORONA program, nobody in the military who knew about it having any doubt that it trumped every other US space effort -- but CORONA was still far from flying right. [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* SCIENCE NOTES: As discussed by a note from THE ECONOMIST ("Beetles & Bugs", 18 July 2015), the coffee-berry borer beetle is a major nuisance to coffee produces, inflicting estimated losses of $500 million USD on the industry each year. Its larva feeds off coffee berries, eating them out from within; it's a cozy living for the beetle, since caffeine is effectively an insecticide, and other insects won't attack the berries. The coffee-berry borer doesn't have a problem with it.
A team of researchers led by Eoin Brodie of the US Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and Fernando Vega of the US Department of Agriculture decided to figure out why the beetle could stomach caffeine. The suspicion was that some micro-organism in the insect's microbiome was neutralizing the caffeine. Initial studies of coffee-borer beetles suggested they were on the right track; lab-raised larva feeding on coffee berries had no caffeine in their droppings and thrived, but after being treated with antibiotics to kill off their intestinal bacteria, the caffeine content of the droppings rose, while the larvae started dying. In a 44-day test, matching the life cycle of the beetle, 95% of the test subjects died, while the few survivors were not in good health.
That strongly suggested some bacteria was responsible for the caffeine tolerance -- but which one? The researchers obtained samples of wild beetles from seven coffee plantations, then performed a microbiome analysis on each of the seven populations to see which bacteria they all had in common. The researchers then tried to culture the candidates obtained on cultures dominated by caffeine, to see which would thrive. They zeroed in on bacterium named Pseudomonas fulva, which turned out to have an enzyme named "caffeine demethylase", which had the handy capability of detoxifying caffeine molecules.
So, would it be possible to kill the beetle larvae by using doses of antibiotics? That didn't seem like a particularly efficient or effective option, all the more so because "carpet bombing" with antibiotics has gone very much out of fashion, primarily because all it does is encourage antibiotic resistance. The preferred option is to use a mix of bacteriophages -- viruses that infect bacteria -- to do the job.
* As discussed by a note from AAAS SCIENCE NOW Online, it appears that bees get off on a caffeine fix, and that may be a major reason that plants acquired it. A recent study showed that bees made more nectar-gathering visits to caffeinated food sources, and performed four times as many "waggle dances" to direct hive mates to get their fix.
Caffeine was such a strong motivator that it could warp the priorities of bees, reducing the food supply of the hive. From an evolutionary point of view, a plant that produces caffeine could attract more bees by producing a small amount of caffeine instead of a larger amount of food. The same research team had earlier shown that caffeine enhances bees' ability to remember flower scents.
* As discussed here in 2013, the drug "ivermectin", tradenamed "Stromectol", is a de-worming agent, able to kill a range of helminth (worm) infections; it's used in the developed world as a veterinary medicine, and on humans in the undeveloped world. It also seems to have deleterious effects on biting arthropods, such as ticks, mites, and bedbugs, that bite humans treated with the drug.
Researchers got to wondering what ivermectin might do to mosquitos. Trials in Burkina Faso and Thailand now show that it will indeed kill mosquitos -- or failing that, kill off the malaria protozoans being carried by mosquitos. Indeed, it may well be able to help humans who have latent malarial infections. Research continues.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* NANOSAT LAUNCHERS: There's been a big push in the last decade towards building and flying little "nanosatellites", with the "CubeSat" format being particular popular. To date, they have been flown as secondary payloads on launches of bigger satellites -- but this is not a particularly satisfactory arrangement for either the operators of the big satellites, who tend to find the logistics of nanosat launches an interference; and nanosat operators, who are at the mercy of the schedules for the big satellites.
As discussed by an article from SPACEFLIGHT NOW ("NASA To Fly CubeSats On Three New Commercial Launchers" by Stephen Clark, 31 October 2015), there's been a push towards development of dedicated smallsat launchers. This effort got a boost in October when the US National Aeronautics & Space Administration (NASA) announced the agency was awarding $17.1 million USD in contracts to three firms developing smallsat launchers. The three "Venture Class Launch Services" contract winners -- Firefly Space Systems, Rocket Lab USA, and Virgin Galactic -- all claim their launch vehicles will cost $10 million USD a flight. NASA plans a demonstration flight for each of them.
Each flight will put between 45 to 90 kilograms (100 to 200 pounds) of nanosats into low Earth orbit (LEO). NASA currently has a backlog of more than 50 CubeSats built by agency research centers and university partners waiting for a launch assignment, and there are only a few openings per year to fly the satellites as secondary passengers on larger rockets. CubeSats are also carried to the International Space Station by SpaceX and Orbital ATK supply ships, but the space station's orbit is unsuited to many CubeSat applications.
The Firefly booster was discussed here in early 2015. Firefly Space Systems is led by Thomas Markusic, a former manager at SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Virgin Galactic, who previously held posts in NASA and the US Air Force. The two-stage Firefly "Alpha" booster uses liquid oxygen (LOX) and kerosene propellants, and can put a 200-kilogram (440-pound) payload into near-polar Sun-synchronous LEO.
Suborbital test flights of the Alpha booster from Cape Canaveral are expected to begin in 2017, with introduction to service in 2018. The company wants to perform launches about once a week for $8 million USD each. The launch site for operational missions has not been determined just yet.
Rocket Labs is offering the two-stage "Electron" booster, also powered by LOX and kerosene, which will be able to put 150 kilograms (330 pounds) into LEO. It is based on Rutherford rocket engines, which use electrically-driven turbopumps, instead of more traditional gas-driven turbopumps, and uses major components fabricated by 3D printing. Nine Rutherford engines will be power the first stage, producing more than 623 kN (63,500 kgp / 140,000 lbf) of thrust. One 22.2 kN (2,265 kgp / 5,000 lbf) thrust Rutherford engine will power the second stage.
CEO Peter Beck says flights will cost $4.9 million USD each. The company is based in Los Angeles, but has production and launch facilities in New Zealand. First test flights of the Electron are expected in 2016.
Unlike the Alpha and Electron, the Virgin Galactic's "LauncherOne" booster is air-launched, not surface-launched, though it also uses LOX-kerosene propellants. LauncherOne is the second large space project undertaken by Virgin Galactic, founded by Richard Branson in 2004 to carry space tourists and researchers on brief suborbital jaunts into space. Virgin's SpaceShipTwo rocket plane is preparing to resume test flights after a fatal crash in 2014 halted preparations for the ship's commercial debut.
LauncherOne's first stage will be powered by a "NewtonFour" engine, with the upper stage powered by a "NewtonThree" engine, both being turbopump-fed. The booster will be able to place 200 kilograms (440 pounds) of payload kilograms) of into Sun-synchronous LEO. Although the carrier was originally envisioned as the custom-made White Knight aircraft, weight of the booster dictated a Boeing 747-400, previously in service with Virgin Atlantic Airways.
Initial test flights will likely be based from Virgin Galactic's test site in Mojave, California, with tests to begin in 2017, but the air-launch design allows future missions to stage from other locations.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* DEEP DECARBONIZATION: As discussed by an article from the NEW YORK TIMES ("A Path for Climate Change, Beyond Paris" by Justin Gillis, 1 December 2015), the world climate-change conference that took place in Paris in December was seen as either encouraging -- there was a general commitment to deal with the problem, with everyone submitting national plans -- or discouraging -- the sum of the plans didn't amount to near enough to solve the problem.
That leads to the question: what, then needs to be done? Considerable work is now being invested in what a plan for "deep decarbonization" would look like. There's no definitive plan as of yet, but what is clear is that it's not going to be easy. According to Jeffrey D. Sachs, a prominent Columbia University economist: "The arithmetic is really brutal. We're in such a dreadful situation that every country has to make this transformation, or else this isn't going to work."
Sachs helped set up what is possibly the most serious effort to draw up a detailed road map for the energy transition: the "Deep Decarbonization Pathways Project (D2P2)", based in Paris and New York. Over the past few of years, the effort enlisted teams from 16 countries, which account for the bulk of global emissions, to come up with such plans.
The analysts used conservative assumptions about current technologies and their costs. They also presumed that developed countries would not be willing to make big changes in their way of life -- wanting to still have rapid transport, refrigerators, lighting, and so on -- and that undeveloped countries would try to achieve higher standards of living, implying more energy use. The analysis also ruled out breakthrough technologies, such as nuclear fusion, that could greatly help if they became available, but couldn't be judged to be available in the foreseeable future.
The experts focused on a specific question: Can emissions be cut enough from now to 2050 to meet an international target designed to head off the worst effects of climate change? The consensus was that it could be done, if just barely. Existing technologies are good enough to get the ball rolling, but they won't be enough to finish it. Many technologies, such as electric cars and offshore wind turbines, have to become better and cheaper.
Bill Gates, head of the philanthropic Gates Foundation, has long argued for a stronger focus in energy innovation; he announced in Paris that he had lined up a group of billionaires to invest huge sums in developing new technologies. Twenty countries, including the United States, also pledged to double their own investment in basic energy research. However, Gates doesn't feel there's any reason to wait for better technology before making large-scale infrastructure investments, since doing so will help promote innovation -- and as such technologies spread beyond niche markets, economies of scale will drive down costs. As the technology improves, it can be phased into production for new installations, or to update existing installations.
Solar power is a striking example, with costs of solar panels falling 80% percent in the last decade. While solar is still generally more expensive than power produced from fossil fuels, the difference has narrowed considerably. Similarly, wind turbines have been big winners, too, now supplying almost 5% of the electrical power for the USA. In a few American states and some smaller countries, that figure has moved into double digits.
Enthusiasts claim that renewables could take over completely. Mark Z. Jacobson, an engineer at Stanford University, has drawn attention by stating that the entire world could operate on 100% renewable power by 2050. However, his scheme requires massive expansion; among other things, the plan envisions the placement of 156,000 wind turbines off American coasts by 2050, and twice that number on land. In 20 years of effort, European countries have managed to set up only about 3,000 offshore turbines.
Jacobson does not see hundreds of thousands of wind turbines as unrealistic, saying the oil and gas industry has been erecting 50,000 new wells a year in North America since 2000 -- or a total of about 750,000 wells, with each well being about as expensive as a wind turbine.
In an interview, Dr. Jacobson cited a scientific paper that calculated the oil and gas industry has been building 50,000 new wells a year in North America since 2000. Each of those, he said, is as complicated as erecting a wind turbine, and building tens of thousands of turbines a year would be well within the nation's industrial capability. Jacobson thinks hundreds of thousands of wind turbines would be perfectly feasible, pointing to the massive production of ships, aircraft, and military vehicles by the US for World War 2.
Jacobsen's critics have suggested that a mobilization along the likes of that for World War 2 is unrealistic; the model of oil well development seems much more apt, that not implying any grand mobilization of resources. The production of wind turbines envisioned by Jacobsen is clearly within the production capability of US industry. If we envision the construction and placement of about a half million wind turbines in 25 years, and assume each turbine to be equivalent to, say, 25 passenger cars, then the yearly production of turbines would be equivalent to less than the yearly production of cars by Ford or GMC.
While scenarios laid out by the D2P2 do echo Jacobson's ideas to an extent, calling for substantial increases in production of renewable power systems, the scenarios also include options that environmentalists don't much care for -- for example, greater use of nuclear power; and continued use of fossil fuels for power generation, with carbon-capture schemes (CCS) used to sequester the emissions. There's considerable skepticism over CCS and only limited enthusiasm for it among fossil-fuel companies, but Sachs says that if "they want to save their industry, they should be investing like crazy in proving the technology."
Beyond technology, the D2P2 says that governments are not planning far enough ahead, focusing on 10- or 15-year goals that can be met with incremental changes. The D2P2 does buck current trends by projecting a conversion to electric vehicles, downplaying the growth of carbon-neutral biofuels, and is also skeptical of the push for more use of natural gas, seeing that as a short-term, short-sighted solution.
The technical details can be debated, and any plan will have to leave room for the option of altering direction in ten years, when new technological options are available. Nonetheless, there does need to be a plan, or rather a set of plans, by governments to get from here to there. According to California Governor Jerry Brown: "California, doing more than any other state in America, is setting a pace, and will step it up. But we have to be part of a larger movement to really get global warming under control."COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* ANOTHER MONTH: The US Eastern states had an unusually mild Christmas season, with shirtsleeve temperatures. In January, the weather flipped to furious blizzard that left everyone laboriously digging out. Cliff White, a soldier at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, got into the spirit of the exercise by shoveling snow in a Tyrannosaurus rex costume, while his wife Amy got the video.
It went a bit viral online. This sort of clowning around in the snow seems to be establishing itself as a tradition in the YouTube age -- remember the Boston Yeti of a year ago? Incidentally, the T. rex suit was warm enough so that White was only wearing his skivvies: "It was really comfortable. I could do this all day."
* Being fond of Kit-Kat chocolate wafers, sold in fingers of two or four, I took note of an item in BBC WORLD Online in which Swiss food giant Nestle, the manufacturer of Kit-Kat, took on Cadbury's of the UK in court for selling wafers in the same format. Britain's High Court told Nestle to take a hike. Nestle plans to appeal.
It sounded cheeky for Nestle to try to hold trademark on their Kit-Kat bars, but Toblerone, in a configuration like a row of chocolate pyramids, does have a trademark. It seems that Kit-Kat configuration is too "obvious" -- it was used by Norwegian candy-maker from 1937. Incidentally, although I wasn't entirely wise to the distinction before reading the article, Nestle was not complaining about a patent infringement, but a trademark infringement. What's the distinction? A big one: patents expire after 20 years, but trademarks are for the life of a company.
Possibly that was what wrecked Nestle's Kit-Kat case, a trademark being defined by Wikipedia as "a recognizable sign, design, or expression which identifies products or services of a particular source from those of others ... " It would seem that some feature of product implementation that could not be patented would not be qualifiable as a trademark, either.
* I was checking my bank account online a few days back and ran into a puzzle: a billing on my account for $140.71 USD that didn't seem right. This became a bit of a detective mystery to unravel.
I went through my records and couldn't find any purchase I had made for that amount. The details of the transaction were obscure, all I could pick out was a toll-free number: 800-922-0204. I plugged that number into Google and found out that it was supposedly a number for Verizon.
OK, the plot thickens: I don't have a mobile phone. Further investigation revealed that this number is well-associated with a billing scam. I felt reasonably certain at that point that I was getting ripped off, but that was puzzling, too. How did the scammers get into my checking account? Could they have done so without knowing my charge-card number? If they had my charge-card number, then why was there only one draft on it? The last time I got my charge-card number ripped off, the scammers piled up as many charges as they could while the window was still open -- the charges being from New Zealand, incidentally.
In any case, unless I could learn different, I had to figure my charge card had been compromised, possibly by a hack of some corporate database. I sent an email in to my bank's service center for clarification. Alas, I haven't got an answer back yet, which hints that either the response center is swamped -- or that what I've got is only one example of a widespread calamity, and the response center is scrambling to get on top of it.
* As mentioned here earlier, book sales traditionally peak from November through January, then peak again in the summer. My November sales for ebooks were good, my January sales were like gangbusters -- but sales were, to my disappointment, sluggish in December. I was puzzled for a while as to why the curve had this "notch" in it, until I thought: Nobody buys cheapo ebooks for Christmas gifts.
Indeed, I noted that sales started to rise again on 26 December. Sigh, I get returns on ebook sales every now and then. Amazon.com permits returns for a week after purchase; since readers can read the first chapter or so online, and the length of the ebook is listed, it's not like they generally don't know what they're getting, so all I can think is that some readers are just buying one of my ebooks, reading it, and then getting a refund.
This impression is reinforced by the fact that the returns tend go in bursts, as if somebody's looting my ebook library, and then moving on. This is doubly irritating, since all my ebooks are also on my website for free, and there's no particular reason to go through the rigamarole with Amazon.com. It doesn't really make any difference, since such folk are unlikely to buy one my ebooks in any case; indeed, getting more exposure, if not more sales, is all for the good. Nonetheless, it is annoying.
I persist; I just uploaded my 37th ebook. As my suite grows, of course maintenance is becoming more of an issue. Some of the ebooks I know need some development, but others just aren't selling. I end up giving them better titles and covers. It's not like I'm expecting to turn them into best-sellers, but if I go from one sale every three months to two sales every three months, I've improved 100%.
It also helps to get good reviews; the ebooks that get the reviews get top sales, and so more reviews. I get a review less than once a month, but so far they've been highly positive. I'm presuming as sales continue to increase, reviews will increase as well.
* Thanks to two readers for donations to support the websites last month. That is very much appreciated.COMMENT ON ARTICLE