* 23 entries including: Cold War (series), authoritarianism to democracy (series), natural food (series), NYC bans styrofoam, MasterCard goes biometric, conditional aid to the developing world, bitcoin cracked, lithium battery technology, robocar business prospects, naval laser, renewable power grid, and Astro-H / Hitomi orbited.
* NEWS COMMENTARY FOR MARCH 2016: This last month, US President Barack Obama performed an unprecedented state visit to Havana, underlining the fadeout of hostile relations between the US and Cuba, going back half a century.
After Cuban President Fidel Castro passed power to his younger brother and confidante Raul in 2008, Raul's government began to modestly ease state control over the Cuban economy, with private businesses springing up. In December 2014, the governments of the US and Cuba announced they would re-establish diplomatic relations. In the spring of 2015, the Obama Administration removed Cuba from the list of sponsors of state terrorism, with Congress making no great effort to block the move -- all recognizing that Cuba is no longer in the business of exporting revolution. There's no real market for it any longer.
Restrictions were also relaxed on visiting Cuba, with American tourism to the island ramping up. In December 2015, the two governments agreed to link their postal services, as well as permit regularly-scheduled airline flights with Cuba. With the thaw moving along, Obama arrived in Havana on 20 March 2016 for a three-day visit. In a public address that flattered Cubans and said the hostility between the two countries was long out-of-date, the president also pressed for free markets, human rights, and free elections -- showing that a thaw did not preclude American protests against Cuban government policies, and that the US would politely encourage change.
Cubans were generally enthusiastic about the visit, with Cuban human-rights activists taking a particular pleasure in it. Of course, there were loud protests, on a number of pretexts, against the presidential visit to Cuba. What else might be expected? Ironically, the loudest of them was from Fidel Castro, who issued an angry blast against Obama and the US from the shadows of retirement -- which did a great deal to take the wind out of Obama's critics at home. If Fidel's against it, could it be all bad?
Fidel is an irrelevant old man, living in the past. The Cold War is long over; the Reds, in the end, were paper tigers. Few are really worried in any sense about Cuba any more. Polls show US approval of the Cuban-American thaw running about two to one, with younger Americans, having little or no memory of the Cold War, well more in favor than that. Congress has to lift the long-standing US embargo against Cuba, Obama hasn't the authority to do so himself; but it seems that's the way the tide is flowing. Rapprochement has clearly acquired a momentum of its own, and the protests will be forgotten, or at least fall under the radar, in the progress of time.
* As discussed by an essay from THE ECONOMIST ("A Hollow Superpower", 19 March 2016), after a busy intervention in Syria in support of the government of Russia's ally, Bashir al-Assad, Russian aircraft were brought back home, to a triumphant welcome. Triumph? What triumph? Although a cease-fire was established in Syria, it is fragile, with the expectation that things are quickly going to go back to hell all over again.
Nonetheless, Russian President Vladimir Putin has succeeded in his goal: to impress on Russian citizens that Russia is a world power. Putin, so the script has it, intervened decisively, while the West has simply dithered. It's mostly theatrics, to distract Russians from problems at home. With the fall in oil prices, Russia is economically on the ropes: living standards have fallen for the past two years and are falling still. The average salary in January 2014 was $850 USD a month; a year later, it was $450 USD.
Patience with Vladimir Putin has its limits. Many Russians took to the streets in the winter of 2011:12 to demand that their country become a modern state, with real elections. Putin responded by annexing Crimea and vowing to restore Russian greatness after the Soviet collapse -- "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe" of the 20th century, he called it. Part of his plan has been to modernize the armed forces, with a $720 billion USD weapons-renewal program in 2010; part to use the media to turn Russia into a fortress against a hostile West; and part to intervene abroad.
With action in Ukraine and Syria, Putin has made it appear that Russia is the equal -- and rival -- of America. That not only appeals to ordinary Russians; it also moves against the attempts by America to push for global democracy. In both Ukraine and Syria, he believes, America recklessly encouraged the overthrow of governments without being able to contain the chaos that followed. He intervened partly because he fears that the revolutions there must be seen to fail, or Russia itself could one day suffer a revolution of its own.
So far, in large part through the assistance of tame pro-Kremlin broadcast media, it's working. Putin's popularity ratings remain above 80%, far higher than that of most Western leaders. How long can the cheap high of military action last? Fatigue is already setting in, suggesting that Putin will resort to further military adventurism. Ukraine remains an ever-popular choice.
In the fall, US President Barack Obama suggested Syria would be a Russian "quagmire", that Russia's repeated resort to force is a hidden weakness. It is, but it does work as specified, to impress the Russian public. Quagmire? Putin never had any intention of intervening in Syria any longer than it took him to declare victory, and pull out.
Syria has hardly been an inspiring theater for the US, but at least America is showing increased attention to NATO, where American interests are more directly threatened. Europe has been slower to brace up the Baltic States against Russian bullying. Ukraine remains the real center of attention: the Western goal being to support a modern, democratic state there, the Russian goal being to show that won't happen, that liberal democracy has nothing to teach Russia, or the states it regards as in its sphere of influence.
Unfortunately, the US and the EU have not been as assertive as they might be in Ukraine, the government there being both corrupt and inept. There are no magic answers; but patience will tell, as Russian decline saps Kremlin aggressiveness. For the time being, however, a nuclear-armed Putin is bent on imposing himself in the old Soviet sphere of influence. He is not done with military theatrics by any means.
* While I have been generally tuning out election politics, one item caught my eye: a petition went that around to demand that guns be allowed into the Republican national convention in Cleveland, Ohio, in July, with the petition gathering more than 50,000 signatures. The Secret Service replied with an emphatic NO: "Only authorized law enforcement personnel working in conjunction with the Secret Service for a particular event may carry a firearm inside of the protected site."
End of story, no further comment.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* NO FOAM: As discussed by an article from BBC WORLD Online ("Why New York Banned Polystyrene Foam" by Adam Harris, 1 July 2015), on the first of July, a ban on expandable polystyrene (EPS) foam went into effect in New York City. Single-use EPS products including cups, bowls, plates, takeout containers and trays, or packing peanuts are not allowed to be possessed, sold, or offered in the city, with companies given six months' grace for compliance. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio announced in a press release: "These products cause real environmental harm, and have no place in New York City. We have better options."
EPS was invented by Dow Chemical scientist Otis Ray McIntire in 1941, to be marketed under the name of "Styrofoam", by which it is still almost universally known. It is produced by steaming small beads of polystyrene polymer with chemicals until they expand to 50 times their original volume. After cooling and settling, the pre-expanded beads are then blown into a mould -- defining, say, a drinking cup or cooler -- and steamed again, expanding further, until the mould is completely filled, with all of the beads have fused together.
The finished product is lightweight and inexpensive material, consisting of about 95% air, with excellent insulating properties. By the 1950s, EPS was commonplace, and has remained so into this century. Unfortunately, its disposal has proven troublesome; it is estimated that Americans alone throw away 25 billion polystyrene coffee cups a year -- which is a lot, but not compared to the 100 billion plastic bags used annually by Americans.
However, EPS poses special difficulties as waste when it infiltrates into marine environments. According to Douglas McCauley, a marine biology professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, there are two big problems that polystyrene causes for marine animals, one mechanical and the other chemical:
The [mechanical root] is very straight-forward. Oftentimes, we find polystyrene foam lodged in the intestines that causes blockages that can be lethal. If you think about how we worry about a mild blockage from eating the wrong thing, imagine eating a ball of Styrofoam. That's what some of these animals are doing.
[As for the chemical root,] polystyrene foams essentially act like little pollutant sponges, picking up and concentrating some of the nastiest contaminants in the ocean. Then something like a sea turtle comes along and eats this thinking it is a jellyfish. It is very worrisome to me that some of these plastic-feeding fish may be ending up back on our tables.
There's also the problem, at least as big, that EPS is very hard to recycle, which is why NYC banned it. Kathryn Garcia, New York City's sanitation commissioner, said: "It has not been proven that recycling dirty foam can be done on a large scale, and there is no demonstrated market for this material."
Part of the problem is that a recycled EPS container can't be used to make a new EPS container, because the foam has already been expanded. EPS can only be made from virgin polystyrene beads. There's been work on techniques to re-collapse EPS to form beads again, but so far they haven't panned out. There have been successful tests of "thermal recycling", in which recycled EPS is burned in municipal incinerators, making it a useful fuel for waste-to-energy systems. However, the light weight of EPS works against it in that case, since it doesn't generate much energy for the cost of transporting it to be incinerated.
McDonalds stopped using EPS in its cartons starting in the 1990s, and announced plans to phase it out for coffee cups in 2013, relying on paper-based alternatives. Dunkin' Donuts new coffee cup is made of a more recyclable compound, polypropylene. Polypropylene is less troublesome than EPS, being more recyclable, but it is also more expensive, leading to worries by NYC restaurant owners and others that they will have to raise prices. Mayor de Blasio acknowledged that issue in his statement, but expressed optimism that the problem would not be severe: "If more cities across the country follow our lead and institute similar bans, those alternatives will soon become more plentiful and will cost less."COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* MASTERCARD DOES BIOMETRICS: As discussed by an item from BBC WORLD Online ("Mastercard Rolls Out Selfie ID Checks" by Leo Kelion, 22 February 2016), giant charge card firm Mastercard is going biometric -- company officials confirming that selfie photos and fingerprints will be accepted as alternatives to passwords when verifying IDs for online payments. The initiative follows a trial of the software carried out in the US and Netherlands in 2015. The company told the BBC that 92% of its test subjects preferred the new system to passwords.
Mastercard announced the move at the Mobile World Congress tech show in Barcelona, with MasterCard officials saying the rollout this summer would involve the US, UK, Canada, Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, Italy, France, Germany, Switzerland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Denmark. They explained that users would need to download an application to their PC, tablet, or smartphone to use the system. When they make an online purchase, they will need to provide their credit card details as normal -- but will then perform a second-level authentication check, being asked to look at their phone's camera or use its fingerprint sensor, instead of typing in a password. If users opt for a selfie, they will have to blink into the camera to prove they are not just holding up a photo.
Ajay Bhalla, chief of MasterCard's safety and security division, says: "Consumers hate passwords. We know the most commonly used password is 123456, so they are not secure, and people also use the same passwords for multiple sites. If one site gets hacked, all the places that you use the same password get compromised. They are a big pain. In the modern world everyone has a mobile phone and there is internet connectivity everywhere. So, we should be able to use biometrics to authenticate ourselves."
Other firms are experimenting with biometric authentication. Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba has demoed a pay-with-your-face system, while both Microsoft's Windows 10 and Google's Android operating systems already allow users to unlock devices by looking in their cameras. Smart wallet systems including Apple Pay, Samsung Pay, and Android Pay have already introduced consumers to the concept of using fingerprints to authorize payments. Many Japanese bank ATMs also have a reader that scans the vein patterns beneath customers' fingers to let them withdraw cash.
Everyone involved with biometric ID knows it is not impregnable; facial scans and fingerprint sensors can be intercepted and recorded. The idea is to simply increase the number of hoops scammers will have to jump through to rob a charge card account. Each added layer of security, for example requiring a blink, adds another complication to ripping off a charge-card account. MasterCharge officials say that, while they can't provide iron-clad security, the transaction system relies on multiple security mechanisms that are likely to detect attempts to spoof the system. Facial scans and fingerprint data will not be transmitted in a form that could be intercepted by scammers; indeed, the crypto-security of the transmission mechanism will be at least as important as the biometric itself.
The system will be an improvement at the outset, but it will be adapted over time to enhance security, while accommodating user convenience. It is another front in the long-term war to ensure online security, to achieve "trusted transactions" online, based on robust electronic ID -- a notion that raises loud protests over privacy, but which the very notion of trusted transactions makes completely unavoidable.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* BREAKING THE CHAINS (2): The tendency of sham elections to lead to real ones leads to another feature of successful transitions from authoritarian rule to democracy: the acquiescence, however reluctant, of the regime being replaced.
In Myanmar, it was Than Shwe, one of the more iron-fisted of the generals who have run the country, who decided to initiate reforms, in the face of economic decline and popular opposition led by the NLD. He introduced a new constitution that provided for a new parliament and elections, then resigned in 2011 to make way for Thein Sein, who worked with Aung San Suu Kyi on reform. The constitution, to no surprise, gave many of the best cards to the military, including a guaranteed quarter of the parliamentary seats, but it has been argued it reassured the generals enough to allow liberalization.
Something similar happened in South Africa in the 1990s, and in Spain in the 1970s. In South Africa, the ruling National Party decided, in phases, to dismantle the apartheid system it had created, under which blacks were denied the vote and many other rights. It negotiated a transition to democracy that included safeguards for the white minority, such as a constitutional guarantee that their property would not be seized; whites voted to give up power.
In Spain, as in Myanmar, the dictator handpicked his successor. When General Francisco Franco chose King Juan Carlos as the next ruler, there was little hint that he would move towards democracy -- but the king chose a prime minister, Adolfo Suarez, who gradually lifted the bans on political parties and held elections. Juan Carlos was close to the armed forces and had the confidence of the officer corps; when some of the generals attempted a coup in 1981, with parliament taken hostage, the king defeated the exercise by denouncing it, earning himself enormous public popularity.
If there is no reform from within, the alternative is armed rebellion from below -- but it is unusual for the revolutionary governments that emerge to be either democratic or effective, the more usual consequence being continued violence and instability. Peaceful mass movements have a better record in persuading oppressive regimes to change:
Not all these mass movements were entirely peaceful, but it was the huge crowds that won the day, not the Molotov cocktails. The dedication of the people to peaceful change also encourages constructive, nonviolent involvement to make democracy work.
Institutions that can mediate between regimes and their critics help, too. Myanmar Egress, a think-tank set up in 2006 when politics were deadlocked, suggested various ways to get things moving again. One of its founders had been in the NLD; another was trusted by the army, since his parents had taught at the Defense Services Academy, Myanmar's equivalent of America's West Point. Egress, acting as an impartial arbitrator, engineered the first official meeting between Thein Sein and Miss Suu Kyi in 2011. Tunisia's unusual success in the Arab Spring was partly due to the efforts of its national dialogue quartet, a motley collection of unionists, employers, lawyers and human-rights activists; they recently won the Nobel peace prize.
Good neighbors and sponsors are another help. The rapid collapse of communism in eastern Europe was ably assisted by the European Union; countries previously under Soviet domination looked west for democratic models to copy, and for a wealthy source of support. Similarly, Mexico's democratic transition was boosted when it joined America and Canada in the North American Free-Trade Agreement in 1994; the US also, if somewhat belatedly, quietly nudged dictators in South Korea and Taiwan towards democracy. One of the problems of the Arab Spring was that there were few democratic models in the Middle East to leverage off of for inspiration and direction.
In Myanmar, the NLD's leaders have made it clear they will not seek retribution against the previous regime, even though that regime imprisoned, tortured, and in some cases murdered NLD people. That takes forbearance, but also the realization that vindictiveness against the old regime works against getting it out of power -- that as long as it goes, it is all for the good that it goes peacefully. The Truth & Reconciliation Commission set up in South Africa's new democracy bore witness to past atrocities, but did not prosecute their authors if they came forward.
Forgiveness does carry risks, since it may leave a network of military officers and security people from the old regime -- the "deep state" -- in place to undermine the new regime. This is what happened in Egypt, Thailand, and Russia. When the NLD forms a government in Myanmar in March, it will have to deal with a well-entrenched army. After re-unification, Germany was thorough in exposing the Stasi, the East German communist secret police, and removing its agents from positions of power. On the other hand, sacking nearly every Baath party member after Saddam Hussein's fall left Iraq without a functioning state.
It is tempting to those who live in democratic states to believe in their inherent superiority and inevitability. Superiority, arguably so; inevitability, no, societies always existing in a tension between democracy and authoritarianism. Weak new democracies may not be able to withstand the tension; but at least there are examples that show it can be done. [END OF SERIES]PREV | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* THE COLD WAR (107): Although Khrushchev was not very forthcoming on matters of importance in his talks with Eisenhower at Camp David, the premier had no problems being loud and outspoken on trivia. When the president told him how difficult it was to avoid the eternal nagging of the telephone and asked the premier if had the same difficulty, Khrushchev took it as a slight against the Soviet telephone network, with the premier vehemently insisting that soon the USSR would have telephones everywhere, too. His aides looked entirely uncomfortable; those familiar with the signs of Eisenhower's hidden fury worried that the president was just about ready to explode. When the possibility was raised that America would be willing to sell the USSR non-strategic industrial technology, for example shoe factories, Khrushchev went off on a similar tirade about Soviet shoe-making.
Khrushchev made it clear to Eisenhower that he wasn't all that impressed by what he had seen in the US, that he found the American lifestyle wasteful and inefficient. The USSR didn't need all those individual homes; block apartments were a much better use of resources. There was no need for every Soviet citizen to have a car; their communities were smaller and more tightly-knit.
Khrushchev, of course, was painfully aware of the wretched state of Soviet housing -- and also that, if it were arguable that most Soviet citizens needed cars, it was unarguable that they couldn't afford them. The premier had to put a bold face on Soviet poverty; it was hardly as if he had forgotten the poverty of his own upbringing, nor unaware that he and his clan had material perks almost beyond imagining of ordinary Soviet citizens. Being optimistic of the future, Khrushchev felt justified in putting a better face on things than was realistic. After all, the USSR would soon outstrip America in all respects.
Khrushchev boarded his Tu-114 and departed on the evening of Sunday, 27 September 1959. He delivered a farewell on TV to America before department, saying the people were "amiable and kindhearted", that Eisenhower "sincerely desires" better relations between the US and the USSR. He was greeted as a conquering hero on his return to Moscow, and not without some reason: a Soviet leader had been greeted by America as very important person, which was entirely to the premier's gratification.
It really was an extraordinary event: who could imagine Stalin or Mao touring the United States, shaking hands with ordinary Americans? Khrushchev had dominated the news while in the USA, making him an American media star. When he delivered his public report on the trip at a stadium, he was repeatedly interrupted by applause, the audience reflecting his glory.
However, his report greatly exaggerated accomplishments -- which was inevitable, since diplomatically, the trip had accomplished almost nothing towards better relations between the US and the USSR, or defusing the ruinous arms race. The very day he had arrived in Washington DC, 15 September, the US had performed the first test launch of a Minuteman ICBM, blasted out of a silo dug into the ground; had the touchy Khrushchev known about it, he would have certainly construed it as an insult. If most of the perceptive in the audience didn't realize that the premier had come home empty-handed at the time, they would soon enough later.
In discussions with his people, Eisenhower couldn't see the visit had accomplished much, either. The president's impression was that Khrushchev wanted to solidify and stabilize the division of Europe in general, and Germany in particular. The president wasn't sure that was unrealistic; Adenauer seemed to the White House to be more smoke than fire in his drive towards German re-unification, and Eisenhower was certain that re-unification was the last thing de Gaulle wanted. As far as disarmament went, the president did feel Khrushchev was sincere in wanting to slow down nuclear proliferation -- it was obvious the Soviets didn't want West Germany to get the Bomb, and Eisenhower perceptively realized they weren't eager for China to get the Bomb, either. Still, the bottom line was that the Soviets would never sign any agreement that left them feeling vulnerable. [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* WINGS & WEAPONS: On 18 November 2015, Russia performed the first successful test flight of its anti-satellite (ASAT) interceptor, the "Nudol", after two failed launch attempts. Details were not released. The Russian SPUTNIK INTERNATIONAL proclaimed "Washington Left In The Dust", crowing at how Russia had trumped the USA in developing an ASAT weapon.
This was, in reality, making a fuss over nothing. Any spacefaring nation could build a workable ASAT weapon with little trouble; during the Cold War, both the US and the USSR did so. The problem was that an ASAT weapon was unusable: if the USSR took out the USA's space assets, the USA would take out the USSR's, leaving both sides worse off. In addition, taking out an adversary's space assets would only be done in the case of all-out war, which nobody wanted. Should the US feel obligated to respond in kind to the Nudol test, it would not be difficult to develop an ASAT system in short order from existing technologies. It might be more prudent to instead carefully leak that US anti-ballistic missile systems could easily do the job, if it were necessary, with the White House publicly denying any intent to develop an ASAT system.
It is interesting in reading SPUTNIK INTERNATIONAL to see how it plays up propaganda that sounds like something from out of the heights of the Cold War, and now seems simply cheesy and quaint. Indeed, instead of suggesting strength, it suggests merely insecurity and weakness, not all that different from the assertive bluster of a crackpot trolling the internet.
* The US Navy's Standard missile (SM) has design roots going back to the early days of surface-to-air missile (SAM) design. The latest iteration, the "SM-3 Block 1b", is an anti-ballistic missile (ABM) weapon, carried by US Navy cruisers and destroyers built with the AEGIS defensive system.
The SM-3 Block 1b is now being adapted to the ground-launched ABM role under the AEGIS Ashore effort. On 10 December 2015, an SM-3-1b missile launched from the Pacific Missile Range Facility on Kauai, Hawaii, intercepted an intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) target, being directed by an AEGIS AN/TPY-2 ABM radar system. The SM-3 used a "kinetic kill" warhead, destroying the target by a high-speed collision.
Although AEGIS Ashore is based on a ground-based installation of the AEGIS AN/TPY-2 radar, it was not entirely clear that the radar in this test was ground-based. In any case, the test paved the way for the first deployment of an AEGIS Ashore system, to Romania, by the end of 2015. Although the rationale for deployment of the system is to guard Europe against a missile attack from, say, Iran, the Russians have objected to deployment of the system. It should be noted that the SM-3 can hit targets in orbit and also represents, at least to an extent, an ASAT capability -- that could be enhanced if the need arises.
* The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's (DARPA) "Tactically Exploited Reconnaissance Node (TERN)" effort, to obtain a midweight drone for operation off of frigates and other smaller vessels, was mentioned here last summer. DARPA has finally awarded a contract to Northrop Grumman to develop a TERN drone.
The Northrop Grumman TERN will be a "tailsitter" or "pogo" aircraft, taking off and landing on its tail, then tilting to the horizontal for forward flight. Exact details are still lacking, but it will feature contra-rotating propellers 3 meters (10 feet) in diameter, have a range of up to 1,670 kilometers (1,040 miles / 900 NMI), and be able to carry a payload of up to 270 kilograms (600 pounds) -- including offensive stores. How it will perform tail-first landings on a relatively small vessel in rough weather and seas is an interesting question; obviously it can be done, but it won't be easy.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* COMES WITH STRINGS: As discussed by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("It's Not What You Spend", 23 May 2015), the wealthy countries are now distributing $136 billion USD a year in foreign aid, with the funding continuing to grow. Some might think that inadequate, but donors tend to have an opposite concern -- that the money isn't doing as much good as it could, either being used to line the pockets of government officials and their cronies in the recipient countries, or pumped into ineffectual programs.
Although donors are inclined to draw up detailed plans for how their money will be spent by recipients, they're not always easy to enforce; the World Bank reports that it spends 50% more for laying a unit area of road in countries where bribery is the normal way of doing business. Even when government officials are honest, they may not always be competent, and the system tends to encourage recipients to focus more on bringing in aid money, instead of getting things done. On the other side of that coin, the picky plans end up imposing a lot of red tape on the recipient government, while donors may not understand what works for the recipients as well as the recipients do themselves.
Donors are now trying to make sure their money is better spent, discussing plans and performance metrics with recipients before providing the funding. Under "cash on delivery" schemes, targets are set -- for example, to cut childhood mortality rates, or increase the number of students who finish school -- and agreements made on how much will be paid if the targets are met. The donors are not fussy about procedures, only being concerned with metrics. Most aid is still provided using the traditional approach, but several countries, including Britain and Norway, and big private donors, such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, are tinkering with cash-on-delivery.
In cash-on-delivery, donors and recipients agree on targets, but the recipients come up with their own plan for how to achieve them, if possibly with donor assistance. The donor does have some say over the recipient plan, for example that it should respect human rights -- a sterilization program might reduce childbirth deaths, but sterilizations must be voluntary; nonetheless, the recipient figures out the details. A recipient starts any such program on its own money, or aid already obtained, but doesn't get cash-on-delivery money until the targets are met. The recipient can then plow the money back into the program, setting up a virtuous circle.
Parts of the cash-on-delivery scheme have been featured in several recent government-funded health, education, and environmental aid programs. Norway, for example, makes payments to a number of countries for preserving their forests and cutting carbon emissions. Since 2008, Norway has paid Brazil $5 USD for each tonne of emissions reduced by leaving trees standing, with satellite imagery used to monitor progress. Brazil decided on the measures to reduce deforestation -- including expanding national parks, making it harder to plant sugar cane in the Amazon region, and improving the national land registry.
In 2012, Britain offered to pay Ethiopia up to a hundred pounds ($150 USD, roughly), for each extra pupil taking graduation exams, compared with numbers before that time, with another $150 USD if the student passes -- students in richer districts meant smaller payments. Two years after, almost 45,000 extra students had taken the exam, with 42,000 passing. Set against an annual education budget of $1.2 billion USD, the aid is spare change, but it it is still effective.
One issue is the reliability of metrics. In 2000 GAVI, a public-private health initiative, paid poor countries $20 USD for each additional child given all three shots of a combination vaccine for diphtheria, tetanus, and whooping cough. Studies then found that the gap between reported vaccination rates, and actual rates as determined by household surveys, gradually widened over time. GAVI is re-engineering the scheme.
Still, enthusiasm for cash-on-delivery is growing among donors, and recipients seem able to get into the spirit of the exercise. Salud Mesoamerica, a public-private program run by the Inter-American Development Bank, pays a bonus to Central American countries that improve health services for their poorest citizens. Bank officials say the countries that participate are keenly competitive, each trying to outdo the other in bringing in more donor cash. Even better, recipient governments become ingenious in setting up effective programs that cost little or nothing, to end up making money from donors with them.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* BITCOIN BUSTED: As discussed by an article from AAAS SCIENCE NOW Online ("Why Criminals Can't Hide Behind Bitcoin" by John Bohannon, 9 March 2016), the introduction of the digital currency system known as "bitcoin" seemed like a treasure to computer scientists, libertarians -- and criminals. In June 2013 Martti Malmi, one of Bitcoin's earliest developers and investors, proclaimed: "It's totally anonymous. The FBI [US Federal Bureau of Investigation] does not have a prayer of a chance of finding out who is who."
Cut to February 2015. Ross Ulbricht, the 31-year-old American who created Silk Road, an online Bitcoin sales bazaar for illegal drugs, was sentenced to life in prison. In March 2015, the assets of 28-year-old Czech national Thomas Jiikovsky were seized; he was suspected of laundering $40 million USD in stolen Bitcoins. In September 2015, 33-year-old American Trendon Shavers and Frenchman Mark Karpele were busted for running Bitcoin scams.
While most Bitcoin users are law-abiding citizens, the "crypto-currency" has proven very useful to criminals trying to conceal their financial tracks. The irony is that the security features of Bitcoin cut both ways, allowing the entire financial history of a criminal endeavor to be made public.
There are only a handful of people who understand Bitcoin well enough to be able to exploit its vulnerabilities. Sarah Meiklejohn, a computer scientist at University College London, comments: "There aren't that many of us. We all know each other." When Bitcoin first emerged, law enforcement officers were "panicking," Meiklejohn says: "They thought these technologies were dangerous, and made it harder for them to do their job." However, as arrests and convictions piled up, "there's a steady shift toward seeing crypto-currency as a tool for prosecuting crimes."
* Bitcoin was created in 2008 by a person or persons, still unidentified, named Satoshi Nakamoto. Strictly speaking, Bitcoins are nothing more than amounts associated with addresses -- unique strings of letters and numbers. For example, "1Ez69SnzzmePmZX3WpEzMKTrcBF2gpNQ55" represents nearly 30,000 Bitcoins seized during the Silk Road bust, worth about $20 million USD at the time, that were auctioned off by the US government on 1 July 2014.
Those Bitcoins have been split up and changed hands numerous times since then, with the Bitcoin system tracking their changes. The past and present ownership of every Bitcoin -- in fact, every 10-millionth of a Bitcoin -- is dutifully recorded in the "blockchain," an ever-growing public ledger shared across the Internet. What remains supposedly hidden are the true identities of the Bitcoin owners: instead of submitting their names, users create a code that serves as their digital signature in the blockchain.
The job of keeping the system running and preventing cheating is left to a volunteer workforce of "Bitcoin miners". They crunch the numbers needed to verify every transaction, with an ever-growing computational overhead, in principle keeping the system honest. The act of verifying a 10-minute block of transactions generates 25 new Bitcoins for the miner; this is how Bitcoins are minted.
Those who don't run miners have to trade to get Bitcoins. Companies have sprung up that sell Bitcoins -- at a profitable rate -- and provide ATM machines where users can convert them into cash. Users can conduct transactions in Bitcoins; both parties digitally sign a transaction, and it is recorded in the blockchain. Currently Bitcoin's market capitalization, a measure of the amount of money invested in it, stands at about $5.6 billion USD. That money is very safe from theft, as long as users never reveal their private keys, the long -- and ideally, randomly generated -- numbers used to generate a digital signature.
* The security problem begins when Bitcoins are spent. In 2013, investigators began to zero in on the Silk Road drug sales site. Silk Road provided reviews of vendors and helpful tips; merchandise was sent mostly through the normal postal system -- the buyer sent the seller the mailing address as an encrypted message. Investigators were piling up data; they just needed to link it to the Internet Protocol (IP) addresses of the computers used by buyers and sellers.
The Bitcoin system is designed to obscure the IP addresses in correspondence by playing a "shell game", with messages passed around among all the computers in the network. The only way a recipient recognizes a message out of the traffic is from its encryption, which only the receiver being able to read it. The first problem is not slipping up. Investigators managed to get on the trail of Ross Ulbricht because he re-used the same pseudonym he had adopted years before to post announcements on illegal drug discussion forums. Once FBI tracked his IP address to a San Francisco, in California, Internet cafe, they caught him in the act of logging into Silk Road as an administrator.
Well OK, Ulbricht was careless -- but nobody is always careful, and it turns out that Bitcoin still isn't safe, even without slip-ups. In 2014, the husband-&-wife team of Philip and Diana Koshy, then grad students in the lab of computer scientist Patrick McDaniel at Pennsylvania State University in University Park, built their own version of a "Bitcoin wallet", a software app used to perform Bitcoin transactions. The Koshy's customized wallet was designed to provide a window into the transaction stream taking place in the Bitcoin system. It turns out that the scramblings of the shell game in the Bitcoin system are not neatly coordinated to make sure that specific nodes can't be sorted out statistically; one once one node was identified, the Koshys were able to infer others.
It was a cryptanalytical tour de force: they were able to map IP addresses to more than 1000 Bitcoin addresses. Bitcoin's designers were more naive than they thought, failing to realize that it's usually such statistical biases that crack open cryptosystems. The Koshys were promptly contacted by the US Department of Homeland Security. Their probes also suggested the existence of other "windows" into the Bitcoin system, associated with US government data systems in Virginia.
Such a vulnerability turns Bitcoin security on its head. The beauty of Bitcoin, as Meiklejohn points out, is that the blockchain records all: "If you catch a dealer with drugs and cash on the street, you've caught them committing one crime. But if you catch people using something like Silk Road, you've uncovered their whole criminal history. It's like discovering their [accounting] books."
Bitcoin users have tried to strike back, "mixing" Bitcoin transactions at the sales end to enhance the shell game. However, mixing systems introduce vulnerabilities of their own, and also offer opportunities for fraud. New systems are now being introduced in hopes of plugging up Bitcoin's security holes. An international team is now launching a new anonymous online market called Shadow this year, which will use its own crypto-currency, ShadowCash. Shadow's backers insist that it will have protections against illegal use.
Other competitors are in the wings; crypto-currencies are even going mainstream. Some banks already rely on a crypto-currency named "Ripple" for settling large global money transfers. Those working in the field report the US government is heavily engaged with the crypto-currency community, and may issue its own crypto-currency within a year or two. What happens next remains to be seen.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* BREAKING THE CHAINS (1): The question of the merits of democratic rule was discussed here in 2010; an article from THE ECONOMIST ("The Road Less Traveled", 28 November 2015) picked up from where it left off, considering how societies can evolve from authoritarian to democratic.
As a significant example, after elections in Myanmar in the fall of 2015, on 8 November the tally of votes revealed that the National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Aung San Suu Kyi, had won 77% of the seats on offer, while the proxy of the ruling military junta, the Union Solidarity and Development Party, only managed a humiliating 10%. This is startling because, five years ago, the NLD was banned, with its leadership in prison or under house arrest. Now the NLD controls both houses of parliament, and has selected Myanmar's next president -- Htin Kyaw, an aide to Aung San Suu Kyi, who was disqualified on a technicality.
It is also in sharp contrast because the drive for democracy has faltered elsewhere. Most notably, of the nations that underwent the popular revolutions of the Arab Spring of 2011, only Tunisia appears to have achieved honestly democratic rule. Egypt is probably at least as oppressive and violent than before; Syria and Libya are war zones.
Myanmar's neighbors haven't done so well, either. Thailand elected a charismatic young prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, in 2011 -- only for her to be overthrown in a military coup three years later. Cambodia and Malaysia both held flawed elections in 2013 that were largely rejected by the opposition, plunging them into crisis. Vietnam and China continue to lock up dissidents, and show no interest in democratization.
Above all, there is the example of Russia, where the cautious hopes generated by the collapse of the Soviet regime have disappeared, ground underfoot by a Vladimir Putin who seems to emulate Stalin on a smaller scale. Boris Yeltsin's privatization program, a rushed attempt to reform the Soviet command economy, was hijacked by a tiny group of opportunists, the "oligarchs" -- the chaos paving the way for the former KGB hard man, President Putin. Democracy never put down roots in Russia. That leads to the question: under what circumstances will the transition from dictatorship to democracy actually work?
Elections are a starting point. These days, almost all dictatorships and authoritarian regimes at least go through the motions of holding elections -- that being the respect vice must pay to virtue, though the elections are rigged. However, sham democracy ends up doing no more than encouraging citizens to want the real thing. That was what happened in Myanmar, where successive military governments held and won several bogus elections and referendums from 1990 onwards. The NLD boycotted some of them. Nonetheless, pressure grew to make the elections more substantial, and when they were substantial enough, the NLD seized its chance.
Brazil and Mexico had similar experiences. In Brazil, the military regimes that followed a coup in 1964 held fake elections they rigged to win. However, as the generals lost popular support, their control over elections gradually slipped, until in 1985 they lost the presidency to a civilian, Tancredo Neves, and accepted defeat. In Mexico, the permanent rule of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) was marked by periodic elections, which were invariably rigged. Again, the longer the elections were a farce, the greater the pressure for change.
In 1988, with the opposition leader ahead early in the count on election night, Manuel Bartlett, the minister in charge of the count, announced that the computers tallying the results had mysteriously crashed: "Se cayo el sistema (the system has crashed)!" It certainly had, with the announcement becoming a catchphrase for the opposition. In 1996, the government set up an impartial electoral authority, with the PRI losing power in the 2000 elections. Mexico has its many problems, but few doubt that it is now a democracy. [TO BE CONTINUED]NEXT | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* THE COLD WAR (106): Premier Khrushchev wanted to make sure he put his best foot forward in the United States. Not liking the idea of being trumped by Eisenhower's Boeing 707, he wanted to fly in on the USSR's latest airliner, the impressive Tupolev Tu-114. It was basically a Tu-95 "Bear" bomber with an airliner fuselage, with swept wings and powered by four massive turboprops, and had the range to fly nonstop to Washington DC. The only problem was that it wasn't in production yet, and so Khrushchev would be taking his chances on a pre-production aircraft that wasn't fully debugged. Indeed, it would be still fitted with test instrumentation for the flight.
Khrushchev took along his wife, four of his children, and a grandchild -- as long as the premier was doing the grand tour, his family ought to enjoy it, too. The Tu-114 arrived at Andrews Air Force Base outside of Washington DC on a hot 15 September. Khrushchev was embarrassed because the aircraft, held up by headwinds, came in an hour late. However, he was entirely gratified at the welcome: red carpet; a military band; 21-gun salute; with President Eisenhower, Secretary of State Herter, General Twining, and UN Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge there to greet him. In the Soviet Union, things were done, as Khrushchev said, "in a proletarian way, which sometimes, I'm afraid, meant they were done a bit carelessly." However, the ceremonial greeting made him "immensely proud ... that's the way they were meeting a representative of a great socialist country."
It was an indication of how little Khrushchev knew of how things were done in the USA that he had expected Eisenhower to greet him wearing a dress military uniform, which was simply absurd. The premier spent two days in Washington DC, having casual talks with the president, being given a helicopter ride over the city in the presidential helicopter -- Eisenhower hoping he would be impressed by the evident wealth of Americans, the many homes and cars. Khrushchev played at being unimpressed.
Over the following eight days, Khrushchev and his entourage shuttled around the country, with UN Ambassador Lodge playing host: New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Des Moines, and Pittsburgh. Americans who got near to him generally found him humorous, lively, and outgoing, but there were confrontations. In Los Angeles, he attended a banquet at the Ambassador Hotel, hosted by mayor Norris Poulson. Poulson delivered an ungracious speech, replying to Khrushchev's "we will bury you" comment with: "You can't bury us, Mr. Khrushchev, so don't try. If challenged, we will fight to the death."
Khrushchev reacted to Poulson's comments so angrily that some of the more exciteable in attendance thought the premier was about to declare World War III. Khrushchev threatened to pack his bags and go home, his son Sergei saying his voice went to a scream. Foreign Minister Gromyko had a hasty chat with Lodge, who apologized to the premier -- and called the White House to ask for advance preparations for future stops, to suggest to local officials that being a good host to the premier was not compatible with picking idiot fights with him. Differences of opinion needed to be, would be, addressed under other circumstances.
Khrushchev then returned to Washington DC, to spend two days in conference with Eisenhower at Camp David. Before the premier left the USSR, he had been disturbed to hear that he was to go to a place named "Camp David", assuming it was some sort of quarantine center, to be hastily told by his aides that it was the presidential "dacha", or country house.
As Eisenhower had expected -- he hadn't wanted to invite Khrushchev without some diplomatic progress beforehand, there hadn't been, the invitation being a screwup -- the discussions at the presidential retreat were not very constructive; neither would commit to anything of significance, neither being willing to give any ground on Berlin. The president was fighting a cold, feeling "lousy", and the discussions didn't improve his attitude. Khrushchev did agree to a postponement of his ultimatum on Berlin, though that would have happened in any case, and the two leaders did agree to a four-power summit meeting.
Khrushchev did complain about the high costs of defense, and emphasized the significance of disarmament. However, the premier also proclaimed he wasn't scared of nuclear war; Eisenhower said he was, and that everyone should be. Less adroitly, the president complained about the Chinese, failing to seriously explore the possibility that Khrushchev might have plenty of complaints of his own about them. The premier, of course, responded with a ringing endorsement of the good relations between Moscow and Beijing. If the Americans had illusions about communist solidarity, the communists were not going to say anything to deliberately puncture those illusions.
That wasn't the only thing Khrushchev kept under wraps: he didn't mention a word about U-2 overflights, even though he spoke to Eisenhower privately. Had the premier made an unequivocal personal protest, given how ambivalent Eisenhower was about the overflights, it would have provided a strong incentive to order them stopped immediately. Instead, the president simply assumed the Soviets weren't that upset about the overflights, and so the overflights should continue. [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* Space launches for February included:
-- 01 FEB 16 / BEIDOU -- A Chinese Long March 3C booster was launched from Xichang at 0729 GMT (local time - 8) to put a "Beidou" navigation satellite into orbit. This was the 21st Beidou payload launch. The fully operational Beidou system will consist of 35 satellites in three types of orbits: geosynchronous orbit over the equator, plus two high-latitude orbits circling 35,750 kilometers (22,250 miles) and 21,500 kilometers (13,350 miles) above Earth.
This new satellite was put into a 21,500-kilometer orbit. It was the second in a new generation of Beidou satellites, with a more precise hydrogen atomic clock, lighter launch mass, and more positioning signals. It also featured a comlink system for interconnection with other Beidou satellites; and a radiation-measuring payload to observe the space radiation environment, for assessing its effect on the spacecraft.
-- 05 FEB 16 / GPS 2F-12 (USA 266) -- An Atlas 5 booster was launched from Cape Canaveral at 1338 GMT (local time + 3) to the "GPS 2F-12" AKA "USA 266" AKA "Navstar 76" navigation satellite into orbit. It was the twelfth Block 2F spacecraft, with the Block 2F series featuring a new "safety of life" signal for civilian air traffic control applications. The Atlas 5 was in the "401" configuration, with a 4 meter (13.1 foot) diameter fairing, no solid rocket boosters, and an upper stage with a single Centaur engine.
-- 07 FEB 16 / COSMOS 2514 (GLONASS M) -- A Soyuz 2-1b booster was launched from Plesetsk Northern Cosmodrome at 0021 GMT (local time - 4) to put the "Cosmos 2514" GLONASS M third-generation navigation satellite into orbit. It had a launch mass of 1,415 kilograms (3,120 pounds). It was the 51st satellite in the GLONASS fleet. It brought the GLONASS constellation up to a total of 27 satellites in orbit, including three spares.
-- 07 FEB 16 / KWANGMYONSONG -- A North Korean Unha booster was launched to put the "Kwangmyonsong" Earth observation satellite into orbit.
-- 10 FEB 16 / NROL-45 (USA 267) -- A Delta 4 booster was launched from Vandenberg AFB at 1140 GMT (local time + 8) to put a classified spacecraft payload into orbit for the US National Reconnaissance Office, the mission being designated "NROL-45" (AKA "USA 267"). The payload was thought to be "Topaz 4", the fourth in the "Topaz" AKA "Future Imaging Architecture (FIA)" modernized series of radar-imaging satellites -- Topaz being the successor to the "Lacrosse" series of radarsats, five of which were launched from 1998 into 2005.
While the Lacrosse satellites were put into orbits at an altitude of about 675 kilometers (420 miles) at inclinations of 57 or 68 degrees, the Topaz spacecraft fly at about 1,100 kilometers (685 miles), in a "retrograde" orbit, with an inclination of 123 degrees. The Delta rocket was in the "Medium+ (5,2)" configuration with a 5 meter (16.4 foot) diameter fairing and two solid rocket boosters.
-- 16 FEB 16 / SENTINEL 3A -- A Rockot booster was launched from Plesetsk Northern Cosmodrome in Russia at 1757 GMT (local time - 4) to put the "Sentinel 3A" Earth observation satellite into Sun-synchronous orbit, for the European Space Agency and the European Commission.
This was the third of the European Sentinel series of Earth observation spacecraft for the European Union's "Copernicus" program, which is focused on providing space surveillance for security, environmental management, commercial use, and climate monitoring. The Sentinel satellites differ from earlier Earth observation satellite series in being associated with a data-distribution system that can provide observations to forecasters, security agencies and other users within hours of their capture.
The "Sentinel 3" designation only coincidentally matched the Sentinel launch sequence, instead being a designation for a specific type of Sentinel satellite, each type having its own role:
Sentinel 3A was built by Thales Alenia Space, had a launch mass of 1,200 kilograms (2,645 pounds), and has enough fuel to last through 2028. The satellite's four instruments measure global sea levels, detect the temperature of sea water, and determine the color of land and ocean surfaces worldwide, the instruments including:
Sentinel 3A works with the US-European Jason 3 oceanography satellite, launched from California in January 2015, to monitor the heights of waves and sea level.
-- 17 FEB 16 / ASTRO-H (HITOMI), SMALLSATS & 3 -- A JAXA H-2A booster was launched from Tanegashima at 0845 GMT (local time - 9) to put the "ASTRO-H" AKA "Hitomi" X-ray astronomy satellite into orbit. The launch also included three smallsats: "Horyu-4" and "Chubusat 2,3". ASTRO-H was discussed in more detail earlier this month.
* OTHER SPACE NEWS: In other space topics, as reported by an item from AVIATION WEEK Online ("Aerojet Rocketdyne Advancing 3D-Printed Green CubeSat Propulsion" by Frank Morring JR, 11 January 2016), one of the difficulties with the popular CubeSat nanosatellite format is propulsion -- rocket and thruster systems typically involving flammable and toxic propellants. To deal with this issue, NASA and NASA and Aerojet Rocketdyne are working on a public-private partnership designed to produce a low-cost propulsion system for CubeSats that uses non-toxic "green" propellant, instead of notoriously nasty hydrazine.
Under one of 22 contracts or other agreements announced in 2015 that were intended to push promising spaceflight technology toward market readiness, the company and the agency's Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD) will validate a 1U CubeSat propulsion system by 2018 that will use 3D printing to hold down costs. Roger Myers, Aerojet Rocketdyne executive director for advanced in-space programs, comments: "We've been working on this for the past two to three years now, applying 3D printing to very small modular propulsion systems. This is a 3D-printed integrated propulsion system. The tank and the plumbing are all integral, and then we insert components as needed in order to complete the system."
Engineers at the company facility in Redmond, Washington, are using laser sintering to print the system's basic structure from titanium powder, and adding valves, thrusters, and other components made from titanium and other materials to complete the structure. Designated "MPS-130", the system will be an upgrade of a hydrazine-based system released last year, with a special catalyst and thrusters and other components designed to handle the higher temperatures generated by the hydroxyl ammonium nitrate (HAN) green-propellant mixture. Designated AF-M315E, the HAN propellant has greater density than hydrazine for better storage efficiency, and produces better performance.
The green-version MPS-130 will measure 10 x 10 x 11.5 centimeters (4 x 4 x 4.5 inches) to fit into a 1U or multi-unit CubeSat, with the nozzles protruding. It will weigh 1.6 kilograms (3.5 pounds) fueled, and draw 5 volts of power. Myers said a flight prototype should be ready for launch "early in 2018".
* THE ECONOMIST ("Cubism", 30 January 2016), discussed other schemes for CubeSat propulsion. Paulo Lozano and colleagues at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have been working on an ion-microdrive system, involving an ionic liquid that is accelerated by electrical grids. Although ion drives typically require pumps, the ion microdrive uses a porous glass emitter that wicks up the ionic liquid. Each ion thruster is about the size of a sugar cube, with enough fuel for an hour of thrust, and eight required for a baseline CubeSat. The ionic liquid is ionized by passing a current through it, with the result that one thrust fires positive ions, while a mirror thruster fires negative ions. Lozano believes the ion thrusters could extend CubeSat life in orbit from months to years.
Young Bae of Advanced Space & Energy Technology in Tustin, California, prefers to use lasers for CubeSat propulsion. Although a laser beam imparts little momentum, Bae's scheme maintains the focus of a laser, mounted on a mother satellite, against a CubeSat, allowing momentum to be accumulated. The CubeSat itself would carry no propulsion system, with a mother satellite supporting a cluster of CubeSats in orbit.
* As discussed by an item from AVIATION WEEK Online ("India To Launch 25 Foreign Satellites In 2016:17" by Jay Menon, 11 March 2016), Antrix Corporation LTD, the commercial arm of the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), has proven aggressive in promoting Indian commercial space, having signed agreements with clients in seven countries to launch a total of 25 foreign satellites in 2016 and 2017.
The launches will include 12 from the US; four from Germany; three from Canada; three from Algeria; and one each from Indonesia, Japan and Malaysia. All will be lofted on ISRO's workhorse Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV), which has performed dozens of flights, with a high reliability rate. India's larger Geostationary Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) has had a chequered history, and is only now becoming mature; obviously, Antrix wants more experience with the GSLV before offering launches commercially.
India launched 28 foreign satellites belonging to nine countries between January 2013 and December 2015. Seven satellites were from Singapore; six from the UK; five from Canada; four from the US; two from Austria; and one each from Denmark, France, Germany and Indonesia. Overall, India's space agency has successfully lofted 57 foreign satellites from 21 countries on board the PSLV.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* LITHIUM BATTERIES SUPERCHARGED: As discussed by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("Charge Of The Lithium Brigade", 30 May 2015), while solid-state electronics technology has advanced by leaps and bounds over the last decades, battery technology has not, being characterized much more by plodding advances. Be that as it may, battery technology has indeed advanced. Most mobile devices and electric cars are now powered by lithium-ion batteries. They were commercially introduced by Sony of Japan in the early 1990s, and have been continuously refined. Contemporary lithium batteries are lighter and their capacities have grown over the years, as demonstrated by ever-thinner laptops and smartphones.
According to Vincent Battaglia -- boss of the Electrochemical Technologies Group at the US Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) in California -- the lithium battery "is almost an ideal battery". Lithium is the lightest of all metals on the planet; holds a charge well; and doesn't suffer from "memory", meaning a partial instead of full discharge will reduce the ability to hold charge. Lithium is, however, highly reactive, and internal short-circuits can make lithium-ion batteries catch fire. New designs are continually reducing the number of such incidents.
One of the most significant parameters of a battery is its "energy density", or amount of energy it can store per unit weight. Lithium batteries can store 100 to 250 watt-hours per kilogram, about twice as much as nickel-cadmium batteries. An electric car with a 24 kilowatt-hour (kWh) lithium-ion battery pack has a range of about 175 kilometers (110 miles), with the battery pack weighing about 300 kilograms (660 pounds).
Although the Chinese are now ramping up production of lithium-ion batteries, lithium batteries remain expensive, running to about $500 USD per kWh of capacity, which means a battery pack for even a small electric car can run to about $10,000 USD. Industry wonks say the range needs to be close to 500 kilometers (310 miles) and the cost around $100 USD per kWh before all-electric vehicles become competitive. Smartphones and laptops with such batteries would be able to run for days.
That means a big step forward in battery technology. There's a lot of work to that end, but it's proven frustrating; some researchers wonder if the energy density of lithium-ion batteries can be improved much beyond present levels, without significant changes in the materials used to create the electrodes. Battaglia's team at LBNL are working with "transition metals" -- combinations of manganese, nickel, cobalt and graphite that can be added to a lithium battery's electrodes. However, nobody's expecting any more than another plodding advance by such measures. Some, however, are thinking bigger:
However, neither project is close to a commercial product, if they ever get there at all. Tiny "solid-state" batteries, as those with a solid electrolyte are referred to, are already found in small devices and sensors, often providing backup power to a microchip. They can be fabricated by depositing materials onto a substrate, in roughly the way semiconductors are made. Although they have very high energy density, they've been too expensive for powering phones and cars. A number of firms -- including Dyson, a British maker of vacuum cleaners, and Volkswagen are pumping money into solid-state battery development, in hopes of bringing the technology into the big time. There's also been work on "lithium air" batteries, which would be extremely light, but progress has been slow.
For cars and smartphones, energy density is the most critical parameter -- but that's not the case for battery systems used to store electricity on the grid, to provide power leveling and back up renewable energy sources. Low cost and reliability count for more than light weight in that case. The market for grid storage is small right now, but it is growing. EOS Energy Storage, a New York startup, sells zinc-based batteries for grid storage, with the company's systems running to about $160 USD per kWh. There's also "flow batteries" -- batteries that have some resemblance to fuel cells, generating electricity when a liquid electrolyte is pumped through them -- for grid storage, but they're a technology in their infancy.
Lithium-ion batteries might be able to hold their own in the grid storage market, at least at the low end, for homes and small businesses that have their own solar power systems. However, making lithium-ion battery packs commercially practical for such use will require the same leap in capability and drop in cost as for automotive applications.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* THE ROBOCAR BUSINESS: An article from THE ECONOMIST ("The Driverless, Car-Sharing Road Ahead", 9 January 2016), surveying the current state and potential future of automotive automation -- covering familiar ground, but also suggesting that robocars will be revolutionary for the auto industry, and not in a way the auto majors will like very much.
The big car companies are caught between a rock and a hard place. On one side, as robocars move from the lab to reality, while car-sharing continues to grow, the future does not look like "two cars in every garage" -- and in fact, might not be one car in every garage. On the other side, technology firms may be better placed than carmakers to develop and profit from the tech that will underpin both automated driving and vehicle-sharing. Some of these firms may even decide to build cars of their own.
The strain is already becoming evident. In a recent study Morgan Stanley, an investment bank, said the motor industry was being disrupted "far sooner, faster, and more powerfully than one might expect." The report suggested that, in 2016, traditional carmakers would scramble to align themselves with the new order. As if to prove this true, following the publication of the study, General Motors (GM) announced a half-billion-dollar investment in Lyft, a ride-sharing service.
There have been rumors of collaboration between Ford and Google to produce robocars; Ford has announced teaming up with Amazon to connect cars to sensor-laden smart homes. Toyota has announced it would adopt Ford's "in-car technology" -- a competitor to Apple's CarPlay and Google's Android Auto -- to access smartphone apps and other features. In other words, Toyota is aligning itself with Ford against the tech giants.
There have been other examples of such defensive moves. In August 2015 BMW, Daimler, and Volkswagen's Audi division jointly bought Here, a mapping service, from Nokia, to make sure that carmakers have an independent map provider, instead of being chained to Google Maps. Despite the tension, there have still been collaborations between automakers and tech firms. The tech firms see an advantage in such team-ups; Tesla has been making electric vehicles (EVs) for a decade, while Apple is interested in building EVs. Who better than the auto majors to mass-produce them?
Of course, the tech giants do bring a lot to the party. Although the auto majors are doing considerable research of their own on robocars, Google is in the lead in development of cars that drive themselves. Nonetheless car-makers are wary, since they have good reason to fear profits seeping away from them to the tech giants. They envision a time when the car hardware is not a major selling point, with margins forced down by competition, and the value being seen in what software and entertainment systems a car can run, not so much what it looks like. That would be truly revolutionary, overturning a business model established for generations.
Ride-sharing, car clubs, and other alternatives to ownership are already growing fast. Young city-dwellers are not so keen to own a costly asset that sits largely unused, imposes a lot of financial overhead, and loses value the moment it is first driven. Car-makers say the young are merely deferring purchase of a car, but that sounds like whistling in the graveyard.
Membership of car clubs, which let people book by app for periods as short as 15 minutes, is estimated to be growing by over 30% a year, and should hit 26 million members worldwide by 2020. Competition is intense. ZipCar -- owned by Avis Budget, a conventional rental-car firm -- is thriving. Car-makers are trying to get into the business as well, but such services are unlikely ever to match the returns, especially for high-end car makers, from selling vehicles. Meanwhile, app-based taxi services such as Uber and its Chinese counterpart Didi Dache, which are often cheaper and more efficient than conventional cabs, are also growing quickly.
It's startling that ride-sharing of various sorts is growing so rapidly even without robocars; the ground is being readied for the grand revolution that will take place when cars can drive themselves to pick up passengers. When will that happen? Hands-free highway driving is already available, and though the promised land of the full-autonomous robocar hasn't been reached yet, few in the industry doubt that it will be. Google, whose prototype robocars have driven over two million kilometers on public roads, once said: 2018. That was seen as too optimistic, car-makers saying it wouldn't happen until the 2030s; but now they say it will be in 2025, some saying as early as 2020.
Barclays, another bank, forecasts that the fully driverless vehicle will result in the average US household cutting its car ownership from 2.1 vehicles now to 1.2 by 2040. A self-piloting car could drop off a family's breadwinner at work, then shuttle back to pick up the kids and take them to school. Barclays suggests the roughly 11 million annual sales of mass-market cars for personal ownership in America may be replaced by 3.8 million sales of self-driving cars.
There remain non-technical obstacles to letting robocars loose on the streets, with regulators, insurers, and of course consumers needing to get on board the idea. If robocars are done right and properly qualified, they will end up being safer and more efficient overall than cars with drivers, so there's little doubt in will happen in time. The nightmare, for the car industry, is that robocars won't be labeled: FORD (POWERED BY GOOGLE) -- but instead: GOOGLE (POWERED BY FORD).COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* NATURAL FOOD (8): As discussed by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("Miracle Healers", 19 September 2015), the public push towards "natural" foods has been complemented with a drive towards "natural" dietary supplements. In the US alone, supplement manufacturers produce a staggering 85,000 different pills, powders and elixirs in America alone. Representative firms include Solgar, with a vegetable pill that "increases mobility, flexibility and range of motion in sensitive joints", and Emergen-C, with a powder that "may help support a healthy heart" and "support your immune system".
This is not just an American fad, either. Between 2009 and 2014, worldwide sales of such supplements grew more than 50% faster than those of over-the-counter drugs, reaching a global total of $88 billion USD. Although there are a lot of little firms in the business, it also includes big pharma giants like Pfizer of the US and Bayer of Germany, both of which have profitable multivitamin lines.
However, the business is troubled. Consumer groups and government regulators are increasingly questioning the claims made by supplement producers for their products. The US Justice Department has accused Bayer of illegally promoting the effect of its "probiotic" -- a collection of bacteria that the company says "support digestive health". The US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is poking into advertising for homeopathic products; while the US Food & Drug Administration (FDA) has issued warnings about firms selling pure caffeine, a teaspoon of which has as much of the stuff as 28 cups of coffee.
There's more, a lot more. In 2014, an infant died from a contaminated probiotic. In 2013, a vitamin B pill was found to contain steroids: women reported growing facial hair and missing menstruation. That same year, consumers on a diet product called OxyElite Pro began to develop acute hepatitis. Nearly 50 people went to hospital; at least three had a liver transplant, and one died.
A study by the FDA and the Centers for Disease Control, released in October 2015, found that injuries caused by dietary supplements lead to more than 20,000 emergency room visits a year -- many involving young adults with cardiovascular problems, after taking supplements marketed for weight loss and energy enhancement. Among the injuries cited were severe allergic reactions, heart trouble, nausea, and vomiting, which were linked to a broad range of supplements including herbal pills, amino acids, vitamins, and minerals. Roughly 10%, or about 2,150 cases yearly, were serious enough to require hospitalization, the researchers found.
However, the supplements industry is fighting back effectively, aided by lax regulation, energetic marketing, and millions of credulous consumers keen to pin their hopes of a healthier life on a pill. American regulations on supplements are notably soft, which translates into total US sales of $25 billion USD in 2014.
The supplement craze began in the 1930s and 1940s. Pills containing vitamins -- a grab-bag of biochemicals needed for body function -- were seen as a means of boosting workers in factories and troops in the field. Once they could be synthesized in the factory instead of extracted from plants or animals, they became a lot cheaper. From the 1970s, Linus Pauling, a Nobel prize-winner in chemistry, argued that vitamin C could prevent colds and cure cancer. It was nonsense, Pauling's giant ego gone to his head, but it helped popularize the "magical" capabilities of vitamins.
What really set the industry roaring was, ironically, government regulation. In the 1990s the FDA considered new rules for supplement health claims. The supplement industry lobbied hard for a favorable decision, and got it. The result was a law that covered vitamins and minerals -- as well as the rest of the supplement zoo, including botanicals, amino acids, enzymes, metabolites, and pills made from animal organs. The 1994 law allowed firms to sell supplements without requiring the FDA's approval for safety or efficacy. Vendors were not allowed to make any specific health claim for their product, but they could make general claims such as "supports a healthy heart" or is "essential for strong bones", and so on. There are more than 20 times as many supplements on the market as there were in 1994.
Critics such as Dr. Paul Offit -- of the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, well-known for his running battles with vaccine deniers -- argue that the rules fail to ensure safety or efficacy. While the industry does have to meet manufacturing safety guidelines, the FDA's enforcement capability is very weak. Studies have shown that supplements may not contain what they are advertised to contain. As far as efficacy goes, supplement vendors have only sketchy justification for their claims, if they have any at all. Such trials as are performed are poorly done. The evidence that they do any good is generally balanced by equally tenuous evidence that they do harm.
It appears that supplement sales are not growing at the rate they once were, but manufacturers don't believe their industry is in a crisis. There's no real push to tighten up regulation -- and if a specific product gets a bad public reputation, they just stop making it, to introduce a similar product under a new name and in a new package. Besides, supplements remain very popular with the public; people worry about their health, and the placebo effect is surprisingly powerful. Nobody is expecting a revolution. [END OF SERIES]START | PREV | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* THE COLD WAR (105): Khrushchev's upcoming visit to the US was making Western European leaders nervous, suspicious that the US and USSR might make a deal behind Europe's back -- the US government of course had not publicly announced that it had only come about because of a bungle. The president decided to fly in his new 707 jetliner to visit Bonn, London, and Paris, then take a vacation in Scotland. Eisenhower departed on 26 August, 1959; his wife Mame didn't come along, since her health was frail and she wasn't up to the tour schedule. However, the president had never flown in a jet before, finding it an "exhilarating experience".
In Bonn, cheering crowds gave Eisenhower a rousing welcome as his motorcade went into the city from the airport. The president found that remarkable, since he had been one of the generals that had defeated the German Reich, telling Chancellor Konrad Adenauer that the welcome was "astonishing"; Adenauer concurred. In discussions, Eisenhower found Adenauer "almost obsessed" about the French colonial war in Algeria, warning Eisenhower that the Algerian insurgency was being backed by Moscow, and that the fall of Algeria to the Reds would mean the entire Middle East falling into the Red orbit. The president rightly found Adenauer's worries exaggerated, replying: "I cannot foresee such a chain of disaster."
On his part, Eisenhower pressed Adenauer on West German re-armament, with the chancellor promising further progress on the issue. However, when the president said he looked forward to the day when the US might reduce its presence in Europe, Adenauer took alarm, telling Eisenhower not to even mention the possibility.
Eisenhower flew into Britain on 27 August. He had concerns about the visit to the UK; the British hadn't forgotten Suez -- one way or another, they wouldn't forget it soon. Macmillan had not played up Eisenhower's visit, since the talks were informal; however, much to the surprise of Macmillan, Eisenhower got a another rousing welcome. The president spent the next few days shuttling around and in talks. There wasn't too much to discuss, since the two men had little to disagree about. The only difference of opinion was over a test-ban treaty, Macmillan suggesting that relaxed verification measures should be accepted, in order to get a comprehensive treaty; Eisenhower preferred an atmospheric test ban only, as a first step towards a more comprehensive treaty.
The president flew into Paris on 2 September. It was yet another triumph, de Gaulle greeting Eisenhower as the "supreme commander of the armies of liberty", Parisians turning out in hordes to greet the motorcade. However, the president did expect that discussions with de Gaulle would be troublesome, and that expectation turned out to be perfectly accurate. De Gaulle had already been proposing that the US, Britain, and France establish a pact that would bind the three nations to a global strategy, one of the implications being that France would be able to veto use of American nuclear weapons on French soil. It was a nonstarter -- the State Department suspected it was just a probe or a ploy -- and Eisenhower had rejected it. De Gaulle had then ordered that the Americans pull their nuclear weapons out of France, and had also withdrawn the French Navy from the NATO naval command structure.
Eisenhower knew de Gaulle only too well, knew he had an ingrained suspicion of the Anglo-Americans; knew he felt France should be a great power again, and that he was an embodiment of sorts of France itself. However, the two men had a certain rapport, even mutual affection, though that tended to give de Gaulle the impression that Eisenhower was more sympathetic to French claims than he really was -- given Eisenhower's considered and tactful ways of dealing with people, that was a common error among those who dealt with him. Still, Eisenhower was enough of a politician to understand the French point of view, saying that on NATO issues, he would "react very much as de Gaulle does if the shoe were on the other foot."
The shoe was not on the other foot, and the two leaders talked in circles. De Gaulle resurrected the suggestion of a tripartite power bloc, which Eisenhower rejected. On his part, Eisenhower brought up the notion of a European Defense Community again; the French had shot it full of holes in 1954, and de Gaulle was no more enthusiastic in 1959. De Gaulle did speak of his ideas for ending the conflict in Algeria and granting Algerian independence, which Eisenhower listened to sympathetically, if with a "wait and see" mindset. Two weeks later, de Gaulle would announce in a national television broadcast that a "course towards [Algerian] self-determination should be proclaimed as of today."
The talks also touched on the French nuclear program, de Gaulle reassuring Eisenhower that he was not trying to compete with the US Strategic Air Command; he simply wanted to complicate Soviet planning, should the Kremlin decide to attack Western Europe. The French president told his visitor:
You, Eisenhower, would go to nuclear war for Europe because you know what its loss would mean and you are bound to us by special ties. As the Soviet Union develops the capability to strike with nuclear rockets the cities of North America, one of your unknown successors will decide to go to nuclear war only if there is a nuclear strike against North America. When that day comes, I or my unknown successor must have in hand the nuclear means to turn what the Soviets may want to be a conventional war into a nuclear war.
I do not seek to compete with SAC or the [Soviet] Long Range Air Army, but I wish France to have the means of some tactical and strategic strike against the Soviet Union. The addition of another center of nuclear decision will multiply the uncertainties of the Soviet planners. You Americans could survive -- for a short time -- the loss of Western Europe. We Europeans could not.
There was considerable logic in de Gaulle's position; while it wasn't clear that the USSR could effectively strike at North America, there was absolutely no doubt the Soviets could destroy the cities of Western Europe. If it came to a nuclear shootout or at least the threat of one, Western Europe would be much more affected than the USA. Eisenhower understood the French point of view and thought it right, to an extent; in any case, the US wasn't going to stop France from getting the Bomb, and Eisenhower wasn't inclined to try.
His stay in Paris at an end, Eisenhower went back to the UK for a few days of vacation in Scotland, and then went home to the US on 7 September. Although nothing much had been accomplished politically by the trip, not that it had been intended to do anything more than reassure European leaders, it had been a personal triumph for Eisenhower, demonstrating his enormous personal popularity. Back in the USA, the president then had to arrange the welcome for the Soviet premier. [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* GIMMICKS & GADGETS: As discussed by an entry from WIRED Online blogs ("China's Self-Driving Bus Shows Autonomous Tech's Real Potential" by Alex Davies, 7 October 2015), while there's been a lot of excitement over the potential of autonomous vehicles for passenger cars and heavy haulers, it also has promise for mass transit vehicles. This was underlined by a press release by Chinese manufacturer Yutong reporting that its prototype autonomous bus had dealt with 26 traffic signals, several lane changes, and at least one passing maneuver during a 32-kilometer (20-mile) drive between Zhengzhou and Kaifeng. Yutong hasn't released many specifics about its technology, but says the bus uses laser, radar, and camera systems on each side of the vehicle.
The benefits of self-driving buses, as with autonomous tech in general, focus primarily on saving lives, time, and money. In 2013, 280 buses were involved in fatal accidents that killed 310 people, along with billions of dollars of damages. Autonomous systems that will support or supplant human drivers will not text, fumble for cigarettes, or talk on the phone. They will not get stressed, tired, or drunk. Active safety features that do things like keep a vehicle within its lane and brake automatically to avoid crashes are already available on passenger vehicles and trucks, having demonstrated a clear improvement in safety. Full autonomy promises to do more.
Along with safety, autonomy will make bus travel more efficient -- with less overhead for driver pay -- or expanded services. Since an autonomous bus will be perfectly attentive and have very quick response time, it will permit running vehicles closer together. The airport in Brussels plans to launch a pilot project using driverless buses to carry passengers and employees to, from, and around the airport. If this experiment works, we are likely to see more driverless buses in the future.
* As discussed by another Alex Davies entry ("Racing Self-Driving Cars Will Make Roads Safer for Everyone", 2 December 2012), auto racing is going robotic. There's already a "Formula E" competition for electric vehicles; this year, it's spawning off "Roborace", being backed by automaker Kinetik, which is just what it sounds like, racing robocars at up to 320 KPH (200 MPH).
Such details as are available say ten teams will compete; of course, the cars will be electric. They will not necessarily resemble Formula One racecars, since they won't have a driver. To be sure, Roborace sounds less like serious auto racing than it does a Robot Wars competition, if with much more expensive robots -- but backers point out that it is in earnest, with obvious application to consumer robocars.
Driving a road race, after all, is like driving in general, only more so. Robocar smarts will have to be able to react more quickly and reliably; maintain control in high-speed maneuvers; and deal with competitors on the track. Solutions developed to address such problems will have obvious application in the less demanding arena of commercial transport. Will Roborace ever get a mass following? That seems unlikely -- but future generations are going to take robots for granted, and they may find the idea more interesting than it seems at present.
* Still another entry by Alex Davies ("The Funky Toyota i-Road Is Like Nothing I've Ever Driven", 13 November 2015) had him tooling around in Toyota's cute little i-Road electric vehicle (EV). The i-Road almost defies classification, being a cross between a three-wheel electric scooter and a car, with a single seat -- well, plus a cramped back seat -- and enclosed accommodation, intended as a town runabout. Toyota introduced it at the Geneva Motor Show in 2013; it's been driven by consumers in Tokyo and Grenoble, France, with Toyota now planning to bring it to the San Francisco Bay Area.
The i-Road is a bit under a meter wide and a bit over two meters long (about 3 x 7 feet), weighing about 270 kilograms (600 pounds) thanks to extensive use of carbon fiber composite, with a top speed 60 KPH (37 MPH) and a range of the same. Driving it is not difficult, it's like driving a full-size car, but it has a different feel. At low speed, the rear wheel does the steering; at higher speeds, the front wheels tilt, to allow a banking turn. Hit the brake, the i-Road returns to upright. It is stabilized to prevent it from turning over, and can negotiate very tight turns.
The i-Road is not in full production yet, and the vehicle Davis took for a runabout was clearly not production standard, being significantly lacking in comforts. Toyota is using it to investigate the next generation of personal transport systems, such as "car-sharing" networks along the likes of bike-sharing networks. The way of the future? We'll see.
PS: Alex Davies has such a fun job, thanks to an era where transport technology, long relatively static, is undergoing literally revolutionary change from the introduction of machine intelligence.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* NAVAL LASER: The US military's progress on development of laser weapons, last mentioned here in 2014, has been slow -- but there has been progress nonetheless. As discussed by an article from AVIATION WEEK Online ("Navy To Demo 150-kW Laser Weapon For Destroyers" by Graham Warwick, 4 January 2016), the US Navy is now working toward the demonstration of a 150-kW laser weapon, intended to equip the service's DDG-51 ARLEIGH BURKE-class destroyers for protection against drones and swarms of small attack boats.
Northrop Grumman is to develop the "Laser Weapons System Demonstrator (LWSD)" under an Office of Naval Research (ONR) contract, potentially worth $91 million USD over three years. The LWSD follows the 15-KW "Maritime Laser Demonstrator (MLD)", demonstrated in 2011. The MLD was based on slab laser technology developed under the military's "Joint High-Power Solid-State Laser (JHPSSL)" program, mentioned here in 2009. The company's JHPSSL Phase 3 system achieved a beam power of more than 105 kW in lab testing in 2009. It was later sent to the US Army's High-Energy Laser System Test Facility at White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico, for open-air testing against rockets, mortars and other threats.
Built for ONR, the MLD was installed in a container and mounted on the Navy's "Ship Defense Test Ship (SDTS)" -- the decommissioned SPRUANCE-class destroyer USS PAUL FOSTER -- for open-ocean tests between December 2010 and April 2011, off the central California coast. In dozens of tests, the MLD demonstrated it could engage and damage remotely piloted small boats, moving at representative speeds and ranges.
While the MLD used slab laser technology, the most mature laser weapon technology, the LWSD will use fiber-optic lasers. Fiber lasers are more efficient in converting energy into beam power than slab lasers -- 30% compared with around 20% -- but are a less mature technology. The goal of the LWSD program is to develop a laser weapon ready for production, designed to be easily installed on DDG-51 destroyers. If approved for production, it should achieve initial operational capability at some time between 2018:25.
Development of other laser weapons is proceeding along parallel tracks:
The ONR's laser weapon development program not only includes work on the weapons themselves, but on the "Hybrid Predictive Avoidance Safety System" to ensure the beam does not hit other aircraft or satellites, and the "Common Display System", which provides control of the weapon system and a legal record of all laser activity.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* NEW POWER GRID? As discussed by an entry from AAAS SCIENCE NOW Online ("Better Power Lines Would Help US Supercharge Renewable Energy, Study Suggests" by Puneet Kollipara, 25 January 2016), one of the difficulties with renewable energy is that it is inconstant: wind doesn't always blow in a locale, and the Sun doesn't shine at night, or in foul weather. Two solutions have been suggested to deal with these problems: large-scale energy storage, and a highly-efficient continental power grid that allows power to be shunted from anyplace to anyplace.
Although large-scale energy storage has issues from a technical and economic point of view, a study published in NATURE CLIMATE CHANGE suggests that even without storage, an integrated continental power grid could cut power-sector carbon dioxide emissions a startling 80% by 2030, without boosting power prices.
About 40% of US emissions come from the power sector; in 2015, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released rules that task states with reducing power-sector emissions. A modernized power grid would help address the issue, but it's not a simple prospect. The current power grid is divided into several regional grids or "interconnections", which contain smaller subdivisions. Long-range transmission is mostly by high-voltage alternating current (HVAC) trunk lines, which work well enough within a regional grid -- but require troublesome phase matching to push power from one grid to another. Getting the phase mismatched can disrupt the network.
In the early days of the power grid, HVAC was the only sensible way of sending power efficiently over long distances for decades; power losses in lines are minimized if the voltage is raised and the current is lowered by a high-voltage transformer. From the 1950s, trunk lines using "high-voltage direct current (HVDC)" were introduced, using high-power electronic switching systems to get to high voltage instead of transformers. HVDC has a number of advantages over HVDC:
The problem with HVDC is that the switching gear needed to produce it, based on high-power transistors and switching elements named "thyristors", is expensive. However, the technology is very mature, nothing at all new or controversial, there are plenty of HVDC trunk lines with a long service history, and the additional cost of the switching system, for long-range trunk lines, is quickly paid back by the reduction to two lines and, more significantly, greater efficiency.
The idea of a continental HVDC "smart grid" has been around for a time. Alex MacDonald -- a researcher at the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in Washington DC -- got to wondering just how effective the HVDC grid would be in ensuring continuous delivery of renewable power. After all, meteorological data shows wind is always blowing somewhere in the USA. MacDonald -- working with his NOAA colleague Christopher Clack and others -- built a computer model to analyze different configurations of a network of inter-regional HVDC lines and renewable energy installations.
The model divided the USA into a grid of 152,000 squares that were assigned to regional grids. The researchers obtained data from between 2006 and 2008 on sunlight and wind speeds in each square -- being careful to exclude national parks, mountain slopes, and other areas not useful for renewable power installations -- to show the best locations for different types of renewable energy installations. The model was then driven by the need to find the cheapest way to achieve given levels of emission reduction, while still meeting future power demand.
The result? By 2030, with HVDC lines meeting at 32 nodes between regional grids, the US could add enough wind and solar power to cut power sector emissions by up to 80% from 1990 levels -- with power prices less, on average, than a business-as-usual scenario. These results were not based on optimistic assumptions, either, MacDonald saying they were "the minimum of what we could get to."
Jonathan Koomey -- an energy researcher at Stanford University in Palo Alto CA, who wasn't involved with the study -- agrees that the study was conservative, saying that energy efficiency improvements may well reduce demand below the level projected by the model. Koomey adds that the model did not stack the deck for renewables by adding in the health and environmental costs of continuing to burn fossil fuels. It also did not factor in improvements in storage technology that would help, not out of any prejudice against the idea, but simply to see what how the model would work without them. He does, however, warn that a large-scale shift to electric vehicles would upset the model's assumptions; few see that as happening, EVs being seen as only useful in their niche.
Susan Tierney -- a former US assistant secretary of energy under President Clinton, now an energy consultant at the Analysis Group in Boston -- points out the major obstacle to implementing the continental HVDC smart grid: "The problem is not rooted in technology, but rather in the way that the US power system is organized legally, politically, economically, and culturally." Utilities and politicians are sometimes reluctant to depend on distant power producers, for example, and communities often fight the construction of large power lines. Pushing through the grid would take determined national leadership.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* NATURAL FOOD (7): Another startup working on meat replacements, Beyond Meat, out of Southern California, has also been studying the components of meat to emulate its texture and flavor. According to the company's CEO, Ethan Brown, no relation to Patrick Brown: "We're smart enough now to understand the architecture and the composition of a piece of muscle."
Beyond Meat introduced "Beyond Chicken Strips" in 2012, with consumers finding that it does indeed "taste like chicken". When a number of Whole Foods Markets accidentally sold mislabeled chicken salads with "meat" based on Beyond Chicken Strips, there were no complaints; the salads were withdrawn after two days, when an employee spotted the mixup. The product's texture is based on research at the University of Missouri, and it is produced by a process that takes less than two minutes. An extruder rapidly heats, cools, and pressurizes a mixture of proteins and other ingredients into a structure that mimics the fibrous tissue of muscle. The company's most recent product, the Beast Burger, was released in 2015. It has more protein, more iron, and is overall more nutritious than actual meat burgers.
Ethan Brown says that selling meat replacements is not easy; there's not only the usual inertia in accepting the new, the dubious past history of meat replacements has made consumers skeptical. There's also a macho factor in meat-eating; along with assertive product names like "Beast Burger", Beyond Meat has been pushing the fitness angle, and signing up athletes to endorse the company's product.
Beyond Meat's next product, still in development, is a raw ground beef replacement that, so Ethan Brown hopes, is trying to offer in supermarket meat sections, right next to actual beef. It can be cooked and molded into a meatloaf or meatballs -- with the exciting prospect that fast-food chains could use it to make burgers. Everybody in the industry knows that, once McDonald's makes a hit of a Big Mac that doesn't have any meat in it, meat replacements will have arrived.
* Hampton Creek of San Francisco is trying to replace eggs, instead of meat; its "Just Mayo" and "Just Cookie Dough" are now distributed in 30,000 stores, including Kroger and Walmart. Other items in the works include a ranch salad dressing; a scrambled-egg alternative; and pasta. The firm's boss, Josh Tetrick, wants to give consumers the choice of an egg-less food product "so delicious and so affordable, everyone chooses it."
As with the meat-replacement startups, Hampton Creek has assembled a research team that includes experts in biochemistry, bioinformatics and food science, plus a number of chefs. They identify components of eggs and find analogs in plant materials, then test them in in recipes in the company's bakery and culinary sections. To this time, Hampton Creek has analyzed more than 7,000 plant samples and identified 16 proteins that could be useful in food applications. Several are already being leveraged into its commercial food products, such as a Canadian yellow pea in its eggless mayonnaise. The firm wants to find proteins with functional properties such as foaming, gelling, and moisture retention. Mayonnaise, for example, requires a substance that binds the right amount of oil with water to create a stable emulsion. For its version now in stores, the company tested more than 1,500 different formulations. The company is developing "smart" software to sort through the huge numbers of proteins in the world's many plants.
Not everyone has welcomed Hampton Creek's product offerings. In October 2014, consumer-products giant Unilever sued the company for false advertising, saying its product can't be called "mayo", because traditionally mayo was based on eggs. Unilever was widely seen as a corporate bully, pressing a frivolous lawsuit. Andrew Zimmern, a celebrity chef who had preferred Just Mayo over the Unilever's Hellmann's mayonnaise in a blind taste-test, started an online petition to urge Unilever to drop the lawsuit. It gathered over 100,000 signatures. Hampton Creek ended up getting a lot of good publicity; Unilever dropped the lawsuit in December.
Hampton Creek has been a clear success with the products it already sells, but so far the company's ambitions have been relatively modest. The firm is now working on eggless scrambled eggs, but as a company official says: "It's much easier to make a cookie dough without egg, than it is to create a scrambled egg without egg." In cookie dough, it's not so hard to introduce a substitute, since there's other ingredients it can hide behind; not so with scrambled eggs.
Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat are aware they are faced with a challenge, but they're optimistic. Brown of Impossible Foods says: "I don't see any reason why you can't have it all -- the best tasting food, healthiest, best for the planet and most affordable." If he's right, the food industry is in for a transformation, one which will throw meat producers into the dustbin of history. Brown's goal may not be easy to reach, but in the 22nd century, could we imagine that everyone will react in disgust at the idea of eating a dead animal? [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* THE COLD WAR (104): Premier Khrushchev was looking forward to his American trip, he wouldn't pass it up for the world, but he requested, since it could get hot in much of the United States in August -- Soviet diplomats had no doubt told him how hot and sticky Washington DC could get in the summer -- he would like to come in September. The date that was finally settled on for his arrival was 15 September 1959.
The foreign minister's meeting in Geneva ended on 5 August after an impasse had been reached on the German question; that same day, Eisenhower publicly announced Khrushchev's visit. American anti-communist hardliners were outraged, becoming loud and bitter in their criticisms. A week after the announcement, at a press conference Eisenhower was asked by a reporter what Khrushchev would like to see in America, with the president delivering a carefully-scripted reply:
I would like for him, among other things, to see this: the evidence that the fine, small or modest homes that Americans live in are not the unusual or exception as he seemed to think the sample we sent over to Moscow was.
... I would like to see him have to fly along in my chopper and just make a circuit of the District, to see the uncountable homes that have been built all around, modest but decent, fine, comfortable homes -- all around this country. I would like to see him go into our great farmland and see our farmers, each one operating on his own, not regimented.
For example, I would like to see him go in the little town where I was born and pick up the evidence -- of course there are some still alive when I was there, you know -- and let them tell him the story of how hard I worked until I was 21, when I went to West Point. He said in one of his conversations to Mr. Nixon: "What do you know about work? You never worked." Well, I can show him the evidence that I did, and I would like him to see it.
Now, I want him to see our great industrial plants and what we are doing. I want him to see a happy people. I want him to see a free people, doing exactly as they choose, within the limits that they must not transgress the rights of others.
The president's answer was subtly revealing, in that he mentioned Khrushchev's sneer at Nixon, but said not a word in Nixon's defense. Never worked? Nixon had clawed his way up from poverty, not poverty as dire as Khrushchev had been born into, but dire enough. Nixon was a rough person, but Eisenhower's thoughtlessness was still striking.
Eisenhower privately added that he wanted to make a personal appeal for peace to Khrushchev, at the very least "to satisfy my own conscience." During a press conference on 3 August, although Khrushchev had bristled at a reporter who cited Konrad Adenauer saying that the premier would now see just how strong America was -- Khrushchev replied that nobody should think his "legs would bend", calling Adenauer "sick" and "senile" -- he sounded an encouraging note at the end, saying he was "going to America with an open mind and pure heart." He asked the reporters not to misconstrue his remarks, saying he did "not want aggressive forces to be able to use anything I have said her to intensify the Cold War."
On his part, Eisenhower was trying to hold the line on testing, lest he poison the well for discussions with the Soviets -- but he was under pressure to give up his atomic test moratorium, with McCone, McElroy, and the JCS all but demanding new atmospheric tests. Eisenhower was not going to be pushed around by his subordinates; in an NSC meeting in July, the president grew annoyed at the lobbying for the tests, and bluntly replied: "I will not approve them."
Very well, the atomic lobby replied, then what about underground tests? Eisenhower wasn't keen on that, either. To complicate matters, George Kistiakovsky -- his new science advisor, who had just replaced James Killian -- told the president that small underground tests, under 20 kilotons, could not be reliably detected. That was, to a degree, a shrug to Eisenhower, merely confirming his instinct to call for a ban on atmospheric testing, which could be easily detected by fallout sampling, as a first step towards a more comprehensive solution. On 26 August, the president also publicly announced that the test moratorium would be extended beyond its current end date of 31 October 1959, to 1 January 1960 -- much to the distress of McCone and McElroy. [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* SCIENCE NOTES: According to a recent study in the journal ECOLOGICAL MODELING, the cougar was once found all over the United States -- early colonial settlers called it the "catamount", for its inclination to stake out a mountain as its turf -- but was eventually restricted to the West from hunting and habitat loss. Now the cougar is moving back eastward, and seems poised to re-establish populations in the Midwest within decades. One suspects that the widespread establishment of deer populations across the US is supporting the movement. The prediction was derived from a model that combined more than 40 years of population data with information on cougar behavior and habitat.
* As discussed by an entry from WIRED Online blogs ("Biologists Are Engineering Kill Switches for GM Microbes" by Sarah Zhang, 7 December 2015), one of the reasons for distrust of genetic modification (GM) is fear that GM organisms may run disastrously out of control. In reality, GM researchers recognize this as a serious problem, and are working to create safeguards.
"Deadman", for example, is a "kill switch" created by Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) biologists to prevent GM microbes from going out of control in the wild. Deadman and another kill switch named "Passcode" are the latest of the increasingly sophisticated tricks researchers are developing to control microbes they're altering to cure diseases, or clean up oil and toxic spills. Without those controls, the GM bugs will never leave the lab. According to Karmella Haynes, a synthetic biologist at Arizona State University: "The biggest enemy we have is uncertainty. We don't have a practical way to prove tomorrow that GMOs are absolutely dangerous or absolutely safe. The appropriate response to uncertainty is, let's arm ourselves with an engineering solution."
The simplest kill switches merely deleted a gene that synthesized some molecule critical to the life of the organism. If the microbe wasn't fed that molecule, it died out; the problem was that such GM microbes might obtain a unexpected source of such molecules. In 2015, researchers described kill switches that force the engineered microbe to rely on lab-made molecules that do not exist in nature.
The kill-switch Deadman is straightforward in its implementation, ensuring that any microbe with Deadman integrated into its genome will die off if a special molecule were not available. Passcode is more sophisticated; it relies on some combination of three molecules -- A, B, and C -- with the combination being set when integrated into the microbe genome, for example to be dependent on A and B, but not C. It is conceivable that a microbe could find an alternate source for one of the molecules, or evolve out of needing it; but that's much less likely for a dependence on two molecules.
So far, the kill switches are just lab demonstrations, typically using the Escherichia coli bacterium, a common microbial "lab rat". Researchers don't see any reason why the same technology can't be applied to other microbes. They also don't believe it would be prudent to rely on a single kill switch, that practical implementations will likely combine several different strategies for multilayer security.
* As discussed by a note from AAAS SCIENCE Online, the entirely familiar pumpkin might have long ago ceased to exist -- along with the rest of the of the Cucurbita, the plant genus that includes gourds and squash, had it not been domesticated. More than 10,000 years ago, the very bitter-tasting wild ancestors of Cucurbita plants were thriving across the New World, along with the "great beasts" such as giant sloths and mammoths that grazed on them. Today, wild Curcubita are scarce, while the sweet-tasting domesticated species are widely cultivated.
What happened? The giant mammals that ate the bitter Cucurbita fruit and dispersed their seeds in their manure all went extinct. The smaller mammals that took over in the Americas were, it seems, much more sensitive to bitter-tasting plants, since they have more "bitter" taste receptor proteins compared to the extinct giants. With animals no longer dispersing their seeds, Cucurbita plants were faced with extinction. It was thanks to humans, who selected the Cucurbita for tastiness, that they didn't die out. A genetic analysis of 91 Cucurbita has traced out the emergence of the plants from their wild ancestors, showing that they weren't domesticated once -- but several times by the native peoples of the New World.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* ASTRO-H IN ORBIT: As discussed by an article from AAAS SCIENCE ("Japanese Satellite Targets The X-ray Universe" by Dennis Normile, 5 February 2016), on 12 February, an H-2A booster was launched from Japan's space center on Tanegashima Island to put the "ASTRO-H" space astronomy satellite into orbit.
The bus-sized ASTRO-H is a joint effort between the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) and the US National Aeronautics & Space Administration (NASA). It had a launch mass of 2,400 kilograms (5,399 pounds), making it the biggest Japanese space astronomy spacecraft to date. While earlier X-ray missions were tuned to image point sources such as black holes and neutron stars, ASTRO-H is built to analyze the x-rays emanating from large, diffuse celestial structures. Astronomers are looking forward to its observations of the superheated gases, radiating X rays, that mark black holes, galaxy clusters, and supernova remnants.
ASTRO-H is particularly welcome, coming after the failure of its two predecessors. The "ASTRO-E" spacecraft was lost on launch in 2000; the replacement mission, named "Suzaku", reached orbit, but lost a critical instrument after a few weeks in space. The consequence was that no major space X-ray astronomy mission has flown since 1999, when the European "XMM-Newton" and US "Chandra X-Ray Observatory" were put into space.
ASTRO-H -- also known as "Hitomi", meaning "Eye", as well as being a feminine name -- is a built in a form of a big octagonal flask, with a solar panel array running across the back, left and right. Its primary payload is four X-ray telescopes, mounted as the "cap" of the flask, these being "grazing-incidence" telescopes.
It is not possible to focus X-rays with conventional mirror optics; they simply penetrate the mirror without being reflected. They will, however, "skip" off a reflecting surface if the angle is 2 degrees or less -- like a stone skipping across water -- the skip angle becoming shallower as the X-ray wavelength decreases. A grazing-incidence (Wolter) telescope consists of a tandem set of reflectors, each arranged as many concentric "barrels" of precision gold-coated multilayer reflector surfaces, looking something like an onion in cross-section; the tandem stages permit a wide field of view to be brought to an imaging focus. The four X-ray telescopes include:
There are also two identical "Soft Gamma-Ray Detectors (SGD)", mounted on the lower sides of the spacecraft -- one mounted on the right, one mounted on the left. The SXDs are non-imaging detectors, of unprecedented sensitivity, but only picking up the general direction of signals. In addition, flanking the STX-S are what look like two small telescopes, presumably being star trackers for precision targeting.
The launch also included three smallsat payloads:
The ASTRO-H mission team includes 240 scientists from 60 institutions in Japan, North America, and Europe, project manager Tadayuki Takahashi describing it as JAXA's "biggest collaboration ever." Researchers are particularly excited about the SXS instrument, calling its capabilities "transformational". Targets of interest include:
ASTRO-H may shed light on dark matter -- but as one project scientist said, there are "a zillion other things" on the observatory's observational agenda. Says Takahashi: "We have many good reasons why we need ASTRO-H, but my hope is that we can find something new that nobody expects." [ED: The satellite suffered an explosion of some sort in orbit during its check-out period and was lost.]COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* ANOTHER MONTH: Trying to drive around in Seattle, Washington, quickly hints that current concepts of transportation need to be rethought; it's not just that it's a congested metropolitan area, it's also that the terrain, featuring an impressive assortment of steep hills, inlets, and lakes, does not lend itself to an efficient road network.
As discussed by an item in BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK ("Bertha Is Ready To Rumble In Seattle" by Karen Weise, 11 January 2016), a particular problem is the elevated freeway, State Route 99 (S99), skirting the waterfront downtown. Not only is it an eyesore running through the heart of the city, it was damaged in the 2001 Nisqually earthquake, and is not really safe for use.
In 2011, the State of Washington awarded a joint venture named Seattle Tunnel Partners (STP) a $1.35 billion USD contract to dig a tunnel with a length of 2,825 meters (9,270 feet) and a diameter of 17.5 meters (57.5 feet). Hitachi Zozen of Japan was contracted by STP to built the world's biggest tunnel-boring machine (TBM), named "Big Bertha", to drill the tunnel. Bertha got to work in July 2013 -- but came to a screeching halt, if such a phrase could be used for a TBM, that December, after only boring a ninth of the way.
Exactly what happened remains mysterious, since to no surprise there's been a lot of finger-pointing between the State of Washington, STP, and Hitachi Zozen over the problem. What can be said is that Seattle's geology is notably tricky, having been shaped by Ice Age glacial action, one feature being underground accumulations of large boulders known as "erratics", that might give a TBM indigestion.
In any case, STP dug a 36-meter (120-foot) shaft down to Bertha; the fact that the TBM had broken down so early in its drive meant it wasn't under any major buildings. In March 2015, STP workers used a crane to pull up Bertha's cutter and drive mechanisms, with a total weight of about 1,820 tonnes (2,000 tons). Hitachi Zozen repaired them and updated them, adding considerable steel reinforcement, with Bertha then refitted, to perform a test run in December.
There's some confidence there will be no further major problems; nobody's underestimating the task this time around. The drilling is supposed to be done in early 2017, with the underground S99 bypass opening in the spring of 2018, and the old elevated highway torn down. There's considerable cynicism among Seattlans over what's going to happen next, but the only response is: Unfortunately, this is how stuff happens in the real world -- deal with it.
* My desktop can't run Windows 10, but I have two notebooks that can. Having updated them to Win10, I figured I might as well update them to the same applications software configuration as my Win7 desktop as well.
It turned out to be a surprisingly elaborate project, one aspect being to do some shuffling around of the directory hierarchy of my desktop, so I could copy it from PC to PC -- using environment variables to designate its location in the varying file systems of the PCs. I also ran into a few little devious snags; in any case, I cooked up procedural checklist, and setting up PCs in the future will be more straightforward.
One snag was that some of the software installed links in the Windows right-click menu, which annoyed me. The prospect of getting rid of them was more annoying: tinkering with the Windows registry is very tricky and hazardous, while freeware utilities to do the job are dodgy at best. Or so I thought; I took a chance on the freebie "Piriform CCleaner", from "www.piriform.com", and found it very tidy, as capable as I might want. It didn't come along with any bogus software -- at least as long as I got it from the Piriform website, and not some parasite website. They sell a "Pro" version, but since I barely use all the functionality of the free one, it sounds like overkill. It appears that the Pro version is targeted at system administrators, automating some of the tests.
Having got a common configuration, I then linked the three PCs together. I set up syncing on the Firefox browser, so if I bookmark something on one PC, the bookmark ends up in Firefox on all three PCs. I also made sure the OneDrive networked directory was set up on all three PCs. I'd originally tinkered with DropBox, but OneDrive is effectively part of Windows, so I figured I should go with that instead.
I couldn't get the three OneDrive installations to talk for a while. Checking OneDrive tutorial information showed there was nothing much to it, the only thing that was troublesome was finding the configuration controls -- easy once I knew, right-click on the OneDrive icon, and pick "Settings". Still, nothing seemed to work, until I did some surfing and got some simple advice: disconnect the OneDrive installations from the OneDrive online account, then re-log in. Worked fine after that.
I have a batch file that allows me to selectively back up files I'm working on, copying them to a directory on hard disk and to a flash drive plugged into my desktop. I had a brainstorm, and decided to change the hard disk backup directory to the OneDrive directory -- meaning that anything that I backed up on one PC would end up backed up on all three PCs, as well as in the online account.
Next, I have to get a new desktop that can run Win10. My current desktop is over five years old, meaning it's running on borrowed time, and I also want to run Win10 apps on the desktop. No rush, though -- one of the motives of getting to a common configuration on all three PCs being the ability to use a notebook as my working machine if the desktop went south. Both the notebooks can use a large external display, and handle a USB keyboard and mouse, so other than speed, they would be able to substitute for the desktop.
* Due to lack of foresight on my part, last month I ended up making major outlays to update my house with a new furnace and water heater. Although the way I got into it left much to be desired, I felt some satisfaction with the end result. My new Amana gas furnace is impressive, with a two-stage heat-exchanger system, a stainless-steel heat exchanger, and a two-speed valve -- the valve starts out at a low, economical setting if the house just needs a slight boost to get up to temperature, then to the high setting if that doesn't work. It's efficient to the point where it's hard to make it more efficient.
The gas water heater is nice, though not such a marvel; nonetheless, I don't run out of hot water as fast as I did, and even at the merely HOT setting, the water is close to scalding. It took a bit of time to determine the safe setting.
The outlay didn't feel so bad because I had reserve funds for such a contingency, and though I reduced the reserves to a baseline level, there's still plenty left. It was gear that I had to replace in any case. At least my budgeting process worked right. I got the kit from two chain firms, 1 Hour HVAC and Ben Franklin Plumbing, both elements of the Direct Energy group. They have a Disney-like business model: highly organized; charge a premium, but deliver best service; and don't nickel-&-dime the customer.
All the techs were clearly trained in sales, and were very effective salesmen. It seems the bottom line is to sell service contracts, and given that I had got caught short on servicing my gear, I was easily sold. Indeed, although the water heater was well more expensive than one I could have got from an appliance store, I got yearly maintenance visits indefinitely. I'm not getting caught short on maintenance again, and have become more neurotic about household upkeep: don't stint on it.
I did get a small perk to soften the sticker shock, with the natural gas provider giving me a $120 USD rebate on the efficient gas furnace -- like a hundredth of my total outlay, but it's always nice to get money from an unexpected quarter.
* Regarding my problems last month with a mysterious debit card draft of $140.71 USD: I resolved the issue. I used to have a VISA card, but it was updated to a smart MasterCard a few months back. To my surprise, the mysterious debit was on the VISA card, not the new MasterCard. I told the person in the phone center: "I thought the VISA card was dead."
Clickety-clickety-click: "It is now."
That was the end of the matter, since then I knew the MasterCard hadn't been compromised, and I'd already requested to get my money back. How did the VISA card get compromised? I'll likely never know. The fake Verizon phone number associated with the draft suggested an organized scam, possibly working from charge card numbers obtained by hacking into a corporate account.
* Thanks to four readers for donations to support the websites last month, one being particularly generous. That is very much appreciated.COMMENT ON ARTICLE