* 22 entries including: Cold War (series), Tambora catastrophe (series), free trade dilemma (series), Apple wars (series), micro-ecologies of the home, corporate boom in artificial intelligence, Evryscope & survey telescopes, solar power in the developing world, smart card buses in Rwanda, 2-degree Celsius global warming limit arbitrary, China's commitments to limit emissions not drastic, and bacterium with minimal genome.
* NEWS COMMENTARY FOR MAY 2016: On 23 June, Britons will go to the polls to vote on whether the UK should remain in the European Union (EU). There was such a vote in 1975, with two-thirds of voters saying YES, but the vote is likely to be much closer this time around.
The debate over "Brexit", as it has become know, has been loud and angry, with British Euroskeptics saying that the UK should stop being pushed around by the EU, while advocates point out that the advantages of being in the EU greatly outweigh any disadvantages. On 22 April, US President Barack Obama spoke in London to discourage a vote for Brexit.
As pointed out by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("More Special In Europe", 23 April 2016), it might have seemed out of line for an American leader to suggest how British citizens should vote -- but Brexit would affect America's relationship with Britain, and not at all for the better. Jeremy Shapiro of the European Council on Foreign Relations, a think-tank, put it bluntly: "Britain can be a geopolitical actor within the EU, or it can be a geopolitical irrelevance outside it."
The irrelevance would not be lost on the United States. Obama did not put it in such stark terms, but he had already made his position clear in 2015, when he told the BBC that Britain's place in the EU was a cornerstone of post-war peace and prosperity. He added: "We want to make sure that the United Kingdom continues to have that influence."
NATO and the EU have been the basis of America's post-war engagement in Europe. The EU may be unexciting, with confusing institutions and rules, but seen from Washington, it has been a huge success. In the first place, it has helped stop Europeans from shooting each other, and so reduced the need for America to intervene to keep the peace. More recently, it provided both an example and magnet for the countries of the former Soviet empire. The EU's important part in ending the Cold War on Western terms, and its setting of democratic norms and values for aspirant members from the East, has been of extraordinary benefit to America.
For all the belligerent isolationism of American nationalists, it is to Europe that America first turns when something needs to be done in the world that the USA either cannot, or does not want to, undertake alone. Usually the Americans work through NATO, but it was the EU's embargo on Iranian oil exports, not American sanctions, that brought Iran to the negotiating table and paved the way for the recent nuclear deal.
It is EU sanctions on Russia that have raised the costs of Moscow's aggression in Ukraine; it is the EU that America sees a main partner in the fight against Islamist terrorism -- and it is the EU that is currently bearing the savage brunt of terror attacks. Sensible US leadership also knows that America cannot be really prosperous unless the EU is as well, a notion that underlies the push towards the Transatlantic Trade & Investment Partnership (TTIP) pact. If it passes, and there are doubts, it will be the biggest trade deal in history, with economic gains for all.
Britain has been a major player in work on the TTIP. Were Britain to leave the EU, it could deal a painful blow to the treaty. If TTIP still went ahead, Britain will have shut itself out of the party, Obama saying in his address that Brexit would send Britain "to the back of the queue" for trade deals with the US. That wasn't a threat; it was simply saying that Britain would have dealt itself out of the game.
To the White House, Brexit sounds like sheer lunacy. All of Britain's other friends, notably the Commonwealth countries, are also dismayed at the prospect; the only loud voice in praise of Brexit is Russia's Vladimir Putin. To Obama, the economic issues are almost the least of it. Brexit might well inflame the rising tide of nativism, populism, and isolationism across Europe. Anxiety is high in Europe, thanks to the drawn-out euro-zone crisis, and the massive flow of refugees from the Middle East. In Washington's view, the last thing the EU needs is for Britain to give its foundations a further hefty kick. As David Miliband, a former British foreign secretary, put it: "Brexit would be an act of arson on the international order."
Leaders of the LEAVE campaign -- including the mayor of London, Boris Johnson -- got their kicks in even before Obama spoke in London, calling Obama's pro-EU message "hypocritical" because America would never consent to pool its sovereignty as Britain must do in the EU. Johnson, a person not noted for his command of details, had conveniently forgotten NATO, which obliges America to go to war should any other member be attacked. On 20 April, when eight former American treasury secretaries described Britain's departure from the EU as a "risky bet" that would jeopardize the City's role as a global financial center, their advice was dismissed as belittling.
In his address, Obama declared that Brexit would be a completely self-defeating measure: "The UK is at its best when it's helping to lead a strong European Union. It leverages UK power to be part of the EU. I don't think the EU moderates British influence in the world; it magnifies it."
How much influence Obama had in his plea is hard to say. It is true that the "special relationship" between the US and the UK will endure a Brexit -- Obama saying that the connection would "endure, hopefully, eternally" -- but as THE ECONOMIST put it:
... so much of the case for Brexit is built on the idea that a buccaneering Britain would forge wonderful new partnerships with powerful and dynamic countries outside Europe. When Britain's oldest and closest partner says, sorry, you won't be nearly so interesting to us in the future if you take this step, that idea crumbles.
* The linchpin of America's involvement with Europe is, by design, NATO, the EU being the indivisible reverse side of the same coin. As discussed in an essay by THE ECONOMIST's rotating European commenter, Charlemagne ("Quantum Of Silence", 23 April 2016), although the Cold War is long over, NATO has hardly become irrelevant. Take, as a primary example, Vladimir Putin's insecurely assertive Russia.
NATO suspended all co-operation with Russia after its annexation of Crimea and invasion of Ukraine in 2014. The NATO-Russia Council, a forum set up in 2002 to build mutual trust, did meet in April for the first time since June 2014 after prodding from the Germans and French, as well as Jens Stoltenberg, the alliance's secretary-general. To nobody's surprise, the conversations went nowhere.
In the meantime, Russian warplanes buzzed an American destroyer in the Baltic, and also harassed a US reconnaissance aircraft. American Secretary of State John Kerry said that the ship would have been within its rights to open fire on the aircraft -- that being a big hint to Russia to knock it off, it being obvious just what kind of crisis would follow if the US Navy shot down a Russian aircraft. However, the Russians apparently don't grasp the obvious, having shown no interest in diplomatic conversations to prevent further trouble.
Russia's military exploits in Ukraine and Syria have left Europe to wonder where it will point its guns next -- maybe Libya? In the meantime, Kremlin-backed media spews comically heavy-handed anti-Western propaganda. Although there has been some "sanctions fatigue" among the EU, there is little doubt that sanctions will be renewed in June; Putin has given no cause to relax them.
Russian provocations also explain NATO's plan to station around 5,000 more troops in the Baltic states, Poland, Bulgaria and Romania, a decision likely to be formalized at a summit in Warsaw in July. The alliance will get around the ban on "permanent" bases, specified in the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act, by regularly rotating its troops. That will hardly make Russia happy -- but what would?
The end result is going to be a continued spiral of escalation, one that is not really to the benefit of NATO -- but even less a benefit to Russia. The Russian economy continues to sink, sanctions adding to the ballast dragging it down, while Putin's military theatrics can only boost his public standing for so long. Unfortunately, Putin doesn't seem to have any other card to play, so he continues to play the same one, over and over again.
* Another article in the same issue of THE ECONOMIST ("Fool Me Once") pointed out that German Chancellor Angela Merkel, once the advocate of the soft approach towards Russia, is now Russia's toughest ideological opponent, having become angry over Russian activities in Ukraine, and the carpet of blatant lies the Kremlin has told in support of them.
Russian propaganda now vilifies Merkel at every opportunity, smearing her as a weak leader; soft on Islamist terrorism; soft on refugees. The attacks have been so over-the-top as to alienate what few friends Russia has left in Germany. Russia once banked on commerce to maintain good relations with Germany -- but today, the Czech Republic counts more economically to Germany than Russia does. Before sanctions, Russia accounted for 4% of German trade, but now the number's down to 2.4%. Russia is of little significance to the German economy.
Russia has also reached out to German extremist parties of both the Right and Left -- obviously, not out of any particular ideological sympathy, but because they make trouble for Merkel. The BND, the German security service, is now looking into Russian political activities in Germany to see if they have crossed the line.
The Russians can really do little more than annoy Merkel; she has the upper hand. She knows the Russians are working at being nuisances because that's all they can do. In 1995, Merkel was attacked by a dog, and since then has been afraid of big dogs. During a meeting at Putin's home in 2007, he brought his black labrador, Koni, into the room; Merkel was clearly apprehensive, Putin seemed amused.
For what it's worth, Putin later said he hadn't been trying to intimidate Merkel. Nonetheless, Merkel -- who grew up in East Germany -- grasped the mindset perfectly: "I understand why he has to do this: to prove he's a man. He's afraid of his own weakness. Russia has nothing, no successful politics or economy. All they have is this."COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* THE TAMBORA CATASTROPHE (1): As discussed by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("After Tambora", 11 April 2015) -- as well as here in 2005 -- in April 1815, Mount Tambora, a volcano on the Indonesian island of Sumbawa, blew its top; on the 10th and 11th of the month, it sent molten rock more than 40 kilometers (25 miles) into the sky, in the most powerful eruption of the past 500 years. The umbrella of ash spread out over the region; in its shadow, there was no day. Billions of tonnes of dust, gas, rock and ash poured down the mountain's flanks in pyroclastic flows, hitting the surrounding sea hard enough to set off tsunamis; the wave that struck eastern Java, 500 kilometers (310 miles) away, two hours later was still two meters (6.5 feet) high when it did so. The roar of the eruption could be heard 2,000 kilometers (1,240 miles) away; ships spotted floating islands of pumice in the surrounding seas for years.
In his book ERUPTIONS THAT SHOOK THE WORLD Clive Oppenheimer, a volcanologist at Cambridge University, estimates the number killed by the ash flows, the tsunamis, and the famine that resulted in Indonesia at 60,000 to 120,000. That, by itself, would make Tambora's eruption the deadliest on record. However, its effects caused further pain across the world.
The year after the eruption, clothes froze to washing lines in the New England summer, and glaciers surged down Alpine valleys at an alarming rate. Multitudes starved in China's Yunnan province, while typhus spread across Europe. Grain was in such short supply in Britain that the Corn Laws were suspended; there was a widespread sense that something was terribly wrong with the world. That sense of unease was manifested in dark tales written at the time, most memorably Mary Shelley's novel FRANKENSTEIN. Few understood that the cause of it all was a huge eruption on the far side of the world.
Mixed in with the 30 cubic kilometers or more of rock spewed out from Tambora's crater were more than 50 million tonnes of sulphur dioxide, much of which rose up with the ash cloud into the stratosphere. Although the bulk of the ash quickly fell back to earth, the sulphur dioxide stayed up, spreading both around the equator and towards the poles. Over the following months it oxidized to form sulphate ions, which served as the nucleus of into tiny particles that reflected away some of the light coming from the Sun -- and the Earth began to cool.
The sulphate particles didn't fall out of the atmosphere in any hurry, so the cooling continued into the following year. By the summer of 1816, the world was, on average, about one degree Celsius cooler than it had been the year before. That doesn't sound like much to notice, but that was only the average drop, with higher swings on a regional basis. For example, since continents are quicker to cool than heat-storing seas, land temperatures dropped almost twice as much as the global average. The cooling dried the planet out, reducing water vapor and rainfall -- which was about 4% less over the world than it had been in 1815.
Or so recent climate computer models have it. The models are actually seen as convincing, matching the effects of eruptions in modern times. The 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines was about a sixth as large as Tambora's in terms of the volume of lava, rock, and ash, and about a third as large in terms of sulphur emissions. Satellites showed that in the summer of 1992, the sulphur it had emitted into the atmosphere was reducing the amount of sunlight getting to the Earth's surface by well over three watts per square meter.
In comparison, the warming effect of the 40% increase in the atmosphere's carbon-dioxide level since the age of Tambora is two watts per square meter. Temperatures fell by around half a degree Celsius in the year after Pinatubo, with rainfall dropping off significantly as well. Computer models run after the eruption, but before the effects had been measured, were reasonably accurate, though they exaggerated the cooling a bit.
The historical record of what happened after Tambora backs up the models. Across Europe, the summer of 1816 was cold and wet, and the harvest terrible. The effects were most notable around the Alps, with grain prices skyrocketing in Switzerland. There were mass migrations of the starving, while mortality rates climbed.
In Yunnan province, Tambora's cooling shut down the monsoon, and cold snaps in summer killed the rice harvest for three years running -- with disastrous effects. Monsoons are driven by the difference in temperature between hot land and cooler sea, and so they are highly affected by wide-area cooling. Along with crop failures, the failure of the monsoon reduced the availability of fresh water, leading to a cholera epidemic in Bengal in 1817. [TO BE CONTINUED]NEXT | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* THE COLD WAR (114): Premier Khrushchev had been on the road again since the beginning of 1960, having arrived in India on 11 February, the first stop on a trip that would take then take him to Burma, Indonesia, and finally Afghanistan. It was really just another political junket, featuring little in the way of substantial discussions with national leaders -- instead involving a lot of playing high-profile tourist, attending rallies, and being folksy with the locals. He returned to Moscow on 5 March, promptly giving an upbeat address to Soviet citizens at the Lushniki sports stadium.
Ten days later, Khrushchev flew off to France, at the invitation of Charles de Gaulle. Of course, Moscow was perfectly aware that de Gaulle had substantial disagreements with the Americans, and de Gaulle didn't hesitate to say so. To Khrushchev, that suggested a possibility of, if not making France a Soviet ally, at least influencing its orbit in the West. Besides, Khrushchev was somewhat in awe of de Gaulle, admiring his "self-confidence and air of authority" -- if being a bit intimidated by the fact that de Gaulle was so "incredibly calm and unhurried."
De Gaulle took a liking to Khrushchev, later describing him as a "cunning, intelligent, self-made man", though de Gaulle also found him inflexible, having a "setpiece formula for each question that he continually repeated." De Gaulle, like Khrushchev, was not enthusiastic about German reunification, regarding a restored Germany a potential threat -- but the French president regarded Khrushchev's ongoing theatrics over Berlin as overblown, tiresome, and counterproductive. De Gaulle made it clear that he wasn't impressed by Soviet threats, loftily telling Khrushchev: "If you don't want war, don't take steps that lead to war."
Khrushchev was dreaming if he thought that de Gaulle's France represented a major diplomatic opportunity for the Soviet Union. If de Gaulle was inclined to take an independent line towards the Americans, it was not likely he would be less independent-minded in his dealings with the Soviets -- and though the French and Americans were not exactly standing shoulder-to-shoulder, de Gaulle's views were still well more alike those of his American counterparts than they were different.
Diplomatically, the trip accomplished little, though Khrushchev did enjoy the grand welcome he was given by the French, and his tour through the French provinces -- de Gaulle describing his visitor as "cheerful and homely, mainly interested in technology and industrial output."
When Khrushchev returned home on 4 April, he felt as much, maybe more, than ever that he was on top of the world, some of those around him worrying that he had lost touch with reality. However, instead of publicly reporting the trip to the Soviet people immediately on coming home, he waited a day. Possibly he was simply too tired, he wasn't a young man any more; but when he did speak, he mentioned that he had not slept too well the night before, wondering just how much he had accomplished. He might well have wondered, since the bubble he had been riding since the last year was just about to burst.
* The weather finally cleared over the Soviet Union on 1 May, the last day of the open window for the CIA U-2 overflight. That morning, a U-2 piloted by Francis Gary Powers, a USAF captain who had been "civilianized" for the U-2 program, departed Peshawar, Pakistan, heading north. It was quickly detected by Soviet radar, with the intrusion reported to Premier Khrushchev. He told his son Sergei: "They've flown over us again ... "
Sergei asked: "Will we shoot it down?"
His father snapped back: "That's a stupid question." Fighters were scrambled to intercept the intruder, pilots being ordered to ram it if they had to -- though they were hard-pressed to even reach it. Batteries of S-75 SAMs, codenamed "SA-2 Guideline" by NATO, were put on alert; several were fired, one accidentally destroying a Soviet interceptor, the pilot being killed.
Powers was over Sverdlosk when there was an explosion of an SA-2 warhead, and the U-2 started to go down, breaking up. He released the canopy to bail out. He was supposed to push a button that would start a countdown to the detonation of a self-destruct charge, but later claimed that the wind trapped him half-in, half-out of the cockpit as he tried to escape, preventing him from reaching the button. However, anybody with sense might have suspected that the self-destruct charge would go off the instant the button was pushed, disposing of the inconvenient pilot as well as the aircraft; and whether that was likely or not, the possibility was there.
In any case, Powers managed to get free, falling to lower altitude and deploying his parachute, with the U-2 crashing to Earth. He was quickly captured and searched. His captors found a silver dollar among his kit, and he warned them: "Be careful how you handle that." It hid a pin coated with saxitoxin -- an extremely lethal poison, derived from shellfish -- for him to use to commit suicide; the Soviets pricked a dog with it, and it promptly died. [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* WINGS & WEAPONS: China has been developing a wide range of drones. As reported by an article from AVIATION WEEK Online ("New Chinese UAVs Could Support Anti-Carrier Missile" by Bill Sweetman, 28 September 2015), the People's Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) is now testing two large long-endurance drones, in a size class with the US Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk.
Photos of prototypes of Shenyang Aircraft's "Divine Eagle" and Chengdu Aircraft's "Soar Dragon" have appeared on Chinese websites. The Divine Eagle is about 6.1 meters (50 feet) long and has a wingspan of about 40.2 meters 132 feet). It has a twin-fuselage canard configuration, with the wide-span wing in the rear, body centerlines about 6 meters (20 feet) apart, and the single engine mounted above the midpoint of the main wing. The forward wing surface joins the extreme front end of the two fuselages, and does not extend outside them.
The two forward fuselages are designed as radomes, it appears accommodating long active electronically steered array (AESA) radar antennas. The canard configuration gives them a good field of view. Along with the radar, the Divine Eagle has a satellite communications radome above the forward section of the right-hand fuselage, and a similar aerodynamic bulge on the left.
Two subsidiaries of China Electronics Technology Group Corporation (CETC) -- East China Research Institute of Electronic Engineering, and Nanjing Research Institute of Electronics Technology -- have developed UHF AESA technology for surface-based air-surveillance radars that have entered service with the Chinese military. CTEC has also developed a slightly larger airborne AESA, resembling the Saab Erieye, for the Shaanxi KJ-200 airborne early warning (AEW) aircraft.
The Divine Eagle appears to be an AEW platform, though it could also have a surface-search capability. Using satcoms or a line-of-sight data link, it could act as a forward radar picket and transmit radar data to a ground station, airborne relay, or airborne control system.
The Soar Dragon is almost the same length as the Divine Eagle, but has a shorter wingspan, about 28.6 meters (94 feet). It features a single fuselage, with an engine mounted on top of the rear fuselage, and a "joined wing", with a swept-back forward wing and a forward-swept aft wing. No joined-wing aircraft of this size has flown in the West. In the Soar Dragon, the rear wing is higher than the forward wing, to reduce the influence of the forward wing's downwash on the rear wing's lift. The rear wing has a shorter span than the front wing, and its downturned tips meet the front wing at a part-span point.
The Soar Dragon's primary role may be long-range ocean patrol and search, the Chinese having a need for locating and targeting US Navy forces for attacks by long-range antiship missiles -- notably the DF-21D ballistic antiship missile, discussed here in 2014. No specifics of either drone have been released as of yet; it is not known, for example, if they have turbofan or turbojet engines.
* While the US military loves GPS, the services have always known it can be easily jammed -- which is why GPS-guided munitions always have a backup inertial navigation system (INS). INS accuracy is much coarser than GPS, however, which is why the military is interested in a scene-matching capability.
A note from IEEE SPECTRUM Online described how the military is enhancing the "Joint Precision Airdrop System (JPADS)" -- a GPS-guided parasail for cargo delivery -- with a scene-matching system. The system can target ground locations from terrain features, such as buildings or ponds, identified in satellite or drone images of the target area. This appears to be a component of the broader effort to design a low-cost, effective scene-matching system for munitions and anything else that needs to recognize a target.
The JPADS scene-recognition system is crude at the present time, using commercial off-the-shelf cameras, and only being tested in the desert, where bad weather isn't much of a problem. The camera gear needs to be rationalized, possibly with infrared cameras, with other problems including convenient update of targeting image, right up to cargo drop, and recognition of targets in snowfields and other featureless terrain. Possibly ground forces could use patterns of flares to mark a target, though such trickery could can be spoofed by an adversary.
* South Korea, with a troublesome sibling as a neighbor to the north, has developed a sophisticated arms industry in response. As a case in point, consider the new "Korean Surface-to-Air Anti-Missile (K-SAAM)" ship-launched missile, now in test, and expected to reach service with the Republic of Korea Navy (ROKN) in 2018.
The K-SAAM program was initiated in 2011, with operational test firing beginning in 2013. It will replace the Sidewinder-derived Raytheon Rolling Airframe Missile (RAM) in providing close-in ship defense against antiship missiles and aircraft. The 2.07 meter (6 foot 9 inch) long K-SAAM uses inertial mid-course guidance, and a dual microwave and imaging infrared seeker for terminal guidance. It is launched from a four-cell vertical launch system (VLS), and can also be retrofitted to existing VLS already in service.
The ROKN acquired the RAM in 1999, fitting it to destroyers, frigates, and amphibious assault ships. K-SAAM will replace RAM on these vessels, and will also be fitted to the ROKN's minehunters.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* MICRO-ECOLOGIES AT HOME: Studies of the "micro-ecologies" of human living and working spaces have been discussed here in the past, the last mention being early in 2015. As discussed by an article from AAAS SCIENCE Online ("What The Microbes In Your Home Say About You" by Sid Perkins, 25 August 2015), researchers at the University of Colorado in Boulder have released a metagenomic survey of the micro-organisms found in about 1,200 homes across the continental USA, conducted under an effort titled "The Wild Life Of Our Homes". According to Dr. Noah Fierer, who led the study: "This is really basic natural history we are investigating here. We have known for a long time that microbes live in our homes. What we are doing is now is old-fashioned science, to see how they vary across space."
Although studies of the micro-ecologies of human living spaces tend to focus on surfaces that humans are often in physical contact with -- such as door handles or food preparation spaces -- in this study, samples were swabbed from the top of the main door frame and the frame of an internal door, a surface that people rarely come into contact with. Micro-organisms could generally only reach those surfaces in airborne dust.
Residents also filled out a detailed questionnaire about their living habits and their house, including its age, the pets that lived there, and even how many smokers and vegetarians called it home. Then, the researchers used genetic analyses to identify the major groups of fungi and bacteria inhabiting the grunge.
More than 2,000 different types of fungi were discovered, including well-known genera such as Aspergillus, Penicillium, Alternaria, and Fusarium. Most of the fungi were similar to those found in the exterior environment; they didn't reveal much about the inhabitants of the home, but they did provide clues about where a home was located.
The varieties of bacteria found in interior dust samples, in contrast, largely depended on the ratio of male to female residents, and on the presence of pets such as dogs and cats. Bacterial genera found included human fecal and vaginal bacteria as well as those that live on human skin. The fecal bacteria may have been thrown into the air by the flushing of toilets, and distributed by internal air circulation.
Two types of skin-dwelling bacteria -- in the genera Corynebacterium and Dermabacter -- and the fecal-associated genus Roseburia were more common in homes with more males. That may be due to the fact that males are typically bigger than females and have more skin, meaning more skin bacteria, but it may also be due to different hygiene between men and women. Females tend to bathe more often than males and make more use of skin care products, so they have less skin bacteria.
The samples could also reveal whether a home had a dog -- with about 90% accuracy -- or a cat -- with about 80% accuracy. In homes with cats, 24 genera of bacteria were significantly more abundant than they were in homes without cats. In residences with dogs, the researchers found higher numbers of bacteria from 56 different genera. According to Fierer: "Bringing a dog or cat into your home really has a significant effect on the bacteria you find in your home. It was surprising to us that it was such a strong influence, stronger than any other factor, stronger than where your home was located or the design of your home, for example."
The study could have forensic applications, for example allowing investigators to get hints on the occupants of a vacated home. Although the fastidious might be upset that so many micro-organisms live along with them, Fierer says not to worry: "People do not need to worry about microbes in their home. They are all around us, they are on our skin, they're all around our home -- and most of these are completely harmless. It is just a fact of life that we are surrounded by these microbes."COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* AI GOLD RUSH: As discussed by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("Million-Dollar Babies, 2 April 2016), there was a craze for artificial intelligence (AI) technology in the 1980s, which fizzled out when it became obvious that it really wasn't ready for commercial use. Academics went back to their university labs to see if they could do better.
They could. A computer recently beat the human world champion at the Asiatic game of Go, which was much more of a challenge for AI research than writing software to win at chess. This event meant little for AI applications in itself, but it marked that AI technology had come of age. AI is now caught up in a gold rush, with technology giants such as Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and Baidu racing to stake claims. In 2015, they spent an impressive $8.5 billion USD on AI-oriented deals, four times more than in 2010.
That is very gratifying to the academics who had to labor for credibility, but the gold rush has inevitably led to a painful downside: the tech firms are plundering university departments of robotics and machine learning -- where computers learn from data themselves -- for the best faculty and students, recruiting them with big salaries similar to those fetched by professional athletes.
In 2015 Uber, a taxi-hailing firm, recruited 40 of the 140 staff of the National Robotics Engineering Center at Carnegie Mellon University, and set up a unit to work on self-driving cars. That led to a bit of a fuss, since Uber had earlier promised to fund research at the center, but then decided to raid it instead. Other firms are more discreet, but the raiding is there anyway. Pedro Domingos -- a professor at the University of Washington who specializes in machine learning, and has had job offers from industry -- says: "I cannot even hold on to my grad students. Companies are trying to hire them away before they graduate."
Machine learning is the hottest field. Big tech firms already use it in widespread applications, such as spam-filtering and better targeting of online ads, and are working hard on frontiers such as self-driving cars and zeroing in on diseases from patient data. Machine learning is refining other technologies, such as personal assistants, or tools to help users sort through photographs. As a consequence, the Conference on Neural Information Processing Systems -- held each December in Canada -- isn't the obscure gathering of scholars that it once was, having become a hot spot for recruiting the best AI talent.
The current machine-learning boom began in earnest when Google jumped into the field -- making a statement in 2014 when the company bought DeepMind, the startup behind the computer victory in Go, from researchers in London, for a price rumored to be about $600 million USD. Facebook, which was rumored to also be after DeepMind, then set up a lab focused on AI and hired an academic from New York University, Yann LeCun, to run it.
Academics can find the lure of a job with a big corporation very tempting. Putting their ideas into commercial use is attractive, and the corporations not only pay well, they provide generous resources to get work done. Andrew Ng, who leads AI research for the Chinese internet giant Baidu and used to teach full-time at Stanford, says tech firms offer two especially appealing things: lots of computing power and large data sets, both being essential for modern machine learning.
The downside is that draining universities of their best talent may well make them dry up as sources of good talent, hurting AI research over the long run. In addition, once AI researchers get jobs in the corporate environment, open publication of their work becomes more problematic, further slowing down progress.
The threat of AI research retreating behind corporate moats prompted several technology bosses, including Elon Musk of Tesla, to pledge in December 2015 to spend over $1 billion USD on a not-for-profit initiative, OpenAI, which will make its research public. The intent of OpenAI is to combine the research focus of a university with a company's real-world aspirations. Tech companies also have an incentive to endow more professorships and offer more grants to researchers. Certainly, with the gold rush on for AI research, universities have no lack of students trying to get in.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* THE FREE TRADE DILEMMA (2): Another problem with the idea that the US loses from free trade is the reality that trade is not a one-way street. In 1993, partly assisted by NAFTA, America sold nearly $10 billion USD's worth of cars and parts to Mexico, in today's prices. By 2013 that had risen to $70 billion USD. Many American firms have become tightly integrated across the southern border, with low-skilled work done in Mexico and more complex tasks done at home. Exports to China grew by almost 200% between 2005 and 2014, with agribusiness, aerospace, and automotive industries leading the charge. From the corporate point of view, open trade means American firms, by reducing overhead, become that much more profitable.
That observation immediately leads to the acute image problem with free trade. While it's been good for American consumers and leading-edge American corporations, it hasn't been good for uncompetitive US companies -- those that have no future regardless -- and particularly not for unskilled American workers. The difficulty is that unskilled labor is in trouble anyway; one estimate suggests that only about a million of the 5.5 million manufacturing jobs lost from 1999 to 2011 were due to Chinese competition.
There's a particularly troublesome long-term factor in that automation is continually reducing the need for unskilled labor. There's no way that automation can be stopped -- employers have strong economic incentives and a effectively unchallengeable right to replace workers with machines if possible, they hire workers if they are needed for the business and no other reason -- and so, unskilled labor has no future. Even if the US threw up monster trade barriers with China, the jobs are not coming back. What makes the job losses particularly painful is that those thrown out of work have trouble finding another job; the pool of unskilled jobs is gradually drying up. Dani Rodrik, a globalization skeptic, asserts with fair cause: "If you are of low skill, have little education, and are not very mobile, international trade has been bad news for you pretty much throughout your entire life."
What happens to the losers? They become more reliant on the government. One attempt at a safety net was "trade-adjustment assistance (TAA)", which actually was set up in 1962, during the Kennedy Administration, and reinforced after the signing of NAFTA. If the US Department of Labor accepts a petition for TAA, workers get an extension to their unemployment-insurance payments -- running to about six months through the 2000s. Beneficiaries can also sign up for training programs, receiving payments while they train. Workers over 50 also get a sort of wage insurance, which pays up to $12,000 USD over two years to compensate them for starting a new job on lower pay.
Until 2009, TAA was more limited for workers displaced by Chinese competition than by NAFTA, the US not having signed a free-trade pact with China, and only covered factories shut down by direct competition from Chinese imports. That left out workers further up the supply chain, or those whose employers had shifted manufacturing to China. Displaced workers chose to claim disability benefits instead. TAA was also inadequate; training programs were only funded to $1,700 USD per displaced worker in 2007, while the wage-insurance scheme did not apply to younger workers, nor was it generous for older workers.
It is still true that US living standards are higher today than they were before the 1980s, when protectionism was high; trade barriers are self-defeating. In addition, current trade pacts, like the TPP, are different from NAFTA, because even at present, the trade barriers between the aspiring members of the partnership are low -- and to the extent barriers persist, lowering them will benefit the US. The TPP's major provisions concern protection for intellectual property, liberalizing trade in services, plus enforcing stricter labor and environmental standards. None of these things amount to a serious threat to American workers.
Yes, some Americans will suffer in a more open global economy, but the benefits obtained from the TPP should provide plenty of compensation to help them. Economists have estimated that the TPP will boost American incomes by $131 billion USD, or 0.5% of GDP -- 100 times what the US spent on trade-adjustment assistance in 2009. Even more might be expected from the TPP if China signs up, since the TPP would open up Chinese markets to US firms, while restricting Chinese government largesse to state-owned enterprises.
Europe presents another opportunity, with the emerging Transatlantic Trade & Investment Partnership (TTIP) leveling "non-tariff barriers" in industries such as pharmaceuticals, telecoms, and transport. One study estimates that the TTIP could raise US GDP by as much as 3%. That leaves as the next frontier in international trade pacts the dicey issue of regulating global data flows -- with the US, as the biggest data hub on the planet, standing to benefit mightily.
It is reassuring that most Americans appreciate free trade, even in the current sore-headed political climate -- a Gallup poll indicating that 58% are in favor, with only 34% against. However, this ratio still suggests that the benefits and costs of free trade are not evenly distributed, the majority getting a win, the minority losing. If America wants the benefits of trade, those who lose out will need to be compensated. If that sounds like the dirty word "redistribution", it must be conceded that it's not as dirty as "protectionism". Unfortunately, even if that concession is made, there's a third dirty word involved: "taxes". [END OF SERIES]START | PREV | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* THE COLD WAR (113): Castro's Cuba continued to be a distraction for Eisenhower. He toyed with the idea of a blockade, but such an action would have imposed great suffering on the Cuban people; on consideration, the president admitted it was a bad idea. What about the CIA? Eisenhower talked the matter over with Allen Dulles in February; Dulles didn't have much in the way of good ideas, so the president told him to give the matter more thought.
For want of anything better to do for the moment, the president then decided to indulge his itch to travel and take a tour of Latin America, his objectives being to counter Castro's anti-American agitation, and brace up resistance to communism -- while simultaneously throwing cold water on the requests of Latin American leaders for more weapons, instead encouraging them to make economic and political reforms. The trip took place in late February, with Eisenhower visiting Puerto Rico, Brazil, Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay. He was received enthusiastically everywhere he went, but otherwise the trip accomplished little.
On 2 March, the French freighter LA COUBRE was in Havana harbor, unloading a shipment of munitions obtained from Belgium, when it brewed up in a massive explosion, with roughly a hundred people killed, many more injured. Castro's government believed the CIA was responsible, though nothing would ever be really proven; disastrous accidents do happen when handling munitions.
It is also not clear that Eisenhower had let the agency off the leash with respect to Cuba at that time. On 17 March, the president had a meeting with Dulles and Richard Bissell, who had been put in charge of directing an anti-Castro program. Bissell outlined a four-point plan:
Eisenhower approved the plan, setting in motion a secret, muddled CIA campaign against Castro that nobody would or could ever clearly sort out later.
* The president continued on course with his disarmament agenda. Eisenhower's old and good friend Harold Macmillan was supportive, agreeing without hesitation to fly over the Pond in late March for discussions with the president. The prime minister was worried that, with Eisenhower leaving office, the nuclear hawks in the US government defense establishment would have their own way. Macmillan didn't need to be so concerned; on 24 March, during an NSC meeting, Eisenhower proposed that the US announce a moratorium on underground tests, even though the experts said they weren't certain small Soviet underground tests could be detected. After the meeting, McCone told the president that amounted to "surrender"; Eisenhower, to no surprise, got visibly angry, and replied that it was in the best interests of the country.
On 28 March, Eisenhower and Macmillan had discussions at Camp David, the prime minister becoming very enthusiastic about the president's proposals. The next day, 29 March, Eisenhower released a press statement that outlined the conclusions of his talks with Macmillan. A test ban was becoming the obvious focus of discussions at the upcoming summit meeting in May; the president would have further discussions on the matter with de Gaulle and Adenauer over the next few weeks.
The atomic lobby still continued to resist disarmament. At a 1 April NSC meeting, the president was told that America needed to build 400 missiles a year; he didn't judge it an April Fool's prank, replying sarcastically: "Why don't we go completely crazy and plan on a force of 10,000?!"
Teller and his colleagues at the AEC were pushing along a different line, promoting the peaceful uses of nuclear weapons under a program named Operation PLOWSHARE. According to Teller, nuclear bombs could be used to dig a new canal through Central America, blast out harbors, even help extract oil and perform strip mining. Eisenhower was intrigued, but made it clear that he would not authorize PLOWSHARE tests as long as the ban was in effect.
In the meantime, the sporadic U-2 overflights of the USSR continued. In response to CIA worries that the Soviets were building more missile sites, the president authorized an overflight that took place on 9 April. It revealed nothing of particular interest, which was all for the good as far as the president was concerned, but the Soviets repeatedly fired surface-to-air missiles (SAM) at the U-2, which raised his apprehensions. The CIA wanted to perform a follow-up overflight, which Eisenhower authorized; but it was repeatedly delayed by cloudy weather over the target track. The president told the CIA's Richard Bissell that 1 May was the last date the mission could be flown; Eisenhower did not want to do anything provocative on the eve of the Paris summit.
The president, in discussions with Macmillan and de Gaulle, said he felt the Soviets would have good cause to negotiate a test-ban treaty: the arms race was clearly more ruinously expensive for the USSR than it was for the USA, which could afford the excess much better, and the Soviets also wanted to reduce the incentive for the Chinese to obtain the Bomb. Eisenhower emphasized in his conversations with the two leaders that any move by the Soviets against the Western position in Berlin would bring all discussions to a halt -- and he also made it clear that, if the differences in ideological viewpoint between East and West were not going to be emphasized in discussions, they were not going to be papered over either, by talk of "peaceful coexistence" and the like.
* South Korea had not been on the forefront of Eisenhower's concerns in the course of his presidency, but come the spring of 1960, it ended up momentarily on the front burner. Synghman Rhee had been re-elected president of South Korea in 1956; the 1948 South Korean constitution restricted him to two terms, but following the 1956 election, he had the constitution amended to allow him unlimited terms. The US, no longer greatly worried about the vulnerability of South Korea to a communist take-over, began to withdraw financial support from Rhee's regime, with the result that Rhee implemented increasingly severe national security laws to ensure his survival. Such measures did nothing to improve his standing in Washington DC.
In national elections on 15 March 1960, Rhee was re-elected for a third term with 90% of the vote. That of course sounded suspicious, though the election had also been tilted by the death of the main opposition candidate, Cho Byeong-ok, on 15 February.
However, there was still considerable suspicion that the vote had been rigged, leading to student demonstrations, with students being killed. That led to a full-blown student uprising on 19 April, with the general populace joining in over the next week. With encouragement from the US ambassador, Rhee resigned on 26 April, being flown off to exile in Honolulu by a CIA DC-4 transport; he would die there in 1965.
Unfortunately, the outcome ended up being to the advantage of neither South Korea or the United States. After a period of parliamentary instability, the next spring the government was overthrown in a coup d'etat by General Park Chung-hee, with South Korea ruled by military governments for the following decades -- generally with tacit American approval. US governments had little liking for military strongmen, but preferred them to communist control. [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* Space launches for April 2016 included:
-- 05 APR 16 / SHIJIAN 10 -- A Chinese Long March 2D booster was launched from Jiuquan at 1738 UTC (local time - 8) to put the "Shijian 10" experimental satellite into space; "shijian" is Chinese for "practice". It was a recoverable research satellite, carrying physical science, materials science, and biological experiments on a two-week mission.
-- 08 APR 16 / SPACEX DRAGON CRS 8 -- A SpaceX Falcon 9 booster was launched from Cape Canaveral at 2043 UTC (local time + 4), carrying the eighth operational "Dragon" cargo capsule to the International Space Station (ISS). The capsule docked with the ISS Harmony module's nadir port a day and a half after launch. The Falcon first stage performed a successful soft landing on an automated barge; it will be test-fired on the ground, and if all goes well, re-used on a later launch.
The most significant payload carried by the Dragon was the "Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM)" -- a demonstrator expandable habitat module, to be attached to the ISS. BEAM weighed 1,413 kilograms (3,115 pounds) and rode to the station in the Dragon's unpressurized trunk section.
-- 25 APR 16 / SENTINEL 1B -- A Soyuz STA/FREGAT booster was launched from Kourou in French Guiana at 2102 UTC (local time + 3) to put the ESA "Sentinel 1B" radar Earth observation satellite into Sun-synchronous near-polar orbit. Sentinel 1B was built by Thales Alenia Space of France / Italy; it had a launch mass of 2,155 kilograms (4,755 pounds) and a design life of seven years. Its payload was a C-band synthetic aperture radar system, with electronic steering, built by Airbus Defense & Space.
The multi-mode radar had a best resolution of 5 meters (16 feet) over an 80-kilometer (50-mile) swath width, but it could image a swath up to 450 kilometers (280 miles) wide, with correspondingly poorer resolution. It could image the entire Earth every twelve days. Sentinel 1B was the fourth Sentinel space platform in the European Copernicus Earth observation constellation; it followed the identical "Sentinel 1A", launched in 2014, with the two spacecraft sharing the same orbit, 180 degrees apart.
The launch also included the French "Microscope" satellite, a science satellite with a launch mass of 303 kilograms (668 pounds), intended to test the physics of free fall with a hundred times more precision than possible on Earth; and three CubeSats developed by university students in Belgium, Italy, and Denmark. They were selected from proposals submitted to the European Space Agency's education-oriented "Fly Your Satellite!" program. They included:
-- 28 APR 16 / MIKHAIL LOMONOSOV -- A Soyuz 2-1a booster was launched at 0201 UDT (local time - 8) from the new Vostochny Cosmodrome in Russia's Far East to put the "Mikhail Lomonosov" science satellite into space. The spacecraft had a launch mass of 645 kilograms (1,400 pounds) and carried instruments to study high-energy cosmic rays, gamma rays, as well as the Earth's upper atmosphere and magnetosphere. The launch also included two other payloads:
This was the first launch from Vostochny.
-- 28 APR 16 / IRNSS 1G -- An ISRO Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle was launched from Sriharikota at 0720 GMT (local time - 5:30) to put the seventh "Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System (IRNSS)" spacecraft into orbit. The spacecraft had a launch mass of 1,425 kilograms (3,140 pounds); it had a design lifetime of 12 years. IRNSS was placed in a geostationary orbit with an inclination of 5 degrees. This was the final launch for the baseline IRNSS constellation; three of the satellites were placed in geostationary orbit, while four were placed in a geostationary-type orbit with an inclination of 29 degrees.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* ASTRONOMERS THINKING SMALL: As discussed by an article from AAAS SCIENCE ("Small Scopes Log An Ever-Changing Sky" by Daniel Clery, 3 July 2015), astronomers have been chasing after ever more expensive space observatories and ground observatories -- but some are finding they can do great work on a budget.
Take, for example, the "Evryscope", the brainchild of Nicholas Law of the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. Hill was interested in searching for exoplanets -- extra-solar planets -- and felt he could find them more easily if he observed as much of the sky as he could at one time. The result was the Evryscope, built for about $250,000 USD; it went online in 2015 at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Atacama high desert in Chile.
The Evryscope is curious-looking contraption, consisting of a white hemispherical dome on an equatorial mount, with portholes for 27 off-the-shelf 7-centimeter (2.75-inch) telescopes. It can image a quarter of the entire sky every two minutes, searching for slight variations in the brightness of stars. It's searching for "transit events", in which a planet orbiting a distant star crosses the line of sight between the star and Earth, resulting in a momentary dimming from the "occultation".
Hunting for exoplanets by occultation observations is nothing particularly new, but the Evryscope project is distinctive in that it is looking for transit events across the shriveled stellar corpses known as "white dwarfs" -- typically about as massive as our Sun, but with diameters more on the order of the Earth. Using white dwarfs as targets has an advantage, in that the dimming is much more significant, but it's also much briefer. Nobody has yet observed a transit event with a white dwarf.
The little telescopes are the eyes of Evryscope, but at least important is its digital brain. The observatory will produce 780 megabytes of image data per minute, which has to be analyzed on site, rendering it down into useful data that is sent to the research team. They are currently in discussions with other observatories around the world for hosting other Evryscopes, the objective being to obtain ongoing all-sky coverage.
* Kris Stanek of Ohio State University, Columbus, is not interested in exoplanets; he's after supernovas, the massive stellar explosions that occur when a burned-out star collapses, or a white dwarf gets an injection of new material, and re-ignites. To that end, over the past five years, he and his team have set up the "All-Sky Automated Survey for Supernovas (ASAS-SN)" -- which includes four 14-centimeter (5.5-inch) telescopes at Cerro Tololo, plus another at Haleakala in Hawaii. ASAS-SN can image the whole sky every two or three nights, with greater sensitivity than can be obtained with the smaller telescopes used by Evryscope.
The small team has bagged more than 150 supernovas per year. If ASAS-SN finds anything interesting, it is sent out within two hours via a Web-based service named "The Astronomer's Telegram", tipping off astronomers with more powerful instruments so they can take a closer look. According to Stanek: "Every day we have something new and exciting." The team wants to add eight more telescopes to image the entire sky every night -- but for the time being, they don't have the money.
Some astronomers are re-purposing venerable equipment to put it to better use in sky surveys. The 1.22-meter (48-inch) Samuel Oschin Schmidt telescope at Palomar Observatory near San Diego, California, went online in 1948; it performed wide-field survey observations with film plates for decades. It has been modernized with CCD imagers; it has found 700 supernovas a year, though at present it only images 1/40th of the sky every night.
Now, a planned $18 million USD upgrade with a much more powerful imager will allow the Oschin Schmidt to image the entire sky within its view every night, spotting interesting events and automatically calling on other robotic telescopes to perform follow-up observations. Shri Kulkarni, director of optical observatories at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, jokes: "It's become a giant software algorithm program and stopped being an astronomy program."
* Sky surveys aren't all low-budget productions; there's a place for Big Astronomy there as well. The $80 million USD "Panoramic Survey Telescope And Rapid Response System (Pan-STARRS)" -- with a 1.8-meter (5.9-foot) mirror, primarily intended to hunt for potentially threatening near-Earth asteroids -- surveys the entire sky visible from its site in Hawaii several times a month. It also is good at spotting supernovas; a second Pan-STARRS telescope will be online soon.
The top-of-the-line in survey telescopes will be the "Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST)", with an 8.4-meter (27.5-foot) mirror and 3-gigapixel camera, which will survey all the available sky every few days, spotting much fainter and more distant objects than other surveys. It will begin a ten-year sky survey in 2022 that will log a staggering billion galaxies and 17 billion stars. The program director, Steve Kahn of Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, says: "It will turn the universe into a catalog."COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* SOLAR FOR THE DEVELOPING WORLD: As discussed by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("Follow The Sun", 16 April 2016), solar energy has long been stereotyped as the hobby-horse of tree-huggers and hippies. As the costs of solar power continues their steady decline, this image is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain. Developing nations such as China and India, which have plenty of sunshine -- and high daytime air-conditioning power needs that solar can help meet -- are embracing solar simply because it's such an attractive option.
In 2015, China became the nation that generates the most solar power, putting Germany in second place. Solar power still only accounts for 3% of China's electricity production, but China is now building a giant solar plant in the Gobi desert, with the country expected to install 12 gigawatts (GW) of solar generating capacity in the first half of 2016. That's a third more than expected for the USA for all of 2016.
India is similarly bullish on solar, planning to increase the country's solar generating capacity twenty-fold by 2022, to 100 GW. That might be over-ambitious -- but KPMG, a consulting firm, estimates that solar will account for 12.5% of India's electrical production capacity by 2025, up from less than 1% today. KPMG also judges that solar will be cheaper than coal by 2020, even discounting coal's notorious external dis-economies. While solar has been boosted by subsidies, they are becoming unnecessary.
Global solar capacity rose by 26% in 2015, with the costs dropping in pace; the price of solar panels has fallen 80% since 2010. Life-cycle analysis shows solar plants are becoming ever more economically competitive with gas and coal. Auctions of long-term contracts to purchase solar power in developing countries such as South Africa, the United Arab Emirates, Peru, and Mexico suggest that such analyses may even be too conservative.
Solar is becoming a huge business. Acwa Power, a Saudi company, won an award for a 200-megawatt (MW) solar plant in Dubai in November 2014, and is building the world's biggest solar thermal plant -- using an array of mirrors driving a steam turbine -- in Morocco. Enel Green Power (EGP) of Italy won a contract in February 2016 to provide Peru with 20 years of solar power at just under $48 USD per megawatt-hour (MWh); a month later, EGP got a contract in Mexico to provide solar power at about $40 USD per MWh.
Acwa Power and EGP made aggressive bids to get their contracts; some analysts judge their bids were unrealistically low, and that these projects are unlikely to make money. However, no doubt the bids factored in continued decreases in solar power costs -- and the firms also see a long-range advantage in establishing a foothold in a growing solar-power market, even if they don't make much profit on present efforts.
There is a difficulty that development of national power grids has tended to lag development of renewable energy; increased use of renewables dictates a "smart grid" that can efficiently shunt power from where it is available to where it is needed. A problem, yes -- but consider it growing pains, and a problem that is going to be solved. Solar is growing so fast that it isn't surprising planners are having trouble keeping up.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* THE FREE TRADE DILEMMA (1): As discussed by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("Trade, At What Price?"), during the current US election, free trade is under political assault from both Right and Left. Republican hopeful Donald Trump has all but declared trade war on China, asserting that China is "killing us on trade", saying he wants to put "an end to China's illegal export subsidies and lax labor and environmental standards. No more sweatshops or pollution havens stealing jobs from American workers."
Democratic contender Bernie Sanders has been only slightly more restrained, saying that trade deals have cost millions of American jobs. Like Trump, Sanders is agitated over the US trade deficit. Neither like the Obama Administration's efforts to push through the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) -- discussed here last year -- to come to agreement with America's trading partners, except China.
In contrast, the conventional wisdom in mainstream economics is that trade liberalization is beneficial for all countries that participate in it. By removing barriers that raise the cost of imported goods, countries can specialize in producing what they do best, while consumers and businesses can buy goods more cheaply. Economists remember the Great Depression, when trade protectionism went into high gear in response to the economic crisis, and only made the crisis worse. Which view of free trade is the right one?
Since the end of World War II, the drift has been towards removal of trade barriers; from the 1980s, the US economy has gradually opened up to cheap imports. That accelerated in 1993, when President Bill Clinton signed the North American Free-Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with Mexico and Canada. The deal, America's first broad trade accord to include a poor economy, eliminated most tariffs on trade between the three countries over a decade. Coincidentally, within a year of the start of tariff reductions, the peso collapsed, making Mexican imports cheaper still.
Excluding fuel, imports from Mexico grew by about five times between 1993 and 2013, according to the Peterson Institute, a think-tank. Exports to Mexico grew by about three-and-a-half times. As a result of the disparity, a bilateral trade deficit worth $23 billion USD, at the time about 0.2% of America's GDP, opened up within five years.
The small size of the Mexican economy, America's being an order of magnitude bigger, limited the impact of NAFTA. However, in 2001 China joined the World Trade Organization (WTO). That didn't change any tariffs, but it leveled the playing field for China to an extent, with a flood of cheap Chinese imports into the US market following. Purchases of Chinese imports went from 1% of US GDP in 2000 to 2.7% by 2015.
The Chinese have been accused of manipulating the yuan, their national currency, to boost their exports, but nobody's been able to prove the case. The yuan should grow stronger against the dollar in time as Chinese wages increase, and they have been increasing faster in China than in the West. China does have a high monetary surplus, but that appears to be mostly because the Chinese are into savings.
The complaints about Chinese imports ignore the reality that protecting producers hurts consumers. Cheap Chinese imports have been a windfall for American consumers; excluding food and energy, prices of goods have fallen almost every year since NAFTA was implemented. It has been estimated that trade with China put $250 USD in the pocket of every American in 2008. The gains from cheap stuff flowed disproportionately to the less well-off, because goods are much dearer to the poor than they are to the rich, and the rich may refuse to buy cheap stuff on principle. [TO BE CONTINUED]NEXT | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* THE COLD WAR (112): Eisenhower found it hard to resist the push for more U-2 overflights of the USSR. He had high hopes for the CORONA spy satellite program; unfortunately, it was continuing to be troublesome, and nobody could say exactly when it would be flying right. That left the U-2 as the only effective means of keeping a close eye on the USSR, but the president was was extremely uneasy with authorizing more overflights. Goodpaster noted that uneasiness in a 2 February 1960 presidential meeting with an advisory committee for technical intelligence, reporting that Eisenhower said:
I have one tremendous asset in a summit meeting, as regards effect in the free world. That is my reputation for honesty. If one of these aircraft were lost when we are engaged in apparently sincere deliberations, it could be put on display in Moscow, and ruin my effectiveness.
The president did approve more overflights, but only sparingly. One of the reasons he did so was because the Soviets seemed very disinclined to make a public fuss over the intrusions, suggesting that even if they shot one down, they wouldn't make much of a public fuss over it either -- all the more so because that would put an effective end to the overflights, rendering further protest unnecessary.
In any case, Eisenhower's top priority was still to put an end to the nuclear hysteria. On 11 February, he publicly announced:
The United States is today presenting in Geneva a proposal, involving the ending of nuclear weapons tests, to end the apparent deadlock in the negotiations. This government has stood, throughout, for complete abolition of weapons testing subject only to the attainment of agreed and adequate methods of inspection and control. The present proposal is designed to end nuclear weapons tests in all the environments that can now be effectively controlled.
It would end forthwith, under assured controls:
This proposal will permit, through a coordinated program of research and development, a systematic extension of the ban to the remaining areas, especially those involving underground tests, for which adequate control measures appear not to be possible now.
These are initial but far-reaching and yet readily attainable steps toward a complete ban on nuclear weapons tests. If adopted, they will prevent increases in the level of radioactivity in the atmosphere and so allay worldwide concern. They are steps which offer an opportunity to consolidate the important progress made in the negotiations thus far. It is our hope that the Soviet Union will join with us in this constructive beginning.
Pentagon officials did not take the initiative to heart. The next day, 12 February, they presented Eisenhower with their latest strategic plan, which envisioned that the US would "prevail" in a nuclear exchange with the Soviets. The plan envisioned that the US would kill 200 million Soviet and Chinese citizens; the president was appalled at such a monstrous proposition, nor was he at all reassured at the promises that the fallout impact on the US would be "manageable".
Eisenhower could not have been much more reassured when the French detonated their first atomic bomb, a 70-kiloton weapon, on 13 February -- three more tests would follow in April. Nonetheless, it was hardly unexpected, de Gaulle having made it clear to Eisenhower that France would get the Bomb, and the US raised no fuss over the matter. It did represent a complication of the arms race, which was complicated enough to begin with.
On 19 February, Eisenhower met with senior defense officials to discuss an international conference on limiting production of fissionable materials. Defense Secretary Herter and AEC Chairman McCone protested energetically: America needed more bombs, and of course the Soviets would cheat. The president was critical of their attitude, and told them he saw "no alternative but somehow to stop this mad race."
Reporters also continued to be unhelpful. In a press conference on 17 February, when one reporter suggested Eisenhower was dangerously skimping on defense, the president went red in the face, described the assertion as "despicable", and concluded, with perfect truth: "Our defense is not only strong, it is awesome, and it is respected elsewhere."
At least, the president's moratorium on nuclear testing seemed firm. While there were calls for America to resume testing, the public was increasingly apprehensive about fallout; Kennedy was against a resumption of testing unless the Soviets resumed first, while Nixon -- the obvious candidate of the Republicans -- said that those who were for breaking the test ban were "ignorant of the facts". Nonetheless, voicing such concerns was irrelevant, if the Soviets didn't feel like playing along. [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* GIMMICKS & GADGETS: As discussed by an entry from WIRED Online Blogs ("France's Funkiest 'Car' Finally Hits America" by Alex Davies, 17 October 2015), a new French import vehicle, the Renault "Twizy", is now taking America by ... well, if not exactly storm, at least a fresh breeze.
The Twizy is more or less a glorified two-seat golf cart, with a maximum range of 100 kilometers (62 miles) and a maximum speed of 40 KPH (25 MPH); it can go twice that fast, but US regulations keep its speed low. It weighs only 475 kilograms (1,045 pounds). It is such a minimalist vehicle that in France, 14-year-olds can drive it, with a special license. It's now here in the USA -- though rebadged as the "New Mobility Concept", and under the Nissan label, the "other head" of Renault-Nissan.
It's not for sale, however. It's being adopted by Scoot Networks, a San Francisco-based electric scooter sharing company. Scoot works like bike sharing programs: clients sign up, pay a $19 USD monthly fee, and use an app to locate available scooters, which can take users anywhere in the city for $2 USD per half hour, or $8 USD for the Twizy. Users don't need a motorcycle license, but must complete a short online safety course.
If the Twizy is a step down from a real car, it's a big step up from a scooter. It has seat belts, airbags, a stereo, and other bells and whistles of a low-cost car; it can also haul two people and their kit around in comfort and safety. Indeed, it's very safe, being low to the ground, and with the roof providing protection if it's rolled. It can be parked almost anywhere, perpendicular to the sidewalk. Yeah, it's not fast, but it's agile, and in such a small vehicle, 40 KPH can be exciting.
* Crowdsourcing and robot cars are big ideas these days; auto giant General Motors is using the first to help with the second, in a scheme in which customer cars with vision systems are mapping the world for robocars. GM is using new technology from Mobileye, an Israeli provider of visual processing chips and software that can detect vehicles, pedestrians, and other obstacles, along with road markings, signs, and traffic lights. It's the same tech that underlies features like auto lane departure warnings, and is already fitted to hundreds of thousands of GM cars.
GM's plan is to pull that camera data, via its OnStar vehicle communications system, from customer cars to create highly detailed, constantly updated road maps. Those maps would allow an autonomous vehicle to know its location within about 10 centimeters (4 inches) -- vastly better accuracy than can be provided by GPS, which has a resolution of meters, not enough for driving a car through traffic. The more a car knows about an area, the more it can focus its sensors and computing power on temporary obstacles like cars, pedestrians, and cyclists.
Ultimately, in the era of robocars, each vehicle would draw mapping data from a cloud-based network, reporting current road conditions and anomalies to nearby cars and the cloud. For the moment, GM is experimenting with the scheme on a handful of cars -- but once it's qualified, the company wants to get it into production cars.
* In related auto news, an entry by Alex Davies, the resident gearhead at WIRED Online blogs ("The Clever Ways Ford's Self-Driving Cars Navigate In Snow", 11 January 2016), shined a light on Ford's work to build self-driving cars that can deal with a snowstorm.
Anyone who's ever had the misfortune of getting trapped on the road in the middle of a nasty snowstorm knows that is not a trivial problem. The primary sensors for robocars are radar and lidar -- to look out for other cars, pedestrians, and other things we ought not to run into -- as well as cameras, which generally read street signs and lane markers. In winter, snow may bury signs and lane markers. Humans do their best to find their way around under such conditions via educated guesswork, obtaining clues from things they can see, like curbs or other cars. Ford engineers, doing practical work at the M City robocar test facility of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, discussed here last year, are trying to teach robocars to do much the same thing.
Ford, like others working on robocars, is creating high-fidelity, 3D maps of the roads its robocars will travel. Those maps include details such as the exact positions of the curbs and lane lines, trees and signs, with local speed limits and other relevant rules factored in. The car's sensors can locate the car relative to the map features within centimeters. For example, the car may not be able to see lane lines, but it will be able to see a STOP sign, allowing it register its location on the map -- and know where the lanes are. According to Jim McBridge, boss of Ford's robocar effort: "We're able to drive perfectly well in snow. We see everything above the ground plane, which we match to our map, and our map contains the information about where all the lanes are and all the rules of the road."
There's plenty of other things to consider, since precipitation can interfere with lidar and cameras, and of course obstacles can crop up that won't be in the map database -- cars gone off the road in the ice, for example. Still, it's not like humans do so well in winter driving in the first place, and so it's hard to think that, in maturity, machines won't do a substantially better job, particularly once the traffic network is backed up by an all-weather wireless network.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* RIDE THE SMART CARD BUS: There is a certain irony in that Africa, as a general rule poor and backward, has been jumping ahead of developed countries in adopting mobile technologies. Working on that premise, an article from BBC WORLD Online ("Could Cashless Payments Make Rwanda's Bus Conductors Redundant?" by Chris Mathews, 12 April 2016), demonstrated the impact of cashless payments in Rwanda.
Welcome to Kigali, the capital of and biggest city in Rwanda. Buses are a popular form of public transit there, and have been for a long time. Times are changing however, with more than 130 buses featuring smart-card readers for cashless payments. Mini-van buses are also adopting the card readers. Both the bus companies and, it seems, the users are enthusiastic about the new technology. Conductors, who collect fares from passengers, are not so excited.
The smart-card system was developed by a Rwandan start-up named "AC Group", founded by Patrick Buchana in 2014, with more than 30 employees at present. AC Group designed the overall system, including the card readers and the "Tap&Go" smart cards issued to bus riders -- who can "top off" their Tap&Go cards via mobile phone. The AC Group's first client was Kigali Bus Lines, with the national government collaborating in the scheme.
AC Group Chief Operating Officer Philip Ngarambe, a graduate of the University of Toronto, says: "The common problem all [bus] operators face is that they lose a lot of revenue. By the time it gets to the company there is so many hands it has gone through -- from the conductor, to the bus driver, to the person collecting it, to taking it to finance and the bank account -- you have lost maybe 40% to 50% of your revenue by the end."
The smart-card system also improves the speed of bus operation. Buses are fitted with GPS to help operators manage their fleets, with vehicle locations to eventually be displayed at bus stops. Monthly passes are being introduced, and AC Group is talking with banks to allow debit cards for fares. Kenya actually started a similar transport initiative a year earlier, with thousands of buses in Nairobi also going cashless, though there have been reports of bugs in the system.
Rwanda's economy is booming; the country has averaged 7.5% GDP growth over the past decade. Service industries have overtaken agriculture as the main earner, technology being viewed as a key growth component by President Paul Kagame's government. According to Finance Minister Claver Gatete: "For a country like ours which is landlocked, we know that ICT [information & communications technology] is going to help us drive our knowledge-based economy."
The government is working to establish a cashless economy. Government payments are being digitized, as part of the "Smart Rwanda Master Plan (SRMP)", launched last fall. All government financial transactions will be electronic by 2018, and government services are moving online. That not only means more efficient government, but also tens of thousands of jobs. Gatete says: "[ICT] is affecting everything. It is helping in how we collect taxes, it is helping the banking system in how they function -- it is helping almost every sector of the economy. It has a big contribution - now 3% of our GDP growth."
It seems Rwandan citizens feel the same way. Mobile money transactions increased 122% between 2014 and 2015, with Rwandan startups cashing in on the boom. AC Group wants to expand beyond Kigali, and has been talking with other African governments to provide services outside of Rwanda's borders. Philip Ngarambe admits that the bus conductors "definitely were not happy because you are tapping into their 40%." AC Group wants to re-train them as Tap&Go sellers, many of whom operate on streets and at bus stops throughout Kigali.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* THE 2-DEGREE SOLUTION: As discussed by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("Goal Difference", 4 December 2015), participants in the climate-change conference in Paris this last December declared, with great fanfare, their plans to limit emissions in hopes of curbing climate change. Such declarations have become commonplace since the establishment of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), an environmental treaty, in 1992, with more than 190 nations on board the treaty at last count. They have pledged to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions in the atmosphere in order to limit "dangerous anthropogenic interference within the climate system".
Since 2010, they have also had formal target: to restrict the global mean surface temperature rise to less than 2 degrees Celsius, relative to pre-industrial times, by 2100. The "2 degrees Celsius limit (2CL)" has become the goalpost for heading off climate change -- but unfortunately, given the current rate of emissions, it is likely to be breached in just a few decades. That leads to the question of just how much the 2CL really means.
The 2CL is the brainchild of William Nordhaus, now an economics professor at Yale, in papers he wrote in the 1970s. In that decade, climate change was a largely theoretical issue, and certainly not a public controversy -- but the discussion in the science community was beginning to heat up. Nordhaus perceptively realized that trouble was coming; he suggested that a reasonable precaution would be to prevent temperatures from exceeding their upper bound during the past 100,000 years -- the period for which ice-core data are available, and so for which the correlation between temperatures and other environmental effects could be seen with reasonable clarity. The cores suggested this upper bound was 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.
Nordhaus himself admitted that the 2CL was something of a contraption, calling it "deeply unsatisfactory". Its rationale was that the Earth's climate was shifting into unknown territory, with effects that couldn't be predicted; the 2C limit simply amounted to the borderline between what was known, from ice-core samples, and what was not known. Nordhaus wrote later that the 2CL was merely "a substitute" for a robust analysis of costs and damages. In short, it was handy.
Once the idea was out of the bag, however, the 2CL took on a life of its own. It got attention from European scientists at various workshops during the late 1980s; it was accepted in a report published by the Stockholm Environment Institute in 1990, even though this report suggested that a temperature increase of a single degree Celsius would have disastrous consequences. Six years later, a meeting of the European Union's Council of Ministers endorsed the 2CL, giving it political momentum. By 2009, the G8 countries had signed on, and it was mentioned in the Copenhagen Accord -- an agreement salvaged from the wreckage of the UNFCCC's disappointing meeting in that year. At the following UNFCCC meeting, in Cancun, Mexico, in 2010, the 2CL was formally crowned as the goal of international climate policy.
The fact that the 2CL isn't all that meaningful is not such a problem. There is a saying that a workable simplification is much more useful than the detailed, incomprehensible truth -- and having a nice simple number does give countries a goal to work towards. Could something better be devised?
One approach would be to use concentrations of greenhouse gases as goals. While measuring global temperature is very tricky, it is not all that tricky to measure atmospheric gas concentrations; greenhouse gases mix quickly and thoroughly into the atmosphere, and it is no trouble to measure them. A more sophisticated approach would be to come with an index based on index out of greenhouse-gas concentrations, measures of soot (which absorbs heat), sulphate pollution (which reflects it), and the heat content of the oceans.
However, in what way would such indexes be "better"? Governments committed to addressing climate change are going to do what they can to deal with the problem, and what they do will not be so different because some other goalpost is set. Everyone can count to two, and so the 2CL at least has the virtue of simplicity and convenience. If we know we are going to be hanged before the year is out -- it doesn't make too much difference on exactly what day it will take place.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* APPLE WARS (5): The confrontation between the government and Apple escalated, the FBI even threatening to subpoena Apple's source code and Apple's "private electronic signature" -- the certificate with which it identifies its code as valid to its devices, the software equivalent of the secret name of God, or at least Apple regards it as such. The FBI dismissed Cook's protests as "marketing" -- with Apple officials shooting back that the FBI tuned its own public announcements on the issue to put the maximum pressure on Apple.
Apple pushed back, hard. For a time, public opinion was against Apple, but the company put all its resources for communications in gear. Every time the Feds made a move on Apple, Apple fired back with public responses, and had a press conference. They were able to tilt public opinion back in their favor to a degree.
* Then, on 28 March, the FBI announced they had cracked the iPhone without Apple's help, and dropped the court order on the company. The FBI said they would help other law-enforcement organizations crack iPhones as well. To no surprise, nothing was said about how the iPhone was cracked. Rumor has it that it was done by an Israeli mobile-data firm named Cellebrite, with public records showing the company has a contract with the FBI.
Apple had not budged an inch on the issue, but the announcement was also an embarrassment for the company, since it showed that iPhone security was not impregnable. To anyone familiar with cryptology, that was no surprise and not that much cause for concern, it being very hard to devise an absolutely secure cryptosystem -- and Apple's stubborn refusal to cooperate with the FBI sent a message to customers that the company was committed to security. No doubt Apple has redoubled its efforts to prevent iPhones from being cracked.
Apple also did not get the legal clarification that Cook had asked for. The FBI did save face, but the bureau would also like legal clarification. However, the confrontation was only put on hold; the Justice Departments did not accept that Apple has a right to refuse cooperation on decryption, while Apple has made it clear the firm will not cooperate.
The hold did not last for long, with the authorities handing down more orders to Apple to crack iPhones, only a week after the FBI abandoned their case. Apple was not cooperative, pointing out to reporters in yet another news conference that the FBI had claimed to absolutely need Apple's help -- until it didn't. If the FBI can crack iPhones, then why pester Apple about it? Cook believes the Justice Department is still after a precedent, his attitude being summed up as: OVER MY DEAD BODY.
Roughly in parallel, Senators Diane Feinstein (D-CA) and Richard Burr (R-NC) introduced a draft bill that would ban hard encryption, and require firms that provide encryption technologies to help the authorities crack them. One critic called the bill "easily the most ludicrous, dangerous, technically illiterate proposal I've ever seen." Few thought the draft bill had a chance of going anywhere; the White House, which criticized Apple in the feud with the FBI, ignored the bill. It does at least appear that Cook has got his wish, that Congress is bringing the issue to the top of the priority list, but for the moment, the debate there is chaotic.
The confrontation is merely a flashpoint in a crisis, or instead two crises, bearing down the tracks on each other: on one hand we're going dark, and on the other we're giving away our privacy every day, all day. The internet is a big, messy place, and that same messiness that makes encryption impossible to regulate also means that however strong, seamless, and pervasive encryption gets, it can only ever cover a fraction of the data flowing through the internet. However, Cook believes that matters will be resolved, however long it takes: "You know as well as I do, sometimes the way we get somewhere, our journey is very ugly. But I'm a big optimist that we ultimately arrive at the right thing." [END OF SERIES]START | PREV | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* THE COLD WAR (111): President Eisenhower tended to straddle the fence on a difficult issue, until he felt he needed to tilt to one side. He'd been keeping a careful eye on Fidel Castro and his Cuban revolution, and was coming to the conclusion that something had to be done. From the fall, refugees from Cuba, usually from the propertied class, had been streaming into Florida, building up a community in Miami. They were setting up a disorderly mess of counter-revolutionary groups, lacking any leaders who could be seen as credible rivals to Castro.
Figuring out what to do about Castro was troublesome. Fidel was careful to keep his communism on a low profile, instead denouncing Yanqui imperialism, which Latins had resented for a long time. Although the Organization of American States (OAS) had declared in the Caracas Declaration of 1954 that communist expansion into the New World was not welcome -- many Latin regimes regarded communism as a threat -- the US government had nothing to use to stick the "communist" label on Castro.
Eisenhower also felt that if the US took a more publicly aggressive stand against Castro, Latin American leaders would lean on the US for more aid, and that wasn't in cards, given the tight budget. They were already clamoring for more money and military aid, saying that Castro was presenting a threat to them. Another factor was Rafael Trujillo, the vicious dictator of the Dominican Republic; he was very unpopular in Latin America, and if Eisenhower took down Castro, he would have to take down Trujillo as well. The president would have liked to get rid of Trujillo -- but his eviction might well mean a communist take-over in the Dominican Republic.
* In the meantime, 1960 being an election year, the White House was being assaulted by accusations of politicians seeking the presidency. Massachusetts Senator John F. Kennedy -- known as "Jack" to friends and colleagues, "JFK" to constituents -- taking Khrushchev at face value, was raising the bogeyman of a "missile gap"; Eisenhower judged that the Democrats were trying to scare people "and getting away with murder." The president called the demand for more missiles "unconscionable". The first Polaris submarine, the USS GEORGE WASHINGTON, was already in sea trials; it would perform a successful test launch of a Polaris missile in the summer, and would be on its first service patrol before the year was out. A test of a complete Minuteman missile hadn't been performed yet, but the program was moving along well.
The Air Force was continuing to push for the B-70 bomber, but the president was not at all enthusiastic about it. His science advisor Kistiakowsky handed him a memo that concluded "it is not at all clear what the B-70 can do that ballistic missiles can't -- and cheaper and sooner at that." When Air Force Chief of Staff General Thomas Wright told Congress that the B-70 was "vital" to the defense of America, Eisenhower called Tom Gates, his new secretary of defense, and made his presidential displeasure clear, calling such political grandstanding "damn near treason".
Eisenhower dared say nothing in public about the U-2 overflights that proved Khrushchev was bluffing and the US had an overwhelming nuclear dominance over the Soviet Union. What was particularly exasperating was that even officials who were familiar with the intelligence were inclined to keep pushing for more weapons, when the evidence available showed they weren't necessary. Eisenhower had little support from within his administration for holding the line on defense, much less for arms reduction; Pentagon brass had self-serving reasons to embrace the worst case, but there was also the fact that, to many bureaucrats, it was the no-risk option.
Reporters, feeding off the sensationalism, were becoming more inclined to the outright hostile, grilling Eisenhower in news conferences about the supposed failings of the administration in defending America. When a reporter raised the "missile gap" in a 26 January news conference, the president replied with strained patience:
Only 3 or 4 years ago there was a great outcry about the alleged bomber gap in favor of the Russians, and there was a great deal of talk about it and, actually, I think we got more -- a billion dollars or something like that, $900 million more -- for bombers that year than I asked for. Subsequent intelligence investigation showed that that estimate was wrong and that, far from stepping up their production of bombers, the Soviets were diminishing it or even eliminating that production.
... we've got all of the power that would be necessary to destroy a good many countries. We have no intention of using it. And the whole world knows that.
The president was convinced that the US had a solid strategic edge over the USSR. He knew that the Soviets could not match American resources; to the extent he had hard information, it clearly demonstrated Soviet strategic inferiority; and those raising the alarm just as clearly had self-serving agendas. However, the CIA and other elements of the intelligence community kept hammering on the president, insisting that the US could not be certain of Soviet capabilities without more U-2 overflights of the USSR. [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* SCIENCE NOTES: It has been long believed that ants are almost entirely dependent on smell for navigation, following trails of "pheromone" odorants left by nestmates to food sources and such. According to a note from AAAS SCIENCE NOW Online, that turns out to be not 100% true; ants actually have a bit of memory as well.
Researchers observed captive black garden ants as they discovered and fed on a weak sugar solution. Then they removed the ants, wiped the pheromone trails, and added a second, sweeter food source. When they restored the ants to the enclosure, the insects found their way to the original sugar solution, even though the pheromone trail was gone and a better source of food was available. From an evolutionary point of view, it makes sense: should ants find a food source, with rain then wiping out the pheromone trail, it would provide a survival advantage to be able to remember where the food source was.
* It is known that bats will try to "overwrite" the ultrasonic cries of other bats as they hunt by sonar -- possibly to stake a claim on prey, possibly to jam the sonar of other bats, maybe both. According to a note from AAAS SCIENCE online, it is known that some prey have acquired countermeasures, tiger moths emitting ultrasonic jamming sounds to spoof bats. Now it has been learned that hawk moths also emit ultrasonic noise when targeted by bats, though not to jam bat sonar, since the signals are distinct from bat cries: the hawk moths are a toxic meal to bats, and so the hawk moth is instead providing an ID: I'm a hawk moth, you don't want to eat me.
Researchers observed interactions between bats and hawk moths, with a control group of moths deprived of their sound-generating organ -- which is, oddly, on their genitals. The "mute" moths were generally caught, but when bats closed in normal moths, they would pick up on the moth's signal, and veer off at the last moment. The research team believes this signaling ability has evolved three times in hawk moths, and about a dozen more times overall among other moths.
* It is not surprising that one's home is also home to a goodly number of insects and the like. Traditionally nobody's expended much effort in investigating the matter -- but in 2012, a group of researchers canvassed 50 homes in Raleigh, North Carolina, to inventory arthropods such as insects, spiders, mites, centipedes, and millipedes. The houses ranged from a few years to almost a century old, and varied considerably in floor space.
Armed with forceps, suction traps, and butterfly nets, the scientists hand-collected specimens, both living and dead, behind furniture, along baseboards, ceilings, on shelves, and in closets, to collect almost 10,000 specimens. They found at least 579 "morphospecies" -- that is, they all looked like different species, but in some cases might be different forms of the same species -- from 304 families of arthropods.
Flies were the most common, followed by spiders, beetles, ants, and book lice, while fleas and the American cockroach were relatively rare. Reassuringly, they didn't find bedbugs at all. Some of the arthropods, like book lice, have been living with humans for a long time -- but the bulk, including leafhoppers and various beetles, had simply wandered inside and become trapped in an environment where they were unlikely to survive, much less thrive.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* NOT SO TOUGH: The Chinese government's commitment to reducing greenhouse-gas emissions were discussed here early this year, leaving as a big question mark just how likely China is to reach its goals. As discussed by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("Aiming Low", 12 March 2016), on close inspection it doesn't seem so tough.
The Chinese government is committed to seeing that its emissions peak by 2030. A study by two researchers in Britain -- Lord Nicholas Stern, a prominent environmental economist, and Fergus Green, an expert on climate policy -- says that China's self-imposed emissions restrictions may sound dramatic, but they will be not very difficult to achieve. Indeed, the Chinese government may be deliberately underestimating what it can do. The two researchers said the official projections should be taken with a pinch of salt, since the government prefers "to under-promise and over-deliver."
According to that government, Chinese coal consumption almost tripled between 2000 and 2013. The two researchers say that China's CO2 may have actually peaked in 2014; and even if not, they are not likely to rise nearly as fast as they did before, and are effectively certain to start falling by 2025. Those figurings are based on the official targets of 6.5% GDP growth a year by the end of the decade, and 5.5% after that, but many doubt that such relatively high rates of growth are likely. Even if they do happen, China is moving away from manufacturing as a source of growth, which means less need to burn fossil fuels to keep factories running.
China's official statistics have not always been very trustworthy, but coal-related statistics have been tightened up. Official figures show that coal production fell 2.5% in 2014 and that imports dropped by 10.9%; in the first three quarters of 2015, production dropped 4.3%. That suggests China's emissions intensity -- the amount of CO2 it emits per unit of GDP -- has already started falling.
At the same time, China's use of renewable energy sources, such as wind and the Sun, is growing: between 2010 and 2014, non-fossil energy generation capacity increased by 73%. The country already invests more in renewables than the US and Japan combined. Chinese leadership does not want to become too dependent on imported fossil fuels, and the severe pollution caused by burning Chinese coal is generating public anger at the government.
However, China's electrical grid is rickety, nothing that resembles the "smart grid" needed to efficiently shunt renewable energy from region to region. There are also bureaucratic problems; within the energy industry, disputes are common over which generators should have priority in dispatching electricity to grids, with renewables often losing out. In addition, China is not short of coal, and there's still a lot of momentum for building coal plants, many local officials seeing the short-term benefits hard to resist.
Nonetheless, many analysts think China's commitments to cutting emissions, impressive as they may sound, are still less than what the country is capable of. In 2020, when signatories to the Paris accord on climate change are due to set themselves new carbon-cutting goals, the world's biggest emitter of greenhouse gases may come under pressure to be more ambitious.
* In related news, according to another article in THE ECONOMIST ("The World's Carbon-Dioxide Emissions Have Stabilised", 16 March 2016), on 16 March the International Energy Agency (IEA), the world's most prominent energy forecaster, announced that CO2 emissions from burning fossil fuels have remained flat for two years in a row, while emissions from the two biggest contributors, the US and China, have been falling. This is the first lull in emissions since the early 1980s.
Fatih Birol, the IEA's director, says the three main drivers were a big growth of renewable-energy use in global power generation, led by wind turbines; a switch in America from coal-fired plants to natural-gas-fueled ones after the shale revolution; and a government-led effort in China to curb emissions, due to concerns about pollution as well as climate change. Birol says the rapid deployment of renewables is good news, in line with with the IEA's best-case scenario for tackling global warming, and shows emissions are "decoupling from economic growth".
The findings were provisional, with analysts saying that two years isn't long enough to establish any trend; some economists also question the data the IEA used in the assessment. Birol himself suggests that the low prices of natural gas and coal may undermine new investment in wind and solar power, and may also slow the trend toward improved energy efficiency.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* TRIMMING DOWN: As discussed by an item from AAAS SCIENCE NOW Online ("Synthetic Microbe Lives With Fewer Than 500 Genes" by Robert F. Service, 24 March 2016), the size of the genomes of organisms varies wildly; a rare Japanese flower, Paris japonica, has the biggest known genome, 500 times the size of the human genome. That leads to the question: just how big a genome does an organism really need? A research group, led by genome sequencing pioneer Craig Venter, wanted to find out, and engineered a bacterium, named "Syn 3.0", with its genome cut down to the bare essentials, comprising a mere 473 genes.
As its name suggests, Syn 3.0 is not the first synthetic organism made by Venter, now the boss of the J. Craig Venter Institute (JCVI), and is a founder of Synthetic Genomics, a biotech company -- both in San Diego, California. In 2010, Venter announced that they had synthesized the genome, a single bacterial chromosome, of Mycoplasma mycoides -- a bacterium with a relatively small genome -- and transplanted it into a different mycoplasma named M. capricolum, from which they had removed the original DNA. After difficulties, they finally got the synthetic microbe to boot up and synthesize proteins normally made by M. mycoides, instead of M. capricolum. Nonetheless, except for the addition of a bit of "watermark" DNA, the genome of this synthetic organism, "Syn 1.0", was un-altered from the parents.
Venter, along with project leader Clyde Hutchison at JCVI, then set out to determine the minimal set of genes needed for life by throwing out seemingly unessential genes from Syn 1.0. At the outset, two teams were given the task, with their two proposals then transplanted into M. capricolum. Much to Venter's surprise, neither genome proved viable; it was obvious that nobody really knew enough about how genes controlled the development and operation of an organism. Venter had to admit that "our current knowledge of biology is not sufficient to sit down and design a living organism and build it."
That left trial and error. The researchers divided divided Syn 1.0's genome, with its 901 genes, into eight sections, adding identical tags to the beginning and end of each section, allowing them to be easily re-assembled. Each of the sections could then be examined as an independent module, with genes deleted from one section, and all the sections re-assembled into a complete genome. The new genome was re-inserted into M. capricolum to see if a living cell resulted. If not, the researchers knew they had cut out an essential gene. They also tried to identify essential genes by inserting foreign genetic material -- transposons -- to disrupt their functions.
After what Venter called "multiple hundreds" of such tests, the team finally came up with Syn 3.0, with a genome half the size of Syn 1.0. Syn 2.0, incidentally, was an intermediate stage in the effort -- noted for being the first microbe with a genome smaller than that of M. genitalium, which with 525 genes, has the smallest number of any free-living natural organism.
Once the winnowing was complete, the researchers re-ordered the remaining genes, aligning ones that work in common pathways, simplifying further research on Syn 3.0. With a total of 531,000 bases, the new organism's genome isn't much smaller than that of M. genitalium, with 600,000 bases. However, M. genitalium grows slowly, with a doubling time of weeks, while Syn 3.0 has a doubling time of three hours.
Venter says that there's no saying the genome can't be trimmed down further, but that's a subject for further research. Evolutionary biologists and biotechnologists are excited by the research, since it promises to give a basic understanding of how genes actually control the development and operation of an organism.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* ANOTHER MONTH: I've very much been into publishing Amazon Kindle ebooks over the last year or so, to the extent that it's become a central activity around which others rotate. It only gets me pocket money, but I was short on pocket money, and as a source of pocket money, it works very well. It's also fun, and I like the idea that people are actually interested enough in my work to pay money for it. How cool is that?
However, when I tried to post a ebook early in April, Amazon balked, saying the document could be found the web -- on my website -- and so I did not have clear title on it. Having increasingly based my activities on ebook publishing, that made me very apprehensive. I didn't think they had a good case against me; just because they could find one of my documents on my website didn't mean I had pirated it -- and even if they couldn't find it online, that hardly proved I hadn't pirated it from, say, an out-of-print book that isn't online.
I pleaded my case, and Amazon finally relented, releasing the ebook. I posted another ebook after that, and held my breath; Amazon passed it, then seemed to have second thoughts, making me hold my breath again, but finally released it anyway. I used to label my documents "public domain", though nobody made use of them, no reason to; I had to go through all the documents on my websites and make sure that declarations of "public domain" were cut out, with a declaration of rights added. No use asking for trouble.
That led to a general rethinking of the ebook effort. One thing I had been trying was to take some of my big documents, the Civil War history as the primary example, and see if I could publish them in multiple ebook volumes. No, it just doesn't work, they don't sell, an ebook has to stand on its own. It's not just a question of nobody buying; what point is there in writing something nobody wants to read?
I ended up withdrawing seven ebooks from publication, which was not a problem, since they didn't sell. Now I'm taking the Civil War history and trying to chop stand-alone documents out of it, the first being the battle of Antietam. I'll release that, but I won't do any other Civil War ebooks if it doesn't sell.
I have some other ebooks that are slow sellers, but I think they're good little books, and I'll keep them. I call them "sleepers"; they might stay asleep, they might take off one of these days. Low sales are better than no sales, anyway. I have cleaned some of them up, changing covers or replacing bland titles with more interesting ones -- THE JFK ASSASSINATION IN BRIEF just didn't sound compelling, so I changed it to THE RISE & FALL OF JFK TRUTH. It couldn't hurt, and that item being on the bottom of the sales charts, it's likely to help. I plan to write more "sleepers", at least as a second priority, but I'll wait to see if one sells before writing another one along the same lines.
In any case, I'm full speed ahead on churning out ebooks; the more I sell, the more money I make, and the more I get my foot in the door with Amazon, to discourage them from trying to shut it on me again. It's a toylike activity, but that's what makes it fun.
* Thanks to three readers for donations to support the websites last month. That is very much appreciated.COMMENT ON ARTICLE