sep 2016 / last mod aug 2017 / greg goebel

* 22 entries including: Cold War (series), 21st-century economics (series), CRISPR-Cas9 excitement, MenAfriVac vaccine, super-volcanos, zika virus, human intelligence evolved for child care, robot trucks, Brexit complications, renewed Panama canal, and symbiotic relationships accelerate evolution.

banner of the month

[FRI 23 SEP 16] THE COLD WAR (129)
[FRI 16 SEP 16] THE COLD WAR (128)
[FRI 09 SEP 16] THE COLD WAR (127)
[FRI 02 SEP 16] THE COLD WAR (126)


* NEWS COMMENTARY FOR SEPTEMBER 2016: As discussed by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("Learning To Live With It", 3 September 2016), reports of terrorist atrocities have become painfully common and familiar -- as have calls for tougher action against terrorists, taken to such heights as demands for blanket controls on Muslim minorities and, in France, a tempest in a teapot over Muslim women wearing full-body "burkinis" to the beach.

It suggests that hysteria may be taking over when the authorities worry not about women on the beach wearing too little, but about them wearing too much. Yes, terrorism is a real problem, but possibly a sense of proportion might, if not resolve the problem, at least avoid aggravating it with half-baked measures.

Terrorism is absolutely nothing new, but it has risen to the top rank of concerns following the end of the Cold War. The two eras make a stark contrast: during the age of the nuclear stand-off, the issue was the extinction of humanity, but in the age of terror it's occasional vicious attacks on theaters, nightclubs, and such. This is not a question of one being "bad" and the other "good" -- they're both "bad", just not to remotely the same degree. The difficulty is that people perceive terrorism as a vastly greater threat than the data shows it is. A US poll conducted earlier this year asked respondents who followed the actions of the Islamic State (IS) terrorist group in the Middle East if IS was "a serious threat to the existence or survival of the US." Appallingly, over three-quarters said YES.


Since the attacks on the US on 11 September 2001, Western nations have ramped up efforts to prevent terrorist attacks. There have been no further attacks on the scale of 9-11, but attacks by organized gangs or "lone wolves" have become commonplace. The assaults are generally on "soft targets" that are not, and cannot reasonably be, hardened against determined attacks. While attacks are occasionally conducted by IS terrorists returned from Syria, they are more often conducted by local sympathizers, often suffering from serious mental-health problems, who have been nowhere near Syria.

It is much too easy to pull off such attacks, and very difficult to stop them in advance. There are so many possible suspects that the authorities don't know which of them on the security radar are likely threats. Many of them simply weren't on the radar, living law-abiding lives and giving no hint they were dangerous until they acted. Ahmad Khan Rahami, who was arrested in connection with a bombing in Manhattan on 17 September that injured 29 people, had no criminal record, and was judged by those who met him as pleasant and likeable.

In sum, to a degree we're going to live with terrorism. At present, in the USA, the chances of being killed in a terrorist attack are over one in 50 million, while the chance of being murdered in a criminal attack are one in 20,000, with the chance of being killed in a car accident three times greater than that.

However, when US President Barack Obama said American citizens stood more risk of being electrocuted in the bathtub than being killed by a terrorist, howls went up that he was complacent. Terrorism, it seems, is at least useful for beating one's political enemies over the head -- which has the effect that no politician dares appear to be "soft on terrorism", or ask if actions being taken are useless, or even counter-productive. In the meantime, America's Transportation Security Administration, responsible for maintaining public safety, has become a contemptible joke with the public, being seen as a nuisance while accomplishing very little.

Again, nobody in a position of responsibility says terrorism isn't a problem; it's just a question of keeping one's head. As THE ECONOMIST put it:


To his credit, Mr. Obama has consistently warned about the consequences of using hyperbolic language to describe the terrorist threat. In a TV address last December ... he explained that success against IS and other terrorists "won't depend on tough talk or abandoning our values, or giving in to fear." Instead, he said, America would prevail by being strong and clever, resilient and relentless. Mr. Obama is right. Defeating terrorism depends above all on good intelligence, a degree of stoicism, and a refusal to undermine the principles that open societies are built on.


* In closely related news, the "Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA)" -- discussed here in June, and which allows US citizens who were victims of terrorist attacks on US soil to sue countries that sponsored the terrorists -- was, as expected, vetoed by President Obama, with Congress, also as expected, overriding the veto and establishing it as law.

The issue now becomes: what do US courts do with JASTA? It seems hard to believe any such suit could be pressed through state court; but would a Federal court believe it had jurisdiction, no matter what Congress said? It might make sense to press the suit through an international tribunal, but such a tribunal would be an arbitration court, its decisions only having effect to the extent the parties went along. If a Federal court did award damages, of course there's no way a foreign state would pay -- which implies the US government either seizing foreign assets resident in the USA, or imposing sanctions until the foreign state paid up.

It is hard to believe the government would do any such things. If legally coerced, they might send a huffy note to said foreign government, demanding payment, and then forget about it. The courts would be in a difficult position enforce compliance. Indeed, in the specific case of the accusations against the Saudi government, the plaintiffs would be hard-pressed to establish culpability without confirmation from US government intelligence services, which would simply not happen.

In other words, JASTA sounds like a massive headache to the courts, and it seems possible it will simply be judged unconstitutional. One wonders: the major driving force behind the passage of JASTA was obviously Congressional fear of emotional voters -- but how many members of Congress voted YEA just because they knew it nothing would come of it?

* In July, as discussed here at the time, the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) tribunal established under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) ruled on the claims of China to most of the South China Sea. While this was seen as good news by China's neighbors and the US, as discussed by an article in BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK ("Is It An Island? Or Just A Rock?" by Peter Coy, 1 August 2016), the decision, to a degree, cuts both ways.

The tribunal's 479-page decision defined a very strict interpretation of what dry land is entitled to a 200 nautical mile (370 kilometer / 230 mile) "economic exclusion zone (EEZ)", where a country has exclusive rights to marine resources such as fisheries, oil, and seafloor minerals. While the decision isn't binding by treaty in itself, it was rigorously thought out, being clearly meant to set precedents for later decisions.

The UNCLOS agreement doesn't allow nations to declare an EEZ around "rocks which cannot sustain human habitation or economic life of their own." That definition had loopholes, which the tribunal's decision has now closed up -- saying that simply planting people on a rock in the middle of the sea did not make it habitable, if the people can't survive on that rock without outside support. Taking such rocks and building them up through dredging, as the Chinese are fond of doing, is simply taking "outside support" to an absurd extreme.

There's nothing to prevent establishing a base on a rock; but it can't be used to declare an EEZ. The result is that contests over the ownership of barren rocks no longer make much sense: Nobody can declare an EEZ around them: "All have lost, and none shall have prizes!" Still, nobody has pushed their luck on this issue as far as the Chinese, and so the pain is by no means equally distributed.

* On 30 August, the European Commission declared that Apple Corporation owed the Irish government 13 million euros ($14.5 million USD), plus interest. While the superficial impression might be that Apple got nicked trying to rip off Ireland on taxes, on closer inspection matters turn out to be not so simple. Apple replied that the company had scrupulously lived up to its agreement with the Irish government, and began an appeal process. What made matters particularly complicated was that the Irish government sided with Apple, and also seemed inclined to appeal.

Although the penalty would be a huge windfall to the Irish government, Ireland had set up a policy of inviting investment by offering comfortable deals to big foreign firms, with this policy proving successful. However, in the wake of the 2007 financial crisis, the EC became concerned with imbalances and inequities in national tax policies. Ireland, it turns out, was as much a target in the ruling as Apple -- but neither was the real target, that being the US government's tax policy, in which US companies can minimize their taxes in foreign countries, while deferring payment of stiff American taxes until the money is repatriated. American firms have amassed a staggering $2 trillion USD in overseas funds.

Fair or unfair? That's a tricky question. That question aside, however, both the Irish and the US governments are unhappy about the high-handed way the penalty was imposed, and that it was retro-active; Apple had made agreements with Ireland in good faith, and lived up to them. American politicians called the decision a "tax grab". If the EC felt that US tax policies were unjust to Europe, that matter needed to be discussed through diplomatic channels, not through arbitrary actions that invited reprisals. Given that the European Union is currently on the defensive from the British Brexit vote, which was driven by claims the EU was intolerably high-handed, the position of the EC in the Apple tax dispute appears weak.

Apple has huge financial resources and could pay the penalty without extreme distress -- of course, an eight-figure sum implies some distress -- but Apple CEO Tim Cook is angry with the decision on principle. The company's CFO, Luca Maestri, says the EU claim that Apple only paid Ireland a tax rate of 1% in 2014 was simply bogus, ridiculous arithmetic; that Apple paid at a 12.5% rate, handing over a total of $400 million USD. Cook believes, with fair cause, that the decision will be overturned on appeal -- but the appeal is expected to take a decade, and in the meantime the money has to be locked away in escrow.

* Edward Snowden -- an NSA contractor who fled the US in 2013 and publicly released a pile of secret documents on the National Security Agency's surveillance activities, now living in Russia -- is back in the news again. Oliver Stone has released the movie SNOWDEN, praising him; while the House of Representatives intelligence committee has released a report on Snowden, deriding his claim to be a "whistle-blower" working for the public good, instead describing him as a disgruntled employee whose actions were an injury to the USA.

However, Amnesty International and the American Civil Liberties Union have come out in support through their PARDON SNOWDEN campaign, urging President Obama to do so before he leaves office in January 2017. The White House has flatly rejected the suggestion. Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton has also declared her lack of sympathy with Snowden; while Donald Trump, her opposite number, called Snowden a "grandstander", saying more specifically: 'This guy is a bad guy. You know, there is still a thing called 'execution'."

ED: After thought on the matter, my own judgement is that Snowden should return home and stand trial. Nobody disputes that he's a criminal, that he committed treason, the only dispute is what the law should do about it. If the jury exonerates him, I will accept that; if the court locks him up and throws away the key, I will accept that, too. In either case, I will move on and forget Edward Snowden.

I do have to say that Snowden's ongoing theatrics -- putting on a tinfoil halo and all but demanding a pardon -- do not inspire sympathy. Is there much distinction between revealing classified information, and claiming it was for a good cause -- and hacking into private information, and claiming it was for a good cause? Is there anyone who would not feel wronged if their own private personal information was stolen, and revealed to the world? It doesn't seem so admirable if the shoe is on one's own foot. Besides, if Snowden is so certain he has an iron-clad case, then he should bet he'll get a pass. For all his theatrics, it doesn't seem he wants to take that bet.



* WINGS & WEAPONS: US Army infantry units are now to be equipped with the Saab 84-millimeter Carl Gustaf M3 "Multirole Anti-Armor Anti-Personnel Weapon System (MAAWS)" -- a venerable recoilless rifle, introduced in 1948.

The Carl Gustaf is a compact weapon, a tube about a meter long with twin handgrips forward, a shoulder pad, and a sighting system; the weapon is loaded through a swiveling breech. It can be fitted with a bipod mount. It has rifling and fires a relatively high-velocity projectile, giving it good effective range for an infantry-portable weapon. A refined "M2" variant was introduced in 1964, with an "M3" then introduced in 1991. The M3 features a carbon-composite tube with a steel lining, along with plastic and aluminum fixtures, to reduce weight to about 10 kilograms (22 pounds) from 16 kilograms (35 pounds). The M3 uses a 3x magnifying sight by default, but can be fitted with laser or night sights.

Army SOCOM troops with M3 / Carl Gustaf

One of the keys to the utility of the Carl Gustaf is the fact that a wide range of ammunition has been developed for it, including high-explosive, anti-armor, smoke, or illumination rounds. Some of the ammunition has rocket boost to more than double its range to a kilometer. The Carl Gustaf has been in use with US special operations forces for several decades; now it has become standard US Army issue, helping to establish it as a standard weapon of Western forces, the answer to the eastern RPG.

* The SkyStar series of surveillance aerostats, or tethered balloons -- mentioned here in 2014 -- built by the the Aero-T subsidiary of RT LTA Systems of Israel, are now being followed by the bigger RTA "SkyGuard" series of aerostats. The first in the series, the "SkyGuard 1", can carry payloads of up to 90 kilograms (200 pounds) up to an altitude of 1,000 meters (3,300 feet), and can stay on station for at least a week without maintenance.

The biggest SkyStar, in contrast, can carry up to 50 kilograms (110 pounds) and has a maximum endurance of 72 hours. While the SkyStars are spherical, the SkyGuards are in the "blimp" configuration, being egg-shaped with triple tailfins. SkyStar aerostats are currently in use by the Israeli Defense Forces and other clients, typically being used for defense of fixed sites.

* It would take a Frenchman to do something so daring and crazy, but one such fellow, Franky Zapata, has developed a jet hoverboard, the "Flyboard Air". It weighs 20 kilograms (44 pounds), is powered by four little turbojet engines, and has a flight endurance of ten minutes. It uses a handheld remote as a throttle, being guided by simply leaning in the desired direction.

It took time for Zapata to figure out how to fly the thing -- he said it's not unlike riding a bicycle -- but he's working up to a flight at 160 KPH (100 MPH) to 3,000 meters (10,000 feet). No price yet, but it is certain to be spendy, and there are regulatory issues yet to be addressed. However, if James Bond needs to make a speedy escape, Zapata's got him covered.



* MENAFRIVAC WORKS: It is a peculiar irony that vaccines are one of the most controversial medical interventions, while being one of the most effective and benign. As discussed by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("Knockout Jab", 14 November 2015), the "MenAfriVac" vaccine, introduced in Africa in 2010 to deal with meningitis A, has done much to banish the disease from the continent.

Meningitis A is a bacterial infection of the membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord, which can cause death or brain damage within hours of the onset of its flu-like symptoms. The caseload of meningitis A patients has now fallen to effectively zero in 16 countries that adopted MenAfriVac in mass vaccination campaigns. Before MenAfriVac's introduction in the "meningitis belt", stretching across sub-Saharan Africa, the disease would kill thousands and disable many more, mostly children and young adults. In 1996, for example, an outbreak killed 15,000 people and sickened 250,000 in six months.

MenAfriVac may become a victim of its own success, however; it's proven so effective that national health authorities are starting to forget about meningitis A. The World Health Organization (WHO) suggests that MenAfriVac be part of the routine schedule for infant vaccination, but will it happen? If not, then as one study showed, it's likely to come roaring back in about 15 years. In that interval, the effects of the vaccine will have faded in the vaccinated, and there will be a younger generation that hasn't been vaccinated. Given the right environmental conditions -- meningitis A tends to arise in the dry season -- and the result will be an epidemic.

The real irony is that the bacteria that causes meningitis A only infects humans, meaning it could be exterminated by an aggressive vaccination program. However, advocates for MenAfriVac don't see that as realistic, at least for the moment; they suggest focusing on the 26 countries of the meningitis belt, ten of which have yet to implement a one-time mass vaccination program. The campaigns only cover those between the ages of 1 and 29 -- but that's not an issue, since older people aren't all that vulnerable to the disease, and that coverage is enough to provide "herd immunity" that will prevent the pathogen from spreading out of control.

That done, then the next objective will be to make sure MenAfriVac is placed on childhood immunization schedules. GAVI, an international vaccine fund for poor countries, has promised backing to do so. The effort is reinforced by studies that show it will be cheaper to vaccinate as a regular practice than deal with a meningitis A epidemic down the road.

There may be another benefit as well. MenAfriVac is built around the tetanus toxin as the protein to which other antigens -- immune system targets -- are attached. A study in Mali shows that the mass campaign for MenAfriVac there increased the number of people with long-term tetanus immunity from 20% to 59%. It's not good enough to act as a tetanus vaccine, but it does help substantially. Public health programs tend to be frustrating, two steps forward one step back, and it's good to see that some steps work out so well.



* THE SUPER-VOLCANO THREAT: A survey from AAAS SCIENCE NOW Online ("Here's How The World Could End -- And What We Could Do About It" by Julia Rosen, 14 July 2016), discussed apocalyptic threats to the planet -- including "usual suspects", such as solar megastorms and asteroid impacts. However, the survey also investigated the less familiar threat of super-volcano eruptions.

Every 100,000 years or so, somewhere on Earth, a caldera up to 50 kilometers (31 miles) in diameter collapses, and blasts out volumes of accumulated magma. The resulting super-volcano is destructive on a global scale. The massive eruption of Mount Toba in Indonesia 74,000 years ago may have wiped out most humans on Earth, causing a genetic bottleneck still apparent in the human genome.

By geological convention, a super-volcano is one that produces an explosive eruption of more than 450 cubic kilometers (108 cubic miles) of magma -- about 50 times more than the eruption of Indonesia's Mount Tambora in 1815, and 500 times more than the Philippines' Mount Pinatubo in 1991. Such explosions leave a record in the form of deposits of erupted material called "tuff", and the rock record shows that super-volcanoes erupt over and over again. Locations that remain active today include Toba; the Yellowstone hot spot in the northwestern United States, discussed here in 2008; the Long Valley Caldera in eastern California; the Taupo Volcanic Zone in New Zealand; and several spots in the Andes.

None of these danger zones presents an active threat at present -- but if one went off, everything within a hundred kilometers or so would be incinerated, and ash could blanket continents. A few millimeters of ash can kill crops; a meter or more can make land unusable for decades, according to Susanna Jenkins, a volcanologist at the University of Bristol in the UK. Ash can also crush buildings, foul water supplies, clog electronics, ground airplanes, and irritate lungs.

There would also be global impacts. Even the minor disruption in air traffic following the 2010 eruption of Iceland's Eyjafjallajoekull volcano -- discussed here at the time -- which was not remotely in a league with super-volcanoes, caused millions of dollars in losses for Kenyan farmers, whose perishable exports to Europe went to waste. The real threat, however, would be to global climate. Sulfate aerosols injected into the stratosphere by a super-eruption could cause temperatures over much of Earth to drop by 5 to 10 degrees Celsius (9 to 18 degrees Fahrenheit) for up to a decade, leading to global crop failures.

Just how bad would things be? That's hard to say, because there's never been a super-eruption in recorded history. We can get ideas from smaller eruptions, but they may be an unreliable guide. For instance, although super-eruptions probably produce vast quantities of sulfate aerosols, the aerosols may be larger and rain out faster than those from smaller eruptions, according to research by Claudia Timmreck -- a climate modeler at the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology in Hamburg, Germany, and others. Timmreck's team has also found that for mid-latitude volcanoes like Yellowstone, the season in which the eruption occurs determines how widely its aerosols spread.

The biggest uncertainty is how much warning we might have. Researchers believe that widespread clues such as earthquakes, increased outgassing, and ground deformation due to rising magma would precede a major eruption. This unrest would begin months, possibly years, in advance, in principle affording time to evacuate residents and set emergency response plans in motion. The difficulty is that nobody knows exactly when to hit the panic button. Jacob Lowenstern of the US Geological Survey in Menlo Park, California, the scientist-in-charge of the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory, says: "It's going to be hard for scientists to convince themselves just because of our only partial understanding of the complexity of the processes that are taking place."

That leaves geologists faced with not being taken seriously enough, or being taken too seriously. The 1985 eruption of Nevado del Ruiz in Colombia killed 23,000 people, in part because the government ignored the forecasts of scientists. On the other side of the coin, in the 1980s, geologic unrest caused officials to warn that California's Long Valley Caldera could erupt. It didn't, but local real estate values tanked and the economy suffered.

For now, researchers say, their best bet is to continue studying the underground plumbing that feeds volcanoes, and to obtain as much information as possible from relatively small future eruptions before the next super-volcano cuts loose.



* 21ST-CENTURY ECONOMICS (1): Economics has long been known as the "dismal science", not being noted for delivering good news. As the world's problems continue to pile up in the 21st century, as they always have, it's easy to feel discouraged. However, as discussed by Reuters article ("Think The World's Getting Worse? Think Again, Says Economist" by Joseph D'Urso, 10 August 2015), there's also a basis for optimism -- according to economist Max Roser of the University of Oxford in the UK.

Roser spends his time inspecting data on global living standards. He notes that war, disease, and poverty are all declining, while life expectancy, food provision, and years of schooling, which are all rising. The world is, on the whole, a better place now than it was in 1900. Some of his findings, such as increased life expectancy, are not surprising, but others, like a decline in deaths caused by violence, are less obvious in a world in which a militant attack that kills one is more likely to grab the headlines than a vaccine that saves millions -- typically without much fanfare, along with occasional hysteria over the perceived threat of vaccines.

Roser believes too much analysis focuses on very recent trends, leading us to miss the bigger picture which, with some hiccups and exceptions, is an overwhelmingly positive one, thanks to vaccines, better nutrition, and economic growth. He points out:

A large proportion of the world's population has risen from poverty over the past few decades, such progress being broadly attributed to the triumph of free-market economics. There's no real argument over the truth of that, but much can also be attributed to better governance, as well as the rise of non-governmental organizations.

Roser doesn't try to sweep the world's problems under the rug, pointing out that continued population growth, resource constraints, and climate change pose immense challenges. China, to use the most spectacular example of development, has achieved growth at the cost of ghastly pollution of air and water, while there are fears -- as discussed here in 2014 -- that the high economic growth rates of developing countries over the past few decades are not sustainable. However, while we face those challenges, we should be aware that we haven't been doing all that badly for ourselves so far. [TO BE CONTINUED]


[FRI 23 SEP 16] THE COLD WAR (129)

* THE COLD WAR (129): Although President Eisenhower still remained ambivalent over what to do about Cuba, the problem continued to intensify. In October, a US oil company with a refinery in Cuba had refused to handle Soviet-supplied crude oil. In response, Castro nationalized without compensation the three oil refineries, all owned by US corporations, on the island. That led to a US embargo of all exports to Cuba; Castro replied by nationalizing, again without compensation, all US business assets. On 2 January 1961, Castro ordered most of the State Department personnel in the US embassy in Havana to get out of the country within 24 hours, labeling them spies.

At a White House meeting on 3 January, Eisenhower said the US "should not tolerate being kicked around." He suggested breaking diplomatic relations and bringing all diplomatic personnel home. Secretary of State Herter said that would cause a list of problems; the general upshot of the meeting was that it made more sense to get rid of Castro. Allen Dulles said the Cuban paramilitary force being raised in Guatemala would not be ready to jump until March. Richard Bissell commented that it would have to be put into action by then, since after that, the Cuban fighters would conclude they were just wasting their time.

Eisenhower said the operation should either be given up, or go forward in March; he wasn't inclined to give it up, indeed he suggested the Cuban force be expanded, with the Kennedy Administration to continue the buildup after taking power. Eisenhower did conclude in the meeting that the US should withdraw recognition from Castro's government, breaking relations -- though there was no alternative government in exile, nor signs that one was about to emerge. That worried Goodpaster, who told the president, with what would turn out to be highly accurate foresight, that the CIA was building up a force of Cubans that didn't answer to anyone, except effectively the USA, and that the exercise was building up momentum that might be hard to stop. Eisenhower replied that, at the time, the US wasn't committed to anything -- which was technically true, but hardly put Goodpaster's worries to rest.

More ambivalent signs were visible in a speech Khrushchev made on 6 January, which was released to the world to clarify Kremlin policy. The speech sounded self-congratulatory notes, praising the continuing rise in Soviet steel production, but made a concession to the difficulties in agriculture by saying that resources needed to be allocated there as well. It also implicitly backtracked on claims that the Soviet Union would very soon surpass the US economically.

As far as international affairs went, Khrushchev crowed about how he had "resolved" the 1956 Suez crisis: "The Soviet Union, the whole socialist camp rose to the defense of Egypt. The terrible warning of the Soviet government to Eden and Mollet stopped the war. A local war, the adventure in Egypt, had failed shamefully."

Khrushchev then went on to deflate, if not emphatically, the notion that the US was hell-bent on imperialism:


The US imperialists, wishing in every way to help the French colonizers, were nevertheless unable to decide to intervene directly in the war in Vietnam. They did not do so because they knew that if they helped the French armed forces Vietnam would get the corresponding aid from China, the USSR and other socialist countries, and it would grow into a world war. The outcome is known. North Vietnam won ...

[In Cuba] there too there was war, but it began as a rising against the internal tyrannical regime, behind which stood American imperialism. Batista was the puppet of the US and the latter actively helped him. But the US did not directly intervene in this war either with its armed forces. The Cuban people conquered under the leadership of Fidel Castro ...


That was primarily aimed at Mao Zedong, who insisted that the US was fundamentally aggressive. Khrushchev then rejected Mao's insistence that disarmament discussions with the West could only be a short-term ploy: "Our struggle for disarmament is not a tactical method. We sincerely want it ..."

Khrushchev also made it clear that the USSR had no interest in fomenting regional wars, preferring to resolve them by diplomatic means; but that agenda was thoroughly confused by the ongoing consequences of decolonization. Khrushchev pointed out that forty countries had won independence since the end of World War II; he downplayed the fact that the majority of them had not won independence in a revolutionary struggle, instead pledging Soviet support for "wars of national liberation" around the world.

Khrushchev did not address the question of what specific national advantage the USSR was to obtain through such support. Stalin, both more cynically and more sensibly, would have judged that the first question to ask. Of course, sympathy with the doctrine of national liberation did not extend to the states of Eastern Europe under Soviet domination; after all, had they not already been liberated, to become people's democracies? There was also the fundamental disconnect in Khrushchev's thinking, in believing in the possibility of "peaceful coexistence" with the West while simultaneously, in effect, proclaiming that the Soviet Union wanted to see the world painted Red, one country at a time.

From the communist point of view, that was an obvious inevitability, it would happen in any case; the capitalist order was doomed, and nothing could be done to prevent it. However, it was hardly reassuring to Western leaders for Khrushchev to proclaim that communism didn't need to kill capitalism, it would die on its own first -- and Khrushchev's assertion of Soviet backing of national liberation movements sounded like the declaration of a new World War, conducted by stealth and subversion. After all, if capitalism was doomed anyway, then what was lost by helping to see it dead and buried?

Some of those leaders, such as de Gaulle, were shrewd enough to see that communist sociopolitical rhetoric did not mesh all that neatly with the complicated realities of the world, and would never trump nationalistic considerations; de Gaulle saw the exercise, to the extent that Khrushchev actually meant it, as naive, bumbling, and likely to be more trouble for everyone than it was worth. Eisenhower didn't pay it much mind either, correctly recognizing that the speech said nothing new, more reflecting Soviet insecurities than advancing a coherent program. Kennedy, however, kept a copy of Khrushchev's speech and often cited from it, describing it as a Soviet plan for global domination. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* Space launches for August included:

-- 05 AUG 16 / TIANTONG 1 -- A Long March 4C booster was launched from Xichang in China at 1622 UTC (next day local time - 8) to put the first "Tiantong 1" mobile communications satellite into geostationary orbit. Designed by the China Academy of Space Technology (CAST), Tiantong 1 was intended to provide mobile communications services for users in China, the Middle East, Africa, and other regions in the Eastern hemisphere. The Tiantong system, which is operated by China Telecom, is comparable to the commercial Inmarsat system.

-- 09 AUG 16 / GAOFEN 3 -- A Long March 4C booster was launched from Taiyuan in China at 2255 UTC (next day local time - 8) to put the "Gaofen (High Resolution) 3" civil Earth observation satellite into Sun-synchronous low Earth orbit. Gaofen 3 had a launch mass of about 3 tonnes (6,500 pounds) and a design life of 8 years; it carried a C-band imaging radar to perform high-resolution all-weather / day-night observations of planet Earth. The radar had 12 imaging modes, ranging from wide-area imaging, to close-up shots with a best resolution of a meter.

Gaofen 3 was built by the China Academy of Space Technology (CAST); it was actually the sixth satellite to launch in the Gaofen series, and was the first Chinese civil Earth observation satellite with radar imaging. It was an element of the "China High-resolution Earth Observation System (CHEOS)" -- a near-realtime, all-weather, global surveillance network to consist of satellite, stratosphere airships, and aerial observation platforms.

CHEOS was established in 2010, as one China's major national science and technology projects. The "Earth Observation System & Data Center of China National Space Administration (EOSDC-CNSA)" is responsible for directing the construction of the CHEOS system, and the system's operation. Clients include Chinese government agencies such as the State Oceanic Administration; the Ministry of Civil Affairs; the Ministry of Water Resources; and the China Meteorological Administration.

-- 14 AUG 16 / JCSAT 16 -- A SpaceX Falcon 9 Full Thrust booster was launched from Cape Canaveral in Florida at 0526 UTC (local time + 4) to put the "JCSAT 16" geostationary comsat into orbit, for Tokyo-based SKY Perfect JSAT Corp. The satellite was built by Space Systems / Loral and was based on the SS/L-1300 comsat bus. It had a launch mass of 4,600 kilograms (10,000 pounds), a payload of Ku / Ka-band transponders, and a 15-year design life. The comsat was placed in the geostationary slot at 162 degrees east longitude. The first stage of the booster performed a successful soft landing on the SpaceX recovery barge in the Atlantic.

Falcon 9 FT touchdown

-- 15 AUG 16 / QUANTUM SCIENCE SATELLITE -- A Long March 2D booster was launched from Jiuquan in China at 1740 UTC (next day local time - 8) to put the "Quantum Science Satellite (QSS)" AKA "Quantum Experiments At Space Scale (QUESS)" AKA "Micius" or "Mozi", after a Chinese scholar of the 5th century BCE -- into orbit, the spacecraft being a testbed for a secure comsat using quantum encryption techniques. The QSS had a launch mass of 600 kilograms (1,300 pounds) and was placed in a Sun-synchronous near-polar orbit. It was designed and built by the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS).

QSS launch

Although quantum encryption techniques have been tested on the ground, they require that "entangled" photons -- pairs of photons created with each member of a pair having orthogonal polarizations -- be sent over fiber-optics links, which limits their transmission distance. A satellite can perform free-space transmission of entangled photons over much longer distances. According to Anton Zeilinger, a professor of experimental physics at the University of Vienna, president of the Austrian Academy of Sciences, and an authority on quantum encryption:


We have been doing things like quantum cryptography and quantum teleportation, and other things, in the lab beginning in the mid-1990s, and we have extended this outside the lab, with experiments between two islands of the Canary Islands with distances of 100 miles or so. Now, the next logical step is the satellite.


QSS carried a system to generate entangled photons, with an optical system used to send the members of the pairs to ground stations in China and Europe. The polarizations of the photon pairs were produced at random, with no way for the ground stations to predict them; in fact, the polarizations effectively did not exist before the stations picked up the photons.

One station that received a photon with a particular polarization would then know the other station received a photon with the complementary polarization; the sequence of polarizations was used to create a unique cipher code that allowed transmission of secure messages. There was no way to intercept an entangled photon without disrupting the protocol. According to Zeilinger:


The idea of the satellite is that you use the quantum channel, as it is called, to establish a key between China and Europe, a secret key which is known only to the two players ... And then they can use it to encode and decode a message, and that encoded message can then be sent by any means, like the internet or whatever you want.

... The satellite can then establish a quantum cryptographic key, for example, between China and Austria to be the first worldwide secure quantum communication.


The QSS was to demonstrate a link between Beijing and Vienna, a distance of 7,400 kilometers (4,600 miles). It was also to perform quantum teleportation experiments, in which the state of a particle was transmitted from one station to another. The term "quantum teleportation" is a little misleading; it may have its uses, but nobody working with it is trying to develop a STAR TREK teleportation system, or believes it could be used, even in principle, as the basis of one, since it merely transfers the state of an individual particle. It should also be noted that quantum entanglement seems to imply faster-than-light communications, but nobody working with it believes it can be used, even in principle, for that purpose.

Pan Jianwei, the Chinese leader of the QSS project, was a graduate student under Zeilinger in the 1990s. Pan recruited his former teacher and adviser to lead the European side of the mission. Pan said in an interview with Chinese state television:


These kinds of experiments have never been done in the sky. In order to receive good signals from such a long distance, the materials we use for making signals are the best in the world. At the same time, we should make sure the detector works well in high radiation levels because the detector will work for the next two years.


China is considering launch of a constellation of satellites to provide a secure global communications network. Other organizations outside of China are also planning to fly quantum communications satellites. The launch of QSS also included:

-- 19 AUG 16 / AFSPC 6 (USA 270, USA 271) -- A Delta 4 booster was launched from Cape Canaveral in Florida at 0452 UTC (local time + 4) to put the USAF "AFSPC 6" payload into space. AFSPC 6 was actually two payloads, being a pair of "Geosynchronous Space Situational Awareness Program (GSSAP)" space platforms, designated "GSSAP 3" and "GSSAP 4". They were intended to observe activities in the geostationary orbit belt. The rocket was in the "Medium+ (4,2)" configuration, with two solid rocket boosters.

Orbital ATK built the identical pairs of GSSAP satellites, which had the ability to fly in close formation with other objects in orbit. Although details of the GSSAP satellites remain secret, the Air Force says the space platforms have optical payloads to image the location, orbit, size, and status of space objects. The GSSAPs allow the USAF to detect and warn of impending collisions, as well as to determine any other disturbances to assets in geosynchronous orbit. The first launch of a pair of GSSAP satellites was in July 2014. The program had been declassified shortly before that launch, the Air Force wanting adversaries to know that the US had the capability to monitor what was going on in geostationary orbit.

-- 24 AUG 16 / INTELSAT 33E, INTELSAT 36 -- An Ariane 5 ECA booster was launched from Kourou in French Guiana at 2216 UTC (local time + 3) to put the "Intelsat 33e" and "Intelsat 26" geostationary comsats into orbit.

Intelsat 33e was built by Boeing Satellite Systems, and was based on the BSS 702MP platform. It had a launch mass of 6,600 kilograms (14,550 pounds), a payload of the equivalent of 249 Ku-band / 20 C-band transponders, and a design life of 15 years. It was placed in the geostationary slot at 60 degrees east longitude to provide communications services to Europe, Africa, the Middle East and Asia.

Intelsat 33e was the second Intelsat Epic high-throughput satellite, with a next-generation all-digital payload that could be reconfigured in orbit, and was resilient to interference and jamming. The all-digital payload allowed Intelsat to quickly adapt the satellite's bandwidth between different locations -- to, say, reallocate bandwidth from the middle of the night in one location to cover a special event in another. The digital payload was to be introduced on next-generation US Air Force Wideband Global Satcom satellites in 2017.

Intelsat 36 was built by Space Systems / Loral, and was based on the SS/L 1300 comsat platform. It had a launch mass of 3,250 kilograms (7,170 pounds), a payload of 34 Ku-band / 10 C-band transponders, and a design life of 15 years. It was placed in the geostationary slot at 68.5 degrees east longitude to provide television broadcast and other communications services over Africa and South Asia.

-- 31 AUG 16 / GAOFEN 20 (FAILURE) -- A Long March 4C booster was launched from Taiyuan at 1850 UTC (next day local time - 8) to put the "Gaofen 10" civil Earth observation satellite into Sun-synchronous low Earth orbit. The payload did not make orbit.



* ZIKA VIRUS: One of the difficulties of the struggle against infectious diseases is that new ones have a tendency to appear every now and then. An article from AAAS SCIENCE ("An Obscure Mosquito-Borne Disease Goes Global" by Martin Enserink, 27 November 2015), discussed one of the latest pathogens to make an appearance.

In 2008, medical entomologists Brian Foy and Kevin Kobylinski, both of Colorado State University in Fort Collins, came down with a mysterious disease after returning from a field trip in Senegal. They suffered rash, fatigue, headaches, plus swollen and painful joints; they recovered, but nobody could figure out what had hit them.

They did figure it out, more than a year later, on another African trip. They ran into medical entomologist Andrew Haddow, then at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston. In 1947, Haddow's grandfather was working in Africa, where he had helped track down a mosquito-borne virus that was named "Zika". Haddow helped Foy and Kobylinski get antibody tests for Zika, that confirmed they had indeed been infected by the virus.

The tale might have been no more than a medical curiosity, except for the fact that Zika has gone global. After popping up sporadically in Africa and Asia for a half-century, Zika became epidemic in a number of Pacific islands, and in spring 2015, it arrived in Brazil, to quickly spread through Latin America, with infections cropping up in Florida. In 2016, it arrived in Southeast Asia.

The Zika virus is transmitted by the Aedes mosquito, which is common in urban areas in the Americas. The Aedes mosquito -- most notably A. aegypti, the carrier of yellow fever -- has been the carrier of two other emerging diseases. The first, dengue, is not so new, having been increasingly widespread in Latin America for the last four decades. The second, chikungunya, was all but unknown a decade ago, but since 2013 has infected hundreds of thousands of people in dozens of countries.

The good news, such as it is, is that Zika is milder than dengue and chikungunya -- both of which can cause excruciating pain, with dengue sometimes leading to potentially fatal dengue hemorrhagic fever. There have been no deaths linked to Zika so far, but it has been linked to microcephalies and other birth defects. In addition, having so many related viruses circulating at the same time complicates diagnosis, and strains public-health systems. Worse, it hints that there may be some other, really nasty, Aedes-borne viruses lurking in the shadows.

Both Zika and dengue are "flaviruses", a genus that also includes yellow fever and the West Nile virus. For a half-century after the discovery of Zika in 1947 -- from a rhesus monkey in the Zika Forest near Entebhe, Uganda -- only about 15 cases were reported, all from Africa and Southeast Asia. In 2007, Zika hit Yap, an island in Micronesia, with antibody tests showing almost three-quarters of the population had been infected. Fortunately, there were no deaths, not even hospitalizations.

Zika then began island-hopping. In 2013:2014, 30,000 people were infected in French Polynesia, or about a tenth of the population. In that case, there were hospitalizations, and some of the victims developed "Guillain-Barre syndrome", a muscle weakness caused by damaged peripheral nerves. Following that, Zika hit New Caledonia, the Cook islands, Vanuatu, and Easter Island.

Although air travel is almost certainly the main path of transmission -- with infected travelers being bitten by local mosquitoes, that become infected and pass on the disease -- there are secondary paths. After Foy returned from Senegal, his wife Joy contracted the disease, even though there are no Aedes mosquitoes in Colorado. It appears the disease was passed on by sexual transmission. Sexual transmission doesn't seem all that significant a path, but transmission through contaminated blood supplies does appear a big problem.

Assays are now available to allow screening for Zika, but there are no targeted treatments or vaccines for the virus yet -- though there has been work on vaccines. Aedes mosquitoes are very hard to control, since they breed in any small water reservoir, such as a flower pot or abandoned car tire, and spraying insecticides has not been particularly effective. Genetic modification of mosquitoes to resist infection, and other approaches to altering the Aedes population, appear much more promising. Gubler is hopeful that progress can be made -- with such control techniques also heading off the emergence of much nastier Aedes-borne diseases in the future.



* BRINGING UP BABY: As discussed by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("Of Bairns And Brains", 28 May 2016), it is a long-standing evolutionary puzzle as to why humans became so extraordinarily clever, compared to the rest of the animal kingdom. Evolution is driven by selective advantage: any feature that enhances reproductive success is carried on, to gradually predominate among the population of a species. What selective advantage would brains able to write symphonies or carry out Moon missions have? It would seem simple survival could get by on much less -- and our big brains come along with liabilities, notably a high level of food intake to keep them running.

One theory is that intelligence is "sexually selected": early humans preferred smarter mates, with this preference establishing a loop that drove intelligence higher until diminishing returns set in. This idea is attractive, because sexual selection is noted for driving extravagant adaptations -- the tail of the peacock, for a well-known example. Another notion is that human intelligence grew out of the mental demands of living in groups featuring both cooperation and antagonism.

Two researchers from Rochester University in New York state -- Steven Piantadosi and Celeste Kidd, who study child development -- have come up with an appealing new suggestion for the evolutionary origins of human intelligence: we're smart because we're born so totally helpless.

As the two researchers point out, it is not unusual among other animals for their young to be able to stand up and walk around minutes after being born, but it takes human infants a year to even learn to walk, and need constant supervision for many years afterwards. In order to keep their heads -- and brains -- small enough to make live birth possible, human children must be born at an earlier stage of development than other animals. This is fairly obvious; but the two scientists then got to wondering if if might be a cause as well as a consequence of intelligence as well.

Caring for a baby is a tough job, and it makes considerable demands on intelligence. The smarter the parents, the bigger their brains, and so the more helpless the infants. The result is a feedback loop, in which the pressure for clever parents requires ever-more incompetent infants, requiring ever-brighter parents to ensure they survive childhood.

To test their theory, Piantadosi and Kidd turned used an evolutionary simulation to see if the idea was workable. That panning out, they then went looking for evidence to support the theory in the real world -- gathering data from 23 different species of primate, from chimps and gorillas to the Madagascan mouse lemur, a diminutive primate less than 30 centimeters (a food) long, including tail.

The two scientists compared the age at which an animal weaned its young, as a useful index of how competent those young were, with their scores on a standardized test of primate intelligence. They found a strong correlation: across all the animals tested, weaning age predicted about 78% of the eventual score in intelligence. That correlation held even after controlling for many other factors, including the average body weight of babies compared with adults, or brain size as a percentage of total body mass. Other bits of data seem to support the theory: study of Serbian women published in 2008, for instance, found that babies born to mothers with higher IQs had a better chance of surviving than those born to low-IQ women.

Of course, it's only easy to see selection in relatively straightforward adaptations -- the sabre-tooth cats were obviously adapted to take down large prey, and indeed they seem to have evolved multiple separate times in that role. In addition, there's no natural law that says adaptations have to be the result of a single selection pressure; indeed, even if the child-rearing notion is accepted, it's still puzzling as to why humans got on this evolutionary treadmill, while our nearest relatives did not. The most we can do is come up with ideas and model them to see if they are workable; the more workable they prove to be, the more confidence we can place in them, and the less mysterious human evolution seems.



* CRISPR EXCITEMENT (5): In still more news of the enthusiasm for CRISPR, an article from Nature.com ("CRISPR's Hopeful Monsters: Gene-Editing Storms Evo-Devo Labs" by Ewen Callaway, 17 August 2016) zeroed in on the use of the technique by researchers investigating the developmental changes underlying evolutionary development -- or "evo-devo", as it is more fashionably known.

Since the 1980s, young developmental and evolutionary biologists have come to the famous Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) at Woods Hole, Massachusetts, to acquire leading-edge skills for their work. Traditionally, students at the annual MBL embryology course dissected sea urchins and comb jellies, or grafted together cells from different animals. For the last three years, however, the apprentices have been getting into gene editing -- thanks to CRISPR-Cas9, which is now taking evo-devo research by storm.

Instead of inferring what caused historic evolutionary transitions, for example how fish went from fins to feet, researchers can check their hypotheses directly with CRISPR. All they have to do is cut out the fish genes thought to be involved in making fins, and see whether the fish start to form something resembling feet. Other researchers have used the technique to determine how butterflies evolved exquisite color vision, and how crustaceans acquired claws. Arnaud Martin -- an evolutionary developmental biologist at George Washington University in Washington DC -- says: "CRISPR is a revolution all across biology, but for evo-devo it's transformative. We can do things we were not able to do before."

Neil Shubin -- a palaeontologist and developmental biologist at the University of Chicago in Illinois, well-known to the public for his popular writings -- has used gene-editing to examine how the tips of fish fins, or rays, were replaced by feet and digits in four-legged land vertebrates, or tetrapods.

Researchers know that ancient fish developed limbs -- Shubin led the team that in 2004 discovered a 375-million-year-old fossil that demonstrated the transition in progress -- but there was thought for some time that feet were not derived from rays, being an evolutionary novelty without an equivalent in fish, because feet and rays are made of different kinds of bone. However, Shubin says CRISPR has convinced him feet were indeed derived from rays.

His team used the technique to engineer zebrafish to knock out various combinations of the several hox13 developmental genes they possess, these genes being seen as playing an important role in laying down fin rays. Shubin says that none of the mutants grew fully fledged feet, but some possessed "fingery fins" made of the same kind of bone that builds fingers and toes in tetrapods. The zebrafish has long been used for genomic experiments; CRISPR vastly sped up the experiments performed by Shubin's team. The next step in such research is to knock out hox13 in fish species more like those ancestral to the tetrapods.

CRISPR can be used to probe the genetic changes underlying the evolutionary paths of any organism. Arnaud Martin says that if scientists scientists can successfully rear an animal in the lab so they can gain access to its eggs, they should be able to use CRISPR.

Martin -- and his colleague Nipam Patel of the University of California at Berkeley -- have been using CRISPR to tinker with the genome of a marine crustacean named Parhyale hawaiensis, which is now becoming a common test subject in evo-devo research. The two researchers found that inactivating different Hox genes in the species messes with the development of specialized appendages such as antennas and claws.

A team under Claude Desplan, a developmental neurobiologist at New York University, has similarly applied CRISPR to yellow swallowtail butterflies to test a theory about how photoreceptors in their eyes detect a broader spectrum of colors than insects such as fruit flies. Ongoing experiments in his lab have also tinkered with the genomes of wasps and ants.

To date, evo-devo researchers have focused on using CRISPR to eliminate a gene's activity or to introduce genes, such as the one encoding green fluorescent protein, to make it possible to better track an animal's development. However, Martin believes researchers will soon begin using the tool to precisely alter DNA sequences in animals to test ideas about specific genetic changes. Those could include changes to regulatory DNA sequences that influence where and when a gene is active, which may have contributed to adaptations such as tetrapod limbs.

Bhart-Anjan Bhullar, a palaeontologist at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, thinks that researchers could also make educated guesses at the DNA sequences of ancient transitional creatures and insert them into living animals using CRISPR. In 2015, his team used chemicals to modify development pathways in chickens that they thought helped to alter the snouts of theropod dinosaurs into modern birds' beaks. He hopes to now be able to do such experiments with CRISPR.

Bhullar, who attended the embryology course at Woods Hole in 2016, says he was impressed by the success of gene-editing trials by students there, where scientists had the chance to use CRISPR editing on zebrafish, the crustacean P. hawaiensis, frogs, slipper snails, and sea squirts. Bhullar says that With CRISPR, "stuff just works. This is rapidly going to become the standard in evolutionary developmental biology." [END OF SERIES]


[FRI 16 SEP 16] THE COLD WAR (128)

* THE COLD WAR (128): Unfortunately for Richard Nixon's presidential campaign, although Eisenhower began campaigning on the vice-president's behalf in October, the president's efforts had a mixed aspect, since in his speeches he defended the efforts of his administration, instead of promoting Nixon. The speeches did have a positive effect on Nixon's standings in public opinion polls; indeed Nixon, belying his reputation for ruthlessness, in response to a quiet request from Mame Eisenhower via Nixon's wife Pat, told the president not to over-exert himself in campaigning. Eisenhower wasn't a young man any more, after all, and he'd already had a heart attack.

Nixon was more characteristically ruthless in trying to make an issue of rumors of JFK's poor health -- Kennedy had actually had serious health problems all his life, which the Kennedy family did their best to keep under wraps. In 1956, in response to concerns about Eisenhower's health, the president had publicly released the results of his physical exam. Nixon proposed that both candidates now do so, with the suggestion to be issued by the White House. Eisenhower refused.

On 8 November 1960, John F. Kennedy was elected the 35th President of the United States. The popular vote was almost even, JFK leading Nixon by fractions of a percent, though the electoral vote went a little less than 3:2. Given the closeness of the vote, to no surprise there were accusations of fraud -- but though Eisenhower was inclined to make an issue of it, once again Nixon took the high road and said NO. That was the end of the matter.

Nikita Khrushchev was very pleased with Kennedy's election, far preferring him to Nixon, seen with plenty of justification in the Soviet Union as an arch-anticommunist. The Soviet foreign ministry had prepared an analysis of Kennedy during the election campaign that suggested he would be practical in his dealings with the Soviet Union, and that he had an "acute, penetrating mind." Such mental acuity, however, grated on Khrushchev's insecurities, and the report also suggested Kennedy was for a US military buildup and a hard line on Berlin, which raised Khrushchev's apprehensions even more. The fact that JFK was described as being of a family that was one of the "seventy-five richest in the USA" made him a stereotypical communist class enemy.

Nonetheless, with Eisenhower leaving office, Khrushchev wanted to make a fresh start with the new president. Following the election, Soviet diplomats began dropping hints to American contacts that the Kremlin was very interested in a face-to-face meeting between Khrushchev and Kennedy -- the general response being that such a meeting would, of course, have to wait until after JFK was inaugurated.

On 11 November, only four days after the US election, South Vietnamese military officers attempted a coup against President Ngo Dinh Diem. Diem was much disliked for his autocratic ways, with his heavy-handed brother Ngo Dinh Nhu being particularly hated -- along with his venomous wife, Madame Nhu. The coup was very clumsily executed, however, and quickly fell apart. Hundreds were killed; Diem accused the Americans of at least tacit complicity in the coup.

Kennedy was entering the White House with a simmering problem in South Vietnam: Diem's government lacked popular support, but he was not particularly effective as a strong-man ruler either. Diem had not trusted his military, working to make it as weak as possible, preferring instead to rely on his brother Nhu's secret police. The coup only aggravated Diem's distrust of the military, and did nothing to enhance his respect for the Americans. The situation was impossible for the Americans; it would not get better.

* On 6 December, Kennedy came to the White House, by invitation, to be briefed by Eisenhower. Kennedy had apparently been taken in, as had most of the USA, by Eisenhower's low-profile ways of doing things, and thought him a weary old fossil; JFK's "New Frontier" rhetoric amounted to a veiled slap at him, and Eisenhower was perfectly aware of it. However, Kennedy also knew that Eisenhower had enormous public prestige, and had been very careful not to criticize him personally during the campaign -- with little or none of the demagoguery about "crooks and commies" in the government that had tainted the 1952 election, and to which Eisenhower had contributed. Kennedy wanted the public to know that the new administration was not going to start off on a bad foot with the old -- as had notoriously been the case in the transition between the Truman and Eisenhower Administrations.

In the briefing, Kennedy was polite and attentive, greatly impressing Eisenhower with his demeanor; however, Kennedy didn't take very seriously much that he was told that contradicted his own views. Eisenhower stressed the balance-of-payments problem the US was having with Europe, and also emphasized that Kennedy set up a well-organized staff, lest problems pour into the Oval Office without letup. On his part, Kennedy was interested in Eisenhower's take on Macmillan, de Gaulle, and Adenauer -- an astute line of questioning, since Eisenhower was on such long-standing and close personal terms with Macmillan and de Gaulle.

Kennedy also said he would like to retain the services of General Goodpaster for a few months; Eisenhower replied that Goodpaster wanted to return to active service and that a spot was being held for him, but that as commander in chief, Kennedy would be able to assign him as needed. Kennedy said he would keep the spot open for the general. In any case, the two men parted amicably after the briefing, with both having a higher opinion of the other as a result -- though the gain in regard was substantially greater on Eisenhower's part than Kennedy's -- and the meeting favorably reported in the press.

Meanwhile, the fighting between General Phoumi -- backed by the US, primarily through CIA assistance -- and Kong Le's neutralist government -- backed by the Soviets -- had resurged, with General Phoumi's troops advancing on the capital, Vientiane. A week after the White House meeting, on 13 December, General Phoumi's troops started bombarding Vientiane; the next day, a US Navy carrier task force was put on alert to intervene, with a contingency plan set up in which a US Army airborne brigade would be sent in to seize Laotian airfields.

After three days of fighting for Vientiane, Kong Le and his troops pulled out, trekking north to the Plain of Jars -- named for the clusters of stone-age stone jars that dot its landscape -- under the cover of North Vietnamese artillery, and kept supplied by Soviet airdrops. By the end of the month, Kong Le's forces had formally allied themselves with the Pathet Lao. The country was effectively partitioned. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* GIMMICKS & GADGETS: As reported by WIRED Online blogs, in one of the latest advances in 3D printing, researchers in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Computer Science & Artificial Intelligence Lab have figured out how to 3D-print devices with functional hydraulic systems. The MIT "printable hydraulics" scheme uses an inkjet printer to build up layer-on-layer material less than half the width of a human hair, a drop at a time. Once a layer is laid down, a high-intensity UV light solidifies the material intended to be solid, while leaving the liquids liquid. Ultimately, the printer lays down a mechanism with sealed hydraulic elements.

The research team, led by lab director Daniela Rus and postdoctoral associate Robert MacCurdy, printed a little six-legged robot that's less than 15 centimeters (6 inches) long. A motor spins a crankshaft that pumps fluid to the robot's six legs; 3-D printed bellows use the fluid pressure of that pumping to allow the robot to shuffle along.

MIT hydraulic robot frame

It doesn't shuffle along very energetically, but it was all fabricated as a single part, aside from the battery and motor fitted to it. According to Rus: "The ability of printing solids and liquids at the same time will enable us to create a whole different class of active mechanisms. The idea of reducing or simplifying the amount of manual assembly that's required to create robots is really critical for getting broader adoption of robots, and making them more accessible."

The MIT group is working towards more sophisticated printed robots, with an eye towards "disposable" machines that could be expended as needed at disaster sites. The biggest challenge is to figure out how to incorporate the motor or muscle necessary for create propulsion. They're easy enough to add afterward, but the hope is that someday it will be part of the printing process.

* The notion of a modular cellphone, made of up replaceable blocks, has been around for a few years, but so far hasn't made it to market. Otterbox, a maker of ruggedized cellphone cases, is getting an ingenious jump on the idea through the company's "Universal Case System (UCS)" for the iPhone.

The baseline system starts out as what appears to be normal Otterbox ruggedized case, except that the bottom half looks like it's divided into thirds. The middle section of the bottom half slides out, allowing modules to be inserted in its place. Lens modules and such can also be affixed to the top of the case, since that's where the camera is. The prices are not bad; the case itself costs $50 or $60 USD, depending on the size of the iPhone, with modules ranging in price from $20 to $250 USD -- the top-end item being a thermal camera module.

Otterbox Universal Case System

Otterbox has lined up partners to provide modules: SanDisk has a flash drive for up to 128 GB of extra storage; Goal Zero has a battery pack; while Square is offering a contactless payments and chip reader. The modules are ruggedized to Otterbox standards, with Otterbox conducting compliance tests to make sure they can take the punishment. However, the UCS is a totally open system; anybody who wants to provide a module, and can meet the specs, is welcome to play.

* For the nostalgic, this November the Nintendo Company intends to release the "Nintendo Classic Mini" -- a re-release, in a compact format, of the 1983 Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). The little game console will come with 30 classic games, including three Mario Brothers games, Donkey Kong & Donkey Kong JR, Final Fantasy, Galaga, and of course Pac-Man. It'll be a steal at $59.99 USD.



* SMARTER TRUCKS: As discussed by a item from WIRED Online blogs ("$30K Retrofit Turns Dumb Semis Into Self-Driving Robots" by Jack Stewart, 17 May 2016), a US start-up company named "Otto" is working on a $30,000 USD kit that will make any truck built since 2013 autonomous.

Otto is the brainchild of Anthony Levandowski, who worked at Google on Streetview and mapping, and Lior Ron, who was the Google Maps Product Lead. The company launched in January 2016, and has about 40 employees hired off from Apple, Tesla, and Cruise -- the autonomous startup GM recently bought for a cool billion dollars.

Otto's kit will allow trucks handle themselves on the highway, safely keeping within a lane, maintaining a set speed, and slowing or stopping as necessary. The company says it has demonstrated its technology with two vehicles on Interstate 5 and Highway 101 in California, rolling down the road with minimal human intervention. The trucks do not change lanes by themselves, they just slow down and caravan behind other slow movers.

robotrucks roll

The system only works on trucks built since 2013, when digital transmissions became widespread. Otto's kit includes cameras, radar, and lidar sensors -- a common combination for advanced autonomous vehicles. To control the vehicle, Otto adds power steering and redundant braking systems. A custom computer directs operations, making real-time driving decisions.

Otto's kit also uses detailed mapping data; this is common for autonomous road vehicles, but Otto's emphasis is a bit different from the norm. A Tesla with Autopilot would slow down and stop in case of trouble, with its hazard lights blinking. A truck fitted with the Otto kit could tell if it's on a bridge with no shoulder; it would know that it should keep rolling until it's off the bridge, and has a space where it can pull over. Mapping the country's 23,500 kilometers (146,000 miles) of typical truck routes may seem a big job, but it's only about 3% of the 6.4 million kilometers (four million miles) of roads carpeting the USA.

Of course, once in town, the driver has to take over. Otto says the trucks will, in evolution, be fully autonomous, requiring only a supervisor on board. Even with partial automation, the potential benefits of this are enormous. According to a Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration analysis, the driver was the key factor in 87% of big-rig crashes, poor decisions caused more than a third. Making the computer drive could get companies around strict rest rules for drivers, improving safety without sacrificing efficiency. Given a $150,000 USD rig that cruises the country from day to day, the payback time on the $30,000 USD pricetag for the Otto kit is not that long.

* In related news, the notion of platooning trucks -- developing automated systems to allow big rigs to play "follow the leader", closely space as the assemblage rolls down the freeway -- has been discussed here in the past, the last mention being in 2015. An article from BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK provided an update, discussing how Daimler of Germany has been conducting live freeway tests of platooning, with a trial in April running six convoys of two or three trucks each from Sweden, Germany, and Belgium into Rotterdam.

The technology is seen as mature, with the main issue being regulation -- specification of minimum safe distances, how to handle association or dissociation of convoys, and so on. The expectation is that convoys will be ad hoc, with trucks lining up and withdrawing as per their own convenience; there will also need to be provisions to allow passenger cars and such to pass through the convoy to get to an exit, or onto the freeway. The expectation is that new big rigs will have platooning technology by default by 2020, with half of Europe's 750,000 trucks ready for platooning by 2025.



* WHITHER BREXIT? As discussed by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("Faffing About", 7 September 2016), it's been going on three months since Britain voted to leave the European Union. Immediately following the vote, the UK government went through an abrupt shift of gears, with Prime Minster David Cameron resigning and being replaced by Theresa May.

Prime Minister May has put three leading Brexiters in charge of the process: Boris Johnson, the new foreign secretary; Liam Fox, of the Department for International Trade; and David Davis, in charge of the new Department for Exiting the EU, set up by May. However, although May has insisted that "Brexit means Brexit", that there will be no fudging, the government has not yet invoked Article 50 of the EU treaty to initiate the process. Indeed, so little has happened that the current situation has been compared to the "Phoney War" -- the idle time in World War II between Hitler's conquest of Poland in the fall of 1939 to his invasion of Scandinavia, the Low Countries, and France in the spring of 1940.

John Kerry & Theresa May

On 5 September, Davis addressed Parliament on the exit process, helpfully explaining that Brexit meant leaving the EU. He radiated enthusiasm, saying Brexit meant taking back control of borders, laws, and taxpayers' money, and brimmed with cheer about the opportunities it would bring. However, he was unable to provide any specific answers to questions. Davis said in his own defense, and quite rightly, that it is more important to get Brexit right than to do it quickly. Although Brexiters downplayed, even ignored, the obstacles in their campaigning for Leave, it is simply a huge job; Davis has 180 people in his department, 120 more in Brussels, but he needs more.

Along with the ugly logistics of the exercise, there are also the agendas of the participants, which have left pundits and the media engaged in guessing games. Johnson, Fox, and Davis have their different ideas about Brexit; and they work for May, who was a Remainer, and who is sending mixed signals of her intent. In China for the G20 summit, May disavowed several pledges made by Brexiters before the referendum:

The not-so-subtle message was that May and Philip Hammond -- her chancellor, also a Remainer -- will be firmly in control of the process. Brexiters like Johnson, Fox, and Davis were brought on board the process to ensure they own it, even if they don't really control it.

No doubt May and Hammond took note of a paper on Brexit released by Japan's foreign ministry. Japanese companies, the paper said, were big employers in the UK, Britain having soaked up almost half of Japan's investment in the EU last year. The Japanese regard investing in Britain as attractive because they see the UK as a portal to Europe. The paper recommended that May retain full access to the single market, to avoid customs controls on exports; to preserve the "passport" that allows banks based in London to trade across Europe; and to let employers freely hire EU nationals.

Tory Brexiters are not happy with that notion at all; they fear that having won a fabulous victory, it will fizzle out in the end. They don't like the idea of staying in the single market, believing instead that Britain should take back total control of migration, money, and laws -- which will, of course, yield the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Davis publicly claimed that having access to the single market was not the same as being a member of it, and added that giving up border control to secure membership was an "improbable" outcome. A spokesman for Number 10 promptly slapped him down, saying that such remarks were only the personal opinion of Davis, and that the UK would retain as much of the status quo as possible -- most significantly in areas like security and foreign policy cooperation.

Leavers deride the idea that exclusion from the European single market would be a calamity, saying that the prophecies of doom before the vote haven't come true. However, Brexit hasn't taken place yet, and the prime minister is not so complacent. UK business and financial lobbies are pressing the government to remain in the single market, while Barack Obama and other foreign leaders have told her that they do not see bilateral trade deals with the UK as their first priority.

That's not spite, it's a question of rational priorities. Obama was angrily denounced by Brexiters for coming to the UK before the vote and saying that Britain would "go to the back of the queue" on trade deals if the vote was YES. Some have wondered if Obama had actually tipped the close vote in favor of Leave by speaking out; but he has made no apologies, and retracted nothing. Indeed, the message in the paper from the Japanese foreign ministry was broadly the same, if not so blunt. If the British people haven't got the message, top British leadership is paying attention.

May has ruled out a second referendum on Brexit, and is in no hurry to call elections; she publicly says no more about Brexit than she feels she needs to. There are voices in favor of delay, saying Brexit will benefit from being carefully thought-out; but Brexiter Tories, and EU leaders wanting to get the issue out of their hair, may not be so patient. What happens next? Who really knows? It's all unfamiliar territory: here there be dragons.



* CRISPR EXCITEMENT (4): As a further comment on CRISPR, an article from THE NEW YORK TIMES ("Gene Drives Offer New Hope Against Diseases & Crop Pests" by Nicholas Wade, 21 December 2015) focused on "gene drive" schemes and their potential. As discussed earlier in this series, genes may come in different variants, or "alleles"; should a parent have two different alleles for the same gene in its genome, the chances of inheriting one or the other allele should be 50:50. Using CRISPR-Cas9, however, it is possible to genetically "rig" an allele so that it will always be selected, with that allele then spreading through a population.

No gene drives have yet been tested in the wild, but lab experiments have suggested the potential. In 2015, two biologists at the University of California, San Diego, Valentino M. Gantz and Ethan Bier, used a gene drive to propel a gene for albinism through a population of laboratory fruit flies. The drive was astonishingly efficient: within two generations, some 97% of the fruit flies were albinos. Although gene drives may not spread so quickly in natural populations, which are more variable, the experiment demonstrated the vast potential of the method for modifying pest populations.

In 2003, Austin Burt, a biologist at a branch of Imperial College London (ICL) in Sunninghill, England, essentially laid out the theory of gene drives and their possible implications: "Clearly, the technology described here is not to be used lightly. Given the suffering caused by some species, neither is it obviously one to be ignored."

Genomic technologies available in 2003 weren't up to the job, but with the publication of the 2012 paper on CRISPR-Cas9, it can be done now. In 2014, a group of Harvard biologists wrote in the journal eLIFE that gene drives "could potentially prevent the spread of disease, support agriculture by reversing pesticide and herbicide resistance in insects and weeds, and control damaging invasive species."

Gene drives could help rid the world of pest-borne diseases like malaria, dengue fever, sleeping sickness, and Lyme disease. A gene drive designed to render a population extinct is known as a "crash drive". A crash drive being developed for mosquitoes consists of a gene engineered into the Y chromosome that shreds the X chromosome in the cells that make the mosquito's sperm, ensuring that all progeny are male. As each generation of altered males become more predominant, females become less likely to encounter unaltered males. Unless the drive itself is damaged through mutation, the number of females would be expected to dwindle each generation until the population collapses.

Such a scheme has been investigated by a team under Andrea Crisanti and Tony Nolan at ICL. The ICL researchers developed mosquitoes with gene drives that disrupt three genes for female fertility, each of which acts at a different stage of egg formation. Because the female mosquitoes are infertile only when a copy is inherited from both parents, the gene drives would be thoroughly disseminated through a population before they began to cut in, reducing mosquito populations to levels where they could not support transmission of malaria.

The difficulty with this approach is that mosquitoes lay many eggs, and so it doesn't take many mosquitoes capable of defying the gene drive to restore a mosquito population -- and so for the time being, the scheme is a lab experiment. The trick, so the ICL researchers believe, is to design the driven gene with several different features that all have to be disabled to keep them from working. A mutation might be able to get around one; but not three or more.

A more Zen approach would be to use gene drives to alter mosquito genes to make them resistant to the malaria parasite. Since these mosquitoes would have a selective advantage over unaltered mosquitoes -- the malaria parasite doesn't do mosquitoes much good, either -- they would predominate in time. Biologists at the Irvine and San Diego campuses of the University of California reported introducing a gene drive with a cargo of malaria-resistance genes into mosquitoes. Such genes, if successfully propelled throughout a wild mosquito population, would render a region free of the malarial parasite, which could no longer spread via mosquito bites.

In agriculture, biologists envisage gene drive systems that could destroy or modify insect pests, and reverse genetic resistance to pesticides in species that acquire it. Gene drives may also be used to suppress populations of troublesome invasive species like rats.

Gene drives have two major technical limitations: first, they only work in sexually reproducing species, which effectively rules out their use in bacteria; second, they spread at an effective rate only in species that reproduce quickly, meaning they would be of no practical use in elephants or humans. There are also concerns over how well they will work in practice, and what risks they pose.

As of late the issue of risk, not effectiveness, has dominated discussion of gene drives. Biologists are enthusiastic about the potential of gene drives; they don't want to see the technique derailed for decades because of some half-baked exercise that backfires. What complicates the matter is that a single organism, a single mosquito, wired with a gene drive would be enough to fully perform a gene-drive exercise. Some biologists are calling for safety precautions and full public discussion of gene drives, along with relevant regulation.

It may seem that once a gene drive system is released, it can never be recalled, but that may not be entirely true. Biologists are working on the concepts of "reversal drives" and "immunizing drives". A reversal drive would cut out an errant drive and restore the target organism almost to its previous state; while an immunizing drive would attack and pre-emptively change the DNA sequence targeted by the rogue drive.

The popular reaction to gene drives will be that they are too drastic and uncertain, but people already exert control over nature with a range of toxic pesticides and herbicides that are a heavy burden on the environment. Gene drive systems offer a much more specific and less harmful approach, at least in principle, toward attaining the same goals. Burt, having seen his early speculations hit the big time, is optimistic: "I think we'll be able to make this work." [TO BE CONTINUED]


[FRI 09 SEP 16] THE COLD WAR (127)

* THE COLD WAR (127): With Khrushchev back in the USSR, the major remaining distraction for Eisenhower was the presidential race, now heading into the final stretch for Nixon and Kennedy. The Republican Party platform built upon the prestige of the Eisenhower presidency: "Dwight David Eisenhower stands today throughout the world as the greatest champion of peace and justice and good. The Republican Party brings to the days ahead trained, experienced, mature and courageous leadership." Of course, the party platform focused on Cold War themes:


One fact darkens the reasonable hopes of free men: the growing vigor and thrust of Communist imperialism. Everywhere across the earth, this force challenges us to prove our strength and wisdom, our capacity for sacrifice, our faith in ourselves and in our institutions ...

We are unalterably committed to maintaining the security, freedom and solidarity of the Western Hemisphere. We support President Eisenhower's reaffirmation of the Monroe Doctrine in all its vitality. Faithful to our treaty commitments, we shall join the Republics of the Americas against any intervention in our hemisphere, and in refusing to tolerate the establishment in this hemisphere of any government dominated by the foreign rule of communism ...

We confront today the global offensive of Communism, increasingly aggressive and violent in its enterprises. The agency of that offensive is Soviet policy, aimed at the subversion of the world. Recently we have noted Soviet Union pretexts to intervene in the affairs of newly independent countries, accompanied by threats of the use of nuclear weapons. Such interventions constitute a form of subversion against the sovereignty of these new nations and a direct challenge to the United Nations ...

We are ... ready to negotiate and to institute realistic methods and safeguards for disarmament, and for the suspension of nuclear tests. We advocate an early agreement by all nations to forego nuclear tests in the atmosphere, and the suspension of other tests as verification techniques permit. We support the President in any decision he may make to re-evaluate the question of resumption of underground nuclear explosions testing, if the Geneva Conference fails to produce a satisfactory agreement. We have deep concern about the mounting nuclear arms race. This concern leads us to seek disarmament and nuclear agreements. And an equal concern to protect all peoples from nuclear danger, leads us to insist that such agreements have adequate safeguards ...

The Republican Party reaffirms its determination to use every peaceful means to help the captive nations toward their independence, and thus their freedom to live and worship according to conscience. We do not condone the subjugation of the peoples of Hungary, Poland, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Rumania, Albania, Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, and other once-free nations. We are not shaken in our hope and belief that once again they will rule themselves ...

The strategic imperatives of our national defense policy are these:

Maintenance of these imperatives requires these actions:




* SCIENCE NOTES: The fad for do-it-yourself electric brain stimulation -- "transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS)" and the alternating-current "tACS" -- to enhance mood and cognition was discussed here in 2014. As reported by an item from AAAS SCIENCE NOW Online ("Cadaver Study Casts Doubts On How Zapping Brain May Boost Mood, Relieve Pain" by Emily Underwood, 20 April 2016, research announced early this year raises some doubt that tDCS amounts to much.

Gyoergy Buzsaki of New York University (NYU) in New York City and Antal Berenyi of the University of Szeged in Hungary performed electrical stimulation of the head of a cadaver, with the head wired to determine how much electricity was going through it. They discovered that very little current entered the brain; on investigation, they determined that up to 90% of the current had been shunted off by the skin covering the skull.

Electrical brain stimulation has been promoted by its advocates as improving mood, reducing pain, and sharpening cognition by simulating neurons in the skull. While electrical stimulation devices typically deliver about 1 to 2 milliamps of current, Buzsaki has estimated that about 4 milliamps would be needed to get neurons to fire. He tried five milliamps on himself, to get dizzy and alarmed; he recommends that people not try such intense stimulation.

Some trials do show that electrical stimulation gets results; advocates suspect that low currents don't make neurons fire, they just make it easier for them to fire. There have been criticisms that a cadaver is not a valid test subject -- though Buzsaki replies that a living person's skin is not as dry as that of a cadaver, and so should conduct even more electricity.

Buzsaki does suspect electrical brain stimulation has some effect, but not everyone feels so tolerant. Neuroscientist Vincent Walsh of University College London says that electrical brain stimulation is "a sea of bullshit and bad science -- and I say that as someone who has contributed some of the papers that have put gas in the tDCS tank. It really needs to be put under scrutiny like this."

* As discussed by an item from AAAS SCIENCE NOW Online, Harvard geneticist George Church has unsettled the bioscience world by proposing that the bacterium Escherichia coli -- a common bacterium normally a resident of the human colon, and a common bioscience "lab rat" -- has a problem, in that it grows slowly. Church and colleagues instead suggest an alternative, in the form of Vibrio natriegens, an inhabitant of salt marshes that is the fastest-growing bacterium known.

E. coli is very well understood and regarded as easily handled, and the four strains used for lab experiments no longer have the ability to reside in humans, meaning they pose little or no hazard to health. However, V. natriegens has a doubling time of only ten minutes under good conditions, with E. coli taking twice as long. V. natriegens is in the same genus as Vibrio cholerae, the bacterium that causes cholera -- but V. natriegens is not known to infect humans. In addition, it is not vulnerable to the same bacteriophages -- viruses that infect bacteria -- that cause other Vibrio bacteria to produce dangerous toxins.

Harvard geneticist Henry Lee -- who collaborated with Church in research on V. natriegens -- and his team have sequenced the bacterium, the genome having been released to support evaluations. They've also developed a variant of the CRISPR genome-editing system that works on the bacterium. Response to the proposal has been cautiously favorable, with concerns raised that further study is needed see how stable the organism's genome will be over generations of experimentation, and how the bacterium's salty growing conditions might affect extracting purified DNA from the microbes, a common step in many studies.

The question has also been raised as to how important the faster doubling time would be in practice -- but nobody sees any show-stopper just yet in adding another "lab rat" to the bioscience toolkit, particularly ones that live in environments much different from the human body, giving us a much greater range of applicability.

* The human eye seems like a marvelous contraption, but in truth nature is full of all different kinds of eyes, plus things that would have to be described as "not quite an eye". As reported by AAAS SCIENCE NOW Online cyanobacteria in the Synechocystis genus use their entire bodies like lenses to track the location of a light source, enhancing their photosynthetic production.

Researchers report that the bacteria use their curved cellular surfaces to focus light from one direction onto their cell membranes on the opposite side, much like a camera lens focuses light onto the surface of film. The researchers were able to trick the cyanobacteria into refocusing with a laser light. They believe that Synechocystis can see at a resolution of nearly 20 degrees -- about a hundred times less precise than a human eye, but impressive for a single-celled organism. The researchers believe the mechanism may prove common among bacteria.



* PANAMA CANAL FOR THE 21ST CENTURY: The plan to renovate and improve the Panama Canal was discussed here in 2007; as discussed by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("Wider Impact", 18 June 2016), the work has been completed, the updated canal having been formally opened on 26 June, with the first vessel making the passage that day.

The widening of the canal was originally considered before World War 2, to become increasingly important as vessels got bigger and bigger. Massive new locks have been built at both the Pacific and Atlantic ends of the canal, while channels have been deepened and widened. At $5 billion USD, the effort was expensive, but payback is not going to be a problem; the revenue received by the Panama Canal Authority (ACP) is expected to double to around $2 billion USD a year in 2021, since the ACP can charge more for passage by bigger ships.

Over 960 million cubic meters of cargo passed through the canal in 2015 -- a new record, an amount that Francisco Miguez of the ACP calls "the maximum we could do in the existing locks." The update increases capacity to 1.7 billion cubic meters. The biggest container ships that could use the old canal, known as "Panamaxes", can carry around 5,000 TEUs -- "twenty-foot equivalent units", the size of a standard shipping container. "Neo-Panamaxes" that will squeeze through the new locks can carry around 13,000 TEUs. Although the world's largest ships have space for nearly 20,000 TEUs, the majority of the global fleet will now fit through the canal.

Along with profits for Panama, the update will also change how freight moves around the world. Vessels plying the route between Asia and the US East Coast that were too big to fit through the Panama Canal generally went through the Suez Canal; now they can take a shorter route via Panama, resulting in lower transport expense and faster time-to-market. In addition, while containers offloaded at US West Coast ports could be hauled east through America by road or rail, surface transport times can be cut by offloading containers at Gulf of Mexico ports. Finally, vessels carrying liquefied natural gas from America's shale beds will now be able to pass through the locks to serve the Asian market. they are expected to account for 20% of cargo by volume by 2020.

Ports in Baltimore, Charleston, Miami, New York, and Savannah are updating facilities to accommodate the Neo-Panamaxes. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey plans to spend $2.7 billion USD on enlarging its terminals and shipping lanes, and a further $1.3 billion USD to raise a bridge by 20 meters (65 feet). The increased automation due to port upgrades will also improve the bottom line of shipping companies, and speed up time-to-market.

Customers may not see much in the way of lower prices as a result -- partly because shipping rates are very depressed at present, and reducing shipping costs will mainly relieve the pain of the shipping companies. Industry consolidation and alliances, driven by the depressed rates, are also likely to prevent shipping cost reductions from being passed on to the consumer. Nonetheless, few are going to have cause to complain about the revitalized Panama Canal, while Panama will benefit greatly.



* RED KING'S RACE: As discussed by an item from AAAS SCIENCE NOW Online ("Peaceful Ant-Plant Partnerships Lead To Genomic Arms Races" by Elizabeth Pennisi, 25 August 2016), it is well known that humans are in an "evolutionary arms race" with the pathogens that afflict us. We develop drugs to combat the pathogens, only to eventually encourage the emergence of pathogens that can defeat the drugs. This vicious circle is known as the "Red Queen's hypothesis" -- after the Red Queen in Lewis Carroll's THROUGH THE LOOKING-GLASS, who told Alice that she would have to run as fast as she could just to stay in the same place.

But what about symbiotic arrangements, such as those between us and the beneficial microbes that live amicably in our gut and elsewhere in or on our body? It was long assumed that once a stable "mutualistic" relationship emerged, both sides would then genetically stabilize: if nothing's broken, there's no need to fix it. This notion has been called the "Red King hypothesis". However, a recent study of ants has shown that partners in symbiotic relationships may well have rapidly evolving genomes, it seems to keep a relationship intact.

This insight was obtained by Corrie Moreau, an evolutionary biologist at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, Illinois, and her graduate student Benjamin Rubin. They sequenced the genomes of seven ant species, three of which were symbiotically associated with just one plant: the acacia tree, the Japanese knotweed, or a tropical tree named Tachigali. In the case of the acacia, the ant Pseudomyrmex flavicornis defends the tree from elephants and other grazers, in return for a special acacia-produced sugar and the hollow spines in which it nests. The two researchers also sequenced the genomes of three nonspecialist species -- each closely related to one of the specialists -- and one very distantly related ant species as controls. All seven were in the Pseudomyrmex genus.

Rubin, now at Princeton University, used the genome sequences to estimate how rapidly the symbiotic ants were evolving in comparison with their generalist relatives. He believed the analysis would show the symbiotic ants had evolved more slowly; but the opposite proved true, the genome of each mutualistic ant was evolving at a faster rate than that of the most closely related generalist.

The researchers also found that changes were occurring in the same genes in all three mutualistic ant species, compared to their generalist counterparts. Those genes included ones that shape behavior and affect the brain. Moreau sees that as logical, because such partnerships depend on specific nesting, eating, and defensive behaviors: "The two partners must constantly dance together."

In other words, both sides of the partnership must deal with moving targets. The plant host is exposed to selection pressures, such as drought or pathogens; any evolutionary changes in the ants that enhances the survival of the plant host also enhance the survival of the ants. Similarly, the plant has an evolutionary incentive to enhance the survival of the ants; the ongoing selection pressures on one partner are effectively applied to the other. Indeed, in some respects, the mutual arrangement applies more selection pressure to each partner: each side has an evolutionary incentive to cheat on the arrangement, to the ultimate detriment of the whole, which leads to an evolutionary incentive in the other side to penalize cheating.

Moreau believes that the same effect is likely to be seen in other symbiotic partnerships. That belief is borne out by the independent work of Jacobus Boomsma, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Copenhagen. Boomsma has investigated fungus-growing ants and the evolutionary interdependence of the ants with their crops; his team has discovered the genomes of such ants are changing the fastest of any genomes for which comparative data exist. Similarly, Francois Lutzoni -- an evolutionary biologist at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina -- sees similar fast evolution in lichens, another well-known symbiotic partnership.

The only DNA changes that Moreau and her team find hard to explain are those in genes tied to aggressiveness. The mutualist ants tend to be much more aggressive than the generalists -- so much so that they would jump off a branch to attack her and her colleagues. That makes evolutionary sense, of course, since more aggressive ants are better at protecting their hosts; the puzzle is that the researchers found no particular evidence of sped-up evolution in genes tied to aggressiveness. Nonetheless, the bottom line is clear: the Red Queen runs for everyone.

ED: I suspect Corrie Moreau is long weary of the snickers she gets when she's introduced as "Dr. Moreau": "Walk on two legs, not on four -- are we not Men?"



* CRISPR EXCITEMENT (3): The easiest sorts of gene therapy will be those that can be done outside the body -- "ex vivo". The appeal of ex-vivo work is the level of control; cells can be extracted, have their genes manipulated, with their new genes tested before the cells are replaced. To see the potential, consider work being done by Sangamo Biosciences, based in Richmond, California, which has moved up to CRISPR after tinkering with other gene-editing tools for a decade.

In clinical trials of its HIV treatment, Sangamo takes immune cells infected by the virus out of a patient's bloodstream; edits in a mutation that makes them highly resistant to infection; generates a large number of the edited cells; and infuses them back into the patient, where they will hopefully flourish. A similar sort of approach can also be used in blood disorders, such as beta-thalassaemia and sickle-cell disease, which are caused by mutations in the globin gene. The idea is to extract blood stem cells from bone marrow; edit them so as to switch on the production of fetal haemoglobin, which the body stops producing shortly after birth; and return the stem cells to the body. It would be like a bone-marrow transplant, except that since the new genetically improved cells come from the patient's own body, there is no danger of rejection.

Similar ex-vivo approaches could make gene editing a powerful tool for fighting cancer. Promising research involves involves retrofitting the immune system's T cells with a protein called a "chimeric antigen receptor (CAR)" that recognizes tumors. This CAR-T approach is likely to evolve as CRISPR makes it possible to add more, or subtler, genetic changes to the T cells. Given the ease and speed with which RNA guides can be designed and tested, it seems only a matter of time until T cells are tailored to mutations specific to a particular patient's cancer.

Ex vivo approaches may have applications in other diseases, too. But when it comes, say, to a brain disease, there is no way to take the cells out, tweak them, and put them back. Instead, gene editing has to be performed on cells in place, or "in vivo". So far, attempts at therapeutic in-vivo gene editing have been limited in scope. Sangamo has done a little work in mouse brains, repressing the expression of the gene that causes Huntington's disease. Another firm, Intellia, has plans to look at in-vivo applications that include diseases of the eyes and nerves, as well as hemophilia and some infectious diseases.

The easiest in-vivo applications of gene editing will be diseases where the damaged cells are straightforward to obtain, for example diseases of the eye. However, gene-therapy companies also have strategies for getting at harder-to-reach cells, backed by years of work that could now be applied to the delivery of gene-editing packages. Take Lysogene, which is working on Sanfilippo syndrome, a genetic deficiency that destroys the nervous system of children and kills them by their teens. The company has a viral vector which, injected directly into the central nervous system, puts copies of the gene that children with Sanfilippo syndrome lack directly into brain cells.

And then there is the most controversial form of editing: editing the genome of a newly created embryo, or of the cells that produce sperm and eggs. If that could be done safely, it would offer the possibility of ending a genetic deficiency for good. No one is pursuing such research in the clinic as yet, but the announcement in April 2015 that a Chinese group had engineered changes into non-viable human embryos as part of their research into beta-thalassaemia set alarm bells ringing.

Even before that, a group of scientists had published an article in NATURE calling for a voluntary moratorium on all experiments involving germ-line modification. The Center for Genetics & Society, a non-profit in Berkeley, California, that supports responsible use of genetic technologies, opposes using CRISPR to conduct even basic research on embryos. It says that the prospect of people modified in ways that would be transmitted to their children raises grave safety, social, and ethical concerns -- running the risk not just of producing children with unforeseen difficulties because of side-effects, but of opening the door to new forms of social discrimination.

For now, all that is being done about human germ-line modification is tangential research, with some asserting that it should never be done at all. If germ-line modification is a hard sell, however, so is the idea that straightforward genetic defects should never be corrected. Right now, CRISPR, though good, is not perfect, and for now is not robust enough for germ-line modification. Nonetheless, CRISPR has enormous potential, even without consideration of germ-line modification; and further exploitation of that potential should help determine if the next steps should be taken. [TO BE CONTINUED]


[FRI 02 SEP 16] THE COLD WAR (126)

* THE COLD WAR (126): Outside the UN grounds, Khrushchev conducted press conferences, attended luncheons and dinners, appeared on TV and -- much to the consternation of security men -- dashed off to Harlem to embrace Fidel Castro, who had flown into New York City the day before Khrushchev arrived.

There was a bit of frenzy when a large package marked: PIE PERISHABLE -- arrived at the Soviet mission headquarters, addressed to the premier. Nerves were strained in the city because there was a series of bombings in progress there at the time, in the subway, on a ferry, in public buildings; the "Sunday Bomber", as he was called for his preferred day to strike, was never caught. The police bomb squad gave the package a careful examination, to find out it contained an apple pie. It had been baked and sent by Virginia L. McCleary of Luling, Texas, who said that Khrushchev needed "not pie-in-the-sky, which he's always promising, but real American pie."

Eisenhower found Khrushchev's hi-jinks at the UN annoying, telling Secretary of State Herter: "Khrushchev is trying to promote chaos and bewilderment in the world to find out which nations are weakening under this attack, and to pick what he can by fishing in troubled waters." That was reading much more into Khrushchev's antics than was really there, indeed it is not very clear what the premier was trying to accomplish -- but given the premier's bizarre theatrics, it was only too easy to believe. Eisenhower was so exasperated that he said, not entirely as a joke, that if he were dictator, he would "launch an attack on Russia while Khrushchev is in New York."

The president was no happier over Fidel Castro's activities at the UN, with Castro peddling revolutionary rhetoric to diplomats of undeveloped countries, the exercise capped on 26 September by a four-hour speech to the General Assembly -- the duration was nothing unusual for Castro, he was notoriously long-winded -- in which he blasted the USA and called for revolutions against the status quo. At least, nobody at all had any further doubts that the US and Cuba were enemies.

* Khrushchev flew back to Moscow on 13 October, where he presented his stint at the UN as a diplomatic triumph. He couldn't really point to any specific achievements for his trip; in fact, the only thing of substance that he did achieve, in hindsight, was to enhance doubts about his leadership through his juvenile behavior. The trip hardly seems to have been much more than a publicity junket, and a subtly forlorn one at that; those who talked to him personally during his stay in New York City found him dispirited, the belligerent public act being no more than a mask for insecurities.

Khrushchev was even more dispirited to come home to have to deal with a looming crisis in agriculture; his initiatives to boost Soviet farming were running out of steam, with productivity beginning to backslide. He went on the road to hector local officials, shifting the blame to everyone else. Khrushchev's exuberance over Soviet economic growth was running out of steam as well.

On 24 October, the premier was further discouraged by a staggering disaster with a prototype R-16 ICBM. The R-16 had been fueled for launch the day before, but ran into technical problems that delayed the launch. The prudent thing would have been to have drained the toxic and corrosive storable propellants, fixed the problems, and then refueled the missile. However, that would have delayed the launch, and so a crew of hundreds of people ended up swarming around the launchpad. The work went into the next day, with RVSN commander Marshal Nedelin personally directing the effort.

Unfortunately, a wrong command had been sent to the upper stage, and nobody knew it was counting down to ignition. It reached ZERO at about 6:45 PM local time; the rocket engines lit up, the result being a huge fireball. The launch pad was fenced off; many of those who were able to escape the fireball were then killed by the toxic propellants. Nedelin was among the dead. Survivors were rushed to the hospital. At first, the military refused to tell the doctors what had caused the patients' ghastly burns, but the doctors were insistent, and were finally told about the corrosive propellants. On getting the news, Khrushchev dispatched Leonid Brezhnev, the president of the Supreme Soviet, to the site to investigate.

In the meantime, the dead were attended to. Many remains were impossible to identify. The exact count of the dead, including those killed outright and those who died in the hospital later, remains unclear, estimates ranging from 92 to 190. The military personnel were buried in a mass grave in the launch site, while some of the civilians were sent home for burial. On 26 October 1960, the Soviet newspapers published a short official government communique informing the public that Marshal of Artillery Mitrofan Nedelin had died, along with many others, in an airplane crash, of which no details were given.

Mikhail Yangel, the head of the design bureau responsible for the R-16, had been at the site, but had taken a break to have a chat over a cigarette -- even the Soviets were not so sloppy as to let somebody smoke around a live missile. He had to be restrained from running to the conflagration. It is said that Khrushchev, in his coarse peasant way, bluntly asked Yangel when they met: "Why are you still alive?"

Brezhnev's investigative committee concluded that the launch procedures had been hasty, careless, and over-confident, and identified specific technical problems that had led to the disaster. The committee did not recommend any punitive actions, since any people who might have been held responsible were dead. Brezhnev reportedly said: "All guilty had been punished already."

The accident was kept a complete secret. Although a CORONA spy satellite took picture of the launch site the next day that indicated there had been a disastrous rocket explosion, such accidents were common both in the US and the USSR at the time, and there was no hint of the magnitude of the calamity. Details would not be made public for almost three decades. The accident was tragic enough in itself; what made it all that much worse for Khrushchev was that it meant trouble for the R-16 development program, at a time when the Americans were fielding long-range missiles in quantity. It was also another unwelcome reminder of just how weak the Soviet system, whose superiority the premier insistently proclaimed, was in practice. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* ANOTHER MONTH: As discussed by an article from THE GUARDIAN ("How An Ordinary New Zealand Town Became Steampunk Capital Of The World" by Eleanor Ainge Roy, 30 August 2016), the farming town of Oamaru -- with a population of 14,000, three hours' drive south of Christchurch on New Zealand's South Island -- once was noted for no more than its population of blue penguins and having the best-preserved collection of Victorian architecture in the country.

It turned out that the Victorian civic furnishings of Oamaru had a distinct benefit, helping turn the town into the steampunk capital of the world -- a magnet for those who like to play out the idea of being characters in a 19th-century science-fiction world of airships and steam robots. Oamaru now hosts the biggest annual steampunk gathering in the world.

According to Iain Clark -- more informally known as "Agent Darling", and one of the prime movers behind the steampunk take-over of Oamaru -- the exercise started rolling in 2010, when he approached Weta Workshop, the Wellington-based special effects and props company that worked on LORD OF THE RINGS, and got the firm to donate half a shipping container of artwork and statues for a steampunk exhibition in the town.

The exhibition duly took place; some of the locals were suspicious of the the visitors in outrageous costumes, but many Oamaru farmers were intrigued by the gadgets steampunk enthusiasts had cooked up, usually out of old junk. Smith says: "The farmers went home and started tinkering in their sheds, creating steampunk inventions. That's when it really started to go like wildfire."

Helen Jensen, more informally "La Falconesse", says: "It seemed to hit a frequency at the right time. New Zealanders are great creators and inventors, especially if they can make inventions from the junk collected in their garden sheds. I think the inventive side of steampunk is something Kiwis are particularly open to -- making things from nothing makes sense to them."

For the most part, the locals finally accepted that steampunk cultists were harmless, even absurdly polite; amusing; and contributed to the local community. Clark says: "Some people can't stand it, but most have come to accept that steampunk has allowed many shy people with slightly unusual interests to come out of the shadows. It has been particularly freeing for the creatives and artists in the community, to have Oamaru adopt something like steampunk as a core part of their identity."

steampunked in Oamaru

The town's main drag features the usual global franchises like McDonald's, KFC, and Liquor Land. The seaside, however, is a steampunk wonderland, with pristine Victorian architecture carved from local stone; a steampunk-themed children's playground; and the ominous Steampunk HQ, a museum, by the railway tracks.

Steampunk games such as teapot racing invented in Oamaru have been adopted by steampunk groups the world over, and Clark knows a number of Victorian enthusiasts who have moved to Oamaru specifically to be closer to the thriving scene. Clark says: "It's hard to feel shy when there are so many people walking around, bowing to you in the street. Being different is becoming the norm here -- something we celebrate." As the old saying goes: "It's hip to be square."

* An item from WIRED Online blogs by Brendan Cole ("Crap's Spontaneously Combusting in Upstate New York", 3 August 2016) focused on the phenomenon of manure-pile fires.

Yes, it happens. The manure comes along with bacteria, which generate heat as they digest the pile. The heat eventually kills off the bacteria, allowing the manure to be used for fertilizer. Under certain conditions, the heat can be intense enough to set the manure pile on fire. Manure fires are actually common, though they are typically small -- but one set off a major wildfire in Southern California in 2009, and pile of manure in Nebraska that weighed several thousand tonnes burned for three months in 2005.

The likelihood of a fire is dependent on the size of a manure pile, how hot the ambient temperature is, and how wet it has been -- too wet, it damps down the pile, too dry, it dries out bacterial activity. Agricultural experts counsel keeping manure piles relatively small, turning them over periodically, and monitoring their temperature.

* I finally broke down and bought a smartphone. I'm a member of Amazon's Prime subscription service, which offers various perks; they were selling an Android smartphone with 2 GB of RAM and 16 GB of flash for $60 USD, and I couldn't pass it up. With a protective back and a 32GB flash chip, it came to $80 USD total. It was so cheap because Amazon runs product ads on its lock screen; I didn't think that would be a problem, and it turned out it wasn't.

It's an R1 HD smartphone from BLU, a US vendor out of Florida that builds in China and sells to the low-end market. I didn't get a phone subscription with it, since I basically saw it as a pocket computer, not a phone, and have no great use for a mobile phone. I did get a Skype account and have been using it to make long-distance calls over wi-fi. However, my primary use of the smartphone so far is as a pocket TV, running downloaded videos. It's fun to watch anime on it, but it's more eyestrain to watch live-action videos. I also will watch videos I downloaded to flash memory from YouTube.

BLU R1 HD smartphone

I would like to get some games; I did download PAC-MAN, but action games don't work so well on a touch interface, and I quickly deleted it. Puzzle games like BEJEWELED seem much more promising. One thing I haven't done yet is use the back camera. I was thinking my pocket cameras would do better -- but then again, sometimes people get antsy when they see someone taking a snap of a nice car or the like. Using a smartphone to take the shot would be more discreet.

In any case, the smartphone is working out much better than the seven-inch Samsung Android tablet I bought a few years back. I had been thinking then that I could do things like spreadsheets, text editing, and surfing the internet on the tablet, but it turns out to do such things poorly, with a notebook computer being far more effective for those jobs. A smartphone / tablet is suppose to run media or apps, and does well at such things. The tablet did help me get up to speed on Android on the smartphone -- though Android's pretty straightforward and easy to use.

Indeed, although I had been thinking of getting a Windows 10 hybrid tablet / notebook computer, the smartphone seems good enough for all I want to do. I'll likely buy a hybrid eventually, but there's no rush; it would be just a toy, and I'll only buy an older unit that Amazon has on sale to get out of inventory.

* I took my second twice-annual road trip from Loveland, Colorado, to Spokane, Washington this last month. It was generally routine, but a family gathering on Sunday, was somewhat marred by a forest fire.

Spokane fire, 21 October 2016

It didn't affect us directly. The Spokane Valley extends east of Spokane, being a flat area bounded by hills on the north and south. My brother's house was in the hills to the south, with the fire breaking out in the opposite hills to the north. Although it was dreadful to watch -- it appears some houses were lost in the fire -- it was fascinating to watch the air tankers trying to put it out; I was able to get a series of shots of the activity through my zoom camera.

The assault on the fire was spearheaded by old Navy P2V Neptune twin-piston ocean-patrol aircraft. They'd come in upwind from the east, fly past the fire, turn about, and then come in low downwind to lay down fire retardant. They were surprisingly effective; as they suppressed the main fire, they were complemented by turboprop crop-dusters on floats that would make precision strikes. The little floatplanes, it appeared, were descending on local lakes to reload water to maintain the momentum against the fire.

P2V strikes!

No doubt ground crews were helping with the clean-up, though I saw no evidence of them. In any case, the original fire was suppressed in about two hours, though it did seem to be migrating to the north. I suspect the priority was to protect the houses to the south. I got up early to drive back to Colorado; I didn't smell smoke when I left, but it got strong once I went into northern Idaho. There was smoke haze in the air until I reached the middle of Wyoming. I could only be thankful my brother's house was spared; it was unfortunate the houses of others were not.

* Thanks to one reader for a donation, a generous one, to support the websites last month. That is very much appreciated.